It’s winter in Australia, which means it’s cold and damp. I admit that I found that idea pretty hard to swallow before I got here. My image of Oz contained hot, arid landscapes stretching into the horizons, kangaroos bounding through gum tree forests, and beaches full of surfers looking out into the ocean, checking for sharks. But hot. Well it is like the above, but its cold and damp. The roos still bound around, but they do so in their woolly coats. Despite the season, the landscape is verdant with eucalyptus and palms; I doubt the Aussies ever look out through bare, skeletal branches of denuded woods and hedgerows that reveal what you can’t see during the summer months. And though it’s the depth of winter, there are still days where you can lie on the beach and make sandcastles in the warm sunshine, which is what we did yesterday.
I didn’t like Goulburn much. Although its the oldest inland city in Australia, it didn’t feel like a city. The cathedral that bestows upon it the status of city is quite small and grim looking. Goulburn feels like a town, like an American town, with low buildings (by English standards), mainly bungalows on large plots; the houses are built from wood or brick and a lot of them have corrugated, tin rooves. There is a main shopping street with lots of cafés (the Aussies like cafés, and they all seem to be full most of the time), chemists, a mall; the usual fare. There is a proliferation of doughnuts, cakes, fried chicken, and burgers on offer; it’s a meaty place where a vegetarian is a rare bird (one to be barbecued in a crispy coating). As in many parts of the US, beer and wine are not sold in supermarkets, but in separate, licensed stores: big queues on a Friday evening. The welcome is also American in style: ultra-friendly and accommodating (“Of course you can have that without bacon”)! But in the damp and cold it all seems quite grim.
The truth is it’s a city that has seen better days. It was once a thriving hub of all things sheepish, especially the merino kind; one of its top spots is an enormous statue of a merino sheep. But now the warehouses that processed the sheep: their wool and their meat, are empty and derelict and a bypass has diverted traffic from its centre, depriving it of passing trade and other visitors. Nowadays the human influx is directed towards the Police Training Academy and the Goulburn Correctional Centre, which contains a super-maximum security prison that’s home to Australia’s most violent and heinous criminals.
The reason we’ve come to Goulburn (pronounced Golbun) is not to see the sights but to spend time with Mike’s family - the Skidmores - and to finally meet his father, Rob, his brother Andrew (who is 15) and Martini, who is Andrew’s mother. Although Rob and Martini are recently separated, the three of them still frequently function as a tight, family unit, even though Martini now lives an hour away in Canberra. During our stay, we also get to meet Mike’s first cousin, Sharon (who he has never met before) and his uncle Gill and aunt Sarah, and their sons, and their families. The Skidmores are a large family, many of whom came to live in Australia in the 70’s as ‘£10 poms’. They are an expressive and fiery lot, bought up to speak their minds and do what feels right. This makes me feel right at home, but also makes for rather intense encounters and emotional turbulence. After a few days in Goulburn, Mike and I borrow Rob’s car and book an Airbnb in Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains. It was lovely to be alone with Mike again, warm up in a cosy apartment, and see a truly beautiful part of New South Wales.
The Blue Mountains are 11,400 sq km of pretty wild landscape with tame bits here and there. In the summer time it’s a bustling, holiday destination with all the things you would expect: cafés, galleries and the Katoomba cable car experience at Scenic World. Most of the development in Katoomba is centred around an enormous, forested canyon with incredible views and long arduous treks. We stuck to the views from the edges, a climb down to the Three Sisters (3 rocky pillars) and adventures in the cable cars, which were in fact a cable car, a funicular railway (the steepest in the world), and a cable lift that plunged us down into the canyon, once a major coal and shale mining spot, but now a dense rainforest with board walk trails. We got to see a gumtree that was over 116 years old (this is really old in Australia), a miners cabin and disused water filtration system from the 1920’s. We decided to risk taking the wild way back to Goulburn, driving over the Blue Mountains, despite the threat of black ice, kangaroo crashes, and unsurfaced roads; a number of people had warned us of these dangers. It turned out to be a beautiful day, warm with blue skies, and we enjoyed an uneventful drive back to Goulburn under the vast skies on the almost empty roads.
We returned to Goulburn hoping for some dry weather with plans to do some work in Rob’s back garden. With some health problems it’s been hard for Rob to keep on top of the garden and it’s a large space that could be really useful. Andrew and his mates like lighting fires out there, and there’s a couple of cars and a well kitted out garage; plenty to get busy with. We buy some waste sacks, a pack of screws, and before you know it the garden is cleared and strimmed, and there’s even a new hand-made compost bin for all the kitchen scraps and grass cuttings, and fallen leaves. Mike discovers new paths under the weeds, shrubs are cut back and we edge a fire pit with rocks and stones so it all looks much more inviting. On our last Friday night we head out to Crookwell for a barbie with Gill and Sarah, who live off the grid on a twenty acre property with sheep, a horse, two dogs, and a cat; not to mention the obligatory roos, usually to be seen bounding around in the distance. We have a lovely evening with scrummy food and chats and spend the next day checking out the surroundings and meeting Mike’s cousin Shannon’s new wife and soon to be born, bump. In the afternoon we went into Crookwell town centre for brunch where everyone knows everyone.
Our final day in Goulburn is spent out of Goulburn; Rob decides to take us for a drive out to the coast. It’s a bit cramped in the car with three in the back; Martini is also down for the weekend. It’s all well worth it when we reach the ocean at Shellhabour and Mike and I wander off for a couple of hours. The smell of the sea is so uplifting, and the warm sun and crash of the waves makes us feel sad to be going. We’re booked on to the sleeper train to Melbourne leaving Goulburn at 11pm, and although it’ll be five days before we arrive back at 16 Temple Street, it feels as if the journey home has begun. I for one can’t wait to clap eyes on beloved family and cat. I’ve missed them a lot, but there’s a feeling of all the doors closing behind us; doors to adventures and other worlds that we may never see again.