Sharp as a Rapier; on my visit to Napier……

Not sure how sharp, to be honest. My trip starts with a very boring flight (cheap air ticket as usual) to Auckland. At least  I am on the North Island of NZ this visit. Last time (some of you may recall) I planned a visit for architectural delights, but mis-remembering the info in my brain, took myself via Christchurch to Dunedin (on the South Island). Dunedin, to be sure, is quaint enough, with lots of decent Edwardian/Victorian architecture that would not disgrace Edinburgh or the city of London, but I wanted art-deco. And was therefore disappointed.

More certain geographically this time, I headed into Auckland City which, to my surprise, reminded me quite a lot of San Francisco!  Similarly hilly terrain (very); lots of nice villagey neighbourhoods. Alas, no cable cars but a very efficient system of inner-city-circle buses in various colours.

Digressing – what’s new? – I recall that I forgot to visit the steepest street in the World whilst I WAS in Dunedin! Most people think Filbert or Lombard Streets in San Francisco; the latter because it has eight hairpin bends in a very short space! But no, Baldwin Street in Dunedin lays claim to be being steeper than both – and it is – though Canton Street (Pittsburgh PA) may be steeper. If you can be bothered Google or YouTube any of the above and see what you think. 35% incline or steeper is the mark

Anyway – whilst I was speaking with my sister Jean about this trip, she remembered to ask if I have seen Baldwin Street whilst I was in Dunedin and I had to confess that it had completely slipped my mind. Ah, such is age…….shall I go back to check it out?  Probably not – life is too short for two visits to Dundedin.

By chance and – I suspect – because of its silly name, I booked into a B&B in a suburb of Auckland : Ponsonby . Turned out to be the little Chelsea area, with boutiques, designer shops and cafes etc. I lucked out (as my San Franciscan friend Miss Purple, would say).

Which really means, incidentally, “lucked in”, as it is a good thing, not a bad. Coincidence One.

Though the B&B was not good, but that’s another story.

Here is the city at night, from Ponsonby hill-top:

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Auckland has a city population of around 450,000 – the metro area in total is in the region of 1,300,000 and indeed, 30% of the population of NZ lives around here. So no surprise to find it is a bustling and lively city. Reminiscent too, if you haven’t been to San Fran, perhaps of Seattle. Young and studenty.

I am NZ  (as much as for any other reason) to renew my Australian Visa. My initial year Jan 2010 to Jan 2011 will run out on Jan 28th so I am making this trip in order to claim one final 6 month entry before that day, which will allow me to stay till July. As this little trip unfolded, I became convinced that my guiding star was setting the scenario with great flair.

Coincidence Two: I need to get an early (7am) bus for Napier – seven hours away. A bus runs from the end of my B&B street to connect with that service.

I had planned none of these connections before travelling. There was more to come.

Since I was leaving early, I left my major sightseeing in Auckland till my return a few days later, but in terms of this post I will add them here.  A few shots from the sky tower you see in the picture above and random images from Auckland.

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Apart from being hillier, this map shows a striking resemblance to the layout of the city of Sydney! All roads lead down to the harbour – facing north; large par/gardens to the right side, freeways to the left….

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This is One Building: the brick front is simple a facade attached to glass and the glass tower continues the building upward.

The Sky Tower from below:

I am saying nothing – it’s all in the mind!!

You can ascend to various observation decks and cafes – you can even (not that I was game enough) attach yourself with a rope and clip and walk around ‘outside’ at the top! Heavens above – and what a drop below!!

So that’s Auckland from the air…….

And so – to Napier. Another of my bus specials; it actually took from 7am to 3pm with a lunch stop and several other stops and plenty of Lord of the Rings landscapes, which I won’t bore you with.

NAPIER: lies on the south east coast of the North Island and with its sister city, Hasting is sometimes jointly known as the Bay Cities.  Captain Cook charted the site in the 1760s but it wasn’t till 1850 or so that European settlers obtained the land from the local Maori tribe and started building.  At that time it was little more than a swampy bay inlet with land on both sides and a lake behind.

Nature giveth and she taketh away!! In 1931 a severe earthquake more or less demolished the entire town centre (swampy foundations couldn’t take it, though more damage was done b y the fires that also broke out from fractured gas mains etc).  Though 250+ people died, the city gained an extra 4000 hectares of land that, until the earthquake had been undersea!

But – with a speed and commitment you cannot help but admire, the bulk of the town was rebuilt in two years. Given the time – and the architectural influences (coming via Australia from America) of Frank Lloyd Wright and others, it isn’t so surprising that most of the rebuild is in Art Deco style.  There were a couple of very far-sighted local men too, who interpreted the styles in overseeing much of the rebuilding. What is remarkable today is how much of it still survives.

Most of the buildings are simply two stories high and have every type of Deco embellishment imaginable, from Egyptian to Ocean Liner, from Greek motifs to Maori and to wander around the half dozen streets that make up the city centre, is a real treat. It is more fun in daytime that at night for – whilst there is less traffic and noise in the evening, many of the buildings have internal details which you cannot get at after the businesses close for the day.

