Riding the Ghan

Overland on the Ghan

Welcome to the Ghan. Here is your carriage and cabin number. We’ll be boarding in an hour and a half. Coffee and tea are available while you wait, and we will be opening the champagne shortly.”

At 11 am, champagne, really? Well, why not? After all, we are about to embark on a new adventure. And as the rain settles in for the long haul across the Adelaide plains, we should be celebrating our imminent departure for sunnier climes.

Back in my university days, a trip on the Ghan was an overnight, sit-up experience, and the line stopped in Alice Springs. In 2004, the line was finally opened all the way through to Darwin, after more than 120 years of planning, and now stretches almost three thousand kilometres from Adelaide to the Top End. Since then, the Ghan has been our own Australian version of the Orient Express, minus the murders of course, and something I have been longing to do for years. So, when the One & Only’s very adventurous aunt (Zia) happened to mention last year that she would love to do the trip, I jumped at the chance to go with her.

The Ghan first set out from Adelaide Railway Station to Alice Springs in 1929, carrying passengers, livestock and other supplies. Before the extension of the railway to Alice Springs was completed, the final leg of the journey was made by camel.

In the Adelaide Observer in 1924, one writer describes his trip on the Ghan:

The Oodnadatta train comes in, named in ribald fashion, “The Afghan Express” and to justify this, an old chap, swarthy, and dressed in turban, jacket, and voluminous blue print trousers tucked into his boots, buys a ticket, and climbs upon the train further along, in the lamplight.

Almost a decade later, in the Melbourne Herald, Archer Russell wrote:

Of my companions-to-be, only two were white— a Far Inland storekeeper and a “boss” cattleman; of the remainder, seven in number, three were aboriginal stock[men], and four inscrutably aloof at the further end of the car, were Afghan camel drivers… the cameleers would rejoin their camel trains at Oodnadatta, and disappear into the inland. The cattleman [explained]: “Yers, them there baggy trousers is why we call this ‘ere train the Afghan Express. Every trip, some of ‘ems on it.”

Thus, the Afghan Express (later shortened in the Aussie manner of abbreviating everything, to “The Ghan”) earned its nickname because of those Afghan camel drivers who helped the British settlers find a way into the interior. The ‘express’ part must have been tongue in cheek, though, as it was renowned for being one of the slowest, most unreliable services, and the tracks were often washed away. As Russell said, “the Afghan Express was no Flying Scotsman!” An extra carriage, or flat car, would carry spare sleepers and railway tools, so the crew could repair the line when necessary. Later, during World War II, the Ghan was used to transport troops. Presumably, the hundreds of troop trains that travelled up the line through the war years were a little more reliable!

Originally a government owned steam train, the Ghan upgraded to a locomotive in 1951. Privatised in 1997, the line was finally extended from Alice Springs to Darwin. The first passenger train reached the Top End in February 2004 and began a flow of tourists that has seen tourism infrastructure grow exponentially in the Northern Territory. The new Ghan – purely a tourist train these days, run by Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions – travels weekly from Adelaide to Darwin over three days, and back over four, stopping at Marla, Alice Springs and Katherine en route. JBRE offers several railway adventures across the Australian Outback: the journey through central Australia from north to south on The Ghan; east to west from Sydney to Perth via Adelaide on the Indian Pacific; The Overland from Adelaide to Melbourne, and – the latest addition in 2019 – Adelaide to Brisbane on the Great Southern Railway.

Sunrise at Marla

Our trip on the Ghan promised 3 days/ 2 nights of all-inclusive meals, drinks and off-train excursions. The meals, the marvellous staff and those off-train experiences were all fabulous, and I have a plethora of photographs of sunsets and sunrises that barely do justice to the ‘majestical’ colours they create in the desert skies.

There was an unexpected Old World charm to the experience, despite the fact that we were all dressed casually – no tiaras or dinner jackets on this Antipodean version of the Orient Express! But we soon got to know our fellow travellers, comparing notes over dinner on travel plans and other memorable trips we had taken, laughing uproariously over endless glasses of sparkling wine, gasping over breath-taking views through the wide lounge windows. The Gold Class cabins are not large by any stretch of the imagination, but in true IKEA fashion there is everything you need, neatly packaged, for our three day stay. Staff put the beds down every night, and pack them away again in the morning. We learn how to juggle ourselves and our belongings in this dinky space, but spend most of our time aboard the train in the lounge, unless we are sleeping.. And the moving train rocks us to sleep each night.

At dawn, on our second day out, we clamber out of the train to watch the sun rise over the desert at a siding in the middle of nowhere. The staff have already built huge fires and set up tea and coffee stations. In the chilly morning air, we huddle as close to the fire as possible, watching a deep orange stripe appear on the horizon that gradually spread over an ocean of ochre earth and dusty scrub, turning the sky from black to steel grey to a soft blue, as we clutch hot mugs of tea or coffee in one hand and try to take photos with the other.

Simpson’s Gap

Later that day, we disembark at Alice Springs for the afternoon’s excursion. Some take a bus tour of town, some head off to the Desert Park. I need to stretch my legs, so I board a coach for Simpson’s Gap, and a little gentle hiking.  Our guide introduces us to native species along the way and I have a flashback to a bygone era when we camped here beneath the stars, to be startled into wakefulness by magpies sounding the alarm above our heads.

