Daybreak near Wilpena Pound

Pulling out past the pub onto the pre-dawn highway,
the car headlights cast a narrow channel of white to guide the way.
Beyond the sweep of its incandescence,
the wider world is locked in darkness.
Imperceptibly, a pencil line of blood orange appears on the horizon
and outlines a rugged range of ancient mountains
where strata of jagged rock tip sideways,
layer upon layer of mille feuille patisseries.
Mist skims along the ground like smoke from a grass fire as the dawn breaks,
an ochre crayon smudging the rim of the sky and melting into the clouds.
The road dips down across a dry riverbed,
where pewter boulders lie among the shadows.
As the sky fades from slate grey to white to pastel blue,
fresh roadkill provides breakfast for a murder of hungry crows
while raptor hovers over its prey, focussed, intent,
awaiting the perfect moment to plunge.
We turn off the main road and the dirt track bucks beneath our wheels,
the corrugations rattling our bones.
Woolly sheep conversing on the verge
scatter, and dash blindly into the scrub as we pass.
A yellow-footed rock wallaby bounds across our path,
recklessly playing chicken with the car.
And a long-limbed emu flounces in a feathery tutu
chasing a broad chested, belligerent kangaroo
bounding ahead up the crumbling hill
as a silent stand of silvery gums salute the sun.

Posted in Australia, Travel | Tagged | Comments Off on Daybreak near Wilpena Pound

Fijian Adventure

The rain is pelting down, flooding the roads, and I am chilled to the bone as I head for Adelaide airport, to head north for warmer climes. I am due to meet the One & Only in Brisbane, before flying overnight to Fiji. Twelve hours later, we arrive at the dock at Denerau, feeling soggy from lack of sleep. We are met by a reception committee of about a dozen staff (henceforth to be known as the Boat Fairies), armed with chilled towels, a coconut drink, and a hearty welcome. “Oops! I forgot to pack my tiara!”

SuRi

We are the first guests on board, which gives me time to shower and change after a sleepless night, and pry the grit from my eyes, before everyone else turns up. Revived, it is time to settle into a week of wining, dining, and adventuring. We are one of seven couples aboard the SuRi, a magnificent and incredibly well-stocked cruise ship, set to sail around the Fijian islands for a fortnight…

At the end of two weeks afloat, the dinner table conversation revolves around holiday highlights. But how on earth can we choose? SuRi is a truly ‘fantastical’ boat, and during our time on board, every day has provided a highlight of some sort or another. A particularly delicious meal, a new water sport, a walk to a waterfall, a helicopter ride…

A route around the islands had been planned in advance by our kind, generous and incredibly well organized hosts, but storms and rough weather dictate daily alterations, so that “where are we now?” becomes the standard question over breakfast. Generally, the answer is “somewhere in Fiji!” For most of the trip, we are happily oblivious. On the last day, however, we have a tour behind the scenes and see the map of where we have been. On that first day, we set our clocks to SuRi Time – two hours ahead of Fiji Time – to ensure we didn’t waste daylight hours sleeping. Thus, 6am became 8am, and many of us are up to salute the sun, either as a yoga pose or with coffee cup in hand. It also means we can watch the sun set as we gather for sundowners and dinner on the top deck. The boat was apparently baptised by its original owners, Su(san) & Ri(chard), but as the One and Only suggested, Su(n)Ri(se) captured it better, as I suspect our combined photos of orange skies number in the thousands.

For those travelling from the UK, the weather may have been a little disappointing. Often overcast, calm seas notable for their absence, and little chance of sunburn, it was nonetheless perfect weather for those of us escaping an antipodean winter and wary of the full brunt of summer sun and equatorial humidity. The wind blew away the worst of the thick, tropical air, and the clouds only added to the beauty of the sunsets. Our Boat Fairies kept our rooms spotless and the kayaks and jet skis at our beck and call. We were fed and watered so regularly and so well, I feared we would burst. French wine was the new water. When in need of a little exercise, our French Physio Fairy had us stretching above and beyond our flexibility, and to recover, we queued to see our New Zealand Massage Fairy. And our Cruise Director produced an endless stream of activities and adventures. Talk about a holiday of abundance and self-indulgence! I kept a diary, but I won’t transcribe it verbatim, for fear of turning you all green with envy and never reading this blog again. But I will try to capture some of those highlights for you…


Our second night out, the Captain anchors near a sand spit that emerges from the sea at low tide. The staff sets up tables, chairs and flares, and Chef cooks dinner on a huge barbecue, like a firepit. We paddle in the warm water, waves lapping at our ankles, champagne in hand, watching the sky transform from azure to every imaginable shade of orange, until we are summoned to the table to eat. As the sun drips down the sky and drops behind a nearby island thick with jungle, we nibble on lobster tails and a touch of South Africa: boerewors sausages and sosaties (kebabs).

