Stretching even further afield for a day trip down to the South Coast of New South Wales…
Humans, like the weather, are nothing if not contrary. Can it really be the same species that were so recently sharing in collective despair with heartfelt empathy, ceaselessly giving anything from money to clothes to fence posts to time to hope, who now go about pulling each other’s hair out for another six pack of three ply?
It may well be, much like the weather, that in the Venn diagram of the good and bad, the heart-warming and the head-banging, there is only a little intersection between the two. Or perhaps we are all a little conflicted. Like a leaden cloud threatening to burst or simply waiting to be dispelled by the sun. Depending which way the wind blows. A phenomenon that might also explain the contents of certain supermarket trolleys.
What seems incontrovertible is that 2020 continues to produce a hell of a lot of crap, evidently more so in those double garages stocked with 2,000 rolls of toilet paper. And while the bare aisles of toilet tissue land make me feel bemused, I quietly sneak an extra jar of pasta sauce into my basket.
There could be fewer worthy places to stockpile a years’ worth of bog roll than on the South Coast of NSW. A beautiful corner of the world both pallid and sick and overflowing with life and love. A place whose interior is savaged but whose heart and soul are still beating. A place that could use a little helping (washed) hand to thrive once again. Mother nature has applied some balm through its cloud and rain and now we – the good we – can try to offer a little gentle sunshine.
The landscape of the South Coast region right now is simply astonishing in so many ways. The crest of Clyde Mountain confronts with brutal savagery, an unending parade of blackened trees and blackened earth yielding views down to the coast that were not previously available. Yet the vibrant tree ferns and epicormic shoots sprouting from trunks seem to defy death. On the fringes of Mogo, that all too familiar sight of summer – of twisted metal and crumpled fireplace – sits within a vivid, bounteous green. The village too a bustle of people purchasing pendants, peculiarities and pies.
The beaches of the region are as good as ever, which is to say, pretty damn perfect. At Broulee, a small patch of charred dune prompts memories of a video from the beach on New Year’s Eve, a small spot fire exploding and causing understandable angst amongst those who had fled to the water’s edge. Today, the sands are peppered with people bathing, fun and laughter filling the air. Much of the lush coastal fringe of spotted gums and fern trees along the road to Moruya seems unscarred.
From Tuross Head you can see the ranges of Deua National Park to the west. No doubt a regular sight of alarm at night, illuminated by flame that flickered and flared to its own shape and will. Constantly on edge, unknowing as to where and how far it would come, the fires never did reach Tuross, at least in physical form.
This is home for a few nights and what a fine home: close to the rugged beaches and barely open shops, in proximity to numerous opportunities to spend money and eat food and lose golf balls. A home coming with the bonus of a billiard table for evening entertainment; my knowledge on the placement of snooker balls stemming from lyrics recalled of Snooker Loopy featuring Chas and Dave. Pot the red and screw back, for the yellow green brown blue pink and black… Yeah, in your dreams.
It would be fair to say that despite limitations I was a far better snooker and pool player than golfer on this trip. Which says more about my golfing doom than my snooker prowess. Still, it was good to make a hefty contribution to the community of Narooma by zig-zagging around its golf course. A perfectly sliced and skied lay up on its famous third hole almost yielded a par, and I managed a par four somewhere else in between much larger figures. The added challenge of a series of greens being perforated, sanded and watered provided further good excuses for inadequacy.
With Narooma receiving an economic injection, the next place on the spending list was Bodalla, specifically its dairy and cheese factory. In times like these you’ve got to do your utmost to support these local businesses and so it was with considerable reluctance that I forced down a toastie oozing with cheese followed up with an ice cream. You do what you can do.
The following day endured cool and grey, reminiscent of typical coastal awaydays of the past. This might have previously induced disappointment and grumbling and a roll of the eyes with a sigh. But it seems crass to complain this year. This weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of consumption of local community produce to be savoured.
I don’t know if supporting the South Coast economy has ever been so tasty. The one exception was – alas – fish and chips, a result of many of the better venues being closed on a Monday in March. But there was the Mexican brunch bowl at Mossy Point, the caramel fudge and coffee in Moruya and – probably the piece de resistance of feeling worthy and eating well – home-cooked wholesomeness and other takeaway from the farmers markets also in Moruya.
The markets were small but popular, a place very much for locals to gather and update one another on the latest news and gossip. They were also attuned to market protocols, forming orderly queues with wicker baskets as they awaited the 3pm opening bell. Twenty minutes later and most of the fresh stuff had sold out, but we managed to retrieve a medley of locally grown seasonal vegetables, some swordfish, crusty bread and a dairy product or two for me to bring home to go on a scone or three.
I can’t say our market-supplied barbecue that night was a traditional Aussie bloke-themed methane-heavy slimy snag and slab of steak celebration. But it felt good and tasted even better. Refined even. Setting up another classy evening of exemplary three-way snooker (Tuross Rules).
Which was again better than the golf that day. Looking for something to do we came across a whole nine holes to ourselves. It quickly became clear why, the course pretty basic and unkempt in places, plagued by an infestation of mosquitoes. These had apparently emerged post fire and rain, proof that not all of nature’s recovery is especially welcome. At the course boundary, fire had penetrated the forest and the relatively low fee to have a course and a million mozzies to ourselves didn’t seem such an injustice after all.
You see, it’s quite a divergent experience down on the South Coast. Like chalk and cheese. Sunshine and rain. Go Fund Me and bog-roll violence. So much of it looks and feels as good as ever. Life seems normal. Better even given the incredible swathe of green pasture now smothering the fields. And then your mind comes back to that saying I heard before: the great green cover up.
And you drive, under bucketloads of rain, through Mogo once more with its scattering of crumpled buildings. Towards and into the edges of Batemans Bay, where the forest has scorched down to its very edge and looks like it is struggling to recover. You get a sense of where the fire was most ferocious; green shoots are harder to come by. One side of the road up Clyde Mountain looks normal, the other decimated.
You enter Braidwood to support that economy, knowing that it would be near impossible to convince an overseas visitor that this was in the grip of drought, primed to borrow water from Canberra while being shrouded in smoke for months on end. You shelter with hot coffee and sense BlazeAid nomads taking a well-earned day off. You espy a generous supply of toilet paper in the café bathroom; and briefly a wicked thought enters your mind. But the sunshine wins out, the goodness, the heart. Much like it is doing, much like it will do again, down on the South Coast.
What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.
This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.
Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.
Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.
Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.
Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…
Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.
Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.
And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.
It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.
What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.
The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.
The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.
With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.
This region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.
With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.
Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.
Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.
I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.
Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.
This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.
The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.
Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.
Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.
And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.
The country is dry. The country is burning.
Seeing and hearing of places I have loved broken, it breaks my heart. But I’m just a bystander. I have not lost. I am not broke.
Even heroes cannot repel the brutishness of nature, more vociferous than it has been in the past. While villains busy themselves hiding in their bubbles, lauding an achievement of persecution.
We have always been a sunburnt country,
But SPF 50 is no longer enough.
Washpool National Park, Northern NSW
With a grandeur it’s proclaimed: the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia.
Pockets of primordial soup
Stirred by a clammy breeze.
Creeping with the shadows
Of ferns and fronds and leaves.
A bird calls unseen, a snake disappears fast,
Hiding from the possibility of a creature from the past.
