Touched By Scotland – Spring Exhibition Appearance

During the rest of May and June 2011, twelve of my landscapes from Scotland and Australia will be on display as part of an exhibition at Touched by Scotland, Oyne, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. All mounted images are for sale from the gallery during the exhibition period.

Here’s a peak at the images that make up my first exhibition appearance:


Black & Gold
Black & Gold

The Cuillins dominate the view from the shore of Loch Slapin, Skye.



A distinctly ominous day at the iconic viewpoint to the Cuillins.


The edge of the Garioch
The edge of the Garioch

The Tap O’ Noth marks the western edge of the ripening Garioch while Ben Rinnes dominates the distant Moray landscape.


Beinn na Caillich
Beinn na Caillich

Broadford warms in the low winter sun, watched over by snow-capped Beinn na Caillich.


Welcome to Moray
Welcome to Moray

The landscape surrounding Dufftown glows invitingly while Ben Rinnes marks the heart of Scottish Whiskey country for miles around.


Barley & Bennachie
Barley & Bennachie

Ripe barley stirs in a late evening breeze through Ardoyne as the last of the autumn light catches the cloud-scape above Bennachie.



Ovens Dawn

Ovens Dawn

Dawn breaks over the Ovens Valley, North-East Victoria, Australia.


Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain - Tasmania
Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain – Tasmania

A panorama of the iconic Tasmanian landscape and the northern end of the Overland Hiking Trail.



The Lookout at The Horn, Mount Buffalo National Park, Victoria.


Tomorrow, I Climb That Mountain
Tomorrow, I Climb That Mountain

Rising over the south end of Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain looks sure to make for a good hike tomorrow..


Sometimes Burbury Looks Good
Sometimes Burbury Looks Good

Twenty Minutes spent taking in the starry half-light over Lake Burbury, Tasmania.


Above it all
Above it all

A pilot glides over smoke-shrouded Bright in the eerie calm created by the forest burn-offs.


Australia: Take 2

As usual, it’s been ages since I posted anything on here, but I’ve been pretty busy over the past few months. I do still plan to fill in the gaps in my last year of blogging about travelling round Australia – i.e. finishing off Tasmania, Cairns and Perth – and maybe writing about my time in Singapore and Hong Kong too, but for now I want to make a fresh start and hopefully keep the updates a bit more current.

If I pretend my last blog entry was about the end of my last year of travelling in August, then I can start by saying that a lot’s been going on since then. I’ve had two great months back at home in Scotland, taking the chance to live the life of relative luxury, travelling round Britain to catch up with family and friends after my year out. I did as much travelling in Britain in August and September as I did in the 2 months in Australia before, covering Glasgow, Edinburgh, the Isle of Arran, Manchester, Dublin, Moray, Perthshire and the Scottish Highlands, going as far as Sandwood Bay. It wasn’t all travelling away from home that took up my time though: I tried in vain to catch up with all my friends at home, as well as still trying to fit in some time at home, and all the while I was making new plans that would take me far away from Scotland again.

Having done the obligatory 3 months farm work in Australia on my last year out, it didn’t take me long to find myself cashing in on my eligibility for a second year visa, and before August was finished I was the proud owner of the chance to spend a second year working and travelling in Australia. None of this was really very surprising though: as soon as I’d learned to paraglide in Bright back in February, I was already weighing up the viability of coming back to the South-East Australian high country against trying to get a serious career-based job back in Scotland, or at least Britain, or maybe even Europe. The allure of another Australian summer, as well as the overwhelming envy of everyone who heard I could be going back down under, won over, so within a month of arriving home I’d booked my planes, trains and buses from Oyne, Scotland to Bright, Australia.

I’ve had a lot quiet time to mull over my choice to come back to Australia, and inevitably, in my indecisive manner, let doubts creep in. The nature of the trip probably didn’t help either: 3 flights gave me plenty time to think, and 33 hours travelling between Aberdeen and Melbourne didn’t induce much optimism in me. While I’m talking about flying I’d like to say I was fairly underwhelmed by Singapore Airlines. Many folks told me that they were by far the best airline to fly with, especially for the quality of the food in-flight. Well, the food was no better than any of the BA or Qantas flights I flew on last time I went to Australia and, although the service was good, the staff felt a bit rushed and just weren’t as attentive to us (at least in economy) as I’d seen on flights with the other big carriers.

