A conference husband’s life is not bad one. You help your wife with wardrobe choices, wish her well with the presentation she’s making to senior medical practitioners from around the globe, and then take a brief from her to buy a new handbag to match her outfit! So off I go to to the wonderful boutiques of Milan, style capital of the world.
I quickly manage to tick off the handbag purchase thanks to some diligent research and a very cooperative store owner allowing me send lots and lots of photos to madam! My knowledge of handbags has now grown exponentially..from zero..to the ‘little-bit-is-dangerous’ level. Now I could move to the more solid ground of the serious act of procuring some new smarter threads for myself, appropriate to a stay on the Italian Riviera coming up next. I made a quick reflection as I walked the malls of how our life has changed since moving back to Europe!
Mrs A is once again on a mission to help the 7,000 odd members of the support group she runs by attending a conference with the world’s thought leaders on ENT laryngology diseases. She listens to the latest research being debated by the experts, and works through what will be the likely implications for her fellow suffers of idiopathic subglottic stenosis (a narrowing of the trachea just below the vocal cords, with no known cause). She networks like crazy, building new relationships with these practitioners and deepening existing ones. She wants to ensure her support group members have access to the latest data on what’s working and what isn’t in treatment options. Mrs A also has to sometimes call in favours for people in urgent need of medical are, which isn’t always recognised by the gatekeepers making the appointments.
Catherine had to crowdfund for this conference her travel and attendance costs from friends (thank you to donors who read this blog, you know who you are!) and her support group, who have given generously recognising the value the community gives them. I am enormously proud of her and the energy and enthusiasm she brings to this new vocation.
We are, I recognise, enormously privileged to have the opportunity to travel like this, combining business (for Mrs A) with pleasure. So after a few days in Milan we headed down on the train to the Ligurian coast, just to the west of Genoa. I have to say after reading supposed `’horror stories” about catching trains in Italy, it was all very civilised. Clearly the authors of these posts had never experienced rail travel recently in the UK!
In 2019, while motorhoming our way across Europe, we had stayed in a car park overlooking this gorgeous Ligurian coastline and randomly caught a ferry that took us to this little village of Camogli. We were besotted.
It still has a working fishing fleet, their catch cooked in the local restaurants. We barely heard any language other than Italian being spoken. The houses have been built up six stories, allegedly so fishermen could spot them from way out to sea, and their wives watch for their safe return (I did check and there is no record of women working on the boats).
“We’ll come back here one day” we promised ourselves, and we grabbed the opportunity when we realised we would only be a two hour (and 26 Euro!) train ride away in Milan. Our train journey into London from our home in Somerset takes about the same journey time, but costs four times as much.
So we had decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel in Camogli. We are still getting used to not being campers, caravaners, and motor-homers, so the idea of paying lots of money for a night’s shelter still rankles! But pay we did, and had a place right on the front with sea views. Privileged indeed. Sitting over a leisurely breakfast with this view will be an enduring memory for both of us. As will for Mrs A having her first (second, third and fourth!) vegan croissant!
Our days were spent exploring by train and ferry along the coast.
One trip included a trip to the more famous port town of Portofino, home apparently to the rich and famous.
And you can see why. What a visually stunning place, but not an iota of authenticity left we felt, and were a little relieved to get back to our more laid back Camogli. There are a lot of family owned holiday apartments there, and we met people from Milan who had been coming here for generations. It gave a lovely feel to the place as the restauranteurs knew they had to cater for returning customers.
We had wonderful dining experiences all week, provided by people who were clearly passionate about their food and wine, and seemed genuinely to take pleasure still from seeing their customers enjoying themselves. It does help I think that I tend to be quite vocal about my tasting pleasure! We sampled some local wines of course, mostly whites, with Vermentino (or blends including this grape) being one of the main varietals. A perfect match for the variety of fresh seafood we found ourselves served. Anchovies straight from the boat, the same for a variety of fish we’d never heard of, but that didn’t deter!
This spring and summer has certainly had an Italian theme, with two trips within a few weeks of each other. But we both share an excitement for coming back to what we feel is our little slice of Somerset paradise. to walk amongst our trees, check on the veggies, listen to the birdsong. We’re home.
Location: Bradford-on-Tone, Somerset, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, London, UK
September was a busy month for us, hosting family and other visitors at our place. Catherine kicked things off with her Dad and his wife Sue arriving from New Zealand. It was the first time Catherine had seen him for over three years. Then her half brother Alex joined us and all were there to share in my birthday celebrations.
Then my eldest daughter Zoe also came for a weekend. I dont think we have ever spent a weekend together like that. It was very special. We had talked for a while about walking a bit of the South West Coast Path together, after both reading The Salt Path by Raynor Wynn and being really moved by it.
Catherine’s half-sister Elle and her family also joined us for a few days including fun at the Somerset County Show. Now, when I say fun, that can encompass many things in Somerset, we are learning. So a spot of ferret racing barely made us blink. Yes, the kids loved it, we loved it, and possibly the ferrets!
Family weren’t the only visitors in September. We also had the crew from my school days. Stuart and Karen, John and Catriona, all came for a couple of nights, and as usual we went hard on the first one with a lovely long dinner out at what has become our go to restaurant, Villa Verde in the village of Rockwell Green. The early hours of the morning found us dancing round our dining room! Grow up? Never….
My buddy Andrew joined for the next day and joined us for a head clearing walk on the beautiful Quantock Hills. This group of friends has been my rock through my whole life, and I love ‘em to bits :).
Finally on the visitors front, we had Percy, the peacock, who the village adopted after he escaped from a very cramped cage at a local farm. As autumn comes here, his tail fathers have been lost (well we found one that has pride of place now in a vase), and he has taken to resting up on our patio in the sun. Tassie, our Burmese, looks on with horror, and a speech bubble can almost be seen on her expression saying, “Wow, weird place this village!”
September has also seen us exploring our local area, both hiking and kayaking. Exmoor is just up the road, and Catherine plotted a few great little walks, including one around a reservoir up in the hills. I don’t think there’s any danger we will run out of local hiking trails. We really have landed on our feet here…hah hah.
Another walk started from a tiny settlement, Bury, where we started and finished from a medieval packhorse bridge.
