Unlocking Melbourne’s puzzle, piece by piece

 

As I begin to write this post, it is 1pm local time and I, along with most of Melbourne’s five million residents, am anxiously awaiting the daily Covid-19 update from Victoria’s Premier and senior health officials.

The briefing is likely to take place later in the afternoon, once the latest test results are in from a district of the city where an unexpected cluster of Covid cases broke out last week just as it looked like the spread of the virus was under control. If the results are good, we expect there will be a significant easing of the tight restrictions (aka LOCKDOWN) that have been in place for nearly four months.

All of us are hoping that the retail and hospitality industries will, subject to various precautions, be able to open up and that we will be able to have persons visit our homes again, albeit two at a time. Oh to sit down for a good espresso or go shopping for, well, anything but daily essentials!

That is part of the explanation for the title of this post. The other source of its inspiration is the fact that we have just completed our third ‘Pandemic Puzzle’ and it was a doozie!

It is called the Melbourne Map Jigsaw Puzzle and it has become quite a ‘thing’. If you go to this link, you will find more information about how it was produced.

Here is a photo of the puzzle, taken soon after we put the last of the 1,000 small pieces in place. Taken as a whole, it is not easy to make out the various elements of the map, let alone some of the finer detail, so I’ll take you through a few close-ups, including places that some of you will have heard of or seen via various media.

The body of water below comprises the mouth of the Yarra River, that flows through Melbourne’s CBD, and the northernmost part of the bay that connects Melbourne to the Southern Ocean and beyond.

The next three photos cover most of Melbourne’s CBD: it’s heart, featuring the Yarra River and the iconic Flinders Street railway station (centre, right); the western end, including a revitalised waterfront precinct; and the eastern end, including the Parliamentary precinct, the beautiful Treasury Gardens, where we had our wedding photos taken in December 2006, and the larger Fitzroy Gardens.

   

Speaking of gardens, the city’s main Botanical Gardens dominate the next image. They are very popular with locals and visitors alike.

The final two images are for sports fans, beginning with Albert Park lake. The track for Melbourne’s F1 Grand Prix race circles the lake. The lake itself is very popular for gentle-water, small-boat sailing, and the park’s green spaces include venues for several outdoor sports, including golf, soccer, cricket and Australian football.

And last but definitely not least, Melbourne’s main ‘big occasion’ sports precinct.

By way of orientation, the light brown strip which runs from the top left-hand corner, is a collection of railway lines that feed into more than half of Melbourne’s extensive public transport train network.

The stadium on the north side of the lines is the Melbourne Cricket Ground, known widely as the MCG and to Melbourne residents as The ‘G. It has permanent seating for nearly 100,000 spectators and close to that number attend the Grand Final of the Australian Football League (AFL) season. In a normal year, this event would take place on the afternoon of the last Saturday in September. However, this year was anything but normal in Melbourne, so most AFL matches were held in Queensland, where the spread of Covid-19 was contained early on, culminating in the delayed Grand Final being staged in Brisbane two nights ago.

The ‘G is also famous as a venue for Test Cricket matches played between Australia and other cricketing nations. These always begin on 26 December, which is the Boxing Day holiday in Australia, and continue until 30 December or when the match has been won by one of the two sides. It is common for more than 80,000 persons to turn up on the first day of each match. The ‘G was also the main stadium for the 1956 Olympic Games and is occasionally used for other major events, including international rugby and soccer matches and concerts by visiting pop and rock stars.

On the other side of the railway tracks you will find Melbourne Park, the venue for the Australian Open, one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, for which the main stadium is Rod Laver Arena (RLA). Melbourne Park runs from immediately opposite the MCG, westwards towards the patch of yellow gravel beside the Yarra River. Outside the tennis season, RLA is often used for contemporary music concerts.

Now, if there are any masochists out there looking for a way to occupy a few weeks of their pandemic-skewed lives while learning more about our home city, Maggie and I can thoroughly recommend this remarkable puzzle!

