15-18 March: Kayaking in Charming Chowilla

Author: Mrs A

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.

Our route – Wentworth sits at point A

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.

A restored ‘Fergie’ tractor in the pub helps tell the story of how these little ‘workhorses’ saved the town of Wentworth in the 1956 floods – the downside of being located on the convergence of two major rivers

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.

Whistling Kites
More Whistling Kites…getting used to using the high shutter speed to capture them in flight
Australian Wood Ducks
More Pelicans…
A beautiful Nankeen Night Heron juvenile picks its way up a tree
A Blue-faced Honeyeater

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.

Another riverside outback sunset

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.

After prolonged drought, there is little water in the lake

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!

Where do we go from here? After following a sandy track for several kilometres we came across a gate with no signpost.

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.

Todd’s Obelisk – the marker of the province boundary

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!

Our haven by the water
Our kayak all ready to launch in the morning

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…

We gently paddle down stream

With great stealth, we silently explored the watery lanes, watching for any movement. We were eventually rewarded with some sightings…

An Australian Reed-warbler
Grey Kangaroo
Beautiful bark of a RIver red gum tree
An Australian Hobby

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.

Crow versus Whistling Kite
Masked Woodswallow

Having redeemed itself, we had a relaxing afternoon and enjoyed a marvellous sunset over the water.

A perfect sunset sky
Mirror-like perfection on 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.

Flooding in progress

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.

On the ‘main road’ out towards Renmark

12-15 March: Exploring Paakantji/Baakantji Country around the Menindee Lakes

Author: Mr A

Location: Menindee, south-west NSW, Australia

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.

Image

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.

Shade and water access – perfect

We had our first trip out in our kayak with the zoom lens. It wont be the last. Look at some of these shots!

A female and juvenile Rainbow Bee-eater take a break from swooping after insects
We watched Pelicans fishing
Crested Grebe
Beautiful colours over the lake at sunset
Another fine end to a day

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.

Great Egrets
Beautiful prima ballerinas of the wetlands

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 :).

A Whistling Kite keeps a watchful eye on us as we pass by
A Spiny-Cheeked Honeyeater swoops in to warn off the kite
Seeing double? A pair of Royal Spoonbills
A Yellow-billed Spoonbill hanging out with a Royal Spoonbill
The dead trees are literally dripping in cormorants

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.

A choir of Pied Butcherbirds – one bird sings the song, and all three join in the chorus – it sounds wonderful. Hear an example here on YouTube

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.

A woolshed still stands on the property – an eerie reminder of times past. It still retains the smells of animals, sweat, engine oil and wood, along with nearly 200 years of dust. This is where the sheep were shorn – held in pens on the right then released to be shorn with mechanical shears (up by the ceiling) and then released through the openings on the left in to the next pen. Multiple shearers worked in tandem, paid per fleece.
You can almost hear the thundering of sheep hooves as they are herded up this slope into the shed
Firmly closed against the hot afternoon sun

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).

Australia’s largest bird, and the second tallest bird in the world – the Emu
Emus are about 6 foot tall (180cm) and can run about 50km/h. They weigh an average of 38kg. You don’t want to run into one of these with your car!

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.

The lake tour set off at 6pm
More Yellow Spoonbills perched up in a dead tree
Mirror like perfection – these trees died about 50 years ago when the area was permanently flooded
The ever-present apex predictor, the Whistling Kite
An Emu egg! Eggs are laid by the females and then abandoned, leaving the male Emus to incubate them and raise the young
More feral animals – a family of wild pigs we saw running alongside the waterways

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.

Sunset was pretty amazing

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.

9-11 March – Leaving civilisation and heading to the NSW outback

Author: Mrs A

Location: Mungo National Park and Pooncarie, NSW, Australia

We farewelled Jenny who took off early into town to get her windscreen replaced, and did a final shop before making our way out of town. We had a couple of hours’ driving ahead of us on dusty and corrugated single track roads, and there were not going to any shops in our immediate future.

A willie-willie approaching us on the dusty road…this is a dust whirlwind….

It’s been a while since we have travelled on such surfaces, and when we stopped for lunch we were reminded of the impact of the dust. Our Zone caravan is predominantly dust proof, but a week earlier we had discovered a catch on our front door was missing, meaning we couldnt securely close the outer glass. We’d forgotten to tape it closed on departing, and so everything was covered in orange dust. Ugh. A good 15 minutes of cleaning later and at least the kitchen was usable. We remembered the tape before we set off again.

The landscape is dry and flat, with a surprisingly large number of drought tolerant bushes, grasses and shrubs across it. In a ‘I-wouldnt-like-to-live-here’ way it is extremely beautiful, and you have to admire the multitude of creatures that survive in this harsh environment.

It has become standard practice in Australia to use what is called ‘An Acknowledgment of Country” when speaking about a place, and we have decided to include this in our posts from now on. For our non-Australian readers who may be unfamiliar with this phrase, it is a way to recognise the traditional owners and custodians of this country, and their long and continuing relationship with the land.

So why haven’t we being doing it to date? Often when we see this acknowledgment written or hear it spoken, it appears to be an insincere tick of a box, with the following material displaying no further recognition, understanding or respect for the culture and achievements of the people who have made this land home for thousands of years. Mr A has taken a particular interest in researching and learning about this history since we started travelling around Australia, so we feel we have something to say that would make an Acknowledgment of Country more meaningful, and not just being politically correct. 

We also think it would be a useful reminder to our readers that Australia has a long and rich history before Europeans started showing up in the early part of the 18th century, and the British first unloaded their convicts in January 1788. For 60,000 years Australia had already been settled, farmed, irrigated, mapped, its resources carefully managed and many world firsts achieved in the process. The world’s first known example of open ocean navigation, the first bakers, the first aquaculture, and the list goes on as we learn more about our Australia’s First Peoples.