Arriving in Melbourne initially didn’t give me any reason to be optimistic, as the half-hour queue to get through border security gave way to another half-hour waiting in vain for my luggage to appear. A quick chat at the service desk confirmed that there was no record of my rucksack having been processed at any of the airports it should have passed through en-route to Australia, so my possessions for my first few days in the country were limited to the clothes I was wearing, a camera and laptop. I’m still surprised at my ability to coast through a crappy situation with almost complete indifference to the effect it may have on me: I’d just lost all my clothes and a fair amount of camera gear, but as I stepped out into the mild Melbourne morning it was nice to think I didn’t have to lug a 20 kilo rucksack around as I searched for a hostel.

Only now that I’m sitting on the verandah of the Bright Hikers hostel, looking over a typically docile morning in the town, can I finally say I feel settled, fairly content and happy to be starting another summer in Australia…

16 Days of Brisbane

I’ve had a pretty good couple of weeks in Brisbane, although most of that is owed to a couple of people, the city probably only kept me amused for about a day before I ran out of things to do on a budget. Vicky and Darryl came through the city the day after I arrived and it was great to be catching up with the first people I’d seen from home for over 10 months. We were going to check out the XXXX Brewery (yeah, that’s four ‘x’s) but it was booked out, and I was feeling crap since I’d got off the smelly Greyhound the day before, so a chilled out arvo was had before checking out Fortitude Valley for my first beer in 7 weeks. There’s a wee Italian place near the top of the street, on the right as you walk up, that did really good gnocchi arrabbiata, not that I can really comment seeing as it was my first taste of the stuff.

Being a YHA member, I usually book into one of their hostels when I’m going to a new town, partly cause they’re never dumps, and they’ve got a good mobile website so I can book everything on the bus or train en-route if I’m feeling particularly disorganised. They’re hardly ever the cheapest hostel in town though – ‘course, sometimes they’re the only one – so after a couple of days I checked out the bunch of hostels literally next door. The direct neighbour – a wee house with a friendly but very old owner – looked like it might just have as much atmosphere as a funeral so I skipped on to the City Backpackers and got a pretty decent weekly rate for being in a city. That was for a 30-bed dorm though, which promised to be a new and interesting experience, especially for my nose, but that was balanced out by the hostel having a way better atmosphere than the YHA, as well as a really decent TV/movie room plushed out with surround-sound and leather sofas, and free internet in the dining area.

Eventually I got round to having a clear day to check out the city and headed for the City Hall, mainly so I could climb the Bell Tower and get a decent view of the city for free. That plan fell apart as I spied the gate across the entrance then saw the sign that declared the place was closed, since last November, for renovation, until 2012. The city hall apparently housed a museum and I coincidentally walked past the building it had relocated to and checked it out. It had an interesting interactive exhibition of a set of glass photographic slides presumed to be taken by Alfred Elliot between 1890 and 1921. That kept me visually entertained for a while but the jackhammer, ripping through the office next door, detracted from the ambiance somewhat. After that I pretty much walked around aimlessly, hitting the north bank of the river and checking out the botanic gardens before heading back through the city. I think it was the day after that I discovered the south bank and the idyllic Streets Beach.

So after 4 days I was pretty much done and bored of Brisbane but luckily was due for my second Scottish rendezvous, this time with an extremely jet-lagged Claire, who’d came over to do a year of her primary teaching degree in Brissy. I was going to leave at the end of the week but ended up staying for an extra one now that I had an excuse to go see films like Toy Story 3 (really funny, don’t believe it’s still not out in the UK) and Shrek Forever (really disappointing, especially after seeing Toy Story) and do some pretty epic walks round the city. We checked out a fair bit of the town south of the river one day before realising we were miles from anywhere, it was freezing and starting to rain, and did a wide circle round the north to check out Claire’s QUT campus – highlight was definitely Nandos, think that’s where most of my student loan would end up – and the Story Bridge. We didn’t bother walking over it cause we couldn’t be bothered with an even longer walk back home, but then felt bad watching the news that night to find out it was the 70th anniversary of the bridge opening.

We met some of Claire’s flatmates and then I learned that sometimes looking older than I am doesn’t guarantee I’ll get into pubs, and missed out on a great night watching Germany playing with Argentina, settling for a chilly midnight walk through the city to the hostel. I did a day-trip to North Stradbroke Island, realising it definitely would be better to have stayed on the island for a couple of nights to see it properly, although not in the climate of this time of year. There are lots of interesting things to do at the Culture centre, just across the river from the CBD, so I had a look round the art gallery, and we both checked out the history of swimwear exhibition in the museum. I actually got bored of that surprisingly quickly but at least Claire got to see that shot of Daniel Craig from Bond that she’d been hoping for. It took me a while to notice the posters for the Ron Mueck exhibition but it was a must-see, and the $12 was well worth it to get up close to the amazingly realistic and often evocative works in the modern art gallery.

