Warmth

Back in January, when we were in the midst of that horrible summer, I proclaimed out loud that I would never complain about winter in Canberra ever again. So there you go. I am absolutely loving the first day of May, with its frigid drizzle and single digit tops. It’s even better than yesterday.

On Tuesday afternoon I was still in shorts, walking up Mount Ainslie. Such are the inconsistencies of change, the indecisiveness of an autumn spanning thirty degree highs to single digit lows. Sunburn in the suburbs and snow on the hills, closed off and out of reach.

I was curious how autumn would pan out this year after the terror summer, the massive hailstorm, the rain, and now the chill. But I shouldn’t have worried because – on this most dismal of days – there are still riots of colour in every other cul-de-sac, around every empty circle. And I’ve had plenty of opportunity to investigate multiple nooks and crannies in these recent weeks. From COVID-walks around the corner to expeditions along the Centenary Trail, there is always something of wonder on offer to brighten up the dark…

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Walks from home, discovering every single street in an effort to mix it up a little

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If you can walk clockwise and put up with the zillions of people getting their mandated exercise, Lake Burley Griffin offers all the usual spectacle

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Red Hill: the street sweeper’s dream

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It’s not only the cockies causing all the shenanigans. Flocks of pretty gang-gangs, vibrant king parrots and stately yellow-tailed black cockatoos are a regular sight feasting on the fruits of summer, and not practising social distancing

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Colours in Campbell, sidestepping from the Centenary Trail

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Look close and there is autumn magic around every corner

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Uplift

Outside is looking remarkable. Outside is looking beautiful. An almost pinch-yourself-is-this-actually-real kind of sensation. One bringing delight rather than dread.

I was sat on a random log the other day, pleasant late afternoon sunshine nourishing the world. Rarely do I sit and stop and watch all the things going on around me: the ants milling about productively, transporting their wares in selfless community organisation; the magpie creeping from one spot of grass to the other, surveying for delicacies, a curious sideways look at my presence; the chirrup, somewhere, of two crimson rosellas, partners for life. The world going about its business.

There is an astonishment in this landscape of such verdant abundance. Where so recently it was so barren. The resilience of nature bearing fruit, flourishing again.

As well as sitting on random logs I randomly tried to capture this transition, this journey, this bounce back. Scrolling my phone for past images, dusty and brown. Attempting to line up positions and angles and replicating shots. Not always easy to know exactly where you have gone before. Fiddling about so much that sometimes it’s just far easier, far more satisfying to give up, sit on a log, and just watch the world.

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The Bullen Range and Brindabellas from Cooleman Ridge, 6 weeks apart

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Remember the smoke?!

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Scenes from Red Hill – 1

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Scenes from Red Hill – 2

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Scenes from Red Hill – 3, with random logs

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Namadgi

It wasn’t love at first site. As national parks go, it’s not in the top tier. There are no obvious spectacles, no grand high tops, no sublime points, no copper canyons, no vernal falls. But it sits there, looking at you, consumer of sunsets and occasional catcher of winter snows. Endearing itself to you by its very persistence.

Namadgi National Park. Canberra’s park, Canberra’s playground; like Dartmoor is to Plymouth or Hampstead Heath is to North London. Before that, for many years before I came here and other strangers came here, special ground for Australia’s first people. Rising to the west, sheltering Australia’s young capital. A rugged wilderness reminding us of what we were and where we have come. And where we still have to go. Enduring still.

Igniting

The lustre of spring radiated across the valley and lifted the soul the way that spring can only do: that warming sun on your face as you cast your eyes upon a celebration of green, a chirpiness matched by the creatures awakening from their slumber. Treading into this world along the valley floor, each footstep a newfound joy, each pause a chance to breathe it all in. An enclave of life and of love, promising halcyon days ahead.

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Monday 27th January: A small plume of smoke appears over a hill as I drive back home. It throws my bearings since it isn’t where I expected to see smoke today. I check Fires Near Me for probably the fifth time this morning and see a new blue diamond symbol has appeared in Namadgi National Park. It has been listed as the Orroral Valley Fire.

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Taking hold

The sky had that washed out tone of winter that threatens but barely delivers. It is the colour of childhood skies beside the sea, when the excitement of snow was dashed by the delivery of icy rain. If you were being generous, you might describe it as sleet, but only that narrow, spitting variety rather than a satisfying splodge. As I climbed through the freshest forest to crest the ridge of Booroomba Rocks, a new squall spilled into the valley of gums below. A wind chill well below zero blew away the cobwebs. And cast a few shards of icy, spitting rain my way.

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Tuesday 28th January: The fire quickly takes hold and becomes uncontrollable, spreading west into Honeysuckle Creek, Apollo Road and climbing up towards the crest of Booroomba Rocks. A large smoke plume intensifies as the day heats up and spreads many miles west, hanging over the Canberra skyline as multiple planes and helicopters disappear into its heart.

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Consuming

We used to have adventures. These often involved hikes to lookouts and – if we were lucky – a bird roll with a view. All across Australia. 2018 offered the comeback tour and an adventure a bit closer to my home.

Older, probably not wiser, I persuaded Jill to join me on the Yerrabi Track, hoping the drag uphill wouldn’t cause consternation. Hopeful that the rocky platform at the end, with a bird roll, with a view, would appease any potential discord at my choice. May I present to you the wilderness. Close to Canberra. And a long way from Norfolk. Or Sydney. A real place to breathe on holiday, or at home.

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Thursday 30th January: A few days of cooler and quieter weather provide some respite and a chance for fire crews to lay down containment lines, large air tankers plying back and forth overhead. While much is done to try to protect properties and cultural assets, the fire continues to feed on the tinder dry heart of Namadgi, spreading down towards Yankee Hat and Boboyan Trig, a key marker on the Yerrabi Track.

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Threatening

From Canberra, Mount Tennent stands sentinel over Namadgi National Park, 1,375 metres into the sky. The first prominent peak as you enter south, looming over the visitor centre and the small village of Tharwa. In spite of this proximity it took me many years to climb. Cypress Pine lookout was usually as far as I made it before arriving at the conclusion that that is more than enough thank you very much.

Sometimes you need the momentum that comes from walking with friends. An encouraging peloton. A crisp morning that warms with the rising sun on your back. Views that deliver over the Monaro, its golden paddocks strewn with the fairy floss of rising mist. Each step up a shared endeavour, summiting a shared prize. Victors in a deep blue sky, miniscule among uninterrupted green.