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

PS. Just after I finished drafting this post, Melbourne got the news we were hoping for!

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These cakes won’t sell your strawberries short

Here in Melbourne, it’s early in the fifth week of a tough, six-week lockdown, which was imposed by our State Government to suppress a severe Covid-19 outbreak. We can venture out no further than 5km from our home and only for a short list of purposes. One of our favourite activities – travel planning – has become an exercise in futility, all the more so because residents of Melbourne are very unwelcome in other Australian states.

Unsurprisingly, Maggie and I have been spending even more time than usual in our kitchen, as we work to ward off the mental demons let loose by confinement and boredom. (Our other main tactic is to tackle interesting-but-challenging jigsaw puzzles.)

One of the new dishes we have made during ‘lockdown’ was inspired by the bumper crop of flavoursome strawberries coming to us from coastal parts of southern Queensland, which enjoy berry-friendly weather when we are shivering our way through winter.

The dish is strawberry shortcake, which is commonly associated with the United States. Other cuisines match strawberries with scones, eg England, feature them in tarts, eg France, or, in Australia, pile them onto a pavlova. And, of course, a fresh, ripe strawberry is a pleasure, per se. I sometimes enjoy a few as an after-lunch palate-cleanser!

Anyway, back to the shortcake.

We looked at various recipes before finding one that suited us, albeit subject to several modifications. Here’s how it turned out, followed by our recipe.


Ingredients

250g ripe strawberries, hulled
2 tsp Cointreau or Grand Marnier
120g plain flour
30g almond meal
60ml caster sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
50g butter

Method

  1. Cut strawberries into pieces about 2cm x 2cm in size and place them in a bowl. Add the liqueur, stir gently and leave to macerate for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Line the base of four 11cm non-stick flan tins with baking paper.
  3. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl.
  4. Using a fork, whisk the egg in a small bowl.
  5. Preheat oven to 170C.
  6. Melt the butter over low heat and add to the bowl of dry ingredients. Stir well to combine.
  7. Add about half of the whisked egg to the bowl, mix to combine and, if necessary, add a little more of the egg to form a soft, even dough.
  8. Transfer dough to a lightly-floured surface and divide into four portions. Trim 5-10% of each portion, dust with some extra flour and set aside.
  9. Flatten each portion by hand, transfer them to the flan tins and spread the dough to the edges.
  10. By hand, distribute the pieces of macerated fruit across the dough, taking care not to overcrowd them (see photo below).
  11. Dot each tin with crumbled pieces of the reserved dough.
  12. Place tins on a baking tray and place on the lowest shelf in the oven.
  13. Bake for 20-23 minutes, turning tins if necessary for even cooking, until dough is beginning to turn golden brown at the outer edges.
  14. Transfer tins to a rack to cool for 5 minutes before separating the cakes from the tins and returning to the rack.
  15. Serve at room temperature, with or without a dash of cream.

  

   

And here is the second jigsaw puzzle we completed during lockdown: a truncated version of The Kiss by the famous Viennese artist Gustav Klimt.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Delicious fish pie, with a Tasmanian twist

From time to time on this blog, I have mentioned one or the other of my two friends, Bill and Susan, who live in Perth, the capital city of the Australian state of Western Australia.

I have known Susan and Bill since 1975 and 1981, respectively. Since their marriage in 1984, we have shared home-cooked meals accompanied by a generous amount of wine on numerous occasions, and such events long-ago became a key plank of our relationship. If anything, that shared interest in pleasures of the palate has grown stronger with age, particularly as it applies to Bill and me, both of us having more free time on our hands these days.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, Bill sent me a link to a Youtube video in which an Australian couple – one a renowned restaurant reviewer, the other a well-trained cook – demonstrate how to prepare a dish of fish pie (see below). Turns out Bill had decided to have a go at making one for he and Susan to share and, sure enough, I was soon treated to a video clip of Bill serving it up.

