Finding My Flying Feet and Learning to Soar

Balancing Act

After what was nothing short of an amazing introduction to paragliding on Saturday, we quickly got into the routine of driving up hills and running off them. Sunday morning was spent at the Pines – a site near Myrtleford that was good when the wind turned southerly – and for the afternoon, and all of Monday, we had the legendary ‘Old’ Bill deliver the course theory to us. Bill – who is, in fact, old enough to justify his name – falls into the category of one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, sitting alongside legends such as Mr Anderson, my history teacher. With a history of captaining ships in the merchant navy to flying sail-planes, he backed up almost every piece of theory with a comical anecdote that made digesting the fairly dry aviation theory so much easier.


Tuesday saw us back at the Pines, where I was still having trouble running out my launches, converting the last metre of descent into forward motion to save my now quite sore feet, which was a worry. Also bad habits were creeping into my launch technique, resulting in me launching my wing into a tree, luckily with no harm to the wing or me. We made a return to Mystic on Wednesday – after the very short descent from the top of the hill at pines, the flagship launch site felt perilously high again – and on my third flight, I finally got up the courage to land myself.

Up until this point, as I came in on my final approach the instructor on the ground would tell me exactly when to flare – or pull my brakes as hard as could in other words – the glider, so it would pitch back and land as softly as possible, but it’s very hard, even as a skilled observer, to judge exactly when to call the flare over the radio, as not only do you not experience the landing air conditions first hand, but also have to judge how long the pupil will take to respond to your call, so my landings tended to be harder than they needed to be. All these hard landings and sore feet had me genuinely worried that I might be doing some damage and had me doubting whether I’d be able to keep up with the sport if I couldn’t land safely, but as soon as I started judging the flare myself, my landings turned into something of an art and I finally felt comfortable with the sport.

Ground Handling

It’s quite scary to think that, up until this point, I was committed to an intensive and costly course based on having enjoyed flying a sail-plane a few times and admiring the photography of a para-motor pilot from Inverness, so it was more than a minor relief to finally, confidently say I was loving what I was doing.


At lunch that day, the other Bill (Bright has a serious problem with everyone having the same name) took me for a tandem flight which turned into my first ever thermalling experience, and took the course to a whole new level of amazement. Just a minute off the launch, Bill steered us into the first thermal that took us hundreds of metres above launch, just far enough for me to be thankful that he’d told me to wear a coat, and for the next forty minutes we cruised above Mystic, the Wandiligong Valley, and Reliance Ridge. It was also my first time taking a camera with me – I wasn’t quite bold enough to take my 50d this time, but still, my 350d doesn’t exactly fall into the dispensable category, especially with a 10-20mm lens bolted to the front of it – so most of the flight was spend glued to it, savouring my first experience of unrestricted aerial photography.

Got my head (and feet) in the clouds

Thursday saw me really getting into the flying, emulating yesterday’s tandem flight with a 40 minute solo flight of my own: my first time above launch on my own. I’d spent most of the day before that, seething as I watched my unfortunate flight timing miss all the thermals that were then so clearly marked out by the other students circling and rocketing skywards in. Friday, although not as unstable as Thursday, saw me starting to feel the lift and maintain height in thermals on my own. Saturday was bitter-sweet: our last day of flying and I didn’t catch any good thermals, but I did get to see Al (short for Albania, as none of us could pronounce his real name), a rather big guy who seemed to sink out of the sky on every flight, finally catch a thermal and experience what we’d been raving about for days: the smile on his face was priceless.


Sunday was exam day: multiple choice can only be so hard, unless the questions are worded stupidly, so even though I got 98% I still contested the 2 frustratingly vague questions that cost me my geeky ace-crown. Then it was time to say goodbye to Kieran, Kieren, Brad and Al and say goodbye to paragliding for a while to deal with the pressures of the real world. But wait, I’m a backpacker with no job, nor schedule, so for me it was only the beginning of my flying career in Bright…

Today, I Learn to Fly

Saturday, 13th February 2010

Above it all

This was it: the day I was going to learn how to throw myself off a hill and soar into the clouds. Ted picked me up in time for the 8.30 start at the school and we met the other 4 guys who were also in for 9 days of awesomeness. Before we could get down to the serious business of matching the right size wings to the right pupils, there was the small issue of sorting out what we would each be called, seeing as 3 of the 5 of us were called Kieran. For once in my life I didn’t bother promoting my nickname, so I got to keep my real name, or to keep things clear(ish) when talking on the radios, I was ‘Kieran-that-is-Kieran’. After doing the usual signing our lives away to the school and the HGFA, we hit the road, heading to the Reeds training slope.

