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.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography 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.

Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Walking

Gold rush

Compared with the mostly endless expanse of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, the southern state of Victoria is far more manageable to grasp. With its rolling green hills and web of country roads punctuated by amenable towns, it feels more familiar; cosy even. Don’t get me wrong, Victoria has some rugged and remote places and its share of foreboding bushland and bleak emptiness. But there’s usually a bakery and decent coffee stop within a 50 kilometre radius or less. Which I’m sure you’ll agree is very important indeed.

bendi01Landing at Tullamarine, Melbourne was grey and damp. It’s June, it’s Melbourne. I was about as surprised as I would be if the UK Conservative Party decided to dump everyone in the shit rather than get on with governing twice in the space of a year. The wind was strong, my crappy hire car was far from stable, but at least I was heading away from the clouds on the drive north to Bendigo.

Bendigo is almost the archetypal Victorian regional town. It’s a decent size so you can have your fair share of Harvey Norman and Maccas. But it’s also one of a string of towns born from the gold rush of the 1850s. This means there is a legacy of grace and charm, funded by glimmering rocks and transformed into ornate Victorian buildings, elegant parklands, and pompous statues. With a prominent effigy of Queen Victoria it could be the Daily Mail’s utopia, but I think that does an injustice to the fine people of Bendigo, and the fact that they at least have moved on from the 1800s.

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I was here for work, but one of the advantages of having a work appointment in a cafe was the ready availability of cakeage. With an hour or so in between appointments, I walked a little bit off exploring the centre of town and parklands, discovering remnants of autumn, embellishments in iron and stone, and opulent fountains inducing the urgency to seek relief. I also came across a tower on a hill which, naturally, I had to climb for the view. With the rather prominent spire of the Catholic Cathedral punctuating the air and an array of functional buildings interspersed with green, I figured I could be in Exeter or something. Only without the knobbers.

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The next day I had the drive back to the airport to look forward to, squeezing in a decent breakfast and coffee courtesy of proximity to Melbourne. With a little time to spare, I returned via a network of country roads rather than the freeway, which was heavily populated with end of financial year traffic cones.

In keeping with recent reminisces from 2013, I paused briefly at the village of Maldon, which is somewhat cutesy and somewhat boasting an oversupply of antique shops and useless trinkets for a place of its size. It looks like the type of high street that should have a good bakery, but I didn’t really find one, so pushed on to Castlemaine, which had a bakery but this didn’t look particularly inspiring. Still, the coffee was getting even better as the number of kilometres from Melbourne decreased.

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Veering off the main road to head up to the top of Mount Macedon, I paused in Woodend, which had a bakery that looked more the kind of thing I was after. I mean, it was called a bakehouse for goodness sake, which is something that every fine Victorian should celebrate. I purchased an overpriced wrap and inevitable caramel slice, one of which I ate rapidly at the top of the hill, the other gorged on the flight home.  The wrap fulfilled a functional purpose, the slice an emotional one.

bendi07Anyway, such have been my ramblings in Victoria over the years I wasn’t actually sure if I had been to the top of Mount Macedon before. It turns out that I hadn’t, unless I really don’t remember the upward crawl into roads lined with ever more spindly and pathetic-looking gum trees, the view of expansive plains below and a giant golden cross constructed to appease the wrath of the almighty.

bendi08It was chilly up here, but I knew I was on my way back to Canberra so it wasn’t going to get any better. And for the second time in succession, my dawdling was beginning to make it touch and go that I would make my flight. Maybe I’ll learn, or maybe I’ll just nudge a little over the speed limit and swear at every idiot who dares to pull out at a roundabout and get in my way. It seems to work, and so this gold rush came to a successful frenetic end, antidote to the sedate charm of Victorian Victoria.

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey

March

March strikes me as a celebratory month. Events include the wedding anniversary of my mum and stepdad, for instance, which tends to slip my mind without fail every year. Likewise, Mother’s Day, which may or may not happen at some point in certain countries. With similar vagueness, Easter might eventuate in March, but this is contingent on some advanced algebraic calculation based on a factor of the day when Jesus rose up to make pancakes on the moon or something. Elsewhere, at the start of the month in Wales, people get all excited about leeks on cheese on toast, drink Brains, and break out in hearty song about Saint Dafydd. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rest of Australia (and thus of course the world), the natives of its capital gather to commemorate the city’s founding by promptly and unapologetically fleeing to the coast. There is clearly much to celebrate.