I took all this as both a generous act of sharing a source of inspiration and, not that a middle-aged man like me would ever be competitive about cooking, a challenge!

As it happened, Maggie had a couple of sheets of puff pastry lying idle in our freezer, leftover from the pack we bought to make our annual batch of Beef Wellington. Here is how it turned out in 2020, accompanied by a modest heap of wilted spinach.

So, Maggie and I had a good look at the instructional video and decided we’d be happy to give it a go, noting that the method included a true, classic béchamel sauce, in which milk is infused with the flavours of a bay leaf, black peppercorns and slices of white onion.

We decided to vary the recipe by replacing some of the fish with scallops, in part to reflect the Tasmanian heritage on my late father’s side. Scallop pie is a long-established part of the diet of most Tasmanians and, in the historic small town of Ross, there is actually a business called the Tasmanian Scallop Pie Company!

A couple of suburbs away from our home, there is a shopping and hospitality precinct famed for being a centre of all things Greek and it is a popular destination for home-cooks wanting to buy fresh seafood and lamb. That is where we bought our two main pie ingredients – some firm-fleshed white fish and some beautiful scallops, all so fresh that the only aroma was that of sea water.

In the end, we used 400g of the fish and 200g of the scallops. Maggie cleaned the scallops and separated their roe from their flesh, before scattering them around the two pieces of fish in an ovenproof pan.

Meanwhile, we had prepared the milk for our béchamel sauce, bringing it to a gentle simmer, turning the heat off and leaving it to infuse until it was lukewarm. We strained the milk over the seafood, covered it with the recommended damp sheet of baking paper and placed the pan over a low heat until it began to simmer.

 

Once the seafood had finished cooking in the warm milk, we removed it and finished making the béchamel sauce, including the addition of some thickened cream off the heat.

The fish, which had been flaked into chunks, and the scallops were returned to the pan and smothered in the sauce.

 

Maggie then covered it with a sheet of pastry, trimmed to size, cut an opening in the centre and brushed it with the seasoned egg yolk.

And here is how it looked after being baked at 170C for 40 minutes.


We served it accompanied with some tender, fresh peas, a winning combination IMHO. Remarkably, given the extended period of poaching and baking, the scallops were as tender as my father would have wished, well, insisted upon, actually!

We’ll be making this one again. Thanks Bill!

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

 

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Blue cheese and roasted cauliflower soup

 

Our bowl of this delicious soup

Just over a year ago, Maggie and I returned from the Northern Territory at the end of a wonderful two weeks of travel experiences, including two days in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

The accommodation for our Uluru-Kata Tjuta visit was a hotel – Sails in the Desert – where the main bar offered a smart and varied menu of bar-bites and light meals. One lunchtime, I decided to try a bowl of their soup for which cauliflower and blue cheese were the key ingredients. It was very tasty, without being too rich in flavour or texture.

Once home, I found a recipe which, with a bit of tweaking, produced a similarly delicious result. After some further minor adjustments, this is how I prepare it.

Ingredients

500g cauliflower florets, weighed after trimming
40g butter
2 cups stock (vegetable or chicken)
salt and white pepper
1½ cups stock, extra
80-100g blue cheese (to suit), chopped coarsely
60ml cream
3 tbsp (60ml) chopped parsley