It was great to be catching up with Claire and taking a few weeks out from the usual ‘hey where are you from? how long have you been here? Where have you been?’ conversations that dominate back-packing life to spend time getting to know someone a bit better. Once I found we both were into photography, that was it: we were straight out to the south bank that night trying to do long exposures of the skyline reflected in Streets Beach. Only then, talking to a security guard for the corporation-owned land, did I realise that Streets was the Australian version of Walls ice cream, and it was they who sponsored the beach and gave it its name. Eventually I had to go and opted for the train to Cairns, as I still hadn’t got into the back-packing mood after 7 weeks on the farm, and wasn’t feeling like hopping between hostels all the way up the coast, or spending much more of my money. On the last day that decision came back to bite me a little as one of Claire’s flatmates was doing a road-trip to Darwin could have given me a lift at least to Cairns. Travelling the west-coast taught me not to plan my travel past a few days, but on the east coast the best opportunities happen on even shorter notice.

Tasmania Day 15: Cradle Mountain

Today David was going to start his 5-day hike along the Overland Track, and we were were going to follow him as far as Cradle Mountain, although a ‘probably’ was quickly added to that plan as soon as opened the tent to find everything dripping in the pea-soup that had engulfed us through the night. As usual our plans to start early fell foul of me being the only one who was capable of getting up before 8, but in the dreich weather even I wasn’t in much of a hurry to get going, and neither was the car. It wasn’t as bad as our Lake Burbury experience though and we were eventually heading back into the national park after our night of exile.

We decided on a circuit starting from Ronny Creek, past Crater Lake, Marions lookout, and kitchen hut, where we’d branch off up the Mountain, returning via Lake Wilks and the west shore of Dove Lake. By the time we’d cooked a load of 2-minute noodles in the hut-with-a-view at Waldheim, it was pretty much midday, but at least we could see some blue sky. The board-walk over the relatively flat moor away from Ronny Creek felt almost too easy but we slowed down soon enough when we left the comfort of that. The day stayed a bit dull as we passed some falls and hiked up around Crater Lake but by the time reached Marion’s Lookout patches of sunlight were tracking across Dove Lake and illuminating the ever-looming Cradle Mountain. From there on till Kitchen Hut it was pretty easy going with bits of board-walk over the relatively flat Cradle Plateau.

I obliterated my noodles at Kitchen Hut, leaving only a tin of spaghetti to sustain me for the other ¾ of the hike, and thought it would be a pretty cool place to be stuck at if we’d been here in winter. The ascent up Cradle Mountain was pretty well straight to the point, aiming dead middle and heading straight up the slightly shallower lower slope before giving in to a gentler climb along the side of the steep boulder field of the higher slope. Hopping up and scrambling over each boulder was pretty fun we could see the view of the valley opening up with every step, justifying photo-stops every couple of minutes. As the track neared the peak we crested a sort of saddle, dropping down the back of the hill before tackling an even steeper climb, steep enough that having the weight of my camera bag on my back worried me a bit, especially when I thought about how I’d manage to climb back down some of rocks.

At the summit the day was perfect. Calm, sunny, fluffy clouds and a view that just went on forever in all directions, and a drop off the edge of the epic rock formations that seemed almost as immeasurable. I got my usual jumping shots out of the way while Kevin and David had a few celebratory games of shit-head. I can’t remember how hard going the walk down was, apart from finding the bit I almost couldn’t climb up as difficult to climb down with my camera bag as I expected, but I’m pretty sure our knees were shot by the time we got back to Kitchen Hut.

And then it was time to leave David to continue his first day on the Overland Track. At this point I didn’t think I’d see him again so it was sad to see him go, while we started to race against the sun, our hunger, tiredness to get back to the car. Through breaks in the cloud the mountain was glowing brilliantly in the later afternoon sun so my incessant snapping slowed us down a bit, and once we reached the fork in the track, overlooking Dove Lake, we both had a stop for a few minutes to soak up the view. Down at the lake side, we ended up running on the board-walk to shave a few minutes off our return, stopping at a little beach in the now fading light to dip our roasting feet in ice cold waters. The reason for our urgency was now more apparent, we were at the Dove Lake carpark, but still possibly had to walk along the road to the car at Ronny Creek, but our luck was in, and 5 minutes after we got to the carpark the last bus came.

