Here and there and everywhere: the last leg

The older I get, the more reluctant I am to return home when I’m away. However, when it comes to this tendency, I’m never quite sure where Crescent Head falls. It’s not home, exactly – Melbourne takes that honour and I suspect it always will, as it’s a pretty excellent place to call home – but it’s surely the next best thing. I mean, I know where the light switches are without looking. If that’s not home, then…

But I suppose categories of home/not-home aren’t particularly important here. Long story short, I didn’t want to leave. I never do. Well, except for that one year with all of the flooding and the beach-turned-black-gurgling-maelstrom. But at any rate, home was calling so we savoured our last few days of New South Wales sun and made some plans for the trip home.

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After tearing ourselves away from the sea long enough to pack and clean up, we piled back into our long suffering chariot and began the long drive south. After a brief stop-off in Port Macquarie to pick up some coffee, the rest of the drive was uneventful, bar my inexplicably managing to get lost in the outskirts of the Sydney on a road that I’ve driven countless times before. What can I say? I’m gifted that way.

We stopped in a side-street to get our bearings and were ambushed by a toddler who sneakily dropped a decapitated lizard into my brother’s pocket. To add insult to injury, his babysitter then proceeded to give us blatantly incorrect directions. I suppose I should be grateful as she was trying to help, but having already proved that I was more than capable of getting lost on my own, further assistance wasn’t really necessary. At least the lizard was memorable.

Headless reptiles and poor directions notwithstanding, we made it into Wollongong with enough time to scoff some delicious Thai food before collapsing for the night. I’d never visited Wollongong before, and we didn’t really stay long enough to get a good feel for the town, but after that morning I can definitely vouch for their beaches.

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After a bracing beach walk, we went in search of breakfast and ended up in… ummm, the industrial area of Port Kembla. What can I say? I’m a nervous driver and I get lost easily. Serendipity was with us though; we actually found a lovely little cafe and I ate a delicious mushroom toastie that I have spent the last several months joyfully doing my best to replicate. Appetites subdued and adequately caffeinated, we continued on down the coast before stopping at Kiama.

Kiama is clearly fake. Surely it’s not possible for the grass to be so green (in the middle of summer – this poor little Victorian is astounded), the water to be so blue.

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The thing is, not only was it real, it was also populated by amazing wildlife. We found this excellent guy down by the boat ramp. I made exclamation marks at him, and also swore profusely with sheer excitement. You can’t take me anywhere.

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After I calmed down about ray and let the others coax me back into the car, we knuckled down and slogged a few hundred kilometres further down the coast until we arrived in Eden. By the time we arrived I had developed a wretched headache – a situation that wasn’t aided by the large number of (ordinarily charming) bell-birds flitting around our accommodation – but thankfully Eden was pretty enough that I was able to distract myself with scenery. And pictures of orcas. Everywhere. Eden used to be a major player in the whaling industry way back when that was a thing that was done in this country. Nowadays the whales now migrate up the coast relatively unaccosted, but Eden’s passion for orcas is apparently undiminished. I didn’t get any photos of killer whale chic, but the sunset wasn’t half bad.

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The next morning we piled into the car, bolstered ourselves with an amazing breakfast at Sprout, and drove on to Mallacoota and Croajingalong National Park. I hadn’t been to Croajingalong since I was young enough to be seriously unnerved by the number of lace monitors gadding about the place. Times have changed in some ways, but not others. The monitors are still there, but now I’m happy to see them. Hey there, scaly buddy!

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Unimpressed looking reptiles aside, the national park was as gorgeous as I remembered. As we had to press on to Melbourne, we only had a few hours set aside for hiking, but we put them to good use and had a lovely wander around the coast. The colours of the rocks at Bastion Point were just amazing!

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The less said about the remainder of the drive home, the better. I was feeling sick but the other driver wasn’t feeling any better, so I drove on. I have a vague recollection of eating grapes in a carpark in Lakes Entrance, inside the car as it was raining too hard to get out. The fact that this was the highlight of the second half of the day probably speaks for itself. At any rate, we eventually arrived home, safe and sound, and fell happily into the arms of the first decent internet that anyone had had for weeks. It was a great trip – I can never really get enough of this beautiful country – but you can’t knock renewed access to YouTube and computer games. Apparently I’m all about the up-side.

