On my second day in Oxford, I was wandering alongside the old city wall when I came upon a set of heavy wooden doors, a smaller door cut out and open, the same as mine at Balliol College. It seemed an odd place for them, surrounded by nothing but high stone walls, and I had to investigate where they could lead. Peering through, I saw a pointed arch, framing an emerald green lawn, turretted buildings rising behind. A sign said Welcome to New College.
New College is one of the oldest colleges in the city. It was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, for the education of priests, and built on land that had been the City Ditch, a haunt of thieves. It was also used as a burial ground for the dead during the Black Plague of the 1340s.
Sunlight filtered through the gothic arches of the cloisters, creating soft light and shadows on the flagstone floor.
A feeling of peace settled on me. I wondered if it had affected Harry Potter this way. It was here that he warned Cedric about the dragons in The Goblet of Fire. In the corner of a small quadrangle created by the cloisters was the 19th century Holm-oak, where nasty Malfoy sat, before being turned into a ferret.
The calm feeling stayed with me as I ambled through an elaborate wrought-iron gateway into a garden, large enough to be considered parkland. The City Wall forms its barrier on one side. Sumptuous cottage plants and bushes soften the pathway and climb the grey stones.
In the centre of the garden is a large mound, an Elizabethan feature, commonly found in formal gardens during the Tudor period. With steps to make it easier for the ladies to climb, these ‘mounts’ were placed to give vantage point to those wanting to see what was happening on the other side of the wall. They must have felt very hemmed in at times.
There is a serenity to this place. The rattling of the city is muffled by the walls and I could just about imagine myself back in the country. If ever I had the chance to study at Oxford (if they took in extremely mature-aged students), New College would be a good choice.
On arriving back at Balliol for my afternoon cup of tea and cookie fix, I discovered tourists wandering around my gardens. I was a little put out they’d invaded my territory without my permission.
While preparing for my upcoming trip to England, my mind wandered back to my first trip in 2011.
I’d always wanted to slip, ‘when I was at Oxford’, into the conversation, and so I booked myself into Balliol College, the oldest university in the city.
Balliol turned out to be right in the centre of town, two minutes walk from the tourist icons of Radcliffe Camera, Sheldonian Theatre and Hertford Bridge, known as the Bridge of Sighs.
It was also an easy walk to the river and the Botanic Gardens.
My student accommodation was completely adequate, in fact, larger than most of the rooms I’d had up until then and twice the size of the broom cupboard I ended up in, in London.
To get to it, I passed through a small quadrangle, surrounded by fairytale buildings, complete with a tower in one corner.
Through an archway was what looked like parkland but was actually a larger quad. It was here I spent my rest time, reading and watching the squirrels skittering from tree to tree.
Breakfast was served in the Dining Hall. Text to my daughter: you’ll never believe it am having breakfast with Harry Potter
On this trip, I’m starting in Cambridge. I’ve always wanted to compare Cambridge with Oxford, having seen them both in so many movies and television shows. I’m staying at St. Catharine’s College. I wonder how it will measure up to gorgeous Balliol.
I’ve just come back from a week-and-a-half stint with two of my teenage grandsons, while their parents were overseas. It’s definitely not hard work for me to leave the traffic and noise of my suburb and decamp to the beaches of Port Phillip Bay.
Port Phillip Bay covers 1930 square kilometres. The shoreline stretches for 264 kilometres, and is rimmed with wide, white, sandy beaches to the north, east and south, and swampy wetlands and marshes to the west. The Port of Melbourne is at its head.
Edithvale Beach, halfway down the eastern side, is quiet (except for Sundays when dogs are allowed off the leash till 10am; avoid Sundays if your’re not besotted with dogs), and at times I had the place almost entirely to myself.
Most days I walked along to Chelsea Yacht Club and back, not an enormous distance, maybe a couple of kilometres, but a good workout for me all the same through the often wet sand.