First Impressions

The training hill is sloped just enough to let us charge down it, as we are launching, but without dropping away from us so much that we end up suspended in the air high enough that we could do much harm if we pulled a control too hard. Bill, one of the instructors, showed us the forward launch technique then we got hooked into harnesses and tried it ourselves. Forward launching is the easiest way to launch: basically just run forward and the wing that’s attached behind you is thrust into the air and flies forward above your head, much like what a kite would do if you faced away from it and ran forward. The trick then is to balance running speed and brake pressure on the wing to keep it from overtaking you, or falling back down behind you. My first attempt looked good: wing up above me nicely, running down the hill, then for some reason I stopped running so fast and the wing mercilessly overtook me, leaving nothing for me to do but nose-dive into the ground with such determination that I became an instant contender for the bloopers video compilation.

CommittedAfter lunch it was time to fly, thankfully not solo just yet though. Up at Mystic launch, Adam – the instructor who was going to take me for my tandem flight – unpacked the wing we were about to fly the 400m down to the landing paddock, while I took measure of fairly sizeable drop in front of me and felt excitement give way to adrenaline and nerves. Even though my part in the launch was simple – when told to run, run, and don’t stop, not even when you think you’re in the air, until told to – I was still weighing up the chance of me not running right, tripping us both up and rolling down the rock-strewn hill-side. Now strapped into the harness which was in turn attached to the paraglider and my instructor’s harness, I was standing on launch, looking straight out over Bright below, eyes fixed on my target, waiting for the call…and go! Leaning forward into a run, I took one step, two steps, maybe a third, then I was just running in the air, and before I knew it Adam was telling me to get comfortable in the seat of the harness. It had taken 5 seconds to go from standing like a turkey on launch to floating through the air, wind blowing past my ears, totally at ease with the fact my instructor and I were suspended from a glorified piece of tent by a few dozen bits of string each about a millimetre thick.
Rock & Roll

The conditions were calm and stable, meaning we had roughly 5 minutes in the air as we glided along the ridge extending towards the landing area. Adam passed the controls over and let me steer the wing, bringing it over the paddock and flying a figure-of-eight formation to loose height over the downwind end of the field, before we came down, fairly gently, in the middle of the paddock. Before any of us had time to reflect on what we’d just done, Ted came over and coyly asked ‘now do you want to do that on your own?!’, and in a moment of blind courage we all said ‘hell yeah!’.

Base viewBack up at launch, the fact that I’d just successfully flown down from here did nothing to calm my nerves, as this time it was all on me: nobody to launch, and nobody to fall back if it went wrong. Glider unpacked, rolled out, lines untangled and checked, harness strapped in, checked and re-checked, harness attached to glider, brakes and risers in hand, and I was ready, watching the wind streamers down the slope, waiting for the wind to blow steadily up the face of the launch, and then Ted came across the radio Run! And I was off. Leaning forward I felt the wing rising up behind me, a little crooked but I could still hear Ted repeatedly saying run so I kept going, then run, run, release and I released the risers, but now the wing felt as though it was overtaking me – not a good scenario – Ted was now a little more insistent RUN!, but I could feel the wing struggling to stay aloft now that I’d let it get ahead of me, and I hesitated to run further down the slope, although I already felt that at this point I was in for a rough tumble down the hill if the wing didn’t fly. Ted, seeing that things were past the point of a safe first-take off came through the radio ok, ok, abort, pull down hard on both brakes, but I was now at the edge of the astro-turf launch and entering the steeper, rough part of the slope. Doing as I was told, I pulled the brakes down past my waist – theoretically stalling the glider so it would fall behind me – but instead of stopping, the glider filled with life, lifting me just off my feet so only my toes could vainly try to gain some purchase on the ground that was fast falling away from me. For a second, I looked at the ground, down the rough slope, over the hundreds of pine trees that I was heading for, dangling in suspense, not falling, but not quite flying, as I was still choking the wing’s desire to fly with the brakes. Ted called through brakes up, and then I was flying, not struggling down the hill with a half inflated balloon tied to my back, but actually flying.
On FinalIt took a few seconds to digest what had just happened, as I dangled in the running position in my harness, watching the ground now steadily falling away from me and the air beginning to rush past my face. After that I was a robot, Ted may as well have been holding a radio-controlled joystick as I followed each of his commands – get comfortable in your harness, a little more brakes, turn right 40 degrees, keep that heading – but after a minute, I was flying out over the spur of Emily ridge, taking a few seconds to enjoy the view – Wandiligong valley to the right; Bright to the left – now being guided down by Adam in the landing paddock. The rest was fairly simple, although coming in to land, the nerves edged up a little, and I found myself not running out the landing and having quite sore feet because of it.

