Green boggy

Humans, like the weather, are nothing if not contrary. Can it really be the same species that were so recently sharing in collective despair with heartfelt empathy, ceaselessly giving anything from money to clothes to fence posts to time to hope, who now go about pulling each other’s hair out for another six pack of three ply?

It may well be, much like the weather, that in the Venn diagram of the good and bad, the heart-warming and the head-banging, there is only a little intersection between the two. Or perhaps we are all a little conflicted. Like a leaden cloud threatening to burst or simply waiting to be dispelled by the sun. Depending which way the wind blows. A phenomenon that might also explain the contents of certain supermarket trolleys.

What seems incontrovertible is that 2020 continues to produce a hell of a lot of crap, evidently more so in those double garages stocked with 2,000 rolls of toilet paper. And while the bare aisles of toilet tissue land make me feel bemused, I quietly sneak an extra jar of pasta sauce into my basket.

There could be fewer worthy places to stockpile a years’ worth of bog roll than on the South Coast of NSW. A beautiful corner of the world both pallid and sick and overflowing with life and love. A place whose interior is savaged but whose heart and soul are still beating. A place that could use a little helping (washed) hand to thrive once again. Mother nature has applied some balm through its cloud and rain and now we – the good we – can try to offer a little gentle sunshine.

The landscape of the South Coast region right now is simply astonishing in so many ways. The crest of Clyde Mountain confronts with brutal savagery, an unending parade of blackened trees and blackened earth yielding views down to the coast that were not previously available. Yet the vibrant tree ferns and epicormic shoots sprouting from trunks seem to defy death. On the fringes of Mogo, that all too familiar sight of summer – of twisted metal and crumpled fireplace – sits within a vivid, bounteous green. The village too a bustle of people purchasing pendants, peculiarities and pies.

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The beaches of the region are as good as ever, which is to say, pretty damn perfect. At Broulee, a small patch of charred dune prompts memories of a video from the beach on New Year’s Eve, a small spot fire exploding and causing understandable angst amongst those who had fled to the water’s edge. Today, the sands are peppered with people bathing, fun and laughter filling the air. Much of the lush coastal fringe of spotted gums and fern trees along the road to Moruya seems unscarred.

sc02From Tuross Head you can see the ranges of Deua National Park to the west. No doubt a regular sight of alarm at night, illuminated by flame that flickered and flared to its own shape and will. Constantly on edge, unknowing as to where and how far it would come, the fires never did reach Tuross, at least in physical form.

This is home for a few nights and what a fine home: close to the rugged beaches and barely open shops, in proximity to numerous opportunities to spend money and eat food and lose golf balls. A home coming with the bonus of a billiard table for evening entertainment; my knowledge on the placement of snooker balls stemming from lyrics recalled of Snooker Loopy featuring Chas and Dave. Pot the red and screw back, for the yellow green brown blue pink and black… Yeah, in your dreams.

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It would be fair to say that despite limitations I was a far better snooker and pool player than golfer on this trip. Which says more about my golfing doom than my snooker prowess. Still, it was good to make a hefty contribution to the community of Narooma by zig-zagging around its golf course. A perfectly sliced and skied lay up on its famous third hole almost yielded a par, and I managed a par four somewhere else in between much larger figures. The added challenge of a series of greens being perforated, sanded and watered provided further good excuses for inadequacy.

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With Narooma receiving an economic injection, the next place on the spending list was Bodalla, specifically its dairy and cheese factory. In times like these you’ve got to do your utmost to support these local businesses and so it was with considerable reluctance that I forced down a toastie oozing with cheese followed up with an ice cream. You do what you can do.

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The following day endured cool and grey, reminiscent of typical coastal awaydays of the past. This might have previously induced disappointment and grumbling and a roll of the eyes with a sigh. But it seems crass to complain this year. This weather is perfect. And there is still plenty of consumption of local community produce to be savoured.

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I don’t know if supporting the South Coast economy has ever been so tasty. The one exception was – alas – fish and chips, a result of many of the better venues being closed on a Monday in March. But there was the Mexican brunch bowl at Mossy Point, the caramel fudge and coffee in Moruya and – probably the piece de resistance of feeling worthy and eating well – home-cooked wholesomeness and other takeaway from the farmers markets also in Moruya.

The markets were small but popular, a place very much for locals to gather and update one another on the latest news and gossip. They were also attuned to market protocols, forming orderly queues with wicker baskets as they awaited the 3pm opening bell. Twenty minutes later and most of the fresh stuff had sold out, but we managed to retrieve a medley of locally grown seasonal vegetables, some swordfish, crusty bread and a dairy product or two for me to bring home to go on a scone or three.