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Friday 31st January: The temperature nudges towards 42 degrees and the fire threat escalates, creating spot fires which push into NSW. Authorities publish worst case projections for the fire spread that – should they come to bear – would spill further down from the summit of Mount Tennent and consume Tharwa, before entering the far southern suburbs of Canberra. The ACT declares a state of emergency and the city is on edge.

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Tearing south

I can recall the pleasure in discovering something new; a circular trail in the deepest dirt roadiest section of the southern ACT that scored high on the effort-reward ratio. It was nearing Christmas and I had been in the city that morning, catching up for coffee and passing on gifts. By afternoon I was gently climbing up through forest onto the ridge of Shanahans Mountain. The reward: a fluffy clouded blue sky hanging over the wild contours and emptiness of the Clear Range. Christmas had come early, a new vista my present.

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Saturday 1st February: A brutal day of solid northwest winds and temperatures reaching 43 degrees expanded the fire quickly southeast across NSW and upon settlements around the Monaro Highway, including Bumbalong, Colinton and Bredbo. While Tharwa and suburban Canberra dodged a bullet, around a dozen homes were destroyed, principally around Bumbalong as fire raced over the Clear Range and engulfed properties.

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Creeping north

I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than the scrunch of footsteps upon fresh snow. While chaotically parked cars and excitable humans rapidly transform Corin Forest into dirty slush, ahead of me is a virginal path of white. It took some effort to reach. Lung-busting in fact. But before me, the Smokers Trail slices through a forest of tall, majestic eucalypts under the deepest blue sky. It is a wonderland both un-Australian and undeniably Australian. Waiting to be scrunched underfoot.

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Thursday 6th February: A week of cooler, calmer weather subdues fire activity considerably, though it continues to slowly expand, particularly to the west and north. It has passed over the Smokers Trail, nearby Square Rock, and moves over and beyond Corin Forest. The slow creep of the fire appears less destructive and the infrastructure around Corin Forest is protected. Now nearing Tidbinbilla, fire crews instigate backburning to halt progress.

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Enduring still

Is it as simple, as logical, as linear as a before and after? Because a before was also an after. When I took my first steps into Namadgi it was not so long after 2003. When the hills and gullies had previously burned, arguably even more vehemently than today.

In the much used vernacular of the new normal it may not be quite the normal cycle of the Australian bush, but there is a cycle nonetheless. We may be in the immediate after now, but I can take solace that this is the start of another before. When Namadgi will again nurture love and life, expel fresh air and bounty, guide adventure and inspiration. Enduring still.

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Sunday 9th February: The rain is tantalising, teasing. We’ve had a few millimetres and promises of a deluge keep getting pushed back. Another hour. Another day. Probabilities suggest something decent will come. A few spells of drizzle and blustery showers mimic England. It is only seventeen degrees and perfect roast dinner and red wine weather. That in itself is an encouraging sign.

The Orroral Valley Fire has changed status from Out of Control to Being Controlled. That in itself is an even more encouraging sign. It has consumed around 80% of Namadgi National Park and around a third of the ACT’s landmass. Taking into account various offshoots into NSW the fire encompasses approximately 113,000 hectares, or 1,130 square kilometres. That’s about the same as Hong Kong Island. Or most of Greater London if you exclude some of the crumby bits like Croydon.

Initial reports suggest significant variability in the damage caused within the park, mirroring the variability in fire intensity over its course. Positively, key infrastructure, including historic huts, culturally significant sites and telecommunications resources have been protected, while threatened wildlife within nature reserves have been successfully relocated.

It is one small footnote this summer.

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I got chills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Exhausting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uppish drives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forty degree challenge

I really don’t get this whole Ten Year Challenge malarkey. Not because it’s like some glorified chain letter vanity project or anything. No, my only bewilderment with it is what the actual heck is the actual challenge?

Surely a real challenge would be something like – oh I dunno – unpacking forty years of legislation and agreements and treaties that you have actively shaped and adopted in order to enable the cohesive and productive functioning of society without it resulting in the only certainty being the uncertainty of what exactly can fill the void which will not simultaneously provoke pandemonium and lead to a bitter aftertaste in the plummy throats of anti-elitist elites who really deep down can’t warm to little Abdullah no matter what they might say about saving their NHS which they don’t even have to use because of their private health provider in whom they have offshore investments.

Another more challenging challenge would be coming up with a sentence longer than that. Or how about getting through a particularly hot spell in a hot Australian summer?

ull01It’s a tough gig, and the reality of four straight days in a row above 40 degrees was enough to force me fleeing to the coast, at least for a couple of those days. Thankfully when I got back there came a reprieve with temperatures dropping back down to 37 with a cool change as ineffectual as any number of Secretaries of State for Exiting the European Union. Yes, the hot air persists.

ull02At least on the coast the temperatures dropped a good eight to ten degrees, pampered with pleasant sea breezes and clear cool waters. There was fish and chips and ice cream, paddles upon shores and across inlets, and a decent amount of lounging with a book in the sand. Yet the highlight of this escape was away from the edge of the water. Instead, upon the edge of wilderness.

Morton National Park is a gargantuan expanse of vast sandstone plateaus and dense valleys separating the coastal strip of southern NSW with the golden tablelands inland. With alluring names such as Monolith Valley and The Castle, and pockets that have probably never even seen a human face, there is a timeless, spiritual brooding conjured by its landscape.

It’s certainly tough to penetrate, with a few access points denting its edges. One of these comes around half an hour’s drive from UIlladulla, up through pockets of verdant rainforest and along a bumbling dirt road. A small car park welcomes you to the start of the Mount Bushwalker trail which is – pleasingly – all bushwalk and very little mounting.

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Setting off nice and early before heat rises, the trail actually proves somewhat dull – a fire trail becoming a narrow tunnel cutting through low shrubs and over boggy watercourses. A family of black cockatoos enliven proceedings, startled by a lone bushwalker and fleeing somewhere vaguely over the horizon. There is the feeling of grandeur metres away, just around the next corner, through the bushes, palpable but never really visible. Until, that is, the very end.

