Christmas Cards: Setting the Mood

Then its zippity jingle and dash away ping
Hang holly and berries in all the halls
The tassels on all the thermostats and
Write merry Christmas on all of the walls…

~ from Eloise at Christmas Time by Kay Thompson

One upon a time, we wrote armfuls of Christmas cards and strung those we received around the sitting room, perched them on the mantlepiece, stuck them to the fridge. Today, with snail mail elbowed out by email, sending Christmas cards in the post is no longer the prolific tradition it once was.

And yet, my first – possibly my only – card arrived yesterday to kick-start the joy of Christmas.

Sending Christmas cards began in England in 1843, inspired by a government employee, Henry Cole, who had helped to establish the modern postal service. In fact, I could write pages about Cole, a man of incredible vision, who was knighted by Queen Victoria for all the work he did on the Great Exhibition of 1851, and for establishing the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was even caricatured as “King Cole” in Vanity Fair, in August 1871, but that is another story. His importance here relates to his involvement with the Post Office, where Cole introduced the Penny Post, a public delivery service that everyone could afford. Then, to accommodate the growing number of people sending Christmas greetings through the system, he ordered 1000 hand-coloured cards from John Callcott Horsley that were sold in London as the first commercial Christmas cards. And so the tradition of sending seasons greetings kicked off with a vengeance, with the aid of 19th century improvements in printing and transportation. In the USA, when John Hall and his brothers started selling postcards in 1910, it did not take them long to introduce greeting cards as well. Today, Hallmark cards has become the most recognizable brand in the industry, printing cards not only for the Christmas season but for every other event imaginable.

My solitary Christmas card is beautiful, as you can see above. Yet, I find myself wondering why we antipodeans still cling to images of a wintery Christmas and traditions more fitting to a cold climate. For anyone originating in northern climes, such images are nostalgic, but for those who have only known Christmas full of sunshine and sunburn, carol singers in the snow and sleigh bells jingling are as much a fairy tale scenario as princesses roaming the forest in search of a handsome prince. Yet we all grew up on a diet of fireside stockings and the likes of Eloise reminding us that there’s ‘a blizzard outside and four below zero or more.’ So firmly are these images entrenched that we still expect poor Santa to don a red winter suit, boots and a thick white beard in thirty degree heat on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. (Although persona non-grata these days, Rolf Harris did at least suggest that Father Christmas would be more likely to find a collection of kangaroos to pull him across Australia.)

These days, we seem more inclined to produce the odd Santa-on-a-surfboard and ungainly emus up a gum tree instead of those rather drab partridges.  Julian Dennison certainly put Ronan Keating right with his alternative lyrics to Winter Wonderland, reminding us that the summer heat makes us glisten with sweat, as we devour pav and ham, and ‘we’re happy and bright, not a snowman in sight’… except on Christmas cards and in the shopping malls.

Perhaps, in the spirit of a truly Australian Christmas, I should replace my fir tree with a eucalyptus – but the decorations just wouldn’t hang as neatly on the sparse limbs of a gum tree. And there will be a Christmas pudding, because it wouldn’t be Christmas without one. Should I then admit I am already playing carols from King’s College, Cambridge that sing of bleak midwinters and poor old King Wenceslas trudging through the rude winds and the bitter weather with his page? Why not, when I have interspersed my playlist with those beautiful Australian carols about brolgas dancing and the milky way lighting up the sky. And I do have a wreath made of seashells this year.  Also, we will be putting the Christmas beast on the BBQ so the oven doesn’t heat up the house.

Maybe the fun is in the mix of traditions we all add, sprinkling different scents, sounds and flavours from all parts of the globe to make a unique blend of summer and winter, old and new. Paper chains and tins of Quality Streets fit the bill in any climate. And as long as we keep the joy of Christmas at the forefront of the celebrations, what does it matter whether there is snow around the manger or Baby Jesus needs to be smothered in sunscreen?

So “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” and “Joy to the World” wherever and however you will be celebrating.

