Monday, March 28, 2011

A trip to old Melbourne town

A trip to the old home town when it's not actually your home town is very strange indeed. A place that is so familiar that it feels a part of you. Like a past lover, it has the allure of what used to be but forces a close examination of what did I really see in her. When we lived in England, I had the strange feeling sometimes of having two homes and at other times of having no home at all. Somewhat of a displaced person. I expected it to be different this time. After all we are still living in Australia. I still see the same news of floods up north, Australian journalists' perspectives of nuclear crisis in Japan, same rubbish on TV and all the footy news, albeit from an Eagles or Dockers point of view. Yet it seems that the distance or relocated geography has no bearing and the only relevant factor is absence.

When I arrived back in Melbourne it was drab, cold and rainy. This is pretty much the perception that the rest of Australia has of Melbourne all the time and despite protests of "it's only just started, it wasn't this bad last week", I fell in with the non-Melburnians in thinking that this weather sucked. If I was looking to be in love with Melbourne, in return it was certainly playing hard to get. Friends and family would ask me of where we'd been travelling and whether I could possibly live there. Hmmmm.... perpetual blue skies, hot and sunny, fringed with beautiful white sand beaches where the crystal clear water laps on to the shore. Not as crowded so not as much of a traffic nightmare getting around town. Sitting outside on a late March evening being warm in only a t-shirt and shorts. I pondered the question for a while before deciding that firstly, I could live in such a place and secondly, I do actually live there right now. The perception of me just being off on an extended holiday seems hard to shake, so I guess now I'll just go with it. My life is just one long holiday with nothing to do but decide where to have the next beer and how many crays I'll eat for dinner. My bank account continues to regenerate while I'm just lazing back in a banana lounge, feet up and receiving a shoulder massage while nonchalantly chowing down on a few grapes being lovingly fed to me by one of my beautiful hand maidens. Tori has picked out the most beautiful girls to fulfill this duty as she knows that this will please me. Life is just perfect. It's quite amazing really that I could bring myself from this idyllic existence to be in the grey gloom of a prematurely wintery Melbourne. But that's where I was and as usual on trips back to my home city when I've been away for a while it was frantically busy. So much to do while I was in town, so many people to try and see, whilst trying also to complete the work which was the actual reason for my visit (yes, auditioning for some new hand maidens).

It seems to have a strange effect on people when you live away and return home for a visit. I saw it secondhand when Geoff was living in Hong Kong. I often felt on his returns that tour buses with "Spicer" written on the destination board up the top seemed to park out the front of his mum's house in Gidgee Avenue. The loungeroom would be chock full of people who wanted to see him. I wanted to see him also, so I don't blame them at all. But there was a certain frenzy associated with it and some sort of competition. "I saw him three times and you only saw him two". One night when a group of us were out for dinner with Geoff and I happened to be his chauffeur for the evening, Geoff decided he wanted to go back afterwards to Darren's place to continue drinking with the folk who'd been at dinner. Unfortunately it seems that others were expecting him to be meeting them at the cinema for a ritualistic session of Koyaanisqatsi. They ended up driving all over town until they found us. I was actually crashed out on Darren's bed, having decided I'd had enough of the evening, when I was aggressively woken by a tirade insisting that somehow I'd kidnapped Geoff away from his rightful location which was with them. It was as if I'd been caught redhanded shagging their wives. I was somewhat flabbergasted and not a little bemused. For the person in question, it is undoubtedly heartwarming to be loved to that extent, but it can often make you feel like the rope in a tug of war. In the past, when I would be back in Melbourne, it was pretty much guaranteed that at least one of Mum, Tori and sister Nat would be angry and upset with me for not spending enough time with them. I felt like I couldn't win really, so in the end ceased to be too bothered. This time Tori wasn't there so I was safe at least from her wrath. And I stayed with Mum (which was very nice) and saw Nat for dinner on two out of the three nights, so the emotional mine field of the three closest women to me in my life was negotiated far more comfortably on this occasion. I even managed to sneak in a quick lunchtime meeting with friends in Warrandyte, a visit to Aton Street to see how Pusskana was doing (loving and snuggly at first followed by hissing in a pissed off way at my betrayal for deserting him) and a trip to the footy. Several people seemed to think that I have my life coordinated so well that my trip was totally planned around being at the MCG for the first game of the season. I guess there have been times when this was true, but on this particular occasion it was just a genuine piece of luck. Not that the game provided the equal of the occasion. A pathetic display by two so called top teams in St.Kilda and Geelong. The crowd were in far better form than any of the players and despite coming away with a loss, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time just being at the footy and standing in the outer. Following on from the footy was a gathering at Tal's to celebrate Priscilla giving birth to a new baby girl. Being back in town after an absence and seeing close friends definitely gives a good boost to the adrenaline. After many hilarious, animated and enjoyable conversations culminating finally in some drunken skateboard action on the streets of Collingwood after 4am, I wound up back at Dan and Lisa's around 5. It had been a great night giving me some things that only Melbourne can really offer up for me, the predominant one in being the place where so many people that I love reside. As for the city itself, I think I'll wait until the weather fines up a bit before I make judgement.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Preparing for the great trek north

Setting up a standard 4WD for some offroad adventures is a costly and mind boggling business. Yesterday we went to the Perth Caravan and Camping show with a view to finding what we need to do to prepare our Landcruiser for a trip up north along some of the less prepared roads that Australia has to offer. The show is packed with stall after stall full of sales and marketing type folk who are very willing to sell you whatever they can. When you know next to nothing about the subject, it's pretty hard to separate the useful information and recommendations from the sales pitch. Do we really need super duper shock absorbers (I think so), an extra spare wheel and tyre in case we get two punctures, which in turn means a dual wheel carrier, which requires a replacement rear bumper, which requires the super duper shock absorbers and lifts initially mentioned? Then we could also fit a 150 litre long range auxilary fuel tank under the car which would mean we can make it the 750km between fuel stops in some remote locations. Should I get roof racks with new accessories we could also buy such as high lift jack, recovery gear, an awning and spot lights all over the place. Do we need a winch in case we get bogged somewhere or can we just use the new maxtrax recovery planks I bought yesterday. They seem like they'd do the job in most cases of mud and sand but what about being stuck during a river crossing? Potentially in waters where saltwater crocodiles are known to visit and attempt to eat passers by? Probably not an ideal spot to breakdown and have no way of getting out, but given that you should always walk across any water crossing before attempting to drive it in the first place, do we really want to do these type of river crossings in remote areas? Especially with either a pregnant wife and small children, or maybe with a new born baby. The answer may seem obvious, as in "just don't go there", but some of the most beautiful areas in Australia can only be accessed via unsealed corrugated dirt tracks masquerading as roads. The part of Oz that I'd been looking forward to most is the Kimberley and this is particularly true of up there. The Gibb River Road is meant to be one of the most amazing drives you can do. Rugged terrain dotted with waterfalls, gorges, rock pools and a load of wildlife. The aforementioned crocodiles included. The other issue is whether it is something we can tackle while pulling a large caravan. Opinions differ. Just yesterday within ten metres of each other at the show, I met one guy who said forget about taking any type of caravan down Gibb River Road, and another guy who said we'll have no problem whatsoever with our offroad type heavy duty van. So who do you believe? I do feel a bit nervous about driving this 660km track, mostly due to folklore and people's horror stories of punctured tyres, broken axles and caravans that have been vibrated to bits by the road corrugations. But I also feel compelled. To kit up the car with any combination of the above will cost us loads of money. I'd be surprised if there was any change out of ten grand. More than that if we are to go the whole hog. If we spend all that cash and then for whatever reason we end up sticking to the major sealed highways, it will have been a complete waste of money. It's going to be a punt either way. Will Tori and the baby be healthy enough to travel into remote outback Australia? Will we feel that living in a van is not something we can do with a baby anyway, let alone driving anywhere at all in it? Or will we just think "bugger it, let's go". I'm hoping for the latter so I guess my decision should be based around that. The Kimberley is as far from Melbourne that you can get within Australia. When will we ever be up that way again? I think I can hear my credit card groaning.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

