EPISODE 4 – A YEAR IN PROVIDENCE

 

Our Story so far: - It is June 1992. Concerned that the statute of limitations on Flexitime Infringement may not yet have expired, Ian is hiding from justice in Oz, enduring the icy, winter blast of Antarctic winds. Christine (a Knitter of Australia) and Peter (a truanting scholar) have gone to sub-tropical England check up on the progress of this John Major chappie in rescuing Blighty from the dogs. Meanwhile Ian (a boring old fart) is rattling around in a house which has suddenly become enormous, with a bed that’s too big and a frying pan too wide 1.

 

1          Joni Mitchell  “Blue” album, c.1970

 

The Mission 1992

......was successfully completed - Christine and Peter successfully endured the seemingly endless flight to and from the UK and visited the Balham branch of the Johnsons of London, managing to leave for slightly chilly Oz on the Mist in Acheron Valleyhottest day of the UK year. I missed them terribly; fortunately the API had a bush walk on the first empty Sunday. The walk climbed to the top of the “Cathedral” range of mountains just north of Melbourne, a slightly foggy start enhanced the moment when I crested the mountain in gorgeous sunshine and had a glorious view of the mist-filled valleys. The next potentially empty weekend was filled by reconnoitring the snowfields of Mounts Buffalo and Hotham, staying in a lovely little town, aptly named Bright and nestling in a valley near Mount Buffalo which is liberally brushed with the brilliant autumn colours of imported maples. Mount Buffalo was an interesting bowler hat-shaped granite mountain with impressive views but insufficient Mt Buffaloaltitude for great snow - a couple of lifts were working over a rather patchy piste. Mount Hotham (pronounced Hoth-am, not as Witham) was much more like a ski resort; the village sits on a windswept ridge almost at the top of the mountain, with an impressive approach for which snow chains were mandatory. I resolved to return with the family, not only to Mount Hotham but also to the High Country Inn motel which had good food and a big, roaring log fire.

 

 

 

 

Nine Lives Run Out

MitzieI was sad to hear that our geriatric pussy Mitzie, cruelly abandoned by fortune-seeking Daddy, finally succumbed to old age back in the UK. She and I had seen a lot happen during her 14+ years. At least I was spared the pathetic bundle of cold fur. Requiescat in pace.

Rude and Slippery Bits

A cultural injection was obtained from a Rubens and Renaissance exhibition in the art gallery at the Victorian Arts Centre. What powerful images! - even in today’s video-saturated world.  Just imagine the effect on the contemporary audience!  The following Sunday I went ice skating on the stage of the Sydney Myer Bowl - an open air auditorium usually used for summer concerts but converted into a rink in Winter - I found that I could still stand up, but the 30-odd year break from skating meant that the ankles soon turned to jelly.

 

Tropical Paradise

....adequately describes the banally named Treasure Island, a palm-fringed coral atoll off the coast of Fiji, which was where we went to escape the Melbourne winter with a couple of weeks of tropical sunshine. You could jog round it in 10 minutes, canoeing took a little longer. Pretty though it Beach near the Naviti Hotelwas, the real wonderland opened up when you put the snorkel and mask on - the area has been declared an underwater national park, with an incredible variety of coloured corals teeming with tropical fish fed by plankton from the Tongan trench. The second week on the surprisingly large Fijian mainland made an interesting contrast, although the weather was occasionally cloudy and the beaches rather indifferent. The trip between the two was by seaplane, a first time for me that was nicely captured on a handy camcorder bought specially to record the holiday in particular, Oz in general and the sprouting Peter.

 

 

And Now for a Temperature Completely Different

The weekend following our return from tropical Fiji was spent skiing at Mount Buller, Melbourne’s winter playground. Little Buller SpurIt was fascinating to drive up the mountain and see occasional specks of snow at the side of the road appear then increase as we climbed until they became large drifts, particularly when only the previous week we had been sweltering in tropical sunshine. After parking our Peter at the ski school we both set off down the piste only to sit down in an inglorious heap of flailing arms, skis and stocks in order to save the horror-struck lift queue from being decimated by our wild and uncontrolled descent. This braking manoeuvre now features in the Victorian Ski School’s instruction manual as “The Pommy Bum-Schuss”. However a quick refresher at the ski school managed to restore some ragged stem turns which we later refined into rather bandy attempts at parallels. I even made a blue run, only falling down twice (obviously not trying hard enough!). The pride of this achievement was quenched by picking Peter Gillis up from the ski school after a whole two mornings of instruction only to find that our nervous little boy had turned into a confident and proficient skier! As we queued in the traffic descending the mountain to comparatively warm Melbourne we reflected on a thoroughly satisfying weekend, with all the family actively facing challenges, overcoming them and finding something to do that we all enjoyed.

 

Toujours Providence

The first anniversary of our arrival down-under gave cause for reflection. A lack of homesickness and a reluctance to go back to the UK were indications that Oz life was having an insidious effect on our resolve to return to Blighty. It was difficult to decide exactly why; the weather was certainly often very pleasant but it was also often quite miserable and unpredictable, admittedly it never got cold enough to freeze in Melbourne.  The increased spending power of project work was obviously a major factor, as was the unexpected variety and beauty of the scenery. Melbourne is promoted as Australia’s most livable city, there is certainly a vast array of diversions to suit all tastes and the idea that Oz is a cultural desert is far from the truth. But for me the most lasting impression is the open friendliness of almost every Australian, from whatever ethnic origin. Friendliness that isn’t the false face from Smile School that you get in the USA, but a genuine, warm acceptance. What a contrast to the sour-faced indifference from Sharon or Tracy at the checkout in Asda or Tesco!

 

More Pommy Piste-Bashing

This time at Mount Hotham and Falls Creek - completing our reconnaissance of the major Victorian ski resorts. Both had some two metres of snow base and gave excellent skiing. Hotham has an impressive approach to the village which sits on a ridge and is surrounded by some rather exposed green and blue runs, with lots of black runs down the side of the ridge. Falls Creek nestles in a bowl set in the mountainside and seemed to have a better class of skier and some more sheltered and interesting runs for the novice/intermediate skier. So the latter got the family vote for next winter, even though it’s about an hour and a half further from Melbourne than the three hour drive to Mount Buller. Even so it’s better than having to fly to Geneva or Turin!

 

Gramp revisits Grampians

The API bushwalking club organised a weekend walk in the Grampians which we’d visited before. There was a lot of rain that weekend which had some compensations as the Mackenzie falls provided some very video-photogenic shots for the new camcorder. The club stayed in a campsite which strengthened our resolve to get some form of tent so that we could stay closer to nature.

 

Jamie the Jayco

So the Upper Management decided that getting closer to nature didn’t include the proximity to Oz spiders and other bugs which is an inevitable part of “tenting”; in any case she deserved a little comfort in the twilight of her years. So I persuaded myself that I couldn’t do without a “camper-trailer” - a trailer with various fold-out bits which turns into quite a spacious 7-berth beast with fridge, sink and cooker all built-in. I got it cheap as the canvas bits were a bit mildewed, so I replaced them to make it as good as new. Jayco was the maker, so it had to be called “Jamie”. Better than Teddy the Tent which is lurking, unloved in the loft at Wickham Bishops.

 

 

Three Decades for Arnie

30 Years of working for Marconi, or at least being employed by them arrived and passed without me remembering the occasion. Had I remembered there would have been the usual mixed feelings - gratitude for a life of full employment tempered by guilt at not having broadened the experience.

 

The Prom

Sealers CovePromontory is affectionately known as “The Prom” but is totally opposed to a seaside promenade. This large reserve is the most southerly part of the mainland and marks the remains of a land bridge to Tasmania. It teems with fauna and flora and has some spectacularly wild coastal scenery. A single cul-de-sac road brings would-be residents to a simple campsite set in unspoiled surroundings. It was our first trip with the camper and remains my favourite spot. We saw ‘roos and emus and crimson rosellas and walked on a beach that squeaked.

 

 

Housewife Runs Amok With Laser

Christine in LaserHer indoors finally took her driving test and passed with flying colours. So we went into a local garage, just to look at the availability of appropriate cars of course, and she fell in love with a snazzy little hatchback in charcoal grey with a red coachline, power steering and air conditioning. So Oz registered yet another first, Gillis buys a car from a garage! Seeing her drive off with a big grin on her face made it worth every cent. The other first was that it was Gillis’s first Ford, although as the Australian Ford Laser is really a rebadged Mazda 323 it doesn’t really count.

                                                                                               

 

 

 

Eureka!

......was the name of the stockade at the centre of the Ballarat gold miner’s revolt, commemorated in a “theme park” heritage exhibition at Sovereign Hill, Ballarat. It was the excuse for another weekend trip in Jamie the Jayco. Sovereign Hill was typical of the sort of thing Ozzies seem to do really well, with affection for their short history combined with a great enthusiasm for preserving and making the most of it. Ballarat is a town which, like Bendigo, has the wide streets and imposing Victorian architecture of a town which was once very rich during the rush for the yellow metal. The income from tourism serves to touch up the fading bits and keep them for Poms to oggle at.

