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!
Curl Curl Lagoon – our local park just footsteps from our front door, and a great place to wind down with nature….
Dee Why – a walk and dinner with friends Bill and Olga
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)
Lunch at The Fernery, Mosman, with friends Andy and Donna
Long, lazy lunch with friends in Manly at Busta (Italian restaurant)
Long Reef headland – a few beaches up the coast from where we live
Back at Curl Curl Lagoon
And meanwhile, back at home….
Manly Dam – just 11 minutes from home and a stunning bushland haven
Bronte with friends Jenny and David – just around the corner from my first ever accomodation in Sydney back in 1999!
Rainy morning walk around the Narrabeen Lakes, about 20 minutes up the coast from home
Weekend in Newcastle, NSW with friends Chris and Karen
A grey Saturday morning’s kayak on Sydney Harbour with friend Cindy
Warriewood Wetlands – a rainy afternoon walk, 25 mins drive from home
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…
Breathing improving – a walk along the coast from North Curl Curl to Dee Why…
Morning walk through Ku-ring-gai Wildflower Garden, Terry Hills
If you have made it this far down the page, then thank you! Will try to leave it less time before our next post!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
We now find ourselves ready to settle down for a few months, celebrating having more than one room and access to connected plumbing!
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.
And we are ‘home’ for the next few months!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Location: Wentworth, NSW and Chowilla Game Reserve, South Australia
For this post, we recognise the Barkindji , Maraura and Ngarrindjeri people, throughout whose land we travelled the past few days, and thank them for their custodianship over many thousands of years.
We left the Menindee Lakes, taking a road through the national park which led to the Silver City Highway. The description of highway makes this road sound far grander than it really is – a two way tarmac covered road – though in its defence, it is a long one – over 600km linking South Australia with Queensland via Broken Hill. From here we headed south, making it to a carpark in the little town of Wentworth, located where the River Darling and River Murray meet.
Wentworth was an important settlement because of its riverside location and at one stage was New South Wales’ busiest inland port. It even made it on to a short list to be considered as location for Australia’s capital city! Today it’s a small, neat town with a sleepy feeling. We enjoyed dinner at the local pub.
The following morning we moved a few kilometres down the road to a rustic camp called Fort Courage. Apparently named after a brewery which once stood here, it is now mostly a sprawling collection of fishing enthusiasts’ caravans on the banks of the River Murray.
With no drinking water, but filtered river water to shower in, it was a good spot to stop and clear some of the dust out. We were dying for a walk, but there was nowhere to explore – a few metres from the river and you were back into dry, semi-arid landscape, the plants thorny and scratchy, not conducive to picking your way through them.
We decided to go for a paddle instead. We inflated the kayak and launched below our site, immediately appreciating the cooler breeze blowing off the water. Much of the bird life we saw was familiar, but as we drifted silently along we managed to get really close to some more unusual feathered creatures which were not frightened off.
It was with some despair Mark engaged in a chat with a fellow camper who had been coming there for 40 years. He told us about the ‘hawks’ he fed the carp to when he managed to hook one on his fishing trips. He pointed out one of the Whistling Kites soaring past – ‘there’s one’. ‘Oh a Whistling Kite?’ we asked ‘Huh?’ he responded. How someone can not have any curiosity about the species of creature they come across, I don’t know…but vive la difference. Sadly it is attitudes like these that accept extinctions and destruction of habitat as just matter of fact.
While we were out paddling we spotted two guys on a boat dredging the water and then taking note of what they caught, before releasing them back into the river. They didn’t seem like typical fishermen so we enquired what they were up to. They told us they were scientists, looking at the health of the river ecosystem. They told us they had mostly found carp and a few small golden perch. Not much else. Not to harp on about carp too much, but a story has since been released that reveals that carp now make up 97% of the fish in our waterways – it sounds pretty consistent with what they were telling us. How depressing…and how important that this problem is solved
Another stunning sunset concluded our stay.
We moved on the following day, heading towards Chowilla Game Reserve, back across the border in South Australia. Before we got there, we first made a stop at Lake Victoria, still in NSW. It is a reservoir managed by Water South Australia.
In 1994 when the lake level was lowered for maintenance, a wealth of Aboriginal history was discovered. Artefacts such as camp sites, stone tools, grindstones, shell middens and hearths along with extensive aboriginal burial sites were uncovered. It was estimated that up to four thousand individual graves existed in the burial grounds. The Maraura people have been resident in this area for up to 45,000 years. Today, South Australia Water manages the site, along with local Aboriginal communities to help preserve the site.
A plaque at the lake recognises the Aboriginal people killed here in 1841 at the Rufus River massacre. While official records suggest 30 people were killed here, it is suggested the actual number is likely to be double this. For once, historical information presented seemed to be quite balanced, with copies of records from people present at the massacre as well as stories shared by survivors and passed down through the generations. As is often the case, history is written by the victors, but at least here there is some attempt to tell it from both sides of the story, a refreshing change.