An ancient closet of time lingering on today,
Gnawed at by the hunger of axe and car and flame.
With solemnity some lament, these forests missing rain,
Gondwanaland is breaking up, vanishing once again.
Ebor Falls, New England Tablelands NSW
Long dried grasses shield paper daisies,
Sprightly white gums yield gangs of Galahs.
Rumbling unseen, a torrent of water
Tumbles at speed, seeping in earth.
Grasses charred grey smoulder in ashes,
Blackened gum branches crash to the ground.
Trundling unseen, a teardrop of water,
Trickles in need, weeping at dearth.
Murramarang National Park, South Coast NSW
This was my happy place.
Verdant and green,
Burnt to a crisp,
Like forgotten toast.
This hurts the most.
- Me, December 2016
- Grafton Daily Examiner, November 2019
- Me, March 2018
- Kyle Donoghue, The Bellingen Shire Courier-Sun, November 2019
- Me, June 2016
- NSW RFS Milton Brigade, ABC News, December 2019
Late Friday afternoon on the road between Braidwood and Bungendore and the wind is buffeting my car as it trundles into the sleety clouds of winter. I’m returning from the coast, where two hours before I was eating lunch on a sheltered cove saturated in warm sunshine. It’s a slightly weary drive and, for some reason, I decide to play The Lightning Seeds for probably the first time in twenty years.
After several jaunty, scousish ditties that sound identical, the sage words of Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill emerge as the infectious, glorious, deprecating anthem that is Three Lions blares out. I cannot listen to this without bobbing my head a little, chanting, smiling like a Cheshire Cat. As much as you might try. It’s Coming Home! At least I hope so, in light of the possible blizzard up ahead.
It’s Coming Home. Euro 96. An era that now feels halcyon, days when the Donald and BJ were still complete dicks but at least not complete dicks inexplicably leading disunited states and precarious kingdoms. Back in 1996, John Major was trundling his way towards the end of years of Tory rule, a regime which now somehow seems sane and reasonable. The Spice Girls were zig-a-zag-ahing and both Mitchells were polishing their heads behind the bar of the Queen Vic. I was completing my first year of university, undistracted by a phone, immune from the ranting coalescence of conspiracy lunatics on the internet.
I don’t remember that much about my university course (who does?), but in a convoluted way which coincidentally brings us back to the present I suppose it led me to be in the South Coast NSW town of Narooma on a mild, golden evening in August 2019. I studied, I got a job, I travelled, I went back to that job, I transferred to Australia with that job and I ended up on a boardwalk meandering past calm and clear waters toward the ocean.
Did I ever imagine back in 1996 that I would be gazing out to the Pacific hoping to sight a whale? Meandering downhill alongside gardens strewn with exotic plants and colourful birds? Wandering past parks dotted with electric barbecues and sinks for dealing with the entrails of fish? Who would have thought I would have previously parred the treacherous Bogey Hole of that golf course wedged between the town and the plunging cliffs of the coastline? Certainly not me, or anyone else, which is why I bring it up again.
Even with its ageing hackers, Narooma is a pretty quiet kind of place, especially in a midweek in winter when the temperature has dipped to something around nineteen degrees. It’s tough going, having to put a light jumper on as the sun disappears behind Gulaga, pondering whether to have fish and chips for dinner or wait until tomorrow.
While I know Narooma pretty well, the first night in a strange place always seems to lead to a fitful sleep, even when you’ve opted to forego fish and chips. Waking too early the next day, the murmurings of RN Breakfast do little to inspire or send me back to doze, so I head out into the dark. I love this time of day, especially beside the ocean; facing east as the black fades to blue and grey and red and yellow, and shafts of sunlight glitter off the sea. The sun kisses the layers of morning cloud, spreading to the tops of trees, and illuminating the coffee shop on the hill. A beacon which makes the reward of an early start in Australia all the better.
With plenty of the day still ahead I took the car for a little explore south of Narooma, stopping first in the so-good-they-named-it-twice hamlet of Tilba Tilba before heading on to the relative bustle of Central Tilba. This is a corner of the county oozing genuine charm, with plenty of tin roofs and lacework awnings, flower-filled yards and rustic leftovers. By Australian standards it’s usually a green and lush place as well, which is great for local dairy products; but even here the drought looked to be taking its yellowing toll.
Given my early start it was probably pushing it to head to the bakery in Central Tilba for local produce straight away, so I took a gentle amble along the track which eventually leads to the top of Gulaga, the dominant, forest-clad peak of the area, spiritually significant to the local Yuin people. You can walk to the top, but I wasn’t really in the mood and I heard that summit views were lacking. The valley was perfectly happy enough.
Did I mention dairy products? One of my favourite topics which, back in 1996, probably didn’t come with any moral distaste from ethically sourced eco-vegan leftists typing away on their not-so-pure iPhones. I guess at a philosophical level, there is valid debate as to whether we can still have our cake and eat it? At an individual level, the answer was a resounding yes. Not only in Tilba, home to Jersey Cows and related outputs. But also in Bodalla, a pitstop on my journey into and out of Narooma and for all journeys this way in the future. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
South of Tilba, the main highway veers off towards Bermagui, along a splendid road of eucalyptus forest and the shores of Wallaga Lake. The maps indicate a few coastal rock formations here, names suggesting a likeness to horses and camels which enticed me to explore with the hope of discovering an Australian Durdle Door or Bedruthan Step. While there was not quite the same grandeur, the coastal scenery, now bathed in warm sunshine, proved a tonic after that massive apple turnover.
It was pleasing to discover I was on part of the ‘Great South Coast Walk’ according to a few signposts. This doesn’t appear to be an official trail but may yet develop into something more formal. One of my bugbears with Australia is that it doesn’t seem to have the same right to roam philosophy as the UK. Huge tracts of land are locked up in private hands or just downright inaccessible unless you have Ray Mears on hand with a machete and / or a big gas guzzling ute. Being able to just rock up anywhere on the coast and walk has an appeal unmatched. See, for example, South West Coast Path.
It was along this walk, overlooking the expanse of Wallaga Lake, that I learnt of another resemblance in the landscape around here. Gulaga is a pregnant woman, partly explaining its significance to the Yuin people who were here well, well before 1996. Today, its fertility abounds as a cluster of whales drift down the coast, mother and calf distant white caps sporadically splashing in the rich waters.
I probably wouldn’t have spotted the whales if it wasn’t for a couple of retired locals staked out on a headland near Horse Head Rock. For me, this is usually the most successful method of spotting wildlife. If you’re driving in country Australia and a cluster of people have pulled over to look up at a tree, there’s a fair chance you’ll get to see a koala. The other way you tend to discover local wildlife is when you nearly run it over. Beware Wombats.
Spurred on by earlier whale sightings I ended the day back up near Narooma, taking a scenic coastal drive alongside Dalmeny and Kianga which boasts several panoramic viewing platforms along the way. The platforms are sited in between yet more pristine bays that you can have all to yourself. It was at the last of these points that I glanced a surfing dolphin, followed by a few more and a few more still. Passing below, there must have been around twenty dolphins, tracking north on a feeding mission. A whole two football teams.
I doubt I would have seen dolphins in 1996. Nor would I be questioning the prospect of snow in August, even counting for British weather. Today, this was a possibility heading back to Canberra thanks to a vigorous succession of cold fronts coming from the Antarctic. My solution was to linger down on the coast for as long as possible.