Back at Waldheim we found the showers, and then found they were hot – if I could only have one hot shower in Tassie, this would have been it. After all that I was pretty well knackered, but not too tired to drive so decided I’d try to find one of the rest areas on the way to the north coast instead of trying to camp at the side of the road again. Going by the map we just had to stick to the road we were on and there would be two rest areas, but, in another example of Australian road-moronity, without ever turning off the road we were on, I found myself driving through a village on a different road, with no rest areas. So, a great day was finished with yet another night sleeping with the road-trains howling past..

Mount Buffalo

For over a month I’d been soaring over Mystic, using the looming lump of Mount Buffalo to the west to gauge how high I was, but I’d yet to make the mere 25km trip to the mountain. Leanne and Greg thought we could go up there and camp out for a night around their day off – being the owners of the hostel and the jewellery shop, and living in Bright, means they can get away with closing the shop and letting the hostel run its self every Tuesday. As the Tuesday came around, they couldn’t make it, but in their usual super-kind fashion they chucked enough gear in their 4×4 for Crystal and I to start a Polar expedition, and let us drive up to Buffalo ourselves. Seriously, I can’t go on enough about just how lucky I was to stay at their hostel and have them help me in so many ways.

Tuesday came, and Crystal – a Canadian who’d came to pick grapes at Boynton’s winery – and I headed out past Porepunkah, up the Mt Buffalo Road. As with most of Australia’s national parks there are fees for entering and I think it was about $18 for us to take the car in, which made it really surprising that to reserve a camping spot beside Lake Catani only pushed that up to about $25. The drive up is steep and winding: great since I was driving, but the trees blocked out most of the views of the lowlands that fell away around us as we headed to the plateau.

I’d only had my laptop for a week or so and was itching to try some time-lapse photography, now that I had a way of automatically triggering the camera. Lake Catani, surrounded by reeds, and with a few ducks and a canoe floating around in the ever-changing light, was too good an opportunity to miss so I perched the laptop on a rock at the lake’s edge and left the kit doing its thing for about half an hour, while I blitzed through the crisps I’d bought in the name of ’emergency supplies’. The campsite was set a few hundred metres from the lake, and when we found our site we realised the park ranger had given us one of the best spots, sheltered under trees at the edge of the site, with an unrestricted view of the lake. The tent Greg had packed turned out to be a small mansion, possibly visible from space, well, at least the other side of the lake.

Next we headed to The Horn – I didn’t know anything about where the best sights on the massif were so was trusting Crystal’s experience – first reaching the lookout, perched on the edge of a cliff with mist washing up the face. Thoughts of the Himalayas came to me as parts of the rocky landscape revealed themselves but for moments through the waves of mist. Up at the peak, the view was impressive, albeit over a landscape that felt anonymous to me as a new-comer to the area. The cloud-base not far above my head was breaking up the light across the plateau in a fairly interesting way so I tried another time-lapse, looking back across the Giant’s Playground to our next stop: The Cathedral.

We decided to climb the hill across the road from the Cathedral, as Crystal hadn’t been up it, but got distracted by a huge and precariously-perched rock and the prehistoric-looking landscape behind it, and ended up chilling in the calm sunny afternoon there for a while. We followed a track downhill a little bit and ended at a base of a hill made up entirely of massive boulders, so big I had to leave my camera at the bottom before trying out my pretty non-existent bouldering skills, but I managed to get up far enough to get a nice view over where we’d came from.

We ended up at the Chalet to watch the sunset from the top of monumental drop into the gorge. We were really on the wrong side of Buffalo as the sun was setting over by the Horn lookout, but at least at this side the landscape of the Ovens Valley was much more recognisable, stretching from the Eurobin – where I’d worked on a berry farm – back to Bright and the Mystic Launch. Back at the lake I thought I’d be warm enough with my roll-mat and a few blankets, but about an hour in I had to go back on that plan and get the sleeping bag out before I went hypothermic.

Deciding the view from the Chalet at sunrise would definitely be worth getting up for, we did exactly that and I set up a time-lapse at the hang-gliding launch ramp. The launch ramp is just a 5-meter timber ramp rolling off to the sheer +500m drop to the bottom of the gorge in a ridiculously scary fashion. I tried to stand on it but dared only put one foot on the sloped part of it. While the laptop and old camera were doing their thing, the sun broke through the clouds casting some amazingly strong and focussed rays across the valley, keeping me fixated with the other camera for the next hour. It was good to be sitting in one spot, focussing on one scene, instead of running around from place to place trying to capture as many sights as possible while not really giving any one them the attention it deserved to create a truly decent shot.

