Crisscross

Lest I become too rose-tinted about Cornish beaches, life back in Australia conspired to take me once more across the continent to Perth. This is no major hardship, despite the length of the flight, for I cannot think of a city so amply adorned with lashings of fine white sand and turquoise seas. The Indian Ocean the very magnet pulling me west again. And some income.

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The city of Perth is barely discernible from those elsewhere in Australia. Shiny buildings ever-rising over suburban grids of trellis and jacaranda. Sweeping highways and glitzy stadia. Concrete enclaves of KMarts and Coles. A river, snaking its course towards a modest escarpment of fire-prone bush. And a thriving hubbub built on endeavour and good fortune.

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Flying here, from the east, it is almost a surprise to find yourself in somewhere so familiar after such a long haul. Familiar but with a twist, exemplified in the changing flora and fauna that has evolved the other side of the big red desert. Much of the same genus but variations in the species. Kind of like Australian Prime Ministers. Nowhere is better to appreciate this than in the eternally charming Kings Park.

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The other disorientating feature of arriving in Perth – particularly in summertime – is the time difference. In what might not prove to be the most self-destructive public vote in recent years, the good people of Western Australia declined to embrace daylight savings. This means three hours behind Canberra is enough to throw your body clock out of whack, with the 4am sunrises doing little to foster adjustment. I never recovered. Waxit means Waxit.

There were, though, some upsides to this plebiscite. By 6am I was so bored out of my brain lying in bed trying to get some more sleep that I popped out for coffee and waterside amblings in Fremantle. Other than people ridiculously exercising, barely a soul crossed my path on recurrent trips to Bathers Beach with a flat white in hand.

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pth02Freo was my base for the week and part of its appeal was accessibility to water. Being a busy and somewhat historic port, it’s not without its charm and boasts a high concentration of elegant turn-of-the-century colonial buildings. It seems to attract hipsters which equals good coffee, has not one but two breweries, puts on some fine markets, and has developed into a mecca for fish and chip consumption.  There is a lot to like about Freo.

The centre of Fremantle itself is based around the port, meaning there are no amazing beaches right on the doorstep. However, this is Perth we are talking about, so you only have to head a little north or south to hit the white stuff. Indeed, South Fremantle is perfectly sufficient.

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The ritualistic process of having an early evening stroll on sand followed by lingering patience to watch the sun disappear (usually behind that invisible band of cloud on the horizon), became as common a part of my routine as 6am strolls in Fremantle. Tonight I made fish and chips part of the cliché, because you’ve got to do that at least once. They were a tad disappointing, but the sunset did the business.

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While you can revel in the beaches until your heart is content, and then some more, there is perhaps a lack of significant diversity in the environment around Perth. Go north and there are fine beaches, dunes and a sand belt melange of exquisite eucalypts, banksia and xanthorrhoea. Go south, the same. Beyond the coastal plain, the escarpment is minor, a small rise of bush before it quickly transforms into a massive expanse of wheat and then desert.

In possession of a car on a Sunday I contemplated driving up to the Pinnacles Desert, which would offer a stark change of scenery. But it would be a big day requiring around six hours in a car there and back, and I had to do some work tomorrow. Instead, I made it only a little out of Perth to Yanchep and settled – quite contentedly – there.

While this didn’t deliver a dramatic contrast, it offered an encapsulation of this particular corner of the world, on steroids. For a start, Yanchep National Park provided all the sandy, semi-arid foliage you could shake a weird shaped stick at, in between swampy lagoons and bulbous gum trees. I was particularly fond of the many xanthorrhoea here, which lend an exotic, almost desert-like vibe to the surrounds.

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pth09Given the proximity of this park to Perth, there is also a more manicured and deliberately designed aspect to certain areas, with tightly mown grass, a cosy café, campgrounds, waterside boardwalks and electric barbecues. A perfect family spot for a Sunday lunch, kickabout and encounter with koalas and kangaroos, creatures which seem strategically placed for the many visitors on minibus tours heading for the Pinnacles.

