Namadgi

It wasn’t love at first site. As national parks go, it’s not in the top tier. There are no obvious spectacles, no grand high tops, no sublime points, no copper canyons, no vernal falls. But it sits there, looking at you, consumer of sunsets and occasional catcher of winter snows. Endearing itself to you by its very persistence.

Namadgi National Park. Canberra’s park, Canberra’s playground; like Dartmoor is to Plymouth or Hampstead Heath is to North London. Before that, for many years before I came here and other strangers came here, special ground for Australia’s first people. Rising to the west, sheltering Australia’s young capital. A rugged wilderness reminding us of what we were and where we have come. And where we still have to go. Enduring still.

Igniting

The lustre of spring radiated across the valley and lifted the soul the way that spring can only do: that warming sun on your face as you cast your eyes upon a celebration of green, a chirpiness matched by the creatures awakening from their slumber. Treading into this world along the valley floor, each footstep a newfound joy, each pause a chance to breathe it all in. An enclave of life and of love, promising halcyon days ahead.

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Monday 27th January: A small plume of smoke appears over a hill as I drive back home. It throws my bearings since it isn’t where I expected to see smoke today. I check Fires Near Me for probably the fifth time this morning and see a new blue diamond symbol has appeared in Namadgi National Park. It has been listed as the Orroral Valley Fire.

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Taking hold

The sky had that washed out tone of winter that threatens but barely delivers. It is the colour of childhood skies beside the sea, when the excitement of snow was dashed by the delivery of icy rain. If you were being generous, you might describe it as sleet, but only that narrow, spitting variety rather than a satisfying splodge. As I climbed through the freshest forest to crest the ridge of Booroomba Rocks, a new squall spilled into the valley of gums below. A wind chill well below zero blew away the cobwebs. And cast a few shards of icy, spitting rain my way.

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Tuesday 28th January: The fire quickly takes hold and becomes uncontrollable, spreading west into Honeysuckle Creek, Apollo Road and climbing up towards the crest of Booroomba Rocks. A large smoke plume intensifies as the day heats up and spreads many miles west, hanging over the Canberra skyline as multiple planes and helicopters disappear into its heart.

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Consuming

We used to have adventures. These often involved hikes to lookouts and – if we were lucky – a bird roll with a view. All across Australia. 2018 offered the comeback tour and an adventure a bit closer to my home.

Older, probably not wiser, I persuaded Jill to join me on the Yerrabi Track, hoping the drag uphill wouldn’t cause consternation. Hopeful that the rocky platform at the end, with a bird roll, with a view, would appease any potential discord at my choice. May I present to you the wilderness. Close to Canberra. And a long way from Norfolk. Or Sydney. A real place to breathe on holiday, or at home.

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Thursday 30th January: A few days of cooler and quieter weather provide some respite and a chance for fire crews to lay down containment lines, large air tankers plying back and forth overhead. While much is done to try to protect properties and cultural assets, the fire continues to feed on the tinder dry heart of Namadgi, spreading down towards Yankee Hat and Boboyan Trig, a key marker on the Yerrabi Track.

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Threatening

From Canberra, Mount Tennent stands sentinel over Namadgi National Park, 1,375 metres into the sky. The first prominent peak as you enter south, looming over the visitor centre and the small village of Tharwa. In spite of this proximity it took me many years to climb. Cypress Pine lookout was usually as far as I made it before arriving at the conclusion that that is more than enough thank you very much.

Sometimes you need the momentum that comes from walking with friends. An encouraging peloton. A crisp morning that warms with the rising sun on your back. Views that deliver over the Monaro, its golden paddocks strewn with the fairy floss of rising mist. Each step up a shared endeavour, summiting a shared prize. Victors in a deep blue sky, miniscule among uninterrupted green.

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Friday 31st January: The temperature nudges towards 42 degrees and the fire threat escalates, creating spot fires which push into NSW. Authorities publish worst case projections for the fire spread that – should they come to bear – would spill further down from the summit of Mount Tennent and consume Tharwa, before entering the far southern suburbs of Canberra. The ACT declares a state of emergency and the city is on edge.

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Tearing south

I can recall the pleasure in discovering something new; a circular trail in the deepest dirt roadiest section of the southern ACT that scored high on the effort-reward ratio. It was nearing Christmas and I had been in the city that morning, catching up for coffee and passing on gifts. By afternoon I was gently climbing up through forest onto the ridge of Shanahans Mountain. The reward: a fluffy clouded blue sky hanging over the wild contours and emptiness of the Clear Range. Christmas had come early, a new vista my present.

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Saturday 1st February: A brutal day of solid northwest winds and temperatures reaching 43 degrees expanded the fire quickly southeast across NSW and upon settlements around the Monaro Highway, including Bumbalong, Colinton and Bredbo. While Tharwa and suburban Canberra dodged a bullet, around a dozen homes were destroyed, principally around Bumbalong as fire raced over the Clear Range and engulfed properties.

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Creeping north

I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than the scrunch of footsteps upon fresh snow. While chaotically parked cars and excitable humans rapidly transform Corin Forest into dirty slush, ahead of me is a virginal path of white. It took some effort to reach. Lung-busting in fact. But before me, the Smokers Trail slices through a forest of tall, majestic eucalypts under the deepest blue sky. It is a wonderland both un-Australian and undeniably Australian. Waiting to be scrunched underfoot.

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Thursday 6th February: A week of cooler, calmer weather subdues fire activity considerably, though it continues to slowly expand, particularly to the west and north. It has passed over the Smokers Trail, nearby Square Rock, and moves over and beyond Corin Forest. The slow creep of the fire appears less destructive and the infrastructure around Corin Forest is protected. Now nearing Tidbinbilla, fire crews instigate backburning to halt progress.

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Enduring still

Is it as simple, as logical, as linear as a before and after? Because a before was also an after. When I took my first steps into Namadgi it was not so long after 2003. When the hills and gullies had previously burned, arguably even more vehemently than today.

In the much used vernacular of the new normal it may not be quite the normal cycle of the Australian bush, but there is a cycle nonetheless. We may be in the immediate after now, but I can take solace that this is the start of another before. When Namadgi will again nurture love and life, expel fresh air and bounty, guide adventure and inspiration. Enduring still.

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Sunday 9th February: The rain is tantalising, teasing. We’ve had a few millimetres and promises of a deluge keep getting pushed back. Another hour. Another day. Probabilities suggest something decent will come. A few spells of drizzle and blustery showers mimic England. It is only seventeen degrees and perfect roast dinner and red wine weather. That in itself is an encouraging sign.

The Orroral Valley Fire has changed status from Out of Control to Being Controlled. That in itself is an even more encouraging sign. It has consumed around 80% of Namadgi National Park and around a third of the ACT’s landmass. Taking into account various offshoots into NSW the fire encompasses approximately 113,000 hectares, or 1,130 square kilometres. That’s about the same as Hong Kong Island. Or most of Greater London if you exclude some of the crumby bits like Croydon.

