The Johnsons Jolly

David & Ré ohnson at Rose Garden at WerribeeFor the last three weeks of November 95 we acted as base camp for my brother- and sister-in-law David & Ré’s Antipodean Audit; they shuttled to and fro between Shepherd Road and Sydney, Tasmania, Bendigo and Ballarat, always bringing laughter, good cheer and gallon jars of Strine Sherry back with them. Australian liquor shares reached a short-lived high before crashing with the news of their premature repatriation. There were a number of moist eyes and lumps in throats when they left. At least the residual booze helped with the latter!






Christmas 1995

The Christmas break was scheduled to be a walking tour of the Warrambungle National Park in NSW, but a shortage of leave days and potentially high temperatures caused a replan requiring that we stayed in Victoria, so we headed for West Gippsland.

We opened our Christmas presents in Buchan Caves Reserve, the flora and fauna park about 400km Snowy River National Parkeast of Melbourne and nestling on the south slopes of the Victorian Alps. The caves are a relatively un-commercialised variation on Wooky Hole in England. However a magical camp site, nestling in the gorge, was alive with the sight and sound of Kookaburras and Crimson Rosellas, flying between landscaped Silver and Golden Poplars which made a welcome change to the ubiquitous bluegums. It was marvellous to peer through the camper-trailer’s bedroom window at Eastern Grey Kangaroos having a morning bound through the site! We spent a day looking around the Snowy River National Park, including a trip to McKillops Bridge over one of Victoria’s most precipitous roads.

A move to Mallacoota, set on one of the large East Gippsland inlets was not a good idea; it would Stony creek Railway Bridge near Orbosthave been fine for those with boats who knew how to fish, but those who were doubly unqualified were left feeling somewhat out of it. The weather was indifferent and got worse. A boat was hired for a day and we bought a hand casting reel; a line was dangled in the water and we settled down to a cold tinny and a spot of lunch in a quiet inlet. Then an enormous fisheries protection vessel vroomed up on its twin Mercury outboards, demanding to know whether we were fishing. Fortunately Peter had reeled in the line in time, so we didn’t need to produce the licence we didn’t possess. But now I know how apprehended drug smugglers must feel! We were glad to get back to Melbourne where, of course, the weather turned hot and sunny. At least we could dry out all the gear!

Granny Bashing

On arriving back at base the latest news from Brummagem was that on 17th January 96, step-daughter-in-law Alison had produced a bouncing baby boy, Ryan John, 7lbs 8ozs, enabling Christine to dispatch all the tiny clothes she’d been knitting and to get used to being a grandma. I was left wondering what step-granddads did and what harm sleeping with a granny would do to my dynamic, executive image (Ha!).


Last Nights at the Prom

Peter and I  took backpacks and walking tent for an API Bushwalking Club overnight hike in Wilson’s Promontory, from Tidal River to Sealers Near Waterloo Bay, Wilsons PromontoryCove via Windy Saddle, then back via Refuge Cove, Waterloo Bay and Oberon Bay. This magnificent and memorable walk of some 50km encompasses some of the best scenery in Australia, reaching far from the influence of the motorcar into regions which are still virtually virgin Australia. The fine and clear weather during the day showed off the unspoilt scenery of the west coast of the prom to its best advantage; a sprinkle of rain in the evening restricted the evening social to an area beneath a strategically suspended groundsheet. The only adverse element was the attack by voracious March Flies on the Waterloo Bay track; they resisted insect repellent and stung even through clothing.


What a Great Place for the Race!

The Melbourne Grand Prix was unfortunately scheduled on the same day as a long-standing commitment for a family weekend camp at Korrumburra coinciding with my 57th birthday. So I compromised by setting up the portable Telly next to an esky full of cold tinnies under some alien English oak trees and watched the race wearing my birthday Grand Prix T-shirt, with the race programme at hand. Gratifyingly the Williams team and Damon Hill showed Ferrari what for. It felt very granddad-ish to realize that I was watching Jacques Villeneuve’s promising racing style as I had watched that of his father, Gilles Villeneuve.


Order of the Boot

A bombshell from our estate agent told us that our landlord most unreasonably wanted to live in his house and gave us the statutory 60 days notice to quit. Just what I would expect from one who wouldn’t let us have a pussy cat. So after four and a half years of relative permanence we were forced back into the round of weekend house-hunting. This time Peter’s school commitments restricted our area of choice and the short period of notice which encompassed our planned autumn holiday concentrated the mind, so a nearby, acceptable house was soon found. However the earliest lease date was just after our holiday departure date, so we had to accept a month’s wait, a fortnight of paying double rent and a move during the jet-lag recovery phase!