We respectfully acknowledge, in hindsight, all the First People of Australia whose country has given us such a wonderful home , so many adventures, and still so many surprises as we learn about the achievements of its traditional owners. 

Our destination on this occasion was Mungo National Park. We would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we visited- the Barkandji/Paakantyi, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa people. We would also like to pay our respects to Elders past and present.

The national park is famous for its huge dry lake bed, alongside which in the 1970s were found the ancient Aboriginal remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Woman, buried there an estimated 42,000 years ago – during the last Ice Age.

This location represented a game-changer in understanding of the human occupation of Australia – at the time of its discovery, this was some of the earliest evidence of humans outside of Africa and some of the most powerful evidence of continuous occupation of a region by a population – more than 2,000 generations. Mungo lady represents the oldest known ritual cremation of a human…though what is being learned changes all the time.

The next find was relatively recent. In 2003, fossilised human footprints from Willandra people made 20,000 years ago were uncovered under shifting sands. This was equally as important, representing the only Pleistocene footprints in Australia and the most numerous yet found anywhere in the world. They show an adult and child walking barefoot around the edge of the lake. The actual prints are not accessible to the public, but there are 3D replicas of the footprints in concrete in a display area on the lake. You can literally walk in and on the footsteps of Aboriginal ancestors.

We set up at Main Camp, a bushy setting with widely spaced sites surrounded by shady trees, birds flitting everywhere and kangaroos lazily glancing up from the shade. A perfect place to start really trying out my new camera lens.

Our nearest neighbours
Possibly a young Grey Butcherbird? Happy to be corrected!
One very chilled out Grey Kangaroo

Mark and I had visited this area about 18 years ago, spending a night here as the only campers in our tent on a dusty site. It was a lot more civilised this time in our caravan, and also much busier with several other people staying.

We had a great afternoon exploring the nature walks and lookouts, opting to not go on the nearby lodge’s sunset tour which for $110 would involve a tag-along drive to the other side of the lake with a talk covering the pastoral history. Apparently the National Parks Ranger organises an Aboriginal tour ‘most days’ which sounded much more interesting, but sadly it wasn’t on during our visit.

Grazing animals were released into this region in the 1880s, and those combined with the introduction of rabbits (wasn’t that a great plan – what could possibly go wrong?) followed by foxes (another bright plan that didnt work so well) contributed to the extinction of at least 10 small mammals in the area and an unknown but huge number of plants and grasses. The land was designated a World Heritage Site in the 1970s after the archaeological finds, but the land still has not recovered and it is suspected never will.

Remnants of the pastoral history of the area

The lake is a vast and desolate area, stretching away to the horizon. The total size is 200,000 square kilometres, and it last had reliable but salty water in it around 18,000 years ago. As we stood together at the lookout admiring the unique landscape, it wasn’t hard to understand why this is such a sacred area to the Aboriginal communities.

A lone tree overlooks the lake
The sun casts a mysterious light over the dry lake as it dips low in the sky
Beautiful colours
Casinova reads poetry to his beau
A Spiny-Cheeked Honeyeater flits musically through the trees hunting for insects
Sunset over Mungo National Park

After the activity and sleepless nights of Mildura, it was absolute bliss to enjoy the peace and dark of Mungo. The stars stretched on forever. I’ve not yet got the hang of star photography with my new lens so there’s none of that to share, but I did get a good shot of the moon.

Can you spot the craters?

The following morning we departed, driving across more huge dry lake beds, bizarrely showing up as blue on Google Maps, heading to the tiny settlement of Pooncarie, home to 40 people.

Long straight dusty empty roads common on our journey

Pooncarie is tiny now, but in the mid 1800s was an important river port, settled on the banks of the Darling River and serving all the sheep and cattle stations in the region. There is still a wharf there, with a cafe and craft shop. Somehow the village is also able to sustain a pub, where we called in and paid our $10 to camp for the night in a serviced riverside area. The Pooncarie area is inhabited by the Barkandji Aboriginal people who have been in the area for at least 40,000 years.

The Pooncarie Hotel
The bar is dedicated largely to fishing memorabilia

What a beautiful spot – an absolute haven after several hours of driving dusty, straight and corrugated roads. It was a hot afternoon, easily reaching the early 30s in the shade, and unbearable in the sun, but with a breeze blowing off the water it was lovely. We set out our chairs and enjoyed the ambience.

Our home for the night beside the Darling River, Pooncarie
One chair for Mr A and one chair for Princess Tassie…seems to be something missing here…
One happy cat

It was not only us that enjoyed this relatively cool riverside shade, there were plenty of birds who were obliging enough to occasionally stop still and land in unobstructed locations for a photo.

White-plumed Honeyeater
Red-rumped Parrot
Female Flame Robin
Willie Wagtail
White-plumed Honeyeater

We also saw a family of goats picking their way alongside the river. These are strictly speaking feral – generations of these have been born and grown up in the wild, descended from goats that have escaped from un-fenced farms in the 1800s. They do a lot of damage to the plants, munching up young seedlings and changing the landscape with their hooves. But, it seems, they have now been accepted as a source of potential money, with Australia now being the world’s largest exporter of goat meat – mostly to the USA. Of course they don’t call them feral goats in their marketing – these are known as ‘rangeland goat meat’. There have even been thoroughbred Bauer goats released into the wild to help improve the meat quality through inter-breeding.

’Rangeland’ goats pick their way along the river bank

It was a lovely overnight stay, and Tassie enjoyed a final explore around the area before we took off the next morning, again farewelling the life giving river and travelling the red dusty roads towards Menindie.

