Monday, December 26, 2011

Don't they know it's Christmas time

As a jewish kid growing up in suburban Melbourne, Christmas Day was the most boring day of the year. An enforced rest day for backyard test match cricket. My friend Mark was ensconced in a day of feasting and present-getting with his family and unlike most days of the summer holidays where I would show up at his house by 8am accompanied by my cricket bat, on Christmas Day his place was off limits. My parents were conscious that sister Nat and I may feel a bit left out with all of our friends parading their new bikes, scooters, skateboards and fancy games after Christmas and so for a few years gave us a few token presents so we wouldn't be too jealous. But along with the presents, we received the news very early on in life that not only was there no Santa Claus, but indeed there was no Christmas. We were jewish and didn't believe all that stuff about Jesus. Nat hated the idea of not receiving presents when everybody else was receiving them and I remember her bemoaning the fact on a few occasions that she wished we were born christian. It was difficult for me not to harbour similar desires at times. That religion seemed to come with more tangible benefits than our own, including one day dedicated purely to the eating of chocolate. None of our friends seemed particularly caught up in all the God stuff that supposedly went with it. They just got the good stuff. Jews seemed to go the other way with their big days. On Yom Kippur, the biggest of all, you got to spend the whole day bored out of your brain at the synagogue atoning for your yearly sins. Listening to the rabbi go on for hours on end in hebrew, a language I didn't understand at all. The adults (anyone over 13) weren't allowed to eat or drink anything at all from sunset the previous evening until sunset on Yom Kippur night, so it was starvation and thirst as well as boredom for them. Relatives would come over and pinch your cheeks and give you a kiss with their stale breath from having had their saliva completely evaporated, leaving only the stale odour of meals from a previous day. Compared to presents and a sumptuous feast for the christians, it seemed so unfair. And there wasn't a lot of religious tolerance for a couple of jewish kids in the suburbs in the 70s. Where we lived, everybody was pretty much christian so we were the odd ones out. Nat was forbidden from playing with a girl named Susan Baulch because her German mother didn't want her playing with a filthy jewish Christ killer. Pretty difficult for a grade 3 girl to understand when, as far as she could remember, she hadn't actually killed anyone and her activities were more likely to involve Barbie dolls and a Barbie camper than hammering nails through someone's wrist and securing them to a cross. Maybe Susan's mother would have approved more if they were Klaus Barbie dolls and a Barbie transport train. In fact it was only really anti-semitism that actually made me identify strongly with being jewish through my school years. Taunts at school about being a fourby-two (rhyming slang for jew) and being ostracised by kids at various stages for that reason had me identifying strongly with those unfortunates who had to face the spanish inquisition or who were marched to death camps in Germany. In fact the more i came to know of the world, the more it seemed to me that religion was the reason for the majority of the problems between peoples and the many wars that resulted. The catholics and the protestants in Ireland. The jews and the muslims in the middle east. The sunni and the shiite in Iraq. The hindus and the muslims in India. And a litany of other conflicts. All of these religions that had the same foundation at their core, which was purported to be "love thy neighbour" but who seemed actually to be leaving unsaid "but if you don't love thy neighbour in exactly the way we tell you we'll kick the shit out of you". As I got older, I left the present envy behind, but I still came to admire Christmas, because from what I could gather, people seemed to be genuinely more accepting and friendly on that day. Peace and love to fellow man actually seemed true for one day, even from the bigoted bloke down the street who every other day would crack it because some chinks had moved into the neighbourhood. People everywhere smiled and laughed and offered their genuine best wishes. They put up cheesy decorations on their house which I never got into, but it seemed to make them happy which was the main thing. But still, for a jewish family, come Christmas Day, there was nothing. None of my friends could believe that there were no presents (they stopped coming when I was about 8) and not even a special meal with the family. Nothing. In fact that's not totally true, it was always at Christmas time that the interstate jewish sports carnival would be held, typically with the carnival welcome ball being held on Christmas night. The carnival moved from one Australian city to another each year and comprised many sports and had a rich history. My father was a carnival stalwart, representing Victoria in cricket a record number of times and my parents actually met at one Perth carnival. When the carnival was in Melbourne, Nat and I would be bored doing nothing on Christmas Day and then stay home with a babysitter at night while mum and dad went off to the ball. Being interstate at a carnival though was a different story. There, being surrounded by jews, it was as if Christmas didn't even exist. It was a completely jewish sporting and social affair where the world of the christians and their festival seemed a long way away. But here there was a different kind of us and them that became apparent to me as I got older and also started to play cricket for Victoria at carnival. There were those who went to the main jewish school Mt. Scopus and those, like Nat and I, who didn't. It somehow seemed that we were in the minority everywhere we went, even within the minority. And the bigotry, while manifesting itself in different forms, was no less prevalent. There were of course exceptions and I did have friends at the carnivals, but I couldn't help feeling that the kind of insular hierarchical structure that existed was a crock of shit. Especially when I seemed way down on that hierarchy. While undoubtedly the sport was of a high standard and taken very seriously, in hindsight the main function of the carnivals essentially seemed to be to match up the male and the female jews so as to create more jews. But perhaps I'm just bitter because I didn't seem to be getting anywhere near as much sex as everybody else there, even though the pheromones seemed to be dripping from everywhere.

It wasn't until my late teens that I actually got to properly experience Christmas for myself. Albeit somebody else's. By that stage many of my friends seemed envious that I didn't have to go running around the shops frantically at the last minute trying to find presents for all my relatives like they did. Instead I would just casually drop in on various Christmasing families on December 25th and soak in some of their wonderful Christmas spirit. The Spicers. The Mollets. The Martins. They all welcomed me in on the day, and made me feel a part of it all, to which I am still very grateful. They didn't care that I was brought up with different beliefs and they didn't force any of theirs on me. They just welcomed me as a loved honorary member of their family for the time that I was with them. It was only when I started going out with Tori however that I came to experience the full extravaganza that is Christmas. At that stage, there were no kids involved and we were the youngest ones. We'd rock up at Tori's folks' (Mike and Maggie), along with Tori's sister Liz and her husband Malcolm, first thing Christmas morning and the present fest would begin. I'd never seen so many. After about 45 minutes of present opening I recall looking over at their elaborately decorated tree and seeing that no apparent dent had been made in the enormous pile of colourfully wrapped parcels that lay underneath. It was slightly overwhelming but intoxicating all the same. We pigged out until we were completely stuffed with food and then pigged out some more.

At home with Tori, I always felt uncomfortable about having a christmas tree. While the religion from my upbringing has slowly but surely dissipated over the years, I couldn't bring myself to adopt another set of religious beliefs or have them on display in my own home. And having a traditional tree with angels and symbols of the little lord jesus was just too much for me to take. Tori didn't really believe all the religious doctrine but she did love Christmas and all the trimmings that went along with it. So in the end we compromised. A tree, but a native Australian tree rather than the typical symbolic pine. Fancy decorations but no Jesus. Absolutely no nativity scenes. So somehow we've sort of distilled Christmas to fit our judeo-christian-nonbelieving-heathen mindsets. When we were living in England and couldn't be with Tori's family, we had a wild and fun assortment of Christmases together in an array of different places. A white Christmas in the quaint Essex village of St. Osyth. One involving a rare species of Norfolk fungi and some hilarity in the English seaside town of Brighton. Another in Amsterdam that was a little too indulgent on duty free champagne, hotel room service and other local produce. And most bizarrely but very fondly, one on the outskirts of the southern Jordanian town of Aqaba where the two christian girls present were outnumbered by the muslims and the jew, who celebrated Christmas for and with them on the banks of the red sea under a bedouin tent.