The timings of the troop-carrier’s runs up the hill meant that Kip and I got the chance of a second solo flight before the light faded, and thankfully that launch went a lot more smoothly than the first, although the landing was just as heavy as the first. The 3 Kierans all ended up staying at the hostel, and high from our day’s achievements, we headed to the Bright Brewery for a celebratory pint.

Chasing the Dream


Finally, the day was here: I was leaving Melbourne and heading back to the alpine region, to Bright, where I’d finally realise what I’d been dreaming about doing for the last 12 months. Travelling anywhere new, or at least less visited, almost always excites me, usually resulting in me being ready for the journey way earlier than I need to be. Up at 6, I was a bit early for the free breakfast that the International Hostel on Elizabeth Street puts on, but the guy looking after the reception was nice enough to drag the breakfast set out early for me so I didn’t have to endure a few hours of my stomach screaming at me. The train wasn’t due to leave till 8.15 but, partly due to my airport-conditioning to always be early, and partly due to getting to use the trams for free as part of my train ticket, I was in the station not long after 7.30 and so begun my day of unnecessary waiting.

About 30 minutes on the train, I was getting settled in as the train slowed down – presumably for the first station – thinking that $27 was pretty good for the distance I was going compared to the prices back home, especially since it covered trams in the Melbourne as well as a train and a bus to get to Bright. A minute later, the train was now clearly not slowing down but just coasting to a stand-still, although the engines were still running. Two hours later, still sitting on the train that the driver and a few engineers now admitted wasn’t just blocking most trains north-bound from Melbourne, but was also completely broken down, we finally got to jump off and switch to a bus that would complete the leg of the journey that the train so miserably failed to over. 4 hours and a comically expensive taxi fare later (comical, as it cost more than what all the people on it would have paid V-Line for their tickets), I was in Bright.

Bright SquareBigger than I expected, Bright, with its clock-tower and war memorial dominating the town square, was the closest thing to a British village I’d yet seen in Australia. Being set in rolling forested hills that also could have been somewhere in the UK, it felt like the kind of place I could happily settle down in for a while. Walking into the Bright Hikers hostel, I was met with a closed reception and the quietest accommodation I’ve ever set foot in. Luckily Davide, who turned out to have just finished last month’s paragliding licence course, and his girlfriend, Aiste, were kicking about and were fairly sure what dorm I’d be sleeping in so I got settled in and, in the healthiest form of lazy comfort eating I could think of in Bright, I headed to Subway.
Balance and Control

In the evening, as people came back from flying and working, I met a few of the more long-term residents of the hostel, namely Steve, who was also finishing off his paragliding licence course, and Steve, who was working for the local fire service. Next day I cycled to the landing paddocks with Davide and met Ted, owner of Alpine Paragliding, before we drove to the top of Mystic – a hill overlooking Bright which offers consistently good thermalling, and the place where most flights take place on – to watch Davide launching into the air. The view from the launch at Mystic’s peak is stunning, and watching Davide pulling the wing into the air, then so fluently stepping off the hill and floating into the vista was awe-inspiring, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t for a second doubt that I could pull off such a stunt in two days.

Friday was spent wandering round town, which really was quite beautiful, even before the autumn colours came on and turned it into what it looked like in all the postcards. There are so many parks and, in keeping with one of my favourite Australian traditions, each one had numerous bbqs as well as plenty space to chill out and contemplate, in ever increasing excitement, that tomorrow, I was going to learn to fly.

Tasmania Day 3: Ben Lomond

Low Head

Waking up in Beechworth felt like waking up in a small coastal village in the Scottish Highlands: the weather and landscape fitted almost perfectly. We headed back – this time along the main road instead of hammering along a dirt track again – to Georgetown for food, a look around, and to stage a photo. Georgetown was settled by the British to fend off the French from staking a claim on the north coast so it seemed almost a crime – as a British guy travelling with a French guy – not to pay homage to the history of the town. In the end, we went to the supermarket and got distracted by ‘Aussie burgers’ (they’re cut in the shape of Australia; we were a bit disappointed they didn’t chuck in a lump of mince off the south coast to represent Tassie) and forgot all about the photo. We did fit in a look at the light-house at Low Head, and found it odd that the number of performers on the street (I almost forgot, there was a festival on in town) embarrassingly outnumbered the visitors.

