Heading North

This time last year I was in London, in a city full of covid free people and lush green parks, strolling through Borough Market on a bright summer’s day. Today I am in Burra, South Australia. I am surrounded by lush green paddocks, and thank goodness it’s still a covid free town. Unfortunately, it is mid winter, damp and chilly, and the rain has been shrouding the bare hills in a mizzling mist for the past twenty-four hours. Last night, we huddled around a roaring fire in a tiny, nineteenth century cottage with slate floors and short doors. And as soon as I have dropped the men off at World’s End to walk the Heysen Trail, I am heading back to that fire, my Ugg boots and a large mug of tea.

These days, Burra is a quiet country town with a population of nine hundred, tucked among the Bald Hills to the east of the Clare Valley. Once upon a time, when the South Australian capital of Adelaide had a population of only seven thousand, this sleepy backwater was a thriving metropolis of five thousand inhabitants.

As the crow flies, Burra lies 143 km north of Adelaide, and on the new northern expressway, it is an effortless, two-hour drive. In 1845, it was a long, hot journey on foot, or plodding along in a bullock dray. A handful of enterprising pastoralists had already found their way here and planted a few sheep, but the Burra may never have been more than a remote farming region, if it hadn’t been for a couple of local shepherds who, one auspicious afternoon, found some copper in the surrounding hills.

Thus, barely a decade after South Australia was established as a new, convict free colony, ‘coppermania’ kicked in and – for a brief moment – Burra gained fame and fortune and became the largest inland settlement in Australia. the proceeds of the renowned ‘Monster Mine’ supporting the new colony through years of near bankruptcy.

Miners thronged to the area from Germany, Cornwall, Scotland and Wales. In the beginning, the copper ore was shipped to Wales for smelting, but by 1849, Welsh smelters had arrived to do the job locally and were burning 600 of firewood a week to run the furnaces and extract the base metal from the ore.

Although it’s stardom lasted barely three decades, Burra is still teeming with signs of its brief but successful mining venture. Armed with a map and a key, you can discover the last remaining dugout homes the early miners created in the riverbank, and the tiny, row cottages that were eventually built when disease and floods drove the miners and their families from their hobbit holes, the prison where many found temporary housing and the tunnels below the old brewery. Tall chimneys rise above the town, created as an outlet for the boilers in the engine houses along the rim of the open cut mine. One can be seen clearly on Market Road, topped with a cut out of Johnny Green, the miners mascot.

There is a mining museum at the Bon Accord mine site, a second mine that never quite got off the ground. A third mine also failed to live up to the expectations of its owners at Princess Royal Station, nine miles south of Burra. In the meantime, however, the mine belonging to the South Australian Mining Corporation was thriving. Half a dozen villages sprang up around the mines, including the company town of Kooringa. The railway arrived from Adelaide in 1870, and at the height of its success, there were nine watering holes in the area, all served by the Unicorn Brewery on Bridge Terrace. Today, only three pubs are still operating, and the villages of Kooringa, Redruth, Hampton, Aberdeen and something Welsh without any vowels have been absorbed into one: Burra, claiming its name from the Burra Burra Copper Mine and the Burra Burra Creek that flows through the town.

The origin of this name is lost in legend. Was it a derivation of an original ‘Burrow Creek?’ Or the indigenous word for creek bestowed on it by the local Ngadjuri people? Or perhaps it came from the Hindustani word for ‘big’ or ‘great’ used by the Indians shepherds of an early pastoralist? Whatever the etymology, it’s a pretty, atmospheric little town. When the miners began to leave the town in the 1870s, the mining association demolished many houses, so that today the town seems widely scattered and the streetscape can look like a gap-toothed six-year-old in places. But there are still plenty of homes built of local stone and surrounded by sprawling gardens, that have survived to beautify the town.

But enough of the history class. As you can see, it stopped raining long enough for me to get out and explore the town. I even had some company, when a girlfriend arrived with her husband, who was eager to join my boys on their expedition into the outback. So, while they trudged over the hills and far away, we followed the heritage tour and visited an art gallery in the old Telegraph Station, with a fascinating exhibit about Barbara Hanrahan, an Adelaide author and artist I had studied at university long ago, who had once dated a local and left him a collection of her prints.

We met lots of friendly locals on our travels: at the art gallery, the information centre, the museums and the coffee shops. Everyone seemed happy to welcome us and found time for a chat, a history lesson or a tall tale of ghosts and gremlins. When hunger struck, we wandered into ‘Good Golly Miss Polly,’ a quaint and quirky tearoom with a colourful collection of old saucers mounted on green walls below a corrugated iron ceiling painted a deep raspberry pink. Stepping back in time, we sat by the potbellied stove and drank copious amounts of exceptionally good coffee – a secret recipe I could not wheedle from the staff – and discovered a top-notch pie floater on the menu. For the uninitiated, this is a South Australian icon: fresh pea soup with a steak pie island in the centre, garnished in tomato sauce and parsley, which proved to be the perfect lunch for a cold winter’s day. Unless, of course, you felt more like a ‘tiddy oggy’ – a novel Cornish pasty with savoury meat and vegetables at one end, and stewed apple at the other – or a tureen of delicious pumpkin soup, flavoured with coconut milk and a dash of fresh ginger. For afternoon tea, or dessert, there were sumptuous scones and cream, or wondrous homemade cakes. I don’t often succumb to cake, but the kumquat and citrus cake with a thin layer of cream cheese icing was quite divine: moist, light and lemony.

Midnight Oil House

On my last day in town, the sun finally broke through the clouds and the sky was a bright, clear blue. I did a final lap of the town centre before strolling back across the creek to our cosy little cottage, where low doorways had caused a few bumps and bruises, but there were no disruptive ghosts, and we were warm and toasty beneath the pink patchwork quilts. Hard to imagine that this world of green pastures and muddy red roads will become a dry, turmeric-coloured dust bowl in summer…

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Kathmandu

In April 1990, I flew from Sydney to Nepal, via Delhi, intending to meet the One & Only after his trek to Everest Base Camp. I had left my mother in hospital, heavily sedated after an emergency operation, and was heading to Kathmandu where there had recently been a coup – that turned out to be the end of absolute monarchy. Should I turn back to check on my mother? Or should I plough on, not knowing whether or not I would be allowed into Nepal? Back in the days before mobile phones, there was no way of informing the One & Only that I might be stuck in India. Anxiety levels were rising like a tidal wave…

I landed in Kathmandu, grinning with euphoric relief after a thoroughly harrowing night in Delhi, unsure – until the very last moment – whether I would be able to board the plane to Nepal. Luckily, I had met two lovely blokes from Brisbane who were great moral support, and excellent body guards  for fending off the unwanted attentions of the hotel manager at the airport hotel. Once safely in Nepal with the One & Only – ‘my own private guide and font of all wisdom’ – I breathed a sigh of relief. All was well. At least for as long as I was free of the dreaded ‘giardia’ (Giardiasis spreads through contaminated food or water or by person-to-person contact. It’s most common in areas with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water and leads to diarrhoea and dreadful wind.)

We dined that night with a few of the guys who had also been to Base Camp: sizzling steaks and coca cola spiked with Jim Beam under the table. Exhaustion and alcohol fuelled laughter to the point of hysteria before I was packed off to bed at our hotel around the corner.

