EPISODE 6 – FOUR TRIPS, ONE WEDDING AND AN EYEFUL

 

UK Fails Quality Audit

Our return to the UK in October 94 was not auspicious. After over 24 hours on a smelly Jumbo, the air bridge to the terminal building didn’t work. Passengers keen to disembark were left standing in the aisle laden with hand baggage and stayed there for over an hour while the Thiefrow staff found first a set of steps, then a 40 seater bus to unload some 300 pax! The escalator to the first floor wasn’t working, then not only was there no cash machine in the arrivals hall but the one in the departures area was devoid of the crisp and dimly remembered pound notes; why people leaving the country should need Sterling escapes me! Then Hertz hurt by not having available the automatic car I had booked. The 80 mph car park known as the M25 was predictably traumatic to those used to the wide open spaces. A trip to the Maldon cash machine for cash left me hunting for car park spaces; when a space was found the ineluctable ticket machine jammed on an Australian 50 cent piece which some rude would-be colonial (no names no pack drill!) had inserted as a temporary sop to the Maldon Council Parking Gestapo. At last an ATM that worked was found and I could buy a newspaper with a £10 note to give me legal tender for the machine, praying that Christine hadn’t used the “Sorry mate, just got in from Oz, got no cash” excuse to the Oberparkingfuhrer! A trip to Tesco to restock the aching void that was the pantry reintroduced us to the inevitable “sour-faced Sharon” till-jockey and to prices double those of Oz. A bottle of wine at four times Oz prices was only fit for sprinkling on chips. England seemed cramped and crowded, miserable and expensive.

 

House not a Home

The condition of our house in Wickham Bishops was better than expected, yet it had the grubby unfamiliarity of a rented holiday home. Simon had organised some flowers and bedding which were much appreciated; he had a new accessory to show off called Sarah who everyone liked; however they resisted our pleas to get wed in the same week as John so that we needn’t have yet another awful journey.1969 Triumph Bonneville 650cc I threw myself into hacking away at the backyard jungle and giving some tender loving care to the poor neglected Triumph Bonneville in the lock-up garage. As a reward I went on my favourite walk through village, pasture and Sparkies Wood in the warm autumn sunshine; this was almost worth the return trip in itself. I photographed and videoed the walk so that I could take back a little of the nice bits of England.

 

John & Alison’s Nuptials

Warm sunshine continued for the wedding of the year, which went off without a hitch, so to speak. As it was a Mormonesque dry wedding, poor best man Simon had an un-lubricated audience to receive his speech, but coped extremely well. John looked a little green around the gills from his stag night bash but the bride was extremely radiant. Mormon weddingTimothy turned up looking bigger and bolder than ever and organised the rest of the family whether they liked it or not. Marianne was wearing her legs and came with grandson Cantlin; I hadn’t seen either for over four years which was far too long - Cantlin was four when last seen and had become a highly articulate seven year old who didn’t recognise me. Susie appeared in a new slimline guise, accompanied by the other two grandchildren, the mighty Thor and Aerie the sweet. David & Ré knew all the words of the hymns, as usual, and sang them with gusto. After the happy pair had made their farewells our lot all dived back to Holt Drive for bevvies. I can’t pretend that everyone got on exactly swimmingly but for me it was very gratifying to see them all together for the family occasion. Regretfully there wasn’t time for deep chats with everyone and all too soon we were left to sleep off the last vestige of jet lag, ready to abuse the metabolism on the way back. We managed to lunch with the Pinnocks the next day, but all too soon we were turning the key and jumping into the motor for the journey back to Heathrow.

 

Singapoops

A double dose of sleeping pills shortened the journey to Singapore. Christine was renewing her acquaintance with the island from some 26 years before; I hadn’t seen it for fourteen years, so we both went round bemoaning the disappearance of the old Singapore. Rub his tummy for luckEven the Tiger Balm Gardens  had changed their name (to Haw Par Villa after the founders). However the city area had acquired an efficient and clean Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) underground railway system; a remarkably cheap, unlimited ticket in aid of the Hindu festival of Deepavali enabled us to travel widely and at the same time experience non-tourist Singapore. The MRT linked efficiently with the bus system to take us to Sentosa Island, the playground of Singapore. This featured a quaint, free monorail service circumnavigating the island, linking the principal attractions. The aquarium was certainly one of the best I’ve ever visited (and that includes Sea World at San Diego!). We even managed to fit in a short nature walk through the island’s “bush” before visiting the museum. This had a nostalgic section illustrating the sights, sounds and bustle of “old” Singapore which had sadly disappeared from Change Alley and the like. I had mixed feelings - although missing the characterful areas I recognised that “exotic” is often a synonym for “poor and unhygienic” and on balance the locals are probably better off. Even Bugis Street no longer featured its notorious transsexuals, however it did have some colourful stalls and some excellent street restaurants. Very authentic-looking mock-Rolex, Gucci, etc., watches at ridiculously low prices were a particular bargain from the stalls. We enjoyed the break in the journey and Melbourne was a relatively short night flight away. We landed in the early morning of a fantastic weekend weather-wise - good old Melbourne managed over 30°C to welcome us back!