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The nearby town of Yanchep is practically a northern suburb of Perth, though being one of the earlier developments it is not all ugly McMansions designed with the intention to use every single bit of land to provide an essential guest suite, rumpus room, three car garage and indoor cinema. There are certainly McMansions around, but also more established blocks made up of modest concrete bungalows and fibro shacks, befitting of a seaside hideaway.

Never mind, I’m sure I could live here – in one form or another – if only for the beach. Protected by a bar, crystal clear waters are pacified over that ubiquitous fine white sand. A beach among beaches in the city of beaches. Life’s a beach and then you eat fish and chips. Again.

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Australia Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Casual traveller

There are qualidays and there are qualidays. One can involve a dull drive to Wagga to hang out in a beige-infested meeting room, the other can take you to Far North Queensland in June. In June. When frostiness infiltrates the Australian Capital Territory with much the same frequency as declarations of mostly sunny skies and twenty-seven degrees in Cairns. Okay, maybe around eighteen degrees at dawn, but pleasant enough to embrace the Esplanade and marvel. I could have turned around there and then and been content with this trip.

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However, when in Far North Queensland in June it would be rude not to tack on a few extra days in which shorts and sandals can make a comeback. And so suitably attired, I slowly drove north from Cairns towards Port Douglas, stopping along the way for bouts of note-writing and email attending; coffee and lunch, on beachside benches and surrounded by sand and palm trees. Trinity Beach proved a quiet little delight among Cairns’ Northern Beaches, while Palm Cove turned out to be a popular spot where people come to jaunt in chilled-back decadence. As long as they can find a place to park.

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From here the road becomes a scenic gem, hugging the shoreline between the tropical seas and steep-sided rainforest. Sandy coves and mangrove mudflats compete for attention with the jagged green tops marking the northern outpost of the Great Dividing Range, as omnipresent as the prospect of a saltwater crocodile possibly being in that creek you just passed. Let’s not linger long for snapshots.

Nearing Port Douglas, fields of sugar cane squeeze their way into the flatlands between sea and slope. More than human high, much awaits harvest and eventual transformation into cakes which will probably end up in my mouth. Occasionally, narrow gauge cane trains can be sighted fulfilling this prophecy, carriages packed with shredded green stalks, trundling at snail’s pace on the first stages of this complex journey.

Coming here from Canberra is more than about a change in the weather, but a transformation in the very essence of my surroundings. In some ways, driving through this scene feels more of a shock to the system than making the switch from Australia to Europe. A more alien land in the very same country. Not that I’m complaining as this totally tropical vibe sustains through a Port Douglas dusk.

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Some interesting facts about Port Douglas that I learned: the original settlement – already dwindling thanks to a railway connection between Cairns and the prosperous tablelands – got practically wiped out in a cyclone in 1911 and was essentially a ghost town until the late 1970s. Then someone saw an opportunity, silver boats quickly whisked people to the Great Barrier Reef and became the omnipresent Quicksilver operation, a resort popped up with the largest pool in the southern hemisphere and became a Sheraton and – from there – the rest was history. Today, the town retains its resort-heavy heritage but seems to have diversified to the extent that it attracts everyone from the scuzziest backpacker to the most ostentatious billionaire boatperson.

Somewhere along the lower end of that continuum I found myself strolling along the main street early on a Saturday heading to Four Mile Beach. You see, while Cairns may have a railway and a fabulous sunrise, it doesn’t have a beach in the centre of town, let alone a stretch of whiteish sand littered with coconuts reaching towards pristine rainforest ranges. Often on a Saturday morning I find myself ticking off a little exercise around the bushland suburbia of Woden; this weekend things were a little different striding along a beach and a climbing up to Flagstaff Hill. Either way, I was suitably self-satisfied.