I was pretty sure I was rostered on at the brewery for 1pm that day, giving us time to pack up and check out one or two sights on the way back to Bright. I’ve found some brilliant spots, both in Australia and back home, just by taking the more obscure roads, and that thinking led us down a dirt track with the perfect mix of corners and crests to make haring along it really fun. Luckily Crystal seemed to trust my driving along the road that branched off near the snow-clearing station and led to a few walking tracks that led back in the direction of the Cathedral. We didn’t make it as far as we wanted as I was worried about not making it back to Bright in time and it’d definitely be worth a revisit. The worrying was well-justified: getting back to Bright at 11.30 I phoned in to check when I was starting, ’15 minutes’, oops..

Day-Tripping North Stradbroke Island

On Monday I thought I’d knock off my first Lonely Planet ‘highlight’ of Queensland and check out Stradbroke Island, just off the coast in Moreton Bay, not far from Brisbane. In a nutshell, staying a couple of nights would have been way better. I left my camera at Claire’s place for all of Sunday so recovering that meant I didn’t leave Roma St station till 10.30. The train to Cleveland took most of an hour and by the time I got to the harbour I’d realised that I’d not be on the island till well after 1 as there was a break in the hourly-service over lunch, a feed I’d half-hoped to have in some nice cafe overlooking the pacific ocean. The Stradbroke Island View cafe filled a hole, and a half-hour, though, and gave me time to work out what the deal with all the ferry options was. There seem to be at least two companies that run a regular passenger service but the lady at the cafe told me the one that didn’t do the vehicle ferries ran to the island a bit quicker, which sounded like just what I needed.

So 3 hours after I’d left Brissy I was on the island, but of course now I had to get a bus to the other side to see the interesting stuff. Talking to Asaf – an Israeli who was day-tripping from Brisbane as well – about how I’d been travelling with an Israeli in Australia, it was funny to hear him ask for my friend’s name on the grounds that ‘it’s a small country, sometimes you know people’. Usually I’m explaining to people from outside the UK that Scotland is actually big enough that I don’t know everyone in it. The bus from from Dunwich to Point Lookout took about 20 minutes without much stopping so even if I’d been on the island overnight and had, say, a bike to explore the place on, I’d still have needed all my time to get round the island.

I didn’t really have much of a plan for the island, but luckily had been told at the info centre that the Gorge Walk was worth doing, and it was. The views down the beaches, the gorge and of the blowhole were pretty nice, and the blowhole really sounded like what I’d expect a whale to sound like. I checked out a bit of the village on the way back to the bus stop, there wasn’t a lot going on but then it is winter. With the sun now heading down I could either get the bus back to the ferry and be back in Brissy before dark, or check out Amity Point and be cruising back to the mainland at sunset, but I wasn’t really feeling like exploring what could just be another couple of beaches, in winter, so back to Brissy it was.

48 Days Later…

I’ve made it. It’s done, over, complete and signed off. 7 weeks of living and working in almost complete isolation, bar the company of a boss who I only ever looked forward to separation from, has paid off, and now I’m hopefully in with a pretty good chance of getting a second year in Australia. I didn’t exactly leave the blog on an optimistic note when I last wrote about my new job, and looking back and remembering that even in the first week I’d realised I was going to hate working for my boss, I’m surprised that I was still working for him a week ago. Luckily most of the time I’ve spent on the farm has been tractor driving, and now that I’ve planted probably 5000 of the 7000 acres of fields on the farm I have a much better appreciation for just how big 7000 acres is.

Although I spent most of the last 7 weeks wishing time would go at least twice as fast, or really wishing that as a working-holiday-maker I didn’t have to work for the worst boss ever to gain eligibility for a second year’s visa, I like to think I can leave the disrespect and demoralisation in the past and take a few positives with me. For a start, right up till the last week, I constantly doubted whether I’d make it to the end or just give in, leaving me desperately scrambling for yet more farm work in the last month of my ‘holiday’. I’d realised just how good all my other jobs have been, whether stuck behind a computer screen, out in a field wrapping vines, or in a brewery sipping (and serving) the finely crafted ales, I’ve never been treated like an idiot who’s incapable of learning or at least following simple orders. So I’ve resolved to consider very carefully whether a job is worth doing if the working conditions are anything like those of my last job, and hopefully I’ll be able to either question the attitudes of the boss, or tell him where to stick his attitude in future. Hopefully I’ll never again be so desperate to hold on to a job that I feel it too risky to call into question the boss’s attitude. Luckily I had the dream of coming back to Australia to live a fairly idealistic lifestyle, mainly based around paragliding, to keep me going – if I’d been doing the job purely for the money I’m sure I’d have been out by the end of the first week.