Only seven weeks after Tori and I moved back to Australia from England, Christmas eve 2003, I was celebrating with some former work colleagues at their annual breakup when a call came through from my mother. A primeval howl came down the phone that chilled me to the core. I'd never heard a sound like it. Without her even saying one word I knew that my father was dead. Mum had arrived home from work to find dad on the stair landing where he'd fallen after having a massive heart attack. No warning. No previous history. Just game over. I sobered up immediately, jumped in the car, picked up Nat and drove over to mum and dad's house. By the time we got there, the ambulance crew had already placed my father's body in the bed to await collection from the jewish undertakers, known as the Chevra Kadisha. Each of us got to spend some time alone with my father in the hours that we waited for them to come by, which was as it turns out a special way to be able to say goodbye. When they finally arrived and loaded up his body to be taken away it was after 10pm. The jews like to bury the dead as soon as possible and the Chevra Kadisha suggested that we should have the funeral the next day. "Christmas Day?", I questioned. They could see nothing wrong with that at all. I told them that I knew we were all jews, but my father had many non-jewish friends and acquaintances who I knew would want to come and pay their respects. Including my wife and her family. It was not going to be possible to contact everyone in the next 12 hours, have them abandon their family Christmas plans and come to a funeral instead. It seemed to be asking a lot. We agreed then that the funeral would be Boxing Day. That was more fitting anyway as historically I would spend Boxing Day at the MCG with my father. Many people attended his funeral and he was given a fine farewell around about the time that Brett Lee would have been taking the new ball from the members end.

Since Jaz and Finn came along, Christmas has taken another twist. They love Christmas for the presents and decorations and who could blame them. They get so excited in the build up to the day that it almost makes them sick with anticipation. They love singing carols and annually get miffed about my refusal to go and see them singing by candlelight down in Warrandyte. While I have no problem with the fact that judaism has completely left my life as a belief system, I still have difficulty hearing my offspring singing songs about some biblical character who, through no fault of his own, had a major part to play in the persecution of my forebears through history. But I love the genuine goodwill that emanates from this particular day. And I'm happy that I now have a part in it. A set aside special day to share a loving time with family and friends. Where gluttony is embraced and a nap on the couch is the expected outcome. And I still love also that Christmas Day is Boxing Day eve. The night before the first day of the Melbourne test match. That part of my childhood remains intact. After a cricket free day for Christmas, play always resumes on Boxing Day.

Are we there yet?

I'm not really sure where we are with the big trip now. Even though we're not yet back in Warrandyte it sort of seems over. Everybody appears to have emotionally abandoned ship. Tori has had enough of walking 100 metres to the bathroom especially if it involves trying to bathe Kim. She wants her own bathroom and a laundry with a washing machine now, which is totally understandable. The kids have hit a squabbling stage where I periodically want to bang their heads together. They just want to go back and see their friends and have their own rooms with proper size beds and the ability to shut the door and lock each other and us out. Kim has reached a stage where he has worked out that if he can make a constant groan like moaning sound that he will get otherwise occupied people to pay him more attention. Controlled crying looks like it won't be too far away for him after we get back and he has his own room somewhere away from the rest of us. Geographically speaking we are currently in Sydney and have been for a few days, a place we have all been often enough for it not to be particularly novel. Not in an exotic kind of a way anyhow. Tori's folks Mike and Maggie, the kids' Grandma and Grandi, live here. And I guess with family comes a sense of being home. As does meeting up with a load of friends here in Sydney. Having driven somewhere in the region of 40,000km we are now only 900km from Melbourne. A short hop in the scheme of things. But I was actually in Melbourne for a few days last week. And I was in Sydney for a night a couple of weeks ago, before we actually arrived in Sydney. It's all a bit confusing. Perhaps I should rewind the tale a bit to where we were camped in the idyllic little beachside haven of Crescent Head. A beautiful location on the banks of the Killick Creek just where it spills out into the ocean. The plan had been to chill out there for a week before cruising on into Sydney for the run up to Christmas. And it was all going along nicely too. Swimming, boogie boarding, a bit of basketball up at the local court, the stroll for coffees in the morning, evening beers and barbys. There was even discussion of bringing out the fishing rods once more to see if we could have any better luck here. But then all of a sudden my mum was in hospital. Her back had given out again and the specialist had sent her directly to the Royal Melbourne. She was in agony despite the strong painkillers they were giving her and sounded frail even down the end of a phone line. Her back has been particularly dodgy for a couple of months now, having already had one spell in hospital a short while back, but this seemed even worse. After a bit of a discussion with sister Nat, I decided to fly down to lend some support. My idyllic time in Crescent Head came to an abrupt end as I threw my laptop and some clothes into a pack and next thing we were driving down to Port Macquarie airport where I was to get a flight to Sydney and then onward to Melbourne. Only two hours after deciding to fly back, I was watching the ground disappear out the window of the little twin propeller plane.

Mum was in a bad way. Not only was her back causing her grief between the doses of morphine but she had somehow contracted pneumonia and could hardly breathe. She was propped up in bed with oxygen tubes stuck up her nose and a very pale complexion. I was immediately glad that I had made the decision to come down. And so the next three days were spent at the hospital visiting mum or hanging out with Nat. While the circumstances were far from ideal, it was great to spend some time with them both. By the time I was due to head back on Thursday, Mum was starting to feel a bit better. She still had a fair way to go but seemed to be on the right track at least. I'd actually hoped that one positive benefit of my trip away from the van would be that I wouldn't have Kim waking me up through the night and I may actually get some sleep. But strange beds and unfamiliar surrounds invariably cause me restless nights and this was not to be the case. We had to be out of the caravan park by 10am on Thursday morning, so I had no real flexibility in how long I could stay in Melbourne. I was booked on the 6am flight on the Thursday so that we had some chance of being out almost on time. The night before I'd decided to stay with Lisa and Dan in the city as it just seemed logistically easier to be based centrally before my mad dash back to New South Wales began. Around 11:30pm when I was going to bed, I couldn't believe I was actually setting my alarm for 4:40am, so that I could get my taxi. In retrospect, it would have been luxurious to sleep until that time. Instead, I woke up hourly until I realised at 3:30am that there would be no more sleep and I might as well just get up then. And so started a mad and sleep deprived day.
Waking up so early I had no dramas getting to the airport on time and was on the plane when it took off bound for Sydney at 6am. Connecting flight to Port Macquarie was all good too and we landed on schedule around 9am. As I walked down the steps of the plane on to the tarmac, I was looking towards the small terminal expectantly for Jaz and Finn who usually tend to be right out front to greet me. Nobody. Well it's not unheard of for Tori to be late, so after a lap of the terminal to superfluously make sure they weren't somewhere else in the tiny building, I tried to ring her. No answer on her phone. And then I realised I had a voice message. "Hi there. It's me", said Tori's recorded voice down the line. "There's been a huge pile up on the highway near Kempsey and the roads blocked off. I don't know when we'll be able to get to the airport. The road could be closed for hours. I think there was a car chase. I forgot my phone so I'm using the guy in the car behind me's phone. I'll try and call you when I know what's happening". I dialed the number that she had called me from and was soon speaking to some bloke named Jerry. "Your wife's just over there. Hang on I'll get her for you", he said. It seems that a couple of young guys had tried to outrun a police car and the police had set up a road block including the use of tyre spikes. In a bid to avoid it all, the runaway car had careened into a ute sending it rolling down the bank where it smashed into a pole. It then slammed into another car  before rolling over itself and coming to a halt upside down on the side of the road. The highway was blocked off, being both the scene of a serious accident and also a crime. Police were suggesting that the road would be closed for hours and that drivers should instead travel via Armidale, some 400km extra on the journey. Tori suggested that if I could get a taxi up to the accident scene, I could perhaps walk around it to the other side where she was waiting and then we could drive back to Crescent Head. It seemed a much better alternative than waiting for who knows how many hours, so I went to look for a cab. There were none to be found. I went to the car rental counter to see if they would tell me how much it might cost to get a cab to just south of Kempsey. "It'll cost loads", said one bloke. "Easily a hundred bucks. If you can hang on five minutes, I'll give you a lift up there", he generously offered. And with that, I was travelling up towards Kempsey with Dave, the owner of 1st Class car rentals. I'd already called the caravan park to tell them of our predicament and that there was no way we'd be out by 10am (it was already about ten to). In the comfort of Dave's car, we got to around 7km or so south of the crash site where we hit the end of the queue of cars that were waiting for the road to reopen. I decided to get out and walk. I passed hundreds of stationary vehicles. People were out on the road on their phones, kids were playing soccer on the road, a family were gathered around a laptop watching movies. I probably walked several kilometres before the road inevitably was reopened and the traffic started to move. I put out my thumb to hitch and watched in amazement as many of the cars I'd passed, the occupants of which I'd good naturedly bantered with on the way, just cruised straight past me ignoring my request for a lift. The crisis was over and it seemed that everybody was happy to get back on with their individual lives now without concern for someone in need of assistance. Eventually I flagged down a car transport truck. "Jump in", the driver said and he took me to where Tori and the kids were waiting. Completely exhausted I clambered in and we began the journey from Kempsey down to Crescent Head.
And we were almost back there when we hit another traffic snag. A house fire was raging on the outskirts of Crescent Head and the road had been closed until the fire crew could get it under control. No cars were allowed to pass the barricade of fire trucks and emergency support vehicles. It just didn't seem real. I'd had so little sleep that I was quite prepared to believe I was imagining the whole thing. But real it was and eventually, after another hour or so, we were able to drive the last few kilometres back to the caravan park. Thankfully Tori and the kids had managed to pack up everything except the van awning so I didn't have to do too much in the way of van preparation. I dropped in to the office to explain to them what had happened. We were all packed up and it was now around 1pm. I'd had less than four hours of broken sleep and been up since 3:30AM. My eyes felt like they were dropping out of my skull. I would have liked nothing more than to fall on to my bed and sleep for a good four or five hours. Instead I took a few deep breaths and drove us and the van 420km to Sydney.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Mullumbimby madness

It is nigh on twenty years since Tori and I first ventured up to the lush green environs of Mullumbimby. We were bussing and hitching up the coast to escape the Melbourne winter and were hoping to stay here with our friend Brian for a few days. Tales that had filtered down to us in Melbourne from friends who had visited this part of the world were of a magical place, surrounded by subtropical rainforest and with a colourful assortment of folk who inhabited the dwellings there. Sister Nat had lived up there some years earlier, I'm sure adding to some of that colour and legend herself. She'd lived in a place called the yellow house with a couple of other girls. Collectively they'd come to be known as the "rat people" due to their choice of pet and probably the odd way that they looked compared to the locals down in the more conservative town of Mullum. Before the 1970s, the area had essentially been a rural area of farmland and banana plantations. The coming of the hippies and their alternative ways and appearance changed the flavour of the area forever. And with them they brought crops of their own. Having not spoken to Brian for some months since I'd mentioned that we'd be coming up on that first visit, and not knowing where he actually lived, the first obstacle was to find him. I knew that he didn't actually live in the town of Mullum, but somewhere up in the hills with all of the other hippies. We had no address and no phone number for him.  So our quest began in the Chincogan Tavern, the pub that he frequented. He'd told me that he was well known in town due to his regular poetry recitals and the humorous plays that he  organised. So I gingerly wandered up to the bar and asked the bartender if he knew the whereabouts of Brian the Poet, feeling like I'd just entered some kind of mystical role playing game. "I don't know where Brian is, but Jeremy will", he said as he pointed across the pub towards a guy sitting at a table on his own nursing a lunchtime beer. I wandered over and said "I'm looking for Brian. The barman said you might know where he is". Jeremy looked us up and down and replied in a friendly voice, "We've been expecting you". He picked up a bar coaster, flipped it over and proceeded to sketch out a map on the back. "Brian lives in Upper Main Arm, about 11km out from Mullum", he explained as he traced the route along the map with his finger. "If you start hitching up Main Arm Road, you're sure to get a lift. Brian lives in the dome house. Anyone going up there will know where it is". We had a quick beer with Jeremy, loaded on our heavy backpacks and began our walk up towards Main Arm Road. After only 5 minutes or so a car approached and stopped as soon as we put out a hitching finger. "We're going up to the dome house if you're able to take us", we said. "Oh. You've come to see Brian. He's been waiting for you", he stated rather than questioned. After ten chatty minutes in the car we were dropped off at the side of the road where a track went off into the bush. "Just walk up there a couple of hundred metres, take the fork on the left and you'll be right there". The track led through thick forest, full of bird song and noisy insects. Forest so thick and with such large trees that as soon as the path curved around, it was as if the road was never there. And after walking a few minutes, Brian's current abode came into view. A structure looking like an enormous wooden golf ball that had missed the fairway and dropped down into a forest. Inside was Brian. He said he'd been expecting us for a few days and had sent out his spies to look for us. Jeremy was one of his most reliable, he said. And for the next few days we had Brian's "gold pass tour" of Mullumbimby, going places, meeting an assortment of interesting characters and visiting all sorts of houses that seemed just as intriguing and magical as Brian's. Reggae Al and his girlfriend Nerada lived in a house with no doors, sharing their space with all the creatures of the forest, including the largest huntsman spider I'd ever seen in my life, sitting on the wall just behind me. Pete and Leonie had the place down in Mills Valley where jam sessions would take place on the large balcony. Rolie lived in his house on stilts on the outskirts of Mullum and Pete and Sandra lived in the village itself. He took us swimming at "Hell's Hole" which was a fresh water swimming hole sitting on the edge of a cliff looking a couple of hundred feet down to the forest below. We climbed Mt. Warning, so named by Captain Cook more than 200 years ago, because it is the first land that can be sighted from sea when approaching the east coast at that latitude. And we stayed with Dick and Jac, who lived in a caravan on their land in Uki while they were building their house. While swimming in the creek down there with their dog Archie, I saw the largest snake I had ever seen in my life, a diamond back python that must have been around 18 feet long. Its body was about as thick as my leg, and its head was several metres away tangled through the lantana. In fact its head was so far away, I was able to run my hand along its lower body as it slithered off through the scrub knowing that there was no way it could actually turn around and bite me, even if it wanted to. The whole region around Mullumbimby took on mythical qualities in the minds of both Tori and I. Everybody we had met had been so friendly and happy to open their doors to us. The forest was magical and as beautiful as any place I had seen. We talked for ages about moving up there, but just didn't get it together, not really sure what we'd actually do for a living if we did live there. Instead we have periodically dropped in over the years, to visit the people and the place. On one trip I got to experience cricket Mullumbimby style. Played on the picturesque ground up at Wanganui which was an interesting venue in its own right. Fielding at deep backward point meant fielding in the dip at a level a couple of feet lower than the rest of the ground. The game was a competitive affair with some decent skills on display and serious attitudes of determination. At the drinks break all of the players left the field and gathered under the wooden pavilion, I assumed for a liquid refreshment. Instead, a production line of papers, tobacco and locally grown produce appeared and a large number of spliffs were blazed up under the afternoon sun. The locals are so proud of their horticultural results that I felt it would be rude to refuse, so partook my share heartily. With my perspective suitably rearranged as we walked back out on to the ground, the skipper came over, tossed me the ball and said "have a bowl". Somewhat in a haze, I made my way to the bowling crease to trundle down a few overs of legspin. Like all good gear, the joint came on in waves with me becoming more stoned as each over progressed. I think I must have peaked during my second over which seemed to have me right in the zone, beating the bat a couple of times and right on line and length. By the third over I'd become slightly more erratic on all fronts, was still wicketless (though feeling unlucky!) and was happy to resume my place back in the field, taking in the game under the beautiful backdrop of mountains and thick rainforest. I think we won. I don't really remember too much of my time at the batting crease, other than that a well hit shot along the ground would pull up sharply in the grass, having been fashioned from a cow paddock into a sporting venue not that many years earlier.