On another occasion we tagged on an exploration of the River Exe estuary to a visit to a stone mason, and found a great selection of birdlife and some fabulous scenery – we hope to come back here one day. It’s well known as a fertile fishing ground, and there were plenty of Little Egrets catching fish. As always, we were told; ”Oh you should have been here earlier, there was an Osprey catching fish here”…but obviously nothing for us to see!
Then it was turn of our arms to get a workout, as we paddled across an area called the Somerset Levels, which we live on the edge of. With 160,000 acres at an average height of only a few metres above sea level, its is one of the flattest and most flood prone areas in the UK. It also home to rare species of birds, and our kayak gave us glimpses of some of these thanks to Catherine’s big lens. We weren’t sure how good the kayaking was going to be in the UK. How wrong could we be, certainly with the kind of weather we have had this autumn. So another tick in the move country (and hemisphere!) box for us.
But it is not all visitors and playtime. We have been busy planning modifications we want to make to the house, and already have started on one project, converting a room used by the previous owners as an office (only accessible through the garage!) to….a bar. Yup, we are getting a whole new extension to our kitchen, having had a wall knocked down creating access to the room directly from it. Planning permission is in for bifolds to be installed as well, to open up the view. Much work to do but its great to get started on making the house our own.
Catherine also as been working, doing her voluntary advocacy work, talking at conferences, contributing to research papers, managing an ever growing support group (approaching 6,500 members now!) and meeting fellow sufferers of the rare disease she has. She also manages to find time to do some paid work for a company in Australia. A right powerhouse she is, also squeezing in a flying visit to her cousin, auntie and uncle somewhere in that mix.
Thank goodness for our easy rail connection here from Taunton. Well, when they aren’t on strike, or have leaves on the line, dead sheep, kinky rails, strong winds, overhead power failure, or the many other reasons we get given for delays. It’s not especially reliable, but mostly gets us there more easily than by car when London is the destination.
What about me then? Well, not too much to tell amongst the flurry of visitors. I have kicked off volunteering in the local community shop though, and they want me back for a second go. I know, surprised me as well 🙂 I did go along to the local Morris dancing club night, given my philosophy is to give things a go.
Well, let’s just say I gave it go, and leave it there.
We are really loving the community here, never having felt part of one before, given we’ve mainly lived in larger towns and cities. I think we will always be ”the Australians at the Brodie’s place” (our previous owners), but that’s fine. One resident was telling us about ”The new people at The Old Schoolhouse”. It later emerged they’d lived there five years.
Change seems to happen slowly here. For instance, I can’t believe how attached every government department is to sending letters! Yes, actual snail mail. They seem to take pride in taking as a long as possible to enact a process. I started applying for my Government pension at the end of August. By the end of September I had made 23 phone calls, and finally received an application form for it through the post on the 29th. I said to one call centre operator, ”But can’t you just send me one from your computer?”. ”Ooooh no”, she says, ”That’s a whole other department that do that”. All part of the charm? Sometimes. Other times its all just frustratingly slow 🙂
And while we are on the idiosyncrasies of this country, none were more evident then when we saw the nation mourning the loss of it’s Queen. One bloke even got arrested (later released) for holding a sign that read ”I didn’t vote for you”, referring to the new king.
In the land that reveres its tolerance of free speech, I realised there are some very touchy subjects, and the monarchy is definitely one. I even saw local councils around us have cancelled food festivals where small businesses show case their wares. Apparently they are not appropriate at this time”, to quote the council minutes. Very strange.
There is much to learn. Best done by listening and keeping quiet and trying to keep my eyebrows under control 🙂
It had been a while in the planning, but finally we had made it to Mr A’s birthday celebration in Noosa. The past few weeks we had been anxiously watching the news, half anticipating another lockdown in the area, breathing a sigh of relief as once again Queensland recorded no community cases of COVID-19 and everything remained open.
While we were disappointed that plan A had failed to come to fruition (renting a house with three couples from NSW for a long weekend – they are all locked down and unable to travel), plan B was coming along nicely.
We arrived at our campsite in Tewantin on the Wednesday evening, and hadn’t been there long before our friends Phil and Libby arrived from Brisbane. This is a couple we had met when we first started travelling, through our common ownership of a Zone RV off-road caravan. We’ve remained friends ever since and caught up on several occasions. We had a lovely BBQ dinner while we caught up on news.
The following morning was Mr A’s birthday. After several surprise calls, we drove a short way to the Noosa River and launched our inflatable kayak beside the North Shore Ferry for a paddle. It was a beautifully calm morning, not too warm and a few birds around, including Striated Herons, White-faced Herons, Pied Cormorants, and Mangrove Honeyeaters.
It was a fine morning out, and we returned for a light lunch and a few more calls.
The birthday celebrations continued that evening, commencing with early evening cocktails at Noosa Beach House and then walking a short way to a much anticipated dinner at Bang Bang, joined by more Queensland based friends, Ray and Wendy, Brian and Caroline who are local to Noosa, and Tania who had come up from Brisbane.
It was so good to catch up with everyone, and I think we did a good job of seeing in Mr A’s 65th birthday.
Friday’s celebratory activity was an afternoon’s sunset cruise on the Noosa River, where we were joined by Ray and Wendy as well as another couple we have met through our travelling lives, Rhys and Marsha.
It was almost a disaster! Though a series of miscommunications, Mr A had received the message that the boat was licensed rather than BYO, and we had not brought along any beverages for the two hour cruise. As we watched the other cruising guests jump aboard carrying beer and wine, we realised with a sinking feeling that was not the case.
One of our quick witted friends, Marsha, spotted that we were moored beside a bar and gave them a quick call to see whether they sold alcohol to take away. Thankfully the answer was yes, and a case of beer and three bottles of wine were swiftly procured. The cruise was saved!
Feeling a little dusty on Saturday morning, Libby and Phil joined us on an outing to Eumundi Markets, about a half hour drive west of Noosa. Originating in 1979 as a small collection of stalls, this market now takes over most of the village of Eumundi on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and attracts artists from all across the region.
Japanese pancakes were the order of the day and helped cure the fuzzy heads, and then a wander around the other stalls. I purchased a gorgeous hand crafted bracelet made from an antique silver fork (by Noosa Artisan) which will bring back lovely memories of this time.