A fleeting moment

Back in free-shower-locating-mode, we headed towards Lilydale, stopping on the way at Hollybank Forest Reserve to eat our Aussie burgers, play some shithead, and drink some bubbly with a rather nice local who passed through while we were there. The showers at Lilydale weren’t free, and there was a wedding being held, so we looked a little out of place. We checked out the Lilydale falls but, in the dry season, they weren’t up to much, then headed on to an area of the island with a special interest to me. In the north-east of Tasmania there is a hill of the same height and name as Ben Nevis in Scotland so naturally I thought it would be cool to climb it, especially since I’ve never conquered the Scottish peak. Driving out of Launceston into Ben Lomond National Park, the scenery started to gain height and turn more like that of the drive towards Aviemore from Dufftown and the dull day had cleared up into something that lit up the landscape brilliantly. We had the not so helpful combination of a map that marked the peak of Ben Nevis, but not the roads around it, and Google Maps on my phone, which marked tracks way beyond the capability of our vehicle but didn’t say exactly where Ben Nevis was, so we never did find the peak, but my gps was playing that afternoon so when I checked the log later it showed we were circling the right hill.

Ben Lomond

After another few hours of driving some fun forest tracks in the middle of nowhere and never quite knowing where we were, we hit the out fringe of civilisation at the Mathinna campground. By this time the sun was setting and we were past the point of caring about getting a shower today, and were more glad that we knew where we were again. For being so far from anything, we were amazed to find possibly the most organised 21st birthday weekend ever cranking up: about 20 people had turned up with maybe a dozen cars, a few trail bikes, a generator, floodlights, a massive tarp hung from a few trees, full size cooking stoves, and a chain-saw create the fuel for the respectable bonfire that sucked everyone in as the temperature dropped. We didn’t expect to meet many people in Tassie, least not out here, so it was nice to kick back with a few beers for an evening under the stars with a few locals.

Tasmania Day 2: Tamar Valley

Mt Roland

Waking up to the sun shining the tent and warming up the stunning landscape, that we’d not fully appreciated in the fading light of the drive in, was awesome, made only better by how similar to Scotland it was. Trying to keep planning minimal we settled on a rough clockwise circle of the island and started it by heading east from the campground, past Sheffield – with the view of Mt Roland dominating the view to the south for a while – and through the rolling cropland that led to the West Tamar valley. As soon as I started running my GPS logger off the car’s power inverter, it started playing up so, annoyingly, I don’t have a good record of exactly where we drove on the island and, more annoyingly, I’ve got to try to remember where I took most of the 1300 photos I have from the state. Based on that, I think we hit the Tamar valley at Exeter then headed up the coast to Green’s Beach.

Green's Beach

Still high from our day of body-boarding at Torquay we had to try out the Tassie waters, which turned out be not nearly as cold as expected. There was no surf, but it was still a nice spot to chill out in and wade out in the waters that only reached head-height a few hundred metres away from the shore. Tassie was defined by a few recurring experiences, starting with washing in public places for want of anywhere better. Green’s Beach has a beach shower across the main street from the shop, so we brushed shame aside, got out the shower cream and lathered up, and damn it felt good to be clean, if not slightly cold for a minutes.

Batman Bridge

Doubling back down the valley coast and across the Batman bridge, we hit Georgetown – the 3rd oldest settlement in Australia – but it was a bit short on free camping and an abundance of locals who liked to stare at people who weren’t from around these parts so we moved along and checked out a beach on the north coast a few km away. That didn’t work but, after what almost turned into an hour of bush-bashing on unmarked tracks in the hope of an ok wild-camping spot, we ended up in Beechford, a quaint village which, for being tucked away at the end of a coastal road, surprised us with a fairly decent camping area sheltered by the dunes. We got a decent bonfire going to keep us warm in the cold, damp wind for a while before the weather got the better of the fire, and us.

21 Days of Tasmania: Day 1

What's the rush?