Brian is still in Mullum today, as are a number of the other folk we met on that first visit. Trying to track him down is no less of a process these days, even with the invention of mobile phones. His spends most of its time uncharged, or somewhere that he isn't and anyway, there's still no reception up in the hills. Our van is stationed at the macadamia farm in Upper Main Arm, across the road from the yellow house where Nat used to live. The area is as beautiful as ever, though the town has stepped up a bit from a basic country town to something more shiny. A product of the  real estate boom. Brian is still writing and producing plays, so not much has changed in that regard either. Though now he is the proud father of a beautiful 17 year old daughter and so she remains a large part of his focus. As for the local produce. It is still as bountiful and strong as it always was. I've made sure my manners are still in check. After all, it would still be rude to refuse.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Crossing the outback

The last month or so has been a blur. My mind feels like it may explode just trying to recount what has happened, though that could also be due to tiredness. Kim has been waking up at 5am lately which invariably means that I wake up at 5am. Perhaps like last night, after having previously already been woken at 3. I'm looking forward to arriving in New South Wales in a couple of days time where there is daylight savings. At least there it will be 6am when Kim wakes me up. The only difference in how late Kim sleeps seems to be related to the timezone of the state that we are in. At least 6am will look slightly better on the clock. So I feel handicapped at the moment before the day even begins. Tori has spent some days like a zombie, having been kept up all night by the little bugger. But he is armed with a deadly smile that lights up his whole face. Somehow that seems to make it worth it. A built in survival mechanism of human hatchlings. He is quite a big baby now. Too long really for the wicker basket in which he sleeps, that sits balanced on the van table. I'm still wondering if we keep him in there if he won't grow any bigger, in the way that a goldfish will only grow to the size of its bowl.

Aside from tiredness, the main thing that makes my mind boggle is when I look at the photos I've taken of where we've been. So many incredibly beautiful places, but also some harsh and desolate land. Isolated little desert fringing towns with a population of less than a dozen people. Driving along famed old stock routes such as the Oodnadatta and Strzelecki Tracks. Not passing another vehicle for hours and driving through a mostly barren landscape with the temperature outside of the nicely air-conditioned car being hotter than 40 degrees in the shade. And there isn't any shade. When we left the town of Lyndhurst at the start of the Strzelecki, we were greeted with a sign that told us that the next fuel and services were not for another 485km. We came through this region of Australia outside of the recommended season, putting that extra bit of pressure on not breaking down. It would make you feel too much like an idiot for taking on such a foolhardy venture with two young children and a baby, if and when somebody finally turned up to rescue you. Though it is not fully the hot season yet. In summer, the temperature in this region breaks 50 with regularity. It is around here, on the banks of the Cooper Creek, that Burke and Wills perished 150 years ago. An expedition to cross the country from south to north, ill prepared and badly planned that ended in death for all but one of the party.

And stepping outside into the heat, it is easy to see why. On one stop I went to the van to refill the water bottles and the water came out of the faucet so hot that it scalded my hand. You could have made tea with it straight from the allegedly cold water tap. I spent a lot of the drive with my eyes glued to the temperature gauges, hoping to not see the needle stretch towards the red, or worse still a flashing red light on the dashboard. Periodic stops were made to check that the tyres were ok too. The last thing we needed was for them to overheat and to get a blow out. My previous misadventure with tyres on the Duncan Road was still fresh in my mind. As was the overheated transmission on the road to Alice Springs. We were loaded up with provisions. Full water tanks (albeit a tad warm), an enormous cache of canned food and UHT juice and milk and an assortment of cheese and frozen meat, packed tightly into the portable fridge/freezer we now carried in the van because the van fridge had packed it in sometime back in Coober Pedy. But as I look back now on all the places that we have been since we left Katherine, my mind feels drawn to this part of the journey more than any other. Perhaps it is because of the sense of adventure that it created. Perhaps it is because I have never seen or experienced such a terrain.
At times the landscape seemed so different to anything I'd ever seen that it could easily have been a different planet. Or maybe I am drawn to it because here we were truly alone and together as a family. Just us, driving along listening to Stephen Fry read us the Harry Potter books. In the remote areas around the Kimberley and around a lot of central Australia, even though you couldn't see them, you knew that there were a number of Aboriginal communities around. In large stretches here, it felt that there was nobody. For large sections there was no sign of life at all to be seen. Not even any lizards. The tiny settlement of Innamincka was like an oasis when we finally arrived at the other end of the Srtzelecki. An old pub with a tasteful modern touch and a kitchen producing fine quality meals. It immediately felt welcoming, aided by the fact that it had ice cold beer on tap. Coopers. James Squires. A pub in the middle of nowhere with a bit of style. And free WiFi. And a beautiful Brummy barmaid. We decided to move out of the van for a couple of nights and moved into the pub accommodation for a bit of a break and a reward for having crossed the desert successfully. And also to drink my fill of James Squires Chancer Golden Ale.

