The buzz. The excitement. The nerves. The never-in-my-lifetime strangeness underpinned by a back catalogue of disappointment. The sense of hope, exhilaration, and gut-wrenching drama more often than not deflated by events. The inevitable post-mortem punditry and scapegoating and resignation and acceptance. But maybe – just maybe – this time will be different.
If ever there was a weekend to finally come home this would be it. But I’ll be in bed, 12,000 miles away, turning on the bright lights of a laptop at five in the morning. Thinking about Italian coffee and chocolate digestives to perk me up. Minus three degrees in my shirt.
It’s a bed in a home that I haven’t written about for a good half a year, what with other more exciting jaunts. Canberra is still here, still going through its motions, still – touching wood – absent of coronavirus despite the best efforts of our neighbours. Still understated and beguiling, fortunate and free. Offering abundant life and opportunity if only you should look.
Over that time, Canberra has been doing what Canberra does, transitioning slowly but surely through the bursts of colour of autumn towards morning fogs which (usually) lift to reveal brilliant blue afternoons. It’s the time of year when continental superspreading sporting events disrupt sleep and sub-zero mornings add to the challenge of getting out from under the doona. A time when travel bubbles pop and masks finally become a thing. But do not despair. There is always fresh air.
From the reliable vistas atop Red Hill, a quick jaunt up the road once the laptop powers down. Winter light always doing something special just before five in the afternoon. A warm angelic glow spreads over the rising towers of Woden, the hospital and the Pfizer vaccination hub. Kangaroos munch unaware. Some things change and some things don’t.
Rapidly contesting with Red Hill as my favourite nature reserve, Cooleman Ridge offers great reward for minimal effort. Fringing the west of Weston, the reserve boasts fine views back over Canberra but the real splendour is on the other side. Paddock. Hills. Forest. Mountains. A Murrumbidgee Valley creation. With suburban sprawl and hoonish echoes fading behind the ridge, it is a country walk in a city. And because so much of the Australian countryside is shamefully locked behind fence and gate and no trespassing signs, this is a real treasure.
The treasures of Mulligans Flat are perhaps a little less obvious – and much more likely to emerge at night. But this place is a sanctuary for humans and animals alike. It is another place that has grown on me through a pandemic, from the initial Centenary Trail crossing to volunteer tasks hassling echidnas and wallabies and turtles. As is oft-mentioned on a twilight tour, the dams were dry back when we were enshrouded in smoke. Today they come alive.
A bigger dam sits further west, lapping at a much bigger wilderness. When you stop and think about it, it is quite something that you can be picking up a good coffee at the neighbourhood shops and fifteen minutes later staring out towards this. Cotter Dam vistas shrink and stretch as you rise further into the sky, reaching a new summit at Mount McDonald.
Another new summit is added to my life experience when I take the dirt trail up to Mount Jerrabomberra. I have ventured beyond Canberra, though only just, and only before the latest Bondi-fed outbreak (just in case some paramilitary border goon decides this is reason enough to bar me from Western Australia for twenty years). I have come to Queanbeyan for the rare opportunity of coffee and cake at three in the afternoon, discovering a café that actually opens beyond two. Why is this not more of a thing? Especially when you can easily walk a few crumbs off afterwards.
It is becoming harder to discover new things like this in the backyard, but I am not there yet; Coronavirus may have to last another twenty years for that to materialise, something I would dearly love not to happen. I would love instead to walk in the Alps again, to hike along the downs of southern England chasing butterflies, to stroll through the Barbican and up to Plymouth Hoe, snaffling some fudge and an ice cream along the way.
But do not despair. I discover a winter’s walk alongside the clear water of the Tidbinbilla River, striking out through green forest singing in the aromas of fresh peppermint. Occasional early wattle pops golden and soothes like honey. There are views towards rocky crags and precipitous ridges and – down the track – a little home: Nil Desperandum. It has been restored to cuteness and if only they had a kettle with some tea and perhaps freshly baked scones waiting, the walk back wouldn’t have seemed such a chore.
Nil desperandum. Whenever or whatever might come home, do not despair.
Two weeks on holiday normally wouldn’t be such a strange thing. But it seems a pretty big deal these days. In the world BC, holidays would involve a month crisscrossing the UK in search of friends, family, scones and ales. Plus a European side trip featuring alps of snow and mountains of cheese. One day I’ll make it home again.
However, over the years I’ve come to think of home as more than a singular physicality. There are homes and, following the big bike ride, I needed to somehow find my way from Point B – Caloundra in Queensland – to Point A – Home, Canberra.
It had been a hectic holiday really, and I had visions of a couple of days nestled beside the ocean in some mild clime with good coffee. Perhaps a pool to soothe aching muscles. And a regular ice cream jaunt in the afternoon before taking in the final golden light of sundown. Alas, the weather forecast didn’t look especially conducive to this fantasy so – once again – I opted for the John Denver approach to travelling home.
Still, this wasn’t before at least taking in the sand and water on the Sunshine Coast. It was a brief foray, in between heavy showers and ocean chop at Alexandra Headland. Nearby, the Sunshine Plaza didn’t really offer a brighter disposition but eventually I located some much sought after rocky road. For later.
Faring Jason well with the understanding that we will one day again reunite for rail trail cycling magnificence, I fired up the four wheels and headed west. The road home was all smooth to start, taking me back – as it happened – into a land previously criss-crossed on two wheels. The second time around offered an opportunity to right some wrongs.
The first was pausing to marvel at the Kilcoy Yowie, which I had failed to note when we drove through here on the way to start our bike ride. It’s just, well, I cannot really explain. Further on, once more in Blackbutt, I called into the bakery where I scored a coffee and was confronted with the kind of display that causes indecisive cake-lovers like me to break out in a cold sweat. I think I went for sticky date fudge slice when pressed.
After the kilometre zero of Yarraman, the road led on towards Kingaroy. The extent of my knowledge about Kingaroy is absolute peanuts. Which is pretty spot on, given the area is famed for the cultivation of kernels. When in Kingaroy, Go Nuts is not the motto on the town sign, but you should at least stop by the Peanut Van. And if you want a taste of the manic, pop to the local Woolworths.
I was stocking up for the return to camping with a laser-like focus on making it as minimal effort as possible. Banana for breakfast. Packet soup for dinner, with a carrot and five frozen gyoza to add some bulk. Tent popped up, cooking by torchlight would never be so satisfying, and soup proved perfect in the cold.
At altitude in Bunya Mountains National Park it was surprising how cold things were, given I was still in Queensland. The Bunya Mountains rise up distinctly from the surrounding plains, a wild island among the productive downs. It is very much an island of biodiversity, illustrated by the large swathes of unique Bunya Pine. These giant, Monkey Puzzle type trees only grow naturally here and in a few smaller, dispersed pockets further north.
The trees yield massive cones which offered good tucker for Aboriginal Australians. When I see one in the small visitor centre, I am relieved my walking for the day has finished. Not only do you need to be wary of snakes, spiders, ticks, and stinging trees, but giant bloody cones falling on your noggin as well.
I absorbed the Bunya Mountains with a nice loop walk through dense forest, following lush gullies and creeks and occasionally peering out of the woods to see Queensland below. The gentle chirping of birds was a constant, but the dappled light and dark undergrowth made it impossible to sight any of the blighters. The forest had the becalmed air and melody of one of those meditation soundtracks cobbled together on Spotify by a bearded man wearing loose flowery pants.
Not that this led to a relaxing night. While I managed to get fairly snug, gusts of wind provoked regular rattling of canvas. With fitful rest, I rose early the next morning to discover my head in the clouds. With patience, this would rise and fall in swirls, chinks in the gloom revealing a sunny day unfolding for the Darling Downs.
Gravity would propel my car that way, rapidly plunging from the Bunya Mountains towards Dalby, where the day was indeed sunny. Dalby seems every bit a forgettable town, neither obviously appalling nor exceptionally outstanding. This is perfectly encapsulated by the popularity of a Coffee Club and Brumby’s Bakery on the high street.
Out of Dalby, large cotton fields once again spilled out towards the horizon. It is one of the regrets of the trip that I never managed to find a spot where I could brake abruptly and take a photo of them. Instead, here’s a metal yabbie at Moonie next to tennis courts and much sought after public toilets.
Moonie was little more than a junction on the way to Goondiwindi, a border town receiving attention over the past year for its checkpoints ensuring Queenslanders are kept safe from nasty viruses prior to a state election. As a border town it possesses all the essentials, retaining the chain store vibe of Dalby for passers-by who simply yearn for a bit of predictability. For lunch I grabbed some takeaway from Red Rooster, before a fuel stop and then a frozen coke from McDonalds to take me into New South Wales.
Crossing the border, one step closer to home. Yet still a million miles away. It certainly felt that way once my frozen coke had run out and I found myself on a bumpy road through endless fields of grain. The road – between Boggabilla and Warialda – was doing few favours to my left shoulder and arm, which had now developed post-cycling strain and pain.