Mar01The biggest cause for chirpiness however – specifically in the northern hemisphere – is the symbolic termination of winter. Sure, it may still rain curtains of icy drizzle from time to time, but it can do so safe in the knowledge that the worse is behind us. Evenings suddenly seem to stretch for longer; the sun, when it can be persuaded to appear, resonates a faint whiff of warmth; daffodils – that most blessed portent of a new season – glow as proudly as a Welshman once did at Cardiff Arms Park. Promise pervades the air.

There is a particular day in March – let’s say the 19th – in which seasonality gets a little carried away with itself. The temperature might reach something freakish like 18°C. The wind temporarily vanishes, leaving the rays of the sun untempered to shower upon beaming faces. A national mood change is palpable as families picnic in parks, people spill out of London pubs short-sleeved, and the first whimpers of charcoal smoke rise from over the neighbour’s fence, ruining the washing on the line that can finally dry properly for the first time since September.

There is ,of course, a wickedness to this day. It is as though a dose of paradise has been granted that will not appear again until at least May, if not July. The irresistible inclemency of an Atlantic front is never too far away and the return to what passes for normalcy leaves you wondering whether yesterday was a dream. Instead, the season builds more subtly, like a light’s dimmer switch being incrementally dialled up as opposed to the classical on and off again manner. But at least March represents a time when someone’s hand is on that dimmer switch, and anticipation about whether the bulb will eventually glow at sixty or a hundred watts is almost as overwhelming as a confused metaphor about electrical illumination.

I would struggle without seasonality. I may be in a minority, given the population growth of the Gold Coast and the increase in beachside Pilates taking place during southern Spanish winters. Here, a quite remarkable assortment of fossils can be spotted, bedecked in sun visors, creaking and contorting in slow motion like a troupe of jaded CP3Os, as if worn down from another hackneyed yet money-spinning outing. Leathery limbs reach tentatively to the skies, embracing the sun that seems forever warm and almost always present. The people here may never wear trousers, or coats, or enclosed shoes ever again. And while it may seem like some fanciful paradise to wake up to blue skies every day, to never feel cold, would it not also eventually feel remorsefully dull, remarkably uneventful, entirely, tediously predictable?

This, I believe, is one of the more common complaints from UK migrants to certain parts of Australia. I’ve seen it on those daytime TV shows – Get a Life Down Under, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Escape to the Country (Just Don’t Come by Boat or You Will End Up in a Concentration Camp on an Impoverished, Mosquito-Infested Island), etc, etc. To some of the locals, such comments just seem to reinforce a lovingly-embraced stereotype related to whinging. But I get it, even though I would try to make the most of endless days of fair weather myself. There is glumness in Britishness – fostered over millennia, permeated by the weather, resolute in the character – that cannot easily be discarded. It is not a bad thing, predominantly because we are skilled at making light of it (indeed, this is something to be celebrated). And, I think, it nurtures appreciation and satisfaction in the simplest of things, such as the emergence of a snowdrop from the earth in early spring [i].

I guess what I am saying, what I am typing, is that March can be so exhilarating in Britain because of what you have been through to get there. Yes, much like the proverbial rollercoaster or, more aptly, the Northern Line, dawdling through what seems an endless toxic darkness to finally emerge into the light and airy park-side setting of East Finchley. Spring and summer, or Woodside Park and High Barnet, lay ahead. And while these will often end up being more disappointing than hoped-for, in March the anticipation is still there, yet to be dashed by John Ketley.

Australia is in many ways a different proposition. The sheer size and variability in the weather means that March could herald heatwaves, cyclones, snowfalls, floods, dust storms, mist patches, and cascades of quokkas and numbats. In small pockets – such as the south east corner with which I am most familiar – there is a parallel cooling and drawing in of nights, and the first vestiges of a prolonged autumn appear. Though there may be some sombreness that summer is on the wane, there is little of the dread associated with a forthcoming northern winter. Partly that’s a result of days that can still exceed thirty degrees but mostly milder, more amiable conditions as a whole. This is the start of a golden period, when pleasant, blue-sky days and refreshing nights stack up one after the other and seem to stretch on into May.

