Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Nudoo Gurus

I grew up in a naked family. One where people would regularly walk around the house with no clothes on. Dad would sit in his favourite chair wearing only his short orange bath robe that usually failed to hide his so called private parts. On hot nights, Mum would sit around naked to cool down. While watching Mum and Dad parade nude around the house may not have been the most engaging of sites, especially for me or sister Nat as young children, it certainly created an atmosphere of total acceptance of the human body and that there was nothing to be ashamed of in being naked. Mum and Dad seemed fine with it all, so it must be fine. Most babies seem to get paraded around naked at the start of their lives. So when is it that people decide that the baby is now too old to be naked and should only be seen wearing clothes? What is there to be ashamed of that we feel the need to cover up? Despite growing up in a naked family, somewhere around my teen years I became shy of my body, like I guess many people seem to. Kids with bigger muscles. Bigger dicks. Hair under their arms. Or on their balls. Whatever. It made me want to cover up and not reveal my naked self to the outside world. And then, in my early twenties, I travelled with Dave and Brian up to the Confest. This is an alternative lifestyle (aka hippy) festival that occurs on the border between Victoria and New South Wales each year over the New Year’s period. We’d all heard about the good time to be had at this festival so off we went. There’s a lot that goes on there. Workshops in chanting, harmonic singing, massage, chakras, tantra, crystal healing, past life regression and breath meditation (or as Brian put it, a whole lot of hippies sitting round in a circle hyperventilating and calling it spiritual). A tribal atmosphere comprised of distinct villages for different groups of people – pagans, anarchists, spirituals, children, healers. An overall atmosphere of inclusiveness and acceptance of the individual. And then of course there is the clothing optional aspect to the festival. On arriving down at the river for a swim on the first day, we were confronted by a load of naked people frolicking in the water. Despite my upbringing I did find it confronting, for some reason shy of shedding all and just jumping in. I took in the sight of naked bodies of all shapes and sizes. Old. Young. Large. Small. Thin. Plump. Firm. Saggy. Nubile. Wrinkly. Long. Short. Beautiful naked hippy girls. Muscular dreadlocked young guys. Chubby grey haired old men and plump middle aged women. But all with smiles on their faces and an appearance of freedom in their dispositions. To my amazement, Brian had his clothes off in a flash and leapt into the middle of a riverside poetry reading to put in his naked two cents worth. Slowly I disrobed and made my way sheepishly to the river. As my clothes fell away, I discovered that my inhibitions also fell away. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Running around nude with a whole lot of other people around, some clothed, some not, was exhilarating. Thanks to the Confest I rediscovered the carefree naked abandon that I’d had as a little kid. We rolled naked in the mud and then when it dried into a crusty shell, ran around confest as mudmen. I went to the Confest a number of times over the years. Also with Tori and more recently a couple of times with Jazzy and Finn in tow. The kids loved running around in the nude there, just because kids do. So on finding the clothing optional Mauritius Beach just up the road from where we are now camped on the edge of Cape Range National Park, it seemed too compelling to ignore. Jaz, Finn and I headed up there just before sunset looking forward to being, as Finn put it, in the Nudoo Gurus. We arrived on an empty beach to find only sand and seaweed. Within seconds Finn had his gear off, clearly wanting to play lead. Jaz and I followed suit and a game of nude soccer began. There’s something unique about the feeling of being naked in the great outdoors. A definite physical sensation of the sun and the breeze caressing your whole body. Moving in the elements unconstricted by clothing. Perhaps also a liberation of the mind in that you have overcome one of society’s great taboos. We laughed and played as a couple of clothed people appeared around the point and came walking along the beach towards us. We waved as a microlight flew above us checking out the bird’s eye view. The clothed people looked slightly freaked out, hesitating in their walk when they saw us and slowly turning around back down the beach. Our exuberant soccer game continued. The couple took a place a hundred metres or so down the beach from us and the elderly guy disrobed while his wife or companion sat clothed and read her book. She didn’t look up at us once. We realised that where he was swimming was much less seaweedy than where we were, so we made our way down the beach towards him. We past the woman, who managed to still avoid any eye contact with the Nudoo Gurus, and made our way into the water. After a brief conversation with our naked companion, we swam together naked until sunset. The excitement on the faces of Jaz and Finn showed that they felt just as exhilarated as I. We’ll head back down to Mauritius Beach for another naked frolic before leaving here, I have no doubt. Hopefully along with a heavily pregnant woman who may just make a fine nude goalkeeper.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Admiring the beauty of fish and then killing them

I’ve been told that Australians are the only people who eat the animals on their country’s coat of arms. While not especially common, both kangaroo and emu can be found on menus throughout the country. And why not? Is it not possible to admire and love an animal in the wild and also eat it? It seems to me that if we are going to eat living things, admiration of their beauty should be a part of the process. With vegetables we admire a particularly juicy red tomato, or a perfectly ripe avocado. The native Americans loved and admired the buffalo which was one of their major food sources. Carlos Casteneda’s Yaqui Indian guide Don Juan Matus would apologise to mushrooms on picking them and then thank them as he ate them. So why shouldn’t I admire the markings of a beautiful fish and the graceful way that it moves through the water just before I brutally kill it to feed my family? I’ve spent so much time looking at and admiring fish through a mask over the last couple of weeks, that to be actively hunting them for food seems somewhat of a contradiction. There are a range of conflicting emotions when you haul a beautifully coloured Spangled Emperor up on to the deck of a boat. Being filled with awe at its stunning pattern and colours while it has a spike driven into its head, its throat is cut and then it’s thrown into a plastic tub containing a whole lot of other recently murdered fish. Only days ago I may have been watching this particular fish in the water and pointing out its majesty to Jaz as we swam through the coral reef. Today it’s on my plate.