In my ideal version of today I was reaching Bingara by two, allowing time for a relaxing nap before a potter around. But I’ve continued to underestimate Australia and the quest of driving across it. It was pretty much four when I checked into a motel – cheap, basic but welcoming in a countrified beige blanket kind of way. And not camping. One of the two double beds still looked good for a nap.
I vaguely remember passing through Bingara on another trip back from Queensland, the town now an intersection with the past. That time around I had come through Inverell and Myall Creek on my way to Narrabri and the Warrumbungles. Again attempting to cover a million miles in a day, I didn’t even stop here, but remember it conveyed a surprising rustic charm.
In the remaining light of day I therefore walked down to the Gwydir River and back into town where clusters of tradie and caravanning couples were gathering for Friday night dinner outside the pub. Along the high street, trees turned auburn signalled the passage of time and place that had gone on since I left home. And with the sun dipping over the hills, there was a tangible chill in the air. And plenty of chilli on my pizza.
Bingara enjoys a fine setting, nestled in a valley backed by rolling ranges. It’s technically in New England and feels that little bit closer to civilisation, if civilisation is Tamworth. I took in the surrounds from a lookout high upon one of many hills, wondering if I could see my destination. But that was still a long way off.
The road between Bingara and Narrabri must surely rank as a hidden gem. In between the two towns, the crazy volcanic landscape of Mount Kaputar National Park infiltrates, regularly revealing golden panoramas and rugged lumps thrust upward from the horizon. It’s one of those landscapes that makes you want to stop at regular intervals, eating yet again into your estimated journey time.
With a lunch date in the diary, I didn’t really have time to pause. I was in two minds whether to stop at Sawn Rocks, but being only a few hundred metres walk from the car park I figured I could squeeze such spectacle in. This is one of Australia’s best ‘organ-pipe’ rock formations, created in geological tumult and chaos. An experience I’m sure my car was feeling for the rest of the day.
I am not going to profess to taking it any faster than 110kph of course as I progressed towards Narrabri. The sacrifice for Sawn Rocks was no coffee in Narrabri and no wee in Wee Waa. By time I reached the small settlement of Pilliga I was more than ready to pause for some brief relief.
Pilliga is – shock horror – in the heart of The Pilliga, a vast, largely flat plain of sprawling dry forest and sandy soil. At one point – and I may have been hallucinating by that stage – I passed three camels. There was no chance to stop, and I’m not entirely sure if they were on a large farm or simply roaming wild. But the fact that you can easily imagine them roaming wild here says everything about the type of environment you are in.
Talking of wildlife, did I expect to find myself in Coonamble again? Well, yes, but I never expected I would be so ecstatic at reaching the place. Oh, there’s that spot I got chased by rabid dogs. Over there, the only café open on Sunday. There’s the river, languid and brown. The supermarket with the chemical mice killer aroma. The partly constructed public toilets embroiled in drama. And the home just out of town where I can again feel at home.
My plans were vague and uncertain and once pork belly was mentioned for dinner I knew this would be my spot for the night. Before dinner, lunch, a mere 45 minutes out of town. The Armatree Hotel is the best pub in town, the only pub in town, practically the only building in town. It has character and authenticity soaking through the wooden floorboards, corrugated iron bar, and XXXX on tap. Out back, the outback. And a beer garden, lively with get togethers and celebration of another week fulfilled.
I like the fact that I can come away from the Armatree Hotel having chatted to an old codger in a ten gallon cowboy hat while we both emptied the contents of our bladders. “Great place out here, hey”. Sure is mate, sure is.
After a restorative night, it finally was time for a homecoming. Coonamble to Canberra in one hit is a pretty lengthy affair but once through Dubbo (and a much-needed stop for coffee), the drive was pretty enjoyable. The weather had closed in and rain was falling as I reached Molong, giving the place an added autumnal melancholy. All across the Central West, trees were exploding crimson and gold in small towns like Cudal and on toward Cowra.
The rain had stopped and things were brighter by time I reached fairly familiar territory in Cowra. Not so long to go now. Just need a final country coffee to push me on, eclipsed by a delicious treat…because I am still on holiday after all. Just about. Down the road, Boorowa. Then Yass. Murrumbateman. Hall. And at last, home.
It is a fact truer than anything to have ever come out of the British Prime Minister’s mouth that I will always take up an opportunity to work in Brisbane in July. While the locals may gripe about the icy depths of winter where overnight it might just slip below double digits and require a good for humanity coal fire, I’ve packed two pairs of shorts. And just the one jumper.
And a raincoat. For it is even truer that Queensland is far from beautiful one day, perfect the next; a dubious marketing slogan dreamt up by mediocrities that continues apace in the supposed Sunshine Coast, a place frequently sodden by epic downpours and possessing a clammy mildew befitting the swampy subtropics. Saturday here was so damp that the highlight was a doughnut, and even that wasn’t much of a highlight, more a triumph of social marketing style over substance.
Queensland: pissing down one day, sweaty the next. The sweatiness emerging on Sunday as the sun makes an appearance, triggering rising heat and rampant moisture. Liquid particles are lifted by ocean gusts, filtered ineffectually through the thrum of air conditioning to congregate in damp surf club carpets. Puddles among snake-infested flood plain linger, waiting for passing birds and passing property developers to drain. The ubiquitous HiLux secretes fluids while idling outside Red Rooster, as a leftover billboard of some redneck running for parliament gazes down approvingly. Just thank the lord or some other unelected deity that it is not yet high summer.
Indeed, the sweatiness is relatively tolerable this time of year and is alleviated by the pleasure of wearing shorts in midwinter. As dark clouds sweep north to reveal a sky of blue, there is an hour of pleasant sunshine on the coast, a welcome companion on a bare-legged walk along the beach and promenade to Mooloolaba. I rest at Alex Heads watching sandcastles being built and surfers being demolished, and sharks being hidden just out of site. Probably. It’s not even a whole day let alone an entirety of existence, but for a few moments it seems that things are beautiful, tending towards perfect.
Somewhat annoyingly the sunshine was a sign of an improving pattern of weather as I returned to Brisbane and the prospect of work. On the plus side, there was a bit of downtime and a later flight back to Canberra on the warmest day of the week, giving me the opportunity to don shorts once again, while all around me wore coats. And then there was the hotel I was staying in, which was rather fine with its rooftop pool and terrace overlooking the ever rising city and the ever flowing brown of the Brisbane River.
Actually, the hotel was somewhat funky and felt more like a spot for special treat bogan holidays and shadowy foreign gambling syndicates fast-tracked by Border Force than a place where weary businesspeople rest their weary heads. In my room there was a wine fridge, the TV was in the mirror (what?!), and there were a series of illuminated switches that operated a configuration of lights that I never was able to master. Switches that glow in the dark and give a sense of Chernobyl as you try to sleep. Only the lift was more luminescent, alternating between being in a Daft Punk video and a fish tank of the Barrier Reef before it got bleached.
Walking out of the lift and onto the street was a sure way to ease a headache, especially as outside it was warm and sunny and just oozing that relaxed vibe that comes with a level of warmth and sunniness. Think how England feels when the misery of flooding rain and gloom dissipates for a freakish sunny day, golden and mild after months of despair and before the impending furnace of yet another unseasonal heat plume from the African colonies. A bit like that.
The Brisbane River acts as something of a waymarker wandering the city, guiding you along South Bank and its gardens and galleries, channelling you across to the north with angular bridges and sweeping curves. Disappearing as you cut across the CBD with its blocks of one-way-street and chirruping pedestrian crossings, before emerging again in an amalgam of mangroves at the terminus of the Botanic Gardens.
Back across the river, the cliffs of Kangaroo Point provide fine city views as well as clichéd place name delight for international visitors to post. Some people abseil down the cliffs, others look up from the riverside path below. All try to avoid getting run over by yet another dork on one of the city’s electric scooters. Most sit and wait and contemplate what it would be like to be on a scooter, as the sun goes down on another day in Queensland.
And for me, as darkness descends, it is back to the light. The florid light of that lift going up to the many lights that I cannot figure out how to arrange in my hotel room, the switches for which will light up at night as a constant reminder that they have won. Along the way, the lights of the city flicker on, as the temperature drops below twenty.
After a few days here I rummage in my bag for that one jumper. It’s starting to get a tad cool, just a little off being perfectly comfortable. I could survive without it, but I did pack it after all, and it would be a shame to carry it all this way and not put it to use. For the first time in Brisbane, I seem to fit in. Now all I need is a scooter to carry me off into the night, towards the light.
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.
After an indifferent run up, the Christmas and New Year period decided to go all out Aussie and deliver roasting temperatures and blistering sun. What to do in such sweltering conditions?
Try and work with pastry and bake sausage rolls for old time’s sake? Probably not the best idea.
Escape to the air-conditioned comforts of a gallery or museum? Well, nice as long as you don’t get sucked into a vortex of neo-postmodern pastiche critiquing the conflation of pre-industrial conceptualisations with fifth-dimensional realism.
