Did I mention the pinnipeds?

 

A mass of bubbles erupt from the sea bed, making their way to where I float on the surface.

And as quickly as they dissipate, the source of those bubbles pirouettes from the sea bed, then spirals its way around me and out of sight.

Within a few minutes, there are five of the sea lion pups in my view, sliding in and out of touching distance.

Touching, of course, isn’t allowed. However, they are free to bite us.

Kane, our laid-back tour leader, tells us the pups can get boisterous and may chew on our snorkelling fins or the bright blue straps of the GoPros. If they get too aggressive, we may poke them (this is different from touching).

We are off the West Australian Coast, more specifically off Jurien Bay on a boat called Sound Waves. As a sonographer, that is, one who works with sound waves, I think this is fitting and this is obviously the place the universe wants me to be today.

There are 12 tourists on the boat, and each is thrilled by the experience of swimming with the pups. Mature sea lions can be seen on the shoreline not far away. The mainland is within swimming distance.

Getting so close to those coarse whiskers, the huge staring eyes, the “five-phalanged” fins brings out a feeling of kinship. These pinnipeds, the Australian sea lion, are endangered, with only between 10-12,000 in existence. But then again, aren’t we all endangered these days?

We spend a full two hours communing with the pups until finally they do start getting a bit rough DCIM100GOPROGOPR7877.with each other and then that spills over to a nip or two of the humans. At the first sign of this we are called back to the boat and say our farewells.

We were high on the adventure as the boat roared the 15 minutes back to the harbour. The lyrics of  I Come From a Land Down Under could be heard (and felt) over the din of the engine and although we were the only Aussie tourists there, everyone seemed to know the words.

The young Asian couple sitting alongside us videoed themselves moving to the beat as the boat’s white wake split the turquoise crystal-clear water.

The energy of the ride slowed to a happy satisfaction that lasted the rest of the day. Swimming with sea lions, what a blast.

We end up spending four day at Cervantes, just down the road from Jurien Bay. Because I am such a literary boffin (not) I had to find out that the town was named after a ship named after the author of Don Quixote. Of course I’ve heard of that book – and now I’m ploughing through the adventures of the unfortunate knight-errant thanks to the instantaneous gratification of Kindle.

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The ship Cervantes, Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza are on a wind vane welcoming visitors to Cervantes

But there was little time for reading. There was The Pinnacles to explore, the stromatolites to see (bacterial colonies on the shore of Lake Thetis – they look like giant cow pats but are much more important)  and countless bays and tiny towns to visit.

Cervantes is working on its image as an artistic town and there are several quirky art pieces dotted around. My favourite was the zebra(s) crossing, although I had to Google it to find out why there were zebras in the park. Oh, and we ate lobster. The magic was beginning to become ho-hum.

Then we also did a stunning 28 kilometre bicycle ride down the coast from Jurien Bay.

And it was pretty all good. But did I mention the sea lions? What a blast.

 

Wibble wobbles on the way

I have read that time is wibbly-wobbly when you cross the Nullarbor.

It’s to do with travelling on a line of longitude, the earth’s wobbly spin, and changing time zones. We haven’t even reached the Nullarbor, but time and the weather are definitely wibble-wobbling.

We are in the periphery of the fallout from the fires ravaging Australia, more specifically those which have shut the Eyre Highway 500 kilometres west for the past 12 days.

So we are propped in a tiny caravan park at Smoky Bay, South Australia, waiting for news of the road reopening. I have nine days to get to Geraldton, north of Perth, to start my next locum contract.

 

For three days earlier this week, we hurtled through time and space, barely stopping for coffees and a few lungfuls of dry, hothothot air. We made our way from the Central Queensland coast to Goondiwindi (hot), Dubbo (stinking hot)  to Broken Hill – what the? cold!

Towards Broken Hill

The vast featureless horizon is further dulled by a heavy pall of dust. It blurs the shrubby plains into the colourless sky as we approach Broken Hill from the east.

A B-double dances towards us, its hay-laden trailers conga-lining from side to side as the wind gusts strongly.

We have seen dozens of these saviours today, taking stock-feed to drought and fire-stricken parts east.

Their loads seem incongruous out here, amid the parched red soil and heat-baked shrubs. Wild goats are dotted around. They must be living on dirt. A sad line of sheep mope along, the wind whipping away the dust before their hooves leave the ground.

 

It was a shock to the system to be cold, to crack out the warm sleeping gear and huddle to sleep.

