Climb Every Mountain!

So another year is well and truly underway, and we certainly did not expect to be still here going strong, travelling around in Australia in early 2021. But circumstances around the World, and because we do love it here, that is exactly what we are doing. After three weeks in the big city lights (and big city clouds) of Sydney our feet started to itch again.  So it was back in a campervan and back on the road. This time, however, it was back to the small style of van that we originally set off from in Perth last February. As inexpensive and fabulous bargains the big vans have been out of school holidays, they are horrifically expensive during the holidays and as it was only half way through the long summer break here, we were economically forced into the small van. Sorry Sarah, no onboard toilet for the next month!

No toilet in there Sarah.

When we packed up to leave Sydney we were instantly reminded as to how much clothing and equipment we have collected over the last year, not least two bikes, so getting everything in was a logistical challenge and patience with accessing things on a day to day basis was going to be the order of the day.

Because we had been in Greater Sydney where there had been a major Covid outbreak (minor outbreak in the context of most of the rest of the World) none of the other States wanted to know us, until we had been out of the city for 14 days. So we decided to continue South along the New South Wales coast.

We are becoming quite the experts at finding the good, free or low cost campsites and not only does it help to keep the budget down, but we much prefer them to the large commercial sites where everyone is crammed in like sardines. Also, with no Australians being able to go on foreign holidays this year, it seems everyone has decided to go camping so getting on a commercial site is often challenging.

Our first stop was in a State Forest near the pretty seaside town of Narooma, which is where we had our first incident with our new van. We were sitting in the van one morning when Sarah decided to get out for something. “Steve, I can’t open the door”, came a slightly concerned call. Steve went to help and sure enough the sliding side door to the van was stuck! So Sarah, being the more flexible of the two of us, climbed over the sink, cooker and tap, between the driver and passenger seats and into the front cab. She then opened the front door and got out of the van, where she was then able to easily open the sliding door and let the slightly less flexible Steve out. A few checks revealed the door mechanism was well and truly broken and after a couple of calls to the rental company and a local garage we managed to get an appointment to fix it a couple of days later. So Sarah spent the next 48 hours climbing over the cooker and sink, doing the front seat shimmy, in order to free us from the back of the van!

Sarah to the rescue!

Luckily Narooma was a great place to be stuck and Sarah really enjoyed it, as did Steve when Sarah chose to let him out! She was a little sad when the door was fixed.

With a fully operational van, other than a decidedly dodgy fridge, we set off inland away from the coast towards Kosciusko National Park, home to Australia’s highest mountain and apparently the location of some good walks.

What was Kosciusko like? Well if we say we made a plan to go for 4 or 5 days and we stayed for two weeks and had to drag ourselves away, that sort of explains it. The place was magnificent, and we were blessed with some amazing weather of mostly clear, blue skies.

What an amazing view.
The highest point in Australia.

We based ourselves around the town of Jindabyne which is on the edge of a huge lake only five or so miles from the entrance to the National Park. The park is the main ski area in Australia and, as in many European ski areas, the summer brings walkers and cyclists and they were here in abundance, to the point where it gave the place a great atmosphere rather than a jam packed overcrowded one. We ended up staying in three different campsites all of which were very different. One was a big commercial operation in the centre of town which had good facilities and was handy for food shopping, but it was way too busy for us. The second one was an ultra basic one in the National Park which we loved and it even had a river flowing through it where we could have a good wash off after a day in the mountains…(we weren’t the only ones!).  We would have stayed there the whole time but availability was an issue. The third was a huge site with acres of space, in a beautiful location a few miles out of town. It was owned by the Adventist Church. It was immaculate and well run and we liked it almost as much as the basic one in the Park.

Another great place to camp.

So with great camping, great weather, beautiful scenery to walk and run in, and smooth, hilly roads to cycle on, we indulged in two weeks of what felt like non stop activity. We covered almost 100 miles of walking alone. Our favourite one was the whole day, 14 mile, long route to the top of Mount Kosciusko. It was much less busy than the main route up and we were treated to some spectacular views along the way.