It was undoubtedly windy, but the skies were blue and with a little shelter you could sit comfortably in a light sweater or even T-shirt. Neither of which were really possible in the blustery settings of Cullendulla Creek and the nearby Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens, but these were attractive diversions nonetheless. At the gardens, the stronger gusts were a tad alarming and it felt only a matter of time before a branch would fall on my head. Mercifully it didn’t, and the march towards Spring carried on.
Just north of Batemans Bay – and the road junction back to Canberra – the graceful, tall spotted eucalypts of Murramarang National Park were probably less appealing to walk through today. Especially when picking a walk that follows a ridgeline facing the bay, directly exposed to the strong southwesterlies. The crashing chaos, the constant buffeting, the noise and fury do not entice a pause to look up and marvel. Impulsion instead for a brisk pace and the hope of respite on the other side. And what gentle and idyllic contrast this proves.
A bay with no-one and nothing. Nothing but calm clear waters, untouched sand and the backing of a gently whispering bush. A driftwood log, downed in some other storm and also finding its way to this paradise, is now a perfect setting for a late lunch. The breathlessness is not only in the air, the warmth not only on the outside. Perhaps even in 2019, these are still the days, this is still the life.
Perfect timing is an almost impossible feat for golfing hacks like me. To successfully synchronise arms and legs and shoulders and heads and buttocks and toes to make contact with a little ball in such a way as to propel it hundreds of metres straight into the yonder. Or, more likely for an annual swinger like me, veer off into the never never.
Perfect timing beyond golf can be equally tricky – think roast dinners with overcooked veg, last minute flurries of activity for work deadlines following weeks of procrastination, deals for departing continents. But, of course, the reason such a concept exists is because once the timing does work out, everything is just about, well, perfect.
And so, on a Sunday afternoon following a frenetic couple of weeks, I found myself with two friends – Alex and Michael – down in Tuross Heads on the South Coast of NSW. Late afternoon sunlight illuminating yet another typical stretch of typically Australian sand, typically devoid of humans and their typical detritus. Water in late March about perfect for a paddle, and a clutch of cold beers in the bag.
This proved an aperitif for the perfectly timed stroll beside the water to the Pickled Octopus Café, where we availed ourselves of a pristine outdoor table lapping at the glassy calm of the inlet. Fish and chip orders arrived as the daylight turned to dusk, each munch of deep fried saltiness coinciding with a deepening of colours and escalation of heavenly drama. A moment when nothing else can distract and nothing else really matters. Timing again exquisite.
The dawning of the next day heralded great opportunity for timing to go awry. Featuring my annual attempt at playing golf, it was however more about the setting than frequent futile attempts to make a small ball go into a small hole. Narooma’s dramatic oceanside holes and its winding course through tall eucalypts and saline creeks set the scene.
The 3rd hole is probably the most renowned landmark, requiring a shot over the ocean to a green among the cliffs. To my utmost surprise, following a very rocky start, I launched the ball high and true, landing 10 feet to the right of the pin. The pride of making par only matched by a birdie on the 17th. A little perfect timing amongst much that was off.
Nevertheless, the views along the way offered plenty to treasure, a perfect blue sky day when it is easy to get distracted from the tee or green or your wayward shot with the panorama of ocean. Empty sweeps of sand, crumbling wave-pounded cliffs, pebbly coves peppered with plastic golf balls destined to pollute the ocean. I did my very best to save the whales (see above).
Back in Tuross Heads, it really is a little nugget of a place, especially when you visit out of holidays and weekends when it is neither ferociously scorched by bogan summers or coated in a wintry ghost town gloom. I’d say the perfect time, perfectly timed, would be around the end of March and early April. And here we were, April 2, sat out on the deck of the Boatshed, drinking a coffee and thinking how lucky the local retirees were. But we were there too, and very thankful for that; lucky to able to have this to enjoy no matter how brief.
This would be a great spot to take out a kayak, but perhaps that’s for another perfect time. The exertions of the annual golf escapade meant slightly sore shoulders and backs and a preference for something a little more leisurely. Anywhere around here there is always a beach, or an inlet, or a patch of fragrant gum forest in which to wander.
There are serious tracks that go on a long way, up to campsites and coves and more headlands and tracts of wilderness. Will it always be like this? Heaven only knows. You don’t see it changing too much anytime soon, but it will. For now, the footsteps in the sand back to the car linger for a fleeting moment, the briefest moment of time in the grand story of our world. Insignificant imprints, but for those who left them to be blown and swept away, a perfectly timed point in time.
I really don’t get this whole Ten Year Challenge malarkey. Not because it’s like some glorified chain letter vanity project or anything. No, my only bewilderment with it is what the actual heck is the actual challenge?
Surely a real challenge would be something like – oh I dunno – unpacking forty years of legislation and agreements and treaties that you have actively shaped and adopted in order to enable the cohesive and productive functioning of society without it resulting in the only certainty being the uncertainty of what exactly can fill the void which will not simultaneously provoke pandemonium and lead to a bitter aftertaste in the plummy throats of anti-elitist elites who really deep down can’t warm to little Abdullah no matter what they might say about saving their NHS which they don’t even have to use because of their private health provider in whom they have offshore investments.
Another more challenging challenge would be coming up with a sentence longer than that. Or how about getting through a particularly hot spell in a hot Australian summer?
It’s a tough gig, and the reality of four straight days in a row above 40 degrees was enough to force me fleeing to the coast, at least for a couple of those days. Thankfully when I got back there came a reprieve with temperatures dropping back down to 37 with a cool change as ineffectual as any number of Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union. Yes, the hot air persists.
At least on the coast the temperatures dropped a good eight to ten degrees, pampered with pleasant sea breezes and clear cool waters. There was fish and chips and ice cream, paddles upon shores and across inlets, and a decent amount of lounging with a book in the sand. Yet the highlight of this escape was away from the edge of the water. Instead, upon the edge of wilderness.
Morton National Park is a gargantuan expanse of vast sandstone plateaus and dense valleys separating the coastal strip of southern NSW with the golden tablelands inland. With alluring names such as Monolith Valley and The Castle, and pockets that have probably never even seen a human face, there is a timeless, spiritual brooding conjured by its landscape.
It’s certainly tough to penetrate, with a few access points denting its edges. One of these comes around half an hour’s drive from UIlladulla, up through pockets of verdant rainforest and along a bumbling dirt road. A small car park welcomes you to the start of the Mount Bushwalker trail which is – pleasingly – all bushwalk and very little mounting.
Setting off nice and early before heat rises, the trail actually proves somewhat dull – a fire trail becoming a narrow tunnel cutting through low shrubs and over boggy watercourses. A family of black cockatoos enliven proceedings, startled by a lone bushwalker and fleeing somewhere vaguely over the horizon. There is the feeling of grandeur metres away, just around the next corner, through the bushes, palpable but never really visible. Until, that is, the very end.
The trail truly proves a means to an end. And if all endings end up ending like this then sign me up to end the end music in Eastenders. An end coming at only around half eight in the morning, just me, a vegemite sandwich (yes, truly), and millions of eucalypts spilling across to the vertiginous walls of The Castle. Australian through and through.
It was borderline whether I had really earned what was to follow, such was the relative ease of this walk. Out of the wilds, the cutesy hilltop town of Milton inevitably has a bakery, which I inevitably visited, inevitably not for the first time. There is a pleasing inevitability in the inevitability of cake and coffee.
