Port Elliot Treasures

We are in Port Elliot. Again. Purportedly in the height of summer. Yet we sleep snuggly under our quilts and travel with layer upon layer of clothes like Sara Lee’s Danish pastries. Whatever the weather, however, Horseshoe Bay, with its rocky seascape and short jetty always provides a joyful view and a relaxing escape.

By the way, I’m not complaining about this year’s half-hearted summer weather. I am hopeless in the heat, and inclined to wilt like a fragile flower. And let’s face it, last year was the summer from hell, with those fearful bushfires tearing through Australia. So, let’s breathe a sigh of relief for this cooler January than was our lot in 2020.

Port Elliot is one of the prettiest old towns on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. It sits on the eastern side, between Victor Harbor and Goolwa, where the open seas of the Great Australian Bite provide a surf we don’t often have on our side of the peninsula, in the shelter of the Gulf St. Vincent. Early this morning, the waves poured over Christmas Pudding rock like thickened cream, while the rising sun struck through the clouds on the horizon, two long fingers of God, the sunlight glittering on the water like tinsel. The sand was white and smooth, made new by the night’s high tide. A few swimming enthusiasts were already striking out towards the diving platform in the middle of the Bay, while a man with a stick was autographing the pristine sand.

It’s only been a quick overnight trip to see friends before they head back to the city, and we could have driven home last night, but it is such a treat to sit in a deckchair with a cup of tea and watch the surf only metres away, as the town slowly starts to wake up. Then there’s time for a walk after breakfast, taking the path around the bay, past the memorial garden with its thick hedges of rosemary for remembrance, and up over the cliffs, where it is easy to see why Port Elliot never provided the hoped for safe harbour for ships exporting goods from the Riverland. As a safe bathing beach, however, it is picture perfect. And the lawn bowlers have the best view in town, their bowling green sitting above the beach like an infinity pool. We stray off the Harbourmaster’s Walking Trail to go in search of coffee and end up following the train line out to Lakala Reserve where local producers are setting up for the twice monthly market.

Last night we dined at No. 58 Cellar Door & Gallery on Watersport Road. Usually, it’s only open over the weekends, but during the summer holidays, its open seven days a week. This rustic cellar door for Thunderbird Wines is set among the vines on the corner of the old Waverley Estate, both part of Campbell Haig’s portfolio. Unfortunately, it was a bit cool to sit out on the deck, but we were given a large table right by the kitchen, which meant we could watch the chef in action whenever there was a lull in conversation.

The dinner menu is simple: a small selection of wood-fire pizzas on a damper like base. We started on the last dish of roast potatoes and a bowl of warm olives, then went on to share three pizzas, one topped with salami, another with ham and gorgonzola. The third had a garlic and tomato, scattered with tiny pipis from the beach at Goolwa, still in their shells, and needing to be extracted with each slice, tasting like the sea. Beyond the deck, neat rows of vines disappeared into the shadows as the sun set behind them.

The vineyard was planted barely a decade ago, apparently under contract to a boutique Adelaide Hills winemaker. Now operating under its own label, Thunderbird Wines produces small wine batches of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rosé, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Shiraz. We chose their bubbles, the NV Blanc de Blanc, and it went down a treat.

The dining space includes a shelf of products for sale – oils, jams and sauces – is also used to display local art works. Kids are welcome and the space is warm and inviting, the staff always happy to help.

And then there’s South Sea Books, an independent bookshop with its cosy leather sofas and a coffee machine to extend your browsing time ~ at least when Covid restrictions aren’t disrupting proceedings. Originally a pretty stone cottage on the main road, South Seas has recently been enlarged with a light, brick addition on the side. I have been dropping in here for years, not least because I discovered that the owner, Sarah Taylor, went to school with me. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful and peaceful retreat, the shelves and tables choc-a-bloc with delicious looking books, the old part of the building looking gorgeously homely, like a private, overstocked sitting room, the kind of sitting room any bookworm dreams of owning. The staff leave handwritten notes, recommending their favourite books and I challenge you to walk away with only one, or resist the beautiful, hand-picked cards.