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Of sheep and seaside daisies…

The first sign that the town had a connection with Scotland was its name: Glencoe. The second sign: a redheaded ‘Weasley’ walking down the main road…

Glencoe Woolshed

Glencoe is a small country town in south-eastern South Australia, to the north-west of Mount Gambier, an area known for its volcanic landscape and crater lakes. A town so small that it would be called a hamlet or village in Olde England. Its population? About 650 souls. It was named after the birthplace of the property manager of the nineteenth century Leake estate. Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands is derived from the Gaelic for ‘narrow glen’. The original Glen Coe is only half the size of its Australian namesake, but like our Aussie version, it’s also situated in volcanic soil. And in the middle of town is a vast, beautifully crafted shearing shed.

I heard about this unique woolshed at a conference last month, when local academic, Carol Grbich, gave a talk about its history.  Having a lovely view of the structure across the paddock, Carol and her partner, John Berger, spent months researching the story of the building and the convoluted tale of the Leake family, eventually producing the book ‘The Accidental Heiress: Journey of a Glencoe squatter’s daughter.’ In 2020, the book won the Keain medal for the best history book about South Australia, and the profits from sales go to the National Trust. The front cover shows a picture of this extraordinary woman with unusually short hair and clutching a boomerang. No one knows why, although an ABC documentary suggests she spent her early years at Glencoe playing with the local Boandik people.

So, in brief…

In 1844, Tasmanian pastoralists Edward and Robert Leake brought 7,000 Saxon Merinos, cattle and horses along the Coorong. They established a sheep station that eventually extended over 53,000 acres, even crossing the Glenelg River into Victoria. They were the first permanent European settlers in the region and wasted no time clearing it of the Boandik people.

Robert died in 1860, and his brother Edward inherited the property. Wishing to make his mark on the district, he employed a well-known architect of the day to design ‘the finest woolshed in the colonies’ and luxury quarters for the shearers. Quality craftsmen were engaged to erect the buildings, using local limestone. A sturdy stone structure, it is not the corrugated iron shearing sheds we are used to seeing in the Outback. (We thought it would have made a beautiful – and enormous – home conversion, if it were not safely in the hands of the National Trust.) When the job was completed, Leake threw a ball to celebrate, and invited two hundred guests. The woolshed was designed to hold 38 shearers at a time, who could sheer 2,000 sheep a day with manual blade shears.

The property was inherited by Edward Leake’s only legitimate child, his seven year old daughter Letitia. This wealthy young lady eventually married a Sydney lawyer. The couple sold the Glencoe Estate and moved to England, where they bought Harefield Park, a country estate near Uxbridge, now on the outer western rim of London. During WWI, they offered the property to the military, to be used as an ANZAC military hospital. It is now part of the Royal Brompton Hospital.

Today, I drove to Glencoe with the One & Only to visit the shearing shed and a beautiful garden…

Woolshed key

Armed with a magical key – well, it certainly looked magical – we entered the woolshed, immediately hearing the ghostly bleats of anxious sheep, and the ghostly shouts of sweaty shearers calling for tar. Apparently, there is a real ghost here, but it was obviously shy, or took exception to us, and stayed hidden behind the hefty wool sacks. We wandered through this shadowy old woolshed, empty of sheep for so long that even the cloying scent of lanolin had vanished.

Eventually, when we had explored every nook and cranny, we locked up, returned the key to the friendly lady at the post office. Then we drove up the road to meet Carol Grbich, who was busily preparing for an Open Gardens event this coming weekend. Carol lives a couple of paddocks away from the woolshed, in a homestead built in 1898. Here, she and partner John have designed and planted their magnificent garden in black volcanic soil. It is ridiculously lush when compared to the sparsely growing plants on our sandhill on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Like an old fashioned English cottage garden, it is over-run with colour: blue love-in-the-mist, deep purple irises, wisteria and lilac, and roses and poppies in pink and red, orange and white.

Feeling like Alice in Wonderland, I took the proffered map and we headed off to explore. We found three orchards. One is full of Nashi pear trees. Apparently much loved by the Japanese, their floury texture is unpopular with Australians. Even the sheep will only touch them if there is nothing else to eat! The neighbouring orchard produces organic, old-fashioned favourites like kumquats and loquats, plums and crab apples. The third, nearer the house, provides the local birds – and occasionally the owners, if they are quick enough – with a feast of figs and cherries, grapefruit and lemons, plums, pears and apples. There is a forest of Blue Gums and Redgums, inhabited by aforementioned sheep. The One & Only found a Willow Walk near the back fence, while I favoured a heart-breakingly beautiful golden elm at the centre of a small round garden oh-so-perfectly shaded by the broad, lime-coloured leaves of this glorious tree.