We reboard the train as the sun sets over Alice and are heading north again by dinner time.

Day three, and the train pulls into Katherine after breakfast. A cluster of coaches wait to transfer us to Katherine Gorge, named by the Scottish explorer, John McDouall Stuart, for the daughter of South Australian horse dealer and pastoralist James Chambers. These days it is known by the name it was given by its aboriginal custodians, the local Jawoyn people: Nitmiluk. Flat bottomed boats navigate up the gorge till they can go no further. These rocks that block our way are thirty feet under water in the wet season. For now, we walk across them to the next section of the gorge, where a second boat takes us on past the Jedda Rock – from the 1955 Chauvel film starring aboriginal actors Rosalie (Ngarla) Kunoth as Jedda and Robert Tudawali as Marbuck.

Jedda Rock at Nitmiluk

During the wet season, the huge saltwater crocodiles can swim upriver and get trapped in the gorge when the water level drops, but today, we only come across the long nosed freshwater variety which don’t look nearly as menacing and apparently have little taste for human flesh. Nonetheless, I am not tempted to jump in the water to introduce myself.

Johnstone’s crocodile or a “freshie”

Lunch is served on the banks of the river under a shade cloth, and we drift through the early afternoon, sipping lukewarm wine, nibbling on crocodile served like pulled pork, barramundi ceviche, and kangaroo. Then it’s back to the Ghan for the final lap to Darwin, a last glass of bubbly with new friends, a last supper in the elegant dining car, and a fond farewell to our friendly concierge, the chefs and waitresses who have looked after us so beautifully.  The whole trip has been a luxury and a delight from start to finish. Now, which train journey next?

* With thanks to Google images for the aerial view of the train.

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“And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”

Winter has arrived in South Australia with a vengeance. Autumn was wet, but June has been wetter. The local papers suggest it may be the soggiest June on record.  Our water tanks are full to the brim and the tides have been racing up into the sand dunes and sucking them into the sea. Rain, rain, and more rain has been predicted.

So, what better time to hide inside with a pile of good books, and a pot of soup on the stove? My mother always had a soup on the go though winter, topping it up from leftovers. It was a bit hit and miss – sometimes the flavour combinations were wonderful, occasionally they clashed histrionically. But on a freezing day, with a hot mug in our hands, we weren’t complaining.

Having lived through winters in northern Europe, you probably wonder how I can complain about a cold winter in Australia. Funnily enough, we don’t tend to build houses to keep out the cold, but to keep out the heat instead. No one really believes in winter until it arrives, and we suddenly realize that its colder inside than out. Every year. Go figur. Still, I have my Ug boots and my fleece, so apart from cold hands, I’m not doing too badly this morning. Time for that mug of hot soup perhaps?

Yesterday, my daughter and I dropped into her favourite café opposite the Hawthorndene Oval. Joan’s Pantry has apparently been around since the 1960s, when the eponymous Joan and her husband set up business – although rumour has it, tea and cake were served to the cricketers from the original galvanized iron shed for many years before that. Rebuilt in 2015, this local institution was expanded to include a large indoor dining area and outdoor seating, and these days serves far more than tea and cake. The welcome is casual and friendly, and the servings are incredibly generous, and if my soup was anything to go by, simply oozing flavour. Roast mushroom and celeriac, which looks like a very gnarly turnip and tastes like celery only better (and nuttier). Every mouthful was a joy. Luckily my girl is happy to keep the conversation going while I slurp happily. Wish I had thought to ask for the recipe.

I found a large mushroom in the garden this morning. How to know if it is safe to eat, though? It looks and smells like a mushroom. Better check. Here comes Google. Well, it’s got a scaley surface and white gills, and apparently that’s a definite “No.” Bother. Just excuse me while I go and scrub my hands…

The sky is grey and gloomy, but the garden is thriving. We live on a sand dune, so water is a very limited commodity for my poor plants, as it tends to drain away so quickly. We quickly discovered that an English garden was never going to survive here, and we are gradually learning to work with the environment. “Whatever grows on the dunes should work in the garden” has become a rule of thumb. And the birds prefer the natives anyway. We now have a jolly community of parrots and wrens, mistletoe birds and magpies, honey eaters and crested pigeons (not top knot pigeons, as I have been erroneously calling them!). I can’t always spot the smaller ones (too short-sighted) but the One & Only is becoming quite the twitcher. Although apparently this derogatory term applies not to serious bird watchers (who observe but don’t disturb) but those who race off at the drop of a hat to chase after a rare visitor. Apparently, this dashing about makes them nervous and highly stressed, and doesn’t do much for the nerves of the poor bird either. Luckily, my ‘twitcher’ sits quietly on the veranda with his binoculars and leaves the birds in peace to explore the garden.

Next week I am going to desert our soggy state and head north. As you may already know, Australia is a continent with a wide variety of climates. So, while we shiver and shake down here in the south, the Top End is enjoying a somewhat milder climate. Our average low at this time of year is about 8’C – which isn’t quite as cold as Canberra or Melbourne, and colder than Hobart (now that was a surprise) – but up north, near the equator (Darwin is closer to that magical, imaginary line than Manila – another surprise, to me at least) it is around 20’C. I think it might be time to get packing. I’ll see you later!

