22 January-6 February: Moving to the land up over

Author: Mrs A

Location: Sydney, Australia and London, UK

When people talk about going through a rollercoaster of emotions, it surely has to describe the multitude of sentiments we have gone though these past few weeks, packing up our home, farewelling longtime friends and colleagues, and walking away from the stunning, wild and unique scenery and wildlife of Australia. We have both found ourselves pushing memories and thoughts of the past quarter century to the back of our minds for fear the feelings will overwhelm and render us incapable of tackling the many tasks at hand.

Australia really has provided us with a wonderful life. We have made lifelong friends, visited incredible locations, had many special experiences. While we look forward to the next chapter of our lives in the UK, we are so thankful for the people who have enriched our lives. We had a few private farewells who gave us some wonderful meals and company to remember – with extra special thanks to Donna and Andy, and Tassie’s current foster parents, Rosemary and Richard, who went above and beyond to treat us.

A farewell picnic with some of my old work colleagues (Rosemary, Kath, Liane, Richard, Wendy, Catherine and Hamish – Mr A photographer)
Our final weekend with Jenny and David as our housemates – we joined Eveliene to help celebrate her birthday, followed by a beach walk and BBQ brunch
Champagne, white wine and seafood feast with Rosemary and Richard
The shipping container arrives and Chess Moving takes a day and a half to wrap up and pack our possessions. Our final meal at the house is a Butter-free Chicken (with roasted brussels) and a fine shiraz. Finally we departed with all our many bags, and went for a few nights into the city

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Finally, once all the shipping container was filled and our bags packed, our friend Jenny very kindly drove across town to pick us up and courier us to the Shangri-la Hotel in the city for our last few nights.

The Shangri-la Hotel was the location for one of our first dates, back in 1999. We had dressed up in our finery and visited the Blu Bar cocktail bar before attending a performance of Madam Butterfly at the Sydney Opera House.

Back in October last year, Mark had spotted that we could use our Qantas Frequent Flyer Points to book rooms, finding we had just enough remaining to cover four nights. A small sum extra allowed us to upgrade to a room with a view of Sydney Harbour – we felt we deserved it!

We checked in on Friday evening, not long after the shipping container with all our possessions had left. Emotionally exhausted, we enjoyed some champagne in our incredible 28th floor room and had takeaway Asian street food for dinner! We were asleep by 9pm.

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The following two days went by in a whirl. Friends flew up from Melbourne, drove down from Newcastle and booked into city centre hotel rooms to spend time with us. Saturday dawned hot, clear and sunny, a typical Sydney’s summer day, and we enjoyed a feast at the Sydney Fish Markets, followed by an evening at a local pub.

Catching up with friends at the Sydney Fish Market for many oysters, prawns and sashimi

Sunday we had organised a lunch at The Malaya, a bit of a Sydney institution, just for the closest members of our extended family. We had 11 friends join us for an afternoon full of laughter, tears and the sharing of funny stories and memories. When eventually the restaurant needed us to leave so they could prepare for dinner, we went to the aforementioned cocktail bar at our hotel to continue the party, and finished off in our room with fine views and dancing. It was indeed a fitting farewell to all these incredible friends who have become our surrogate family in Australia.

Tears and laughter with our nearest and dearest

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Our final couple of days were far more subdued. Taronga Zoo is located on the edge of Sydney Harbour, and a short ferry trip from Circular Quay, a five minute walk from our hotel. It was the venue for our wedding, nearly 20 years ago, and I was keen for one last visit to remember the ambience of the location. Our friends Dan and Michelle joined us their with their young daughter Darcy. They are picking up the Aussie-adventuring lead where we have dropped it and are collecting their second hand Zone caravan very soon. We chatted to them about the joys of caravanning and the potential adventures that may lay ahead for them.

A farewell to our friends…young Darcy is a little bit infatuated with Mr A!
A collection of native and non native wildlife in some of the exhibits
Looking back towards Sydney from the Zoo – seeing our hotel from a different angle

On Monday evening we were treated to a final supper with our friends Clive and Aisha. We had been determined to be alcohol-free but ended up sharing a bottle of wine and completing the meal with a cocktail! Such willpower! But all in a good cause.

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And then it was upon us, our last day as Sydney residents. I set off early to walk across town to the hairdressers, and Mr A had a walk around the stunning Royal Botanical Gardens and city. Time just flew by, and before long we were wheeling our re-packed luggage into a maxi-taxi and heading to the airport.

First time flying long haul business class – very nice indeed!