And when you have eaten your fill of books, two doors down there is an attractive coffee shop, ‘Beaches,’ where you can sit down to examine the towering pile of literature you have inexplicably acquired…

*The lovely painting of the bookshop is the work of Abbey Rawson of Abzurd Creations used here with her kind permission.

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Navel Gazing

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

Happy New Year to you all. For those of you still contemplating weeks or months of lockdown, my sincere commiserations. In South Australia, while we remain wary, we have enjoyed a simple but unrestrained Christmas season. And I don’t mean to rub it in, when I add that we have been blessed with a stream of house guests and visitors over the past three weeks. My new Guest Book is getting quite full already. NYE was a quiet and cosy affair, however. No party, no fireworks, just a couple of old friends, a BBQ and a movie ~ and a soupçon of champagne, of course. New Year Resolutions? So far, not even one of any significance, beyond the ever-present promise to drink less wine and a plan to swim in the sea every day.

The former, well, wine and summer go together like love and marriage, so that one is doomed from the start. As for swimming, well, so far this summer has been strange. It’s almost been a metaphor for the weirdness of 2020, as Covid turned the world upside down: high winds, cool, cloudy days – what happened to thirty degrees and sunburn? I’m really not keen to plunge into arctic seas when a cold wind is lashing the trees and the sand is whipping through my hair and into my eyes. Maybe by February, it will have got warmer…

So, what to talk about today? I am still sifting through a pile of journals and letters from past lives abroad, but I worry the idea of armchair travel is wearing thin. We talk of taking Barney out on the road again, for another camping trip. The Eyre Peninsula? The Coorong? But perhaps we’ll wait until February when the schools go back, or April and Autumn? For now, we are happy at home. Despite the minimal Covid restrictions here, we have got into the habit of pottering through the days. It may not encourage scintillating travel tales, but it is wonderfully relaxing to sit for a while, and watch the world turn.

The birds wake us every morning, the corellas shrieking through the sky before settling down to demolish some unassuming banksia or conifer, making the pencil pines look like Christmas trees covered in white baubles. A family of owls has taken up residence in our street, and while not as sociable as our house guests, just as welcome. A neighbour’s tree full of white ants has been chopped down and its absence has widened the skyscape considerably. All the neighbours have joined the conversation on how to fill the gap. I have been binge watching series on Netflix and Stan till they are coming out my ears. How many more murder mysteries can I handle?

I contemplate our road trip to Bathurst in November, which has only had a brief mention to date. I do remember that, as we drove along the Barrier Highway I was reminded of a song from my childhood.

In 1962, an Australian musician, Lucky Star recorded a song that had been penned by Geoff Mack. Does anyone else remember ‘I’ve been everywhere man’? The song names almost a hundred country towns in Australia at breakneck speed, and it became an instant hit. It has taken on numerous iterations since, based on place names from New Zealand, the UK and the US, even Finland, and sung by a wide variety of performers from Rolf Harris to Johnny Cash. Peter Harris even produced a TV show in which he visited each of the towns mentioned in the Aussie version, and for those of us old enough to remember, the song also made an ironic guest appearance in that surreal comedy show of the early 70’s, Aunty Jack, who had only been to Wollongong.

We passed through so many wondrously tagged towns in our recent trip to Bathurst that I almost felt inspired to write my own version. We drove through Gundagai & Tooleybuc, Bogan Gate & Bumbaldry, Bungandore, Daroobalgie,  Gooloogong & Olary, Mingary & Tumblong, Borambola, Araluen, Braidwood & Oodla Wira, Ulooloo, Wilcannia, Canbelego, Manangatang, Boinka, Pinnaroo & Lameroo… and the list goes on. Poetic without even trying, isn’t it?