Our sunrise view across the river

4-9 March: Mrs A has a particularly memorable birthday weekend

Author: Mr A

Location: Mildura, NSW-Victoria border, Australia

One of the major downsides of our itinerant lifestyle, is the risk of losing contact with the nearest and dearest to us. With a birthday coming up for Mrs A, I thought it would be a good excuse to set up a few surprise calls for her with some family and friends scattered around the world. That was proceeding well, when our friends Jenny and David decided they wanted a road trip down from Sydney to come and spend the weekend. Jenny suggested Mildura – just a hair over 1,000km from their home! So with a bit of secret squirrelling I managed to get us booked into a park there and a chalet sorted for the two of them just a few metres away from us.

Now, I knew nothing about Mildura but when I started my research to plan the weekend, I discovered it is actually quite well endowed with restaurants. So a frenzied few days later of disappearing off to make phone calls (remember we are never really apart in the confines of a caravan), I had it all mapped out. It was in fact, I learnt, a long weekend so things were pretty booked up, so some flexibility was required.

The Thursday before Catherine’s birthday, we left our camp in Cobdogla and I finally had to tell her where we were going as it was loaded into my Google maps for navigation. Now Mildura is never going to release the same “ooh’s” and “wow’s” as say Venice, but she went with the flow. I knew she was going to be wowed when Jenny and David strolled in.

We checked into our campsite, and I cast an eye over at the cabin I had booked for Jenny and David. I could barely contain my excitement. I told Mrs A that I had to take a booking that night for her birthday dinner as places were full on Friday. Actually it was because Jenny and David were going to have to leave at 4am the next morning and wouldn’t be in shape to head out for dinner on the Friday. These are two people who both run their own businesses and are super busy. What a thing to do. Amazing.

I had booked one of Mildura’s finest for that night, an Italian called The Province. We had a great meal and headed back.

Fine dining in unexpected places – fresh pasta with Morton Bay Bugs

I struggled to sleep, not only because of the next day’s events, but also the trucks thundering down the Stuart Highway just next to our campsite. Australians are very keen, it seems, to build their campsites right next to our main roads. Its not like we don’t have the space! Perhaps it is the cheapest land?

The morning finally dawned, and her first surprise of the day was… no presents. We had been talking about a telephoto lens to help with wildlife photography, and we had nailed it down to a particular model. Then, as far as Catherine was concerned, it all went quiet. In the background meanwhile, there was more frenzied activity trying to source the model, finally I found one in Sydney, in a shop down the road from Jenny and David! It was meant to be, I thought. I had it express couriered to Jenny’s business, an art framing studio in Rose Bay. (Note anyone who needs top notch framing work its called Framing and Art Matters).

Catherine was polite enough to say nothing, and I quickly distracted her with a phone call to some of her family in friends in the UK, and one who joined from Provence. Then a call with my daughters and another couple of friends. That all worked well. It was going to plan.

I then had to make an excuse to disappear into town for “half an hour”. I had to go shopping for some fresh treats for dinner, oysters included of course, pick up her dairy- free birthday cake, and source some extra fine wine for our weekend’s festivities. Woolworths had almost run out of oysters and the fish counter assistant disappeared for so long out the back I thought he had gone to collect some more from the coast 500km away! The bloke in the cake shop was on his own and apparently everyone in Mildura buys cake on a Friday morning. Then Dan Murphys, source of decent wine, had such an amazing selection that I got a bit carried away choosing. So two hours later I arrived back after leaving madam alone doing the washing on her birthday morning. She’s…Ok…I smile a lot and take her to lunch.

Now lunch was at a Vietnamese cafe that if you ever find yourself in Mildura you have to go to. Fabulous food. Mr Bun Mi. Wow. Madam is smiling now as well.

A real feast of fresh and delicious food

We staggered back to the caravan park and time ticked past slowly. I kept discreetly (I think) checking in on Jenny and David’s progress. All was going well – no mishaps. So finally I got a message – they’ve arrived. At precisely the moment they turn up, Catherine had decided to take a shower. There’s a knock at the caravan door. I mumble something about her needing to get dressed, and there they are.

A HUGE surprise visit bringing gifts

Plenty of hugs and a few moist eyes later, we have a glass of bubbly in our hand and the world is a wonderful place. I give Catherine her present, and she is a bit gob smacked. Firstly, it was a giant box, so apparently her first thought was “Whatever it is, where the heck will we put it?” Living in a caravan can constrain one somewhat 🙂 I will always remember that ear-to-ear grin when she unwrapped it.

Then it’s time for her next surprise, I’ve lined up an online call with a bunch of friends in Australia. Thanks to Chris for helping with the Zoom arrangements, and a jolly old natter it was. We then settled in with Jenny and David for a long catch up. Friendship is just such a wonderful thing. To think two people have gone to that effort to come for the weekend, it really floored us. I then explained to Catherine what I have planned for the Saturday. Jenny and David were in on the secret. I had seen there was a well-rated winery just up the river called Trentham Estate. I had called them and booked in wine tasting and lunch. But how to get there? I posed the question and was told it was possible to hire a pontoon boat in Mildura and cruise up. I called up and booked the last boat. So it was a day on the Murray River with a fine lunch and wines to break the trip.

The morning dawned quite crisp after another sleepless night listening to the trucks, and we headed off to the marina down the road. It was a fine looking boat, and off we went down the river. It was about then we realised just how cold it was. David had a short sleeved shirt and the girls not exactly kitted out for a windchill of what had to be in single figures. David and I took turns to drive the boat and lose all feeling in our hands, he even wore one of the life vests at one point to try and warm up!

Life jacket? No this is just a red waistcoat!

Meanwhile Catherine was there in her sundress turning blue 🙂 Finally the power of the sun made its presence felt, as we arrived. We had cracked a bottle of something bubbly and French on the way, and finally we could relax in the growing warmth of the sun after our nearly two hour dash up the river.

Laughs and conversation flows

Trentham Estate had a fabulous tasting room, and Janine who ran our tasting was one of the most professional and engaging hosts we have experienced anywhere round the world. We methodically worked our way though sparkling, dry whites, some fuller chardonnays , Italian varietals in reds and finally some bigger Shiraz. What a brilliant selection of wines, and such value for money.

Lunch was equally well done, with the locally caught Murray Cod for three of us and steak for David. Janine even brought us an extra tasting to try with lunch, and we already had purchased a full bottle. So the trip back was pretty…relaxed.

Pied Cormorants are a familiar sight along the river

Arriving back at our campsite was when the weekend went a bit curly. David noticed a crack in their windscreen. It had chipped on the way down and the heat had turned that into a full on large crack. Some frenzied calls to NRMA Insurance and O’Brians Windscreen Repairs led us to the conclusion no one would be touching this window until the following Tuesday. It was a long weekend remember, and when O’Brians says they offer “24×7 service”, what they actually mean is they have someone in a call centre who answers the phone, not that they repair windscreens 24×7. So David was booked on a flight back to Sydney early Monday morning, and Jenny got her window fixed by 11am Tuesday, driving back solo with a stopover in Wagga, before arriving back on Wednesday. Not quite to plan, but of course being them they took it in their stride.

Catherine took her camera out on a few walks to try out her new lens. This will be a long journey of discovery I think. We see so many fabulous birds and animals, it will be great to get more up close and personal.

A Brown Treecreaper
A young Pied Butcherbird
Walks around the camp at Mildura – Australian Darter, Red Rumped Parrot
Possibly a Rainbow Bee-Eater (without the rainbow?)
L-R: Female Red Rumped Parrot, Whistling Kite, Noisy Miner, Australian Wood Duck, Kangaroos, Australian Pelican, Australian Magpie
A Red Rumped Parrot having a doze

So that was the birthday weekend. I’m going to declare it a victory, despite the windscreen incident. A weekend I think we will both remember as a highlight of our time together.

11-18 December: Down the New South Wales coast we go

Author: Mr A

Locations: Berry, Jervis Bay and Dalmeny, NSW, Australia

Sydney disappeared in the rear view mirror as we headed south a few hours down the coast to where our caravan has been stored for the last ten months. It was all washed and waiting for us to hitch up and go. Now mental and muscle memory had to take over and remind me of all the road craft I had amassed from previous years towing. No dainty little motorhome any more, I had just under 8 metres of caravan ready to cut in at roundabouts, clip road side signs if I didn’t account for the extra width, and attempt to run away from me down the hills with all the extra weight. I also had to remember I was driving back in the land where fatalities from road accidents are twice those of the UK, my driving location for almost all of the past year. Gone are all those courteous behaviours that had made touring on the roads in the UK so much less stressful, it was back to every driver for themselves and the liberal use of horns and fist shaking. I actually found Italian roads a less daunting prospect to safely navigate than our own testosterone fuelled highways.

So it was with a sigh of unscathed relief we pulled up at our friends property on the outskirts of Berry, a small village 3 hours south of Sydney with a main street packed with deli’s, art and craft shops, classy cafe’s and all things civilised. Their property sits in an enviable position, a kilometre from a nearly 13km long stretch of pristine sand called….Seven Mile Beach (how do they think of such names?) once used as the runway for the first passenger flight between Australia and our Kiwi vowel dropping cousins in New Zealand. For us it made the perfect stretch of hard sand for a beach ride.

Mrs A sky riding on Seven Mile Beach
A picturesque location
Omar, Mr A and Barb plus their loyal steeds

Our friends have created this oasis of a sustainable paradise producing enough fruit and veg to meet all their needs and half the neighbours. They recently won a prize at the very competitive Berry garden show for the way they had planted and arranged the garden in keeping with our often fickle climate with periods of drought, extreme heat and soil stripping winds.

Miss Tassie broke her 9 months of sedentary lifestyle for an hour long explore of their garden
A delicious meal out at a great Indian restaurant in nearby Gerringong

They are the most interesting couple and as always we were sad to have to say goodbye after sharing a couple of fascinating dinners with them. But we have a deadline to work to – we need to be in Melbourne 1300km away by Christmas.

So we headed to our next campsite down the coast just outside the small coastal town of Huskinsson in the Jervis Bay National Park, with its world renowned beaches. We managed to get the kayak wet with a short paddle the river before the winds picked up. Then we had a couple of days of rain that allowed us to spend time inside getting cleared up and organised without feeling guilty we were missing out.

Curranbene Creek
How much do we love kayaking in this boat? A lot!
The beast moored up outside of Huskisson
Paddling back to camp before the headwinds get too strong
Looking out for sting rays in the shallows on our return route
A Percy of pelicans?

Unfortunately our lovely stay was a little tarnished by a very thoughtless family arriving in the cabin next door at gone midnight who then spent the next hour banging car doors time and time again, shouting to each other and their children . I went outside and asked them to please keep the noise down and was greeted with a tirade of “we’ve driven hours to get here and show some respect for others”. The irony was completely lost on this selfish family.

With heavy eyes from a disturbed night we continued our journey southwards to our next camp at the tiny coastal settlement of Dalmeny, and one of the best views from our site we’ve ever had.

A room with a view…

A wander down the beach in the late afternoon sunshine was called for. At 5.30pm it was still a balmy 28 degrees. This is what Australia does best, pristine, empty miles of sand, with nature in abundance. A massive sea eagle lifted up from a tree in front of us and just lumbered out to sea like a B52 heading on a mission to who knows where. Little pied oyster catchers (they don’t as far as I know) skittered around in the sand. We just sat and soaked up the roar of the surf and felt the sun on our backs.

Crossing over Lake Mummuga on the way to the beach
The stunning beach is part of Eurobodalla National Park
Pied oystercatcher foraging at the water’s edge
The water’s quite rough, the result of storms further up the coast. We can see the mist drifting over the beach
The next bay around – not a footstep on the sand

Returning to camp it was time to try out our new BBQ. The old Weber had finally gasped its last after over 10 years of faithful service. This new model delivered a magnificent feast of roast veggies and pork medallions. What is a man without his BBQ? OK so its a bit shiny still, it needs working in, but I’m sure it will get that!