And then we were off. Did it feel emotional as we pulled up from the land and sped off through the air towards Dubai? Strangely, no. Partly I think we have cried so many tears over the past week or so it was a relief to be finally boarding the plane and partly because now our brains have moved on to the next stage, and we are feeling so excited about what lies ahead.

I think it will take us a little while to really recognise that this is not just another holiday and that we are here to live. Once Princess Tassie arrives and we have found a house to purchase I think this will all seem real, Otherwise for now it’s all a bit of a dream.

Already London has been treating us well, with some great shopping and dining opportunities and a few convivial nights out with friends and family.

Our friends Barney and Mel are the first to welcome us back with drinks and dinner in Soho
We are joined by Mr A’s daughters Hayley and Zoe, my cousin Karen and mum for a weekend in Chelsea – it has been a long 18 months between hugs
Wine bar followed by the theatre of a Teppanyaki dinner

We have more fun already planned for the next few weeks, reuniting and reconnecting with friends and family…the next adventure has begun.

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6 December- 21 January: Our last few weeks in Sydney – the long goodbye

Author: Mr A

Location: Curl Curl, Sydney’s Northern Beaches, NSW, Australia

In a few days time (February 1st) Catherine and I will be, hopefully, showing our way one tickets to a check in desk at Sydney Airport, and then boarding a plane to London. Twenty five years in Australia for me, twenty three for Catherine, so most of her adult life.

The last three months back in our house on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, have been a blur of preparations to wrap up our lives here, and prepare for new ones in England. The friendships we will leave behind are the greatest wrench. We have been spending as much time as we can, Omicron permitting, with our nearest and dearest.

Some pre-Christmas catch ups with Owen and his family
A hot and humid Christmas day with 10 of us for a fabulous feast
Giant Jenga, fine wine and the odd shot helped make for a wonderfully fun day

Catherine’s photos as usual tell the story better than I can in words.

We’ve gone out for fabulous food and wine, and stayed in for the same. Friends have come to visit for a few days, and one couple (Jenny and David) for several weeks. They have sold their apartment and are also moving country, back to New Zealand, so we have combined households. We feel so lucky to be able to spend time with friends that we know we are going to see a lot less of going forward.

A fine New Year’s Eve – oysters, prawns on the BBQ and a roast lamb
Welcoming in 2022 with a fine view of Sydney Harbour Bridge
The sparkling lights of Sydney, the booming fireworks and the smell of gunpowder will never be forgotten
Friends from Victoria come up for a tour of Sydney, allowing us to return to some favourite locations
A splash of colour and wildlife in the Botanical Gardens
Friends Michelle and David with their young pup Olive come for a walk and a refreshing beverage at a local brewery
Delicious Mexican food with our ‘flatties’, Jenny and David, in our local village, Freshwater (Freshie Mex)
Jenny and Catherine had a night away in the city – a room at the Sofitel in Darling Harbour and a night out at Hamilton (the musical)

It’s hard not to feel the sadness that comes with saying goodbye. To be honest, I’ve felt it to be quite draining. To think of all of that time over the years here that has gone into building those relationships. Then I have a call with my daughters, or see Catherine chatting to her mum or sister, and am reminded why we need to move on and start a new chapter of our story. We always took for granted that we would be able to jump on a plane to see them, now, not so much.

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Our house is mostly packed up, lots of possessions sold off or given away. It feels quite liberating to just have the “good stuff” going into our 20 foot container next week. We really don’t know under what circumstances we will be unpacking it. Into our new forever home? Or a rental while we continue to house hunt? Housing stock in the area we are looking (Somerset in the south-west of England) is pretty limited, so let’s see.

With Omicron infections rates skyrocketing here in Sydney over the last few weeks, it has been a juggle between the desire to see friends, and the need to keep healthy. We had our boosters last week, to be at peak immunity just before our flights. We are limiting our time inside any crowded areas, and keeping our catch ups with close friends to limit our exposure risk. We have some pretty important things happening when we land in London, and we need that negative test result to do them. Fingers crossed.

We are surrounded by beauty here and have been reminding ourselves with regular walks – rain or shine (got to get into training!)

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Moving to England doesn’t mean though that our wandering days are over. Quite the opposite. We have told our families to not expect us to be around for several months of the year, as we continue to explore the UK and Europe in our motorhome. You can be sure that we will be in search of winter sunshine this time next year! But hopefully some of those holidays in the sun can be shared with our respective families. Thats our goal.

So how do you sum up a whole chunk of your life lived large? I’m finding it pretty impossible. I can only thank the people who have shared their time and friendship with us over the years here in Australia, and tell you that we will miss you being in our day to day lives.