  • with thanks to Google for the pictures. I have rarely spotted the tiny mistletoe bird – partly because it never sits still for long. It takes a talented photographer to get a shot like this!
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The Magical Land of Books

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”
― Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

With apologies for my long absence, but my head has been buried in books for the past month or more. Neither novels, nor travel guides, I have been exploring the world of histoiography, philosophy and critical theory. Yes, it has been as daunting and challenging as it sounds, but what a thrill to be back among books.

As I have undoubtedly mentioned before, I hate shopping. Window shopping drives me demented, changing rooms bring me out in a cold sweat. Supermarkets I approach on an ‘unfortunate necessity’ basis, dashing around and out as fast as I can. Crowds, malls, department stores are my bêtes noires… Until I pass a stationery shop. Or a bookshop. That is a different matter entirely.

Over the years I have spent a fortune on pretty notebooks and books. I have lugged boxes of my favourite novels around the globe. I cannot enter a bookshop for one book and emerge with less than four. I have a pile beside my bed that is almost to the ceiling. I won’t succumb to Kindle, although friends swear by it, and I do have a vast library of audiobooks. But I love handling a real book. The secrets and stories within make my mouth water. Whenever I have worked in bookshops – and I have worked in a few – I have generally spent my wages on more books. It’s an addiction, an obsession, a craving for and enslavement to the written word.

So, when I heard that this new Covid World has inspired an increase in printed book sales, and independent booksellers are staying afloat thanks to a substantial contingent of book lovers, it was balm to my book-loving soul. Last time I looked, the word was out that book shops on the High Street were declining. Internet shopping had made a huge foray into market, book chains were falling by the wayside, and second-hand book shops were crammed with books people were throwing out now they had a Kindle. But those smaller indie bookshops often know how to throw out a hook with an irresistible bait: alluring atmosphere; comfy seating; a stationery section; a coffee corner… apparently some even have a wine bar…who could resist? Not me, that’s for sure. All these things – and books too! – emit a whimsical flavour that lures you in like the Bisto gravy ad. It’s like curling up at home, only better. You are surrounded by like-minded people, the scent of coffee and the irresistible aroma of real books.

Laivaria Lello, Porto,

All over the world there are quirky book shops as magical as Flourish & Blotts in Diagon Alley: a thirteenth century church in Maastricht converted into a book store, Boekhandel Dominicanen, where the mezzanine floor brings you nose to nose with the painted ceilings and arched windows, and there’s a coffee shop in the choir stalls; the Neo Gothic and Art Nouveau bookstore, Laivaria Lello, in Porto that inspired JK Rowling; less quirky, but equally delicious, my own favourite in the English market town of Sevenoaks, aptly named Sevenoaks Bookshop, which has recently doubled in size.

So, I am thrilled to live in a place that still delights in bookshops. South Sea Books at Port Elliot, Mostly Books at Mitcham, Matilda’s in Stirling… and now the new Dymocks, which just this month took over the old Regent Cinema in the Regent Arcade, just as I thought this too had become a victim of technology and closed for good.

Dymocks Booksellers is Aussie icon. William Dymock started the business in 1879 in Sydney and gradually spread across the country. Dymocks came to Rundle Mall thirty years ago, but it closed last year and moved – much reduced – to the Meyer Centre. Last month it re-opened on Rundle Mall, at the old Regent Cinema, opposite the Malls Balls, and it is wonderful. Spacious and airy, with around 1000m2 of floor and all the folderol and fiddle-deedee on the ceilings left intact. The Staff are friendly and helpful and there is plenty of room to move between the shelves.

The Regent Cinema was first opened in 1928, described in the Advertiser as a “Palace of Art”. An orchestra, a Wurlitzer pipe organ and a crystal chandelier were installed and the theatre initially seated almost 2,500 people. It closed down in 2004 and was promptly gutted. This year there has been a renaissance – if not for Movie Buffs at least for their cousins, the Bookworms!

And when I have had enough of cold, hard theory, I have been hiding a wonderful book under my pillow. The Thirteenth Tale is a gothic novel reminiscent of Jane Eyre, and is full to the brim with book lovers and writers and plot twists, in this fascinating first novel by Diane Setterfield. I’ll be back later….

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The Joy of Airports

‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane
Don’t know when I’ll be back again…’ – John Denver

As the world starts to open up again, it seems a lifetime ago that I spent so much time in airports, flitting around the world to seek out family and friends, to delve into new cities, to tumble into new adventures. As security has ramped up over the years – bomb threats, the fear of terrorism – and the volume of travellers has risen exponentially, it’s hard to remember a time when queues through airports didn’t extend for days. Nonetheless, there is something magical that stirs my heart at the thought of a boarding pass and a trek down the ramp to the plane door, to find my seat – ‘window or aisle?’ being the biggest decision I’ll make this week – and settle in for a long-haul flight. And I remember those days with nostalgia, as we wait to emerge from this covid chrysalis and drift out into the world again….

When we first moved to the Philippines, I found Ninoy Aquino Airport in Manila to have the most exhaustive and exhausting security measures I had ever come across. My last trip back was in October 2018, but I still remember clearly…

Every person you pass needs to see your passport, or your ticket or both.  I have taken my shoes off so many times I wish I had worn flip flops. Luckily, the sheer dreariness of it has driven away the tears that have been bubbling to the surface since two final G&Ts by the pool around four.

