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|Posted on April 18, 2012 at 4:34 AM||comments (135)|
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|Posted on April 17, 2012 at 11:00 AM||comments (63)|
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.
|Posted on April 17, 2012 at 10:53 AM||comments (49)|
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.”
|Posted on April 17, 2012 at 10:49 AM||comments (68)|
“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.
|Posted on April 17, 2012 at 10:41 AM||comments (96)|
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|Posted on April 17, 2012 at 10:39 AM||comments (37)|
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.