Anyway, now I’m in Brisbane, easing myself back into being a backpacker, although arriving in the 3rd largest city in Australia after living in basically complete social isolation for 7 weeks does feel like a bit of social-slap-in-the-face. Apart from being my first stop in my 7th state – Queensland – it’s the first time I’ve slept in a dorm of more than 10 people, currently I’m holed out in a monster 30-bed dorm. It’s not all that bad, and I think having lucked out on getting a bed in the corner of the room has helped make it feel like I have some amount of personal space left. It’s taken 10 months for me to meet some friends from back home, finally catching up with Vicky a few days ago, it was pretty cool to be walking through a city on the far side of the world but with the banter of back home.

Brisbane’s quite a neat little city, even if it does apparently have a really good public transport network, the CBD is so compact it’s easy to walk around and it only takes me 10 minutes to get from the hostel to the city centre. I’m not sure whether to label it as ‘just another city’ though – when I arrived, everyone I spoke to was totally underwhelmed by the place, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from: there isn’t a huge amount to do. There’s plenty of stuff around the city though, national parks, the Gold and Sunshine coasts, and the islands around Moreton Bay – the closest bit of coastline to the city. I was going to check out Stradbroke Island today, to get my first fix of idyllic sandy beaches, but this morning the Aussie winter had just enough bite to sway me away from that plan, so here I am back in the hostel milking the free internet for another afternoon. Talking of that, the Brisbane City Backpackers is the first hostel I’ve been to in Australia that has free internet access, both PCs and wifi, so it’s not surprising the lounge is constantly looks like a geek-convention. Anyway, hopefully I’ll have something more exciting to say about being a backpacker again next update, and maybe I’ll be a bit closer to Cairns too..

Tasmania Day 14: Zeehan & First Impressions of Cradle Mountain

Yesterday was Australia day. Obviously we did our bit as temporary residents of the red island continent and had a few drinks in one of Strahan’s pubs and so next morning I woke up crumpled up under a duvet in the driver’s seat of the car with David beside me. We weren’t feeling too bad, Strahan wasn’t exactly an exciting night out and the burgers we’d cooked at the beach before the pub had been a master-stroke of planning and damage-avoidance. Still, I was a bit confused, seeing as it had been Kevin who’d been in the front of the car with me when I’d fallen into a slightly drunken sleep. Wiping the dripping wet windows cleared that one up though: he’d had the raw deal last night with David sleeping in the back seat behind him and had bailed out half-way through the night to sleep on a bench overlooking the beach. Even with the view of the calm waters of Macquarie Harbour to wake up to, I still can’t say I was envious of that move.. To the humble, grubby backpacker, Strahan is a jewel though, as it’s the only place we found on the island that had free, hot showers so we basked in the glorious steamy goodness one more time before heading north towards Zeehan.

On the road up the coast we hit a viewpoint overlooking the expanse of Henty Dunes, but they were quite far away so it wasn’t all that interesting, letting us crack on to the free bbqs in Zeehan and where we tried to boil pasta for lunch. Overall it was a bit of a failure with at least one of the pans looking more like a pot of starch than spaghetti, oh well. Zeehan felt, like most of the towns in the west, very sleepy with nothing catching our attention and in little time we’d got through it, Rosebery and Tulla, leaving not much between us and Cradle Mountain.

This was more like it, heading back into the highlands of the island, with the promise of seeing some of the most stunning scenery it had to offer. Tomorrow David planned to do the Overland Track – a 6-day, 80km walking trail from Cradle Valley to Lake St Clair – and that was why we were giving him and his bike a lift to the starting point. The information centre was still open when we got to Cradle Valley so David got his bike locked up (he’d have to find a way back up here by road after doing the track). While we had some light I really wanted to get a first glimpse of Dove Lake and The Mountain and, as far as first glimpses go, rolling up to the lake side, catching the last of the low sun breaking through the dramatic and now colourful clouds was just what I needed to get me raring to climb the ominous collection of rocks that loomed in the distance.