The Bush Fires have left a strange landscape in places.

Steve enjoyed it so much that he went back and ran it a few days later while Sarah walked up the main route. At the end of it he was pretty whacked and was reduced to a speed not much faster than walking.

Almost finished.
I think you have been doing too much again.

He wasn’t as tired, however, as Sarah was on our last day. We decided on a tough walk to finish our time in the Park which involved a steep climb to around 6500 feet. About halfway Sarah began to feel the effects of the two weeks, and a combination of tiredness and lack of food began to show her down. Her stops became longer and more frequent, and by the final section of the climb it was like Sir Edmund Hillary reaching the summit of Everest. Luckily for Sarah though, there was a fabulous cafe at the top called ‘The Eagles Nest’, the highest cafe in Australia, which suddenly became Sarah’s favourite place on the planet. With an hour’s rest, a huge bowl of salty chips washed down with a mug of hot chocolate, she set off back down the mountain more like Eddie The Eagle! Steve couldn’t believe the transformation as he was having to break into a jog to keep up.

One tired cookie!

We eventually left Kosciusko, not because we wanted to but more for the sake of our health. Steve worked out he had done almost 80 hours of exercise in our time here, so enough was enough, we packed up the van and headed out of town.

One more hill before we go….please!

We had initially planned to return the van to Sydney and catch up with Terry who we met in South America. He had offered to look after us for a couple of days but unfortunately the virus scuppered that plan, as a return to Greater Sydney would have meant complications for future border crossings and unnecessary self isolations. So we changed the drop off to Brisbane, filled out the online application for a Border Pass, and rather than head up the coast we planned a route through the New South Wales hinterland. For three days and 800 miles we meandered along back roads and through farming areas, not dissimilar to parts of Northern England and Wales (other than the weather was slightly better). After stopping in the ‘foodie’ town of Mudgee, the ‘university’ town of Armidale and descending down the amazing ‘Waterfall Way’ into Bellingen we eventually landed back on the coast in the seaside village of Yamba where we had been 10 weeks before. We were both pretty exhausted and consequently spent the best part of the next three days soaking up the sun on Yamba’s different beaches.

Time to chill in Yamba.

We could have stayed a little longer in Yamba but we had a lunch appointment to keep. Although we were unable to catch up with Terry in Sydney, our return to Brisbane meant an opportunity to catch up with Glen and Kellie for the fourth time!! This time we were going to celebrate Australia Day with them and Glen had booked a table at a pub near Mount Tamborine. So with our recently approved Border Pass we drove back into Queensland and headed for the pub.

“Stop the van”, came the shout from Steve as we turned off the motorway to head inland. “These are some of the steepest hills in Queensland, I can’t miss cycling here”. So out he jumped and off he went, while Sarah headed on to the pub. Two hours later, with Sarah, Glen and Kellie all waiting in the pub carpark, Steve hurtled down the hill towards them “I’m only a couple of minutes late and I have had a brilliant time”, was his greeting.

A few minutes later, and after Steve had freshened up and changed in the back of the van, we were all sitting around a table in a huge, packed beer garden holding on to ice, cold glasses of beer, wine and cider. It was quite the scene with families everywhere enjoying one of the country’s biggest holidays. We were laughing and joking, swapping stories of what we had been up to and reminiscing about our time in South America, as well as all our plans for the future. It was definitely an occasion for us to remind ourselves about how fortunate we have been to have had such a fabulous year, when others have been so restricted. Last year we spent Australia Day watching the fireworks in Perth. Never in our wildest dreams did we anticipate the year we have had.

Catch up time again!