A local Lebanese restaurant provided our dining experience for the evening, and we were again joined by our friends Ray and Wendy.
It wasn’t just a hedonistic week of eating and drinking, mind you. We did have a few outings to look for birds and were even fortunate enough to spot a Tawny Frogmouth (a nocturnal insect eating bird, usually only spotted near streetlights at night, catching moths).
Noosa’s Sunday morning Organic Farmer’s Market is a must-visit location if you enjoy high quality food, with endless supplies of fresh-from the farmer fruit, vegetables, and many other food-based goodies. We had been on previous visits and made certain to not miss it this time.
Our friends Phil and Libby also knew the couple running Cedar Creek Farm’s stall selling all kinds of jams, preserves and sauces, most being sugar-free (and no artificial sweeteners or preservatives) and packed full of interesting native ingredients. We left with some tasty sounding salad dressing, lime chutney and a home made tomato ketchup.
Mr A’s eye was captured by a Portuguese Tart stand. Portugal is still on our wish list to visit- we were meant to be travelling though there last year, when the dreaded C-19 struck and changed our plans – and these custard tarts are a national delicacy there. He purchased a pack of four…two for him and sharing two with Libby. They got the seal of approval from both parties apparently well deserving of their good reputation for being authentically Portuguese.
On our final day we took the Tewantin Ferry over to Noosa North Shore to walk some of the Cooloola Great Walk. We only tackled just over 8km return of the 102km long hike, and felt a slight pang of envy as we passed a 20-something lady heading off laden with her backpack, a whole 5 day solo adventure ahead of her on this picturesque track.
It was a beautiful walk, taking us through paper bark gum trees and along sandy and swamp lined pathways covered in spring wildflowers.
The walk emerged on the pristine Teewah Beach, and we followed the coast a short way. The sand was so fine is squeaked, somewhat like the fine snowdrifts I recall in my childhood. Walking along the hard sand on the water’s edge, occasionally dashing up the beach to escape an unruly wave, our footsteps crunching over shells, helping to contribute to future grains of sand.
It is hard to recognise we might never again visit this area, walk on this beach, smell this clean salty air…we try to remember and capture it through all our senses.
On our final evening we joined Ray and Wendy at the Sunset Bar over the Noosa River for drinks and snacks as the sun went down.
This past week has been so special because of those people we have spent time with. We have been so privileged to have found such lovely friends during our time in Australia. Ultimately, this is what really tugs at the heartstrings, every time we say goodbye to people with whom we have made so many fabulous memories, not knowing when (or often even if) we might see them again.
But we stand by our decision to make the move to England next year. New adventures await us in the northern hemisphere, new friends to be made, and fresh memories with our families to be created. We’re excited about what 2022 holds for us!
Location: Venus Bay, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia
They Eyre Peninsula coastline runs for a staggeringly long 1,726 kilometres, and we have just spent the last five weeks wandering around the majority of it. What a trip segment it has been, so wild and wooly.
It is fitting to finish off by visiting one of the more photogenic places we have ever been to. With both a sheltered bay and a wild surf coast, all within walking distance of our little (very crowded!) caravan park on the foreshore of Venus Bay.
Now, the ancient Italians named the goddess of cultivated fields and gardens Venus, and there sure isn’t anything that civilised here. It‘s nature at its most magnificent, but it is raw, humans haven’t tamed it. There’s not a blade of grass in sight. It‘s all sand, and salt, and wind, and sun. The elements are in charge here. You can see where the sea is winning its millennia old battle against the land, as the limestone cliffs slip, chunk by chunk into the ocean, carving out these magnificent shapes in the rock.
We acknowledge the Wirangu and Nawu peoples as the traditional owners of the land that was then named Venus Bay (after the first sailing boat that explored this coast) by the early European settlers who started arriving after Mathew Flinders had mapped the coast. Early contact was as usual brutal when these First Peoples were denied access to their traditional water sources and fishing grounds by the settlers. Conflict that resulted in murders on both sides, and a public hanging for two aboriginals.
Arriving at lunch time we quickly set up the kayak to take advantage of a calm spell and set off randomly for one of the small islands we could see in the bay, I’d Googled them to try and find out anything, but the last reference was in 2006 in an obscure Department of Environment management plan. From that I learned the islands are (were?) home to some endangered flora and fauna. Well the birds certainly kept well hidden from even Catherine’s long lens. With over 360 offshore islands just in the State of South Australia alone, it gives you an idea of the scale of this country. Unsurprisingly then, there was not a footprint on the beach. We climbed up to the sand dunes and gazed down into the interior and wondered who had last visited. On this crowded planet, this is a special feeling.
On the paddle back we did see some birds, one crested tern having a very bad hair day.
A pied cormorant stood proudly surveying its territory, and other than that the usual pacific gulls and pelicans, certainly not the species range we had been hoping for.
We did a couple of walks from the campsite around the cliffs, and just drank in the unspoilt grandeur of this place. Yes, there are a few new houses being built, but still we managed on our second walk to see not a soul once we had left the campsite. One set of footprints this time, but that was it.
The sunset glorious. very few places in the world can claim to be this unspoilt.
A short drive down the coast took us to a cave we had been recommended, as stretch of coastal sea scape that just had us grinning from ear to ear.
Venus Bay, you’re pretty special. But now its time to head off inland, leave behind the coast, and take in an entirely different landscape. And there you have it. The joy of caravanning.
Location: Port Lincoln, Eyre Peninsula South Australia
It was time to leave behind Adelaide and put some miles between us and what we expected to be the frenzied crowds escaping the city for the Easter and school holidays. With international travel currently off the agenda for all Australians, we expected everywhere to be heaving. We were wrong. We soon leant that South Australia doesn’t do busy like New South Wales!
We had chosen as our destination the Eyre Peninsula, a 700km road trip to the west of Adelaide, and an area we had visited briefly and liked some years ago. An area slightly smaller than the combined area of England and Wales, the peninsula only has a population of 273,000, as compared to just under 60 million for England and Wales! Yup, social distancing isn’t a big issue here.
