I got chills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uppish drives

If I was to analogise the lingering weeks of summer, it would be to that of a very uneventful over from Glenn McGrath. Turn at the mark, trundle in with intent, deliver a solid line and length on to the pitch and through to the keeper, stare in confected intimidation at a snivelling Pom, turn back and repeat again. And again.

There is something to be said for reliability and repetition – 563 somethings in fact – but deep down we all crave a cocky blonde disruptor to enter the scene and throw down a few cherries spinning every which way but straight. The googlies are always there somewhere; you just have to put in a bit of extra effort to discover them.

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Such terrible metaphors are all to say I went to the first Test match ever at Manuka Oval in Canberra. Australia versus Sri Lanka in probably the most one-sided match in history. Still, the setting was a delight, the atmosphere abuzz, and Canberra more than held its own as a venue. Googlies may have been sparse but then, in 2019, we are talking about the trumped up talents of Naayfun Lawwwn rather than the bona fide annoying genius of Warnie.

Outside the oval, the regular line and length of hot sunny Canberra days have occasionally hit the cracks of thunderstorms; apocalyptic tempests of wind and lightning and – often – raised dust. It’s made things a bit more interesting, even if some of the places under which such conditions breed are as reliable as ever. Places like Red Hill and Mount Taylor, the equidistant escapes from home to the bush.

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One of the cooler and windier days of late happened to beset the Canberra Triathlon. A temperature all well and good for exercise but a wind cruel and unforgiving when on a bike. To say I competed in a triathlon is a tad generous, strictly speaking. But a ten kilometre bike leg as part of a team relay was effort enough into a headwind. Still, this was just a minor, temporary obstacle for me, and worth it to deliver the imaginary baton onto Toby for the final, inspirational leg. Go Wheelsfortoby!

feb04I guess a triathlon is a bit of a googly within the normal course of events. It also led me to be in Hackett one sunny late afternoon, at the northern end of Canberra nestled underneath Mount Majura. Not so much a change of scenery, but at least a different path on which to wander, all stretching eucalypt branches, golden grass and copper earth, with some snatched views of the surrounding landscape through the bush. Plus, slithering away as I marched downhill, a brown snake disappearing from the corner of my eye.

A few weeks later I would come across two snakes in the space of five minutes, having discussed them five minutes earlier with my friend Joseph as we sat upon a rock in Namadgi National Park. I’ve hardly seen any snakes…maybe five…in my entire time in Australia I said. Mostly in Queensland I said. I know people who won’t come to Australia because of snakes, how ridiculous. When you think of all the bushwalking I have done in that time, and five snakes…

Shall we see what’s down that way, he said.

Snaaaaaaaaakkkkkkkke, I said. Quite loudly, almost tripping over a red bellied black.

Let’s actually not go that way, I said, and we turned around to head back to the car, not before a second made an appearance under a fallen tree, this time with marginally greater warning.

They did say it was going to be a good year for snakes, and in my random survey of random walks through random parts of the ACT I can conclude they were correct.

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Snakes were mercifully unsighted on a longer walk to Gibraltar Rocks in Tidbinbilla during the great Australia Day day off. I’d been here before but – again seeking some variety – I approached the peak from a different side. The first couple of kilometres traversed open plains bursting with kangaroos and the odd emu, before marching incessantly upward through that low, scrawny kind of bush that excels in the higher climes frequently ravaged by fire and ice.

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Reaching the rocks of Gibraltar up in the overcast skies, there were no Spanish ships, no snakes, no bogans singing Jimmy Barnes and wearing the cheap fake blue of Australian flag products proudly made in China. Just the essence of Australia fitting for today or any day. The heart and soul of its earth and its sky, sprouting the unique environment which has been nurtured over millennia and which endures and adapts as best it can.

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And so, we reach the last ball of this ragged over as we once more revisit those terrible cricket analogies. The weather has cooled a touch and the mornings are showing signs that we are entering the golden age. Britain basks briefly in twenty degrees and a few of our mornings drop to single digits. The temperatures still rise to the mid to high twenties in the afternoon, and this is what we call ambient, mild. It’s all relative. And still plenty warm enough for cricket. And snakes.

Floating around in my brain for a while has been Mount Coree in the Brindabellas and – in this quest for difference, desire for new – it finally becomes an agenda item early one Saturday. It is a peak I have never climbed, mainly because I’ve never been entirely sure how to climb it. Mostly it’s a case of following fire trails and dirt roads, including up to the summit and, sometimes, sharing these with vehicles.

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Commencing from Blundells Flat several hundred metres below, it is a fresh, serene meander uphill towards Two Sticks Road. Only a grader on the back of a truck passes me early in the climb, leaving a lingering cloud of fine dust particles in the air, gilding the shafts of sunlight beaming through the trees. Along Two Sticks Road it is easy going towards Coree Campground before the final traverse up to the rocky summit which marks the border between NSW and the ACT.