Of course, I write this safe in the knowledge (or 97% confident) that climate change could totally wreck everything I am going on about. Stormy Marches and hot Marches and cyclonic Marches or even snowy Marches could become the new norm. Do I have evidence for this? Well, no, but that doesn’t stop climate sceptics receiving a sycophantic front page diatribe in certain national media, so no harm in including a few words on an obscure blog. While we may (only part) jokingly embrace climate change if it means we can wear union jack shorts in Southend in March, it would be a shame to lose that which is special about the seasonality it offers. Otherwise we’ll just be as bad as the Gold Coast.

I can accept hot days in early March, but it was nearing month’s end in 2013 when myself and a friend decided to persevere with the preparation of bangers and mash during a 38 degree northerly on the southern extremity of the Australian mainland. It is probably one of the biggest collective regrets we have from a three month trip across Australia. Just what were we thinking?! I guess in the joy of food planning and supermarket shopping a few days in advance we didn’t anticipate such furnace-like conditions. Plus we had packed a potato masher as something of a luxury item, so were eager to use it on any possible occasion.

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The setting was Tidal River, a sprawling campground complex within Wilsons Promontory National Park. It’s popular with Melburnians and wombats, both of whom were in profusion. The wombats were engaged in a faux cultural conversation about the ethics of rainforest regurgitated coffee beans, while the Melburnians contentedly chomped away on the grass and shitted square bricks. The day had passed with the sight and smell of smoke from the lower Strzelecki Ranges, and a coming-close-to-mild-dehydration tramp up to Vereker Outlook. Relief of a kind came from the beautiful white bays and clear waters of the coastline, though even here the brilliance of the sand glared with a resonant heat. General fatigue was high, and the struggle to boil potatoes on a portable gas stove in a strong northerly beside the sea was only made more pleasurable by the numerous flies clearly determined to explore the nasal cavity. This was not quite the idyllic March that I had come to know and love.

Mar03Needless to say, a week later I was freezing my butt off in another Victorian national park, desperately lighting a pile of twigs to ward off the chance of hypothermia. In the golden goldfields around Castlemaine and Bendigo, Creswick and Ballarat, the effect of March was bearing fruit. Planted to gentrify the antiquated avenues and make Englanders feel partly at home, the oaks and elms, beech and poplars, were busy transitioning into autumn shades. The spa town of Daylesford was made for this time of year, its lake happily reflective and the Victorian Victorian streets lined with large-leaved trees that seem to be excited by the end of summer. A refuge for Masterchef cast-offs, there was no doubting that the pork roasted to succulence in a charming old pub was several hundred times better, and a thousand more fitting, than the bangers and mash of past.

Thus, climate change pending, there is much to celebrate about March whether north or south. I am pleased to say that as I write this in Canberra, the sun is shining, it is a predictable 25 degrees and the forecast is set fair. Spring may be yet to truly spring in the UK, but there is an inevitability that it will come. Soon. Two weeks and there may be a freak warm day coming up, so stock up on charcoal before the supermarkets sell out, and beware of white van man with his top inexplicably off. Above all, cherish this most pivotal of months which signifies the start of something new. Love the seasons, and all the incremental change that they deliver. Otherwise, head to the Gold Coast or Lanzarote and dwell in temperate predictability, never to wear long pants ever, ever again.


[i] In making a sweeping generalisation about national character I should caveat: there will still inevitably be a handful of tiresome, grouchy narks who hate the sound of children’s laughter and lament the daffodils emerging on the median strip because they might provide a place for immigrant burglars to hide and spread Ebola. The good thing is everyone else will take the piss out of them. Apart from desperate politicians who seem to focus endlessly on wooing their vote.

12 Months Australia Europe

Zzz…

…and so to bed, a closure of sorts on this long-winded journey that started off so awesome and finishes in a cocoon of fluffy pillows and cosy doonas. Among all the wonderful things seen, the delights tasted, the rants aired, it is sleep that has allowed them to happen, recharging the body and mind just enough to ensure that things can keep on keeping on. Sleep is, well, awesome, and as friends and family surround themselves with young ones, the perplexing question on everyone’s lips is just why wouldn’t you want to go to bed and sleep solidly for eight hours, pesky child?!

Sleep deprivation is, alas, a feature of the lives of many people I know, from eternally exhausted parents to work-bothered stress heads. Occasionally it pops up in my life, but usually as a result of my own endeavours, like sitting cramped on a plane for 24 hours and moving forward in time 11 hours and then stupidly expecting to sleep like a baby that actually sleeps [1]

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Or deciding to stay in a hostel room in a tiny place somewhere in Victoria and finding that the other bunks are occupied by three rather large Germans who have had a hearty dose of ale and chunks of pork and like to sleep on their back. Still, it was a beautiful early dawn ride to Wilsons Prom that morning when no-one else was yet up.