Method

  1. Remove the cheese from refrigerator at least 2 hours ahead and chop while it is still firm
  2. Pre-heat oven to 170C
  3. Place the cauliflower florets in a baking pan
  4. Melt the butter with about 200ml of stock and pour it over the cauliflower and put the pan in the oven on the middle level
  5. Bake the cauliflower for about 40 minutes, turning after 20 and 30 minutes, until the florets are tender and caramelised on their edges. During the cooking, add more of the remaining 300ml of stock in batches to prevent the pan from becoming too dry and burning the butter
  6. Once the baked cauliflower is cool enough, transfer it and any pan juices to a food processor. Add as much of the remaining stock as needed to make it easy to process to a smooth puree.
  7. Transfer the puree to a saucepan and add any remaining stock. (If necessary, use some stock to help you remove the puree from the food processor.)
  8. Heat the soup until it comes to a very gentle
  9. Add the blue cheese and stir gently until it has all melted; this might take several minutes. Add the cream, stir it through and bring the soup back to a simmer.
  10. Serve immediately and sprinkle with parsley, to taste.
  11. Leftovers should be reheated carefully if using a saucepan, to prevent the soup from catching on the base of the pan.

 

 

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Two duckadent dinners

Regular readers of this blog will know that Maggie and I enjoy preparing a meal of duck, starting from scratch with fresh duck legs or breast fillets. Happily for us, a supermarket close to our home maintains a good supply of these products, which come from a business called ‘Luvaduck’. Luvaduck was established in the 1960s in a country town located more than 350km from Melbourne.

Recently, the local supermarket was offering a discount on the price of fresh whole ducks. Not ones to resist such a temptation, we bought two. Over the following fortnight, we had four dinners of roast duck, two from each duck.

Now, a meal of roast duck is not something you can prepare in a hurry. After removing the oil glands around the ‘parson’s nose’ and pricking the skin all over with a skewer, you need up to 2 hours for cooking the duck at a low temperature – about 125C in a fan-forced oven – to render most of the fat. Then it is time to tip most of the rendered fat out of your pan, increase the temperature to 170C and roast the duck for a further 40 to 50 minutes, depending on its weight.

These photos show one of our ducks before and after the oil glands had been removed – not the prettiest of sights it has to be said – and the pricks made in the skin to help the rendered fat exude.

   

This photo shows you how the duck looks at the end of the first two hours in the oven. Hmm, it’s still a bit on the ugly side!

We flavoured and glazed each duck in a specific way. For the first one, we produced a stuffing that was quite rich in flavour.

Ingredients for rich stuffing

15g butter
2-3 French shallots, finely chopped
15-20g liver pate (a modest quantity), at room temperature
2 tbsp almond flakes, crushed by hand
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
zest of an orange
30ml finely chopped parsley
20ml (combined) of finely chopped thyme and rosemary
30-405 prosciutto, coarsely chopped
1 small apple, peeled, cored and grated
6 prunes, stoned and chopped
1 egg yolk
salt and pepper

Method for the stuffing

  1. Melt the butter in a small pan and sauté the shallot until soft.
  2. Transfer the warm shallot and butter to a mixing bowl, add the pate and stir to combine well.
  3. Add all the other ingredients to the bowl and mix well. Season generously with salt and black pepper.
  4. Spoon the stuffing into the duck’s cavity before placing the duck in the oven to begin the two hours of slow cooking

To glaze the duck in this case, we just dipped a basting brush into the fat in the bottom of the roasting pan and brushed the top and sides of the duck two or three times during the period of roasting at 170C.

These two photos show our bowl of stuffing and the finished duck, ready to carve.

   

And here is one of our dinner plates, including some fresh peas and a medley of carrot and beetroot baked ‘en papillote’.

 

For the second duck, we used a recipe we found on Australia’s largest recipe website. You will find the recipe here. Bear in mind that we used the method described above for how the duck was prepared for and treated in the oven.

As far as the ingredients for the stuffing are concerned, we followed the recipe fairly closely. However, we reduced the volume of most of them, except the almonds and orange zest, and we substituted French shallots for the onion and hand-crushed, toasted almond flakes for the slivered almonds.

In the case of the sauce, we stuck to the ingredient list and method faithfully. However, we found that we needed to use some cornflour to make the sauce thick enough for our liking.

These two photos show the duck after we had brushed it with the sauce and sprinkled it with raw almond flakes; followed by the finished duck.