Here and there and everywhere: the way back

It’s easy to get complacent about the return journey. Once you’ve reached your destination, it’s hard to get too excited about the way back. It’s retracing your steps. You no longer feel like you’re blazing a new trail. It often seems shorter, less auspicious. Either that or interminably long. It’s rarely infused with the same sense of adventure as when you’re on the way to a new place.

Thankfully, we took all of that into account for this trip, and left plenty to do on Waterfall Way en route back to the coast. Not that we had much of a choice. For all that I’d like to paint it as foresight, the truth of the matter was that there was simply too much to see on our way in, so we had to leave some for the trip back!

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First stop was Wollomombi Gorge, in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. The gorge’s waterfall was not particularly impressive – not enough rain around the time of our visit – but the lovely setting hardly needed the added boost. We had a nice little hike and then piled back into the car.

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Next stop was the gorgeous Point Lookout in New England National Park. By this point we were running out of time, so we didn’t get to do any hiking in the park, but I suppose you have to save something for next time. And there will be a next time.

We picked our way through the unsealed roads and back onto the freeway… only to get stopped again for around 20 minutes because of roadworks. Thankfully, the workers were nice enough to come and give us an estimated wait time, so I was able to turn off the engine and scoff some chips. This was after they told us they wouldn’t let us through unless I paid them $20 (because this is Australia and we have a grand history of trolling), and after I responded by laughing in their faces, because while I’m a bad Australian in some ways, I understand and appreciate the fine tradition of the piss take.

At least the roadside scenery was pleasant, if not quite as dramatic as the other things that we’d seen on our travels.Could almost pass for idyllic if not for that pesky soft-drink can.

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Our final stop for gorgeous scenery was Ebor Falls, in Guy Fawkes River National Park. We barely had to even turn off the freeway for this one. And by ‘this one’ I mean these two, because Ebor Falls is a two-for-the-price-of-one dealio.

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Just to check: everyone is now pretty clear on why it’s called ‘Waterfall Way’, right?

After Ebor Falls it was a straightforward drive back to the coast, along a now familiar route. Or that was the plan. It would have been straightforward had the brakes on our (long-suffering) car not overheated on the way down from Dorrigo plateau (a bad combination of a steep descent and near constant hairpin turns). I discovered what had happened the nerve-wracking way: i.e. trying to slow down from 100kmph, only to discover that the car had other ideas. Thankfully the brakes weren’t completely out and thanks to presence of mind and a comparatively empty road, we were able to pull over for a while to let everything cool down for a bit. We limped sadly into Bellingen 20 minutes later and consoled ourselves with a delicious late lunch. Luckily, by the time we were done the car had decided to behave itself again, and we made it home without further incident.

Next post: the trip back and a bit of a round-up!

Here and there and everywhere: Waterfall Way

Our trips to the mid-north coast tend to get a little samey. In the best possible way, of course, because you don’t really need to stray further afield when you have two amazing beaches a figurative stone’s throw away. Though perhaps it’s inaccurate to say ‘samey’ because one of the things I love about the coast is that even when you visit the same beach, it’s always a slightly different experience. The tide is higher or lower, the sandbar has subtly shifted since the last time, the cloud cover has altered the colour of sea, and so on. So samey is, rather delightfully, never something about which you need to worry.

So perhaps it’s better to say that we’re stuck in our ways. Or that we need to get out more. ‘Out’ in this instance being defined as more than a half hour drive away (when you need to drive 20km for groceries, 65km to the nearest cinema, etc, the definitions of ‘out’ get hazy). And ‘need’ being defined as ‘probably should since you’re in a beautiful part of the world and you’re only experiencing a tiny, admittedly gorgeous, piece of it’.

However you want to describe it, what all of these nebulous emotions boiled down to is: we went for a jaunt. An excursion was had. Snacks were acquired, notes were taken, maps were collected, about a half kilogram of loose sand was vacuumed out of the car, and we were on our way, heading up along the coast for a ways before turning sharply inland to tackle Waterfall Way.

