A 2016 grab-bag

While we’re on the topic of the passing of the last year, there’s some other things about which I would like to write.

I always find it useful to look back over the previous year, examine the things that I did, the things I didn’t do, and the things I enjoy. A habit I’ve picked up over the last several years is keeping a simple little list (nothing elaborate, or for public consumption) of the media I’ve consumed over the previous year. I have one for books read, movies watched, television series viewed, and one for computer games played. It may seem a neurotic habit, but it’s always nice to look back and remember when you did things, what you did, and how that informed the choices that came next.

For each month that goes by, I also write a brief list of words and and sentences, reminding myself of the things that characterised my time during that month. Nothing too poetic or elaborate: often it’s just a mismatch of the weather, the music to which I listened, the things that I was obsessively eating, what my mood was like, anything special that I saw or felt.

These things sound small, self-indulgent, a bit silly, possibly a bit obsessive, but it’s actually a habit I’m very glad to have acquired. It’s a bad cliché that as you get older, things speed up. Months and years blur together and sometimes you raise your head and look around only to discover that three months have passed in a blur of work and routine. You try and remember what you’ve been doing, but it’s all a bit hazy. You find yourself able to stutter out something about work, something about catching up with friends, a few comments about relaxing and hobbies, but the details get lost, it’s just the skeleton of your year. Keeping little notes, little lists and reminders, adds flesh to the bare bones. All the more so because the vast majority of the time when I read over my lists, I remember the little parts that I had forgotten, and it makes me smile. Because the little things – the week that it was unseasonably cold so I took up the habit of making blanket nests in that particular chair, the week I burnt my hand while bread baking and went stir-crazy from not being able to knit, the fortnight where I had a near permanent craving for lemon curd on toast – are the things that are me, that make my life different and mine.

I won’t bore everyone with the full list, and at any rate I prefer to keep it private, but in the spirit of the miscellaneous bits and pieces, here is a random grab bag of the little things that I enjoyed the most in 2016, the little things that took me by surprise with how much I enjoyed them.

Homemade bread and soup

Look, I did say “little things”. So, I like to cook. And I make a lot of things from scratch because of the dietary requirements of my household. But I also don’t tend to talk about it all that much, mainly because it feels too much like tooting my own horn (wow, that sounds like an analogy for masturbation, now I think of it) and it makes me feel like I’m crafting the image of an existence that is way more domestically idyllic and crunchy than it is. Things make me kind of uncomfortable. So usually all that makes it to Facebook is an annual blurry photo of bread accompanied by several lines of self-deprecation.

My dubious relationship with social media aside, in reality, I bake bread all the time. Especially over the last year, since due to illness I’ve had more down-time in which to pursue undertakings that are time consuming but low effort (i.e. bread). And it’s made me really happy, for a number of reasons. Fresh crusty bread is delicious. It’s nice to see my friends and family getting so much pleasure from something I’ve made. And bread (fresh or toasted) pairs very well with soup, something that I cook weekly without fail, regardless of the season, just because soup a) contains vegetables and b) can be reheated when I’m feeling too wretched to cook. If I have soup and bread in the kitchen, I know I’m safe from resorting to cereal for dinner (great as an occasional indulgence, but it becomes a little disheartening when eaten regularly by necessity because you’re too exhausted to cook).

Sitting down to a bowl of homemade bread and soup makes me feel like I’m taking care of myself. And when you’re sick, unhappy, or otherwise ill-at-ease, this is a nice feeling to have. The feeling that even if the advanced things are escaping you, you’ve got your basics covered. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s nice.

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Radical Face

Because the name doesn’t give much away, Radical Face is the name of a musical act comprising of an excellent fellow named Ben Cooper. I started listening to the first album of the artist’s Family Tree project when I was travelling alone in 2015, and I spent a lot of 2016 listening to the entire trilogy once the final album of the project was released.