Down the road from Milton, through the fringes of Rick Stein’s Mollymook, is the small coastal village of Narrawallee. Not only does this have a genuinely great sounding name, relaxed holiday vibes, and a good-looking coffee shop by the water, but it also hosts a delightful meandering inlet, protected from the ocean and perfect for all sorts of wading, dipping, paddle-boarding and family gatherings for cricket on a sandy tidal flat. Having passed on a shower – what with my early start and anticipation of a sweaty hike – this was refreshment at its finest.
Nearby Mollymook Beach is equally as idyllic, a fine sweep of sand reminiscent of but far superior to Bondi. It seemed to me a suitable location for an early evening read on a blanket followed by an amble along that stretch contested between land and sea. However, gathering thunderstorms also took a liking to the beach and closed in for what proved an entire night of tumultuous electrical drama.
You might hope the stormy melee would clear the air and cool things down to proffer something more reasonable. But, no, we are in an age of extremes after all. Following a sweaty goodbye ocean coffee and a cheap petrol fill up at Batemans Bay, the car had to work overtime to keep cool on the climb up Clyde Mountain. And then, returning to Canberra, the sight of Black Mountain Tower on the horizon, shimmering in a dusty haze of 38 degrees. And still rising.
A challenge means a challenge after all.
* with due deference to Adelaide.
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.
Still, sheltered by untainted forest and rolling coastal hills, kissed by the radiance of the crystal ocean under clear skies, there is certain comfort to winter here. It is at one tranquil and vivacious, glowing in a freshness swept in by cold fronts and a seasonal lull in nature’s freneticism. The tried and trusted walk between Depot and Pebbly Beach proves to be at its very best.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
August 2006, and after a now customary gruelling journey by land and air I found myself at Canberra’s suitably bland Jolimont Bus Station. Here I was for a year – not the bus station but the city at large – a work swap to sample the delights of Australian bureaucracy and seek to escape Canberra for other parts of the country as frequently as possible. And while I have done all that, here I still am almost ten years later. Next week I will head to the Jolimont Centre again, to commence that journey, again, but – again – I will be back.
So, where did that ten years go exactly? Well, for a start, not every single day has been spent in the national capital, with extended periods in swags and other people’s beds both down under and abroad. I nominally left a couple of times, packing up my belongings in boxes and placing them in various friend’s nooks and crannies. But I had to go back to retrieve them, and, once I did, I decided it was agreeable enough to stay.
So, in honour of the passing of a milestone, allow me to ramble on about ten Canberra things that have kept me amused, bemused, infuriated, mystified, but largely happy. With some archive pictures to boot, in which the shade of my hair and athleticism of my body is, lamentably, so last decade. In 2006 I strove to the top of that hill in a crappy bike. Ten years later, and not so much has changed.
1 – Four Seasons in One Year
It is of course customary to talk about the weather in any conversation starter. Indeed, Australians are almost as prone to this as Brits. What would we talk about if there was no weather, like on the Gold Coast? Retirement savings, Pauline Hanson, golf?
I arrived in Canberra towards the end of winter. Which presented my British bones with beautiful, pleasant sun-filled days in which you could almost strip to a T-shirt. Ha, winter, I laughed, whatever. But then I think it plunged to minus eight overnight and I had a little more respect for the hardiness of the souls living here.
Because of its altitude, its distance from the coast, its fondness for winds direct from the mountains, Canberra has a very clear four seasons. I say very clear, but weird plants and shit seem to be in flower all the time, and birds never fail to make a racket at five in the morning. Still, there is definitely frost, blossom, sweltering bushfire smoke days (known as “stinkers”) and – best of all – the golden glowing foliage of autumn. I like that about Canberra (people ask does it make you feel at home, as an unruly pack of Cockatoos shriek their way through a decimated oak tree). With the seasons, life is constantly, visibly changing. Unlike – say – on the Gold Coast, where it largely just ebbs away.
2 – That Canberra
Canberra has cut pensions for war veterans! Canberra has imposed a great new tax on everything! Canberra has got its knickers in a twist with the latest self-absorbed leadership tussle! Apart from, of course, it hasn’t. The Federal Parliament, voted for by the great people of Australia, has allegedly done all this in my time here. But a city and 99.999% of its residents have not. Editors, sub-editors, journalists, reporters, radio shock-jocks: STOP BEING SO FRICKIN GORMLESSLY LAZY!
However, it would be remiss of me to avoid mentioning the presence of Parliament Houses, both old and new, in this capital city. They are quite distinctive and diverse, lined up to degrees of perfection on a central axis. For me, the old one is better, mainly because it’s no longer used for debates and mediocre policy formulation. Which means you can walk the halls, sit in the padded chairs, swing around in the former prime minister’s seat, cigar in hand and a scotch on the rocks. For better or worse, this was why Canberra was made.
3 – Flashes of Brilliance
I had been to Australia before 2006, and I had even been to Canberra. However, I didn’t recall the almost nonchalant parade of colourful birds swooping and hollering across suburbs and over hills. Most remarkable – to an Englishman familiar with the monotone – was the sheer brilliance of colour and decoration: a flutter of rainbow emerging from long grass, a blush of pink perched on a wire, the regal red and blue of a pair of rosellas serenading in the bush. Even the pigeons and seagulls seem a little cleaner and offer at least a little charm.
I’m no twitcher but I have grown to recognise the basics and even some of the calls that these assorted oddments provide (mostly just to identify who keeps waking me up at 5am). And while they have attained a familiarity, there are still moments, when a blur of brilliance darts through the bush, that bring a little, wondrous smile to my face.
4 – And as for the Plants
I seem to make routine visits to the Australian National Botanic Gardens. After ten years I do so with little in the way of enthusiasm or expectation – it’s more like it’s somewhere different in the rotation of hill walks, lakeside ambles and suburban rambles. Yet each time, after wandering off onto one of the tracks for ten minutes, I find myself in some kind of placid contented vegan tree-hugging alternate state. It’s a bit like going to Melbourne, only with callistemon and grevillea instead of coffee and graffiti.
Of course, it goes without saying that Australian plants can be a little quirky. As someone still part foreigner, a walk through the gardens evokes a sense of discovery, a sense that you are clearly in an alien land. Indeed, you can almost imagine how Joseph Banks was feeling nearly 250 years ago, getting a boner at the sight of a bottlebrush, incessantly naming things after himself. To be fair, there were a lot of things to name in the Anglo classification scheme of things and – as the Botanic Gardens consistently exemplify – the sensory overload can be exhilarating. For me, nothing, like nothing, can beat the smell of the bush after rain.
5 – Food glorious food. And coffee.
I didn’t really do coffee in the UK. And after ten years in Australia, that last statement seems even more sensible. Despite only incremental improvements it is largely awful. If there was an Ashes for coffee – and perhaps cafe culture more broadly – Australia would do the flat whitewash each time, perhaps with some stoic resistance from the English tailenders in the final dead rubber.
So now I have become one of those awful Australians who harps on about how bad the coffee is in the UK. I remember supping on my first few coffees in Manuka, in what was once Hansel and Gretel and has now become Ona, with awards and movies and a somewhat more pretentious, more beard-infested, and more expensive take on anything that can be derived from a humble bean. I rarely go there these days, but such is the profusion of good standard coffee that it doesn’t really matter. But it is nice to find a spot where everybody knows your name.