A pristine BBQ cooking up roast veggies and pork medallions – yum!

22 November-11 December: A whirlwind three weeks in Sydney

Author: Mrs A

Location: Sydney, NSW, Australia

With our final Covid-19 tests proving negative, we finally escaped from Howard Springs Quarantine Facility on Sunday 22 November!

The coach to the airport finally leaves the quarantine compound – such a relief to escape!

We flew out of Darwin and back over to Sydney, arriving at a very quiet Sydney airport, and into the waiting arms of our friend Jenny. She whisked us back to her apartment to our lovely abandoned Burmese cat, Princess Tassie. Jenny had generously prepared plates of freshly shucked Coffin Bay oysters and delicious juicy king prawns for us – a first meal back that kept us going through the those final days of captivity. Such a warm and wonderful return.

A purring Tassie, champagne, oysters and prawns – what a wonderful welcome back

The normality of life in Sydney is just amazing. Hardly a mask is to be seen, and although there are signs everywhere encouraging social distancing, with zero community transmitted C19 cases in the whole of New South Wales (2.5 times the size of the British Isles, with about a third of the population) there is no policing of this. While we still are invited to use hand sanitiser in the shops, there is nobody barking at you to insist you do it, and changing rooms are open for trying on clothes.

People are moving back into normality, with hugs given, families reuniting, and as of this weekend, dancing allowed again in pubs and night clubs. To be catapulted into this life of Covid-freeness after our strict mask-wearing two weeks at Howard Springs and the preceding months in the UK, was somewhat surreal, and we absolutely respect the hard lines drawn to enable this to happen.

Our diaries were packed full almost immediately, with catch ups with friends, neighbours and colleagues the perfect antidote to the necessities of dentist, doctor and specialist visits.

Our friends Clive and Aisha cook up a wonderful storm at their Darlinghurst apartment
Step-brother Dan and his fiancée Bec treat us to wine, cheese and nibbles on a hot Sunday evening
Our ferry ride home rewards us with some magnificent sunset skies
Another evening brings us a great catch up with some of Mark’s old CBA friends
Amazing we can eat in restaurants as though there is no pandemic at all!
Our friends Karen and Chris come down for a night from their home in Newcastle…of course there are more bubbles….there’s a lot to celebrate!
A delicious brunch with friends Jenny and David, Chris and Karen
Great food, wine and laughs with more friends – Bill and Olga, David and Michelle, Clive and Aisha at King Street Wharf

Special thanks go to our friends Donna and Andy, and separately Rosemary and Richard who prepared delicious meals for us at their homes – we feel so blessed to have such generous friends who are also fabulous cooks!

In addition to wining and dining with friends, we made the most of the fine weather with some walks around the Harbour and coast. After our two weeks of incarceration, the freedom to roam was simply wonderful, the air clean and clear with no fires so far this season.

Our first walk was a decent 20km hike, part of the 80km Bondi to Manly walk, which we started from Rose Bay (walk map).

A brief tea break in the shade to admire the wonderful view across Sydney Harbour
It’s hard to beat the Harbour beaches on a stunning late spring morning
Sydney’s distinctive city skyline
Lunch was fish and chips at Doyles at Watsons Bay, after which we kept following the coast
More rewarding views
Rainbow lorikeets accompany us on our cliff edge walk
We concluded our long walk with a refreshing paddle in the water at a busy Bondi Beach…it’s good to be back!

We’ve also enjoyed some beautiful scenery around the less well frequented Botany Bay National Park, loving the early summer flora, much of which is unique to this area.

A short walk to Maroubra beach with friend ,Karen
David joins us for an explore around the rocky shores of Malabar Headland
Our friend Bill takes us on a tour around his favourite parts of Neutral Bay and Cremorne, joined by Tilly the dog

We learned that there is a coastal walk that goes from Maroubra around to Coogee Beach. From there you could follow the coast all the way round to Manly, making for quite an impressive long distance walk. We drove the 5 minutes down to the beach from Jenny and David’s apartment and set off – walking one way to Coogee and catching the bus back to the car after brunch in a beachside cafe. Very civilised!

Spectacular scenery on the little known Maroubra to Coogee coast walk…can you spot the kookaburra?

At the other end of Maroubra Beach is Maroubra Headland, with a stunning circuit walk through native bush land, simply teeming with birds. New Holland honeyeaters, fairy wrens, fire tails, wattle birds and nankeen kestrels fill the air with their flitting, swooping and hovering. The walk is not always open, and in fact often at the weekend you cannot even attempt it due to a shooting range located there. Given the luxury of time, we walked it mid-week (walk map).

The sparkling waters and soft sands of a deserted Maroubra Beach make for a great starting point
The vibrant golden banksia flowers make a stark contrast to the deep blue of the ocean

We finished off our time in Sydney with a hike around Henry Head. The walking paths of this circuit hike have only been finished in the past couple of years, starting from La Perouse on the shores of Botany Bay (walk map).

The pristine waters of Botany Bay – it’s hard to believe these were the colour of tea this time last year, stained by the burning bush land
And breathe…the greens and blues of tranquility
A tea break down at Browns Rock, a picturesque fishing location
The 1800s fort up at Henry Head is now used by street artists – some with more talent than others
Cape Banks – the Westpac Rescue Helicopter is off on a training mission
Concluding our walk at Little Congwong Beach – described as one of the most beautiful beach oases in Sydney

As we reached the end of our time in Sydney we treated Jenny to an oyster appetiser for our final night with her, surprising her on her return from a full on day at work with a glass of wine.

Thank you again Jenny and David, for caring for Tassie while we travelled and your never ending generosity 💛

And then we were off, back on the road heading south to Nowra to collect our caravan, kayak and bikes. Tassie has to get used to having a few hours less sleep a day and an ever changing scene outside the window. We get the feeling she doesn’t mind that much!