I’m really bad at and super self-conscious about discussing music, lacking the technical knowledge and vocabulary to say anything intelligent. But any account of my 2016 would be incomplete without a reference to these albums. So I’ll just say: the Family Tree trilogy stole my heart clean out from under me, it’s excellent, and you should give it a listen (and if you do, check out the website as I loved following the cast of characters and stories behind the songs).

Mojitos

So, even though I’ve always been into citrus and mint, I never really thought myself a fan of white rum. I was wrong. Mojitos are amazing; hands down my new favourite cocktail for when it’s too hot and sticky to move. The version that we make is close but not identical to this recipe, though now I’ve read about it I can’t wait to try the grapefruit version here.

Mass Effect:

So, just throwing it out there because I don’t know if it’s come up on this blog before: I play computer games. And not just in a ‘Candy Crush Saga while I wait for the train’ kind of way. In an ‘I used to have a Diamond league Starcraft ranking’ kind of way (though full disclosure: we didn’t hold it long). I haven’t blogged much about it, but gaming is a major interest of mine, and certainly occupies as much of my time as the hobbies that do get blog coverage (knitting, travel, etc).

I don’t bring this up out of nerd elitism (which I loathe; the stigma against casual gaming is ridiculous) but just to warn people that I’m about to deviate from standard content, and with mouth-foaming levels of enthusiasm, no less.

I used to struggle to play story heavy RPGs. They often feature a lot of cut scenes and down-time generally, and my attention span had been completely trashed by the aforementioned Starcraft habit. My mindset was that with a few exceptions, if I was gaming, I wanted to be 110% engaged at all times. However, a few years ago I realised that I could very profitably knit through any extended cut-scenes. This turned things around completely, and kick-started my (ongoing) love-affair with Bioware games.

In 2015 I played the Dragon Age series (a fantasy RPG series full of amazing world building, complex characters, and simply terrible hats) and, minor quibbles aside, I loved it in a big way. When 2016 rolled around I thought that I’d try the Mass Effect trilogy; three sci-fi setting, third person shooter games released by the same studio. I’d never really been one for shooters, but figured that as my love of Dragon Age had been pretty, ahem, slavish, it might be worth trying a game where I couldn’t throw fireballs at the bad guys. Which is kind of funny in hindsight, considering how much I grew to love my sniper rifle.

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Just look at this cool alien and his cigar. Why wouldn’t you play this game?

I really enjoyed the Mass Effect games for a number of reasons; the writing is wonderful, the world-building is detailed, the game-play is fun, and so on. But what makes them actually important to me is harder to nail down. A lot of it is being able to play a female character; thankfully this is not as rare as it once was, but I’ve been gaming for decades now and tell you what, I’m still grateful as hell when the option is there, and even more grateful when it’s as impeccably executed as it is in these games. Having weathered many years of playing (otherwise excellent) games where the female characters were at worst just eye candy and at best sporting a confusing lack of weather/combat appropriate clothing compared to their male counterparts, getting to play as a female character where your gender is not an issue within the game universe, where having sex and being sexy and romance in general are completely optional, where your competence is respected from start to finish (and not just up until the point where you suddenly need to be rescued) was, well… Honestly, I didn’t realise how badly I needed it until I played these games.

Being a card carrying feminist who has been gaming for a long time, I had gotten super good at rolling my eyes at the chain mail bikinis. I wasn’t thrilled by them but I wanted to play the games so I just shrugged, continued playing, and rolled my eyes when other Diablo II players would insist on naming their trade games things like “Oiled Melons”. I got really good at rolling my eyes and ignoring it. Mass Effect reminded me of how good it feels when you don’t have to do that, when you don’t have to put up that little bit of extra mental distance between yourself and the game.