We gorged on a late breakfast –light and fluffy omelettes crammed with mushrooms and cheese, hot lemon with honey to drink – at a roof top café, before I could be properly introduced to Kathmandu. Happily fed and watered, we set off on a five-hour trek through the city, dodging bicycles, cows, rickshaws, and constant offers of tours, carpets, jewellery and hash.  The streets were narrow and dusty, and packed with people. The noise was immense, and the air grew increasingly thick and malodorous as the day got hotter. Many Nepali men had adopted modern western clothing, while the women still wore traditional Nepalese garb. (The kurta suruwal consists of loose, cotton trousers in bright colours, a short sleeved, knee-length, patterned blouse, a large scarf draped over the shoulders.)

To a girl from a first world country, the inequality and level of poverty was appalling, with hygiene and sanitation a non-existent priority. (Nepal is still the poorest country in south Asia). Apparently, 50% of new-born babies died within six months. The GDP depended heavily on the remittances of Nepali workers overseas.

Two beaming young boys were keen to earn a rupee each (worth about five cents back then) to show us the sights, swinging off our arms and wrapping themselves around our legs to get our attention. They followed us all the way across town to the Hindu temple, before peeling off to find new customers. We couldn’t go inside the temple, but we found a spot by the river to rest our weary feet, and watched the world go by: a local holy man doing tricks for the tourists that included swinging a boulder from his penis; acrobatic monkeys leaping across rooftops and swinging through the trees along the river bank; women washing clothes in the river, their children paddling around them; wrinkled and weather worn ancients sporting broad, gummy grins whenever they caught our eyes.

We also found the Buddhist Temple, Bouddanath, and although we weren’t allowed inside here either, we were able to climb up the outside for a fabulous view across the city to the mountains.

By the end of the day, I was thoroughly sunburnt and in need of a cold shower. My hips felt as if they had been wrenched sideways and my feet were blistered. But they still managed to get me to dinner for a delectable bowl of minestrone and a questionable carbonara made with dried bacon.  Accompanied by a mad new friend, we went in search of ice cream, while ‘Dr Fog’ tormented the locals, requesting several kilos of hash or a kilo of tiger balm. And ‘why hire a rickshaw? Let’s buy it!’ He left in his wake a bewildered array of Nepali gentlemen, unused to tourists who turned the tables on them so ridiculously. We raced home in two rickshaws, and were easily beaten by Dr Fog, who was seated on the roof of his rickshaw, berating his eager cabby, while our poor driver, considerably older and dealt a much heavier load, struggled to keep up.

After our first night in the ruinously expensive Kathmandu Guest House (AUD $25 a night!!) we moved next door to the Pheasant Farm. For AUD $3.50 we had a ‘stable’ with a straw mattress and shared bathrooms where the toilets didn’t flush, and the drains in the showers were blocked. I suddenly understood why wedge heeled flip flops were available at every roadside stall.

The next day we meandered into a different part of town, where the youth were marching beneath a communist flag and I did my first bit of successful bartering for a pair of green ‘happy pants.’ Wandering off the beaten track, we found a fabric market where the locals shop, and another full of sacks of colourful spices. We crossed a bridge to see children, pigs and a dead cow in the river below. We passed beggars and Buddhist monks, fruit sellers and women returning home from the river with large bundles of clean washing on their heads. We clambered up crumbling steps, dodging piles of refuse. Near the temple, monkeys ran amok, using the city roofs, window ledges and staircases as a giant playground.

Day five saw us heading across town in a rickshaw with a deafening lawn mower engine, bounding furiously over bumps and skidding on newly laid gravel, avoiding calamity after catastrophe by the skin of our teeth. Reaching the outskirts of town, we were squeezed, cheek by jowl, into a windowless bus which careened along narrow, winding roads and around mountains for four hours. Everywhere, the women chatted and smiled while they laboured in the fields with scythes, carried enormous loads on their backs, mended roads, clambered up steep mountainsides collecting wood, and fed their babies. Meanwhile, the older children played under the village pump, or squatted by the side of the road throwing knucklebones, staring and waving as the bus passed by in a cloud of dust. Men sat on the roof, smoking and arguing, cleaning their teeth, watching the horizon. Others were down by the road, chewing gum and selling oranges, poppadums, samosas.  Rusty trucks were filled with rocks, kids, scrap iron, bedecked in tinsel and belching black smoke, tooted like maniacs. Cows and goats wandered forlornly across the road. Emaciated chickens pecked at the dust that flew behind us and settled on my clothes, up my nose, in my hair. Layer upon layer of tiered fields crept up the sides of the mountains.

We finally arrived in a tiny village where dinghies were lined up along the edge of the river. Falling from the bus, we huddled in a grubby heap and waited wearily for someone to tell us what to do next. Eventually our guides arrived to feed us lunch and pour us into the waiting boats. Within minutes we were shooting the rapids with consummate skill, born navigators of this perilous river, getting joyfully drenched, with shrieks and laughter, as we flew around boulders and dropped several feet into white water, then floated gently through stretches of deep green, calm, water before pulling into our campsite three hours downstream. Here, dinner was waiting, not to mention several bottles of some incredibly rough local brew that was set to inspire tomorrow’s hangover…

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A Sweet Escape

While current news reports still place covid at the top of the list, in South Australia we have been – dare I say it? – corona free for many weeks. Although we are currently keeping the Victorians at bay, visitors arriving from Queensland, the Northern Territory, Tasmania or Western Australia are even permitted to enter South Australia without having to self-quarantine. Travel within the state is now largely unrestricted, and we are being actively encouraged to explore South Australia as a good way to support our regional communities.

So, life is gradually returning to normal. All the warning signs are still in place, but aged care facilities have cautiously re-opened their doors to visitors. Social distancing is still recommended, but among close friends and family members it seems to be a matter for personal discretion. Restrictions to restaurants and cafes have been lifted since early June and while individual establishments might choose to remain closed for the time being, many are back in action, and will even serve alcohol to their guests.
So, with the blessings of the State Commissioner, we took advantage of the lifting curfew and made a short trip to Kangaroo Island.

Kangaroo Island is a large, rocky island that hangs off the toe of the Fleurieu Peninsula almost, but not quite like an Aussie Rules football.
Rising sea levels separated it from the mainland thousands of years ago. It became known to the indigenous people on the mainland as Karta, Island of the Dead. Stone tools and shell middens suggest that Aboriginal people once lived here too, but early European settlers found no sign of recent habitation.

Kangaroo Island was mapped by Baudin and Flinders at the beginning of the 19th century – note the plethora of French names along the south coast to guess who took which route – and it quickly became a popular base for European sealers and whalers. By 1836, Kangaroo Island had been incorporated into the British colony of South Australia.

Although Australia’s third largest island, K.I. – as it is commonly known – has a population of less than 5,000, scattered through farmland and four small towns: Kingscote, Penneshaw, Parndana and American River. One hundred and forty five kilometres long, from Cape Willoughby in the east to Vennachar Point at the western end, it covers an area of 4,405 km2. About 50% of the island was gutted by bushfires earlier this year, most of that area within the Flinders Chase National Park. Forty million animals are estimated to have perished in the fires, including thousands of sheep and half the island’s population of koalas. Yet, a wet winter is already beginning to restore at least some semblance of green.