But I am blithering, and achieving little beyond a warm welcome to 2021 and the hope that vaccines and common sense will prevail this year; that we can revive a version of normality and the world will flip itself up the right way again. We are on the right track, perhaps, as America prepares to inaugurate a rather more balanced, more unifying and less narcissistic President for the next four years. Fingers crossed…

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Jersey Jottings

“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.” ~ Gerald Durrell

Jersey, Channel Islands, UK

I do love islands. I seem always to feel more comfortable living on an island than in a landlocked country, be it as big as Australia or as small as the microscopic Channel Isles floating off the coast of Normandy. Even though France is only fourteen miles across the sea, these five islands – Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm – plus a handful of uninhabited ‘islets,’ are dependencies of the British crown, one hundred miles from the English coast. At low tide, it feels as if you could walk across the sand to Normandy.

The Channel Islands have always been easy prey for marauders, and there are endless tales and legends of enemy invasions. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries there was a daunting stream of raiders who plundered the islands, burning crops and homes and murdering the locals. Yet, the one invasion that continues to enthrall our imaginations, however, is that of the German occupation during World War Two. If you have ever read ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,‘ you will know something about this chapter of its history. Guernsey was taken, undefended by the British, on June 30th 1940. A day later, Jersey also surrendered to the German Army. The Channel isles would remain occupied by the Germans until May 9th 1945.   

I first went to the Channel Islands in 1991 for a three week posting on Jersey – the largest of the islands and the closest to France – where I was to look after an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s in her home on the eastern tip of the island.

 Flying into the airport at Saint Peters in a pocket-sized prop plane is a magical, if somewhat unnerving experience. I first spotted the island from a height of several thousand feet. Lying in the Bay of Mont Saint Michel, the tiny island was lapped by glittering blue sea. The plane looped around over the Colentin Peninsula in Normandy, then descended so rapidly I thought we were going to land in a field among the doe-eyed Jersey cows. Swooping in low, over farmhouses, riding stables, fields and trees, I had my first glimpse of the legendary Jersey wealth: a helipad marked out on the lawn beside a country manor house. As the plane slammed on its brakes and rushed down a ridiculously short airstrip, I thought we might career off the end of the runway and tip into the sea. Perhaps a helicopter would have been safer?

Luckily, we didn’t end up under the waves, but I got a soaking anyway, as I discovered the unpredictable nature of the weather in the Channel Islands. Advertised in travel magazines with overtones of a Caribbean or Pacific island, Jersey may benefit from the Gulfstream, which softens the blow of the English winter, but Fiji it most definitively is not. We had flown in through powder puff clouds in a deep blue sky. I stepped out of the airport into a deluge.

Jersey is 5 miles x 9 miles or 45.6 square miles. (Of course, at this tiny size, every square foot counts.) Like intestines, almost 350 miles of narrow lanes twist and tie themselves in knots around the island, hemmed in by shoulder high stone walls and hedgerows, capable of confusing the hell out of even the most astute navigator.  Yet, I was more than happy at the prospect of losing myself in this maze of lanes, strolling along the cliffs or clambering down into the rocky coves in every spare moment.

Historically, Jersey has always been intensely farmed. Fields of cabbages and parsley were once kept well fertilised by the seaweed harvested from the beaches. Today, potatoes are the most important export crop, shipped mostly to the UK. And of course, there is the famous Jersey cow whose loyalty to its eponymous home ensures that those exported from the island never reach quite the same levels of excellence as those that remain. I often spotted them peering curiously over the walls as I wandered by, or was forced to tuck myself up against a hedge to avoid their hooves as they crammed into the green, tunnelled lanes at milking time, lowing wearily, their engorged udders swinging heavily and giving them a strange bowlegged gait. 

Tourism also plays a part in the local economy, and both Guernsey and Jersey become offshore tax havens long ago. This has escalated the population from 57,000 at the end of the war to 106,000 in 2020. Population control has now become a major political issue on Jersey, as more and more houses are built, and housing prices rise beyond the reach of the locals.