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The trail truly proves a means to an end. And if all endings end up ending like this then sign me up to end the end music in Eastenders. An end coming at only around half eight in the morning, just me, a vegemite sandwich (yes, truly), and millions of eucalypts spilling across to the vertiginous walls of The Castle. Australian through and through.

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ull06It was borderline whether I had really earned what was to follow, such was the relative ease of this walk. Out of the wilds, the cutesy hilltop town of Milton inevitably has a bakery, which I inevitably visited, inevitably not for the first time. There is a pleasing inevitability in the inevitability of cake and coffee.

Down the road from Milton, through the fringes of Rick Stein’s Mollymook, is the small coastal village of Narrawallee. Not only does this have a genuinely great sounding name, relaxed holiday vibes, and a good-looking coffee shop by the water, but it also hosts a delightful meandering inlet, protected from the ocean and perfect for all sorts of wading, dipping, paddle-boarding and family gatherings for cricket on a sandy tidal flat. Having passed on a shower – what with my early start and anticipation of a sweaty hike – this was refreshment at its finest.

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Nearby Mollymook Beach is equally as idyllic, a fine sweep of sand reminiscent of but far superior to Bondi. It seemed to me a suitable location for an early evening read on a blanket followed by an amble along that stretch contested between land and sea. However, gathering thunderstorms also took a liking to the beach and closed in for what proved an entire night of tumultuous electrical drama.

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You might hope the stormy melee would clear the air and cool things down to proffer something more reasonable. But, no, we are in an age of extremes after all. Following a sweaty goodbye ocean coffee and a cheap petrol fill up at Batemans Bay, the car had to work overtime to keep cool on the climb up Clyde Mountain. And then, returning to Canberra, the sight of Black Mountain Tower on the horizon, shimmering in a dusty haze of 38 degrees. And still rising.

A challenge means a challenge after all.

 

* with due deference to Adelaide.

 

Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Way out west

A sure sign that I had been in the UK for a while was the notion that it was simply ludicrous to expect to explore the far west of Cornwall on a day trip from Plymouth. In Australia, such thoughts would be perfectly acceptable, indeed very much the norm. “Just popping down to the beach” shouts Clint cheerily from the Ute window, as he sets off across the dusty paddock and onward to golden sands some two hundred kilometres distant. People I know have driven from Canberra to Brisbane in a day and back again the day after. Just off for a quiet drive in the country…

It is true that British roads take longer: they are narrower and more disjointed, denoted in miles (which gives an illusion of proximity), and overpopulated by caravans and lorries. In Cornwall, add the probability of tractors on roads which simply run out of space and you can understand the frequent car parks that form in the summer holidays. Even in October it can take longer than you expect, resulting in pasties in Marazion that are a touch on the tepid side because it is so far beyond the normal hours of lunch.

Still, with a few nights in a caravan (a static one I should add) near the town of St. Just there should be opportunity to sample some fresh food. And savour the rugged edge-of-the-world landscape holding steadfast against the Atlantic.  An Atlantic that readily spreads its moisture over Penwith, cloaking in cloud the highest patches of sticky-out Cornwall upon which static caravans perch.

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Such was the persistence of this shroud for much of the time it was easy to believe we were the only souls for miles, or kilometres, around. Nothing else in sight, barring a scattering of empty caravans looking jaded after a busy summer season. Finer writers than me would better evoke a mystical mood of ghostly visions, pagan spirits and murderous pirates going “AAAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”. I just got bored with it and drove down the hill seeking out a break.

In Mousehole, the grey mood dissipated with an amble through the jaunty narrow streets, snooping into the windows of cosy cottages as they wind their way down towards the colourful, cobbled harbour. With calm seas and monotone skies, there was a strong serenity enveloping the village, no doubt amplified by the absence of throngs of tourists. Even the seagulls seemed subdued, fattened from their harvest of summertime chips.

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Spirits lifted further following a rather good coffee overlooking the harbour (the use of Rodda’s milk could have been a factor). And in the time it takes to sup a rich creamy latte, the sun broke through to offer a taste of summer revisited. Just where are my shorts now?

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A few miles back up the road and the static was still in the clouds. However, the morning below had now delivered hope and – with that – an intent to pop some shorts in the car “just in case”. Such fancies were still feasible over lunch in Trengwainton, a National Trust speciality providing a café within a charming garden setting. Ah, some fresh produce and – not for the first time – a cream tea for lunch. Reflecting now I think this might have been my favourite cream tea of the year. Proper lush.

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The prospect of shorts hung in the balance but was soon shot down upon arrival in a murky St. Ives. Unlike Mousehole, St. Ives was typically bursting with visitors pacing in a slow, zombie-like shuffle between crafty art galleries and hearty pasty chains. This dawdling procession seemed to accentuate a sombre air, hardly conducive to lingering. So back along the north coast it was, with a few stops along the way, to the static caravan in the clouds.

The next morning heralded a sense of déjà vu that required a little longer to escape. In fact, it wasn’t until I was haphazardly navigating my way through lanes hopefully heading towards Portreath that the clouds lifted. Once again, I had discovered the sunshine. I was feeling a little smug with myself and taking pride in my sun-seeking skills but of course it was sheer luck. Lucky to be here, under these skies.

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Sunlight illuminated much of the north coast heading up towards Newquay and we were right on its edge. A separation as distinct as the line between land and sea, a frontier you don’t want to get too close to at Hell’s Mouth. Here, vertiginous cliffs plummet into pristine ocean, though becalmed in the breathless air of today.

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Heading back west, the lightening cloud signified something a little more promising. Driving into the caravan site Mum noticed an old abandoned tin mine which we hadn’t known had existed before then. The expanse of the hill slowly unfolded and, suddenly, you could make out the houses in St. Just. There was even, from one spot, a blue wedge of sea forming on the horizon.

St. Just seemed a jollier place in the sun, the depression lifting in tandem with the weather. At nearby Botallack we headed towards the famous Crown Engine Houses, following a suspicious truck proclaiming to have something to do with film production. I suspect they, like everyone else, were making hay when the sun was shining; finally they could get some panoramic money shot to fill a gap in some tedious dialogue in Poldark. Or perhaps they were just on a holiday.

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Now trying to cram literally everything in under clearer air, next up was a trip to Porthcurno. Given this place seems to be the current most Instagrammed memento of Cornwall it was surprisingly quiet. Perhaps all the day-trippers had departed, or else plunged down a cliff trying to get a snap of any sand emerging from a receding tide at Pedn Vounder. With such peace and such beauty, the fruits of staying in a static in the clouds were coming to bear.