For both Catherine and I these have been amazing years. For a start, we met here, and married here. We built our careers here, and enjoyed success in very different ways. We adventured here, exploring as much as we could of this vast country. We developed new interests together here, like sea kayaking, bird watching and for Catherine capturing them on camera with her sharp eyes in beautiful detail. Then for me a spate of bike packing trips through huge tracts of wilderness. Its just been a complete blast. And I can’t wait for what comes next. It will be different for sure, and thats also good. We both have long lists of what we want to do together and separately.

For now though, its back to our packing, and as the departure day approaches, trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to keep our stress levels down. Fine wine helps, and understanding friends. Until we meet again. Be good to each other.

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When it all gets too much, spend some time in nature – or stroking Princess Tassie…!

23 October-5 December: Friends, wildlife, packing, selling and a shock visit to hospital

Author: Mrs A

Location: Sydney, Australia

Time has just flown since we returned from our travels, and no, we have not just been spending the summer lazing by the pool (as our property agent suggested!). Untangling 25 years’ of life in Australia is as involved as you might imagine!

Over the last month we have calmed down our social life a little so we weren’t out every night, and installed a little more balance. Every day we manage to take a small step towards our move across the world, while bing kind to ourselves as well, with breaks and walks.

We have been carefully assessing our possessions and consolidating, selling things of value (farewell to our beloved double fibreglass kayak and Mark’s Surly bike), and giving away things of lesser value (various pieces of camping kit, a multitude of Australian power extension leads and plugs and more). I have become quite adept at using Facebook’s Marketplace, with most things snapped up within minutes of advertising them (as long as there is no charge!). It is certainly preferable to putting things into landfill.

We have broken up our days with outings to local areas of natural beauty, finding it a great way to turn off those stress receptors and think about something else. We have of course enjoyed a few catch ups with friends along the way.

Current day Sydney is quite different to the one we left behind. Lockdowns and a huge increase in working from home has meant the CBD is incredibly quiet, our old favourite lunchtime haunts sitting largely empty with greatly reduced menus. It is so sad. Meanwhile, the suburbs are busy, with rarely a quiet time in the neighbourhood cafes and the car parks straining to keep up with the amount of traffic.

Last week saw me off to see my Otolaryngologist here in Sydney for some more injections in my airway, to treat my iSGS. It didn’t quite go as planned. A laryngology fellow who was training with my doctor ended up causing a bruise and some bleeding which resulted in inflammation. Later that night it got particularly swollen and mostly blocked my airway – we ended up taking a drive in the early hours of the morning to the nearby hospital emergency department.

Thankfully after being admitted to hospital for two days of treatment and observation, the swelling decreased, and I was allowed home to continue my recovery. For a moment there I thought I might not make the flight back to the UK after all! I’m pleased to report my breathing has since gone from strength to strength, so finger’s crossed it stays like this so I can avoid an operation before we fly….just 8 more weeks!

I’ve shared some photos of our past month’s adventures below – feel free to whizz through them if it all gets a bit overwhelming!

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Curl Curl Lagoon – our local park just footsteps from our front door, and a great place to wind down with nature….

A White Faced Heron captures a Yellow Bellied Three-toed Burying Skink (that’s a mouthful!)
The Skink tries valiantly to escape, but becomes dinner in a snap
A Magpie Lark sitting on its mud nest over the lagoon
A characterful female Superb Fairywren – what she lacks in blue she makes up for in attitude
She leaps from her bough to snatch a snack mid air
A Silvereye sings melodiously from the top of a tree

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Dee Why – a walk and dinner with friends Bill and Olga

Making our way along the cliff top
One of the resident Peregrine Falcons swoops over, calling loudly
A pair of Peregrine Falcons
Stunning views out to sea
Catherine and Olga enjoying dinner
Mr A and Bill
A final evening view towards Longreef

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Curlew Camp Artist’s Walk, Mosman, Sydney – a new walk to us! Just down the road from where we were meeting friends for lunch and close to where we got married (Taronga Zoo)

A lounging lizard? An Eastern Water Dragon up on a tree
Mr A picking his way along through the bush
The story of the camp

Lunch at The Fernery, Mosman, with friends Andy and Donna

Replete post lunch

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Long, lazy lunch with friends in Manly at Busta (Italian restaurant)

Love how all the heads are on different angles! L-R Aisha, John, Eveliene, Clive, Mr A, Mrs A
John and Eveliene excited to be out after a long lockdown!