A lot has been written about women and video games in recent years and while it’s certainly a topic on which I like to weigh in, this post is long enough already. And I certainly don’t want to imply that this is the only video game series that’s done things well on the gender front. But suffice to say, it was one of the things that made the Mass Effect series great for me. Though definitely not the only thing. In addition to the above, the character writing is also amazing. I am one of those people that, with a few notable exceptions, does not normally get emotionally involved in the things they’re watching/playing. But these games got me good; by the end, there was barely a single character to whom I wasn’t fiercely attached. Anyway, so if you like the idea of playing a game where you get to befriend excellent aliens in between punching them with your space magic, I’d highly recommend this game. In the mean time, I’ll be over here counting the days until Mass Effect: Andromeda comes out… *drums fingers*

Battlebots:

One of the things that I’ve been trying to do this year is think critically about the reasons why I like the things that I like. Partly because overthinking everything is my jam, but also to help me make good choices in the future, and to inform my own creative efforts. While I won’t bore everyone with the details (often), I am usually pretty good at figuring out the things that appeal to me. Except in this one specific case, which continues to mystify me completely, much to my utter delight.

When I was a kid I adored watching the British television show Robot Wars, so when my household discovered BattleBots (an American robot fighting tournament series) I was keen to wallow in some delicious nostalgia. I was not expecting to get nearly as excited about it as I did. We don’t really go in for sport at our place (I am a very bad Melbournian who has a benign disinterest in AFL), but this is as close as we get. We certainly treat it like a sporting event, complete with heckling and constant homespun commentary.

Why do I like watching robots destroy each other? No idea. I’m not really into spectator sports. My engineering/robotics knowledge is nil. I am not a competitive person. Yet I have watched every episode multiple times now and I am still trying to get my (long-suffering) friends to ‘come and watch robots’ with me. I’m so confused, though also very gratified that some things can still take me completely and utterly by surprise.

Tahini:

Despite always liking hummus and loving halva, I never thought I liked tahini all that much. It was bitter and a little gritty and I always ended up scowling at it. But then I realised that I could bake with it to great effect (the blondies, seriously). And then, inspired by this, I also discovered that I could just mix a wee bit of tahini with honey to taste and eat it with a spoon. So, umm, that’s a thing that I do now. Calcium? Or something.

Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC)

So I was lucky enough to end up in Bangkok twice over the course of 2016. Which is pretty awesome, because Bangkok is amazing fun and probably my favourite food destination, period (it’s just so good). There are plenty of interesting things to see and do – it’s a big place – but one attraction that took me pleasantly by surprise was the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. It’s a contemporary art gallery near the National Stadium BTS station, right next to the infamous MBK Centre (go for the discount shopping and stay for the food court!). We went there on a tip from my brother, and I was blown away by how good it was.

The exhibitions change regularly, but don’t get too hung up on what’s on; just go. I’ve never seen a bad show there; there’s nothing but interesting, beautiful, and accessible contemporary Thai art. If that doesn’t convince you, well, it’s free and air-conditioned and there’s an amazing ice-cream shop inside. Convinced now?

Taking my tea for a walk

Okay, so it’s not always as scenic as the below picture (Goolawah Beach in NSW, for the record). But when you’re going for a brief walk, it’s very nice to drink your tea outside. I’ve even been known to just carry my mug with me when a suitable bottle is nowhere to be found; it’s not the end of the world to just toss it back in your bag when you’re done.

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Flan

So, at some point this year I noticed that La Tortilleria (an adorable tortilla factory/Mexican eatery in Kensington, my stomping ground for a few years) gave the recipe for their flan to Broadsheet. What a discovery. I have only made this 3-4 times this year, but that’s because nobody in my household can control themselves when it’s around. Even my brother, who doesn’t typically go in for desserts. Even me, and I don’t even typically like creamy custardy things. This flan is ridiculously easy, will make you extremely popular, and you should go and make it immediately.

SERIOUSLY, GO AND MAKE FLAN, LIKE, RIGHT NOW.

