Marvellous

Late Friday afternoon on the road between Braidwood and Bungendore and the wind is buffeting my car as it trundles into the sleety clouds of winter. I’m returning from the coast, where two hours before I was eating lunch on a sheltered cove saturated in warm sunshine. It’s a slightly weary drive and, for some reason, I decide to play The Lightning Seeds for probably the first time in twenty years.

After several jaunty, scousish ditties that sound identical, the sage words of Alan Hansen and Jimmy Hill emerge as the infectious, glorious, deprecating anthem that is Three Lions blares out. I cannot listen to this without bobbing my head a little, chanting, smiling like a Cheshire Cat. As much as you might try. It’s Coming Home! At least I hope so, in light of the possible blizzard up ahead.

It’s Coming Home. Euro 96. An era that now feels halcyon, days when the Donald and BJ were still complete dicks but at least not complete dicks inexplicably leading disunited states and precarious kingdoms. Back in 1996, John Major was trundling his way towards the end of years of Tory rule, a regime which now somehow seems sane and reasonable. The Spice Girls were zig-a-zag-ahing and both Mitchells were polishing their heads behind the bar of the Queen Vic. I was completing my first year of university, undistracted by a phone, immune from the ranting coalescence of conspiracy lunatics on the internet.

I don’t remember that much about my university course (who does?), but in a convoluted way which coincidentally brings us back to the present I suppose it led me to be in the South Coast NSW town of Narooma on a mild, golden evening in August 2019. I studied, I got a job, I travelled, I went back to that job, I transferred to Australia with that job and I ended up on a boardwalk meandering past calm and clear waters toward the ocean.

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nar02Did I ever imagine back in 1996 that I would be gazing out to the Pacific hoping to sight a whale? Meandering downhill alongside gardens strewn with exotic plants and colourful birds? Wandering past parks dotted with electric barbecues and sinks for dealing with the entrails of fish? Who would have thought I would have previously parred the treacherous Bogey Hole of that golf course wedged between the town and the plunging cliffs of the coastline? Certainly not me, or anyone else, which is why I bring it up again.

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Even with its ageing hackers, Narooma is a pretty quiet kind of place, especially in a midweek in winter when the temperature has dipped to something around nineteen degrees. It’s tough going, having to put a light jumper on as the sun disappears behind Gulaga, pondering whether to have fish and chips for dinner or wait until tomorrow.

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While I know Narooma pretty well, the first night in a strange place always seems to lead to a fitful sleep, even when you’ve opted to forego fish and chips. Waking too early the next day, the murmurings of RN Breakfast do little to inspire or send me back to doze, so I head out into the dark. I love this time of day, especially beside the ocean; facing east as the black fades to blue and grey and red and yellow, and shafts of sunlight glitter off the sea. The sun kisses the layers of morning cloud, spreading to the tops of trees, and illuminating the coffee shop on the hill. A beacon which makes the reward of an early start in Australia all the better.

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With plenty of the day still ahead I took the car for a little explore south of Narooma, stopping first in the so-good-they-named-it-twice hamlet of Tilba Tilba before heading on to the relative bustle of Central Tilba. This is a corner of the county oozing genuine charm, with plenty of tin roofs and lacework awnings, flower-filled yards and rustic leftovers. By Australian standards it’s usually a green and lush place as well, which is great for local dairy products; but even here the drought looked to be taking its yellowing toll.

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Given my early start it was probably pushing it to head to the bakery in Central Tilba for local produce straight away, so I took a gentle amble along the track which eventually leads to the top of Gulaga, the dominant, forest-clad peak of the area, spiritually significant to the local Yuin people. You can walk to the top, but I wasn’t really in the mood and I heard that summit views were lacking. The valley was perfectly happy enough.

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Did I mention dairy products? One of my favourite topics which, back in 1996, probably didn’t come with any moral distaste from ethically sourced eco-vegan leftists typing away on their not-so-pure iPhones. I guess at a philosophical level, there is valid debate as to whether we can still have our cake and eat it? At an individual level, the answer was a resounding yes. Not only in Tilba, home to Jersey Cows and related outputs. But also in Bodalla, a pitstop on my journey into and out of Narooma and for all journeys this way in the future. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

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South of Tilba, the main highway veers off towards Bermagui, along a splendid road of eucalyptus forest and the shores of Wallaga Lake. The maps indicate a few coastal rock formations here, names suggesting a likeness to horses and camels which enticed me to explore with the hope of discovering an Australian Durdle Door or Bedruthan Step. While there was not quite the same grandeur, the coastal scenery, now bathed in warm sunshine, proved a tonic after that massive apple turnover.

