East to West

ew00In 2013 it took me – alongside one of my favourite travel buddies Jill – a good solid couple of months to travel from the east coast of Australia to the west. I remember watching the sun go down over the Indian Ocean somewhere around Yallingup, in the beautiful Margaret River region of Western Australia. It was a touch symbolic, a satisfactory “we have made it” amidst the golden ambience; despite the fact that the engine of the car had knowingly decided to overheat earlier that day.

Four years later and I was crossing the continent again, only this time solo, facing regular interruptions for work, and ably assisted by Qantas, Jetstar and FlyPelican. But along the way there would be opportunities to revisit a few memories (mostly food related), let sand mingle with toes, and watch the sun sink into the Indian Ocean once more.

It all started in Newcastle. Well Canberra then onto Newcastle, in that tiny but very handy plane again. Having been there so recently it was no great loss that there was little time to dawdle, facing a frantic trip to Officeworks and late night leftover sandwiches. Bookending a restless night was an early flight to Adelaide. But for about half an hour from around 6am, there was good coffee – located courtesy of previous investigations – and the sun rising majestically over the surf of Nobby’s Beach.

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ew03Just to ensure I clocked off five states and territories on this trip, my route to Adelaide incurred a brief stopover at Melbourne Airport. I had a bit more time on my hands in Adelaide but, barring an hour over lunchtime, the weather was mostly imitating England; cool, cloudy, drizzle interspersed with more frantic spots of rain. I ducked for cover in Rundle St Mall, and lingered in the Central Markets. I called in at Haighs, lured by giant displays of Rocky Road, and ambled under leaden skies through the ring of Parklands encircling the city.

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ew05For all its charm and grace, I had seen better days in Adelaide. But at least the rain had stopped by the time I found myself on the tram to Glenelg late Friday afternoon. I was hoping for sunset, but I was guaranteed kebab. Just catching up on another feast down memory lane, and, unlike the sunset, it didn’t disappoint.

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ew05bThe next day, in a swish of a jet engine I was whisked back to summer, crossing the seas and striking landfall near Esperance. I swear, 30,000 feet below, I could just make out a tiny piece of my heart deposited in the white sands of Twilight Beach. The Wheatbelt passed in considerably less time than the twelve hour drive, and then, before you knew it, Perth hills tumbling down to an archetypal Australian suburbia. Hello Perth! Hello 27 degrees!

I decided to spend the weekend staying in Fremantle, Perth’s port town, where there are plenty of shipping containers but an almost equal number of cafes and pubs and places to eat by the water. I really, really like Fremantle and enjoyed feeling slightly like a local, desperately praying the British accents in every cafe were not intent on making my flat white. They seem to be everywhere these Poms! I can understand this, because only Fremantle can offer the strong and stable leadership that is necessary in these times of smashed avocado goji berries and beards.

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In fact Freo definitely meets the mark for the classic “I could live here” award. I think – in Australian terms – it must have the greatest concentration of fine Victorian and Georgian buildings, elegance established from the wealth of shipping Vegemite and DVDs of A Country Practice to the globe. There are facially hairy signs that hipsters have taken over, but Freo’s the liberal kind of place where you can let that go and sup on a pint of Little Creatures with the smell of the hops in the air and the sun sinking into the ocean. Before doing what everyone does in Freo and eating fish and chips (with malt vinegar…thank the lord for those fleeing Poms)!

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On top of soaking up Fremantle I was keen to use my spare time in Perth to revisit some favourite old haunts and lingering places. The first was City Beach and nearby Floreat Beach, partly for food but also for, well, the dazzling light of that sand and sea and surf that is unendingly uplifting. It was more of an ordeal than previous trundles in the Subaru, but a train to West Leederville and bus through Wembley and Floreat to the coast offered more proof that my memory was still reasonably intact: look, there’s that petrol station on the corner! Behind there is an IGA where I bought a Chunky Kit Kat! Oh, Bold Park, that hill and lookout!

ew08At City Beach I didn’t remember those rather fancy looking eateries and yet another pristinely positioned surf club in Australia. Some money had come into here, but from lord knows where. Perth has slumped somewhat since the state reaped lots of cash from rocks in the ground and lazily rolled about in its lucre. Still, I guess the new restaurants were an investment and they looked pretty busy. I opted for an original: my favourite calamari and chips at Floreat Beach Kiosk, worth the train and bus journey alone.