 

And here is one of our dinner plates. For this meal, the side dish comprised well-cooked brown rice, tossed with chopped prosciutto and some baby spinach leaves that had been wilted in some butter. In our experience, brown rice matches duck dishes very well, although white rice is probably a better match when the duck is cooked with flavours from South-East Asia.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Green and white chicken noodle soup

Classic comfort: a colourful bowl of chicken noodle soup

Who doesn’t like to sit down to a bowl of some variety of chicken noodle soup? Surely, only a hard-hearted soul would not yield to its comforting flavours and textures!

In the Wikipedia entry for chicken noodle soup, a section headed ‘In different cultures’ has 25 entries – including at least one from every continent except Antarctica – plus a sub-section in the United States entry for canned soup.

Over the years, Maggie and I have used two quite different recipes, one for each of us. Maggie’s version was relatively uncomplicated, as she usually made it to cater for the young palates of her daughter’s children.

I preferred a more elaborate production, which was adapted from a recipe by a local chef with both Italian and French heritage. You can find my recipe here.

A few weeks ago, Maggie found another recipe, from a renowned Sydney chef, that she thought might appeal to both of us, including my liking for multiple steps in a cooking method.

The first half of the recipe involves poaching a whole chicken to yield both the stock and the meat for the soup. We by-passed most of that rigmarole, using a blend of a good-quality commercial stock and some stock we had made using the carcass of a rooster or cockerel. (The latter is another story, saved for a rainy day!) And, for the meat, we simply poached some pieces of skinless chicken.

Secondly, we made several changes and additions to the recipe for the soup itself. We were very happy with the end result, so much so that we have it twice more since then. Maggie will take the latest batch to her daughter’s house today, to serve to the now more sophisticated palates of those grandchildren, for a school-holiday lunch.

Here is our recipe.

Ingredients

350-400g skinless chicken breast or thigh fillets
15-20g butter
2 medium-sized leeks, trimmed, halved lengthways and finely sliced
2 long sticks of celery, chopped
½ large turnip, peeled and diced
6 cups (1.5 litres) chicken stock
100g spaghetti, broken into short pieces
100g fresh peas
1 cup shredded baby spinach leaves
salt and black pepper

Method

  1. Well ahead of time, place chicken meat in a saucepan and cover generously with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Leave the chicken in the cooking liquid for a further 10 minutes. When the meat has cooled, dice it finely.
  2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan or stock pot, add the leek, celery and turnip, and cook gently for 7-8 minutes to soften the vegetables.
  3. Meanwhile, cook the peas briefly in simmering water, ie a couple of minutes less than you would to serve. Drain and refresh with cold water to prevent them cooking further.
  4. Add stock and chicken meat to the large pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 8 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in salted, boiling water for about 5 minutes. This part-cooking step reduces the amount of starch released by the pasta into the actual soup.
  6. Add the pasta to the pan and simmer for a further 4 minutes.
  7. Season with salt and pepper, then add the peas and spinach, and cook for 3-4 minutes.
  8. Adjust seasoning, serve and enjoy the colourful mix of green and white ingredients.

Leek, celery and turnip, softening in butter

Poached chicken meat, finely diced

Peas, shredded spinach and part-cooked pasta added to the pot

 

If you happen to have an egg-white leftover from some other cooking activity, you could continue the colour theme by heating enough soup for two bowls and whisking the white through the hot liquid. This adds a lovely textural element as well.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Rooms at the top: our stay in the Umbrian towns of Orvieto and Todi (part 2)

Now to our three days in and around Todi.

Todi’s population is more than 16,000, a tick over 80% of Orvieto’s. However, it looks and feels very different to Orvieto, although not in any ways that mattered to Maggie and me.

Unlike Orvieto, Todi is not located on a train line or major highway, making it slightly less accessible for tourists and its buildings and piazzas, including its (former) cathedral, suffer a little by comparison. These small differences have something of a domino effect – there are far fewer high-end retail stores and hospitality businesses.