The peninsula is the source of much of Australia’s great quality seafood, not just the world famous Coffin Bay oysters, but a smorgasbord of other shellfish and yummy produce from the deep clean water off the coast. Tuna, squid, lobster, sand crab, and the largest commercial fishing fleet in Australia is based in the main town on the peninsula, Port Lincoln. We had booked a couple of nights in a caravan park there anticipating the Easter rush, that never came. Port Lincoln is actually officially designated as a city given it is a regional centre. but I refuse to call it that as it will conjure up the wrong idea in your head. This is a small, small, town. But first, we had to get there.
The Eyre Peninsula by plane is a short hop due west of Adelaide. By road its a 670km slog down some pretty straight and yawn-inducing roads. We broke the journey at a spot flagged as a free camp. No facilities, just a patch of gravel and a heck of a view, with some resident wildlife, including native birds, a skink, and unfortunately, a million flies.
Unfortunately our admiration for the scenery was somewhat tainted by the fact that our caravan steps refused to lower! This has happened before and usually a good clean, squirt of silicon spray and a curse or two usually sorts it. Not this time. A help message out to a Facebook group of other Zone owners, and we soon have ideas flowing in of fixes to try. Wonderful thing social media, sometimes. Well we tried everything to no avail so made a dash down to Port Lincoln and called in on spec to a caravan repairer there we had used before, Port Lincoln Caravan Centre.
I thought the Thursday before the Easter Holidays we might be ushered away, but no, they were immediately under the van testing a few things. Great service, and once again demonstrating that South Australia wasn’t as busy as we anticipated. Sadly the upshot was a new set of steps. So we booked in for the following week hoping the parts would arrive on time. Looks like Port Lincoln was going to be our home for a little longer than planned. Well that wasn’t going to be too arduous to bear when we saw the site we had been allocated! No, that’s not a painting of an idyllic bay dotted with islands above Tassie’s head, that is our view!
Looks like it was going to be a tough stay, with sea and island views, and a walking/cycling track running right past our front door!
So let’s acknowledge the Barngarla nation as the traditional owners of the land on which this thriving fishing port and service centre now stands. In the Barngarla language Port Lincoln was called Galinyala (meaning “sweet water”). Sadly it took an Israeli to have the interest and commitment to capture the Barngarla language, which by 2012 was at risk of being lost completely. Just like 50% of the other 250 languages spoken by First Australians when Europeans first arrived. Now there’s even an app you can download to learn the language.
Much has changed since the elders of this nation guided European explorers to where they could find those “sweet water” supplies in the early days of contact at the beginning of the 19th century. Now Port Lincoln has to bring in its water by pipeline from aquifers, so having our own patch of green grass on our pitch seemed a luxury. A desalination plant just along the coast has been discussed since 2014, and finally now tenders have gone out.
Port Lincoln sits on the largest natural harbour in Australia, Boston Bay, and is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the country, with massive money being made fattening blue fin tuna for the Japanese sashimi market. It’s an interesting coastline with heaps of onshore islands, so we thought we best get ourselves out exploring.
We set off to have a wander down the walking trail along the coast, and spied through the new telephoto a few birds along the way. We particularly love the red wattlebird, Catherine captured him perfectly poised.
The marina we walked to is home to the multi-million dollar mansions these hard working fisherman have now been able to build, courtesy of the Japanese hunger for sashimi from the blue fin tuna.
The next day we were up at sunrise and were soon gliding through the clear blue waters, eyes peeled for the ospreys that nest along this coast. We don’t take the risk of having the zoom lens out on the ocean, so you will have to believe us when we tell you through our binoculars we spotted an Eastern Osprey atop this mast surveying for breakfast.
Not a breath of wind rustled the silky surface, in our limited experience this is unusual down this coast, so we felt privileged to be out on such a calm morning.
That night I hard reserved us a table at Del Giorno’s, what every web site says is “the best place to eat in Port Lincoln”, and we were expecting a rather upmarket affair. However, when we were seated at our little rickety wooden table, we glanced up to be a little taken aback to see a young guy sitting opposite practically topless with a baggy singlet and armpits and chest on view everywhere. Are we snobs? Probably. It certainly wasn’t what we expected from the the many accolades the place had. I queried the waiter about it and found his reply fascinating as it captured regional Australia, and its culture so precisely. . His reply “In Port Lincoln you never know who has the money, certainly not based on how they dress, as they like to wear what they want, and don’t like to be told what to do”. Fair enough. So Catherine as usual stood out looking classy and simply fabulous! I have to say the seafood was delicious and so it should have been for $100 p/head with a bottle of wine. No nice glasses or tableware, just good food. So we formed our little (snobby) bubble and enjoyed the evening.
We were based a 15 minute drive from Lincoln National Park, and the next day we set off for what would be the first of several trips to explore this gem of a place. We hiked a loop trail with the zoom lens all ready, but Mrs A quickly changed back to the landscape lens though when we rounded this corner and were confronted with this awesome beach and glittering blue water.
Before you ask, no we didn’t swim…barely 20 degrees for goodness sake 🙂 We did stop though and have a magnificent lunch Mrs A had prepared. Now kale salad with tinned sardines might not have your taste buds watering, but in Catherine’s hands its turned into a gourmet meal with her boxes of herbs, spices. and fresh sauces. And what a spot to eat it in.
Suitably fortified we tackled the rest of the loop, and with the temperature in the sun reaching over 30 degrees, calories were burnt and thirsts were developed. A few of our feathered friends were spotted through the mallee scrub, but it was a little light on, other than this endangered hooded plover.
When you look at why they are endangered, the main culprit is them being scared away from their nests by cars roaring down the beaches, and dogs and humans getting too close to their nests. Sadly Australia has one of the worst track records of any country in the world for wildlife loss. Since Europeans arrived, over 100 unique flora and fauna have been lost. This article provides a pretty comprehensive summary of all the bad news. I’m not sure if there is a connection, but on the walks we did over three days in the park, we didn’t see one other person walking. The only people we did see were sitting at their campsites or near their car on the beach. That’s quite astonishing, don’t you think, on an Easter holiday weekend? So if there isn’t a love of walking though the bush by the majority, spending the estimated $12.5B it would take to reverse this wildlife loss isn’t going to win any votes. So it won’t happen.
Another short drive took us to an other worldly landscape of a salt lake. These places are just so the opposite of the type of the lush country were spent most of last year in. Fascinating to wander through and just listen to the silence.