Waterfall Way is a very appropriately named road that links Coffs Harbour and Armidale. The drive is only 185km (I know, I know, “only”, but as Australian road-trips go, 185km is a pretty meagre distance, really) but manages to pack in an amazing variety of landscapes, national parks, and some lovely towns that are well worth visiting. And also waterfalls. Duh.

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We kicked off the trip with brunch in Bellingen, a lovely little riverside town only a short drive inland. The first time I visited Bellingen I was a little confused as to how a small town that wasn’t really that close to anything could maintain a) such an overall impression of being so hip and artsy, and b) its ratio of cafes to residents*. I still don’t really understand but now I just shrug and enjoy it; the food is great, the vibe is chilled out, and it’s just generally a pleasure to be there, however they manage it.

After brunch and a brief post-ice-cream chill out session down in the long grass by the river, we hopped back in the car and pressed on to Dorrigo National Park.

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Dorrigo National Park is a delicious little chunk of World Heritage Gondwana rainforest that’s a (comparatively) short and extremely scenic drive from Bellingen. One of my fellow road-trippers was full of scepticism (and car-sickness) as we drove the last stint to the Rainforest Centre, as by this point there were paddocks on both sides of the road and precious little evidence of rainforest. Thankfully, his doubt was completely abandoned once we got him out of the car and coaxed him out onto one of the walks. There are both long and short loop walks that leave from the Rainforest Centre; we picked the longer 6.6km walk that took us past both of the nearby waterfalls, Crystal Shower Falls and Tristania Falls.

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You can even walk behind Crystal Shower falls. Although I think I must have played too many computer games and/or read too many fantasy novels in my time, because I can never quite shake the expectation that the space behind a waterfall will hold either a secret hideout or a chest with a magical weapon.

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After our walk, the weather started to take a turn for the ominous, so we scurried back into the car and continued west along Waterfall Way. For a whole ten minutes, before we stopped again, because a little bit of rain wasn’t going to stop us from ogling Dangar Falls.

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After clambering – slightly rain splattered – back into the car we drove on to Armidale. After a brief wander and an extremely fancy kebab dinner, we returned to the hotel and passed out in front of a David Attenborough documentary. It’s amazing I didn’t dream of prehistoric fish. I’m kind of disappointed I didn’t, frankly.

The next day we made a brief stop at the visitor information centre, because I am a shameless tourist. I wasn’t sorry; one of the lovely staff members furnished me with a pamphlet about bird-watching in the area (thanks John!).

Our next stop was Oxley Wild Rivers National Park and the Threlfall walking track. This trail follows an historic hydro-electric scheme from the nineteenth century (really!) and then spits you out alongside Gara Gorge.

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It was only a 5.5km loop, so the walk wasn’t too challenging, or wouldn’t have been if not for the fact that we were (foolishly) doing it in the middle of the day in high summer. Doable, yes, but not exactly recommended!

One of the things that is amazing about this part of the country is the diversity of the terrain. Walking this trail, you wouldn’t believe that you are only a couple of hours’ drive from lush rainforest; we were slogging through tinder-dry bushland. Thankfully, the view was more than worth it, and I suspect that evening beers at The Welder’s Dog tasted all the better for having been earned by all of our traipsing through the dust and flies.

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Iceland

I feel I should begin with a disclaimer. The thing about Iceland is the scale. The mind-boggling, awesome scale of everything. Things aren’t just big; more often then not, they are HUGE in this hulking, primeval way that is extremely difficult to capture when your photography skills are virtually non-existent.

Good thing I bothered to actually go visit, instead of just reading about in a blog post written by a woman who devotes far too much time to self-deprecation… wait, what?

Moving right along: Iceland. You will need to forgive me in advance because I tend to begin talking like a hyperactive child when talking about Iceland.