Initial reports suggest significant variability in the damage caused within the park, mirroring the variability in fire intensity over its course. Positively, key infrastructure, including historic huts, culturally significant sites and telecommunications resources have been protected, while threatened wildlife within nature reserves have been successfully relocated.

It is one small footnote this summer.

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I got chills

snow00With the undeniable passage of nature there are sure signs that winter in Canberra is slowly ebbing away. There have been a few recent days in which I have left the house without a coat, while the sunlight is waking me up well before seven and allowing me to read almost until six. Wattles explode, daffodils unfurl, the odd fly is resurrected and finds its way into my living room for what seems like all eternity.

That’s not to say winter is entirely done and dusted and – with it – the satisfaction of a roast dinner, a glass of red and an evening hunkering down until the early hours watching sport beamed direct from the sometimes sunny skies of Europe. The Ashes is the latest incarnation of late night TV toil, in which the morning session emerges during the prime time of evening followed by a drift to tea after midnight. Sometimes I stay up late and sometimes it’s worth it. Like a shiny cherry battered by Sir Ben Stokes, it can be hard to sleep straight after, such is the insane frenzy that has just taken place.

Of course, usually about now I would be in England, so it is part galling but part elevating to see Leeds bathed in unseasonal hot bank holiday sunshine. Bored of some of the drearier TV commentary I might tune into Test Match Special, delivering another evocation of Englishness. The good, wholesome Englishness involving short long legs and a discussion of cake in between bouncers. Not that other Englishness espoused by others. Without vision, the radio commentary paints a more vivid picture in my head of an England for which I might yearn.

But here I am having almost successfully navigated my first full Australian winter, in the coldest city of the lot. Has it been hard? Well, not really, partly a consequence of strategic breaks away, warm sunshine beaming through glass, roast dinners, red wine, Ben Stokes, and no doubt the upward trajectory in global temperatures as previously predicted by those pesky experts who we have all apparently become sick of.

And then it snows for a weekend and suddenly the accumulation of 200 years of temperature records can be instantly dismissed by the cast of crazy characters featured on the sitcom known as Sky News. The ‘Antarctic Blast’ delivering a bit of cool drizzle to Melbourne and a touch of breeze in Sydney, dusts the higher hills and peaks around Canberra. It’s the kind of event that happens every few years and makes a Canberra winter all the better. For there is an unmatched beauty when the snow comes to the Australian bush.

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There’s certainly a freshness accompanying an early Saturday morning jaunt upon Urambi Hills, but the sun is out and the wind has dropped meaning that, before long, I’m wanting to strip off during the march upward. Even the locals are unfazed, the youngsters popping out to gaze towards the snow for the first time in their lives.

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From afar, there is little hardship, little severity to be found in the sight of snow-capped hills. Getting closer to the snowline in Tidbinbilla, you do begin to feel the penetration of winds swirling over the ranges, picking up icy particles and moisture and delivering them to idiots like me waiting patiently on an exposed lookout. A sleety shower whips through quickly, before a valley of thousands of eucalypts are bathed in sun.

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From this perch, the snow seems tangible, touchable. Attainable with, hopefully, relative ease. And that’s the way it proves, driving to the Mountain Creek area in the reserve. A few cars are here but it is blessedly sedate, lacking the queuing, slush-churned melee of Corin Forest after a few flakes. Close to the car park, youngsters screech and coo in delight and disappear off into the forest. A trail of footprints furrow a path into the trees, eventually joining a fire trail that will go on and on, up and up, all the way to Camel’s Hump.

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It would be folly to climb to the summit today; though judging by the footprints there are a few committed mountaineers in the area. However, walking up just a little and the snow thickens, the sledge tracks fade and untouched pockets of snow lap at the ankles. There is a pristine quality to the scene, a fresh blanket filling in the imperfections of the bush. A gentleness given to a landscape so often forbidding. For a change, snakes will not be a worry.

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Still, best not to linger as my feet are starting to numb and the day is drawing on way beyond optimum coffee time. As I head back down it’s noticeable how the depth of snow has already lessened, patches of mud are now creeping through, churned up by increasing traffic heading into the forest.

The snow will disappear soon enough, and the wattles will continue to burst forth, the blossom will suddenly sprout, the joeys will escape the comfort blanket of mum’s pouch. The winter will draw to a close, the light will lengthen, and I’ll be in shorts moaning about the heat before you know it. Barbecues will replace roasts and more decent sport will be on at a decent hour. Australia will return to its natural, sun-baked, fire-blasted state.

Yet a part of me will miss the cold, miss the late nights in Leeds, miss the excuse for slow-cooked heartiness. And I will miss the experience of anticipation of a spring just around the corner. Maybe not quite as badly as Nathan Lyon misses run outs, but missing all the same.

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Hop, skip, jump

Or how to catch up two months in one thousand words.

Can it really be more than two months ago that I was faring well an England seemingly destined for Johnsonillae exitium philanderus? Well, yes, it was and with that comes the strange and daunting prospect this year of an entire Canberra winter. Which, to tell the truth, hasn’t been overly taxing thus far. A few cold nights and fresh mornings, the occasional horror day featuring bone-chilling winds and foggy drizzle. Yet time it right in the afternoon and you can be bathing in 15 degree sunshine. And as the temperature plummets overnight, watching a cricket world cup at four in the morning in bed is cosy, if not calming.

Arriving back in mid-May delivered me to a climate marginally warmer and certainly sunnier than the realm from which I came. A mild, ambient goldenness that stretches into early June, as leaves linger and fade and float slowly down onto the ground. It was pleasing to still see autumn abounding after experiencing spring sprouting. A soothing ointment for jetlag.

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Like the 4pm sun on a scarlet leaf, there is a distinct contrast returning from the UK to Australia, and Canberra in particular. Where are the streets clogged with parked cars and the friendly waves between drivers allowing one another to pass? What happened to the sweet birdsong and bounty of green? Just where is everyone? On the light rail maybe.

Wilderness, absolute emptiness is not really a trait of the British landscape, but here it practically feels as though it’s around every corner. A lingering day trip holiday hangover prompted me off to Braidwood for the token mid-morning coffee and cake and then on into the Budawang Wilderness. A landscape of escarpment and gorge, ferns and eucalyptus, blue hills and blue skies. A new peak to conquer – Mt Budawang – and those very Australian views. Not in Kansas or Kensington anymore.

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There was more sandstone bush aplenty on another day trip into the Southern Highlands with two friends – Michael and Angela – who were briefly in the country for a change; equally keen to taste that generous sense of antipodean air and space before embarking for the freneticism of Europe. It was a right proper miserable public holiday morning in Canberra, but a little north and east near Bundanoon the drizzle faded, the skies cleared, and the hills and valleys of a small pocket of Morton National Park glowed. It became – still – comfortable enough for t-shirt.