Spotify’s ‘A Sudden Rainstorm’ playlist

Hours of rain noises. Making it 30% more pleasant to collapse into bed. Am I weird for being into this? Those ASMR videos do nothing for me (they actually make me feel a little uneasy, no matter what my friends say) but who doesn’t love rain? Perhaps it’s novelty; making up for all the rainy nights I missed due to the country being in drought for so much of my adolescence/early adulthood. Either way, it’s a godsend for insomnia and just deliciously soothing in general.

And finally… the monstrosity blanket

What? I thought I made myself abundantly clear re: my love for this ridiculous rainbow behemoth. No? I love it. Rather a lot. I may still run away with it. I love you, silly blanket!

So that’s it: my 2016 in miscellany. For anyone who actually bothered to read to the end of this post, I’m impressed. Maybe it’s a bit much to hope that you learned something relevant, but thank you for indulging me! Next post will have actual knitting content, I promise!

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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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Here and there and everywhere: Crescent Head

After returning from Japan I stuck around in Melbourne for a time, doing Melbourne things (the long awaited, the fun, the boring and practical, and everything in between), but as the weather got warmer the Hume Highway started to call, as it inevitably does at the end of the year. And I am nothing if not a fool for the lure of the Hume Highway. So in December, we packed up my long-suffering old car and drove north for a couple of days until we found ourselves home again.

While I will always remain loyal to dear old Melbourne, the mid-north coast of New South Wales is, in my opinion, both gorgeous and hugely underrated, and I’ve spent so much time there over the years that it honestly feels as much home as anywhere else. I’ve posted about the area before, so I won’t go into detail (other than to say that it’s about four hours’ drive north of Sydney and if you’re heading along the Pacific Highway and have some spare time, do yourself a favour and visit), and at any rate, it wasn’t that sort of trip. No list of sights to tick off, and no rushing from place to place. Just a whole lot of sun, beach, trees, and good food. In summary (though ‘summery’ also works): I am one lucky bastard. Lucky to be able to visit such an amazing area, lucky to know about it in the first place, and lucky that it’s still as beautiful now as it was when I was a child.

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And for anyone who remembers balcony snake from last year: there were no actual snake sightings this time around, but there was certainly evidence that our little friend is still about!

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Maybe next year!

(insert joke about weird, snake-loving Australians here. Because, you know, guilty as charged)

Here and there and everywhere: Japan, Part 2

Travelling with friends and family is fun – provided you choose the right people, of course – but I’ve always had a soft spot for travelling alone. This is probably unsurprising; while I generally dislike labels, most people wouldn’t hesitate to call me an introvert, and I’ve always been good with my own company. However, my appreciation for solo travel goes beyond my need for plenty of quiet time. Travel is a completely different beast when you’re on your own. Things slow down, you have more time to notice the things around you, locals and other travellers are more likely to approach you, and you can set your own pace and prioritise the things that you want to do (i.e. you can throw off the shackles of compromise and be completely selfish!).

Of course, solo travel is perhaps not appropriate for every trip. There are some holidays I wouldn’t consider taking alone for a number of reasons; security, budget concerns, logistics, or the fact that some experiences are best shared. But when the opportunity arises, I do tend to leap upon it, and that was exactly what I did in Japan. My companions needed to be back in Australia because of work and study obligations, but this was not the case for me, so I decided to stay on for an extra 10 days. There were plenty of things I still wanted to see, and Japan is a very easy country in which to travel on your own, so when my fellow travellers booked their tickets back to Tokyo, I dug out my Kansai Wide Area Pass (highly recommended if you’re travelling down to the Kii peninsula) and hopped on a northbound train.

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First off, I spent a couple of days in Osaka. While there aren’t as many big/historical attractions in Osaka as there are in Kyoto – and I had already visited several of the more popular tourist destinations on a previous trip – it’s still a big and boisterous city with plenty to do. I spent plenty of time just wandering, though my favourite sight from this trip was easily Minō Kōen.