The couple had also created a large walled garden on a defunct tennis court, topped by a stage-like folly, the backdrop decorated in tiles painted with the ubiquitous poppy. Beyond, a firepit huddles beneath an ancient walnut and a weeping willow. White and pink ‘seaside’ daisies proliferate in the sunshine, a variety of succulents multiply in the shade. A kitchen garden, a huge rosemary bush, the Hills hoist tucked behind it for a touch of homely nostalgia, and we have completed a circuit. And as we reluctantly drive away, a nearby paddock is awash with Highland cattle. A third sign of the region’s Scottish heritage!

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In Essence

Mating dance of bees
Or dance to the death?
Short and sweet.

Years ago, in Manila, I joined a workshop to write poetry. I had read myriad poems, but never turned my hand to writing anything except creating silly rhymes for the kids. I decided it was time to be brave.
At our first gathering, in a classroom devoid of natural light or character, we were asked to get in touch with nature and write a haiku. “A what?” What an ignoramus, with an English degree, no less! I had studied all things English, and occasionally Australian: Chaucer, the Romantic Poets, the War Poets, a smattering of Yeats, Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot, Judith Wright and Bruce Dawe. But I had never read – never heard – of a haiku.

A haiku is like a breath. A concise, pared back, three lined poem, as minimalist and slender as those Japanese flower arrangements. Using a simple pattern of syllables, the haiku evokes the essence or impression of a feeling, paints a picture in the mind. It focuses on the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. A sparsity of words to capture and communicate a fleeting moment in time. Haiku connect us to the natural world – birds, animals, trees, flowers, rivers, rain, seasons – using carefully selected words to show not tell.

Originating in Japan, haikus have roamed the world, adopting different traditions in different languages. In Japanese, haiku are traditionally printed as a single line, while haiku in English have three lines with 17 syllables following a 5-7-5 structure. Although, once you’ve got the hang of it, only the purists stick to the rules. I’m no purist, and I generally baulk at rules, as you can see from my effort above.

So, what to write? Describe the moment. Then bring in a twist. It doesn’t need to rhyme, but there should be an ‘aha’ moment that resonates with the reader, creates an unexpected image, twists the meaning of the words in a surprising way, to give your reader a new perspective on something familiar. Use simple language and avoid clichés. The present tense will provide that sense of immediacy. Of intimacy.

Once upon a time in Manila, I had to write a haiku in a classroom full of bright unnatural light, trying to imagine myself in a forest, by the sea, over the rainbow. Last week, it was far easier, as I wandered over the hills and far away above Rapid Bay, roaming past gumtrees, wattle and wildflowers, seeking inspiration from the trees and flowers, the shape of the clouds, the distant sea, a glimpse of birds, the traffic noise of bees…

Diuris, commonly known as donkey orchids or bee orchids.

I followed a trail through the trees to a brimming dam. I sat on a log among the donkey orchids in claret and custard, and wattle bushes, brightly covered in pom-poms of yellow. I breathed gently, listening to the birds squawk and twitter, hearing the dull thump of kangaroos bounding through the blue gums, watching the insects crawl over a piece of curled, dry bark, grey and cracked as elephant skin. It was a glorious afternoon, cool but sunny; a blessing after so many wetly dismal days this winter. Writing haikus in a mac or under an umbrella may not have been fun at all, but this was therapeutic. To escape from the library and domesticity and meander at will through the afternoon.

I am far from being an expert, yet it was fascinating to play with words, to condense and purge, to try and pinpoint that essential thought, the essence of the moment…

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Christina & Her Sisters

These eight, somewhat startled-looking women were all born during Queen Victoria’s reign, in the colony of South Australia. Meet Annie and Clara, Edith and Grace, Lily and May, Christina and Kathleen. All sisters. There was a ninth sister, Alice, but she died as a toddler.