Probably the highlight of the day was the Cane Toad Race. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of cane toad racing! It’s huge in Queensland!! Basically, the eight cane toads (marked with numbers on their backs) are auctioned off, some of the toads went for over £60. They are then placed under a barrel in the centre of a big circle. The auctioneer becomes the commentator, the barrel is lifted, and the first toad out of the circle is the winner. The money spent on the toads is split between first, second and third, with 10% going to the local charity.

“Let the games begin”

It’s chaos, with cheering and shouting (and a bit of cheating), but everyone was having great fun. And just in case anyone was worried, no toads were harmed in the making of this fun! Sarah even had a photograph with the winning toad, but Steve didn’t think it was quite as good as the one she had with Gino D’Campo in Italy a year or so ago!

Someone is hoping for a Prince!

After a great afternoon we said goodbye to Glen and Kellie……again, and headed off for another few days on the beach at Noosa Spit, one of our favourite locations to spend a bit of down time.

“I love it here”

We want to be fully rested up before we return the van, because when we do, we are picking up another van on the same day and heading straight off into the outback and embarking on what we hope is another circumnavigation of Australia, Visas and Border Passes permitting.

So taking the words from a song I vaguely remember, “Let’s Go Round Again”!!

Oh! We nearly forgot. On our way to drop off the van we made a stop at Australia Zoo, just over a year after our last visit. It is a really lovely zoo and heavily promotes the memory of Steve Irwin and his legacy. There is plenty of interaction with animals which we both enjoyed.

Here are our favourites…

Someone’s happy.
You would think we might be kangarooed out by now.
“I can see you”

Another year over!

We were right, in many ways, New South Wales is different to Queensland. Probably the three differences with the biggest impact on ourselves are; it is far busier, the camping is slightly different and the weather is much more changeable. For several months now we have been wandering around Queensland and The Northern Territory pulling into excellent campsites of all descriptions at will, in what felt like never ending glorious sunny weather. Now we are having to plan and, especially at weekends, book our sites in advance and take into account cooler weather (plus the occasional bit of rain). There are also a substantial amount of permanent residents on some sites, sometimes over half of the occupants are ‘permo’s’. This is something that was virtually non existent before and certainly gives the sites a different feeling. The free or cheap campsites in beautiful locations with only a couple of other people around are definitely harder to come by in NSW.

So are we enjoying ourselves? You bet we are! NSW isn’t Queensland, just like France isn’t Spain or India isn’t Thailand (OK that analogy might be extreme). But they are both great in slightly different ways and we have found some real gems.

Our first stop was in Yamba. Sometimes we look back and think why did we choose to stop in a particular place? Sometimes it’s because we fancy going there, sometimes it’s because someone has recommended it, and sometimes it’s because when looking at a map it looks like a convenient location to stop. Yamba fell into the latter category and what an amazing place it was. A lovely clean little town with a selection of pristine beaches which we left far too soon. In hindsight, another couple of days there would have been well spent.

One of the beaches at Yamba

The ‘Yamba model’ became a regular sight along the NSW coastline. A coastal town where a river meets the ocean, with steep rocky headlands and a series of beaches facing in different directions, some exposed to the ocean, some sheltered by the headland and some along the river. This gives something for everyone; surfing, paddle boarding, swimming, fishing, kayaking, sun bathing, hiking, kite surfing, and the list goes on.

Another noticeable difference in NSW was the distances we were travelling between locations. Yamba to Sydney, for example, is just over 400 miles and we had a month to do it. We were driving much more than that in a single day in The Northern Territory, so we had to readjust our mind set.

Plenty of time to stop off and do a bit of cooking.

We spent the next week or so drifting slowly south along the coast, spending some time on the beach and some time walking the headlands. We soon discovered that by finding campsites about 20 miles or so inland they were more to our liking. The pick of the bunch was in someone’s back garden. It was a hundred acres of back garden though! It was a beautiful garden with all sorts of wildlife including a few kangaroos which watched us closely as we set up a campfire for the evening.

A great spot to spend the night.