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Self-satisfaction continued with the excitement of finishing off some more work with a coffee and World Cup highlights by lunchtime. I celebrated this fact by booking myself on a late afternoon cruise, in which I was hoping to see a nice sunset but really hoping much, much more to see a croc. Three crocs later, the sunset was pleasant enough but – as was to be the fate for the rest of this trip – no Cairns. But the crocs were beauties, at more than arm’s length.

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One final enjoyable aspect of this sunset croc cruise down Dickson Inlet was the complimentary cold beer provided upon departure. A warm breeze, a fading sun, sardonic commentary, three mother fucking crocodiles that would eat your arms off and a Great Northern. Can there be anything more quintessentially Australian? At this rate, I was getting pumped for the Socceroos. Crocs v Frogs, surely no contest.

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Pre-game, the one beer lured me to another back at the marina and this was actually far, far better. The rise in small, local breweries is truly one of the blessings of our age, a price worth paying for excessive beardiness and an inevitably jingly jangly smug git with a guitar singing a pared back rendition of something by Bruno Mars. So if you find yourself in Port Douglas, I can recommend the Doug’s Courage at Hemingway’s Brewery, at a safe distance from croc-infested waters and beard-ridden singers.

Sunday came after the frogs somehow defeated the crocs and things were a little subdued in the streets of Port Douglas that morning…I suspect less to do with soccerballing disappointment and more to do with the efforts of Hemingway’s and others. It was eerily quiet as I checked out the weekly Port Douglas markets which were everything I expected, unfortunately. Seriously lacking in terms of food temptation and offering more than enough tie-dyed hippy shit and rainforest possum poo face balm or whatever. I’m full of incredulity, get me out of here.

What better jungle to escape to than that around Mossman Gorge, within the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest. This is special land, iconic even. Southerners shivering in the cold will have a spark ignited in their eyes upon mention of the Daintree. There are more dramatic gorges, there are more scenic forests, there are more powerful rivers. But there probably isn’t a spirit, an essence, an unfathomable sanctity that can make even tie-dyed hippy-shit haters like me get a little carried away. In the Australian soul, the Daintree is up there with Uluru.

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I find rainforests a contradiction of exquisite beauty and foreboding dread. They are amazing, living things, jam-packed with anything and everything that can claim a foothold in a spare millimetre of earth or air. Ferns eclipse ferns, trees envelop trees, fungus flourishes among decaying hollows, leaves expand to gargantuan heights. Older than the dinosaurs, unchanged in mass but everchanging in make-up. It’s this density, this proliferation of life that can begin to overwhelm; the moody subdued light, the lack of a sky, the oppressive air, the constant soundtrack of insects waiting to bite you. The competing sound of the Mossman River is a salvation, an opening, a way out. As are its creeks and pools which proffer sublime sanctuary among the jungle.

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Leaving the rainforest content, I spent the rest of my time ambling and chilling around Port Douglas and – to be honest – was ready to leave as Monday morning came around. Not because I was desperate to wear four layers of clothing and scrape ice from my car, but I feel I had ‘done’ Port Douglas to death, several times over. It’s not the largest place and time and again I found myself ambling along Four Mile Beach, or heading to the wharf, or seeking out ice cream. Such a challenge to endure!

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FNQ11I took one final coffee and stroll on the beach before embarking on the drive back south, which had a fair share of roadworks interspersed with spectacular scenery. Pausing around Ellis Beach, in this snatch of tropical palm-fringed cliché, it was again hard to fathom that I would be in a different world, in the same country, in a few hours. My poor shorts would be tucked away out of sight again.

This contrast was highlighted by a final, bonus-because-something-else-got-cancelled detour to Cairns Botanic Gardens. Again, so much green, so much life and proliferation of alien, oversized plants, saturated with texture and patterns and colours and shine. It surprised me that I had never been to the excellent botanic gardens here, for such places are a frequent haunt of mine during both holidays and qualidays. Places where you can quickly capture the essence of a region through its unique flora. Places within the middle of a nondescript town or city that can mark it as different, as exotic. And nowhere seems quite as different, as exotic as the warming airs and flourishing lands of Far North Queensland in June.