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And what better than the fruits of the sea, in the golden end-of-day light at Sennen Cove? To me, the beach here is the closest resemblance to Australia of any I have encountered in England. A sweeping arc of sand for the most part untainted by development. Curling waves of surf, with the obligatory dreadlocked shark bait on boards. And a little alfresco waterfront action, though in the very English gorgeousness of a proper pub with proper ale.

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And now, finally, before heading back to Plymouth the next day, a chance to watch the sun set into the Atlantic. Almost. For of course this isn’t Australia and there is always a prospect of clouds on the horizon. But at least now they were only on the horizon, rather than atop a static caravan on a hill a long drive from home.

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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Bolt out of the blue

Britain excels in that insipid low cloud misty drizzle. It lends the country a rather depressing air, accentuating the abundant greyness of post-way concrete city centres and dimming the allure of the countryside. Dampness saturates to the bone, and you can see why comfort is taken in massive cups of abysmal coffee and, at least, sumptuous cake. As a native such conditions provoke familiarity, but as a visitor it’s as frustrating as hell.

Part of the annoyance is you can never tell when and where it will strike, how long it will last, and whether it’s shrouded in gloom five miles down the road. Sometimes the world around you can disappear totally and the futility of a trip out seems complete. Like when driving out of dreary Plymouth, passing through murky Modbury and still wondering where the South Hams has gone. Usually this corner of Devon is better.

But we know that Hope is on the horizon and it comes first with a slightly whiter patch of cloud. Maybe a small sphere of light pierces through, like a torch low on batteries being shone through a winter duvet. Gaps increase and suddenly a pale blue splodge of sky appears overhead. And then it happens oh so quickly, the cloud vanishing without trace. And you stand there bewildered. Bewildered, and deliriously happy.

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More often than not this is not the case, but today delirious happiness ensued. Indeed, for a couple of hours on the South Devon coast I had not seen England with as much clarity this year. Perhaps it is the deep blue of the seas around here, invariably pummelling the fierce outcrops around Bolt Head. Or the generally fine air of Salcombe tucked away inside the estuary.

While the vision was clear and fresh, the smell was far from it. At least not upon parking at East Soar, sited amongst the fertile fields of Devon in September. Cows had clearly been in action and silage was readily ripening, whipped up by the sea breeze.

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There were farms to traverse on this walk towards the coast path but happily the smell had eased by time we reached a pile of barns, sheds and cottages providing a variety of rustic lodging. Within this enclave was The Tea Barn, which looked suitably delightful if only we hadn’t come from Plymouth on the back of an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.

And then, the coast, with its deep blue seas, sandy coves and rocky outcrops. Starehole Bottom seems as sumptuously titillating an English place name as you can get, a crevice between two mounds leading down towards the water. With shelter from wind, it was getting warm in this valley and I kind of wished my bottom was clad in shorts rather than jeans. The water too, looking inviting.

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What goes down generally comes up again, and from Starehole Bay we climbed towards Bolt Head itself. The pinnacle so to speak, looking back over the bay and across the estuary all the way along to Start Point. This is the kind of deliriously happy, pinch yourself moment that you get post-murk. One where it is virtually impossible to believe that there was nothing to see an hour before.

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bolt04The scenery and amazement at such scenery being so visible, being so wondrous, continues around the corner as we slowly head back in a loop towards the car park. The last vestiges of heather and sweeping gold of flowering gorse add an extra splash of colour on this most brilliantly saturated afternoon. Leaving the clifftops high above the sea, only bovine-induced pungency can prove more overwhelming.

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bolt07_editedCould I end this day, this once dreary day, any better? This morning – actually even at two o’clock this afternoon – I would have had myself committed if I said I would be bathing in the sun, drinking a cold shandy, lounging in shorts. But with the regular dreariness of Great Britain you need to retain that hope. And in South Devon, we are of course blessed with hope. Hope indeed.

Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Hope for blue

Devon, oh Devon. Rolling hills, white fluffy clouds in a blue sky, white fluffy sheep in a green field, the deep blue sea shimmering in a haze of paradise. Oh yes, the picture-perfect Devon of custard cans. Such were my thoughts on the first day back here as gales lashed rain sideways upon a window in gritty Plymouth city, the smell of roast dinner the only comfort. It’s good to be back.

That stormy day has been the exception rather than the rule but, while there have been some blessed interludes, the predominant feature has been cloud. Cloud and cream and catch ups and cars to get used to ferrying family and escaping Emmerdale.

Like practically everyone else in this sceptred isle I have been paying frequent visits to the BBC Weather website, analysing the hourly chance of sunshine breaking through the milky clouds and estimating with a little skill, experience, and luck, where the gaps could emerge. And the success rate hasn’t been so bad.

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Noss Mayo is a reliable friend. I know its lanes and paths well – meandering up past happy farms, coursing loftily above the sea, before weaving down underneath a green canopy as jaunty boats upon the Yealm begin to break through. I know where to crawl tentatively around which corners of single-track lane to avoid a head-on crash. I know sunny spells can be more likely to emerge here. And I know where to park and where not to.

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Well, I thought I did, unless there is a fete on and the compact car park becomes overwhelmed to the extent that a complex series of nine point turns on a 20% gradient is required to squeeze in next to a wall against which you can’t open the door necessitating an undignified scramble over the passenger seat. I guess ferret racing, wellie throwing, and cake tasting is an enduringly popular attraction in Devon.

Despite this bank holiday anomaly, the rest of Noss was as pleasing as ever. Happy farms, lofty sea views, jaunty boats, that kind of thing. The sun even broke through. Customarily, I had half a pint at the end but – given things had been slightly awry from the start – made a controversial visit to The Swan rather than The Ship. From where that time-honoured tradition of watching unknowingly parked cars become submerged by the rising tide could play out.

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After Noss Mayo, greyness came and went for much of the week and my continued scrutiny of the BBC Weather page started to wane as it became clear that they didn’t really know what was going on. The supposed sunny mornings were cloudy, cloudy afternoons became bright, and once in a while shorts might have been tolerable in the same day that you were wearing a fleece and long trousers and struggling to see through drizzle.