We visited Red Rocks, Nambucca Heads and Crescent Head, all of which were really lovely places in their own right, all pretty much following the ‘Yamba model’, all slightly different to one another, but if we are honest, they were all starting to merge and we were needing to find something different.

Sarah enjoying the never ending beautiful views.

Then quite by accident we dropped into Booti Booti National Park. We were heading towards the seaside town of Forster for Steve to have a trip down memory lane. He came to Forster in 1999 to race The Ironman there and arguably had his best ever race, qualifying for the Hawai’i World Champs. Back then it was all about the race and he was completely unaware of the amazing place lying a few miles to the South. After driving through town, and seeing how much building had happened over the last 20 years, we continued on without stopping. The map showed a slither of land between the ocean and a lake which looked interesting and was a short cut back to the highway, so off we went. The slither of land turned out to be a couple of hundred metres wide with ocean and beach on one side, and bush and a huge lake on the other. We found a campsite on the lake side and, although it was a bit rough around the edges, it was certainly a case of the worst house on the best street!

Booti Booti was magnificent. We spent three glorious days there; paddle boarding in the lake, cycling around it, lazing on the beach, playing in the surf and walking through the bush. We were spoilt for choice with five amazing beaches on hand and with only a couple of pockets of beachside communities the beaches were all pretty much empty. It was easily our favourite place in NSW so far.

A room with a view.

A fabulous place to paddle board.
Time to relax.

We had to leave Booti Booti maybe a little bit earlier than we would have liked but we were under a little bit of time pressure as we had tickets for a rugby game in the city of Newcastle and we had another place we fancied visiting on the way.

Nelson Bay is a very popular area indeed. Three hours North of Sydney, it is a popular weekend and holiday destination for the ‘Sydneysiders’. We were there on a Friday and Saturday when the temperature on both days was over 40 degrees centigrade!! The area is visually stunning but with an audience of six million on the doorstep (three hours drive is definitely on the doorstep in Australia!). Local businesses have cashed in on the opportunity and I suppose who can blame them. Fast food outlets, bars, and restaurants are everywhere. But like in so many places we have been in the World, if you are happy to stay just a short way out of town, and visit the more inaccessible spots, you can soon limit the crowds and still see some amazing places, sometimes even better than the well known sights.

One evening while in Nelson Bay we made the 45 minute trip into Newcastle to watch the All Blacks play Argentina. What a fabulous experience it was, with great seats, a warm evening, a view of the ‘Haka’ and New Zealand were on fire putting on a dominant display to win.

Great seats for the Rugby.

After spending the last few weeks mainly on the coast it was time to head inland a short distance for a stop and a spot of walking in The Blue Mountains. We combined a couple of the classic walks around the rim and then down into the bottom of the main canyon. It was a spectacular and varied walk, giving panoramic views of the mountains, winding tracks through the forests, steep decents to the canyon bottom, twisting tight pathways along the bottom across streams, and through thick vegetation before a seemingly endless set of steps cut into the rock to exit back to the top.

Sarah takes it all in.
It’s going to be a big walk!

We have done some incredible walks during our time here in Australia and we both agreed this walk was right up there with the best of them, maybe even at the top of the pile.

Sarah cools off during the walk.
Winding through the bottom of the canyon.

We also did a shorter walk in The Blue Mountains which took in the iconic Three Sisters rock formation. On both of our walks we were blessed with beautiful clear skies and warm weather. It was really cold in the mornings but it soon warmed up, unlike the days before we arrived and the days afterwards when dark clouds, wind and rain were the dominant features.

The Three Sisters rock formation.
Steve gets up close to one of the sisters. (He is there somewhere)

So it was with a real feeling of sadness that the time came to drive into Sydney and give up our latest campervan. The last two months have been yet another great success for us, delivering everything we had hoped for and more besides. Now it was time to see what the big city lights had to offer.

Back in the big city.

In summary the big city lights gave us very little and the whole thing was a bit of a let down. It started off by us renting a large campervan on someone’s driveway. The photographs we had seen on Airbnb turned out to have been taken in a different location to where the van was situated, and also a few years ago when the van was in its prime. So our new home was a tired, old van, on a dark tree covered drive, two miles away from town, up a massively steep hill!!!

Dark, dreary…. but cheap for Sydney 😄

Adding to that, the weather was pretty miserable for a summer in Sydney, and the worst outbreak of Covid-19 in Sydney since April had started in the next suburb. So after five days we said “enough is enough” and we moved out.

Finally we join the Covid-19 world.

This was easier said than done. Because it was the week before Christmas there wasn’t a single hire car available anywhere in Sydney. We searched high and low and in the end the best Steve could come up with was a flatbed truck! We initially came to Australia with two small hand luggage sized backpacks and one holdall. But in almost a year, we have collected a lot of gear, not least two cycles. So we piled it all in the flatbed, covered it in a tarpaulin, secured it down with a washing line, and set off in the pouring rain to drive through the middle of Sydney. We laughed at ourselves and our situation all through the suburbs, past the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, under the river via the tunnel and onto our new apartment in Sydney Olympic Park.

Steve loads up all of Sarah’s clothes!🤣

The new place was fantastic and so spacious. Sarah laid in the middle of the floor and pretended to make snow angels the place was so big. But the real treat, the epitomy of luxury, the new place had a flushing toilet, our first for over two months!

The weather was still quite cold and cloudy for Sydney but The Olympic Park had a cycle path of over 20 miles which wound through the woodland, down by the river, and around the various stadia that were used for the 2000 Olympics. With a couple of coffee stops along the way, we did the route most days and stayed out of the centre of Sydney as restrictions were now in force due to the major Covid outbreak (about a hundred cases) in The Northern Beaches. In fact, we even had to wear masks when we went to the supermarket. At least we felt like we were joining the world of Covid even if only in a very tiny way.

Outside the main stadium from the 2000 Olympics.

On Christmas Eve we moved again, only a few hundred metres away, into another apartment. This time though, we were house and cat sitting for a young couple who were going away for the holiday period. Sarah found us the place on an Australian house sitting website and it suited us just fine. Free accommodation in Sydney, over Christmas and New Year, we were never going to turn that one down. And, as if having a flushing toilet wasn’t blowing our minds, we now had a bath for the first time this year, “Merry Christmas Sarah”, said Steve!

Looking after Alexa!

Because we were still so close to The Olympic Park we continued our little routine as the weather continued to be poor. We also cycled the 10 miles into the centre of Sydney on Christmas morning and had a bag of chips for lunch in The Botanical Gardens, next to The Opera House. A bit different to the normal ‘full on’ Turkey roast! We then spent the rest of the day and some of the night making several video calls to family back home, over four hours in total.

Sarah has her Christmas lunch in The Botanical Gardens.

The ability to make regular video calls to family and friends has been a real positive this year, for both them and ourselves. It’s been great to sit down and have a chat with a cup of tea, and is the closest we can get to ‘visiting’ people without actually being there. We are sure that has been the same for so many people all over the world.

So that is that. Another year done. Definitely not the one we set out to do, but probably most of the planet’s population can say the same. Everyday we remind ourselves how lucky we have been to have had such an amazing year, when others have not been so fortunate. We have been in a position to remain fluid with our plans and to adapt them at short notice. We are especially fortunate to have family who appreciate the life we have chosen, and have been understanding and supportive of the decisions we have made as this Australian odysey goes on and on!

We shall return to the UK soon, but there are still a few more miles left to do and a few more sights still to be seen. Let’s see what 2021 brings. A great year for all is what we hope.

**The original title for this years blog was “Oz to home”. We have changed it to “A year down under”. We thought it was more apt.**

“Merry Christmas” from Sydney.