 

Christmas 94 in Queensland

To avoid any possibility of last year’s cold weather, the strategy for our fourth Christmas in Oz was to take the camper-trailer to Queensland. The grand plan was to take about a week to drive there, with journey days of some 400km alternated with rest/sightseeing days.

Dubbo Gaol (Jail)The first leg up the Newell Highway crossed Victoria and its border with New South Wales at the Murray River, then reached as far as Narrandera, set in the Riverina area which is irrigated by the Murrumbidgee. With the weather warming up nicely we were given a pleasant, shady spot in the Lake Talbot Caravan Park  which combined a lakeside setting with an impressive swimming pool. Hot northerly winds set the thermometer climbing even further and when we reached our next stop at Dubbo the shade temperature was some 43°C.

Dubbo proved to be a pleasant town on the banks of the Macquarie River, with an interesting old gaol and fringed by the famous Western Plains Zoo. This was a “free-range” zoo with the animals contained by moats and ha-has, across which sweaty humans and comatose animals peered through the heat haze at each other.

The journey northwards diverted into the Warrambungles, a picturesque and impressive range of old volcanic core plugs near the town of Coonabarabran (what a lovely name, reminiscent of the mock-Aborigine house name “Didjabringyagrogalong?”). ‘Roos peered at us as we jarred past on the unmade and highly corrugated road (which, as I subsequently discovered, caused a split weld on the camper spare wheel carrier; thankfully our only malfunction). This area of NSW has a number of large optical and radio telescopes, presumably because of the clear air and electrically quiet environment to be found “out back”. The stop at Goondiwindi followed long, long stretches of featureless Pilliga scrub. Goondiwindi had little to note other than a silly name and being the first stop in Queensland; we spent just a sleep break in an unimpressive caravan site on what appeared to be an industrial estate.

A pleasant drive through southern Queensland led us to Toowoomba and a camp site conveniently located in the main drag for some fast food from the local KFC. We liked Toowoomba - it sat elegantly on a plateau of the great dividing range and was sufficiently remote from Brisbane to have a relaxed and rural air.

Noosa Heads beachWe bypassed Brisbane on the way North to the Noosa beaches, resolving to visit without our towed encumbrance. The “bypass” route was through some very scenic parts of the great divide, including Lakes Wivenhoe and Somerset, and was well worth the extra time.

At last we arrived in the Noosa area, at some 150km north of Brisbane this was our northernmost stay; having taken seven days to cover some 1800km. We had once more found Australia to be very, very big - however the journey had added yet another cross section to our “big picture” of Australia.

The “Bougainvillia” (sic) Caravan Park was actually at Tewantin, a few kliks from Noosa and featured very little bougainvillaea but was well appointed, particularly with intrusive warning signs such as “No Water Skiing in the Showers”, “Do not breathe after 10pm” - perhaps I exaggerate!

Christmas Eve was dedicated to a victualling venture in preparation for the bank holiday siege and to the ceremonial unveiling of the thirty-odd year old plastic Christmas tree, hoping as usual that a fairy light dysfunction would not once more ruin my reputation as an electrician! Christmas dinner featured a Special B-B-Q from the traditional Nipponese cast-iron Hibachi, spoiled only by a subsequent demerit point served by the camp commandant for not wrapping the ashes for the dustbin as specified in Station Standing Orders.

The Noosa area was a pleasant combination of fine, sandy beaches and National Parkland but was quite busy and being intensively developed to saturation; in my view the immediate Noosa area was on the point of being spoiled; however one didn’t need to travel far to find solitude. A highlight of the stay was a day trip to Frazer Island by 4WD vehicle, driving even further North along the sixty-four kilometres of the beautiful 40-Mile Beach, then across a narrow straight to the largest sand island in the world. We lurched along narrow tracks, swam in a fresh water lake perched high in the ancient dunes and were entranced by the flora and fauna.