Food in Australia leaves me a little more ambivalent. Ashes contests would be more competitive in this space. Highlights include mangoes, most Asian food, steak, and some of the seafood. Cheese can be a little hit and miss, especially with some crucial French cheeses off the agenda due to health and safety regulations (sigh). The biggest issue though is the absence of genuine clotted cream. Clearly this is a problem. And it may well be the driving force for return visits to the UK (sorry family and friends!).
6 – On the Edge of Wilderness
Australia has a luxury of space which makes any dispiriting rant of “F**k off we’re full” all the more silly. Sure, a lot of it is hostile and infertile, jam-packed with snakes and spiders. But even in the temperate south east corner there are vast tracts of not very much at all. The airiness, the freedom, the big blue sky, this is why Canberra itself was such a tonic arriving from London ten years ago. And while the city has an excess of underused scrubby grassland, this pales into insignificance when looking south and west.
Namadgi National Park sits entirely within the ACT and while it’s not up there with the likes of some of the other spectacular wilderness areas of Eastern Australia, you can at least get a good view. Sadly most of these views require a reasonable hike there and back again, trails I have now exhausted in their entirety. But being little over forty minutes away, access to wilderness is literally on your doorstep. And where a familiar trail ends, there is so much temptation, so much allure, so much that is pulling you to want to dive in further. To bush bash. Until the thought of all those snakes and spiders sends you back the way you came, again.
7 – Culcha innit
Being a capital city, Canberra has the rather good fortune of containing all the usual national suspects: a library, a museum, a big war memorial and countless other ones, national archives, a portrait gallery, and the National Gallery of Australia. While interstate visitors and schools parties can pile off their coaches for a whistlestop gawp, the benefits of being a local mean that you can go back and explore, time and time again.
In the main, these institutions are free and have cafes. Which means I frequently pop to one or other when I have an hour or so to kill. The National Library has provided a workspace on occasion, the Portrait Gallery some photographic inspiration, the National Museum respite from a biting wind on a bike. And as for the National Gallery, there is something quite satisfying about popping in and casually cruising past some famous works and famous names, diverting one’s attention in pursuit of a coffee.
8 – Sod it, Let’s go to the Coast
Okay not technically Canberra, but referring to Batemans Bay as Canberra-on-Sea has some justification. Australians’ slavish desire to worship beach frontage contributes to the high disregard attributed to the national capital. But I’ve obviously quite rightly made the argument that Canberra is closer to the coast than Western Sydney, once you take into account traffic and the all-round awfulness of Parramatta Road. And what a coast it has.
My first visit (and escape from Canberra) was at the end of September in 2006. A bus down Clyde Mountain to the Bay, hopping off at Broulee. It was a fortuitous choice, as Broulee is one of the best. Sweeping golden sand, rugged coastal forest, distant mountains. So much so that Broulee regularly comes back into play, on any fabled day trip that has been made many times since.
9 – Jesus of Suburbia
Canberra’s suburbs can be at one utopian and hellish. Ten years on, and it is still feasible that I could get lost in them. Essentially Canberra is a city of suburbs with some hills and a few important buildings in between. Many of them have politically inspired names, but I fail to distinguish between such places as Ainslie, Scullin, Theodore.
I’m currently in Phillip, which is either named after Governor Phillip or an expression the Duke of Edinburgh caught wind of a few times in boarding school. Before this I was in Red Hill, and this presented the best aspect of suburban living: leafy avenues, quiet crescents, popular schools, and cafes and shops a pleasant fifteen minute walk away. Often finding myself working at home, it was so easy to take a break, ogle at expensive houses, scrunch through leaves, dodge resident peacocks, and emerge to a bit of a view – and a bit of a titter – at Rocky Knob Park.
10 – The summit
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me reasonably well that I save the best to last. Much like the crackling from a Sunday roast, for which fork stabbing is in order if anyone dares try nab it from my plate.
The last and best of Canberra’s things may come as no surprise either; my subject and muse, my meditation and therapy, my gym and inspiration, where the suburbs give way to a bushland ridge known collectively as Red Hill.
It’s possible it could have been another hill. But this was the first and will always be the best. Three days into the Canberra experience, a sunny Sunday and desperate to fend off jetlag, I opened the door and walked west. Kingston, Manuka, Forrest…the last luxurious homes giving way to Red Hill reserve. A summit climb, a coffee and cake, a special view. Nature, space, golden light, the excitement of a new city and new people below. The city may have become more familiar, the hair may have – ahem –mellowed, the people may have come and gone, the discoveries faded, but still I can be happily, contentedly, thanking my lucky stars upon this very hill today.
Apparently June was the wettest June in Canberra since the last wettest June in Canberra. I can’t say I massively noticed, though – in hindsight – my shoes do seem muddier and car dirtier. There was that whole let’s delay going to Sydney because it is incessantly raining thing, only to go the next day when it was incessantly raining and ridiculously windy. And I did purchase an umbrella from Big W I remember. Still, at least it hasn’t been summer and raining and, oh I don’t know, spiralling into a self-inflicted vacuum of shambolic uncertainty and state-sponsored xenophobia. Arguably.
With all this rain and crass ineptitude what we all need is a bit of stability and reassurance. Like a classic winter day trip to the South Coast of NSW, something which appears to be turning into an annual thing. I think it may be some kind of Aussie beach craving before I venture to the northern hemisphere. That and the potential to just maybe bare my arms for an hour or two in the sun.
Two hours with a stop for coffee at the improvingly-serviced by coffee Braidwood and I can find myself pondering whether to take off my jumper along the calm shoreline of Broulee. I didn’t, because it was only about fifteen degrees, but it was certainly still and sunny and rather blissful for thirty minutes or so. A happiness heightened by the token lunch of fish and chips in nearby Moruya, after which I felt a bit sick.
All this is hors d’oeuvre for the main ingredients of this south coast winter classic: driving through the beautiful spotted gums and spiky palms of Murramarang National Park. Arriving at the pristine sweep of Depot Beach and ambling on foot along the sand and rock platforms to Pebbly Beach. Home to beachside kangaroos offering clichéd images of some kind of idyllic Australia. Scary waves and placid bays, reflections and a sea spray haze. Fishing nomads and foolhardy surfers. And escapees from Canberra hoping to bare their arms.
It was, of course, almost perfect. But if I was to air one little niggle (and one can be prone to a whinge), it was the presence of winter. The afternoon sun soon disappeared behind leaden clouds shrouding the ranges. Bare arms were undoubtedly out of the question. Swollen seas provided drama with a touch of pungent seaweed. And recent storms had cut away at the cliff line to make the walk somewhat more precarious than usual.
In fact, I didn’t even make it to Pebbly Beach, a turn of events making those fish and chips an even guiltier pleasure. Rocky debris and a surging high tide meant that onward travel would be a little bit silly, something only to be attempted on The Island with Bear Grylls. My cut off, my terminus, my turnaround point, was an impromptu cascade, tumbling from the sodden forest and weather beaten cliff. There is only so far one can go in a day, and it was a winter’s day after all.