Two days after our snap-decision to spend a few weeks in Tasmania, Kevin and I were on The Spirit of Tasmania I, backing away from Melbourne pier, watching in awe at the hundreds of big jelly fish being thrown about in the swell of the ship’s bow thrusters. Even up to this point this journey had been a bit more hard work than planned: the night before we’d taken ourselves, and a bottle of Jagermeister, to Ekin’s place, ultimately leading to us getting home about 2 hours before I wanted to be up and getting ready to drive to the port. Even with an abundance of alcohol and a chronic lack of sleep I stayed up to finish packing and making food for the sailing, passing on the joy of navigating Melbourne to Kevin when I eventually got him awake again. The night before was really part of a masterplan to make us so tired for the sailing that we’d sleep right through the 9 hours, avoiding any boredom, and it worked pretty well: most of my memories of the trip are waking up in the cinema to find it was a different film or, at the end, someone giving a presentation about Tasmanian Devils.

Sobering up

As Lonely Planet had hinted, Devenport somewhat lacked interest to us so I scoped out the nearest interesting – and crucially, free – campground and, after stockpiling enough Mi Goreng noodles to last us through a nuclear winter, we headed off into the Tasmanian countryside. In the fading evening light I had the perfect introduction to Tasmania: beautiful rolling hills and farmland much like Scotland was bliss to drive through after the monotony of the Hume highway.

Hello Beautiful..

Kentish Park campground, tucked into the side of a valley overlooking Lake Barrington, 30 minutes south-west of Devenport, turned out to be one of the best uneducated guesses for place to sleep we had on the island. The campground was huge, and divided by hedges and trees into what were still large fields: we found one of the higher fields which someone how managed to tick all the boxes – flat(ish), quiet, sheltered and had a great view – and got the tent set up. Once darkness fell, all I could do was gawk at a night sky clearer than any I’d seen since I was in the Northern Territory and it didn’t take long to get tempted into trying a long exposure.

It also didn’t take long to get close to some of the island’s wildlife – there were so many noises coming from the patch of forest that we were tucked into a corner of and sometimes when we’d shine a torch in the direction of the noise we’d see a pair of beady and distinctly creepy looking eyes shining back.

Hello Melbourne and the Sunny South Coast

Jan Juc Beach

On the advice of the genuinely helpful mechanic at the Tallangatta garage, I did the immensely boring 4-hour drive to Melbourne and, after an unintentional detour into a graveyard (this time not the fault of the Australian roads: I just needed somewhere to park to work out where I was), caught up with Kevin and Antoinne again. It was awesome to see them: we’d first met in Kununurra, but only really got to know each other through landing at the same mango picking farm in Mataranka and seemed to keep bumping into each other in different corners of the country

My arrival in Melbourne marked the beginning of a time where everyone’s plans changed quickly, unpredictably, but in the end, in ways that worked out great for everyone. Kevin decided that his job at a shisha cafe wasn’t as fun as dragging everyone out in Melbourne and so packed it in a few hours after I arrived. In a few days Antoinne was on a plane back to Darwin to witness the wet season in all its glory – something I must do myself sometime – and David had headed off cycle Tasmania. Sometime in the first week I got time to put out adverts for my car, but didn’t have much luck seeing as most backpackers were annoyingly more savvy with car-hunting than I was, and so I quickly resigned to the fact I wasn’t going to make a quick turnaround in Melbourne and be in Bright for the January paragliding course.

Jan Juc

Since we were relatively close to the start of the Great Ocean Road, Ekin, Kevin and I did an overnight trip to Torquay, stumbling across Bells Beach which, although seemingly in the middle of nowhere when found in the dark, was fairly popular with backpackers regardless of the usual ‘no camping’ warnings. We followed suit and, in what was the most uncomfortable sleep ever in my car, slept in the boot of the car. Sleeping 3 people in the boot of any car is never going to be luxury but we made the fatal mistake of playing shithead for ages, with the lights and doors open, so by the time we went to sleep the car was infested with mossies, who proceeded to feed on us, all night.

Next day we headed back towards Torquay and found the gem that is Jan Juc beach. Jan Juc beach, a few minutes out of Torquay, is probably the best beach I’ve ever been to: the slope of the sand is so gentle that I could wade out for 50m and still touch the ground, and it creates great breakers for body boarding as well as some alright ones for surfing too. We spent the whole day at the beach – we’d hit nirvana and there was no need to explore anywhere else – only realising at the end of the day that the lavish amount of sun cream we’d put on wasn’t nearly enough and we all looked like lobsters. Back in Melbourne the news was reporting that it was looking like the hottest day on record and, sure enough, at midnight the temperature had only dropped to 38C!