Brisbane waterfrontAnother day was spent “doing” Brisbane, which was sort of Sydney-ish; it was very much centred around the river and harbour, with a small central business district with some bijou skyscrapers on the river bank, bordered by refurbished docklands featuring posh fish restaurants. However the main sprawl of the suburbs had more of a grid-like traffic system as has Melbourne, avoiding the horrendous venous and thrombotic-arterial road system of Sydney.

 

Southward Ho!

The plan for the return to Melbourne was to skirt the Pacific coast as far as Sydney before turning West towards Melbourne. First we were obliged to drive quickly through the Gold Coast, if only to confirm to ourselves how awful it was and to say we’d been there, done that. We were not disappointed - eyesore skyscrapers stole the sun from the beach and shielded vast estates of retirement bungalows from their sea views. We didn’t stop - fortunately Peter was buried in his book when we passed Movie World so we didn’t get the “Oh please, please can’t we stop?” whinges. We camped much further south at a pleasant fishing village called Iluka, which with its sister town Yamba straddled the estuary of the Clarence river. A peaceful stay was enlivened by a boat trip across the river for Sunday lunch and a visit to Maclean which predictably was infested with Caledonian memorabilia.

For our next stop we drove down the Pacific Highway through an ominous thunderstorm to Port Macquarie, arriving at a pleasant and friendly, albeit slightly soggy site in what turned out to be a charming seaside town. A highlight here was lunch at the Cassegrain winery where we stocked up our mobile cellar. To compensate for this excess we visited St Thomas’s church, convict-built and one of the oldest churches in Oz.

In continuation of our alcoholic researches, having “done” the Clare and Barossa Valleys last year, we had to “do” the Hunter Valley. Unfortunately the main town and campsite in the area was at Cessnock. This drab and uninspiring town was immediately dubbed “Cesspit”; we had the weather to match and the site was unfriendly. The site later featured in a tabloid story, apparently it had been put up as security for a family loan on which the debtor defaulted and thus forcing its sale. Certainly there was an unpleasant atmosphere and we were stuck in a cramped corner inadequately serviced by power, water and sullage. We compensated by visiting local wineries, buying yet more wine to Sydney CBD from Darling Harbourtax the towing vehicle and abuse the liver.

Dural is here not so much a sort of aluminium but more a suburb of Sydney, where a stop was made to increase our familiarity with the Capital City. The site was pleasant but clearly mainly residential in view of its position. We availed ourselves of the convenient local rail service to lunch at Darling Harbour and do all the tourist things, like the Maritime Museum, Post Office Tower and the City Monorail.

From Sydney we left the Pacific Highway and headed inland along the Western Highway, through the Blue Mountains and Bathurst to a little gem called Cowra. The campsite was quaint, combined with a rail museum it was full of railway memorabilia; residential vans all had station names and it was run from a ‘Stationmaster’s Office”. Cowra proved to be a busy little town by the river Lachlan which had preserved an interesting suspension bridge alongside its more modern replacement. However it is of particular note as the wartime host to over a thousand Japanese Prisoners of War who staged a mass, suicidal breakout in 1944. The story was suppressed at the time in case of reprisals against Allied POWs and the scale of the uprising only became clear after part-time, post-war investigations by an enthusiastic journalist (Harry Gordon). I bought his book (Voyage From Shame, 1994) which included interesting insight into the Jap mind; Japanese Garden at Cowrasince they had been captured instead of dying for the Emperor the prisoners often gave false names so that their families would not find out about their shame. When Japan eventually won the war, they expected to be repatriated to a brief period of shame before being executed by their comrades. Thus in their own eyes they were effectively dead already, so a suicidal breakout had an appeal as a way of confirming the status. In fact a number used the diversion to commit suicide anyway, without being involved in the escape attempt. A pretty Japanese garden has been created to bury old scores and encourage Australian-Japanese links.

From Cowra it was only a leisurely drive, with a overnight stop at Albury, back to Glen Waverley, where there was time to water all the potted plants after our month’s absence and get ready for Monday morning and the wearing of ties and long trousers again!

 

Pom Invasion III

The end of February saw the arrival of a 747-400 at Tullamarine airport bearing my son and daughter Tim and Marianne together with grandson Cantlin. They stayed for three weeks which included one of the usual February hot spells, enabling Tim to get well and truly sunburned (redheads and the hole in the Antarctic ozone layer don’t mix!). Their stay went well but wasn’t an unqualified success. Mal stayed behind a wall built of past injustices and Tim tried to play the parent with nephew Cantlin, which didn’t go down too well with his mother.