The industrial revolution was changing the social and global landscape, but in the face of such great and rapid change, people tended to cling more tenaciously to traditional social norms. In settler-colonial South Australia, a middle-class woman’s accepted role was to be subservient wife and mother, ‘domestic goddess’ and ‘moral keeper of the keys’.

Yet, if we look more closely at the lives of these eight women, we can see that very few of them followed that remit. Born in Adelaide, to colonial settlers from Herefordshire, Matthew and Elizabeth Goode, these middle-class ladies all led unusual lives. As single women, two went as missionaries to China, two more to support them. Two were feared lost during the Boxer Rebellion. One was a doctor in England and Shanghai. Lily, the artist, travelled the world. Four ended up living in Canada. Two married in Peking, two in Manitoba, one in Tokyo, one in London. Only one of them married an Adelaide boy and remained in South Australia, and even she travelled overseas, in the days when it was not a simple twenty four hour flight to Heathrow, but four weeks on a ship to Portsmouth.

We will learn more about those seven sisters another time. For now, I am going to focus on just one: Christina Love Goode. Born on June 16, 1874, died, August 25, 1951, her death remarked by a scant two lines in the Adelaide Advertiser.

Christina, Chrissie, ‘Johnny’, Dr Goode, Auntie Chris, Dr Krakowsky, Mummie, Madame Krakowsky, Grannie … and my great grandmother. For years, I have been fascinated by her story. So many different names, so many different roles, but who was she? How did she live her life? And why? White, well-to-do and intelligent, she was born into privilege. Yet, she also had the determination and ambition to make her own way in the world.
In 1899, at the age of twenty four, Christina became only the second South Australian woman to register as a medical doctor in Adelaide. She then went to England, where she worked for fifteen years, eventually marrying a Russian doctor with whom she had one daughter. They lived and worked together in China before relocating to South Australia.

For years, this was all I knew. As I got older, I wanted to know so much more, but could find little information beyond this cursory synopsis. So, who could tell me about her? By the time I seriously went looking for her, my grandmother – her only daughter – was dead. If ever she spoke about her mother, I was too young to take any notice. My father, her only grandchild, remembers very little. He was only nine when ‘Grannie’ died and by then she was old, frail and blind. The only relatives who might have remembered her were far away on the Canadian prairies.

From the little I know, I can speculate that she was a bright, independent young woman, keen for adventure. She showed no interest in following the beaten path to marriage and motherhood, a dependent spouse with little to do but drink tea, play bridge and wear pretty hats, defined by her role as wife, mother, sister, daughter. Instead, she grabbed the opportunities for education and travel in both hands and chose a more adventurous road.

I hit the library, but the history books were no help. I had to read between the lines, trawl through various committee minute books in the Mortlock archives, delve into university calendars at the Barr Smith library, rummage through second handbook shops and disappear down the mighty wombat hole that is Trove. At least there she had a presence: a doctor at Renmark Hospital; a society hostess; a Girl Guide Commissioner; a doctor on North Terrace; a President of the Lyceum Club… of the Mothers and Babies Association… of the Woodlands Parent Teacher Committee.

Other fishing lines that I flung out into the murky waters of memory got caught up in flotsam from long-lost Canadian cousins, jetsam from another third cousin in New Zealand I had never met. I found two volumes of diaries written by a would-be minister who grew up in Japan and introduced Christina to Dr Alexander Krakowsky, the man she would marry. My father has attempted to write his biography but ended up with more questions than answers.

In the Barr-Smith library, I discovered that she had completed her medical studies with Violet Plummer, Adelaide’s first female GP; that she worked alongside Dr Helen Mayo OBE, who has her name on a plaque in front of the Natural History Museum for her strong social conscience and her promotion of children’s health. On a trip to Renmark, I saw the hospital where Christina had a maternity wing named in her honour, and a small country church where her name is on a foundation plaque. In Wakefield Street, Adelaide, I found the house they bought when they first returned to Adelaide (Trove again). Another home in Glenelg was bulldozed years ago.