In an effort to get out with the sun and conveniently avoid a pile of tripe being served up in The Woolpack, an evening on Dartmoor produced a fine end to an otherwise dull day. The drive itself proved an adventure in threading a car through lanes hemmed in by characteristic ten-foot-high hedgerows on roads I did not now. Disorientation is never far away. Happily, I ended up on Harford Moor Gate, an area I had never previously accessed and one which led to a yomp over open moorland burnished golden by the lowering sun.

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I set out for a random tor in the distance with the nebulous but entirely logical aim of seeing what was over the other side. Avoiding anguished cow bellows and boggy hollows, it turned out the other side had more open moorland and little else. On a whim, I headed for another pile of rocks a few hundred metres south. And there it was, the view of South Devon and its patchwork fading in the dying light.

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The sun was heading back into a band of grey on the western horizon, but before it did I managed to make it back to my first tor to say farewell. Farewell again.

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The by now notorious BBC Weather page continued to largely offer the ambiguous white cloud symbol. Always a few days into the future, perhaps some sun. Always offering a little hope. And finally delivering.

Still in the school summer holidays I feared Hope Cove in the South Hams would be largely inaccessible. Farmers would have seen the blue sky and decided to secretly annoy everyone by undertaking essential tractor on road affairs. Grockles would be flocking to car parks, caravans would be wedged between quaint red post boxes and quaint red phone boxes, kids and dogs would be running amok in a melange of buckets, balls and bowls of water that I always trip over. How, exactly, is the tranquillity?

But I was surprised. We got a park. We got a spot on the small beach cove. We got an ice cream. And we got a blue sky that was very comfortable for shorts and a walk along the South West Coast Path. That tranquillity? It’s pretty fine thanks.

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Leaving the bubbling hubbub of Hope behind, I headed up towards Bolt Tail for magical views back to town and over the sapphire calm of the bay. There is little that is more joyous than traipsing on the trails of the coast path when it is like this. Nowhere in the world.

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For now, here was Devon. Devon, oh Devon. Rolling hills, white fluffy clouds in a blue sky, white fluffy sheep in a green field, the deep blue sea shimmering in a haze of paradise. Oh yes, the picture-perfect Devon of custard cans. Such were my thoughts surrounded by hope. It’s good to be back.

 

Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

A storm is coming

Awakening in Christchurch, sunlight streams through the gaps in the curtains as an occasional bird chirps softly from outside; a mellow, unremarkable suburbia from which to launch into the rugged South Island of New Zealand. Decked in shorts and sandals (lacking giveaway tourist socks), the air is warm and mood euphoric as my Dad and I hit the road south and west. A mood soon undermined by the unremitting boredom of a long drawn out trawl through the tractor lands of the Canterbury Plains. At Geraldine it is grey and chilly, the coffee and slice warming but rose gardens subdued. There is foreboding here.

Drizzle peps up a touch until we emerge into something a little brighter over Burkes Pass, sunlight accentuated golden by the open tussock country and craggy hills. Motorhomes, campers and APEX rental cars mill their way inconsistently over the landscape until that first tap of the brakes and last-minute swerve associated with being hit in the face by New Zealand. The glacial blue hues of Lake Tekapo.

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It’s understandably bustling but there is enough room to spare, a quick photo stop extended by the allure of the lake and a cursory sandwich for lunch expanded by the allure of the pies. And like many others, we finally drag ourselves away only to be hit by something even more remarkable down the road as Lake Pukaki comes into sight. A very popular roadside stop is earmarked by haphazard parking manoeuvres and irritating drones, but the view up the lake makes it a fair price to pay. Somewhere up there will be Aoraki, Mount Cook, and we’ll try and get a little closer.

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The fair weather lingers practically all the way to Mount Cook village, disappearing almost simultaneously with us crossing into the national park. Still, despite the odds and weather forecast it is largely dry, the darkest clouds sticking to the mountaintops closing in from three sides. There is a gloom, there is a chill, but we can at least walk along the valley of the Hooker, like many, many others less prepared for the change in the weather. With glacial lakes, swing bridges, a raging river, big rocks and open highland it is a bracing walk into New Zealand, a far cry from that Christchurch suburbia this morning. And while Aoraki decided to stick behind the clouds throughout, there was plenty of outdoors to embrace, and a developing downwind gale to take us back to the car.

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NZa06It was a noisy night in a house on the outskirts of Twizel. Not because of hoons doing burn outs or rampaging feral possums, but the iconic sound of raindrops on a tin roof. Many Australians go misty-eyed when you mention the sound of raindrops on a tin roof, as if in some kind of messed-up ballad by Banjo Patterson accompanied by dreadful Lamingtons, but I don’t see the appeal. How the fricking heck do you sleep? Turns out this rain may or may not have been associated with cyclone Gita, or ex-cyclone Gita, or whatever was heading our way for 48 hours or more…

And so I guess it was a good day to be in a car, driving across to Wanaka and a little way further to Lake Hawea. A good day to pick up red wine and a lump of pork to cook roast dinner. A good day to find yourself in a charming cottage with a log fire and a feline visitor. A good day to try and resist going stir-crazy.

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I think I awoke in the night as the rain stopped but I figure I must have been dreaming. Sure, there were times when it became slightly more like drizzle, but it never really ceased. Still, we both couldn’t sit in for a whole day even with a cat for company, and waterproofs and fleeces were invented for days like this. Days that reach a high of nine degrees Celsius in summer, days that warrant hot coffee and newspapers in Wanaka, days that can be salvaged with a walk in only moderately spitting precipitation up to a small lake.

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Possible benefits of this incessant wetness were a dispersal of crowds – at least away from the towns and shops, the bolstering of waterfalls, and – possibly – a coating of fresh snow higher up. While the latter was impossible to detect in the unending shroud of cloud, the waterfalls were in proliferation.

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NZa10Generally, I prefer waterfalls to crowds of tourists, but the crowds of tourists can provide useful guidance on the location of scenic stops. Like a tree on Lake Wanaka – That Wanaka Tree – which probably has its own Twitter account and features on every second Instagram post with the hashtag newzealand. We join a semicircle of tourists taking pictures of the tree, with the tree, around the tree, through other trees to the tree and generally marvel at the tree, which is a very pleasant, photogenic tree. And frankly, you can’t ask much more from a tree. Other than it to grow money…which it may have done given its ubiquity on the internet.