On my last morning I headed down at about 7am to discover the full moon, hanging ethereally over the ocean. Luckily, as a novice travel writer, I’m learning to keep the camera in the car for opportunities such as this.
The temperature was heading for zero (well, 10°), the wind was blasting and it was threatening to rain. But, intrepid traveller that I am, I headed back into the city. It’s years since I’ve been to Captain Cook’s cottage, settled in the gorgeous Fitzroy Gardens, stretching behind the State Parliament buildings.
The cottage originally stood in the English village of Great Ayton, and was owned by the parents of James Cook, another intrepid traveller, although Cook never lived in it, having already entered his sea-faring apprenticeship by the time the house was bought. He would have stayed in it, though, on his trips home.
To celebrate Victoria’s centenary in 1934, the house was bought by prominent Melbournian, Russell Grimwade, dismantled and shipped to Melbourne in 253 packing cases. It was reassembled and presented as a gift to the Victorian people.
Originally, a large portion of the house had to be demolished, to allow for the widening of the road through the village, but it was still a good size for the times: three bedrooms, a good-sized kitchen and a very nice sitting room cum office off the main bedroom. A thorny Hawthorn hedge surrounds the cottage. Young spring Hawthorn leaves were used for salads, the flowers for brandy, fruit for jellies, and timber for heating and cooking.
The kitchen would have been a warm and cozy spot, with coal and peat logs burning all day for heating and cooking. The small bedroom, off the kitchen, would have been pretty cozy, as well.
At 6ft. 3ins, Cook must have spent a lot of time, on his visits home, ducking his head to get up the stairs and through the doorways.
At the top of the stairs are the second and main bedrooms.
The herb and vegetable garden, at the back of the house, has been planted as it would have been at the time. In the 18th century, families relied on home-grown produce for their food supply. Poultry shared the space with vegetables, mixed fruits and flowers.
Most families had a good knowledge of the properties of herbs for cooking and medicine. They were used to cure a variety of illnesses and injuries, including bad breath, influenza and broken bones. Cook prevented scurvy amongst his crews by including scurvy grass (a New Zealand spinach), sauerkraut and other fresh produce in their diets.
The rain had held off but it began again as I left the cottage. The sun came out, it clouded over and rained and the sun came out and it clouded over and rained. A typical Melbourne day. But the Fitzroy Gardens are lovely, rain or shine, even in winter when many of the European trees are leafless and the new seedlings are waiting for Spring.
I’m at the Visitor Centre in Wanganui, on the west coast of New Zealand’s north island. A young woman offers me a brochure on the area’s attractions, one of them being the Durie Hill elevator. In 1910, the Wanganui Borough solved the problem of providing public transport for the residents of Durie Hill, a suburb overlooking the town, by constructing a lift through the hill itself. It was opened in August, 1919, and has been used by the locals ever since as a short cut down to the town.
I peer into the 205-metre-long concrete tunnel leading into the hill, not sure whether to continue. It’s like a railway subway, except I don’t know what I’ll find at the end, and I can’t see the end to get a clue.
I venture into the gloom. The further I go, the more I feel like a mole, going home after a day of foraging. The tunnel ends at a green door, locked and forbidding. On the wall is a sign: Please Ring Bell For Lift.
A button beneath is attached to a wire, running up the wall beside a folding door, its red paint peeling and the bottom of its panels corroded with rust.
This can’t be the elevator, surely. I strain my eyes back in case anyone else is on their way in. I’m not comfortable doing this on my own. No-one manifests, and I have to make a decision. I press the button. The door wobbles, and rattling, squeaks and an ominous rumble issue from behind it. I wait while the sound gets louder and louder. With a whoosh, the door folds back.
‘Hello,’ says a woman. The relief that I don’t have to work this monster myself is enormous. She waves me in and pulls the door shut. A little desk is in the corner with a tea cup on it. A phone and an intercom hang on the wooden wall, along with an array of buttons.