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Given such fortuitous conditions we stretched the day out with a visit to the ever popular Fitzroy Falls. The bulk of day trippers take the short stroll to the top of the falls, a few less meander on to the first couple of lookouts, and just the hardcore like us go all the way. It’s not that taxing – around 6km return – and it’s a walk constantly accompanied by generous vistas and plentiful woodland. Today, we had the bonus display of a lyrebird, perching and prancing and going through its repertoire of impeccable mimicry, reminding us, once again, how unique Australia truly is.

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These Australian winter days are in many ways incomparable to those of the north; I could not imagine being so comfortable and surrounded by the continuing flourish of nature on a windswept Princetown tor in January. Or May. Yet, coincide some of the higher, harsher landscapes with the handful of genuine wintry days, and it can feel like a cream tea in front of a log fire would have been a far more sensible choice. Such as exposed upon the summit of Booroomba Rocks, as a tenuous sleety shower whips across the valley.

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There is snow to be had as the year progresses into July, a clue provided by the proximity of the Snowy Mountains to Canberra. Most of the white stuff falls above 1800m or so, but a dusting can accumulate at lower levels to coat the western backdrop to the Australian capital. Clever foreshortening with big zooms can make it look as though the hill behind Parliament House is some kind of snow-capped Mount Fuji, but it takes around an hour to reach these powdery playgrounds.

When these powdery playgrounds receive a fresh dusting on a Sunday during school holidays, carnage can ensue. In fact, it creates a scene reminiscent of the frenzy after a dusting on Dartmoor, when cars stop and pull over willy-nilly, the white blanket concealing rocks and ditches and any intrinsic common sense remaining. The snow becomes muddy and slushy and by noon the picture resembles a bad day’s racing at Exeter Speedway in which the childcare centre has experienced full on meltdown.

I assumed leaving around eight in the morning I’d be one of a handful of pioneers to add fresh footsteps in the virgin snow around Corin Forest. Yet I find I’m in a queue of mainly oversized Utes idling while the road remains closed. I could wait, for goodness knows how long, to follow the many vehicles in front as they lose all sense of common sense upon the first sighting of a pile of slush. Or I could park up on this nice flat grassy verge and walk. Somewhere.

As fortuitous as the parking spot was, my luck doubled with the gate leading onto a fire trail which eventuated into a loop walk taking in a bit of a climb and gradually moving away from the road and the sound of idling engines and despairing parents with despairing children who need a wee. Fresh, fragrant eucalyptus with just a dusting of snow; seemingly not enough to really close a road, honestly, but a coating of white nonetheless. A scene sufficient to paint a picture of transition from the spring blossom to the autumnal gold to the middle of winter in two months. Two months and one thousand words. Okay, not quite one thousand, but if I just add up the words as I write this extra bit, I reckon I might just get there.

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Sapphire sea to blue sky

As Europe scorches and folk back home whinge about it being too hot, the disjuncture between England and Australia heightens. Minus fives accompany football matches at four in the morning, condensation provides a ceaseless battle, and pictures of a sun-soaked France on steroids beckon like an electronic blanket and doona. Mercifully, once the fog lifts the afternoons are pure Canberra winter, with clear sunny skies proffering warmth in which a jumper can remain sufficient (today, an unseasonably warm 18 degrees). Still, it’s not shorts and thongs stuff exactly. For most people.

Queenslanders are a different breed and rarely own a pair of long trousers. It’s understandable up that way – see, for instance, my previous post in FNQ – but is something that would present a challenge visiting Canberra in July. For most people.

I never truly expected my mate Jason to appear off a flight from Brisbane in shorts and thongs. Okay 5% of me did, but there he was. Queenslander. Ready to catch up on Canberra haunts and friends, strategise and hypothesise, and prove that Real Australians Welcome Shorts. And should the minus fives and condensation get too much, there is always chance to flee to the coast.

Two hours away on the South Coast of NSW, the moderating effect of ocean keeps the minimums higher and a chance for daytime sunshine to warm things enough for a T-shirt to still be possible. But not today, with a brisk breeze tempering things. For most people.

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jd03The kangaroos and wallabies appear to be fans of this weather, out in force grazing on the luscious fringe of grassy dune and really, really hoping for a stray sandwich. While far from the explosion in #quokkaselfies on Rottnest Island in Western Australia, the placidity of these animals – along with the idyllic Australian coastal setting – have made #rooselfies a thing, sort of. Especially when there are tourists about.

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One of the boasts made to lure tourists to certain destinations (for instance I’m thinking California) is that you can be surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon. Well, Canberra is very much like California, though perhaps not as strong in the sun-kissed-girls-so-hot-they-melt-your-popsicle department. From sparkling ocean to snowy mountains…

An hour or so out of Canberra, traversing a winding but decent gravel road, the Brindabellas rise to something like 1900 metres. Sometimes the road is closed for snow, but the run of fine dry weather allowed access to a world in which human intervention is almost impossible to perceive. Looking west from Mount Aggie, it is a concertina of ridge and valley, fold after fold of deep green eucalyptus cascading over the horizon. With a silence so striking that it cries out in distinction.

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A little further down the road, Mount Franklin used to house a very archaic, make-it-up-as-you-go-along skiing area for Canberra devotees. It wasn’t exactly exemplary cover or persistent across winter, but the hardiest pioneers gave it a shot. Today, a few remnants linger including the necessary patches of snow. Indeed, snow was a surprising bonus accompanying a walk gradually upwards to an overlook south and east. A vista again largely untainted by anything whatsoever. Just the world and the blue, blue sky.

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It wasn’t entirely peaceful here however, as we came across what were probably the only other people in this section of Namadgi National Park on a Monday in July. I think they were quite astonished to a) see someone else and b) see someone wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I explained the Queensland thing and that seemed to appease their simmering incredulity. Bidding farewell, we lingered for a while before the coolness eventually started to descend.

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Heading back down to the car, our new-found friends were still lingering in the parking area, I sense relieved that not just one but both of us had made it back without catching hypothermia and resorting to cannibalism. In reality though it was an Australian winter afternoon; yes there was some leftover snow on the ground, but in no way whatsoever was it distressingly cold. Indeed, from the sapphire sea to the blue sky, winter here can still be divine. For most people.

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100% pure

As well as death and taxes, a certainty in life is that there will be numerous #inspo quotes along the lines of needing to pass through storms to truly appreciate the sunshine or some such. Share if you agree, I bet five of my friends don’t have the courage to pass on and receive a lucky leprechaun candy crush bonus if you click like. But once you’ve done that just put that phone down and – on Thursday 22nd February in a small pocket of New Zealand around the town of Wanaka – look up and be in awe with the world.

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Inspiration is easy in the Matukituki valley, where a gravel road is criss-crossed by swollen fords and peppered with fields of sheep and – just for a touch of variety and confounding every single cliché – cows. Mountaintops are iced with luminescent fresh snow and numerous cascades stagger down the sheer sided slopes with gravity. The sky is blue, the air incrementally warming up, and the storm has passed to leave a (la la la) slice of heaven.

