This poem came about on a walk out to stanage edge. Chomping down bilberries as I strolled, my mind ended up getting lost in a maze of B words (kicked off by dwelling on the satisfying rhythm of the bilberry bumblebee), and this monstrosity was the result. Enjoy.
Beyond black bitumen borders, Brazen, bilberry bushes blossom boldly. Bright blooms beguile bumblebees. Bequeathing berries, borne by branches, Building Blanket Bog’s brilliant bounty.
If you’re reading this then delayed release works, and I’m still in the northern territory. I’ll be back in a few weeks. I’ve skipped a very dull update of equipment post, suffice to say I have a new bag (Osprey Exos 48), tent (Vango Banshee 200), and sleeping bag (Vango Ultralight 600) for camping up north. Anyway, let’s see what I have to say…
Having got a few new things for my time up in the Northern territory, I figured I should test them out before heading up there. This led to a good walk which I’ve been contemplating since first seeing the Smoky Cape lighthouse (and which I used in the gratuitous “good view” picture in a previous post), down to Hat Head and back, but has only been possible with then addition of a tent to my inventory. Well that’s not quite true. It’s approx 50km there and back (a bit over 30 miles), so starting early in the morning, walking at a fair pace all day and finishing late at night you could just about make it… but I’m not that way inclined. I like to dawdle and take in the views.
So with bag packed and a bowl of porridge (my hiking breakfast weapon of choice) consumed, I set off from Arakoon at around 7 in the morning. The walk from Arakoon to Smokey Cape Lighthouse starts with a fairly steep ascent through a lovely bit of rainforest. This was a good test of my new rucksack and its contents, during which all I could think was “how flippin’ heavy is this flippin’ rucksack? what can I lose from it?”. Unfortunately this seems to be what happens when you add a few kilograms of tent and sleeping bag, and a few kilograms of food and water to your bag. After that initial incline however, I quickly got used to the weight of the bag and found that it sits quite comfortably with the hip belt properly adjusted (this takes a bit of tinkering to get correct).
Over the top of the hills to the lighthouse was pretty easy going, along some well marked paths. The last time I’d done this section it was very wet and very leechy, but not this time. The sun was out and there was virtually no evidence of another human being until the lighthouse. A very pleasant hour or so. As I reached the lighthouse I stopped for some water and a handful of dried fruit and nuts (my preference for hiking nibbles) and happened to spot a Southern Right Whale from the lookout (the second time I’d spotted a whale there, though for some reason at Arakoon the whales seem to be heading further out to sea). I also had a great view of the walk to come. With the sun up and a nice downhill stretch to start with, I got on my way.
At the base of the lighthouse hill there is a small and fairly basic campsite, where I encountered a bunch of backpackers chucking a ball around and playing (very loud and apparently tuneless) music. Why they weren’t on the beach about 50m away is beyond me, but each to their own I guess. From there I started walking the 17km of South Smokey beach toward Hat Head. Fortunately the sand is pretty firm, so it’s not too tiring to walk along. Among the other beach users were tons of fishermen, a few surfers, a few dog walkers, and a few motorcyclists. Interestingly the latter two of these groups aren’t actually permitted on the beach, but it seems to be one of those areas where the council say it’s National Parks’ area, and National Parks say it’s the council’s area, so no one actually polices it, and so effectively anyone can do anything (including the laziest dog walk I’ve ever seen, where the dog was put on the beach and just chased after the car while they drove back to the entrance). One of the motorcyclists was at least kind enough to stop and offer me a lift, however as I had big bag, no crash helmet, and at least an iota of common sense I declined the offer.
The walk continued passing many fishermen (and fisherwomen… should this be fisher people?) and chatting with a fair few along the way. I was also stopping every 10 or 15 minutes to take photos of the vegetation along the beach, as requested by the Dunecare group (I think they’re considering expanding their conservation territory further south), which turns out to be pretty much 17km of sand and Bitou Bush (an invasive weed which dominates sand dune ecosystems). Hopefully once those photos are incorporated into the area’s conservation map there might be some effort to regenerate the area… if they can get some grants (the constant struggle).
During this relatively flat and easy walk I was very impressed with how my rucksack sat, only really coming a-cropper when I got hungry. Fortunately however, in Hat Head among the many, many holiday homes, there was a small general store, where I picked up an ice cream and some cereal bars (nothing like a load of sugar to boost the energy reserves). By this point it was about 2, and so there were only around 3 hours of daylight left. Time to turn back.
On the way back north I passed a lot more fisher people, most of whom were very talkative and seemed interested in my story (and why the badgers I’d just walked to Hat Head and was now going back). I also met another walker, though he was only out for a brief beach stroll, who said he’d walked from Hat Head to the lighthouse and back last year… and then his toe nail had fallen off. I’m pretty sure that normally happens because your shoes are too tight, suffice to say I had no intention of suffering the same fate. I continued along, and steadily the fisherpeople all went home, leaving the beach all to me as the sun set.
With the light dying, I decided to set up camp (with specific permission from the local national parks ranger to camp there), and so hopped over into the first dunes to avoid the wind. This was (I think) my first experience of setting up a tent in sand, and I did find one or two little issues. The first was that tent pegs in sand are not awfully sturdy. The second was that within seconds the tent was full of sand. Not to worry though, the spot was so sheltered that there was no wind at all, and it was all very comfortable. Unfortunately with the light fading and the wind non-existant, the mosquitoes started to come out… time for an early night and a bit of reading, though not before watching the stars for a while (they’re really quite spectacular, though unfortunately I’m currently failing miserably to get good photos of them).
Though it wasn’t a particularly cold night, my sleeping bag and roll mat did an admirable job, keeping me very cosy through the night. I woke up around 5:30 to catch the sunrise, and it was well worth it (check out that view!). One bowl of porridge (and tent disassembly) later, and I was back walking up the beach in the glorious cool of the early morning (taking a lot of sunrise photos as I went). As ever, when packing my bag again things didn’t quite go as tetris-smooth as they had when I packed in the house, but I was impressed with how neatly everything did fit back in. As an added little farewell treat from the beach, I spotted a pair of Southern Right Whales about 50-100m off the shore, one of which was tail slapping like a mad…er… whale.
Having left the beach I headed back along the road through some fantastic forest (Australian national parks are really something to behold), before stopping off at the Smokey Cape Retreat cafe (quite possibly my favourite cafe in the area) for a well deserved coffee and (large) piece of chocolate brownie, and where I’m currently writing this post (how’s that for efficiency?).
In total I’m quite happy with my packing setup. The bag is comfortable to carry, the tent and sleeping bag are very comfortable to sleep in, and the rest of my stuff continues to work as well as it always has. My only negative thought is that I’m sure somewhere in all this gear I can lose some weight to make it easier to carry. I’m sure after 5 weeks in the Northern Territory I’ll know what, if anything, can be culled… or maybe I’ll just develop some muscles and get over it.
Having had an awesome 2 months in South West Rocks, living with some amazing people, in an amazing place, doing amazing things, I thought it appropriate to throw out a summary of my time there in Photos (because I have internet now, and a picture says a thousand words… and I can’t be bothered writing that many words).
I’ll be away in the northern territory for 6 weeks now, so there probably won’t be another post till then… Unless I can figure out delayed release…
Now that I’ve been volunteering for three months (having been in Australia for nearly 4 months), I think I’m reasonably qualified to do a “week in the life” post for visiting volunteering. I’m really enjoying this kind of set up, as it’s allowing me to actually see places and get to know the locals (which to my mind is a lot better than just meeting other travellers and doing the things the tourists do).
On a side note, apologies that it’s taking so long to roll out posts. This is partially due to Australia’s gloriously abysmal internet availability (when I can get access to the internet it’s generally too slow to do anything useful with… Seriously, it’s like the UK 15 years ago… No, really), my busy life, and having lost my otg cable, meaning I can’t get photos from my camera to my tablet. Nonetheless, I will persevere, hopefully things will be a little better in cities.