Luckily I am apt to overcome sleep deprivation and early starts with the most blessed event that can befall anyone: the afternoon nap. I think I first fell in love with afternoon naps when it happened to me as a teenager, taking me unawares as I struggled to read a boring book on a grey day in a comfy armchair. Initially it was a bit of a shock to find that I had unintentionally nodded off and drooled a little. But the feeling of contentment and rejuvenation that ebbed into my body earmarked the afternoon nap as something to occasionally strive for.

In 2013 I had a fair few afternoon naps, along with a fair few restless nights and early starts. This was primarily my own doing, attributed to the fact that I ended up staying in 121 different locations across the globe [2]. Such restlessness can induce restlessness…that feeling of being slightly unsettled going to sleep in an unfamiliar spot. Given many of the sleeps were also conducted in a canvas coffin in the middle of nowhere, prone to every possum rustle and pounding wave of the ocean and occasional snoring fit from elsewhere, solid sleep was not always high on the agenda. But then I discovered the calming properties of earplugs and got over it and probably made a bit or noise myself, mouth agape catching flies.

Still, the early starts were common as there is only so much an earplug can do against the cacophonous cackling of a choir of Kookaburras. The compensation from the termination of sleep was the sparkle of being alive and watching the natural world wake up from its shadowy slumber. Like down amongst the spotted gums of Croajingalong National Park, fringing the silver glass of an inlet as it is kissed by the laser red sun of dawn and enlivened by the rousing chimes of bellbirds. Awake is the new sleep.

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A few more sleeps from this spot and I happened to be in Wilsons Prom again, this time without a hostel room of Germans, but struggling to sleep nonetheless. The day had been baking hot, an arid northerly wind blowing dust and flies and smoke and hairdryer vapours to the southern extremities of mainland Australia. Too hot to sleep until – finally in the small hours – the promised cool change, bringing a pitter-patter of rain which turns to a noisy deluge amplified on canvas. Fortunately the next sleep was Melbourne and a roof and a bed and appreciation of a roof and a bed which is so often taken for granted by us first world problem seekers.

There were a few other hot nights but many more cold ones, often surprising in their unpredictability. I expect somewhere called the Grampians to be a wee bit chilly, though in March I never expected it would be cold enough to cause me to hover over a few smouldering twigs, infiltrating smokiness into my hair and stubble and fleece and beanie, awaiting the first warmth from the sun to finally emerge from between the trees. Ironically, later that day it would swelter so much as to cause sweaty backs on a climb to one of the many spectacular overlooks, provoke comfort in a lukewarm home-made shower, and create extreme fondness for a double scooped ice cream back down in Halls Gap.

In this flim-flam wiff-waff Perryinthian volatility of hot and cold, it is perhaps not so much of a surprise that one of the best swag sleeps in the past year was conducted at a very agreeable and comfortable temperature. This in itself was not at all predictable given previous chilly nights despite (or maybe because of) being in the dry, arid South Australian outback. Perhaps it was the shelter of the Cypress pines and their earthy fragrance, or perhaps just the ease of getting to sleep after many miles of quite exemplary walking, but Aroona Valley in the Flinders Ranges provided a chance to not really sleep much like a baby. And with solid sleep, an early start is no problem to appreciate the grandeur of the emerging landscape as the day is welcomed.

Z_flinders

Beyond the swag there have been air mattresses and sofas and fold up beds to enjoy, plus the occasional real bed. I’ve had a close on-off relationship with a certain air mattress for some time now, though this year saw us part company. A little part of me was a bit forlorn when I was kindly provided with my own room and own bed, complete with funky pictures of digger trucks and awesome earthmoving machines. Yet I can still sleep soundly despite stealing the bedroom of a two year old, for I always sleep soundly here. It may come thanks to the wine and fulfilling Mexican food, the equal liveliness and weariness of family life, the penchant for odd movies and cruising around Liberty City late at night. Or the grim up north Lancashire exterior quelled by the warming welcome inside.