It’s great! But cold! But not that cold! The showers in Reykjavik smell like sulfur in a nice way! There is fisk everywhere! And so on. It’s also about the most crazy hardcore country I’ve visited (and don’t forget, I am Australian*). There are giant volcanoes and quicksand. They have these things called jökulhlaups; think crazy glacial floods that can be caused by the eruption of ice-covered volcanoes. There is a very active volcano that was historically regarded as the gate to Hell. Iceland is the most metal place ever.

Reykavik is a gorgeous town. Plus the water in the showers comes out searing hot and smells like hot spring. I found this charming, having cut my hot spring teeth in Japan last year (where you get the idea that slightly funky smelling water means health giving and beautifying firmly fixed in your head) but my travelling companions did not particularly appreciate the mildly eggy smell. Can’t please everyone!

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The waterfalls. Oh wow, the waterfalls.

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There are waterfalls on the side of the highway in Iceland that we would have national parks devoted to here in Australia. And then the sun comes out and people on Facebook start accusing you of Photoshopping because surely nowhere outside of Pinterest and desktop backgrounds actually looks that beautiful, right?

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Sometimes along the side of the road there are little pathways that just lead off into the moss covered lava fields. I followed one for probably less than 100 metres and still managed to arrive in a spot where all I could see was moss, spreading out on all sides.

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Aside from the wind there was not one single sound. It was so eerie and so beautiful that I could have stayed all day, but sadly more pretty things were waiting so I had to traipse back and resume the drive.

The south eastern coast of Iceland is difficult, seriously. You have just recovered from the waterfalls and then you can’t stop yourself from getting out of the car at Skaftafell just to gawp at the glacier. Listen too, because glaciers make noises. They’re full of creaks and groans that you catch on the wind here and there.

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And then you had around the corner and hit Jökulsárlón and your eyes fall out of your head because Iceland is like that.

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Soon after we headed away from the coast and up to Akureyri. While this obviously didn’t take us too far into the interior, it did give us a delightfully surreal taste. We were up high and surrounded by nothing but ice, snow, and the occasional peek of bare rock. As far as the eye could see. Perhaps this will be bleedingly obvious to people who don’t reside in a country that is mostly desert, but I was amazed to find that large quantities of snow and ice have a strangely soporific effect; I actually dozed off once or twice. And again, the eerie silence.

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We spent a little over a week there altogether, driving the delightfully convenient Route 1 in an anti-clockwise direction. By the end of Day 1, I had given up trying to pronounce things correctly. By Day 3 I was pining for vegetarian food. By the end of Day 4 I had pretty much decided that I was never setting foot in a car again because fjords, though beautiful, are not always friendly to people who suffer from car-sickness. And by Day 5 the rain showed up and never really left again. But the country never stopped being gorgeous. So ridiculously gorgeous. And populated, albeit sparsely, by such friendly people too. I have heard travellers talk about Australians being a friendly bunch, but we are surely a sad little bunch of surly curmudgeons next to Icelanders.

All said and done, it was definitely like nowhere else I had ever been before. Some people I know compare it to New Zealand, though I’ve never crossed the Tasman to confirm (somewhat embarrassingly, since New Zealand is one of the few places that is easy to get to from Melbourne). But I would have trouble believing that anywhere could match the strange atmosphere of Iceland. It’s full of vast spaces, eerie quiet, tempting pathways and caves, and for a country that is so young, geologically speaking, it has an incredibly ancient feel about it.

Finally, I’ll end this post with a wholehearted suggestion that any readers with an interest in Iceland, folklore and/or geology go and read this story, “A Stone Woman” by A.S. Byatt. It’s my all time favourite short story** and one of the main reasons I knew I had to visit Iceland if I ever got the opportunity to do so. As soon as I returned to my bookshelf I dug it out and read it again and only loved it more for having actually seen some of the landscape it describes.

Next time: Scotland and Malta!

 

 

*That said, I never really bought into the idea that Australia is a particularly dangerous place to live or visit. I mean, if you’re in the country watch where you step and knock your boots out before putting them on, but honestly, it’s hardly fraught with peril. I get nervier in the US because BEARS are a thing there.

** I am one of those people who can generally never name a favourite anything because I am too indecisive but “A Stone Woman” is an exception. It is my favourite short story. Period.