Air con vent

Mostly this week I have been feeling cold. This is through no fault of the weather, which has undoubtedly shifted to something more temperate, more forgiving, more damp. Weather which is playing its part in soothing the horrors of summer, though a touch too excitedly in places. Creating – as I heard one survivor from Mogo on the radio frustratingly put it – a big green cover up.

No, my feeling of chilliness has undoubtedly arisen from human-induced climate change, which is preposterously adding to the – well – accumulation of emissions leading to human-induced climate change. No ifs or buts or false equivalence please. Air-conditioning can be the devil incarnate as well as angel descending.

Why oh why oh why must I feel so cold on a bus to Sydney, in a hotel lobby, in a meeting room, on a plane? Perhaps it is just me and a loopy thyroid, but I wasn’t the only one reaching for a winter coat on the bus. Not that I had a winter coat to draw on; the only long-sleeved apparel being a work shirt to throw over my frigid arms. It was quite the look, especially when I added a cap to minimise heat loss.

An underwhelming sense of fashion continued in Sydney as I ventured out into the Eastern Suburbs. In a turn up for the books so far this year, outside was proving the place to be – around 23 degrees, mostly cloudy, a gentle breeze. Perfect weather for cruising along the Eastern Suburbs Expressway also known as the Bondi to Coogee coast walk.

air2It’s a decent enough walk to require sustenance, so I strategically commenced in Bondi with a favourite pile of seafood. The beach was fairly busy – as you’d expect on a Sunday in February – but there is enough green space surrounding the bay to get your own little plot of land. Around me, every other person Facetiming to someone a million miles away, absent, distant. Nearby, a scruffy young guy settles down with a guitar, assuming the world near and far wants to be entertained by his derivative Passenger twaddle. It’s time to get moving.

I have completed this walk plenty of times in the past, but not for a few years. Apart from a steady flow of backpackers and tourists still allowed in from Asia, it’s typically traversed somewhat rapidly by idols of athleticism and toned contours unashamedly wearing tight-fitting garments. Who, despite being in the throes of exercise, manage to maintain a pristine, immaculate visage. I have always thought this as an impractical, impeded course for running, but perhaps that’s not the point.

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Approaching the glamour of Tamarama, I realise I am wearing a pair of trainers from Big W, shorts that are at least three years old and – I’m pretty sure – a T-shirt discovered in the middle aisle of Aldi. In my cheap rags, multi-million dollar homes surround me, taking in the same view. Likely occupied by people who only know Big W as the name of the racehorse they stable in the Hunter Valley; Aldi is their gardener from Romania, perhaps. I bet they hate us walking by. But we are walking by.

air4Walking by Bronte Beach and around the cemetery, through the cove of Clovelly, up the worse steps to circumnavigate Gordons Bay, and down again into Coogee. An egalitarian scene of Sunday sessions, volleyball, buckets and spades and barbecues. The beach has been in better shape, seemingly plagued by masses of seaweed that are surely something to do with the weird weather and warming seas. By now I finally feel a tad toasty, but ice cream proves the best way to cool back down.

So back it is onto an airconditioned bus, to an airconditioned hotel to prepare for a day in an airconditioned room. I awake snug and keen to get a dose of fresh air – something that has been really rare – before plunging into the human-induced icebox. From my window, a sliver of green nestles in a fold between the heights of Bondi Junction and Bellevue Hill and I walk that way. To a little miracle.

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Cooper Park Reserve is an almost hidden oasis within some of the most opulent land in Sydney. Just a few minutes down from six lane expressways and clogged up arterial roads, somehow the sides of the gully shield the world of SUVs and private school drop offs. A dappled rainforest of gurgling water and tree ferns, the fragrant lemon and eucalyptus scent presenting a cleansing experience in the cool early morning. Surprisingly there are few others running and looking immaculate doing so, and I am able to ascend the many steps at the end without too much shame.

air5In a window distant, the towers of central Sydney loom large, shimmering like temples to the unstoppable commute. For me, it is onto a chilly train, bypassing under this city and out to Parramatta. Where equally chilly tower blocks await. Later, a chilly taxi crawls to the airport, where I am temporarily warmed by a beer with an old friend. We depart for chilly planes home through chillier skies. And, for once, arriving in Canberra there is the greatest relief at disembarking into the balmy evening air of a city getting back to its best.

Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Walking

Big smokes

Supposedly some of the world’s most liveable cities are in Australia; yet surely not when the climate sears. A haze of dust and smoke blows in, hanging with diesel fumes unimpeded by a reverence for industry. Sitting heavy over a cityscape of cranes and glass, whose streets are lined with withering European trees, roots bulging in defiance at the constraints of baked concrete. Impetuous car horns compete with the pulse of a pedestrian crossing, as you wait to seek solace in the air conditioning of a mall, hoping the flies will not seek solace too.

But these are – in context – mild irritants, and you walk across the harbour bridge and all can be forgiven. I think Sydney knows this too, hence a certain resting on laurels, safe in the knowledge that people will continue to flock to its shorelines regardless of unaffordable homes and congested roads.

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The unaffordable and congested were in ample supply as I decided to while away an hour or two before some appointments with a Friday morning visit to Balmoral, hopeful of a coffee and brief stroll on the sand. By time I got there it was around ten in the morning, already thirty degrees, and devoid of any parking space whatsoever. After a few circuits of various backstreets, I had to resign myself to defeat and head back to where I came from. The air conditioned mall in Chatswood.

Pleasingly, the other side of my work stuff proved more fulfilling, and that was in spite of a crawl through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel. Clearly less glamorous than the bridge, but usually more efficient at spitting you out into the Eastern Suburbs. Spitting me out with a little extra fairy dust to nab a brilliant parking space in close proximity to Bronte Beach.

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By now, the weather had cooled substantially, and a stiff breeze had kicked in to impart a touch of drizzly moisture here and there. Indeed, the late afternoon had become gloomy, a state of affairs that feels far more liveable than it looks in the brochures. Brightening things up – and almost as much a pleasant surprise as my parking space – was the annual Sculptures by the Sea parade, in which the range of photo poses and selfie contortions are a work of art in themselves.

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smk04Reaching Bondi – oh hallowed be thy name – I was determined to find a favourite little seafood haunt from times past; this was, after all, the prime reason I had not driven straight back to Canberra and had pottered about sufficiently to arrive at an acceptable time for dinner. And there it wasn’t. And there I was thinking why didn’t I just drive back to Canberra and have KFC at Marulan Service Centre instead? And there it was, on a different, quieter, cheaper street and life in Sydney was liveable for a few minutes again.

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A couple of weeks later, half of New South Wales on fire, and I was heading in the other direction to Melbourne. An archnemesis that frequently beats Sydney as being proclaimed one of the world’s most liveable cities. Expanding rapidly, it is soon to overtake Sydney in population which – if taken as an indicator of popularity alone – is enough to cause the residents of Vaucluse to choke on their breakfast oysters.

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smk06Melbourne was – typical Melbourne – half the temperature of Sydney and a darn sight cooler than the world’s most liveable city, Canberra. It is sometimes proclaimed the most European of Australian metropolises, which means cloud and showery rain and a sometimes dingy – some may say grungy – countenance. And also, trams, which laugh in the face at numerous contemporary attempts to retrofit light rail elsewhere, like a wizened professor in a pokie room full of drongoes.

That’s not to say Melbourne is anything but Australian, amply illustrated in its awesomely good coffee and obsession with sport. It also has beaches upon Port Phillip Bay – nothing that would give Sydney a run for its money but fair dinkum true blue Aussie nonetheless. The sun even came out late afternoon as I headed over to the bay at St Kilda, and things were reasonably comfortable. Liveable even.

It was here that I reflected on the fact that I hadn’t been to St Kilda in – say – ten years or so, prompted by a certain gentrification that had taken place and the adornment of waterside bars dressed up slightly on the wrong side of pretentiousness. This prompted further reflection on how long I have lived in Australia, to the extent that I can now say ‘it wasn’t like this in the old days’ while simultaneously waving my fist at a cloud.

One thing that hadn’t changed was the pier, stretching out into the increasingly cold, stiff breeze, sheltering the city of Melbourne in its lee. A pier popular for evening strolls by people better prepared for the weather than me. How can I need a coat while a country burns? Even here, though, a sign of what is called progress, as most of the people wrapped up head out in the hope of a selfie with a little penguin at dusk. I retreat.