We stopped for lunch, before making our way to Chowilla Game Reserve. This was a location our friends in Adelaide had recommended as one of South Australia’s premier kayaking locations. It’s a network of creeks and inlets which all feed into the River Murray, the hard to reach and remote location meaning it was likely to be quiet and definitely no water-skiers!
The road in was sandy and soft in places, but with our tyres already deflated to a lower pressure it was not too hard a journey to the park, although finding the entrance was a challenge in itself, with very limited signposts and a call to the Renmark information centre eliciting no help either – they couldn’t even tell us whether there was an entrance from the NSW side!
Our first landmark was a cairn marking the border between New South Wales and South Australia. It had been plotted and built by one of the founding European explorers in Australia, Charles Todd, in 1868 using astronomy. The border has been remeasured with modern appliances, and is now about 100 metres away, but the obelisk remains.
Despite there being no signs, we drove through a gate into what we believed was Chowilla Game Reserve, winding our way through some pretty narrow and rough roads. Occasionally we would spot a signpost directing to camp sites, each numbered, but they were not consistent, and we often had to take a guess at a road junction, only to spy another sign through the binoculars directing us another way. It was very slow going, taking about an hour to navigate about three or four kilometres between scratchy tree branches and find our site by the river. Whoever suggested the sites were suitable for caravan access had not driven these tracks lately!
It was a relief to find our spot and park up for the night – a G&T was definitely in order as the sun went down after that journey!
The following day we got up at sunrise and launched into the creek in the hope of seeing some birds. Chowilla Game Reserve is recognised as a Riverland Wetland of International Importance declared under the Ramsar Convention, and one of the six ‘The Living Murray’ (TLM) icon sites in the Murray-Darling Basin. This means it is an area that is actively managed to maintain the health of the floodplain, using artificial means where lack of water (due to agricultural and other human activity usage) means flooding is no longer available naturally.
Our first impression was quite eerie – usually dawn brings a plethora of bird life, but not here – there was barely a tweet. Do the birds not realise this is an important wetland? Perhaps it is the ‘Game Reserve’ bit of the name? We had been dismayed to learn that five species of Australian duck are permitted to be hunted from Saturday 20 March until late June…maybe the ducks had looked at their diaries and decided to exit stage left given this was just three days before that start date? We continued on regardless…
With great stealth, we silently explored the watery lanes, watching for any movement. We were eventually rewarded with some sightings…
And yes, you’re probably getting bored of seeing Whistling Kites, but we had an incredible front row seat for this courageous Little Crow which chased the kite a kilometre across the sky to deter it from its nest.
Having redeemed itself, we had a relaxing afternoon and enjoyed a marvellous sunset over the water.
The following morning we braced ourselves for the journey out, heading towards Renmark. Fortunately, other than one water crossing which we managed to divert around, the journey went smoothly, and we covered ground much faster than on the way in.
As we departed we were able to see some of the ‘The Living Murray’ work in progress. The flood plane relies on water for at least three months once every five years to survive. As the water levels very rarely ever reach flood level this is now artificially pumped. Six huge pumps were running 24 hours a day to supply this water up into this area. The contrast between this flooded area and those left dry was dramatic.
We saw just one other vehicle in our time in Chowilla, testament to how remote the park is. Again, our breath is taken away by the huge open spaces and unique landscapes Australia has to offer, and we so appreciate the opportunity life has given us to be able to travel them.
We acknowledge the Paakantji and Baakantji people as the Traditional Owners of the Minindee Lakes area we visited last week, and who are still active custodians of the land after these 30,000 odd thousand years. In the last 20 years though us white fellahs have pretty much ruined what they had sustainably farmed on land surrounding the lakes and from the water itself.
The Lakes are naturally occurring depressions that fill with fresh water after rains when the river flowing through them (Australia’s longest waterway, so including tributaries) the Darling, is in flood. They were joined together in 1968 by canals and turned into a water source for arid Broken Hill (100km up the road) and for irrigating farmers using the Darling River downstream. Theoretically it also works as a flood management system, although it has been ten years since they have seen one of those and the lakes are currently at 17% capacity.
The draw for us in visiting the area was that these lakes are an Important Bird Habitat (IBH), and with the new telephoto and our kayak, we thought…let’s drive for 120km up that corrugated dusty road to take some photos! My dad would have been especially proud. The son who he couldn’t interest in his passion for birding, now getting all excited about seeing some of the thousands of water birds that call these lakes home. Like everywhere we have visited across the Murray-Darling Basin in the last 6 weeks, there is no good news for the environment. Bird numbers are in sharp decline as the water levels are adjusted to suit the needs of cotton and almond farmers, not the health of the ecosystem.