Timothy Gillis, Marianne and Cantlin Ashrowan with usBut there were memorable moments - since the stay straddled my birthday I arrived home to find it heavily decorated with banners advertising my advanced age of 56 years to the whole of Glen Waverley. They had gone to an incredible amount of trouble in buying touching and appropriate presents, like a CD of Bobbie Gentry that I’d sought for ages and a “Triumph” T-shirt. It was nice to get to know a little more about all of them, particularly my big elder son, even if I did have to stand on tiptoe to get a hug! We spent a pleasant, warm weekend going to Bendigo via Mount Macedon and Hanging Rock and serendipitously stayed in a charming old Victorian bunglehouse instead of a plastic motel room.

The last full weekend of their stay was spent camping at Lorne on a Jayco club outing, with yet another trip along the bloody Great Ocean Road; unfortunately the weather turned inclement and didn’t really look up until winter set in.

 

Doing The Top End

We escaped Melbourne’s winter with a trip to the Red Centre and the Tropical North, by Ayers Rockcourtesy of a bushel of frequent flier points. Alice Springs was surprisingly cloudy and a little chilly, but the weather cleared on the way to the Ayers Rock resort at Yulara. Peter and I climbed The Rock in lovely, clear, cool but sunny weather which gave a good view of the distant Olgas. Then we all walked around it (9 km) and next day “did” the 12 km “Valley of the Winds” walk through the Olgas. My legs were stiff for days! Even though Ayers Rock is one of the classic Oz tourist destinations in Oz, it was not a disappointment; the views and the shared sense of achievement in climbing it together with my son were ample rewards. But the Olgas got my vote as the most impressive, huge skulls of rich red conglomerate contrasting with the many bluey-greens of the foliage of the so-called desert and the deep blue of the sky. “The Alice” was sunnier for our return; I liked the town which had the “matey” feel of isolated communities and I liked the surrounding “desert” which at that time was a riot of flowers from winter rains. The MacDonnell ranges to the west of The Alice had stunning scenery and many photographs were taken at  beauty spots such as Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm and Ormiston Gorge.

Jim Jim FallsThere was no sign of rain in Darwin, just beautiful 28°C weather. The city was unlike any other Australian state capital that we had seen, the absence of high-rise buildings and the profuse vegetation gave downtown Darwin a suburban feel. We had hired a brand new Suzuki Vitara 4WD at the airport and so had loads of fun vrooming round idyllic waterfalls and cool swimming holes in the Litchfield National Park, to prepare us for Kakadu.

Jabiru Stork at CooindaWe stayed in the centre of the enormous Kakadu National Park at Cooinda, near the Yellow Waters wetlands, consuming vast quantities of video tape and photographic film on crocodiles, birdlife and scenery. Trips to the Aboriginal paintings at Ubirr and Nourlangie Rocks were interesting, even though it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between genuine prehistoric art, recently touched up and modern additions designed to attract the tourists. The 4WD-only track to Jim Jim Falls was an interesting challenge to both the Vitara and its pilot, but both made it and were rewarded with impressive views of the falls.

Nitmiluk Gorge, KatherineWe moved to Katherine and in lovely hot weather took a succession of boats up Katherine River through the spectacular Nitmiluk gorge. Our reward was a magical swim in a cool lily pond at the foot of a rainbow-hued waterfall.

We saw more Aborigines in Katherine than we had seen in the rest of Australia; it was disturbing to contrast their much-professed love of the earth with the way belligerent groups littered the lawns of Katherine with discarded beer cans.

After a last night in Darwin we reluctantly gave our beloved Suzie the Suzuki back to Avis and boarded the plane to chilly Melbourne and then the dreaded “back to work”!

 

John does his Duty

News from darkest Brummagem was that Alison was “with child”, so Christine is to become the youngest looking Granny ever. Maybe now I’ll be spared some of the Zimmer frame jokes!

 

Eye Eye Cap’n

I’d been surprised but moderately chuffed by an unexpected improvement in my vision. Suddenly I could read newspapers with the naked eye, however a downturn was that oncoming headlights at night had acquired distracting haloes. A routine trip to the optician for weaker glasses resulted in a rapid referral to the eye specialist, who diagnosed a cataract in the right eye. Yes, I too thought that was what only very old people got; I had a granulation of the rear surface of the lens of the eye which starts in the centre, where it immediately causes scattering of light sources such as headlights, it can affect anyone, even children. The lens had also shrunk and fattened out explaining the increased power. The only solution was immediate surgery to replace the offending item.