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I’d never heard of it before and it wasn’t in my guidebook; rather, I read about it while researching nice nature walks around Osaka, and thought that I would give it a go. I’m so glad I did. After having visited, I’m amazed that it’s not more popular with tourists. It’s nothing revolutionary; just a really lovely park, where you can take a walk through the forest to a sweet little waterfall, but it’s perfect for when you get tired of high rise buildings and want some quality time with the trees. It’s also very accessible, with a well paved main path, and it’s only about 20 minutes on the train from Umeda/Osaka station, though it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re that close to the middle of the city.

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I also spent plenty of time wandering around Osaka Castle Park. The thing I like best about this area is that it always feels like there’s something going on whenever you visit. Sometimes bands are playing, another time there was a craft beer festival, and during my final visit I saw a crowd of people standing around with various birds of prey perched upon their arms. Still not sure of exactly what that was – some sort of hawk and owl fanciers meet-up? – but as I said, there’s apparently never a dull moment in Osaka Castle Park.

After my time in Osaka was up, I hopped on a train bound for Kobe.

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Kobe was a very pleasant city that I sadly neglected; I came down with a virus shortly after arriving and spent a lot of my (brief) time there attempting to rest up and recuperate. I did however manage a wander around the port area, and a short hike partway up Mount Rokko to Nunobiki waterfall. I was greatly amused by the fact that the trail to the latter departed from the basement car-park of the shinkansen station. At least it was easy to find!

Once my time in Kobe was up, it was time for another train trip west, this time to Okayama. I’d never visited Okayama before but had always been curious, as I’d taken the shinkansen through a few times and had always wondered what I’d been missing. The city itself was smaller than my last few stops, but quite nice; I loved the little tree-lined canal that ran through it!

My first stop was Korakuen Garden and Okayama Castle. I had high expectations for the garden, as it’s said to be one of the top three in Japan, though upon visiting I have to admit that it perhaps wasn’t as much to my taste as Kenrokuen in Kanazawa. I think I just have a distinct preference for tall trees and moss over manicured lawns and neatly pruned hedges! Nevertheless, it was a very lovely garden, and it was far less crowded than Kenrokuen, so I was able to take my time and wander slowly, enjoying the peace and quiet.

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Okayama Castle was also lovely, and came with the standard excursion-full of adorable Japanese children who inevitably wanted to wave at the enormous white tourist. I was, as always, more than happy to play along.

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I also managed a day-trip out to Kurashiki, where I spent a lovely few hours getting lost, wandering around the canals, buying fabric, and cooing over the cat sprawled outside of the toy shop.

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After departing Okayama, I spent a lovely few days in Hiroshima. I’d visited Hiroshima before, but only as a day-trip from Kyoto, so I had been really looking forward to getting to know the city a little better.

I’m sure that many people think of one thing and one thing only when they hear of Hiroshima, but there’s a lot more to the city than that one event in its history. Hiroshima is a gorgeous city, with beautiful parks and tree-lined avenues, and while obviously there are museums and monuments dedicated to the A-bomb and its aftermath, it’s unfair to write off the city as a dark tourism destination and nothing more. The parts of the city that memorialise its tragic past also serve as centres for anti-nuclear campaigns. When you leave the (admittedly harrowing) Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, you are immediately provided with the opportunity to sign petitions to abolish the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and locals were handing out fliers in the area around the A-bomb dome. So while there is an emphasis on the city’s past, there’s also an optimism and a focus on the future that is very endearing.

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Aside from the above sights, I also visited Hiroshima Castle and Shukkeien, one of the city’s lovely gardens. If Okayama’s Korakuen had been not so much to my taste, then Shukkeien at least was a very pleasant surprise. It was small but very beautiful, and I spent an entire afternoon just wandering about, pausing often to sit and peek at the sunbathing turtles.

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Near the end of my time in Hiroshima, I also took a day to visit the island of Itsukushima (also known as Miyajima), famous for its iconic enormous floating torii.