Nananu-i-ra

Another day, another bay. And a helicopter ride. ‘Where are we, exactly?’ Just off the north shore of the main island Viti Levu, our pilot tells us. ‘Oh! So, were we anywhere near Nananu-i-ra?’ I ask. (Some of you may remember a trip down Memory Lane last year, when I described our time on this little island almost thirty years ago, with a very small daughter.) He simply points below us, some 200m from SuRi. I shriek with excitement as we fly lower, trying to pinpoint the house of the Almost-Relatives we had stayed with when our tent pole broke in a storm and left us homeless. Sure enough, it is still there, and someone is at home, watching us hover overhead from the broad veranda. Back on SuRi, I descend incautiously from the helicopter, and race to inform the One & Only. Borrowing a jet ski, we tear off to inspect ‘our’ island, and, against all odds, find our former hosts in residence after a three year covid absence, more than happy to welcome us back after all this time and share a bottle of Chardonnay. A truly amazing coincidence.

Somewhere else in Fiji, and we take a speed boat ride across the reef to explore some caves. The waves are rowdy and obstreperous, and the One & Only and I are sitting at the front of the boat, bouncing sky-high to the sound of Queen (‘Fat-bottomed Girls?’) through the speakers. At last, shaken not stirred, we back into a rocky cove and clamber out onto volcanic rock and coral sand to meet the villagers. Guides take us up steep, concrete steps to a door in the cliff. (The western door into the mines of Moria? A gateway to Narnia?) Beyond the door is a deep, clear saltwater pool. I dive in and float into the centre, gazing up as the sunlight peeps in through a fringe of green ferns growing around the edge of a natural skylight at the top of the cliff. In a sliver of rock is another secret entrance to an underground pool. To enter, we must duck down and swim under the water for a few seconds, through a low, narrow tunnel, before emerging into a pitch black space. A torch throws some light on the surroundings and a large epiglottis hangs down from the ceiling – are we in the mouth of a giant whale? Turning around in the water, I spot a stalactite stretching down the rock like a Maori tongue doing the Haka. We are definitely in the mouth of a rock monster! We swim bravely into the nooks and crannies of the cave, our guide occasionally slapping his hand on the water like a whale tale to set the cave vibrating with echoes. A pair of Fijian girls holler through the secret tunnel to ear-splitting effect. Now we know the way, swimming out is easy. We are reluctant to leave, but the water is cold, and we begin to feel chilled, so its back out to the beach to rediscover the sun and inspect the wares of the local ladies.

There is a Seventies night on board, complete with a local band, and we dance till we drop and my toes have blisters, dressed up in outfits we have brought with us for the occasion. The band is great, and happy to sing all our old favourites. Dinner is also in keeping with the era: hors d’oeuvres of bite-sized sausages, cheese and pineapple skewers and a prawn cocktail, followed by Boeuf Bourguignon and salmon with hollandaise sauce, and crepes Suzette for dessert.

water lily

Despite a minor injury (serve me right for showing off on the water slide), the One & Only has persuaded me to join him on an island walk on Wakaya. It’s an early start, and we are off across swelling seas to the bus stop, and a bumpy ride to a village in the national park. There, we reply “Bula vinaka” to every passing child, inspect the cava roots drying in the sun and the heaps of pandanas leaves for weaving into mats, before heading off to walk three miles along the edge of the shore, beneath the mangroves, passing a multitude of unfamiliar plants along the way: a small bed of Taro plants, another of cassava; a bed of watercress in a shallow stream; strange fruits and nuts, both edible and inedible; the odd splash of colour from blue/purple bindweed and red ginger flowers. We find a box fruit tree, where the flowers have fallen to the ground – frangipani-like petals from which blossom long white filaments tipped in yellow. The fruit itself is a strange brown skinned parcel like one of those “pick-a-number” paper toys we made as kids.
At some point, we have to shuck off socks and shoes to wade across a river. It’s a bit hair-raising, as we struggle over slippery rocks, but we make it over only slightly damp. The last lap to the waterfall is up and down crazy wooden staircases along the edge of a river, before stripping off to clamber oh-so-gracefully over large boulders into the first of two deep, cold pools. It is almost painful immersing our hot bodies into the water – I’m sure I saw steam rising from my shoulders – but I submerge myself bravely, and then swim upstream to a further barrier of rocks, slipping over them into another pool that sidles between high cliffs into a bottomless, round pool, where the water cascades down the rocks at 9 o’clock and over the rim of the cliff at 12 o’clock. Trying to swim against the double current is a challenge. Eventually our guide, watching me struggle, tells me to cling to the rock wall and push myself around the edge to the falls, where the water pressure knocks the wind out of me, and I swallow tremendous amounts of water. Almost drowning, but not quite, I find the knack of backing in with head bent to experience a serious pummelling on my back and shoulders. I dive into the centre and the current drives me back towards our group, already digging into backpacks for sandwiches and fruit. After our picnic is done, we trudge slowly back to the coast where a ‘fibre’ (as in fiberglass boat) is waiting to take us back to the village. Five minutes out, we glimpse a pod of dolphins playing beyond the reef. Our driver circles them, once, twice, while they bob and dive around the boat, riding the bow waves and leaping into the sky. Magic.