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I discovered this valley on a bigger trip in 2013, when conditions were benign, and a hire car could comfortably take the gravel road to Raspberry Creek in Mount Aspiring National Park without too much undue alarm. In our infinite wisdom this time around, Dad and I opted to book a shuttle bus following the rains of ex-tropical cyclone Gita, dropping us off at the trailhead for the Rob Roy Glacier walk. It was a memorable tramp back in 2013, and today it was possible that it became even better. The fresh snow helped, as did the cooler weather. And an early start meant we had beaten most of the parade of walkers getting increasingly sweaty as the day progressed.

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I think I may be a little bit in love with this valley. This is no doubt helped by the fact that it is a valley and thus offers very placid walking; so little effort for such great reward. But following the swing bridge across the river there is climbing on the cards, through the fragrant freshness of Beech forest, cool and dark and tantalising with the sound of water and glimpses of snow from Rob Roy Glacier above.

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NZb06In some ways the end of the track is something of an anti-climax, but only because the entire journey getting there has been as, if not more, enjoyable. Terminating close to the glacier, yet another waterfall for company, it is an ideal sandwich stop, a platform from which to take photos that cannot capture the all-round panorama of ice and snow and forest and water under big blue sunny skies. Dad and I two insignificant specks of unintentionally coordinated orange that have passed through the storm and into the light.

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Barely after 3 o’clock back in Wanaka and the day had given so much. Ice cream added more and a drive returning up alongside Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka offered a chance to see spectacle in a far more appealing light. The sombre grey of past days transformed into vivid blues and greens radiating from these gargantuan lakes, fringed by the ridges and spires of mountain peaks still dusted with snow. Each lookout understandably dense with caravans and coaches and cars and cameras and selfie sticks.

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NZb08Lake Wanaka eventually ends and narrows into the valley of the Makarora River. Just past the township of Makarora another popular stop for caravans and coaches and cars and cameras are the jade pools of Blue Pools. With a gentle walk through a forest overflowing with hobbit hiding holes, two swing bridges and stony beaches suitable for building thousands of stupid piles of rocks that might look good in a picture but disturb the natural ecosystem, this is a busy spot. But yet again, as so many times in New Zealand, you can forgive the constant flow of people given the sheer beauty of the place, cognisant that you are just another nobody adding to the crowd anyhow. And with people comes stone-skimming fandom and plenty of fresh blood for the delightful sand flies that are in even greater abundance.

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Like sand flies feasting on a French backpacker, we were gorging on this incredible day, soaking up every ray of sunshine with the joy that follows two days of rain. Driving back to Wanaka, as the sun finally slunk behind mountains, we forced down some fush and chups by the lake before revisiting That Wanaka Tree under more benign conditions than before. A crowd was once again gathered to look at a tree, tripods precariously submersed in the lake to capture identical pictures, and selfies a popular pastime as ever. Maybe drones were barred (I noticed signs indicating as much in some places), which was helpful in order to hear the surreal sounds of a pianist serenading a tree, and selling CDs in the process. Cash might just grow on trees after all.

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NZb12Happily, the sunshine continued into the next day and it was good to finally see our Lake Hawea surroundings in a golden light. What comforted with cosiness during the storm also shone with charm in the summer sun. To me, Lake Hawea proved a good alternative to Wanaka, barely down the road but without the crowds and providing much more space. Indeed, under such big blue skies it was a shame to leave, to miss out on sitting in the garden, foraging in the greenhouse, rubbing the cat’s belly on the grass. But there was time for one last amble down to the lake shore, to the blue and green and gold and white of just another amazing little corner of this country. And time then to move on to yet another one.

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A storm is coming

Awakening in Christchurch, sunlight streams through the gaps in the curtains as an occasional bird chirps softly from outside; a mellow, unremarkable suburbia from which to launch into the rugged South Island of New Zealand. Decked in shorts and sandals (lacking giveaway tourist socks), the air is warm and mood euphoric as my Dad and I hit the road south and west. A mood soon undermined by the unremitting boredom of a long drawn out trawl through the tractor lands of the Canterbury Plains. At Geraldine it is grey and chilly, the coffee and slice warming but rose gardens subdued. There is foreboding here.

Drizzle peps up a touch until we emerge into something a little brighter over Burkes Pass, sunlight accentuated golden by the open tussock country and craggy hills. Motorhomes, campers and APEX rental cars mill their way inconsistently over the landscape until that first tap of the brakes and last-minute swerve associated with being hit in the face by New Zealand. The glacial blue hues of Lake Tekapo.

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It’s understandably bustling but there is enough room to spare, a quick photo stop extended by the allure of the lake and a cursory sandwich for lunch expanded by the allure of the pies. And like many others, we finally drag ourselves away only to be hit by something even more remarkable down the road as Lake Pukaki comes into sight. A very popular roadside stop is earmarked by haphazard parking manoeuvres and irritating drones, but the view up the lake makes it a fair price to pay. Somewhere up there will be Aoraki, Mount Cook, and we’ll try and get a little closer.

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The fair weather lingers practically all the way to Mount Cook village, disappearing almost simultaneously with us crossing into the national park. Still, despite the odds and weather forecast it is largely dry, the darkest clouds sticking to the mountaintops closing in from three sides. There is a gloom, there is a chill, but we can at least walk along the valley of the Hooker, like many, many others less prepared for the change in the weather. With glacial lakes, swing bridges, a raging river, big rocks and open highland it is a bracing walk into New Zealand, a far cry from that Christchurch suburbia this morning. And while Aoraki decided to stick behind the clouds throughout, there was plenty of outdoors to embrace, and a developing downwind gale to take us back to the car.

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NZa06It was a noisy night in a house on the outskirts of Twizel. Not because of hoons doing burn outs or rampaging feral possums, but the iconic sound of raindrops on a tin roof. Many Australians go misty-eyed when you mention the sound of raindrops on a tin roof, as if in some kind of messed-up ballad by Banjo Patterson accompanied by dreadful Lamingtons, but I don’t see the appeal. How the fricking heck do you sleep? Turns out this rain may or may not have been associated with cyclone Gita, or ex-cyclone Gita, or whatever was heading our way for 48 hours or more…

And so I guess it was a good day to be in a car, driving across to Wanaka and a little way further to Lake Hawea. A good day to pick up red wine and a lump of pork to cook roast dinner. A good day to find yourself in a charming cottage with a log fire and a feline visitor. A good day to try and resist going stir-crazy.

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I think I awoke in the night as the rain stopped but I figure I must have been dreaming. Sure, there were times when it became slightly more like drizzle, but it never really ceased. Still, we both couldn’t sit in for a whole day even with a cat for company, and waterproofs and fleeces were invented for days like this. Days that reach a high of nine degrees Celsius in summer, days that warrant hot coffee and newspapers in Wanaka, days that can be salvaged with a walk in only moderately spitting precipitation up to a small lake.