Some 25 days prior to arriving in Innamincka I'd decided to have a break from drinking. I was in Singapore  for a conference having had a lightening visit to Melbourne on the way through, while the rest of the crew were camped back in Alice Springs. Computer trade shows are often depicted as a collection of nerdy guys and geeky girls talking in acronyms about the latest industry technology in a way that would bore the pants off the rest of humanity. And that pretty much sums it up. I've been going to these kinds of "shows" for around 10 or 11 years now, predominantly on the vendor side of the equation. One of the cheesy sales types armed with giveaways such as bags, pens and t-shirts to attract people to the booth, so as to be able to convince them that they should talk to me about my latest exciting software features. I can delve into the depths of techieness with the best of them too. I know how the stuff works. Some days at these shows are mind numbingly boring. Standing around the booth waiting for people to come by. Sitting in presentations hearing somebody drone on about a topic that you have no real interest in. But there are undoubtedly the high points too. Invariably the conferences that I attend are in exotic locations. Sydney, Singapore, Bali, Beijing, Seoul, London, Vienna, Las Vegas, San Jose. And always in very plush hotels. With loads of food laid on. Breakfasts, lunches, morning and afternoon teas and snacks provided at other intervals just in case you get hungry between morning tea and lunch. At night time there is always booze and a meal laid on to facilitate the schmoozing, which is typically what these events are all about. I've certainly taken joyful advantage of the free food and drinks over the years at many of these events, but this time I was on two doses of antibiotics thanks to my visit with Pusskana, who decided to share with me his displeasure that I had abandoned him to go off on this trip and had bitten and scratched me multiple times.
I decided that a break in drinking would probably do me some good anyway. Clear my mind. Give my liver and kidneys a bit of respite. See if some of the well invested extra pounds around my midriff and face might fall away. And it had all been going well too. I did feel better. I did lose a few kilos. On walking into the Innamincka pub some three and a half weeks later though and seeing the gleaming frosty beer taps, I immediately decided that the drought was officially over. And never has a beer tasted so good.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pub crawl down the guts

Pub crawls are a great Aussie tradition. I'm sure they didn't start here but they have certainly been embraced as an intrinsic part of our culture. So with 1,150km to drive in two days from Katherine to Alice Springs and seemingly a whole lot of pubs in between, it seemed un-Australian to not give it a crack. The Stuart Highway that runs north-south down the centre of Australia is named for the explorer who in the mid-1800s found a way through this rugged terrain, leading to the building of a telegraph line connecting Adelaide and Darwin and the opening up of a major Australian stock route. In the years that followed, drovers would drive their cattle along this route, moving them great distances to seek better feeding grounds or to get them to market. Along the way, a number of pubs opened up as places for the weary drovers to rest their bodies and for them to consume a bevy or two. So unlike many of the highways that lead across the more desolate parts of Australia where the only salvation every hundred kilometres or two is a roadhouse comprising a petrol station and some dodgy food, there is actually some history to this route and some historic pubs to be explored. Another motivating factor in choosing to do a pub crawl along this route was the way that the pubs have evolved to modern day establishments. Each of them seemed to provide something worth seeing as well as an opportunity to break up the long drive.
First pub out of Katherine was at Mataranka. Home of the famous hot springs and according to some people that we met, also the home of the finest home made pies in Australia. These were made at the servo there, though you could pick one up and bring it back to the pub to wash down with a beer if you fancied. And we did fancy that. The pies were pretty good, but the pub was a bit of a hovel. We shot through from there pretty quickly and hung out at the hot springs for a while instead, searching for turtles in the warm weedy waters at Bitter Spring. Once we were back on the road, the next stop was the Larrimah Wayside Inn. Sporting a huge pink panther sitting next to an oversized stubby, this was more of an indication of things to come. Not satisfied with the local history, many of the pubs along this route had decided to tart themselves up with bizarre decorations or themes. Larrimah also fancied that they had the best pies in the region, so we scoffed down some of theirs too. Subsequent pubs were the Daly Waters pub full of bizarre paraphernalia such as hundreds of bras hanging off the bar, the Newcastle Waters which last served a beer in the 1970s but which we were counting all the same, the Renner Springs pub and the Elliott Hotel. I've never driven a pub crawl before for pretty obvious reasons. And it was on the road out of Elliott that I was greeted by the last thing a driver on a pub crawl wants to see; a random breathtest unit. The police pulled us over and offered me the little unit to blow into. I knew that I was well under the legal alcohol limit, one of the benefits of pubs being more than 100km apart. I felt that this was indeed a responsible kind of a pub crawl, mixing pubs and a long drive with some semblance of balance. And I also felt a sense of pride that I was taking my children aged eleven, nine and four months on their first ever pub crawl. Responsible parenting at its finest.
Many many years ago, I had taken younger sister Nat on her first pub crawl too. She had recently moved out of home for the first time and was living in South Yarra. She had sublet a room in a flat from a guy who was a devout vegan and made her sign a document on moving in, stating that she would not bring meat, alcohol or tobacco into the apartment as a condition of the lease. So one lunchtime I went around to celebrate her new found freedom with her. We ordered in a nice capriciossa pizza full of ham and washed it down with a nice bottle of champagne, simultaneously breaking two of the key rules of the house. After that we decided to go up to Chapel Street for a bit of a pub crawl. We started in the South Yarra Arms and had a couple of tequila slammers. Our pub crawl sort of came unstuck there and we stayed for about another five before the barman decided that it was probably time to refuse us service. It seemed a little unjust to me, but we wandered up Chapel Street to the next pub just the same. After one slammer in the new pub, we were refused service. We were clearly a little more inebriated than it seemed to me. Our pub crawl had now completely run aground but, not one to easily take a hint, I ducked in to a bottle shop to pick up a cask of wine with a view to heading over to visit some friends. That was when all that alcohol really started to kick in for Nat. One minute we were walking together down the street, the next she was lying on her back looking up at the sky with a goofy look on her face. I tried to get her to her feet and she just giggled, as much chance of standing as a jellyfish. And then she just passed out. I half dragged, half carried her back to the front of her building and flagged down a random passerby to help me carry her up the stairs to her second storey apartment. He seemed a bit suspicious that something was not quite right with the picture, but he generously helped me anyway. I got Nat into her bed which is where she was when all those drinks and food decided they no longer wanted to remain in her stomach and proceeded to launch themselves out quite rapidly. I raced to the kitchen and got a large cooking pot for her to deposit the upcoming meat and alcohol into, probably not something that her landlord would really have approved of, but that was all I could find. It was all a bit late anyway as her bedding was covered in vomit, as was the floor. I needed to clean the whole mess up in the next three hours before he got home or she was certain to be evicted. So once she seemed to have settled down, I pulled the soiled sheets from her bed so that I could give them a wash. The apartment didn't have its own laundry so I made my way out to the communal one, carrying the vomit soaked bundle. Just as I stepped out of the flat the door automatically closed behind me. With a sense of impending doom, I dropped the sheets and tried the door knob unsuccessfully. Locked. I banged on the door and started screaming to Nat. No response. She was now comatose on the bed. What was I going to do? She was still covered in vomit as was the pot beside her bed and perhaps also the floor. A vision of her throwing up in her sleep and meeting a Bon Scott like demise came into my mind and I started to panic. I raced downstairs and looked for another way to get in. Her second storey bedroom window was open. If only I had a ladder. South Yarra is a particularly affluent part of Melbourne and next to her apartment building was a luxurious house hidden behind a security gate with an intercom. I felt desperate so pushed the button and waited for a response. "Hi there. My sister lives next door and is unconscious on the bed. I've locked myself out and can't get in. I know this is a strange request but do you have a ladder I could please borrow so that I can climb through her window", I pleaded optimistically. I was met by a brief silence, followed by a "wait a minute". The male voice soon appeared at the gate, sized me up and down and glanced up to the open window. I guess he must have believed me, because he appeared shortly after with a ladder. I clambered up and somehow was able to put things right. By the time my friend Brian came over to whisk me away, everything was pretty much done. I asked Brian to take Nat to the bathroom to help her into the shower while I finished up hiding the evidence in the kitchen. I wandered in to see how she was going and there under the running water of the shower was Nat. Topless from the waist up, black tights and boots on below, just standing with the streaming water pouring over her. After cleaning her off and getting her back to a clean bed, Brian and I left the scene and went out for dinner. I returned some time later, sneaking in this time with the aid of a key and crashed out on the floor in Nat's room. Around 6am she awoke and whispered a questioning "Greg"? After confirming to her that I was in fact there she questioned further, "what happened? I don't remember anything". It is only the taste of tequila that she remembers from that day. She hasn't been able to drink it since.