We then drove round to a lookout, and just ambled along the cliff top, watching the pacific gulls gliding though the thermals. then pointed our binoculars at this rock pinnacle.
Catherine spotted an osprey perched on top as bold as you like. I guess she felt pretty unassailable up there! A few minutes later and we watched a juvenile White-breasted Sea Eagle cruise on past us. Then an aerial dog fight between the eagle and a Pacific gull. Breathtakingly beautiful. What mastery of flight. Finally a bottle nose dolphin briefly popped out for a breath of air, unfortunately when Mrs A didn’t have her zoom lens on.
Another short drive along the coast took us to yet another awesome lookout at Sleaford Bay, a photographers paradise. A white faced heron stood proudly surveying its patch. Sooty Oystercatchers on the shore.
Our last trip from Port Lincoln took us to Sleaford Mere, a coastal lake. Yes it makes you want to just shout for joy to see such vibrant colours, and still no Easter holiday hordes!.
Another day, another walk, and another stunning beach. This is such a beautiful part of Australia. And once again, we have the walks completely to ourselves, despite the campsites scattered around all looking full. This really has been a great week, thanks to our broken step! If it wasn’t for that we would have probably just rushed on with our desire to see “what’s round the next corner”. Instead we realised how much just this one corner of the Eyre Peninsula has to offer.
Location: Wentworth, NSW and Chowilla Game Reserve, South Australia
For this post, we recognise the Barkindji , Maraura and Ngarrindjeri people, throughout whose land we travelled the past few days, and thank them for their custodianship over many thousands of years.
We left the Menindee Lakes, taking a road through the national park which led to the Silver City Highway. The description of highway makes this road sound far grander than it really is – a two way tarmac covered road – though in its defence, it is a long one – over 600km linking South Australia with Queensland via Broken Hill. From here we headed south, making it to a carpark in the little town of Wentworth, located where the River Darling and River Murray meet.
Wentworth was an important settlement because of its riverside location and at one stage was New South Wales’ busiest inland port. It even made it on to a short list to be considered as location for Australia’s capital city! Today it’s a small, neat town with a sleepy feeling. We enjoyed dinner at the local pub.
The following morning we moved a few kilometres down the road to a rustic camp called Fort Courage. Apparently named after a brewery which once stood here, it is now mostly a sprawling collection of fishing enthusiasts’ caravans on the banks of the River Murray.
With no drinking water, but filtered river water to shower in, it was a good spot to stop and clear some of the dust out. We were dying for a walk, but there was nowhere to explore – a few metres from the river and you were back into dry, semi-arid landscape, the plants thorny and scratchy, not conducive to picking your way through them.
We decided to go for a paddle instead. We inflated the kayak and launched below our site, immediately appreciating the cooler breeze blowing off the water. Much of the bird life we saw was familiar, but as we drifted silently along we managed to get really close to some more unusual feathered creatures which were not frightened off.
It was with some despair Mark engaged in a chat with a fellow camper who had been coming there for 40 years. He told us about the ‘hawks’ he fed the carp to when he managed to hook one on his fishing trips. He pointed out one of the Whistling Kites soaring past – ‘there’s one’. ‘Oh a Whistling Kite?’ we asked ‘Huh?’ he responded. How someone can not have any curiosity about the species of creature they come across, I don’t know…but vive la difference. Sadly it is attitudes like these that accept extinctions and destruction of habitat as just matter of fact.
While we were out paddling we spotted two guys on a boat dredging the water and then taking note of what they caught, before releasing them back into the river. They didn’t seem like typical fishermen so we enquired what they were up to. They told us they were scientists, looking at the health of the river ecosystem. They told us they had mostly found carp and a few small golden perch. Not much else. Not to harp on about carp too much, but a story has since been released that reveals that carp now make up 97% of the fish in our waterways – it sounds pretty consistent with what they were telling us. How depressing…and how important that this problem is solved
Another stunning sunset concluded our stay.
We moved on the following day, heading towards Chowilla Game Reserve, back across the border in South Australia. Before we got there, we first made a stop at Lake Victoria, still in NSW. It is a reservoir managed by Water South Australia.
In 1994 when the lake level was lowered for maintenance, a wealth of Aboriginal history was discovered. Artefacts such as camp sites, stone tools, grindstones, shell middens and hearths along with extensive aboriginal burial sites were uncovered. It was estimated that up to four thousand individual graves existed in the burial grounds. The Maraura people have been resident in this area for up to 45,000 years. Today, South Australia Water manages the site, along with local Aboriginal communities to help preserve the site.
A plaque at the lake recognises the Aboriginal people killed here in 1841 at the Rufus River massacre. While official records suggest 30 people were killed here, it is suggested the actual number is likely to be double this. For once, historical information presented seemed to be quite balanced, with copies of records from people present at the massacre as well as stories shared by survivors and passed down through the generations. As is often the case, history is written by the victors, but at least here there is some attempt to tell it from both sides of the story, a refreshing change.
We stopped for lunch, before making our way to Chowilla Game Reserve. This was a location our friends in Adelaide had recommended as one of South Australia’s premier kayaking locations. It’s a network of creeks and inlets which all feed into the River Murray, the hard to reach and remote location meaning it was likely to be quiet and definitely no water-skiers!
The road in was sandy and soft in places, but with our tyres already deflated to a lower pressure it was not too hard a journey to the park, although finding the entrance was a challenge in itself, with very limited signposts and a call to the Renmark information centre eliciting no help either – they couldn’t even tell us whether there was an entrance from the NSW side!
Our first landmark was a cairn marking the border between New South Wales and South Australia. It had been plotted and built by one of the founding European explorers in Australia, Charles Todd, in 1868 using astronomy. The border has been remeasured with modern appliances, and is now about 100 metres away, but the obelisk remains.
Despite there being no signs, we drove through a gate into what we believed was Chowilla Game Reserve, winding our way through some pretty narrow and rough roads. Occasionally we would spot a signpost directing to camp sites, each numbered, but they were not consistent, and we often had to take a guess at a road junction, only to spy another sign through the binoculars directing us another way. It was very slow going, taking about an hour to navigate about three or four kilometres between scratchy tree branches and find our site by the river. Whoever suggested the sites were suitable for caravan access had not driven these tracks lately!
It was a relief to find our spot and park up for the night – a G&T was definitely in order as the sun went down after that journey!