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So, the big smokes, Sydney and Melbourne, sometimes chalk and sometimes cheese, sometimes infuriating, sometimes enthralling. A dictionary definition of liveable would be something akin to providing the core requirements for life, such as oxygen and water. I might also add the provision of good coffee and availability of fish and chips or salt and pepper squid and tempura vegetables.

smk08You’d think the latter is more Melbourne while the former is all Sydney. But for me it was vice versa, the fish and chips the target of seagulls on St Kilda Beach, just for that extra European touch. If I had another jumper and another million dollars and an escape option from the oppression of another inevitable choking summer, I could probably live here, and I could probably live in Sydney too. If nothing else, I’d sure know some good spots for dinner.

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Making moments – 1

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 – – –

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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.

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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.

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– – –  Being Mr Harbourside non-mansion in Sydney – – –

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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.

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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.

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– – –  Reaching a Zenith in Port Stephens – – –

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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.

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– – –  Shooting for the stars at Hat Head – – –

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A09While 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.

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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.

A12The 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.

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Sydney, reheated

In what seems a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away I had the pleasure of navigating the sprawling Greater Sydney system in the name of work. It was a long old week back in October, clocking up kilometres and road tolls, hanging out in suburban “Supa Centres”, seeking coffee and occasional cake. But stretching out far and wide, there were highlights, almost inevitably positioned next to water.

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mic03Almost inevitably (and positioned next to water), the first stop straight off the M5 was Coogee. A late afternoon to tread in the sand, sup coffee under a shady tree, and amble to Clovelly and back. Once all this arduousness had passed it was practically dinner time and so a fish and chip takeaway consumed in fading light alongside the beach made perfect sense.

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Moving across the city a little, my home for the week was a serviced apartment in Chippendale. Positioned near universities and fringing the south western side of the CBD, it was interesting to discover a little part of Sydney I have rarely frequented. A mixture of terraced, latticework houses on quiet streets and major thoroughfares bedecked with shops and cafes. Major thoroughfares to propel me north, south and west.

A Sunday initially spent working in the commercial blandness of Liverpool and Granville is hardly everyone’s cup of tea. Or indeed coffee, perhaps with two Krispy Kreme donuts from an outlet handily located next to Harvey Norman. More popular on a sunny, warm weekend is the ferry journey to Manly which – thanks to a cancelled appointment – filled the latter part of my day. The bustling ferry foretold a congested shoreline and Corso leading to the main beach. Even the frozen yogurt place had a lengthy queue, but I pluckily persevered.

mic05Moving away from the bronzed bodies beyond Shelly Beach, nature reclaimed the surrounds and people became a rarity. A walk up into North Head rewarded with solace and a refreshing breeze, before leading to a dose of beautiful harbourside discovery. Collins Beach provides the perfect exemplar of the bushland coves littering the shoreline of Sydney’s waters. Gems that make this part of the world exceedingly expensive. But walking here is free.

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Back in Manly, the harbourside shoreline was crammed with mostly beautiful people barbecuing, drinking, playing games and dressed to the nines in order to gain entry into supposedly exclusive bars. Tomorrow was a public holiday, and there was no need for them to stop. I, however, had places to go and random people to see.

Out in the north west of Sydney is The Hills District. Pennant Hills, Seven Hills, Baulkham Hills, Castle Hill, Quakers Hill, Adam Hills. Anyone would think it is hilly. Which it is a little, but not to the extent you’d expect given the generous use of hill nomenclature. Perhaps it’s a result of real estate marketing speak; add “Hills” to any suburb and it instantly becomes more desirable.

mic07Well it worked because plenty of people are being lured to the Hills via the Lane Cove Tunnel and M2 toll motorway. It’s heady mix of shopping malls, slightly more affordable housing, faith-based singing and pockets of bushland reserve offer something for everyone. The bushland is my favourite part – discovered one fresh morning in Cumberland State Forest. A tonic before heading to yet another Shopping Mega Centre for top secret work purposes.