The next day was still cold and gusty, but there was a state border to cycle over. The headwind meant I piked on riding from Broken Hill, instead riding only the last 10 kilometres to the NSW-South Australia border. It was worth battling the breeze for the photo opportunity.

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Back in the car, the next three towns were virtual ghost towns, full of the character that abandonment and decay brings.

Then big things started to appear.  The huge white grain silos that are the first signs of a town, a giant galah (Kimba) and a giant gum tree (Orroroo) were chances to take small breaks before pulling into Port Augusta (see corny tourist photos below, including photographer’s thumb over lens).

Port Augusta

Port Augusta was perfect. Not too hot, not too cold – but we couldn’t stay more than a night. We decided to go another 400 kilometres down the highway the next day and then stop for a few days, hoping the Eyre Highway situation would resolve.

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Port Augusta has a community cat, who can be met at the foreshore. A local coffee van owner feeds her and she hangs out at a nearby motel when she isn’t seeking out pats from passers-by.

Smoky Bay

Smoky Bay (the Google Maps chick pronounces it “Smock-ie Bay”).

Day 1 in this picture-perfect beachside village was hot, bakingly hot. In fact, I pretty much baked myself by cycling to Ceduna, 40k away. I’m sure I was smoking.

Take one Sharyn, marinate in sunscreen, then roast in a slow (23km/hr) fan-forced oven for 1hr 45 minutes. Remove when crispy around the edges.

 

Ceduna was pretty, as are all the little towns around here. The ocean is stunning, and each town has a jetty so tourists can appreciate the view even more.

Back at Smoky Bay for a restful afternoon, it was too hot to do anything, and there was nowhere to cool down. I ended up sleeping in the Mouse House* with a wet towel draped over me.

Streaky Bay

It was simply too hot to stay put, so we ensconced ourselves in our air-conditioned car and spent the day touristing. It wasn’t hard to find things to see.

Whistling Rocks and blowholes attracted us. Coming from a town with a Singing Ship**  meant I wanted to verify the claim they whistled. The Singing Ship really gives a low-pitched whistle. The rocks definitely made a strange sound, but it was more a delayed, amplified whoosh than a whistle. We were perched on a cliff high above the waves, and two seconds after one broke on the rocks below, a loud whoosh would emit from the rocks just below our feet. It was mesmerising.

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Point Labatt delivered the promised “only sea lion colony on the Australian mainland”. The howling wind meant only odd fragments of their grunts and groans were audible, but watching them lumber over the rocks then glide through the clear water was another special experience.

Murphy’s Haystacks were actually large granite rocks, but it was so hot just those few kilometres inland that we didn’t stay  long.

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The limbo ends

And now, day three at Streaky Bay, the wobble has wibbled again.

It is raining. It is cold again. It is very windy still. We are hiding in the Mouse House as the canvas walls billow and flap frantically.

But the Eyre Highway has finally reopened. So tomorrow morning we shall point ourselves westward and enter the maw of the Nullarbor.

 

*Mouse House – our camper trailer, so named because it contained a dead mouse when we first opened it.

**Singing Ship, Emu Park, Central Queensland. It’s like my totem pole.

 

 

 

Dubbo, NSW, 2830 done and dusted

Did I say dusted? I meant dusty. My enduring memory of Dubbo will be the dust storms and the drought.

We are on the tail end of six months in this sweet region, and it is hard to leave. It’s been an enriching experience.

Having arrived fresh from Tasmania with its lush greenery, we put ourselves in the middle of the desolate wintry dryness. Since then, it’s become hot desolate dryness. The devastating bushfires of the past month have not come too close, but the smoke lies as thick and suffocating as the dust on some days.

VJLP6044My first experience of a dust storm showed my naivety. I headed out on my bike for a ride, thinking I couldn’t see the horizon because of distant rain. An hour later I was battling hot gusty gales and spitting dust from my mouth.I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Breathability Index, but now I do, and I know what it’s like to try to breathe in it. 

Despite the climate challenges, and spending five days a week at work, there has been an endless supply of things to do and places to go. Our original three months turned into six. Here are the highlights.

  • Being snowed and hailed on while hiking in the Warrumbungle National Park. What an amazing place. Everyone should visit. I need to go back.

 

  • Sleeping overnight at the Western Plains zoo. Waking up to the animals on the plains just outside the door, and seeing an elephant get its bath.