Our pub crawl towards Alice was more successful in the regard that we actually made it to a lot more pubs and nobody was scarred from the experience. In fact nobody was even drunk. I expect that this won't be the case when the kids get older, as being falling down drunk from a pub crawl seems to be an Australian rite of passage that most go through. This was a much more wholesome affair, even managing to take in the geographical wonder of the Devil's Marbles on the way through. Probably the most bizarre pub that we stopped at was the one at Wycliffe Well, about 120km south of Tennant Creek. This place claims to be the UFO capital of Australia with regular sightings having been made since World War II. As such, the pub is something of a museum of UFO sightings and all things extraterrestrial, having recently hosted an international UFO convention. I guess out here in the middle of nowhere must be the Aussie equivalent of small farming towns in Iowa in the US. It was at this pub that our crawl came to an end. Unfortunately, thanks to the pub's free WiFi, work reared its ugly head through my email and I felt we needed to race on to Alice so that I could deal with a potential work crisis. We were still 380km north of Alice Springs so we raced past the last couple of pubs and instead just gunned it down the long straight Stuart Highway and across the arid landscape of central Australia. We were even making it in good time too until the car decided that sitting on 110km/h in 40 degree temperatures while towing three and a half ton of caravan was not optimal driving conditions. About 100km short of Alice, the automatic transmission temperature light came on, the car lost power and we ground to a halt. Apart from an electrical issue back in February, the car had been comfortingly reliable. Breaking down in such a remote location however was quite far from comforting. Not only for what it potentially meant for us now here on the side of the road, but also because we were planning a trip down the Oodnadataa and Strzelecki tracks, through some of the most remote parts of the world. Top of the list of things to take on such a journey is a reliable car in top nick. A half hour sitting on the roadside allowing the car to cool down and then a more conservative drive for the last leg of the journey saw us arrive in Alice without further incident. Alice was to be the next place where I needed to set the family up before I jetted off for work, this time to Singapore for a conference. Now I needed to also fit in a service for the car to make sure the transmission was as it needed to be. We were right in the middle of Australia. Still thousands of kilometres left to drive and not a place to become complacent and take things for granted. Perhaps the car overheating was a timely reminder. I would be more conservative in my driving from hereon in. Probably a good idea to give thousand kilometre pub crawls a bit of a miss too.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hot hot heat

While people back in the hometown of Melbourne have been struggling through a bitter and wet winter, we’ve been following the sun. When it was starting to get cooler in the southern parts of Western Australia, we just moved further north. And kept going north until we arrived pretty much at the top of the country. But now the seasons have all swung around up here and the glorious blue sky days of around 32 degrees have made way for hot and humid days of 38 or 39. And just as humid nights.  And still 30 degrees around midnight. So while the Melbourne folk have had cold days and freezing nights and have been huddled inside dreaming of the warmer weather, we have been similarly huddled inside with the air conditioner on full because it’s been too hot to be outside for more than a few minutes in daylight hours. Unless there’s a swim involved.  And the air conditioner is on through the night because otherwise it’s impossible to sleep. Which means that we haven’t been able to bush camp at all since we left Kununurra as we’ve needed the electricity for the AC.  Caravan parks rather than national parks. The weather has become almost unbearable. Certainly for the kids who just seem to wilt in this heat. And Tori is not too far behind. But to somebody who has been sitting inside for months in Melbourne town, driving through the rain with the heater roaring so that their feet don’t freeze to the pedals, racing out of the car to get through the icy rain and into the heated house or pub or gig or restaurant, if they could even be bothered braving the elements at all to go out in the first place, I’m sure the heat sounds like a case of “bring it on”. But here it’s now a case of actually trying to keep everyone alive during the day while at the same time getting to see some of this part of the country. While in Katherine, we went to the famed Katherine Gorge in Nitmilik National Park. Normally I expect we would have hired canoes and gone paddling up the gorge, but it just isn’t feasible to have the kids out in this heat for that long. When we went to Edith Falls, the kids looked so despondent at the beginning of a relatively short walk to the falls and swimming hole that I just bailed out on it and we drove home to the van. We are still in an amazingly beautiful part of the world so I certainly am not expecting sympathy or any such thing. But we are past the point where it is truly possible for us to explore properly the beautiful places we are located. We drove the 520km straight from Kununurra to Katherine, bypassing the very well named Gregory National Park without even getting out of the car for a look. We abandoned the idea of going further north to Darwin altogether and along with it removed Kakadu National Park as a destination. It had been one of the key places on the itinerary before we embarked on this journey. And Litchfield. But it just didn’t seem worth it without actually being able to walk anywhere.

As for my working days, I’ve been mostly bundled up in the van in airconditioned relative comfort. Working outside in this heat is unthinkable now. I seem to have hit a particularly busy work period, so to some degree I could almost have been anywhere really during the days. When you are staring at a laptop for hours on end, it doesn’t really make that much difference if you are just down the road from a place of incredible natural beauty or not. I did manage to take a morning off so we could cruise in a boat up Katherine Gorge, which is obviously a truly great thing to be able to do, but then worked until around midnight when I got back. I guess last week involved a 55 to 60 hour working week. Something I don’t really like to make a habit of. But when it needs to be done, it needs to be done I guess. I hardly saw Tori or the kids at all in Katherine really, which is quite odd when you all live together in a caravan. They went off to museums and the movies and other varied excursions, while I stayed back and worked. At night, I sat outside being munched by the mozzies and continued my work while they played games on the inside. I’d come in for dinner and then head back out to my laptop afterwards. When I’d finish up for the night, they’d all be in bed asleep. It’s been a demanding couple of weeks but a small price to pay for the ability to do what we’re doing. And I love what we are doing. The kids have had periods of homesickness. As has Tori to some extent. Mostly in regards to people they miss, but also for elements of comfort and familiar things. I still haven’t felt homesick at all through this voyage. I do miss some people, but mostly that has been sated by a phone call, or an email or some Facebook banter.  Not totally. I do wish I could beam some particular people in from time to time. But the things I love to do in Melbourne, of which there are many, have been totally superseded for the time being at least with what we are doing now.