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I’d visited before for a general wander around (and had my map partially eaten by one of the island’s ubiquitous deer) but this time I had a goal: to climb Mount Misen. I took the Daisho-in path, which is apparently the least steep of the three hiking trails, though I had definitely had my fill of stairs by the time I reached the top (for the less energetic/masochistic, there is also a ropeway). Thankfully, there was plenty of gorgeous scenery along the way to keep me distracted from my tired legs, and the view of the inland sea from the top of the mountain was more than worth the hike.

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Despite the length of the trip, I was still sad when my time in Japan came to an end. When I was younger I tended more towards homesickness, preferring shorter trips, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself reaching the tail end of holidays thinking “but I’m not quite finished yet”, and the feeling tends to arise completely independent of the state of my to-visit list. Perhaps it’s because you never know what’s going to happen on a day when you’re on holiday, or because as I get older I have more appreciation for the simplicity of my days when I’m travelling (residing in a small room, living out of a single bag, rather than feeling overwhelmed by choice like I often do at home). It’s probably high time that I take note of these feelings, not so much for future trips, but for changes I can make to my day-to-day life. Though it’s not like I’ll ever say no to future trips either!

Pretentious sounding introspection aside, I was sorry to leave Japan, but I had a pretty sweet consolation prize: a ferry ride! There is no good reason for me to love boats as much as I do, given my role as that token character that suffers from seasickness, but love them I do. There’s something about taking a ship that makes you feel intrepid, even when this feeling is completely and utterly unfounded. It’s not just a trip, it’s a voyage. You can all stop laughing at me now.

Anyway. I needed to find my way back from to Tokyo, and it turned out that taking a boat from Hiroshima across the inland sea to Matsuyama in Shikoku, from where I had snagged a dirt-cheap domestic flight back to Tokyo, was way cheaper than taking the train. Plus, you know, this way a boat was involved!

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After this point it was all endless airports, a night in a hotel that I barely remember because I literally did nothing but shower and sleep, hasty bowls of udon, and the purchase of a fine selection of plane snacks that left me feeling all smug and organised (it’s easy when the airport has a well stocked and reasonably priced convenience store… and people wonder why I love Japan so much). I was sad to go but frankly, I know myself far too well to believe for a second that I won’t be back again. Let’s face it; where Japan is concerned, I’m completely incorrigible.

Here and there and everywhere: Japan, Part 1

There are a lot of reasons why I have a history of being… somewhat lacklustre at regular blogging. Some of these reasons are more interesting than others. One of the less boring excuses is that I travel a lot, and when I am travelling, I prefer to dedicate my energy to the trip itself, rather than tinkering with a blog (often over fairly underwhelming wifi connections).

True to form, I ranged far and wide over the tail end of 2015 and the start of 2016. In September of last year we went on a lovely trip to Japan. It was my third time visiting, because I just can’t seem to stop returning. Japan just hits all of the travel sweet spots for me: it’s endlessly interesting, stunningly beautiful, easy to get around, safe, convenient, and you can buy dorayaki (red bean pancakes) in every convenience store. It’s also comparatively close (when you’re Australian, you do actually start considering nine hour flights as “comparatively close”) so you don’t lose any time to jetlag.

This time around, we started out in Tokyo.

I’m not going to bother trying to describe Tokyo because that’s more or less impossible, but suffice to say it’s probably got what you’re looking for, whatever that might be. Example: in the same day we visited the lovely leafy and tranquil Institute for Nature Study and then wandered around Harajuku and Shinjuku. They’re not even that far apart. Japan is ridiculous and amazing that way.

Along with the usual tourist destinations of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Akihabara, and Asakusa, through complete dumb luck and good timing we also made it to Tokyo Game Show (non-gamer readers: afraid you guys will just have to take my word for it), which was tremendous fun.

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Once we wrapped things up in Tokyo, we hopped aboard a train and took a gorgeous ride to Takayama. We spent a lot of time wandering the old town, and clambering around the hills trying unsuccessfully to find the trails we’d read about, but enjoying the view nevertheless. Oh, and trying not to buy everything. Takayama is a special hell for people who love souvenirs. A lot of what’s on offer is both gorgeous and very reasonably priced, so if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a lot of time agonising about how much room you have left in your suitcase.