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Possible benefits of this incessant wetness were a dispersal of crowds – at least away from the towns and shops, the bolstering of waterfalls, and – possibly – a coating of fresh snow higher up. While the latter was impossible to detect in the unending shroud of cloud, the waterfalls were in proliferation.

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NZa10Generally, I prefer waterfalls to crowds of tourists, but the crowds of tourists can provide useful guidance on the location of scenic stops. Like a tree on Lake Wanaka – That Wanaka Tree – which probably has its own Twitter account and features on every second Instagram post with the hashtag newzealand. We join a semicircle of tourists taking pictures of the tree, with the tree, around the tree, through other trees to the tree and generally marvel at the tree, which is a very pleasant, photogenic tree. And frankly, you can’t ask much more from a tree. Other than it to grow money…which it may have done given its ubiquity on the internet.

NZa11More waterfalls were spotted on a drive to the northern side of Lake Hawea late in the day. A stop for some Dad fishing which yielded a stop in the rain. Briefly the sun even emerged albeit a touch watery like everything else around. But for the first time in a long time the windscreen wipers on the car could be set to zero. And as we parked up following a peaceful drive back home, without a fire or cat in sight, the sky miraculously fired up red, to the shepherd’s – and tourist’s – delight. Perhaps the storm had come, and gone.

Driving Green Bogey Photography

Not quite white not quite Christmas

sn02Because this is Australia the ingeniously named Snowy Mountains are not perennially snowy. However, at the end of November I was not expecting to see so many chunks of frozen icy slush dotting the mountaintops. The snow gave distinction to the ranges, visible just after a picnic in Cooma with Caroline and a potato masher. And moving closer and climbing in altitude, it was possible to walk on a splodge of icy snow at Charlotte Pass, from where more white stuff was visible along the Main Range.

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I have walked from here to the top of Kosciuszko and back. But this was in past times when there was not so much to contend with along the trail. A short boardwalk through the snow gums with a view at the end was more fitting today, before turning round and heading back down to Jindabyne, by way of the famous Surge Tank.

sn03Jindabyne has always proven to be a bit of a pass-through town on the way to the higher mountains. But staying here for two nights offered the chance to explore many of the highlights of the town, including its TWO shopping precincts! While these provide sufficient eating and coffee opportunities, the highlight of Jindabyne is undoubtedly the expansive lake on which it sits. Part Canada, part Lake District, part Australia, it’s a haven for boat owner people and fishy types. But don’t let that put you off…there are also charming parklands and meandering pathways fringing the shore. Benches and picnic tables offer frequent recovery. From here you can watch morning mists hovering over a dead calm mirror, or bask later on in the afternoon warmth. Or live out the end of the day with never-ending hummus and laser red light.

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From Jindabyne the main road west narrows into the Thredbo Valley before topping out at Dead Horse Gap and plunging down towards Victoria. Thredbo itself is the closest thing Australia has to an alpine resort, nestled within the lower slopes of the steepening valley and generously adorned with A-Frame chalets and the promise of open fireplaces. In summer it seems to tick on over with a peppering of mountain bikers and day trippers. Many take the chairlift to Eagle’s Nest, either to plunge back down on two wheels or head to the top of Australia on two feet. We do neither, retreating from a strong and chilly wind for a ‘yummo’ hot chocolate.

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We did however have a nice amble back down alongside the Thredbo River, walking to the soundtrack of rushing water and buzzing flies. The water here is lovely and clear and pristine and in some ways reminds me very much of Dartmoor. I think it was the sound of the water more than anything that evoked such a scene, rather than the flies and gum trees and baking hot sun at the end of November.

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sn09Leaving the high mountains we drove a somewhat convoluted route back to Canberra to provide maximum adventure. First up was a brief pause at Dalgety, a tiny place perched alongside the Snowy River that could have been the capital of Australia. And they say Canberra is quiet! There must be like ten houses, a few cows, and a million flies. But it’s kinda cute nonetheless.

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sn10With the unforeseen temporary closure of the Snowy Hydro Visitor Centre in Cooma, a decision was made to proceed to Adaminaby for lunch instead. And what better way to lunch than next to a great big trout! This was indeed turning into a marvellous, sponteanous adventure and the best (or worst) was yet to come.

From Adaminaby the way back to Canberra is lonely, travelling a fair distance on dirt roads that are largely in decent shape, especially once crossing over the border into the affluent ACT. There are tiny signs pointing the way to the national capital and occasional homesteads in the midst of the bush. Bitumen returns somewhere in Namadgi National Park and there is a touch of relief, and the cherishing of smoothness. That is until a faint rattling develops into a shudder and a rumble and the front left tyre decides to give up on life. Wheel nuts are unmovable and phone reception is absent. What we need – in this scenario so typical of Neighbours when they go into the bush – are a couple of heroes with fluoro vests and a ute, with tools and an air of certainty that this, here today, is their fate. Not only to dislodge the wheel nuts but to do the whole service, to send us on our way back to civilisation with the minimum of fuss and no form of payment. This is what happens in Australia, and it makes me proud!

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Snow day

Yesterday, the morning proffered an icing of snow around the hilltops of Canberra. It is the closest that snow has got to my front door in ten years of life here. Usually, any frenzied anticipation that snow will fall is quickly dashed in much the same way it was in my childhood; Plymothian style cold rain mixed with just perhaps the odd sleety globule if you squint hard enough. But yesterday, if you got up early and aimed high, you might just have been able to build a dwarf snowman and get it featured on TV by an excitable ABC news crew.

Today, waking early despite a late evening watching bikes in France, checking my work emails to see practically no-one loved me, doing laundry by nine and wondering now what, I aimed higher. Up towards Corin Forest, but largely avoiding that school holiday playground which quickly descends into brown sludge and tears. I parked in mud and ice and ventured up onto the Smokers Trail. Not for a cheeky ciggie, but for a walk under deep blue skies and fresh eucalypt forest. Leaving a pioneering trail of steps imprinted in a few centimetres of powder, a journey capped off with a bucket of hot chips amongst the browning sludge and escalating tears. Today, off the beaten track, rewarded by chips, a perfect snow day.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Swiss day out

The number 61 bus from Annemasse Gare to Geneve Cornavin seems to pass as one of the longest short journeys around. I don’t know what it is about it…perhaps the trundle through France, with its oil-stained Renault workshops and flashing green pharmacie signs? Or maybe the sombreness of being beneath a Leman gloom cloud, omnipresent in early November? Though a seamless (at least then) border crossing sweeps you into a more sanitised array of Swiss shops and streets, the rattling and bending and last-gasp stopping continues apace. Stylishness and affluence glides in, bag ladies and yoof dribble out. No-one, ever, stands up for anybody else, achieved (for those rare species without tablets and phones) through an accomplished display of middle-distance gazing, looking at nothing or no-one in particular.