Now with an empty schedule for January, we hatched a fantastic plan: take Kevin’s car on the ferry to Tassie and spend a few weeks there, getting back to Melbourne in time for my birthday, incidentally giving me a few days to find my way to Bright in time the start of the February paragliding course. Somehow a week after having all my plans blown into the sky, everything was falling into place and working out even better than the original plan. After 4 months I was finally learning that I’d been planning to fail and that embracing the spontaneous things that backpacking threw up was the way forward..

Snowy Mountains, and the demise of planning

Kosciuszko View

With 2 weeks festive rest behind me I was back on the road, this time heading south with a much clearer idea of where I was going. In just over a week the next paragliding licence course would be starting in Bright and there was nowhere I’d rather be then, but for now I had a few days to enjoy the trip down and explore what promised to be some awesome landscape.

My first target was Australia’s highest mountain – Mt Kusciosko – and I was so intent on getting to it that I drove pretty much straight from Sydney, completely bypassing Canberra (I know some people wouldn’t blame me, but surely the capital must be worth a visit), although I almost ended up in the Capital anyway after taking a wrong turn out of Queanbeyan. Before Queanbeyan, I’d had the interesting drive along the edge of Lake George, spending 15 miles of driving looking out across a 5 mile wide plain filled with farmland, looking down at the map at where there clearly was marked a fairly big lake. Turns out it’s pretty rare for it to ever hold any water. Through Cooma, I was soon in Jindabyne, the eastern gateway to the Snowy Mountains, turning onto the Charlotte Pass road for Mt Kusciosko. The drive to Charlotte Pass was a pretty unrelenting ascent towards the clouds, so much so that for a while I seriously hoped the road might ascend in and maybe even through the clouds that shrouded the lofty peaks. That didn’t quite happen though, and when I reached the end of the road at Charlotte Pass at the slightly late-in-the-day-for-a-long-walk-time of 4pm, I embarked on a slightly optimistic 18km return hike to the summit anyway. 5Km and many more photos later, I reached Seaman’s Hut – a bothy built in memory of an American guy who lost his life on the hill – and took a welcome breather from the cool weather. With its slightly buttressed walls and double entrance doors, the bothy felt as though it could withstand a nuclear winter – I chose to use it to shelter from much more mundane conditions for half an hour while I read some of the guest book entries then, resigned to the fact that if I walked any further I’d be doing the return trip in the dark, headed back to the car-park.

Charlotte's Pass

Charlotte’s Pass lays claim to having recorded the lowest temperature in mainland Australia, at something around -20C, and true to that title my night in the car did push the limits of warmth of my duvet. Next morning I headed back through the densest fog I’ve ever tried to drive through to Jindabyne and headed west on the Snowy Mountains Road, stopping in the picturesque mountain village of Thredbo for some photos of the mist burning off the higher slopes. After Thredbo, I had an awesome drive along 40 miles of unrelentingly winding road through the heart of the Alpine National Park to ????, stopping on the way at some viewpoints looking back across the ranges that I tried to conquer yesterday as well as part of the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme – supplying apparently 11% of Australia’s electricity.

Lake Hume

Out of the mountains and into Victoria for the first time, I headed to Tallangatta, a town that literally moved to avoid drowning under the rising waters of Lake Hume, and checked my car in for a road-worthy test the next day. I wasn’t far from Albury-Wodonga so headed round the lake towards the border-town and found a rest area near the lake that seemed like it would be good for the sleeping in that night. The rest area is beside a spit of land that extends for a mile or so out into the lake – a popular spot with fishers and folks who want to go for a swim. Driving along the shore of the spit I learned a few important lessons: the soil is a tad damp and slippy, demonstrated expertly by my car slowly crabbing towards the water; and my car is rear-wheel-drive, demonstrated by my accelerating only making the back of the car edge even closer to the water. For a moment, I thought I was going to have to get someone to drag my car out of the water but I lucked out and decided to keep the car back up in rest area after that.

The next morning I was back in Tallangatta, via a quick run up to the lookout, to get my car through the road-worthy test. And in one cursory glance, the mechanic threw all my plans for January out the window and told me to save the money on the road-worthy test and get rid of the car: it was that bad. 5 minutes of pondering the fact that all my worries about the condition of the car I bought were true gave way to agreeing that the mechanic was right and that the only thing left to do was get rid of it. Figuring that the market for second-hand-not-so-road-worthy cars in Bright wouldn’t be overly buoyant, I put the town – and my dream of flying – on hold for at least a month by heading back to the Hume Highway and dropping Kevin a line to say that later that day, I’d be parking up beside his house in Melbourne.