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I can’t say our market-supplied barbecue that night was a traditional Aussie bloke-themed methane-heavy slimy snag and slab of steak celebration. But it felt good and tasted even better. Refined even. Setting up another classy evening of exemplary three-way snooker (Tuross Rules).

Which was again better than the golf that day. Looking for something to do we came across a whole nine holes to ourselves. It quickly became clear why, the course pretty basic and unkempt in places, plagued by an infestation of mosquitoes. These had apparently emerged post fire and rain, proof that not all of nature’s recovery is especially welcome. At the course boundary, fire had penetrated the forest and the relatively low fee to have a course and a million mozzies to ourselves didn’t seem such an injustice after all.

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You see, it’s quite a divergent experience down on the South Coast. Like chalk and cheese. Sunshine and rain. Go Fund Me and bog-roll violence. So much of it looks and feels as good as ever. Life seems normal. Better even given the incredible swathe of green pasture now smothering the fields. And then your mind comes back to that saying I heard before: the great green cover up.

And you drive, under bucketloads of rain, through Mogo once more with its scattering of crumpled buildings. Towards and into the edges of Batemans Bay, where the forest has scorched down to its very edge and looks like it is struggling to recover. You get a sense of where the fire was most ferocious; green shoots are harder to come by. One side of the road up Clyde Mountain looks normal, the other decimated.

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You enter Braidwood to support that economy, knowing that it would be near impossible to convince an overseas visitor that this was in the grip of drought, primed to borrow water from Canberra while being shrouded in smoke for months on end. You shelter with hot coffee and sense BlazeAid nomads taking a well-earned day off. You espy a generous supply of toilet paper in the café bathroom; and briefly a wicked thought enters your mind. But the sunshine wins out, the goodness, the heart. Much like it is doing, much like it will do again, down on the South Coast.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey

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.

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Another bubble

As 2020 dawned without a sunrise in many parts of Australia, what chance that optimism associated with a new year? When the predominance is on the very present disappearing into a sickly haze ten metres in front of you, grating at your throat and chiselling at your eyes. When you know this is far from the worst of it and the days to come portend further peril. When a centre of power is cloaked in the symbolism of failure and irrelevance, an absurdity as potent as the sight of fireworks trivialising a harbour city.

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The good news is that things have quietened down a touch. There have been drops of rain. In places, there simply isn’t that much fuel left to burn.  For regions where recovery has commenced there is an uplifting wholesomeness on display in the generosity of the human spirit. Some roads have re-opened and goodwill is flooding in. With any luck, we may look upon January 4th as the culmination of this elongated calamity. Though it is far too early to rest and relax.

The hideousness of the outdoors on January 5th proved enough to cancel a trip away to Wollongong, a small inconvenience compared to the carnage faced by so many. It seems flippant to bemoan absent holidays and ruined plans. Subsequently needing supplies for dinner that day, I cannot say for sure if the watering of my eyes in the supermarket was from the smoke infiltrating the shopping centre, the heaviness in my heart, or the absence of discounted Christmas crumbly fudge from Yorkshire.

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In that supermarket I resolved to get away, to breathe, to experience life without the preoccupation of fire and smoke. In this I am one of the lucky ones, one of the climate refugees who has the resources to adapt and mitigate. As with everything it seems it is those who suffer the most who will suffer the most and I feel guilt at my relative luck and privilege. It is with a similar sentiment that I approach the task of writing about frolics in the sun, in the clear air, with friends and other animals. Getaways in the state of Queensland, earlier touched by fire but by now in its own detached bubble.

I never thought the obvious place you’d go to escape the apocalypse would be Brisbane, especially Brisbane in summer. It just goes to show the terrible state of affairs we are in. I don’t mind Brisbane, but it’s not in my top ten, unless it’s my top ten list of places to escape the apocalypse, naturally. A little extra humidity is a small price to pay for clean air.

Indeed, there was a pleasantness about the place, still fairly quiet as people loll through their summer holidays, zooming up to the coast in their Hiluxes packed with fishing rods and eskies, often trailed by flashy boats. It’s a conspicuous consumption of Australiana that begins to tire in context, a dissonance that exacerbates the sense of that Queensland bubble. People show concern, but empathy is harder to summon.

seq03I did Brisbane things in Brisbane, such as pretending to be sophisticated at a few of the galleries, crashing down to earth with sugary iced drinks for a dollar, cycling on one of those godawful city bikes along death trap rush hour cycleways, and bobbing upon the water aboard trashy ferries championing local sporting sides.

One of the joys of my rambling was an early morning potter around Roma Street Parklands, where what seemed like a revelation materialised: an abundance of green interspersed with the vibrant, exotic colours of nature bursting into bloom. Throughout the park – and across the city – the late withering of purple jacarandas was eclipsed by the bright red bursts emanating from the ubiquitous Poinciana trees. Pockets of wonder among the humdrum. Life going on.