WARNING: This is the point where you close down if you can’t be enthused by a row of art deco!

Having said that : this building is anything BUT Art Deco! The only town centre survivor of the earthquake/fire, the Public records office has a grandeur that belies the fact it is actually quite small. (compare the cars parked alongside to see that it is quite tiny). But perfect as a Greek temple on the Acropolis (almost!). It is now empty downstairs and has a gym upstairs.

Only 3 of these street markers survive; built into the pavements at a corner. There were at the time no lamp-posts or other street furniture from which to hang a sign and anyway, it’s easier to look down!! Though you miss a lot if you do: my travel tip is always to look up (above the shopfronts) : that’s where architecture often surprises.

Government Offices.



Some lovely lion head details and lettering. Almost all buildings had the same sort of overhang – to protect pedestrians from rain and/or sun – but ALL also had to have the securing rods above to for extra safety against earthquake vibration!

Probably the swankiest building – HQ of the Daily Telegraph newspaper.


Munster is a province of Ireland.  Check out the little shamrock motif.

Some lovely black and white detailing here….

This was my favourite : neglected and lost in a corner away from the Centre. One-time Servicemens’ Club, then back-packer hostel. Now empty and dusty – but for my money, echoes the landmark buildings of people like Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier in a gentle and imaginative way.  Still remarkably intact – I hope someone gets it and looks after it. Maybe we should all have a whip-round and I will reopen it as a chic boutique hotel….. Napier could use one.

Talking of hotels – this is where I stayed:

Coincidence Three: without my asking, they had allocated me a room right on the Terrace, overlooking the street : the best view and, as it turned out, the last room available there. Thanks Guardian Angel!

Rebuilt after the earthquake – the Masonic is now in its 3rd incarnation – today complete with roof level terraces overlooking the beach and promenade. Once a year they host the focal point of a city-wide Art Deco week where you can’t move for Gatsby lookalikes, their molls and the motors!!

I think even an art-deco fan like me might find that all a bit too much like a trip to Vegas or maybe Brigadoon! And – to be honest, the rooms were nothing special. I know the (newish) owners are working their way through upgrading but there’s a fair way to go. However, not many hotels can supply such a stylish local mineral water as this:

I am re-using the bottle since I brought it back with me. As you might imagine, it raises a few eyebrows down the Gym!! I jest……

And so – after a few days wandering and wondering, I returned to Auckland and thence to the airport.

Somewhat trepidatious, I was expecting a grilling at immigration. Guardian Angel had other plans. Coincidence Four.

I was flying with  LAN Chile – no I had never heard of them either!  But, as it turns out, they are the national airline of said country and as it also happens, they had a promotional deal which meant that for the same price as a real budget airline, I got a proper economy ticket to and from Auckland. LAN Chile flies Santiago de Chile to Auckland to Sydney and back again. Who knows why?

Trying to check in online didn’t work  (it couldn’t find my booking!) but I managed OK at the airport and then waited; it was a 6am flight. I arrived far too early  and  was dozing by the Gate when they called me by name over the tannoy to come to the desk where the attendant asked for my Boarding Card and promptly tore it up!

I thought to myself:  this is either very bad news, or very good news and it became the latter when she handed me a new Boarding Card saying with a smile, “we’ve upgraded you, Mr C – have a nice day”.

Feigning nonchalance, I pocketed the Card till I got around the corner and took a look at it. Seat 2A. Thank you LAN Chile! You can’t get any nearer the front.  Premium Business Class came with all the extras you would expect; my only regret was that I was taking only a 3 hour flight to Sydney – I would have liked to try the full flat bed on a longer journey (say to Santiago) but I gave it a trial run anyway. My fellow Premium Class passengers probably wondered what was wrong with me as I went horizontal and back several times.

Coincidence 5 now  under way, upon disembarking at Sydney, a very nice Qantas ground handler gave me an Express Ticket for both Immigration and Customs/Quarantine. Suffice to say that, whereas the majority of passengers were forming orderly queues for entry to Australia, your’s truly whooshed through an empty express lane  and arrived at the Immigration Desk.

Him: “Good afternoon, Sir” (Me: Afternoon)

“Travelling alone Sir?” (Yes)

“Have a good day Sir (stamp stamp – that’s him not me!!)

and I am  through and in the Arrivals Hall. Total time from landing 30 minutes – including picking up my case. from the carousel.

As I said, my guardian angel / call it guiding star was on my side that trip.

Oh, there was the one other (little) adventure I almost forgot to add.  What does New Zealand say to you?

Rugby, Maori warriors (Haka), Cricket, Arms covered in tattoos, Lord of the Rings, local culture and icons, Cheese, Lamb????

Anyway – more than anything I always remember those almost Celtic tattoos everyone seems to have – well everyone under 30 anyway. So who says an over 60 can’t?

So my New Zealand souvenir of choice – a very little Libran astrological sign, which now sits – resplendent in bright blue (outlined in black) on my left inner wrist!  Like this:

This is not to be confused, as one or two “wits” have suggested, with this logo:

Which is, as can be clearly seen, one of the local transport providers!!

