Writing, Nature and Presence

Recently I attended the inaugural Eleanor Dark lecture which formally closed the Blue Mountains program of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, held at the grand old Carrington Hotel, was given by Delia Falconer.

Falconer is known for her novels including The Service of Clouds which I’ve referred to previously as one of the books that is intricately linked to the fictional world of the Blue Mountains. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of the series of books on the Australian capital cities was also wonderfully evocative of place, history and atmosphere. And so it was with interest that I attended this lecture which had as its focus the themes of writing, nature and presence.

It was fitting that Falconer was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture as she had written part of The Service of Clouds whilst in residence at Varuna, the National Writers House bequeathed by the Dark family. Falconer spoke of her time there with fondness, of coming across Eleanor Dark’s gardening journal which illustrated her exacting practical mind, and the joy that Dark took in the local eccentricity of Katoomba life along with the magnificent landscape.

Falconer noted that part of the motivation behind Dark’s landmark trilogy The Timeless Land was distaste at the mindless celebrations around the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Dark’s response was to carefully research and write a fictional account of the early years of the colony from the viewpoint of the colonisers and the Aboriginals; this may be seen as clunky from our current perspective but it was revolutionary at the time. The natural world featured strongly in these books, and Falconer quoted someone as saying that Dark’s work gave the reader a sense of sunlight and the scent of boronia. It can be seen as a precursor to Australian nature writing.

From this foundation, the lecture moved to the challenges of writing in a world marked by the loss of abundance in nature. A simple example was given of driving at night through the countryside – or anywhere outside the suburban sprawl – when the windscreen would soon be choked up with moths and the like. Or the movement en masse of Sydney fruit bats over the city skyline at night. Both examples, which were commonplace, are now relatively rare. Some writers in this field maintain that we are going through the sixth great extinction, a time of rapid loss of species that is unprecedented.

I was interested by the idea that we are indirectly impacted by the kind of animals and plants that surround us, yet it is hard to know what you haven’t seen. This in turn could lead to environmental generational amnesia, where elements of the natural world are entirely lost or become so rare as to no longer be on the human peripheral. There is now a term for the psychological distress caused by such significant environmental shifts – solastalgia.

But what can writers do in such a period of change and uncertainty? Falconer urged writers to tell the story. Use autobiography to look back and understand what has changed. Make it uncomfortable. And think ahead to the future.

[Photo: view from Govett’s Leap lookout, Blackheath]

 

Writers’ Journey, Sydney Writers’ Festival Event @ Katoomba

Like many readers and writers I find it interesting to hear how other writers approach their craft, how their interest in writing came about and what their process looks like, not least of all because it is unique to each writer.

And so I jumped at the chance to attend an event about the writing journey as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, held in conjunction with Varuna and the Blue Mountains Library. The four people who shared their stories and insights into the writing life are accomplished Australian writers across fiction and non-fiction and their oeuvre crosses many genres. David White, who facilitated the event, acknowledged the endless fascination that readers and writers alike have in the writing process.

The session began with each writer providing a 15 minute overview of their writing life. Malcolm Knox shared the story of his first day on trial with the Sydney Morning Herald in 1994; Catherine Cole spoke of the influences of childhood, of how the joy and pleasure of reading led to a desire to create. Craig Cormick demonstrated his passion for writing the story that demands to be told by passing around a sample of his many published books, ranging across non-fiction, children’s fiction and short stories. Lisa Chaplin, a self-described housewife with an imagination, outlined her transition from romance writer to historical novelist, and shared her approach to writing which includes a hand drawn visual map incorporating the three act structure, soundtrack and scented candles specific to the current work in progress.

The reality and challenges of a writing life were acknowledged by all of the writers. Self-doubt, how your best work isn’t always your published work and how success does not always correlate to talent were some of the points agreed upon. Cormick said that writing exposes your heart and that publishing takes a bite (out of it), but write anyway. A couple of good examples of learning from the masters was provided by Chaplin, who learned the art of editing through the Romance Writers of Australia, and Fiona McIntosh Masterclass. All agreed on keeping drafts of your work, and to remove your darlings to a separate document rather than to kill them off completely – a character or situation which might not fit one piece of work may suit another.