The following day we got up at sunrise and launched into the creek in the hope of seeing some birds. Chowilla Game Reserve is recognised as a Riverland Wetland of International Importance declared under the Ramsar Convention, and one of the six ‘The Living Murray’ (TLM) icon sites in the Murray-Darling Basin. This means it is an area that is actively managed to maintain the health of the floodplain, using artificial means where lack of water (due to agricultural and other human activity usage) means flooding is no longer available naturally.
Our first impression was quite eerie – usually dawn brings a plethora of bird life, but not here – there was barely a tweet. Do the birds not realise this is an important wetland? Perhaps it is the ‘Game Reserve’ bit of the name? We had been dismayed to learn that five species of Australian duck are permitted to be hunted from Saturday 20 March until late June…maybe the ducks had looked at their diaries and decided to exit stage left given this was just three days before that start date? We continued on regardless…
With great stealth, we silently explored the watery lanes, watching for any movement. We were eventually rewarded with some sightings…
And yes, you’re probably getting bored of seeing Whistling Kites, but we had an incredible front row seat for this courageous Little Crow which chased the kite a kilometre across the sky to deter it from its nest.
Having redeemed itself, we had a relaxing afternoon and enjoyed a marvellous sunset over the water.
The following morning we braced ourselves for the journey out, heading towards Renmark. Fortunately, other than one water crossing which we managed to divert around, the journey went smoothly, and we covered ground much faster than on the way in.
As we departed we were able to see some of the ‘The Living Murray’ work in progress. The flood plane relies on water for at least three months once every five years to survive. As the water levels very rarely ever reach flood level this is now artificially pumped. Six huge pumps were running 24 hours a day to supply this water up into this area. The contrast between this flooded area and those left dry was dramatic.
We saw just one other vehicle in our time in Chowilla, testament to how remote the park is. Again, our breath is taken away by the huge open spaces and unique landscapes Australia has to offer, and we so appreciate the opportunity life has given us to be able to travel them.
We acknowledge the Paakantji and Baakantji people as the Traditional Owners of the Minindee Lakes area we visited last week, and who are still active custodians of the land after these 30,000 odd thousand years. In the last 20 years though us white fellahs have pretty much ruined what they had sustainably farmed on land surrounding the lakes and from the water itself.
The Lakes are naturally occurring depressions that fill with fresh water after rains when the river flowing through them (Australia’s longest waterway, so including tributaries) the Darling, is in flood. They were joined together in 1968 by canals and turned into a water source for arid Broken Hill (100km up the road) and for irrigating farmers using the Darling River downstream. Theoretically it also works as a flood management system, although it has been ten years since they have seen one of those and the lakes are currently at 17% capacity.
The draw for us in visiting the area was that these lakes are an Important Bird Habitat (IBH), and with the new telephoto and our kayak, we thought…let’s drive for 120km up that corrugated dusty road to take some photos! My dad would have been especially proud. The son who he couldn’t interest in his passion for birding, now getting all excited about seeing some of the thousands of water birds that call these lakes home. Like everywhere we have visited across the Murray-Darling Basin in the last 6 weeks, there is no good news for the environment. Bird numbers are in sharp decline as the water levels are adjusted to suit the needs of cotton and almond farmers, not the health of the ecosystem.
The town of Minindee seemed to reflect the deterioration in the health of the lakes. The main caravan park in town was an absolute dump, and even the information centre staff said “We DO NOT recommend you stay there”, but instead sent us 15km out of town to another park. We did drop into the local IGA, as we try and spend local if we can, but it was a sad little shop with nothing fresh on the shelves. and a belligerent look from the cashier had me hurriedly scuttling out. We were later to be told by several people that “the town is dying and the council do nothing”. Ten years of drought must have been a tough run for them. Let’s hope some of the deluges falling across most of Australia this week benefit them.
We were camped at a lovely spot right on the edge of one of the lakes called Copi Hollow, home to the Broken Hill speedboat club! Not usually the best mix with kayaking and birding, but on a Thursday afternoon we were lucky and had the lake to ourselves.
We had our first trip out in our kayak with the zoom lens. It wont be the last. Look at some of these shots!
We returned buzzing, and set the alarm for a dawn paddle the next day. We are describing the feeling to each other as “like being on safari”. There’s the thrill of spotting something new, the joy of being outdoors and watching nature unfold around you. In a kayak there’s no noise to frighten the birds, and we soon worked out how best to use the stealth to our advantage, silently drifting along parallel without threatening and forcing them to fly and abandon nests and/or their young.
It was absolutely magical, and we feel a whole new world has just opened up for us in being able to identify birds from their photos that otherwise would have been a fleeting glance in my binoculars. Oh, and its a good workout for me as I’m “the engine room” at the back, while Mrs A cradles the zoom lens between her knees and spots our next photo opportunity :).
We try and cast aside thinking about the dire future this ecosystem has. Very little is being done to help it. The authority that manages the Murray-Darling Basin were told by CSIRO 10 years ago to use their climate change models showing the likely increase in temperatures and extended droughts that were to come, as the basis for their planning. But no, they insisted on using the historical data as it was more economically convenient. An investigation by journalists in 2017 exposed some of the corruption, and this prompted a Senate enquiry in 2018. Even the irrigators are fed up with the incompetent management and are currently taking the authority to court in a class action. And so it goes on.
After lunch, we drove out to nearby Kinchega National Park. The park is set among the flood planes of the Darling River, and as we have seen throughout our travels, is predominantly dry and arid, coming to life around the snaking waters of the Darling. The land has been home to the Baakantji nation people for more than 35,000 years. ’Baaka’ means the Darling River and ’ntji’ means ‘belonging to’. Many of the community descendants are staff at the park, helping to eradicate pests – both flora and fauna, and preserve those that have not been destroyed by white person occupation.
The land was settled by European Australians in the mid 1800s, and a huge sheep station set up, with over 120,000 sheep roaming the area.
Sheep farming did not work well in this area. Initially, there was plenty of food, but soon the sheep trampled and ate all the grass, the ground pounded as hard as concrete by their hooves so that the delicate seeds could not germinate. By the early 1880s, 47,000 sheep had died of starvation, and by the late 1880s a further 45,000 were lost. This led to the collapse of this industry.