The Hills may well be the new Shire. Probably because the Shire is so damn expensive these days, what with its many waterside inlets and easy-going, beautiful coastline. The undisputed jewel in the Shire, and apparently home to some team that won something in some code of ‘football’ recently, is Cronulla. What a fabulous beach, what an Australian dream, what a great way to start the day before heading off to nearby Caringbah for more shopping experiences.

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mic09Towards the end of my week criss-crossing the city I ended up in the North Shore and Northern Beaches of Sydney. Indeed my schedule fortuitously terminated in Warringah Mall. While Warringah unfortunately conjures up images of Tony Abbott in Speedos, it’s not all bad. A final interview is finished and I can clock off and drive to nearby Curl Curl beach on a Friday afternoon. I can lie on a towel and try to doze, but become restless and go for a stroll up onto a headland. I can feel relief that the intense week is over and I can start to add up my road toll expenses. I can make plans for dinner at one of my favourite places in Bondi. And I can head home tomorrow, replenished by these opportunities to occasionally exist beside the water.

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Lighting up the dark

Winter in Australia can be a bit of farce, particularly as you move closer to the sea. As temperatures dip shockingly to sixteen degrees Celsius, department stores in Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall rapidly sell out of chequered scarves and jaunty hats. Soup and sourdough are on offer in Eastern Suburb beachside cafes, their outdoor chalkboards adorned with a seemingly endless supply of lame metaphors about life and coffee. Summer is a distant dream and Instagram is overflowing with not-so-instant flashbacks of bikini-clad sands and shark infested waters. Meanwhile, in Britain, equivalent temperatures bring out the barbecues and an aura of fuzzy disbelief that it is actually kind of nice. I miss those days.

vivid01I was envisaging a challenging winter weekend in pleasant Sydney sunshine when assigned a work trip there recently. Instead, torrential, stormy, incessant rain submerged a large part of eastern Australia and I delayed my visit. Stuck in Canberra for an extra day, I discovered that the apartment complex I had moved into had acquired an English-like riverside setting, which immediately put the rent up a hundred bucks, and probably inspired people to dump shopping trolleys into the storm drain to complement the graffiti before blaming it and everything else on foreigners.

Rain was still teeming the following day when I caught a flight to Sydney, where it was not only wet but wildly windy. Such a pleasant experience coming into land, giving up at the last minute, and just about successfully trying again. Only tea and cake could remedy such nerve-jangling travails, followed by a welcome disco and some warming Thai food for supper with friends and their family.

Of course, by time work was back on the agenda the worst of the weather had mostly cleared. Still, some compensation was to be had in the fact that I finished this work by 8pm on Monday, rather than the usual 10. I could, with some willpower and effort, cross over that little bridge from North Sydney to the city and at least catch a little bit of Vivid.

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Vivid is a winter festival of illuminations and associated artsy commercialism. Basically, Sydney tried to copy Canberra with Enlighten but obviously shows off far more about it. Like Enlighten it really seems to have grown over the last few years and, well, to be honest, benefits from being in such an iconic setting. Projections on the Sydney Opera House or the National Library of Australia? You decide.

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It’s quite amazing how these projections have become so detailed, intricate and advanced over the past few years. It used to be an event when a landmark was bathed in a slightly different light, often commemorating something sombre or jubilant like a war or a baby. Now multicoloured animations are timed with music and coordinated across a variety of sites and I daresay we are all rather blasé about it. Sometimes though you can’t beat a dose of good old-fashioned simplicity from a more subdued angle.

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Perhaps more amazing than the illuminated cityscape and anything else that night was the fact that I had a delicious double scooped ice cream on my way to Wynyard Station. It really is that lame an excuse for a winter, even when it rains.

vivid05The next day in Sydney offered a return to sunlight, though still possessing a cool enough breeze to warrant jackets and scarves of course. I should probably have been catching up on work, making notes and thinking about what it all means. But after a breakfast catch up in Milsons Point, the harbour again beckoned, and an impromptu boat ride just for the hell of it. No matter how many times you encounter this city’s jewels, it is almost always impossible to avert your eyes, so I said in an instant on Instagram.