But there are many upsides to a writing life as well. The importance of small things, of celebrating the success of other writers and of keeping in mind the need to engage in the world around you. How the best you can expect is a life in which there is space and scope to write.

Write anyway – this was the overarching message. Embrace the power of creation, and believe in yourself as a writer.

[Photo: Lisa Chaplin, Malcolm Knox, Catherine Cole & Craig Cormick, left to right]

Book Review: The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn

When I spotted the front page of the Blue Mountains Gazette last week, I was delighted to see that The Last Days of Ava Langdon by Mark O’Flynn had been longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. There is a link to the interview with the author here.

Shortly after I moved to the mountains, I attended a poetry reading by Mark at the newly opened Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. A poet’s eye and love of language is evident throughout this novel, with a sense of place and mood evident from the opening line of the section titled Morning: ‘Dawn cracks like an egg against the fibro walls of the derelict shack.’ Word choice matters to Ava Langdon, who is described below:

Catching sight of herself in a little wedge of mirror perched on an exposed joist, she stops. Who is that hideous creature? What form dost thou take? Her hair like the thatch from a mattress used for nesting material, with lavender bags under her eyes.

Words are chosen carefully to capture the essence of an eccentric personality living in extremely basic conditions in a shack on the outskirts of a mountain village. There is a blurring between the character’s sense of reality and her very active imagination, interwoven with recollections which at times seem unlikely yet not impossible. The vivid evocations of a familiar landscape appealed to me, and I enjoyed pondering what Katoomba would have looked like decades ago. Ava’s interactions, especially at the post office and tea shop, have stayed with me months after reading the book. I am reminded of her whenever I spot the old post office in Katoomba Street:

The red bricks of the post office are darkening now where a downpipe has leaked over the facade. May as well go in, she thinks, and mounts the steps. The door. The dimness. All that detail.

‘Never fear, I have arrived.’

The door swings shut behind her, light, dark, light, dark. Several people at the counter turn to stare, she who is dressed so extraordinarily, the cravat like a golden goiter spilling down her shirt front, the pinstripes, the braces.

The book is loosely based on the life of Australian writer Eve Langley, who is best known for her novel The Pea Pickers. Like Langley, Langdon is an unorthodox writer who wrote a successful novel but didn’t reach the same heights of success again in her career. The hope, anticipation and despair of a writing life is poignantly portrayed:

And here are her four fibro walls which guard her boxes of rejected manuscripts, each one four hundred pages long and typed on rose-colored paper. Each encapsulating an aspect of her life, the romance of it, the creative force of it.

This is one of those books which once read I want to hang on to, to be able to dip back into and savour again. There is an excellent review of it here.

[Photo: Old Katoomba Post Office]

 

Sculpture at Scenic World, Katoomba

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to join a guided tour of the Sculpture at Scenic World exhibition. This is the sixth year of the exhibition and there are 35 artworks on display, located along 2.4 kilometres of walkway. There is significant interest in the exhibition with artists from all over the world submitting concepts for sculptures and installation. The successful submissions are on show from 7 April to 7 May at Scenic World.

Illusion by Kayo Yokoyama

Illusion by Kayo Yokoyama

The exhibition is complimented by other pieces of sculpture on show at various locations across the mountains including the Carrington Hotel at Katoomba and the Hydro Majestic Hotel in Medlow Bath. There is also an exhibit of indoor sculpture by many of the contributing artists on show at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Sculpture Otherwise.

Kangaroo with a Selfie Stick and Home is Where the Heart Is by Jimmy Rix

Each year the sculptures follow a theme with a chosen medium. This year it was timber and the wide range of sculptures offers a broad interpretation with materials including fabric, recycled tents, copper, pottery and glass, to name a few. There is colour and vibrancy, along with thought-provoking pieces as well as a healthy sense of fun.

Consumption by Louis Pratt

Consumption by Louis Pratt

Some pieces have direct references to the industrial activity on the site: Scenic World is located on an old coal mining site and the railway itself follows the track used to haul coal out of the valley.