And I can’t forget to mention the fishing expedition, when the One & Only, after numerous outings, finally made a catch, and was delivered of a large Spanish Mackerel, known to the Fijians as ‘walu’. He proudly posed on the deck, and after the photo shoot, Chef waved his magic wand to produce a platter of sashimi and a red curry.

It’s our last day. SuRi had backed into a beach somewhere, so we can swim across the last few metres. The crew are busy setting up a sophisticated picnic area under the palm trees, complete with the ubiquitous and beautiful table setting. Chef will be providing a BBQ lunch, but in the meantime, there is snorkelling to be done. I come upon a small coral mound only metres off the boat, a nursery of tiny reef fish dashing about, in rainbow colours. Further on, we find ourselves surrounded by a school of black and white zebra fish (not their real name) who occasionally nip at our legs, testing us for taste. Lifting our heads, we notice several translucent fish, long and lean with sword-like mouths and blue trim, swimming around us in circles, at a safe distance from our splashing flippers. Among the coral, we admire countless varieties of fish and several rubbery-looking electric blue star fish, a chunky sea slug and a clam. A nondescript brown reef fish, the size of my palm, glares into my goggles and darts at me bravely, as I swim too close for comfort. It is riveting. I could float out here for days. But Chef beckons. Lunch awaits. Lamb chops, pear and prosciutto, broccolini and beans, everything chargrilled on the BBQ.

And then a final 80s & 90s night celebration on board, with the band who came over for the 60s & 70s night. I patch together a Flash Dance outfit – or is it Jane Fonda? – with psychedelic sweatbands and leopard skin leg warmers courtesy of our Decorations Fairy. Cyndi Lauper and Adam Ant show up. And could that be Joan Collins and Linda Hamilton in padded shoulders? And there’s the team from Top Gun! The boat sets sail as the band plays our favourite disco tunes and we dance and sing into the sunset. It is surreal. The water begins to churn, and the wind turns us all into Bridget Jones sans headscarf. We stagger indoors, windblown and sweaty, to dine on a variety of fondues, dipping crusty bread into melted cheese and strawberries into liquid chocolate. It is a fun and fitting way to end two memorable, magical weeks aboard this glorious ship. We stagger off to bed, where the fairies have turned down the sheets and left chocolate kisses on our pillows. Wherever we meet again, there will be so many wonderful memories to share. “Motay and Vinaka!”

Posted in Fiji, Food & Wine, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Fijian Adventure

A Taste of the Top End

Galvanized Croc at the Botanic Gardens

A jetty floats above a still, blue sea. Masked lapwings and ibis, tiny double-barred finches and those small but sturdy ‘peaceful’ doves peck about in the grass. Honey eaters dance in the branches of the fig trees with their pendulous leaves. A black kite rides the wind currents overhead. And can you hear the gentle susurration of a breeze through the casuarinas?

A brolga paddles in a lagoon beside the railway track, another wades through the wetlands at Litchfield. And could that be a wedge tailed eagle feeding on a dead wallaby in the middle of the road? Balletic in the sky, the thickset raptor is ungainly on the ground, hopping hurriedly, awkwardly into the bush as we drive past. At Katherine Gorge a data bird poses on a rock, warily eyeing a couple of “freshies” (crocodiles) lying sleepily on a tree trunk that has fallen into the river. A wallaby and her adolescent baby feed cautiously by the side of the road.  A pair of scrub fowl rummage amongst the leaf litter for breakfast. What is it about seeing animals and birds in the wild, in their own habitat, that makes it so much more special than seeing them in a cage in the zoo?