vivid06One more day and I would return to something a little wintrier in Canberra, where there are frosts and even some rare single digit daytime maximums. It’s part of the reason so many people hate it despite never having been there. I can see their point a little, and the cold nights do drag well into September. Thus I am more than happy to embrace a bit of time down in Wollongong – prior to another nightshift – in which there was a window of T-shirt wearing opportunity. This plus fish and chips and the pounding drama of a still frenetic swell makes for a contented couple of hours.

vivid07As much as I love Canberra there are times, in the heart of winter, that I question my decision not to live beside the sea. Why would I not want to briskly stroll along a boardwalk? Why would I not want to find good coffee and tasty brunch fare with an ocean view? Why would I not want to do a spot of work on a bench in a foreshore park so I could claim that food on expenses? Why? Maybe because I don’t want to turn into a softie who rushes to David Jones for a chequered scarf and jaunty hat at the sight of sixteen degrees. At least let’s go through something a little darker to really, truly savour the light that follows.

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Sydney shorts

Time has transformed with the antipodean clocks turning backward. What was previously generous is now more meagre. The sun still shines but dwells less in the sky, the time in the day becoming both a literal and figurative challenge: sometimes there is just not enough of it. Catching the sunset can cause a rush, the luxury of lingering and meandering and simply just killing time vanished. Time, with the predictably sudden splurge of work, is now precious. So much so, that I want to keep this brief. You may be thankful for such small mercies.

syd03With work travel finally emerging like the red gloss upon a Canberra oak, I have the fortune of tacking on bits and pieces of tourism around insightful spells of blue sky strategy. Like a spell last week in Sydney, giving me the perfect opportunity to simply dwell in Sydney again. To walk alongside its waterways and admire its skyline. To stride through its city streets part England, part America, part Asia. To turn a corner and come up against the looming harbour bridge, all brickwork glitz and dark steel glamour. And from there – of course – to embrace that centrepiece of shells jutting out from Circular Quay, impossible to resist.

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syd04With sun-filled days setting record April temperatures it was hard to avoid getting distracted. An early morning coffee run turned into a walk under the fig tree shade of Hyde Park which turned into a jaunt over The Domain which led into the many pathways of the Botanic Gardens. I often find refuge in the gardens of over-researched regional towns, a touch of civic serenity amidst a clutch of daggy stores and gargantuan pokie palaces. The Botanic Gardens in Sydney are another matter entirely, a mammoth attraction in their own right, lapping at the silver towers of the city and the sparkling opal waters of the harbour. They are free and open and – even with oodles of exercisers and selfie takers and backpackers – remain forever fabulous.

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A cliché-ridden, repetitively photographed documentation of Sydney would not be complete without some beach shots.  And because this was – after an absence of what must be getting on for a year – a journey down memory lane – there was no other place for me to go than Coogee. After a lengthy evening discussing interesting things with interesting people I had earned that breakfast at Globe the next morning. And while I should probably have been listening back to interesting people discussing interesting things and making sense of it all, it was infinitely more alluring to stride on the sand and to push on along the Eastern Suburbs Pedestrian Expressway.

syd08Each step a memory, each stride made afresh. Gordon’s Bay, Clovelly, Bronte, Tamarama…I am not sure I have seen them looking quite as lovely as they do now. The midweek morning provides a contrast from the irritating queues and blockages of walkers and runners and selfie takers cluttering the place on weekends, almost all of whom are exquisitely beautiful, but almost all of whom somehow ruin the views. Today there is freedom and space and just the attractiveness of golden sands and a becalmed, translucent Pacific to excite. Today, it really is all in the timing, and I just about got it right.

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Winter warmers

There are plenty of ways to warm up during an Australian winter. Koala soup; scenic coal-fired electric blankets; just living practically anywhere apart from inland uplands, exposed southern promontories and frigid deserts. Only in the bleakest of places does a winter bite, the bleakest of places and Canberra.

QJun01Yet even within touching distance of the capital’s shivering legoland suburbs you can work up a sweat and work off a sweater. Climbing seven hundred metres or so, rising from the valley mists into a blue stratosphere, toward the crown of Mount Tennent. A steady grind with the sun on your back, the consequences clear in the comfort of short sleeves. And warmed all the more by vistas providing a positive effort:reward ratio so critical to the success of a good tramp.