I have loved being back in Asia. Even some of those small, daily aggravations – like airports – are amusing now, and positively nostalgic. This time, I can giggle at the brash, blaring, tinny muzak in every shopping mall, the restaurant meals served in every conceivable permutation except entrée, main course, dessert that used to drive me to despair, the ever-present, slightly waxy smell of shopping malls that adheres to your nostrils like glue. Even the slow pace at which everyone walks, four abreast, that used to aggravate when I was in a hurry and could not pass, is a comfortable, fuzzy memory.  There is such deliberation over every retail transaction that it can take hours to buy a packet of socks, as the staff produce invoices and receipts in triplicate, mostly handwritten. Time stops to coo over every round-eyed baby or cute toddler. A thousand shop assistants call out to welcome you ‘sir-ma’am,’ trying to capture your attention, so that a quick trip for coffee results in a four poster bed, two dresses and a set of suitcases. Wherever you go, there is always someone to smile cheerily and offer to help you or sell you something, whether you want it or not.

As we drive out onto EDSA, the main north-south artery of the city, where horns blare, cars, buses trucks and jeepneys twist and weave like some elaborate Scottish reel, I smile at the chaos of this vibrant, unique city. The traffic goes nowhere very, very slowly. ‘It’s very traffic’ means it’s barely moving. ‘It’s really traffic’ means it has come to a standstill and may not move again for days.

I remember how every chore I set out to do had unexpected results. The suspicion that a trip to the bank would take forever and become ridiculously convoluted, meant that it might, in reality, get done in a moment. If it should be simple, it threatens to tie knots in its own tail and leave me in a damp, distressed heap having totally failed to achieve anything.

Yet whatever the chaos and confusion, it’s always served with a smile in the Philippines. Time passes gently, and provided such ‘que sera sera’ doesn’t drive you out of your mind in minutes, it’s the best way to approach this mad, crazy city. I clamber out of the taxi and join the first queue to get through the front door and feel homesick already…

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Sunday Scribblings

A week or two of wild winds, white skies, where’s-my-dressing-gown? Autumn has arrived. And then suddenly the wind drops, and the sky is clear, azure blue again. The trees stop churning and the pool glitters serenely, tempting me to cast off clothes and submerge over-heated limbs in its chilly embrace.

On these warm days, the beach – so often quiet and empty these past two years – is swarming with kids and cars and boats and beach towels. The sea is placid and clear, a giant lake with barely a ripple, and the line between sea and sky is hard to discern.

While I love the peace of winter sands stretching unmarked along the coast, on sunny, summer days by the sea the liveliness and joyous sense of freedom is tangible. Laughter floats on the air, rising above the roar of motorboats and jet skis tearing across the horizon. Dogs gallop into the water, barking bravely at the waves. Walking along the rim of the sea, we dodge holes and castles dug by small, eager hands.

And it’s not just the beach that’s busy. It’s lovely to see all the cafes and shops humming with activity too.

Caffe on Bungala – our tiny, overgrown creek, only eight miles long – is just across the road from the Normy pub. It changed hands recently, to great effect. Francis and Ian moved from NSW in 2020 and opened here just after Easter last year. I have already found my favourite spot in the pretty, shaded courtyard garden out the back. The back gate had been locked since we arrived, as Covid restrictions changed the dynamics of dining out so dramatically.  Now it is open, with a welcoming sandwich board sitting beside it. This is not a smart city coffee shop, but a low key, friendly, rural café, the courtyard a homely and friendly place to hang out, to see friends, to read a book, to write a blog, and watch the birds skimming in and out of the giant gums next door. Dogs are welcome – kids too!  There’s an olive tree, a couple of overgrown geraniums, an eclectic selection of tables, barrels and chairs, and there is a smiling LGBT Pride flag hanging cheerfully from the pergola. It can sometimes be a bit of a wait for food, if it’s busy – but you are probably here on holiday, so relax and soak up the atmosphere. It’s lovely inside as well, with another catholic collection of retro chairs and tables, old sofas, a bench or two. Or you may prefer watching the world go buy from the pavement seating out the front, on the brightly coloured chairs beneath the freshly painted orange veranda.

I walked in late this morning to see the cook sorting out a box of huge, beautiful mushrooms, as big as bread-and-butter plates, and my decision was made. ‘May I have those, but with smashed avocado please?’ The resulting plate of scrumptiousness might keep me here all afternoon. (Note: they also know NOT to heat a croissant in the microwave, which is fabulous. I had one in town last week that had been squashed flat as a pancake in a sandwich press.)

I have somehow finished my enormous breakfast and found room for a coffee. Great coffee. And HOT! Francis stops by for a chat in the quiet zone between the last of the brunch crowd and the next influx of lunch guests. Before they rush in, I am off, to wander the long way home as the day heats up and the pool beckons, a gentle breeze whispering through the trees, the birds chattering emphatically as I pass beneath them…

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Not Another Brick in the Wall

While I have always loved a good chat, I used to dread the thought of speaking in public. My voice and my hands would shake. My mouth would go dry. The page before me would go blank. I would wither with fear. Then, in my forties, I started going to Toastmasters and finally learned to overcome my terror. I still prefer to sit behind a pen than up in front of a microphone, but if I have to, I can.