Z_devonAnd once more it comes back to that old chestnut roasting on an open fire of comfort and familiarity. Spending such sustained time on a fold up bed in Plymouth that my back no longer hurts. Reconnecting with my eternal homeland, nodding off to the sound of drunken crazies arguing over some munter down the street eating a kebab. Waking to the sound of seagulls and the incessant irritating loop of Bruno Mars and Olly Murs on Heart [3]. Hearing the distant trundle of the railway as it fights its way through millions of leaves and brambles; a trundle that gently lulls you to sleep again later following a majestic day walking the Cornish coast. This is quite possibly the most contented nap there is.

Finally, after all this sleeping around, I again find myself in my own bed, the one I bought at Harvey Norman in Fyshwick seven years ago, before I knew any better [4]. I remember having to catch a bus that dropped me off somewhere between a petrol station and porn shop, walking through some overgrown brown grass dotted with rubble and fast food trash. Making it to the store I then waited ages for any of the dubious sales staff to take any interest in me. I’m sure I purchased the fairly cheap mattress, thinking I was only going to be in Australia for a year. But it endures and it is mine and, as everyone always inevitably says after a bout of travel, ooh it’s always nice to be back in your own bed!

Back on that day, while waiting near the porn store for the hourly bus back to somewhere close to where I was staying, I killed some time by wandering into the p…p….petrol station. I p…p….purchased a map of New South Wales to kill some boredom. This was back in the dark old days of 2006, when maps were unfathomably large and fold out-y. But it was splendid to open it out and start looking at the roads and contours and the places by the sea that were still just names then. And it was daunting to see just how large the place was, where a two hour drive was a couple of fingers width on paper.

When the bed was delivered and assembled it not only became a place of sleep but one in which the mind would formulate plans and trips, making lists in my head and sometimes struggling to nod off with the breathless excitement of it all. I’d try to count sheep, read something dull, do a Sudoku. And then I decided, probably an unwise tactic, to list things off in my head in an A to Z fashion. Like places I have been in the USA, capital cities of the world, or legumes of the Central Asian plateau or some such. Sometimes I would drift off by Crystal River, other times I’d be wide-eyed in Zagreb. But it’s something that has endured for quite a while, until now.

So it would seem, with this particular alphabet closed, I truly can rest easy. Catch a few awesome ZZZs as a chapter closes. That is until I start to toy with the next idea and several others fall open. For now though, read this and sleep.


[1] What a misguided phrase. To sleep like a baby must mean spells of doziness for an hour with six interruptions during the night to eat, and a couple of nappy changes because you have pooped all over the place.

[2] I should point out, not 121 different beds, for many of these sleeps were carried out in a swag that just happened to find itself in a different part of Australia each night.

[3] Seriously, just buy her some frigging flowers and shut the hell up

[4] I quickly decided to deliberately avoid Harvey Norman, mainly because of its very tacky, cheap and incredibly shouty adverts in which they proclaim to be the bedding specialist, or plasma screen specialist or coffee specialist, offering interest free credit until 2023

Links

Croajingalong National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/croajingolong-national-park

Wilsons Promontory National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/wilsons-promontory-national-park

Grampians National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/grampians-national-park

Flinders Ranges National Park:

http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/Flinders_Ranges_and_Outback/Flinders_Ranges_National_Park

They haven’t got much better (or advanced): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3ky9cFQbbM

Back in the bed buying days: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2006/08/artistic-bedroom-furniture-ironing.html

Something else to send you to sleep: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/

A to Z Australia Great Britain Society & Culture

E by gum

gum01The Nullarbor is said to be so named because of an absence of trees, i.e. null arbor. The thing is, like other misconceptions that may feature on a jovial edition of QI and set off a high pitched wail, it’s really not so true.  Sure, there are a few bits that are made up mostly of low scrub and saltbush, and some of it is very, very flat. But there are plenty of trees clustered and scattered across the thousand kilometres or so of its reach. Plus there is my own festive Christmas tree dangling in the front of the car, attempting to bring some light and joy to this escapade in monotony.

gum02One of the little treats of heading east is that you gradually get to move your clock forward until eventually you get a reasonable sunrise and pleasant light evenings. Not so at Fraser Range, undoubtedly the nicest stop along the road but still subject to the same peculiar hours as Perth. Hello 4am sunshine, before vanishing into a strangely cool, cloudy day to plough through the rest of Western Australia.