Being in these parts it would be criminal not to head to Cottesloe Beach and join the gathering masses for sundown. For some reason, the sun going about its natural business every day is an invitation to incessantly drum bongoes and get tangled in tie-dyed sarongs as if having some slow motion convulsion on a Eurovision stage. Head closer to the water and the sounds of the ocean drown it out. Cherish the sand and water and light and see the sun vanish behind that invisible strip of cloud that is almost always on the horizon.

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Possibly just as famous as a Cottesloe sunset are the lorikeets in the Norfolk Pines, putting the bongo boys and girls to shame as soon as the sun has gone. In their thousands and purely deafening, this and the chill now hitting bare legs impels you to hot foot it back to the train station, goals ticked.

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Compared with the Western beaches of Perth, Rottnest Island provides a more challenging task for my memory. I came here in 2003 and recall jumping on a bus to a beach for a while and walking up to the lighthouse. There was a quokka somewhere, and probably an ice cream. My hair was black, in contrast to those white, white beaches.

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On a Monday in 2017, having achieved what I needed to in a work capacity (lest you think this is all one big jolly), I took the ferry over to Rotto and – like many on board – hired a lame red bike. Being a car free island, this is the best way to see the place, on roads that are occasionally lumpy and into the wind and may harbour the odd snake which you need to swerve to avoid running over. Yes, that happened to me #thisisaustralia.

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ew12There is not much more to say about Rotto, apart from glorious beaches and amazingly vivid waters and wonderful sands and beautiful bays and crystal coves. There are some sea-sculpted rock formations in between and – inland – a few smelly stagnant lakes, snake-housing scrub, and one bigger hill on which a lighthouse sits. Around the quay a touch of civility in the form of cafes and shops makes the whole place entirely tolerable as the temperature hovers around a pleasant twenty-six degrees.

ew13The other main feature of Rottnest Island are the quokkas, who are generally very cute, incredibly tame, and quite keen to get a lick of your ice cream. The main goal of many visitors to the island these days seems to be to achieve the perfect quokka selfie and #quokkaselfie. Seriously, view that hashtag and see what you come across!

You know what I did though? At one bay where a cluster of identical red bikes sat in racks and quokkas attempted to steal picnics and people gathered round them with phones, I walked to the far end of the beach, across a brief mound of dunes and grass, and discovered perfection was waiting there… #notaquokkainsight #alltomyself #mumlookawaynow

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The day trip to Rottnest was the obvious pinnacle of this trip and I will garner no sympathy at all for saying it was back to work after that. I was staying around Kings Park and commuting to nearby Subiaco, which had handy breakfast and coffee possibilities. The weather was still mid twenties, although cooling off in the nights.

ew15Essentially, I managed a jaunt into Kings Park one late afternoon, which is undoubtedly one of the biggest assets outside of the beaches that Perth has to offer. It is scenic and sprawling and accessible and full of all those variants and species that are unique to small corners of Western Australia. It’s a reminder of how isolated, how individual, this place is. Yes, there may be Hungry Jacks down the road and Home and Away showing on TV, but there is also a Banksia that only grows on one or two of those giant bluffs of the Stirling Ranges.

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The bonus with Kings Park is that it is also the place to capture city views, complete with the hum of traffic moving along its freeways and crossing the Swan River. From here, on my last night, the sinking sun illuminates its skyline, reflecting gold off the glass and steel structures. The distant Perth Hills turn fiery red before disappearing into shadow. And out across the Swan, down towards Cottesloe and Fremantle, bongoes sound and hippies gather. The sun that has crossed the country says its goodbyes, leaving Australia for a few hours before it gathers again in the morning and pierces the surf of Nobby’s Beach in a happily circular manner in which to join things together and tie things up. East to West.