NZa11More waterfalls were spotted on a drive to the northern side of Lake Hawea late in the day. A stop for some Dad fishing which yielded a stop in the rain. Briefly the sun even emerged albeit a touch watery like everything else around. But for the first time in a long time the windscreen wipers on the car could be set to zero. And as we parked up following a peaceful drive back home, without a fire or cat in sight, the sky miraculously fired up red, to the shepherd’s – and tourist’s – delight. Perhaps the storm had come, and gone.

Driving Green Bogey Photography

Springing forward

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How had I never heard of Cooper Cronk until the last few months? Cooper Cronk. Every time that name is mentioned on the TV or radio I am convinced this is a guy whose destiny was the very east coast Australian domain of Rugby League (or NRL if you will). With a name like that it was inevitable; young Coop boofing his way to the fifth tackle for the Under 12 Greater Southern Potoroos before being signed up by the West Force Barramundi. An illustrious career ensued, only dented by a minor scandal involving a night out in the Cross, a high tackle and a leery headline in the Daily Telegraph. None of this is – I suspect – true, but there is a real NRL player called Cooper Cronk. That much I do know.

Fast forward a month or two and now we have the prospect of hearing how amazing Nathan Lyon is. Or in the conspicuously lady-free, nasally dominated domain of ex-Australian pom-slayers-turned-commentators, Naaaayfun Lawwwn. Also known as Gary. Every cherry a potential wicket inducing minor orgasms in the eight man wicket-keeping slip and bat pad cordon. Two-nil down already and I haven’t even put up the Christmas decorations. Summer could be long.

cbrspr02It’s taken a while for summer in Canberra to arrive, with the inevitable false starts and the fake summer that usually emerges for a week or so in October before retreating with startling rapidity. The variable weather conditions are largely a boon for nature which bursts into a frenzy of colour and gargantuan jungle of weeds. One minute you have a perfectly respectable outside patio area, the next it’s a (*culture alert*) frenzied sketch from Rousseau. Best to try and ignore the weeding and admire how the professionals manage things at the Botanic Gardens.

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cbrspr03There is a point for me in which winter in Canberra is definitely over and summer is certainly on the way. It’s that day when you decide to walk in the shade to cool down and protect, rather than seek out a warming sun and its melanoma vengeance. You know you should get your floppy hat out despite looking like a numpty in it.  And largely avoid the midday sun for disproven fear that it is this that is making your hair grey and not the inevitable march of age and genetics.

cbrspr05Anyway, the best times are the day’s extremities as the amount of sunshine increases. Those cool mornings when Wattlebirds wake you up at 5am and you could be tempted to a) get on your bike for a beautiful lakeside ride of virtue or b) turn on the radio in the hope that you will doze back to news of Cooper Cronk being signed by the Northern Beaches Numbats. And, at the other end, there’s those lingering light evenings, in which twilight golf is a possibility and cold beer and barbecues become a more frequent consideration.

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Just as things seem to be settling into a predictable pattern of bliss, a customary late spring upper level trough decides to utter from the mouths of weather forecasters everywhere and the climate becomes far more volatile. Clouds bubble up over the mountains, humidity progresses towards the Darwin end of the scale, and intense thunderstorms turn graffiti decorated storm drains into brown river rapids. The temperature drops fifteen degrees in fifteen minutes and suddenly you are having to resort to long trousers again.

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cbrspr09All this water, all this sunshine, all this warmth and cool change. A time for shorts and hoodies and rainbows, many rainbows. Rainbows and butterflies as summer seems to assert itself with greater authority. But still Christmas hovers as a lottery between scorching bushfires and mild drizzle; no doubt it will be 35 degrees for a classic roast or a chilly 18 for a poolside barbie with novelty oversized prawns. Only time will tell.

And as we near the longest day in Australia, and news of Cooper Cronk’s feats fade (largely because those leftist latte-lovers of our ABC go on holiday for two months #persecutedmiddleagedangrywhitemales), the sense of a summer upon us is all too clear. There is vibrancy accumulated from all that has gone before and a buzz of preparedness for crackling heat that will come. On Red Hill, the scene is set; cool early mornings in which to forage among the long shadows, and golden glowing evenings turning fiery red. In between, sit back and enjoy – or endure – those whirling cherries.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Hope and some glory

And so, over a month since I last had a cream tea I can bring myself to write about pockets of Devon explored and re-explored in 2017. It’s not that I have been avoiding it out of separation anxiety, as such. Just rude work interruptions punctuated by apathy and good sunshine. I love to get outside every day if I can, and being raised in Devon I am pre-programmed to do that whenever it is dry and reasonably pleasant. So writing a blog post in front of a screen in Australia when there are magpies to swoop at me and sunburn to frazzle requires a commitment far beyond my genetic capability.

Now it is gently raining in Canberra, something which it largely failed to do in my first week in Devon. The second spell made up for that a bit, but even then there were suitable gaps to encourage a punt on winning a hole in the cloud.  But that first week, wow. Could Devon look any finer?

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Apart from the blip of Plymouth and a few other towns of much less note, the southern half of Devon is dominated by Dartmoor and the South Hams; one a National Park, the other a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. And like an indecisive lump trying to pick between a cream tea and fish and chips I flitted from one to the other at regular intervals. There was plenty, as ever, to savour.

Dartmoor is relatively convenient from the home base in Plymouth. I say that despite seemingly endless road works and traffic lights and, of course, speed bumps and congestion caused by people flocking to superstores and drive throughs on their way to the homeware warehome. But once you’ve got to that last roundabout and whizzed past the Dartmoor Diner, it’s like your inner dog is released; nose through a small gap in the window, full of anticipation and impatience, and – possibly for more deviant types – panting at the prospect of free-roaming sheep.

dv01On the road to Burrator, the sheep are out in force, arse sticking out into the tarmac, head tucked into a giant gorse bush, oblivious to the fact that there are two cars coming at opposite directions on a lane built for one. Further on, a few sheep mill about in the foot of Sheepstor, just so they can pose for clichéd photos and get in the way of cars trying to park. Better to get out on foot though, and take in a stretch of reservoir, country lane, farm and hamlet aesthetic, before climbing the wilder, granite strewn hill itself. It’s a route I’ve taken a few times now and strikes me as a wonderful bona fide welcome back to Devon.