On the plus side, the pace of life is slower, the voices are mainly Italian and, by late afternoon, the piazzas are occupied by local families, enjoying the period of transition to evening and catching up with friends over a coffee or a glass of wine while their children play or ride their bicycles. And good, authentic food is not too hard for the visitor to find.

Here is some of what we ate at Vineria San Fortunato, a smart wine bar with an outdoor terrace set below the namesake church.

Another distinguishing feature of Todi is the surrounding countryside of gentle hills and valleys, dotted with olive groves, vineyards and more, interspersed with verdant woodlands, and so very typical of what gives the province of Umbria its nickname ‘the green heart of Italy’.

 

Embedded in this rich agricultural land are 37 villages that have been part of the Commune of Todi for many centuries, as depicted in this medieval ‘map’ displayed in the municipal museum.

This is the idyllic area where we were taken on a winery tour and, in a country house at the edge of one of the villages, for our pasta class.

The next photo looks across the countryside, with the famous town of Assisi lying on the distant slopes, followed by the reverse view, taken from the terrace bar of the hotel where we stayed during a visit to Assisi in 2008!

 

 

Here are some scenes of Todi itself.

 

Our accommodation in Todi was Residenza D’Epoca San Lorenzo Tre. In structure and decoration, it was a slightly quirky, period-piece but it offered an expansive, high quality continental breakfast, Italian-style. You can find out more about the hotel here.

Another delightful feature of the building was its rooftop terrace, replete with comfortable seating and glorious views over-tiled roofs to the surrounding countryside.

 

And, for Maggie, no stay in an Italian hilltop-town could be complete with yet another rendition of Tiramisu!

Next stop, Venice!

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Rooms at the top: our stay in the Umbrian towns of Orvieto and Todi (part 1)

 

Orvieto’s impressive  Duomo

In these two posts, I will tell you what we saw and did in and around the Umbrian hilltop towns of Orvieto and Todi late in September 2019.

We spent three nights in each of the towns and enjoyed them both very much. However, there are marked differences between the two.

Orvieto has a population of just over 20,000 and is a popular destination for international travellers, who go to view the late-thirteenth century duomo, explore some of the 1,200 underground caves, have a leisurely lunch at one of the numerous dining establishments or purchase items of the ceramic ware for which the district is renowned.

The town is quite accessible, as it lies on the main train and vehicle routes that run from Rome to Florence. In our case, we came by the train from the north, having entered Italy through the alps from France, thence to Milan for an overnight stopover, before taking trains to Florence and then to Orvieto.

One of Orvieto’s best-known landmarks it its cathedral (duomo), which has a very distinctive external appearance. Our hotel room looked directly across a piazza to the cathedral.

             

The view from our window

Although we are not at all religious, we do find some places of worship quite interesting to examine and explore. Inside, Orvieto’s doumo had some outstanding features, but it was not at all excessive.

       

Exploring the town by foot takes you to a wide variety of interesting sights, including stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

             

No visit to an Italian town is complete without a red Vespa!

 

   

For a small fee, you may ascend to the top of the tower in this next photo, …

… and take in the panoramic views.

   

The vast majority of the tunnels below the town are privately owned. However, two are controlled by the municipality and are open for guided tours. The tours take you to sites where grains were ground into flour and olives were pressed for oil.

 

Other tunnel sections intersected with wells dug deep into the rock, while others were used to raise doves as a source of food.

     

Orvieto’s popularity with international visitors is reflected in the number and quality of accommodation options, high-end retail stores and numerous cafes, bars, trattoria, enotecas and restaurants.

Several stores sell the colourful, locally-made ceramic goods. Browsing in one of them, we witnessed an American woman spending a five-figure sum on a collection of pieces and watching, somewhat anxiously, as the goods were carefully wrapped to be sent to her home address!