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Long Reef headland – a few beaches up the coast from where we live

Looking back along the beaches towards Manly
Sooty Oystercatcher digging up pipis
Not just oysters!

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Back at Curl Curl Lagoon

A Dusky Moorhen protects her young brood
A newly hatched fluff-ball looking rather vulnerable
A pair of New Holland Honeyeaters
A pair of Superb Fairywrens
Pacific Black Duck

And meanwhile, back at home….

Princess Tassie enjoying the sunshine

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Manly Dam – just 11 minutes from home and a stunning bushland haven

Brush Turkey roosting in a tree
Eastern Water Dragon
Little Wattlebird
An angry freshwater Yabbie (lobster) emerges from the undergrowth
Brown Thornbill
Eastern Whipbird
Eastern Whipbird
Olive backed Oriole
Curl Curl Falls – last visited with mum!

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Bronte with friends Jenny and David – just around the corner from my first ever accomodation in Sydney back in 1999!

Champagne on the balcony, braving a stiff breeze
Dinner at Sugarcane in Coogee

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Rainy morning walk around the Narrabeen Lakes, about 20 minutes up the coast from home

A gorgeous non-venomous Diamond Python passively makes its way through the undergrowth
Variegated Fairywren
Good little hunter…some sort of black insect on today’s menu
A tiny seed-eating Red-browed Firetail
A Sulphur Crested Cockatoo emerges from her nest hole
Juvenile male (non breeding) Fairywren

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Weekend in Newcastle, NSW with friends Chris and Karen

Drinks at Styx Brewery
Hiking in Glenrock State Conservation Area
Karen and Chris
Views down to Dudley Beach
Mr & Mrs A
Gin (and Absinthe) tasting at Earp Distilling Co
Gin cocktails and nibbles platters
Sunday morning in historic Morpeth
Wine tasting and lunch at Boydell’s

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A grey Saturday morning’s kayak on Sydney Harbour with friend Cindy

Cindy hired a kayak from The Spit
Our Advanced Elements inflatable double kayak’s maiden voyage on Sydney Harbour

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Warriewood Wetlands – a rainy afternoon walk, 25 mins drive from home

Who doesn’t love a Laughing Kookaburra?
Great weather for ducks
We have waited a long time to spot one of these, a Bellbird

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A hospital room with a view, herbal tea and healthy food…if only I could breathe and eat at the same time! Unexpected two days at the new Northern Beaches Hospital…

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Breathing improving – a walk along the coast from North Curl Curl to Dee Why…

Australian Kestrel on top of the surf club roof is an auspicious welcome to the walk
A humid, misty day, the lizards and skinks were out in force soaking up the warmth
A pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls – not native to Australia – descended from those introduced in the 1880s
Magnificent Peregrine Falcon on the cliffs. They mostly feed on feral Rock Pigeons and Silver Gulls – they’ve been clocked swooping at 300km/hr!
Superb Fairywrens don’t mind the mist – no wind means it’s a great time to sing

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Morning walk through Ku-ring-gai Wildflower Garden, Terry Hills

Eastern Yellow Robin
Variegated Fairywren
Golden Whistler
Spider for lunch – yum! Golden Whistler
Pacific Koel – a migratory cuckoo that is a noisy summer bird
Pacific Koel

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If you have made it this far down the page, then thank you! Will try to leave it less time before our next post!

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6-22 October: Completing the final Australian circuit

Author: Mrs A

Location: Port Macquarie and Sydney, NSW, Australia

We pulled away from our friends Phil and Libby in Brisbane, promising that this would not be the final goodbye, and we would meet again somewhere in the world. We are slowly coming to terms with the fact there are going to be quite a few of these moments in our future.

Our final farewell to Brisbane, Tassie longingly looking at Phil and Libby’s house

We had diligently completed and submitted our NSW border passes, and headed south not knowing what might be ahead of us.

A whole load of not much was the answer. Given Queenslanders have to quarantine to come back from NSW, subject to a strict approval process, very few people were heading interstate and the roads were eerily quiet. This is in absolute contrast to the wall to wall traffic we experienced last time we drove this journey in early February 2020, when it was pouring with rain to add to the treacherous frenzy.

Entering New South Wales to empty roads

It was an uneventful journey to Sydney, with a night spent in a very forgettable ‘pet friendly’ motel room in Port Macquarie, and we arrived back at our house earlyThursday afternoon. Nobody even wanted to see our border passes…I guess they assume few people want to travel to New South Covid…

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It has been three years since we spent a night in our home, and entering the place with no furniture was quite eerie. We wondered how Tassie would go at remembering it, given there have been other cats and dogs living in there with our renters over the past few years. Proving to be the most adaptable cat as usual, she trotted in with her tail held high, sharpened her claws on the bottom step of the stairs as she has done for years, and settled right on in!