Paul, Pete and Andrew
Along with a group of people we’d befriended a couple of sites down from us at the Yardie Homestead caravan park, we went out for a day on a charter fishing boat. It’s always a serious effort for our family to be ready on time to go anywhere, let alone at what seems like the crack of dawn. But there we were in the car at 7am to get to the Exmouth marina to catch the boat. Along with the eleven of us were eight other eager fishermen on board. One dreadlocked guy seemed more awake than anybody else and was good naturedly introducing himself to everyone. He was so excited at the thought of a day’s fishing and the almost certainty of us bringing back a big haul from the fish filled waters of the Exmouth gulf. Whereas we were relying on the crew to provide us with a rod and reel, he had brought along his own fine looking kit and was somewhat disappointed to be told that the line he had wasn’t heavy enough and he had to put it away for the duration. The hour and a half trip out was quite calm. Everybody taking the opportunity to slowly awaken, with the roar of the diesel engines making it almost impossible to converse in anything less than a shout. As I can only deliver inaudible grunts at the best of times when it’s this early in the morning, I didn’t bother with any real attempts of communication. Just took in the disappearing coastline on the horizon and relaxed back to enjoy the ride.

Finally we arrived at the first designated fishing spot and the calm that had been the journey was replaced by a vicious rocking from side to side, the boat lurching a couple of metres up and down with every wave. With nobody really acclimatised to being in a boat on the open sea yet, it seemed a good chance that somebody would be flung over the railing and into the drink. The big swell got the better of one guy and he pushed past me to get to the rail just in time to send a large stream of projectile vomit a couple of metres from the side of the boat. I was extremely impressed with the range he managed to achieve, but thought better of congratulating him as he seemed a particularly ominous shade of white. I didn’t fancy wearing the next stream. He spent the remainder of the day lying down on his back just wishing the whole thing was over. Quite an expensive investment in an uncomfortable sleep. In the meantime, the crew had distributed hand lines around the deck for everybody to use. What?! I’m sure the brochure said rods. Still with the sea that rough, I guess a whole lot of people waving around long sticks with heavy sinkers and sharp hooks on the end of thick lengths of nylon line seems a bit of a recipe for disaster. So we accepted the tools we’d been provided and started the business of fishing. Nobody even had a nibble at that first spot and so we soon moved on. The sea was now a lot calmer and I’m sure that projectile man wished that we’d come straight to this location in the first instance. From here, fish started to be caught with good regularity. In our group were our neighbours Pete, Paul and Andrew and a group of their kids. Pete was in fine form early and reeled in two large spangled emperor fish before anybody else had really got going. But through the course of the day, everybody caught fish. Jazzy did well catching a redthroat emperor for dinner, as did Tori and as did I. Among the other fish caught were a procession of Charlie Court cod, that were quickly dispatched by the crew as bait fish, bar cheek coral trout, rankin cod and the much prized spangled emperor. A couple of large trigger fish just got a free feed and were thrown back to the water as undesirable for humans in any capacity, being neither food nor bait. The undersize fish likewise went back to the water to be caught again next year when they are larger. Some less desirable small fish ended up in the bait bucket, squirming around in the throes of death for quite some time as the crew seemed not bothered to be too humane in dealing with the bait and actually finishing them off. Everybody was so intent on catching fish that the dolphins swimming to the rear of the boat were given scant regard. On another day, the same group of people have probably all paid to be on a boat to view dolphins, but today there was no interest. The largest fish caught was a huge golden trevally. A fit looking guy with a European accent who was using his own surf rod rather than the yellow plastic wheels the rest of us were armed with, realised he had a fight on his hands. It was clear that the fish on his line was quite large as his rod began to bow almost in half. Everybody gathered around as he continued the fight. And with a loud snap, his rod broke in two. But still he fought and somehow with a broken rod, managed to bring the large golden trevally up on to the deck. And with the fight over, in what seemed like a sad waste, he handed the fish over to the crew who flung the prize catch of the day over into the bait bin to be used for the next fishing trip. Finn had the largest “one that got away” for the day. Feeling somewhat of a pull on his line, he exclaimed that he thought he might have something. The crew looked over to see the nylon line slipping quickly out through Finn’s hands and realised that in all likelihood he had a good size shark on the end of his line. They quickly took over and struggled with all their strength to pull it in. And then the line went limp. They reeled it in to see that the hook, swivel and the sinker were all gone, most likely in the belly of the shark along with the fish that had been on the end of Finn’s line acting as live shark bait. As we returned to shore, the crew filleted the catch and placed them in the appropriate tubs. Our group of eleven had a whole swag of fish. Enough to feed our combined contingent of around 16 people on at least two occasions.

The day on the boat had been enjoyable for all, with the obvious exception of our sick colleague. Dreadlock man finished the day a lot less buoyant than he began. His friends had caught a few fish but he failed to pull one fish out that was able to be taken as food. We returned to the camp ground and prepared for a fish banquet. The filleting was only half done by the crew so I got an education in filleting and skinning fish as we finished off the job. I’m sure this will come in handy when we next fish somewhere from the shore, assuming that we break our duck and actually catch something we can eat. Dinner was an exquisite feast. We devoured the fish hungrily and meanwhile talked about the plans for the following day. Everybody would be heading back to the water, this time with snorkel, mask and fins to view these spectacular creatures as they swim gracefully around the coral of the Ningaloo Reef.

Coral Bay Days

People had said to us that we shouldn’t bother with Coral Bay, that it was just like a Club Med but with no facilities. After believing a similar story about Monkey Mia, which proved to be totally untrue, I wasn’t going to be sucked in a second time. And so we booked in to the Coral Bay caravan park for four nights. We would have booked in for all of Easter if we could have, but it was jam packed and there was no room at the inn. So four days it was and it was bliss. Snorkelling every day on the Ningaloo Reef. After the first day we received some good tips from the regulars and so managed to have better and better snorkelling trips with each venture into the water. “Walk around to the second point and swim out about 100m past the 5 knot sign. Then you’ll come to coral that is a beautiful lavender colour. Totally purple, just like you’re in a field of lavender”. The first trip out to the second point was at high tide and the 100 metre swim across to the 5 knot sign was a serious effort. The current was very strong. Tori was bouncing up and down on her floating noodle. Jazzy was a little overawed. They decided to head back to calmer waters and only Finn and I made it significantly past the sign and out to the reef. We had a good snorkel and saw a great variety of amazingly coloured fish. But it was quite a lot of work. I guess I hadn’t snorkelled for some time and it took me a little while to acclimatise to being back in the deep with all that it holds. It was all pretty new to Finn, but he did well.

That afternoon we had visitors. Tammie was across from Sydney with her sister Wendy, who was over from Canada. It’s such a warming feeling to have friends drop by to visit us in the van. And it was with Tammie that I truly discovered the coral that everybody had been talking about. Up until that point, all the superlatives I’d heard delivered about Coral Bay seemed a little overdone. How spectacular, how beautiful... they just didn’t seem to reconcile with the coral that I was swimming past which seemed largely dead. I’d touched upon the real deal with Finn but didn’t really get there until the afternoon with Tammie. We went at low tide and so were able to walk out almost entirely to the 5 knot sign that had been such a difficult swim in the morning. It was still a bit of an effort past that point to get to the reef and there was the added factor of avoiding the stingrays on the walk out. Wendy didn’t make it much past the sign. It all became a bit too much and so we helped her back to the shore. With her safely back in the calm, Tammie and I returned to the reef. Gliding through passages of coral that would open up into their own private gardens full of vividly coloured fish. Neon blues. Striking yellows. Long skinny flutemouths. Huge angel fish. Bright green parrot fish. Coral that formed like a large rose, blossoming invitingly upwards towards us. I guess we were probably around 200 metres from the shore, but drifting with the current gently around to Coral Bay. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

It was fitting that Tammie should come and visit us. And fitting that it was in this part of Australia. Soon after finding out that Tori was pregnant I was on a work trip in Sydney. At that stage the plan for our Australian odyssey was in slight disarray. Tori and I were both freaking out a bit with the recent discovery and trying to work out how we could salvage our trip with a baby factored into the equation. The thinking then was that some time around the beginning of May, probably from Ningaloo Reef, we would need to race across Australia and get back to Melbourne for the baby to be born in late June, early July. It seemed a rush and both of us felt dissatisfied that our plans had been derailed to this extent. Our twelve month trip had been sliced to six months. It’s not so easy to create a space in your life where you can take a year out from the norm and do something different. Setting the expectation of family, work colleagues, school, friends. All of the bonds and commitments that exist in life and tie you to one spot and to your current situation. They are not so easy to break. So having created the environment and the expectation where we could take this year long voyage, it seemed disappointing to be cutting it short due to an unexpected change in circumstances. And this was how it seemed to be heading until a late night/early morning conversation with Tammie and Stu in a 24 hour bar in Sydney. I think I told them some time around 3am that Tori was pregnant. Partly I raised the topic because I knew it was sure to fuel the conversation and extend the night by another hour or two, but also because I hadn’t actually talked about Tori being pregnant to anybody yet at this stage. Tori and I had decided to keep it to ourselves and I believe we’d even promised each other not to tell anybody else. But I just couldn’t keep it a secret. I needed to talk to somebody. And these guys, both of whom started as my customers but had already transcended this relationship to become my friends, seemed like the perfect people to have a discussion with about my impending fatherhood. Both were totally supportive. Importantly, the drinks kept coming until around 5am. But despite the haze of intoxication, it was really on the back of Tammie’s positive approach of “anything is possible” and her slightly Candidesque outlook of whatever happens, it will work out fine, that I started to question why we really needed to race back to Melbourne. Why couldn’t the baby be born on the road? Surely there are hospitals in other parts of Australia apart from Melbourne. And so the idea of the baby being born in Broome, was itself born. Thanks Tammie. Thanks Stu.

We had a lovely evening in Coral Bay with Tammie and Wendy. A barby, some beers, some great conversation. Then they hit the 150km night drive back up to Exmouth, dodging the red kangaroos on the way. A visit fittingly to the place, that if it wasn’t for Tammie, may have been almost our last destination before heading back to Melbourne.

The next day with Jaz, was snorkelling perfection. The water was more turbulent so I swam hand in hand with my beautiful daughter, guiding her around the reef. I knew totally now where I was going. She was a perfect companion, being up for it all. We found the lavender coral in all its glory. We swam through the coral corridors and stopped regularly to admire the schools of fish. Coral Bay is a beautiful place. I’m glad though that it’s just a stop on my journey and is nowhere near the end point as we make our way around Australia.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Coral Bay night

It's 1am and I'm sitting in a field that's jammed full of caravans and tents containing hundreds of sleeping people. There's not a sound to be heard. Nobody moving around anywhere. And it's been this way for at least a couple of hours. People sure do crash out early in caravan parks. Tori and the kids drifted away some time ago and I've been sipping down a bottle of fine red wine we picked up in Margaret River and chatting via Instant Messenger to my good friend Andy who is living in Istanbul. The very very good side of technology. Being able to communicate instantaneously in the written form with people who are located anywhere on the planet Earth. It felt just like a conversation in person. Like we were in the same room. I could see the expressions on Andy's face and hear his infectious laughter at the many and varied topics we discussed. Talking to great friends in any form is always good. And the more forms there are creates the greater opportunity and frequency as far as I'm concerned. There are many people that seem to begrudge this form of communication. Messenger, Facebook, or any other electronic means. "I'd rather just call them and talk to them in person on the phone". But do they? And what actually makes that form of communication any better? Surely the quality is in the dialogue and the meaning, not the form. To me this conversation was pretty much the same as any that I would have had with Andy on the phone. And in fact reflective of those that we have when we're in the same room together. I guess it's just like that with good friends. It only takes an element of input from them for their essence to be with you in the room. Wherever that may be. Even sitting under an awning late at night in a silent caravan park.

We arrived at Coral Bay this afternoon, a mere 200km drive up from Carnarvon. Jazzy did the navigating, enjoying her time in the front seat and spending a significant part of the journey scrutinizing the map. It had been starting to disturb me that both Jaz and Finn were spending our entire journey around Australia with their heads buried in books or playing games on their iPods. I couldn't blame them for wanting something fun to do on a long drive, but I felt the need to try and engage them somehow in the voyage. Not just the time at the destinations. Part of the experience is the journey itself and what better way to be involved than to be the navigator. So over the last few trips, the kids have been taking turns in the prime front seat with the map on their laps. And so today for most of the drive Jaz was taking in the scenery, looking for a sign on the road that may signify the next turn off or at least provide a milestone as to where we currently were, and intently studying the map. It is said that providing driving directions is one of the primary causes of arguments between couples, so at least if my kids can navigate they may be on the righteous side of that argument, rather than being the one that led their partner to miss the turn off from Greece to Turkey by 200km.

Dripping with sweat after setting up the campsite in Coral Bay under the fierce tropical sun, I was always going to be heading directly to the beach, snorkel gear in hand, immediately wanting to get my first underwater glimpses of the Ningaloo Reef. Jaz and Finn had gone off to the caravan park pool as soon as we arrived, so Tori went to summons them. They had decided on a predetermined role of "We were having fun in the pool. Why do we have to get out and come with you" kind of approach and were somewhat taken aback when Tori and I said they could come or not. It was up to them. They didn't have to come snorkeling on one of the world's great reefs if they didn't want to. This surprised them. They weren't expecting that kind of response, being so used to the "do as I say" kind of approach that I in particular normally favour. I gained great joy watching the cogs turn in their little heads as they tried to decide how to approach this new playing field. Unsurprisingly, the Ningaloo Reef won out. And with it, perhaps a very slight shift in the family dynamic. And it was clearly the right choice. Splash around in a few square metres of concrete and tile or swim around in the Indian Ocean and have a close up view of sting rays, lion fish, loads of coral and a myriad of brilliantly coloured fish of all shapes and sizes. And of course get to hang out with Mum and Dad, who still have a tenuous hold on being people who are fun to be with. For me it was a big aim of the trip fulfilled. Ningaloo Reef was a place that was high on my list of priorities from the moment our journey was in it's early planning stages. And for us all to actually be here just seemed amazing. We'll be spending the next month in close proximity to the pristine beaches that line the coast around here, so it's all in front of us. I look forward to seeing it unfold in a truly leisurely fashion.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Holidays from the regular routine seem as essential as oxygen for the well being of humans. In Australia, employees typically get four weeks per year. In England it's five. And somehow in Germany, the country with a reputation for high worker productivity and quality craftsmanship, it's six. How did they swing that? But holidays used to be much simpler in the good old days before the immediate communication that's available through the web and the new generation phones. The computer and associated work was in the office. If you were at home, it was physically impossible to access any of that work stuff. If you really wanted to work on your holidays, you had to make a trip into the office. These days, my work day typically starts before I even get out of bed. I reach across for my iPhone and check my email before I've even left the comfort of the horizontal world. I will have read my email and likely responded to a few before I've even had my breakfast. Last thing at night before going to sleep, I'll just check to make sure that nothing important has come in that I should attend to. Even on waking in the middle of the night, still half in slumber, I may reach over for my iPhone and check my email. Sometimes I've seen a contentious email that has prevented me from sleeping for the rest of the night while I mull over its consequences in my restless mind. I think it's fair to call it an addiction. Ridiculously absurd behaviour. Pathetic. Take your pick. Today was the first day of my week and a half off and it started in glorious fashion. Being as though I have full understanding of my addiction and know that I would find my regular email reading pattern almost impossible to stop, I started the day by removing the work email accounts from my iPhone. With the click of a few virtual buttons, gone is the temptation of checking to see what is happening in the work world in my absence. So, with no work to do, there was a full day of leisure possibilities to be had in the mid west coast town of Carnarvon. That may not seem an abundant choice, but I'd been given some useful local information on where to go. It all started a little too early  though with the bloke in the next caravan pumping out the radio at full bore from around 7:45am while he vacuumed his car. Rather than abusing him out the window as is my usual wont, I embraced the day and began my holidays. Van domestics done and the car packed, the kids and I went for a refreshing dip in the caravan park pool to cool down and have some fun before we headed out for the day.

Carnarvon is in the grip of a locust plague at the moment. Many of the local crops have been ruined and the little creatures seem to love the green grassy areas of the van park. Each step yields a flurry of large flying insects scattering to the air in all directions. Jazzy was particularly put off by the locusts when we first arrived. In fact, she has a bit of a thing about bugs. Some nights when we've been camped, especially if bush camping, tiny flying insects have made their way straight through the fly wire screens to bombard the lights in the van. On occasional nights there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of these tiny winged creatures plus a collection of moths all flying frantically to get to the lights like some religious zealots swarming to their temple of worship. What do they hope to achieve when they get there? Finn wanted to know why they don't try to fly to the sun during the day, to which I didn't have an appropriate answer. Many die during the crusade to the light, being scorched just as they achieve their goal, their little corpses falling over the bench top and, much to her chagrin, on to Jazzy's bed. New midgy proof screens lie waiting for us at Exmouth post office which should assist with reducing the small bug invasion. But outside, there are bugs all over the place. Unfortunately, the locations that we all like to go to with the more amenable climates are also a major bug destination. The outside of the toilet block here at night is a hub of activity. The light worshipping bugs trying to get through the mesh screens to the holy grail inside and a collection of larger creatures lining up to eat them. Skinks, tiny frogs and preying mantises clamber over the walls hunting for their dinner. Occasionally a spider will wander through, though I haven't seen any that are too off putting to this point in time. I'm sure that will come. I don't have the heart to tell Jazzy that as we head further north, the quantity and indeed the quality of the bugs will likley increase. For now it's a major step that she is prepared to actually walk across the locust filled grass to the toilets without demanding that Finn piggyback her. Finn on the other hand is fascinated by the creatures. He takes it as his duty to fish any drowning bugs out of the pool. I watched him scoop up a large black wasp complete with huge stinger yesterday and carry it to safety. Today involved only the removal of a few dead locusts so that his sister felt comfortable getting into the pool. Such different little characters.

After we'd finished our swim, we ventured off for a glorious day of beachside activities. A stop to view the Quobba blow holes, where the crashing waves force the ocean spray some 20 feet into the air through holes in the rocky cliff face, was followed by a day full of snorkeling, picnicing and lazing around Quobba beach. The snorkeling, while fantastic, was just a taster of what's to come as we head up to Ningaloo Reef. A blissful way to start a vacation. And not an email in sight.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What a week!

I sort of thought that leaving the complex life of the city and heading off in a van around Australia would free up my life and make things simpler. I guess it was slightly naive on my part given that I was taking my work with me, as well as a pregnant wife and some small people with large personalities who had completely different views to me on what constituted a good time. While at the same time driving thousands of kilometres across barren land to get to the next destination. The last week has seen all of these forces come together in overwhelming proportions, interspersed with some amazing moments, but making me feel that my life was busier than it had been back home in Warrandyte.

The week began when we arrived in Kalbarri. Like most places we've been, a number of people had said "don't miss it" and others had said "don't bother". It certainly was consistent with the rest of our stay in WA in that the weather was stiflingly hot. "It's several degrees hotter up at the gorge" said the lady at the information centre as we picked up maps of the region and continued on our way to that very destination, the near midday sun already beating down opressively. When we got out at the first lookout, a spectacular view that takes in a good length of Kalbarri Gorge, the others were already struggling. Flies were swarming all over everybody and the heat created an instant dehydration of every pore. I was finding it slightly off putting that the family had all packed it in so early but wasn't prepared to let that deter me. We'd come to the gorge and we were bloody well going to look at the gorge. So we drove on down to the start of the path that heads to Nature's Window. This is a gentle 400m walk that leads to a rocky outcrop high above the gorge with a frame like formation that gives it it's name. At this point, mutiny struck. About 50 metres down the path, following the steep staircase, Jaz was asking for a drink of water. Both her and Finn for some reason had decided to leave their packs containing water bottles up in the car. Tough decision time. Go back and get the packs for my sweet little angels? No. Dole out the water bottle I had which was not enough water to get all of us comfortably there and back in this heat? No. Send the little mutineers back in the sweltering heat to retrieve their packs from the car? Aye aye skipper. Off ya go littl'uns and don't ye be forgetting those packs again. "I'm not thirsty any more", exclaimed Jaz defiantly. But I was having none of that. So off they trudged, back up the long steep staircase in the sweltering heat to get their packs from the car. They reappeared with their packs not too much later, but surprisingly enough, their moods hadn't been lifted by their stroll. On finally arriving at Nature's Window, sweating and covered by more flies than Guy Pearce in The Proposition, there was not a smile to be seen. Any possible enjoyment of the gorge had been completely zapped. "Right. Now let's have a lovely family photo together in front of Nature's Window", I suggested. When Finn is down, there's no changing his mood around in a hurry. Especially for a photo. Jazzy was out on strike. And the pregnant Tori, being a couple of degrees hotter than everybody else was totally frazzled. I sprayed them all down with the water mister that I'd brought with me, but there was nothing that could bring them back. I figured it was time to cut the gorge short and head back to town. We went to the pub and watched St.Kilda get smashed by Essendon in the footy while I simultaneously got smashed by beer. The hopelessness of my team fueling my need for more drinks. From one semi disastrous outing to another.
Having swapped a large amount of my cash for new tyres for the van and the car back in Geraldton, I would have expected the car to be travelling along much better than it was. Even without the van on the back, the car was handling noticeably worse than it had been with the old tyres. How long does it take to wear them in? After 200km or so, it seemed that they should be better than this.  I reduced the pressure in the car tyres to see if that would make a difference. The clown at the tyre fitting joint had gone with 50psi in the back of the car and 40psi in the front. No wonder it felt as stable as riding a clown on a tiny unicycle. But what is the perfect pressure? With a few adjustments, I made it better but still not perfect. There seems to be more sway in the van now also, the whole rig being a lot less stable than prior to the tyre change. That wasn't what was meant to happen. And how much weight was I carrying at the front of the van? The slope of the van towards the front... is that really meant to be like that? The tow bar is rated for 350kg ball weight, but I have no idea what mine is. When we reached the end of our 400km drive and pulled into Monkey Mia, I was happy to see another Bushtracker van, providing me with the ability to ply the owner full of questions.

I'd heard a lot about Monkey Mia. It's world famous for the dolphins that come visiting every day. It's not as good as it used to be because you can no longer swim with the dolphins but can only go knee deep into the water and wait for them to swim around you. Rather than being able to take your own bucket of fish and feed them endlessly, the feeding is coreographed into an organised procession that is attended by hundreds of people, all lining the beach trying to be one of the rare few selected to hold a fish for a few seconds before it is taken by one of the dolphins. Despite all of the above being true to varying degrees, the experience was still well worth it. The dolphins swim right in close to check out the people just as much as the people are checking them out. And it's not just for the fish. Most of the dolphins who come in don't even bother with the fish being handed out excitedly by the eager tourists. They just swim around in the bay while the procession is going on and then nick off alongside the dolphins who've had a feed. Out of the dozen or so dolphins who came in whilst we were there, only four of them were interested in taking the human's offering. Both Jaz and Finn were lucky enough to be amongst the chosen. A middle aged woman with a thick European accent seemed to enjoy the benevolent power bestowed upon her and was selecting up to four children at once, each to hold a corner of the tail of the same fish to feed to a dolphin. This seemed somewhat bizarre really. In these days of giving every kid who turns up to play junior sport a trophy at the end of the season just for being there, I guess it's all about everybody participating. But it seems to me, that four partially fulfilled kids doesn't equal one completely stoked kid who got to be selected to feed a dolphin a fish on their own. Finn and Jaz were sort of happy to have been selected, though their joy did seem slightly muted. Jaz was lucky enough to be selected again at the next feeding time, by the same woman, this time to be one of two kids feeding a dolphin the same fish. Her satisfaction definitely seemed twice as much as the earlier feeding, so perhaps there's a home schooling maths project that can be built around this dolphin feeding equation. Our time at Monkey Mia was much too short. It really is a beautiful place and it would have been great to have been able to explore some of the neighbouring coves around Shark Bay, perhaps with a fishing rod in hand. But it was not to be, the campground was booked out and so it was time to hit the road again for another 400km drive northward.

Apart from our short stays in Kalbarri and Monkey Mia, the week had been full of driving and work. We'd covered around 800km and my days spent in beautiful locations were being filled with work rather than enjoying this great opportunity with my family. They would be off for a swim and I would be stuck at a laptop looking at financial projections for discussions to be held that night. My mood was once again heading in a downward direction. Perhaps it would be better to just get a job as a dolphin feed bucket holder. You get to feel important while choosing grateful people out of a crowd. Not much pay but surely good job satisfaction in a beautiful place. Basically I think I was just drained. Constantly concerned for pregnant Tori's well being, not knowing where we were going to stay at the next destination, dealing with the maintenance to the van and car and the associated cost, working longer hours than I would have hoped, and driving and driving and driving across this enormous country. And some level of sexual frustration. Living in a caravan alongside a 9 and 10 year old who are always around, with a pregnant wife who, with continued spells of nausea, is not at the top of her physical game , does not seem to equate to a completely fulfilling sex life. Down down down I spiralled. Until a moment arrived when the children were gone. And Tori and I were here. And she was feeling fine. It's amazing how sexual release can put such a different complexion on the world. The job woes seemed to fade into insignificance. A new plan as to where we should stay and how we should approach the journey arrived. Optimism had returned to the world. Haleleujah! Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Now if only I could just bottle it.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Riveting times

Today I bought a rivet gun and some pop rivets. Now I just have to work out how to use them. It seemed that they might be useful to have along on the trip should anything come unstuck. Like the microwave which seems to have become sick of it's place embedded amongst the cupboards some time during the last drive and attempted to relocate itself across to the other side of the van. Or the fridge shelves which seem to have buckled under the load of a thousand heavy jam and condiment jars and caved in under the weight. I'm not sure how the rivet gun will help either of these situations but I feel more secure now that I own one.  And I purchased a cheap drill because I'm sure everyone should have one, even if just to drill some holes for the rivets. It's fair to say that DIY is not a strong suit in my family. I don't ever recall seeing my father use as complicated a tool as a hammer. Whereas many of my friends spent time with their fathers in the shed building or fixing all sorts of constructions and learning the various tools of the trade, the closest I ever saw my father come to anything of that nature was... well nothing really. I don't recall him doing any repairs around the house, or working on any projects that involved putting things together ever. Actually that's not totally true, he did put together an airplane kit for me once. An Airfix kit model of a world war two Spitfire. I recall he was very proud of that achievement. Meanwhile, I had friends who were learning how to assemble cars with their fathers. Not that I blame my father in any way. His own father died when he was only ten years old and being as though they were living in Manhattan, they probably didn't even have a car. Or a shed. And with my grandfather having lost all of his money in the depression, perhaps they didn't even own a hammer. As for Tori, she's been completely banned from any form of DIY or maintenance. Ever. She only knows one tool, that being a tube of super glue. I recall with a mixture of amusement and horror the time a few years ago when I discovered that she'd "fixed" the curtain rail in the campervan we'd hired in France. A couple of the screws had made their way loose and dropped out somewhere, so Tori just superglued the rail along with part of the curtain to the roof of the van. Then there was the rabbit hutch she decided to build at home in Warrandyte. It was constructed out of a few fence pailings and some chicken wire, the former being nailed together precariously at an angle resembling Shane Macgowan's teeth. The wire never made it. And I think the rabbits might have died by then anyway. A lifetime ban seemed the best approach. But it's not that I'm too far above that standard. I always manage to assemble Ikea furniture the wrong way around and have to undo all the bolts and start again. Or drill a hole that's not quite in the right place. Or overtighten a screw to the point that it cracks the material into which it's being screwed. But whereas at home I can just call a plumber, or an electrician, or handyman, out here on the road it's not so easy. We just aren't in the one place for long enough. Plus I don't think I could handle the embarassment factor of having a plumber rock up and knock on the door of the van, having come to fix the leaking mixer tap. I feel a need to be sort of self sufficient even if my proficiency is questionable. And I wish now that my father had been able to pass on some of these skills to me. Part of this travelling lifestyle appears to be made up of constant maintenance. Nothing in a van seems as sturdy as its counterpart in a house and when you consider that it will also be vibrating around and jiggling up and down on corrugated roads, I guess it's inevitable that things will come loose or break. It seems that it might be time to pay a bit more heed to lowering tyre pressures when travelling down those corrugated roads, otherwise the van may have been completely vibrated to bits in no time at all. We can't get replacement shelves for the fridge door, so I'm not sure what we're going to do there. Now all those food jars are crammed in with the rest of the food, trying to battle for some space amongst the beer. I need to come up with a creative way of making some kind of makeshift door shelves so as to give us more useable space in the fridge. Perhaps if I can find a few bits of plastic and a tube of superglue.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Back in the swing?

Sitting around in the luxury of a house with all of it's space and creature comforts is certainly something that is easy to get used to. Interspersed with my quick trip back to Melbourne, it felt like ages since we'd lived in the van, even though it was only 11 days. Perhaps the number of dinners and lunches with friends and family in Perth melded in to the equation also. Whatever the cause, it took a little readjusting to be once again living in a van. I figured that the best way to get back in to the swing was to go straight from the comforts of a house to camping in a national park with no facilities whatsoever other than a smelly toilet. What better way to test out the new batteries and repaired inverter than to be relying on them completely for our power. It probably would have been a good idea to have checked that the water tanks were filled before we left Greg and Jo's, and made sure that the toilet in the van was empty and operational, but in the state I was in after the night of Greg's birthday, that sort of skipped my mind. And so we set up camp in the Lesueur National Park on Jurien Bay. The beautiful sandy beach was a 50m walk away over the dunes. At night the stars radiated bright colours as they can only when there is no nearby town dimming them down with its own light. Yet for all of our location's splendour, I felt uneasy being back in the van. Thrust together once more at close proximity with three other people, each with their own idiosyncratic behaviour and one of whom was growing yet another person inside her. It all seemed too much. No real escape. Everything was bugging me. Having to try and get some work done with noisy people milling around. Even Finn coming to give me a hug while I was working felt like an intrusion. And it made me feel worse that I was rejecting my son's affection. I just felt that I wanted to be alone for a while. And I felt insecure again about the journey. What if one of the kids gets bitten by a snake. Surely there are sharks in these waters. And where are we going to head next on this potentially misbegotten journey. It really felt like starting over from scratch. I know myself well enough to know that these low swings in my mood will pass and usually after not too much time. Nevertheless they totally consume me when I am in them. And every now and then, they surprise me by lingering longer than I expect.

One of the reasons that we had chosen this location to stay was its proximity to the Pinnacles. Essentially this is a desert landscape containing a large number of tall mostly conical limestone rocks, right alongside the Indian Ocean. It is a bizarre place. One that conjures up images of a scene from an American western rather than anything I felt likely to see in Australia. Though instead of rogue gunslingers out to get us, the ambush came from a million flies. Within seconds of stepping out from the cool air conditioned car into the searing heat, flies were all over you. Having had a similar fly adventure up in Burracoppin, this time we were readily armed with our mesh fly nets that conveniently slip over the top of a hat. And so resembling members of some strange muslim sect in mourning, we made our way around these incredible rock formations. Jazzy and Finn were awestruck by the sight of these rocks for perhaps 30 seconds before the heat and  the flies won out. They preferred to stay in the car, heads buried down in books, rather than come exploring the rocks with me. The signs indicating that climbing of the rocks was forbidden probably puts a damper on it being much of a place for kids. Essentially they could care less about gazing at geological wonders. Jazzy's words of some time back still resonate with me. "We like doing stuff Dad, not just looking at it". And so as we drove along the road surrounded by this most amazing landscape, they had adventures in their minds courtesy of JK Rowling. In fact that's how it has been for a lot of the trip. I can't complain, because my kids are actually reading now. And I do recall how boring long car rides used to be with my parents. So I have to balance my desire for them to be seeing and experiencing the incredible places we are going, with the fact that they are occupied and are peacefully enjoying themselves, albeit in a way that they could have without leaving Warrandyte. I suppose in 30 seconds they felt that they had seen some rocks in a desert and all of the others were more or less the same. Seen one conical rock in a desert and you've seen them all. I could have spent the whole afternoon in the place. Maybe as you get older it just takes longer to sink in.

Even the Pinnacles couldn't shake me completely out of my mood. I had work to do back at the van while everybody else went down to the beach. And so while I now had the solitude I'd been craving, I would have rather been lying back in the cool salty water than thinking about some corporation's computer security over a hot laptop. I decided to try and get the satellite internet up and running and so spent some frustrating time trying fruitlessly to locate a satellite beaming a weak signal from thousands of miles away, point a big metal dish at it and miraculously create my own wireless internet hotspot. So far on this journey, the Telstra wireless internet coverage has been superb and I haven't needed the satellite. I've had reception almost everywhere, including in the national parks. At Lesueur I had to dangle the modem from high up around the roof of the van, and I had to climb a sand dune to get mobile reception so that I could make a call, but the telecommunications aspect of the journey has been no problem at all to this point. I know that will change as we head further north. I will then need to rely on the large satellite dish and combination of electronic boxes and wires I've been hauling around to get access. Eventually as the light faded, I decided to jack in my failed attempts with technology. It wasn't until packing up the van the next morning that my mood was lifted by an unexpected random source. A bloke named Steve came wandering over to talk to us about our van. "How's your Bushtracker going? Got a Phoenix myself, but I looked at those vans. Too heavy for me with my car. Over engineered without any consideration for weight". He was a very likeable guy. 64 years old, not yet retired, but he and his wife have spent the last two and a half years living in their van, thanks partly to a dodgy back that prevented him from continuing work. And so they travel all round the country, bouncing back occasionally to their "home" in Maroochydore to have all the oscopies and dental check ups done and then back out on the road. "I wouldn't know what to do if I were at home", pondered Steve. "This life is much more interesting. If you get bored somewhere, you just move on". I started grilling him about places to go and where to stay, particularly up around Ningaloo. He was a well of information and after half an hour, I had our route upwards to Broome completely worked out. Places to camp, must see spots to visit, the directions to go and some useful technical information such as speeds to drive at and tyre pressures to use on some of the dodgier roads. Having been out of the travel mindset for so long, Steve had brought me back in. When we arrived in Geraldton, where we will be based for our last major pitstop before heading north, everything seemed to have fallen back into place. My mind was well back into a productive space for work. The car and van are booked in to have tyres replaced. I had time to head down to the beach at sunset with Finn and Jaz for a body surf in the glorious swell, just as the sun disappeared into the Indian Ocean before our eyes. And most importantly, I was once again welcoming the embraces of my children. 

Monday, April 04, 2011

Those teenage years

Living among a family with teenagers gives good insight into the characters of the people involved. Our time at Greg and Jo’s was punctuated by incidents that certainly would have tested the patience of any parent. And probably of any teenager. Door slamming, yelling, confrontation, storming out, open defiance and just plain ignoring of parental requests or demands. I remember it well from my own teenage years. It often resulted in me being summoned to the lounge room for one of Dad’s attitude talks. These were quite fearful occasions that at times involved a finger poked deep into the chest and the risk of a backhander to the face if any lip was given. My father was so logical and I usually became tongue tied under the duress, invariably leaving the discussion having been told that my attitude stunk and I’d better sharpen up or else. On walking away I always had the feeling that I hadn’t given a decent account of myself or my actions. I just couldn’t convey the strong emotion and turmoil I was going through to my father in any meaningful way that he could understand. I’d lie on my bed for hours on my own, listening to music and tossing a basketball into the air trying to get it as close to touching the ceiling as I could without actually making contact. Very therapeutic. My father during our talks would ask me why I wouldn’t come and talk to him about my issues, but instead would seek my own counsel holed up in my room. When I did approach him one time when he seemed quite troubled himself about something or other, and I asked him what was wrong, he launched into a tirade and told me that it was all my fault. That was the last time I went to him of my own volition for any such discussions. School was no better. There I had a number of fellow students who at various stages through my school years seemed to want to make life as difficult for me as they possibly could. I never really got beaten up, but the threat of it hung in the air continuously. There was pushing and shoving and threats of how I would meet my impending doom. I could never really work out why these kids had such an intense dislike for me. A wastepaper basket that came flying across the library and struck me in the head was about as bad as it really got. But I definitely had a fear at times that it would get much worse than that. As for my relationships with my teachers during these years, well that’s a whole other story. I think being a teenage boy is a minefield that you somehow have to negotiate as best you can, hoping that you make it unscathed to the other side. I did have my friends and had some great experiences, so it was by no means all bad. So many new discoveries to make about the world, about girls, about alcohol, about music and a new sense of freedom as the parents ceased to be tracking your every move. Nevertheless, I’m certainly glad I don’t have to go through all of that again. At least not from the teenager side of things. But it doesn’t look that easy now from the parental side either. With a couple of their offspring storming off into the night during our stay due to classic family arguments, Jo and Greg showed amazing calm, albeit following the storm. The grace with which the family came back even stronger before our eyes was encouraging for what Tori and I no doubt are going to have to face in the years ahead with Jaz and Finn.

The Stroot-Thodis household is a vibrant place, a continuous stream of people coming and going and a constant hub of activity. With sunny days in the 30s for the entire duration of our stay, a lot of the focus was on the beach. My days were filled with working but I did manage to get some time in the waves of the local surf beach, a snorkel at the calm beach down at the end of their road and a sail with Greg out on his 16 foot hobi cat. Having moved a year ago from Warrandyte to Port Kennedy, just south of Rockingham, they have certainly been making the most of the lifestyle. For us it was quite a novelty to again be living in a house for a period of time. With a bit of family drama going on, we were hoping not to outstay our welcome. Eleven days is a long time to lob a whole family in to somebody else’s home, especially when it was initially meant to be seven. The duration of our stay kept on growing while we waited for the clapped out inverter from our van to make its way to Queensland and back for a repair and service. A large focus of our time in Perth and surrounds was as a pit stop to get everything ready for our continued journey up north. Sorting out the electrics in the van was a key component. As well as getting the inverter fixed so that we can run 240 volt appliances off the 12 volt batteries, all four batteries in the van needed to be replaced. Not a cheap exercise, but given that on full charge they could only manage to run the fridge and a couple of LED lights for a few hours before running down, a necessary one. The planned upgrades to the car (suspension, winch, dual wheel holder, long range fuel tank) were ordered at the Camping and Caravan Show but the parts had still not made it to Perth, so that will have to wait until another day and another town. Perhaps Geraldton but more likely Broome. Throw the need for some new tyres in there and this has been a very expensive time. I’m hoping when all of this is done that the flow of money out of my bank account or on to my credit card will be stemmed for a while.

With the good as new inverter finally getting back to us on Friday arvo, we decided to spend one last night in Port Kennedy, which happened to be Greg’s birthday. The night turned out to be quite a big one. Greg, Jo, Tori and I went up to Freo to celebrate over a few drinks and a meal. But it was after we returned to Port Kennedy that things really kicked off. A bottle of sambucca, some beers and guitar playing followed. Somewhere between Pink Floyd and Neil Young songs around 4am we decided it was time to educate Talen and his 15 year old friends on the subject of real music. They were in the lounge room doing shots of caffeine based energy drinks to stay awake. I questioned Talen why they would drink that stuff and he said because they weren’t allowed to drink alcohol. As I poured myself and Greg another sambucca, I felt I couldn’t really argue with that. And so we took it in turns putting on songs for the others to listen to, the boys taking equal turns at educating us in their tastes. We had visits from Dion and Rhyanna and finally Jo, all of whom had been woken by us. Some time around 7am, when all of the sambucca and all of the beer was gone, we staggered off to bed. Rhyanna had been most unimpressed, but given that she is 17 and Greg is now 49, I suspect that there will be ample time for revenge. At least Greg got one good one in.

And so with surprisingly no hangover, but very tired, the caravan was finally hitched back up to the car and we pulled out of the Stroot-Thodis front yard. Thanks so much Jo, Greg, Rhyanna, Talen and Dion for making us so welcome in your home and in your lives. We had a great time.