3D Webs by Louisa Magrics with La Subida Rhizome (The Rise Rhizome) by Miguel Valenzuela & Francois Limondin in background

3D Webs by Louisa Magrics with La Subida Rhizome (The Rise Rhizome) by Miguel Valenzuela & Francois Limondin in background

As the boardwalk meanders round, there is the opportunity to view some of the works from a different viewpoint, offering another perspective. It was invigorating, delightful and surprising.

Kolorhaus by Selena Seifert & Chris Wellwood

Kolorhaus by Selena Seifert & Chris Wellwood

And all of this sculpture is on show against the backdrop of a Jurassic rainforest with steep cliffs surrounding the valley. The trip down into the valley on the scenic railway was stunning, and it is understandable why this has been a major tourist drawcard for over 70 years. We returned via the scenic cableway with stunning views out to Mount Solitary as well as vistas of the Three Sisters and Orphan Rock.

It is an amazing location and an extraordinary place to enjoy some wonderful sculptures.

Have you enjoyed an artistic outing lately?

[Photo: Corridor.of.tents by Georgina Humphries; created using discarded festival tents]

 

Into the Blue: Blue Mountains World Heritage Centre

Located in the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre is the immersive exhibition space called Into the Blue. Entry is included with the ticketed entry to the art gallery, and although I have been trotting along to the gallery to check out exhibitions for a while now, it has taken me longer to discover this space.

The welcoming entrance includes a snapshot of the World Heritage area, capturing the essence of the wilderness contained within. This includes 90 varieties of eucalyptus at the time of classification across 26 villages and a population of about 70,000 people. The sheer scope of the area is significant: it includes seven national parks and intersects six Aboriginal language groups.

A taste of the stunning scenery is depicted with gradual changes on four wide screens displayed across two walls with accompanying sounds. This included the vivid portrayal of bushfire, the lick and surge of flames. The screens show aspects of similar views offering different perspectives. A curved large screen overhead draws the eye upwards. It offers a glimpse of the panoramic splendour of the area, from sunsets to starry skies, mountain streams to birdsong and the soft descent of water dripping in caves. The splendour of the scenery is contrasted by the satellite image of the mountains and surrounding areas underfoot.

There are interactive displays on various themes. This includes the role of the mountains as a place for healing and inspiration as well as its popularity as a place for exploration and relaxation. Fauna and flora are also featured along with indigenous heritage.

The sensual experience of living here is captured in a voice-recorded interview with Elisabeth Bastian: the scent of the bush, the beauty of life here, the view offering a bird’s-eye view of the world along with a sense of escape. She spoke of the timelessness of the environment, the sense of space and of looking back into history. This is one of several interviews providing insight into what the area means to people from various backgrounds.

A selection of quotes about the area capture different aspects of what the mountains mean to people, including Charles Darwin, Eleanor Dark, Deb Westbury, Delia Falconer and Mark Tredinnick. One of my favourites is from Myles Dunphy as quoted in the Katoomba Daily on 24 August, 1934:

All the glory of the canyons, caves and rolling plateau of our great blue mountains is not nearly so much a commercial asset as it is nature’s heritage for legitimate enjoyment, and our own gift to posterity. 

There is a link showing the design behind the exhibition here.

[Photo: Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, Katoomba

This grand old building catches my eye whenever I glimpse it from the Great Western Highway. The sheer physicality of the building remains striking despite the air of dilapidation and dereliction that surrounds it. There are blazes of graffiti along with eyeless windows, covered with plastic following the ravages of fires. It requires quite a bit of imagination to think what it might have been like in its earlier days.

The Sisters of Charity arrived in Katoomba in 1900 seeking a place of respite for exhausted nuns “where they might find fresh vigour for God’s work”. Initially they moved into a former guesthouse, converting it into a convent and then opening a school for girls. It had a mix of day students and boarders and soon reached the capacity of the initial premises despite the purchase of a neighbouring property. A larger site was needed.

The new site, located within easy walking distance of the train station, fronted the Great Western Highway. Building commenced in 1909 and by 1910, boarding pupils were being accepted into the new college. The vision of the college included its role as a monument to higher education and its place in creating a progressive society. Students attended from interstate as well as from the Pacific Islands as the reputation of the college grew. Over the decades there were additions to the original buildings and continued development of the grounds, with land being purchased and sold as required. The college included a kindergarten, infants school, and middle school as well as university classes to prepare students for entry to Arts, Teacher Training, Medicine, Science and Law.