We stayed in Penneshaw, on the Dudley Peninsula, where it’s only a hop, skip and a forty-minute ferry from Cape Jervis, the closest mainland town to the island. From our prime position above Hog Bay, it is hard to believe that so much of the island has been largely denuded of wildlife, its foliage razed to the ground, when all around us, the hills are green and lush, dotted with wallabies, winter lambs, calves, and, believe it or not, a huge flock of black swans we discovered sharing a paddock with a lake and a hundred ewes and their small, eager offspring.

We followed the Chapman River to the sea, where we hardly saw another footprint on the long stretch of pristine sand at Antechamber Bay. (In warmer weather, this is a glorious place to camp, with options to swim in the sea or kayak down the river.)

Wandering up to the Penneshaw pub one blustery night for dinner, we disturbed a handful of small tamar wallabies, who had gathered on the lawns near the ferry port. Instead of bounding away, they stood as still as statues as we walked past, like small children who believe we won’t see them if they just close their eyes.

Down at American River for lunch, we spot buxom pelicans balancing precariously on the tall lights beside the marina, while a pair of seals showed off their synchronized swimming routine beside the fishing boats. Penguins at Penneshaw may now be legend, but not so long ago, after a day’s fishing, they marched in single file from the sea, up the beach, past the shacks on the sandhills to their nests high in the dunes, and apparently there are still a few small colonies around the island. And of course, most famously, those roly-poly, sleek and glossy seals clutter their eponymous beach on the southern coast. There is a company that runs boat tours from Christmas Cove, but we will save that for a week of warmer weather, when swimming with the seals and dolphins won’t cause frostbite.

Sadly, our week on KI was punctuated with numerous heavy showers, battering on the tin roof and forcing us to don raincoats whenever we left the house. Yet we still managed to squeeze in a few adventures between storms. And when the sun set, we snuggled up by a wood fire, cooked simple dinners, enjoyed the local wine and watched the rain sweep over the sea.

In retrospect, we managed a lot, despite the temperamental weather. We visited friends in Emu Bay, Penneshaw and Kingscote. We walked out on the cliffs at Cape Willoughby, where the surf is abandoned and ebullient as it boils around the rocks at the foot of the lighthouse. We climbed up Prospect Hill, once known rather poetically as Mount Thisby, although little more than a giant sand hill. Everest it may not be, but there is still a certain satisfaction in climbing the four hundred odd steps to the top, where we had a marvellous panoramic view over Pelican Lagoon and Pennington Bay, before the clouds rolled in again.

Then there was the False Cape Winery, a joyful discovery on a remote dirt road in the south east corner of the island. Named after a nearby coastal landmark, False Cape vineyard was established in 1999 on the banks of the Willson River, which apparently provides an ideal combination of soil, sun and limestone for producing top quality fruit.

The cellar door is a new addition to the vineyard and it is a gloriously tactile blend of textures and light: huge glass bifold doors; recycled wood and jetty timbers; locally made red bricks with a kangaroo imprint, and rough limestone sourced from the property. And lots of corrugated iron. Sitting on a slight rise, the views from the stone terrace take in the vines, the river, and the impressive stands of gum trees – and were just as fabulous from the leather sofa beside the fire inside. Speaking with owner Julie Helyar, while we sipped our wine, I told her that I would very happily live in this beautiful space. She admitted that she could too; that it is in much better shape than the old stone cottage they live in across the road. The Helyar’s wine maker – and Julie’s brother – is Greg Follett of Lake Breeze Wines at Langhorne Creek. Julie & Jamie’s son Coby is also getting in on the act, as he studies viticulture and wine making. The family work hard at sustainability, and the whole farm runs on solar power. Apparently, there is even a rafter of turkeys roaming through the vines to keep pests under control, although unfortunately we didn’t meet any.

Meanwhile, I tried a flight of four wines. (On an empty stomach, just before lunch, that was enough, though not all they had to offer.) Montebello is a bright, summery, pinot grigio with a hint of limestone, rose petals and crispy pear that only needed some grilled whiting to improve the lingering finish. (The Montebello was a three masted steel barque that came a cropper on the south coast in 1906.) The False Cape Chardonnay – ‘The Captain’ after Matthew Flinders – is brimming with tropical fruit and a subtle hint of oak. The ‘Unknown Sailor’ is a Bordeaux blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot, and a tribute to the men who braved the rough South Australian seas. My favourite was the ‘Ship’s Graveyard’ Shiraz, its name a nod to the rugged coastline that has claimed so many ships over the past 200 years.

So, all in all, it was not a bad week! We took home several bottles of False Cape Wines, a sample of island honey and a souvenir from the KIS distillery: a bottle of Wild Gin that had come highly recommended by friends in the know. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the delicious seafood chowder I could have eaten every night at the Penneshaw Pub, rich, spicy and chock-a-block with fish and shellfish. We might not have got the heavenly views over Backstairs Passage that stormy evening, but the soup was divine. Perfect for a chilly, and decidedly damp winter night on a windblown island in the Southern Ocean.

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‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’

While the beaches in England are chock-a-block with holiday makers – for let’s face it who can believe in the myth of a killer virus on a toasty summer day? – here in the southern hemisphere, winter has set in. The nights are bitingly cold, the warm, morning sun melting the light frost on the lawn. During the day, skies are a crisp, clear blue. It’s perfect walking weather.

Although currently confined to South Australia, we are talking about a state that is larger than many European countries. And where we have set up home, just south of the state capital, we have found a haven from the covid storm. Largely rural, we look out on mile upon mile of rolling green hills dappled with eucalypts, cows and kangaroos. New born lambs, calves and kids are running amok in the paddocks. The galahs and corellas shriek through the trees in deafening chorus. One morning, I drove beside a convoy of kangaroos bounding in single file across the hillside like animated Qantas logos. Alpacas, with their giraffe-like necks wrapped in woolly scarves, watch the traffic passing with a gimlet eye. I have even spotted ‘hosts of golden daffodils’ getting a head start on spring. It is a naturalist’s delight. And it is wonderful territory for walking.

The Fleurieu Peninsula is the smallest of the three peninsulas that dive into the Southern Ocean from the southern rim of South Australia. There are no cities, one major town and a handful of tiny country towns which, in England, would be called villages. The coastline is rugged, and the sea is icy cold, though the dolphins don’t seem to mind. The beaches are strewn with mounds of seaweed sequined with soft, circular sponges and the creeks are gurgling merrily over the rocks after all the recent rains. At Cape Jervis – the jumping off point to Kangaroo Island – the Heysen Trail begins, zigzagging north-east along the coast then up through the native bush, pines and vines of the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Barossa and the Clare Valley, before plunging deep into the Flinders Ranges.

First mooted in 1947, the inaugural segment of the trail was opened in 1976, within the Cleland Conservation Park. One Mr. Terry Lavender, with the support of many local councils, landowners and a mob of volunteers, led the charge to construct the Aussie equivalent of the Pennine Way. It took sixteen years to complete, and would eventually earn this keen bushwalker a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM)  “For service to the community through the development of walking trails, particularly the Heysen Trail.” Yet it was not christened the Lavender Trail, but was instead named in honour of a prolific and much loved local painter, Hans Heysen, who is internationally renowned for his watercolours of gum trees, the Australian bush and our often stark, South Australian landscapes. Today, the Heysen Trail is a world class walking track of 1,200 kilometres that runs in a long, wobbly line from the tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula to Parachilna Gorge.