The eye specialist was reassuring in his explanation that the operation had the unusually high success rate of 98%. However the right eye was my only good eye, the left being only a willing supporter; so the 2% failure rate caused me not a little concern. But the alternative was to risk a nighttime accident in the car. So the op was set for two weeks time, during which I had ample time to reflect on the importance of vision to virtually every aspect of life.

Phaco-emulsification of cataractThe operation on 10th August was less unpleasant than I had imagined. There was an intravenous cocktail that introduced a sense of wellbeing and a lapse in my sense of time. I was revived for the op and kept up-to-date with the progress. The surgeon used a minimum-invasion, micro-surgery, keyhole technique, whereby a 3mm incision in the cornea (1) is used to introduce firstly a kind of ultrasonic jack-hammer (2) which dissolves the old lens (called “phaco emulsification”), then suction to remove the debris, then a 6mm soft acrylic lens, folded in half (3). This lens is located by little spring arms on either side (4). The ophthalmic microscope had a powerful light which produced psychedelic swirls of rainbow colour, which combined with the intravenous soup to produce a, like, far out, real cool effect, man!

I was allowed home that day, with the eye bandaged. Later that night an illicit and exploratory peep from under the eye patch revealed a disappointingly dim and blurred world (I later found that I’d been peering through ointment-soaked surgical gauze!).

Next morning all the dressings were removed at the eye clinic. Someone had forgotten to order the orchestra, so there wasn’t a crescendo of strings when I cried “Oh Doctor Barb, I can see!”. But during the day, as my poor dilated iris slowly moved over the new spare part, my vision improved dramatically. Not only were things sharply focused but also colours were richer and the whites were brilliant, at least until the brain turned down the contrast! So instead of a yellowing bit of gristle some 56 years old, I’ve now got a brand new sparkling acrylic lens as my window on the world. Good old Melbourne obliged by putting on some incredibly warm (22°C!) and sunny days, marvellous considering that we were in the depths of Winter, so my recuperant time at home gave me lots of bright colours to feast my new eye upon. After a worrying and traumatic time it felt really good that the op was a success. Anyway it was better than having your eye poked out with a sharp stick!

 

Ski Wanaka

New Zealand (South Island) is called “The land of the long, white cloud” because of its virtually continuous range of snow-covered mountain peaks. Driven by a wish to see Australia’s neighbour and a promise of reliable snow, we spent this winter’s ski holiday amongst these peaks in Wanaka, at the southerly end of New Zealand’s South Island. We flew to Christchurch and took a coach to Wanaka (neé Pembroke), enabling a good cross-section of the land to be seen. First impressions were of the contrast between the flat, eastern coastal plain and the magnificence of the long mountain range. The architecture owed more to England than that generally found in Australia and there was a noticeable absence of the ubiquitous Aussie eucalypts. The holiday organisation was also typically English, being somewhat muddled, as we found when the coach dropped us at a windswept hamlet in the middle of nowhere, with no connecting service! But the hamlet had a friendly pussycat, in fact it turned out to be a country of friendly mogs, no doubt all fat and contented from a diet rich in flightless birds!

View from Cardrona, near WanakaThe ski resort at Cardrona was large, with many long runs, spectacular views, magnificent snow and no queues for the lifts. The main hazard for most of the holiday was sunburn, although the latter days were quite windy and the resort closed for one day when a front came through, dropping several inches of powder to enhance the following day’s skiing. Peter had a week’s tuition in a class predictably called the Skiwees, leaving Christine and I to polish up the linked parallel turns. This time I’d put in some preparation by jogging round the block most nights, so the combination of being fitter and skiing in a less tiring manner meant that the muscles ached less than usual each morning. The hotel was a bad choice, but we ate out each evening and only slept in the room, so we survived. For the day when the resort closed we hired a little Nip-mobile and drove to Queenstown, looked at the sights and blued the unused lift tickets on a decent pair of ski-goggles. Queenstown was much bigger and livelier than sleepy Wanaka but we felt we had made the right choice of resort. After all, we are, respectively, a Grandpa and (almost) a Grandma, and after a day’s skiing we were too knackered for the après ski!

 

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