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Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography

June

[Best read in David Attenborough style]: As the temperature cools in the southern part of the Australian land mass, the first signs of an incredible migration start to appear. Senior males of the species are spotted in pockets along the coast, struggling to grasp with the multiple tasks and devices which will propel them north. Reserves are gathered to a state of surplus, and a battle for alpha male superiority subtly ensues, a contest which will last across the season.

But here, it is the female that rules. Freshly groomed and adorned for the long journey, small numbers congregate. While not always harmonious, they band together for the greater good, bound by a common aim: maintaining survival, comfort, and subjugation over their once proud male partners. Hunting out and often gathering the food, directing the placement of shelters, maintaining the hygiene and lustre of their coats. In groups characterised by auburn dyed hair and expensive designer spectacles funded by generous tax breaks, these females underpin the mass migration that takes place.

And so, in June, across the more northerly coasts of this great continent, the grey nomads begin to cluster. They flock in their thousands to known waterholes. Sites like Carnarvon are almost overwhelmed by the influx, its banana-rich pastures transformed into shanty towns and its pharmacy inundated. The males continue to display in a parade of sandals, white socks and short shorts but, predictably, with little impact. After a while they retreat to seek out fish and engage in ablutions, but there is still competitiveness over the size and strength of their equipment. Some will settle here, and see another winter through with their mate. But others, with stronger torque and deeper reserves, will head on, north to the next great gathering place.

[Back to normal voice in your head]: My first significant encounter with a mass gathering of grey nomads was back down in southern Australia, in a pleasantly ambient March. It was apparent that Mudgee – a NSW country town standing out from many of the others thanks to pastoral affluence and providores – was an alluring spot for ripening baby boomers to hook up their motor homes. A caravan park beside the river, close to town, with excellent ablutions that may have won an award for hottest power showers in the west was always going to prove popular. And so it was that the mini street blocks dumped onto a meadow were crammed with a veritable mix of shiny white coaches and ramshackle fibros, often adorned with an auburn-topped lady in a folding chair reading through her expensive spectacles while a rangy male figure stumbled around trying to figure out how to empty the septic tank.

June01Campers, as so often, were an afterthought. Allocation to a small patch of grass that possibly classifies as a verge. Sited next to the river, but with the downsides of an adjacent public right of way and numerous biting insects. As ever, placed in the most open and prominent position so that all can look on in bemusement at the canvas contraptions that somehow you and your companion manage to be sleeping quite comfortably in. Swags were always a source of much fascination and eternal debate amongst the nomads, with lively discussions around one’s own ability to survive in such a thing and – on occasions lubricated by grape juice and a great Aussie irreverence – the possibility of sexual intercourse in such a structure [i].

Deflecting much of this attention and offering comradeship against the rows of Grand Adventurer 3000s and solar-panelled satellite dishes tuned into Today Tonight, one other person was braving the use of canvas in Mudgee. And quite amazingly it was one of the greyest of the grey nomads, a dear old lady cycling all over Australia towing her belongings, one of which was a stuffed dog [ii]. There is always someone or something to ruin your sweeping generalisations and lazy stereotypes, darn it. Anyway, being one of the few persons on site to actually need the kitchen facilities (I say kitchen, but think sink and a few tables under a picnic shelter), it was discovered over breakfast that she was in need of a cataract operation, possibly because she hadn’t invested in a pair of those expensive designer spectacles. And with a few delightfully cutting comments about the extravagance of $100,000 motor homes, she loaded up and wobbled on to the next stop down what I hope she knew was the main road.