Adventure cat is back on the road….farewell Sydney – we’ll see you again in January!

21 February – 3 March: Farewell Australia and a flying visit to Singapore

Author: Mrs A

Location: Sydney, Australia and Singapore

Time has absolutely flown by. When we left the UK at the end of October last year, the 17 weeks we had in Australia seemed to be so long, but before we knew it they were coming to an end.

We made the most of our last ten days, catching up with friends over various dinners and lunches, interjecting those events with walks, yoga and pilates sessions to add a bit of balance (albeit somewhat wobbly on occasion for Mr A).

Lunch with long-time friends Richard and Rosemary was delightful as ever
A beachside lunch in La Perouse with friends Robert, Jenny, David and Owen

We collected our caravan from RV-GO who had done a great job with the repairs, finishing early having garnered some extra time with fewer customers than they anticipated. It’s impossible to not have noticed the latest strain of coronavirus (Covid-19) spreading around the world – well, aside from the publicised shortages such as toilet paper and food staples, it seems caravan parts from China are also hard to come by. The final repairs will need to be done in November when we’re next back in the country. We dropped the Zone, the kayak, car and bikes down to our undercover storage in Nowra, and locked it up for the next nine months. We wonder what will have happened in our lives by the next time we next travel in them.

An afternoon’s visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art
Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens looking splendid
Enjoying the cooler temperatures in the shade
A visit to the Plants with Bite exhibition in the gardens – all about carnivorous plants – well worth a visit if you’re in the area
A pair of Australian Kestrels entertain us on a hike along the coast
Looking south from Malabar towards Botany Bay on a warm overcast hike

I had another set of injections into my airway, my doctor continuing to be very happy with what he’s seeing and breathing continuing to be great. If my procedures keep going this well I’m going to almost feel like a normal person!

Finally it was time to head off, saying a tearful goodbye to Miss Tassie (who was fairly non-plussed about our departure).

Solar-cat Tassie enjoying a little balcony time with her foster parents, Jenny and David – as long as she has cuddles, food and sunshine, she is one happy Burmese

We boarded a fairly empty flight from Sydney to Singapore on Sunday morning. The flight took us just over the equator to southern mainland Asia, an easy nine hours of watching movies and eating food in a very comfortable plane. At the airport we were met by friends Andie, Jang and their daughter Rosie.

We were driven back to their condominium on the island of Sentosa, to the south of Singapore city. Sentosa translates to mean ‘peace and tranquility’ in Malay, and it certainly delivered on that count. As we were only stopping over for two nights, we decided to avoid the city with its shopping centres, food courts and bustling bars and restaurants, and instead stuck to exploring on foot the quiet manicured pathways and beaches around the island.

This is the southernmost point of continental Asia apparently, just 136km north of the equator

Our choice was not only driven by a desire to explore a new area of Singapore, but also a precaution against viral infection, slim as the chance might be. Singapore has very tight monitoring systems in place, and our temperature was taken on several occasions to ensure we didn’t pose any risk to other residents.

Not many people out walking
A Changeable Lizard in his breeding colours
Our lizard hoping I can’t spot him disguised on top of the rock
The gardens and walkways are beautifully manicured with a team of workers constantly trimming, weeding and planting
An 11km walk around the coastline in 34 degree heat meant that a sit down was occasionally called for
The Singapore Strait is dotted with many ships – we counted 60 we could see with the naked eye

We were also keen to try and maintain fairly healthy immune systems and managed to be fairly civilised with our socialising, and for the first time ever in all our time visiting Singapore, we woke up each morning with clear heads, despite all efforts to corrupt us with delicious wine!

A swim and refreshments at one of the many beach clubs along the coastline. Miss Rosie (7) very proud of her sandcastle
View from another fine dining experience with our friends
On the top level of the condo, a spa has fabulous views across Singapore
The sparkling city on the skyline, about 8km drive away

We had a great time with Andie and Jang, generous hosts with a lovely home. Before long we were saying goodbye once again and boarding our flight to London and from there, on to Vienna, Austria.

Watch out Europe, we are on our way!

6-20 February: Hunter Valley, Newcastle and into our final weeks in Sydney before the next European adventure.

Author: Mr A

Location: Hunter Valley, Newcastle and Sydney, NSW, Australia

Well the climate gods have certainly had an amusing time throwing the whole fires and floods at Australia this summer! After years of drought, the worst fires on record (yes that’s a factual statement), many areas in NSW are now flood, receiving more rain in the last two weeks than for several years. What a welcome relief to hear the restorative power of those raindrops lashing on the roof.

We first saw the miracle of what solid rain could do when staying with friends in the Hunter after leaving the coast on our trip down to Sydney. Over the course of under 24 hours we watched their paddock go from brown to green. Unfortunately the rain will not save this years vintage. The Hunter valley usually produces some outstanding wines. Not this year. Apparently 80% of the wine growers will not be able to produce anything because of the tainting from the bush fire smoke that will only grow stronger as the wine sits in the bottle. Just another industry that is under stress from our changing climate.

Our friends took us wine tasting to Ben Ean, a relatively new business that has established itself in the old Lindemans winery. They were showcasing some excellent local wines, with a great mediterranean focused restaurant, and a small shop with local products for sale.

Into Ben Ean, now owned by two of the Hunter’s oldest wine making families, McGuigan and Peterson

I throughly recommend you check it out, together with the Gundog Estate winery next door. We picked up some fabulous wines here to take for our last few weeks in Sydney before we leave for 9 months, and the various dinners that would involve!

Picking up some outstanding drops in Gundog Estate, helped by the lovely Cathy

We also called in on another friend in the Hunter living on a vineyard, He has an amazing cellar and another case was procured to see us through the weeks ahead. Some really interesting wines in this little selection.