The journey only takes forty minutes or so, which is considerably longer than the one hour, thirty six minutes and forty nine seconds it took me to travel almost all of the Piccadilly line (from Oakwood) to Heathrow, which in itself was longer than the flight duration from London to Geneva. But this bus feels the longest trip of the lot, and it is with relief and excitement that you find yourself at the virtual terminus of the Swiss railway network (not to mention round the corner from Manor).

Looking for something to do – for lake cloud to escape and bendy buses to flee – I availed myself of a Lake Geneva – Alps Regional Pass. It took some finding, for there is nothing the Swiss seem to like more (well, apart from chocolate, cheese, and referenda) than a convoluted array of rail passes, network zones and travel conditions, all in French, German, English and occasional Italian. I could get a Swiss Card for a half-priced fare, or a one-day whole-of-SBBCFFFFS roamer, or a Zug Snausserhorn Goldenpass or maybe a Cloud Cuckooclockland permit, with 70% discount on VIP chocolate train seats instead? What is certain is that no Swiss person will ever pay a full fare and that – despite such ticketing intricacies – the trains will still run like a well-worn cliché involving clock mechanisms.

It’s not just the timeliness of the trains, but the efficiency of connections, something which never fails to evoke wonder amongst travellers bred on a discombobulated British rail system or faced with a practically non-existent Australian one. Connections to other cantons and cities and major towns, but also to tiny villages, hay sheds and pieces of rock in the middle of nowhere. Like Montreux – upon glittering Leman shores – to Rochers de Naye, some two thousand metres in the sky.

RDN01Lake cloud which started to fragment in Lausanne had virtually evaporated by the time I reached Montreux, for my seven minute transfer to platform 10 and the Rochers de Naye train. Departing exactly at 09:47 as planned, the two cogwheel carriages made no bones about it and immediately veered sharply upwards, through a tunnel and out onto sun-filled plateaus coated with luminous autumn foliage and expensive views.

Riviera homes for bankers, third rate Swiss pop stars and dairy farmers alike slowly passed by, and occasional stops in the middle of nowhere allowed regulars to jump off to reach their hidden retreat in the woods. While some stations resembled the genuine thing sited in proper villages, other stops were little more than a plank of wood or a metal gate. Here, the train would briefly pause on a 50% gradient, before rolling a tad backwards in a disconcerting motion accompanied by a grinding shriek of metal on metal. You could almost smell the sparks as Sepp hopped off and waved a cheery goodbye to Michel, brown envelope in hand, as though this was the most normal thing in the world.

With altitude the ‘suburban’ stops fade and only walkers and the curious remain at this time of the year. Many of the walkers disembark at the Col de Jaman to walk up the nearby bulbous lump that is the Dent de Jaman. The curious – such as I – stay seated, dedicated to reaching their highs the easier way.

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One final climb through a pitch black tunnel makes the dazzle of reasonably fresh snow all the more blinding. Such is the drama of the journey, the top station is a touch underwhelming. A few views are spoiled by ski infrastructure, while building work distracts from an overpriced and bitter coffee in the cafe. A couple of goats offer mild amusement but the jardin alpin is closed for the season. Fortunately there is a higher viewpoint from here, up a short series of switchbacks, from which Switzerland – and France – is on view.

And what a view. A long way down, Lake Geneva cuts a swathe like a bloated boomerang westwards. Beyond lumpy outcrops and hills forested dark green and charred red, the lakeside towns – Montreux, Vevey, Lausanne and others – portray one elongated urban jungle. Occasional tower blocks, cranes, churches, chateaus can be picked out, while the curvature of the rail line up from there resembles some kind of herculean bobsleigh run. The alternate side of the lake sits hazily desolate, hemmed in by the pile of Haute Savoie dents, cols and monts. On the horizon, the thin line of the Jura hovers above the remaining cloud, still seemingly enveloping Geneva.

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RDN06And that is just the westward view. In all other directions, a sweeping panorama of snow-capped peaks and plunging valleys reaches out into the distance. The behemoths of the Bernese Oberland pierce the sky, pointed and rutted and sharpened and sculpted. Pillars of rock – too precipitous to catch the snow – endure; like resistant teeth in a seven year old’s mouth. This raggedy snowline fades into darkly forested slopes and meadows tinged brown by the passing summer.

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There is still warmth in those upland valleys, a sun-trap that allows for wearing of T-shirts, particularly when walking uphill. Keen to take advantage of this unexpected vestige of a rapidly fading summer, I embarked on a circular walk pieced together with my Rochers de Naye leaflet and snatches of online maps for crucial moments of decision and misdirection.

Following a ridge gradually down from the viewpoint, I reached a junction: one way back through a small valley to the top station, or another down alongside a rock face to the Col de Jaman. Somewhere within this hulk of rock the train burrows through, while humans have to inch their way around on slate ledges and avalanche rubble. The route understandably prefaced with warnings involving sturdy footwear, slipperiness, and crumbling pieces of mountain made it an easy decision: lunch on a sunny patch of grass with a spectacular view, before heading back up the valley.

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RDN09Thus it was that I found myself down to a T-shirt (and trousers!) while walking through snow. The snow had obviously thinned as the day had progressed, but remained thick enough to obscure the last part of the trail up to the top station. Warm, slightly breathless, low on water…I could see the appeal of taking the train now, which again emerged out of its tunnel to taunt me. It was heading down, and – after safely completing my walk – I was to join it.

RDN11I could have plunged all the way back down to lake level but – determined to make the most of this wonderful weather (not to mention my expertly discovered rail pass) – I paused at the Col de Jaman station. Walkers were still setting off to conquer the lump nearby and close up it didn’t seem too bad. Switchbacks yes, but nothing that would cause undue alarm for someone with sturdy footwear and good heart. Maybe on another day, but today I was content to bathe in the sunshine accompanied by the remainder of my giant Raclette pretzel bought from the kings of Cornavin.

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My final stop on the way down was somewhat spontaneous and turned rather fortuitous. I had made a note of Glion on the way up, purely because of the splendid views down to the lake and across to surrounding mountains, sweeping their way into the Valais. The foliage too – on this lower south facing terrace – was something to cherish in the eruption of autumn. Through the leaves and branches, glimpses of glassy water would emerge, encircled by the mountains rising upwards through the valley haze.

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RDN16The outlook was so alluring, the late afternoon light so enchanting, that I set off walking and carried on without really knowing where I was going. I assumed – given the gentle downward gradient of the lane I followed – that I would end up somewhere by the lake, from which an efficient and comfortable Swiss train would be waiting. Few cars bothered me, while occasional grand houses and health retreats sprung up on the slopes between the trees. At a kink in the road, passing two farmhouses, the view again opened out to reveal the colourful wooded hillsides tumbling down towards the lake, with a hint of winter looming upon the distant Dents du Midi.