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Journeying into the South Hams also presents traffic perils, often in the form of a grumpy farmer at the helm of a tractor revelling in sticking two proverbial fingers up to everyone else. Peak season for this would be August, when holidaymakers increase traffic by a factor of ten thousand. Add in twelve foot high hedgerows on single track roads down to car parks with a capacity of twenty spaces and you begin to get the picture.

It’s in this mix that a little local knowledge and strategic blue sky thinking can come in handy. For instance, set off later in the day, when the tide happens to be out anyway (as you would have diligently checked on Spotlight the night before). Try to avoid the A379 as much as possible if at all possible. Not very possible, but possibly possible if you consider the A38 and cut down at some point, such as through Ermington. Avoid Modbury and head down to Mothecombe. Where you will have cheaper post-3pm parking and plenty of sand left for everyone.

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dv04It really is in a delightful setting, Mothecombe; the tranquil shallows of the River Erme meandering out to sea, the sandy banks and rock pools revealed at low tide, the sheltered, undeveloped bay with gentle waves and translucent waters. Such appealing waters that people were in there swimming and I got the shock of my life when I put my own feet in. Not the usual, anticipated shock of oh my god what are they doing this is f*****g freezing, but a slight eyebrow raising oh this is actually tolerable for a bit up to ankle height I guess. No wonder the roads are so busy.

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If that was Devon in the joyous throes of summer, my final week (after an interlude in other parts of the UK) was very much an autumn affair. The most overused word of that week was blustery, closely followed by changeable and showery. On Dartmoor, the scene was moodier, more forbidding, occasionally bleak. But Dartmoor does bleakness to such great effect; in fact bleakness really is its preferred state.

dv07Following a day of showers merging into longer spells of rain I was keen to get outdoors when a longer spell of rain appeared to have passed leaving a few showers behind. I was in the habit of checking the weather radar by now, and took a bit of a gamble on a potential gap in the way things were tracking. Out around Sharpitor, as cloudbursts pummelled the Tamar Valley and a black doom sat unyielding beyond Princetown, some late sunshine pierced the skies and set the landscape aglow. Sheltering from the cold wind, I stood insignificant within expansive moorland and raggedy tors, alternately shining golden in sun or darkened by racing clouds. Barring the occasional car on the main road crossing the moor, it was just me and the sheep and a pony or two to witness it. I felt as though I had struck gold.

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There was less good fortune back in the South Hams, where a Harvester I had pictured in my head didn’t exist and lunch ended up somewhere down the road and over the hill and a little further along from the tiny hamlet of traditional dining hours. This wasn’t terrible, for outside the intermittent showers had done their let’s merge into a longer spell of rain thing and ducks revelled in the whole experience. But essentially I am an optimist and British…an entirely contradictory thing I know, apart from when it comes to the weather. There is something in our character that makes us look up at the skies and sigh with a grudging acceptance before donning sexy pac a macs and trudging on regardless. On to the eternal hope that is Noss Mayo.

dv10And you know what? In a turn of events that no good travel writer would ever make up, it pretty much stayed raining albeit with some slight easing off for about five minutes. Thankfully the Ship Inn had some funky outdoor pods to huddle together and drink hot chocolate in – think three quarters hamster ball in Teletubbie land – and with the tide being in (well checked, sir), the scene was not one of stinking tidal sludge. Indeed, it was rather serenely pretty under a comfort blanket of cloud.

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Instead, Hope was on the horizon the next day, my very last day in Devon. Hope, just down the now more placid A379 and a rollercoaster lane of twelve foot high hedgerows. Hope, where there is parking for twenty cars and a few spaces to spare. Hope, set into its namesake cove surrounded by steep wooded cliffs iced with undulating pasture. Hope, sat in warm September sun outside the Hope and Anchor with half a Tribute and in the Salcombe Dairy ice cream taking the bitter edge away. Bittersweet is Hope on days like these. Days when Devon couldn’t – again – look, smell, taste, and feel any finer.

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Food & Drink Great Britain Green Bogey Photography Walking

Newcy town

When I think of Newcastle some quite disturbing images come to mind. Gazza, half cut, tongue out, festooned with a pair of fake plastic tits; girls plastered with fake everythings casually hanging out in crop tops in the freezing fog of January; Kevin Keegan’s bubble perm; a language unfathomable, so much so that I can remember having to ask a couple of Geordies to say that again at least ten times before I gave up and resorted to a smile and nod. My Newcastle associations are embedded in the UK.

Like so many spots down under there is a Newcastle of the south. The resemblance is far from uncanny but one bond in common is a slightly grimy industrial heritage. This in the oh-so-sunny world of Australia is perversely refreshing. Sure, the entrance to town from the direction of the airport is not the greatest advertisement, as you cross the Hunter River in a squall and look down upon piles of coal and metalwork. But there is an honesty to it, a grit, an earthy spirit perhaps common to Newcastles all over the world, whyaye.

newc2Once clear of this blackspot of industry, you are back in a more familiar kind of Australia, with Newcastle boasting some fine beaches, cafe-cultured hubbub, and waterside retreats. I like it here, though being unfamiliar with what’s hot and what’s not it took me four attempts to get a good coffee. Cafes on Darby Street have an appearance in which they seem to talk the talk, but walking proves far more problematic. Is it me, or are baristas with an armful of tattoos, baseball caps and a love of the mirror at the gym usurping hipsters in coffee-making skills? Just something I seem to have observed in recent times…

newc3Once I found a good coffee from someone who could crush the beans by hand, I decided I liked Newcastle a lot. It probably joins the long list of places where I’d say I could live if I had to. Being on the coast has a lot to do with it, and while showers were around and daylight saving had ended, at least I got to enjoy the last of the day with the rainbows and butterflies before setting off for some evening work.

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The next morning started early (partly because daylight saving has ended) and – being on the east coast – I thought I may marvel in the sunrise over the ocean. Of course, the persistent stream of showers coming in off the Tasman Sea had other ideas. But I was up now, so I headed along the breezy coastline towards Merewether Beach. Partly this passed along a rather fine metal walkway making the cliff top route a touch easier to navigate. That is, until turning round and noticing the many steps in the other direction. Still, it justified breakfast (with average coffee / no tattoos).