Shopping in malls and supermarkets then? Cool, but not usually great for the hip pocket and the hips.
Wading into the lake feels so tempting, but what about the prospect of blue-green algae and mutated carp for company? Ah, a mate’s pool, that’s better. If it isn’t like a hot bath after endless days of solar induction and steamy mosquito-filled nights. Yes, I wanna build a snowman! Please.
Logic would dictate that the South Coast could offer relief, with its sea breezes and refreshing waves. Perhaps it’s a lack of sleep or one too many egg nogs or something, but I defy the logic and head inland instead. My brain hasn’t totally frazzled, reasoning that surely it’s perfect weather to hang out in a cave. I can think of no better refuge. I mean if cheese and wine like a good cave, then surely what’s not to like?
Besides, I seem to be drawn to experiencing Australia at its most inhospitable. I think there is an authenticity in the parched hills of summer, the shredded bark of gums littering the road, the parrots drawn to muddy creeks, the constant wail of cicadas zapping the air. The Real Australia, some marketing undergraduate or large-hatted politician might imagine. A landscape on the margins, a long way away from my Christmas past. Presented in harsh technicolour – but with aircon – when driving through.
And so, to Wombeyan Caves, a spot I visited once in steady rain. How different that was. Despite arriving at a reasonably early hour today it is already hard work hiking through the bush to waterfalls that are dry and exposed paths that simply disappear. Still, the Visitor’s Centre has a fridge full of ice-cold drinks and the refuge of Victoria Arch is mere metres away. What a spot this is, like entering a Westfield on a forty-degree day, only without the slightly depressing thought of having to find solace in a Westfield.
I think about munching on some leftover sausage rolls in here, but delay lunch for one other walk before the temperature peaks. It’s already midday and clearly above thirty. Shade is intermittent on the way down to Tinted Cave and the Limestone Gorge, where sausage rolls can be enjoyed beside a shallow pool of water popular with dragonflies and sweaty humans.
I feel pity for the extended families heading down to the gorge as I make my way back to the car. Laden with chairs and umbrellas and swimming gear, there is barely enough space to set up a picnic blanket for one. And from what I could tell, wading in the water is a trial of jagged gravel and slippery pebbles. “Is it worth it?” they ask. I offer hope and repeat what the lady in the Visitor’s Centre told me – “Go around the corner a bit and the water gets deeper.” I hope for them it does, though it may have already evaporated since this morning.
The peak of the heat hits when in the car and the aircon works overtime as I head back to Canberra via Crookwell and Gunning. A hallucinatory ice cream parlour fails to materialise in either town, and I end up with an iced coffee from McDonalds back on the fringes of Canberra. Brain freeze strikes, but I guess I wanted it cold.
The New Year approaches and passes with little respite. Only for a couple of hours around dawn do temperatures relent enough, prompting a frantic mission to open up doors and arrange blinds to coax some cooler air into my apartment at five in the morning. It feels like it’s been a losing battle by time the clock ticks round to nine. And then what? The mall, the pool, the library, the supermarket? Giving in and spending ten dollars a minute on aircon? Getting a permanent job in a cool office? It’s tempting now more than ever.
But we’ll make it through the worst. The sun will set and the temperatures will cool, just a bit. The colourful reward of light moving towards dark amplified as a breeze sets in. And a couple more turns of the Earth might finally bring a cooler change. A forecast 26 degrees on Sunday and perhaps – at last – a climate cool enough for a Christmas roast. It’s all relative.
Lest I become too rose-tinted about Cornish beaches, life back in Australia conspired to take me once more across the continent to Perth. This is no major hardship, despite the length of the flight, for I cannot think of a city so amply adorned with lashings of fine white sand and turquoise seas. The Indian Ocean the very magnet pulling me west again. And some income.
The city of Perth is barely discernible from those elsewhere in Australia. Shiny buildings ever-rising over suburban grids of trellis and jacaranda. Sweeping highways and glitzy stadia. Concrete enclaves of KMarts and Coles. A river, snaking its course towards a modest escarpment of fire-prone bush. And a thriving hubbub built on endeavour and good fortune.
Flying here, from the east, it is almost a surprise to find yourself in somewhere so familiar after such a long haul. Familiar but with a twist, exemplified in the changing flora and fauna that has evolved the other side of the big red desert. Much of the same genus but variations in the species. Kind of like Australian Prime Ministers. Nowhere is better to appreciate this than in the eternally charming Kings Park.
The other disorientating feature of arriving in Perth – particularly in summertime – is the time difference. In what might not prove to be the most self-destructive public vote in recent years, the good people of Western Australia declined to embrace daylight savings. This means three hours behind Canberra is enough to throw your body clock out of whack, with the 4am sunrises doing little to foster adjustment. I never recovered. Waxit means Waxit.
There were, though, some upsides to this plebiscite. By 6am I was so bored out of my brain lying in bed trying to get some more sleep that I popped out for coffee and waterside amblings in Fremantle. Other than people ridiculously exercising, barely a soul crossed my path on recurrent trips to Bathers Beach with a flat white in hand.
Freo was my base for the week and part of its appeal was accessibility to water. Being a busy and somewhat historic port, it’s not without its charm and boasts a high concentration of elegant turn-of-the-century colonial buildings. It seems to attract hipsters which equals good coffee, has not one but two breweries, puts on some fine markets, and has developed into a mecca for fish and chip consumption. There is a lot to like about Freo.
The centre of Fremantle itself is based around the port, meaning there are no amazing beaches right on the doorstep. However, this is Perth we are talking about, so you only have to head a little north or south to hit the white stuff. Indeed, South Fremantle is perfectly sufficient.
The ritualistic process of having an early evening stroll on sand followed by lingering patience to watch the sun disappear (usually behind that invisible band of cloud on the horizon), became as common a part of my routine as 6am strolls in Fremantle. Tonight I made fish and chips part of the cliché, because you’ve got to do that at least once. They were a tad disappointing, but the sunset did the business.
While you can revel in the beaches until your heart is content, and then some more, there is perhaps a lack of significant diversity in the environment around Perth. Go north and there are fine beaches, dunes and a sand belt melange of exquisite eucalypts, banksia and xanthorrhoea. Go south, the same. Beyond the coastal plain, the escarpment is minor, a small rise of bush before it quickly transforms into a massive expanse of wheat and then desert.
In possession of a car on a Sunday I contemplated driving up to the Pinnacles Desert, which would offer a stark change of scenery. But it would be a big day requiring around six hours in a car there and back, and I had to do some work tomorrow. Instead, I made it only a little out of Perth to Yanchep and settled – quite contentedly – there.
While this didn’t deliver a dramatic contrast, it offered an encapsulation of this particular corner of the world, on steroids. For a start, Yanchep National Park provided all the sandy, semi-arid foliage you could shake a weird shaped stick at, in between swampy lagoons and bulbous gum trees. I was particularly fond of the many xanthorrhoea here, which lend an exotic, almost desert-like vibe to the surrounds.
Given the proximity of this park to Perth, there is also a more manicured and deliberately designed aspect to certain areas, with tightly mown grass, a cosy café, campgrounds, waterside boardwalks and electric barbecues. A perfect family spot for a Sunday lunch, kickabout and encounter with koalas and kangaroos, creatures which seem strategically placed for the many visitors on minibus tours heading for the Pinnacles.
The nearby town of Yanchep is practically a northern suburb of Perth, though being one of the earlier developments it is not all ugly McMansions designed with the intention to use every single bit of land to provide an essential guest suite, rumpus room, three car garage and indoor cinema. There are certainly McMansions around, but also more established blocks made up of modest concrete bungalows and fibro shacks, befitting of a seaside hideaway.
Never mind, I’m sure I could live here – in one form or another – if only for the beach. Protected by a bar, crystal clear waters are pacified over that ubiquitous fine white sand. A beach among beaches in the city of beaches. Life’s a beach and then you eat fish and chips. Again.
There was a somewhat fitting addendum to my journey in supposedly great Britain, a transitional phase elongating the journey between two hemispheres. Norfolk is rarely likened to Australia – though it is the driest region of the UK and famously has an in-breeding rate some hick towns in the outback might aspire to. Yet being here felt one step closer, one step nearer to that other home down under.
Norfolk is now home to Jill, someone who I associate with so much of Australia, having covered many miles together crossing a wide brown land. And so, a weekend here had parallels: coastal walks, bird rolls, coffee and cake, and an infestation of boatpeople. The Broads, like a Noosa Everglades of tangled waterways, is plied by extravagant cruisers and basic tinnies, festooned with birdlife, and regularly adorned with waterfront retreats. Very Australian; though here, little Englanders can live on their very own island and control their borders until their hearts are content.
It is quite possible to get a roast dinner in Australia; even when it is forty degrees there will be waterfront homes boasting a chook in the fan-assisted humidifying oven, accompanied by roasted vegetables that undoubtedly include pumpkin. While the roast dinner may be a relic of colonisation, its pure deliciousness has helped it to endure as a great British export, even if it does become bastardised with pumpkin or somehow cooked on the barbie with a can of beer up its arse. But the roast is best fitting in its true home: a cosy pub on a grey day.