And here are some examples of Orvieto’s thriving food and wine scene.

   

Ultra-fresh zucchini (courgette), herbs and grated parmesan, drizzled with thick, delicious balsamic

   

One of five versions of Tiramisu that Maggie put to the taste test during our four weeks in southern Europe

 

Next, to Todi.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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It’s hot and steamy, smells like hell, could cost you an arm or a leg … and they call it Wonderland!?

Thermal mud pool, Rotorua, New Zealand

Maggie and I feel very fortunate, especially about our international travels through the years from 2008 to 2019. In October last year, we flew home from Rome at the end of our eighth visit to Europe, content in the belief that we might not visit that part of the world again, nor anywhere else requiring a long plane flight or considerable expense.

We are both 66 years old and we have spent a great deal of time and money on travels in distant countries. Now it is time for us to both tighten our belts a little and explore places in or near to our home country of Australia.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic only heightened our sense of being fortunate. If it had hit six months earlier, our planned travels in France, Italy and Greece would have been cancelled, leaving us feeling somewhat bereft. And in February, we went on a cruise around New Zealand and across the Tasman Sea to Melbourne, one of the last virus-free cruises of early 2020. Lucky us!

Of course, we can both think of quite a few far-away places we’d be delighted to explore. Top of my list would be Yellowstone National Park in the United States, with its incredible variety of outstanding features: geology, topography, plants, wildlife, scenery, the seasonal changes and so on. So significant is this great park, the first national park in the USA, that National Geographic devoted its entire May 2016 edition to it. I know this because I came across it in my dentist’s waiting room, borrowed it and read it from cover to cover!

As most readers would know, one of the features that make Yellowstone so special are its geothermal formations. Well, New Zealand is also home to some remarkable geothermal activity and we got to explore some of it in February, on a day’s outing from our cruise ship (Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth). Here is some of what we saw.

The first site we visited was a large thermal mud pool. It was fascinatingly hideous, as illustrated in this short video clip.

The mud pool was a mere warm-up act for what followed – the Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland, which is home to the largest area of surface thermal activity within the Taupo volcanic zone in the centre of New Zealand’s north island. (Wai-o-tapu means ‘sacred waters’ in the Maori language.)

We spent a couple of hours following some of the trails around Wai-o-tapu, marvelling at the variety of geothermal formations.

Here is a busy stream of heated water, which gave off sulphurous vapours.

Next, a collapsed site from which ‘rotten-egg’ gas was emanating:

This group of pools contains unrefined crude oil. In the early 1900s, they were skimmed to extract fuel for kerosene lanterns. Imagine doing that for a living. Ugh!

The next group of photos were taken from various viewpoints around a couple of large pools. Amazing colours were generated by a variety of minerals and the heat.

   

  

   

Holes in the walls of this collapsed crater are home to three species of small birds. The heat from below helps to keep the birds warm in winter and to incubate their eggs.

The last stop on our track was this large pool, with its attractive chartreuse tones. But its virtues are only skin-deep – with a pH of 2, it would made short work of an arm or leg, should you be foolish enough to test the water!

We plan to visit New Zealand again in the years ahead, once, if not twice. However, Maggie’s nostrils have had their fill of the country’s geothermal wonders, so we will turn our attention to the ‘shaky isles’ other scenic and cultural attractions.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

 

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Easing out of isolation!

The last time I published a post was early in March, when the world was about to be turned upside-down by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic hasn’t actually made a dramatic difference to my daily life, partly because Maggie had one of her knees replaced on March 5, which meant we faced a period of semi-isolation anyway. However, with most of the world’s citizens having little or no prospect of doing any meaningful international travel for the foreseeable future, I couldn’t summon enough desire and creativity to write anything interesting about our various pre-pandemic travels from 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

So, what’s changed to bring me back to the keyboard?