The impact and presence of the college on the hill was acknowledged by the local community. This was symbolised by the illumination of an eight foot cross on the roof of the tower in 1938 at the suggestion of a non-Catholic community member. The costs were covered by the local community, and it became a visible point of reference for travellers and locals alike. The site played an important role in offering refuge during World War II for Orders living close to Sydney Harbour during the Japanese submarine attacks. It also offered shelter for locals affected by the devastating bushfires in 1957.

Inevitably there were various changes to the educational offerings over time. In 1965, Mount St Mary’s became a regional school for girls, then became co-educational following the closure of St Bernard’s College at Katoomba. But by 1973, the school’s operation was regarded as non-viable and the Sisters withdrew from the education ministry. This was taken over by the Archdiocese of Sydney but with enrolments down to 180 students, the school was closed at the end of 1974.

The property was subsequently gifted to the Archdiocese of Sydney, and the premises were used for a decade for educational and religious retreats until a fire order was placed on the building and it was closed down. The costs associated with bringing the site up to standard was considered prohibitive, and the property was sold in 1985.

A new lease of life for the site commenced in 1987 when it was opened as the Renaissance Centre, a mix of speciality shops, performance and teaching areas. Ownership changed hands again in the early 1990s, but as tenants continued to leave, the site became vacant. Vandalism and fires have taken their toll in the intervening years, and it remains in its current state of disrepair.

A detailed history of the site is available here. There is a wonderful early photo of the convent along with a concise history by Blue Mountains Local Studies here.

There is a blog post here from the time the building was put up for sale in 2012.

There are some wonderful recollections of past students here including tales of tunnels and stories passed between siblings and students about a One-Eyed Nun.

Is there a place that you pass by that makes you wonder what it was like in its glory days?

St Mary's Convent and College, Katoomba

St Mary’s Convent and College, Katoomba

Sources: Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage; The Convent, Katoomba, Blue Mountains City Library; Mt St Mary’s: The St Bernards Katoomba Old Boys Association Website; Old Estates for Sale (WordPress).

[Photo: detail from above an entrance to the main tower]

The Marked Tree at Katoomba

Driving west along the Great Western Highway between Katoomba and Medlow Bath there is a tree trunk enclosed by a fence on the left hand side of one of the many bends. It is signposted as the Explorers Tree. To see it up close you can take a sharp turn to the left into Explorers Road where there is a car park for bushwalkers heading to Nellies Glen or Pulpit Hill.

The eucalyptus tree was reputedly marked with the initials of the three men who are acknowledged as completing the first successful crossing of the Blue Mountains by Europeans. Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth commenced their journey on 11 May 1813, accompanied by a local guide and three convicts. The journey took them 21 days, travelling along the mountain ridges. The crossing marked the way for the road, later built under the guidance of William Cox, across the mountains and into the western districts.

The significance of the tree was realised early on, and it was preserved with a wall, fence and plaque in 1884. Unfortunately this had the unintended impact of killing the tree it was meant to protect. The dead trunk became dangerous and the top was sawn off and taken to the grounds of the Hydro Majestic Hotel, where in 1922 it was destroyed by a bushfire.

Conservation attempts over the years included plugging the trunk with concrete, and binding the stump and remaining bark together with a steel band. At one time it was capped with concrete; this was later removed and a gazebo built over the top of the stump to protect it from the weather. The stump was partly vandalised and there was an arson attack in addition to bushfire damage.

Vandalism isn’t just a recent issue for the marked tree. An article in the Lithgow Mercury in 1939 recorded an incident: ‘It is a matter for regret that the “yahoos” have found means of hacking their initials on the coping of this monument: left alone in Westminster Abbey, such fiends would not hesitate about scratching their worthless names on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.’

In 2012, a passing driver crashed into the monument, hitting the sandstone podium. Efforts to conserve and protect the tree continue.