 

  • Visiting the zoo for coffee. You don’t have to go into the zoo to see animals. You can sit and watch the spider-tail monkeys and lemurs on the other side of a moat. What a privilege to sip cappuccinos while the primates play. We did this about 10 times.

 

  •  Exploring the Mudgee region over two weekends, including two gorgeous wineries. It was obvious how lovely the gardens would be outside of drought, and their drinkable products were outstanding.

 

  • Seeing the rings of Saturn from an astronomy  observatory – there are plenty to choose from in the general region. This is dark sky country, with  so little light pollution the stars fairly blaze. Unless it’s too smoky or dusty.

 

  • Walking the bush tracks on Mt Arthur at Wellington. See previous comments re environment and drought. Ditto for Menindee Lake.

 

  • Taking the long way to work via the riverside paths. Seeing water in the river is refreshing to the soul during drought.

 

  • Visiting Broken Hill and its amazing mining history and sculptures in the desert.

 

 

  • Taking part in a mountain bike race in Orange. Riding to Mudgee. Joining up with the local Bicycle Users Group and making friends. Having my bike stolen (due to image0neglecting to lock it while having Friday night drinkies at a bar in town). OK, that’s a lowlight, but it didn’t slow me down, as my new friends lent me velocipedes.

 

  • Hanging out at the Monkey Bar. It’s a craft beer kind-of-place, where you get to try interesting beverages, like tzatziki-flavoured sours. Or over-hopped yuppie beers, as a cynical home-brewing afficionado would put it. But it was fun, and a nice place to spent an hour on Friday afternoon.

 

 

Learning some funky street and place names. At the beginning we just made up easier options, calling Wingewarra Street “Winnebago Street”, Bultje Street “Bolchie Street”, and Bumblegumbie Road “Bumblebee Road”. Now we can roll them off our tongues like true Dubbonians. And I’d like to think that in some little way, we are.

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: D stands for Dubbo. There are numerous decorated rhinos around town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where bicycles go to die

There is no official definition of where the Australian Outback  starts.

But when you reach Silverton, NSW, you have definitely arrived. It’s “original outback”, according to the sign.

There is red dirt, open landscape, and flies. Lots of flies.

Silverton is basically a ghost-town with tourists and tourism infrastructure.

It is still a living, breathing place, albeit a dusty, rusty one. Well, apart from the cemetery, which is less living and more dusty.

Apart from the wind farm turbines turning lazily on the horizon, you could be a million miles from anywhere. But you are only 22 kilometres from Broken Hill (which in itself could be considered a million miles from anywhere).

We have come to Silverton by car, but with bicycle on hand. My plan is to explore around town and then ride to Broken Hill.

Silverton, a proud precursor to Broken Hill, is kept alive today by the drawcards of mining history, outback artists and its film resume. It has been the site of a number of Australian films, including Mad Max II, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Razorback. The town’s very own star actor is the Silverton Hotel.

 

We have come to Silverton by car, but with bicycle on hand. My plan is to explore around town and then ride to Broken Hill.

The pub is the obvious place for lunch. Its walls are adorned with fading photos of the famous actors who have been there. It is for sale.

After lunch, a cattle dog slowly follows me from the pub’s shade to watch as I put on my bike helmet and gloves. As I leave it barks twice and chases me for about three pedal turns before bee-lining back to the shade.  It obviously is too much effort.

It doesn’t take long to do a lap around the town.  There are old sandstone buildings, an old church, all the usual for such an historic town.

But what gets me is the bicycles.  There are, for the want of a better word, bicycle carcasses everywhere. Artist John Dynon in particular has a bit of a collection. I didn’t enter his gallery, not knowing anything about him, but now wish I had. There are several art galleries in town, all worth a visit.

 

 

I take a short trail out of town which is billed as a walking/cycling track. My God, how did early cyclists get anywhere? It’s deep sand, and where it’s not that, it’s deep dust. I find myself pushing my bike through the deep sand of a creek bed. How did anyone ever think calling this a cycle track was accurate?

Back on the stop-start track, I almost run over a kangaroo which is laying lazily in the shade of a tree in the middle of the track, refusing to move until the last moment.

I quickly abandon the track for the bitumen highway. I need to get up enough speed to outride the flies. So long, Silverton.

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A tea-tree, perhaps, at the Day Dream Mine, where you can go underground and see the way mining used to be done.

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Odd characters about in the outback, keeping guard of Silverton. See the tangle of bicycles in the background.

 

 

 

Knocking on the doors of history

A photographic essay

featuring the doors of Gulgong

It’s a quaint former gold-mining town in mid-western New South Wales.