Back in Sydney

Jump Sydney

My week of sleeping in the boot of my car was over – I was back to a nice bed, regular shower, and good food in the comfort of my auntie and uncle’s house in Sydney. Since I arrived in Perth in August I aimed to be in Sydney for Christmas and, even though I had to skip the east to make it happen, I’d made it and was really happy to be somewhere where I could spend the time with family, and hopefully spend New Year with some of the people I’d met along the way here.

The fortnight surrounding Christmas was pretty laid back: quite a few mornings I’d get up and head to Bondi Beach for a swim before it got too busy then spend the day checking out the city or covering some more of the coastal walks with my auntie. My favourite stretch of the coast was on a walk to the north of Bondi, trecking through quite secluded sections of woodland between alcove beaches, looking out across the bright green waters of the harbour to the CBD. If I had a canoe I’d have happily spent hours out on the water there, and then probably suffered the inevitable dose of sunburn in the evening.

Being in Sydney gave me a chance to meet quite a few members of my family for the first time, in particular one my cousins who has never been back in Scotland since I was born, as well as some more distant relations who all originally hail from Scotland. Originally, some of them were going to be round for Christmas but we ended up having a quiet Christmas, instead having them round for New Year’s Eve. Carrying on a routine I started at uni, after a family Christmas, I caught up with a couple of friends I’d made on the west coast. Jorrel, a Swiss guy I’d met in Kununurra had spent Christmas in the Blue Mountains and was taking the train back into Sydney just in time for New Year so I cut my family dinner a bit short to catch up with him before we caught up with Henrikka at Circular Quay.

Hard to miss

I was a bit late getting away from Bondi though, as a few days earlier I’d ordered a copy of The Art of Paragliding – the recommended reading for novice paragliding pilots – and it arrived literally as I was about to leave. I’d been dreaming of taking up this form of free-flight for months now and receiving the book started to hammer home the fact that I was going to learn to fly soon, very soon..

I didn’t make many plans for New Year, partly as there were far less people around Sydney who I knew than I expected and mainly as I didn’t know enough about what was going on. The botanic gardens, with their panoramic views of the harbour, Opera House, bridge and CBD seemed like the place to be for the night so we headed there fairly quickly as Henrikka heard that the number of people through the gates had hit about 75% of the limit. The queues were long but fast-moving, so by 6 we were sitting on a grassy hill in the middle of the gardens watching the flying foxes flapping around as the sun dipped behind the skyscrapers of the city centre, casting a beautiful warm glow over the park.

At 9 there was a fairly big fireworks display so parents didn’t have to stay till late for their kids, then on each hour, and on the quarters of the last hour before midnight, each of the batteries of fireworks would send up a single burst of firepower, leaving everyone listening in awe to the rumbles of explosions from up and down the river, rumbling like thunder all round the city. Even then, the crowds were so dense that we couldn’t get within about 20m of any of the decent vantage points, so I improvised and climbed what was nearer to a sapling than a tree, that was within a few minutes precariously supporting 3 girls and me. The improvisation didn’t work that well though, as by removing all the people from my view, I’d added a few dozen branches, which were just about as hard to peer through as the people, and not quite as comfortable to hang on to.

Sydney Harbour

As midnight approached, we tried to get a better vantage point for the main salvo and found a strangely quiet spot near Mrs Macquarie’s chair. That said, we were still about a minute too late to bag a spot right up at fence, but we were still close enough to look in awe at the harbour, packed with hundreds of boats, many with people on them enjoying the evening from their own unique bobbing vantage point. The show was obviously great, but, having been to Edinburgh for Hogmanay the year before, didn’t find them truly spectacular, but then I’ve probably seen enough firework displays now that I’d only be really impressed if I ended up with sore ears after the show.

It was great that the city’s public transport network was running so it only took about an hour to get back to Bondi, where the gig on the beach was still going in what looked like a fairly epic fashion – if I’m in Sydney for another New Year then I think I’ll go there instead.

New Year’s day was spent getting packed and ready to head south towards Bright, as well as pouring over The Art of Paragliding, getting ever-more excited at the thought of what I could be learning to do in a week. And so my time in Sydney was up – I still didn’t feel like I saw that much of the city so it’ll probably be worth a revisit some other time, but for now I had bigger plans..