Scoping out the place for possible camping spots for the night we realised the place was far too popular and completely devoid of secluded spots suitable for a bit of rock-bottom-budget sleeping, forcing us to drive back out of the park boundary, heading north along the main road in search of side tracks and the likes. Seemingly land-owners were on to our kind long before we arrived, as every possible track off the road had a little ‘private – no entry’ sign nailed to a tree, so we ended up finding a patch of relatively soft ground at the side of the road and made it our home for the night.

Getting Stuck into Bright

With the 9-day licence course completed, I was at a bit of a loose end. Having spent almost every day last week flying, I’d now to make do with the more typical forecast of intermittent days of flying, giving me, initially, time to rest and reflect on what I’d accomplished in the last week, as well as time to think about how long I wanted to stay in Bright. Now half-way through my year in Australia, but having clocked up less than a third of the days of work I needed to do to be eligible for a second year visa, I had to start thinking about doing farm work again, so I took a cycle up the Wandiligong Valley one morning in search of the Nightingale Brothers’ farm.

Nightingales’ is the biggest farm in the area, with an expanse of apples (I think it’s the biggest orchard in – as is the usual kicker with Australian records – the southern hemisphere) and chestnuts, luring in hundreds of backpackers – in particular, curiously, Koreans – months ahead of season. It seems that, with such high demand for their employment, the Nightingale brothers could do this really annoying thing where every time I turned up at the farm asking for work, they would tell me to come back in two weeks. Leanne and Greg, owners of Bright Hikers, are some of the kindest people I’ve met, so nice that they let me borrow their 4×4 for a day to have a better stab at job hunting so, after enjoying a week spent mostly in the hammock on the verandah, and occasionally flying, I drove to Nightingales for one last time then tried some farms on the Great Alpine Road towards Eurobin. After the usual dismissive, devoid of all interest, response from the apple farm, I was happy to be finally at least being asked for my name and number by Boynton’s Winery and the Bright Berry Farm, amongst others. None of them seemed optimistic about the opportunity of work, but at least they were more sincere about it, and they had my number. In fact by the time I’d got back to Bright I had a message from the berry farm saying they had a position for me, starting next morning.

Back at the hostel, Leanne told me she’d heard the Bright Brewery might be looking for bar staff so I had a look down. Having never worked in a bar, I didn’t fancy my chances for the job – it couldn’t be that hard, surely – but it looked like an OK place and I’d met two of the guys who worked there last week so knew I’d be working with cool folks. It turned out they were interested enough, so I was back an hour later after hunting down a pad of paper from the supermarket and scrawling down what vaguely resembled a C.V. in my typically poor attempt at neat handwriting. C.V. handed in, I was asked to hang around for a couple of hours as they were training Danny who hadn’t yet done a shift, so it made sense to get me done at the same time, and at that point, I guess I’d secured my second job in a day.

What followed were a few seriously busy weeks, where I’d do at least two of the three: vine maintenance, working at the brewery, and flying, each day, typically up at 6, cycling 13km to the berry farm for start at sunrise, getting home about 3, then either floating around in the smooth late afternoon air á la paraglider, or putting in a few hours at the brewery. It was a good time, even though it made every second of sleep count, being up to see the sun rise and set, cycling 15 miles a day, doing at least one job I really liked (brewery) and one that was OK, still getting time to fly, and all in Bright. I didn’t care that I was slowly wasting away the time I had left to explore the rest of Australia, I was earning money, getting to know people – better than you get to the know them when you’re touring round the coast – and generally settling into life in the alpine region.

As the weeks went by, things only got busier, with me adding two unofficial jobs to my workload so I was – aside from a bartender and vine maintainer – supplying photography to the paragliding school, and tending to the IT needs of the hostel, which doubled up as an internet café. Life couldn’t get much better, I was using just about all my skills to tie down paying jobs, as well as work that paid the kind of perks that made living, and playing, in Bright very affordable for me, and soon jokes were being made – cautiously – about when I would really leave the sleepy little town…

Cross-Country Flying

A month on from when I was first able to gleefully say I was a ‘pilot’, I’d clocked up over 40 flights and 17 hours air-time, and I definitely felt a lot more experienced for it. I needn’t worry about being overly-cocky as the past week had seen my confidence in the air take a big hit after having a fairly scary collapse not far above launch. I knew tensing up every time I hit the slightest ripple in the air wasn’t going to help my skills progress and hoped that, with a few more flights in lightly active air, I’d be able to show myself that I could control the wing in conditions that had previously got the better of me.