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Another minor revelation within the city came from stumbling across new development under and around the Story Bridge. As much as it tries, this will never be that other Australian bridge, but they have done a splendid job of transforming the area beneath it into an enclave of approachable eateries, beery pit stops and picnic points. It seems every reputable town these days needs its own brewery and burgers, mimicking – once again – the pioneering zeitgeist of – yes really – Canberra.

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Tiring a little of the city and its newfound zeitgeist I escaped one morning to the coast. Well, Moreton Bay at least, which is far from a windswept ocean of pummelling surf and fine white sand. Accessible by train, the bayside suburbs of Sandgate and Shorncliffe possess a certain gentility, a more relaxed atmosphere akin to a seaside town of the 1950s. Esplanades and jetties fringe the tidal flats, children construct sandcastles in between a hotchpotch of dogs mingling on the beach, and old codgers creep down to the water’s edge to stare out into the infinity of life.

Capping this off would have been traditional fish and chips, but it seems Queensland (from my random sample of three) is very fond of crumbed fish and – of course – thinner fries over chunky chips. Malt vinegar proved a salvation to at least conjure up an essence of other times and places.

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Better beaches line the Sunshine Coast, and it was pleasing to have a brief interlude further north courtesy of old friend Jason and his gas-guzzling ute. It only seemed fair recompense for making me do an early morning Parkrun – my first – along Southbank and the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane. I’m not convinced the short but steep climb up to Wild Horse Mountain was the best warm down, but the panorama peppered with Glass House Mountains was worth it.

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This was a new perspective; inexplicably a lookout I had passed many times on the G’day Bruce Highway but one I had never actually paused to explore. Looking down upon masses of plantation forest intermingled with clutches of natural bush, perspectives had also altered: yes, this is welcome, this is beautiful but there lingers a nagging question mark, a sense of inevitability that one day this will be eaten by flames as well. Such is the preoccupation.

A stop at Beefy’s pie shop did little to dampen such thoughts for, as I devoured a giant wagon wheel with an iced coffee, all I could picture was our esteemed leader chomping down on a pie sporting a Beefy’s cap on one of his vacuous How Good Is tours. What a fucking moron.

The Sunshine Coast seems to be becoming more and more emblematic of the rampant quest for growth and consumption, perhaps to the detriment of everything else. More habitats cleared, more congestion-busting infrastructure necessary, more polluted waterways, more How Good is Beefy’s at more shopping malls that you need to drive to. Change happens and people need to live somewhere, but do they really need to live in a six bedroom home with a cinema, a rumpus room and a three-car garage? Among cleared bushland that resembles tinder waiting to explode? There has to be a better way.

It was a relief to come across one spot that – as of yet – did not seem over-developed. Testament that Australia still has a lot of space, which is both its blessing and its curse. Mudjimba Beach wildly stretching up towards Coolum and beyond. Under cool and cloudy skies. The Lucky Country still riding its luck.

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Back in Brisbane I extended my stay a little while longer in the hope that when it came time to go home the air would be clearer. Why leave the bubble when you didn’t really need to? And I reckon Millie the dog was grateful for my company.

seq09Together, we explored the land of the Quiet Australian, treading newly built pavements, discovering plots of land awaiting a six bedroom home, lounging in the garden questioning how the Quiet Australians next door can be so goddam noisy. Some of us sniffed butts and peed on lampposts. Others caught buses and sought coffee at the mall. There was a lot of cloud and a little rain. And hope on the grapevine that this would extend south.

My final evening on this Queensland trip took Millie and I down the road, past yappy dogs behind six foot fences, to the suburban fringe. A landscape penetrated by channels and creeks infiltrating from Moreton Bay. Puddles forming into larger areas of wetland feasted upon by cattle egrets and masked lapwings. Signs promoting new land releases. And the most incredible, alien swathe of green.

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Imagine such abundance, such feast. Imagine rain for days and weeks. If you’re reading this in the UK imagination is probably not necessary. But imagine creeks flowing after years and dust turning to mud. Picture dead brown and yellow earth transforming to green. Imagine the life, the rejuvenation, the hope. Those first drops of rain may not immediately solve all the woes, heal all the scars, quell all the flames. But they offer hope. Hope that didn’t come as usual with the turning of the year but may now, finally, hopefully, offer a future.

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A postscript

My previous blog post involving a trip to East Gippsland and Far South East NSW took place immediately before much of this area was decimated by fire. It seems a bit surreal now to think I went here for relief and probably experienced places that may never be the same again or – at the very least – will take decades to recover. I probably chatted to people who evacuated in panic, bought coffee from shops now cut off, and feasted on fish and chips on a wharf where people were braced to jump into water as last resort survival.