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Meanwhile, back, again, in Queensland the effort required for such warmth is negligible. Brisbane may experience a fog but it barely lingers. It is quite comfortable – actually very comfortable indeed – to sit beside the river and eat a slab of cake alfresco. This place has been a second home of late, but despite this being my fourth visit in the space of a month I still cannot acclimatise sufficiently like the locals to wear a scarf without feeling entirely fraudulent. Fare thee well Brisbane, you have been good for my core temperature and bank balance, but your City Cycles are terribly uncomfortable.

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One more week of work to go, one more week to go. That was what I was telling myself walking over the craggy hills and gentle sands of Magnetic Island. But, being on that island, it was hard not to think that I was on holiday already. I believe it may be down to the palm trees by the beach, or the strip of outdoor cafes at Horseshoe Bay, or the one road linking a few small towns in which most other people are on some kind of temporary or permanent holiday. Even the presence of backpackers adds to the mood that the only thing for it is to swing in a hammock.

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Possibly because Brisbane was not warm enough, work brought me north to Townsville, handily coinciding with a weekend in which to kill some time. So I grabbed the ferry across to the island and spent a wonderful day or two upon its shores. Saturday may have clouded over, but there was ample time to gently reacquaint myself with tropical forests and colourful birds, the briefest of sunsets and the longest of beers. Acclimatisation into that hammock holiday-minded state.

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QJun07But it was the Sunday that was super, cloudless throughout, though with a morning freshness that made the walking all the more pleasurable. Commencing with a wake up coffee by the beach in Horseshoe Bay, it was over one hill to one fine beach, over another to the next, and onward and upward to lookouts galore. A substantially energetic loop walk that topped out around The Forts – a series of wartime installations plonked atop the forest in a tasteful rendition of Plymouth city centre style concrete. Obviously here because of the commanding views, but the koalas didn’t seem to care whether the Japanese were coming or not.

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Qjun09With the satisfaction and accomplishment of a walk complete, a late lunch of salt and pepper calamari beside the water will suffice thank you very much. Oh, and ice cream, of course. I am feeling like I am on holiday after all. So much so, that as Sunday dwindles and the prospect of Monday creeps up, I do not want to leave. The late sun glows and dips and fades and the stars and moon twinkle as blue turns to black. Yet still I am comfortable in shorts, and with another end of day beer in hand.

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Happily Monday brought some drizzle and the transition back to work was reasonably comfortable in Townsville. But there was an abrupt decline in its standard as I re-located south, to Dubbo. On the plus side though this was not as bad as I expected, but then I expected little. The people were nice, I found a good coffee, and squeezed in a pleasant riverside walk. But I was ready to get out of there and, temporarily, get home.

Qjun11And so, the climatic rollercoaster finally shifted into Sydney, for one night only and then onto Canberra. Sydney was putting on its sparkling look-at-me face, demonstrating a pretence at winter that is misaligned with the comfort of not needing a coat. I was even able to brave an ice cream, sadly. Canberra, meanwhile, had its morning shroud of cold and cloud, but cleared to its best fresh hue of blue. One more week, one more week of keeping warm, and then a northern summer will bless me again.

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Greenish and golden

IMG_6743There comes a point in January when people pause to consider what it means to be Australian. This usually occurs on or around the anniversary of a few hundred boatpeople from Great Britain arriving to “nothing but bush” (to quote the minister for Indigenous Australians and His Lordship Prime Minister of the Monarchical Colony of Australian Subjects). Considered writings of pride, of angst, of hope, of uncertainty litter the newspapers and infiltrate the electronic graffiti of the twittersphere. For the common man – let’s call him Shane – the Australian essence is commemorated through the bite of a lamb chop from a gas barbecue the size of a truck, a youthful discussion of rising intonation about the best 100 songs involving people with beards lamenting at life, or a day in front of the TV watching tennicrickcycletfooty with a so-cold-it-hurts beer.