 

New South Whales Look You

Postcard from EdenThe plan for 1992’s Christmas holiday involved a casual drive round the 1K km or so of Princes Highway which joins Melbourne and Sydney (and which also circumnavigates the whole of Australia - there’s a holiday to dream of; on our trips we found many pensioners with the Four Wheel Drive and caravan who were doing The Big Round Trip - a bold full stop to a working life!). The first stop was at Lake’s Entrance which had little to commend it other than being the unattractive entrance to some attractive lakes (surprise, surprise) and having some man-eating mosquitoes. Eden, round the corner, is an attractive whaling town and was the first stop in NSW. Merry Beach made a highly appropriate place to spend Christmas Day, we had a nice site overlooking the beach, the Pigeon House mountainnational park surrounding the camp was full of ‘roos and there were carols on Christmas Eve. I put up the old faithful Debenhams artificial Christmas tree, we had braised chicken from the pressure cooker and it was almost like a real Christmas except for the temperature. Later Peter and I climbed a local hill called Pigeon House Mountain because of the rock scramble at the top and I was impressed with what a cool climber my nervous little son could be. Moving on towards Sydney we stayed at a municipal site in a small town called Mittagong and drove in to “do” Sydney - impressions from this short stay were that the harbour area Some bloke in a hatwas marvellous, indeed everything seemed to revolve around the water.  We bumped into a highly coincidental colleague on the steps of the opera house, then had an indulgent seafood lunch in a harbourside café before “doing” the harbour bridge. As a city I think I prefer Melbourne, but Oh! for one of Sydney’s harbour-side houses and a boat, and the megabucks to fund them! The return to Melbourne was via an inland route, taking in Canberra and Albury-Wodonga, the latter just being an overnight stop. Canberra felt like the artificial capital that it is, but it was interesting to visit the Parliament building with its interesting architecture (which seems to work - a typical Ozzie combination of brashness with understatement - a huge stainless steel cross and a building partly covered with grass!). The site in Canberra was host to what appeared to be the All Australian Supercharged Unmuffled Noisy V-8 Motor Car Club which made for a sleepless, hot night.

 

 

 

 

Bonny Doon

Lake Eildon again.... was the unlikely name some Celtic expatriate had given to a resort at the north end of Lake Eildon where we spent the last weekend in January. This time the site turned out to be host to the All Australian Supercharged Unmuffled Noisy V-8 Speedboat Club which spoiled what could have been a tranquil idyll. But could you imagine anyone allowing speedboats on the Hanningfield Reservoir? (Lake Eildon is one of a network of reservoirs supplying Melbourne and Victoria with what proves to be ample supplies of water).

 

Van Camp Camp

Daughter Sue arrived at Tullamarine Airport with two of my grandchildren and no Sue, Thor & Aerieluggage (Qantas had borrowed it for a while). It was lovely to see them after so long and Peter enjoyed being an uncle and not being an only child. With me at work for most of the time, Christine saw a lot of Sue and they became great pals which was gratifying. I took Sue, Thor and Aerie to Wilson’s Prom in the camper, the weather was good and we swam on the squeaky beach. For one day I escaped being a grandpa and did a 20km walk over the top of the promontory to Sealers’ cove on the other side where I swam and sunbathed and ate my butties and generally felt at peace with the world. That night I shared my walk back to the ‘van with a real wombat, which looked every bit as big and cuddly as the toy versions. The next weekend we did the Scienceworks at Spotswood and the old mansion/farm at Werribee which coincidentally is the place where the Spotswood steam sewage pump used to send the Melbourne “poo”! Far too soon they were on the 747-400 disappearing into the afternoon haze on their way to chilly Belgium.

 

Seedy Music

For years I had got more and more disenchanted with crackly records and hissing tapes and decided that it was high time my reproduction got digital. So I bought myself a mini sound system with a CD player as a birthday present and a CD of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which took me back to parties in South Africa where the stereo effects were remarkable even on vinyl.

 

Shipwreck Coast

12 ApostlesThe appropriately named stretch of coast between Warrnambool and Apollo bay includes the “Twelve Apostles”, much photographed pillars of rock carved out of the indented shore. We stayed at Peterborough (much smaller than its UK namesake!) in the camper and “did” the Flagstaff Hill museum at Warrnambool, on a longish weekend visit.

 

 

 

Bush Walking in Melbourne

An API walk in Melbourne made a pleasant change, walking the length of a stretch of the Yarra river which included the interesting new South Bank development and the distinguished, redbrick Flinder’s Street Station. A pleasant walk which was complemented by the presentation of a “Certificate of Merit” to the whole family from the bushwalking club, as a reward for many Mondays spent wincing from aching legs earned during Sunday’s bushbashing.

 

Dib Dib Dob Dob

We took the camper to the Family Scout Camp and watched our smallest boy in the biggest bush hat being “inducted” (sic) as a cub scout. The occasion was videoed for posterity. Watch out Baden-Powell, here comes Peter Gillis!