Christina received an award from the French Government, another from Lady Baden Powell, and a letter from the Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. Yet not one word about her could I find in the history books. And her husband? He turns out to be even more elusive. A man of smoke and mirrors, with a past we cannot pinpoint: five children from a previous marriage, no fixed abode and an assumed name, who fled west from exile in Siberia in his twenties. Who was this remarkably unremarked couple?

I was bequeathed a Chinese cedar chest in which Granny kept a glorious selection of dress-ups – clothes both she and Christina had worn in the 1930s, including a wedding dress. My first real connection with Christina was her grey chiffon evening gown, which I wore to a school dance.

I have spent two year trawling through the Mortlock Library, the Genealogy Library in Unley, the Barr Smith library, and a box of secrets my father unearthed in the cellar. This last turned up all her medical certificates, that letter from the Tsarina, a family bible, some stray photos and a diary. Then we found a wallet full of letters from her sisters. I spent weeks transcribing them. They illustrated how closely these women had kept in touch, despite the miles that separated them. I was hooked. Here were eight feisty, strong-willed young women who exhibited no fear, who took the road less travelled, supported financially by the family business, sent out in the service of God.

In this day and age, where families generally consist of two adults and two kids, a family of six stands out like a sore thumb. Imagine being one of eight girls, then add three brothers to the mix.

My great grandmother Christina was daughter number eight (if we count Alice), the penultimate child of twelve. I discovered she went to boarding school in McLaren Vale, before going to the University of Adelaide to study medicine. She moved to Melbourne University to complete her studies, when a dispute broke out between the Adelaide Hospital, the Medical School staff and the Government, which caused the closure of the Adelaide Medical School for five years. Christina then sailed to England, where she worked and studied in London, Dublin and Bristol. She travelled extensively. Just as World War I broke out, aged forty, she met and married a Russian/British doctor, Alexander Krakowsky. Together, they went to China to work in Shanghai. In 1916, aged forty two, she returned to Adelaide with her husband, for the birth of their daughter, Olga Elizabeth. Here, the couple built up a medical practice on North Terrace, and Christina became deeply involved in charity work.

So, what makes her story significant? Is it just because she is my great grandmother? I believe not. Christina was an enterprising, unconventional, ground-breaking young woman in an extraordinary age, who followed her dreams to a university education only a year after South Australia’s first female medical student, Laura Fowler, had graduated. Not for her, the Victorian premise of woman as wife and mother, economically dependent on her husband. Women in South Australia were being accepted in tertiary education, and by the age of twenty two, Christina was also allowed to vote and stand for parliament. She also had a good brain, and thanks to the added advantage of an encouraging and well-to-do family, she was able to study medicine and work abroad, without the need for a husband to support her financially. The opportunities were there, but it took a strong-minded woman to grab them, to buck the social conventions of the time, and to choose her own road to self-fulfilment. She deserves a place in the history books.

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Cycling Through Normandy and Beyond…

Life has been reduced to three suburbs over the past couple of months, and the winter glooms have given me no incentive to expand my horizons. But with a couple of free days up my sleeve to sort through piles of notes and papers and the general shemozzle that is my office, I revisited some old travel diaries. Procrastination? Yes indeed!

So, this morning I found myself back in France, cycling furiously uphill to keep warm, heading for Mont St Michel. In case you are not familiar with the image, this ancient abbey is perched on a granite outcrop on a vast stretch of tidal bay on the coast of Normandy. It was built in the 11th century by Italian architect, William of Volpiano, who designed the Romanesque church within the abbey walls at the summit of the hill, supported by a plethora of underground crypts and chapels. The original natural causeway to the island was only accessible at low tide, which made it relatively easy to defend. As the tide came in, would-be attackers would be stranded or drowned. A raised causeway built in the late 19th century allowed tourists easier access, but caused the bay to silt up, changing the landscape quite significantly.

Since we camped in the poppy-spotted meadows on the mainland way back in 1991, there have been a lot of positive changes. A dam has been built on the River Couesnon which emerges into the bay opposite the island, to reduce the silt. The car park has been moved further away from the island, and a bridge has replaced the causeway, which allows the sea to flow around the island and wash away the mud.