Mallacoota has naturally received much attention. Though I didn’t go there on this last trip, I can, from past experiences, testify to its warm-hearted community and beautiful spirit. Usually a place of escape and happiness set within a wilderness, thousands sheltered by the water as flames approached on New Year’s Eve. Around 100 homes were lost. Many animals were killed, although the efforts of one man to rescue koalas melts the heart.

Nearby Cann River provided me with a lovely campsite by the dwindling waterway, as well as a bustling little high street for thousands of tourists passing through on the Princes Highway. The town has struggled with fires all around and has been cut off, though the local community are pulling together.

Cape Conran, Marlo and Orbost were threatened and at times cut off. Some outlying areas around Orbost experienced fire and some homes in rural localities were lost.

In NSW, Eden was threatened in major flare ups and expansion of fire grounds on January 4th. The fires that had burnt through Mallacoota spread north and east into Ben Boyd National Park and reached Twofold Bay. Residents of Eden were told to evacuate to Merimbula or Bega, though some sheltered by the wharf where I enjoyed amazing fish and chips around a week earlier. The fire destroyed outlying properties and ignited a fire at a woodchip mill but – thus far – has not breached the main township.

Fires from Victoria also have spread north towards Bombala and into South East Forests National Park. Presently they have not reached the Waratah Gully campground and its resident kookaburras nor have they spilled down Myanba Gorge. The fire ground presently appears around 2kms south of the walking track for Pheasants Peak and around 4km from the campground.

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A brief breather

What started as an unfortunate spectacle – that we thought would probably go away as soon as it came upon us – has settled in Canberra for the summer. There is little anyone can do to not talk about the pervasive smoke that hovers above Christmas prawns and glazed hams. Occasionally it lifts a little, dispelled by a hot northwesterly which only serves to deliver arid desert air from the only direction in which major fires are not burning. Yet. It feels only a matter of time before we are encircled.

This is not a happy Christmas really. The weather outside is indeed frightful. People are growing downbeat and sullen; infuriated and furious. We gather and share and eat fine food and go and watch the Star Wars movie in beautiful air conditioning, and these are necessary distractions. But even in the midst of a lightsabre battle, a smoky essence infiltrates the movie theatre. The ultimate 4D experience. Just give us the Lord Vader breathing masks please.

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Making plans is hard to do – what road is closed, which national park on fire, which stretch of tarmac melting? Christmas gatherings cancelled; long circuitous journeys made. Holiday towns on the coast dying under a barrage of emergency warnings and absent visitors.

Even doing simple things like laundry takes strategic planning. Today I got it wrong, and now it is being washed again, content that the hot, dangerous northwesterly has now well and truly kicked in to sizzle it sans woodsmoke flavouring.

Escape is an appealing option, as long as there are still options. Three days before Christmas I looked at flights to the UK. I looked at flights to New Zealand. I looked at flights to Tasmania (where even today it is nudging forty degrees). Cost was extortionate, but then it might reach a point where even that is a burden worth bearing.

Dissuaded for the time being, I tried to make pastry in forty degree heat. I went for walks in the mall. Just because. In between I monitored the weather forecasts and wind directions and air quality readings and areas of land not on fire. I looked at campgrounds that might not be full and which might be safe. And I finally glimpsed a small window of opportunity to escape, to clear the air…

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Boxing Day and the atmosphere at the MCG was bubbling up nicely, accompanying me on the radio as I drove south towards Cooma. With the Kings Highway to the coast closed this is proving a major alternative route. As a consequence, the main sights of Cooma – McDonalds and KFC – were overflowing. Around the corner, ALDI was quieter, and I picked up an obligatory half price Christmas pudding. Probably for winter if such a thing still exists.

Between Cooma and Bombala the drive is spectacularly bleak as it traverses the Monaro Plains. It is for all intents and purposes, desert at the moment. Not exactly pretty to look at, but with the smoke haze thinning a touch, at least it was something to look at.

gip01And then, through Bombala and into South East Forests National Park, there was something resembling freshness. Blue sky. Green. Giant trees untainted by fire. A campground almost deserted, the camp guardian a spirited Kookaburra feeding its young. A sense of wonder and relief that this is all still actually possible. Breathe.

It remained quite hot to be sure, and on a walk around nearby Myanba Gorge there were plenty of flies as usual just to remind you that summer in Australia is actually a bit shit. The riverbed shaping the gorge was bone dry and surely it was only a matter of time before I would turn a corner and step on a deadly snake or something. But no, a dog and its two owners were the only things to greet me, in between the flies in my eyes.