Enough facts and figures, let’s jump back on our bikes, as I’ve discovered they are cheap to hire and even cheaper to run, requiring only the cost of a little muscle power…

Inevitably, every bike ride leads to the coast, where rocky promontories fold protective arms around tiny coves and bite-sized bays, clusters of small fishing boats nestling cosily on a polished silver sea, like dozing ducks. Or, if the tide is low – Jersey has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, the island almost doubling in size twice a day – the boats loll drunkenly in the muddy grey sand that stretches out towards the French mainland, to which it was once connected by huge oak forests. On the way, I pass elegant manor houses tucked behind what remains of those ancient oak trees, and many of the old stone farmhouses that were introduced by the Normans. I was told that the true Jersey house traditionally has five windows across the front of the upper storey, and consequently spent the next fortnight religiously counting windows.

Aboard my trusty bike, I took to the coast roads to look for the plethora of military defences that sit above the beaches. Before the Germans built their sturdy, rather grim looking turrets along the coastline, the British had built some rather more attractive military architecture to keep the French at bay. These older fortifications include numerous medieval castles and forts, Martello towers to defend the island against Napoleon, artillery batteries and seawalls.

Mont Orgueil is a thirteenth century fortress built as Jersey’s first primary defence. It squats high above St Anne’s Port, where the narrow terraced houses of the town huddle at the foot of its mighty walls, clinging like toddlers to their mother’s apron strings. When superseded by Elizabeth Castle, it became, for a while, the island’s only prison.

Elizabeth Castle was constructed on a tidal island in the bay at Saint Helier. Originally an Abbey, the Crown confiscated the monastic buildings during the Reformation and the buildings were then used for military purposes. Construction of the castle itself began in 1594. It became the Governor’s residence and was named for Elizabeth I by Sir Walter Raleigh, who was Governor of Jersey between 1600 and 1603.

I also discovered a multitude of Nazi gun escarpments along the cliffs. But perhaps the most fascinating reminder of the presence of the Third Reich is the underground hospital in Saint Lawrence, much along the lines of one I have seen on Corregidor in Manila Bay. A marvel of modern engineering and muscle, the hospital was dug into the hill by slave labour, prisoners of war who were marched barefoot across Europe to die in crushing rock falls 130 feet below the surface. These underground tunnels remained unfinished at the time the island was liberated in 1945, but were nonetheless fully heated and air conditioned, and could provide 600 beds, staff quarters, an operating theatre and extensive kitchens.  Although the Channel Islands had little strategic value to the Germans, their psychological importance for propaganda purposes was enormous. For the first time in British history, the German army had its foot in the door, albeit at a small back entrance.

On my afternoon bike rides I head west, where a vast expanse of sand stretches around the coast and provides superb views of the La Corbière lighthouse to the south. To the north, are the cliffs and rocky outcrops of l’Etac. At Grouville Bay, when the tide is low, neat rows of oyster beds lie just below the surface of the sea and are apparently the largest oyster beds in the British Isles.

Jersey is divided into 12 parishes – Grouville, St Clements, St Brelades, St Helier – that were originally set up as Norman fiefdoms. Did I mention the Normans? In 933, the islands were annexed to the Duchy of Normandy. When William II of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066, the islands became possessions of the English Crown. The heavy influence of Jersey’s Norman ancestry can still be seen in the street names, on the farms and in the surnames on the gravestones in every parish churchyard. In the late eighteenth century, as wealthy French émigrés fled the Revolution and sought refuge on the Channel Islands, the islands were nicknamed ‘the French Isles’. It’s history is also apparent in the local Norman dialect, Jèrriais, although today, this French patois is only spoken by a handful of inhabitants, and the official French language of previous centuries has been firmly replaced by English in the twentieth century.

Today, Jersey is a self-governing parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, with its own financial, legal and judicial systems and the power of self-determination, with a resident Lieutenant Governor as the personal representative of the Queen.

Famous people associated with Jersey include King Charles II, who spent a year in exile at Elizabeth castle from 1649-1650. Victor Hugo also spent many years in exile, first on Jersey and then on Guernsey, where he finished Les Misérables. When I was there in 1991, Roger Moore had a house just down the road from where I was staying in St. Martins. It looked like a wedding cake with blue edging and he had named it Moonraker. Of course.