Since the region burst into life with the discovery of gold in 1870, the town of Gulgong has developed and retained a special historic feel. The streets scream ‘use me as a movie set’.

It has cobblestone gutters,  fancy facades, iron-lace balconies and has kept many signs which proclaim the story of its past.  About 130 of its buildings are heritage-listed.

There is an amazing Pioneers Museum, and a newly opened photographic display of the goldfields known as the Holtermann collection, a Henry Lawson centre, and boasts the backdrop on the original Australian 10-dollar note.

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But you can’t go past the town’s doors.

Not the many that are open for business – it is a bustling tourist centre after all and there is plenty to see.

I’m talking about the other doors, the ones that tell their own quiet story. Some are still used, some have not opened in many a year.

Rusty, dusty, cobwebby.

Unpainted but proud.

Living a second life at the Gulgong Pioneers Museum. The middle door belongs to a blacksmith, and is adorned by branding iron marks.

A little bit fancy and inviting.

Especially if you are thirsty.

Just pull the knob and come on in. Gulgong awaits.

 

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Ladies of the snake

Snake! Snake!

I could hear the cry from just around the corner from where I was bouncing a mountain bike along a dusty track, trying not-very-hard in my first ever mountain bike race.

I had the natural reaction – an adrenaline surge, a swift unclip of my feet, bringing of knees to my ears, then a worried wonder about how I was going to get past the snake if my feet weren’t turning the pedals.

It had already been a less-than-ideal start to the event, the Orange Mountain Bike Club’s Ladies of the Lake, designed to introduce beginners to the sport. This race was part of my plan to try something new sports-wise in every locum place I work. The idea was to do as many laps of the course as possible within two hours.

Earlier that morning my friend Susy and I had driven two hours to get to Orange, arriving in plenty of time to do a reconnaissance lap. But somehow we were diverted from our beginners race course and ended up on the intermediate course .

IMG_0627-EditI have occasionally survived an intermediate course (in non-race conditions), but it has always involved foul language and the constant conviction that I am going to die. More often, it has involved becoming intimately connected with the ground, and subsequent bleeding.

This was the former kind of survival, so after a few ‘holy craps’, and a ‘does this hill ever end?’ we flew down to the start, just to hear the tail end of the race briefing.

And as I neared the voice shouting “snake’, I  wished I’d heard the entire briefing. Was there a protocol for snakes on the track? Get off and walk? Ride faster? Let a child pass you to deal with it?

I rounded the next corner and let out a sigh of relief. There by the track was one of the volunteers, holding out a packet of lolly snakes for riders to grab as they flew past.
Crisis averted. Now my main challenge was to get my feet clipped back in at the same time as taking a hand off the handlebars to grab a snake without hitting a rock and falling off.

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The only kind of snake you want to see during a mountain bike race.

Thankfully, I managed it.

It was amazing how much energy one little snake could give you – physically and mentally.

However, the energy was mostly wasted. After our extended warm-up on the intermediate track, I’d gotten stuck behind the children taking part. So my first lap was very slow, and I’d lost the momentum to actually race.

I was really just meandering, and fighting a mental battle.  I spent the next several laps debating myself whether I should do four or five laps all up.  I knew I could do four laps easily. I could fit five in without trying too hard, but the mental demons were having their say. My knee hurts, my fanny hurts, I’ve got a gutful of dust. I’m too old for this. On  and on they went.

My real fear was that as I got more tired, I would misjudge an obstacle and come a cropper. With two knees constantly reminding me of my past two mishaps, I didn’t want another accident.

So I pulled up after four laps, reminding myself that my extended practice lap counted as one-and-a-half extra laps.

Susy however, was unstoppable. She just kept going, sucking down as many snakes as she could and pedaling like fury. She completed seven laps and won the beginners section. If you can’t be a winner, be a winner’s friend, I say.

IMG_0635-EditBut it turned out I  was a winner too. In the excitement of Susy getting her prize  of champagne and jar of honey, I vaguely heard the announcer was asking if anyone here was from Emu Plains.

Paying a bit more notice, I worked out they were giving prizes to those who had travelled the furthest to be there. Humph, I thought, (my hometown) Emu Park is further away than Emu Plains.

So when we worked out they did mean Emu Park, I also walked away a winner, with this lovely bottle of angry red wine. I am a bit afraid to open it though, given the blurb on the back. It’s mostly the bit about ebola which scares me, but hey, you only live once.