Back in the summer of 1991, in the height of hay fever season, we were on mountain bikes. Between fits of sneezing, a distinct lack of signposting and a gusting wind determined to toss us into the path of passing trucks, the final lap to Mont Saint Michel was less than pleasant. However, the occasional glimpse of our destination across marshes or wheat fields was energizing. Against all odds, we eventually reached our campsite among the poppies and made a short foray along the causeway before dinner. At that time of day, we had the place almost to ourselves, and could wander unhindered through the cobbled lanes and up to the abbey. By mid-morning, the alleys were awash with coach tourists and tacky souvenir stalls, undeterred by a regular baptism from the heavy grey clouds above our heads. It was a damp and chilly day, but the climb to the abbey was worth it for the views across the bay to Tombelaine, another rocky outcrop a few kilometres north of Mont Saint Michel. (Apparently you can walk across the sand at low tide, but you wouldn’t want to linger.) Inside the Abbey, the maze of vaulted halls and stained glass windows was stunning, but there can’t have been much joy in the draughty place for the monks during winter.

Eventually we found our way back down the hill to a doll-sized restaurant tucked against a wall, where we shared an enormous, light fluffy omelette – a local specialty – and a bottle of Muscadet, leaning back, sated to admire this tiny town. Narrow, mediaeval stone houses, squished together and balancing precariously, are decorated with jaunty wooden signs, the steep roofs topped in wooden or lead tiles, small gardens gripping grimly to the granite. These days, the island is shared by only a few locals and a handful of nuns and monks. Tourism is the main source of income, bringing in about $63 million and three million tourists a year, eager to inspect the august Abbey looming protectively above the town.

The next morning, we packed up the tent and set off through meandering lanes, the verges thick with a veritable rainbow of wildflowers: white, fluffy cow parsley, wild foxgloves, yellow dandelions, miniature white daisies, pink campions and blue love-in-the-mist. Summery scents hung in the air, birds twittered from the depths of the hedgerows, noisy but invisible. We passed farmhouses with potted geraniums on doorsteps and balconies, doorways strung with multi-coloured roses, the ubiquitous dogs barking histrionically on the end of their chains. We stopped for morning tea at a patisserie in La Croix-Avranchin, the only persuasion I needed to get over the more strenuous hills.

There were not many smiles from the passers-by – perhaps they were discouraged by the fierce glare of Graham Gorilla, a grumpy stuffed toy I had bought on the ferry and sat in the basket on the front of my bike. He made me laugh with his surly sneer, but apparently the French found him less than amusing. I did, however, get a round of applause from a friendly group of workmen as I struggled to the top of a hefty slope into Baille. Here we had a picnic in a glade we shared with mossy tombstones, on the edge of a beech wood, chockablock with bracken, beechnuts and foxgloves.

Our next campsite, in Saint Aubin, was beside the village pond and below some old castle ruins, six stone towers rising high above the trees. We clambered across overgrown ramparts to see huge fireplaces still intact some thirty feet above the ground, clinging to the stone walls like hanging baskets. No fires here tonight, though. The countryside was largely rural: green fields full of calves and cows, lambs and sheep; pretty white farmhouses and old barns…

We were heading for the Loire Valley, where my heart was set on visiting every chateau we came across. A week in, and we had completed almost 350 km to Ancenis, once a port, now known as the key to Brittany. The sun had finally emerged from behind the dark grey clouds that had followed us all the way through Normandy and Brittany to the Loire, and the sky was deep blue. It wasn’t perhaps the prettiest town in the neighbourhood, but the weather was perfect for a mediaeval festival, which kept us in town for an extra day. The pageantry was superb: knights on horseback, royalty and peasants, musicians – it seemed as if the whole town had found costumes for the occasion. Even the shopkeepers had gone to the trouble of dressing up their shops and themselves. The streets were strewn with straw and there was a wine stall on every corner. With terracotta roof tiles, a mediaeval castle, and an ancient bridge, Ancenis is one of the oldest towns in the region, settled as early as 984 AD, and we felt as if we had gone back in time as the festival got underway. A final picnic lunch by the river with a soft, creamy brie and a fresh, crusty baguette, and then onwards to the land of fairy tale castles…

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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.

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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!”


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).


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!”

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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…

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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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