We never did come across this cycling legend again, something I am pleased about in one sense because I had horror images of finding her happily peddling down the wrong way of the M5, the stuffed dog the only one alert to the situation, a terrified expression on its face. But it is quite possible – indeed highly likely – that you will encounter the same nomads, recognise the same Grand Adventurer 3000s, bump into the same old guy off to the ablutions for his dump, during the migration season.

June02Rob and Sue – well we think they were called Rob and Sue so that is how they became known – spotted us first. Apparently I had overtaken their car and trailer about ten times that day on the most boring stretch of road to cross the Nullarbor. I can’t say I noticed, because that boring stretch of road was so soporific that senses became dulled, and the caravans and trailers all took on a likeness and started talking to me and whispering sweet nothings as I hazily overtook them at 140kph, all entirely safely as pink elephants blew champagne bubbles through their trunks and out into the endless sky. But over a roast lamb fiesta in the quite delightful Fraser Range Station that night, they recognised us. I suspect a shiny blue Outback with a roof box and what were relatively young people inside (it’s all relative) were a more distinctive site. And as Rob recounted being overtaken ten times that day by some young hoons in a Subaru, my mind tried to recall whether any of those manoeuvres were in any way dodgy [iii].

Rob and Sue were quite lovely, in that quite lovely way where everything is quite lovely. Kind of like the quite lovely aunt and uncle who would have a quite lovely lovingly kept home and would happily let you stay for a lovely dinner and sleep in their quite lovely spare room. They were younger nomads; indeed there was a chance that Rob might still go back to work after their little test of the waters. They didn’t even have a proper motor home, just one of those plain trailers that somehow transforms itself into a suite at The Ritz. I’m sure they didn’t quite see themselves in the same mould as the wildebeestian hordes of socks and sandals and designer spectacles, and were glad to speak to some youth for a change [iv].

Anyway, the next day as the end of the Nullarbor beckoned, we passed Rob and Sue a few more times as part of that drive-rest-stop-drive tango, but now always with a friendly flash of lights and gesture to the pink elephants blowing bubbles in the sky. We marginally missed each other down in Cape Le Grand National Park near Esperance, a fact I discovered when we came from opposite directions to cross in the quite amazing Fitzgerald River National Park [v]. Later, I think they may have been a few vehicles in front of us at some lights in Denmark. And we fully expected to bump into each other once more, migrating north up the west coast of WA. So it was with some disappointment that Rob and Sue vanished into the great tarmac ribbon on red dirt, never to be seen or considered to possibly be stalking us again.

I reckon they were always a few days ahead, due to us lingering around in some backwater like Perth, finally drinking good coffee and wasting time in its breweries and beachside cafes. They were not there among the few souls braving the annoyingly icy waters of Shark Bay to see dolphins being fed; neither did they emerge from the masses crammed into the favelas of Carnarvon, a site which appeared to be only one step removed from a season finale of The Walking Dead; perhaps they weren’t brave enough to stop at the the very rustic setting of Quobba Station or enjoy the jackaroo appeal of Bullara Station, even though a few alternative, non-stereotypical nomads could.

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[And so, back to Attenborough]: In the northwest corner of Western Australia, Exmouth is the next staging post for the nomads. Here though, they come up against some younger bucks who could represent a threat to their existence: outsiders from France and other wild lands with extravagant plaits and body features that are proudly displayed, yet to sag. Competing for prime locations next to the ocean from which to alternately strum guitars and read books, there is an uneasy peace between the two groups. As the fine weather holds, an air of acceptance persists and the species cohabit side by side, with Derek very friendly towards young Amelie much to the disapproving over-the-spectacles glare of Margaret.

[Cue crack of lighting and thunder rumble scene, signifying, uh-oh, trouble]: But an unseasonal low pressure storm approaches. Some hunker down, others retreat to the cheapest motel to make the most of the downtime and look at some research publications and transfer the content into an excel spreadsheet in order to save the world. Trouble and coffee brews.