I’m not sure if the Southern Highlands of NSW are deliberately trying to be Scottish or English or even Irish. I mean, there’s the name, but I do not see ragged rocks round which raggedy rascals run, nor boggy glens of heather and gorse lurking in the haar. There are big country estates akin to the tweed jacket terrain of a southern England itching for a brexit, but the falling leaves and withered buds lining their driveways can no longer mask the reality of eucalyptus and brown, scrubby land. Meanwhile, in Robertson, a fondness for potatoes is clear for all to see, only it culminates in the splendid apparition of a big thing, undeniably Australian.
The landscape can at best be described as greenish and pleasantish, a subdued and ultimately futile attempt by those illiterate and innumerate immigrants to create a home away from home, made all the more difficult by prolonged heat and drought. The United Kingdom is the United Kingdom due to its lousy but somehow endearing weather, and because of that Australia will never be able to compete. And nor should it, because Australia is definitely better for being more than just a half-baked recreation of a previous rose-tinted incarnation of a mother country. Plus it can just vie instead – rather well as it turns out – at Eurovision.
As the fading gentrification of the Southern Highlands descends toward the sea you can be in no doubt that this is Australia. Indeed, an Australia as it was before anyone, even its first peoples, decided to venture over by boat. The plateau abruptly falls away into a dense system of deep valleys and gorges. Massive walls of sandstone plummet towards pristine creeks obscured by a blanket of gums. A pair of black cockatoos glide in the air, conversing in prehistoric shrieks. Banksia and wattles compete for attention in the understorey topping the escarpment. And a thin veil of water tumbles over its edge, destined ultimately for the ocean.
Between Fitzroy Falls and the ocean, further endeavours to pacify the landscape emerge in Kangaroo Valley. Undeniably pretty, flower gardens and cottages adorn the valley, while larger lodges bask on elevated terraces as if attempting to emulate the initial slopes of an Alpine pass. Indeed, a winding road gathers some form of height before snaking down to Berry, where the quaintness is a tad more commercialised but delivered in style with good coffee and expensive buttery tarts.
After the surprisingly sprawling outlet strips of Nowra, the environment becomes evidently coastal. Salty inlets and spotted gums signal the ocean is near, and at Jervis Bay it is realised in a flourish of white sands and opaque water, a brilliance which softens as the day says its farewell. Today’s departure is a cut above, a boastful multicoloured extravaganza of transitioning light and incandescent skies. It is an exquisite end to an enthralling ride.
To provide some attempt at balance, not everything down at Jervis Bay was entirely utopian. The next morning was decidedly cool, a persistent easterly wind restricting twenty four hour shorts wearing. The first breakfast I had in Huskisson disappointed and the coffee was only adequate. But such first world irritations faded quickly away upon the welcoming green and white terrain of the White Sands Walk.
From bay to bay, traversing succulent coastal forests in between, it’s an easy amble from Blenheim Beach to Hyams Beach. The only real difficulty is deciding whether to take your shoes and socks off on the sandy bits only to then have the hassle of putting them on again for rougher terrain (conclusion: wear sandals or thongs). Plus there’s the challenge of restraining your photo-taking so that you don’t have endless, repetitive pictures of clear water lapping at fine, white sand.
The sand is so white here that it famously gets on every piece of tourist literature and recurrently features on Sydney Weekender as the whitest sand in the world. In fact, it is genuinely so white that even small-minded immigration ministers would feel unthreatened and some cretin with a golden toupee would approve. Personally, I think there is probably whiter (for instance, around Esperance), but that is probably just supremacist talk.
Regardless, the presence of such beaches is a blessing and I was feeling immensely satisfied early the next morning with an improved coffee overlooking the glowing, becalmed bay. And for a few minutes at least you can breathe it in, cherish what makes Australia so special, what helps to make it so compellingly attractive. And to think such coffee-fuelled nirvana may not have happened without openness to the world. We could all still be enduring that ghastly blend of oversized Americanised coffee mixed with UK ineptitude instead. Something, I suspect, even the Southern Highlands would turn their nose up at.
For all the scurvy, seasickness and usurping imperialism it would have been quite something to voyage with Captain Cook in 1770. Cruise the ocean, meet the locals, spot exotic wildlife, hide Joseph Bank’s acacia collection in the poop deck. You’d get to discover new lands and – best of all –name them. Cook would have had first dibs mind, and being from Yorkshire he would be undeniably dry and unimaginative about it: Wide Bay (a large open bay), Sandy Cape (sand), Red Point (red), Booby Island (wishful thinking arising from a year at sea).
Cook was having a delirious day on April 21, 1770 when cruising up the south coast of what – inexplicably – was to become called New South Wales. Somewhere beyond Point Upright (yeah he named that too) Cook “saw a remarkable peaked hill which resembles a square dovehouse with a dome on top”. He thus decided to name it Pigeon House and from that point on it has acted as a beacon for sailors, sightseers and bush bashers the world over.
Pigeon House now sits within the gargantuan Budawang wilderness covered by Morton National Park and a number of adjoining reserves, a largely unexplored, impenetrable land of sandstone cliffs and gorges, coated with eucalypts, shrubs and ferns. It is almost as it was when Cook whizzed past on the way to Botany Bay. A few roads fringe its edges and offer access to scenic vistas, waterfalls and a tangle of greenery. But it can take some work to enter, even with the newly upgraded Nerriga Road taking some of the roughness temporarily out of the equation.
One of the bonuses of a visit to Pigeon House is its proximity to the coast, meaning that with a bit of planning you can enjoy all that has to offer as well. Like fish tacos in Milton and leisurely golf in Mollymook and shopping in Ulladulla, before enduring a relaxing couple of hours in and around the water in Bendalong. Warm sunshine fading, ocean glimmering, cold beer flowing, is this ideal preparation for an assault on a mountain?
I have had far worse Monday mornings than a dawn start in Bendalong. With the seasons supposedly changing sunrise is drifting beyond seven these days, making it an ideal period to revel in that new dawn, new day vibe. It is the hour of dog walkers and anglers and people with cameras but today just sparsely scattered; most appeared to still be in bed in the Tourist Park, even by the time we had packed up to head for the hills. Leaf blowing, I guess, can wait.
And so, to Pigeon House Mountain, the reason we are here after all. Via a fortuitous stop at the Milton Heritage Bakery (which is definitely one that can be logged in the revisit bank). Fuel for a challenging but captivating climb. Part of the challenge being getting to the trailhead itself, via the back roads and rutted logging tracks which undulate through cool, shady, beautiful forest. The Subaru seems to love this stuff though and I quite love taking it on such journeys too.
So the car was up to the job, but were the humans – me, Alex and Michael? The trail – well-built and marked – veers quite steadily upwards and scrambles up a number of rocks for the first kilometre. A small shelf offers the first of the views, snatched through clutches of trees and over boulders. It’s an opportune stop for breath, water and to try to dry the sweat from running down your face and into your eyes and mouth. But it’s a futile effort, with the first view of the mountaintop itself offering both allure and a sense of foreboding.
True, there is some relief for a while following a sheltered ridgeline, before the steps return again and the sweat comes back in profusion. It is quite remarkable that someone has gone to the effort to build all these steps though, and the piece de resistance comes with the final climb on a series of metal steps and ladders, hopefully fixed securely to the rocky dovehouse. At the top of each series of steps, views begin to open up and you can see, sense, taste, that the salty sweat will definitely be worth it.