It is also quite possible to get coffee in England; even if you are truly desperate there will be a Costa Express at the servo down dale. The thing is, you really need to have cake with it to compensate for the likelihood of receiving a giant cup of hot liquid somewhere in the range of blandly mediocre to bitterly dreadful. I can adapt to this situation, but the thought of returning to Australia and having a coffee fills me with a little cheer.
England or Australia, Jill and I always do our very best to eat and drink well.
The good thing is we traditionally tended to walk such things off with potters around Sydney Harbour or ascents of Grampian hills. A Saturday spent on the North Norfolk coast offered conditions for a good old bushwalk, with typical weather to boot: warm winds and clear skies probably bringing temperatures I had not felt since August. Centred around the sprawling estate of Sheringham Park, the walk including lush forests, lofty lookouts, dried out pastures and placid seas. The pebbly beaches are far from Bondi, but they can equally host a tasty bird roll picnic.
This landscape was naturally far from Australian, but it was also a slightly different type of England, distanced from that familiar land of heavily undulating green plunging into the Atlantic. I was no longer home on my way home, still happily soaking up lingering remnants of what is great about Britain but preparing my mind to embrace Australia again. A long transition was in play, like that of the leaves around me, gradually drifting away towards their winter…
…And just like that the world spins and you fight against it for a day or so in this never-never land of cold air and reclining seats and unappealing movies and rice with two lumps of what might be chicken. Dessert is more of a highlight because it involves – somewhat poetically – Salcombe Dairy Ice Cream. Here I am on a Singapore Airlines A380 headed for Australia and dessert comes from a little patch of paradise on the south coast of Devon. In that taste of creamy cherry are the lush meadows and deep blue seas of home. I can see Bolt Head, as clear as day.
At some point the world becomes tropical. There are bright lights, acres of glass and miles of travellators. You could buy a Rolex or a roti with some weird money. It is five in the morning and people are eating dinner. You are somewhere in the world at some point in time but not much of it makes sense. If only it was all a dream, the relaxing sound of running water and floating butterflies lulling you into restful sleep…
…restful sleep feels like such an unrealistic aspiration. You are back in your own bed, surrounded by your own comforts, but even the 3am sounds of a boring discussion on Radio National do not cause eyes or mind to yield. It can be tough, that first week being back, but it can also be filled with joy.
The joy of finally getting the journey done counts for a lot. But there are also those home comforts, a re-acquaintance with certain foods, my car starting, a new but familiar environment, the coffee…the coffee and the sun and catch ups with friends over coffee in the sun.
As I leave one autumn, the promise of spring pervades, amply exemplified in the lavender going crazy and weeds liberally taking over my garden. Everywhere flowers and blooms and fresh green buds, from the manicured terrain of the Parliamentary Triangle to the sprawling native treasures of the Botanic Gardens. Shorts are more often than not feasible under frequent blue skies.
Maybe it’s the season, but the blue skies you find in Australia do not seem to exist in the same way in the UK, in Europe. They are bigger and bluer here, more intense and infinitesimal. They create boldness and vibrance rather than subtlety and nuance. They can make the landscape appear stark and saturated. This difference like a polarising filter thrown over my eyes.
Only as the longer days edge towards their end does the light soften, but even then there are hues of summery gold and laser red projecting onto hills, eucalypts and rapidly rising apartment windows. The sun does its reliable trick of shifting forever west as the world turns, west to embrace the rest of the world, the world from where I have come. A sun forever shared across the miles, permanently, naturally transitional.
A sure sign that I had been in the UK for a while was the notion that it was simply ludicrous to expect to explore the far west of Cornwall on a day trip from Plymouth. In Australia, such thoughts would be perfectly acceptable, indeed very much the norm. “Just popping down to the beach” shouts Clint cheerily from the Ute window, as he sets off across the dusty paddock and onward to golden sands some two hundred kilometres distant. People I know have driven from Canberra to Brisbane in a day and back again the day after. Just off for a quiet drive in the country…
It is true that British roads take longer: they are narrower and more disjointed, denoted in miles (which gives an illusion of proximity), and overpopulated by caravans and lorries. In Cornwall, add the probability of tractors on roads which simply run out of space and you can understand the frequent car parks that form in the summer holidays. Even in October it can take longer than you expect, resulting in pasties in Marazion that are a touch on the tepid side because it is so far beyond the normal hours of lunch.
Still, with a few nights in a caravan (a static one I should add) near the town of St. Just there should be opportunity to sample some fresh food. And savour the rugged edge-of-the-world landscape holding steadfast against the Atlantic. An Atlantic that readily spreads its moisture over Penwith, cloaking in cloud the highest patches of sticky-out Cornwall upon which static caravans perch.
Such was the persistence of this shroud for much of the time it was easy to believe we were the only souls for miles, or kilometres, around. Nothing else in sight, barring a scattering of empty caravans looking jaded after a busy summer season. Finer writers than me would better evoke a mystical mood of ghostly visions, pagan spirits and murderous pirates going “AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”. I just got bored with it and drove down the hill seeking out a break.
In Mousehole, the grey mood dissipated with an amble through the jaunty narrow streets, snooping into the windows of cosy cottages as they wind their way down towards the colourful, cobbled harbour. With calm seas and monotone skies, there was a strong serenity enveloping the village, no doubt amplified by the absence of throngs of tourists. Even the seagulls seemed subdued, fattened from their harvest of summertime chips.
Spirits lifted further following a rather good coffee overlooking the harbour (the use of Rodda’s milk could have been a factor). And in the time it takes to sup a rich creamy latte, the sun broke through to offer a taste of summer revisited. Just where are my shorts now?
A few miles back up the road and the static was still in the clouds. However, the morning below had now delivered hope and – with that – an intent to pop some shorts in the car “just in case”. Such fancies were still feasible over lunch in Trengwainton, a National Trust speciality providing a café within a charming garden setting. Ah, some fresh produce and – not for the first time – a cream tea for lunch. Reflecting now I think this might have been my favourite cream tea of the year. Proper lush.
The prospect of shorts hung in the balance but was soon shot down upon arrival in a murky St. Ives. Unlike Mousehole, St. Ives was typically bursting with visitors pacing in a slow, zombie-like shuffle between crafty art galleries and hearty pasty chains. This dawdling procession seemed to accentuate a sombre air, hardly conducive to lingering. So back along the north coast it was, with a few stops along the way, to the static caravan in the clouds.
The next morning heralded a sense of déjà vu that required a little longer to escape. In fact, it wasn’t until I was haphazardly navigating my way through lanes hopefully heading towards Portreath that the clouds lifted. Once again, I had discovered the sunshine. I was feeling a little smug with myself and taking pride in my sun-seeking skills but of course it was sheer luck. Lucky to be here, under these skies.
Sunlight illuminated much of the north coast heading up towards Newquay and we were right on its edge. A separation as distinct as the line between land and sea, a frontier you don’t want to get too close to at Hell’s Mouth. Here, vertiginous cliffs plummet into pristine ocean, though becalmed in the breathless air of today.
Heading back west, the lightening cloud signified something a little more promising. Driving into the caravan site Mum noticed an old abandoned tin mine which we hadn’t known had existed before then. The expanse of the hill slowly unfolded and, suddenly, you could make out the houses in St. Just. There was even, from one spot, a blue wedge of sea forming on the horizon.
St. Just seemed a jollier place in the sun, the depression lifting in tandem with the weather. At nearby Botallack we headed towards the famous Crown Engine Houses, following a suspicious truck proclaiming to have something to do with film production. I suspect they, like everyone else, were making hay when the sun was shining; finally they could get some panoramic money shot to fill a gap in some tedious dialogue in Poldark. Or perhaps they were just on a holiday.
Now trying to cram literally everything in under clearer air, next up was a trip to Porthcurno. Given this place seems to be the current most Instagrammed memento of Cornwall it was surprisingly quiet. Perhaps all the day-trippers had departed, or else plunged down a cliff trying to get a snap of any sand emerging from a receding tide at Pedn Vounder. With such peace and such beauty, the fruits of staying in a static in the clouds were coming to bear.
And what better than the fruits of the sea, in the golden end-of-day light at Sennen Cove? To me, the beach here is the closest resemblance to Australia of any I have encountered in England. A sweeping arc of sand for the most part untainted by development. Curling waves of surf, with the obligatory dreadlocked shark bait on boards. And a little alfresco waterfront action, though in the very English gorgeousness of a proper pub with proper ale.
And now, finally, before heading back to Plymouth the next day, a chance to watch the sun set into the Atlantic. Almost. For of course this isn’t Australia and there is always a prospect of clouds on the horizon. But at least now they were only on the horizon, rather than atop a static caravan on a hill a long drive from home.