As the rains continue, the wily nomads now sense their opportunity. Secretly unhitching the power and emptying septic tanks in the quiet of dawn, a convoy gathers on the one and only main road of Exmouth. Emboldened by their superior torque and sixteen speed automatic military-spec drive, the nomads traverse the flood plains to settle in drier and warmer climes. Basking in Broome in tinted designer spectacles, they leave behind a melee of Wicked campervans bedecked with misogyny and potentially fatal odours. The grand migration of the common grey nomad carries on unstoppable, and we leave them on their endless roaming and return south.

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[i] Important interpretative note: by ‘possibility’ I refer to consideration of the practicalities of such actions being feasible in such a structure, rather than a request to give it a try!

[ii] Now, I am no Lance Armstrong, but I would imagine that you would do everything possible to minimise weight when cycling across Australia. Apart from those important coke cans for transporting syringes of unicorn blood.

[iii] I mean, we could have been singing out loud to songs from Eurovision 2012 or something. For instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_9QaVC-NKw or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrIaxnjeJ58

[iv] If there is one thing to be said for surrounding yourself with grey nomads it is that wonderful feeling of being made to feel a youngster again. Having said that, typically we were the first to bed and departed the site the next morning before many of the older ones had stirred!

[v] If ever you have chance, go there.

12 Months Australia Driving Society & Culture

E by gum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography

The gift that keeps on giving

God I love Esperance. So I muttered to myself on several occasions: driving along the spectacular coastal road; lounging on the white sands with a book; strolling with the sound of the Southern Ocean and lowering sun projecting against archipelago islands. God I love Esperance. Grabbing a good coffee by the foreshore; picking up a cake from the bakery; ambling in sandals and passing children on scooters waving to me like I am a long lost uncle.

Surrounded by such natural beauty the town itself is no pristine haven, but I like it like that. There is no false shiny veneer, little pretentious opulence, few signs of excess Noosafication or Byronessence. There is industry and shipping and an inevitable strip of furniture stores and warehouses and garages lining the entryways to town. Most of the houses look a little jaded, a touch, well, daggy. But I like it like that.

It’s a long way from anywhere else, a complete and fully-functioning oasis at the far end of the habitable coast, an embarrassment of riches before the Nullarbor. Such is the distance I had a stopover from Perth on the way. It was a place called Wave Rock, where there is a rather large rock springing up from baked wheat fields and dry lakes. Part of the rock has eroded into the shape of a wave. I rather liked it.

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Here it was a return to my home…a return to my swag. I slept pretty dreadfully, but then a non-daylight saving sunrise of 4:30am doesn’t help. Stupid WA! Still, it was nice to be among gum trees and galahs again, to wander around and on top of this big rock, to view the endless horizons and big blue skies.

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esp08There was a familiarity at rejoining past roads travelled at Ravensthorpe, and a reminder of the bitterness that is country coffee. Still, the road was slightly different this time, now lined increasingly with bright orange bursts of colour known as WA Christmas Trees. Tis the season I suppose.

Should one be dreaming of a white Christmas then Esperance is not such a bad place to come. Indeed, one set of officials who measure such things have declared Lucky Bay in Cape Le Grand National Park to have the whitest sand in Australia (and yes, another set must have proclaimed Hyams Beach in Jervis Bay the same). I was content, on a few occasions, with some time at Twilight Beach, which appeared perfectly white enough to me.

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esp07However, arguably the most God I love Esperance moments came further along the coast at Observatory Beach, a more rugged and sweeping bay which on two evenings I had just to myself. I would say this is probably the best evening walk beach in the country, with fairly white sand (but no world record). I love the waves and dunes, the rocks and islands, and the sun filtering in and out of clouds as it sinks to the west.

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Now, one of the considerations for making an assessment over the liveability of various places in Australia is the availability of good coffee. Esperance easily passes the test, whether from the mobile Coffee Cat or the scattering of small, chilled out cafes in the small, chilled out town centre. There are, in addition, decent cake options, some of which I have not tested so it may mean I need to come back. But Esperance is such a long way from anywhere just to visit like that. It makes it hard to leave.