And yet, its only in recent times, that women have been allowed to take centre stage.

The use of language to constrict women’s speech (ironic, isn’t it?) has been a bone of contention for more years than I can count. Back in the 19th century, our very own South Australian activist, Catherine Helen Spence, complained that society has long ‘put a bridle on the tongues of women, and of the innumerable proverbs relating to the sex, the most cynical are those relating to her use of language.’ In case you haven’t met her, Catherine is my heroine, remembered on Australia’s $5 note for her life as novelist and journalist, public speaker, preacher, teacher, politician and philanthropist. She was on government boards, and she took care of neglected children, helping to found the first fostering service. She led the way for women’s rights. Born in 1825, she broke down barriers in a world where men held dominion. She made her voice heard. She refused to be silenced.

Women in power have always had to cop a lot of flak. So have men, to be fair. But there is a special vocabulary reserved for women, whether in positions of power or working at home. We’ve all read tales of feminists who want to outlaw the word ‘bossy’ from our vocabulary. And it’s a fair call, in my opinion, a valid complaint about the misuse of language. As a word generally reserved for girls – mostly older sisters, if the truth be known – it puts us in our place. Back in the corner. A dusty, dark spot I’ve never liked vising. Unless there’s a bookshelf to hand.

Call a little girl “bossy” and she starts to avoid leadership roles because she’s afraid of being seen as unlikeable. People are already wary of assertive women at work, but call a woman “aggressive” out loud and they will probably like her less. Call a female politician a ballbuster enough times, and people may actually be less likely to vote for her. Words tell us something about the way our culture perceives women in power, and whether we believe they’re supposed to be there. ~ Jessica Bennett, 2014.

Let’s face it, adults can be tyrannical about controlling children. Use any critical word on a child often enough and they will come to believe it, and all its connotations, and spend their life trying to avoid it. All children. Girls and boys. But for women, the age old maxim ‘children should be seen and not heard’ went on being applied throughout their lives.

A Scold’s Bridle from the Science Museum

Have you ever seen one of these? Pretty isn’t it? Wikipedia describes it in all it’s glory: A scold’s bridle, sometimes called a witch’s bridle, a gossip’s bridle, a brank’s bridle, or simply branks, was an instrument of punishment, as a form of public humiliation. It was an iron muzzle in an iron framework that enclosed the head.

This joyful contraption was used for women (very occasionally for men) who were disturbing the peace; whose speech or behaviour was considered disrespectful or wayward. Some images depict a metal protrusion that was inserted in the mouth and flattened the tongue. It was not only humiliating, but extremely painful, not to mention psychologically traumatic. One story tells of a woman forced to wear it for eight hours for preaching in the marketplace. I guess public speaking was not considered ladylike! Invented in Britain in the sixteenth century, the bridle was still being used in the mid-19th century, and the crime of being a ‘scold’ was not dropped from the books in Britain until 1967. Honestly, the lengths to which they would go, to keep us quiet.

Compare this gruesome contraption with the word ‘bossy,’ and it is reassuring to think we’ve moved on since those days of physically muzzling women to shut them up. And many of the appalling synonyms for bossy have long gone out of fashion, too, thank heavens. I don’t mean to revive them by mentioning them here, but seriously, listen to some of these. An outspoken woman was a scold, a nag, a fishwife, a gorgon, a battle-axe, a dragon lady, a fury, a harpy, a harridan, a shrew, a termagant, a virago, a vixen. Words never used on a man, you may note, who might more amusingly be decried as nitpicker, pettifogger or quibbler.

As we see a surge in the revival of feminism through the ‘Me Too’ movement, it is good to reflect that in some areas, we have come a long way since the days when the scolds bridle was a popular tool for suppressing women’s voices. In Australia, at least. And we are lucky. We can vote, own property, get an education and health care, and speak out in public. But that’s not yet true for every woman in the world. So let’s not stop trying to pull down that wall, brick by brick.

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Summer in Sorrento

This week, the One & Only flew to Europe. I am calling it his ‘Gap Year,’ as I am not remotely convinced by his return ticket at the end of March.  I have every expectation he’ll stay away till Christmas – partly to manage expectations (mine), partly because he has been grounded for over two years and has had ants in his pants for months. So, he will be in Florence for my birthday and our anniversary. I’m jealous, of course, but not annoyed. I could have gone, too, but I had other things to do.

It has, however, dredged up memories of our early days of backpacking, which was also the last time the One & Only saw the Medici’s glorious city. I look through old diaries and discover, not Firenze, but a trip to Naples in the summer of 1991. We were on our way to meet our newly married friends. As we hadn’t been able to make it to the wedding, I teased them about crashing their honeymoon instead. They accepted the challenge with surprising enthusiasm. So, we set off across Italy, a journey of some 750 kilometres from Verona to Salerno, on a sluggish train that took a lazy ten hours to get us there. From Salerno, we piled onto a bus that would scoot us around the Amalfi Coast to Sorrento.