The woman pulls a lever and the contraption groans and starts moving.
‘This is a bit scary,’ I say, as we shake, rattle and roll our way up through the hill. She smirks at me, as if I’m one of the more idiotic people she’s met. ‘Well, you’d be used to it, I suppose.’
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘I’ve been doing it for a very long time.’ We leave it at that. Suddenly, the lift comes to a stop, she whips open the door on the other side and I’m out on the hill, with the wind almost knocking me over. I turn as the door is pulled shut. An orange tower sits over the elevator shaft, iron steps encircling it, leading to a lookout.
The wind is so strong, I feel sure, if I climbed up there, I would be at risk of being picked up and deposited into the winding Whanganui River below.
Hangi, Haka and Hobbits: Notes from New Zealand is book two in my Planning to the ‘Nth’ travel series. Click here.
The Edge of the World: Next Stop Cape Horn is book one in the series, describing my adventures during four road trips around the island of Tasmania. To download a free sample or to buy the book, click here.
On my way to a matinee at the Melbourne Theatre Company, I hopped a tram up St. Kilda Road to the Shrine of Remembrance, to try out my new camera. The Shrine sits on a hill in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
It was originally built as a memorial to the men and women of Victoria who served in World War 1, but is now a memorial to all Australians who have served in war. Commemorative services are held here on Remembrance Day (11th November) and ANZAC Day (25th April), which remembers, in particular, the armed forces of Australia and New Zealand.
I climbed the steps, passed between Doric columns and entered the dark, quiet space of the Sanctuary, with its tall, vaulted ceiling.
It contains the marble Stone of Remembrance, engraved with the words, Greater Love Hath No Man. Once a year, at 11am on Remembrance Day, a ray of sunlight shines through the aperture in the roof to light up the word, Love, marking the hour and the day of the armistice which ended World War 1.
I climbed more steps to the balcony. From here, Melbourne’s panorama opened up around me, from the skyscrapers of the city to the north, to the east where the tower of Government House rises through the trees, to the south with glimpses of the coastline of Port Phillip Bay, and across to the Westgate Bridge, the gateway to the Princes Highway, which takes you through the west and down to Geelong and Victoria’s iconic Great Ocean Road.
Recently, exhibition galleries have been installed beneath the Shrine, between the memorial’s original red brick foundation columns, with displays of over 800 objects: photos, uniforms and works of art, illustrating the experience of Australians at war and in peacekeeping operations, from the 1850s till now.
Featured is a lifeboat from the ship SS Devanha, used during the landing at Anzac Cove at the start of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.
It’s all beautifully done, very educational, very moving, the building itself, rising from its hill, supremely theatrical. Still, I came away a little dispirited, as I usually do after visiting war memorials, that old question rattling interminably in my head. Does war actually create peace or could there could be another way around settling conflicts? Not sure.
A couple of weeks ago, I took off with my four adult children to Noosa, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, for my nephew’s wedding. The week before, Australia’s east coast had been hit with violent storms, causing damage all the way down to Tasmania. We were worried. It was to be an outdoor wedding, in a gorgeous spot called Hidden Grove, a swathe of lawn surrounded by trees and shrubs at the edge of the beach.
But we needn’t have worried. By the time we arrived at Maroochydore Airport, where we’d hired a car to drive the half hour to Noosa, the sun was blazing and it was a beautiful 24º. It stayed that way for the next three days. A light breeze blew during the wedding to take the sting out of the afternoon sunshine. A perfect day in paradise.
I’m a Queensland person by nature, I’ve always thought. I need sunshine and warmth to feel completely well, so it was a little hard, to say the least, returning to Melbourne’s winter, especially after the luxury of the Noosa Crest, slotted into a steep hill over-looking the canals and the winding Noosa River, to the township and the coastline of beaches, distant hills and the National Park.