Devon, oh Devon. Rolling hills, white fluffy clouds in a blue sky, white fluffy sheep in a green field, the deep blue sea shimmering in a haze of paradise. Oh yes, the picture-perfect Devon of custard cans. Such were my thoughts on the first day back here as gales lashed rain sideways upon a window in gritty Plymouth city, the smell of roast dinner the only comfort. It’s good to be back.
That stormy day has been the exception rather than the rule but, while there have been some blessed interludes, the predominant feature has been cloud. Cloud and cream and catch ups and cars to get used to ferrying family and escaping Emmerdale.
Like practically everyone else in this sceptred isle I have been paying frequent visits to the BBC Weather website, analysing the hourly chance of sunshine breaking through the milky clouds and estimating with a little skill, experience, and luck, where the gaps could emerge. And the success rate hasn’t been so bad.
Noss Mayo is a reliable friend. I know its lanes and paths well – meandering up past happy farms, coursing loftily above the sea, before weaving down underneath a green canopy as jaunty boats upon the Yealm begin to break through. I know where to crawl tentatively around which corners of single-track lane to avoid a head-on crash. I know sunny spells can be more likely to emerge here. And I know where to park and where not to.
Well, I thought I did, unless there is a fete on and the compact car park becomes overwhelmed to the extent that a complex series of nine point turns on a 20% gradient is required to squeeze in next to a wall against which you can’t open the door necessitating an undignified scramble over the passenger seat. I guess ferret racing, wellie throwing, and cake tasting is an enduringly popular attraction in Devon.
Despite this bank holiday anomaly, the rest of Noss was as pleasing as ever. Happy farms, lofty sea views, jaunty boats, that kind of thing. The sun even broke through. Customarily, I had half a pint at the end but – given things had been slightly awry from the start – made a controversial visit to The Swan rather than The Ship. From where that time-honoured tradition of watching unknowingly parked cars become submerged by the rising tide could play out.
After Noss Mayo, greyness came and went for much of the week and my continued scrutiny of the BBC Weather page started to wane as it became clear that they didn’t really know what was going on. The supposed sunny mornings were cloudy, cloudy afternoons became bright, and once in a while shorts might have been tolerable in the same day that you were wearing a fleece and long trousers and struggling to see through drizzle.
In an effort to get out with the sun and conveniently avoid a pile of tripe being served up in The Woolpack, an evening on Dartmoor produced a fine end to an otherwise dull day. The drive itself proved an adventure in threading a car through lanes hemmed in by characteristic ten-foot-high hedgerows on roads I did not now. Disorientation is never far away. Happily, I ended up on Harford Moor Gate, an area I had never previously accessed and one which led to a yomp over open moorland burnished golden by the lowering sun.
I set out for a random tor in the distance with the nebulous but entirely logical aim of seeing what was over the other side. Avoiding anguished cow bellows and boggy hollows, it turned out the other side had more open moorland and little else. On a whim, I headed for another pile of rocks a few hundred metres south. And there it was, the view of South Devon and its patchwork fading in the dying light.
The sun was heading back into a band of grey on the western horizon, but before it did I managed to make it back to my first tor to say farewell. Farewell again.
The by now notorious BBC Weather page continued to largely offer the ambiguous white cloud symbol. Always a few days into the future, perhaps some sun. Always offering a little hope. And finally delivering.
Still in the school summer holidays I feared Hope Cove in the South Hams would be largely inaccessible. Farmers would have seen the blue sky and decided to secretly annoy everyone by undertaking essential tractor on road affairs. Grockles would be flocking to car parks, caravans would be wedged between quaint red post boxes and quaint red phone boxes, kids and dogs would be running amok in a melange of buckets, balls and bowls of water that I always trip over. How, exactly, is the tranquillity?
But I was surprised. We got a park. We got a spot on the small beach cove. We got an ice cream. And we got a blue sky that was very comfortable for shorts and a walk along the South West Coast Path. That tranquillity? It’s pretty fine thanks.
Leaving the bubbling hubbub of Hope behind, I headed up towards Bolt Tail for magical views back to town and over the sapphire calm of the bay. There is little that is more joyous than traipsing on the trails of the coast path when it is like this. Nowhere in the world.
For now, here was Devon. Devon, oh Devon. Rolling hills, white fluffy clouds in a blue sky, white fluffy sheep in a green field, the deep blue sea shimmering in a haze of paradise. Oh yes, the picture-perfect Devon of custard cans. Such were my thoughts surrounded by hope. It’s good to be back.
This blogging malarkey can be daunting, overwhelming. At times it seems to be a burden, a self-imposed millstone around my neck that I started ages ago and cannot quite shake off. This is especially the case when you have just crammed in an epic few weeks with your Dad exploring as much as you can of a small part of the gargantuan landmass of Australia. So many photos to try and fix up a little with the inept tools provided by Windows 10. So many words to write. So many opportunities to be mildly humorous and maddeningly self-deprecating. Where do I start?
The thing is, I know when I do start to write that I can get into a groove. I enjoy it. Partly I am writing to myself; a record, a reminiscence. Like anyone, I can prosper through purple patches of prodigious prose and struggle in sufferance stringing sentences into some semblance of structure. Alliteration might be a side-effect. A cold beer can provide aid, something I was going to get twenty minutes ago before I got distracted by writing these last two paragraphs.
So, I actually found a remaining Kirin Cider in the fridge and with the influence of a little Japanese Zen (hic) decided that the best way to approach things is through the time-honoured application of baby steps. Baby steps that are moments that are recollections that will stand the test of time. In effect a highlights reel, starting with a ride from Canberra up the coast of New South Wales…
– – – Canberra on the rise – – –
In March Canberra is nearing its annual state of perfection. The mornings become crisper, the air calmer, the flora and fauna engaging in a frenetic dalliance before things quieten down. In the month in which Canberra was born, Canberra is reborn from the fierce heat and drawn-out holidays of summer. Canberra celebrates with lights and fireworks and food and balloons. One elongated fiesta.
It is an early Saturday morning and the clear air of dawn is steadily lightening down by Old Parliament House. At such an hour it is almost an affront to battle for a car park and find yourself immersed into a hubbub of people, cars, and brightly coloured material lain upon dewy grass. The roar of a gas flame is like a road train rumbling into your dreams, awakening the slumber as much as it is enlivening balloons. Lumps of bright red and vivid green begin to emerge from the encircling crowds. Bulbous spheres and irregular shapes take form; a helmet, a heart, a frog, a bird. It turns out – like us – hot air balloons come in all shapes and sizes.
From the east, the first balloon ascends peacefully, almost unnoticed, into the air. This precipitates a flurry of activity as everyone follows its lead. Like bubbles effervescing from a newly opened raspberry lemonade, one after the other pop up into the deep blue sky. There must be twenty, thirty…where they all came from goodness only knows. And even though you have seen this before and will probably see it again, it leaves you mesmerised, as enchanted as the four-year-old by your side. And all before breakfast.
– – – Being Mr Harbourside non-mansion in Sydney – – –
Memories are rarely made of drives up the Hume Highway and M5 and certainly not along the A3 towards Ryde. The sparkling city of Sydney struggles under the burden of traffic and industry spreading across its sprawling suburbs, a long way from the Qantas songs atop harbour bridges and Paul Hogan leisurely cremating prawns by the beach. Eventually, increasing proximity to the city’s famed water is signified by gentrification and then ostentatious wealth, passing through salubrious homes nestled into Hunters Hill and lining the water at Greenwich. And all this can be yours – well maybe not all this – for $89 a night.
What you do get on Cockatoo Island is a spacious tent, a couple of far from plump mattresses and some fold up chairs to lounge upon the deck. Water is never far away, meaning that ferry rides are a necessary mode of transport. After exploring some of the fascinating buildings and shipbuilding remnants upon the island, you can catch a late afternoon ferry towards the city, truly glistening in the sinking sun. Along the way you are reminded that – despite the exclusive homes with private moorings – so much of this waterfront is accessible to all. And while I am sure there are some fancy enclaves for rich people dressed up very smartly, practically anyone can buy a drink down at the Opera Bar and pretend they are a millionaire.
In hindsight it seems perverse to think we were going to give Sydney a miss on this trip, partly because of the Sydney of M5s and A3s and its procession of diesel haulage and concrete junctions. To bypass is to miss the opportunity for the Sydney of Qantas songs atop harbour bridges. To bathe in its icons and soak in its unashamedly self-satisfied ambience. To sample the transformation as the sun goes down and the illuminations glow. To feast on a delicious dinner that didn’t involve a camp stove or washing up in the dark. And to ride back upon the water, under that bridge, as the skyline of the city lights stretch out onto the horizon and an $89 mansion awaits.
– – – Reaching a Zenith in Port Stephens – – –
Getting out of Sydney the following day was better than expected. But then where does Sydney really end? The Central Coast almost seems an extension of the sprawl of the city, one which proves infuriating when you veer off the main motorway. Places like The Entrance, Toukley, Swansea, Charlestown and – finally – Newcastle blend into one elongated strip of shops, retirement homes, caravan parks, lagoons and exceedingly sandy, exposed (in more than one way) beaches.
Myself underestimating the scale of Australia and its distractions along the way, it wasn’t until late afternoon that Dad and I reached our destination in Port Stephens. And though missing spectacular sunset skies while waiting for fish and chips was symptomatic of the day that had been, the saviour came in Zenith Beach. Wedged underneath the volcanic-shaped mound of Tomaree Head, its fine white sand, foot-soothing water and refreshing air was just the tonic after a day in a car, a day amply washed down by fish and chips in the dark.
– – – Shooting for the stars at Hat Head – – –
While memories can be magnified or maligned by multiple visits, there is something special about breaking new ground. A stop around South West Rocks and Hat Head National Park provided many highlights, one of them being that this was new territory for me, Dad and the car. We all quite liked the drive alongside the Macleay River, with its green watery pastures, tiny weatherboard towns and cowbirds. We all liked a lot less the potholes around the national park campground by the beach. We were fond of the lighthouse and its views, but not so keen to traverse a rough track to some mythical walking trail. Still, if we hadn’t switched to a different walk we might have missed the sun going down. Everything works out for the best in the end.
With the sun vanquished, cooking by torchlight is not the easiest experience in the world but when it’s a simple one pot taco feast the satisfaction is all the greater. Following such sumptuousness at home there’s a fair chance we would lounge back, probably unhitch the belt a notch and – depending on context – watch His Royal Highness Danny Dyer whack some bleedin’ tool good and proper in Eastenders. In a rustic camp with a pit toilet and little else, entertainment is on an altogether more monumental scale. Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.
The beach is pitch black barring the beam of light circling upon the lighthouse. The sound of waves suggest ocean somewhere vaguely nearby, a roar magnified without any other disturbance at night. The sea breeze is cooling and evaporative, seemingly keeping the blood-sucking bugs at bay. The fine sand sustains a tripod and the sky offers an infinite, ever-expanding canvas. The photos may not have turned out brilliant, but the shared experience, the learning, the new adventure was. I daresay it was even better than Eastenders. And on that bombshell, bom, bom, bom, bom-bu-bu-bu-bum.
I had never visited or passed through the small town of Lumsden, yet it featured prominently on our road map borrowed from a keen fly fisherman friend of Dad. The road map offered annotated teasers of someone else’s holiday: Day 2 on the Oreti River, a fine haul at the Whitestone, a ride on a steam train. Lumsden was often at the heart of the scribblings, and a town with a population of 400 boasting a fishing shop just about says it all. Today, in winds stronger than Gita, the trout would have been blowing down the street alongside wheelie bins and pizza boxes. Even I might be able to catch one.
Heading north from Lumsden we paused at the southern extremity of Lake Wakitipu, at the tip of this thunderbolt shaped body of electric blue, a Harry Potter scar etched into the Southern Alps by a tectonic Lord Voldemort. Parking upon the shore in Kingston for a cheesy car picnic, lightning or death eaters were not the issue, but the wind blowing off the lake, rocking the car and creating spouts and swirls of water. A nearby lookout point marked as The Devils Staircase never seemed so apt.
Contrast this with an hour later in Arrowtown, a cutesy (if a touch contrived) old gold rush village just out of Queenstown. Sheltered by hills, twenty-five degrees, sunshine out, there was no hesitation in showing my pants to the whole of the car park and changing into shorts. Likewise, both Dad and I had no hesitation in agreeing ice cream should be on the agenda. Such thoughts are obvious portents of the cloud rolling in, the wind rising, and drizzle emerging. But let that not stop us eating ice cream!
And so, when we eventually arrived at our lofty accommodation in Queenstown up several flights of stairs, there was no lake to see, no mountain tops to captivate, and just the sound of heavy rain and testosterone-fuelled Argentine rugby players having a balcony party to enjoy. Perfect conditions to don a mac, head into town, find a pub, and gorge on a hearty roast.
In a mini-repeat of the post-Gita awakening, the next morning dawned with just a few residual clouds hovering over the lake, the blue skies expanding to cast Lake Wakatipu a luminescent teal. What better way to dazzle than drive along its shores to Glenorchy, the symbolic top of the fork of thunder encircled by lofty mountains. Just when you thought New Zealand could not get any more scenic, any more stunning, you turn a corner and once more get whacked in the face in a flurry of brake lights and shonky parking.
One of the incredible things about Glenorchy other than it’s gorgeous setting and generous rocky road slice, is that it is once again on the fringes of Mount Aspiring National Park. In what is almost two full circles we have come within 20 miles of The Divide on the Milford Sound road (just a case of walking The Routeburn to get there), and around 30 miles from the Matukituki Valley and Rob Roy Glacier (jet boats up the Dart would probably get us closer). I swear the mountains fringing the western part of the lake here look just the same as those viewed from Key Summit on the other side. And they probably are.
A few more miles up an agreeable gravel road lined with fields of sheep, our last swing bridge led across to a gentle walk through pristine red beech to Lake Sylvan. In many ways this was pleasant, lacking the spectacle encountered elsewhere, but pleasant. Another cheesy picnic by the river in warm sunshine kicked us off, a tinkling brook accompanied us to the lake, and some chirpy birdies were far from shy in greeting us on the trail.
And, yes, the lake itself was pleasant, nothing more nothing less. Having been in New Zealand for over a week now, there was clear evidence to suggest we were encountering scenic fatigue. For here, this pristine and peaceful spot was nothing more than, well, as I have said several times, pleasant.
And so, in this hasty encounter with a small part of a bigger-than-you-think country packed with spectacle we finish up in Queenstown. Of all the places we visited this was undoubtedly the most frenetic, but it was no London, nor even Canberra. Firstly, you can forgive the masses of backpackers and Contiki coaches and adrenaline shots because Queenstown is beautiful. And – you know what – the people, the bustle, the mixture of ages and nationalities soaking up the holiday air creates a really nice vibe down by the lake. Particularly if this is accompanied by a ‘legendary’ Fergburger and a glowing evening as the sun slides west.
The iconic view of Queenstown comes from the top of a gondola ride and on a late afternoon under clear skies it could not be any better. Or maybe it could with a dusting of fresh snow on the incredible Remarkables. In this case, perhaps last Thursday would have been optimum, but we were off tramping in something even more spectacular back then. And this was more than good enough.
There was a tinge of sombreness accompanied by waking for the last time in New Zealand on this trip. Sombreness that was quickly shaken by the welcoming skies outside and – unbeknownst at the time – the prospect of waking once more. That last day of a holiday in which you have a later flight and some time to somehow ‘kill’. If only there was an earlier flight we could get onto…
It struck me that we had not done a bungee jump or jetboat ride or chucked ourselves out of a plane on a 4×4 Segway into a sub-zero glacier on this trip. Possibly one of the few that hadn’t we instead set off in pursuit of observing such mania, dosing up on lakeside coffee to get us pumped. At the Shotover River, a regular parade of jetboats whooshed and whizzed and did watery donuts to a clientele that looked – to be honest – rather aged and largely nonplussed. Meanwhile, from the Kawarau River suspension bridge, A.J. Hackett invariably cajoled and pushed people off a platform on a piece of string.
To the sound of murderous shrieks we plunged towards the adventure of Queenstown Airport, an understandably small terminal that would take us back to Sydney. Tomorrow. After a flight cancellation we could have enjoyed more of the adventure of Queenstown airport overnight, but instead we managed to find ourselves some accommodation (something Virgin Australia couldn’t), albeit a good hour away. The Crown Range road up to Cardrona was something we missed out on this trip following a Gita-induced landslide, but it was open again for us to ascend in a new car in the dark. Not only that, but there was an additional hairpin gravel road to take, littered with rabbits and potentially hidden chasms towards New Zealand’s highest hotel. At around 1650 metres, it seemed rather lovely and part of me wished the flight back tomorrow would come a little later in the day.
But, after our final, final night of sleep in New Zealand we set off down the mountain, seeing in the light the spectacle that we were to now say goodbye to again. With the delays, the exhaustion, the impending drag down the Hume Highway from Sydney to Canberra, we were both keen to get back. And it was a shame to end this way, even if a bacon butty and coffee at the airport temporarily lifted spirits. But everyone expects a little adventure in New Zealand and we belatedly had ours. This along with much to remember, much to savour, much to linger in the mind for as long as the white cloud blessing this most amazing big little country.
How had I never heard of Cooper Cronk until the last few months? Cooper Cronk. Every time that name is mentioned on the TV or radio I am convinced this is a guy whose destiny was the very east coast Australian domain of Rugby League (or NRL if you will). With a name like that it was inevitable; young Coop boofing his way to the fifth tackle for the Under 12 Greater Southern Potoroos before being signed up by the West Force Barramundi. An illustrious career ensued, only dented by a minor scandal involving a night out in the Cross, a high tackle and a leery headline in the Daily Telegraph. None of this is – I suspect – true, but there is a real NRL player called Cooper Cronk. That much I do know.