 The One & Only has recently set himself the task of walking the entire route. Not in one fell swoop, I hasten to add – that would be a hefty two month trudge laden with kilos of camping gear – but in bite sized pieces, so that I can act as his Sherpa, dropping him off in the morning and picking him up 20-25kms down the track at the end of the day. So far, he has completed some two hundred kilometers. It may not have made a huge dent in the map, but, nonetheless, it’s earned him a few blisters and a good suntan! And while he has soaked up the scenery on foot, my taxi service has given me ample opportunity to explore the highways and byways  of this prodigious landscape we now call home – with special thanks to my zealous satnav ‘Daphne’ who likes nothing better than to lose me in a tangle of dirt roads, gnarly fire tracks and non-existent trails.

I have also got a buzz out of exploring a little of the region’s history.

For thousands of years before the Europeans found their way to Botany Bay and beyond, this region was inhabited by three aboriginal tribes: Kaurna, Peramangak and Ramindjeri. Some of their place names are still in use today, albeit corrupted by us non-native speakers. Allowing for a little poetic license, then, those lovely Kaurna names – Yankalilla, Kangarilla, and Tunkalilla, Aldinga, Myponga and Onkaparinga – still dance lightly across the tip of your tongue.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a French explorer and cartographer was sent halfway round the globe, with a remit from Napoleon himself, to fill in the considerable gaps on the outline of Australia. Nicholas Baudin had spent much of his naval career on ships that became prey to pirates or storms, or both. In October 1800, he left Le Havre leading a convoy of two sailing ships – Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste – and headed for Australia, or New Holland, as it was then known. Both ships were packed with zoologists and botanists. Both arrived safely, many weeks later, on the north west coast of Australia. From the top end, they sailed south, then east around the Great Australian Bight, mapping the coastline as they went and collecting vast samples of unfamiliar native flora.

A year later, in a bay just shy of the River Murray mouth, Baudin bumped into British cartographer and explorer, Matthew Flinders, who was on a similar mission. They compared notes and concluded that they had found one single southern continent of vast proportions.  They named the spot where they had met Encounter Bay, exchanged emails and headed off in opposite directions.

While Flinders’ designations have largely remained intact, most of Baudin’s were erased from the official map of South Australia. All that is left today is a smattering of French names along the south coast of Kangaroo Island, and the Fleurieu Peninsula, the only French name to survive on mainland South Australia, a peninsula which Baudin christened in honour of his mentor, another French explorer, Charles Pierre Claret, Comte de Fleurieu.

So here I sit, in a converted milking shed, waiting for the One & Only to finish today’s adventure. Sooner or later, he will have to don a larger rucksack and weather a few nights camping, as the distances between home and his starting point begin to stretch beyond my driving range, but so far the track has passed close enough to home to make collection points easy. This weekend we have made it a joint adventure though, and I have found a cosy B&B in the hills, a stone’s throw from wineries and the Willunga Farmers Market, where I was able to acquire the ingredients for dinner. So, tonight we will be having a platter of local cheeses and a water buffalo cecina from Myponga, fillets of trout from Beachport sautéed in local olive oil and served with fresh, locally grown salad, and a pear and almond flan for dessert, all accompanied by a Clare Valley Riesling. It’s a tough life!

*With thanks to the One & Only for letting me ~ yet again ~ use his amazing photos for my blog.

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Once Upon a Time in Fiji

Earlier this year there was a plan afoot to join a friend in Fiji for a significant birthday in June. Then life got in the way: hunting for a new home; moving in; Covid 19 – and like so many people, our chance to travel anywhere flew out the window. We were sad to miss the party, but also sad to miss the chance to revisit Fiji. Luckily, I still have clear memories of that glorious month back in the early 1990s…

Fiji. A crumbling biscuit in the middle of the Pacific. I had spent several years listening to the One & Only waxing lyrical about its warm and hospitable people, its beautiful beaches and azure seas, its palm trees and tropical forests. He had first travelled there as a fourteen-year-old Boy Scout, returning again and again through the eighties, as Fiji’s quaking political structure caused coup after coup and cheap flights for the brave. Fed up with his on-going, long-distance love affair, I finally persuaded him to introduce me.

In the summer of 1993, heading back to Australia after three years in Europe, we landed in Suva armed with a two-man tent, a five-month-old baby and a pocket full of coins, which was all that remained of our savings. We had no plan, but plenty of time: a full month to dwell in Paradise. I had never been to the tropics and had only met humidity in the tropical conservatory at the Botanic Gardens in dry-as-a-bone Adelaide. Fiji was another world.

We spent three days recovering from jetlag in a quiet little guest house swathed in hibiscus. Then, a garrulous taxi driver offered to show us the perfect place to stay, and drove us eagerly over bumpy roads, to the north coast of Viti Levu. Pointing across the water, he introduced us to a tiny, family owned island, where there was a youth hostel, and simple, but tasty meals provided by the host family.

Nananu-i-ra sits about two miles out to sea, a short motorboat ride from Raki Raki. It is a pocket-sized island shaped like a wishbone. I don’t know if it has developed since, but twenty-seven years ago, the island was still largely wooded, with neither roads nor villages, just a small clutch of dwellings around the bay. We pitched our tent on a slope between the beach and the youth hostel. Every day we played on the beach, dipping our daughter in the warm sea. Every evening, we wandered down the hill to Charlie’s Place, where Charlie’s lovely wife, Louise, would serve up fish, straight from the sea, cooked in fresh coconut milk. Eager hands would gather up the baby and take her visiting, so we could enjoy our meal. Afterwards, we would sit for hours, chatting with fellow travellers and drinking vast mugs of incredibly sweet coffee. Our small, sociable daughter seemed perfectly happy to be carried off by her new friends, who were obviously far more entertaining than her parents would ever be.

And so, the days passed. Now and again we would summon up the energy to put the baby in her papoose and clamber through the mangroves to scalloped coves of white sand, but most of the time we were happy to hang off the wooden jetty above the reef and search for fish in water so clear and still we could spot them without goggles. When we got too hot, we would simply stagger into the sea. After three months on the road, it was a magical respite from continuous movement and a demanding schedule. The days drifted by languorously. We were operating, blissfully, on Fiji Time. The baby grew round and honey-coloured and continued to beam adoringly at everyone. We couldn’t think of one good reason to leave. We had plenty of new friends at the hostel and our hosts were kind, welcoming and generous to a fault. We met up with a handful of western families who had built simple homes at the southern tip of the island, the children taking a motorboat to the mainland school. We dreamed, like them, of staying there forever…

The idyll shattered when the first summer typhoon hit the island with the viciousness of a schoolyard bully. Our fragile tentpoles were torn asunder and I nearly broke a toe, leaping tree stumps to reach our baby girl, shrieking from beneath a mound of collapsed canvas. Suddenly, urgently in need of a roof, we were offered refuge in the bunkroom of a German expatriate further down the beach, a dry sanctuary from the stormy skies and driving rain, for which we were immensely grateful.