With this in mind, I did see a sign advertised in the petrol station for someone to do four night shifts per week, between 10pm – 6am. How hard could that be? The sign was stuck in the counter window next to the hot sausage rolls. I was seriously tempted.

esp09But I am heading on and the next decent coffee will probably arrive thousands of kilometres away in Adelaide. There is still a huge chunk of Western Australia to re-traverse, but, for me, Western Australia essentially ends here. It has been wonderful, surprising, insightful and colossal. And finishing it here in Esperance, with a final coffee beside the white sands and topaz seas, and the sound of an Australian wicket falling, it is a fairytale ending.

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Australia Green Bogey Photography Walking

Plymouth – Bristol – Geneva – Perth – and so on…

For once, Devon did not farewell me with blue skies and fluffy white clouds and fluffier white sheep scattered on a carpet of rolling green. Darkness and wind and menacing cloudbursts accompanied the passage of dawn along the A38 and onto the M5. My final footsteps on English soil, for now, were along the sodden tarmac of Bristol airport, urging the cattle onto the plane and out of the rain and towards Geneva. In the tumult I dropped my passport – no, even scarier, passports – without knowing about it. Somewhere between aisle 2 and 3 I reckon, recovered by the air stewards and pronounced out loud. Call button pressed, gratitude expressed.

frawa01Geneva and its French environs were more bronze in grey lake cloud, a backdrop to stock up on cheese and cake and final family time. A bright and brisk Saturday morning was fine for some neutral ambling in the stylishly rustic Swiss countryside, dodging blade runners and cross country concrete skiers and tractors and little boys fleeing on scooters. Dinner was tartiflette, but then dinner usually is tartiflette!

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frawa03The Sunday was a lazy Sunday French style, involving hours of food grazing and gorging on cheese in various states, matching with wines from different parts of the country and conversation from different parts of the planet. From very young cousins to the more senior-oriented, a splendid afternoon and a fine way to say goodbye, even if such times make that even harder.

frawa05Not quite the end for me and my exploring however as my very last day in Europe involved spending a lot of time on a bus which should have been a train to propel me to the visual feasts of Annecy. Wandering the lanes and streets as a grey cold gradually lifted, soaking up a very different ambience, a very different backdrop to where I would soon be heading. From Rue des Chateaus to Quiche aux lardons et fromage, past outdoor stalls selling musty old sausages and caravans of unpasteurised cheese, alongside riverside paths lined with shuttered houses and glowing red leaves, this was the time to soak it all up.

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It was also the time to marvel in the landscape of this part of the world which is unlike any I would soon encounter. Escaping the town proved something of an uphill challenge but soon enough I entered the absolute golden delight of the Foret du Cret du Maure. Now sunny and warming up, strenuous work ensued in an effort to find an overview of Lac d’Annecy and not get lost. Thanks to my phone and maps I didn’t get lost, but apart from a few snatches through the trees, a lake view escaped me. Still, having really enjoyed the subtle, colourful transition from summer to winter over the past few months it was quite wonderful to end it in such a dense explosion of green and yellow and red and brown.

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frawa07Back down at lake level the water was much more visible and, now in the latter part of these shortening days, glowing in the clear afternoon air. This is not a landscape I will see for a while, the lake as clear as a coral sea, the mountains snow-capped white as a pristine beach. An aspect warmly regarded with coats and scarves and hats strolling along a genteel, contented promenade…

…the local time is 5:30pm and the temperature is 35 degrees. So said someone several many hours later in a different hemisphere and season. Welcome to Perth, where the international terminal currently leaves much to be desired. Still, it is Australia and I can be welcomed in with my Australian passport that so nearly went astray. There is a new government but, apart from being significantly warmer, much appears the same as I left it. Taxi drivers still wittle on aimlessly about the toll road or monarchy or carbon tax, everything is still ridiculously expensive, and Perth is still some urban lifestyle paradise masquerading as a city.