IMG_6732While I could brave a venture into the question ‘What does it mean to be Australian?’  I neither have the will nor the current brainpower to go down this path. It may be I am suffering from that particularly laconic strand of Australianism that arises specifically at this time of year – the can’t really be arsed is it still the holidays period. I’m also in the dubious position of not really being a proper Australian, not really, even though the flag of my country of birth is still emblazed like some badge of imperial approval upon yours. All I can say is that I feel lucky, immensely lucky, to be a part of you, attached to your deep blue skies, your sandy shores, your withering white gum trees, and your mostly generous and progressive people.

IMG_6759I feel lucky, on most days, to be in Canberra. Yes really! A capital you have built in little over one hundred years from sun and frost-baked plains and bush-tangled hills. You really ought to be a little prouder of this achievement, especially because you have left some of those bush-tangled hills alone. The sweeping roundabouts and nationalist edifices now scattered across the plains are looking particularly fine as well, what with the regular stormy soakings keeping the grass nice and green. A summer of such generous rainfall that it could almost be British. How soothing.

IMG_7049Despite such impertinence, the sun still shines most days here, and for that I am grateful. The slight irony is that I write this looking out of my window on grey accompanied by a cool 17 degrees only. But this is surely a blip, for other days have offered ample warm sunshine before the storms. Conditions in which I can enjoy your verdant lawns and embrace your rising humidity. To climb bushland hills and swing golf clubs very amateurishly. To cycle alongside the water and sip coffee with the hipsters. To be that most Australian of creatures and watch sport; and not just any sport, but cricket, and cricket in an atmosphere of cleverly articulated critique of the opposing English team. Pommie-bashing I think you call it, and too bloody right.

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Despite being curiously enamoured here, I feel lucky that Australia is a very big country beyond its capital. Just up the road, a mere three hours, is where – if you conveniently ignore 50,000 years of human occupation and quite ingenious cultivation and care of the land – it all started. 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, Australia. Ah Sydney, that icon of iconic sights on iconic marketing campaigns that seek to invoke envy. As much as I try to find holes in it, to unstitch its veneer of perfection, to cut down such a tall poppy, I stumble upon its harbour shores and return to a state of complicit adoration.

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IMG_6752It’s been a little while since I have seen you Sydney, and I enjoyed your company. I enjoyed seeing friends and playing in parks and being temporarily transformed into a mermaid at Greenwich baths. I enjoyed nine more amateurish holes of golf and the cold beer that followed. I enjoyed Bondi lunch and Coogee brunch and Crow’s Nest salted caramel gelato (on two occasions). I enjoyed getting on a boat at Bronte, but, alas, not making it out onto the open sea. And I really, really enjoyed catching the ferry across the harbour on a warm Saturday night and having a few drinks as the sun set behind the old coat hanger and reddened the discarded prawn shells atop its giant typewriter.

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From excess the next morning was consequently less enjoyable, as was the traffic on Military Road, and the frequent T-shirt changing humidity, and just the general busyness of beachside suburbs on warm and sunny January weekends. Such congestion in a continent with vast emptiness is a stark juxtaposition. There is no doubt comfort in this metropolitan hubbub – a civilisation, a taming, a sense of being and belonging to others. Perhaps it is a feeling of security and protection from the wild endless uncertainty of what lies inland that keeps you – that keeps us – mostly clinging onto the coastal extremities.

IMG_7121As a more recent entrant upon this giant landmass I feel blessed that I can maintain a comfortable, civilised, and invariably cultured urban existence while still being easily belittled by nature. I can live in a clean, safe, prosperous city scattered with sweeping roundabouts and take one of the exits towards nothingness. Though for nothingness read abundance. An abundance of gum trees and hills and high plains in Namadgi, from which rocky outcrops pierce an abundant blue sky. A plethora of grasses and wildflowers emerging in swampy hollows, the weeds also thriving in a show of acceptance and egalitarianism. A setting for black cockatoos and butterflies to float in the air, riding the breeze upon which small white clouds cluster and vanish.

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Clouds which may reappear again to water the lawns around the National Gallery, or dispense rain into falls and gorges around Bungonia. Landscapes that were once seas and took 450 million years to come to this. Wildness and natural drama that is but 30 minutes from a coffee and a peppermint slice and an inexplicable giant concrete sheep. The developed and the untamed, living side by side in something hopefully approaching harmony. This is the fortune I feel at being in this place at this time, around Australia Day.