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For all the fun of the train I was glad to complete this final part of the descent on foot, each turn revealing a looming mountain, glimpse of water or avenue of bronze. Merrily marching, time whizzed by and before long I did indeed reach the outskirts of Montreux, a feat achieved more through instinct than design. A long straight balcony of a road continued to descend, each house and villa passed with a tinge of envy and click of a camera. A churchyard offered one final panorama as the sun started to graze the tops of the peaks to the southwest before dipping beyond. In such a setting, even I might be tempted to attend Sunday service here.

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No doubt if I had stayed on the train descending all the way to Montreux I would have had such a simple and effective connection that I would be back in Geneva by now. Instead, arriving at the station on foot I managed to miss a train by a matter of minutes. The next was a whopping forty-five minutes away, an incredulous amount of time given Swiss standards. However, despite gathering weariness that comes with a 5:30am start and a ride on the 61 bus, I inched on down to the lake shore, feeling fortunate in the end to have missed that train…

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Such was the beauty of the day, the charm of the late afternoon, the ambience of the evening as the last light faded I was tempted to stay for some dinner and catch a late train back. Perhaps if I did I would not have had to – shockingly –stand in the vestibule of a railway carriage, at least until Vevey. It turns out (relative) congestion sometimes exists in Switzerland too.*

No such problems back in Geneva, with a seat on the 61 to push through the darkness and over into France, eventually. Some of the people – enduring a long, hard day of low-taxing money making – were quite probably on the same bus as me this morning, staring absently into the middle distance. Their laborious daily commute was my stroke of fortune, a crucial cog taking me to the top of a mountain and back. An unappreciated, maligned link in a great continental railway – and now bus – journey.

* I should add, trains can run late as well. On another journey of mine the train was once running four minutes late departing Lausanne. The conductor was beside himself with contrition and pleaded to the gods that this had not caused any inconvenience to anyone whatsoever.

Europe Green Bogey Photography Walking

Icing sugar sprinkles

In three weeks time my inevitable annual trip to the northern hemisphere will have commenced. That is, barring the outbreak of world war three or whatever else the supposedly evolutionary pinnacle that is humankind has cocked up. I am, of course, looking forward to it; not only for cheese and family and summery walks and clotted cream and friends and pork pies and a few spots of gorgeousness, but also to have some interesting blog content and potential calendar pictures gathered!

Fortunately just the odd foray in this massive place called Australia keeps things ticking over on here. But, more so, the changing seasons become a theme, a response to (relatively) being in situ and watching the world around me change. And the seasons are a-changeable, something which may, or may not, support the wild ramblings of those crazed climate warriors, aka pretty much everyone in the profession of science. Scientists, with their fact and reason and logic, what have they ever done for us anyway!

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Winter in Canberra is a curious beast. Blissful sunny days can be as pleasant as any a spring day in southern England, and you can still rightfully take a somewhat bemused perspective on the common discourse of winter, taking place in snug coffee shops amongst people with double quilted scarves and rapidly disappearing Ushankas. Call that a knife, er, I mean call that cold? You know nothing Bruce. But then when that sun goes, down for the night, or behind steel grey clouds blown from the west, winter reminds us of its chill.

snow10I may not know through typical absence, but winter here this year seems to be a little less sunny and with a touch more in the way of squally bitter winds coming off the mountains and hills. Indeed, the Brindabella Ranges have more than once now had a nice dusting of snow, all accessible in about 40 minutes or so, depending on the high likelihood of traffic.

I wish the snow came down further to coat the city streets and make new Senators even more querulous about their decision to become a Senator, compelled to sit in Canberra in midwinter. I mean, if we are going to have a winter to endure, at least make it a fairytale one with snowy streets and people frolicking with their sleds and drinking mulled wine and perhaps even indulging in warming things like cheese fondue around a log fire. At least that was the sentiment I was trying to convey when the ABC News reporter accosted me amongst the beautiful white world of Corin Forest and understandably left me on the cutting-room floor.

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One of the many good things about snow is that it is one of only two words in the English language that is associated with being dumped. We have had several good dumps recently, up in the hills, and I returned once more over the weekend to see what had been dumped. Unlike the first foray there was no ABC News crew around but, more importantly, the sun was out in one of those sublimely blue sky days that only come in winter. The snow had melted somewhat – the dump was on Thursday I think, but then, who keeps track of their dumps? – though pockets remained to enliven the forest.

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snow07Frozen paths gradually thawed into that horrid mud slime as I made my way to the outlook at Square Rock. It can be a drag, that walk, but the snow made it clearly more distinctive than usual, offering up plenty of natural rest breaks to stop and take stock, to hear the birds, to spy the wattle, and to breathe in the eucalypt air. And then there is a reward at the top, where that blue sky meets the icing sugar dusted mountains, endless gum trees filling the void below. It is a fine stop for a couple of digestives and a Freddo Frog basking on a squarish rock.

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And so, that is winter, perhaps the winter blog post. I think I made it fairly wintry, given the constraints of wintriness that exist in Australia. Next for me will be summer, though including likely rainstorms and snow lying around higher alpine climes, followed by spring and then summer again. I told you the climate was topsy-turvy, and I’m not even a scientist!

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Icefields

Despite being composed of perishing frozen particles there seems to be an inherent allure to the presence of snow and ice. I wonder if Eskimos feel the same way.

Maybe this romantic view is nourished in temperate climes, where snow falls are but an irregular memory of childhood. Something scarce is prized, and I can sombrely recall that when winter rain sweeps in to Plymouth, turning to snow pretty much everywhere but Plymouth, it delivers a fresh pile of disappointment. In Australia, no such disappointment because there really is no such expectation, with only the tiniest, highest pockets of land periodically subject to frozen weather. Still, at least they are generally reliable.

Away from Australia (and Plymouth) I have had the fortune to brace myself for arctic conditions, ghost through flurries of snow, and marvel at sweeping icefields, like a crow from atop a very big wall. Even just across the ditch, in New Zealand, one can appreciate the aesthetic value added by the white stuff, which has carved out its valleys and shaped its lofty mountain spires; peaks on which snow and ice still perches precariously and sweeps down graciously until it feeds into crystal clear rivers of melt water. Ninety-nine percent water and one percent fish, so it is said.

Such attractions are not without peril however, particularly if you decide to sled bungee flying fox BASE jump black raft off them. And because of their allure, they are incredibly popular, the two west coast glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – a mandatory stop for coach tours, campervans and Apex International drivers everywhere. Indeed, in high season the walk to see the crumbly, dirty dust-coated moraine of Fox Glacier is an orderly procession of ages and nations. The old and overweight defy impending heart attack. Chinese and Japanese and Korean visitors dutifully file their way along for picture stops, wrapped up against the cold. British visitors do the same, basking in shorts. Youngsters scramble without fear over rocks and creeks, and Aussies stride nonchalantly along in thongs. Somehow here the grandeur and spectacle of the landscape becomes a little diminished.