Gerald Durrell established his famous zoo on Jersey in 1959, designed to preserve endangered species by increasing their numbers in captivity before returning them to the wild. Today, it is operated by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, but Durrell was still alive when I visited the zoo thirty years ago. The site for the zoo is Les Augres Manor, a 17th-century manor house which Durrell originally leased. I remember spacious gardens, beautifully laid out with wide lawns and colourful flowerbeds surrounding enclosures made to look as natural as possible; an aviary that was large enough for parrakeets to stretch their wings and fly about, while the gorillas and apes were provided with a broad range of climbing and swinging equipment. Eventually, in 1971, Durrell arranged to buy the property from its owner, to ensure his animals had a permanent home. It has also provided a permanent home for Durrell, whose ashes were buried there in 1995.

So, to finish where we began, with another quote from the inimitable Mr. Durrell: “Until we consider animal life to be worthy of the consideration and reverence we bestow upon old books and pictures and historic monuments, there will always be the animal refugee living a precarious life on the edge of extermination, dependent for existence on the charity of a few human beings.”

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“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…”

It’s almost Christmas. The tree is up and brimming with angels, even my grumpy Filipina one. The Kris Kringle list is out. The Christmas menu has been finalized. Our supplies of red are running low, but we have plenty pf bubbles. Luckily, I have my own private supplier: a friend who works for wine distributor Wine Direct and is always happy to introduce us to some of their good – and cost effective – labels. So, to restock the cellar for Christmas, I joined a bunch of keen wine tasters in my old mate’s gorgeous back garden to try some new wines and revisit some old favourites.

The garden is a tiny oasis behind a sweet, 1940s cottage on Kensington’s High Street. (Not THE Kensington High Street in London, but a pretty tree-lined suburban street in Adelaide.) ‘The Love Shack’ has been a popular destination for social gatherings for years: Christmas, ANZAC Day, a variety of birthdays, and now, wine tasting.

It was a hot afternoon, so we huddled into the shady spots, introducing ourselves and making new friends, before our hostess took us through the wines on offer with her inimitable flair and humour. We were introduced to five reds and five whites. Lots of South Australians, a French rosé and two from the Margaret River.

We began with a bright, Adelaide Hills bubbles, the 2015 Wicks Estate ‘Pamela,’ a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, made in the French methode traditionelle. After four years on lees in stainless steel vats, it still tastes fresh and creamy. The 2013 Vintage won a trophy for best sparkling wine at the Adelaide Show, and this one seems equally keen to lighten the mood of the day.

Another Adelaide Hills offering was appropriately named The Gathering: a 2010 aged Sauvignon Blanc Semillon from the popular Hahndorf winery, The Lane. As a lover of all things Chardonnay, I was surprised to find this wooded Sauvignon Blanc – rarely a favourite variety – a rather nice drop.

Then, we hopped across to the Clare Valley for a 2020 Claymore Joshua Tree Watervale Riesling, already a winner with the One & Only. Wine critic and blogger Winsor Dobbin – www.gourmetontheroad.com – claims it’s one of the best Rieslings the Clare Valley has to offer. It has been created by talented winemaker Kerri Thompson, ‘Australia’s Riesling Queen,’ who now has her own label, KT Wines, specializing in her first love: Rieslings.

Much to my delight, there was a Chardonnay next, all the way from W.A. Picardy Pemberton is a boutique winery owned by the Pannell family. These pioneers of the Margaret River region established Mosswood in 1969 and Picardy Pemberton in 1993. I’m not sure I need to say more than that I promptly ordered half a dozen, and surrounded by SB drinkers, I got an almost clear run on the sample bottle from 2018. (It’s also a good one to cellar for a few years, if you can wait that long.)

