In what can only be taken as a positive sign, I will soon need a visit to a petrol station. The last such experience was on Monday 13th September at 10:20am, a level of precision recorded in posterity – or at least for one month – by the magic of QR code. Looking back at it now, it felt a risky manoeuvre at the time, beyond the boundaries of my self-administered geographical bubble, justified in my mind by being significantly cheaper and twinned with the prospect of a different coffee shop. It was quite the holiday.
Since that date, the petrol gauge dipped in small increments only to hasten in more recent days. Friday 1st October granted the freedom for human beings to enter national parks – or a national park more precisely – and outlying nature reserves within the boundaries of the ACT. Just in time for a long weekend that would see newfound lovers of national parks and nature reserves flock to suffocate them with their devotion.
I was primed to wait, to let the suddenly-engaged nature enthusiasts have their maskless moment in the sun. But then I awoke early on the Monday – infuriatingly early given daylight savings had just kicked in – and saw an opportunity too good to pass.
An open road had been an object of desire for many weeks. Being Canberra there have been empty roads and there have been open vistas but never have these situations quite provided that sensation of travelling in a landscape. Of countryside flying past your window in an everchanging composition of shapes and colours and light and space. Each second a unique expression of time and place curated for your eyes only.
And what expressions of time and place these proved. Just out of town on the road to Tharwa, a countryside cloaked in misty lingerings and golden dew. Sturdy ranges rise up from sweeping grasslands, scattered with the withered trunks and branches of old gum tree. Cows and sheep and the odd outbuilding catch the eye, mere dots on a magnificent green canvas stretching to the sky. And oh how green.
If I were restrained within a bubble for but a few minutes this sight would still make my heart sing. And now that it is here again, I want it all the more.
I can leave the car and venture out on foot into the fringes of Namadgi National Park. Already at the Visitor Centre a dozen or so cars are parked up as their inhabitants embrace the outdoors. The trail – worn from good rains and the numerous footsteps of a long weekend – cuts a muddy swathe towards the looming summit of Mount Tennent, still capped by its own personal cloud. Today, that exertion is far from my goal. I want to linger and learn.
For all the joyous expansiveness of the landscape, topped off with flask tea on a seat at the Cypress Pine Lookout, I am distracted, fascinated, heartened by the more miniscule. The work of nature overcoming winter, recovering from fire, embracing spring. All emerging into the world once more.
One of my attempts at Lockdown 2 Self Improvement Projects has been aligned to the season and the pursuit (and somewhat more challenging identification) of our native wildflowers. Provided with generous encouragement and impetus, I have found this a satisfying, almost addictive pursuit, one that can easily turn an hour walk into two.
So, from the fragrant myrtles to the delicate orchids, the indecipherable varieties of pea to the bulbous generosity of golden lilies, there is so much to discover. Far and near, it truly is spectacular how much you can see when you actually look. Checking out as much as checking in.
Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t say I’m especially fond of a cracked phone screen on top of a magpie attack on top of an earthquake on top of a lockdown on top of a pandemic. Served up with a hearty dollop of impending nuclear Armageddon intersecting with blistering fire and dust super tornados. No, Wednesday you didn’t particularly rock my world.
Frankly, out of all those, the bloody magpie irks me the most. How dare you take away the satisfaction and soothing of my allotted outdoor exercise time in lovely spring sunshine. And mean another pathway is added to the blacklist. The pathways are busy enough as they are with all these people in various states of mask undress discovering pathways for the very first time. Why don’t you attack them, stupid magpie? Oh, that’s right, you remember me, but yet conveniently you don’t remember how I have never once tried to steal your babies in all those years, you bloody shit.
If there is any positive, the magpie at least adds a bit of frisson to another daily outing in the same part of suburbia. Six weeks in, the confines of living within a vague radius or region are starting to grate. There are only so many times – for instance – you can wander upon Red Hill without getting weary of the same route. On the most recent occasion, I found myself annoyed with an endless procession of joggers and dogs not on leads and family gatherings. Eroding the sensations usually associated with an escape to and immersion in nature. Sounds, sights, space shrinking.
An actual problem looking for a solution, I find myself more often than not heading off track. A little out of the way. Not exactly bush-bashing, more weaving between weeds. There are still a few spots in which to escape around the Woden zone. I probably shouldn’t share them here but figure a readership of six people – many of whom are not in Canberra – is not going to cause a sudden ruination of my life. If it does, I’ll know who to blame. And set that magpie upon you…
The Old Mugga Mugga Way
If Red Hill is akin to Fitness First every goddam afternoon, Mount Mugga Mugga Reserve is more like that rusty bench press underneath a pile of boxes at the back of the garage. Fringing the weirdness of O’Malley, it seems the varied diplomats and consuls who inhabit the area rarely go out to exercise. Perhaps like most aliens they have been cowed by those great tales of deadly inhabitants of the Australian bush. Preferring the safety and comfort of their own little piece of soil.
The Centenary Trail runs through the reserve and introduced me to the area back in the good old days of 2020. A few people still come and go along this thoroughfare but it’s simple to veer off onto a number of faint tracks and choose your own adventure. The landscape is a very Canberra mix of weedy incursions and precious Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum grassy woodland, replete with gnarly old eucalypts and their generous, homely hollows.
One particular tree has fallen, and I have taken to it on several occasions to perch and drink tea from a flask and eat a treat and watch Gang-gangs fly past while kangaroos graze and deadly inhabitants of the Australian bush lurk in the crevices of the fallen tree on which I am sat.
The whole flask of tea thing has become another more frequent happening in my life in recent weeks; I don’t know why I haven’t thought of it much before. Perhaps I simply wasn’t quite of an age. But pandemics and magpie attacks have a way of adding on the years, transforming a simple flask of tea in the middle of the bush into something that feels much more precious.
Isaacs Off Piste Ridge
Mount Mugga Mugga itself is scarred by a quarry and the summit appears fenced off, thus remaining that rare Canberra hill not trampled upon by my own two feet. Yet it’s just one lump in a broad range extending from Red Hill south towards the Tuggeranong Valley. Adjoining Mugga Mugga, Isaacs Ridge proves popular for its pine trails and dog walks and boasts an archetypal trig marker summit loop with 360 degree views.
That all sounds a bit mainstream for me at the moment, so I veer off the fine balcony trail lapping at the foot of the ridge and decide to head up cross country. There is a very faint track at first, which slowly blends into a landscape of open grassland and rocky scrub. Over a false summit, a field of thistly plants remains quelled by winter – give it a month or two and the going will come with greater hazard. A random copse of casuarina appears as if some long-forgotten scientific experiment, offering a landmark to follow slowly upwards to the top of the ridge. And lo and behold, a photogenic gum tree, with some fallen logs for a rest (and possible tea).
From here, there are views east to that far off land of New South Wales. There is countryside and Mugga Lane and quarrying work and possibly even just a little part of the tip. But mostly it’s countryside. There is also the white trig marker visible to the south, acting as a beacon to aim for, navigating the rocky boulders and grasses of the ridge and returning to the mainstream.
The Murrumbidgee Vista Rocky Outcrop
For several weeks, Cooleman Ridge was proving one of those ambiguous places in the application and interpretation of local coronavirus restrictions. Is it in the Woden, Weston and Molonglo region or is it Tuggeranong? Is it within five kilometres of home or six and a half or eight? The answers are yes and sometimes you just have to ask the question does it actually matter?
One of those days was a lunchtime and instead of a flask of tea I packed up some crackers, nuts and cheese and went on a quest for the perfect place to snack. Eschewing the usual, well-defined summit rocks and strategically-situated benches I veered off towards a hillock I had eyed up in the past. A few gum trees stood atop resistant, hosting flurries of wattlebird and passing rosellas. Imagine by delight that under one of them was the perfectly positioned, home-crafted seat.
Someone had been here before looking for the ideal situation to escape to the country. A kindred spirit. And if a backdrop of lush farmland cloaking a river valley beneath forested hills isn’t enough, check out those crackers and cheese and nuts from Kingaroy. Off track snack pack perfection.
The Oakey Dokey Hill with bonus Hummock
Along with off track adventures one of the permissible things I have been doing virtually every day is picking up a takeaway coffee. It is the stuff of contact tracing nightmares and triggers the inner COVID police in me every time. Quit loitering. Stand away from me. Stop touching your face. Don’t order multiple coffees with various shades of milk for your entire bubble.
I’m also – naturally given current confines – alternating my takeaways between a mere handful of proximate cafes, constantly hoping they fail to materialise on the exposure site listing. In Lyons, Stand By Me offers something that is walkable from home and – should I wish to venture further – can be incorporated on a climb of Oakey Hill.
Of the six hilly nature reserves forming a horseshoe around the Woden Valley, Oakey Hill is probably the least fashionable and most unkempt. Power pylons compete with decommissioned water reservoirs and temporary fencing. The flora seems more degraded, more weedy, more battered and bruised by the elements. Still, there is a nice bench beside the trig marker if it’s vacant and a little used side track that offers good views out to the mountains.
Across from the reserve, a green corridor lines the divide between Lyons and Curtin. From here, more slivers of green penetrate into suburbia, one of which hosts a determinedly vicious magpie. Nowadays I avoid that particular route and instead continue around the outside of Curtin on a track that at one point takes on the appearance of pasture. It forms part of what has become a fairly regular ten kilometre bike jaunt which culminates in a different takeaway coffee at Red Brick.
Along this way, at the back of Curtin, there is a hummock which takes me away too. Behind, fences protect garden refuges with trampolines and lemon trees and potting sheds and shrubs of shady bottlebrush. But in front there are fields of green and skies of blue. On the horizon, the distinctive angles of the Brindabellas promise at much more freedom. And I am whisked away to a place far from busily exercising humans and irritating magpies and daily case numbers and limited coffee options. I am taken again off track.
My better instincts tell me not to add to the infinite pile of mediocrity written about lockdowns. Enough of the wry observations on human behaviour and knowing, self-satisfied quips about sourdough. But forgive me one indulgence: I absolutely hate myself every time I realise I am rolling my eyes or muttering under my breath about a misplaced mask or a small cluster of people sitting on open grass simply trying to get through life as best they can. I absolutely hate that we all now have a little COVID police officer within us.
When out and about I should really focus instead on the threat of magpies and the impending advent of flies hassling my face. These are, perversely, bright spots of our times. Reassurance that there is a normal, no matter if that involves a petulant bird trying to peck out your eyes. There are many bright spots right now.
Take Sunday morning. Scenes of Emma Raducanu and an awesome kid on a bike coming together with an awesome adult on a bike. Out in the real world another awesome kid on a bike warmed me with a good morning greeting on the way for coffee. Sun was out, bees were buzzing, magpies were lurking. Shorts were on.
Bare legs couldn’t remain all day, the weather typical of spring: one day it’s all throw open the doors, the next retreat back into your cave. Nonetheless, the joy of spring is as enduring and as uplifting as ever.
Favourite – and very local – spring spots include a clutch of trees next to Chifley shops transforming into a tunnel of pink, a cul-de-sac in Curtin that is equally as resplendent in autumn, and the natural blooms of Woden Cemetery.
The cemetery is a funny one, not that you hear anyone laughing. Here is open space on my doorstep that I conscientiously tiptoed around for a few years, driven by some hallowed sense of not wanting to intrude. Should a place of grief and loss really also be a place for me to ramble around seeking joy and delight? Well, in the full gamut of emotions that make us human, yes, or at least I have convinced myself of that in a lockdown during spring. And there is something undeniably poetic in the new life flourishing among the tombstones that I suspect many passing souls would beam a broad smile at.
Nearby, the rocks and stones scattered on a small piece of bushland between Garran and Hughes marvel at equally magnificent transformation. This is most apparent in the explosion of golden wattle, so full and vibrant and unashamedly Australian that is hard not to feel borderline okay about the batting average of S.P.D. Smith. Gang-gangs and galahs and annoying myna birds provide the backing for the exquisite melodies of our wonderful magpies. Everything feels industrious here, with a touch of ornithological romance and floral perfume in the air.
Each bead of effervescent wattle bloom is a bright spot. As is each elongated creak of a Gang-gang, each delicate petal of cherry blossom, each sun-glazed afternoon where you can throw on some shorts until the chill returns. Marry these with uplifting moments of human endeavour and achievement and connection and compassion and you have enough bright spots to form a whole constellation. A sky of stars so powerful it can even eclipse those inner COVID police, for a while.
Do you remember the time when you could leave footprints in the sand to melt away with the tide? Or take walks within forests as the sun scatters golden through a canopy of spotted gum? Can you recall when you could linger on a bench to feast on deep fried fruits of the sea? And what about that period when Australia really was the place to be?
I do, but it feels a long time ago, even though it was little over a month. With opportunity and freedom I had journeyed to the coast, cognisant of wintry weather in Canberra and the pervasive feeling that you might not be able to do this again. For a while.
I had found a quiet kind of place to stay in North Durras. The kind of place you might hunker down to see out a pandemic. A place where the biggest drama at this point in time was the wind, though where small reminders of far more disastrous natural events stir the mind. The wind quelled the temperature and whipped up sandy frenzy, but it was still an improvement on Canberra. And an invigorating reminder of the power of nature.
Not that I was thanking the wind when the power went down, just as I was about to settle into an evening escaping on a tour around France. I had to read and that felt like hard work when you really just want to lounge as lazily as possible. Thank goodness for the lights coming back on and the Col de Tourmalet.
Around North Durras I made friends with some King Parrots and Kangaroos, explored the sands and forests, and found my way wandering along the waterways as they infiltrate inland. Always across the channel, signs of South Durras peeked above the scrub and I wondered if there was a strong rivalry between the two. The South were probably boastful of having a shop while the North derided snooty Canberra-by-Sea.
Just for a while I had to remove myself from such unlikely drama. It was Saturday morning, and I was hoping for that perfect combination of sheltered sunshine and oceanside coffee strolling. I aimed for Bawley Point, noting some positive signs in my research: small bays protected from the south-easterly; a coffee caravan on a headland with a strong showing on TripAdvisor; Canberra-by-Sea.
At least the bays were sublime.
For some reason, the thought crossed my mind that Barry Cassidy had a holiday home in Bawley Point and hung out with Mike Bowers while Heather was off on some back road cracking a horse whip with Old Reggie Mundoon of Canowindra. This will mean nothing to any English readers, and most Australians too. Anyway, I think I remember this because Mike posted a picture of plumes of smoke from Bazza’s ample deck around the Christmas of 2019.
I could’ve watched Barry’s successors waffle on about ineptitude and continue to needlessly debate the pros and cons of lockdowns on the ABC on Sunday morning. But why do that when I can just take a few steps from my cabin and expose myself to a world of beautiful calm. From the abundant forest full of melodies to the glassy clear water stretching across to the south. No wind and a beaming radiance to lift the soul.
This would be a fine place to ride out a pandemic, though it could handle a decent café otherwise I may not survive. To ensure an improvement on the day before I left North Durras and drove south to Mossy Point, where there is a reliable spot for coffee. And a raspberry and white chocolate muffin. Just because.
The day was continuing to sparkle, and I was in no rush to head back home. With hardly a breath of wind it would’ve been the perfect day for a bike ride. Perhaps heading from Moruya along the river and out through pasture towards the ocean at Moruya Heads. You could pack some lunch and eat it in a sheltered bay, glistening under warm sunshine. Good job I packed my bike and prized $16 bike rack.
Doesn’t it look nice?
There was a beach at Moruya Heads – Shelly Beach – that offered the kind of nirvana that would prove an entirely effective crescendo to a piece of writing. The very essence of what I was seeking on this little break to the south coast of New South Wales in winter. Comfort, delight, beauty, and a quiet spot to sit in a T-shirt. I could have gone full shorts, but none were packed.
An ice cream would’ve hit the spot too, but I had to cycle back to Moruya – including over what felt like a mini Tourmalet – and then drive a fifty kilometre round trip. I mean, I didn’t have to take a fifty kilometre round trip but no, really I did. I’d done fish and chips, I’d done coffee by the sea and now I needed a double shot of Bodalla Dairy.
Another moment to treasure, to add to the bank of dream times to remember. And to look forward to when they are there to spoil us again.
While we waver towards probable lockdown at some point down the road, a certainty to hold on to is the march of spring. I can start to sense it in the evenings that are still light at 5:30, in the alarm call of birds beginning a stout defence of their nest, in the explosion of green and gold wattle somehow reminding me of many a repeat during the Channel 7 Olympic coverage.
In Australia, winter doesn’t always feel as distinguishable. What Queenslanders call winter certainly is not. In Bondi you can quite comfortably be parading minimal activewear in July, taking essential exercise to hang around in the line for takeaway coffee. Even Canberra – while frequently subjected to alarmist rhetoric and gloating Queenslanders – is still no Ice Planet Hoth.
Snow remains a novelty, especially in the city. Occasionally, hail masquerades or something between drizzle and sleet briefly descends. The only real flurry is in the resultant Facebook posts proclaiming snow. If it is snow, it is a very Plymouth kind of snow, with the same building anticipation and ultimate let down.
As in Plymouth, you must head up. And up and up, towards the high country in the sky. You can drive there on a weekend with thousands of others to enjoy traffic jams and diesel slush or put in the hard yards and discover a pristine winter wilderness by foot.
I go for the latter, though the hard yards are harder and many more yards than I initially hope. At Mountain Creek car park in Tidbinbilla I hope for a rerun of a previous time in this spot, when a good covering of fresh snow blanketed minty forest trees and the fire trails nearby. I hope to experience winter in its fullness in a matter of minutes, with enough time to retreat and find a warming café. I hope I have not dragged myself, my car, and my friend Alex out here in vain.
We set out on the Camels Hump Trail, with no intention of actually going to Camels Hump. Just enough altitude gain to reach the snow line. It’s steep at first, but that would mean we get to the snow quickly. Eventually, the first speckled dusting appears on some leaves. The first sprinkling upon the muddy brown fire trail emerges, disturbed by the tracks of a vehicle that has been fortunate enough to climb this way. By time the tracks vanish under a proper covering of snow, we are closer to the top.
The trail has levelled off enough to encourage continuation, each step forward bringing incremental increase in snow cover, providing that uniquely satisfying sensation that comes with a Size 9 imprint. Between the laden eucalypts, views to the bare countryside glow from down below. Ahead, a pyramidical outcrop looks very much the mountain.
This was Camels Hump. After a year and a half I thought I may have exhausted all possibilities, but this was a new one. The fire trail ends, and the remaining track to the summit is through tunnels of low trees iced in white. The way ahead is almost indecipherable, the thought of descent alarming. I call it quits on a particular slippery rock and wait for Alex to return. Happy to watch the weather rapidly pass over Johns Peak.
After what seemed forever, Alex does return. I’m relieved there is no need to call on emergency services. I’m equally as relieved to hear the summit is enshrouded in dense shrubbery, without any visual reward. The visual reward is simply all around me, in this very winter wonderland.
The buzz. The excitement. The nerves. The never-in-my-lifetime strangeness underpinned by a back catalogue of disappointment. The sense of hope, exhilaration, and gut-wrenching drama more often than not deflated by events. The inevitable post-mortem punditry and scapegoating and resignation and acceptance. But maybe – just maybe – this time will be different.
If ever there was a weekend to finally come home this would be it. But I’ll be in bed, 12,000 miles away, turning on the bright lights of a laptop at five in the morning. Thinking about Italian coffee and chocolate digestives to perk me up. Minus three degrees in my shirt.
It’s a bed in a home that I haven’t written about for a good half a year, what with other more exciting jaunts. Canberra is still here, still going through its motions, still – touching wood – absent of coronavirus despite the best efforts of our neighbours. Still understated and beguiling, fortunate and free. Offering abundant life and opportunity if only you should look.
Over that time, Canberra has been doing what Canberra does, transitioning slowly but surely through the bursts of colour of autumn towards morning fogs which (usually) lift to reveal brilliant blue afternoons. It’s the time of year when continental superspreading sporting events disrupt sleep and sub-zero mornings add to the challenge of getting out from under the doona. A time when travel bubbles pop and masks finally become a thing. But do not despair. There is always fresh air.
From the reliable vistas atop Red Hill, a quick jaunt up the road once the laptop powers down. Winter light always doing something special just before five in the afternoon. A warm angelic glow spreads over the rising towers of Woden, the hospital and the Pfizer vaccination hub. Kangaroos munch unaware. Some things change and some things don’t.
Rapidly contesting with Red Hill as my favourite nature reserve, Cooleman Ridge offers great reward for minimal effort. Fringing the west of Weston, the reserve boasts fine views back over Canberra but the real splendour is on the other side. Paddock. Hills. Forest. Mountains. A Murrumbidgee Valley creation. With suburban sprawl and hoonish echoes fading behind the ridge, it is a country walk in a city. And because so much of the Australian countryside is shamefully locked behind fence and gate and no trespassing signs, this is a real treasure.
The treasures of Mulligans Flat are perhaps a little less obvious – and much more likely to emerge at night. But this place is a sanctuary for humans and animals alike. It is another place that has grown on me through a pandemic, from the initial Centenary Trail crossing to volunteer tasks hassling echidnas and wallabies and turtles. As is oft-mentioned on a twilight tour, the dams were dry back when we were enshrouded in smoke. Today they come alive.
A bigger dam sits further west, lapping at a much bigger wilderness. When you stop and think about it, it is quite something that you can be picking up a good coffee at the neighbourhood shops and fifteen minutes later staring out towards this. Cotter Dam vistas shrink and stretch as you rise further into the sky, reaching a new summit at Mount McDonald.
Another new summit is added to my life experience when I take the dirt trail up to Mount Jerrabomberra. I have ventured beyond Canberra, though only just, and only before the latest Bondi-fed outbreak (just in case some paramilitary border goon decides this is reason enough to bar me from Western Australia for twenty years). I have come to Queanbeyan for the rare opportunity of coffee and cake at three in the afternoon, discovering a café that actually opens beyond two. Why is this not more of a thing? Especially when you can easily walk a few crumbs off afterwards.
It is becoming harder to discover new things like this in the backyard, but I am not there yet; Coronavirus may have to last another twenty years for that to materialise, something I would dearly love not to happen. I would love instead to walk in the Alps again, to hike along the downs of southern England chasing butterflies, to stroll through the Barbican and up to Plymouth Hoe, snaffling some fudge and an ice cream along the way.
But do not despair. I discover a winter’s walk alongside the clear water of the Tidbinbilla River, striking out through green forest singing in the aromas of fresh peppermint. Occasional early wattle pops golden and soothes like honey. There are views towards rocky crags and precipitous ridges and – down the track – a little home: Nil Desperandum. It has been restored to cuteness and if only they had a kettle with some tea and perhaps freshly baked scones waiting, the walk back wouldn’t have seemed such a chore.
Nil desperandum. Whenever or whatever might come home, do not despair.
Two weeks on holiday normally wouldn’t be such a strange thing. But it seems a pretty big deal these days. In the world BC, holidays would involve a month crisscrossing the UK in search of friends, family, scones and ales. Plus a European side trip featuring alps of snow and mountains of cheese. One day I’ll make it home again.
However, over the years I’ve come to think of home as more than a singular physicality. There are homes and, following the big bike ride, I needed to somehow find my way from Point B – Caloundra in Queensland – to Point A – Home, Canberra.
It had been a hectic holiday really, and I had visions of a couple of days nestled beside the ocean in some mild clime with good coffee. Perhaps a pool to soothe aching muscles. And a regular ice cream jaunt in the afternoon before taking in the final golden light of sundown. Alas, the weather forecast didn’t look especially conducive to this fantasy so – once again – I opted for the John Denver approach to travelling home.
Still, this wasn’t before at least taking in the sand and water on the Sunshine Coast. It was a brief foray, in between heavy showers and ocean chop at Alexandra Headland. Nearby, the Sunshine Plaza didn’t really offer a brighter disposition but eventually I located some much sought after rocky road. For later.
Faring Jason well with the understanding that we will one day again reunite for rail trail cycling magnificence, I fired up the four wheels and headed west. The road home was all smooth to start, taking me back – as it happened – into a land previously criss-crossed on two wheels. The second time around offered an opportunity to right some wrongs.
The first was pausing to marvel at the Kilcoy Yowie, which I had failed to note when we drove through here on the way to start our bike ride. It’s just, well, I cannot really explain. Further on, once more in Blackbutt, I called into the bakery where I scored a coffee and was confronted with the kind of display that causes indecisive cake-lovers like me to break out in a cold sweat. I think I went for sticky date fudge slice when pressed.
After the kilometre zero of Yarraman, the road led on towards Kingaroy. The extent of my knowledge about Kingaroy is absolute peanuts. Which is pretty spot on, given the area is famed for the cultivation of kernels. When in Kingaroy, Go Nuts is not the motto on the town sign, but you should at least stop by the Peanut Van. And if you want a taste of the manic, pop to the local Woolworths.
I was stocking up for the return to camping with a laser-like focus on making it as minimal effort as possible. Banana for breakfast. Packet soup for dinner, with a carrot and five frozen gyoza to add some bulk. Tent popped up, cooking by torchlight would never be so satisfying, and soup proved perfect in the cold.
At altitude in Bunya Mountains National Park it was surprising how cold things were, given I was still in Queensland. The Bunya Mountains rise up distinctly from the surrounding plains, a wild island among the productive downs. It is very much an island of biodiversity, illustrated by the large swathes of unique Bunya Pine. These giant, Monkey Puzzle type trees only grow naturally here and in a few smaller, dispersed pockets further north.
The trees yield massive cones which offered good tucker for Aboriginal Australians. When I see one in the small visitor centre, I am relieved my walking for the day has finished. Not only do you need to be wary of snakes, spiders, ticks, and stinging trees, but giant bloody cones falling on your noggin as well.
I absorbed the Bunya Mountains with a nice loop walk through dense forest, following lush gullies and creeks and occasionally peering out of the woods to see Queensland below. The gentle chirping of birds was a constant, but the dappled light and dark undergrowth made it impossible to sight any of the blighters. The forest had the becalmed air and melody of one of those meditation soundtracks cobbled together on Spotify by a bearded man wearing loose flowery pants.
Not that this led to a relaxing night. While I managed to get fairly snug, gusts of wind provoked regular rattling of canvas. With fitful rest, I rose early the next morning to discover my head in the clouds. With patience, this would rise and fall in swirls, chinks in the gloom revealing a sunny day unfolding for the Darling Downs.
Gravity would propel my car that way, rapidly plunging from the Bunya Mountains towards Dalby, where the day was indeed sunny. Dalby seems every bit a forgettable town, neither obviously appalling nor exceptionally outstanding. This is perfectly encapsulated by the popularity of a Coffee Club and Brumby’s Bakery on the high street.
Out of Dalby, large cotton fields once again spilled out towards the horizon. It is one of the regrets of the trip that I never managed to find a spot where I could brake abruptly and take a photo of them. Instead, here’s a metal yabbie at Moonie next to tennis courts and much sought after public toilets.
Moonie was little more than a junction on the way to Goondiwindi, a border town receiving attention over the past year for its checkpoints ensuring Queenslanders are kept safe from nasty viruses prior to a state election. As a border town it possesses all the essentials, retaining the chain store vibe of Dalby for passers-by who simply yearn for a bit of predictability. For lunch I grabbed some takeaway from Red Rooster, before a fuel stop and then a frozen coke from McDonalds to take me into New South Wales.
Crossing the border, one step closer to home. Yet still a million miles away. It certainly felt that way once my frozen coke had run out and I found myself on a bumpy road through endless fields of grain. The road – between Boggabilla and Warialda – was doing few favours to my left shoulder and arm, which had now developed post-cycling strain and pain.
In my ideal version of today I was reaching Bingara by two, allowing time for a relaxing nap before a potter around. But I’ve continued to underestimate Australia and the quest of driving across it. It was pretty much four when I checked into a motel – cheap, basic but welcoming in a countrified beige blanket kind of way. And not camping. One of the two double beds still looked good for a nap.
I vaguely remember passing through Bingara on another trip back from Queensland, the town now an intersection with the past. That time around I had come through Inverell and Myall Creek on my way to Narrabri and the Warrumbungles. Again attempting to cover a million miles in a day, I didn’t even stop here, but remember it conveyed a surprising rustic charm.
In the remaining light of day I therefore walked down to the Gwydir River and back into town where clusters of tradie and caravanning couples were gathering for Friday night dinner outside the pub. Along the high street, trees turned auburn signalled the passage of time and place that had gone on since I left home. And with the sun dipping over the hills, there was a tangible chill in the air. And plenty of chilli on my pizza.
Bingara enjoys a fine setting, nestled in a valley backed by rolling ranges. It’s technically in New England and feels that little bit closer to civilisation, if civilisation is Tamworth. I took in the surrounds from a lookout high upon one of many hills, wondering if I could see my destination. But that was still a long way off.
The road between Bingara and Narrabri must surely rank as a hidden gem. In between the two towns, the crazy volcanic landscape of Mount Kaputar National Park infiltrates, regularly revealing golden panoramas and rugged lumps thrust upward from the horizon. It’s one of those landscapes that makes you want to stop at regular intervals, eating yet again into your estimated journey time.
With a lunch date in the diary, I didn’t really have time to pause. I was in two minds whether to stop at Sawn Rocks, but being only a few hundred metres walk from the car park I figured I could squeeze such spectacle in. This is one of Australia’s best ‘organ-pipe’ rock formations, created in geological tumult and chaos. An experience I’m sure my car was feeling for the rest of the day.
I am not going to profess to taking it any faster than 110kph of course as I progressed towards Narrabri. The sacrifice for Sawn Rocks was no coffee in Narrabri and no wee in Wee Waa. By time I reached the small settlement of Pilliga I was more than ready to pause for some brief relief.
Pilliga is – shock horror – in the heart of The Pilliga, a vast, largely flat plain of sprawling dry forest and sandy soil. At one point – and I may have been hallucinating by that stage – I passed three camels. There was no chance to stop, and I’m not entirely sure if they were on a large farm or simply roaming wild. But the fact that you can easily imagine them roaming wild here says everything about the type of environment you are in.
Talking of wildlife, did I expect to find myself in Coonamble again? Well, yes, but I never expected I would be so ecstatic at reaching the place. Oh, there’s that spot I got chased by rabid dogs. Over there, the only café open on Sunday. There’s the river, languid and brown. The supermarket with the chemical mice killer aroma. The partly constructed public toilets embroiled in drama. And the home just out of town where I can again feel at home.
My plans were vague and uncertain and once pork belly was mentioned for dinner I knew this would be my spot for the night. Before dinner, lunch, a mere 45 minutes out of town. The Armatree Hotel is the best pub in town, the only pub in town, practically the only building in town. It has character and authenticity soaking through the wooden floorboards, corrugated iron bar, and XXXX on tap. Out back, the outback. And a beer garden, lively with get togethers and celebration of another week fulfilled.
I like the fact that I can come away from the Armatree Hotel having chatted to an old codger in a ten gallon cowboy hat while we both emptied the contents of our bladders. “Great place out here, hey”. Sure is mate, sure is.
After a restorative night, it finally was time for a homecoming. Coonamble to Canberra in one hit is a pretty lengthy affair but once through Dubbo (and a much-needed stop for coffee), the drive was pretty enjoyable. The weather had closed in and rain was falling as I reached Molong, giving the place an added autumnal melancholy. All across the Central West, trees were exploding crimson and gold in small towns like Cudal and on toward Cowra.
The rain had stopped and things were brighter by time I reached fairly familiar territory in Cowra. Not so long to go now. Just need a final country coffee to push me on, eclipsed by a delicious treat…because I am still on holiday after all. Just about. Down the road, Boorowa. Then Yass. Murrumbateman. Hall. And at last, home.
I had entered the point of no return. Doors closing behind me, confronted by a depleted selection of pre-cooked yellow food. A smoky, greasy vapour emanated from behind the counter. Around one of the square Formica tables, a trio of young people huddled around a carton of chips.
I had rolled into Injune desperate for a pick-me-up to push me on to the end of the road. For coffee this was the last outpost. And like a rabbit in headlights I was now captive. I had to order. Miraculously, I spotted a handwritten note on one of those fluorescent orange stars. Iced latte for $5.50. Coffee, ice, and milk which surely wouldn’t turn into a complete hash. Relief. A safer proposition than the risk of first degree burns.
Happily – should you find yourself in the situation – you’ll find iced latte and a pack of 39 cent custard creams from Aldi a winning combination on the Carnarvon Highway between Injune and Rolleston. It propels you into a more interesting landscape with plateaus rising up to the east and west. The road, finally, allows a speed limit of 110kph. And then you turn off, to fulfil a few goals and dreams.
I remember when Carnarvon National Park first piqued my interest. It was in a Qantas magazine, back when flying was more of a thing. I was probably on the last plane out of Sydney after some stupid meeting, feasting on two crackers and a vomit-coloured dip. A double-page photograph of intricately textured sandstone, a dark narrow fissure, vibrant green ferns, and the dizzying perspective provided by a human figure felt a long way away.
It’s a credit to that Qantas magazine that they managed to condense Carnarvon National Park into a few glossy pages. It’s also a credit to the professional photographers who managed to fit it all in. The vast, monotone plains in the surrounding landscape truly situate this as an oasis. The solitude required to get there leads to stimulus galore.
Hyper-stimulation first emerges a few kilometres outside the park. People and Hiluxes amass, caravans are adorned with satellite dishes, trailers, awnings and everything including the kitchen sink. There may even be – in the middle of Queensland – a large boat or two. Instantly I know this is not my type of campground. But there is little other choice and I set up home for two nights, conscious of beady eyes judging my unfolding canvas.
Many of the people I talk to are here for a week, maybe two. They can afford to spend whole days sitting in a fold-up chair playing candy crush. I have one complete day to head into the gorge, go as far as I can, and turn back again. One whole day that is immense in so many ways.
My phone tells me it was a 41,397 step kind of day, taking me along 29.1 kilometres. It was a day that started around six in the morning, when I parked up near the visitor centre. There was an orderly-looking campground here but for some reason it is only open during school holidays. Still, I took advantage of one of the many tables to make a cuppa and eat some breakfast, free from the guilt of disturbing the old folk getting their beauty sleep.
The walk starts with a sign of things to come: a crossing of Carnarvon Creek via a series of stepping stones. The first crossing is easy, reassuring everyone who finds themselves on this path to strike out further into the wilderness. Others later on require a bit more planning and a touch of blind faith. But don’t let this put you off. Just grab a big stick and think of the reward.
The gorge is said to extend for 30 kilometres, but the day walk goes as far as Big Bend, where there is a carry-in campground for those intrepid enough to explore further. Along the way, nature has created a series of incredible rock features, shady pools, and slot canyons, while original inhabitants have left their own mark. It is these spectacles – reached via shortish detours from the main trail – that create a natural itinerary to the walk, numbered like stops on a coach tour. Only here, self-propulsion is the required vehicle, and the only souvenir stands are those that assemble within your mind. And do they sure etch their way into it…
Reaching the first stop seems to take forever, but I think that comes down to an eagerness to get there. It’s akin to sitting in the back of the car as a child, heading for a day at the beach. The side track also requires a little creek crossing and climbing of steps, penetrating into a small, fern-filled gully.
What can I say about the Moss Garden? It’s mossy and moist, fed by a narrow creek spilling into several clear pools. It’s the kind of garden that might be constructed at some expense in a billionaire megalomaniac’s estate, funded by worker exploitation and home shopping. Or constructed in the airport of some oil rich emirate to show off to the world. But nothing contrived here, just thousands and thousands of years of nature. Water, rock, vegetation. Gathering in blissful harmony.
If the Moss Garden was beautiful in a serene kind of way, the Amphitheatre is, fittingly, all head-shaking drama. I think this is the setting for that double-page spread in the Qantas magazine many years back and you would need to be a professional photographer with a mega-wide angle lens and tripod and hours of patience waiting for the right light to come anywhere close to evoking the feeling of being in this place.
At first, you wouldn’t expect much. Nothing to see here. But walking towards giant luminous sandstone walls you notice a small doorway at their foot. And a series of metal steps up to the entrance. It is a crack perhaps little more than a metre, a corridor into a cavernous courtyard of wonder. Above, a small window to the sky, afoot a delicate display of vibrant ferns. It cries out for a massive “COOEE!” but somehow feels too reverential for that. A handful of people, myself included, just sit and soak it all in.
The National Gallery of Australia is much more accessible and has a better café than the Art Gallery in Carnarvon Gorge. But you won’t find a 62 metre natural sandstone wall featuring over 2,000 engravings, ochre stencils, and free-hand paintings. The stencilling is considered to be some of the finest and most-sophisticated of its kind in their world.
This sacred spot serves a reminder that this is the land of the Bidjara and Karingbal People, and you are lucky enough to be here for a fleeting moment in time.
Many people culminate their walk at the Art Gallery fulfilled, turning around and heading back home for an afternoon rest. The next stop up the gorge is four kilometres distant, and the track grading increases a notch on the scale. There are more stones to traverse and one creek crossing in particular requires a degree in trigonometry and dose of good fortune.
I’m glad I pushed on though, for this section is perhaps the most scenic. The main trail sticks closer to the rocky course of Carnarvon Creek, and sheer-sided multicoloured outcrops begin to press in on both sides. Palms and ferns and eucalyptus gather in the valley, nurturing colourful butterfly and chirpy birds, while emerald pools attract fast-moving dragonfly.
As a destination, Cathedral Cave undoubtedly has a spiritual quality, hosting further displays of Aboriginal art. It also possesses that echoey ambience formed from the hollow of a massive rock overhang. A chamber of secrets. Peaceful and shady, the benches situated opposite the walls encourage lingering. A rest before the return journey.
But don’t turn around! After Cathedral Cave, it’s a kilometre or so on to the end of the trail at Big Bend, but I neither had the energy nor the desire to visit a camping area. Just 200 metres on from Cathedral Cave, however, another dry creek cuts in from the west. At first, it’s nothing special, just an unending collection of large pebbles that make walking a little more taxing. But pursue further and you enter Boowinda Gorge.
This I found the most staggering spectacle of the day. I can’t really explain. Nature has formed something that engineering genius and billions of dollars would struggle to replicate. Curving walls, pebble paths, ferns and trees flourishing where chinks of light again emerge. And I had it all to myself.
I’m all for saving the best to last, especially when it comes to roast dinners. But what goes up must come down and, as much as I tried to conjure up a helicopter taxi from Big Bend, the return journey needed to be undertaken. On the plus side, things were still incredibly scenic the second time around, stepping stone confidence was sky-high, and I had a few Aldi custard creams to perk me up when needed.
There was also Wards Canyon, one of the stops between the Amphitheatre and Art Gallery which I had saved for the journey home. As lovely as this was – think more small cascades and rocky walled gullies – I can’t help but think my impression was overshadowed by weariness and the wonders that had gone before. It also took a bit of a climb and used up the last custard cream.
To get back to the car, I started to concentrate more on the little things. Some of the butterflies that would never settle. The blur of small birds flitting between shrubs. The red and blue dragonflies hovering above water. The people passing me by, saying G’day and inquiring just how much further it was to so and so. Push on, I encouraged, and don’t miss Boowinda Gorge.
In all honesty though, the last hour turned into a bit of a drag. There were a surprising number of steps and undulations that I didn’t notice in my excited state on the way out. The light was now brighter, the heat of the day well and truly upon us. Creek crossings were less an adventure, more a chore. My feet hurt.
Towards the end I was pretty much walking at the same pace as a man a hundred metres in front of me. It came as no great surprise when he let out a thank feck kind of “yahoo” upon sighting the visitor centre. I didn’t need empathy training to totally get it.
And so my walk in Carnarvon Gorge, years in the making, had reached its conclusion. I felt happy and fulfilled and in desperate need of a shower, cup of tea, slice of Christmas cake and a nap. Unfortunately, Takarakka ‘Bush Resort’ had other ideas. I returned to find I had neighbours, sat outside their caravan under the awning, playing candy crush and listening to the radio. Other neighbours were setting up with a clink of a camp kitchen here and a thud of a mallet there. Four-by-fours rocked up every few minutes, engines idling as they checked in at reception. The shower, tea and cake were divine. The nap non-existent.
At least I slept well that night. Very well, for tenting. Still, I was awake before sunrise so made a bit of noise and headed up a track to a nearby hill. A few other people were there, including a dad with a wide-awake baby and a couple of what I would say are younger boomers. The sunrise was – fleetingly – dramatic, while the younger boomers were lovely.
We chatted for a good while. They had arrived yesterday and were staying for a week. I was off to 1770 today. I passed on my tips and wished them a wonderful stay. They wished me well for my big bike ride. We parted, me feeling a little more favourable towards caravanning boomers, and them possibly thinking he is never going to manage that bike ride. Maybe.
Keen to get moving, and also keen to avoid the amenities block that was always dirty whenever I had to use it, I passed up the opportunity of a shower and hit the road. Yet instead of turning left, back to the highway, I veered right. I had come so far and something was bugging me. This had been years in the making, and when would I ever be here again?
When I arrived in Carnarvon National Park on Tuesday afternoon, I used the last of the daylight to explore a short walking trail along Mickey Creek. It was a simple and – in hindsight – relatively undramatic stroll. But that is only until the formed trail ends.
A bag left on a rock signalled I wouldn’t be the only one transitioning from a gentle amble to a rock-hopping adventure. Beyond the stones and the ferns, an entrance led into a narrowing gap. Walls closing in, the sound of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ travelling down the chasm encouraged further exploration.
There was only really one spot that was a little challenging – in that I might get my feet wet. But I could do it. And so could my sunrise friends who I met again on the way out. So much better than just sitting outside your caravan playing candy crush. We both agreed, and I felt envious of the wondrous discoveries that still awaited them.
Farewell friends, and farewell finally this most magnificent oasis.
That could have been a good ending, but the road never ends. Neither does this blog post but all I can say if you are labouring is just imagine living and breathing it as opposed to a mere skim-read in your PJs.
After endeavours at Carnarvon, I planned a bit of R&R on the Queensland coast, 550km away. Worryingly I was desperate for a coffee by time I reached Rolleston, only a hundred clicks in. Even more worryingly, Rolleston didn’t look up to much. But beside the public toilets in a park, a cute caravan had popped up selling coffee and a few light snacks. The owner was charming and chatty, and I really really really wanted her coffee to be good. But scalding hot country ways are always difficult to cast off.
There is little to note between Rolleston and Biloela. The road, almost arrow straight, offers frequent car stopping bays and I realise these are essentially unofficial toilet stops as I recycle my coffee in a hedge. The highlight of this section of the road should really be the town of Banana, in Banana Shire. Yet, there is no comedy sized fibro banana or Banana World Theme Park incorporating Mango Village. A large sign erected for losers like me actually informs the world that Banana was named after a big bullock. Surrounded by coalfields, this is peak QLD.
Sadly, the only thing I knew of Biloela was the Australian Government’s really tough posturing to lock up a couple with two young children who were seeking asylum here. They now sit festering on an offshore island. The #hometobilo movement made me feel warm towards Biloela. The family in question had become part of the community, and the community part of them. They simply want their community back.
I didn’t find out much more about Biloela in my brief stop there. It didn’t seem the most appealing place, but then it is far more appealing than – say – a war zone or dictatorship inclined to ethnic-cleansing. Petrol was cheaper here, and I was surprised at the quality of coffee and a slice from the bakery – this is more like it. Road trip essentials.
Almost as Australian-sounding as locking up dark-skinned people seeking protection is the Bruce Highway. For me, it was a bit of a milestone, a sign that I had reached the Queensland coast. But like most highways along the east coast, the ocean is still miles away. And, hitting the highway south of Gladstone, the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy were still 90 minutes away.
A sign that I was pretty much over the drive came when I didn’t even stop for a ‘big crab’ at Miriam Vale. It wasn’t that big, looking more like an elaborate shop sign than anything. And I don’t really like crab, stemming I think from my brother taunting me with crab claws as a kid. The same can be said for peanut butter, but I did at least stab his hand with a fork when he tried to steal some of my chips.
1770 clearly stands out from the crowd just by being a number. That was some good marketing by Lieutenant Cook and Joe Banks when they decided to make their second stop in Australia at this spot; I think Joe had seen some plants that took his fancy. If you look on the map, you will see a marker for the 1770 toilets, which you can only hope have been updated since they visited.
Confusingly 1770 has the postcode of 4667. So – in a remarkable turnaround for Australian abbreviation – it is often spelled out as Seventeen-Seventy. It also typically gets lumped together with its southern neighbour, Agnes Water. And I was staying on a campground between the two. Let me tell you the joy of driving past tents and awnings and trailers to take up home in a cabin with a double bed and kitchen and bathroom. The closest I will ever get to feeling all North Shore Sydney.
And so, with good rest, I had a lovely day in the Towns of Agnes Water and Seventeen-Seventy. In preparation for what is to come, I decided to explore it by bike. There were beaches and lookouts and a lovely coffee in some lovely gardens, embellished with sweet baklava. It was the best coffee in a long while, a clear indication this is a coastal location on the up.
Beyond the coffee stop, I was delighted by the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk. It wasn’t especially long but well worth the additional cycle up a small incline. Among the stands of paperbark, butterflies frequently floated and birds sang with joy. A nice way to get off the two wheels and stretch the legs.
Being beside the coast I had long targeted fish and chips during my stay here, which I gorged on beside the water on the wharf in 1770. Gorging again. The downside to this was that it required an uphill climb back to my cabin and a post-lunch nap. Later in the day, I returned to 1770 by car, and walked out to the headland, hopeful, like many others, that sundown would put on a decent show.
Now Saturday morning, I had been travelling for little over a week. I’d be leaving the ocean today and in memory of this I felt that getting a takeaway coffee first thing and sipping it on the beach would be a perfect moment. Situated next to a waterfront campground, the coffee took an age but when it came it was everything I had hoped for. Order and civilisation were being restored.
And so, next up Caloundra and then the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail. Heading south, I briefly paused in Bundaberg, picking up some provisions and a gift for my cycling buddy, Jason. Never would a $16 bike rack from Kmart prove so popular.
My final stop was in Childers, one last pause before hitting the elongated development of the Sunshine Coast. I had arrived, it would seem, in a town of coffee extremism. Ten minutes out of town, billboards implored me to stop at The Drunk Bean or Insane Caffeine. Nine hundred kilometres after Injune, the sound of coffee insanity appealed. It had largely been madness the whole way.
You’d have to be slightly crazy to drive six hours just to visit the Gilgandra Rural Museum. Yet craziness is exactly the vibe. Assembled outside, various mechanical contraptions seek to separate wheat from chaff or draw water from the ground or power the transistor radio of old Sheepwash Charley of Dunedoo. Among the pioneering relics, random two-dimensional figures play out a scene which probably didn’t make the final cut of the original Ned Kelly movie. All the while, the incredible Man on the Thunder Box remains impassive.
I didn’t travel six hours for the Gilgandra Rural Museum, but paused for one final stop before setting out for Coonamble. For me, Gilgandra signified a final outpost of familiarity if not necessarily civilisation. Along the way, more gentrified country towns like Boorowa and Cowra and Molong had breezed on by. A stop in Wellington illuminated both the charm and economic fragility of life in a country town, while the major centre of Dubbo came with all the drawn out trappings of tractor dealerships, coffee clubs and chequered fashion wear.
It was after Dubbo that I first encountered a finger or two. A single raised pinky from fellow drivers attempting to overcome the boredom of the Newell Highway. They obviously hadn’t stopped at the Gilgandra Rural Museum for there was little cheer or energy in their movements. More an obliging duty to signify they are alive and to acknowledge the presence of other lifeforms.
It is never clear when, where or why the finger zone starts or ends. Remoteness plays a key role, but then some areas of barren desolation barely provoke a twitch. This confuses me to the extent that some people get the finger, others get a V sign, others a full hand and, when I have faced enough rejection for one day, the rest receive absolutely nothing. One of the worst feelings in the world is being too late to acknowledge a cheerfully waving man in an akubra as he whizzes by south, just because you have been spurned one too many a time.
Another hour of this kept me mildly entertained as I broke new ground on the Castlereagh Highway. Occasionally the road’s namesake river snaked nearby, sandy with pools of water nurturing gum trees and fields of weedy yellow flowers. Corrugated metal galahs counted down the approach to Gulargambone, while a fence emblazoned with a big G’DAY greeted me as I left town. Late in the day, Coonamble embraced me with fiery skies and the smell of mice disinfectant.
I had come to Coonamble as part of a bigger trip on my way to Queensland. And while there was distraction in its artistic water tower and a sense of disappointment in its Nickname Hall of Fame (not even being so bad to be good), the main purpose of the stopover was to visit old – and young – friends.
And so good food, company, and row row row your boat was the main order of events, delivered in abundance. I did sample hot coffee from both local cafes and discovered the intricacies of a remote town of 2,000 people where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
One late afternoon I even went for a little bike ride, which was quite delightful at first, cruising along flat countryside lanes and discovering a peaceful spot by the river. Then I ended up in town and got chased quite aggressively by the obligatory roaming hounds. The full Coonamble experience.
One of the plus points to Coonamble is its proximity (at least in regional Australia terms) to Warrumbungle National Park. A jumble of volcanic lumps and spires rise up prominently from the flat surrounds, tantalising from afar in every direction. A dirt road takes us to a spectacular reveal of this massif from the west, before becoming more deeply immersed into the heart of the park.
I’ve done longer, signature hikes here before but with little Henry enjoying shooing flies in a backpack we take on a shorter walk to Tara Cave. Still, it’s a delight featuring a small creek crossing and burgeoning bushland, rising up to reach an interesting shelter with signs of tool-sharpening from many centuries before David Bowie put on some red shoes and danced. And being in the north west of the park, a balcony view reveals the splendid panorama of this wonderful land.
On the other side of the Warrumbungles is the town of Coonabarabran. I discover this is known locally as ‘Coona’, even by the Coonamble locals who might also claim that moniker. Coona is a pleasant enough place, with an extravagantly decorated and tasty Chinese restaurant and – the piece de resistance – a Woolworths. Coming from Coonamble, there is something utopian about entering a supermarket with fresh produce and aisle upon aisle of comforting familiarity. Like a child in a candy shop. Or Francois in a fromagerie.
And so, a final fresh dinner on Sunday night and another fine breakfast the following morning sets me up for the journey ahead. It’s a long and lonely road, and I feel a touch flat about leaving a world of comfort and companionship. After an hour or so, Walgett appears, which is hardly the kind of place to lift a funk. Fuel, toilet, and a crossing of the Barwon River at least interrupt the journey.
The river is fascinating in its own way – still partly in flood thanks to storms several weeks ago in an area many hundreds of kilometres distant. Waters progress at the rate of Australia’s vaccine roll out, gradually collecting into wide channels and floodplains, seeping slowly through the interior. Eventually these waters will meet the Darling, which will meet the Murray and then find their way to enter the Southern Ocean southeast of Adelaide. They are taking a far more leisurely trip than me.
After the Barwon, the landscape alternates between wide flat expanses of saltbush and clusters of hardy eucalyptus forming around further pools of floodwater. Emu sightings are becoming commonplace and as I near Lightning Ridge, the most astounding sighting yet: an emu comprised of steel girders, car parts and a whole VW Beetle. Stanley the Emu is – according to Tripadvisor – only number 8 of 17 things to do in Lightning Ridge. I clearly need to take the short detour to visit this place.
Lightning Ridge is not just a flashy name but offers some genuine drawcards. There are artesian bore baths and a house made of bottles and – probably the best of the lot – a gallery featuring Australian classics from John Murray. I almost buy a signed print of a rich red sky over a dusty outback road to remember my trip by, but figure it is far too early in the trip. Damage from dust or mice or man-eating snakes would probably become its fate.
A spot of fossicking may provide some funding for such works of art though. Lightning Ridge is best known for its opals, which have been heavily mined and continue to be sought after today. All around town, deposits of rock form in small mounds and people still come to set up a home among the pickings. Corrugated metal and rust are a predominant theme which, set into a glaring white earth and fierce sky, offer a certain Mad Max vibe.
Seriously hoping Mel Gibson is not out in town harassing people I decide it’s time to move on and head north. Well into uncharted territory, even finger waves become few and far between on the way to the Queensland border. In the middle of nowhere, a giant billboard featuring smug people on an idyllic white beach blares “WELCOME TO QUEENSLAND”. A few kilometres further on in Hebel, a ramshackle pub bedecked with golden signs for the insipid state beer confirms the change.
It feels like Queenslanders are – in this part at least – not so much into the finger waves. Perhaps they notice my ACT plates and are suspicious of southerners with their lattes and COVID-19 outbreaks. Gradually the barren landscape around the border appears to become more tamed, more cultivated. Cattle studs, sheep farms, giant silos. I notice fluffy white patches lining the side of the road and correctly deduce the presence of cotton farms. All I really know about cotton is that it is very water-intensive and seems at odds with the land I have come through. But that’s utter Balonne.
I’m not exactly sure how you pronounce Balonne, but it is the big river of the area, part of that same system which will end up in the seas off South Australia. I initially encounter it in the town of St. George, the first place of any size in my progress north. The river lends St. George a somewhat graceful air and no doubt a certain prosperity from cotton and other crops. It’s the kind of spot – at four in the afternoon – that would be perfect as a stop for the night, but I haven’t really made any plans. I decide a cup of tea and slice of Christmas cake will be enough to spur me on for another hour to camp.
Thus I arrive in Surat as the daylight fades. While escaping ferocious heat is a benefit of travelling at this time of year, the downside is the early sinking of the sun. I decide setting up the tent in the dark would be too much of a palaver, so organise my car so that I can sleep in the back. A process which also involved much palaver. But somehow, after 550km on the road, I manage a reasonable, comfortable night of sleep.
As the morning light emerges, I am pleased with my choice of accommodation. The free camping spot in Surat is spacious and shady, next to the river and includes the luxury of a well-kept toilet block with clean, running water. I think havens like this are a good idea for tiny towns in which you probably wouldn’t stop otherwise. Especially for those weary travellers who are in need of a coffee.
Crossing the Balonne again I walk over towards town and follow the course of the river through well-kept parkland with well-kept barbecues and well-kept playgrounds. I am starting to notice just about everything in Surat is well-kept. There is a clear civic pride and welcoming air around the place that you wouldn’t really imagine by just looking at it on the map.
The main street – which is also the Carnarvon Highway – boasts a swanky looking grocery store, a pub and motel, a small museum, a few civic buildings, and a number of bottle trees. I noticed a few of these last night on the drive up and they are impressive specimens which conjure up a touch of African exoticism.
There is also a café doubling up as providore-cum-giftware shop. It’s still before nine in the morning but the sticky date and walnut cake looks too good to pass up, and I feel obliged to support the local economy given the free accommodation. That is, once I finally download ‘Check In QLD’ to add to the growing array of pandemic-related apps cluttering my phone.
I was keen to linger with coffee and cake until nine to poke my head into the museum opposite. This appeared from the outside to boast a little bit of everything. And indeed there was everything from old bottles and wool specimens to bushrangers and drovers around a campfire. A supplementary aquarium contained species from the Balonne and an adjacent art gallery was crammed full of work from one person which can most generously be described as eclectic.
The centrepiece however – and main claim to Surat – is being the setting for the last ever regular service of a Cobb & Co stagecoach in 1924. While life in an old Subaru can seem a little uncomfortable, these coach rides were another matter altogether. Passengers were able to pay handsomely for the privilege of freeing bogged wheels, clambering in tight spaces to shelter from storms, delivering post, opening and closing gates, and occasionally wading through flooded creeks and streams.
Such ardours meant the journeys were slow, and changing stations popped up along the way for a swap out of horses, crew, packages, and people. Cups of tea and plates of scones might have been arranged or accommodation for the night provided if it was getting late. Kind of like a nicer version of a Travelodge on the M42.
While the form of transport might have evolved over the years, it felt like Surat – this most unexpected of well-kept towns – was still engaged in such a modus operandi. Allowing weary travellers like me to take stock and convalesce, to rest heads and bodies, to receive generous nourishment. And most critically, to recover our worn out pinkies so that we can suitably venture out once more into the finger zone.
There is much comedic value in a torn pair of pantaloons. I’m sure for the wallabies it was simply poetic justice. Why detour many miles when you can simply climb a locked gate? And catch your shorts and rip them apart and walk back to your car desperate not to bump into anyone and feel the need to explain to them that you were just spying on the sex lives of wallabies. Pouch empty you say?
I will not elaborate further, other than to say the consequences of these misdemeanours included spending a Sunday lunchtime trying not to overhear the intricate details of random strangers (gammy ankles, shingles, a scratchy throat but not been tested), receiving a shot in the arm that isn’t actually the one I really, really want, and making a late dash to the coast at four in the afternoon.
With inclement weather it was always going to be a last minute affair and my procrastination barometer finally tipped over the edge when it stopped raining and I saw that Tuross Boatshed would be one of the few fish and chip outlets open on a Monday. And thus I dashed through Bungendore, whizzed through Braidwood, shot through Batemans Bay, paused briefly in Moruya, and almost sped past the turn off for Brou Lake. I am now rather pleased I spent $700 fixing my brakes.
Among the beautiful spotted gums betwixt ocean and lake, a national park campground offered the kind of real estate that only someone juiced up on old school superannuation perks and franking credits could dream of. A few of them were here, I figure, sheltering within cavernous COVID-safe caravans and gathering to compare fishing spots. I had the option of sleep in a twenty year old Subaru Outback with shining brake discs or a $200 tent.
Cognisant of time and the fading light, the mattress in the back would have been a reasonable option, especially as I was keen to get some exercise while I could still see. But a home among the gum trees just looked so appealing. Plus I had an ‘instant’ tent after all. And so, as an orange glow finally emerged on the western horizon through the trees, the final peg slid into leafy, yielding ground.
After a stroll and video call 12,000 miles away on the beach, it was pitch black by time I returned for dinner. Fortunately, I had foraged in Moruya Woolworths for a simple gourmet affair of reduced price potato, egg and bacon salad, some leafy lettuce, and a nutritious pack of mini cabanossi. Yes, it was so good even the local possums gathered around the car.
I also had some wine, which may have contributed to the amazing-for-camping feat of falling asleep almost instantaneously. This would have been worthy of celebration if I hadn’t woken around 1am and stayed awake to the sound of the sea for another couple of hours. Oceanside real estate is so overrated.
Of course, you can forgive the incessant roaring truck of an ocean when you wake after a few more hours to stumble upon the sand. With everyone else still snoring away, it’s just you and the pounding surf patiently waiting for the sun to rise. Things are surprisingly chilly and you’re glad you went for the camp style classic hoodie under fleece mismatch. In the cold, the sun seems to take forever to emerge, obscured by that perpetual band of cloud on the distant horizon. Even the birds are starting to get tetchy. But then, all is forgiven again.
They are a fleeting five minutes when – paradoxically – the world seems to stand still. When the land and sea and sky glow amber as one. When nature briefly pauses to take it all in and say thank you. Before getting on with business.
With the sun now higher in the sky I arrive in Dalmeny and endeavour to spin at something a bit lower than 1,600 km/h. More like 8, by time I dawdle and pause at bays and clifftops along the coastal path towards Narooma. I decided to throw my bike in the back of the car and now I am rather glad I did. The path is consistently gorgeous and the weather now mild with only a gentle breeze.
The sandy bays and azure coves appear with as much frequency as old men walking dogs. Dalmeny seems to be full of them this morning, dispatched from getting under the feet of their long-suffering partners. At times they congregate for a chat in the middle of the shared path, seemingly oblivious to the sound of a bell ringing with increasing panic. Startled perhaps at the sight of someone below the age of seventy.
Helpfully for these chaps and others there are little reminders everywhere to ‘scoop a poop’ when out and about with your furry friend. I feel like this was a Kanye West lyric once and – while disturbed – it also makes me feel at least a little younger than the average.
Narooma was a touch more youthful and surprisingly busy for a Monday; I noticed an inordinate number of campervans and caravans and car conversions around Bar Beach. With calm clear waters, pelicans and rays, a boardwalk and a hole in the rock that looks like Australia just across the mouth of the inlet, it has everything going for #vanlife. Apart from much being open on a Monday.
Still, the cycle path continues into town along the quite wonderful Mill Bay boardwalk. There is a pleasing rattle of wheel on wood as you pass over the water, distracted by boats and crabs and fisherfolk. Across the bridge spanning Wagonga Inlet, a café that is actually open proves a milestone of sorts. All that is left is to drink up, turn around and do it all again.
The natural course of events would have resulted in a muffin or caramel slice with coffee in Narooma, but with nothing jumping out and saying “Eat Me” I was content to reserve space for other things. I had, after all, been propelled down this way with thoughts of crispy, salty, fishy batter upon the shores of Tuross Lake. Not that this would have been my first choice but – you guessed it – waterside options in Narooma were closed.
Back in the car, I bypassed the campground and made straight for Tuross, enjoying a long stretch of roadwork along the way. The slower trundle made for observations not normally captured at a hundred kilometres an hour: over Stony Creek, into Bodalla, past the turn off for Potato Point. Here, a sign for a very big and not that bad kind of shop caught my attention. Partly the fact that I had been uttering Potato Point in an Irish lilt for the last five minutes made this feel distinctly Father Ted.
It seems you’re never too far from something a bit odd driving through this craggy island of Australia and perhaps the concentrated parameters of COVID travel have placed such oddities into greater focus. I would never, for instance, usually stop to appreciate a replica pink plane crashing into the ground next to a service station. Nor would I even usually consider buying the sadly defunct and derelict Big Cheese complex in Bodalla. Okay, I lie. It is the ultimate dream.
For now, foodstuffs other than cheese were on my mind and all roads point to potatoes, with fish. The Boatshed at Tuross Lake appears the epitome of the general affluence and good fortune that is Australia. Perched on the water under a big blue sky, boats pull up for a six pack of salt and pepper squid. Mature age cyclists signal their arrival with too-tight clothing and the signature clickety-clack of cleats and soy lattes all round. Spritely retirees discuss the appearance of flathead and mullet while out of the water the fish emerges deep-fried and without any malt vinegar. This is – almost – the life.
While most depart lunch for ample homes with double garages and soft beige décor, I still had a tent standing. For this I was rather glad, not only banishing any lingering damp but offering a cocoon in which to briefly nap. Lolling off to the birds and ocean never felt so relaxing. This is – perhaps – the life.
Refreshed I packed up the tent in impressive time, keen to squeeze in one last thing before returning to a more permanent home. Make that two more things. It dawned on me that I hadn’t even set my feet into the sea. Right about now seemed perfect, especially since the ocean is probably at its warmest at this point in the year. The clear salt water soothed toes and ankles and maybe even knees, but mercifully kept shy of my wallaby-induced fence intrusion.
I should have lingered and in hindsight I should definitely have lingered for another ten minutes at least. But that last thing on the agenda was pressing, and I was concerned I would miss out. With each visit it becomes clear to me that the ice cream at Bodalla Dairy is the absolute best in at least the whole of the radius of coronavirus wanderings from Canberra. If not the southern hemisphere. I could taste a little Devon in it, infusing with the Devon in me*.
As she scooped two generous dollops – one coffee and wattle seed, the other hokey-pokey – the lady taking my electronic money gave me a tender, heartfelt “thank you so much.” As if my custom would somehow make the difference, perhaps allowing them to expand into the sadly defunct Big Cheese complex. But as I replied, taking on board the present and the past 24 hours, in spite of ripped shorts and tetanus dead arm, the pleasure was all mine.
* for the benefit of Antipodean acquaintances I should clarify I mean the English county of Devon, rather than the shocking variety of ham. That would be disgusting.
It is beyond doubt that coronavirus has altered our perception of the exotic. Whether it be Gundagai or the garden centre, there is much greater thrill to be had in what was once so mundane. I kind of like this revived appreciation for what is immediately around us, as we persevere in seeking out that which can still be discovered. A new view, a different seat, a random town. Or even just a change in how we think about the same place.
My first impressions of the Snowy Mountains in Australia were underwhelming; being neither snowy nor particularly mountainous. With more than a passing resemblance to Wales, it was a bit odd in 2006 to come all this way for – well – Wales. But a few years ago, back when such things were possible, I had a brilliant time in North Wales. And in the context of what is and isn’t possible today, the Snowy Mountains seem to eclipse even a perfect hike to Snowdon.
A multitude of brown tourist signs and a $17 entrance fee help to create an expectation around Kosciuszko National Park. A spacious campground in a peaceful setting at Island Bend adds to the holiday feels. It’s only for the one night but when you have an instant tent, one night is as good as a holiday. An hour later, with instant tent finally erect, a cold beer is clearly required.
But this is no place to sit and drink beer all day, well not for me at least. In between a reasonable night of comfortable sleep, there is the Welsh countryside to explore. And, oh boyo, does it deliver far much more in 2021.
Smitten at six in the evening. I think this walk was as much about an ambience, a mood as it was about the open upland panoramas and shimmering river views. It was about the pure sound of that river and the glow of the light. It was about a subtle fragrance like jasmine tea, emanating from the small shrubs and grasses through which a narrow track forged. It was about finding a little lodge perched into the hillside and reaching a swing bridge which would take those more intrepid further. It was about a time and place in which each new step came with the thrill of discovery.
The walk starts in Guthega, one of those small clusters of lodges and chalets which counts as a village up this way. Bustling in winter, these places are weirdly soulless in summer, relative ghost towns seemingly abandoned as a result of a nuclear meltdown or similar. Only occasional voices from balconies hinted at a weekending populace, and numerous cars and trucks formed towards the trailhead, many destined to greet their owners returning from overnight jaunts in the wilderness.
Guthega also exists I suspect due to the dam, where the Snowy River is first brought to a halt on its journey to Marlo. It will be tampered with and drawn from many times on its way to Gippsland, but above the Dam it is truly free to roam. It’s a freedom that rubs off on those who follow it.
The trail officially comes to a terminus at Illawong Lodge, the small building tucked into the hillside. It looks and feels idyllic right at this moment, gazing out over the valley as the sun sinks low. A cold, amber ale would be perfect followed by a bed for the night, but my bed is presumably still standing back at Island Bend.
There is one last hurrah, just down from the lodge. The swing bridge across the river acts as a landmark, a destination, a place to be daring and frolic and to possibly carry on along unofficial, unformed ways. The landscape certainly does its best to suck you in further, and perhaps one day it will. Near the bridge, a new path appears to be undergoing construction, following the river further into the wild to someplace somewhere. There is still more to discover.
Main Range with diversion
I have climbed Mount Kosciusko several times and while there is much to enjoy it’s barely an achievement to rival Kilimanjaro or K2. The route from Thredbo, cable car-assisted, is a family-friendly jaunt, while the quickest way from Charlotte Pass follows a wide trail that incrementally rises without much of a fanfare. By far the best route is to follow the Main Range, crossing the Snowy River and rising to a ridgeline over 2000 metres which plunges over to the west.
Up with the kookaburras I reached Charlotte Pass for brekkie and a cuppa on the most exquisite balcony, the first rays of sun hitting the lofty heights out in front of me. I was heading for somewhere in that direction but hadn’t particularly finalised where. My main desire was to reach a point where I could marvel at the spectacular Western Fall disappearing into the horizon. Carruthers Peak or Mount Twynam would more than suffice.
Immediately the trail is a joy, largely because you are heading downhill to that free-running Snowy River. Halfway down, I encounter another new track being constructed and – guess what – find that it will lead east to Illawong Lodge. An accompanying notice suggests this is part of a planned multi-day walking track and I can again picture a night at that lodge with a cold amber ale on the deck.
For now, I have the Snowy to cross without a swing bridge. A series of boulders offer stepping stones, with only one jagged pyramid causing some complexity. After that, it is easy and getting to the other side without making an absolute tit of yourself in front of experienced hikers coming down from a night in the wilds is almost as satisfying as simply being here.
It is a good job life is sweet because there follows an incessant drag uphill and the prominent hulk of Carruthers Peak (2,145m) still seems a long way off. Along the way, the view down to Blue Lake offers a break and not long after the trail reaches the point at which the landscape plummets dramatically over the other side. It is a spectacular view, heightened by the big reveal as you come over the rise.
It is at this point that the Main Range trail veers left, and you can trace its outline steepening up to the lofty heights of Carruthers. To the right, an old, faint four wheel drive track is not promoted but neither is it barred. My research tells me this leads towards Mount Twynam (2,195m) and while I may not make it that high, I can at least aim for a rocky outcrop closer by.
There, mosses and flowers and hills upon hills upon hills stretching into the distance. Among these hills, the nearby Mount Sentinel stands out as the most jagged, traditional-looking mountain. This could be discovered one day too, but I would like someone else to come along for the ride, as a safeguard.
As tempted as I was to push on from this outcrop, I also figured I had reached my goal for the day with such epic vistas. I had also run out of sunscreen and broken my seven dollar sunglasses, so there was good sense in deciding to return before the day raced towards high noon. Good sense continued with a sandwich stop closer to Blue Lake, a baguette loaded with ham and brie beside a glacial cirque conjuring the pretence of France. C’etait la vie.
After such good sense at not being sucked in by the landscape at previous points, the sandwich gave me fortitude to have a nosy closer to Blue Lake. And then a faint track led towards Hedley Tarn before it simply vanished.
I spent a good 40 minutes trying to figure out a way back across to the Main Range trail, barely a kilometre away and visible thanks to its regular flow of people walking up and down. Encountering boulders and impenetrable shrubs I eventually resigned myself to retracing steps the way I had come.
All this extra energy consumed, and a sun now high in the sky, made me fearful for the final surge: the re-crossing of the Snowy and that godawful climb back up to Charlotte Pass. But in the end, it wasn’t so bad. The other half of my sandwich boosted the energy, and strategic photo stops offered necessary breathers.
While there is pleasure in an ending, those final stops proved bittersweet; captivated with the wild beauty and melancholy that it would soon be left behind. If it takes a pandemic to make me realise how special a place Kosciuszko National Park is, let’s please not have more pandemics. But instead let’s try and remember what it is like to cherish that which we had previously overlooked. Like Wales.
The return of the traditional road trip has been another much vaunted consequence of our most recent history. With nowhere to flee overseas, we are discovering our homelands, our paddocks, our backyards. A large proportion of this adventuring has been undertaken in kitted out camper vans, luxury coaches, or simply a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Canvas roofs have blossomed in trodden fields of green, the sound of mallets beating tent pegs as widespread as cicadas.
Initially when the pandemic hit, and uncertainty was rife, I thought I could do this if it came down to it. Fruit would need to be picked somewhere or fences would still be in need of repair. Possessing a swag, small dome tent and station wagon, sleeping options could be mixed and matched, while the trusty camp kitchen box could cater again for bangers and mash in thirty five degrees. There is a dreamy, deep rose-tinted quality to these visions, one that conveniently overlooks the discomfort, the dirt, the sweat and the toil.
As it turned out, I was lucky enough to be able to sit in front of a computer all day and receive the compensation of a regular income. But these wistful visions of a nomadic life have never quite gone away. The compromise has been day trips into the country, eventually culminating in a night on a mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon. Another night became aborted because – well – I could just make it home, and I began to question my commitment to life almost under the stars.
Yet a new year brings new resolution so we are led to believe, and with the prospect of more distant travel still a distant prospect there is logic to be had in persevering. What if I could make 2021 – or at least the warmest parts of 2021 – the year of the camping weekend? Could this provide – in its own way – a new purpose to fill the void that is the Centenary Trail?
Only time and possibly this blog will tell, but with this idea still racing through my mind like an out-of-control hamster wheel I swiftly purchased a new tent online. Click and collect from BCF in two hours.
I have always poured scorn on BCF, mainly because their adverts of boating, camping, and fishing escapades are layered thick with Australian drongoism. Like you can’t boat, camp or fish if you went to university. Or it is simply unheard of to do these things and care about the environment and refugees and good coffee at the same time. Only blokes in thongs with a nasal dislike of political correctness can go boating, camping, fishing.
I suspect I read too much into it. The process was very efficient. The lady in Fyshwick who handed me my tent was perfectly lovely. A new tent to add to the swag, the 2 person dome, and the mattress in the back of a beat up station wagon.
You may well ask why I even need another tent and I would say that what I need is something that doesn’t give me as much of an excuse to turn back for home. Something that – as I march towards wisdom over youthfulness – is less of an ordeal. What I need is something more akin to glamping than it is to homelessness.
And so that is how I found myself erecting a brand new ‘instant’ four person tent at Mount Clear Campground in the southern part of Namadgi National Park last Sunday. With my pristine tent, deluxe airbed, comfy lounge chair, I looked every part the newbie amateur who had just splashed out on some shiny things for Christmas. Not the hardened traveller who had done three months in a swag and persevered with bangers and mash in thirty-five degree heat.
Only the rumpled, irregular mallet hints at greater experience. With this in hand I pleasingly managed to erect the tent quickly and efficiently, as though I knew what I was doing. To say it is an instant tent is probably an overstatement once you take into account pegs and guy ropes and – should you wish – a shady awning. But it was a reasonably simple erection, and I was happy to find ample room for my deluxe mattress and comfy chair and body standing in an upright position.
The more taxing part was choosing where to pitch the thing, given so many lovely-looking spots. In this respect, an estimation of neighbours is instantly required – deciding between a cluster of boomers and a foursome of millennials, while a BCF loyalist blares out some country and his kids run amok. All potentially troublesome, yet also reassuringly present.
In the end I inched slightly closer to the millennials, which ended up a mistake when they decided to stay up around the campfire until after one. But a home is a home and not only did it stay upright and protect and comfort, but it also came with some of the most generous backyard within our little capital territory.
From settler’s huts to magical vistas, over swampy plains and through one year charred trees. An urge to pee brings staggering night skies, turning to gold as birds and boomers rise. There’s a hike through meadows, there’s wading through a creek, recovering with camp stove coffee and old Christmas cake. And then replenished, full on nature’s bounty, there’s a home to dismantle, and achievement to take.
What is it with people wanting to know about my Christmas holidays? Block out your leave on the leave planner ASAP; HQ would like to know who is around over December and January; Put a bottle of sherry and a mince pie out underneath your reverse cycle air-conditioning if you are going away.
Sorry, have you not heard WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF A PANDEMIC? I can’t make plans at the best of times, give me a break.
A break would be wonderful. There are all sorts of places I would love to go. But come December 24th, when Americans are gathering around log fires of looted furniture and Brits are off to the pub between the hours of 1825 and 1918 except on Tuesdays in Wetherspoons in Barnard Castle, who knows what will be possible? If things really go awry, the Australian news networks may have to rerun last year’s story on how many tonnes of prawns were sold at Sydney Fish Market. I doubt if anyone would notice the difference.
If unprecedented quickly became the word of the year by March, then staycation has been steadily building in the top ten. Other emerging contenders include drug cocktail, unhinged and orange. Indeed, if you look at Instagram fairly regularly it seems that a staycation is becoming quite the thing: book a swanky hotel five minutes from home, lazily graze on avocado eggs for brunch, and top it off with an electric scooter experience upon the foreshore. If you’re lucky you may get a bonus swab shoved into your brains a fortnight later. It’s just like when we used to get the holiday photos back from the chemist.
Lose the swanky hotel, replace avocado eggs with caramel slice, swap out electric scooter with pedal-powered bike and I feel like I have been living a drawn out staycation this entire year. During this era (for it very much feels like an era) I have discovered and rediscovered many a gem in the Australian Capital Territory, from the Murrumbidgee River to Mulligans Flat. But even Canberra is going to struggle to host a staycation for a year.
Days out help. Days out are the new four week overseas holiday sharing food and hugging people. The embrace of local countryside, continuing to flabbergast in its uncharacteristic green, is a welcome one, even when it’s conjuring a wistful mirage of England. Purple Paterson’s Curse and yellow Cape Weed blight the landscape as if heather and gorse. Birds chirrup gaily while simultaneously waiting on a tree branch with murderous intent. Some splendid country towns feel more alive in spite of everything. I feel the pull of these places more than ever. In fact, I think I might even have a road tripping country holiday. If I make plans.
This pull of the country, this allure of the road had me heading off on my most ambitious staycayawayday yet. A good solid two hours down to Jindabyne, in the foot of the Snowy Mountains. I was even considering stopping the night, camping somewhere along the Snowy River. If it were not for the fact that it was a long weekend during school holidays and everywhere was booked out, then I probably would have. If only I could make plans.
Still, the drive to Jindabyne offered a little distraction – calling in at Royalla for free noodles and farewells, pausing in Berridale for an early lunch, and stopping off on the eastern edge of Lake Jindabyne for hearty views. Snow was still visible upon the Main Range, yet it was warming up steadily to highs in the mid-twenties. A day out in shorts had me longing for something more than a staycation. It had the feeling of holidays.
Passing through Jindabyne I entered the very fringe of Kosciuszko National Park, just over the Thredbo River. I didn’t really want to go further up the road into the snow, mainly because I was keen to avoid the hit of a $29 entry fee. The river would be a pleasant place to spend an hour or two, killing time while I wait for winds to please die down so I can go on my bike by the lake pretty please.
Sheltered by steep banks of eucalyptus, the air here was deceptively calm, a striking juxtaposition to the thrashing water flowing downstream. It’s the kind of noise that evokes the pristine, blocking out everything else around and bringing on the urge to pee. A few fly fishers had chanced upon the waters gambling for trout, unconcerned about becoming damp.
Further along, all is again calm, and I spy a grassy glade on which to linger. I’ve followed the Pallaibo Track a couple of kilometres into a clearing, the river penetrating upstream into a steeper sided valley. Following the river into the mountains, a newly laid gravel track loops and winds into the forest. The cambered curves signal this is not only or not even for pedestrians. This is the Lower Thredbo Valley Trail, a thoroughfare for mountain bikes.
Only there are no mountain bikes today. From what I can tell it is still closed for construction work, another one of those stimulus packages conveniently appearing in a marginal electorate. As the hit and miss state of stimulus packages go, it’s one I can get on board with; mountain biking is a pretty good bet to bring in visitors spending money on things like accommodation, food and emergency helicopter evacuation to Canberra Hospital.
A case in point: me spending money on coffee and carrot cake in a Jindabyne café, making my dedicated contribution to the local economy. Following this I set out on my bike along a much more genteel lakeside path. The wind had dropped a touch, but this only served to encourage thousands of horrendous bugs to congregate. I thought for a while my face may come to resemble the front windscreen of a car crossing the Nullarbor.
The nice and easy bike path eventually disappeared to be replaced by a supposedly nice and easy mountain bike trail. Lacking fat tyres and killer protection I wasn’t entirely sure what I would face but, apart from a few rocky nuisances, things were pretty plain sailing. Cows to the left of me, lake views to the right there were fleeting moments of joy that seem to only come on two wheels. Several tranquil bays passed by, culminating at Hatchery Bay where yet more anglers chanced their arm. This was the turn point and the start of the trip home.
Back home for another night home. Yet I was pleased not to be camping here, at least not on the shores of Lake Jindabyne. The campground was building into a frenzy, an escalating shanty town of awnings and eskies and people lounging on ten dollar Big W chairs with a beer in hand. I noted most of the number plates were from NSW – I guess ACT folk mainly escape down the coast. As much as I’m sure it will all be fine, you cannot picture such scenes without a little niggle of coronavirus in the back of your mind.
Watching the sun disappear into clouds on the western horizon, I bade farewell to Jindabyne for a drive through the dark. Really pushing a staycation to the limits. But it was an easy drive, and I was surprised to find the roads so quiet, most people obviously bedding down for the whole weekend.
Midway along the trip I paused in Cooma to support the local economy, including its service station and a deserted KFC. Eating those six wicked wings in my dark car parked on the widest street in the world might sound like I have plumbed new depths. But I have to say they were thoroughly delicious, all washed down by a frozen raspberry lemonade. Finger lickin’ – with antiseptic wipes – good. Who knows – wicked wings for Christmas lunch? Anything is possible without plans.
Wow, I see it was a totally different financial year the last time I posted something on here. What has happened since then? Well, I calculated I’ll probably owe some tax. I decided I’d lodge the return at the last possible moment. And I figured I should get some work to help pay it. Meanwhile, Melbourne happened, Canberra didn’t and Sydney sort of wavered on continual tenterhooks. I opened my first carton of UHT milk purchased in March because it was due to go off. Oh, and I completed the Canberra Centenary Trail. In case you missed it.
Midwinter released its grip in fits and starts. And the seeping light of mornings stirred me closer toward an uncivilised hour. Wakening in the fives, I flit between hope of additional slumber, a boring interview on Radio National, and a curiosity about what might be going on outside. Sometimes this gets the better of me and I heroically part from my cocoon to embrace the day. Waiting for a coffee shop to open.
In that time between sunrise and coffee shop opening I potter through parks or take a drive to a nearby hilltop. It both surprises and comforts to find that I am not the only one out and about, the only one climbing hills, towering over the mist. There is shared solidarity on the hill, unspoken recognition that we are the lucky ones, that everyone else is missing out.
It was on one of these mornings, mid-August, that I went in pursuit of a rainbow over Mount Taylor. A pot of gold would be handy even if the Tax Office are inevitably going to nab a handful of it. Alas, the rainbow had faded by time I parked up, but I walked a while and found treasure elsewhere. The perfect tunnel of cherry blossom in full extravagance. Adjacent to an open coffee shop.
It is hard for me to conclude that spring is starting ever earlier because I’m usually in Europe during August. I return from overseas to a different world, jetlag weariness tempered by the thrum of bees and the tantalising prospect of future months bedecked in shorts. Bundles of flowers sprout from the trees and Bunnings becomes overwhelmed with people buying tomatoes far too early. The temperature trajectory is upward, but don’t remove that electric blanket just yet.
And sure enough, barely days later I was up early on another nearby hill looking out to snow. Not only on the distant ranges – dramatically revealed in the parting of valley mist – but also dusting the upper mound of Mount Taylor itself. Like a frame of pink blossom providing a window to the soul of Mount Fuji, one does not travel downstream to the replenishing river of spring with not first accomplishing the ultimate frozen mountaintop of mangled metaphor.
Dotted among lurid yellow wattle and purple Paterson’s curse sprawling down the hillside, even the kangaroos looked a bit perplexed. Bemused. Ever so slightly pissed off. What the heck was this all about, this most bitter weekend of winter, when there was such colour burgeoning all around? Why on earth are we up so early on this godforsaken windswept ridge to look at snow? Is the coffee shop open yet? Click once for yes, two for no.
Inevitably the following weekend was A-MAZ-ING in a caps lock way that even Donald Trump would find difficult to resist. I feel like I wore a T-shirt sat on a log eating homemade quiche watching an echidna pass by in pursuit of love. I could still see snow on the highest ridge line of the mountains, but 1200 metres lower it was all sunshine and butterflies and frisky monotremes. Surely, definitely, the turning point leading to fake summer.
Indeed, the year moves on and it is strange how quickly and yet how slowly it is going. This weekend would have heralded the start of Floriade – Canberra’s celebration of spring attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to gawp at tulips. But this year it is, of course, cancelled due to you know what. Instead, they have planted bulbs all across the suburbs, a Floriade Local if you like. The closest to me is down by the Youth Centre, so goodness knows how all that will pan out. All I can picture is a scene from The Inbetweeners.
Luckily, us locals don’t really need an organised parade of millions of flowers planted in the pattern of a unicorn pooping stardust to truly appreciate spring. You can just walk out into the street, any street. In 2020 I feel like I have gotten to know my local streets more than ever, witnessing their withered pain during brutal orange summer skies, their relief moving into an autumn technicolour, and their barren stoicism through winter frosts. Now, they are undeniably full of the joys of spring.
And as I continue to wake with the lighter mornings on a regular basis, I experience a microsecond of newfound joy as I pull up the blinds. The trees on my street have been steadily gathering buds then white cauliflower blooms then green shoots. The daffodils stand proud and the marigolds burst like orange lollipops. My snow peas, planted as part of doomsday prep, finally gather some momentum while the kale goes to seed. I may get one stir fry’s worth.
The morning too doesn’t feel as chilly as it used to. And I contemplate going outside. Or returning to bed. Just what time does that coffee shop open again?
Traditionally, the end of June has come to resemble a key juncture in my life: the culmination of the financial year acting as impetus for all sorts of project completions and invoice requirements and quick-turnaround work tasks. Traditionally.
Traditionally I would also, thanks to this purple patch, begin turning my attention to a trip overseas, to Europe, escaping some of winter and connecting again with treasured family and friends. Traditional cream teas would compete with a traditional trip to Looe for a pasty and a traditional offload of dirty laundry to Mum.
But tradition has been chucked out of the window. Of a twenty storey building. Then trampled over by a herd of elephants before being set on fire alongside a car park full of dumpsters. Attempts at home made pasties and Tilba cream prove B-grade substitutes. I continue to do my own laundry. The end-of-financial-year hubbub is subdued.
In many previous years it would have been unimaginable heading for a day out on the 29th June. Unless it was to a beige motel to complete some frantic discussion about something of great importance with eight citizens of Goulburn. All to get the country perspective. Perhaps it was some innate response mechanism propelling me up the Federal Highway today. To get another country perspective.
In COVID escapes from Canberra I think things peaked with a day on the South Coast. A trip to Goulburn was never really going to compete, even if I could stop off at Collector again for coffee. Still, I managed to find a couple of attractions along with a decent, good value spot to pick up some treats for later. Which always helps.
At Marsden Weir, the Wollondilly River forms an attractive body of water by which to amble. On a kink in the river, the sturdy red brick building of the Goulburn Historic Waterworks adds even more spice. There is a touch of Victorian endeavour about it – quite a rarity in Australia – and you can imagine Tony Robinson visiting it on his fourteenth series of Mildly Interesting Places in Regional New South Wales. He would explain how the waterworks were constructed in 1885 and form – wait for it – the “only complete, steam powered municipal water supply left in its original location, in the Southern Hemisphere.” Quite a lot of caveats to prominence there.
Being a weekday in midwinter and almost the end of the tax year there were just a handful of curious souls nosing around at the waterworks. You could – though – imagine banks of people in summer, supping locally-brewed ales and indulging in hearty lunches by the water. Perhaps a nearby cottage would supply cream teas and coffee and walnut cake. This is all in my dreams of course; nothing of the like seems to happen here. But perhaps it should be the way forward when we can all meet again.
Another prominent sight sits atop a hill which I have often glimpsed at a hundred and ten kilometres an hour on the way to Sydney. This is the Rocky Hill War Memorial Tower and there is a road up to its base. The tower was constructed in 1925 and you can walk to the top – after an application of hand sanitiser – to take in the scene. This provides a fine overview of Goulburn, spreading out on the southwestern side of the rail line. In the foreground, Goulburn East has its own, historic village feel going on, segregated from the rest of town by wetlands and a golf course. If I were to live in Goulburn, perhaps I would choose here; it just seems to have a touch more charm.
I ate my takeaway lunch overlooking the landscape from the hill and mulled over what to do for the remainder of the day. Being only lunchtime, I had seemingly exhausted the sights of Goulburn, with the obvious exception of the Big Merino. North of the tower some attractive bushland hills promise exploration but seem devoid of any walking trails. Far better to head to somewhere reliable, somewhere familiar, somewhere spectacular.
Bungonia National Park is probably the closest manifestation of rugged sandstone gorge country to Canberra and – of course – Goulburn. It is a landscape typical of much of the country surrounding the Sydney Basin, with heroic rivers carving out precipitous cliffs and deep ravines. As well as millions of eucalyptus, these landscapes are home to a few of my favourite things, including numerous lookouts.
Having been here several times before, I initially took a walk on the Orange Track. It’s probably the least exciting of the trails but offers a fairly easy stroll through open forest to a pleasant enough view in between the trees. You can tell it’s not going to be the most dramatic walk since the description suggests you might see a koala – surely only there to try and keep the kids occupied. What struck me more than anything was the absolute peace and quiet. Perhaps this was balm to the freneticism and clamour of downtown Goulburn.
It was supposed to be a sunny day today, but any mid-morning brightness had largely disappeared to a layer of white and grey. There were even a few spots of rain as I neared Bungonia Lookdown. Here, a platform leads out towards and dangles over the valley. It is a captivating, spectacular scene dramatically ruined by a quarry nestled in a hilltop to the north. But retaining focus on the valley, a few miracle shafts of sunlight suddenly appear to conjure up some kind of prehistoric lost world.
There is even a hint of rainbow in the air, but this quickly fades along with the sun and the rain. Yet I feel brightened and warmed by this visit and an appreciation once again of how lucky I am to be here today. To have this sort of wilderness on your doorstep. If you consider a ninety minute drive via the city of Goulburn your doorstep.
While Bungonia definitely lifted the day, there was clear benefit in stopping in Goulburn which became realised at my final stop. Adams Lookout provides another stunning view into Bungonia and – in particular – the narrow defile of Slot Canyon. There was something about the squidgy datey syrupy oaty nutty sugary slice that I had bought earlier that lifted things to another level. I daresay I would travel to Goulburn again to get my hands on one.
It was no cream tea but just the tonic to power me home. I even found a different route back which surprised me by being sealed the whole way – down to Tarago and back on familiar roads from Bungendore. Thus to experience the wonders of Bungonia you could actually avoid Goulburn entirely. Though I doubt if I will. I feel more likely a new experience, a new tradition has now been born.