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What I did find turning that final corner was a sight the likes of which I have seen a thousand times before in Australia, but which appears all the more precious today. A deep valley of eucalyptus sweeping down towards the coast. The cries of a couple of black cockatoos surveying their terrain. And a clear blue sky – perhaps more pastel than is normal – but true blue nonetheless.

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The night passed with another rarity – feeling cold. Even a few days later it seems surreal to think I was shivering a little until I finally succumbed to using a sleeping bag in the correct manner.

The freshness of morning was greeted by a 5am cacophony of hundreds of birds, which was a marked improvement on the 2am hoonage taking place on some of the nearby forest roads. Sleep was a luxury and I was reminded how the concept of camping may be more appealing than the reality. But then it was on the journey to the long drop that I felt at one with the world, enamoured by its natural grace and beauty, a feeling you never get in a Best Western.

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With the promise of another smoky scorcher back in Canberra I was in no hurry to rush back. I carried on south, across the border into Victoria on what was a beautiful drive towards Cann River. This is a corner of the land boasting tremendous old growth forests cloaking rugged, untrammelled peaks. Driving along sweeping curves under a dappled canopy, it’s all shafts of sunlight falling upon giant ferns. Keep eyes on road.

gip06bThis region – East Gippsland – is sparsely populated and only has a few access points to the coast, through the gorgeously pristine Croajingalong National Park. Camping in the park is popular over Christmas and I had no chance. But at Cann River itself, a free campground was available in which to set up at ten in the morning. And it came alongside a short walk through woodland that in places reminded me of somewhere in England, such were the treasured patches of greenery.

With plenty of time up my sleeve and following a bit of a mid-morning doze under a tree, I explored the coastal area down around Cape Conran and Marlo. Both were fairly busy, with Cape Conran again bursting with campers who had – at that time – won the holiday lottery. It was so good to be beside the seaside, especially as a cool southeasterly was emanating off the water to offer joyous relief. This was probably the freshest air I had experienced in weeks, if not months.

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Marlo is famous as the place where the Snowy River meets the sea. It’s probably the main thing it has going for it, but they certainly do well with what they have. Several lookouts and a sensibly plotted estuary trail allow you to follow the waters as they congregate into a series of shallows and lagoons before inching out into the ocean. It’s definitely worth a nosey, followed by possibly one other thing Marlo has going for it: ice cream. Thank you very much.

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Memories of ice cream lingered as I drove inland slightly towards Orbost, where several dairies were testament to what is generally a verdant, rain-blessed corner of Australia (the cream and yogurt from Gippsland Dairy is to be recommended!). But even here it looks dry, a burnished beige more than a pea green. In the distance, beyond Orbost, inevitably, the bushfires burn uncontained and out of control.

gip07I remember Orbost quite fondly from the only other time I was here in 2013, mainly because I found a bakery that served something akin to a Paris-Brest. It’s not really what you expect but my memory of this raised expectations beyond what I should have expected. I was looking to pick up some supplies for dinner, which I managed but not to the standard I had expected. The result was a very Christmas meze of leftover ham, sausage rolls, cheese and a couple of salads. How I craved a hot meal! Oh well, there is always tomorrow.

Tomorrow was the time to pack up and head back to Canberra, partly because I wanted to sleep in my own bed but also because the heat was due to spread its ferocious finger down into Gippsland. As if on cue, there was a hint of smoke in the air on an early stop to amble along a rainforest walk with a coffee and mince pie in hand. And then, crossing the border again towards Eden, visibility was once more replaced by viscosity.

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This had thrown my good intentions to do a decent walk in Ben Boyd National Park as a means of justifying fish and chips for lunch. But, heck, it’s Christmas, what else am I supposed to do? And I was very good and didn’t have chips. Just three of the best potato scallops instead, oops.

The other plan I had was to hopefully laze and have a nap alongside the Pambula River before the three hour drive home. Fortunately, given the long wait for lunch as I battled a billion bogans, a stiff sea breeze had kicked in and the smoke was clearing pretty quickly. On the downside, thunderstorms were brewing slightly to the north. The relaxation necessary to nap wasn’t really possible, and my decision to quit the beach at just about the right time was sound. Not before getting a little wet.

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Rain! It all felt a bit peculiar. A strange sensation to be fleeing and sheltering from something that is so essential, so welcome, so life-giving. Yet such are the nature of storms that they proved random and fleeting. And any lightning falling on the tinder dry is far from welcome. The window was definitely closing.