Anyone who has ever visited Provence, knows that rosé is the preferred Provençal wine. Every supermarket along the Côte d’Azur will have a wall of pink wine, and it is always a good choice, chilled and crisp on a summer afternoon. The Lumière de Provence Rosé 2017 is made from a blend of Grenache Syrah, Cinsault and Rolle grapes, mostly grown in a small hilltop village in the south of France. The result of this Mediterranean blend is a dry and textured wine, lightly flavoured with strawberries. The grapes are picked early to ensure a delicate, barely-there shade of pink. This elegant little number is perfect for a warm afternoon on the terrace, overlooking the sea. Or a gathering of friends on the back lawn in the shade of some hardy purple Prunus. For example.

Picardy Pemberton also provided our first red, in the form of a 2018 Pinot Noir. This is still a young wine with great cellaring potential. It also benefitted from double decanting. The father and son team has been working on perfecting this pinot, and the 2018, highly awarded, is their best so far.

Colab & Bloom is a young Willunga winery that is following the trend to use Mediterranean grapes, a better fit than the northern European grapes for our temperate climate. The grapes for this Italian style wine are sourced from all over SA, from Langhorne Creek to the Barossa, and their Montepulciano 2019 is full of fruit and makes incredibly smooth, easy drinking on a hot afternoon, when you mightn’t want the challenge of a heavier Barossa red. Like most Italian wines, it also goes exceptionally well with food. Owner and wine maker, Mike Farmilo, is an expert with a long career in winemaking. It has been recommended that decanting will bring out its best.

‘Great collaboration is like an orchestra – it doesn’t work if everyone plays the same part. The magic happens when a bunch of seeming misfits, fit together seamlessly, to create perfection. It’s Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti. It’s Cobain, Noveselic and Grohl. It’s Snap, Crackle and Pop.’ And, apparently, it’s also the St. John’s Road ‘Motley Bunch’ GMS 2017. Just see their website. Beautifully blending Grenache, Mataro, and Shiraz this is a lovely summer red to accompany a pizza or a bowl of pasta, and it’s had some great reviews.

The last two wines on offer were big reds from the Barossa Valley: a 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Chateau Yaldara, and a bold 2016 Shiraz from the Two Sisters Wine Co.

The Chateau Yaldara Cab Sav is an elegant, well balanced Cabernet, full of black fruits, oak and spice. It is fine to drink now but might be even better for a little time out in the cellar.

The Two Sisters Shiraz comes from some of the oldest vines in the Barossa, dating back to the 1840s. Six generations later, the family still owns the original homestead and orchard on one of the first vineyards established in the Barossa. This was another one recommended for cellaring.

Preferences chosen, shopping done, our wine cupboard is now looking a lot healthier, and I am absolutely set for Christmas. But where is the snow? Our first Christmas on the Fleurieu looks set to be warm and dry and snow free, with a maximum temperature of 27’C. A perfect day to put a leg of lamb on the Weber BBQ and roll back the cover on the swimming pool. No winter coats, gloves and hats needed here. Merry Christmas and Joy to the World! And I hope even those having to put up with tight Covid restrictions can have a special day.

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On the Road Again

After the state-wide panic of a six day Covid lockdown, our brief foray into isolation barely lasted 24 hours. A storm in a teacup? A flash in the pan? Miraculously, two days later, we were able to reignite plans to visit Bathurst for my cousin’s birthday and make a last minute dash to the border of New South Wales.

It’s our first night out, and we have landed just shy of the border, and Broken Hill. We camp on a patch of scrub in the middle of nowhere, between the railway line and the road. Barney, our new VW campervan (a very smart gentleman with blue and white checked seats and matching curtains) is already lightly coated in red dust. As we set up our deck chairs and the gas cooker, our noses and ears are promptly infiltrated by a thousand flies. Nonetheless, with a pasta sauce bubbling gently on the stove, and a glass of red wine in hand, we sit back happily, counting the wagons on the freight trains that thunder by, and waving gaily to the whooping hoots of the road trains.