We are on a local bus, driving along a precariously steep and winding coastline with jagged cliffs dropping into deep blue sea hundreds of feet below. Houses perch perilously close to the edge, reached by long flights of stone steps. Bougainvillaea and large purple wallflowers grow up every retaining wall and rock face. Grape vines stretch across spindly frames that look as if someone tossed a packet of matches over the edge. The road twists and turns like a serpent, and the bus seems only inches away from disaster. Tiny beaches on narrow spits of sand are covered with neat rows of navy blue umbrellas, and rocky outcrops on which sun bathers balance nervously. Palm trees. A flotilla of small sailing boats. Pedestrians of all shapes and sizes, who meander along the promenades in minimalist garb. Ruined forts lean out over the sea on every rocky point.

I remember stopping for a break at Amalfi, that tiny pink and white town wedged into a ravine between vertical cliffs. As we climbed queasily from the bus, we saw a wedding party stepping cautiously down the steep stone staircase from the 11th century Duomo (a staircase clad in red carpet for the occasion). The bride was a veritable bouquet of frills and flounces and heavy makeup. A video camera followed her along the boulevard recording every step of her new life as a wife, draped ostentatiously over her husband’s arm. We found a café on the piazza where we sat and observed the procession of wedding guests promenading along the quay.

As I write, another bus offloads its passengers, who all converge on the café where I am sitting, and settle down for the afternoon. One family pushes several tables together, lays out a pretty pink cloth, and brings forth a huge dish of lasagne and two bottles of homemade wine, sandwiches, fruit, and no qualms whatsoever about upsetting the staff. Who would dare argue with a four foot, fiercely voluble Italian Nonna?

I am mad about Italy. The people are so warm and friendly and love to help. There was that kind lady in Milano, a mother hen who hurried us like chicks through the traffic to catch the tram. Then, there was a long queue of Veronese waiting at a bus stop, debating endlessly about which bus we must catch to il campeggio. I think we would have got there quicker if we’d walked. Back on the bus, we careered around the coast, our driver obviously determined to break all speed records, tempting fate at every sharp turn not to tip us into the sea. And somehow, we arrive in Sorrento in one piece, although our stomachs might beg to differ. I felt decidedly sea-sick, and the One and Only was a ghastly shade of pea green. Life quickly improved, however, and we were soon comfortably ensconced above the sea in our little two man tent..

It’s a lovely cool evening in Sorento among the orchard of olive trees at our campsite. Our tent site overlooks the Bay of Naples and when the heat haze lifted this evening, we could actually see Mount Vesuvius across the water. We will visit Pompei when we have recovered from the heat and those wriggly roads. Tonight, we will stay close to home, as the campsite has a bar and restaurant with a pizza oven, where the tables are set beneath a canopy of wisteria.

We did make it to Pompeii, although in my diary, the heat got almost as much airplay as the historic ruins. Nonetheless, it proved a fascinating place to visit. I had never realised Pompeii was a whole town and not just a few decaying ruins. I remember being particularly keen on the cobbled streets, with stepping-stones for the ladies to get across without dirtying their feet, and deep grooves in the stone where 150 years-worth of carts had passed by. Sadly, our northern European complexions wilted fast in the midday sun, and none of us had the wherewithal to climb up Mount Vesuvius. One day I will go back in winter…

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A Whistle-Stop Trip

You can’t roller skate in as buffalo herd
But you can be happy if you’ve a mind to…’

What have we been up to lately? A whirlwind trip east to Melbourne: four days in the car, visiting friends en route; a bakery or three; endless coffees and wine on tap. No time to pause. Driving, eating, talking non-stop. And, before we could gather our thoughts, we are home again, feeling as if we just stepped off a long haul flight, with gritty eyes and greasy hair.

Eric the Echidna… or maybe Erica… hard to say!

Despite the pace, it was a terrific trip: the joy of the open road, glimpsing kangaroos and emus, llamas by the bucket load, and a small, determined echidna, rooting for ants on the side of the highway; catching up with friends and talking a mile a minute to make sure we had covered the weeks, months, years since last we spoke; a picnic in the park with our boys, somewhere on a back street in Brunswick, nibbling on prawn crackers, dumplings and steak in black bean sauce while critiquing the graffiti – it is EVERYWHERE in Melbourne!


Frantic, out of focus, sleeping poorly (too much wine) but oh! so much fun. Putting the world to rights with friends, hearing details of new jobs, new adventures, reminiscing about past lives. It was an exciting, enervating, eclectic mix of food, farming and famille.

In a country town somewhere south of Ballarat, we indulged in two delicious dinners, made from scratch from the veggie patch outside the kitchen window. It may have been a slap in the eye for the One & Only, who has struggled to grow anything much in the sand dune we live on, but nonetheless, there is something inspiring about eating a meal created from home grown produce: beans, zucchini, figs, fresh pasta, even homemade ice cream.

Likewise on a cattle farm near the Coonawarra, a barbecue of perfectly cooked beef steaks and salads concocted from myriad ingredients freshly plucked fifty metres from the back door. And playing with some mad kelpies who jumped into trees and begged us to throw them grapefruit to catch.