And, you know what, that old effort-reward ratio is positive in spite of the effort part of the equation. While the sea can be seen sparkling and blue, it is the wilderness of the Budawangs to the west, north and south that shines. It is immense, primeval, distinctly and majestically Australian. The Monolith Valley beckons, surrounded by tabletop plateaus carved by the meander of the Clyde River. Ranges expand north and south, and somewhere over one of those distant lumps the road back to Canberra rises.
Pigeons were lacking but instead the summit appeared to be a bastion for numerous giant butterflies, the ubiquitous Australian fly, and a curious lizard or two. No doubt accustomed to weary walkers feasting in celebration on apples and oranges and squished cakes from Milton Heritage Bakery, waiting for the crumbs to fall. I’ll say it again, but I have had far worse Monday mornings, even when cake has likewise been involved.
And so, in a matter-of-fact Yorkshire way, what goes up must come down and back to sea level we headed by foot and by car. A sea level with fish and chips, cooling drinks and cooler ice cream, seemingly modelled on the giant summit lumps of Pigeon House. Anything worked off replenished in minutes. Extra burden for the car, which now struggled a little in the heat over the hills (I know how you feel poor car).
Oh to be sailing instead, onwards to some bay surrounded by botany and up north to a rather large reef acting as a kind of barrier. To see new things and name them after the bleeding obvious (or upper crust toffs from England). To strike out into the world like a pigeon into the skies, embracing the wonders around you, finally coming home with tales to tell and sights that will ingrain in your memory until the end of days. To embark on voyages of discovery every day, long since Captain Cook’s has passed.
In those deepest darkest bleakest dreary days of a northern November it was difficult not to yearn for the Pacific. Soft tidal sands under an off white sky at Bigbury could only do so much. A bracing breeze may have kept rain at bay at least for a few hours, but there was little warmth in that air; little solace in a faded, washed out scene in which even the sheep seemed sullen. Beautiful melancholy yes – but melancholy all the same – and I could have done with just a day on a different south coast to lift this permeating shroud.
Apart from a touchdown over Botany Bay the ocean had eluded me in my inexplicable hunger to return to landlocked Canberra. But with the weather settling into perfection and opportunity to keep work tasks ticking over remotely, I finally saw and seized an opportunity for a few away days, back beside the saturated sapphire hues of the Pacific. I don’t think I could have dreamt of such perfect days, even when being buffeted by a south-westerly on Burgh Island a few months back.
With time to spare I was happy to head that little bit farther, down to the far south coast of New South Wales. Perks of this journey include – to a limited degree – the striking, golden plains of the Monaro, baked hard and golden by summer sun; the midway bakery opportunity in inimitable Nimmitabel; the rainforest rim of Brown Mountain; and the panoramic view over the rolling cow-dotted Bega Valley, into which the road drastically plunges.
Generous January rain in the valley could, just occasionally, trick the senses into believing they were cruising through South Devon hills to Bigbury. But any doubt is eliminated when the Pacific finally comes into view at Tathra. This could only be Australia, and from parking my car underneath a clutch of ti trees to being almost blinded by the golden white sand, to dipping my toes in that ambient ocean, I had a euphoric sense of finally being back.
My base for three nights was Merimbula, handy in terms of size and facilities (i.e. food, coffee, picnic tables on which to work) and generous in its setting upon the shallow inlet and oceanfront. There is even an airport here with connections to Sydney, which does genuinely make you wonder about its feasibility as a site for sea change. A plane buzzed overhead the next morning, as I ventured out for an early walk through bushland along the inlet to Bar Beach. I could get used to these early morning walks, especially when a small but perfectly formed kiosk awaits besides the modest cove to offer up waterfront coffee.
The water here is quite ludicrously beautifully opaque, which probably helps for spotting sharks and giant stingrays. The only hazard this morning was mostly on the eyes, with a generous gaggle of cashed up baby boomers making the most of retirement by lumbering about in various states of undress. Understandably glowing and jovial – why wouldn’t you be facing yet another day in paradise – it may yet be too early for me to contemplate semi-retirement at the coast.
What followed over the next couple of days was a pleasing routine of waterside walking, working and wallowing in sand and sea. I explored every possible boardwalk in Merimbula and visited the ice cream parlour at least twice. Late afternoons in the mid to high twenties were perfect for attempts at beachside siestas, but the call of the outdoors and nagging feeling that I probably should be doing something more productive with this opportunity made me restless. I would wander some more or open my laptop for five minutes and stare at the screen as Windows decided to install countless updates yet again, before concluding that it was better to just stand in the sea and spy distant dolphins doing all the work.
Beyond Merimbula I made my ‘usual’ excursion to the Pambula River. Continuing a good grasp of tidal knowledge which I rediscovered in Devon, I arrived to a low tide, which opened up a far longer stretch of white sand and crystal water in which to wade. The backdrop of bushland and bellbirds in such a paradise might have encouraged a siesta, but here I failed too. Perhaps that semi-retirement by the coast really is looking still quite a long way off.
In Eden, I love the shabby end-of-the-world outpost feeling. It’s a long way from Sydney and a long way from Melbourne, which means it generally only picks up on road trippers passing through and lost Canberrans seeking fish and chips. I have heard – along with countless other places – that it could have been the national capital instead of Canberra. And perched upon an outcrop overlooking beautiful Twofold Bay and the rising hinterland of the coastal ranges, one can only wonder what might have been.
Alas, the sheep paddock that eventually became the capital awaited the next morning. The good news was that I had – or will have – a home to go back there to, and some paperwork to sort out. I wasn’t going to rush – too much – and so took a final walk out to Bar Beach and a coffee to get me over the hills and far away. The boomers were of course there, semi-naked and just slightly self-satisfied, and I could see that I really wasn’t ready to join them for a while yet. But I would definitely be open to further remote working out-of-high-season breaks, just to soak up their paradise, their fantasy for a few more days close to the Pacific.
Little things, sometimes performed unconsciously, indicate a time of change. There is the walk for morning coffee, in which you now seek the sunny section of pavement rather than its shady, covered counterpart. At home you have to reach in the darkest depths of your wardrobe for – god forbid – a sweater; only to discover that they are musty and holey and jaded and faded but at least protect against a cooling evening. Scattered on a nearby chair are the vagaries of climate suitable attire in late March: shorts from two days back (27 degrees), and a hoodie from the night before (2 degrees). Tracksuit pants come back into fashion, at least inside the privacy of your own home. Outside, the basil flourishes, at its most bountiful before frost decimation. And, excitedly, thoughts turn to how it can be used with red meats and red wines, frequently together.
Shorts and salads were still the preferred modus operandi for most of March, and suitable for a reasonably easy-going walk on the Settler’s Track down in the remote southern tip of the ACT. A scattering of huts and pastoral remnants speak of a far challenging time, and one can only recoil in fright at the thought of icy winter winds seeping through the gaps in the wooden planks that made for walls. The comforts of a piddling new town called Canberra lay distant, across brown plains upon which a permafrost lingers, gnarly tangles of stunted gums and dense mounds of wattle lining the mud-racked excuse for a road. Today, we had a bit of a sunny picnic and returned to Canberra in air-conditioned comfort in an hour, with only a little part of the road slightly bumpy.
The climatic downshift has produced more amenable conditions for burning some of this land, doing so in a controlled and measured manner. The intention of this – previously practiced by the original inhabitants of this continent to great success – is to reduce the fuel load for more intensive and damaging fires in the summer months. Thus it is an act of destruction that protects and regenerates, with any luck clearing out tangles of invasive weeds to open the way for more friendly natives.