At Eucla, close to the WA / SA border there is the concession of 45 minutes but you have come so far east that it makes little difference. And then, ten minutes down the road you suddenly jump forward 1 hour 45 minutes and should you wish to straddle the border it is quite possible to indulge in your own creation of Back to the Future.

Jumping into South Australia there is a sense that civilisation is returning, but it is still 500kms or so to Ceduna, which is itself a subjective interpretation of civilisation. I’m glad to push on another hour and make it instead to Streaky Bay, for a cooling motel room, a chance to endure cricket on TV and nice, long, light evenings to take in the jetty and glassy calm bay of this glassy calm town.

gum04

It seems the journey is one of milestones – crossing the border, finishing the Nullarbor, reaching the crossroads of Port Augusta and again seeing a kangaroo for the first time in ages. Bushland and hills return and the environment becomes a more familiar, comforting scene of generic southeast Australian. Stopping and appreciating this at Mambray Creek, in Mount Remarkable National Park, is a delight, even if it means being awoken by huge flocks of galahs clattering around the majestic River Red Gums in the morning.

gum05

Adelaide is another milestone and just a few hundred kilometres down the road. I reached the city by way of a small diversion into the northern Yorke Peninsula and a triumvirate of towns – Wallaroo, Moonta and Kadina – at the heart of the Copper Coast. Or ‘Little Cornwall’, a moniker derived from the miners who settled here many moons ago. You would think I would have learnt by now not to get my hopes up with such names, to avoid such disappointments as a ‘Devonshire’ Tea and a ‘Pork’ Pie. But I live in hope that certain culinary heritage items are preserved amongst this flat, agricultural landscape which – apart from the presence of a bit of sea – is nothing like Cornwall.

So it is really not that much of a surprise that despite the slightly cutesy high streets crying out for a charming tea room there is no sign of a cream tea in sight. The closest thing to a scone and jam and clotted cream is a shiny bun with a blob of jam and squirty cream in the middle. Salvation may lie in a traditional pasty, but this is about as traditional as sticking a possum on top of a Christmas tree and singing we wish you a merry Easter. For a start, a pasty tends to have much more meat in and a lot less finely diced carrot please.

Anyway, meanwhile, back in Australia, I reached Adelaide and was glad but slightly daunted by being in a big smoke again. Not that Adelaide is that big or smoky. Indeed, it is rather graceful and refined at its heart. There is decent coffee to have and the fabulous central markets to salivate in and the tram to Glenelg to catch and a short drive to be had to the hills, peppered with wineries and koalas and dinner and conversation waiting. Leaving is a bit sad but there is one final little hill stop in Hahndorf, making amends for a missed German style meat fest opportunity last time around, and a brief reminder of hot summer days in Munich.

After such a lunch it would be a decent idea to nap, but I had new milestones to reach and crossing into Victoria was on the agenda. Three more nights of swagging it, following an inland course close to the Murray River and over the highest hills in the country and down to Canberra. Still 1200km to go but feeling close to the end.

gum06The first stop was among the gums and lakes of Hattah-Kulkyne National Park, a little to the south of Mildura. Here mighty trees rise from the waters, attracting a dense concentration of screeching cockatoos who mercifully quieten down after dusk. They perk up again in the morning, but by now mornings start at a much more reasonable hour.

gum07The trees, water and birds combination continues along the length of the Murray, interspersed more frequently with pleasant towns. A reminder that in Victoria country life seems quite amiably civilised. Swan Hill even offered a giant Murray Cod, whilst Echuca evoked steamboat and latticework charm. The thing to do in Echuca is to hop on one of these and cruise upon the river. It made for a pleasant enough hour albeit a little dull.

The Murray rises in the Snowy Mountains and by time I reached Wangaratta I was on very much more familiar ground, stocking up on coffee and cake and heading for the hills. It’s a beautiful approach from Wodonga, following the shores of the Hume Dam with golden hills rising and small valleys drifting into New South Wales. The valleys tighten and become more heavily and lushly forested as they shelter beneath the higher ridges of the Main Range of Kosciusko National Park.

gum08

From this western approach it’s quite a twisty ascent over appealing sounding places like Siberia and Dead Horse Gap to a much starker and moodier side. Here a landscape of high moors and glacial hollows is scattered with ghostly snow gums and boggy pools. A world in which leftover snow still stubbornly sticks; a world a long way from Perth where I commenced this journey.