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Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography

The track out back

Usually a work trip to Wagga Wagga would trigger at least an eye roll and a quiet sigh. Another country town with no obvious attraction and dubious coffee. A trawl along a quiet highway surrounded by sun-parched nondescript land. Oh, and the prospect of work at the end of it all.

But, this time it was different; I was mildly enthused about the prospect. Partly this was about getting in the car for a decent drive for the first time in a while, stopping at random road stops and revelling in the golden expanse of country New South Wales. Then there was the understated, hidden gems of Wagga to discover, aided by a little expert advice. I might indeed get a good coffee. And the work? Well a necessity, but it was perfectly reasonable to manage.

wag01And so the drive out of Canberra almost immediately led to immersion into a flat, golden brown landscape almost devoid of interruptions or scenic highlights. Diverting around Yass and Jugiong and encountering extensive lane closures on the road to Gundagai, distraction naturally came with the Dog on the Tuckerbox. It’s a statue of a dog. On a tuckerbox. But it is sunny and warm and the landscape here more undulating and fertile. Gum trees offer shady refuge for the melodious magpies and chirpy galahs; tin sheds and wooden farmsteads sit snugly among long grasses and fields of sheep; and there are numerous comings and goings to observe at the Tuckerbox KFC.

Shortly after, the Sturt Highway commences on its way to Adelaide, with Wagga just a short stretch along the road. Loosely following the Murrumbidgee River valley, it’s a pleasant approach before the surprisingly elongated suburbs of Wagga arrive in the form of an airport, tractor supercentres, and Red Rooster. It’s a bustling kind of place and – like many a country town – appearing to self-sufficiently prosper in the midst of nowhere.

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wag03I enjoyed a late afternoon beside the river, checking out the sandy beach and colourful language of some local ladies engaged in a very open discussion about Tinder and uncles marrying strippers and the like. The beach is obviously no Bondi or Bantham, but there’s sand and water and – I can imagine on those scorching summer days – it has enough going for it to impel you into the Murrumbidgee. Under the shade of eucalypts the vibe is chilled, languid like the river itself and I could have sat here a while if I didn’t have some work to do.

The next day I said farewell to Wagga but not before a very good coffee and breakfast at Trail St which means that the city can now enter the pantheon of places that earn the ‘I could live here if I had to’ badge of honour. If I did live there, maybe the staff at Trail St would be a little less cold and engage me like they do all the regulars, rather than as someone from out of town who might just be there to write about them on Trip Advisor. Which I wasn’t. But hey, you’ve made it to a blog that no-one reads! Oh, and while I’m plugging stuff, eat or get takeaway at Saigon, just because okay.

wag04The return trip was far more diverting than a dog on a tuckerbox, mainly because I opted to take a different route back which didn’t involve dual carriageway and bypassing one street towns. The Snowy Mountains Highway stretches all the way down to Cooma, and if I was going to avoid taking a massive detour to Canberra I would have to find my way across the Brindabella Ranges. But first, time for a little bushwalk, just south of Tumut to a slab of rock called Blowering Cliffs. It was a decent jaunt out, starting off through lush meadows and rising ceaselessly through forest to a protrusion of granite. Sometimes a waterfall plunges off here, but today it was like a sporadically dripping tap.

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Back in Tumut I was surprised at the size and positive signs of life in evidence. It is not entirely clear why Tumut exists but, just like Wagga, there was a modest elegance and reasonable hubbub to the town centre. Here there is not just one main street, but a whole block, complete with dubious looking cafes and country stores selling hats and water pumps, at least three pubs to kill time, a McDonalds and – unbelievably – both a Woolworths and a Coles supermarket. Tumut, bigger than you think, was not the sign I saw as I left town with a McChiller Chocoffee in my cup holder.