frawa09And so to the beach, or to several beaches, or stretches of one long beach over the course of the next two weeks. With a coffee or book or a huge plate of calamari, accompanying a stroll along the waterline, never far from the mind and just fifteen minutes from the body in a car. Goodness me, these Perthites are blessed with their ocean frontage. What is great about it mind is that it is rarely built up; no graffitied Gold Coast hotels casting morning shadows, no regimented wooden loungers and parasols for hire and cheap fake watches for sale, and plenty of space for dunes and parkland between the sea and the expensive show off homes.

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frawa12With baking days and arid winds it seems I have missed Spring completely. There is little sign of the much heralded wildflowers of WA on sight around the city’s parks and reserves; even Kings Park, which remains a delight whatever time of day and year, seems fairly subdued as it accepts its fate of another hot, dry summer. However, there are remnants of suburban Jacaranda lining the streets; having spent springs past in Canberra I had totally forgotten about Jacaranda, and how its elegant green leaves burst into purple flower, transforming quiet streets into a flurry of colour and giving them the smell of a new age essential oils and pointless candles shop.

Not every day has involved lolloping on the beach or sniffing trees, as I gradually reorient myself with the more mundane Australia – from work interludes to soulless shopping malls, from slower internet speeds to expensive, but lush, mangoes. A sign that I have been away a long time is in currency, where I say to myself…oh gosh…that Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding is twenty-five quid…blimey…oh wait twenty five dollars, that makes it, well, still quite expensive, but, you know, when shopping for essentials for a trip back across Australia you need a Heston Blumenthal Christmas Pudding with you, along with Marmite, Hellman’s Mayonnaise and Heinz English Recipe Baked Beans. Adjusted much?

frawa13And yes indeed part of my time has involved planning the next steps of this journey through life, at least the next few weeks or so. There is an excitement about returning east, tinged with melancholy of letting go of this isolated idyll of the west. Perth and I have become good friends this year and I feel like we will see each other again sometime in due course. And here I leave even better friends who introduced me to my good mate and nurtured and shared and entertained and sledged and made the whole Perth experience easy to fall in love with. So I prefer to think it’s not farewell old chap nor au revoir, but a very Australian see ya later.

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Australia Europe Green Bogey Photography Walking

Red

Red is surely the most schizophrenic colour. It is the blood that pumps through our body, and sometimes spills out in horror. It is the heart of the fire that warms us, the fire that can also consume and savage. It shrieks warning and danger, making us stop in our cars and wait for what seems like forever, all for our own safety. Red is the shade of the devil dressed, agitating up an hors category climb in the Alps, pursuing breathless cyclists to the upper limits of their EPO threshold. It’s the colour of love and passion, of Wimbledon strawberries and luscious lips on a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is dry earth and fiery sunsets, timeless and boundless on the horizon.

I would not declare red as my favourite colour, but then I struggle to see how any colour can have superiority over others [1]. When I think about it though I have been drawn to red across my life, starting from the time I was placed in Budoc, the red house at primary school for which I accumulated goodie-two-shoe points and bonus long-jump merits. Since then I have gathered red t-shirts that have become faded through years of devoted use [2]. I do enjoy a glass of red wine, and of course the gooey red jam spread out on a warm scone, the sweet template for a dollop of silky, rich cream. I am clearly enamoured with a place called Red Hill, where I am especially enlivened when an explosive red sunset marks the passing of a day. There is even something ashamedly endearing about that album by Taylor Swift. Like driving a Maserati down a dead-end street.

Forget your green and gold, to me red is synonymous with Australia. It is the colour which paints the emptiness of the country and is most obviously portrayed through the sunset pictures of Uluru featuring on postcards and slick tourism adverts everywhere. It’s a scene embedded in the national consciousness despite – for most – a lived environment of golden beaches and green bushland, silver cities and yellowing countryside.