Finishing the Blue Mountains

Clarence Station

Now that I’d spent a few days charting the less travelled corners of the Blue Mountains, it was time to hit the main drag and see the big ticket attractions, not that I was really sure what they were. I’d came to rely on the CAMPS road atlas as, not only a great source of sleeping spots but also, having a not bad bunch of tourist attractions and beauty spots marked on it, so I made Katoomba and the Three Sisters my next stop.

Katoomba, although a quaint town, didn’t spark much interest from me on the way through – I probably could have spent a bit more time exploring it but wasn’t really in the mood at the time, and I the main reason I hate driving as a means of seeing an area is just because it’s conducive to that ‘ah, I’ll just keep driving’ attitude – and after seeing the slightly steep parking prices, any interest in seeing the Three Sisters was lost. After all that unmotivated driving, I headed round to Leura and spent a while at the quiet but quite impressive lookout at Sublime Point.

I took a drive through Mt Victoria, on the Bell Line Of Road, doubling back at Bell towards Lithgow to try to get a view of the Zig-Zag railway, but the road never seemed to open up any views of the line that I’d seen and heard a bit about. I checked out the station at Clarence then got distracted by yet more dirt road that promised some caves and camp grounds, but after maybe half an hour and a few not very well signed junctions in what felt like never-ending forest I doubled back just in case I got lost or ran out of fuel, or both.
Back on the main road, I headed east, now fairly intent on making this my last full day of driving – I think the consistently hot days, lack of showers, banter and good food combined to make getting a hot shower and a good bed to sleep in at my family’s house the next night seem like a very attractive option.

Londonderry fires

There was quiet rest area tucked just off the road at Bilpin so I had yet more 3 minute noodles there for lunch then kept going towards Richmond. I saw a lookout marked on the map on a road SW of Kurrajorong Heights but the road got a bit rough, and private, so that joined the growing list of missed or avoided attractions for the day. On the main road there was a lookout to the SE which gave an impressive view of the sprawling flatlands of the Hawkesbury Plain hundreds of metres below, as well as large bushfire and the massive plume of smoke rising from it.

Descending into the plain to Richmond, I dipped below 1000m above the sea for maybe the second time in 4 days, and the heat was borderline unbearable. After getting some supplies from Coles I closed my curtains, opened all the windows, and had a very sticky late afternoon nap in the carpark, not that I felt any better for it afterwards, or indeed for the rest of the day. Somehow I ended up deciding to drive to Hawkesbury Heights and ended up at the lookout there, which also looks down over the plain from the edge of the Blue Mountains Tablelands, to find that the bushfire I’d seen hours early was still raging but now, in the fading light flashes of fire crews’ vehicles and helicopters’ strobes could be seen everywhere around Londonderry.


If I was unsure of the severity of the fire, the dozens of other people at the lookout watching the fire, as well as fire fighting personnel confirmed that it was a bit serious. Just as the fires seemed to be getting reigned in, a big storm rolled in from the west, looking set to deal the final blow to the fires, but instead it missed the fires and even brought some previously subdued fires back to life with its draughts. As night fell, everything was eventually brought under control as I watched the brilliant lightening show head towards the distant glow of Sydney.

Now that it was dark, and I wasn’t feeling great either, the car park had to make do as my sleeping area for the night. Annoyingly the whole car park is sloped, making sleeping in the boot pretty uncomfortable, and that’s before the added humidity because of the rain all night necessitating the windows being shut. It turned out that the lookout was a popular spot with the local hoons so I had to put up with engines of varying calibres being revved outside my window for the first few hours of the night.

I wasn’t looking forward to trying to find my way back to the Bondi, in the Eastern suburbs, from the west of the city so I cut my, already short, sleep short at 4am so I could hit Sydney before Friday’s rush hour kicked in. After my sunny escape from the city on Sunday, this rainy drive in the dark before sunrise seemed like a bit of a depressing end to the trip, which only got worse when I bashed the left wing of my car into the side of a pickup truck. Half asleep, driving a car which I didn’t yet legally own and without my driving licence on me, this was not an ideal situation to be in at 6.30 in the morning, but to my disbelief the truck didn’t stop, so I kept going with the lane-change that had me in the debacle in the first place before the other driver had time to reconsider that bump he’d just felt, and that was that. The rest of the drive through the city was thankfully a lot less eventful, although I still needed to stop a few times to check where in the ridiculously big city I was before I found myself on the familiar stretch of road from Bondi Junction to the beach.