The historical significance of the tree is often questioned. Blaxland kept a diary during the crossing, and there is no record of any tree being marked by the explorers. Journals of the crossing recorded that their route was marked only with the blaze of an axe, and any initials on the tree rotted away decades ago.

The successful crossing is regarded as a defining moment in Australian history as it lead the way for the opening up of the pastures of the western plains as the colony struggled with drought and limited grazing land. The tree is the only reputed relic of the historic journey, which helps to explain why it is regarded as significant, even if it is historically questionable and in a sad state of repair.

There is a summary of the importance of the crossing here along with acknowledgement of other crossings here. An early photo of the tree, looking more intact, is available here.

Have you come across any links to the past, genuine or otherwise, lately?

[Photo: remains of the Explorers Tree overlooking the Great Western Highway]

My I Spy: something beginning with ‘S’

It seems like the alphabet is slipping along now as the tail end sneaks into view. With so many things beginning with S to choose from, the hardest part was deciding what to share. Here is what I spied.

Shadows, Elizabeth Farm

Shadows, Elizabeth Farm

Shadows

The play of light and dark is of interest to me, and this photo was taken on a late winter afternoon at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta. The shadows are cast in part by the gnarled branches of a large frangipani tree, along with jacaranda branches waiting for the layers of leaves and blooms to bud.

Scorched, Hargraves Lookout

Scorched, Hargraves Lookout

Scorched

This burnt landscape is on the way to Hargraves Lookout, near Blackheath. The threat of bushfire is a constant part of mountain life. Vegetation control and back burning is used to minimise risk, but the reality is that bushfire is unpredictable, voracious and frightening. In recent travels to the northern beaches of Sydney and the mid north coast of the state, there were acres of scorched vegetation stretching into the distance. A sombre reminder of the danger of fire.

Snail

Snail at Blue Mountains Organic Co, Lithgow

Snail

I would not normally seek out snails for photographic purposes, but this giant snail, perched on the edge of a shelf, was too good to resist. It resides at the Blue Mountains Organic Co, a cafe in  Lithgow. I do have a close-up photo but it is mildly repellent so I’ll leave it for now.

Sheep

Sheep

Sheep

This blue sheep is one of many garden ornaments in my Mum’s garden. They peek out from garden beds, lurk in the midst of flower arrangements and are suspended, in some instances, from trees. Gnomes are a popular choice, and the old cement gnomes of my childhood have had various coats of paint over the years. The sheep stands out for me, not only because of the vibrant hue, but it calls to mind an image in a story by fellow blogger and Writer in the Mist, Therese. You can find Therese’s blog here.

Shark Tank, water reservoir, Katoomba

Sharks on Tank, Katoomba

Sharks

Murals are increasingly popular and prevalent in the mountains. There is a side road in Katoomba which has recently been turned into a one-way street to make it safer for the foot traffic checking out the artistry on the walls. This underwater scene featuring toothy sharks is on a water reservoir on Narrow Neck Road.

Have you spotted anything spectacular starting with ‘S’ lately?

Keep an eye on Autumn’s insightful spying here, as well as atman.art.studio on Instagram – I loved her Jenny Kee photo. Recent highlights from Autumn include quacks and quaquaversal as well as reflections on the letter R. Next, it’s time for T.

[Photo: snowman spotted at Medlow Bath last winter]

My I Spy: something beginning with ‘P’

Plenty of possibilities for things beginning with ‘P’ have presented themselves. Parrots, people, plumes of clouds, pets, just to name a few. Here are a few things I managed to photograph.

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Paragon Cafe, West Wyalong

Paragon Cafes

The Paragon Cafe in Katoomba celebrated 100 years this year. But it is not the only Paragon Cafe around by a long shot. These cafes, typically started by Greek migrants, were dotted all across the cities and small towns of Australia. When travelling through the central west of the state, I managed to spot these two. The first, in West Wyalong, is still trading as a cafe. The second is a shopfront in the town of Harden in the south west of NSW. Lately there have been some interesting podcasts and books about this cafe culture.