NURP (Pardon me)

As if we needed more disruption, changes at work meant that Telstra no longer provided the company car, so the old one had to be swopped for a new, GEC-provided beastie (hush, don’t tell Arnie!). This meant that towbars had to be taken off the old car and organised for the new so that Easter trips could be made and camper-trailers could be towed to the new house. However when NRP647 (immediately christened an unimaginative “Nurp”) arrived it turned out to be a smooth 3.8 litre Commodore toad-wagon in a nice shade of metallic dark green, with a number of goodies that the old one didn’t have. Oh Joy, Oh bliss, beep beep once more!


What a way to spend Easter!

For Easter we went on a Jayco Caravan Club trip, over the Great Dividing Range and sunwards to Kerang, in Northern Victoria. I had been under the misapprehension that Kerang was the sort of sound made when you drop a saucepan lid. However it turned out to be a busy little town between Echuca and Swan Hill, serving a productive rural area and lying at the southern end of a picturesque chain of lakes and marshes.

Jayco and Commodore on the roadOur journey to Kerang, a modest 300km, started on a wet and cloudy Good Friday; however the weather soon improved as we crossed the Divide. A platinum blonde plume streaming from the top of Mount Macedon was the last we saw of the cloud as the skies cleared to a cloudless, cobalt blue. As it was Nurp’s first real outing we treated it gently, staying below 2k rpm. It still had that new car smell; fresh vinyl, much preferable to old perspiration!

The “Ibis” caravan park appeared at the end of a mind-bogglingly flat and boring stretch of driving following Bendigo. The park had a pleasant, sylvan setting and adequate facilities. After deploying the camper, I did some Egyptian PT in the sun on the deckchair; up above an appropriate flock of black winged, white fuselaged ibis slowly circled, taking advantage of the thermals created by the afternoon sun. My guide book told me that here the ibis were a carefully protected species as they are largely instrumental in keeping down the locust population.

Murrabit is a small village on the Murray to the north of Kerang, remarkable only for its regular Saturday morning market. This turned out to be a large and well-attended affair, a typical Australian country market with anything and everything for sale, with myriad colours and the hustle and bustle of the barter sub-culture combined with the ambience of an enjoyable social occasion.

On Saturday afternoon Peter and I repaired to a metropolis bearing the unlikely name of Quambatook, where a “Tractor Pull” was being held. As a total newcomer to such events I found it fascinating; competing tractors ranged from vintage chuggers to modern monsters with air conditioned cabs and included extraordinary flights of fancy looking like top fuel dragsters but with tractor tyres. Over-the-Top power plants included three five-litre engines in tandem, a nine cylinder radial aero engine and a Mamba gas turbine! All these competed, not with each other but with sleds that used various devices to apply a progressively increasing load on the mud track until the tractor ground to a halt.

Gunbower IslandThe Wetlands cruise was a highlight of the weekend; it ran along Gunbower Creek (an anabranch of the Murray), skirting Gunbower Island State Forest of red gum and box. Nothing much happened, twitchers were disappointed as only a few kingfishers, snake birds and lorikeets were seen, but no children fell in, the sun shone and the cruise was quiet, serene, scenic and very relaxing.

All in all a peaceful Autumn break. We even had a bonus and unintentional tour of the suburbs of Bendigo, courtesy of the Easter Chinese parade in the town centre and those who signpost only the first bit of a diversion!


California here we come

It is ill-bred to reveal a lady’s age, particularly when that lady is a new granny and when a significant age such as a half-century is achieved. So I shan’t say whose birthday we chose to celebrate by encompassing it with a holiday in California, but said birthday did occur on the Golden Gate bridge17th April. The plan was simply to fly to San Francisco, rent a car and drive down Highway One to Los Angeles, staying where we fancied en-route. So that’s just what we did.

We walked our feet off in ‘Frisco, soaking up the atmosphere of the downtown and wharf areas. The weather started warm but deteriorated into a cold and foggy rain; our first sight of the famous bridge showed it arching into the cloud but with the far end hidden in the mist. Fortunately the fog cleared, so later we were able to walk across it and take all the obligatory photographs. Like the Taj Mahal it is one of those sights which is not a disappointment - just the sheer size of the thing is overpowering. The person whose birthday was imminent had vowed to stand on the bridge on her birthday; we fulfilled the promise in Melbourne time since the photographs and video times all show the 17th April; however we had crossed the international date line so the local date was actually the16th.