The road heading towards the Brindabellas and – eventually – the ACT border was a pleasant surprise, at least to begin with. Indeed, it was rarely boring, transitioning from a beautiful pastoral scene following the path of a narrowing ravine into sweeping forested hills. The hills were all plantation pine and there was the constant thrill of the potential for a massive truck chock full of logs hurtling at you at 120 kph to keep you awake. This was all on sealed surface, but after the forest it inevitably gave way to loose gravel to dirt to rocky lumps descending precariously down towards the Goodradigbee River. And what a veritable Eden this spot was, a verdant paradise of a valley between the hills.

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wag07What goes down must go up and so there was some further climbing through Brindabella National Park on more precarious surface before cresting the ranges where the NSW-ACT border sits. I figured out this was my final road border crossing into the Australian Capital Territory and immediately the road surface improved: still dirt but smoother and significantly more tolerant. At the oh-so-ironic Piccadilly Circus I was back on familiar ground, winding down towards the subdued hum of sealed tarmac once more. Back in Canberra comfort, but with the satisfaction of a touch of exploration behind my back.

Australia Driving Green Bogey

Shadows and light

Well haven’t things been a little quiet? I mean on this obscure little blog of mine, obviously. Elsewhere life has been as hectic as a white house full of vainglorious charlatans; shady meetings here, photo opportunities there, late post-work nights scrolling Twitter and watching better men climb mountains. Lots of covfefe to keep me going.

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IMG_1464It’s kind of a winter thing, a cross-hibernation leisure shut down enforced by financial year leftovers and inevitable doses of bugs that may or may not be flu but love to linger. Canberra has had more than its fair share of cold, but – the last week apart – it has been phenomenally dry, with big clear skies bringing about pleasant afternoons before ruining the whole mood with sharp, sadistic frosts.

IMG_2179It has been pleasant enough – out of any wind, with a little time spare – for a few walks into the bush. There are Red Hill ramblings of course, but throw in a few Mount Taylor hikes, Black Mountain bush and Botanic Garden explorers, Mount Ainslie parkways, and add a random sprinkling of Cooleman Ridge countryside ambles and Urambi Hills thrills and there’s enough to keep reasonably sane and fit. Especially when the bike is gathering cobwebs.

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The nice thing with winter is that, largely, it is far from drab. The other nice thing is red wine accompanying slow cooked meat falling apart in a lather of gravy. Outside, the eucalypts still have leaves and there is always something, somewhere that is in flower. At this time of year the wattle loves to be all extravagant in gold, while resistant rusted on leaves mingle with ghostly bare branches and the alluring onset of early blossom. Three seasons in one, proof that Australia, really, honestly, doesn’t quite have a ‘normal’ winter.

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Colour comes too in evening skies, given the right combination of luck and persistence. A lot of my time in the last month has been spent at the National Library; a change of scene from working at home, with heating supplied and coffee options close. Outside the bookish interior I have seen a lake whipped up into peaks, a fog chilling to the bone, and a giant water feature named after Lieutenant James Cook spray passers-by with a spirit of generosity. And then, you get a calm one, when the lake becomes glass and duplicates the sheer beauty of our skies. It’s not a bad office from home office.

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I’ve formed a bit of a love-hate relationship with the library; much as I have with winter. I dread to think how many words I have written there in the past month, all of which are far more insight-oriented with indications of strategic positioning than anything you might read here. A key topline take out though: it’s in a great location and, as an almost Canberran, I feel so fortunate to have ready access to such fine institutions on my doorstep.

IMG_2300And a few strategic recommendations for winter? Anything with gravy and a glass of red helps; get out in the warming afternoons even if this means working at night; and, in the midst of analytical bewilderment, book a flight to the UK, where the daytime temperature will probably end up being the same anyway! See you oop North….

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Gold rush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey

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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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!

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