Please go and support these businesses up in the Hunter, they will really need us this year if we are to continue to enjoy a thriving wine industry in Australia.

Our next stop was Newcastle, up the coast from Sydney a couple of hours. This city is also becoming a real hub for good food and wine. Is that why our friends moved there? Well we had a cracking weekend finding out, with visits to excellent bars, restaurants and cafes, and some walks between showers to burn off the calories.

The rain held off for a coastal stroll
The surf is really rolling in with the storms
A sudden downpour calls for beer and negronis

Spending quality time with friends, breaking bread, shooting the breeze, sharing dreams and memories, this is so important to us. It had been a friend‘s birthday a few days before and her hubby had organised for six surprise guests to arrive for a night. Well the extreme weather and ensuing accidents on the roads put paid to Plan A, and then Plan B, finally Plan C worked and she was delighted to see not just the four of us for dinner but ten smiling faces round the table. Nothing better…

Pre dinner drinks at Bar Petite
Then the big surprise at Rustica restaurant
The surprise dinner

We luckily had a storm free run down with the caravan to Sydney and dropped it for repairs after my little accident in January. If you are the driver of white ute who careered round a corner in Nowra on the 2nd of January and forced a Land Cruiser towing a caravan to veer out of the way and hit a street sign…I hope you were rushing to something important enough to risk others peoples‘ life and limbs (and property).

Caravan-free, we made it to Matraville in Sydney’s south eastern suburbs , where our dear friends Jenny and David live. This is where our fur child is well cared for while we are away. These are always happy times, sharing meals and laughs with these guys and other Sydney based friends, tinged with a little sadness knowing it will be a long time before we see them all again. We leave on March the 1st and are not back until mid November. But what tales we will all have to share by then?

Looking back at La Perouse
Stopping on our ride around Yarra Bay for a cup of tea on the rocks
A golden orb spider
A red gum
Looking out across Botany Bay
Sunday morning hiking gang
A lovely catch up with friend Rachel at Japanese restaurant Izakaya Fujiyama
We cycled over to Maroubra for a cup of tea with friend Twiggy, visiting from Brisbane

We have managed to get out on our bikes for some rides, the last one being an absolute cracker along 18 km of almost continuous car-free cycleway along the southern beach suburbs of Sydney from Kyeemagh (just south of Sydney airport) to Cronulla.

Calm waters at Kyeemagh Beach Baths as we set off
Cook Park
Some welcome shade as we ride along through Ramsgate, looking out into Botany Bay
Lunch at Zimzala Restaurant in Cronulla

It’s so great to see some investment going into upgrading parts of this popular route. If we use this infrastructure then hopefully our councils will see the demand is there and continue to invest.

So now we settle into the last 10 days of our time in Australia, with much to still organise, and our excitement building as flight day approaches.

3-5 February: Finding cooler temperatures amongst the Great Lakes

Author: Mrs A

Location: Forster-Tuncurry, NSW, Australia

Monday: It was a hot day when we departed from Yamba, with temperatures climbing up in to the late 30s. We enjoyed the air conditioning in the car as we travelled, and we soon abandoned thoughts of breaking the trip down to Forster with a bush camp, choosing instead to call ahead and book an extra night at the campground.

We’d only been settled in about half an hour when the ‘southerly-buster’ hit. This change in the wind direction brought a dramatic thunder storm, some brief but heavy rain, and all importantly, a massive drop in temperature down to more comfortable early 20s. We slept the best in weeks!

Tuesday: The cooler temperatures hung around for the next morning, so we carried our kayak down the water for a paddle.

Our new location is a campground on the estuary of the Wollamba River, near where it meets up with the Coolongolock River and the waters of Wallis Lake. It’s the northern most end of the Great Lakes council area. The waters around here are absolutely riddled with oyster farms, the crystal clear water ideal for growing Sydney rock oysters. Wallis Island is one of many islands around the area and is home to an exclusive château worth $20 million, but now on sale for a mere $5 million if you’re interested? You’ll need a boat and perhaps a helicopter too though… Bargain…

Pelicans hang around the campground in anticipation of fish scraps
Stormy skies over some of the less expensive waterside properties in the area
Enjoying the cooler temperatures on this grey morning with a cup of tea
Oyster farms dot the shallow waters – to our right a farmer’s workplace

Later on, we jumped on our bikes to cycle into Forster-Tuncurry. These small twin towns are adjacent sides of a bridge and the estuary. Forster was named after the secretary for lands in the late 1860s, while Tuncurry is said to mean ‘plenty of fish’ in the local Aboriginal dialect. The area is popular with fisher people, so the interpretation of the name appears to be right.

After ticking off a few tasks we continued our ride out to a trading estate on the edge of town. There we pulled up at a rather closed looking factory. Within seconds a roller door opened and a gentleman with a light Durham accent (town in the north of England) invited us in.

On checking into the campground I had spotted a flyer for a local micro-brewery, The Coastal Brewing Company. Generally only open Friday to Sunday, Mr A had emailed to ask whether we could try a tasting – the prompt response letting us know we were welcome.

We opted to share a $10 tasting paddle of four of the beers on tap, with a couple of bonus tastings thrown in for good measure.

David pulls another tasting

The brewery is still in its first year of operation and is a labour of love for David and his wife Helen. David had a longtime career with international accounting firm Deloitte in Sydney, but decided to turn his hobby and passion for beer making into a business. At least there are no fears in ensuring the numbers add up, but it sounds like they are both learning a lot as they go. As for the beer? All delicious – I’m not a major beer drinker, but my sips were very agreeable and Mr A was very positive about the ones he tried. We returned later with the car to purchase some selections to share with friends later on in the week. Coastal Brewing sell through bottle shops around NSW, so if you enjoy a good craft beer, I’d check out their website to find a stockist near you.

Our cycle back to camp took us past a large oyster shed, so of course we had to call in and pick up a dozen for a late afternoon snack.