It’s a decent slog as the sun warms and, by now, the four wheel drives have woken from their slumber. One by one they leisurely pass in a clunk of gears and pneumatics and fumes, inching ever closer to the trig at the top. For all their engineering and technical prowess, for all their ability to get to the top quicker and revel in airconditioned comfort, they are no match for a pair of feet. A pair of feet that are connected to the landscape, an intrinsic part of it rather than something carving it apart. A pair of feet that have superior bragging rights over the indolent Saturday morning car park crew accumulating at the top. And a pair of feet that will come across one more red bellied black on the way down, completing a reliably diverting over.

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April is the coolest month…

…especially when Easter nestles in its midst. And big blue skies blanket the land, burned green and orange as the seasons shift.

east01It is a time to savour suburban walks, in the comfortable pockets of Canberra that will never be in reach. Foresight planted deciduous trees for garden suburbs for genteel homes. As temperatures drop to a level mild and amicable and still warmer than England in a hot flush, the streets now enliven, the crescents glow, the neighbourhoods flourish in a makeover both incremental and dramatic. Go on certain days and a regiment of wheelie bins will parade upon the kerb, afloat in an ocean of nature’s litter.

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east03Easter is the most perfect weekend as the warm kiss of autumn melts any eggs undiscovered by marauding imps. I don’t recall Easter egg hunts as a child; are these more a thing now, coordinated through Facebook groups and discoverable like Pikachu? Waiting until Sunday until you were permitted to make yourself sick on chocolate and then topping up with half price eggs on Monday was more my kind of thing. If I have made any progress in life, then let it be measured by cake, and I can mark the creation of a chocolate and hazelnut meringue as one of my greatest achievements.

Can it be called refinement, or is it simply a matter of shifting tastes and priorities that I no longer end up making myself sick on Easter? There is excess, but it is lunch with friends under blood red vines; it is snoozy idling after a glass of wine; it is a second helping of chocolate and hazelnut meringue. But it is measured, and I am restrained. Affluent and blessed in the golden circles of Canberra Australia, it is the very epitome of comfort.

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In the mountains, there you feel free; there you can shake off the hangover brought on by suburban indulgence. A little out from the city sits the scenic Tidbinbilla Valley; a touch green, a tad hilly, squint in places and the mind could be convinced it has been transplanted into the foothills of Switzerland. For cows read kangaroos; for cowbells, cockatoos.

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Snow very rarely dusts the tops of the ridges which surround this valley. Instead, rounded clusters of granite erupt from the surface of the peaks, shattered and weather-beaten, occasionally toppling down into the steep undergrowth. Suddenly you stumble upon a bulbous rock in the midst of eucalypts. A trail gradually rises to Gibraltar Rocks from where – a kilometre above the sea – a shimmering carpet of forest, mountain and plain stretches below. The wilderness scene a juxtaposition and antidote to the admittedly beautiful ordered world of suburbia.

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east07Here there is the best of both worlds, with coffee available a little further down the road at the Moon Rock Cafe. This is attached to the Deep Space Communication Complex where – in my head at least – gentle mutterings from Professor Brian Cox are transmitted to distant worlds in the hope that it would sufficiently soothe angry aliens from undertaking imminent invasion. If you feel small atop Gibraltar Rocks, here you are infinitesimal, insignificant beyond belief. Yet at the same time, in the warm sun with caffeine and a bonus chocolate egg, your existence is undeniably amazing and incredibly fortunate.

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Looking into the heart of light, the silence. April rolls on and the change is unstoppable. Yet the weather is holding, at least until Anzac Day; no need for breaking unwritten rules and putting the heating on before then. In fact, shorts can still be appropriate, both on breathless bike rides and afternoon ambles besides a mirror of a lake.

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east11Tucked away in a quiet corner by Lake Burley Griffin, largely forgotten apart from the odd dog walker and camera wielder, the Lindsay Pryor Arboretum is an unbridled delight. A kaleidoscope of colours adorns the different varieties of oak, elm, birch and poplar. There are no visitor centres and no playgrounds, no cafes and no sculptures. The air is calm, the light soft, the mood understated. Occasional tunnels of foliage play at being England. And you could imagine, under these boughs, a snap election might just be called.

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Forget May, April is the coolest month, a culmination of the many months that have gone into its creation. The symbolism of autumn, the inevitable decay, may well be cruel; it doesn’t need a Stark to tell you that winter is coming. Yet, in the remnants of warmth, in a light golden, and in an unending transformation from one minute to the next, April is redeemed. It is, simply, the most privileged time and place in which to be in a tiny part of the universe called Canberra Australia.

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* This post includes shameless reference to The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. I remember studying this in English and not having any idea what he was going on about, and still not having much clue now. But “cruellest” rhymes with “coolest” so yippedydoodah.