Between the daily deluges, we continued to gather around the outdoor dining table of our hosts. As we made plans to travel on in search of new tent poles, we heard that another Australian family had arrived on the island to spend a week or so at their holiday house. Apparently, they planned to host a lovo – a Fijian beach barbecue – to celebrate the twenty first birthday of one of Charlie’s sons. Like all good fairy tales, everyone on the island was invited.

Two days later, we sat on the balcony, watching the young men construct the lovo on the beach below us.  First, they dug a broad, shallow pit in the sand, which they filled with large rocks. Then they built a fire over the rocks. When the fire had died down to coals, they placed the food (chicken, fish, vegetables wrapped in tin foil or banana leaves) on top of the hot coals and covered everything with palm leaves and sand. Some time later, the food parcels are dug out and shared around. Amazing!

Our hosts, a couple from Sydney and their elderly aunts, were delighted to take turns with the baby, and she was equally happy to be handed around like a bowl of guacamole. While the barbecue sent forth sumptuous aromas, we watched the sun go down over the sea, and chatted with our hosts, who had welcomed us in like long lost family.  As it turned out, in one of those strange coincidences that so often occur when travelling, we really were related. Sort of. As the evening progressed and stories were shared, we discovered our hosts were the aunt and uncle of my second cousin. We were now more than honorary family, and as such, we were invited to spend our last days in their beautiful beach house. It was a fairytale ending to a glorious fortnight. One of these days, I hope, we will find our way back…

*With thanks to Google images for the photo, as all mine were old, wrinkled and full of babies – well, one baby in particular!

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Foraging for Mushrooms

Caterpillar: … One side will make you grow taller…
Alice: One side of what?
Caterpillar: …and the other side will make you grow shorter.
Alice: The other side of what?
Caterpillar: The mushroom, of course!
~Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Autumn in the northern hemisphere involves a wealth of deciduous foliage that turns orange, gold, rust or russet before falling to the ground. Within weeks, the trees are bare and the earth has been denuded of all colour bar grey. In the southern hemisphere, as blossom peaks forth in Europe, it is autumn now. European trees add glorious colour to the landscape in the Adelaide hills, but here by the sea, the trees are mostly natives, and the foliage is largely khaki. Any colour comes from the flowering shrubs: a flash of lemon yellow mimosa or a burst of ruby red bottlebrush, a dash of raspberry pink callistemon, or a sprinkling of cherry red grevillea. There has been a wonderful abundance of rain, so the hills, burnt to dust by the summer sun, are now a lush green. And the countryside is awash with wild mushrooms.

There was a magic to mushrooms, long before I knew about the hallucinogenic variety. Alice meets a talking caterpillar who smokes a hookah and philosophizes from his perch on a broad mushroom; fairy rings of toadstools are entrenched in folklore, as a place where fairies, elves and pixies gather to dance. Children are warned to stay outside such rings, as trespassers may be taken prisoner by the fairies and not returned for years.

Well, we haven’t seen any fairies, but over the last couple of weeks, wherever we venture, we have found mushrooms: in the pine forests along the Hay Flat Road; beneath the Tasmanian blue gums by Waterfall Creek; in the middle of a paddock, or under the native grasses in our neighbour’s garden.

Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
~ Sylvia Plath

I am no expert on which ones are edible and which are best avoided, but I have since scoured the library for information, to see if I can identify the ones we’ve found. Shaggy parasol mushrooms lurk in the garden. Cèpe des pins, a variety of bolete with their sponge-like pores, love the pine forests. On an open hilltop, several different sorts grow in clusters from stumps of eucalyptus or pine. Are they sulphur tufts or giant gold caps or something else entirely? Then there are the toadstools, shimmering brightly in the undergrowth, their red caps like traffic lights, warning ‘stop’ and ‘do not eat me,’ yet looking so pretty among the pine needles.

Last weekend, as we strolled through the forest above Ingalla Falls, we came across a family who had gleefully gathered baskets full of saffron milk caps, and were heading home to cook them up for breakfast. As we paused to admire their efforts, they assured us that there were plenty more to be found. We said goodbye and headed off with ‘great speedy speed‘ in search of lunch.

As we scoured the forest floor for hidden treasure, I trawled the internet to be certain we were on the right track. Sure enough, we had hit the jackpot and our booty matched the description: the cap was an orange/ peachy colour, concave in the centre, with edges that tended to roll inwards. Many had grown up to 20cm in diameter. The gills were a lighter orange, dusted with an orange (saffron) powder that stained our fingers. Easily bruised, the damaged area quickly turned green, as copper does, which initially made us highly suspicious about their edibility. Yet this proved to be a distinguishing feature.

Lactarius deliciosus is native to the southern Pyrenees, where it grows happily beneath Mediterranean pines. These curvaceous and attractive mushrooms have been introduced to Australia and will grow happily in the shade of pine plantations. They also looked like just the kind of mushroom on which the caterpillar would have sat to converse with Alice.

Scooping them up eagerly, we carried them back to the car in an open umbrella, for want of the more traditional wicker basket. Sautéed in butter with lashings of garlic, seasoned with salt and pepper and served on toast, ‘et voila!’ we had a simple, but tasty lunch. What could be more delicious? And what to do with the rest? A mushroom risotto, perhaps? Or gently fried in olive oil and garlic, then stirred into pasta with a generous sprinkling of parsley. And all the joy of a free meal gleaned from the woods.

Over the years, we have made the acquaintance of a variety of mushrooms, both wild and tame. Long ago, cycling through the Loire Valley in France, we came across limestone caves where a mushroom farm – Le Champignonniere Du Saut Aux Loups – had become a tourist attraction. Not a journey for the claustrophobic, we followed our guide through tunnels beneath the cliffs, and into huge caverns where clean white mushrooms emerged from peat-coloured soil in vast tubs. Sadly, we were too early to be fed – ‘pas de cuisine jusqu’à midi’ – but we did learn a lot about the cultivation of mushrooms, information I have long since forgotten, but much appreciated at the time.

Some years later, when the kids were small, weekends were spent wandering through the woods at the end of our village, on the outskirts of Prague. In October, we would spot local foragers between the trees, who would descend to gather mushrooms. It was virutally a national sport.

(FYI: mycophagy means the consumption of mushrooms. I’m hoping this will reappear as a crossword clue while I can still spell it).

Back to my Czech foragers, who were now glaring at us suspiciously, obviously afraid we would steal their edible treasure. In the Czech Republic, there is a joke that all mushrooms are edible, but some only once. For this reason alone, we could have assured them – if we had spoken more than five words of Czech – that we were absolutely no threat at all. If they weren’t Swiss Browns in a Sainsbury’s punnet, we were not about to risk our lives.

We were delighted to find friends with a working knowledge of mushrooms, when we visited them at their beautiful summer cottage on a lake north-east of Helsinki. One afternoon, we followed the girls into the woods in search of chanterelles. These experienced young mushroom hunters seemed to have an instinct for where the mushrooms snuggled among the birch tree roots. Pretty, trumpet-shaped fungi, soft yellow in colour, with a light, peppery flavour, chanterelles are common in the southern and central parts of Finland. While there are no doubt more sophisticated ways to cook them, they are quite perfect simply sautéed in butter.