Our return home essentially completes our third big ‘lap’ of Australia. The map below broadly shows where we have been since we first pulled away from our house in May 2017, covering many kilometers around this huge continent.

1. Took us from Sydney up to the Kimberley in the north-west, then across to the coast and down to Perth, back via the Nullarbor and South Australia. 2. We visited lots of areas in Queensland, then took the Savannah way over to Darwin, returning via Uluṟu,and the Plenty Highway. 3. Has taken us down through Victoria and much more of South Australia and the Riverland, then up through the Flinders Range to Birdsville, and up to the Daintree Rainforest and back.

It is hard for many people, even Australians, to comprehend the distances covered in our travels, with often three or four days of solid driving before you reach the next destination of note or even a chance to go for a walk. Accepting the distances, we have enjoyed the diversity of flora and fauna, and on this most recent trip not only saw many areas new to us, but also gave ourselves a chance to linger and revisit some of our favourite locations.

Check out www.thetruesize.com to overlay any country on top of another – here I have put Australia over Europe and the USA so you can understand a sense of scale

We now find ourselves ready to settle down for a few months, celebrating having more than one room and access to connected plumbing!

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After a night ‘camping’ on ‘self inflating’ mattresses which had been compressed for too long (ie not inflating at all!), all our possessions were delivered from storage. We clocked up 5km and 25 flights just running up and down the stairs with the delivery guys, taking in boxes and directing furniture.

Mr A and ‘Abs’ one of the delivery guys unloading a cage…meanwhile Tassie has found a lot of new places to sleep!

And we are ‘home’ for the next few months!

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We arrived in time for the final two days of Sydney’s lockdown for double vaccinated people, but that didn’t stop us joining two of our lovely neighbours, Mike and Julia, for a picnic in the park. They very kindly did the catering, and we enjoyed a great catch up with them within the lockdown rules.

Picnic in the park

Our home is located beside Curl Curl Lagoon on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and we have been reuniting ourselves with the stunning location, watching the sun rise over the water and rediscovering the birdlife. We will certainly miss these beautiful mornings when we arrive in deepest darkest February in the UK, but there we will have completely different things to look forward to.

Curl Curl Lagoon at sunrise
Looking down Curl Curl beach towards Manly and North Head in the distance
Looking up the beach towards North Curl Curl

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Having got through our whole weekend of lockdown (sorry everyone who has suffered for so long!), Sydney opened up the following Monday, with shops, restaurants and bars welcoming the double vaccinated. Life has entered the phase of the next level of ‘new normal’.

Afternoon walks through the reserve rewarded us with the trills of Superb Fairy Wrens, swooping Red Wattlebirds chasing insects to feed their young, and many other signs of spring.

One of many Superb Fairywrens that call the reserve home
A Red Wattlebird and its demanding chick
A Mallard Duck on the lagoon
I even spotted a little Ringtail Possum sleeping in a broken tree
A Crested Pigeon displaying its green and purple wing feathers

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Just up the coast from Curl Curl is Dee Why, and we took a walk through the lagoon and beach there up to Long Reef on another day.

Looking towards Dee Why and North Curl Curl
Mr A
A Superb Fairywren keeps lookout on top of a bush, his turquoise feathers gleaming in the morning sun
Looking towards Manly from Long Reef
A Sulphur Crested Cockatoo munching on seed pods

Long Reef has a regular nesting pair of Nankeen Kestrels, and they were out and about hunting for mice, skinks and lizards when we were there, unperturbed by all the people out walking.

Nankeen Kestrels, focused on finding food for their brood

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Our social life has never been so busy. After 105 days of lockdown all our friends have been keen to go out, and I think we have clocked up more outings in the last two weeks than in the preceding 12 months combined!

Curries, French cuisine, modern Australian, a local gin bar and more…
More beers, wines, dinners and lunches – Tassie enjoyed nights in!

It has been a great welcome back to Sydney, and we will continue to make the most of our time over the next few months.

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And finally, some of our readers will probably know I am an artist in my spare time, primarily working on semi-abstract (meaning they look like paintings rather than photographs) landscapes.

I have decided to sell some of my work before we head off to the northern hemisphere, and have some discounted original works for sale.

If there is anything you are interested in, please let me know – I’ve uploaded some images here: http://whenthecatsaway.net/

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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!