 

Blokes With No Strides On

April each year sees the Official Great Day to mark Senior Management’s Official Birthday. This year it was marked by a matinée performance of Swan Lake by the Russian Ballet. The Princess Theatre, a magnificently gabled Victorian pile in seedy St Kilda, was full of people clapping in all the wrong places but having a marvellous time, just like us. Who says Melbourne ain’t cultured!

 

A Wee Problem

The master of the house was having unusual difficulty in expressing himself; a visit to the friendly neighbourhood urologist revealed a bout of stress-induced non-bacterial prostatitis, a reversible condition for which a more balanced outlook on work, fewer sleepless nights and a holiday were prescribed. Concerned Christine bought a kneadable stress ball but I kneaded it so much at work that it disintegrated, so it had to be a holiday!

 

Tiare Tahiti

An exotic destination for our Winter holiday, with exotic prices. It was very French, with the ubiquitous reluctance of the French to speak anything other than French combined with friendly acceptance of anyone who does try to use their language. Beach at Beachcomber HotelThe Tahiti Beachcomber Hotel on the outskirts of Papeete insulated the tourist in an expensive cocoon from the reality of what they had done to Papeete. This was a curate’s eggish town, good in parts; there were some dirty, scruffy areas, presumably where the responsibility for cleaning corresponded with gaps in the French bureaucracy. It stank of diesel but had some pleasant old buildings and a superb market. We happened upon an unpleasant street fight and the place was full of miserable looking French Polynesians. After Aussie prices the bill for the first night’s dinner rocked us back on our heels; there is little in the way of exports other than copra from the coastal strip and much of the produce is imported from Europe and sold at inflated European prices. Subsequently we camped out in the room, eating out occasionally at cheaper restaurants. One aspect that wasn’t expensive was local transport, every island we went to featured travelling in “Le Truck”, flat bed trucks on which a locally constructed, wooden body had been added to take a dozen or so passengers. Les Trucks circled the islands picking passengers up at strategic points. They proved ideal for the transport of large slabs of Hinano (Bière de Tahiti) cans by impoverished Poms determined not to pay hotel prices!

Three nights later we flew with Air Tahiti to Bora Bora; an incredibly beautiful island still recovering from being the R & R base for the Pacific War and host to 50,000 GIs; there were quite a few fair headed and blue eyed Polynesians as a legacy of this occupation. After scrimping and saving and pooling our small change we were able to make the cost of an excursion; a lovely boat trip for a barbie on the reef, with shark feeding on the way back, very gingerly videoed by yours truly using his new yellow plastic box to keep the camera dry. We stayed at the Hotel Bora Bora Beach Club which featured large land crabs scuttling sinisterly stage left (and right) into their burrows when approached,

Huahine is a lovely name for a lovely, unspoiled island. Our accommodation here was the Relais Mahana, a Huahine hotel room!retreat with the quiet laissez faire of the French provincial hotel. A little bungalow on the beach was framed with arching palm trees. Part of the laissez faire was “libre service” for bicycles and water sports gear. The locals are probably still talking about the red-faced Englishman who turned up at the village bar demanding vast quantities of Hinano before teetering off into the Tahitian sunrise on an overloaded bicycle. I also taught myself to stay on a sailboard for more than a microsecond, even making some way until I had to bail out because I might not have been able to turn the thing round! We hired a car and drove round the island which had a number of interesting archaeological sites, including some stone fish-traps. The latter illustrated why the islands were almost all inhabited only on the coastal strip; with so much food so readily available from the lagoon, who needs to fight their way into the interior? We were very sorry to leave Huahine and even more sorry to spend many hours in Papeete waiting for a connection to Sydney in the small hours at an airport where the restaurant was closed for a private function and comfortable chairs had not been heard of. Even as veterans of many a wait at Athens airport on cut-price night-flight packages, this was the pits. In comparison the wait at Sydney for the connection to Melbourne was sheer luxury. On our return I was amazed to find out how many hours of boring underwater video I had accumulated, all with a monotonous bubbly snorkel background - so be warned and don’t ask to see it!

 

Pride Comes Before Falls Creek

Those who back up an paragraph or two (to here) will note that 1992 had oodles of snow in the Victorian Alps. However 1993 was determined to be different; a record warm August ensured that the covering in September was quite scrappy. The snow cannons managed to keep the piste skiable, but the ski-in, ski-out accommodation turned into tramp-in, tramp-out with a mile or so of hill to the ski lift. I managed to ski every day, even on a day after rain when the piste was sheet ice, which was scarcely comfortable to fall on. Still the parallels got a little less ragged, the suntan deepened and a strained shoulder gave me a lasting reminder not to hang on to the Poma (Strine for “button-lift”) for too long. After the warm August the spring flowers and flowering trees were magnificent, with the wattles (acacia) putting on a gaudy show of fluorescent yellow.

 

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