We may not need to eat for a week, but while we are detoxing, we’re determined to revive our sandy garden beds, to wrestle with the tomatoes, the fruit trees and the herb garden, to charge in with pony poo and mulch and plenty of patience. And maybe, by next summer, I too will be making primavera pasta from our own produce. I may even invest in a pasta maker – but possibly not the roller skates! Any advice welcome…

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A Café by the Sea

The sun is up and the early morning swimmers are trudging up the beach, damp and dripping, to gather for coffee on the veranda at the Normanville Kiosk & Café. In dribs and drabs, the dawn patrol of dog walkers follow them in. Later, as the sea begins to glitter in the morning sun, a stream of beach walkers from Carrickalinga arrive. By ten o’clock, the café is awash with swimmers, walkers, families, and exhausted puppies dozing under the tables.

The café has been here for years and is something of a local icon. Casual and comfortable, it provides a view to the south along the worn cliffs beyond Lady Bay, and north over the sand dunes to Carrickalinga. And of course, there’s usually a fisherman or two on the jetty.

It also provides good coffee and tasty meals of sumptuous proportions.

We sat on the veranda for dinner last night as the sun set into the sea, turning the sparse clouds a glorious shade of peach. This morning I am back for morning tea, as the One & Only marches off down the beach to infinity and beyond.

Last night, on the lawn in front of the café, there was a guy with a guitar and small groups of picnickers. Others climbed the wooden staircase to the bar above the surf lifesaving club. Everything is a bit tatty, a bit weather worn, but that is half its appeal. Normanville has never been a destination for the flashy city slickers. It’s a family beach where children can paddle in the gentle surf and build sandcastles, where dogs frolic gleefully, and horses appear occasionally to gallop along the sand or take a sedate dip in the sea.

I adore this haven by the sea. It warms the cockles of my heart to sit out on the veranda with a coffee, a sea breeze and the sound of the waves and giggling kids washing up from the beach. Last summer, a new ‘container’ kiosk was set up on the side of the building last summer and it is great for a quick fix of takeaway fish‘n’chips, an icecream or a coffee. Picnic tables are set up in the sandpit outside and there is something incredibly soothing about eating with sand between your toes.

The café is open seven days a week, 8am – 4pm, except on weekends when it stays open until 8pm – at least in the summer. I have generally found the food tasty, the coffee hot and the service friendly. There are vegetarian and gluten free options, but otherwise I can highly recommend the fish’n’chips and the red velvet cake, the likes of which I haven’t tasted since we lived in the Philippines.

It can be busy, and service may be slow – but if you’re on holidays, does that really matter? Certainly, far from the hustle and bustle of city living, I am in no hurry.

Sadly, the café has recently been dealt a potential death blow, as the council seek approval to rebuild the Surf Life Saving Club, against the oft-expressed wishes of many locals, including the current café owners.
According to the 2020 council report, the Council committed to the future allocation of $1,600,000 for the rebuilding of the Normanville Café/Kiosk and target grant funding opportunities for the spend. [and that]… the rebuilding of the Surf Club and Kiosk be a combined building and subject to a design brief to be agreed upon by the full Council.

Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? A better designed, brand new building with all the mod cons? But word on the street is less optimistic. The kiosk owners understand that the new design will be a ‘glass castle’ which will limit their space and the customers access by putting the cafe upstairs behind huge plate glass, with only one lift. We will lose the veranda and probably the easy-going joie-de-vivre of the generous space below. How will that better serve the customers, especially the elderly and the disabled, the mums-with-prams and the pets, all of whom so enjoy the open air veranda every day? Is the Yankalilla Council truly going to swim against the tide and insist upon investing millions in a project over which so many locals are baulking? And how can they allocate such enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars to redevelopment, and yet struggle to ensure the bins are emptied daily during the summer season, when we are flooded with holiday makers? The debate has been raging for months, and yet conclusions are thin on the ground. It is limbo land out there.

For my money, I love the down-to-earth, mixed demographic we find here. And with the best intentions in the world to develop tourism and capture more of the leisure market, the council doesn’t seem to appreciate how many of us feel about the current lack of fuss on the Normanville foreshore. Its old-fashioned simplicity is a joy to behold, with its bucket-and-spade beach and user-friendly, open-air café. Sure, the surf lifesaving club could do with an overhaul, but perhaps a lick of paint and some new equipment would do the job? The café owners certainly believe so and are more than happy to renovate the café at their own cost.

So, do we really need the designer glass house the council has promised us? And who would actually benefit from such a lavish make-over, other than city visitors? Not the local community, it seems, who didn’t move here to recreate a Somerton or Semaphore on the Fleurieu. We love the ambiance of our more rural and cosy setting, the warm welcome and the family-friendly space. Sadly, the new café and lifesaving club looks set to pack us behind glass so we can sit in a microwave oven and look out at the world, instead of being in it. Here’s hoping the Council are listening, and will see fit to adapt their plans a little…

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Ekhidna Wines

A sunny day. A back road in McLaren Vale. A vast fig tree giving off a juicy scent of summer. An open air space tucked in among the grapevines. The view is sublime, the staff are terrific – cheerful and welcoming- and the wine is the stuff of dreams.

According to its website, Ekhidna Wines gets its name, not from our local monotreme, but from the Greek goddess Ekhidna, half nymph, half serpent: beautiful, immortal, fearsome. Our echidna was named after this Greek Myth because it is also something of a chimera: a warm blooded mammal that lays leathery eggs like a reptile. And the sign for the winery is not a terrifying Greek goddess but a stylized echidna with curly spikes ‘like a slinky’ and a long nose.