When we left England in 2003 to return to Australia, Tori and I discussed where we would live. I had managed to convince British Telecom to keep me employed as a contractor on the project I’d been involved in for the previous few years. Even though I was moving thousands of miles away. Being that far away from work anyway, the only thing I required of a residence was fast internet access and proximity to an international airport, so that I could fly back to England several times a year. We looked at the various possibilities and seriously discussed for a time that we would go and live in far north Queensland in the picturesque rainforest surrounded village of Kuranda. It was an exciting time. But as our return to Australia got closer, I began to feel less excited about the thought of Kuranda and started to feel disappointed that I wouldn’t be returning to Melbourne. There was such a strong pull from inside for me to return to the place where I’d grown up and to a city that I truly love. The live music scene. The footy. Cricket at the MCG. St.Kilda. Brunswick Street. Lygon Street.  So many places with such great food. So many cool bars. And the amazing evolution of the city centre into a residential area that had given Melbourne a whole new dimension. But I don’t feel that at all now. I’m not sure how it will be when we return. If it were only up to me and I didn’t have to consider the rest of the crew, I’d keep on going. We’re nine months into our trip now, with only three to go. The end seems all too soon. I’ve loved being in the small towns of Australia and being able to move on when the whim has taken us. The thought of being set down in a big city fills me with no desire at all right now. Especially one that does get as cold and rainy as Melbourne. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope when we return. I’ve always had a strong dose of wanderlust and it hasn’t been sated at all by this trip. If anything, it has been fueled more. With kids schooling and a new baby and all that, it’s going to be tricky, but somehow I have to manoeuver my life so that it will incorporate plenty more travel for all of us. In Australia or overseas. Hopefully both. I must find a way.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Farewell to the Kimberley

Having spent around four months in the Kimberley region, it's time to move on. The weather has changed and we're now into the next season; the build up to the wet. The temperature has increased to around 38 degrees every day and more relevantly the humidity has kicked in. It's now stifling during the day and so stuffy at night that sleep is a difficult and sweaty affair. Being outdoors in daylight hours means permanently dripping with sweat, even if not doing anything of any physicality. The only possible respite is to jump into a refreshing water hole or caravan park swimming pool. The idea of walking to any gorges or through other areas of natural beauty in this heat is now unthinkable. I guess in hindsight Finn and Jazzy's passing out on the Duncan was probably attributable to their first exposure to this change in climatic conditions. It is much more oppressive. Since being in Kununurra I've worked pretty much nonstop. Catching up on work that had been building up while I'd been doing far more interesting things like swimming with crocodiles or clambering through rocky gorges.  The view from my office here has mostly consisted of the inside of the air-conditioned van as being outside for too long makes concentration difficult. Tori has spent these days working out ways to keep the kids cool, which has involved days by the pool or a trip to the Kununurra Leisure Centre to play on the water slides, or even a trip to the super air-conditioned supermarket. We went on a quick getaway down to the acclaimed El Questro Wilderness Park for a couple of days, spending the night in one of their pricey bungalows at the Station. We'd heard so many mixed stories about El Questro from "must go" to "don't bother" that we needed to just see for ourselves. One thing is certain about the place and that is that the owners have really got their act together. They bought a run down cattle station of one million acres with no habitable buildings and unmusterable cattle in 1991. In the last twenty years they have gone from sleeping in tents and swags on their property to building the equivalent of a privately owned national park, complete with camping and caravan park through to luxury accommodation.  At the top end, a stay in the El Questro homestead comes in at around $1,000 per night for a two night minimum stay. They have helicopter tours, boat tours, fishing charters, tagalong 4WD trips, guided walks all charged at a premium with seemingly no shortage of takers, along with a quality restaurant and a bar. And on the other side of the Gibb River Road they have a working cattle station. With the incredible Cockburn Ranges running through the property and including the majestic Emma Gorge and luxurious Zebedee natural hot springs, they have sussed it out incredibly well and have milked it for all they can, albeit in a tasteful way. It certainly doesn't feel like the other places we've been and you sense that you could never really be alone at any of the prime spots in there. I suspect it is always relatively crowded. Notwithstanding, it is certainly a beautiful place.

The afternoon we arrived we lazed by the swimming hole for a couple of hours and then went for a drive up to Saddleback Ridge Lookout to check out the 360 degree view we'd been told about. One of El Questro's attractions is its many 4WD tracks and the signs as we were entering the track to Saddleback Ridge indicated that this was indeed a 4WD only track. A little way further along after driving across the Pentacost River, we were greeted with a sign that I found somewhat more disturbing. "Warning! The track ahead is extremely steep and narrow. Only experienced 4WD drivers should proceed past this point". It is true that I am now quite an experienced 4WD driver, but my most recent experience had resulted in me being towed out of a gorge after some moments on a steep incline where I shat myself. The words "extremely steep" immediately triggered the churning in my stomach and shakiness in my legs that I get when standing on the edge of a cliff. I wasn't really sure whether I should go on. "Come on. You're an experienced driver. She'll be right", Tori chimed in on seeing my nervousness. So with that we started our climb up to Saddleback Ridge. And they weren't lying. It was extremely steep. There's something about the design of a Landcruiser that when it's going up a steep hill it seems to be facing almost vertically up. You get the sense that you could almost be driving straight up on the perpendicular. As we turned the tight corners up the incline, the car responded well, as it has really through our entire journey. I somehow was able to overcome my anxieties and was filled with relief when we made it to the top of the hill. And what a breathtaking view it was. Removing whatever breathe I had left over after the drive.

The next morning we made our way to Zebedee Springs. The springs close to the general public at 12pm so that the rich people from the homestead and those on pricey tours can come down to enjoy them without being accosted by the riff raff such as ourselves. They are one of the major attractions of El Questro and with beautifully warm 32 degree water rushing over the rocks and into the various pools surrounded by lush vegetation, it is easy to see why. Such a beautiful place. We stayed until the ranger politely made it clear that 12pm had arrived and it was time to move on. After lunch we walked down El Questro gorge, our aim being to get to the half way pool for a swim and then turn back. The aforementioned heat of the day was well and truly upon us, so when we arrived at a swimming spot on the creek we decided to stop there for a dip to cool down. Everyone was a bit hot and bothered and indeed looking a bit shaky, so we decided to head back. That pretty much sealed it for me as far as gorge walking in this heat goes. We'll just have to come back this way again to get to the many places we didn't make it to on this trip.

