Wednesday, October 29, 2014

ROADTRIP 8: Afternoon at Hungry Head

When I was nine years old, I nearly drowned in a rip at Hungry Head beach. Suddenly swept out far beyond the clutch of families swimming by the shore, the sandy floor no longer within reach of my toes. A surf lifesaver spotted me and brought me back to safety, a little panicked but no worse for the experience.

If my family had stayed in Urunga I would have joined the Nippers and Mermaids, the junior surf lifesaving program and progressed from there. My father, grandfather and great-grandmother all had bronze medallion life-saving medals and there can’t be many fourth-generation holders of such.

The beach experience was not to continue – we left Urunga a few months later - and while I completed all the requirements for the bronze medallion at high school in the Temora town  swimming pool, half the class – the half without teachers’ own children in it – were not formally examined as so never had the opportunity to get the medal.

This afternoon was my first return to this beach since I was that nine year old. There were maybe two or three other people around while we waded through the lagoon behind the beach or kicked along the shore.
Afterward we had a little wander around the few streets of Urunga’s small collection of shops. The bank my father had opened was gone, as was the tiny fibro house we lived in for our ten month stay. The library where I discovered the Moomin books had moved up the street, so the only other building with significance to me that still stood was the primary school. It was largely as I remembered it, but the tall trees along the bottom end of the school where I used to exit from were all gone. During spring magpies would nest in these trees, and fiercely defend their young by attacking anyone walking through that school gate. Many of us would crawl commando-style for the last twenty yards with our hard school cases over our heads.

I really enjoyed my brief time at that school. It was small enough for teachers to have split classes of adjacent years in one room, so you picked up a bit from the older kids. It was the last place where we used real ink in desktop ink wells to write our lessons.  The best memory I have of the magpie-guarded gate was my father waiting for me at the end of my first school year there. I had come equal top of the class, and he had a big present for me, a deluxe Readers Digest volume The World Around Us which I kept I think until I left Seattle thirty years later.

Leaving Urunga was perhaps more poignant than any other leaving I had as a child. It was the third school I’d left in three years, and it underlined a lack of permanence in my life. As soon as you started making good friends, off we’d go. I didn’t make strong friendships again until I was at university. Undoubtedly these experiences made it easy for me to go off travelling for such long periods in my recent life.
Our dinner plan was to go to a restaurant/cafe down by the bridge seen here, but it turned out to be closed, for the night or permanently I couldn’t tell. We didn’t feel like driving to Bellingen again so settled for a pub dinner, unfortunately rather lacklustre.

ROADTRIP 8: Morning in the Promised Land

2-2014-10-29 ROADTRIP 8 UrungaWe began our leisurely Urunga day with a short drive back to a beach suburb of Coffs Harbour for coffee and breakfast. We wandered down to the beach (Park Beach South), which turned out to be dog-friendly, so Munson had what was to be the first of many swims today.

My plan for the morning was to do a country drive through an area just north of Bellingen. The 30km Promised Land loop advertised a number of water holes for swimming, and we’d be able to squeeze it all in before lunch. There’s a good tourist brochure listing these drives (downloadable here), from which the map below is available.
1-Promised Land Loop road map
The first interesting point along the way (for me at least) is the small Glennifer Church which inspired the book Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, later filmed with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. The literary version is made entirely from glass and there is no direct comparison that can be made with the wooden chapel here.
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Immediately after that we crossed a bridge over the Never Never River and pulled into a parking area by this wonderful swimming hole.Gustav of the Never-Never
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Munson had a great time cruising through the shaded waters and foraging around the banks.
2-DSCF0684 (2)3-DSCF0671 (2)As beautiful as this sheltered pool was, as cool and as its waters were, there was still  a surprise lurking below…
We thought this small fish ~20cm long blending among the rocks and leaf litter near one of the deepest points might have been a catfish.  Gustav spotted it first, even at a depth of nearly two metres, the view to the bottom was crystal clear. It never moved while we inspected it from a distance, intent on preserving its resemblance to the detritus amongst the tree roots lining the waterhole.

A friend later identified it as a bullrout aka “the freshwater stonefish”!! I can’t believe that after decades of avoiding spiders, snakes, crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, octopuses and a myriad other hostile Australian fauna, that I nearly fell victim this charmer.

The bullrouts venomous spines cause such excruciating pain that grown men have been known to bang their heads against concrete to deal with it. Apparently morphine is ineffective in treating bullrout venom, with either lignocaine or hot water being more useful. Well known to aboriginal populations, the bullrout frequents freshwater streams from mid NSW up to the top of Queensland.