It was pleasing to discover I was on part of the ‘Great South Coast Walk’ according to a few signposts. This doesn’t appear to be an official trail but may yet develop into something more formal. One of my bugbears with Australia is that it doesn’t seem to have the same right to roam philosophy as the UK. Huge tracts of land are locked up in private hands or just downright inaccessible unless you have Ray Mears on hand with a machete and / or a big gas guzzling ute. Being able to just rock up anywhere on the coast and walk has an appeal unmatched. See, for example, South West Coast Path.

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It was along this walk, overlooking the expanse of Wallaga Lake, that I learnt of another resemblance in the landscape around here. Gulaga is a pregnant woman, partly explaining its significance to the Yuin people who were here well, well before 1996. Today, its fertility abounds as a cluster of whales drift down the coast, mother and calf distant white caps sporadically splashing in the rich waters.

I probably wouldn’t have spotted the whales if it wasn’t for a couple of retired locals staked out on a headland near Horse Head Rock. For me, this is usually the most successful method of spotting wildlife. If you’re driving in country Australia and a cluster of people have pulled over to look up at a tree, there’s a fair chance you’ll get to see a koala. The other way you tend to discover local wildlife is when you nearly run it over. Beware Wombats.

nar11Spurred on by earlier whale sightings I ended the day back up near Narooma, taking a scenic coastal drive alongside Dalmeny and Kianga which boasts several panoramic viewing platforms along the way. The platforms are sited in between yet more pristine bays that you can have all to yourself. It was at the last of these points that I glanced a surfing dolphin, followed by a few more and a few more still. Passing below, there must have been around twenty dolphins, tracking north on a feeding mission. A whole two football teams.

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I doubt I would have seen dolphins in 1996. Nor would I be questioning the prospect of snow in August, even counting for British weather. Today, this was a possibility heading back to Canberra thanks to a vigorous succession of cold fronts coming from the Antarctic. My solution was to linger down on the coast for as long as possible.

It was undoubtedly windy, but the skies were blue and with a little shelter you could sit comfortably in a light sweater or even T-shirt. Neither of which were really possible in the blustery settings of Cullendulla Creek and the nearby Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens, but these were attractive diversions nonetheless. At the gardens, the stronger gusts were a tad alarming and it felt only a matter of time before a branch would fall on my head. Mercifully it didn’t, and the march towards Spring carried on.

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Just north of Batemans Bay – and the road junction back to Canberra – the graceful, tall spotted eucalypts of Murramarang National Park were probably less appealing to walk through today. Especially when picking a walk that follows a ridgeline facing the bay, directly exposed to the strong southwesterlies. The crashing chaos, the constant buffeting, the noise and fury do not entice a pause to look up and marvel. Impulsion instead for a brisk pace and the hope of respite on the other side. And what gentle and idyllic contrast this proves.

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A bay with no-one and nothing. Nothing but calm clear waters, untouched sand and the backing of a gently whispering bush. A driftwood log, downed in some other storm and also finding its way to this paradise, is now a perfect setting for a late lunch. The breathlessness is not only in the air, the warmth not only on the outside. Perhaps even in 2019, these are still the days, this is still the life.

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Exhausting

I love how there are so many different roads meandering through the English countryside, linking villages that you never knew existed; undistinguishable places called something like Dompywell Saddlebag or West Northclumptonbrook, typically boasting a new speed bump and a church roof appeal from the 1980s. It’s a situation converse to Australia, where a few main roads emanate from the cities and towns, off which a handful of mysterious dirt tracks disperse into nothing. Setting off from home for a country drive in Australia is exhausted in four or five trips. Whereas in England the possibilities seem infinite.

When I say roads, of course, most are only a little wider than a Nissan Micra, especially in Devon, where they are also frequently clogged with tractors. Farming is still king – I think – in the South Hams, though tourism, teashops and production of Let’s Escape To Buy An Expensive Seaside Residence With Five Bedrooms And A Private Mooring On The Estuary To Get Through Our Retirement In The Sun TV shows prosper.

When the sun does appear, there is hardly anywhere more contented; there must be some primeval appeal in the lusciousness of those voluptuous green hills and snaking river valleys, the sheen of golden sands recently cleansed by the ebb and flow of a shimmering sea.

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Remembering this is England, the sun of course doesn’t always shine and in the spring-like indecision that is early May it can be a fickle environment in which to salivate. At Bigbury-on-Sea, raincoats, fleeces and hot chocolates might be required while waiting for a break in the clouds. Temptation abounds to get back in the car and turn around; but you’ve paid for that parking now and you are British, and you’ll courageously stick it out like MEPs campaigning against their very existence (Customary Brexit Reference: tick). You have to be patient staying in this particular part of the world, but the benefits in doing so are clear and tangible.