Fast forward a month or two and now we have the prospect of hearing how amazing Nathan Lyon is. Or in the conspicuously lady-free, nasally dominated domain of ex-Australian pom-slayers-turned-commentators, Naaaayfun Lawwwn. Also known as Gary. Every cherry a potential wicket inducing minor orgasms in the eight man wicket-keeping slip and bat pad cordon. Two-nil down already and I haven’t even put up the Christmas decorations. Summer could be long.
It’s taken a while for summer in Canberra to arrive, with the inevitable false starts and the fake summer that usually emerges for a week or so in October before retreating with startling rapidity. The variable weather conditions are largely a boon for nature which bursts into a frenzy of colour and gargantuan jungle of weeds. One minute you have a perfectly respectable outside patio area, the next it’s a (*culture alert*) frenzied sketch from Rousseau. Best to try and ignore the weeding and admire how the professionals manage things at the Botanic Gardens.
There is a point for me in which winter in Canberra is definitely over and summer is certainly on the way. It’s that day when you decide to walk in the shade to cool down and protect, rather than seek out a warming sun and its melanoma vengeance. You know you should get your floppy hat out despite looking like a numpty in it. And largely avoid the midday sun for disproven fear that it is this that is making your hair grey and not the inevitable march of age and genetics.
Anyway, the best times are the day’s extremities as the amount of sunshine increases. Those cool mornings when Wattlebirds wake you up at 5am and you could be tempted to a) get on your bike for a beautiful lakeside ride of virtue or b) turn on the radio in the hope that you will doze back to news of Cooper Cronk being signed by the Northern Beaches Numbats. And, at the other end, there’s those lingering light evenings, in which twilight golf is a possibility and cold beer and barbecues become a more frequent consideration.
Just as things seem to be settling into a predictable pattern of bliss, a customary late spring upper level trough decides to utter from the mouths of weather forecasters everywhere and the climate becomes far more volatile. Clouds bubble up over the mountains, humidity progresses towards the Darwin end of the scale, and intense thunderstorms turn graffiti decorated storm drains into brown river rapids. The temperature drops fifteen degrees in fifteen minutes and suddenly you are having to resort to long trousers again.
All this water, all this sunshine, all this warmth and cool change. A time for shorts and hoodies and rainbows, many rainbows. Rainbows and butterflies as summer seems to assert itself with greater authority. But still Christmas hovers as a lottery between scorching bushfires and mild drizzle; no doubt it will be 35 degrees for a classic roast or a chilly 18 for a poolside barbie with novelty oversized prawns. Only time will tell.
And as we near the longest day in Australia, and news of Cooper Cronk’s feats fade (largely because those leftist latte-lovers of our ABC go on holiday for two months #persecutedmiddleagedangrywhitemales), the sense of a summer upon us is all too clear. There is vibrancy accumulated from all that has gone before and a buzz of preparedness for crackling heat that will come. On Red Hill, the scene is set; cool early mornings in which to forage among the long shadows, and golden glowing evenings turning fiery red. In between, sit back and enjoy – or endure – those whirling cherries.
Well haven’t things been a little quiet? I mean on this obscure little blog of mine, obviously. Elsewhere life has been as hectic as a white house full of vainglorious charlatans; shady meetings here, photo opportunities there, late post-work nights scrolling Twitter and watching better men climb mountains. Lots of covfefe to keep me going.
It’s kind of a winter thing, a cross-hibernation leisure shut down enforced by financial year leftovers and inevitable doses of bugs that may or may not be flu but love to linger. Canberra has had more than its fair share of cold, but – the last week apart – it has been phenomenally dry, with big clear skies bringing about pleasant afternoons before ruining the whole mood with sharp, sadistic frosts.
It has been pleasant enough – out of any wind, with a little time spare – for a few walks into the bush. There are Red Hill ramblings of course, but throw in a few Mount Taylor hikes, Black Mountain bush and Botanic Garden explorers, Mount Ainslie parkways, and add a random sprinkling of Cooleman Ridge countryside ambles and Urambi Hills thrills and there’s enough to keep reasonably sane and fit. Especially when the bike is gathering cobwebs.
The nice thing with winter is that, largely, it is far from drab. The other nice thing is red wine accompanying slow cooked meat falling apart in a lather of gravy. Outside, the eucalypts still have leaves and there is always something, somewhere that is in flower. At this time of year the wattle loves to be all extravagant in gold, while resistant rusted on leaves mingle with ghostly bare branches and the alluring onset of early blossom. Three seasons in one, proof that Australia, really, honestly, doesn’t quite have a ‘normal’ winter.
Colour comes too in evening skies, given the right combination of luck and persistence. A lot of my time in the last month has been spent at the National Library; a change of scene from working at home, with heating supplied and coffee options close. Outside the bookish interior I have seen a lake whipped up into peaks, a fog chilling to the bone, and a giant water feature named after Lieutenant James Cook spray passers-by with a spirit of generosity. And then, you get a calm one, when the lake becomes glass and duplicates the sheer beauty of our skies. It’s not a bad office from home office.
I’ve formed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the library; much as I have with winter. I dread to think how many words I have written there in the past month, all of which are far more insight-oriented with indications of strategic positioning than anything you might read here. A key topline take out though: it’s in a great location and, as an almost Canberran, I feel so fortunate to have ready access to such fine institutions on my doorstep.
And a few strategic recommendations for winter? Anything with gravy and a glass of red helps; get out in the warming afternoons even if this means working at night; and, in the midst of analytical bewilderment, book a flight to the UK, where the daytime temperature will probably end up being the same anyway! See you oop North….
In 2013 it took me – alongside one of my favourite travel buddies Jill – a good solid couple of months to travel from the east coast of Australia to the west. I remember watching the sun go down over the Indian Ocean somewhere around Yallingup, in the beautiful Margaret River region of Western Australia. It was a touch symbolic, a satisfactory “we have made it” amidst the golden ambience; despite the fact that the engine of the car had knowingly decided to overheat earlier that day.
Four years later and I was crossing the continent again, only this time solo, facing regular interruptions for work, and ably assisted by Qantas, Jetstar and FlyPelican. But along the way there would be opportunities to revisit a few memories (mostly food related), let sand mingle with toes, and watch the sun sink into the Indian Ocean once more.
It all started in Newcastle. Well Canberra then onto Newcastle, in that tiny but very handy plane again. Having been there so recently it was no great loss that there was little time to dawdle, facing a frantic trip to Officeworks and late night leftover sandwiches. Bookending a restless night was an early flight to Adelaide. But for about half an hour from around 6am, there was good coffee – located courtesy of previous investigations – and the sun rising majestically over the surf of Nobby’s Beach.
Just to ensure I clocked off five states and territories on this trip, my route to Adelaide incurred a brief stopover at Melbourne Airport. I had a bit more time on my hands in Adelaide but, barring an hour over lunchtime, the weather was mostly imitating England; cool, cloudy, drizzle interspersed with more frantic spots of rain. I ducked for cover in Rundle St Mall, and lingered in the Central Markets. I called in at Haighs, lured by giant displays of Rocky Road, and ambled under leaden skies through the ring of Parklands encircling the city.
For all its charm and grace, I had seen better days in Adelaide. But at least the rain had stopped by the time I found myself on the tram to Glenelg late Friday afternoon. I was hoping for sunset, but I was guaranteed kebab. Just catching up on another feast down memory lane, and, unlike the sunset, it didn’t disappoint.
The next day, in a swish of a jet engine I was whisked back to summer, crossing the seas and striking landfall near Esperance. I swear, 30,000 feet below, I could just make out a tiny piece of my heart deposited in the white sands of Twilight Beach. The Wheatbelt passed in considerably less time than the twelve hour drive, and then, before you knew it, Perth hills tumbling down to an archetypal Australian suburbia. Hello Perth! Hello 27 degrees!
I decided to spend the weekend staying in Fremantle, Perth’s port town, where there are plenty of shipping containers but an almost equal number of cafes and pubs and places to eat by the water. I really, really like Fremantle and enjoyed feeling slightly like a local, desperately praying the British accents in every cafe were not intent on making my flat white. They seem to be everywhere these Poms! I can understand this, because only Fremantle can offer the strong and stable leadership that is necessary in these times of smashed avocado goji berries and beards.
In fact Freo definitely meets the mark for the classic “I could live here” award. I think – in Australian terms – it must have the greatest concentration of fine Victorian and Georgian buildings, elegance established from the wealth of shipping Vegemite and DVDs of A Country Practice to the globe. There are facially hairy signs that hipsters have taken over, but Freo’s the liberal kind of place where you can let that go and sup on a pint of Little Creatures with the smell of the hops in the air and the sun sinking into the ocean. Before doing what everyone does in Freo and eating fish and chips (with malt vinegar…thank the lord for those fleeing Poms)!