It’s my first visit to the Top End, and Zia’s too. Wisely, we have come during the cooler months. The mornings are blue and gently warm. By mid-afternoon we agree to search out the shade or the air conditioning. The evening sunsets are spectacular, as that deep orange orb sinks into the sea and paints the sky with broad brush strokes of peach and apricot and blood orange.

A weekend of local markets, where the aroma of barbecued satays makes me nostalgic for our long-lost Philipino markets. At Parap we are offered a Thai massage. Feet and shoulders? Yes please! “Khap khun kah!” We sit in the tent and watch the world go by as the girls knead the knots from our necks. There are so many babies in Darwin. Thongs (flip flops) are the ubiquitous footwear. On Sunday we discover another village market only a ten minute walk from our Airbnb in Nightcliff. Food, craft, jewellery, clothes… how much can I squeeze into my suitcase?

Our go-to for morning coffee is a converted caravan by the beach: ‘Crybaby’s.’ (Maybe that’s what we can do with our own delinquent campervan!) Lunch on the run – at the market or a picnic in the bush, sharing crumbs with the oddly translucent ghost ants. Dinner revolves around sunsets: a seafood restaurant above the beach at Cullen Bay; the Trailer Boat Club further up the coast at Fannie Bay; a sunset cruise from Dock 2. This last is the grand finale, skirting the edge of an unadorned harbour five times the size of Sydney’s. Trimmed with mangroves and rocky outcrops, and home to enough saltwater crocodiles to dissuade even the keenest swimmer – although apparently the “sea wasp” or box jellyfish is an equally nasty threat.

We decide not to spoil a lovely holiday by tempting fate. Instead, we head out to Buley Rockhole, in the Litchfield National Park, armed with our bathers. Buley turns out to be a series of rockpools that requires a little cautious scrambling over rocks, and an even more cautious descent on slippery rocks into the water. It is worth the effort. Deep enough to duck under, the water rushes over the rocks above, into our waist deep pool and down to the deeper pool below, cool and clear, effectively removing the pressure on my head from trudging through the heat all morning. Utter bliss!

But I have rushed ahead. First, we have to get there, driving 100kms south from Darwin through Berry Springs. Litchfield National Park is no city park of a few acres. Established in 1985, this one covers almost 1,500 km2. We pass termite mounds that look like sci-fi cities, built north/south to avoid exposure to the direct heat of the sun. Some signposts indicate dirt tracks only accessible with a 4-wheel drive, but there is still plenty to see in our small rental car.

Tolmer Falls

We walk through the bush to the Lower Cascades, hidden behind the dense undergrowth. Although we can hear them clearly, splashing and gurgling, they seem unreachable. We skirt around impenetrable bush, frustrated by the sound of rushing water, hoping the next turn in the sandy track will expose them to view, but it’s not to be. Above the cascades, the water is like glass, reflecting the lanky palm trees as clearly as a mirror. We drive on to Tolmer Falls, one step ahead of the tourist buses, where we read about the flying fox, born aloft and neatly caught in her mother’s wings, which are cupped together like a hammock to prevent the baby nose-diving to the forest floor as she emerges. The waterfall pours over the lip of the plateau above and plunges down the rocks into the deep pool below, fenced off for our safety, in case of crocs. Apparently, the land above is a giant sponge, retaining immeasurable gallons of water in the wet season, and thus able to keep the pool filled throughout the year. After a picnic beneath the trees, we drive on to a lookout deck for a panoramic view that stretches on forever to the south, the horizon hazy thanks to the seasonal bushfires that flourish in the dry season. Both controlled and otherwise, the former are a part of the Northern Territory’s land management; intentional burning used to control wildfires and the weeds, the latter an unavoidable disaster to vast tracts of wilderness.

And then we reach the rockpools, and gratefully immerse ourselves into the coolth. We only have five days here in Darwin, but we love every minute. And we already have a list of places to visit next time. (Kakadu, the Tiwi Islands, a ferry to Wagait Beach). It’s always good to keep a few temptations in reserve. The weather will be colder and greyer, the traffic heavier when we get back to South Australia. In the meantime, a last coffee on the bench overlooking the sea, a warm breeze kissing our shoulders…

Posted in Australia, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on A Taste of the Top End

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.

Posted in Australia, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Riding the Ghan

“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!
Posted in Australia, Lifestyle | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on “And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?”

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….

Posted in Australia, Lifestyle | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Magical Land of Books

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…

Posted in Philippines, Travel | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on The Joy of Airports

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…

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Sunday Scribblings

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.

Posted in Australia, History | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Not Another Brick in the Wall

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…

Posted in Italy, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on Summer in Sorrento