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Back home the next day, I became alerted that the authorities were urging around 30,000 holidaymakers and residents to evacuate an area of East Gippsland half the size of Belgium. As I write this, 12 Emergency fire warnings are in place in the region, including the stretch of coast between Cann River and Mallacoota, and a swathe of land taking in Orbost, Cape Conran and Marlo. Highways are closed. Inland from Pambula, not a million miles from the South East Forests, another emergency warning has appeared. Multiple fires are springing up in the wilderness between Cooma and the coast. Another window doesn’t merely close but shatters.

And for all that we try to do our best, to care and share, to catch a breather, this is not a very merry Christmas at all. It is a catastrophe.

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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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Flying by

It’s been a while since I’ve driven so far on consecutive days. The passage of years dulls the memory of cruising on straight, flat roads under an endless sky; pausing at a bakery in a one street kind of town, finding a ramshackle table beside a drying creek to stop and sample the local flavours. Seeking shade from the sun and solace from the flies. Always the flies. Now I remember the flies and that quirky shimmy to dispense of their attachment and manoeuvre into the car without them. A memory regained and repeated again.

I was heading west towards Griffith, the first stage of an elongated loop involving a couple of stops for work. Beyond Wagga it becomes much clearer that Wagga is a veritable hub of civilisation, with a handy Officeworks and everything. Another hundred clicks on and the town of Narrandera welcomes like an oasis, perched upon the muddy brown of the Murrumbidgee and boasting one of those high streets of slightly faded charm.

riv01There is a colony of koalas here, and I was pleased to come across one in the first hundred metres of my walk. It was around midday and hot, exactly the kind of conditions in which you should not be out walking. But with this early sighting, the pressure was off – no more relentlessly craning one’s neck upward in the usually forlorn hope of spotting a bulbous lump that isn’t a growth protruding from a eucalypt. I could instead loop back to the car concentrating more on keeping the flies from going up my nose. Yes, they are absolutely back.

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Through Leeton – one work site – I pushed on to stay overnight in Griffith. Griffith is famed for a few things – lots of wine production (apparently, 1 in every 4 glasses consumed in Australia), Italian mafia, flies I would think, and citrus. Quite stupendously I had arrived at the time of year when the town parades an array of citrus sculptures, mostly located in the median strip of the busiest road going through town. I suppose it’s convenient to look at if you’re just passing through, but I can’t fathom why anyone would not get out of the car to take a closer look.

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They say citrus but I don’t recall a single lemon, lime or grapefruit. Apart from the vines, most of the trees you pass are dotted with oranges, all fed by the ditches and canals of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It would be hard work out on those fields, under piercingly hot sun among the flies. Giant brimmed hats with nets (rather than corks) are a must.

For a touch of diversity in what is a fairly mundane landscape, I took an early evening drive out of town towards Cocoparra National Park. Getting out of town is the first adventure, given that Griffith was designed by our old friend Walter Burley Griffin. You can see the giveaway circles and roundabouts on a map, but I can’t say there was a particularly strong Canberra sensibility about the place. Leigh Creek in South Australia provides a more authentic – and surreal – replication.

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Within the national park, the Jacks Creek trail promised much – traversing a dry, rocky gorge before climbing out to vistas of the surrounding landscape. Indeed, it would have been quite idyllic bathed in the end of day light, an Australiana glowing golden brown and rusty red. The kind of earthy environment that to me has been a highlight of past trips out back.

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Yet not since Arkaroola have I found myself in such a landscape outnumbered ten thousand to one by flies. I feel like I keep repeating myself, but they truly were unbearable. Pausing to reflect and soak it in was impossible. Stopping to set up photos proved an ordeal, exacerbated by the movement of my camera shaking off another cloud of useless parasitic twatheads seeking water from whatever orifice they could find.

After coming such a long way, flies had wrecked the experience. It’s akin to a rare sunny day in England, battling through Sunday drivers to discover a lovely beer garden, nabbing a prime table overlooking a patchwork quilt of fields, tucking into a hearty lunch with ale. And then the wasps appear and come down to doom us all.

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Thankfully the number of flies per square metre dissipated a touch as I turned east, eventually to reach Sydney. Along the way the landscape softened too, more rolling and pastoral with a surprising touch of green in places. Along the way, fine country towns such as Cootamundra, Young and Cowra, famed for Bradman, cherries and prisoners of war. All words that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shane Warne tweet.

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As the sun leaned low against the western sky, I paused for the night in the town of Blaney, where it cooled down sufficiently to deaden the activity of insects. Wandering around the streets early the next morning, there was a touch of the genteel in the gardens and verandas of the old brick homes, verdant patches of life fed by the creek on the eastern side of town. Of course, being Australia things do not remain sedate for too long; two magpies decided to have a go at my head while a family of geese with newborns made sure I didn’t pry too much. An old guy wheeling out a bin stared and muttered – perhaps both in contempt at my alien presence and in recognition of a deeper affinity.