Crowds bustle about just as much on a beautifully clear summer’s morning in Chamonix, France. Here, in an ever narrowing valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, glaciers creep down towards the pine forests bordering the town. The mechanic shrills of souvenir marmots cut through the Gallic hubbub, as people wait for lifts to take them to precipitous heights. Indeed, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi takes them up some 2,807 metres in 20 minutes. It’s an alarming rise that leaves you a little breathless, literally and then metaphorically once you are confronted with the dazzling ice world around. Up here the crowds seem less intrusive, limited as they are through access, muted by an oxygen depleted sense of drunkenness, and made minuscule by the perspective of being near four kilometres above sea level; most of the Alps seem to be on view, stretching across three countries in a series of rocky turrets and icy hollows. A rare, and staggering, European wilderness.

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Anyone would think I don’t like people given my desire to experience such places without being part of an inevitable tourist procession. Well, let me say that first I quite like some people and secondly I cherish the chance to share some of these places with them. In fact, some of the more memorable moments of life are the random conversations you have with random strangers in random places. Like waiting with like-minded photo seekers for cloud to never clear from mountain tops in the Cascade Mountains, or trying to translate the feverish sighting of marmots from Italian to French to English to a Japanese visitor heading down a mountain railway in Switzerland. It turns out most people are just like you and me, the common bond of the experience overshadowing any differences at that point in time. A smile is a smile in any language.

In fact I’m not immune to being part of a bigger tour group…sometimes it is nice to let someone else take control and just go with the flow, especially when having decisions to make equals indecisiveness. Plus longer tours over days and weeks provide a fascinating ethnographic experience [1]. At the start individuals unbeknown to one another mutter polite greetings and eye one another with caution. A few break the ice with time-honoured inquisitions of where do you come from and where have you been. Barriers break on the first good walk or, more likely, the first few beers. By the end of the night you are BFFs with Darlo from Wonthaggi and within a week you cannot imagine not being with this same group of people, getting on this same bus, stopping at viewpoints, eating meals and sharing a beer or two practically every day. Yeah, cliques may form and these may or may not include the rejection of people initially embraced as BFFs, but the group dynamic remains in a fluidly socially cohesive melting pot of fluctuating hormones and alcohol.

And this, my friends, is an encapsulation of a Contiki tour, albeit a description that is unlikely to be used by their marketing department. For those not in the know, a Contiki tour is a particularly popular way to see the world for 18-35 year olds, especially Australians who have 14 days to see every country in Europe [2]. With a core populace of 18-35 year old Australians there tends to be a significant emphasis on end-of-day drinking, but not without a range of energetic activities and processional sightseeing stops in the day. The relevance of a Contiki tour, and justification for my written meandering, is that I did one once. It was in Canada, with the blue and white bus traversing an incredible stretch of road called the Icefields Parkway. Finally, back on topic.

The Icefields Parkway links the Canadian Rocky Mountain towns of Jasper and Banff. I would love to go back since I cannot recall every instant and every stop, this before the days of blogging and digital photography. And I would love to have my own wheels and take my own time this time around. I seem to remember that along this road, around every corner, there is a panoramic view which you wouldn’t find out of place in a Rocky Mountains 2002 calendar. Bulky grey mountains laced with white rise up from all angles, as glaciers stream downwards, melting into rapids and falls and filling the most incredible blue green lakes. Huge swathes of fragrant pine forest fringe the lakes and valleys, a dark cover for elk and moose and bear.

It turns out the easiest way to spot a bear is to look for the cars and caravans parked beside the side of the road and the coaches slowing to a crawl. Once closer, a telltale sign is the sight of someone with a very big lens snooping around the undergrowth, fringed by other enthusiastic amateurs decorated with silver compact zoom cameras and, I guess now, iPads and iPhones and Surfaces and Robots. No-one seems to figure that the bear might just be interested in the hands and arms and torsos holding these devices, so long as you can get a good shot to post on your wall [3]. The other approach to spotting bears is to have a really nice picnic in a wicker basket and hang about in a national park with an uptight ranger. By contrast, moose spotting is much easier given they are generally roaming loose aboot hooses.

Apart from bears, other highlights of the Icefields Parkway are fluid, from the glaciers to waterfalls and rapids and lakes. During my trip, a ride on the Athabasca Glacier on some huge wheeled contraption afforded an opportunity to walk on ice and clear the head. The wonder of glacial till (or flour) culminates at Peyto Lake, with its incredible colour and picture postcard viewpoint. More subdued but serene is Lake Louise, with a fine grand hotel and gardens at one end, and wilderness beyond, with the seemingly impenetrable Lefroy Glacier a barrier to further exploration. And dotted along the road, at turn-ins and parking stops, are any number of rivers and falls and forests for bears to lurk within.

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(Picture credits here go to my brother. I think I had an old film camera and do not have any pictures in electronic format)

The end of the spectacular Icefields Parkway trip came at Banff, another well-kept resort kind of town. Here, the Contiki tour pulled out all the stops, with a three night layover in some rather charming mountain style lodges. Of course these provided a good opportunity for house parties and sleepovers, but it was nice to wander a little down the street and run into random elk crossing the road. There were also some optional extras – probably sky diving and white water slaloming but I just went on the day trip to Calgary. My abiding memory of Calgary was the raised walkways linking buildings and malls so that people can avoid the metres of snow piled up below over the long winter months. You see snow may be alluring, but I guess it would be a real pain in the arse to live with for half of the year.

The Icefields Parkway was just one part of the trip in Western Canada but probably the most spectacular. I came to realise that Canada and Canadians were rather special and this endures today in friendships, a love of maple syrup and fondness for movies starring John Candy. I wish I could remember more about it, but time hazes memories and written records are scarce. I think back to Canada and it was the first time, apart from those snows that only seem to entrance childhood, that I witnessed the astounding impression that ice can make. It’s perhaps no wonder I have been drawn back, to the Alps of France and Switzerland and peaks and lakes of Slovenia, the High Sierras of California and Cascade Mountains of Washington, the upside down Alps of New Zealand and even the rounded Snowy Mountains of Australia. I am quite happy to enjoy the pleasures of a beach and the proximity of the coast, but what invigorates me, what takes my breath away, are mountains. Mountains that are even better served with ice.


[1] Excuse my sociologically geographical anthropological research terminology that I used once when I did some stuff like about something

[2] Today: breakfast in Paris with a coffee and chocolate stop in Belgium, before reaching Amsterdam for some lunch / clogs / drugs / rooting, and then onto Berlin to buy some wall and drink oversize tankards of frothy beer with serving wenches. Optional sky dive over Denmark.

[3] I’m entirely culpable of this, though I tend to favour pictures of cakes which are typically a lot safer.

Links

NZ glacier country: http://www.glaciercountry.co.nz/

New Zealand highs: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-high-ground-te-anau-to-franz-josef.html

Aiguille du Midi: http://www.chamonix.net/english/sightseeing/aiguille_du_midi.htm

Le Massif Massif: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2008/08/fromage-foray.html

Life is a Highway: http://www.contiki.com/

Entrancing on ice: http://www.icefieldsparkway.ca/

Smarter than average: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPbLJnbRTF8

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