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Paragon Cafe, Harden

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Phrenology Head, North Rocks Markets

Phrenology

The ‘study of external conformation of cranium as index to development and position of organs belonging to the various mental facilities’, as defined by the 1911 Concise Oxford Dictionary, no longer holds the sway that it once did. It is now a rather discounted theory of how one’s mental powers are influenced and indicated by the shape of the skull. My earliest recollection of this theory was when I stumbled across it in one of the Bony books. Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte was the literary invention of English born writer Arthur W Upfield. Upfield worked and travelled extensively across Australia, and he wrote a series of books based around Bony solving mysteries in various locations. Many of the books were set in the outback and Bony brought insights from his mixed heritage into solving crimes. Titles included ‘Death of a Swagman’ and ‘The Bone is Pointed’.

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Possum the Locomotive at Eskbank House, Lithgow

Possum the Locomotive

Possum now resides in the grounds of Eskbank House at Lithgow. It was one of several engines that worked the train line between the Blast Furnace and the steelworks. Possum arrived in 1919 and worked the line until 1928; it was relocated to Port Kembla when the steelworks closed in Lithgow. It worked through until 1967 when it was retired and relocated back to Eskbank House, which was then a relatively new museum. The little engines that worked the line between the furnace and steelworks all had animal names including Wallaby, Wombat and Bunyip.

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Sunset over the Kanimbla Valley

Pink

I love a good sunset. Sunrises are good too, but I like the fading of light at the end of the day. This sunset was spotted over the Kanimbla valley.

What possibilities have you spotted beginning with P? Pop over and see what Autumn is spotting here, along with photos on Instagram by atman.art.studio. Next week, I’m questing for things beginning with Q …

 

Be a Tourist at Home

The proximity of the Blue Mountains to Sydney makes it a popular tourist destination for weekends, short stays and longer visits. Within two hours by train, less by car, you can be in a different environment altogether with a wide assortment of activities to do and sights to see.

I have lived in the mountains now for over 3 years, but there is still a lot that I haven’t seen, and places I am yet to explore. If you have spent any time in Katoomba, you will be familiar with the big red double-decker buses and the brown trolley buses that offer all day tickets, along with various other packages to some of the attractions around the town and nearby villages. When I’m in Katoomba, I often see these buses full of tourists in all sorts of weather, pressed against the windows and generally having a good time. So I thought I’d give it a go.

On a fine spring morning I boarded a trolley tour outside the Carrington Hotel along with quite a few tourists ready to do a loop around Katoomba and Leura. We headed off to Leura, driving up the main street and stopping just around the corner – a handy spot to stop if you want to explore the many shops and boutiques. We then continued on, heading past Bygone Beauties which I have visited before. Then it was off to Leura Garden Resort, through the Leura Golf Club (oldest of the four golf clubs in the mountains) and past the Fairmont Resort. Everglades Garden is the next stop, a beautiful National Trust property with spectacular gardens. As we approached there was a magnificent peacock on the nature strip: apparently his name is Andrew and he is well-known in the area.

Once we turned onto Cliff Drive there was a succession of beautiful outlooks and views, including the Kiah, Honeymoon and Silvermist lookouts. Various walks are accessible from these points, and with buses coming by at regular intervals it’s possible to walk comfortable distances and get back on if required. The Three Sisters and Echo Point, perhaps the most recognisable of the lookouts, were next, before we headed past Lilianfels and towards Scenic World. This is yet another place I haven’t made it to yet, and it was good to get an idea of the layout as we passed by the east landing before continuing around past the Katoomba Falls to the main entrance.

There were various stops and points of interest on the way back into Katoomba before the trolley bus paused at the Carrington Hotel to fill up again.

It was a real treat to be a passenger, rather than a driver, and to be able to focus on the scenery rather than the road. The gardens throughout Katoomba and Leura are so lovely at this time of year, with beautiful blooms and exquisite garden design on display. Leura is famous for its garden festival in early October, and there were still many visual treats to be enjoyed. The driver provided an overview of the history of the towns and key places along the way, and this added to the experience.

Being able to get out and about, especially if you travel up by train, is made much easier by tours such as this. I really enjoyed the experience and have added quite a few things to my local to-do list.

Do you ever get the chance to be a tourist in your home town?

[View from Kiah Lookout]