The controlled burns were noticeable this year in their seeming proximity to Canberra. Partly this an illusion, a foreshortening of distance created by the lines of ranges to the west and the hidden deciduous streets of Canberra in between. It is heightened by the smell of smoke in the air but at no point was the largest ugly concrete building in Woden facing any threat, even as plumes of smoke spiralled in the hills behind like some kind of Jurassic Rotorua. Alas, while the ugly tower survives the smoke, the light, the angle of the sun upon its equinox, the time and day and place and year produce some memorable, cherished Redhillian sunsets.
With the fiery skies appearing earlier each eve, and the increasing need for arm and leg coverings, panic can start to grip the citizens of the national capital. There is alarm that it may get down to fifteen degrees, a temperature in Australia requiring scarves and beanies and carbon intensive wood fires. Concern too that the Australian right to enter the ocean and brag about its perfection to the rest of the world is on the wane. Easter escapes may (though things seem to be changing) herald the last chance to wade in the water of the South Coast. So I thought about going down there over Easter too.
In the end, I changed my mind, and went a few days earlier because the weather was perfect, ideal for a spur of the moment day trip that is only possible with self-employment. Old favourites of Mollymook and Depot Beach, with some fish and chips in between. Shorts and sandals and, yes, gentle wading in the ocean. Something surely to brag about.
My pre-emptive conniving worked wonders because, in the main, the long Easter weekend was one of those in which Canberra (and the region) did its best to imitate Britain. Two days of cool greyness without a break, then two days of heavy downpours, possibly followed by a debate between seven charm-filled politicians arguing about HIV-laden Europhiles stealing our tax money jobs and murdering badgers with Clarkson or something. Ideal conditions for some reading and lounging and DVD watching and baking and napping. In this context, in this climate, it seemed right that the clocks changed, and – at least from the perspective of time-fixing – winter commenced.
The first morning on winter time turned out to be delightful. For a few hours the clouds went away, and the sun delivered enough radiance for a comfortable period of shorts-wearing. The morning light and air contributed to a Red Hill glow, projecting upon the grass and gum trees and ranging hills in the distance. Rather than signalling a decline, the change of clocks appeared to induce a spurt of wild industriousness. Cockatoos plentiful, screeching from tree to tree; pairs of rosellas flitting amongst branches; galahs flaming; and of course the kangaroos, forever grazing and looking all rather nonplussed about it.
Giving Red Hill the hill a run for its money was Red Hill the suburb. From what seemed to be shaping up to be a relatively mundane autumn – with lots of early browns and leaf losses noticeable – a week which turned from warmth and sunniness to a condition of damp mildness appeared to have fashioned a more elaborate state of affairs. And amongst this fading technicolour the birds lingered too. Foraging and flirting and feasting, the fruitful trees bedecked with gang-gangs.
This Easter Sunday suburban sunshine was relatively short-lived. What followed, I guess you could say, were April showers. Thus a planned escapade into escarpment wilderness on Easter Monday became sedated somewhat and, instead, transformed into reasonably gentle ambles within nearby Tidbinbilla. Like suburbia, the wildlife was out in force here too. A few koalas and wallabies sheltered amongst the Peppermint Gums. Swans and pelicans and magpie geese and the duck-billed platypus and platypus-billed duck confirmed that it was nice weather for ducks. Weather that was – well – cold. Cloaked in long trousers, T-shirt, hoodie and raincoat it must have been fifteen degrees or something. And as the sun surprisingly filtered through the rising mist of cloud lifting from the mountains, there was joy in rushing out from the shade of trees and bursting towards its friendly warmth once again.
Sometime around May I usually ramble on about the beautiful autumn days, with their deep blue skies and cooling nights, blazing leaves and subtle sunsets. It is tremendous and I am convinced that it is the best season in the national capital. But then, after a hiatus for different seasons in different hemispheres, spring appears and it is hard to argue against it. For what spring has that autumn lacks is the encroachment of warmth, the re-emergence of life, the dawning of hope sailing on an upward curve. Encapsulating this, the daffodils that were just sprouts when I went overseas are transformed, nature performing its perennial magic trick from seed to understated wonder.
Coming back to Australia, to Canberra, at such an opportune time provides an extension of the holiday feeling, coupled with some comforts of homecoming and familiarity. It helped that I overcame jetlag very quickly and had little work for a week or so. Blue skies and comfortable warmth – tempered by a few cold nights to guard against complacency – offered better conditions than, say, Switzerland. And everywhere, things coming to life, waking up, bursting into extravagance. Settings made the more amiable with a good coffee in hand.
Nowhere is nature’s spring display more evident than at the Australian National Botanic Gardens. Well, maybe Floriade, with its millions of tulips and thousands of daffodils, is a contender. But the botanic gardens – as contrived a creation as they are – feel much more natural, an exhibition of Australia’s wacky fauna in an authentic bush setting.
Here, plants were flowering everywhere, colours and fragrance and the buzz of industrious insects pervading the air. One microscopic bug managed to somehow find itself somewhere within my camera lenses, occasionally crawling into the frame. It was whilst sat down in a quiet spot trying to rectify this situation that the king parrots decided to join me, and to show that it’s not just the flowers that have a monopoly on springtime colour.
Should sleepy and sedate little Canberra become a touch crammed with life, the vast wilderness is of course just around the corner. This, like better quality coffee, is one of those very obvious differences that become so sharply contrasted following a trip to Europe. It doesn’t take long to be climbing on a dirt road into the bush, helping to test drive some friend’s new car, pleased that a four wheel drive is actually being used properly and not just for picking up the kids from school. Up on the Mount Franklin Road, very little other than the wild fills the views, and other roads and tracks tempt for another time.
Indeed, I felt the urge myself to get in my own car and make a road trip, since it has been quite a while. In the other direction, the south coast awaits and what better way to see in my birthday than to drink and eat by the water? I decided, fairly last minute, to head down towards Merimbula, stop overnight and, well, drink and eat by the water. It was a route I had not done for some time and, after the very barren plains of the Monaro, the reward of the South East Forests and Bega Valley is welcome. More welcome, perhaps, is the Nimmitabel bakery chicken salad roll on the beach at Tathra, where the south coast is just doing its usual thing of being stunning under a blue sky.
The rest of the day encompassed some old favourites, favourites that were last visited on the very early stages of some much bigger trip I embarked on in 2013. Back then, after camping next to Ray Mears in Bournda National Park, Merimbula was grey and cool and – later in the day – rain would pummel Ben Boyd National Park to the extent that the roads became slush. Today, well, it was good for shorts and the bellbirds were much happier down on the delightful Pambula River, at the northern edge of the national park.
Dinner was fish and chips, obviously. Not as gargantuan as the last time I had fish and chips and not as English – in this case, unfortunately. However, should one pine for English food for too long, there is always a chance to savour the saviour that is a flat white. A flat white the following morning after a gentle walk along Merimbula’s main beach and into its inlet. A flat white served from a beach hut by charmingly hipster-leaning youngsters…the type that usually make the best coffee. A spot in the sun with a flat white overlooking the paddle boarders and swimmers and boat people cutting a course through the opaque sapphire water. A drink to stimulate taste buds and senses for brunch elsewhere beside the water. Happy birthday to me, and welcome back.