Anyway, I digress (already!).
Everywhere that I’ve volunteered so far I have been (kindly) provided with accommodation by local hosts, which has included beds in houses, a shed, a room for staff in a visitor centre, and most recently, in a holiday unit (what us POMs would call a flat). Let’s just say I’ve not been uncomfortable. My hosts have also provided me with food (again, out of the kindness of their own hearts), which means I’ve been eating a lot better than I would’ve left to my own devices (yesterday for instance we had kangaroo steaks followed by lemon meringue pie for dinner!). Cooking arrangements have varied from my own little kitchen etc through to eating with my hosts for virtually every meal. While in every case so far there’s been no nominal obligation to do a given amount of work to “pay” for this kindness, I usually do at least a few hours work in the morning and a few in the afternoon to help me justify my existence, with a few exceptions (to be noted later).
On working days I’m often stuck into the first bit of work for the day between 8 and 9 in the morning. Work might include pulling out weeds (on my own, with random other volunteers, or with weekly volunteer groups), going out with contractors to assist them in one way or another (lugging gear around, killing weeds under their direction etc), a bit of handyman work (which has ranged from shifting material around with a tractor to wrecking an old wardrobe to salvage the wood, to wrangling adolescent emus). Usually I’ll work for 2 or 3 hours at a time and then stop for half an hour or so for some kind of beverage/consumables break. This ensures I drink plenty (it’s rather warm during the day, and when you’re working you can dehydrate quickly) and stops me from getting too bored of one particular task. I’ll usually do four or five hours of work per day, either doing one job all day or jumping around between multiple tasks.
One interesting thing which my host said when I moved to South West Rocks was (paraphrased) “if you get bored, stop. There’s nothing worse than a bored volunteer doing the job badly and not enjoying themselves”. This is one of the major differences between “working” and “volunteering” and one which I very much appreciate. When you’re volunteering, you’re self driven, and therefore if you’re not enjoying it, you can just stop. I put this into practice the other day when working in a very damp area which turned out to have enough leeches to drain a herd of elephants of blood in seconds. Suffice to say after half an hour of trying to clear some weeds while being besieged by the invertebrate menace, I decided that would be a good day to do something else, and ended up filling holes in a wall with gyprock.
I usually have the evening to myself, which might be a case of sitting back with a good book, sitting around with a glass of wine in deep philosophical debate (I might be making that sound more grandiose than it really is), or going for an evening stroll if the weather is ok (though now it gets dark around 5:30 in South West Rocks, so that’s not much of an option). At the weekends I generally have time off from work and I often have time to do whatever I fancy (usually going off walking somewhere) but sometimes an offer will come up to go somewhere new. For instance two weeks ago we went out to visit a friend of my hosts who owns a big tract of land in the mountains to the west, where he is steadily building what could only be described as a native botanical garden right in the middle of nowhere. Last weekend we went down to visit another of my host’s friends who’s a wonderfully eccentric man who has designed and built an incredible house for when his family come to visit, but he actually lives in a caravan in the garden! This is the kind of opportunity which you don’t get it without getting involved in the local community. Similarly we’ve been to the Gladstone market twice, which is a monthly market of local produce, which makes for a fantastic outing where you can just chat away to random vendors and locals. Again, having gone with a bunch of locals, I found out that the baker at the market (who makes fantastic bread) used to be an ecological consultant, and so we had a good long chat… and bought some delicious breads and pastries.
So in summary, the volunteering life is busy, but not too stressful with plenty of opportunity for a bit of R&R alongside the work (which is usually pretty fun anyway). My only issue at present is a lack of taxing cognitive work, perhaps I should get into brain exercises, or start some deep philosophical debates.
For the future however, there are interesting things ahead. I’m going to head out on a few hikes to test out my shiny new tent (a Vango Banshee 200… more on that in a later post) because in a few weeks I’ll depart from the urban metropolis of South West Rocks to spend 5 weeks working with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy in the Northern Territory in the proper outback, doing some animal surveys, which should be a great change of pace from my current weed killing.