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Our next destination was Kanazawa, along the northern coastline. We only had one full day in the city, so we made sure to check out the famous Kenrokuen Garden, which was far too beautiful to be done justice by my mediocre photography!

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After Kanazawa, we took the Thunderbird Express (best train name ever) down to Kyoto, where we stayed for a little under a week. It wasn’t my first visit, but I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible to get bored of Kyoto. It’s an incredibly beautiful city on the face of things, but more than that, I find that I actually love it more the longer I spend there. It’s one of those places where  you can very profitably just wander and gawk for a very, very long time without getting bored or running out of things to see.

There are far too many beautiful things in Kyoto for me to list them all, but one of my favourite new-to-me discoveries from this trip was the nineteenth century aqueduct hidden away in the Nanzen-ji temple complex (though the temples themselves are, of course, astonishingly beautiful as well).

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I will also never stop being partial to Arashiyama, for very obvious reasons.

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While, as mentioned above, I’m firmly convinced that I will never get sick of Kyoto, it was our next destination that had me the most excited: the Kumano region, on the Kii Peninsula. I had wanted to hike some of the Kumano Kodō ever since I had read about it several years earlier, but hadn’t managed to get there during my previous trip to Japan, so this time around I was about as full of enthusiasm as was possible, given the head cold I was sporting by this point of the trip!

We took the train down through Wakayama prefecture and stayed in Shirahama overnight, heading down to the gorgeous beach for a wander, a quick dip (the water was surprisingly warm for October), and also to wave a patriotic hello to the sand, which is apparently imported from Australia! The next day we took several hundred bus trips (well, it felt that way) and arrived in the lovely little town of Hongu. We had decided earlier to stay several days in Hongu and hike outwards, rather than trying to hike from town to town. This definitely turned out to be for the best, as one of our party was bedridden from a nasty virus, and the rest of us were still recovering; staying in one place left us with plenty of hikes to tackle, but had the added benefit of recuperation and hot-spring time!

The town of Hongu was small but lovely, with some impressive temples and the largest torii shrine in the world (it was colossal). There were also a large number of hawks circling over the town for the entirety of our visit. I’m still unsure why – perhaps it was mating season, or some such thing – but it definitely gave the place quite the atmosphere!

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The Kumano Kodō paths themselves were absolutely gorgeous. We hiked sections of the Nakahechi route, which took us through an amazing range of settings, from lush ferny forests to farming villages and mountain ranges.

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You get the idea!

When we weren’t hiking until our legs were screaming (and scream they did; in case the elevation in the last photo doesn’t give it away, there were plenty of steep climbs) we were lolling around in the nearby Kawayu Onsen. Kawayu Onsen is one of those places that makes people sceptical when you speak of your trip, because it sounds far too nice to actually exist. The onsen is set along the banks of the river; the hot-spring water wells up from underneath the river stones. You can dig your own bath, or laze around in one of the pre-dug holes. If you get bored or overheated, a quick dip in the (brisk!) mountain river does the trick. It’s as nice as it sounds, and the setting is gorgeous.

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I know, right?

After we finally pried ourselves out of the river, it was off to Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the main destinations of the pilgrimage route. We cheated and, ahem, took the bus most of the way, but made sure to hike the Daimon-zaka, one final 600 metre stretch of stone steps and ancient trees.

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And then there was the temple itself, as well as nearby Nachi Falls. I came perilously close to running out of awe that day!

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After a night in sleepy Kii-Katsuura, part of which was spent soaking our tired feet in the hot-springs by the town docks while weeping with joy over having regained access to well-stocked convenience stores, I parted ways with my travelling companions. They got on a train back to Tokyo, and I boarded the northbound service for Osaka. There may have been a dance off at the station, but you didn’t hear it from me…

In the next episode: Anna’s solo adventures through Kansai!