Then, by some strange twist of coincidence, my physio’s opening gambit yesterday was to launch into tales of gleaning mushrooms in the Adelaide Hills. While I have no idea what they look like, I can now repeat lovely names like honey fungus, laccaria, amanita rubescens and the more familiar porcini.

So, next autumn, I plan to be prepared with a wicker basket and someone with a good understanding of fungi and which ones can be safely eaten. And perhaps we will even come across a fairy or two…

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Pandemic Panic

We moved into our new house the week after Australia joined the Pandemic Panic. For days leading up to it, my own sense of panic rose, not from the fear of an invisible, insidious virus, but from the fear that we wouldn’t be allowed to move; that the Australian government, like so many of those in Europe, would clamp down and demand total isolation; that we would be held captive in our temporary townhouse, our life already in boxes, lined up in the garage for ease of loading into the removal truck.

Day by day, the rules changed. Gatherings of twenty… gatherings of ten… immediate family… two. Loo roll had disappeared from every supermarket (some cretinous, selfish, chancers had been hoarding – one individual had secreted 5,400 toilet rolls and 150 bottles of hand sanitiser and attempted to sell them online. No luck there, so he went back to the supermarket and tried to return them for cash. Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect £200.)

I felt as if I had been holding my breath for days when Cliff finally showed up with his van and cheerfully started to load our belongings. As we jumped in the car to follow the truck south, the conveyancer rang, and my heart leaped into my throat. Something had gone wrong at the bank. The money had not been transferred. We had no new house.

‘Congratulations. All’s clear. You are now the proud owners of a new home.’ I didn’t know whether I wanted to slug her for frightening me half to death or hug her tightly and cover her with kisses. Of course, I could do neither. Social distancing and all that. So, I just shrieked into the phone. I guess her eardrums are still ringing, so job done. Revenge taken.

Since then, we have passed two months in self-inflicted social isolation. Well, government inflicted, but it seemed only sensible. So, we have stayed away. Mostly. Living an hour south of the city has made it easier. Occasional family sightings prevent total madness. And we are used to communicating by phone after years abroad. I have considered taking up letter writing again.

Months of urgency to get our lives in order have settled into monochrome days of tea-and-coffee-lunch-walk-dinner-movie. We vary it with painting a wall, hanging a picture, setting up a compost bin, planting some lavender. None of it is urgent and only habit gets us out of bed in the morning. Who would care if we stayed put? Had our breakfast in bed? Whiled away the day immersed in a pile of books, a sandwich beneath the covers, an afternoon nap? We could be like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents, Grandpa Jo and Grandma Josephine.

I watch the news, but irregularly. Death rates rise, whether I follow the figures or not. Yet they don’t seem nearly as high as many predicted, so perhaps we are doing the right thing. And there is loo roll in the supermarket again.

Our kids are fine, I think. We get regular updates by text or phone and the odd appearance. The streets are quiet but we smile and wave to people on the beach, admire their dogs, grab a pie from the bakery. I chat to every magpie we pass, nod to the kangaroos. The One & Only is trying to keep the pigeons away, showing a marked preference for the cockatoos. Our vision has narrowed, but in an unexpectedly good way. There could be worse places to live out this weird new war.

Meanwhile, I am in contact with a million long-lost friends quarantined around the globe. I text Melbourne. Call London. Skype Manila. Send a Facebook message to Luxembourg. Sometimes it feels as if this suspension of time will go on forever. Then I must stop thinking too much or the panic starts to rise again.

And yet, things are loosening up already. There hasn’t been a new dose of corona virus in three weeks, and the state government has decided that it’s fine to travel regionally now. The numbers on the beach have doubled, there are queues at the local diner – admittedly well spaced – for take-aways. This morning, there were even two indoor tables set for customers. Cellar doors are open now, although they can’t let us taste the wine. However, word is out that this, too, will soon change. Life is returning to normal. Whatever normal is. Fingers crossed it lasts.

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N’oubliez pas Paris

Whenever I go to Paris, I arrive in a different season, stay in a different arrondissement. It means I get to know another part of the city each time I visit, but it also dislocates my usually infallible internal compass. Every time I go to Paris, I feel as if I have landed in a new city and cannot seem to fix the bigger picture in my head. And strangely, every trip to Paris seems to be accompanied by some minor disaster. Yet, despite those challenging moments, and my own inclination to despise this excessively eulogized, pampered and opulent city, I follow it’s siren call again and again…

The first time I see Paris is in July 1984, just after the Chernobyl disaster. I am only nineteen, reluctantly boarding a coach with a girlfriend, one of only a handful of coaches braving the nuclear wasteland of Europe this summer. Thousands of North Americans have cancelled. Our coach is a mishmash of left-overs. We tear through seventeen countries in seven days, or maybe it’s seventeen days, seven countries. Either way, it remains a blur. A cute Italian bus driver, a couple of very cool South American girls in their early twenties, an older couple from Canada who kept complaining: the food (‘Where is McDonalds when you need it?’); the water (‘I have to clean my teeth with pop’); the time (‘Oh, were you waiting for us again?’). Paris? I have no memories, just a group photo under the Eiffel Tower.

It’s 1991. I backpack into Paris in early September with my boyfriend, arriving at dawn on an overnight train from Vienna. We have booked beds at a youth hostel in the 1st arrondissement, a stone’s throw from the Seine, in Rue du Pélican, but we are locked out between 9am and 5pm. We ditch our luggage and spend the day drifting through the city: Notre Dame and Le Palais Luxembourg; the Botanic Gardens and the Pantheon; the Louvre and its latest attraction, the amazing glass pyramid; through the Tuilleries and the promise of an Impressionist exhibition at l’Orangerie, down the Champs Elysée and across Le Pont Alexandre III to the Eiffel Tower. I love the broad, tree-lined boulevards, the generous open spaces, the cleanliness, the distinctively duplicated Hausmann buildings. I am irritated that many parks lack lawn, boasting only dirt or gravel, and those that are blessed with lawn are covered in signs forbidding us to sit on them.

Two days of autumn rain descend, and we move inside. I fall in love with the Orangerie, the Musee D’Orsay, Monet’s water lilies and Degas’ ballerinas. We trudge to Le Pere Lachaise Cemetery, to find Jim Morrison’s grave drenched in flowers and graffiti. We take sandwiches to Montmartre, eat them on the steps of Sacré-Cœur, and buy prints of wet and wintry Parisian scenes as souvenirs.

Fast forward fifteen years to February 2006. We are about to leave our home in the UK, return to Australia. I have been aching to take the Eurostar, – it practically ran past our back door – so we decide to have one final fling in Paris. The One & Only has booked a quaint hotel in Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement. We kennel the kids with friends for the weekend. We plan to make an early start, so we can lunch in Paris – except I forget my passport and we have to turn back at Ashford. We chew through soggy toasted cheese sandwiches on a later train, and don’t reach the Gare du Nord until mid afternoon. Dragging our cases over the roughly cobbled streets of Montmartre, we marvel at the bouquet of picturesque patisseries, boulangeries, charcuteries, épiciers verts… only to find there has been a flood, our room is indisponible. Our first attempt to relocate finds us in a room only two inches larger than the bed, in a hotel where the police are in the middle of a drug raid. A second option has a miniature lift like a birdcage, and a non-smoking room scented heavily with cigarette smoke. The deliciously gay receptionist allows me behind the bar to make a restorative G&T, while he rings around neighbouring hotels. I joke softly to the One & Only that he will have no chance of seeing my new lingerie at this rate. Pierre overhears: he calls another hotel and asks for la chambre la plus magnifique avec le plus grand lit.  He hasn’t realized I speak French until I start giggling. He turns pink as a peony.