Sadly, the damage to the environment was already done. Within 15 years of cattle and sheep being introduced to the area four species of mammal had gone extinct. By the early 1990s, it is recognised that 27 mammals have gone extinct in the area – the highest rate of native animal extinction in Australia. It was designated as a national park in 1967.
Having driven through the dusty arid road, we returned to our oasis in the desert by following the river road, passing huge river red gums many hundreds of years old, and spotting some of the local bird life (ironically near a dry lake known as Emu Lake).
I had seen that there was a boat tour out on one of the lakes surrounded by private land, so otherwise this area was inaccessible, so we had signed us up for that.
It was pretty average to be honest. Nice to be out on the water, but again not a welcoming or friendly smile from the operators. or no attempt to have the dozen people on the boat interact and enjoy themselves. The guide trotted out with little enthusiasm some local stories, and it was nice to see a new bit of the lake system, but not a tour that will burn into our memories,.
Is it a lack of motivation, or a lack of commercial acumen? Surely you’d think it would be a pretty obvious equation that happy customers talk about the trip and more people sign up. We often come across this type of apparent indifference to customer satisfaction in outback Australia. Sometimes we think it’s because there is little competition to drive them. This operator for instance was the only boat going out on the lakes, and most of his trips are full apparently.
So Menindee lakes we loved you, the town and the “vibe”, not so much. They are going to tarmac the road from Broken Hill down to Minindee, so lets hope that breathes new life into this struggling community. We will remember these first few “birding paddle safaris” (as we now call them 🙂 ), as being absolutely magical, and the gateway to something we will enjoy for many years to come.
I hope the Minindee Lakes survive as a place that these beautiful creatures continue to visit and take sustenance from for many years to come, but based on what we are seeing now, our confidence is low.
Location: Cobdogla Station Caravan Park in the Riverland Region of South Australia
Its a name to conjure on the tongue – say it out loud “Cobdogla”. Wonderful. We planned to stop a couple of nights and then booked for a week! Its easy to love, with access to the Murray River from our front door, a nice shaded camp spot and the whole place so well looked after. A short drive and there are wineries in abundance, we just thought…why not stay a while longer.
Cobdogla is word that is derived from a local indigenous phrase meaning “land of plenty”. How apt a description. The Murray winds its way though this arid landscape and brings life to where there would otherwise be desert. The massive irrigation of this area has further enhanced the landscape, making it possible for acres of vineyards on land which was once dry scrub. In the grounds of the caravan park are the remains of a grand chimney, all that’s left of the property that once ruled over 500 kilometres of river front, breeding horses that explorers used to traverse the desert to the north.
It makes such a difference to your whole perception of a place when you are greeted as warmly as our campsite owner Karen did. We set up and I got the kayak all pumped up ready to explore. We launched 100 metres from our van onto a small bay fringed by River Red gums, that provided a lofty perch to Whistling Kites, who had already announced their presence with that oh so idiosyncratic call of theirs. Pied cormorants stretched and wiggled their snake like necks over at us to acknowledge they knew we were intruding on their fishing patch.
A short paddle brought us out into the main channel of the Murray. We turned down river and felt insignificant in that broad reach of water. I imagined the countless generations of First Australians who had called this area home, sustainably sourcing food and water from what were, until Europeans arrived and introduced carp, crystal clear waters. Now the water now is a muddy brown as they suck up the silt, which then blocks the sunlight and kills off the other fish and aquatic plants, contributes to blue/green algae blooms. Other than that…another great environmental move. Check out the ‘With and Without’ Carp photo below from an experiment where carp were removed from a water system.
We soon got used to their ugly mutts sticking their heads up next to our kayak, and we tried to ignore them and keep looking up at the birds. We had a couple of paddles like this from it camp, then another where we launched a bit further in Loch Luna Game Reserve, a maze of back channels that needed a short drive to gain access. Nockburra Creek Canoe Trail was one of the best paddles EVER!
The bird life was just teeming around us. We lost count of the different species, but a new one for us was the Red Rumped parrot. Yes..it did have one.
A few hours of exploring this maze of channels and we were grateful for our Strava app to plot our way back to our launch point! The Advanced Frame inflatable kayak once again proved to be a pleasure to paddle, going swiftly through the water and providing a stable photography platform to capture these shots.
After several mornings of pre-dawn starts to get on the water, it was time for a gentler day. A little wine tasting was organised at a small organic winery producing what to me sounded like some interesting varietals. We worked our way through examples of vermentino, petit manseng, durif, touriga nacional, and ended up taking half case to try and cram under our bed in the caravan with the other supplies.
With temperatures forecast to be in the mid to late thirties, it was looking challenging to be off in the caravan, so our friends offered us an extended stay with them. Hard to refuse when they are such great company, and live in a lovely leafy suburb up in the hills south of the city of Adelaide with a fab garden with heaps of shade.
They have two thirds of an acre intensively planted producing the most scrummy fruit and vegetables, and chickens consuming the meagre left overs and producing fresh eggs. A closed loop system!
A highlight for me was being invited by Mike to go out on his tinny off the main beach in Adelaide for a fish with his mate Joc (more on him later). After 24 years in Australia this was a first. I know…shouldn’t have given me citizenship. So before dawn we were hitching up the boat and driving down to launch just as the sun was starting to make its presence felt on what would be another 36 degree (in the shade) day.
The slight breeze on the water was welcome, and that suddenly increased to a roar has Mike opened her up and we shot out to sea. Crab pots were lowered, lines were cast, as I watched on in bewilderment at the frenzy of activity. I had always written fishing off as a bit dull, remembering seeing blokes sitting by smelly brooks in England staring at apparently nothing for hours. Well this was chalk and cheese. It was frenetic, with garfish queuing up to get on their lines, and blue swimmer crabs jostling to get entangled in the pots. But interestingly there was never more than three at a time. Apparently they are so feisty there’s no room in the pot for the lucky onlookers.
We were soon approaching our quota of crabs and garfish, with a couple of small mackerel and a couple of squid for good measure, and the talk turned to dinner recipes, and indigenous archeology. Strange bedfellows I know, but Mike’s mate Joc turns out to have been one of Australia’s leading lights in the field, not of fishy gastronomy, but early Australian history. I was so excited to have met him and have the privilege of listening to his tales of locating art sites deep in the Kimberley that no Europeans had gazed on before.
Joc’s involvement in indigenous Australian tourism over many years and support for the development of Aboriginal businesses was so inspiring to listen to. Now this is a bloke I’d love to be trapped on a desert island with. This has been a growing interest of mine, fuelled by reading everything I can find on what’s known (and often argued about) in the human history of Australia. Joc and Mike both have a strong respect for our First Australian culture, and this is so refreshing, as so many folk we have met on our travels have been ignorant, derisory or downright racist.
With a happy heart and a heavy esky, we headed back to the beach. As I was holding the boat ready for the trailer, a couple of sting rays wandered up to me and had a good nose round my legs. Its such a shame that one terrible accident can so blight these beautiful creatures’ brand. Steve Urwin, of Crocodile Hunter fame, had a tangle with the tail of one and it sadly ended with him having a heart attack after being pierced in the chest by the barb that tail carries. A sad loss. But these guys were just cruising, I assume they have been humanised by being fed, showing none of the usual aversion to hanging around swimmers they usually have.
Well let me tell you that the feast that night was incredible. We kicked off with Coffin Bay oysters that we had picked up from the shops, salt and pepper squid, dipped in flour and flash fried with a dose of fresh lemon from the garden. Then a massive bowl of crabs, with a tamarind curry sauce Catherine had whipped up. Local wines flowed. I can see the understand the satisfaction Mike and Kim get from growing and catching this food themselves. Lots of work, but the rewards are clearly enormous, mentally and physically.
Another hot day loomed on the forecast, but Catherine and I were getting a bit stir crazy sheltering in the van, so took ourselves off before first light to head down to the nearest river paddle we could find. The Onkaparinga River (map) winds its way down from the Adelaide Hills, ending up in an estuary full of water birds , eventually emerging out to sea surrounded by red sandstone cliffs. It was pretty windy, but we pressed on and glad we did. As the fiery sun rose it beat us down though and we headed back to the car before sun stroke was on the cards!
Talking about the car, we had a couple of days worth of work done on the Landcruiser. A service that showed that at our 150,000km service there will be a few more costs to budget for, with a water pump starting to leak and brakes nearly ready for a refresh. But that’s not bad going given in the 12 years of ownership these will be the first expenses other than the routine service’s and two sets of tyres. The only problems we have had are all minor and related to the accessories we had mounted. the workmanship was pretty shoddy, and it was time to get the work redone. I hit gold with the firm we found called Clisby Auto-electrics. Just delightful guys and as far as I can see, did a thorough job for a good price. Thank you.
We finished up our stay by joining Kim and Mike on a trip up to Lobethal, meeting up with Ali and Andy to go and watch a bit of music as part of the Strum and Stroll festival. There wasn’t too much strolling, and the strumming wasn’t as guitar based as we had hoped but it was a lovely evening nevertheless.
It was very kind of Kim and Mike to have us cluttering up their drive for so long. They both produced such amazing dinners every night, including one evening of pizzas on the BBQ. Again creating another first for me – I rolled a pizza base. Yes, I’ve had a deprived life. Now it’s time to give them their time back and head off for another trip.
Location: Coromandel Valley, Adelaide, South Australia
Adelaide has been a city where we have had some great times on various visits to friends over the years. This visit has certainly continued that pattern!
Amongst other things, it is a city that boasts a pristine white sand beach and bath-warm shallow waters that are fabulous for a spot of kayaking. Well that was one afternoon outing for me anyway, testing out the new top deck I had zippered on to the kayak that makes it a full-on open water boat.
I had dropped Catherine off for her next lot of injections in her throat to keep this persistent narrowing of her airway at bay. Then she had organised to meet up for lunch with a group of ladies who are members of the support group she manages for that disease. It’s always so great for her to meet others in person and judge how her considerable labours in administering it are valued.
She was buzzing with enthusiasm when I picked her up, and I felt so proud once again of what she has accomplished. The lovely doctor she met for the first time who gave her the injections greeted her by calling her “the visiting celebrity” much to her amusement.
We had been invited to stay with a couple of friends who live up in the hills to the south of the city centre. It’s been such an interesting visit, as we share many passions that involve getting out and about in the great Australian outdoors. They have two thirds of an acre that‘s heavily planted with all manner of vegetables and fruits, with chickens clucking away and laying the most gorgeous rich yellow yoked eggs.
One dinner in particular will always stick in our minds as they had taken their tinny (small metal tin boat with an outboard motor) down to the city beach and just a few hundred metres offshore sunk a line and some crabbing pots. Apparently the sea there is rich in blue swimmer crabs, almost at plague proportions at the moment. Lovely to hear that something is thriving so well in these climatically challenged times. Well, they were absolutely delicious, together with some small garfish and herring they also caught. A salad picked fresh from the garden, and washed down with a local chardy. Then peaches straight off their tree. What an absolute feast of fresh bounty!
Another couple of friends had agreed to join us for a paddle and they suggested a local spot that was a dolphin sanctuary. We crossed our fingers and sure enough up shows a small pod pottering round us having a fish. The weather was just perfect, not too hot considering the time of year. Adelaide can have some scorching weather but we are currently delighting in La Nina dominating, bringing some fresher temperatures and the odd shower or two.
As well as activities, eating and drinking, it has also been a busy few days getting jobs done while we are in a city, like haircuts, and shopping.
We have had some issues with our Land Cruiser’s 12 volt accessories, a legacy of some poor workmanship back when we initially had the vehicle fitted out in Sydney. A visit to Toyota ensued, and they also told me after running an engine scan that I should have a “trans wash”. I clearly looked a bit bewildered, and somewhat nervous. The young lad then hastily clarified, a transmission wash out. I briefed an audible sigh of relief and booked that in.
I also found a local auto electrician, who after examining our vehicle for a few minutes asked me if it was a Prado. Now that may not seem like a red flag unless you are familiar with the Australian car scene, but let me tell you it did not inspire confidence. He was all we could find at short notice, and added zero value but still charged me his call-out fee! Not happy…. now we have a booking in ten days time at a business specialising in the area we need. It just means a shorter trip to the Yorke Peninsula than we had planned – no great hardship. So let‘s keep our fingers crossed the electrics behave themselves while we away.