The nearest township (Olary) consists of a pub and handful of scattered houses. The carcasses of a handful more (some reduced to a mere chimney), a few rusty corrugated iron sheds and a smattering of derelict cars complete the picture. Since Burra, the roadside has been littered with the white bones of roadkill. Whether kangaroos, cattle or sheep, it hard to tell, as the bones had been picked clean by crows and raptors, leaving few clues to distinguish them. Trees are an endangered species round here.

By complete contrast, we are reading a book by a friend who spent almost three years living in Mainland China. Flat, dry, scrubby dessert is replaced in our mind’s eye by vast Chinese cities, awash with sky-scrapers and immersed in smog. We try to decide if a city of nine million, awash with pollution and constant traffic jams, wins over nine million flies and mile upon mile of red dust.

It’s a little after dawn on day two. There is no thought of dawdling over cornflakes and a cup of tea. We are packing up in short order to flee the flies. By eight o’clock, we have arrived in Broken Hill for coffee and raisin toast topped with rocket. A strange choice of garnish, but the toast is delicious, full of spices and perfectly cooked, the coffee is hot, and the café is free of flies.

We have no idea what to expect of Broken Hill, knowing only that it was the home of Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP). We are surprised by wide, shady streets and many attractive stone buildings. We spend a fascinating day in this outback mining town, drifting from nature reserve to mine to art gallery, with a slight detour to Menindee, a tiny town to the south. (Note to self: it’s time to put aside European expectations. When the map suggests a large lake in the mid north, don’t expect miracles. Be grateful if it is a teacup more than a muddy puddle.)

Nonetheless, our foray south provides a fascinating spectacle of local wildlife, including a pair of emus with three gangly, long-legged, chicks in tow. A family of quail scuttle across the road in single file like school kids at a pedestrian crossing. Every few miles, a stolid, shingle backed lizard plods with suicidal determination across the hot tarmac. Down by the darling, a pair of pelicans drifted across the river, our only glimpse of running water since we drove over the Torrens, some six hundred kilometres south.

Line of Lode Miners Memorial, Broken Hill

Back in Broken Hill, we drive to the top of the hill on the southern side of town, where a visitor’s centre and a memorial to 800 dead miners have been erected, overlooking the town. The memorial lists all the miners killed, plus the cause of their deaths: in rock falls or mine explosions, from gas leaks or lung disease, from toppling down mine shafts or being buried alive in mullock or skimp. It seems there were a multitude of miserable ways to die before OH&S kicked in to protect miners from such grisly ends.

On a positive note, I learned some new words:
Mullock: a mound of waste and loose rubble left over from mining operations (or to ridicule someone by ‘poking mullock’ at them)
Kibble: a bucket for material or men out of a shaft (or dried dog food)
Bogger: a pneumatic shovel for removing broken rock (and dumping it into a cart that looks exactly like the ones at Gringotts)
Skimps: sandy residue from a mine, after all the minerals have been extracted (also something to suffocated under, if you should be careless enough to fall in).

After stalking over the wasteland of mullock, and admiring the view of the town below, we head north to the Living Desert State Park, a 2400 hectare area established in 1992. It is a hot day, and we trudge begrudgingly along the walking trail, through a fenced park that features hardy local plants that can survive the bone dry soil and the bleak surroundings better than we can. On a nearby hill is a circle of twelve stones à la Stonehenge. More than fifty tonnes of sandstone blocks were lugged from Wilcannia to this remote hilltop, where a multinational group of skilled sculptors gathered in 1993 to leave their mark on the Australian outback. As one artist said at the time, the stones look so peaceful and awe-inspiring on their own, he didn’t see the need to carve into them. But they did anyway, and the results are fascinating.

Another local artist, we discover, is Kevin Charles Hart, better known to the art world as Pro Hart. He died in 2006, but the gallery he built to house his eclectic works of art is an absolute joy to visit. It’s hard to believe this talented soul had a day job in the mines, but some of his most interesting works are those reflecting the hours he spent underground.

He also experimented with a multitude of art forms, creating paint guns and even a paint canon that splattered paint onto canvas from a distance. He illustrated the conflict between white man and aboriginal in stage-like sets, and his Lowry-like scenes of town events, such as the St Patrick’s Day races and Kids Sports day. He painted outback landscapes over one of his Rolls Royce cars and created exquisite sculptures. There are extraordinary abstracts and those enigmatic masks, eucalypts and yabbies, miners and shearers, Sydney Opera House and the Adelaide Oval. And Barney is now sporting a sticker of Hart’s amazing dragonfly on carpet.

Pro Hart Carpet Dragonfly

Broken Hill might be a long way from anywhere, but I’m keen to go back. Perhaps for the Broken Heel Festival in September, when the town fills up with drag queens and divas, comedy shows and cabaret, all paying homage to the glorious, glittering cult of Priscilla Queen of the Dessert…

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Gathering moss

‘Chaise Bleu’ by Cecilia Rosslee

‘…a period of quiet thinking in our room creates an occasion when the mind can order and understand itself. ‘ ~ Alain de Botton

It’s been a strange year of unexpected beginnings, reconnections and enforced immobility, as Covid 19 has kept all of us close to home. It’s been an unusual, often challenging year, as we have all coped with the limitations to travel and even the simple movements of our day-to-day lives. And yet, in many ways it has been a fascinating experiment in slowing down the clock, and ironing out the wrinkles in our busy, often chaotic lives, when we have too often been distracted by ‘doing’ to simply pause and contemplate ‘being.’

For me, it has been a timely exercise in nesting. No, I’m not pregnant – heaven forbid! – but the Covid situation has meant submerging my instinct to roam. And, honestly, I have been perfectly happy to spend a gentle year setting up our new home by the sea and enjoying a slower pace of life, with plenty of time to sit and observe my immediate surroundings.

Luckily, unlike the 18th century Parisian writer Xavier de Maistre – and many of those dwelling among the clouds in cramped apartments in huge cities – I have not been confined to a mere room. While I admit that from time to time it has still felt a little claustrophobic – I do think more freely on the move – the time to recreate my own space has been a joy. As I realise many of you have discovered, it has been an ideal opportunity to recalibrate, to purge, and to rearrange the furniture in our heads, which has been an eminently useful, if occasionally frustrating, exercise.

To be honest, here in South Australia, we have been contained by very few of the strictures that so many other cities and countries have suffered. Adelaide – apart from an initial panic and a recent forty eight hours of lockdown – has been almost Covid free. Nonetheless, the mindset and the international news has kept us cautious, albeit quietly smug. Particularly at our place, as – for once – our immediate family is within arm’s reach.

And far from being boring, we have rather enjoyed the day-to-day minutiae of a life more settled. We have learned some gardening skills after a decade of apartment living. We have garnered much delight from bird watching, as our trees are regularly invaded by galahs and cockatoos, owls and magpies (Gavin & Stacey and their brood pop in regularly for cheese and scraps of ham). Through the winter, we caught up on years of Aussie TV shows and movies we had never seen. There has also been time for many a walk down memory lane, as we travelled from the sofa, revisiting our cache of roads already taken. Reviewing old diaries, letters and articles has inspired several blogs this year and has consoled me for the lack of current activity, reminding me of the rich tapestry of adventures we have had over the years. I have even been delving into journals from ancestors and exploring my roots. While we wait to be allowed to pick up the threads of a peripatetic life, it’s been a timely reminder of a life well lived. Alain de Botton refers to it succinctly as the art of evocation.

It has also been an ideal time to plan a new future, and there’s nothing more exciting than imagining where we will be in ten, five, two years time. The state of the world might be confining us to Australia for now, but there’s plenty here to keep us busy, to explore, to discover.

For at heart we are nomads, and, surprise surprise, we are restless. So, by the time I write my next blog, we’ll be off again, out in the wilds of Australia, testing out our new camper van. See you soon, amid the dust and flies, out on the open road. Poop! Poop!

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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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