The weekend is salvaged with a sumptuous room above the Gare du Nord, an equally sumptuous dinner in the hotel restaurant, and a red rose from mon amour, which more than makes up for the half day we lost rescuing passports and finding a room.

Two months later, we fulfil another promise and take the kids to Paris Disney for Easter. After a full weekend of dipping and plunging, whirling and whooping, I drive for hours around the city ring road through rush hour traffic, so I can introduce them to Paris proper. This time there is a train strike and the hotel can no longer accommodate us, as no one has been able to leave. I have no idea where we end up: somewhere on the western fringes of the city, I think. It is a grubby wasteland, culturally sterile, complete with a long, dreary Metro ride to the city centre. For two windy days, I drag three grumpy, unimpressed kids through the city, trying to find something to interest them. As we clamber up the Eiffel Tower, icy winds roar around us, threatening to dislodge us and fling us into the river.  In less than thirty seconds, we clump back down and buy four thick windcheaters at inflated prices from a stall at the bottom, so we can defrost. We drive south the next day with a sigh of relief.

Another decade, another trip to Paris. Now it’s July 2016. I catch a train from Lyon and pop in to stay with friends in their glorious nineteenth century apartment in the 9th arrondissement and discover yet another nook of the city I don’t know. My friend and I lose ourselves for hours among the ganglion of  narrow cobbled lanes on the west bank. We discover Le Maison de Victor Hugo, and the Vignes du Clos, where we pause for a glass of wine at a tiny pavement café. 

Six months later and we are living in Luxembourg, five minutes walk from the station. I itch to take a train south to Paris. Sadly, northern Europe frowns on spontaneity and, despite the mid-winter jitters, last-minute tickets are exorbitant. So, we drive instead, and park under l’Opera. From our window beneath the eaves of the Saint Petersburg Hotel, we watch the snow drift lightly over the rooftops. It bears no resemblance to the area I stayed in last summer. We stroll briskly through chilly, grey streets, past chilly grey Parisians;  the wind pelting up behind us and knocking us sideways. We meet up with old friends we haven’t seen in twenty years and discover, amongst myriad antique shops, a heavenly little café tucked away in an ivy covered courtyard, where we indulge in coffee and cake.

On our last trip (for now) we catch the train from Luxembourg to Paris for the first day of the French Open. It’s only a two-hour sprint on the rocket-fuelled TGV. We stay in the 16th arrondissement, so we can walk to Le Stade De Roland Garros, skirting round the Bois de Bolougne – a place I have only read about in novels. The room is too small to swing a cockroach, and the bed falls apart as I sit down to lace up my walking boots. But we find a new view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero, where we gaze across the Seine to the more famous brother of the electricity tower. I practise my French and prove yet again that the Parisians aren’t impressed with me or my attempts to converse in their piffy paffy language (my grandfather’s word.)

We spend a day melting in the sun at the tennis and dine on the riverbank, a cool evening breeze whispering in our ears.

We discover the Canal Saint-Martin, where tree lined roads accompany it down to the Seine. In the 19th century, half its length was covered over to create wide boulevards and public spaces above, and we meander joyfully to the Gare de l’Est where we meet our train back to Luxembourg.

Farewell Paris. We won’t forget you.

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Thailand: First Impressions

So, it’s 1994.  We have just landed in Thailand, amid the chaos of Bangkok traffic, pollution, and humidity thick as golden syrup, heavy as a winter duvet. I have never been to South East Asia before. I am overwhelmed by the noise, the smell, the heat, the sights. It’s a sensual overload for which I wasn’t prepared.

Traffic here is as bad as we were warned – worse. A far cry from the orderly, symmetrical streets of Adelaide. I have yet to be involved in a real Bangkok traffic jam, though I’ve been regaled with many unlikely tales of beer stocked in the boot to lighten the mood of a three-hour car journey to travel a measly three kilometres. (Little could I know that a year later I would be sitting behind the steering wheel,  knee deep in mopeds at a gridlocked crossroads,  trying to breastfeed my bellowing baby, while my gobsmacked guest sits anxiously by my side, waiting to change gears on the off chance we ever start to move.)

I am in wide-eyed awe of the driving here: kamikaze motorbikes dodge and weave between battered old taxis, scoot up onto the footpaths, unfastened helmets perched atop their heads like storks nests; gloating new BMWs and Jags, the shiny toys of the rich kids, play dodgems with millimetres to spare; tuk-tuks duck round buses that snort out black smoke like angry dragons; swaying elephants lumber down the inside lane, their poor padded feet scorched by the burning asphalt. Rules? To hell with those. I am advised to keep my eyes forward, let the guy behind worry about my rear. 

(This blinkered approach, I will soon learn, is the only way to drive safely through the streets of this mad city. In these early days, cocooned in an air-conditioned car with a practised local driver at the wheel, removed from the immediacy of smog and cloying heat, it is like watching a life-sized video game through the window. Soon enough I will come to know the joys of zipping round the city in the back of a tuk-tuk, always a hair’s breadth from being tumbled into the gutter, a couple of pounds of rusty metal and a lawn mower engine all that lies between us and certain death.)

I long for the icy wind-tunnel that is the passage at my parent’s house in the winter. Ironically, it is only now, immersed in air conditioning 24-hours a day, that my daughter and I have heavy colds. 

It is the rainy season here and the rain comes like clockwork. An hour-long deluge at 3pm that floods the roads and fills the drains to overflowing, while the sky puts on a fireworks display of thunder and lightning. Maids struggle home with their bags on their heads, wading down the back lanes through filthy, waist-high water, armloads of electric cables looping heavily from teetering poles, dipping down to meet the rising tide. I anticipate disaster when the two finally collide, but so far, so good. Every storm dislodges a few more paving stones on the rough-and-ready footpaths. On Sukuhumvit, an elderly blind man trips and falls on the uneven sidewalk, and I am the only one to rush forward and lift him up, attempt to tend to the deep graze on his shin. He waves me away and sits on the step, wailing. I return his stick and he hobbles off, still wailing. No one takes a scrap of notice. A pile of bricks against the wall would suggest someone started on repairs, but lost interest. Thai time is like Fiji time, it seems. No rush. Hasta manana, or better still, hasta la vista. (In modern Aussie parlance. ‘Laters.’)  

There is poverty here, patently obvious, in-your-face, poverty, that squats by the side of the road, staring through dull eyes, in sharp contrast to the rising middle class, the dazzling wealth at the top of the tree. Strolling through the bright new shopping malls, overflowing with replicas of every American clothing store, Asian supermarket, tourist trap and popular chain food restaurant, it is easy to turn a blind eye for a moment or two. Put one foot out into the street and it slaps you in the face like a wet flannel. A one-armed beggar, a clutch of grubby children in ill-assorted t-shirts scavenging for food, a makeshift stall selling heaven-knows-what cheap eats to tuk-tuk drivers. Rusting petrol cans are recycled as rubbish bins that are overflowing, mostly with cigarette stubs. A murky klong (canal) swirls with first world detritus (plastic bags and plastic bottles, a slick of oil) as a noisy longboat roars past, making waves against rickety bamboo jetties where scrawny old men in loincloths throw a line to whatever three headed fish they can catch in this polluted stream. The waft of a smelly drain or a filthy klong makes my nose pucker. A herd of screeching, skeletal feral cats with bent tails rummage in the bins, or lounge like Nero on the ubiquitous scaffolding, licking grimy paws.  