No Japan so a bit of a pit stop

We've been in Perth long enough now to have forgotten when we actually got here. I guess that's as settled as you can be when you're on the road. I was meant to be flying from here to Japan on Sunday night to do some work, but given the fallout from the earthquake, figuratively and literally, my trip has been cancelled. I was all prepared to go but the Japanese financial institution that I was going to be doing the work for decided to pull the pin and postpone the implementation. I guess they thought that with everybody already panicking around the place, the last thing they needed was to add to it by having their computer system down if something went wrong. People unable to buy tickets to get out of town just before the nuclear plant goes up is probably not what they need right now. But had they not cancelled it, I would have been hopping on to a plane on Sunday night bound for Osaka, totally confident that I would be fine. Perhaps with a slight concern about the prediction of another big quake to hit the country over the coming days or weeks, but with a bit of perspective on the media frenzy and the fear that they love to spread. Things just always seem a lot worse when you are far away, seeing the most graphic images continually pumped into your home by the media who seem to salivate at the ratings bonanza that such events bring. It's an undoubted disaster for Japan and you wouldn't catch me flying in to Fukushima Daiichi right now, but Osaka, some 700km away, seems pretty safe to me. Just don't breathe the air or drink the water or eat the food and you'll be fine.

In 1989 I was in California during the big earthquake they had there. I was on a training course down in Santa Clara when it hit late in the afternoon, just before the World Series got underway at Candlestick Park. Game one of the historic Bay Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's. I heard a rumbling coming from above before I felt anything. Like a number of elephants on the floor up had decided to move a couple of pianos. And then things started to shake. "Get away from the windows", we were told. That seemed a pretty good tip, so I made my way across the floor which was wobbling around like a bowl of jelly. It felt amazing. I'd never experienced anything like it. Sort of like a ride at Luna Park that you didn't even have to pay for. I loved it! When I got out of the building I was completely buzzing with the adrenaline and to the shock of others, was claiming that I wished we could do all that again. It was only when I saw the footage of the broken Bay Bridge with cars hanging off the edge, the marina district in flames and the 880 freeway that had collapsed and squashed a number of people that I thought I should call Mum and let her know I was fine. The events on TV, while catastrophic for some, seemed a million miles from what I'd experienced. And it certainly wasn't going to be footage of me joyfully bouncing around the floor as if on a water bed that was going to be beamed into homes around the world. The earthquake did play on my mind though at various stages later in my trip. Aftershocks continued for days and when driving across the Golden Gate late at night, it seemed a long way down if an earthquake should strike and take the bridge down with me attached.

So without a trip to Japan now, there is some rescheduling to do. We've decided to stay in Perth a little longer to do some required maintenance on the van and the car. One or more of the batteries in the van seems to have packed it in making it almost essential at the moment for us to be camped somewhere that has electricity for us to plug into. Our fully charged batteries, four of them, connected to four solar panels, can run two LED lights and the fridge for a few hours before starting to flash red, indicating that they are about to conk out. So something is seriously wrong there. I'm hoping that just one battery is dragging the others down, as they are pretty pricey to replace. We'll see when we get them tested. I also need to look into what we need to do to the car to set it up for a bit of offroad adventuring when we start our trek north. That needs to be balanced with the cost and also with the likelihood of being seriously offroad with either a pregnant woman or a newborn baby. Hmmm... what to do? The list is potentially long. In my Utopian world, baby or no baby we are driving down the Gibb River Road and that may require new shocks, new tyres, a wheel holder to get the wheel out from under the vehicle, a winch, some roofracks and driving lights - probably don't need them, but everyone else seems to have them so how can I not want them - and some good recovery gear in case we get stuck. Plus perhaps an emergency beacon thingy in case it all gets really out of hand. That list is a bucket full of money, so not sure how far we'll go. But at the very least I need to get the car serviced for a big trip. In the van we need some new insect screens and fridge door shelves to replace the casualties that have occurred along the way. Maybe also pick up some crocodile repellent for when we get to the Kimberley. There's a caravan and camping show on in Perth this weekend where they'll have all this stuff plus loads of things I couldn't even imagine. Maybe we'll go down there and check it out. That is while we're not lying back on the pure white sand of beautiful Scarborough Beach, taking in some fine weather and dipping periodically in to the surf. That's one thing I love about this trip. When the weekend comes, we're in some very very nice places for a good day out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Burracoppin

Nanna & Zayda at Burracoppin
Burracoppin is a tiny town in the Western Australian wheat belt, half way between Perth and Kalgoorlie. But to our family, it is a place of mythical qualities, full of stories of adventure and legend from a time long ago. Mum's sister Leonie was born with a bad dose of asthma that saw my grandmother making frequent trips to the Perth children's hospital and had everybody fearing for her life. The doctors told her that if they moved to a place that was hotter and dryer, it would help with Leonie's condition. My grandfather worked as a wool buyer around Merredin, spending his weeks up there and making the 160 mile trip down to Perth every weekend. It was decided that if the family relocated up to Burracoppin, it would not only help with Leonie's asthma but would reunite the family seven days a week. And so the family moved to this little country town with a population of around 60.
Today Burracoppin has a population of 37. If everybody is home. Mum made her last journey up the Great Eastern Highway with my grandparents and her sisters almost 60 years ago in an old Chevy. This time she made it with us in a Toyota Landcruiser. As we drove alongside the water pipeline that runs the whole length of the highway from Perth to Kalgoorlie, I was full of anticipation of being able to match locations with the many stories that Mum has told me of her time growing up. Stories of Prince the pet sheep who had escaped the removalist truck when the family were moving back to Perth and ended up travelling in the back of the chevy squashed in beside the three girls. The humpies that the local aboriginal families lived in alongside the pipeline. The boy who on deciding to show my young mum his willy ended up with a bull ant on it for his trouble. A very sore learning experience for him on the risks of unwanted flashing and a reprimand for my mother for causing grievous bodily harm with a vicious insect. I also wanted to revisit some of my own scant childhood memories. I had gone up to Burracoppin with my Nanna and Zayda when I was around 5 years old and I have a few "snapshot" type memory images of the place. But mostly I wanted to relive some of Mum's experiences with her. Where exactly did she tie Leonie to the tree? What was the "soak" that I'd heard so much about? Was there anybody still in town who could tell me stories about my grandfather? I had hopes of spending the night in the Burra pub having a meal and a few beers with the locals and trying to pry the older ones for information. But when we arrived in Burracoppin, the pub was boarded up with a 'for sale' sign hanging in the window. The streets were deserted. Even the refuse tip had permanently closed. It seemed like a bit of a ghost towin in the making and I had the horrible feeling that maybe we'd driven 300km chasing wild geese. What's more, when we went looking for Mum's old house, armed with a picture from back in the day, we couldn't find it. She seemed sure that she'd lived on the corner block of the main street, but the house there held no resemblance whatsoever. What's more, she insisted that she used to walk across the railway line to get to school, but the railway line was nowhere near this house. We cruised down the road until we found a house that seemed to match the one in the picture. The roofline was identical, the only one in the street like that. We stopped out the front to size it up a bit better and the owner came out to see who the passers by were. I explained our mission and showed him the old photo saying that I thought that perhaps Mum had lived here 60 years ago. He took one look at the picture and said that yes, this was definitely the house. I gave him the photo to keep and asked if we could come in for a look. Mum seemed uneasy in the fact that her memory and reality were perhaps slightly askew. Wasn't the backyard bigger than this. And I'm sure we were on a corner. And wasn't the kitchen over the other side of the house. Nevertheless, we spent a good hour talking to Ash and Tammy who lived there now and checking out the different rennovations that had happened over the years. On leaving, we took a few photos of Mum with Ash and Tam out the front of the old house. The old inhabitant with the new. The only problem was, it turned out to be the wrong house. Mum's ill feelings were confirmed by Shirley on the phone later that night. Their house had been the one on the corner after all, but it had been changed beyond recognition. It was no longer the same house. Ash did provide a valuable piece of information though for anybody seeking out the history of Burracoppin. "Go and speak to Gwen. Been here the longest and knows everything about the place". As it turns out, we were lucky that we did go to the wrong house.

Burracoppin Rock

The next day Gwen took us on an extensive tour of Burracoppin. For a place that you could drive through in ten seconds and not realise that you'd missed it, she had an awful lot to show us. In total we spent four hours running around with her. She told us that the railway track had been relocated to the other side of town, explaining mum's confusion at the fact that she was sure they used to cross the railway line to get to school but how could that be possible with the layout in front of us. We went to the footy club and looked at pictures of guys that Mum had gone to school with, posing proudly with their successful premiership team mates.
The rabbit proof fence
We visited places that Mum had never known about, such as the old well from 1864 and the dams used for hosing down the old steam trains as well as a disused gold mine. Burra it seems had quite an extensive history. We went to the soak, which had been a dam where mum and her sisters frequently spent their time. On one occasion mum had fallen in while hunting tadpoles and the sisters had to wait for her until her clothes dried, fearing that she would cop it from my Nanna for her folly. We climbed Burracoppin Rock where Joy, Shirley and Leonie had spent so much of their youth. 60 years ago Mum would have clambered up the rock in a jiffy. Back then she would have been a similar age to Jazzy and Finn who were doing just that. But now I had to provide a supporting arm for assistance and the journey up was a lot slower. But we got there anyway and took in the great view that couldn't have changed too much in the last hundred years. Bushland and wheat fields for miles and miles. The only real sign of modernity was the distant wind farm that is soon to be commissioned. The last place that we visited was something of a surprise to me. I knew that Burracoppin held a special place in my own family's history, but it turns out to be a significant place in a part of Australia's history. It was in Burracoppin that the great rabbit proof fence was started. A fence stretching from Esperance in the south to Port Hedland in the north, the longest fence in the world, aimed (largely unsuccessfully) at keeping the rabbits out of Western Australia, had its first post banged in in the red soil of Burracoppin. Evidence of the old fence still exists and the local shire is building a bit of a memorial to the fence, based in Burracoppin. And it seems that there is a buyer for the pub. There may be some life in the old town yet.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Back in Perth

Mum and her two sisters Shirley & Leonie
I've been linked with Perth my whole life. My Mum was from here and so we would come over every few years to see the Perth side of the family. When I was very young we would stay at the house of my grandparents, my Nanna and Zayda, in Venn Street, Mt. Lawley. I have memories of a giant almond tree in the backyard, or perhaps it was the neighbour's tree with branches over the fence. I would pick the nuts from the ground, crack open the husks and the shells and eat them by the handful. My Zayda used to play with us all the time as kids, preferring our company to that of the grown ups. He'd do tricks for us, play hide and seek in the garden and always had a pepe, his name for kool mints, in the glove box of his old Rambler car for us kids. He would hand them out much more frequently than Mum and Dad ever passed out the lollies. I have random memories of Venn Street. Watching my Nanna's cat Fluffy (all her cats were always called Fluffy) catch a giant praying mantis, play with it for a while in the thick green couch grass that always reminds me of Perth, and then gobble it down. Running up the driveway barefooted and treading on a rusty nail that resulted in a trip to the doctor's for a tetanus shot. Sleeping in the added on section out the back of the house that was known as the sleep out and listening to my grandfather half singing half humming while he shaved in the bathroom next door. Sometimes I would lie in bed listening to him playing his piano accordian. I loved looking in the book shelves of the sleep out and seeing the old hardback books with the faded red covers that had been my mother's when she was a girl. William In Trouble, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and an old encyclopedia set that seemed so ancient to me, nowhere near as glossy as the brand new set of World Book Encyclopedias we had at home. I recall waking up one morning very early and Nanna, as always, was already up. I got dressed and the two of us walked over to my Aunty Freda's place a suburb away in Elstree Avenue before anybody in the house had stirred. Freda was Nanna's sister. I used to stay with her regularly too. I loved her reading me the Little Mermaid from a dusty old book of Hans Christian Andersen tales with glossy picture plates, the story a lot darker before Disney got hold of it. Aunty Freda didn't have any kids of her own, so she would always love having me come and stay. I'd putt a golf ball for hours around her backyard with the clubs that I'd found buried deep in her back shed. On the table out the back was her homemade flycatcher. A glass jar with holes poked into the metal lid, half filled with water and containing a mixture of rotting meat and fly corpses. Having flies buzzing around was a lot less disturbing to me than that contraption which made me feel rather ill. One year Freda was bitten by a redback spider when pulling a chair out of the shed. Her arm swelled up like a balloon.
Young cousins
One time when we came over to Venn Street from Melbourne, we brought chicken pox with us and infected the whole family. I was 8 then, Nat was 6, and cousins Sharon and Grant were 4 and 2 respectively. We all got it. And on it went also to Mum's cousin David who was a good deal older than us so it was apparently much more serious for him. I still remember the nights of incessant itching and the very temporary relief of the calamine lotion, pink spots all over my body. My Nanna still had the old washing machine with the mangle used for squeezing the water out of the clothes. And old solid metal flat irons that had been replaced by the modern technology of an electric iron and so had now been relegated to the role of ornamental door stops. And of course the great food my Nanna used to make from her old clunky looking oven. I think I was around 9 when my Zayda died. We were in Melbourne at the time and I remember Natalie and Mum coming in the front door crying. When they told me what happened I couldn't believe it. I'd never had somebody close to me die before. I think I laughed, expecting that they were playing some kind of elaborate practical joke on me. But when I looked at Mum, I knew it was true. I was ashamed of my initial reaction for some years after that, not realising that I was probably in shock and that as a child I didn't know how to take such grave news. I cried in the solitude of my bed knowing I'd never see my Zayda again. After Zayda died Nanna moved to a townhouse unit in Mt. Lawley. When Mum and Dad went overseas for 10 or 11 weeks, Nat and I went over to stay with her, but in the end Nat went and stayed with Aunty Shirley and Uncle Robert because we fought too much for Nanna to handle. I was in grade 5 in 1973 and I loved that long hot summer. We went to Carmel, the Perth Jewish school, where I was reacquainted with some of the kids I'd done kinder with some years before when we livd in Perth. Some lunchtimes I would visit my great grandmother in the old people's home that was next door to the school. She seemed so old to me that I never really knew what to say to her, but she loved seeing me just the same. At school after lunch would always be blessings in hebrew that the other kids all seemed to know but were mostly a mystery to me and Nat. Mum would have liked for us to be much more in tune with our jewish heritage, but Dad was a pretty devout agnostic and seemed not too bothered by that. So back home we just went to the local state school. Zayda had taught me a short jewish prayer and told me that I should say it every night. For some years I did too. I think as much as anything it just made me feel closer to him.

Three generations of Rosen
My Nanna, Zayda and all the family of that generation are now long gone. My mum and her two sisters Shirley and Leonie are now the elders of the tribe. Mum flew out to Perth a few days ago to meet up with us so that we could have a bit of a walk together down family memory lane, as well as to catch up with her sisters and their expanding families. Tonight was a good gathering of the tribe at Shirley and Robert's. The aunts, the uncles, the cousins and the new generation of cousins. We don't see each other very often so there's always a lot of catching up to do. We ate, had a couple of wines, some good laughter, talked about our trip and looked at some old family photos. Nanna, Zayda, Freda, the old Rambler and much younger versions of us all from a bygone day were displayed in the vivid clarity of a very modern laptop. The three sisters gave a rousing version of the song Sisters that they have been singing together now for maybe 60 years. When I hugged Shirley on leaving, she remarked that I even felt like family. I knew what she meant. I guess she would have first hugged me around 47 years ago when I was the first child of the three sisters. People tied together forever by a shared history and a feeling of complete familarity no matter what. That's family.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A taste of Margaret

There's something special about places that open up their doors and let you go and drink or eat their produce for free. Some places do it kind of begrudgingly just because they feel that they have to. They are just located in a region where it is expected of them, so they dish up the tiniest of portions and make people feel guilty for asking for the next sample. Others embrace it as a way of introducing their produce to a wider audience with a belief that it will eventually come back to them. A little like the karmic wheel of what goes around comes around. Or the biblical give and you shall receive. Or in the case of wineries, just get the taster drunk enough so that they will be more likely to purchase your wares. Whichever theory they are going with, I love the wineries that are happy to pour out good quantities of wine into your tasting glass, tell you great stories about the process and encourage you to try the next wine. I'm becoming more adept now at the bogus winery speak of "this one needs to open up a bit more" and "you can really taste the citrus in this one" which is all basically banter meaning "maybe I'm interested enough to buy some of your wine but just fill up my glass now because I want a drink". Invariably if the people are nice and the wines are good, I will leave with some purchased wine in my hands. I'm obviously only there in the first place because I like the stuff, so give me something I like and I'm a good chance to become a customer. In Denmark we went to the local cheese factory. An elderly woman who may have been a prison guard in an earlier career, or perhaps a relative of the soup nazi from Seinfeld, watched over the cheese samples like a hawk ensuring that nobody took more than one miniscule morcel of each cheese. The portions were so small that when you stuck a toothpick in, the cheese barely covered the point. Finn and Jaz both experienced her wrath. "No more cheese for you"! We left without purchasing anything. Just down the road was the toffee factory. They had all sorts of toffee wares out for the tasting and were a lot more encouraging in just letting people hoe in. We left with some peanut brittle, toffeed brazil nuts, a couple of jars of their jam and fond memories of the place.

The wines of Margaret River are very different to those of the Barossa. I don't really know a whole lot about the stuff other than what I think tastes good, but in general their shiraz is much lighter both in colour and flavour. A bit more like the Californian reds I've had in the past. With the occasional exception, such as at Juniper, I prefer the Barossa shiraz. But the cabernet sauvignons were consistently sensational. A couple of late harvest rieslings weren't too shabby either. Probably the most enjoyable winery that we visited was the Peacetree Estate. This was a small boutique winery that dealt purely in organic wines of high quality. The amiable owner was happy to slosh good quantities of delicious liquids into my glass and regale me with her stories of wine production and the shenanigans that their Frenchwoman winemaker had been getting up to on her annual return journeys to Bordeaux. This little winery is a gem that I am glad we stumbled across and that I definitely stumbled out of.

Margaret River
In total we went to four wineries, the cheese company and the Margaret River chocolate factory. Tori had the keys thrown to her very early in proceedings. A good advantage to me of her being pregnant. It's fair to say that we took full advantage of the wares, no more so than at the chocolate factory. They were incredibly generous having tubs of milk, white and dark chocolate buds that visitors were able to help themselves to by the handful. The kids thought they were in heaven. With a few wines in me I was scoffing them down too. There was no obligation to buy anything. The girls serving didn't actually seem like they could care less. But we picked out a number of their quality truffles just the same. So by the end of the day, we were loaded up with 8 or 9 bottles of purchased wine, a number of cheeses and some chocolate. A pretty good booty and a good result for the establishments that we'd visited. I'd probably also consumed a bottle worth of various wines, a decent slab of cheese and a small bucket of chocolate along the way. Everyone was a winner.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Phobias

I'm not sure how my fear of heights began, or why it persists, but it is there. Always. And it rears its head every now and then to remind me that nothing really has changed in my core. It could be brought on by a ladder or as I discovered a couple of years back, by spending a night in an open loft space in Lewes. Just out of Walpole is a tree top walk. A construction of bridges and walkways that climbs to 40m and looks over the forest of karris below. A spectacular view undoubtedly, but a long long way down. I know that those engineers would have designed everything according to standards, and margins for error to account for excessive winds or load would have been built in. And that thousands of people have successfully negotiated the path before me. And that walking along a straight path without deviating over the edge is something that I am able to do every day. Well most days, assuming that I haven't spent way too long in the pub. But rationality just doesn't come into it. It wasn't quite terror this time, but I felt my toes curling inside my shoes as if trying to recall the time in my ancestry when we were apes and they could establish a good grip on a branch. Eventually, rationality did triumph and I completed what was really a very simple walk without incident. I can't say it was enjoyable though. Tori, Finn and Jaz loved it. I was just relieved that it was over.

Where do these phobias come from? I don't recall ever having any genuinely bad experience involving heights that could explain my morbid fear. My mother can't tell me of anything that may have happened before my current conscious memory. It just seems inbuilt like a malfunction in my internal programming. An overdeveloped sense of self preservation when it comes to being in high places. Just seeing pictures looking down from a cliff top is enough to give me the same sensation of dread. Having tried on a number of occasions to confront my phobia and conquer it, usually with stunning failure, I just feel inclined now to recognise this weakness in my being and try not to put myself in a position where it will come to the fore. That is of course until a "must not miss" tourist attraction such as the tree top walk comes along.

Today we went along to another must not miss tourist site. The Jewel Cave, just out of Margaret River. This is one of a series of limestone caves in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park and was recommended to us by several people as the most spectacular in the region. We paid the exorbitant admission price and set off on the mandatory tour of the cave down the stairs leading to the giant cavern. We had been told that the cave has increased levels of carbon dioxide, hence less oxygen in the air, and so would make the 250 steps more of an ordeal than they would otherwise have been. We were only a short walk into our descent when it was Tori's turn to freak out. Seeing the enclosed space that we were having to walk through, probably combined with the quality of the air, was enough to send Tori's claustrophobia into overdrive and she decided immediately that it was time to get the hell out of there. This is her phobia. She can sit on the edge of a cliff dangling her feet over the side without a care in the world, but put her in a confined space and she is completely overcome by fear and has to escape. I've seen it before when exploring the old gold mines around Warrandyte and when she was learning to scuba dive and even at night in the van if it's just that bit too dark. She too has no reason for her phobia. No past experience that she can pin it on. A few minutes after Tori had exited the cave, Finn lost it too and decided that he had to get out. It seems that he has inherited a claustrophobic fear also. Jazzy on the other hand was racing ahead down the stairs to the 42m depth of the cave. Just as she had raced up the tree top walk and was leaning over the edge to get the best of the view below. At least one of us seems to have escaped the fear of heights and of closed spaces that curse the rest of the family. Hmmm...but if I place a spider in her bed, that'll probably get her.

A fine welcome to Margaret River

Margaret River is one of those legendary places in Australia. Long before they started producing world renowned wines, the place was famed for its surf beaches and laid back lifestyle. Pretty much like the Byron Bay of the south west coast. Surrounded by thick and towering forests of Karri trees, the area is one of natural beauty. With the beaches for surfing, swimming and fishing, caves to explore, the river itself and of course the wineries, Margaret River offers much. We were booked into a caravan park from today as we were to be meeting up with Mum, who had flown across from Melbourne a few days ago. She was to be bussing down from Perth after spending a few days with her sisters. With the weather so grim on the south coast we had decided to head across a day earlier, but there was no room for us yet at our booked site. After searching our possible options, we happened across a camping ground just out of Margaret River at a sheep farm in Rosa Glen and decided to spend a night there. And what a score it was. Half the price of a caravan park with a whole assortment of people staying there. A number of young Germans who were there for the surfing, some English backpackers who were doing likewise, a young combine harvester driver from the WA wheat belt who was down doing some local harvesting, a family of Jehovah's Witnesses from Perth with the father and son both working around Margs on some building projects, a group of excited school children from a Perth catholic school on a camp, a couple of old ex-pat Swiss blokes who had travelled across from Sydney and a combined family with six kids who were off on a journey around Australia, much like ourselves. With six kids, they had clearly bitten off more than us. They were doing distance learning, with the youngest being in grade 4 and the eldest doing year 12. For the primary school children that involved a strict regime of 4 hours per day, mostly spent on a computer. According to their mother the curriculum was just like a full school year including science projects and cooking. She said that the education standard was significantly higher than at the state school up in Broome that the kids had attended up until this year. It seems that her son in grade 6 was struggling to do the distance ed maths exercises that were set for her youngest son in grade 4. Her daughter in year 8 was rapt with the distance learning caper. She was able to work totally at her own pace and had finished the first term of work some weeks before the end of the term. She then had those weeks as extra holiday. They had already been at the farm for three weeks and were staying for four more before moving on, with the father of the crew having picked up some work locally. They thought that they'd probably be on the road for two years in their giant bus, but didn't really know how long it would be.

It seems that when you go travelling, whatever you are doing and however long you are going for, there is always somebody out there more adventurous who has bitten off even more. Not that it's a competition, just that there's always somebody to inspire you to step a bit further out of your comfort zone. When Tori and I went from England across Europe in a VW Transporter van, we were in Istanbul planning a trip down the west coast of Turkey, back across the Greek Islands to Italy, onward through France, Spain and Portugal and ultimately back to England. Quite a nice trip undoubtedly, but quite conservative. In Istanbul, in the one campground, we met three Dutchmen who were riding their pushbikes from Holland to South Africa via the war torn Sudan, some German motor cyclists who were on a similar trip, a number of people heading down through Iran who had to wait 10 days in Istanbul for their visa to come through and an English couple and their adopted Sri Lankan 10 year old daughter, who were driving in a Mercedes buslike camper from England to Sri Lanka. They were taking their daughter to see where she was originally from. From there they were going to be putting the bus on a boat in South India bound for Australia and were then going to travel around Oz. Essentially, they were driving from England to Australia! Our unadventurous trip across western Europe seemed meek in comparison. That was when we decided to head east across Turkey and drive on down into Syria, Jordan and Israel. The fact that the Americans chose that time to bomb Iraq once more put a little bit of an extra edge to being a westerner in Syria. But as seems invariably the case, the people of a country don't particularly identify with the decisions of their leaders and pretty much treat people they meet at face value. Apart from dealing with officialdom in that country, all of the people we met were friendly beyond belief. When we parked our odd looking camper in Damascus one day, a guy came out of his shop specifically to tell us that the vehicle would be safe there, that he would watch over it. I can't imagine that happening in Melbourne if a foreigner pulled up outside one of the designer shops in Chapel Street.

The people staying on the sheep farm all had an air about them that they knew they were staying somewhere special. Not only was it much cheaper than anywhere else, but the owners had set up an environment that fostered community. A fire pit encircled with large logs fashioned into seats, a large communal cooking area accompanied by an inviting eating area and a lounge equipped with a pool table at the back. It was disappointing to think that we would only be there for one night, as the accommodation down in the heart of Margaret River was already paid for. Tori and the kids toasted marshmallows over the fire while I enjoyed the conversation with the other travellers. I listened to tales of surfing with sharks at Margaret River, harvesting grapes and selling them on to the wine makers, indulgence in absinthe in Germany and in turn told my tales of didgeridoo festivals in Berlin and Switzerland. To me that's what travelling is all about. Meeting new people and sharing stories.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Live music and a bit of head banging

There's something about live music that plugs in to a channel leading directly to my soul. As my friend Sean says,"even shit live music is good". Good live music however is inspiring and satisfies me at a level like nothing else. On Sunday night we went to the Castelli winery in Denmark and saw the Waifs. It definitely fell into the latter category. I'm not familiar with much of their music but it made no difference at all. I loved it all the same. The rain threatened to disrupt the occasion, but in fact it somehow added to the spectacle with the bright stage spots reflecting off the raindrops like tiny mirror balls. The crowd were going berserk regardless of any weather and weren't likely to let that get in the way of a good time. The produce of the local winery, expensive as it was, clearly had a large part to do with the atmosphere, as everybody seemed well primed, stumbling around with gusto as much as dancing. I spent some time sheltered under the mixing desk tent with Finn while Jaz and Tori huddled under a picnic blanket during one of the heavier downpours. When that cleared, I figured it was time to head to the front of the stage. Finn decided to have a sit with Tori so Jaz and I made our way towards the throng at the front. We jumped on the train of a small but determined and quite inebriated woman, who was on a mission to get all the way to the stage, "excuse me"ing her way right to the front. I'm not sure at a Waifs gig if the area in the front of the stage could really be called a mosh pit, but it was certainly roaring and that's where we landed, two deep from the front. Jazzy was beaming. She could barely see over or around the rollicking bodies, even though we were so close, but she was clearly getting off on the energy and atmosphere generated by the crowd. It's the place at a gig that I always love to be, right in the thick of it. I danced around Jaz and kept the flying elbows and bodies from nearby revellers at bay, enjoying the fact that my ten year old daughter was as absorbed by the gig as everybody else and was loving being a part of it right down front.

Totally sated from what had been a great last day in Denmark, we bedded down for the night back at the van. And that's when the real drama began. Some time around 2am, Tori woke to the sound of a loud thump. I only woke when Tori went to get out of bed and I could hear Jazzy crying in a whimpering kind of way. She was lying on the floor with all of her bedding around her, having rolled out of bed from the top bunk and then plummeting to the floor. She seemed to have hit her head on Finn's bed on the way down as there was a graze and a forming lump under her eye. Tori gave her an ice pack and comforted her for a half hour or so while I tried to do some quick reading on concussion and make sense of it through my own sleep weary brain. How do you tell if somebody has it? Is it ok to let them go back to sleep? We decided after a period that sleep was probably the best thing. Jaz remembered the gig and could describe in detail what we had done that day, so she seemed ok. But a fall from around 5 foot for a little person who is only about 4 foot tall seemed potentially serious. I often find it difficult as a parent in these situations to balance the fear of the worst possible scenario (cerebral haemorrhage) with the likelihood that everything will actually be ok. But it usually is ok. Right up until it isn't, I guess. In the end, all the "what if" negatives were laid aside and we all got off to sleep. Apart from a bit of a headache the next day and a good bruise and lump under her eye, she was fine. She'd never fallen out of bed before in her life. Perhaps she'd been dancing to the Waifs in her sleep and got a bit out of control, like a number of others at the gig. In any case, we might need to look into some kind of side barrier for the bed to prevent it from happening again.

On the Monday we left Denmark and decided to camp a night in the Shannon National Park. The site had been a large timber mill from the 1940s through until 1970 when it was realised that the giant karri, jarrah and marra trees were more important as a forest than as tables in people's houses, and the site was turned into a National Park. We arrived there early in the evening and set up camp. With a roaring fire going, it really felt like "proper" camping. We sat around, inevitably trying to avoid the smoke that always seems to follow you, telling bogus stories and with me playing some guitar. I'm sure I've learned a load of songs over my time, but I always seem to remember only a small number of those and rarely all the words or all the chords. Nevertheless, it was nice to have a good play for the first time in a few weeks, and through my own musical meanderings, I hit a patch of around a dozen songs that we could all sing along to. I'm pretty sure that those listening would rather have been seeing the Waifs, but for me it was all good. The only thing better than listening to live music is playing it.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Public Holidays and Annual Leave

When I worked as an employee of a company, nothing was better than annual leave. One year while working at Tandem, I took four weeks holiday and went off on a journey up the east coast of Oz with Tori. On returning to work I submitted my annual leave form as required, but on checking my next monthly payslip, I could see that the four weeks hadn't been deducted. A new payroll system had been transitioned in and it said that I still had four weeks available. It felt like I had won the lottery, a much better result for me than if they had overpaid me an extra month's salary. I would rather have the time than the money any day. I was good friends with the people in the accounts department so I kept it quiet to ensure that nobody up there would get into any trouble, as well of course to try and somehow keep my glorious windfall. I took the extra days leave through the course of the year in dribs and drabs. A week here and a week there. When Jane, who did the Tandem payroll and was responsible for docking everybodies annual leave, was departing the company a couple of years later, we all went to have a farewell lunch at the local Mexican restaurant. Over a couple of margaritas I thought I should come clean and thanked Jane for her oversight. "Oh I knew all about that", she told me chirpily. It seems she'd decided to give me an extra four weeks holiday just because she could. I thanked her effusively and kissed her affectionately on the cheek. Ah, to have friends in important places!

Since I've had my own business, it's been much more difficult to take holidays. The expectation is that when you work for yourself you can take time off whenever you want. That sounds great in theory, but it is not quite that simple. My company cannot afford to stop functioning while I'm away. There are customers, suppliers and partners who I deal with on a regular basis, across a number of different countries. Balancing their business needs with my own personal needs for time off has been tricky. Somehow they seem to have won. Last year I had no real vacation time at all. A couple of days here and there, but no decent period of time. Not even one week. We didn't go away anywhere as a family, as Tori continually reminded me throughout the year. And even when in previous years we have been on holiday, it's been almost impossible for me not to check the work emails just to make sure that nothing important has come through. Even the holidays themselves have struggled to be complete holidays with my mind being hijacked by work even if my body has been temporarily relocated.

I've always thought that to completely erase work from your mind on holiday, you need three weeks. The first week is spent winding down from what you have left behind. It's only in the second week that you have truly left that world and are totally immersed in the new surrounds. But if you only have two weeks in total, that second week is spent partly thinking that it's almost over and soon you have to go back. Hence the necessity for the third week. In Australia, it's a statutory requirement that every worker is entitled to four weeks annual leave, plus public holidays. So how did I let it get to this stage that work has so much invaded my being that I can't take a proper holiday? It's time now to put things right. As with any employee, my annual leave must be cumulative. Any holiday time not taken from the previous year rolls around to the next year. This is how it works for my employee. And so it shall be for the senior management of the company also (aka me). My company owes me four weeks annual leave from last year and also four weeks for this year. As well as all the public holidays of course. I intend to make the most of them. To wrestle back my personal time and space from the corporate world.

Because I'm off travelling now in some exotic and beautiful locations, I'm guessing that despite my continued protestation, there is some perception  that I am really on an extended holiday anyway. That every day is just a matter of thinking how I'll choose to spend my days in paradise. That would be nice and I wish that I was in a financial position to be doing that. But if I'm going to be wishing, I'd go the whole way and wish that I was in a financial position where work was not required at all and I could basically just swan around the world with my family doing as I pleased on a permanent basis. Instead, on a beautiful sunny 31 degree day on Friday, rather than going down to Greens Pool and splashing around the large rocks in the bay with Tori and the kids, I was sitting at a laptop for the entire day doing work. No different to anybody else sitting at their office, just with different scenery. And like all of those people, the thought of a long weekend with a public holiday Monday gave me a feeling of joy and anticipation. Three days without work. Hooray! But doesn't it always seem the way that the weather is glorious through the working week and just when you have time off it starts pissing down.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

No room at the inn

We had it all planned out. We would leave Esperance and spend the day driving 520km to the town of Denmark, just past Albany. A town that had all the indications of a perfect destination, sounding like a mix of Mullumbimby with a touch of Byron Bay thrown in. A cool little hippy town with a vibrant alternative culture, surrounded by forest with a river that spills out to sea via beautiful surf beaches. It just sounded perfect and had our name all over it. We'd even picked out the place where we were going to stay. The drive was quite relaxing, with everybody still half in the driving mode from the journey across the Nullarbor. We arrived in Denmark around dusk and it looked like all that had been promised. Art galleries, cool cafes, wineries, interestingly designed houses, hippies walking down the main street decked out in bright tatty clothing and of course the river. We cruised past some kangaroos grazing in the fields on the way up to the tiny little caravan park surrounded by beautiful forest, only to find on arrival that they had no vacancy. What?! We haven't needed to book ahead anywhere so far on this trip and have had no problem getting in to wherever we've wanted. How could this be? "Sorry, we're totally booked out for the long weekend", we were told. Oh yes. It's Labour Day weekend.

The first time that Tori and I went on a road trip together was the Queen's Birthday weekend back in 1990. We'd been going out for about 6 months and thought that we'd just get in the car and drive somewhere up the Murray, taking pot luck as to where we'd stay. We didn't mind which town and had no preference for staying in an onsite van in a caravan park, a 4 star hotel or any form of accomodation in between. It seemed unfortunately that the rest of Victoria had the same idea. We somehow found accomodation at Echuca for the Friday night, but on the Saturday were not quite as lucky. Every tiny town from Swan Hill to Robinvale had some kind of event for the long weekend and had no vacancy of any description. "It's the Queen's Birthday car rally this weekend". "Everyone's in town for the long weekend horse racing". "The gun club has it's annual shoot off". So we kept driving, but it was the same story everywhere. We stopped at hotels, pubs and caravan parks in every single town we passed, all to no avail. The No Vacancy sign was starting to burn a hole into the back of my brain. In the end we had driven the length of the Murray within Victoria and arrived in Mildura, some time around 9pm and pretty much at wits end. I thought that in a town the size of Mildura somebody must have a room for us. Finally after driving around the town in all directions, we saw a hotel whose sign was advertising a vacancy in gloriously bright neon. Hooray! Salvation finally. I skipped inside to reception only to see a girl leaning over the counter, signing the registration form on the last room that the hotel had available. In my mind I was smashing her repeatedly over the head with a cheap hotel ashtray and dumping her dead carcass in the Murray, with a couple of extra kicks thrown in to send her on her way. In reality I just moped out the door and back to the car with my spirit crushed. The hotel reservation centre told us that there were no rooms anywhere at all in Mildura. We could try Nyah West some 200km away. Maybe they had a room. Instead I went with Tori to a cafe and just slumped with my head on the table completely dejected. After about 20 minutes of wallowing in despair, I came around enough to start functioning slightly. We contemplated just carrying on to Adelaide where Tori's sister lived. That was only another 400km away and at least we'd be guaranteed somewhere to sleep. Crashing out in the car was another considered option, but that didn't seem particularly desirable either. In the end we drove inland down to Ouyen. Perhaps if we just get away from the river there may be less demand for rooms and we could find somewhere to stay. Great theory. No luck. The only thing I knew about Ouyen was that it was typically the place on the weather map that had the highest daily temperature in Victoria. I now know also that it is a popular destination for the Queen's Birthday weekend and that if you want to stay there you should book in advance. Someone in the Ouyen pub had muttered that we could try the town down the road that had a pub with accomodation. But I was past hearing at that stage. I'd completely given up. In the end Tori went back into the pub and asked a random stranger if he knew some town down the road ending in "bool" or something. "You mean Underbool", he said. "That's 50km west of here". I could barely speak so Tori phoned the Underbool pub to try our luck. And finally, after being turned away from several dozen establishments, somebody said yes. The 50km down the road seemed like it was just next door. We'd already driven 500km that day looking for accomodation so this was a doddle. And what a magnificent sight it was when we arrived. Accomodation with a pub attached. On receiving the room key I just went straight to the bar and commenced drinking with both hands in a bid to exorcise the frustration and celebrate the relief. On arriving home in Melbourne the next evening, after driving 1200km around the state in less than 3 days, I was shattered. Somewhere between Bendigo and delirium I suggested to Tori that she move in with me.

I vowed to never go off driving on a public holiday long weekend to a high demand location without booking ahead. Until today that is.

After finding out that the picturesque little van park we had exepected to stay at had no room for us, we tried the next caravan park, this one on the river quite close into town. No vacancy. "Sorry, full until after the long weekend. I don't think anybody for miles around will have any room for you". The nearby free camping ground was  certain to be full and signs all round the town indicate fines for camping in undesignated areas. I had visions of Mildura all over again. There was one more caravan park in Denmark that we could try. About 11km out of town and not at all what I had had in mind, but we didn't really have any option. I was pessimistic of our chances but, thankfully, the ocean beach caravan park had some room. We arrived in total darkness and unhitched, watched by a couple of kangaroos who had hopped by to check us out. I have no real idea of exactly where we are or what our surrounds are like, but things are definitely looking up.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Blown away by Esperance

I think it must just be a timing thing. So many people have told me how beautiful Esperance is and I have no reason to doubt them. But yesterday and today it's just like being in a giant wind tunnel. The famed turquoise coloured sea is just a choppy mess of uninviting dark blue with brown streaks and white froth. The piles of seaweed take up more real estate on the beach than the sand does. And the sand blasts passers by in the face as it flys off the beach at speed on the back of the wind. I thought that perhaps we were just unlucky to get the wind, but when I commented to a local about how windy it was today, she laughed and said it's always like this. Signs in the town for the upcoming Esperance Festival of the Wind are a bit of a clue that perhaps it's windy here more often than not. We're about two weeks early for the festival and it seems so is the wind.

There's something about the wind that can put the shivers up you, and not just in a temperature sense. Especially at night. The wind here rocks the van and gives the feeling that it could put us in motion and send us sliding down the embankment we're parked on at any time. I've triple checked the handbrake and put chocks against all the wheels just in case. It has given me only a scant feeling of security. I know that the feeling we might roll away is all in my mind, but that doesn't really comfort me either. Contending with the wind in Melbourne is usually just a case of grabbing a jacket. It's typically only a minor inconvenience. Other than the hot northerly which brings the fear of bushfire. The wind in Wellington is just icy cold. It's never really seemed unnerving to me in any way though I'm sure it has its moments. The wind through Henfield in the south of England where we used to live could sometimes ark up in a frightening way. We were having rennovations done that included the removal of our chimney, which we'd found was precariously balanced on a board, the lower foundations of the chimney stack already having been removed some time earlier by the previous owners. Before it's complete removal, one night with the wind howling and the thought of the barely supported chimney toppling over, the true derivation of the euphemism "coming down on us like a ton of bricks" rung all too true. I spent half the night just staring at the ceiling. The wind in the French village of Barbentane was an altogether different proposition. The mistral blows through this tiny village in Provence and has been said to cause people to completely lose their minds and go mad. One night we lay in our beds listening to the shutters banging in the wind, struggling to sleep and discovered the next morning that each of us had had vivid nightmares. We put it down to the mistral invading our souls. But it could have just been the mass of peaches we all ate before bedtime. Or the copious amounts of alcohol we drank on that trip. Nevertheless, the wind had an eery feeling about it. As for the poor people of far north Queensland and their ordeal of only a few weeks ago, well a wind of that magnitude is just too scary to contemplate.

I expect that the strong wind will be a bit of a constant across the southern coast of WA. Tomorrow we will find out as we head further west. Apparently April is the month to be in Esperance when the temperature is perfect, the wind is stilled and the sea has the aquamarine colour of folk lore. Is it possible that everyone who told me how great this place is and the judges for the best Australian beach were all here in April?

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The long and not very winding road

What a drive. From Streaky Bay in South Australia to the gloriously named Salmon Gums in Western Australia. 1420km in two days. I've been on long drives before, but this is one of the strangest. Across the Nullarbor there are no towns, just a handful of roadhouses with over priced fuel, toilets and pay showers and dodgy looking accomodation at the back. There are no houses or anything man made at all really to be seen anywhere along the journey. And the scenery stretches out the same for mile after mile. Our short game of I spy was pretty much limited to road, lines, signs, scrub, stones and sky, with perhaps a couple of  variations on those items thrown in. And the occasional road train thundering by in the other direction. One of the signs promised us a viewing of kangaroos, emus and camels, but we saw none of those. No animal sightings at all in fact. All that being said, the scenery was interesting enough in that it was different to anything I'd ever seen before. A treeless plain (hence the name from nulla arbor - no trees) with just scrubby bushes stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction for hundreds of kilometres. We had planned originally to play the Nullarbor links, which is the longest golf course in the world. But the fact that we (unsurprisingly) left late on the Sunday morning combined with the price being charged for "green" fees resulted in us bailing out on this activity. It just didn't seem worth it when in all likelihood I'd be spending less time playing golf and more time watching Jazzy taking 30 shots per hole and being concerned about the impact of a hot golf day on a pregnant Tori. So the clubs that we'd picked up for 20 bucks at St. Vincents op shop in Adelaide were just coming along as a passenger, clanking around in the back of the car.

The Landcruiser was sensational on the journey, just purring along at around 105kmph while hauling 3.2 tonne of van behind it. Such a strong engine. Amazingly it still had more power in reserve cruising at this speed on around 2,000 rpm. I'm very happy with our choice of vehicle for the trip. We stopped at pretty much every roadhouse (about every 150km or so) just to top up the tank and to stretch the legs, but also to check out the various establishments and wonder how the people running the businesses there could live in such a place so far from civilisation. Various of the counter staff were from overseas, probably travellers who took a job for a unique Australian experience, which I'm sure it would be. I don't know how anybody could stay for too long. While fueling up we met a few people also doing the journey. One couple from WA were on their way to Melbourne to see their daughters. One of whom, naturally enough, lived in Warrandyte about 100m down the street from where Tori and I used to live. Another guy I chatted with said that he had driven across the Nullarbor in 1970. In those days the road on the South Australian side was just a dirt track and you had to take fuel and water with you as neither was readily available along the route. It 's a pretty easy drive now. Just long.

After driving 600km on the first day, we stopped just short of the WA border at a rest stop that overlooked the Great Australian Bight. Partly this was due to nightfall but also to eat whatever fruit and vegetables we could before getting to the checkpoint at the WA border. No fruit, vegies or honey can be taken from one state to another and the border crossing at WA is particularly vigilant in checking. It was a great place to set up camp anyhow as the view out over the cliffs of the bight to the Southern Ocean below was spectacular.

Day two started much earlier thankfully and after having the car and van searched by an agricultural inspector, we crossed the border into WA around 8:30am. I'd been expecting the days of the Nullarbor to be unbearably hot, but it was actually cool and drizzly. The plan for the day was to try and get as far as we could, ideally making it to Esperance 900km away. The kids had travelled really well the day before until late in the afternoon when an altercation involving an empty water bottle and Jazzy's head put a bit of a dampener on the day. But everyone was renewed and up for the long journey. Jaz and Finn alternated between reading, playing on their iPods or DSs and just staring out the window. Tori had the occasional little snooze but mostly took in the passing scenery. The car's sound system, which had been seriously upgraded for the trip, played an assortment of albums from Dandy Warhols, Calexico, Nick Drake, and a trilogy of Church albums that mirrored their recent US tour - the Starfish, Priest=Aura and Untitled #23 albums in entirety. Then just a big random mix from the uptempo party playlist. ACDC to B52s to Eddie Current Suppression Ring to Tom Jones to Nirvana to Yo La Tengo to Elvis to Abba to James Brown to Ed Kuepper to Tame Impala to Blondie...... hours of assorted music. One of the recurring themes across the Nullarbor was the collection of tree sculptures that appeared every so often. The first of these that we passed was a tree with brightly coloured underwear hanging from the branches. Quite an incongruous but amusing sight. We then passed other such instalments as the sock tree, the hat tree and trees variously adorned with christmas decorations, cups, general clothing and the highly amusing shoe tree. We were inspired to build a tree sculpture of our own, but what could we use? We didn't have anything with us that was surplus to requirements did we? And in a moment of inspiration we realised that we had a golf bag containing 15 golf clubs that would be far more useful hanging from a tree in the Nullarbor as an objet d'art, for the amusement of passing vehicles, than they would be in the hands of any of us on a golf course. We all pretty much thought that golf sucked anyhow so what better use could there be for these pieces of finely crafted metal than to hang from a tree. So the quest began for the perfect tree in which to build our sculpture somewhere along the 90 mile straight. One that had wide low hanging branches, alive but with sparse foliage, viewable from the road in either direction and not too close to any rest stops so as not to be too tempting for those who may want to pick the tree and avail themselves of a set of clubs. That being said, if somebody playing the Nullarbor Links needed a new putter, then we were happy to provide the service. Indeed golf clubs really may grow on trees. Once the tree was found we set about building the sculpture. This involved using some fishing line and some of my recently acquired fisherman's knot tying skills with which to hang the clubs from the branches. The bag was added along with a tee, a ball and a scoring pencil and we felt that we had the whole thing covered. With the approving horns of some passing motorists we stood back to admire our creation, clubs glinting in the sun.

When we once more hit the road we were all buoyed with the feeling of self satisfaction that all artists have on completing a masterpiece. I was happy that our donation of 20 bucks to St. Vinnys for the clubs was money well spent after all. We didn't make it to Esperance before fatigue and night fall set in so we ended up 100km or so short, camped for the night in the rest stop at Salmon Gums. Exhausted yet fulfilled.