gum09

gum10It was rather nice to get out of the car for a late afternoon walk immersed in this landscape, setting off from Charlotte Pass along the Main Range track, dipping down for a Snowy River crossing and up again to overlook Hedley Tarn and Blue Lake. From here it is really not that far as the crow flies to Canberra. Indeed, continuing along the track just a little further, crossing a couple more slushy white patches, you can look out over the ridges and folds of the ranges to the north and east. It is a vast view and I suspect if you had super Legolas vision you might just be able to make out Black Mountain Tower. So, so close.

gum11

In a somewhat romantic poetic notion it seems fitting that having traversed and explored huge tracts of this huge country over the past year that I finish it, well, not quite at the top but close enough. It feels like Australia is laid out before me and I can survey what I have crossed…from its white beaches to its desert plains, its golden hills to ragged red gorges, its shimmering cities to one pub towns. And yeah, It may well have the most annoying cricket team ever, and make poor attempts at Westcountry produce, and have strange time variations and a few super long dull roads but, other than that, it seems pretty good to me.

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography

Oceans

I grew up by the sea. Not in a romanticised way, where snug cottages overlook glistening seas and fishing trawlers bob up and down in weather-worn harbours. Neither in the glamorous manner of those doing it tough in Australia, with their angular beachside houses, all windows and look-at-me decks. In fact I survived growing up without a prized sea view, but the ocean was never too far away. Close enough for seagulls to shriek down the chimney, near enough to feel the brutality of a winter’s storm. Never too distant to walk a pebbly shore and experience the space and light and air that is unique to being on the cusp of an ocean.

You could say that the sea has been in my DNA since I arrived in the world and into the salty air of Plymouth [1]. This makes it all the more surprising that I have not lived within easy reach of the waves for what is now half of my life. I went away to university in the very centre of Britain and then coped with the occasional glimpse of muddy river in London. I moved to Australia – the land of beach bums and surf rescues – and wound up in Canberra; the only capital without prime ocean frontage. I clung to windy days on Lake Burley Griffin, when waves would whip up, and consoled myself with frequent trips to various points on the stunning east coast.

The ocean seems integral to the Australian way of life. Unsurprising given most people live on the more amenable fringe of land closest to the coast, surprising given there is a whole load of land in between [2]. The oceans here – from Pacific to Indian – are oceans apart, and it takes quite some enterprise to bridge the two.

It’s mid-March down in Mallacoota, on the very southeast corner of southeast Australia in southeast Victoria where a southeast wind blows. It’s fairly sedate compared to previous days, a sea breeze in contrast to the cold blasts streaming off the ocean and bombarding the shore with downpours. Around the corner, in Ben Boyd National Park, dirt roads are churned into muddy blancmange leaving a detritus of abandoned cars. I know this because my car nearly joined them, drifting sideways like a drunken celebrity ice skater. Precariously though it made it through to the salvation of tarmac and gleefully crossed the state border to recover in Mallacoota. And what a recovery Mallacoota offered.

This sparse corner is both rugged and tame; the waves of the Southern Ocean and Tasman Sea conjoin and thrust onto sweeping sands while gargantuan dunes remould themselves on the breeze. Behind, protected and sheltered gleams the expansive surface of Mallacoota Inlet, spilling into creeks densely lined with Eucalypts and Tea Trees and Acacia; quietly lapping at the boardwalks and manicured front of the town. Pelicans and people flock to fish, the more intrepid cycle, run, and fly.

Out on a limb, Mallacoota really is a long way from anywhere, perhaps as wild as it gets along the most populous strip of this huge country. Possessing essentials like a pub, bakery, two small grocery stores, a bakery, hardware store, and – did I mention – bakery, it is self-sufficient, with a long day trip required for Big W and McDonalds and Flight Centre. There’s not a great deal to do, other than interact with the outdoors, to walk, run, cycle, surf, fish, or simply sit in the sun and gaze out across water. I suspect this is part of its appeal.

The constant roar of the ocean is often the only sound to shatter the peace; at least outside of peak summer holiday times when Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra converge along the shores up and down this coast. It’s a sound which may seem appealing, an obvious marker of being close to water, of arriving at the edge of the world. I think on top of this though, the ocean can sound threatening and cruel, daunting in its vastness and unrelenting, unrestrained energy. People may fantasise about going to sleep with the soothing, repetitive sound of the ocean in the background but the reality, particular when a layer of canvas is all that separates you and the outside world, is of an incessant crescendo of noise, amplified in the stillness of night.  