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Walking back to my motel I noticed one of those brown tourist signs with a small fort-like shape pointing to Millthorpe. It wasn’t far and while I was pretty sure there would be no small fort-like building there, it had to be indicative of something. Perhaps a smaller, more endearing version of Blaney, with a quiet high street lined with buildings from yesteryear. A village brimming in spring blooms and fragrance, boasting not merely a café but a “providore”. Wine rooms and antique curios…we are nearing Orange after all.

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Millthorpe offered a tangible culmination of my growing appreciation of the grace of small town Australia. The small town Australia that isn’t too threatening or distant, somewhat gentrified by being in range of Sydney weekenders, bringing good local food and drink to the table. You can imagine renting a cottage here and treading its creaky boards, sheltering in its shady alcoves, napping as the afternoon light creeps through the blinds, casting shadows of wisteria onto the soft pastel walls. There’s probably not that much to do, but that’s all part of the attraction, offering time that can simply be sated with coffees and brunches and platters of meat and cheese and wine.

riv10Still, should you wish to rise from this indulgent slumber, another hour or so east will bring you to the western fringe of the Blue Mountains. Suddenly things change, and not just the petrol price rising thirty cents a litre in as many kilometres. The day trippers are out in force, the coaches idling at every single possible lookout, of which there are many. The escarpment top towns of Blackheath and Katoomba and Leura are brimming with people shuffling between café and bakery, spilling down like ants to the overlooks nearby. Below the ridge, however, and the wilderness wins. Only penetrable at its fringe, placid beneath a canopy of ferns and eucalyptus.

I walked down a little near Katoomba Falls, thankful to be below the tumult of the populous plateau. The falls were barely running, but the views up the valley towards the Three Sisters were inescapable. Overhead, a cableway gave visitors the easy option to take this all in through the glass and air conditioning.

The Blue Mountains have some momentous lookouts but are best appreciated on a bushwalk away from the crowds. However, my time here was limited and some ideas that formed for longer hikes will have to wait for another day. A lunch stop at Sublime Point will be the last I take in for now, that distant view of millions of trees to be replaced by millions of people navigating the congested thoroughfares of Sydney.

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The city awaits, the space disappears, the understated charm of the country fades away. The buzz of people rushing here, there and everywhere gathers, pressing in like a thousand flies in the face, and ears, and mouth and nose. Taking your car park and your seat on the train, getting the best spot on the beach, the last table at the cafe. Persistent and relentless these ones cannot to be swished away or disposed of by a disjointed shimmy into a car. The flies are unavoidable, everywhere.

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Mission possible

I think a general principle of Australian exploration is the further north you go, the quirkier things get. For quirkier you could substitute odder, weirder, crazier, madder than a dozen cuts snakes lurking in the stinging trees waiting for a cassowary. It may be a result of the liberty that comes with increasing distance from the tyranny of inner city elites developing their secret mind-controlling pharmaceuticals to add to our underground water reserves. Or it could just be the balmy weather and barmy environment. Where pretty much everything wants to eat you.

I wouldn’t say Townsville is the capital of Crazytown, but there are certain idiosyncrasies to observe. Perhaps most obviously in the calibre of politicians representing the region, generally observed wearing big hats and force-feeding coal to their grandchildren, insistent that it is the future, it is it is. It is very easy to imagine Friday night here Cold War Steve style, all hi-vis hypermasculinity and gutter-strewn carnage at the foot of the concrete sugar shaker. My taxi driver confirmed as much as he took me to the airport, to pick up a hire car.

I had never been on the strip of land between Townsville and Cairns, and with a few days tagged on to a work trip I was heading up the coast towards Mission Beach. It’s an interesting enough drive with a decent selection of diversions along the way. It’s also a journey of transition from the golden dry tropics to the verdant abundance of the wet.

A little north of Townsville up the Strewth Highway, the blend of dry grassland and tropical rainforest manifests in Paluma Range National Park, with each climbing, narrow turn up the mountain road darkening as undergrowth thickens. Little Crystal Creek is on the cusp of a landscape in change, and a pretty place to pause. Higher up around Paluma, rainforest walks promise at views and deliver in sweatiness, though it’s still a long way from being as bad as it gets in high summer.

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It seems a bit ridiculous to talk of a summer in a place that is almost consistently between 26 and 30 degrees year round. Seasons are more marked by a change in humidity, from clear, arid winter days to muggy, stormy summer oppression. You can also throw in the odd cyclone, with the last big, big one – Yasi – hitting the coast around Mission Beach in 2011.