Street cleaners sweep up the leaves into neat piles, as the whirling plastic bags wrap around their ankles. Building materials are stacked haphazardly around copious building sites. Concrete dust layers every surface with a thick skin, as huge, five-star hotels go up apace, squeezed between the precariously balanced, corrugated iron dwellings of the neighbouring slums. Café tables steal across the pavements, wrapped in garish pink plastic tablecloths, set with thin paper napkins, plastic cups, tin spoons and forks, melamine plates. And surprise! The food they serve in these squalid surroundings is really tasty. 

Most of the women I pass are immaculate, neatly arrayed in pressed blouses, stockings and polished shoes, their hair shiny-clean, in tight, neat buns or slick ponytails. All pause to throw a smile or stroke the white-blonde hair of my small daughter. Further downtown, where sex shops and brothels abound, it is the kathoeys that make the most fuss. It is a while before I realize that these flamboyant, sexy women in heavy makeup and high heels clustering round us, cooing and clucking, stroking and giggling, are actually lady-boys. As beautiful and fine-boned as their female counterparts, the only give-away is a slightly enlarged Adam’s apple or a tenor voice. But they are gentle, friendly and kind, and we feel perfectly safe with these glamorous girls. Unlike the coachloads of Korean tourists who descend like locusts on my blond baby and her pink trike. It is the only time I have seen my husband visibly angry, as he wades through, trying to reach us, rescue us from a rising tide of flashing cameras, pinching fingers. (It made an impression, even on our tiny two-year-old, who has ever since looked unfavourably upon zoos, and she quickly develops a throaty growl, like a cornered lion cub.)

Now, she preens beneath the eyes of these handsome young kathoeys, showing off her new trainers, the latest trend for toddlers. A happy distraction when we go shopping, they also prove a blessing. Squeaking at every step, flashing lights and sparkling with sequins, they have proved a vital necessity in a crowded department store, where she is prone to dive under clothing racks when overwhelmed by all the people, and I can only locate her by the irritating squawk of her disco shoes. 

Shopping here is challenging, even without the constant hide-and-seek with a toddler. Surprisingly little English is spoken – given the volume of international tourists – and my Thai language skills consist of Sawadee-kha, Khap-khun-kha and counting to ten. Our grocery bill is huge. Imported goods are heavily taxed and I have no idea about local products, even local fruit and veg. It is my first time in South East Asia. I am so ignorant. It would be terrifying if I didn’t find it all so fascinating. Broccoli and lettuces are bonsai-sized and ruinously expensive. I walk up and down the aisles trying to pluck up the courage to take something – anything – off the shelves. (Soon I will become familiar with the putrid Durian, forbidden to darken the doors of many hotels, and it’s engorged cousin the prickly jackfruit; the dragon fruit with its glorious thick red coat; the rambutan with its feathery spikes, the plump, aubergine-coloured mangosteens and the armadillo-like custard apple with the soft, melt-in-the-mouth centre.) In relief, I discover the elfin bananas, the sunset pink pomelo, like a sweet grapefruit, and the nutty pink papaya with the texture of avocado that I recognize from hotel breakfasts.

Such a strange new world.

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Staccato

Obituary

 He was my favourite poet through high school. He died on April Fool’s Day. Not corona virus – not everyone does – but old age. I didn’t know till today.

The obituary says Bruce Dawe was a postman. A poet. A gardener. An academic. An airman. A Vietnam Vet. He had four university degrees (BA, MLitt, MA, PhD). All acquired through part-time study. He won a swathe of literary prizes. I didn’t know that either, but I’m not surprised.

We read ‘Homecoming’ and the ‘Not So Good Earth’ and learned about irony, war and death. He wrote about death a lot. (Ironic that he lived to ninety). And footy. And cornflakes. A suburban poet. Our poet. Our conscience. Constantly protesting life’s inequalities. His prolific, staccato style appealed to those of us baptized in Shakespearean sonnets, Romantics who rhyme.   (Is it still a poem if it doesn’t rhyme?’)

‘The forests sigh and fall’

I dip into the forest by Ingalla Falls for fresh air, exercise. A city of pine trees eighty feet high. Fire tracks like empty highways during Covid-19. Several trees have toppled. Knocked others over, as they crash to the ground. Jenga. ‘The forests sigh and fall,’ agrees Dawe.

A bank of ferns. No deer here though, in this antipodean forest. No ‘bummer of a birthmark Hal.’ (No Larsson either). A single kangaroo starts up at our heavy tread on pine needles and bounds silently away. A gorge disgorges a creek over jagged rocks. Wind whips through the pines, sounds like waves crashing on the beach. The harsh shrieks of black cockatoos catch at our ears.

“Alert! We see you squatting there, like a warning light in your bright red fleece. A call of nature. But beware, nature might call for you. Brown snakes, bull ants, nettle rash on your bare behind. More than you bargained for.”

‘Like butterflies in the socket of a skull’

Common brown butterflies careen through the air, like sparks from a fire. Dolly Parton wrote a song about butterflies and love.  ‘Soft and gentle as a sigh.’ Dawe used them as a stark simile of war. The juxtaposition of watching kids play hide-and-seek in WW II pill-boxes in Penang: concrete bunkers with slits where soldiers hid with machine guns. Waiting to annihilate the unwary.

Years ago, I watched a TV program. A Queenslander, tightly permed, rotund. In a sweater with a butterfly embroidered across her ample breast. Teaching English to post-war refugees escaping the not-so-good-earth. ‘Say bu-a-floy’ she demands of her petite Vietnamese students, pointing at her chest. They dutifully mimic her nasal tones, her broad Ocker accent. More like butterflies than she will ever be in her caterpillar skin. 

Lone Pine

We trudge up a steep track, a hill laid bare.  A Gallipoli of pine trees. ‘Grey trunks and limbs litter the paddock like a battlefield,’ Dawe wrote eloquently. (He wrote a lot of anti-war poems.) Fairy land has been exhumed. Turned to mud and stubbled trunks, like broken teeth. Yet golden mushrooms grow into the light, in this bald space in the centre of the forest. 

We pass a dead digger. I recall a picture book ‘Are You My Mother?’ A baby bird has lost his mother. Until the ‘Snort’ puts the baby back in its nest, where its mother is waiting.

We emerge below the tree line. Paddocks have turned green overnight. Ironed out by rain. White blobs dot the hillside. A line of narrow gumtrees stand shoulder to shoulder along the hilltop. Catch the sky between their fencepost trunks.

It is ANZAC Day. A national day of remembrance for Australians and New Zealanders, to commemorate those of us who served and died in war or conflict. We say together ‘they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old,’ Our fallen. And ‘the vanished eyes of the skull wink with young laughter, the jaws are mottled with lichen,’ weeps Dawe.

Today, at Gallipoli, a lone Turkish gardener lays a wreath.

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