The town of Minindee seemed to reflect the deterioration in the health of the lakes. The main caravan park in town was an absolute dump, and even the information centre staff said “We DO NOT recommend you stay there”, but instead sent us 15km out of town to another park. We did drop into the local IGA, as we try and spend local if we can, but it was a sad little shop with nothing fresh on the shelves. and a belligerent look from the cashier had me hurriedly scuttling out. We were later to be told by several people that “the town is dying and the council do nothing”. Ten years of drought must have been a tough run for them. Let’s hope some of the deluges falling across most of Australia this week benefit them.
We were camped at a lovely spot right on the edge of one of the lakes called Copi Hollow, home to the Broken Hill speedboat club! Not usually the best mix with kayaking and birding, but on a Thursday afternoon we were lucky and had the lake to ourselves.
We had our first trip out in our kayak with the zoom lens. It wont be the last. Look at some of these shots!
We returned buzzing, and set the alarm for a dawn paddle the next day. We are describing the feeling to each other as “like being on safari”. There’s the thrill of spotting something new, the joy of being outdoors and watching nature unfold around you. In a kayak there’s no noise to frighten the birds, and we soon worked out how best to use the stealth to our advantage, silently drifting along parallel without threatening and forcing them to fly and abandon nests and/or their young.
It was absolutely magical, and we feel a whole new world has just opened up for us in being able to identify birds from their photos that otherwise would have been a fleeting glance in my binoculars. Oh, and its a good workout for me as I’m “the engine room” at the back, while Mrs A cradles the zoom lens between her knees and spots our next photo opportunity :).
We try and cast aside thinking about the dire future this ecosystem has. Very little is being done to help it. The authority that manages the Murray-Darling Basin were told by CSIRO 10 years ago to use their climate change models showing the likely increase in temperatures and extended droughts that were to come, as the basis for their planning. But no, they insisted on using the historical data as it was more economically convenient. An investigation by journalists in 2017 exposed some of the corruption, and this prompted a Senate enquiry in 2018. Even the irrigators are fed up with the incompetent management and are currently taking the authority to court in a class action. And so it goes on.
After lunch, we drove out to nearby Kinchega National Park. The park is set among the flood planes of the Darling River, and as we have seen throughout our travels, is predominantly dry and arid, coming to life around the snaking waters of the Darling. The land has been home to the Baakantji nation people for more than 35,000 years. ’Baaka’ means the Darling River and ’ntji’ means ‘belonging to’. Many of the community descendants are staff at the park, helping to eradicate pests – both flora and fauna, and preserve those that have not been destroyed by white person occupation.
The land was settled by European Australians in the mid 1800s, and a huge sheep station set up, with over 120,000 sheep roaming the area.
Sheep farming did not work well in this area. Initially, there was plenty of food, but soon the sheep trampled and ate all the grass, the ground pounded as hard as concrete by their hooves so that the delicate seeds could not germinate. By the early 1880s, 47,000 sheep had died of starvation, and by the late 1880s a further 45,000 were lost. This led to the collapse of this industry.
Sadly, the damage to the environment was already done. Within 15 years of cattle and sheep being introduced to the area four species of mammal had gone extinct. By the early 1990s, it is recognised that 27 mammals have gone extinct in the area – the highest rate of native animal extinction in Australia. It was designated as a national park in 1967.
Having driven through the dusty arid road, we returned to our oasis in the desert by following the river road, passing huge river red gums many hundreds of years old, and spotting some of the local bird life (ironically near a dry lake known as Emu Lake).
I had seen that there was a boat tour out on one of the lakes surrounded by private land, so otherwise this area was inaccessible, so we had signed us up for that.
It was pretty average to be honest. Nice to be out on the water, but again not a welcoming or friendly smile from the operators. or no attempt to have the dozen people on the boat interact and enjoy themselves. The guide trotted out with little enthusiasm some local stories, and it was nice to see a new bit of the lake system, but not a tour that will burn into our memories,.
Is it a lack of motivation, or a lack of commercial acumen? Surely you’d think it would be a pretty obvious equation that happy customers talk about the trip and more people sign up. We often come across this type of apparent indifference to customer satisfaction in outback Australia. Sometimes we think it’s because there is little competition to drive them. This operator for instance was the only boat going out on the lakes, and most of his trips are full apparently.
So Menindee lakes we loved you, the town and the “vibe”, not so much. They are going to tarmac the road from Broken Hill down to Minindee, so lets hope that breathes new life into this struggling community. We will remember these first few “birding paddle safaris” (as we now call them 🙂 ), as being absolutely magical, and the gateway to something we will enjoy for many years to come.
I hope the Minindee Lakes survive as a place that these beautiful creatures continue to visit and take sustenance from for many years to come, but based on what we are seeing now, our confidence is low.
Location: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
With our final Covid-19 tests proving negative, we finally escaped from Howard Springs Quarantine Facility on Sunday 22 November!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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).
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).
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.
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!
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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…
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?
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.
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.