The noise echoes from the cliffs and trees fringing the ocean beach here, which is itself like a thousand other beaches in Australia. In that, it is nothing remarkable, even though it is, objectively, remarkable. Pristine sand and pristine waters, so clean the aroma is pungent with the abundant seaweed and crustaceans and fish. Scattered with the dog walker and fisherman and surfer and yoga practitioner, it is the spot to clear the head and mind, the place to come at the end of day to walk, fish, surf, or contort. It is the spot to feel at one with the world, humbled in insignificance as the sun lowers, the sands blow, and the waves churn out into the eternal horizon.

O_mallacoota

Beyond Mallacoota the southern coastline invariably throws up much more in the way of ocean-sculpted lands. Long beaches of ninety mile and entrances to lakes. Vast promontories and bays, becoming refined with sandcastles and beach huts and docklands and Melbourne. Westward still and curving great ocean roads meet shipwrecked coasts. Lagoons and islands of kangaroo turn upwards to Adelaide, and the waters greet peninsulas fringed with small ports and big jetties. Beyond things return to the empty simplicity of ocean and land, the land meeting ocean, a bight of irresistible force and unmovable object. Beautiful archipelagos emerge and vast sounds appear as civilisation returns, and the ocean weathers colour the corner of the southwest. A corner which turns onto another ocean and signifies the crossing of a continent.   

Some two months later and a lighthouse appears on the horizon, another lighthouse rising elegantly into a softly painted blue sky. Passing through Augusta the coastline takes on an edge-of-the-world charm, as the land narrows between two seas [3]Small bays and coves fringe the leeward side and teeter their way along to Cape Leeuwin, from where the lighthouse surveys the Indian Ocean. Next stop from here: South Africa.

In this prized corner of Western Australia the Indian Ocean is very much like the seas that have come before, knocking out a reassuring rhythm of surf and disappearing into a depth of endlessness. It’s a different ocean but the same country; many kilometres distant but not a million miles apart [4]. Windswept hills slope down and break off into the ocean, broad sands form at river mouths and creeks. Majestic forests revel in moist valleys while vines take advantage of open, sun-soaked slopes. Near this ocean, small settlements and towns still serve flat whites and offer The Australian for all the propaganda you can stomach. The same brands of coolant are available to top up a car which has done much since almost becoming bogged down in mud on the other side of the country, oceans apart.

There are of course subtle differences formed through climate and geology and mankind’s hand. A different array of deadly sharks and jellyfish may well linger in the water, ready to nibble on loonies in wetsuits embracing the epic waves. For the less adventurous, the diversity of the terroir yields different aromas in the Cabernet Sauvignon…perhaps less blackcurrant and pepper and more pomegranate and diesel (though don’t quote me on it). Tourist information signs are a different colour, though nonetheless as mysterious and confusing. And practically every town ends with the letters ‘up’, like Manjimup and Nannup and Whatsup Buttercup.

The big contrast – and a satisfying symbol embodying the accomplishment of crossing a continent – is that the sun sets into this ocean. At Yallingup, camped beside the roar of the sea for one last night, Mallacoota is reincarnate, a mirror image of sand, sea and sun. There is just chance, with the now shortened days of May, to amble on the beach as the day draws to a close; to battle through the sands and scarper from waves thrusting up the beach with great flourish; to join the smattering of dog walkers and fishermen and surfers and yoga practitioners, watching as the sun sets into this particular ocean and seals the wax on a momentous journey. A journey that has frequently mingled with the sea along its course, and astonished in scale as it has crossed from ocean to ocean.

O_yallingup


[1] Which is now branded as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ no less

[2] Is it any wonder the latest Australian Prime Minister is such a visually strident man of the seas, sometimes scarily so?

[3] A charm seemingly being addressed by the construction of a large marina for more boat-owner people…Stop the Boats!

[4] In fact, for me, 17,000 kilometres, but more like 3,500 as the seagull flies.

Links

Britain’s Ocean City: http://www.visitplymouth.co.uk/

Mallacoota visitor information: http://www.visitmallacoota.com.au/

Destination Margaret River:

http://www.westernaustralia.com/en/Destination/Margaret_River/9009633

Wasssssup in Yallingup: http://www.margaretriver.com/regions/1

Another ocean apart: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_e2D2qsaso

A to Z Australia Driving Photography