We had a three-bedroom apartment and I, being the elder, was offered the main bedroom. I didn’t argue for long – I don’t often get access to a king-sized bed, a two-sink bathroom and my own balcony, complete with banana lounge.
The Crest has its own boardwalk, leading down the hill through forest and parkland to Hastings Street, where we turned up for lunch the first day to greet the bride and her Japanese family. Hastings Street runs along a spit, bordered on one side by golden sand and the other by the river.
At one end of Hastings Street, a pathway takes you up to a cliff walk through the National Park. Tracks lead into the park itself. It’s a stunning spot, looking over tessellated rocks along the shoreline and out across Laguna Bay.
Noosa and the surrounding districts are a heaven for ‘foodies’. We walked, ate, walked, drank and ate again – which is what you do when you’re catching up with relatives. That was our excuse, anyway. The sun disappeared under misty rain and fog for the last two days but it didn’t stop us eating and drinking, though it did put a slight damper on the walking. Now for my diet.
After my serious dose of nature in Sherbrooke Forest, and my communing with my first-ever lyre bird, I headed up the Tourist Road to Mt. Dandenong and the William Ricketts Sanctuary.
Potter and sculptor, William Ricketts, was born in Richmond in inner-city Melbourne, in 1898. A gentle man, he had a powerful vision of a modern Australia embracing Aboriginal spirituality and respect for the natural world. He made frequent trips to the Pitjantjatjara and Arrernte Aboriginal people of Central Australia and was adopted by the Pitjantjatjara nation.
In 1934, William bought a log cabin and had it relocated to his bush block at Mt. Dandenong, where he spent the rest of his life creating a sanctuary with his art.
Most of the 90 sculptures dotted throughout the forest depict aboriginal people engaging with the earth, though a few represent William’s anguish at the takeover of the land by the white man and the devastation of the natural environment.
The sculptures drew me along pathways in and out of the forest. Wherever I looked, another image rose from a tree trunk, from rocks, from behind ferns and, seemingly at times, straight from the earth. Many are children, presenting the idea of the unity of mankind in the first years of childhood, when children play together, unaware of any differences or racial divisions.
William’s aim with his sanctuary was to inspire visitors to understand the Aboriginal philosophy that “all living things everywhere are forever one with us”. It worked for me. The longer I wandered the dirt tracks, past the trees and ferns and around the sculptures, the easier it was the feel this. It’s a serene place. I floated home.
As I try to understand the deepest meaning of life, I have become inspired by a unique growth of love for the Australian Bush. Because of that powerful love, I have become an integral part of my environment: bird, animal, forest, mountain, desert, rock, water – everything, everywhere, at one time. I am linked indivisibly with all of them. In this way, I have come to know that separateness is the enemy of true religion – William Ricketts.
The Sanctuary is at Mt. Dandenong on the Mt. Dandenong Tourist Road. It’s open from 10am till 4.30pm every day except for Christmas Day.
There is no entry fee but a note in the donations box would help with the running of the sanctuary.
Tourist information stresses filling the petrol tank before leaving. There are no service stations between Te Anau and Milford Sound and I know from this that I’m heading into serious wilderness. It’s a little daunting but I’m almost fearless, intrepid traveller that I’m becoming.
The mountains fill the landscape on my left as I follow the straight flat highway. Beech forests surround me, trees meeting in the centre, creating avenues of dappled green. Having driven through forests in Tasmania, I feel like I’m back with an old friend, until the trees ease away, the road narrows and I start to climb.
The straight highway begins to curve, the curves become hairpin bends and I start to understand how it feels to be a mountain goat. There’s nowhere to pull over if someone comes up behind me. They’ll just have to put up with my 30kph for as long as it takes.
A sign appears: One Way Road. What can that mean? How can it be a one way road when there are vehicles coming from both directions? What if I round a corner and am confronted with a car – or an SUV – or a tourist bus? At least I’m on the right side; I can hug the cliff. This should make me feel better – and it does, a little. Around a blind turn my nightmare becomes reality. Luckily it’s a small sedan. I stop as close to the cliff as I can to allow them past and my sympathy goes out to the driver. If she goes any slower, she’ll stop – and she does for a second, then realises there’s no way out of it and crawls away.
A little wooden bridge appears, introduced by a sign, bridge under repair, which is all very well but there’s no-one repairing it. It’s nice of them to tell me it needs repair. I’d have preferred not to know. Let’s hope it holds till I get over.
A light fog has replaced the sunshine and there’s snow on either side of me as I approach the Homer Tunnel. My niece updated me on this one-way tunnel carved through the top of the mountain and so I’m mentally prepared and looking forward to the adventure. I queue up behind a tourist bus and a sedan and wait for the red light to change and allow us through.
It’s another world up here, eerily quiet and still. There’s a lack of something, human energy, maybe. It’s a sliver of the planet still almost untouched. The great mountains surround me, majestic, like benevolent rulers, reminding me of what we humans really are – tiny creatures, nothing more that one species of the trillions on earth. It’s a comfortable feeling. I don’t want to run the show; I’m perfectly happy rolling along with everything else.
The light turns green and the bus roars into action, breaking the spell. I follow the car in front of me, excited and a little nervous about this new experience.
I expected there to be lights. Where I thought the electricity was coming from, I have no idea. The bus and car shoot downhill into the gloom and I’m alone. My headlights are not much help in piercing the dark. I feel like Frodo, forging his way through the mountain. At any moment, I expect a gigantic, slavering spider to drop onto my car and suck out my innards.
A pinprick of light in the distance grows and opens out to a curtain of fog and hairpin bends. The tourist bus has slowed right down ahead of me. It’s twice my width and I can’t believe it can get round such tight corners without plunging into the valleys below. It does, though, and if it can, so can I.
I sit in the cafe with the tasteless New Zealand coffee I’m becoming used to and try not to cry at the thought of doing the drive back on the cliff edge.
This is an excerpt from Hangi, Haka and Hobbits-Notes from New Zealand, the second in my Planning to the ‘Nth’ series, now available as an ebook through Amazon. To download a free sample or to buy the book, click here.
The Edge of the World-Next Stop Cape Horn, the first in the series, is also available through Amazon. Click here.
This week I’m launching the second Ebook in my Planning to the ‘Nth’ series. Hangi, Haka and Hobbits: Notes from New Zealand, describes my adventures and discoveries while road tripping around New Zealand, just three hours across the Tasman Sea from Australia’s east coast.
To launch the book, I’m offering it free for three days. The offer begins on Saturday 14th May and ends at midnight on Monday 16th. For a free copy of Hangi, Haka and Hobbits: Notes from New Zealand on those days, click here.
This week’s post is an excerpt from the book, just to give a taste of what’s inside. It’s February, 2014, and I’m halfway through winding my way from the Bay of Islands at the top of the North Island down to Wellington at the bottom.
I’m on Highway 5, just out of Rotorua, heading for Waimangu Volcanic Valley. In June, 1886, Mt. Tarawera erupted, coating the land for kilometres around with mud and volcanic ash. All plant and bird life was extinguished. Seven Maori villages near the mountain were buried, with the loss of 120 lives.
The flat land collapsed into a series of craters and Lake Rotomahana exploded to twenty times its original size, filling fifteen of the craters. The marvellous thing about this place is that, being so new, it has provided the opportunity to record, step by step, the development of an entirely new eco-system.
I leave the car in the almost empty car park and enter the modern visitor centre, nestled into a hill, its windows rising to the roof line to catch the light.
‘Just one?’ says the woman behind the counter.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Are you interested in the lake cruise as well as the walks?’
‘What time does it leave?’
‘You need to be at the lake at the other end of the track by 1 pm.’ She waits, patiently, while I consider. Not being the world’s fittest person, I don’t want to have to rush to reach somewhere by a certain time.