Well, by a combination of good fortune and good management, the spread of the virus has been arrested in Australia, enabling our federal and state governments to ease some restrictions on our movements and activities. In our state, Victoria, restrictions on holiday travel and using commercial accommodation were eased two weeks ago, just a few days before a long weekend.

Faced with a scheduled power outage in our street, we decided to get ahead of the long-weekend pack, booking two mid-week nights at Boondaburra BnB at Ruffy, a small community at the western end of the Strathbogie Ranges in north-central Victoria.

For most of the two-hour journey, we drove through drizzle and rain showers. By the time we arrived at Boondaburra, the sky was clearing but a fresh south-easterly chilled the air. No matter! Our hosts had two fires going, one in a pit close to a sheltered patio, the other warming our comfortable and spacious open-plan accommodation.

The pit fire at Boondaburra

Inside the BnB

We would describe the property as a part-time farm, stocked with some beef cattle but also home to a wide variety of native birds, wombats and a few healthy-looking koalas. Exploring Boondaburra – a First Nations word for platypus – on foot is encouraged but we were advised to keep a lookout for the numerous wombat holes!

One of the koalas, up a gum tree

After a good night’s sleep and a few slices of fresh homemade bread, we set off in what we thought was the direction of the town of Nagambie. Happily, we got lost – by at least 90 degrees actually – and spent an hour wending our way along unsealed roads through a series of valleys featuring swift-flowing creeks, woodland and bushland. The valleys alternated with expanses of lush granite-strewn green pastures, dotted with cattle, sheep and sulphur-crested cockatoos, all of them seeming to be very pleased that good rains had brought plenty of new food!

Our unplanned adventure ended at the large town of Seymour, where we went in search of a quality coffee. Our luck held, as we came upon Little Stones Cafe, which was on its fourth ever day of business. Their single-origin coffees were outstanding, as was a tangy orange & almond cake. Even the hipsters of Melbourne’s inner suburbs would have been happy.

Reinvigorated, we made our way to the Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Walk, a series of 106 digi-glass panels, listing the names of every member of an Australian defence unit that served in Vietnam, set against a backdrop of black & white photos taken during the years of Australia’s involvement in what is known to the Vietnamese as the ‘American War’. The panels are supplemented by some information boards describing key activities and battles in which Australian personnel were involved.

(If you click on the link, you will read that Australia’s participation in the Vietnam conflict was “a tumultuous part of Australia’s history”, as was the case in the United States. I was old and interested enough to attend some of the massive anti-war rallies held in Melbourne in 1970 and 1971.)

From Seymour, we drove northwards along the Goulburn Valley Highway, making for Tahbilk Estate, home to some of the oldest shiraz vines in the world, dating from before phylloxera devastated vineyards across the world.  We had booked to be two of the 20 customers permitted at any one time in the winery’s Wetlands View Restaurant. (Social distancing is still mandatory in restaurants and cafes.)

We enjoyed an unhurried lunch of a main course and glass of estate wine each, a shared dessert and coffees. The food and service were both excellent, as was the view from the venue’s large timber deck.

View of the wetlands at Tahbilk Estate

After lunch, another hour-long drive – on sealed roads this time! – took us through more of the district’s idyllic scenery, arriving at Boondaburra in time to light the fire for a second cosy evening.

A clear, early-winter’s sky produced a frosty morning, so we took our time over breakfast, before making our way to the main road back to Melbourne. (We interrupted our return journey for another dose of the coffee at Little Stones Cafe!)

As we reached the outskirts of Melbourne early in the afternoon, Friday’s holiday traffic heading north was building up quite noticeably. We were content that we’d had our ‘long weekend’, two wonderful days that gave us just what the doctor ordered to blow the pandemic’s cobwebs away.

Boondaburra BnB, with its wood-fuelled fires, green scenery and clear skies worked well as a winter destination. We hope to return early one November, when the spring weather should be at its best.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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