Fortunately I generally wear sandals or kayaking boots in these circumstances, but I still get a chill thinking about how easy it would have been to connect with one of those spines.
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We spent about another house finishing the circuit of the Promised Land. There were several more swimming holes but we felt we’d had enough from the first Never Never River crossing. If I’d known about bullrouts then I would have been quite reluctant to enter deep fresh water again in this area.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ROADTRIP 7: Yamba to Urunga (afternoon)

In 1972 my family moved from Bourke in NSW’s far north west to the small fishing village of Urunga. Dad worked for a bank, and this would be his first post as a branch manager. We’d been in Bourke for exactly two years, but my ten months in Urunga would be amongst the most fondly remembered times of my childhood.

Our time there started badly, with our furniture van crashing into a tree a few miles out of town, furniture and personal items spilling out of ruptured boxes onto the roadway. Worse, we found that our dog Lucky had so endeared himself to the van drivers that instead of being transported separately he had ridden with them in the front of the truck. When we arrived at the scene, Lucky was missing. That dark shadow lifted within the hour, with our discovery of him playing happily in a field with some local farmers.
Yamba to Urunga

For an eight year old, moving to the seaside has many pleasures. Greatest amongst them for me was the Urunga Boardwalk, running from the edge of the town at the mouth of the Bellinger River, nearly out to sea. In the intervening decades it has been rebuilt and extended, so that it runs for about a kilometre out to ocean sands.
Pelican guarding the start of the Urunga boardwalk
Our family would walk out here on many weekends, and on the return leg, Lucky would leap off the boardwalk and swim the last section back to shore. I caught my first fish here, a red leatherjacket (not a song by Prince).

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The estuarine waters have changed so much since I was a kid, moved by the reshaped sands and mangroves have become a major presence on the southern side. The white sandy floor of the river mouth provide the setting for extraordinarily vivid blues and greens.3-DSCF0624-626_stitch
Gustav by the water
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09-20141028_162929 (2) Munson on the boardwalk
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We dined that night in the better known town of Bellingen, just a few minutes up the river. We’ll explore it more tomorrow, as we have two nights in a cabin on the edge of Urunga.

Church St BellingenChurch St Bellingen

ROADTRIP 7: Yamba to Urunga (morning)

Big Banana
Another  short morning of driving, stopping only for important stuff like coffee, beaches and big bananas.

We stopped in Maclean first for coffee (pretty good) and then the highway carried us inland to  Grafton with its jacaranda-lined streets and almost uniformly lilac-coloured shop window displays.

I can’t remember which beach we stopped at first, Munson wasting no time in heading into the surf to greet a few board riders.
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Our second swim was at Emerald Beach, just north of Coffs Harbour where Munson got to play with a host of other dogs. I remember one woman saying that her small white dog “looked like something that came out of [Munson’s] bottom”.
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1-DSCF0566 (2) Gustav attempts walking on water3-DSCF0601 (2)
Third swim for the day for one lucky dog – after our stop at the Big Banana – was in Coffs Harbour, which had a big dog beach. We had a short walk around the town centre but it was blisteringly hot, with most of the shops now swept up into one central mall. Not much there to grab the attention of those passing through, so we kept on passing.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Munson heads for the surf
The rest of our country roadtrip is entirely coastal, with much shorter driving stretches so that we can try out random beaches as we go.

We started out with a quick trip into Byron for coffee, and then made a brief stop at Lennox Head for a swim. The surf was a bit too rough for enjoyment so we didn’t linger there and decided to try to get to Yamba for lunch and a lazy afternoon.

Ducati, one of Munson’s old playmates from Sydney Park lived with his owner Mary in Yamba now, with Mary running Caperberry Cafe there. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to reach Mary before our arrival and we had to make do with catching up over the phone in the evening.

I established that there were at least two dog friendly beaches on hand; the first one we tried was Wooli Main Beach where these first photos of Munson are taken. One small grumble from our coastal journey was the difficulty in locating the beaches where dogs were allowed. Council websites would list a number of beach sections relating to places that couldn’t be identified on a map. In a few cases when I asked locals where such and such a beach or creek was, they could only shrug. Dear Councils, please put marked maps on your website!
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From there we moved onto the more sheltered Whiting Beach in the mouth of the Clarence River.
Gustav & Munson on Whiting Beach
Gustav & Munson on Whiting BeachMunson whittling away the afternoon on Whiting Beach
YambaI’d had trouble locating dog-friendly accommodation near Yamba, and ended up booking a farm-stay back up the highway. Our quarters were a lot more luxurious than our previous experience of “farm stay”.

MacleanGustav at Maclean
We hoped to find something seafood-y for dinner but the dining options were limited around Yamba itself, with the much lauded Harwood Hotel restaurant being closed early in the week. We decided to try out some of the pubs in Maclean (one of the Scottish towns). While not auspicious from the outside, the Clarence (Bottom) Pub turned out to be a real find. Our meals were so good I found the window to the kitchen and sent my thanks directly to the chef.
Sunset on the Clarence River at Maclean

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