‘I’ll just do the walks.’
‘That’s $34.50.’ I hand over my travel card, one of the better services designed by the banks, allowing you to spend your travel money without the agony of handing over actual travel money. It’s not that I’m lousy – well, I am a bit – but it’s more that, growing up poor in the fifties, I still retain a little of that idea that if you spend it, you won’t have it anymore, and then what?
‘Now,’ she says, opening a glossy brochure and running her finger along the map. ‘There’s a bus that picks you up, here, here and here, so you can go as far as you like without having to walk all the way back.’
‘Really? Wonderful.’ That is wonderful. There’s always that horrible moment when you’ve happily walked until you’re too tired to walk any further and then realise you have to go all the way back.
The track leads into rain forest, trees towering above and around me, every space between filled with gigantic ferns. The sun filters through the leaves and the fronds, creating lilting shadows on the dirt path. A large hole in the ground appears to my right, filled with greenish water. Surrounded by the greenery of the forest, it looks just like a fairy dell. Dragon flies whirr along the water’s surface. Birds flit from branch to branch and in and out of the undergrowth, and their cheeps are like the chiming of little bells. Are fairies real? If they are, this is where they live.
The first plants returned to the area within months of the eruption, but it took thirty years for the forest to begin to regenerate properly. It’s certainly doing well now. At a lookout, I gaze across tier after tier of forested mountains, soft green morphing into deep blue and then a lighter blue, becoming the sky in the distance. I could be looking over the the Tarkine forests of north-west Tasmania, except without the Arthur River running through.
I drag myself away. The forest opens out and there, before me, is a large lake, steam drifting and wafting from its surface. This is Echo Crater and Frying Pan Lake. On 1st April, 1917, huge steam blasts re-excavated Echo Crater, devastating the surrounding land and destroying an adjacent hotel. Within a month, Frying Pan Lake filled the bottom of the crater, becoming the largest hot water spring in the world.
Creating a backdrop to the lake are Cathedral Rocks, great stacks of lava, not new to the system, but around 60,000 years old, older even than the mountain itself. Steam wafts from gaps in the cliff face, and it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. In fact, the whole place has suddenly become something from another era. It only needs a dinosaur to trot past and the picture will be complete.
Past a little spring, joyously popping and bubbling, is a set of steep, stone steps, leading away out of sight. I’m puffing as I reach the top, to be greeted by a spring of a colour between aquamarine and turquoise, bordered on three sides by dark, vertical cliffs.
Inferno Crater is fascinating for its mysterious rhythm. Regularly rising and falling up to 12 metres, it’s a window into the earth’s molten core, and is used for monitoring New Zealand’s volcanic activity. White sinter terraces surrounding the crater, formed by the cooling of the hot geothermal fluids, and vibrantly-coloured algae, mosses and lichens, only add to the beauty of the scene.
‘It’s worth it,’ I say to a woman, on her way up the steps as I’m coming down. She glances at me but is puffing too much to reply. Perpendicular cliffs tower above me as I wander along the track. Mud pools plop and pop. A little steaming, gurgling stream follows me for a while, as if keeping me company.
The forest opens out again and I stand for awhile, gazing at the Marble Terraces. Stripes of white, a rich gold, brown and emerald green remind me of a modernist painting, one of those in which you can’t work out what the artist is telling you but you like it for its colours.
I relax onto the wooden seat at Bus Stop 2. The little stream has reappeared and gurgles past. A myriad of bird cheeps, chirrups, twitters and an actual little tuneful motif, vie for my attention. I have to return here, not immediately, but sometime in the future. Next time I will definitely do the lake cruise. I have a strong feeling I’ve missed out badly there.
Hangi, Haka and Hobbits: Notes from New Zealand is book two in my Planning to the ‘Nth’ travel series. To download a free sample from Amazon, or to buy the book, click here.
The Edge of the World: Next Stop Cape Horn is book one in the series. To download a copy, click here.