Continuing north up the highway approaching Cardwell, it is hard to picture today. But an enduring image from that storm is the pile of fancy yachts stacked upon one another at Hinchinbrook Marina. Three-quarters of buildings in Cardwell were damaged and the banana crop so tied to this part of the world was devastated. The rugged, pristine environment of Hinchinbrook Island tantalises today. But you wouldn’t have wanted to camp there back then.

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Cardwell seems a quiet kind of place, a pit top where the Bruce Highway finally meets the sea. Post-Yasi, a medium sized big crab has been resurrected on the top of a café. As you do. It’s competition along the highway with the Frosty Mango where I have already stopped and the Big Golden Gumboot of Tully in which I am destined to head.

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Finally, a turn off at Tully leads towards Mission Beach, which somewhat confusingly is a cluster of villages and bays along a stretch of coast twenty kilometres or so. We’re in a region known as the Cassowary Coast and they sure do emphasise the cassowary part of that nomenclature. Official and unofficial road signs alert you to the presence of this giant flightless bird, warnings that seem worthy given they are dwindling in numbers and most susceptible to road accidents. Some people might fear the cassowary for its strong hook-like claw, but you’ll generally find the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux is more lethal in so many ways.

Of course, being in cassowary country makes you – as they say – naturally cass-o-wary. Walking in dense rainforest at Lacey Creek it’s all a bit like encountering snakes…part of you would be thrilled to see one and to try to take a blurry picture, but part of you would be pooping your pants. Every rustle and fleeting shadow pricks the senses, only for it to be caused by an unseen gecko or another bush turkey.

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Down by the sea at Bingil Bay, there is always the chance of a crocodile or a lethal jellyfish to spot instead. Though the hosts at my B&B warned me the crocs are only in the creeks, I’m not so sure about stepping too far into that ocean. I mean, the creeks enter the sea, right. What goes in must come out. And with plenty of mangroves in which to lurk, I can just picture myself sunbaking right there if I was a saltwater crocodile. So, I move briskly on, along a fine, shady boardwalk towards the hub that is North Mission Beach. Where a cold beer with a view is the better means of cooling down, I reckon.

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Refreshed and now feeling in holiday mood, there was definitely justification in an afternoon siesta, before working up a sweat again climbing Bicton Hill in Clump Mountain National Park.  If cassowaries and crocs weren’t enough, the start of this trail warned of stinging trees, which boast attractive heart shaped leaves and plump purple fruit. The cunning bastards.

The sign at the bottom of the track also warns that this isn’t a walk for everyone, indicating heart-attack potential. But it’s not that bad, just a leafier, slightly deadlier version of Mount Ainslie with views out toward a far-less manicured landscape.

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With all this adventure and threat, one of the nice, homely touches of my B&B was the opportunity for drinks on the veranda at six o’clock. With only a few rooms it was cosy and relaxing, a chance to share the escapades of the day with those from further afield. Of course, being a naturalised Australian I was quickly assigned an authority on matters such as swooping birds, the diet of the cassowary, drought and bushfires, the hiding places of redback spiders, the pros and cons of Townsville, and…well…Brexit. I do suppose the Netherlands and Switzerland – especially Switzerland – seem very genteel by comparison.

At the B&B I was also frequently lobbied to try out the Kennedy Walking Track commencing at South Mission Beach. And so, on Sunday morning I decided to give it a go before the drive back to Townsville. And what a great recommendation to take up before eventually returning to the landlocked eucalypt land of four seasons back south. Yay for palm trees and golden sands, mangroves and croccy creeks, and that milky aquamarine sea. Another world in the same country.

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I have to say I do think the beaches of the south coast of New South Wales are in many ways better. They are typically finer and sandier and, well, you can generally paddle without as great a fear of being lunch and / or lacerated to death. But then there is just that air to the tropics, a mood and a light and colours so vivid. And palm trees and ferns and – up here – rainforest tumbling down to the sea. Like I say, another world in the same country.

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Talking of other worlds, I eventually made it back to Townsville via the largest potato scallops and smallest bites of fish in Ingham. A little early for my flight back, I remembered spotting a huge TV tower on top of a peak just to the west of town when I came to land at the same airport, and duly discovered there was a road to the top. From the summit of Mount Stuart, this possible Crazytown doesn’t seem too mad, distant as I am from its Sunday hangover.

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Perhaps madder is the scene inland, where the maddest of mad dogs can flourish. A scene dry and dusty and rugged and foreboding. A world devoid of much, exposed to a harsh, searing heat and unforgiving glare; perhaps you can see why many are happy enough to dig it up. The maddest thing though is that this world can suck you in, can draw you to it, can make you want to step one more foot into its fringe. It might even tempt you to buy a wide brimmed hat and some sturdy RM Williams boots. If only you didn’t have a flight to catch back to sanity.

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