Ever since moving here an aspiration has seeded and sprouted in my head whereby I tread into fine red sand, baked and cracked by searing afternoon heat. A clutter of rocks and saltbush and spinifex sheltering frilled lizards lies before me. Small gullies weathered by flooding rain weave into the landscape, twisting toward bare, earthy ranges crumpled and folded so that they cast shadows across one another. It is remote; it is a little dangerous; it is the very essence of the heart of Australia. 

I’ve had a few tasters of this red, from Uluru itself, to giant sand dunes in the NSW outback and a visit of the fabulous Flinders Ranges in South Australia. One particular spot that I have ventured into seems almost wholly red. Pilbara red coats the northwest corner of Australia right down to the stunning blues and whites of its coast. The deep red hues cover a suitably rugged and barren landscape which gets surprisingly hilly at times, rising to the mountainous ridges of the Hammersley Range. Despite some significant intrusions, it retains a remote, untamed and enduring sense.

A gateway to this landscape proved to be Bullara Station. Bullara Station proved to be a surprise. A surprise proved to be most welcome along this sparsely populated stretch of Western Australia. A huge working cattle station, Bullara also offered a rustic camping area. Now, rustic can often be a byword for primitive and inadequate. But in this case it was more charming and quaint, from the moment you were welcomed by the friendly owners to the campfire damper with many who are enamoured enough to linger. The beautiful open top shower shed was surprisingly one of the best places to wash away some of that red dirt.

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Bullara is – in the context of this vast landscape – but a stone’s throw to the west coast and the sensational coastal colours of Ningaloo Reef. With white sands and shallow turquoise waters, the reef is every bit the tropical idyll you would expect. Yet equally striking here are the desert sands perforated with termite mounds and the upward thrusts of the Cape Range piling up into giant pillars of rock and sliced by dry gorges. This is where the red earth meets the blue sea.

Heading in the opposite direction and inland from Bullara Station it takes some time to find a settlement. Petrol is a premium price to pay to cover the country. Settlements that do spring up are principally established because of the red land around it: red rocks that are mostly dug up and taken away to China.

R_mineTom Price is one such spot; a rough replication of a Canberra suburb clustered between deep pits and mountains carved away into a spiral of tiers. The scale of these mines is huge – from giant yellow transporters whose tyres are bigger than me to rows of rocks pilfered from the ground and lined up into varying grades of iron ore. It is both crude and sophisticated, simple and advanced. And while the urban latte sipping ecomentalist in me could take offence at such obliteration, I remind myself that we all use iron, we benefit a great deal from these holes in the ground and, yes, there are plenty of red rocks still to go round.  

Thankfully environmental credentials are restored east of Tom Price, in a swathe of Pilbara red pitted with deep gorges and crumbling upland. Karijini National Park is the jewel in the crown, the ruby in the iron of this russet country. It is where you can step out into the red land and absorb it, along the panoramic cliff edges and down into the heart of quite breathtaking canyons. Rivers and pools add a vibrant green tinge to the valley floors, a ribbon of life flourishing amongst twisting red walls. It’s said that red and green should never be seen, but here it is a perfect arrangement.

Yes it sounds clichéd but this is the real Australia, the realisation of the vision and the aspiration of the fundamental essentials of a red earth country. A grand composition of nature, culminating in the view as four gorges congregate hundred of metres below Oxers Lookout. Millions of years in the making, impenetrable and untainted. Red rocks shaped by land and water and maybe a giant serpent, rocks that have not felt a human’s footstep or handprint and likely never will. This is part of the magic, the wonder, the spirit of Australia. This is the allure of red.

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[1] Note to self: avoid vacuous interviews in vacuous magazines

[2] They used to go nicely with my black hair, but now that has become grey and the deep red material has faded, the effect has diminished

A to Z Australia Driving Photography Walking

Oceans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O_mallacoota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links

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

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

Destination Margaret River:

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

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

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

A to Z Australia Driving Photography