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Newcastle airport is some 30 kilometres north of the city and I didn’t really need to be there until 4. If you carry on a similar distance north of the airport you enter the long peninsula of Port Stephens, a collective of holiday towns, placid bays and hilly bush-clad headlands. It’s probably worth a day or two to explore but I had a few hours, pausing for lunch at Fingal Bay, before doing undoubtedly the number one thing to do and climbing Tomaree Head. It’s not a long walk but there are a few switchbacks and metal steps involved, leading to a 360 degree view of the bay, the hills, the beaches and the agitated blue sea.

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newc7While blessed with the rugged scenery of Northumberland I doubt if the Newcastle of the north would have such a temperate idyll an hour away. You can see why people come here for holidays, or to retire. Even the koalas of NSW like it here, not that I saw any (or saw any people looking up into trees which is the best way of spotting koalas). I have only been to the other Newcastle once and I thought it was alright. But if I was to choose, I think this one would win hands down; even without a Sunderland next door aye!

Australia Green Bogey

Holes and crevices

Since I started waxing lyrical about the joys of March it has been raining a fair bit. Not wall to wall drizzle but almost daily torrents of abuse from the skies. Upper level troughs, east coast lows, tropical storms, that sort of thing. While many people rightly state that it’s good for the gardens, it’s expressed with a subtle tinge of disappointment and envy that the gardens are having all the fun. You get used to not having to consult the weather forecast before planning outdoor adventures.

Still, Canberra doesn’t often get the brunt of the bad weather, shielded by the Snowy Mountains to the west and the coastal ranges to the east. Maybe that’s why they decided to site Canberra where it is, the guffawing elites of Melbourne and Sydney spitefully condemning the nation’s capital to a dusty sheep paddock. One hundred and four years later it’s quite remarkable that it is what it is really, and I’m amazed that the vast swathe of Australians fail to celebrate what has been achieved here. Only in Canberra do we get Canberra Day, when half of Canberra leave Canberra for the long weekend.

Predictable rain peppered the drive from Canberra to Braidwood on Canberra Day 2017. Over the years, Braidwood has become more attuned to Canberra’s fancies, with the emergence of better coffee and organic providores selling overpriced sourdough sandwiches in stripped back wooden cottages. For all the fine produce and renovated fireplaces around, it still alarms me when an old dear is at the coffee machine. Call it despicable ageism, but people with beards do seem to make a better coffee.

bush01aMost people use Braidwood as a coffee and loo stop on the way to the coast. Today however, with my friend Alex in the passenger seat, I was heading a little south into Deua National Park. A brown sign pointed to The Big Hole and Marble Arch, and who doesn’t want to see a big hole and a marble arch? Even if you do have to wade up to your knees in the Shoalhaven River to see these delights.

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bush02I knew I would be a fan of The Big Hole. Part of the attraction is the name itself, attributed through one of three traditional Australian place-naming techniques: the bleeding obvious (the other two methods being the Aboriginal and the Colonial rip-off). Climbing up and over a ridge, a sign in the midst of nondescript bush points to the hole a hundred metres away. And there it is. A big bloody hole. Seventy metres deep and filled with ferns that are a lot bigger than they look. At the end of the day, what else could you call this?

bush04Marble Arch is far less obvious. And a good deal farther, through an annoying shower and down into a valley. In fact I don’t recall an extravagant arch glistening in the rain, just a narrow canyon and underground cave, with a few boulders and soggy pools in the way. Nonetheless it was quite a spectacle, quite an experience, quite an adventure. And quite a climb back up, in the rain.

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A couple of weeks on and I found myself back on the bushwhacking trail in the frequently moist Southern Highlands of New South Wales. You cannot enter the highlands town of Bundanoon without saying so in a Scots accent. Welcome to Bundurrnooooooooonn. Turn right at the kilt shop and beware caber tossing ginger people on the road into Morton National Park. Where, for all the pretence of Scotland, you are in quintessential Australia, sandstone escarpment and gum tree country.

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bush05Walking along a gravel road in a landscape tamed by pasture and pricey property, the bush reclaims the country and sweeps down into the valley of Bundanoon Creek. While keen not to go all the way down to the creek (and thus back up), I dropped below the cliff line on the promisingly named Amphitheatre Track. While there are glimpses of the valley and the eastern escarpment through the trees, a lot of the attraction is in the close up, in the miniscule: the seeping moss, the crumbling sandstone, tunnels of ferns and trickling gullies.

bush06As well as savouring the sights, sounds and smells of the bush, I was on a waterfall mission, confident of success given the recent rains. It didn’t take long to find a trickle of water that had swollen sufficiently to spill through a cleft in the rock, briefly flowing over the path, disappearing into unfathomable depths below. Further gullies provided further cascading water, and such was the sogginess underfoot it was relief at times to emerge from beneath the ferns on slightly higher, drier ground.

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The only regular water feature marked on the map provided the culmination to this hike. Not one, not two, but effectively three different cascades had developed around Fairy Bower Falls. The first was most certainly a temporary affair, streaming down the rock face like Gandalf’s beard and onto the track. The second – the upper falls – appeared to come from the heavens, falling through the canopy and spreading its mist into the air. The third – the lower falls – gathered into a crystal pool which required only a little daring to cross. This was most definitely the spot to pause and eat my peppermint slice.

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It certainly was the pinnacle, here in these depths. By now I was two hundred metres below the rim and the route back was more than a chore. Fallen trees required circumnavigating; zigzags upwards necessitated breaks; vines impeded above and below. At one pause for a breather I noticed a pile of leeches on the bottom of my jeans, some having made it through to the socks and another trying to get in through my shoe. Frantically trying to peel them off before they made any further progress, my camera decided to roll away twenty metres into the undergrowth. This was now a bit shit.

Leech free (well, I thought…one made it to Moss Vale, the other to Canberra but thankfully without feasting), camera retrieved, there was just the heart-pounding, sweat-inducing climb to the top to go, a climb that never seemed to end. Thank goodness there was a lookout at the summit to recuperate and a sign on which to perch and check shoes and socks. And thank goodness for flat, gravel roads on which to walk back to the car.

bush12I was relieved to get back to the car, relieved to be just fifteen minutes from a hearty lunch in Bernie’s Diner. And relieved that the first raindrops of the day hit the windscreen as I closed the car door, raindrops which continued almost all the way home.

P.S. It was beautiful and sunny today, calm and 28 degrees 🙂

Activities Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking