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Singapore beginnings ( Autumn 2011 trip back to OZ)

Posted on April 18, 2012 at 4:34 AM Comments comments (195)
Having spent ten months getting to know the chap a little, what better way to crack on with some quality father-son bonding than a trip to your local red light district. Its 3am, and we find ourselves in the wonderfully noisy and noisome Geylang district of Singapore. It’s the second day of our “last hurrah” trip to Australia. 

The girls are sleeping, or trying to. Fraser and I can’t. We try; he cries (or more like squeals in the highest pitch you ever could imagine for a boy); but we just can’t. I know jetlag well from my time when I lived in Singapore going back and forwards to Europe. This is new territory for him and he is quite disorientated, though not as unhappy as when he doesn’t get fed in a time he thinks appropriate. Singapore, as most people know is hot and humid, it is never anything else. Either that or it rains. The aircon in the room is going at full tilt trying to keep out the tropical heat. So having divested ourselves of our clothes, we head out the door.

Our hotel was booked from the UK. I had done a lot of homework before we came away, like where we might buy a pop top caravan in Australia, or a solar powered torch to light our way to the outdoor dunny, or how we were going to get a table reservation at world famous Tetsuyas in Sydney which has a six month waiting list; yet I had neglected to book a transit hotel in Singapore till the very last minute. Only problem was the last minute coincided with the Singapore Grand Prix. In a mad frantic dash for the line, I tried every possibility I knew in the centre of town, even hostels which I thought had been condemned when Sir Stamford Raffles was last in town. But we were out of luck, there was no room at the Inn anywhere. That Hamilton fellow and his chums had gobbled the lot up.

So, Geylang in the so-called badlands of Singapore was our only choice.  As red light districts go, it’s kind of fluffy and faux. Don’t get me wrong I’m sure your fair share of mind-bending kinky rinky sex gets a run out here, but it’s the kind of place you could bring your Gran to and she would be none the wiser. Just a bit annoyed she was being kept up past her bedtime, just so you could show her a few men in frocks on their night out. 

“I’m even sure the “girls” would provide a babysitting service, if that’s what you needed,” remarked my wife Vera as we checked in the day before. Well I just want to set the record straight V, we just went window shopping. Fraser wasn’t fussed at all by the lights, the din of the traffic, the pimps and their sisters they kept threatening to wheel out for our delectation. He was just laying back and dreaming of dinner.

We spent a happy hour or so nosing around, dodging the traffic. Eventually finding our way back to the hotel again just as the dawning sun was beginning to smear itself over the Singapore skyline. Emma is not sure this was such a good idea once she had volunteeredThe next day was spent chugging around the city. We got on the delightfully cool MRT underground to Sentosa, the little island off the slightly bigger island of Singapore. It had been a down at heel, scruffy kind of resort when I lived there. Since then it had morphed into this overblown concrete monstrosity known in tourism parlance as a “destination resort”. Quite hideous. But we ticked the time off quite well, traipsing round the least dreadful attractions. A Cockatoo sat on Emma’s arm, which was nice. 

Next stop Sydney. Huzzah - lemonades all round.

A strange thing happened on the way to Armidale

Posted on April 17, 2012 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (75)
I like Australians. Like their US cousins their outlook on life is extremely positive and forward looking, and they like to remind you of this state of affairs regularly. But they can overdo it at times, and some Aussies can be a little over-exuberant in their eagerness to please. Witness the conversation I had with Michael the proprietor of the Pembroke Caravan Park in Armidale.
“ Hasn't it been a beaut of a day?” he says in standard 'strine, absolutely reeking of positivity.  
“Yes, we’ve had a dream run with the weather so far, “ I reply. I was hoping for a slightly more diffident tack but it came out a little too committed for my liking.
“ Yeah, Beauty.”
“We’ve been very impressed with Armidale so far,” say I.
“ And the waterfalls at Wollomombi were breathtaking?”
“Beauty.” He adds, this time with a little more emphasis.
“That was until today. My wife and kids are down with food poisoning and my car is also sick”
“Beauty.” He says without breaking stride.

Up until this conversation we had got the green light treatment all the way. Great weather, great campsites, some lovely friends for Emma to play with and Fraser still hadn't walked. All was fan dabby dozy. Then what Vera feared might happen, did.

We were parked overnight in a secluded bush camp near Wollomombi; the view across a massive split in the earth, like a version of the Grand Canyon yet overrun with vegetation, had been well worth the hike across country. It was bedtime and Vera and I were trying to make our bed as comfortable as possible.

“What are all these ants doing in the bed?” I ask her. “Oh, these ants don’t bother me,” she says as she brushes them off the bed. Then I notice her muscles in her neck twitch and contract as she looks at something I can’t see. “But, thaaaaat bleep bleep thing scares the bleep shit out of me.” She is off the bed before she can finish the sentence and already at the door of the caravan. Above the curtain, about a foot from where our sleeping heads would usually be is the mother of all ugly, hairy spiders.

I am unnerved, you might say, and I don’t mind spiders. Actually I am almost as freaked as Vera. I do a mental reckoning and reckon it’s about as big as a dustbin lid. “It’s got to go, you’ve got to get it,” hisses Vera, a little unnecessarily. But what with, it’s on the side of the caravan and hasn’t budged for five minutes? In fact it was kind of taunting us. “So what. I’m here. You two are huddled over there. What you going to do about it?”

“What about I try and snare it with the barbecue tongs,” I say to Vera who looks like she’s about to leave a small puddle on the lino. “ Do it.” I make a grab for the meat of the spider with the tongs. I miss badly and it scurries off in one direction, while Vera screams in another.  All the time this natural world mayhem is going on the kids are sleeping peacefully up the other end of the caravan. 

I try to calm Vera a little, if only to calm my nerves. “What does your spider chart say it is?” She goes to the drawer and takes out the visual ready reckoner of Australian poisonous spiders. Nothing. It looks nothing like any of the 20 spiders on the chart. These all look like they’re under a microscope compared to this hirsute bruiser. The only thing close is the Huntsman. It doesn’t help us much. We know it probably isn’t poisonous, but Vera is already looking to pack the kids and her into the car for a journey to a hotel, and call wildlife services tomorrow to search the caravan. It doesn’t help when I suggest we sleep in the car tonight, and make a search tomorrow. “And, what about the kids?” asks Vera in a voice hovering somewhere between contempt and disbelief. Ah yes they had momentarily slipped my mind.

So we had to get it.  Vera spies a juicy fat limb emerging from between the ceiling and the curtain. This time, it was suggested, we pull the curtain rod off the tracks and I rush out with it through the door. “Spiders will always run upwards won’t they? You just hold it carefully and whatever you do don’t let the curtain rod drop?” says Vera. She stands back. I carefully pick up the end of the curtain which doesn’t have a spider attached. I get the sense something moves and quickly drop the rod. The spider literally triple jumps off the mattress and hides under the bed. Vera screams again. “Right, that’s it. We’re out of here,“ she screams.  

I have enough about me to know this is probably a bad idea. Even if it is an enormous but nevertheless benign spider, I didn't want to be the one standing there while National Parks man pulls it out by his fingertips, stroking it gently, while simultaneously giving me funny sideways looks. It’s something we had to deal with then and there. “There’s nothing for it, we just have to dismantle the bed.”

Under the mattress are some slats, we know the spider is under one of them. I pull the slats off and there he is, now looking a little less large than before but nonetheless still in the game.

Now I have the bright idea of hitting him with the end of the broom. So, I take aim. Boom. I thwack it hard down on him. He looks stunned and a little bent in places. Vera, by now fully in charge of her faculties, quickly grabs the salad bowl and while he’s still thinking about his next move has thrown the container over the top of him. And, in the time honoured fashion we find something to slide under the bowl and I take him out and throw him into the bush. Oddly, I notice how small he has become while sequestered beneath the salad bowl.

That night we each sleep with one eye open. How am I sure of that? Each time I take a peek at Vera she is looking at me.

The next morning is a bright blue sky day, already warm with nary a wisp of wind. All is fan dabby dozy, again. I go to get us some bread from the shop, start the car, engage first gear. Shit, the clutch has gone.

Country versus Coast

Posted on April 17, 2012 at 10:53 AM Comments comments (56)
Australia is a schizophrenic country. You are either from the country or the coast. Rough, earthy and honest or smooth, rich and slippery. Beer or Champage. The two different social spheres rarely seem to meet. That is until I saw a great sign at the Willow Tree Truck Stop, knee deep in hillbilly country. It was obviously making an attempt at something akin to gourmet fare, but somehow didn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. On the sign on the way into the diner, the blackboard was hurriedly chalked up with the dish of the day: Angus Beef in Red Wine Jus Sauce. This chef is obviously after a new type of customer, I mused as I went to pay for the fuel. Perhaps someone with a little more je ne sais quoi than your average truckie. I then scanned down to the dessert, to see what he might tempt them with next. Jelly Slice was all it said.

The other thing we notice about Australia and Australians is how they’re not keen on hiding lights under bushels. Signs pepper the highways literally shouting the virtues of their unbeatable produce. Australians absolutely love to big-up themselves, or have never heard about the Trades Descriptions Acts.

 “Best coffee outside Italy.” That was in a one horse town on the Northern Tablelands. “As chosen by the Richmond Hells Angels chapter,” it said in small print underneath. “The best golf course this side of Perth.” That was a scrubby goat track on the NSW South Coast, and bizarrely, “The best burgers outside of Belgium,” We stopped at this one as it piqued our interest, but one look inside told us all we needed to know. “Maybe they had tried a Belgian burger and thought they couldn’t do any worse?” Vera mentioned as we made a hasty retreat. Occasionally we would get suckered in. It was only after a while, we realised that these fabulous claims of being the absolute best were often in towns where once you’d been through you’d never go back. Yet, you were a captive audience for the hour you were there.

And, the one thing you can’t miss is the abundance of birdlife in NSW. With two children under five getting woken before 6am is a common enough occurrence. One of us is often up and out the caravan door with the beginnings of the day. The first and overwhelming thing you notice is birds. The dawn chorus is very different here than in England. As opposed to the melodious songs of our resident warblers and nightingales and the plaintive cries of cuckoos in rural Suffolk, the Australian version is a lot like its human population. It’s a raucous cacophony of in your face sound. Screeching Galahs, Lorikeets and parakeets, fight with the distinctive and rhythmical “ping” sound of the Whipbird. Magpies and Magpie larks insistent and harsh “chak chak” call contesting the odd sound of the Masked Plovers, which is a bit like a 1970 Mini Clubman turning over on a cold winter morning.

We have even bought a great birding book which we carry with us most of the time. It’s the Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds, and we love seeing a bird we don’t know then chasing back to the caravan to look it up. Emma is particularly excited by every new one we recognise.  

One morning Vera and the kids were out in Narooma, a seaside town with extensive mudflats, where a wide variety of wading birds come ashore. A new one we spotted was the Bar-tailed Godwit, which as anyone will tell you is not to be confused with the Black-tailed Godwit.

It doesn’t do an awful lot to excite the twitterati; It just seems to stalk the shoreline prodding for things like molluscs and worms to nibble on. But it was great fun standing there pointing our binoculars in the general direction of the birds, appearing like we knew what we’re doing. 

On the second or third day of doing this, Emma pitched up one evening took over the binoculars swung them over her head and having seen the little Godwits through them, pronounced with utter certainty, “Ah yes, definitely Omelettes.” 

Sydney, Whales, Mitsubishi and Viscounts

Posted on April 17, 2012 at 10:49 AM Comments comments (82)
“Have you seen the whale?” the cashier in the chemists said to Emma. “The what?” Vera and I blurted in unison. “Yes, the whale. If you look across the carpark, and through those two trees you can see the tale pushing up.” “It’s been there for the last hour,” she added.

Excitedly, like four impressions of a five year old, we ran out of the shop and tore across the busy road, and on to the beach. Sure enough about 50 yards out you could clearly make out the white and black tale of a large Humpback whale. Every now and then it would surface and blow a spume of water about ten feet into the air. How absurd is this? We are in suburban Sydney and just across the road from the chemists is a whale. Yet; horrors. A surfie sidles up to us and with a flat voice which appears to come somewhere from the side of his face says, “The whale is caught in the shark nets, that’s why it hasn’t moved on,” he said. “Yeah,” he added for no apparent reason. The joy we had felt was now as flat as next day’s champagne.

We had been in Sydney already a week and the credit card had been running hot. It had been on a provision and equipment purchasing spree that Ranulph Fiennes would have understood and approved. As a Scotsman once removed it was beginning to hurt a little. We were faced with a ruinous exchange rate. The amount of money that was required to organise a camping/caravanning trip around Australia would have to be reassessed and an urgent call to the Austrian bank manager made.

I thought I had it under control back in Dornbirn, spending hours on Aussie ebay seeking a camper trailer to accommodate us for the 12-15 weeks of travel. I had bid on a couple, put in what I thought had been outrageously good bids only to be outbid. It all seemed so hellishly expensive for what we were getting. A$5,000 (* exchange rate of about A$1.5 to the pound) would buy you a ten year old 7’ x5’ trailer with no other amenities, but the camp kitchen and things like a 3 way fridge would set you back another A$1,500-2,000. The general cost of living was also proving to be a bloody thorn in the side. A daily shop teetered on A$50 every time we went into a supermarket. And for that we went out with barely two shopping bags between us. Absurdly, a single banana would set you back A$2.

We also were in the market for a cheapish second hand 4 wheel drive. But, I soon saw it was going to have to be a car with as many miles on the clock as Apollo 13, if our budget wasn't going to be blown to smithereens. Initially it all looked pretty bleak.

In between the shopping expeditions we did manage a quick swim at the beach. An obligation which would have been rude to ignore on any visit to Sydney. It was a beautiful spring day, a warm but sprightly breeze and that specialty of Australia, the strong white-glare sunshine. The fact that we didn’t have our swimmers didn’t matter. Off came the day clothes and in we surfed with our undies.

Later that night as I was putting in the final bid on a Mitsubishi Pajero, with 331,000kms worth of  “aussie experience” in the engine bay, I caught a snippet of a conversation between Emma and Vera. Emma had gone straight from the beach with only a dress thrown over her and off to the nearest playground. As she was hanging from the monkery bars, one observant kid shouted out to the other attendant mums, “hey, she doesn’t have any knickers on.” Emma recalling the family swim at the beach, came back as quick as a flash, “that’s alright because my mum hasn’t either.”

Ebay witching hour arrives and praise the Dickinson we have ourselves wheels. For a paltry A$2,300 a 1992 model 4x4 is ours to pick up and keep for the duration. “But what about the mileage? Isn’t it a little high,” Vera asks reasonably. “These engines aren’t really run in till they’ve done a couple of hundred thousand miles,” say I, crossing fingers. An hour later we have completed the trifecta. Our bid for a 1979 Viscount pop top caravan was accepted by the owner and a happy email was no doubt wending its way to us via the ether, inviting us to join the caravanning fraternity, or alternatively the Ebay automated version- “Contact and Payment will be made in 24 hours, pick up within 7 days. No exceptions. No paypal. Don’t even think about a cheque, dickhead.”      

“Hey great news,” I am awoken from an unusual trucking dream at 7am. It’s Vera; she has already been down to the shops and looked in the newspaper. She had been deadly worried about the whale that had been caught in the net the previous day. “According to the local paper, it wasn’t trapped at all; it was a mother feeding her young one,” she said delightedly. Ha! Bubbles for breakfast. It was going to be a good day.

From Lake Macquarie to Port Macquarie and many side trips to Sydney

Posted on April 17, 2012 at 10:41 AM Comments comments (333)
The great family Ironside Australia touring adventure has rapidly morphed into a minor tootle around South Eastern NSW. In the nearly two and half weeks since we got the caravan we had managed a trip to Maitland in the Hunter Valley to visit friends and a side trip to Lake Macquarie, plus two or perhaps three trips back to Sydney. That’s a bit like spending a round Britain expedition shuttling backwards and forwards between Ipswich and Colchester Zoo. The reason? I was waiting on a package that had been sent by ship to Sydney.  

What was in the package had become something of a causecélèbre for Vera.  Almost daily she asked me if I had heard from “that bloody ship” and when it was likely to arrive. Unhappily, I had to reply, “Yes my love, I have heard from the shipping agent and he says there has been a further delay in docking or unloading or something.” It dragged on for two weeks longer than I had anticipated.

Of course when I packed my golf clubs I imagined I was being extremely foxy schlau. Rather than pay A$45 a time to hire some outmoded bag of any old iron, I would be able to use my own trusty clubs and be quids in. Well, by the time I had made my last visit to Sydney Port to pick up the offending box and totted up the costs I was in for an almighty shock. What with the customs and quarantine inspection fees (A.K.A. a government shakedown); the shipping agency handling fee (outrageously like estate agency commissions i.e. an exorbitant price for sod all in return); the port inspection facilitation fee (a polite mugging) and the original shipping fee (looked good in June of this year) all plus 10% GST, I could have bid for Tiger Woods’ old clubs on Ebay and still come out ahead.  (Of course, Vera was not totally au fait with all the shipping ins and outs, so as a precaution this particular blog will self destruct in ten seconds once it’s been read.)

Once I had collected the golf clubs, we were free to wander as we liked. Vera, who had harboured a 3 week old desire to get off the first page of the NSW roadmap said, “North, away from Sydney.... please.” We were looking for adventure, and we found a version of it the very next day.

It all started beautifully. Things felt right. The caravan was pulling like a nicely turned out racehorse, both sprightly and sure footed; the Pajero recently serviced, had two brand new tyres and was raring to go somewhere dirty. So on the morning of our escape from Sydney for hopefully the last time this year we headed up through the Hunter Valley. It was lunchtime. So we looked on the map for a suitable picnic spot. Vera found a nice little site in the middle of a State forest off the Old Maitland road, in the Upper Hunter.
It was a graded untarmaced road in and it gave us and the caravan a good rattling and we did worry if when we opened the door of the caravan all we'd see was an interior that looked like it had been through a blender. 

It was only on the journey out of the forest that we truly made our mistake. “Turn left in 50 metres,” said the metallic lady sitting in the Tomtom. So we duly turned left, and within 10 seconds realised what a daft decision that was. We had stumbled (or more correctly, invited by our lady in the GPS machine) to drive along an old logging road. 

The ruts, oh the ruts. A road is a generous description of what faced us. There were ruts in the track big enough for a car mechanic to get down and feel at home. I was dead scared any deviation from the raised parts of road would see the truck and then the caravan crash to a grinding halt. More worrisome was the dreaded call I would have to make to the National Parks office to get us winched out. We tried to go backwards only for the caravan to pop off the tow bar with a horrible clanking sound. Going on through a kilometre of lunarscape was our only option.

By this time the kids were becoming contrary. “You cuddle Fraser and give Emma a drink”, I shouted to Vera as I ran ahead to see if it was feasible to get all the way to the lovely dirt road we had stupidly left. It was only when I got back that I realised the storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. We had to go quickly or face what was left of the raised track becoming a treacherous mudbath. 

So, having set the 4 wheels in sync we eased our way down the road at a snails pace, turning occasionally to each other and willing the caravan to survive the vicious wobbling from side to side. After what felt like a long overdue visit to the dentist we finally emerged onto the beautifully smooth dirt road. We stopped the car immediately and both let out two of the biggest sighs of our married lives. 

“Never, ever, listen to that stupid women in the Tomtom again,” was all Vera had to say on the matter.

Lost in translation

Posted on April 17, 2012 at 10:39 AM Comments comments (40)
Since I last lived here in the 90s, Aussies have altered an iconic aspect of their culture. Previously if you passed an everyday bloke or sheila on the street, “G”day” would usually suffice. You knew where you were with that. Now, for some reason they have discarded it and gone for a stab at modernisation.

“How you doing?” they now say as they stride on by. To begin with this had me as confused as a hungry baby at a strip club. In the first couple of weeks I tried to answer the question, but by the time I had got the first couple of words of “I’m fine thanks and yourself,” they were half way up the street. What started out as a confident and polite reply ended up a swallowed mumble, as I realised I was talking to myself.

I suspect this is an Australian take on our English “How do you do?” “How do you do?” salutation. A form of rhetorical ping pong which sounds faintly ridiculous now the empire consists of Liz and Phil, BBC Weahld Siervice and Branston Pickle (which you can still find in most unlikeliest of places).
A bit like a new version of Microsoft Windows I can’t help feeling this new form of greeting is an unnecessary upgrade.

On the subject of language Emma has been letting people into a secret; she knows the words for things in both German and English, and is not keen on keeping it to herself. One Sunday our friends Sue and Neal invited us for lunch at a cafe they liked in the very twee town of Morpeth. It used to be a hard-nosed, blue collar coal mining town. Now gentrified i.e. the coal mine went bust and all the miners left, every other house on the main road has been turned into either an artisanal craft store, a cafe, or a juice bar.
Halfway through our fish and chips, Emma asks Neal “Do you know what the word for tomato sauce is in German?” “No, I don’t.” He replies. “Ketchup,” she says earnestly.

Every day we wake up and pray that this isn't the day Fraser has decided he is going to walk. What with all manner of things that slither and creep in the bush, once he gets on his pins and totters off in search of more adventure our five minute reveries are over. He is adventurous enough as it is and has crawled off a couple of times only to be brought back by a kindly camper. " Is this young man yours?" One haughty old biddy said as she handed over a bemused Fraser. Without waiting for an answer she turns around and off she goes but not without a parting shot. " As a nana, I do care for the little ones." Well you can't be perfect all the time can you? 

Fraser has even managed to get himself a nickname in the campsites and caravan parks around NSW. "Hey there Speedbump", they call out to us as they drive carefully past him in their 4x4s.