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A bit further down the A-road mostly suitable for two cars to pass, the town of Salcombe boasts a rather desirable ambience, even on another cloudy and cool day. Tucked inside the Kingsbridge Estuary it has some of the most golden sand and emerald water around, lapping at elegant houses and dense woodland thickets. There is a palpable sense of envy from the smattering of visitors strolling past the homes and gardens perched with lofty views across the water. I could live here, we all bitterly seethe in our heads.

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sd04No doubt many of the loftier residents of Salcombe were in jovial mood; not only from their elevated perch surveying the ambling peasants seeking a cheap pasty, but with the news of a royal baby to join the ranks. Does it have a name yet? I can’t even remember. Have the Daily Mail criticised the parents yet? Oh probably.

One of the perks of Salcombe are the options for food and drink, many of which come with waterside tables and a brief taste of refinement. Mum and I commenced the day at North Sands and a somewhat quirky café – The Winking Prawn – serving coffee (and for future reference, buffet breakfast). We then did the amble along the water and fancy homes to the town centre, where the usual offerings of pastry products, ice creams, pub food, overpriced crab bits and line caught organic fish goujons with quadruple cooked fondant sweet potato discs were up for grabs. Probably the best looking things were a tray of Chelsea Buns in a bakery, swiftly bagged and taken home for trouncing the Arsenal.

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Really, it should have been a day for a Salcombe Dairy ice cream, the delicious embodiment of the verdant landscape all around. But after a bone-chilling ferry ride to South Sands, the moment had gone. Perhaps for another day.

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Plymouth to Dartmouth is not the quickest affair despite only being around 30 miles apart. One option includes the tortuous A379 through thatched villages that become irretrievably clogged in battles between buses and B&M Bargains trucks – threading a camel through the eye of a needle is a doddle by comparison. Or there is the route via Totnes, which seems a bit too zig-zaggy to appear logical. An alternative cut through just past Avonwick was a new discovery that proved highly effective on the way almost there, and highly ridiculous on the way back.

One of the joys of that cut through, in the morning at least, was finding yet another road that took me through even more unknown villages as pretty as a picture, following river valleys and archetypal ten foot hedgerows and fields of newly minted lambs. The sun was shining too, and my meteorological calculations to head east appeared to be paying off.

It was also joyous to have a functioning car, without an exhaust dangling onto the road and probably projecting sparks onto the windscreen of a doddery couple heading to the post office. This happened later, on the A3122 at Collaton Cross, about a mile after the BP garage and before Woodlands Adventure Park. Details etched into my brain to guide the saviour that was the breakdown truck towards us.

sd07And so, the unexpected and unplanned once again yields some of the most memorable moments. Waiting in a small layby among the gorgeous fields of Devon in the warming sunshine could be worse. Being patched up and guided to Totnes for repairs by endearing locals eager to provide a helping hand (and earn some pennies) proved heart-warming. Spending a few hours in Totnes, charmed and enlightened by good coffee, markets overflowing with abundance and leafy riverside walks. And the satisfaction of rediscovering batter bits with malt vinegar (good work Mum!)

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Killing time in Totnes wasn’t too much of a chore in the end, and it was partway along a path following the River Dart that we got the call that the car was fit and ready. It had been an eventful day covering a lot of ground, but I was determined to head to where I had originally planned, several hours earlier. Another slice of succulent South Devon that oozes curvaceously into the sea.

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sd09Such are the ample proportions of the landscape here that the coast path between Strete and Blackpool Sands struggles to keep to the coast. The barriers are too immense, and the trail cuts inland as it dips down towards the bay. But this too is something of a blessing, for not only do you make it without falling to an inevitable death into the sea, but you become once again immersed into a countryside apparently so  utopian. Farming must still be productive here, despite the temptation to become a campsite or a tearoom or a paddock for some pampered hobby horses.

The coast path comes back to the shore via a row of thatched cottages that could have almost been deliberately placed there to charm dewy-eyed tourists like myself. The fine shingle of Blackpool Sands lends a bright and airy light even through the sunshine of the morning is rare. And down near the shingle, a café, winding down for the day has some Salcombe Dairy on tap.

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After fish and chips and batter bits there is hardly need for additional gluttony. But this is a land of overindulgence, of profligate abundance, blessed with more than its ample share of what makes life good. And I still have one of those gorgeous hills to climb to get back to the car, a climb that is incessant and delightful and my own private nirvana full of ice cream and South Devon. A climb and a day entirely, wonderfully, exhausting.

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