Fresh from Wallis Lake – delicious!
Percival Pelican looks disappointed in our lack of fish

Wednesday: We are finding ourselves switching into our transition mindset as we enjoy our last few days in the caravan until our next return to Australia in mid November. Food stocks are being run down and clothes organised to ensure we know what we need to take back for a rather wintry March in Europe.

After a morning of washing and organising, we decided we ought to get out to stretch the legs, so drove over to Cape Hawke Lookout in Booti Booti National Park. The fly catchers were out in abundance, and we soon realised why – the mosquito population is rather healthy out here! We drowned ourselves in repellant, but it seemed to only serve to alert the little bugs as to where we were, and our climb up to the top of the hill and the tower on top was accompanied by the constant high pitch whine of little wings as they jostled for a drink of our blood.

‘Give blood’ they urge….oh, we did…!

Our stay at the top of the lookout was rather brief, before we bounded back down the hill to the safety of the car and drove off.

Looking out to the nearly 12km of Tuncurry Beach in the distance

More rain is expected from midnight tonight and, with the highest possible water restrictions in force here, everyone is hoping it arrives. We’re anticipating a wet pack up in the morning as we up-sticks and head to the Hunter Valley for tomorrow night, hopefully bringing the rain with us to the vineyards.

28 January- 2 February: Northern NSW coasting, and Yamba casts a spell…

Author: Mr A

Location: Tweed Heads and Yamba, New South Wales, Australia

We left our friends in Noosa with heavy hearts. This roaming lifestyle means we have no clue when we will see them again. Good friendships survive distance, but are renewed with proximity. It has been a fantastic week but now we its time to head south towards Sydney.

Firstly though we needed to collect our home away from home from the manufacturer, Zone RV in Coolum, where they had serviced it. It was all ready and waiting for us, well, until they noticed our solar power wasn’t working. They immediately threw a sparky at the problem, found the fault, fixed it, and we were on our way. Great service from Zone RV. It’s a good feeling to see a company that has worked so hard to bring innovation into this traditional industry survive the ups and downs of a highly competitive and crowded market.

Our destination for the night was a riverside camping park at the small town of Tweed Heads. We really didn’t see much of it. By the time we had unpacked all of our gear from a week‘s stay, cleaned and reorganised the van it was late afternoon, and, as we found out when we went for a walk along the river bank, mosquito o’clock!

A pair of rainbow lorikeets nesting in a tree hollow beside the river

We returned indoors to relish our first air conditioned sleep since before Christmas. Lovely…

Our next stop was the coastal settlement of Yamba, famous for its prawns, delivered to the docks almost daily by the local trawlers. We arrived in time for lunch and followed the advice of a friend who grew up here and headed to Beechwood Cafe, just around the corner from our campsite.

Chilli Yamba Prawn salad and fresh sardines

Local sardines and prawns were accompanied by super fresh salad sourced from Grafton. Expensive for lunch, we felt, at $65 for the two of us, but it was great quality.

Enjoying the shade and fresh breeze at this little Turkish cafe

Times will be tough for businesses like these, with bookings to Australia from international visitors already down 10% on last year as a direct result of the bushfires. That’s an estimated $4.5bn loss to tourism related businesses. Even the local oyster farmer had suffered financially from the fires, his oyster beds having been damaged by burnt trees falling and sweeping his beds away. Small businesses like these need our support – and we we’re happy to oblige with an order for two dozen!

Two dozen oysters coming up….

We loved Yamba so much our planned two night stay turned into five! There’s so much to do here, with stunning surf beaches, meandering, sheltered waterways for boating, great cycling paths, and…the Best-Fish-and-Chips-in-Australia. I know…not a big call given the mediocre standard of most, but these from Yamba’s Fisho (suitably Australian name) were truly sensational. Washed down with a new favourite white grape of ours, Alvarinho, from a winery we visited in Rutherglen (Stanton and Colleen). We have found it to be a perfect partner for seafood.

At the end of the Yamba Breakwall
Sitting on the rocks watching the Terns diving for fish
Looking back towards the town along the break wall
Turners Beach, quiet at the end of the day
Walking over Clarence Head
Yamba Lighthouse (also called the Clarence River Light) built 1955
Admiring the estuary from Pilot Hill
The view across Yamba Beach from the Pacific Hotel
Mrs & Mr A outside the pub post Friday afternoon beverage

Unfortunately we have both caught colds, again, that’s right – just after we’ve recovered from the flu. It’s been a bit of an ordinary trip this time from a catching-every-virus-going perspective. Anyway, after some restful days with short walks in the relative cool of the later afternoon (anything less than 30°C is a bonus it seems nowadays!), we decided to venture out on the water for a paddle. What a great day we had.

Seeking out the shallow, quiet waters away from the jet skis and fishing boats
Beautiful reflections in the still waters alongside Sleeper Island
Finding a private beach for lunch on Freeburn Island

While the Clarence river stretches for a bend short of 400km, we managed to cover 4% of those..so many more to explore one of these days. We saw several sea eagles and kites cruising what seem to be a healthy waterway, judging by their success rate at finding fish snacks.

When we took a ferry over to the small settlement of Iluka on the other side of the river mouth, dolphins were doing their jumpy thing right alongside the boat, busy hunting fish of their own.

A bottle nose dolphin dives for dinner right beside us
Another pair chasing their lunch
Riding through the Iluka Nature Reserve – a protected area of native rainforest
Rushing to outrun the hungry mosquitoes
The pristine perfection of Bluff Beach
Waves crashing over Iluka Bluff

We stayeded in Iluka for a few hours, riding though some rain forest, chased by mossies, then emerging on this fabulous beach. It would be hard to run out of things to do here over a holiday. But Sydney calls and we must finally drag ourselves away from this watery paradise.

Awaiting our ferry home
Our ferry approaching…and off back to Yamba….and on to pastures new…