On top of soaking up Fremantle I was keen to use my spare time in Perth to revisit some favourite old haunts and lingering places. The first was City Beach and nearby Floreat Beach, partly for food but also for, well, the dazzling light of that sand and sea and surf that is unendingly uplifting. It was more of an ordeal than previous trundles in the Subaru, but a train to West Leederville and bus through Wembley and Floreat to the coast offered more proof that my memory was still reasonably intact: look, there’s that petrol station on the corner! Behind there is an IGA where I bought a Chunky Kit Kat! Oh, Bold Park, that hill and lookout!
At City Beach I didn’t remember those rather fancy looking eateries and yet another pristinely positioned surf club in Australia. Some money had come into here, but from lord knows where. Perth has slumped somewhat since the state reaped lots of cash from rocks in the ground and lazily rolled about in its lucre. Still, I guess the new restaurants were an investment and they looked pretty busy. I opted for an original: my favourite calamari and chips at Floreat Beach Kiosk, worth the train and bus journey alone.
Being in these parts it would be criminal not to head to CottesloeBeach and join the gathering masses for sundown. For some reason, the sun going about its natural business every day is an invitation to incessantly drum bongoes and get tangled in tie-dyed sarongs as if having some slow motion convulsion on a Eurovision stage. Head closer to the water and the sounds of the ocean drown it out. Cherish the sand and water and light and see the sun vanish behind that invisible strip of cloud that is almost always on the horizon.
Possibly just as famous as a Cottesloe sunset are the lorikeets in the Norfolk Pines, putting the bongo boys and girls to shame as soon as the sun has gone. In their thousands and purely deafening, this and the chill now hitting bare legs impels you to hot foot it back to the train station, goals ticked.
Compared with the Western beaches of Perth, Rottnest Island provides a more challenging task for my memory. I came here in 2003 and recall jumping on a bus to a beach for a while and walking up to the lighthouse. There was a quokka somewhere, and probably an ice cream. My hair was black, in contrast to those white, white beaches.
On a Monday in 2017, having achieved what I needed to in a work capacity (lest you think this is all one big jolly), I took the ferry over to Rotto and – like many on board – hired a lame red bike. Being a car free island, this is the best way to see the place, on roads that are occasionally lumpy and into the wind and may harbour the odd snake which you need to swerve to avoid running over. Yes, that happened to me #thisisaustralia.
There is not much more to say about Rotto, apart from glorious beaches and amazingly vivid waters and wonderful sands and beautiful bays and crystal coves. There are some sea-sculpted rock formations in between and – inland – a few smelly stagnant lakes, snake-housing scrub, and one bigger hill on which a lighthouse sits. Around the quay a touch of civility in the form of cafes and shops makes the whole place entirely tolerable as the temperature hovers around a pleasant twenty-six degrees.
The other main feature of Rottnest Island are the quokkas, who are generally very cute, incredibly tame, and quite keen to get a lick of your ice cream. The main goal of many visitors to the island these days seems to be to achieve the perfect quokka selfie and #quokkaselfie. Seriously, view that hashtag and see what you come across!
You know what I did though? At one bay where a cluster of identical red bikes sat in racks and quokkas attempted to steal picnics and people gathered round them with phones, I walked to the far end of the beach, across a brief mound of dunes and grass, and discovered perfection was waiting there… #notaquokkainsight #alltomyself #mumlookawaynow
The day trip to Rottnest was the obvious pinnacle of this trip and I will garner no sympathy at all for saying it was back to work after that. I was staying around Kings Park and commuting to nearby Subiaco, which had handy breakfast and coffee possibilities. The weather was still mid twenties, although cooling off in the nights.
Essentially, I managed a jaunt into Kings Park one late afternoon, which is undoubtedly one of the biggest assets outside of the beaches that Perth has to offer. It is scenic and sprawling and accessible and full of all those variants and species that are unique to small corners of Western Australia. It’s a reminder of how isolated, how individual, this place is. Yes, there may be Hungry Jacks down the road and Home and Away showing on TV, but there is also a Banksia that only grows on one or two of those giant bluffs of the Stirling Ranges.
The bonus with Kings Park is that it is also the place to capture city views, complete with the hum of traffic moving along its freeways and crossing the Swan River. From here, on my last night, the sinking sun illuminates its skyline, reflecting gold off the glass and steel structures. The distant Perth Hills turn fiery red before disappearing into shadow. And out across the Swan, down towards Cottesloe and Fremantle, bongoes sound and hippies gather. The sun that has crossed the country says its goodbyes, leaving Australia for a few hours before it gathers again in the morning and pierces the surf of Nobby’s Beach in a happily circular manner in which to join things together and tie things up. East to West.
It has been a pleasant surprise to stumble upon March without the world being blown up by some really bad or sick dude. Less surprising if you listen to scientists was the record-breaking hot Australian summer; indeed there were moments where it felt like the end of world wasn’t too far away (two successive 41 degree days in Canberra spring to mind). But, again, we made it to March, with temperatures slowly cooling and promising a period of pleasant sunny day times and sleep-friendly lows.
What does one do in a hot summer which features only intermittent work? Well, trips to free air-conditioned sites of interest for a start: the cinema, the library, the gallery, the mall. Occasionally the office, mostly for a coffee and catch up. Bike rides bring a nice breeze early in the day or into the late evenings. And cooling refreshments comfort: my addiction to frozen drinks persisting (but now slowly fading), a cold beer or cider in the evenings, Dare iced coffee and occasionally something a little more extravagant.
Walks are practically a daily feature (they usually are), often on Red Hill (they usually are). Again, the early mornings or late evenings work best, the low light emphasising the sweeping golden grass and colouring the white trunks of gums a laser red. Sun sinks late over the ranges and smouldering skies are common. This is better evening entertainment than what’s on TV, as post-tennis, post-holiday reality shows make a comeback, spewing forth with abandon.
Daytime strolls are better suited to places such as the Botanic Gardens, where shade is more forthcoming and the rainforest gully drops temperatures by five degrees. Moisture emerges here from the watering, and continues in the cafe serving a fairly average coffee. But to grab a takeaway and sit under a tree reading a book or interview transcripts is a fine way to spend an hour (and improve the experience of reading interview transcripts).
Away from nature for a moment, summer in Canberra also promises event after event as the populace makes the most of the time before entering deep freeze. There are blockbuster exhibitions in the galleries and museums; there are fetes and swimming carnivals and cricket matches all over the suburbs; fireworks, flags and protests in equal measure adorn Australia Day; and the National Multicultural Festival brings oodles of noodles in a celebration of diversity that ought to be protected. In the spirit of inclusion even certain redheads are catered for.
Outside the capital the countryside sizzles in much the same way, this occasionally boiling over into grass and bushfires. In 2003 of course a big one hit the fringes of Canberra and much of the rugged land to its west. Over the course of my time here – since, OMG, 2006 – I have been able to observe nature’s recovery, the transition from blackened trunks and patchwork growth to a flourishing bulbous canopy and vivid green understorey. Nine years from the last time I stepped out, the signs at the start of the track up to Booroomba Rocks still warn of falling debris from the damage, but from what you witness along the way this previous carnage is almost imperceptible.
While summer has been predictably hot and dry, previous wetter seasons have replenished the reservoirs and river systems around Canberra. No longer do we see LCD updates informing us of how many litres we consumed yesterday and imploring us not to water our lawns. At least for the time being.
At Burrinjuck Dam – reached via coffee stop in Yass – water levels are high and this is a natural lure for cursed boatpeople who frolic about in a flurry of jetskis and Chardonnay lunches. Away from the excess surrounding the boat ramp, quieter coves and a cutesy scattering of cottages for those dam workers heralded surprise. And a reasonably flat, empty road on which to have a pedal.
There was a cool wind on that ride, late February, and soon after the first day came in which it might be handy to have a sweater in the evening. This in many respects is a blessing because at night you can sleep again and wake to blissfully clear and fresh mornings, which impel you to get out and live. Outside, only the very first tinges of autumn are appearing on the trees but other signs are more prominent: increasing work opportunities; long pants; the first fog grounding hot air balloons; and a now perennial favourite marking the transition from summer to autumn in Canberra, Enlighten.
My how this has grown since I was one of the few to trudge round on a pleasant evening a few years back snapping pictures of a handful of the capital’s illuminated buildings. Now practically every city does something similar on landmarks more well-known. But Canberra’s Enlighten seems to be ever more popular, judging by the crowds streaming from one site to another on a Saturday evening. Many are also here to queue for food in the night markets, which is entirely predictable; after several years you learn to visit midweek and come early, to guarantee delights such as a bao trifecta, Korean chilli pork fries, and deep fried ice cream.
I’m a little warm that Saturday evening in long trousers and the next day – today, March 12th – tops 32 degrees. But because it is officially autumn it feels acceptable for a loin of pork to be roasting in the oven. I’m kind of sick of barbecues and the promise of slow roasted feasts is one of the plus sides of the seasons changing. It won’t take long and everyone will be whingeing about the cold, wrapped like mummies in a pile of scarves and hats, scowling at the misery of “bloody Canberra”. Shorts and air-conditioning will feel like distant memories. But before we get to that point there is the promise of the transition, a period that is without doubt the best time of year here, in bloody Canberra.