Friday, 10 October 2014

Katoomba Mongrels

Can I just tell you how much I love my new Mongrel Boots? OK, they don't look very new any more - and I've only had them two weeks. That's how much I love them, though.
Firstly, yes, 'Mongrel' is rather appropriate, given that I'm pet-sitting. There seems to be a theme going on... Last night I opened a bottle of Portuguese wine called 'Lab', with a picture of a Labrador on the label. I haven't quite figured out why. I shouldn't be drinking Portuguese wine - I've been very good about sticking to my 'local food' principles and bought Australian - but I couldn't resist the Lab, not for ten bucks (five quid). Anyway...

On my first trip to Australia back in April-May, I brought such a minimal amount of luggage with me for a six week trip that I had serious Shoe Envy whenever I visited Sydney. No matter that someone actually complimented me on my tall suede boots from Athens; wherever I looked, there were more interesting shoes. And I noticed lots of Aussie women wore heavy black ankle boots.

I've always liked Blundstone-style boots, but never had an excuse to buy any. Especially since my Aussie man bought himself a pair - obviously it would be plain wrong to have matching boots. But then I was looking for a pair of walking boots at the fabulous Katoomba Workwear, which has outdoors stuff at sensible prices, compared to all the snazzy outdoors shops for people with high-powered jobs who do outdoors stuff on weekends...

Mongrel did lace-up walking boots, but it turned out I was in between sizes. Then Mr Katoomba Workwear suggested these pull-ons. He said they'd be fine for most bushwalking. I tried them on, and they looked - and felt - great. 

They aren't perfect - they aren't snug enough for walking down hills, though they're getting better as they mould to my feet - but I love them because they are big and clompy enough to scare away snakes, as well as being cool enough to wear to Katoomba's magnificent Station Bar. If you've never been to Katoomba, it's like a miniature Brighton, surrounded by forest.

Oh, snakes? Yes, we're in snake season. Two weeks ago, when I opened the Blue Mountains Gazette, page 2 had the news that venomous spiders had been spotted early for the season. Just great! Last week? The same page reported 'snake sightings a common occurrence'. The area has brown snakes and red-bellied black snakes, both venomous, though the black ones are shy... Needless to say, I'm keeping my eyes peeled when walking The Major or visiting places like this...

Apparently clomping around and making noise is good for scaring them off. A sign on one of the trails seemed pretty nonchalant about it: 'If you see a snake, it is best to leave it alone.' 


Sunday, 21 September 2014

Convicts, Gold Diggers and Naughty Schoolboys... Woodford Academy, Blue Mountains, New South Wales

Two hundred years ago, between 1814 and 1815, the first road linking Sydney with the Blue Mountains was built by British convict labourers under the supervision of William Cox from Dorset. Today's small town of Woodford was then called Twenty Mile Hollow, being twenty miles from Penrith, and inns were established at intervals of a day's journey by dray cart through lawless and difficult terrain - hot in summer, freezing cold in winter.
Twenty Mile Hollow, at 2300 feet above sea level, had a good supply of water from an underground spring, feeding a reserve for livestock and garden - always green, even in the drought. The Europeans, understanding nothing in those days of the Aboriginal peoples who had lived here many thousands of years, built a dry-stone vaulted cistern to cover the spring which had been an important meeting-place and part of an ancient system of songlines.

An illegal grog shop beside the road was replaced in 1834 first by The Woodman Inn, built from local sandstone around the time when Charles Darwin visited the area, then renamed The King's Arms, benefiting from the patronage of the soldiers at nearby Bull's Camp. Then William Buss, a former farm labourer convicted of horse stealing and transported to New South Wales, bought it at the height of the Gold Rush in 1855. The place became well known as Buss's Inn - even the nearby railway stop was called Buss's Platform - and prospered from hopeful gold diggers as well as soldiers tasked with escorting the gold to Sydney. The popular publican expanded the property, even providing a parlour where travelling ladies could relax without being troubled by gentlemen in the bar. Buss, in his red vest, is now one of the 'essences' seen haunting the house at times.
Part of the original inn where once the gold was stored
- see partially revealed stone walls and plaster and lath ceiling
- later a boys' washroom 
Buss died in 1867, and a year later the property was purchased by Sydney merchant Alfred Fairfax, who named it Woodford House after a village in Essex. This was when the railway was coming through the mountains and the colonials began to develop the area as a hill retreat with its forests and waterfalls, away from the heat and bustle of Sydney. Fairfax lost money in mining ventures, however, and after running his home as a guest house, sold up.
It was not the only former grand estate in the mountains that became a private boarding school around this time. Woodford Academy educated 300 students over the years between 1907 and 1925. Classics scholar John Fraser McManamey, who had also learned Modern Greek from a Greek doctor in Wellington and wrote poetry, encouraged the boys to engrave their names in the wood, believing they would also 'make their mark' in history. The Woodford Academy Punishment Book from 1908 to 1910 listed among the misdemeanours punishable by detention 'Lack of seriousness at lessons', 'Idling at prep' and 'Bringing a live bird in pocket to breakfast and letting same free'.

So the boys left their mark as did the convict labourers who chipped away at these stones.

The old Great Western Road passes by the house where we're staying this week - near the home of artist Michael Herron, who was exhibiting his paintings inspired by Woodford Academy when I visited. Woodford Academy is now the oldest surviving building in the Blue Mountains, and a fascinating little museum. A busy highway now runs beside it, separating it from the railway; but the sound of a freight train coming through conjures images of its colourful history.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Cullendula Creek, Batemans Bay

Upside down here in Oz, I have no real sense of where we are in the year. The last two weeks of August, my clothes have been drenched over and over as we get caught in the deluge of rain. The creeks that empty into the ocean are so high we have to take our shoes off to wade through them. We're living just south of Batemans Bay on the south coast of New South Wales - about five hours' drive south of Sydney. I love to walk barefoot along soft sandy beaches with my feet in the sea. We often see dolphins.
We walk along the coast every day, but recently, for something different, we set out at midday on Friday to walk the hour into Batemans Bay and then across the bridge over the Clyde River to the other side. When we stopped to buy a card from the office supplies shop, the lady saw our backpacks and offered some walking suggestions, which is how we found out about the boardwalk through the mangroves by Cullendula Creek. 

The sky remained grey and subdued, but I was mesmerised by the colours and textures of the seaweed, the shape of the exposed tree roots and driftwood, the patterns in the sand...

Since Cullendula Creek is a nature reserve, there were helpful signs from which I learned the names of some of the birds I see regularly around here, like the sooty and pied oystercatchers with their almost comical red beaks. Both are endangered species, but the sooty are more endangered than the pied, so they seemed to be refusing to talk to the commoners on this island at the mouth of the creek...
We saw the exposed pneumatophores of the mangroves that stick up out of the mud like dead men's fingers - in fact they're breathing roots so the plants can absorb oxygen from the air at low tide.

Darkness was falling so we had to start heading back. Then I spotted her.
We've seen kangaroos before, not far from the house - a magical moment but they'd bounded away fast. This one let us get very close. I thought I saw something in her pouch but wasn't sure until she moved out from behind the tree and it poked its head out.

Finally we left her in peace, and walked back along the shore as the sun was going down, spotting an octopus washed up on shore and a grey heron among the trees, and more sooty oystercatchers. On a grey Friday afternoon in winter, we'd pretty much had the place to ourselves - apart from the wildlife. We celebrated with a couple of draft beers at the Mariner's Hotel in Batemans Bay, and by the time we left it was pouring with rain again. We got soaked to the skin but it was worth it.

Cullendula Creek Nature Reserve: