The Aunts

A small apartment in the middle of Milan. A kitchen, a bathroom, a bed-sitting room. Tiled floors. Tall windows. The aroma of something delicious simmering all day on the stove. Sauces so rich, it only requires a dessertspoon over pasta, with a sprinkle of fresh Parmesan. Yet, this is only il primo, the entrée. Il secondo is meat and potatoes. We are forever eating. Our washing is done, our ironing, too, while we pop out to visit the duomo and the Last Supper, which we can barely see for scaffolding.

The One & Only and I are to share Zia’s big bed with its iron bedstead. We prevaricate, she insists. She and her sister will share the sofa bed at the end of the bed. Awkward as hell, but so well-intentioned. To look at, they are Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in the flesh, without the deficient personalities of Dahl’s horrid aunts. These Italian aunts are kindness and generosity personified.

As the days pass, their broken English gradually grows more fluent. Likewise, our broken Italian. All of us understanding more than we can say. A family photo requires endless preparation with combs and lipstick. Everything must be perfect. Without makeup or jewelry to hand, I wait patiently as the aunts bustle in the bathroom for an age.

We have arrived on bikes, which have become a burden in the suffocating heat of August. We park them in left luggage and buy a train pass. We have a two man tent and six weeks to explore the boot of Europe. We find a gift of 200,000 lite wrapped in a flannel. The One & Only sees extra weeks of travel, but I insist we should use it for a special treat.  I win the toss. I have a plan.

We head south to Firenze, Roma and Napoli. We crash a friend’s honeymoon in Sorrento and together we trek across to Pompeii. In the cool of the evening we eat pizza among the olive groves, overlooking the Bay of Naples. Gelati, sometimes twice a day, has become the ‘go to’ snack. And with so many flavours to choose from, we may be here for years!

We head north again to Treviso, and back among the family: the aunts, of course, and more. An uncle, Nonna and a handful of cousins, too. All with names that sound like poetry: Tatiana, Serenella, Mirella. All with faces and figures like movie stars. Move over Sophia.

Staggering off the bus, we spot a tiny figure careering up the street calling for her grandson. Nonna. Ninety years old and as strong as an ox. She covers us in kisses and almost drags us home, wanting to carry our bags, or us, we’re not sure. Our understanding is poor, and in her excitement, she is talking a million miles an hour. We cross the city – cobbled streets, stone bridges, high walls – and into the luxury of a spacious apartment, after weeks in a two man tent. A bathroom, a real bed, and eating at a table. The One & Only is being constantly grappled round the knees by his affectionate but truly short family.

We drive up into the Dolomites with the aunts and Zio Corrado, laden with enough food to survive an ice age. We picnic beside an alpine lake – Lago di Misurina – under the pines. Prosciutto, olives, and cotolette that Nonna prepared late last night. Zio chats in Italian, which the aunts struggle to translate. His English may be non-existent, but he exudes warmth.What a sweet gentle man, with his deep love of the mountains. We leave the wander around the lake, gasping at the views, while the relatives enjoy a postprandial nap.

Later, we drive on to the ski resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo. ‘Bello, bello, bello.’ A chairlift carries us up the mountain, where the air is crisp and clear, and the panorama is stunning. Cow bells echo off the cliff faces. Small children attempt to throw themselves over the railings. Parents hold tight. Then down again for coffee and cake, while Zio, the eternal extrovert, makes friends with the neighbouring table. The One & Only is delighted with his family, agog at the scenery. Perhaps we will come and live here one day…

A day of sightseeing in Venezia, just the two of us, exploring back streets away from the souvenir shops and trillions of tourists.  Then back home for dinner with the family, where we ad lib in a bizarre mix of Italian, English and French among furniture straight out of Beauty and the Beast –  I’m sure that pastel wardrobe can talk – and vast chandeliers in multi-coloured Venetian glass. Overly fussy for my taste, but quite spectacular.

The cousins kidnap us for a trip to a café beneath the ramparts of a 10th century castello (castle) in Conegliano, and again, the following day, for a jaunt to the sea at Jesolo Lido. I can’t profess to be fluent in Italian, but none of us will be deterred by the lack of a common language and we continue to get by in ‘Italish’ or ‘Franglais.’

Back on the train, we head west, aiming for Milan and a train to somewhere else. I insist on jumping off at Verona, where we unwrap the gift from the aunts, and buy tickets for a ballet at the Arena. Romeo & Juliet no less. It couldn’t be more perfect. A camp site up in the hills gives us stunning views onto the terracotta roofs of the town far below.  

After pitching the tent and refreshing ourselves under cold showers, we wander back down to town, and take our seats high above the stage on the rough stone steps of the Arena. Candles are handed to the audience and the flickering lights are beautiful, competing with the stars. This morning, the stage was set up for the magnificent opera Aida. Tonight, it has been cleared for the dancers and the set is simplicity itself. Like a political rally, the Capulets are in blue, the Montagues in red. Or was it the other way around? No matter. It is wonderful. The orchestra makes the most of the amazing acoustics, and Prokoviev’s lush music soars to the heavens. This really is a ballet to show off the skills of the male dancers. Romeo and Tybalt and their kinsmen are breath-taking, as they leap and twirl across the stage.

Verona Arena: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verona_Arena#/media/File:Arena_Anfiteatro.XE3F1912a.jpg

Afterwards, we wander dreamily back through cobbled streets, past the balcony that claims to be Juliet’s own. There is always a balcony somewhere for lovers to meet. A magical night, a wonderful gift, from those sweet and thoughtful aunts.

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Moth

A night sky bereft of light,
stars shrouded in cloud.
A pulsing, whispering, whoosh that might be
wild winds whipping through the trees,
nor waves crashing on the beach.
Sounds louder – and closer – in the heavy, scented darkness
than they will be in daylight.
Monotonous hum of the fridge,
standing sentinel in the corner
while deep shadows stroll across the floor.
A desperate flurry of furry wings:
a lone moth, sole companion,
sucked towards the light of the computer screen,
dancing frantically against the windowpane, the ceiling, my face…
My mind, like the moth, will not settle to sleep
but flits from restless dreams to conscious anxiety,
refusing to still its wings and let me float away into gentle dreams
creating worries where none exist in daylight,
and only retreating when dawn creeps into the sky.

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Gluttony

“There are those people who can eat one piece of chocolate, one piece of cake, drink one glass of wine. There are even people who smoke one or two cigarettes a week. And then there are people for whom one of anything is not even an option.” ― Abigail Thomas, Thinking About Memoir

By the time I bravely clambered aboard the bathroom scales, it was way too late for New Year’s resolutions. So, I told myself firmly that I would take control of my eating habits during Lent. Shrove Tuesday came and went, and with it my plan to give up alcohol, carbs, coffee and cream. Anyway, I was fast succumbing to the belief that my waistline was beyond help. Settling back into South Australia had been six months of constant over-eating at dinners, lunches and brunches, as we reconnected with family and friends. Like my mother before me, I began every week with the self-admonition to start a diet – or simply to give up all food and alcohol for the foreseeable future. Sadly, it seems that the strength of my willpower can be measured in hours before I am off the wagon and back at the dining table.

This year, a strange but virulent virus kept us house-bound for months, and what else was there to do but sit by the fridge and comfort binge until the curfew was lifted?

Then it was winter, and the temperature dropped. And, as Road Dahl wrote in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ‘there is something about very cold weather that gives one an enormous appetite. Most of us find ourselves beginning to crave rich steaming stews and hot apple pies and all kinds of delicious warming dishes.’ And my will power desserts me yet again.

I do try, time and time again, to moderate my habits, but as Solzhenitsyn so wisely put it, ‘you get no thanks from your belly– it always forgets what you’ve just done for it and comes begging again the next day.’

The word gluttony is a little old-fashioned these days. Derived from the Latin gluttire meaning “to gulp down or swallow,” it describes excessive self-indulgence, specifically in the over-consumption of food and drink. A glutton? A person who eats or consumes immoderate amounts of food and drink. Namely, me.

There is a long history of man attempting to control excessive or ‘bad’ behaviour.  Religiously speaking, gluttony was one of the seven deadly sins in medieval times, in the same box as pride, envy, greed, lust, sloth, and wrath. The Church frowned upon those who over-indulged. Any sort of excessive, wasteful or uncontrolled behaviour was a cardinal sin, and to be avoided at all costs if we were ever to get through the gates to Paradise – and not just because they were too narrow!

Some time ago, I wrote a paper about the paradox of the saying – coined by British historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto – ‘to eat well is to eat less’ in which I discussed obesity and the monumental waste  of food in the western world; a world in which a globalized food industry has eclipsed local markets and fast food is invalidating traditional home cooking. Since the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century, millions of people have been driven off the land and into cities to work in factories, department stores, retail and restaurants, while country towns struggle to survive. Today, our society has evolved into a middle class of middle management living in suburbia, disconnected from the land and the food that is grown in bulk to fill our supermarkets. Modern technology has bravely sought to eradicate poverty and poor eating habits, yet in first world countries, we have long since passed the point of ‘sufficient’ and moved into ‘excess.’

Perhaps unexpectedly, the industrial revolution and modern conveniences have also marginalized the housewife. These days, most women go out to work. Affluence, abundance and time limitations mean that cooking has become, to many, more of a hobby than a daily chore, as restaurants, take-aways, convenience meals from the supermarket and Uber Eats eliminate the need for anybody to spend time actually preparing a meal. And we eat so much more than we need in these times of fast food, that obesity has become a huge problem, no pun intended – or perhaps it was. In Australia alone, one article I read online claimed that two thirds of Australian adults check in as overweight or obese.

So, what’s the problem with getting too much to eat? Well, plenty, actually. Carrying too much weight is a risk factor in heart disease and diabetes, certain types of cancer, kidney disease, sleep apnoea and osteoarthritis. To name just a few. And the stigma of obesity, in this – paradoxically – era of obsession with body shape, diets and gyms, has been associated with increased depression, anxiety and social isolation.

As humans, we seem to swing from one extreme to another, like a Pirate Ship at the fairgrounds. So perhaps it’s no wonder that the Church has always preached ‘moderation in all things’ – simply, because we are not very good at self-discipline. As Jostein Gaarder wrote, “Health is the natural condition. When sickness occurs, it is a sign that Nature has gone off course because of a physical or mental imbalance. The road to health for everyone is through moderation, harmony, and a ‘sound mind in a sound body’.”

So, I raise my third glass of wine in celebration of balance and moderation… oops! Failed again!

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Exploring Nepal

Part II of a tale I told earlier this year of a trip to Nepal in 1990…

That evening, a huge thunderstorm hit our campsite with a vengeance. The gods were playing havoc with hammer and anvil, hurling hailstones down the mountain the size of golf balls. We were forced to shelter in a nearby tea house as the rain lashed down and our tents collapsed. We watched the show from the balcony, the sky lit up like New Year’s Eve in Sydney. A terrified local hid in a box, so all we could see were his eyes peeking anxiously over the edge. The local children found it hilarious, rushing out into the rain and playing dodgems with the hail, encouraging the blokes from our tour group to join in, whooping with laughter when they dashed out in their jocks. As the storm receded, our guide, Juan poured us all a glass of the local rum and started singing. He proceeded to lead us through every western song he knew. The more rum, the more tuneless we became, but nobody cared. Eventually the rain stopped, and the owners of the tea house got sick of our dreadful singing and kicked us out. We regrouped by the river and continued competing for the Eurovision Song Contest with limited success.

Despite some hangovers and hoarse throats, we spent another glorious day on the river, leaping the rapids now with professional verve, sliding into the water to cool off in calmer waters. After lunch, the temperature dropped suddenly, and we were hit by a brief but chilling deluge that somewhat dampened our enthusiasm. However, the final tumultuous rapid gave a dramatic flourish to the end of the trip. Juan, had disembarked earlier, to collect his bicycle and ride ahead to set up camp. Left alone, we quickly proved we were mere amateurs without his excellent guidance. Our dinghy was tossed into the centre of the river, where it collided with a huge rock. Here, we perched precariously for what seemed like minutes, those at the back gripping fiercely to the rock with their fingernails, those at the front hanging perilously into the froth below, the water pouring in over our feet. Eventually the force of the current dislodged us and sent us hurtling down into the swirling rapids with an almighty lurch, half the river flooding into the boat. Waterlogged and weary, we thudded through the remaining torrent, before edging our way cautiously back to shore, where we could see our campsite, and Juan waving eagerly from the bank.

Here, we left our new friends and set out to find our own way to Chitwan National Park, where we had been promised herds of elephants and a crash or two of rhinoceros. Yes, that really is the collective noun for a bunch of rhinos! Cool, isn’t it? We hitched a ride in one of those tinsel-covered trucks, where we squeezed onto a bench seat behind the driver, our rucksacks on our knees. We had a great view of the river, no longer deep jade but a muddy terracotta brown, then gradually a sandy ochre as the river widened and settled. High, majestic cliffs rose on both sides as the rain set in again. Turning away from the road, we drove through gentle woodland where the locals were gathering up vast bundles of firewood that they would lug back to town on their heads.

In town, where busy streets were overrun with rickshaws and rubbish, we descended from the truck with a wave to our friendly driver. Perched by the side of the road, we watched the world go by, waiting for someone to collect us and drive us to Chitwan. For an hour we absorbed the sounds, sights and aromas, falling in love with every doe-eyed child that came up to us, shy but curious. Eventually, a jeep tore up the road, scattering everything in its path, apart from a sturdy cockerel who stood his ground until the very last second, before taking to the air in a flurry of dust and outraged tail feathers.

Our lodge sat beside the Rapti River: a dozen bamboo and daub huts with thatched roofs. Two in the centre, covered in creeper, were kitchen and dining room. A garden, filled with neatly clipped hedges and pink bougainvillea, ran down to a copse of slim trees by the river, where we sat in the evening to watch the sunset. We dined by soft lamp light on noodle soup and spring rolls, and collapsed into bed early, curling up under thick mosquito nets.

That first morning, we were woken at dawn for a sunrise trek through the park. Our guide took us bird watching, then on to the local museum, where we discovered interesting morsels about the history, geography and wildlife of the region – baby elephants trunks lack coordination; rhinos weigh up to two tons – and then back to our hut for a late breakfast. Later, we took a ride down the river in a dugout canoe, floating past waterlilies as big as cabbages, the water blissfully cool as the day grew warmer.

In the afternoon, we headed into the forest to find a rhinoceros or three. We had been warned that rhinos are visually challenged, and may charge at anything smaller than an elephant. On foot, this resulted in several speedy retreats into the trees, so we didn’t end up kebabbed on a rhino horn.
Later, then, we mounted an elephant to go in search of rhinos from a greater, safer height. The view was superb. We trundled through the forest, meeting rhinos everywhere, undisturbed by our presence now we had Jumbo with us. It was thrilling to get so close after the morning’s distant sightings. We also disturbed a large stag and gaped in awe as ‘our’ elephant removed a huge tree trunk from our path.

A final banquet dinner – according to my diary, the best meal I had eaten in Nepal – and a sip of the local raksi, which tasted like the bottom of an ashtray. We spent the evening dancing like mad chooks with two New Zealanders and the Nepali lads.

The following morning we set out for a two day, twenty kilometre hike across the park to a small village in the west. Chitwan covers an area of almost 1000 km2. It was established in 1973 to save the rapidly declining populations of rhinoceros, tiger and sloth. Sadly, this was done at the expense of local human communities, who were forcibly relocated out of the area.

It was incredibly hot and humid walking, and by the time we reached the end of the first day, I was wilting and rhubarb-red. But we had spotted more rhinos, and had even picked up the scent of a Bengali Tiger. He kept a low profile, however, and chose not to be introduced, which was undoubtedly a good thing.

These days, some thirty years on, Chitwan National Park is home to almost seventy species of mammal. Beside the Bengal tiger and the rhinoceros, sloth bears and occasional wild elephants, there are otters, Bengal foxes, and honey badgers, striped hyenas, civets, and mongooses (mongeese?), gaurs – Indian bison – wild boars and deer, rhesus monkeys, pangolins, and porcupines.

The next morning, we were up at dawn, to climb a watch tower for a view over the plains. We were joined by a Nepalese couple and their young son, who took us in their jeep to see a dead rhino. The poor rhino, mad with pain after losing a fight to a bigger rhinoceros, had charged a jeep. The driver had to shoot it or die himself.

As every part of the rhino can either be eaten or used to cure any ailment, the villagers had arrived faster than us. Already, the hooves had been removed, and young men were collecting blood in bottles. The skin had been efficiently peeled from the carcass and laid out to dry, and the rest of the rhino butchered. This one animal would keep the villagers in fresh meat for some time.

Eventually, we set off again, through the forest to a lake, the day growing hotter with every step. We climbed a tree to watch a rhino bathing in the water. By now the humidity was sitting heavily on our shoulders, so we were delighted to come across a water pump under which we, too, could submerge our overheated heads. Once dry, a lovely, local lady applied red and gold tikkas to our foreheads before waving us on our way.

The last two kilometres were the longest of the whole day, out on open, dusty roads. At last we reached the river and crossed in a dugout canoe to Jagatpur, where we were to stay with a family in their blue, two-storey house, complete with electricity – the height of civilization. The owner told us he had spent twenty years in England as a Gurkha with the British Army and was now on an army pension, which made him the most illustrious person in the village.

His wife offered us chicken for dinner. This meant chasing a somewhat decrepit chook around the courtyard, before finally cornering it and chopping off its head as party of the evening’s entertainment. Unfortunately our ancient boiled hen tasted like shoe leather. We chewed hopelessly for some time, before passing our plates to eager grandchildren, happy to finish it off- and obviously possessing better teeth than we did.

At sunset, we strolled through the village, followed by a handful of small kids, wide-eyed and snotty nosed, fascinated by the strangers in their midst, daring each other to come closer. The One & Only sat among them like Jesus, as they all giggled and reached out to touch his watch and his beard.

A bus back to Kathmandu the next morning provided a different sort of adventure. This rusty tin box with wooden benches along both sides, broken windows and a door handle held on with string, ensured a bone shaking trip with dust flying into every nook and cranny. We were jammed in with old men in cotton caps, teenage mothers breast feeding their babies, little girls carrying confused chickens in their laps, old women with earrings all the way up their ears, old men with goats, rocking and swaying as the bus lurched along the road, crashing over potholes, squashing us together like mushy bananas on the back seat.

An hour and a half later, we were in Narangat buying fruit and chocolate. Buses were few and far between and would take the whole night to reach Kathmandu, so we hitched a ride with a truck driver, who declared we’d be in Kathmandu before midnight. We settled ourselves in the dress circle above the driver’s cabin with sleeping bags and snacks and prepared to enjoy the ride, with fresh air and plenty of leg room.

By midnight we had reached the river where we had started our rafting trip, and the driver decided to pull in for a nap. We would proceed at sunrise and arrive in time for breakfast, he assured us. At 4 am we set off again, crawling along at ten miles an hour, the driver studiously avoiding every pothole, the engine overheating halfway up every hill. We were overtaken by every bus, every strolling child, stopping every fifteen minutes to let the engine cool down or a passenger take a pitstop behind a tree.

At the final check point, we waited, sweltering in the midday sun, as our little refuge on the roof turned into an oven. Eventually, we found a taxi for the last lap, and were soon showering off four days of dust and grime, our clothes packed up and sent out to be washed, the decision made to find an earlier flight to London. It had been a fabulous adventure, but the heat and the squalor had worn us down, and things were getting a little hairy back in Kathmandu.

We met up with a friend from home, mate who had followed us over and just returned from Everest Base Camp. During dinner, we talked politics. There had been pro-democracy protests and marches in Nepal since February, but while we were away, the army had suppressed the protesters and enforced a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am. Six civilians and twenty policemen had been killed that afternoon. The Superintendent of Police had been hanged from a tree. The Telecommunications Centre had been razed to the ground. We ate a quick dinner and raced back to our hotel with seconds to spare, passing a dozen soldiers on the way, patrolling the streets with huge guns.

‘It is ANZAC Day, and our last day in Nepal. Tomorrow we fly on to London, via India, providing our flight doesn’t get cancelled! Right now, I am perched on a man-made island: two beds pushed together as the rainwater floods in under our bedroom door. And the lights have gone out. We have been sweeping water and hailstones back out into the courtyard all afternoon. Thunder and lightning have been crashing and flashing above our heads, so between the curfew and the thunderstorm, I expect the streets of Kathmandu will be silent tonight.’

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Victoriana

Victorian kitchen, Yorkshire (‘Flickr’)

I love, love, love Victorian kitchens – and I don’t mean the state of Victoria, so troubled with Covid restrictions, but Queen Victoria and the era of huge basement kitchens, à la Downtown Abbey.

Deep within the British stately home or manor house of the nineteenth century, the kitchen was at the heart of the household, with its worn flagstone floor, the huge, refectory table on which meals were produced for vast invasions of family and friends, and an enormous cast iron stove that some tiny, hardly-done-by kitchen maid was always blackening. With what? I wonder. Vegemite? Shoe polish? Elbow grease? At least one large dresser is stacked with crockery: cups, saucers, plates, tureens and serving dishes galore. And there is always an extraordinary assortment of unfamiliar utensils that look like medieval torture instruments, so obscure that you cannot possibly guess what purpose they served.

I have found plenty of these wondrous kitchens in the country houses of the once-wealthy aristocracy and landed gentry of England, now maintained by the National Trust or English Heritage, to look as they would have done a hundred and fifty years ago, or more. Lately, I’ve been finding them in the homes of the South Australian pioneers, too. Homes like Ayers House or Martindale Hall, and recently, at Cummins House, a stone’s throw from the Old Gum Tree, where Governor Hindmarsh first proclaimed South Australia a British colony in 1836.

Today, Cummins House is an unexpectedly grand red brick house tucked quietly away among the cream brick bungalows of Novar Gardens, one of Adelaide’s western suburbs. Originally the home of John & Elizabeth Morphett, who had both arrived in South Australia in the early days of settlement, married in the freshly minted Holy Trinity Church on North Terrace, and built a small house on the banks of the Sturt River in 1842. Before he left the Mother Country, John Morphett had acquired 134 acres just north of Morphettville, the suburb – and the racecourse – that would eventually bear his name. Here, they began to build a family, in a house that would expand over time to contain eleven children. Morphett named it in honour of his mother’s family farm in Dorset, England, and the property would be handed down through four further generations of Morphetts, until it was sold to the state government in 1977.

In 1884 Cummins House underwent major renovations, including the addition of staff quarters and a new kitchen. Today, standing beside a large wooden table, we admire a ‘state of the art’ bean cutter, a selection of homemade candles and an innovative, pre-refrigeration butter cooler. I love cellars too, but sadly we were unable to access the three underground rooms that lurk beneath the house.

We are given plenty of facts, but some good family legends might have added an element of interest to our tour. The facts tell us that John Morphett arrived in Adelaide on board the Cygnet, on November 5th, 1836. From the deck, he observed with apprehension ‘the dry and scorched appearance of the plains.’ Yet later, he would write that ‘the climate surpasses France’ and ‘there are no creatures to fear.’

Cummins House, South Australia, circa 1850

Four months earlier, Elizabeth Morphett, nee Fisher, had arrived with her family and Governor Hindmarsh on The Buffalo. She was twenty one years old and would marry John Morphett two years later. The Morphett family would rapidly become a firm fixture among the Adelaide Establishment.

Elizabeth Morphett’s father, James Hurtle Fisher, became the first Mayor of Adelaide in 1840, while her husband, John, took on the role of Treasurer. In 1857, John would also – inevitably – join the newly formed Legislative Council. Both Morphett and his father-in-law would eventually receive knighthoods for their efforts to establish the new colony. John and Elizabeth’s third daughter, Ada, would grow up to marry the oldest Ayers son, Henry, and hold court at ‘Dimora’ on East Terrace.

Both the Ayers and the Morphetts made their fortunes from the Burra mines, and on the back of this new wealth, Elizabeth was able to travel back to London with the children, while John supervised the extensions to Cummins House. Their golden wedding would be celebrated here, too, among their extensive family. Fifty years on from landing on those dry, scorched plains, life had become exceedingly comfortable for the wealthier inhabitants of South Australia.

Yet life for the servants in Victorian times could be tough. They were expected to work from six in the morning until ten o’clock at night, at the constant beck and call of bell-wielding employers. All this with only one afternoon off a week. No washing machines, no refrigerators, no dishwashers: every household chore required hard labour.

Victorian mangle

In the same vein, I accompanied a class of seven year olds around Ayers House yesterday, describing life as a working class child in the nineteenth century. We had great fun exploring their options to be nursery maids, chimney sweeps and tweenies (those young, in-between maids who got all the roughest work to do.) We discussed rising at dawn to light the fires and empty the chamber pots. We examined the ice chests and talked about bringing ice from northern Europe, until local supplies could be sourced. We visited the ‘withdrawing room,’ where the ladies retired after dinner to chat, sew, sing or play chess, while their menfolk smoked cigars and drank port at the dining table. We gasped at the chandelier with its 3,000 crystals that required hand washing at least once a year to make sure they sparkled for the annual ball at Ayers House. We talked of the ballroom and the fact that Sir Henry had the floor polished with milk to make it better for dancing; how he decked the garden in fairy lights, and stopped the clocks at midnight so no one went home till dawn. It was a joy to see the children quite rivetted by the facts and figures of ‘ancient history’ at their fingertips. Victorian Kitchens may look rather splendid, but I am suddenly immensely grateful for my modern home with electricity and every modern convenience and the hours and hours of elbow grease I do not need to expend on housework.

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Cricket & Ceviche

Adelaide was always going to be an avid cricketing city, with so many of the original settlers in South Australia being of British origin. So, it was no surprise to learn that a purpose-built oval was already being constructed in 1871. As it is now, was then and – hopefully – ever will be, the Adelaide Oval sits in the park lands on the northern bank of the River Torrens, and in the shadow of St. Peter’s Cathedral. The Oval was officially opened on December 15th 1873, with a cricket match between teams representing the British-born and the colonial-born inhabitants.  The first test match against England was played three months later. And lost.

In 1877, footballers were given entrée, and in the first football match at the Oval, Adelaide Football Club played against St Kilda.  And lost. On September 7th, 2014 the first Australian Football League (AFL) elimination final at the ground was played between Port Adelaide and Richmond. Port Adelaide won.

The Oval was also redesigned that year. It now looks more like a spaceship and teams nicely with the festival centre across the river. Since those early years, the Oval has seen tennis and baseball, soccer and test cricket played on its hallowed turf. In 1885 an Indigenous corroboree attracted 20,000 spectators. Since the 1970s, the Oval has also hosted numerous rock concerts, including David Bowie, Midnight Oil, the Rolling Stones and Ed Sheeran.

As youngsters, my sister and I spent some sunny days at the Oval – me to socialize and sip champagne (yes, I was over 18), my younger, sports mad sister to collect autographs from the players and actually watch the cricket.

The scoreboard, an Adelaide icon, was designed and built in 1911 by my great great uncle, architect Kenneth Milne. Despite all the latest technology and upgrades, she still stands proudly on the Hill at the northern end of the stands, the Cathedral providing an elegant backdrop. With an old-fashioned style and lack of fussy detail, she is much softer on the eyes than the huge electronic screens with their flashing advertising, while still providing spectators with all the information they need to follow the game. Thankfully, the board has been heritage listed by the National Trust, so it should be there for years to come.

Facing the park lands, the new Oval Hotel can be found on the eastern side of the Oval and opened only last month. The hotel, much criticized when first mooted, is a subtle and elegant design that wraps nicely round the back of the eastern stand. The entrance is so unobtrusive, we almost missed it, tucked quietly away to the right of the Victor Richardson Gate, so that nothing about the hotel impinges on the entrance plaza, other than the sensual copper fascia.

Last week, keen to investigate, I strolled from North Adelaide and across Creswell Park with the One & Only. Gliding up to the third floor in the lift, we were welcomed in the reception lounge with a glass of bubbles, a friendly smile and some amazing light fittings. Eventually, we took ourselves off to see our room in the south wing. As we walked in, the curtains opened automatically, to present a wonderful view across the north park lands and the River Torrens, between the leafy branches of a beautiful plane tree. The hotel has 138 rooms, a reception lounge, and two restaurants that look out over the Oval itself.

Before dinner, and while the spring rain took a recess, we wandered across the elegantly curved pedestrian bridge over the Torrens. Adelaide’s skyline has grown very tall in the years we have been away. Until 1975, no building went above nineteen floors. These days, even Westpac House (once the State Bank and the tallest building in Adelaide for thirty years) with its 31-storey, 132m  tower has been overshadowed by the Adelaidean on Frome Street which has risen to 138m high with 37 floors, and at least two others of similar height have been proposed, since planning reform in 2012 changed the rules. Sadly, the plan to revitalize the inner city with a greater volume of city apartments has been scuppered, at least temporarily, by Covid 19. The city centre was largely deserted and many previously thriving eateries were closed for business.

The new restaurant at the Oval was a different matter. By 7pm, the tables in the Bespoke Wine Bar and Kitchen were full. A small outdoor terrace sits at the top of the tiered seating overlooking the Oval,. If it hadn’t been so chilly, it would have been the perfect spot for a pre-dinner drink as the sun set over the stands. As we waited for a table, we had a long chat with the sommelier, who proudly showed off a wall of South Australian wines, picking out many of our old favourites and introducing a few new names. There is a seasonal degustation menu in the Fine Dining restaurant, ‘Five Regions,’ which is – no prizes for guessing – named for the five main wine regions of SA: the Barossa & Clare Valleys, McLaren Vale, the Coonawarra and the Adelaide Hills.

 The meal was excellent: well-priced and beautifully presented, and wine was available by the glass, which for dinner a deux on a weeknight was a great idea. The sun set over the stands as our server arrived with some lovely soft sour dough bread, with a satisfyingly crunchy crust. The menu sounded terribly glamorous. In our ignorance, we even had to google some of the ingredients. A delicate and delicious kingfish ceviche garnished with burnt mandarin and grilled padron (those tasty Spanish peppers) although the leche de tigre (a sauce of lime juice, salt and spices) may have ‘cooked’ the fish, but had been left off the plate. But a mille feuille of potato topped with smoked scallops was divine.

Fish again for the main course: grilled mullaway served with macadamia and harissa, bush tomato yoghurt and kohlrabi for me, Port Lincoln octopus cooked to perfection on a bed of fennel puree with fermented chilli and herbs (like a pesto) and lardo for the One & Only.  While I was not a fan of dripping with octopus, the rest was really tasty. There was a lot of emphasis on texture, and our white wine choices accented it all nicely. Sadly, I was too busy concentrating on flavours – and of course my gorgeous companion – to remember to take photos, but the food was both delicious and very prettily displayed.

Back in our room, the ‘intuitive technology’ switched on the light, and illuminated the bathroom with a terrific shower and plenty of elbow room. The bed was huge and wonderfully comfortable, and we could choose between a view of the vast Morton Bay figs in the parklands or an equally vast TV screen. And there were crisp towelling robes hanging in the bathroom, which was a much appreciated little luxury.

Sporting events are still largely forced to succumb to Covid regulations, so it may be a while before we visit again… although I am very tempted to try the rooftop walk one summer evening…

*With thanks to Flickr for the pictures. Next time I’ll remember my camera!

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“Is it beer o’clock yet?’

What could be more Australian than drinking beer in a shearing shed?
The specific shearing shed I have in mind is on the Fork Tree Road, where it squats high on a hill above Carrickalinga, looking straight out over the deep blue waters of Gulf St. Vincent. To the left is a deep gorge, green paddocks, gum trees, and sheep. Of course. An old, corrugated iron shearing shed, it has been in business since the 1880s. Three years ago, it was beautifully renovated by brewer Ben Hatcher and his family. It no longer houses sheep and shearers, but is now home to a small selection of craft beers and some very upmarket and tasty pub grub. And it has been re-branded: ‘Forktree Brewing.’

Despite the bar, a modern kitchen and an air conditioning unit, there are still strong signs of its original incarnation, with its tin roof and huge roof beams, not to mention the re-pointed wooden floorboards. The rustic feel is further enhanced by the many tables that appear to have been built out of old packing crates.

On sabbatical through the early months of Covid, Forktree Brewing reopened in June. Our first visit required winter coats, and a mad dash to grab a table near the wood burning stove. But now that spring is in the air, it is a joy to sit in the garden or out on the veranda on a warm afternoon, to wait for the sun set over the sea and to watch the sky change from blue to gold to pink to a deep Aperol-Spritz-orange, as the kids play on the swings or in the sandpit. Canine kids are also welcome.

Opened in 2017, it is – literally – the only place to go for a drink and a meal in Carrickalinga, a beach retreat for many Adelaideans where there is not even a corner shop for bread and milk. Residents here prefer to keep clear of anything commercial, and simply head to Yankalilla or Normanville for coffee and shopping. (Yes, I am thinking of setting up a toll gate on the main road, as apparently, the holiday traffic is notorious and there’ll be no hope of a park in the summer. On the Isle of Wight it was the DFLs – Down from London – so I have christened this bunch the DFAs!)

But let’s stop niggling at the neighbours and get back to the hilltop brewery for a testing platter of the craft beers or a glass of cold, crisp rosé as the sun sets into the sea and reflects gold through your pint glass.

The Fork Tree microbrewery serves its own beers: a light ale, a pale ale, a dark red, malty ale and a porter. All four can be tried and tasted if you fancy a tasting paddle. Or there are some lovely local ciders, if like me you don’t have a passion for beer.

The wine list is pure South Australia: the Coonawarra and the Adelaide Hills, Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and the Barossa. There’s even a Cabernet Sauvignon listed from the Fleurieu Peninsula, and a Tempranillo from Moana.

Fancy a meal, perhaps? Chef, Kenton Day, has created a simple, succulent menu, and servings are generous. It’s really good value for the prices and tastefully presented. I have already been here a few times, with friends and family, and tried the seafood platter and the burgers, and there’s generally some terrific choices on the specials board above the bar. But this time I go straight for the laksa. I have been dreaming of it all week. Piping hot and spicy hot, it clears the sinuses at a single mouthful and is swimming with seafood: muscles, fish, huge prawns, calamari. But don’t worry, for those who cringe from so much chilli, there are plenty of other options.

Our server, Vanessa, is new to Fork Tree, but already knows that she loves working here, which for me is always a great sign. Happy staff, happy customers. She says the hours can be long, but she’s perfectly happy with that, and is justly proud of the food she brings out from Kenton’s kitchen.
And the car park has just been extended, so there is plenty of room. Do be aware, however, that this place is enormously popular, and you would be well advised to book in advance as it’s a risky one for a spontaneous visit. Particularly if you want to be there to enjoy the for sunset.

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‘Where would we be without water?’

I grew up in the driest state on the driest continent in the world. My childhood was full of drought warnings, water restrictions and murky brown bath water pumped all the way from the River Murray.
Anyone with a television in South Australia in the 1970s will remember the TV jingle about saving water. Even before the ‘Splish Splosh Splash’ campaign, a dad and his daughters – Belinda and Sarah – warned us about the dangers of trying to live without water. It was catchy and quirky, but the message got through. ‘Don’t waste water this summer.’

Today there are reservoirs all over our dusty state: at Mount Bold, Tod River, and Beetaloo to name a few, but I still feel a strong surge of guilt if I leave a tap running or fill a (rare) bath to the brim.

Our nearest reservoir is about twenty kilometres up the road at Myponga. The valley, once known as ‘Lovely Valley,’ was flooded in 1962. It is now the main source of filtered water for the southern metropolitan area and the southern coast. Fed by the Myponga River, the reservoir covers an area of 2.8 km² with a total capacity of 26.8 million m³. At the eastern end, the tiny township of Myponga clusters close to the shore. At the western end, a narrow road skims across the weir, high above the gorge created by Myponga Creek – river seems overly generous – and winds steeply to the top of the hill. Here I regularly park the car and gaze out at the glorious view over the dam to the east, the sea to the west, particularly at the moment, when the reservoir is full to the brim, and lapping at the rim of the forest.

The valley was first settled in the 1840s. Today, two old roads and the original Lovely Valley schoolhouse lie below the calm waters of the reservoir, where ducks and moorhens now bob gently, and bullfrogs croak noisily among the reeds, desperate for love. And long before the Europeans, the Kaurna people roamed this region, along the eastern shore of St Vincent’s Gulf from Cape Jervis as far north as Port Wakefield.

The Myponga dam was opened to the public only last year, and a 5.2km trail has been set up along the southern edge of the water. Walk, run, cycle or skip, it’s an easy stroll, with viewing platforms over the water and picnic tables on the hill. Earlier this year, the reservoir was stocked with more than 90,000 native fish, and for the keen fisherman (or woman) it is possible to fish from the shore, providing you are in the zone and have the requisite permit from www.reservoirs.sa.gov.au. Seven other reservoirs around the state are now open to the public, with more in the pipeline, and many of them have been stocked with fish, too. Unfortunately, it isn’t a place you can take the dogs, as they may disturb the wildlife, but your kids are more than welcome. And it has proved the perfect place for a post-prandial, Sunday stroll.

This week, at the beginning of spring, the landscape is a lush green, although it won’t be long before it has become sunburned stubble, dry and yellow. The paddocks are scattered with mobs of kangaroos: a handful of huge, heavy, square-snouted males, watching possessively over their harems; the smaller, more delicate females whose capacious pouches bulge with growing joeys, back legs protruding awkwardly, or tiny ears poking out of those deep, cosy pockets.

Down by the creek, dark purple grape hyacinths have blossomed in the swampy earth, the wattle is already fading along the banks of the reservoir, and the quiet pine plantations are soft underfoot, littered with a thick, shag-pile carpet of needles. Up on the hillside, a stand of eucalyptus is teeming with parrots – galahs, rosellas and lorikeets, corellas and cockatoos – flashing their paint palette colours as they dive and weave through the sunlit sky. For the keen bird watcher, there are apparently some 120 bird species in the area, so don’t forget your camera. There is also a toilet block half-way round the circuit for emergencies, and a craft beer waiting at the end of the trail.

‘The Smiling Samoyed’ is a family owned boutique brewery behind the old market building in Myponga. It opened in 2012 ‘after a home brewing hobby got out of control,’ and is named for the owners’ thickly coated, snowy-white dogs who feature prominently on the labels. The beer is made and bottled on site, and we found a table overlooking the reservoir, with a view of the brewing tanks through the window behind us. The restaurant, bar and brewery are contained in a vast, rustic, corrugated iron shed, with a playground outside to keep the kids amused, and a wood-fire pizza oven to provide for the peckish.

Now, I’m generally not the person to ask about beers. Pouring countless beers for punters in the front bar of a local hotel for the duration of my student years was enough to put me off for life. Or so I thought. But the One & Only assured me that these boutique beers are rather good, and the view across the reservoir was invitingly serene.

So, last weekend, I headed east with a girlfriend, ostensibly for a walk around the reservoir, but with the thought of trying out a beer or two as well. Unfortunately, the rain set in with a vengeance two hundred metres down the track and we had to bolt for cover. Decidedly damp, we cuddled up to a friendly Samoyed who was wandering through the restaurant like a congenial host. Hoppy or Kent, he never told us which, but was otherwise extremely polite, and more than happy to become acquainted and pose for photos.

As the rain shower retreated up the valley, we nibbled on a serve of salt and pepper chicken drumsticks, shared a morsel with Hoppy or Kent, and decided to order a tasting paddle to share. The small shot-sized glasses were the perfect size to introduce an unbeliever to some interesting beers.
In order of appearance, from light to dark, we were presented with a lager, a German style golden ale (Kolsch), a 12 Paws Pale Ale, an Indian Pale Ale and a Dark Ale, complete with tasting notes.

And in fact, it worked out well. We tried them all, but my friend loved the Mudlark Gold lager and the 12 Paws with its strong citrus and passionfruit flavours. I preferred the light Koln beer and, unexpectedly, the dark ale with a definite taste of mocha and Maltesers. The Indian Pale ale, with its strong pine and floral flavours, was not a favourite with either of us, but I’m sure others will delight in it.

As we emptied the bowl of chicken, it had started raining again – so much for our driest of dry states! Sadly, we decided to forego any attempt to walk around the reservoir for now, and headed home for a nap. Well, even a little beer in the middle of the day can make you sleepy…

*With thanks to Google images for the view of the dam.

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Scones & Cream & Camellias

The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup
this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion: is this not something we all aspire to?
~ Muriel Barbery

In the beginning, there was dense bush land, winter creeks, deep gullies, and gum trees galore; the traditional home of the Peramangk for thousands of years.

Then, in 1836, the Europeans began to land on the beach at Glenelg, and the Adelaide Hills soon became a popular destination for these new Australians. In the early days of settlement, ‘the Tiers’ – as the Adelaide Hills were first known – were rumoured to be the haunt of bushrangers, escaped convicts and runaway sailors – our very own Sherwood Forest. In reality, there were probably fewer criminals than legend tells. Most settlers in South Australia were proud of their convict-free heritage. More were fleeing religious persecution than the law.

Germans moved deep into the Mount Lofty ranges and established towns they named Tanunda, Hahndorf, and Lobethal, planting vines and building churches. The English stayed closer to the city, planting orchards and building railway stations in towns they called Stirling, Piccadilly, Norton Summit. Wealthy Adelaide residents built summer houses in the hills to escape the debilitating heat on the plains, much as the British in India were doing among the foothills of the Himalaya. (Although Mount Lofty, at little over 700 metres, has no hope of competing with Everest’s 8,848 metres in the highest mountain stakes.) Day trippers from the city packed picnic baskets and headed for the hills too, and it wasn’t long before these picnic parties were as popular as winery tours are now.

Today, it is a cool, blustery day in September, the sky intermittently weeping gentle tears, and I have driven into the hills without a picnic basket, but in anticipation of morning tea and a tour of the gardens at Stangate House.

Stangate House was built in 1940 in the heart of Aldgate village. Owned by the National Trust of South Australia, it is renowned as a premier camellia garden, designated in 2012 as an ‘International Camellia Garden of Excellence.’ The garden also contains one of Australia’s oldest and largest oak trees, believed to have been planted in the 1860s by Richard & Sarah Jane Hawkins, who had built the nearby Aldgate Pump, a pub still popular over 150 years later.

The land on which Stangate House was built was bought by Florence Emily Thomas, in 1892. Florence was the granddaughter of Robert Thomas, an ancestor of mine, too, as it turns out, who brought his family to South Australia on ‘The Africaine’ in 1836. Co-founder and proprietor of one of SA’s first newspapers, both his son William and his grandson, Sir Robert Kyffin Thomas would follow in his footsteps. In the meantime, his granddaughter erected a small wooden cottage on her four acres in the hills and presumably enjoyed the fresh air and cooler summers among the gum trees.

When Florence died, in 1922, she was able to leave the entire property to her own daughter, Florence Gwenyth Thomas, thanks to the introduction of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1883.

Florence Gwenyth Thomas travelled to England sometime after her mother’s death, where she married the Reverend Raymond Cornish on August 5th,1927 at Southwark. The newlyweds then moved to Stangate, on the southern side of Westminster Bridge, while the Reverend Cornish was chaplain at nearby St Thomas’s hospital.

The couple stayed on in London until the late 1930s. Then, with the threat of another war giving everyone goosebumps, they decided to return to Australia, to the property at Aldgate that Gwenyth Cornish had inherited from her mother. A house was designed for them by Adelaide architect, Eric H. McMichael, based on a model the Reverend Cornish had built in London. A simple, airy bungalow, it was constructed in double-quick time, and the couple moved into their new home in July, 1940. They named it for their first home together in London, SE1.

The Reverend Cornish had a sister, Elsie, who was already a distinguished landscape gardener in North Adelaide. Elsie Marion Cornish designed, among other familiar sites, the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden below Government House, now a focal point for the Adelaide Writer’s Festival in March.

Elsie and Gwenyth worked together to create the garden at Stangate House, heavily influenced by Getrude Jekyll, a British horticulturist, garden designer, writer, and artist.

Jekyll was a follower of the Arts and Crafts Movement, one half of an influential partnership with English architect Edwin Lutyens, for whose houses she created numerous gardens based on the Arts & Crafts principles of design, using hedges and herbaceous borders to divide the landscape into a series of outdoor ‘rooms.’

Stangate House also reflects the influence of the Arts & Crafts Movement, with its simple, spacious, well-proportioned rooms and wooden fittings. The movement had developed in Britain in the late nineteenth century as a protest against industrialised mass production and artifice. Its proponents challenged the finicky tastes of the Victorians, and sought to return to a simpler, more natural way of life. Turning to nature for inspiration, they espoused the value of quality craftsmanship and utility in design.

With its tiered lawns and hedges of Monterey Cyprus, winding paths and pretty bridges over the Aldgate Creek that runs through the property, the garden ‘rooms’ that the Cornish women created ensured that the garden was full of ‘colour and interest throughout the year.’ They chose many plants beloved for their autumnal russets and golds, created bright, colourful borders of azaleas, and planted masses of bluebells along the edge of the creek.

Gwenyth Cornish died, without issue, in 1971, having left her property to the National Trust. By that time, the garden was overgrown and unkempt. Together with the Adelaide Hills Camellia Society, National Trust volunteers cleared the garden beds, rebuilt walls and paths and planted hundreds of azaleas, rhododendrons and of course camellias, including many rare varieties with sumptuous names like Japonica, Reticulata, and Sasanqua. There is even one camellia dedicated to the house itself: the Stangate Ruby.

Now, I stand on the lawn below the house and gaze at a glorious bank of azaleas in a spectrum of pinks and oranges, red and white. Narrow paths wind between the camellia trees that have carpeted the ground with their luscious, deep pink flowers. It is a very English garden. In fact, it is a very English area, the property surrounded by streets reminiscent of the original Monopoly board: Edgeware, Euston, Fenchurch, plus a string of southern English counties. The lawns will soon be shaded by the many large, deciduous trees. This early in the season they are still skeletal, but they will no doubt look spectacular in autumn, particularly the liquidambar and the Japanese maples. In the meantime, the spring colours are out in full force, and the layered garden has something to catch the eye from every angle. It is hard to drag myself away from such splendour when we are summoned to the house for freshly baked scones, homemade plum jam and Stangate’s very own blend of camellia and lemon myrtle tea…

*With thanks to the National Trust for their notes on Stangate House and to the International Camellia Society for the photo of the Stangate Ruby.

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Pad Thai, Penang & a Proton Wira

Last night, I dined with our lovely new friends next door, who served up a fabulous Phad Thai and an equally delicious pear crumble. This was accompanied by hours of armchair travel, as we reminisced about various trips to Asia. Thailand, of course, after the inspirational Pad Thai, but later, we settled into memories of Malaysia, which has been an annual pilgrimage for our neighbours since they discovered the delights of Penang.

We also visited Penang, decades back, while we were living in Kuala Lumpur. I wasn’t writing much back then. Two small kids and a new baby didn’t leave a lot of time for creativity and self-expression. Even my journal was on hiatus. Fortunately for my failing memory, however, I did pen the odd article for a local expatriate magazine, which I recently rediscovered in a box in the garage. Lo and behold, there was my piece about New Year in Penang back in the 1990s, to jog my memory.

So, let’s begin by turning the clock back twenty-something years…

We had made a spontaneous decision to get out of town, in the sweltering aftermath of a tropical Christmas. Packing our compact Proton Wira with a handful of toddlers and an absolute mountain of bags, we set off on Boxing Day. Due to heavy traffic, it took us an hour to reach the toll gate on the outskirts of the city – usually a quick, fifteen-minute trip. Sadly, this set the tone for the day’s travel. Someone had informed me blithely that it was a breezy four-hour drive to Penang. They obviously did it without a car full of querulous kids. Before we’d even reached that toll gate, one tiny toddler was creating a storm on the back seat. Whether it was car sickness or simply the indignity of being roped into his car seat, we were never sure, but he wasn’t happy. Several pit stops later, tears, tantrums and a hefty migraine for mum, we made it to Penang. It had taken a gruelling seven hours. At last, we drove over the Penang Strait on the Penang Bridge, which was the longest bridge in Southeast Asia at the time, spanning some 13 kilometres.

Ditching our best intentions for a cheap holiday at the beach (also the reason we didn’t fly, our first error of judgement), we went in search of a hotel with air conditioning, a hot shower, a bar fridge and a kids club. This wasn’t the best time to be making such demands, as it turned out. While the One & Only was more than willing to indulge my own minor tantrum, the hotels were less so. Even a basic beach shack without air con, running water, or a loo that flushed proved difficult to find at the last minute in the Christmas season. Quelle surprise!

Eventually, we found a room at the inn – the Holiday Inn at Batu Ferringhi – for which they will forever have my blessings. Revived by a respite from the oppressive heat in our airy, air-conditioned room, I threw back a couple of Panadol, and we set out to explore the neighbourhood with considerably more equanimity than we had felt half an hour before.

(Wonderful haven though it has proved for many a traveller over the past four decades, I was sad to see that, thanks to Covid 19, it is one hotel in a long list of closures in Penang that has been growing by the week. )

George Town, on Pulau Penang (Penang island) was the first British settlements in Malaysia, established by the British East India Company in 1786. Today, the capital of Penang State is the second largest city in Malaysia and the economic centre of the country’s northern region. Founded as a free port, George Town was a British crown colony until World War II, when it was occupied by the Japanese. Liberated at the end of the war, Penang then merged into the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia) and finally gained independence from the British Empire in 1957. Today, the city, well known for its cultural diversity, colonial-era architecture and exotic street food, is a booming tourist destination.

In the 1990s, George Town was already a popular holiday destination with the Malays, and local politicians were also trying to develop it as a modern business centre,. Unfortunately, it was forced to take a back seat to the rapidly expanding capital of Kuala Lumpur. Traffic congestion on the island was getting worse by the day, and the city was filthy.

By the beginning of 2000, George Town had become incredibly run down, and considerable damage from the tsunami in 2004 caused this historic little town to hit rock bottom. Beaten down and neglected, a media campaign was instigated by the Malaysian press to restore the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ to its former glory. And a miracle began to happen.

By 2008, a large section of the old city had become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, characterized by old Chinese shop houses, many of which have been converted into boutique hotels, bars and restaurants. (I am told that the best way to discover the old town these days is to take a tri-shaw ride through the intriguing laneways of the old town, checking out the street art along the way. It can be a somewhat hair-raising experience, my neighbours tell me, but the driver will assure you that the tri-shaw is “King of the Road” as he blithely swings out in front of speeding cars!)

Efforts to improve George Town’s status went on apace. Pedestrianisation, improved sanitation and public transportation meant that by 2010, George Town was ranked the eighth most liveable city in Asia by ECA International. Business and tourism have boomed, and high rises have shot up all along the coast. The skyline has changed utterly from the one I remember almost twenty-five years ago, but the city is now thriving, and – according to my neighbours – a fantastic place for a holiday, who provided a lot of good stories and travel tips over dinner.

For some cultural input, they highly recommended a visit to Khoo Kongsi, one of Penang’s most lavishly decorated clan houses, where Chinese families would gather to worship their ancestors. This one was built about 650 years ago, part of the five clans that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in pre-colonial Penang. And food? Well, apparently, options are limitless. Pick any cuisine and you can probably find it in the alleyways of George Town. But for an authentic, hawker-style experience, I was advised to eat at the Red Garden Food Court – it’s great fun and inexpensive. And whatever you pick, make sure you try the char kway teow at least once. This Hokkien dish of stir-fried flat rice noodles with prawn or chicken is popular across Maritime SE Asia and has virtually become the national dish of Malaysia.

In 1996, the city was not as polished as it is today. In fact, the streets were rather grubby, the beach unkempt and uninviting. Yet the cultural diversity was fascinating and night markets and hawker stalls abounded all over town as they do now. There was a snake temple, lush botanic gardens and a butterfly farm. (Today, the old butterfly farm has had a makeover and ‘Entopia’ is situated in a huge glass conservatory where you can see thousands of free-flying butterflies in a beautiful tropical garden setting.) We walked through the hills and discovered pretty, plashing waterfalls. The fishing villages were poor and simple, but alluring. The view from our hotel window was of mountains densely clad in jungle and an azure sky filled with birds.

Our first dinner in Penang, after our horror drive from KL, was a joy. We found a large seafood restaurant on the beach front, with a table sitting inches from the sand. Our meal was simple, fresh and tasty, our diminutive ‘Oompa Loompas’ catered for beautifully, as we watched the sun set over a calm, quiet sea. No tsunamis that evening, thank heaven! Bare feet and sarongs was the unwritten dress code, and the Oompa Loompas could climb through the railing and play on the beach the second they had finished eating.

Later in the week, we drove to a fishing village, Teluk Bahang, at the far end of the beach road. Beside a long and rickety wooden jetty, we discovered the aptly named ‘’The End of the World restaurant.” Here we were welcomed by two barefooted lads and their pet monkey, and ushered to a plastic table overlooking the water. The fish came straight out of the sea – well, straight off the fishing boats tied to the jetty – and once the sun set, and the filthy cove was covered in shadows, it was all rather romantic. The rest of the week, we relaxed by the pool while the kids joined their new friends at the Kids Klub, and all of us were blissfully happy.

So, despite an inauspicious start, our week in Penang was fun and incredibly relaxing. But, as I concluded then, we would indubitably fly the next time. (I was hoarse by the time we got home, after six hours of non-stop singing en route to keep the children entertained.) I also decided that it was time to put the $5-a-day backpacking myth to rest and accept that – for the time being at least – 2.5 kids equalled an air-conditioned hotel, running water and a mini-bar!

*With thanks to the Robertsons for sharing their up-to-date travel tips and their lovely photos of Penang. Not to mention an amazing Pad Thai and an inimitable pear crumble!

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