We are given a long table under the fan on the terrace. Through the huge picture windows, we see vines stretching away to the horizon. Out on the lawn, tables are set up under the gum trees. Armed with either  a chilled glass of Ekhidna’s own ginger beer – which rated very highly with our connoisseurs of ginger beer –  or a dry, watermelon pink rosé with a fruity lift from the Shiraz grape from whence it comes, we eagerly explore our options for lunch.

It’s a simple menu: four entrees, four main courses and four desserts. Perfect for sharing on a summer afternoon. This is a belated birthday celebration, and we are feeling happy and relaxed, if a trifle overheated.

Our entrées arrive, prettily presented, on wooden boards. We have chosen to share the whole selection, as we all enjoy the tapas approach to eating. Seeing ceviche on the menu gives me happy memories of a sumptuous ceviche in Palawan, where the Filipinos have adapted the South American recipe to mix calamansi with coconut milk, which takes the edge off the sour citrus and gives it a creamy softness. The Peruvian method uses straight citrus juice, so it needs to be added sparingly, or the tartness can be too sharp and – particularly with squid – risk ‘cooking’ it too much and turning it to rubber. However, it worked well with the sea trout, with snippets of fresh chilli providing an added zing.

The duck liver pâté is presented on homemade, thick, seeded biscuits. Decadently rich and creamy, I would have preferred plainer biscuits to dip lightly into a deep bowl of this luscious, ruinously calorific pâté, all the better to savour it. Nonetheless, it is a generous mouthful of flavour.

The calamari come three ways. As our daughter’s One & Only catches it fresh from the sea and cooks it superbly, there is always going to be a sense of competition when we order it elsewhere. However, the competition today is stiff. The best of the three types is charcoal grilled to perfection, with just the right amount of mild chewiness. The crumbed salt and pepper squid is not quite as good as Ben’s, but it gets a thumbs up, too. But those three thin strips of squid, pickled or cured in lemon juice, miss the mark, being overly tart and verging on rubbery.

Unfortunately, the beetroot tartare – a mound of grated beetroot too lightly spiced to taste of anything much and sprinkled in rice bubbles  – is an uninspiring nod to vegetarian guests.

 The main courses are generous and filling, but received mixed reviews: a chicken dish, steak, fish and – again a nod to the non-meat-eaters – a huge head of cauliflower in the middle of the plate, spiced with garlic chive miso mayo & sesame cabbage salad. We leave the cauliflower for the vegans, but order everything else.

My fish of the day – sea trout – is cooked beautifully, with a crisply crunchy skin and served on a bright green sea of fresh peas and pea puree. Roast pumpkin and a sprinkling of crunchy samphire complete this colourful picture, and it is the perfect dish for a warm, summer day.

The birthday girl loves her Angas eye fillet, served with roast spuds, cherry tomatoes and plenty of local olives, but, sadly, the chicken breast is dry and overcooked, its heap of corn salsa adding texture but very little flavour.

The desserts are a delight, however, and received rave reviews. We decide to share the two dessert platters: one consisting of all things chocolate and another of lemon flavoured morsels. A chocolate brownie wins a resounding 10 out of 10 from the tasters, and from the sidelines looked deliciously rich and moist. The chocolate ice cream also gets a round of applause. The white chocolate cup, a macadamia and white chocolate crunch and the chocolate rum ball disappear before I can evaluate them or gather an opinion, but I’m guessing the platter, all but licked clean, tells me all I need to know!

The lemon ensemble wins enthusiastic accolades too: a scoop of sweet and sour lemon sorbet cleans the palate nicely; the lemon curd is finger-lickin’ good, and goes well with a gobstopper sized lemon ball; the lemon sponge is moist and zesty. A lemon slice comes in a fierce shade of yellow, and the One & Only polishes it off.

But the stars of the show are -without the shadow of a doubt – the wines. And their creator, Matt Rechner. Matt is proud of his collection and obviously enjoys sharing his babies with his guests. I follow up the rosé with a crisp, fresh sparkling chardonnay – another good choice as we soak in the sun.

As we tuck in to our main courses, Matt begins a tasting for our Calamari King, starting with a full bodied, flavourful sparkling shiraz, concocted from five different vintages of his renowned Linchpin Shiraz.

This personable wine maker has had an eclectic career that has bought him full circle from Tatachilla Winery to California, the Barossa and back to McLaren Vale. His Ekhidna wine list is impressive, ranging from a small selection of lighter, whiter wines to a broad variety of bold reds, which includes one terrific sulphur free Shiraz.

The GSM – a favourite blend of mine – is 60% Grenache and 20% each of Shiraz, and Mourvèdre, beautifully combined to highlight its fruity, mouth-filling flavour, with glorious aromas of stone fruit and nutmeg.

Matt passes time and again to pour, evidently pleased with our enthusiasm. Later, he comes by with a map and a marker pen to provide a quick geology lesson on why McLaren Vale is the best wine growing region in the world.

Given the long tables and the sense of long, lazy lunches by the Mediterranean, appetites may be better served with a set menu of antipasti, pasta and steak. But this alluring wine is a siren call few could resist.

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