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Rewind pause fast forward

SydJan01Well how lovely it has been to stand still and sleep in my own bed and pop around the corner to a coffee shop where they know my name. How enjoyable to see familiar faces and some new ones too, sharing an overload of barbecued food and leftover Christmas decadence that never seems to dwindle. How civilised to be able to pop to the National Gallery to see some Lichtenstein and snigger at some political cartoons at Old Parliament House before checking out the roses. How satisfying to traipse up and around pockets of bushland here, there and everywhere and watch the red sunlight fade from Canberra sights and sink over the Brindabellas.

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SydJan02Familiar things that became less familiar but are now familiar again. Much like losing badly in the cricket. Lest familiarity brings about too much comfort there are a few doosras thrown in to keep things interesting: new developments in Kingston creating wannabe Gold Coast glamour; minor changes to the aisle configuration of the supermarket; previously unexplored hillocks in the south of Canberra. Plus, of course, the interjection that is Christmas, which is the ultimate break from the norm…apart from the tradition that is a sausage roll, cheesy marmite, cold ham, cheese, pickled onion, cracker tasting plate.

It was actually quite a change to spend Christmas in Canberra; in recent years Sydney has hosted the festivities and provided random assortments of hot beach picnics, torrential downpours and moist grey gloom. Such was the picture again in January for a few days of further catch ups and re-acquaintance. Pleasingly, with time on my hands, I could take a detour from the familiar, yet pretty dull, Hume Motorway and revisit such delights as Fitzroy Falls – currently a thin summer sliver – Kangaroo Valley, Berry and the Illawarra. Again, time for some enjoyment of the old along with discovery of the new – a short rainforest and waterfall walk at Macquarie Pass National Park an additional find in this luscious little corner of New South Wales.

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SydJan05Sydney was a mixture of iconic waterside delight blended with a tinge of inner city grime and sweaty congestion. Fortunately staying with friends on both of the plush sides of the harbour I could fairly easily potter down to the water and share it with the millions of other people on holiday. Having been away from here for quite a while there was a little bit more of a tinge of excitement at seeing that bridge and that opera house and an inevitable taking of pictures that have been taken hundreds of times previously. Though wearying in the afternoon warmth, there was a thrill at boarding the Manly ferry, and a rejuvenating half hour ride watching the eastern suburbs pass by, thinking about what ice cream or treat to have back on landfall.

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All this is familiar again, but there is still chance to do something new. After gorging on chocolate brownie and cappuccino I was keen to make amends by walking from Manly to Spit Bridge, an up and down tramp following the watery alcoves and rather untainted bushland fringing Middle Harbour. And it is here that you notice that despite being a large city, with concrete overload and oversized cars and millions of people, the geography of Sydney often wins out. Bushland and rainforest pockets are much like they were before boatpeople came, and small inlets offer cosy beaches unreachable by modern means. True, never far away is a luxurious home with a view, and the noise of a freeway as Spit Bridge nears, the harbour a buzzing playground for those pesky boatpeople. But it is also true that in the midst of a city, within sight of its lofty heart, it is a wonder to be able to walk in parts untainted; a wonder that pervades in patches throughout Sydney.

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Sydjan08North shore opulence is kept in some rein by its geography of steep hills and snaking inlets. In the Eastern suburbs there is less to get in the way, although large parks and reserves are scattered besides the sea and across to the fringes of the city. This is once again familiar territory with familiar walks down to the ocean and along its beaches and cliffs. It is a place of great appeal, though I think I prefer it in winter on a pleasant sunny day with fewer people and their detritus. Still, there is much to be said for sitting beside Bronte Beach and having a coffee, before dodging ridiculously fit runners all the way to Coogee for lunch.

Sydjan09All this familiarity comes in pretty handy when sizing up a final breakfast before the drive back to Canberra: a tricky choice between the Haloumi Stack and the Love Eggs. It doesn’t really matter, because whatever you choose, you will be full and happy and ready for negotiating the steadily declining state of the M5. Eventually, finally, Sydney will fade and you will be back on a familiar drive which is slightly less boring because you haven’t done it for a while. And with a full belly and a cruisy drive, all that waits are the comforts (and – this week – sweltering discomforts) of a home.

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