Soon enough, things started feeling a bit more natural, and I finally felt comfortable enough to try something that had been nagging me for weeks: a reverse-launch off Mystic. It surprised me just how easy it was, leaving me wishing – as I was whisked into the air before completing my first step forward – that I’d tried it sooner. Now well into April, having missed some of the best flying of the year because I was working every hour I could at the Brewery, I was definitely ready for some soaring again and couldn’t wait for the start of the cross-country course Ted invited me on. Frustratingly, the first few days weren’t quite good enough to make a stab at a cross-country flight, but that probably worked out for the better, as they were unstable enough to help me re-build my confidence in active air, and I still got a few flights that tipped over the hour mark. I had fun trying to do some semi-formation-flying with Bill – an instructor who’s taken some great photos from the air – giving me more practice with my camera in the air as well as finally getting some decent shots of me flying.

Each morning Bill would talk Ben, Charles and I through a plan for the most likely cross-country option for the day ahead, whizzing round Google Earth pointing out routes, thermal trigger points, landing sites, no-landing sites, as well as showing us how to interpret various weather forecasts. Today our likely target was Harrietville – a town 15km along the Great Alpine Road from Bright – and, as we caught a strong climb above Mystic, it was looking like it was going to be the day we’d finally break away from the comfort of our training ground. First, led by Bill, we checked out an alternative route, heading north along the ridge from Mystic, but doubled back in the unrelenting sink and topped up our height over Mystic again. This time Bill headed east across the Wandiligong Valley to the Reliance Ridge, with Ben and I soon following at almost identical altitudes, side-by-side but for a hundred metres or so to maximise our chances of finding lift. Charles followed shortly after, having eeked out a few extra metres height from the thermal we’d all been in.

One of the great experiences in paragliding is the hands-off gliding time: now out of the reliable lift that Mystic offered, all I could do was sit back, tuck my hands in my jacket to warm them up again, and think about just how awesome it was to be floating effortlessly above the stunning valley below. Over Reliance Ridge we got our first climb quite quickly, recovering most of the height we’d lost crossing the valley, continuing south along it. I didn’t envy Charles, who just missed out on the lift that we’d used and had to scratch along the ridge below us, a position that wasn’t nearly as comfortable as where we were. In what must have been a pretty good effort, he kept ‘up’ with us as we soared along the ridge, now reaching the tree-carpeted-bowl that stood, dauntingly, between us and our target. Somehow, all of us struggled to maintain height, never-mind find the lift that we desperately needed to make a crossing of the bowl possible. This was bad enough for Ben, Bill and I, who were high, but for Charles it was the end of the flight and he had to bail out on the road near Smoko.

With so many places where there could be lift, it was frustrating to be almost aimlessly floating around, but finally, after flying over a spot I’d covered a minute earlier, my wing banked and I hooked round into a strong thermal. Bill and Ben headed for the lift, but Ben couldn’t make it with his height and had to follow Charles to the road, while Bill soared past me and we both headed across the bowl. This was a bit daunting, nothing but trees all around me, a ridge that presented its self like a wall in my path, and Bill calling over the radio, slightly concerned at my apparent height. We’d talked about the bowl in the morning, discussing what would be a safe minimum height to start crossing at, and I’d started at almost exactly that, so all I could do was sit back, use some speed-bar to cut through the steady sink and keep an eye on the limited bail-out options I had.

Approaching the ridge only a few hundred metres above it, Bill, who’d lost some height to join me and make sure I was flying safely, guided me round the edge of the ridge, avoiding the highest part, giving the most impressive opening view of a village I’d never even been to before. Gliding round the ridge, so low that we were almost in shade from the late-afternoon sun, the ridge fell away and opened up a stunning view of Harrietville, basking in the last of the day’s light. Now safely on glide to the landing site, I grabbed my camera, not wanting to miss the chance to capture the beauty of discovering a new place from the air.

The tension of the last 10 minutes gave way to relief, and the realisation that I’d made it: my first cross-country flight. There was a moment, as I followed Bill down to land, where I was a wee bit nervous again as the field had a small burn on one side, cows on the other, and power lines running along another edge, but following Bill’s lead and doing some S-turns to lose some height, I made it. Two hours ago, I’d jumped off and floated away from the comfort of my training hill: now I was over 10 miles away in a village I’d never seen before, watching the setting sun cast its last golden rays over the mountains that surrounded me. If ever there was a way to explore the world, this was it.