San Francisco had an interesting, quaint and carefully preserved core, with the famous trams and charming Victorian houses, but was surrounded by some rather bleak, unsavoury and poor areas where I wouldn’t have walked at night. We got out of town and drove down the interstate to the Santa Clara (“Silicon”) Valley and made a pilgrimage to Cupertino, home of Apple Computers; Steve Jobs wasn’t in but a “Sorry, I don’t do Windows 95” T-shirt was received with some acclaim!

No visit to the area would be complete without a visit to the wine-growing areas of the Napa Valley, so we drove north and stayed overnight in Santa Rosa. Someone who shall be nameless left his new, 12th birthday watch under the pillow at the hotel, fortunately it was located by the efficient staff of Day’s Inn and posted to Australia; it was waiting for us when we got back.

Driving south, we bypassed S-F and drove through San Jose to the Monterey peninsula, Highway 1staying in Marina Beach. As an erstwhile Steinbeck fan I was slightly miffed to find that the Cannery Row which he so vividly depicted was now full of twee boutiques, but felt it ironic that the lasting contribution to the areas was not from the canning industry, which died with the sardines of Monterey bay (due to over-fishing), but from tourists tracing the path of the pen of the master.

Between (Mayor Clint Eastwood’s) Carmel and San Simeon is a stretch of coastal State Highway 1 that rivals even the Great (Bloody) Ocean Road. Christine drove so that I could video the endless succession of rocky vistas of sea, sun and surf. Hearst castle swimming poolWe stayed at San Simeon and visited Hearst Castle, an impressive ego trip by Wm Randolph Hearst which was good in parts but vulgar and tasteless in others. I wonder what were the private thoughts of some of the more discerning stars and starlets, who used to be flown up from Hollywood to be impressed?

I liked our last stop before the smog of LA, at Santa Barbara. This was a neat, tidy and busy little city, nestling between the sea and the Santa Inez mountains and sufficiently far from the state capital to have a life of its own. It had a cool and tranquil Mission which showed that not all of California is new and brash.

Disneyland CaliforniaLA was LA-ish, it was hot and smoggy, we did Disneyland, the Queen Mary and Universal Studios and now I don’t have to do it yet again. Good!

I wanted to see Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose but someone had shipped it up to Oregon. I noticed someone had also pinched my old stamping ground of the Hughes Aircraft Company at Fullerton, too, so perhaps there has been a large contraction of the Hughes empire?

And so we returned to Melbourne, arriving jet-lagged at 8.30 on a Monday morning to a day’s work and a house move starting that evening. Even so, I was, as I knew I would be, glad to be back in big, friendly “no worries (and no threats)” Orstralia. Peter missed LA, but I think that was mainly Disneyland that did it. The birthday girl seemed to enjoy herself and still had a rather nice aquamarine and diamond ring to bolster her rapidly fading holiday memories.


Rostella Court

I’m still not sure what a rostella is; I know a rosella is a pretty red bird - is the rostella an oven-ready version? Anyway, six trips in a hired three-tonner were needed to transport the accumulated junk of four and a half years in Oz over the couple of km to the new house. Everyone worked very hard and each was commensurately knackered at the end. We did it all ourselves, apart from a lift with the fridge and the sofa from a workmate at lunchtime. Once again I vowed to get some men to do it next time; I’m getting too old for this game! Peter was a marvellous driver’s mate and put in much more effort than one would expect for his size.

Rostella Court, Wheelers Hill, VictoriaThe house is actually a four-bedroom place but one room is devoted to storing landlord’s junk; thus the reception rooms are somewhat larger than we had at Shepherd Road and everything fitted in with space to spare. Once again my first priority was to sort out the workshop so that I could attend to all the household things which needed fixing, at the same time spending loads on the usual things such as replacement light bulbs. Plus ça change...!

After a week or so I found myself getting homesick - but for Shepherd Road not Holt Drive in England! However I felt better after putting some pictures on the walls and mowing the lawn, which made it feel more like mine. Planting some polyanthus in a bed overlooked by the kitchen window helped to brighten the increasingly grey and chilly winter days; several mornings have given Nurp an icy windscreen to get us prepared for repatriation.


11th Hour Reprieve

At my time of life there is a distinctly limited number of summers to look forward to, so I wasn’t too upset to get a contract extension which meant that I didn’t string two winters together. However I was also pleased to have a firm end date; a number of long-term emotions have been waging a war of attrition with the short term pecuniary benefits. We have been too long away from our extended family; five years without friends is hard to bear and it will be really nice to live in my own house where I don’t have to ask a landlord before I hang a picture. But our minds will ever be full of the sights and sounds of this big red island; we have had a marvellous five years.



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