A major feature of the Kimberley that I've touched on but haven't really gone into in detail so far has been the fact that this is a largely Aboriginal region of Australia. Both Broome and Kununurra are mixed towns containing a large number of white fellas who are there to support the local industries such as pearling in the former, diamonds in the latter and high volume tourism in both. But there is also a very large black fella population in these main centres. And in the more than one thousand kilometres in between these two towns, the whole region is dotted with Aboriginal communities in all sorts of remote locations. And the other three towns in the region, Derby, Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek are predominantly Aboriginal. I left Melbourne looking forward to exploring some of the rich indigenous culture that exists in the more remote parts of Australia. The art. The music. The dancing. The stories of the dreamtime. It was one of my main aims for the journey. But it has not really come to fruition. Instead I have had my eyes opened to the extent of the problem that exists in Australia with our black brothers. Even writing this now, I'm not really sure where to start. It's a very delicate subject. But I guess it seems to start with alcohol. Something that I love and certainly have had my fair share of. And if I were to calculate how much of my money that I've effectively pissed up against the wall over the years, then I would probably be quite shocked. And many of the conversations that I've had with people about the drinking problem within the indigenous communities around here, have been with people in a pub while we've been sucking back on a beer or three. So it's difficult to take too high a moral line on the evils of the demon alcohol. But it is clearly a problem. The licensing laws have been changed in the last couple of years in both Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek so that it is now not possible to buy alcoholic beverages to take away. You can drink in the pub, which is open from 10:30am until 7:30pm, but no takeaways. That is other than low alcohol mid strength beer in Halls Creek, making it somewhat like the outer of the MCG during the Boxing Day test. Everybody wants a proper drink but they can only buy mid strength. At the G it means that everybody piles out of the ground during the lunch break to race down to the Corner or the Royal for a "real" drink, and then as soon as the day's play is over the pubs are full with people hanging out for a proper drink. In Fitzroy Crossing it means that when the pub shuts, young guys jump into their car, often pissed, and drive up to Derby 250km away to stock up on as much alcohol as they can bring back. They then either share it with their friends or sell it on the black market at over inflated prices. Most members of indigenous communities are receiving government benefits, because there are no jobs available in the communities and when you're given money for free, getting a job in town probably doesn't seem like such a high priority either.  And if you don't have a job to get up for in the morning and you have a steady income stream from the government, why not get pissed every night? The problem comes when all of a sudden there isn't enough money for food for the family because it's all been spent on grog and cigarettes. And everybody is so pissed up that domestic violence is common. As is sexual abuse within family or community groups. And an extraordinary number of teenage suicides. I have heard so many stories from so many different people while travelling this area. People whose opinions I trust as well as the inevitable racist "hate the coons" type of folk that I've also met. Shane, the manager of the Crossing Inn at Fitzroy, is fully aware of the problem. He decided that he would try a proactive approach to reducing the amount of alcoholism within Fitzroy Crossing and decided that everybody who enters the pub in the morning would be breathalysed. Anybody who measures over 0.04% alcohol in their bloodstream is politely refused entry. If they kick up a fuss, they are barred for a week. He told me that on the previous Saturday when they were testing people at 10:30am, 150 people were refused entry to the pub for being more than .04. With the pub having closed at 7:30pm the night before and no takeaways available, people were obviously still getting their grog from somewhere. On the positive side, there are obviously those indigenous folk who are getting it together. I spent many mornings watching Finn playing footy alongside the Aboriginal Mums and Dads of Finn's team mates who clearly were just the same as anybody else who was there. And we have seen small pockets of community life that is focused on respect; for yourselves, for your family and for your community. The Mowanjum festival was one such beautiful example as was the remote Laarri Gallery at the Yiyili Community. And I have no doubt that there are those getting it together within the communities, hidden away from the world of the white fella. But to deny the enormity of the problem is a complete denial of the truth. It seems that much of the political power of this country comes from Melbourne and Sydney, huge cities that are as good as a million miles from here. It really might as well be another country. Down there, over our many varieties of coffee, we discuss issues such as "bridging the gap", which refers to the difference in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous folk in this country which is quite significant. We talk about the poor state of Aboriginal health with many people dying of preventable disease. And we  put pressure on our politicians to spend money on these situations so as to remove this embarrassing blight on our consciences. And the money is spent by the millions, regardless of which government is in power. With Kim having been born in Broome, I've seen the health care on offer in this region at close range and it is second to none. In fact the standard is significantly higher in many regards than in Melbourne and Sydney. I'd certainly rather sit waiting for a doctor at the Fitzroy Crossing or Broome Hospitals than at Box Hill Hospital. Or that dodgy one up in Ringwood. And for the local population here, the health care is free. Prescription medicines are free for the indigenous population. Education programs exist to try and inform people about the effects of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy, or what foods you should and shouldn't be eating for good health, or that it's not ok for your partner to beat you. But if the problem is in any way diminishing, it seems to be happening at a very slow pace. And there is no doubt that there are different laws here depending on whether you are black or white. A lot of guilt exists from the years of the stolen generation. And rightly so. But the backlash to the other side is that in situations where community services would probably take a child out of a white home and place him or her into custodial care, a black child will most likely be left to tough it out. The shopping centres of Broome and Derby are regularly filled during the day by young Aboriginal kids who clearly should be at school. The problem is so rife that shops have signs indicating that children will not be served during school hours unless accompanied by a parent. We got into a conversation of this nature in Fitzroy Crossing with a couple from Melbourne. After a few minutes she revealled that she actually worked for an Aboriginal government department in Victoria. I raised the stories that I'd heard and she was quite defensive, suggesting that I only saw a part of the picture and that all the good stuff was happening in areas that weren't accessible to me. (Yes, they had a camper trailer). I think she thought I was a racist bloke who was just looking to slag off the Aboriginal population, as has been done in this country for many years. It seemed to me that she had no idea of the scope of this problem, which I found somewhat disturbing for someone working in the area of indigenous welfare. There seems to be some sort of politically correct approach to sweeping this under the carpet, insisting that it is pure racism to suggest that many Aboriginal people and their communities have a severe alcohol and drug problem. Especially from the cities down south. That it is just some kind of racial stereotyping on behalf of those making the claim. I would suggest contrary to that, in that if we can't acknowledge there is a serious problem here that needs addressing, then it isn't going to get any better. And the problem is endemic and runs deep. We saw a couple of great examples where this is trying to be addressed.  On our path up the Duncan Road, on our first day at Caroline Pool, I met TJ. A huge man. Black fella who had grown up in Halls Creek. He and a dutch guy who was working with him, ran a youth group for the young indigenous guys of Halls Creek. They would  take them out every Wednesday to teach them about something of their culture and the bush and try to get them away from the path of alcohol and drugs. Swimming in water holes. Fishing. Digging in trees with an axe for wichety grubs. Cooking up kangaroo tail over an open fire. And further up at Palm Springs a few days later we met an older indigenous couple who ran a program for Aboriginal kids in the area who had just been released from prison. They grabbed the kids as soon as they got bail and got out, to try and get them out of the typically troubled alcohol and drug fuelled family lives they had come from and teach them a trade. Give them some skills. Teach them some self respect. "It's not their fault", said Jane. "They are just young kids who don't know any better. They are mostly good boys who made some bad decisions". It was truly heartening to see this, but there is no doubt that much more is needed. I'm still not really sure what to make of the whole situation with the indigenous communities up here. Ultimately I guess I feel despair and disappointment. Much greater minds than mine have tried and failed to really address this situation. I don't see any easy or fast solution myself, which I guess is where the despair comes from. It will be interesting to get into the Northern Territory and see what effect the "intervention" has had on this same problem over there. I'm hoping it's on the right track.

Well I sort of digressed there on a rant that has been building up for a while. It has been a common theme of our time in the Kimberley, but there have been many other themes also. Those of beautiful swimming holes surrounded by majestic gorges, abundant bird and animal life of many exotic varieties, crocodiles, four wheel driving across corrugated roads and stony water crossings, the horizon emblazened pink as the sun sets behind the boab trees, the red dust of the pindan that seems to find its way in everywhere and that I'm sure I'll still be finding in things a year from now when I've long been back in Melbourne. I've loved my travels through the Kimberley and look forward to coming back here. It is a diverse, beautiful and at times challenging part of the world. And indeed it is also farewell to Western Australia as a whole, where we have spent most of our journey so far. Because tomorrow we head eastward and into the Northern Territory.