 

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The climate changes

Little things, sometimes performed unconsciously, indicate a time of change. There is the walk for morning coffee, in which you now seek the sunny section of pavement rather than its shady, covered counterpart. At home you have to reach in the darkest depths of your wardrobe for – god forbid – a sweater; only to discover that they are musty and holey and jaded and faded but at least protect against a cooling evening. Scattered on a nearby chair are the vagaries of climate suitable attire in late March: shorts from two days back (27 degrees), and a hoodie from the night before (2 degrees). Tracksuit pants come back into fashion, at least inside the privacy of your own home. Outside, the basil flourishes, at its most bountiful before frost decimation. And, excitedly, thoughts turn to how it can be used with red meats and red wines, frequently together.

Shorts and salads were still the preferred modus operandi for most of March, and suitable for a reasonably easy-going walk on the Settler’s Track down in the remote southern tip of the ACT. A scattering of huts and pastoral remnants speak of a far challenging time, and one can only recoil in fright at the thought of icy winter winds seeping through the gaps in the wooden planks that made for walls. The comforts of a piddling new town called Canberra lay distant, across brown plains upon which a permafrost lingers, gnarly tangles of stunted gums and dense mounds of wattle lining the mud-racked excuse for a road. Today, we had a bit of a sunny picnic and returned to Canberra in air-conditioned comfort in an hour, with only a little part of the road slightly bumpy.

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The climatic downshift has produced more amenable conditions for burning some of this land, doing so in a controlled and measured manner. The intention of this – previously practiced by the original inhabitants of this continent to great success – is to reduce the fuel load for more intensive and damaging fires in the summer months. Thus it is an act of destruction that protects and regenerates, with any luck clearing out tangles of invasive weeds to open the way for more friendly natives.

The controlled burns were noticeable this year in their seeming proximity to Canberra. Partly this an illusion, a foreshortening of distance created by the lines of ranges to the west and the hidden deciduous streets of Canberra in between. It is heightened by the smell of smoke in the air but at no point was the largest ugly concrete building in Woden facing any threat, even as plumes of smoke spiralled in the hills behind like some kind of Jurassic Rotorua. Alas, while the ugly tower survives the smoke, the light, the angle of the sun upon its equinox, the time and day and place and year produce some memorable, cherished Redhillian sunsets.

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With the fiery skies appearing earlier each eve, and the increasing need for arm and leg coverings, panic can start to grip the citizens of the national capital. There is alarm that it may get down to fifteen degrees, a temperature in Australia requiring scarves and beanies and carbon intensive wood fires. Concern too that the Australian right to enter the ocean and brag about its perfection to the rest of the world is on the wane. Easter escapes may (though things seem to be changing) herald the last chance to wade in the water of the South Coast. So I thought about going down there over Easter too.

In the end, I changed my mind, and went a few days earlier because the weather was perfect, ideal for a spur of the moment day trip that is only possible with self-employment. Old favourites of Mollymook and Depot Beach, with some fish and chips in between. Shorts and sandals and, yes, gentle wading in the ocean. Something surely to brag about.

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My pre-emptive conniving worked wonders because, in the main, the long Easter weekend was one of those in which Canberra (and the region) did its best to imitate Britain. Two days of cool greyness without a break, then two days of heavy downpours, possibly followed by a debate between seven charm-filled politicians arguing about HIV-laden Europhiles stealing our tax money jobs and murdering badgers with Clarkson or something. Ideal conditions for some reading and lounging and DVD watching and baking and napping. In this context, in this climate, it seemed right that the clocks changed, and – at least from the perspective of time-fixing – winter commenced.

easter05The first morning on winter time turned out to be delightful. For a few hours the clouds went away, and the sun delivered enough radiance for a comfortable period of shorts-wearing. The morning light and air contributed to a Red Hill glow, projecting upon the grass and gum trees and ranging hills in the distance. Rather than signalling a decline, the change of clocks appeared to induce a spurt of wild industriousness. Cockatoos plentiful, screeching from tree to tree; pairs of rosellas flitting amongst branches; galahs flaming; and of course the kangaroos, forever grazing and looking all rather nonplussed about it.

Giving Red Hill the hill a run for its money was Red Hill the suburb. easter06From what seemed to be shaping up to be a relatively mundane autumn – with lots of early browns and leaf losses noticeable – a week which turned from warmth and sunniness to a condition of damp mildness appeared to have fashioned a more elaborate state of affairs. And amongst this fading technicolour the birds lingered too. Foraging and flirting and feasting, the fruitful trees bedecked with gang-gangs.

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easter09This Easter Sunday suburban sunshine was relatively short-lived. What followed, I guess you could say, were April showers. Thus a planned escapade into escarpment wilderness on Easter Monday became sedated somewhat and, instead, transformed into reasonably gentle ambles within nearby Tidbinbilla. Like suburbia, the wildlife was out in force here too. A few koalas and wallabies sheltered amongst the Peppermint Gums. Swans and pelicans and magpie geese and the duck-billed platypus and platypus-billed duck confirmed that it was nice weather for ducks. Weather that was – well – cold. Cloaked in long trousers, T-shirt, hoodie and raincoat it must have been fifteen degrees or something. And as the sun surprisingly filtered through the rising mist of cloud lifting from the mountains, there was joy in rushing out from the shade of trees and bursting towards its friendly warmth once again.

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