Thanks to the Orange Mountain Bike club for arranging this great event at Lake Canobolas. It was a blast.

NB: Thanks to Melissa for lending me her mountain bike for the race.

NBB: Vale Harry Hybrid, my trusty hybrid, who was stolen from outside a bar in Dubbo last Friday night. We have done thousands of kilometres together over the past seven years, and I’m so sorry I didn’t lock you up so a nasty little teenager couldn’t walk away with you.

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Sydney swamps the senses

Sydney. Labour Day long weekend. NRL Grand Final weekend. What were we thinking?

Well, we knew crowds were on the cards. And we weren’t disappointed.

It had been 30-ish years since I’d spent one rushed day in the NSW capital on my 17th birthday.

So although I had some hazy memories, I was not prepared for the swamping of senses and personal space that came with three days based around Circular Quay.

The sights

The Opera House – I’ve seen it before, it’s just a bit of fancy architecture. But it impressed. Not only me, but also the other million people milling around. I’d love to know how many selfies get snapped in front of it in a typical second.  But the highlight of the Opera House was definitely the light show projected onto the sails at night. To see them  become a blaze of changing colour for a mesmerising seven minutes, continuing the culture of storytelling at Bennelong Point by the Gadigal people, was amazing. The Badu Gili show is also online, and I’ve revisited it since to try to recapture the feeling it wrought, but it was definitely more amazing in real life (and without a director’s commentary laid over the top )  https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/visit-us/BaduGili.html.

 

Above clockwise: A momentarily deserted Opera House steps – thanks to some drizzly rain and patience; Opera House from the Manly Ferry; one of the bedazzling images projected onto the sails each night; at dusk at the crowds gather; and late at night with all sails unfurled.

The dominance of the Sydney Harbour bridge could also not be ignored.

 

Above clockwise: the bridge from the North Shore; finally working out why there were steep ramps between the stairs as we came off the bridge; rust-ic bridge architecture; the bridge by night; see the climbers on the bridge in the background?; more climbers; cycling across the bridge.

The numbers

While I was pondering how many selfies get taken in front of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and how many Chinese tourists get married in front of the bridge, my husband was obsessing about finding the oldest pub in the city centre.

We spotted the Fortune of War, which apparently has a valid claim to longevity,  but it was the Lord Nelson which kept catching our eye. It is the oldest continually licensed hotel and the oldest pub brewery in the city. Old enough, we reckoned, so on our way to a show we had a quiet early evening beer on the pavement, drinking in the hops and history.

 

Another pub to throw itself into our path  – and a victory for our “don’t plan anything before you go’ style of touristing on this particular weekend –  was the Hero of Waterloo. Great, another history lesson I had to have before earning a beer. But it was funky, and historic, and at 10am the Asian barkeeper/proprietor was in her dressing gown, proclaiming ‘oh, you early birds!’ And now I know all about the Duke of Wellington, including what a beer named after him tastes like.

Our hotel, the Russel Boutique Hotel, also reeked of history, and was quirkily fun. It seemed to have more sets of stairs than floors, and was easy to get lost in. But the rooftop garden gave out onto gorgeous views of The Rocks, and if we opened our room window we could hear waterfront music and bustle. Speaking of which…

Sounds

Two sounds  haunted me in Sydney. One was the crunch, crunk, clunk of my camera rolling down the Opera House Steps.  The lens is now NOT OK. The other was the sound of Jaffas hitting the concrete floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Apparently it is a very distinctive sound, as it took an attendant three seconds flat to find me and scold me for eating in the building.

Looking forward, looking back

It’s easy to miss the Writers Walk at Circular Quay. Plaques set into the footpath are trodden underfoot as the masses rush by. As we stopped to read each plaque, we were jostled by pedestrians in a hurry to have their long weekend.

But taking the time to read short snippets from about 50 Australian writers and famous writers who had visited, opened a window into our historical cultural identity.

The words painted a picture of Sydney through the years just as surely as the surrounding sandstone architecture, the sparkle of the Harbour and the monuments to history.

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The Sydney Observatory, Pancakes on the Rocks, The Rock markets, a stage show, a trip on the Manly Ferry, a bike ride over the bridge and alongside the screams of Luna Park, the secret gardens developed by Brett Whiteley’s wife – there was something around every corner. We packed so much into three short days. It was a great get-a-way to celebrate five years of marriage, but it’s going to take a while before I’m ready to tackle a capital city again.

 

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