There is (I know) no fool like an old fool and I stand here before you, thus self-proclaimed.

Did it hurt? Yes, a bit. Like that bit when the dentist first puts the numbing needle in –  only this took a while longer than a micro-second.

I didn’t know what to expect either; bit like a visit to a new dentist in that respect also! I just hoped it wouldn’t hurt so much that I would sob or groan, since the Tattoo place operatives were all very macho. As it happened, I gritted my teeth and thought of England – or something. I was more concerned about keeping my arm flat and straight (!) so the hand-drawn image wouldn’t be crooked. Which it is a little, anyway, but that doesn’t matter a jot.

After it was done, it was wrapped in cling film for the day and though I kept close watch on it, nothing happened : it got a little crusty a week later and after 10 days or so, is all quite ordinary.

So my first (and last!) tattoo or self-organised mutilation! I started this post with a pun about Rapiers in Napier and , as it turned out, finished there with an even sharper tattooist’s needle!

Whatever next…………………… pray for me!

JC x

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“The Boat that I row………..”

Greetings!  Christmas Greetings if you wish (if you follow such things). It is past midnight here in suburban Sydney – so it is December 25th, 2011 for me – even if for YOU  there may be several hours before we are on the same day. And even though this Blog says posted 24th – that’s because my computer clock is still on UK time!  So, Patience, mes amis!

All around me (especially at AA meetings) I hear the common cry : ‘it’s just another day’ and that’s fine with me. But it does have special meaning to many people and I respect that too. Each to their own. Although, I read in the local paper today an address from the Bishop of Sydney : I had to keep putting it down in disbelief.

Being (once) a proper Catholic boy I have quite a good handle, as they say, on the story of Christmas (according to that church, anyway). I was surprised with the Bishop’s “Christmas : the True Story”.  Apparently “Mary was a peasant girl coming, like Joseph, from a very devout family……..” Hmm. How does he know that?

And how about “Jesus was born between the years 4BC and 7BC”. Doesn’t BC mean “before Christ” and isn’t that the date that BC/AD changes?   This is apparently “some time before the Christian era” which it would be wouldn’t it, since it’s named after Christ! All very confusing, so we shall leave him to it. Maybe they’ve discovered stuff I didn’t know as a boy?

Anyway, I was going to go to Midnight Mass and the preceding Carols (as I do back home) and there is a convenient Catholic Church 5 minutes walk away in Gladesville (where I stay). In the event, I didn’t as I ended up at an earlier service in the City. I co-opted a few pals and went to Sydney Town Hall for a free Christmas Eve concert which included a performance by the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir.  Since I plan to have a sing with them in the New Year I thought I would have another look at them. To my surprise the ‘concert” was a Carol Service organised by the Metropolitan Community Church and featuring loads of carols, a few solos, speeches and even a communion at the end.  As it happened I would have missed my ferry if I had stayed for communion, but hadn’t planned to stay to the end anyway. Though the whole thing was so inter-denominational that I am tempted to go along one Sunday and see what they get up too. It was far more than gay supportive, to say the least and the size and variety of the crowd was inspiring indeed. I seem to recall there is a similar Metropolitan Church in central London (Bloomsbury?). I would urge anyone who has issues (as I do) with organised religions to maybe check them out.

ANYWAY….. I wish you all, my dears, the happiest of Christmas Days and hope you get all you wish for. Though you should be careful of what you wish for  – oh, but that’s for another time! :))

Most of you will know I am not much of a water baby!  As in, I am a pretty useless swimmer – though I sink very elegantly.  I have never quite mastered that bit about breathing while you splash along though many wonderful people have tried to teach me. Even Steven, my old and trusted Australian artist friend, failed – and that was in a private pool with just we two.  So, in the water – no. By or on the water? Now that’s a different story. When I left London some years ago, I went first to Margate (don’t ask – aka – benefits central!) which was a mistake – but the view from my little eyrie down and across the Harbour was magic. Less fun were the nine flights of stairs.

Thence rapidly to Seaford and – for a while – my lovely little house with garden running down to the beach and the constant awareness of the sea from sitting room and bedroom windows. Sound & movement. When I had to move just around the corner to save money, I never settled and was heart-sore for my lost sea-view, more so than I would have expected.

So here I am by another sea – the Pacific, or Port Jackson (Sydney Cove) and the Parramatta River. I spend a lot of time taking the Ferry up and down from my lodgings to the centre of Sydney. I often take my bike on the Ferry and then take my life in my hands on the Sydney roads!  But I begin to wonder now if I am for ever to be on or around the water.

Last week – quite unexpectedly – and old friend from England (who has a business here) invited me to join him on their Office Party (with a Christmas theme.  I went as Manger – obvious, but also a play on the French for “to eat”. It’s a long story).

Here’s the little boat we sashayed around the Harbour on….

To give an idea of scale, it is only 110 feet long. The Helicopter, alas, was not aboard that day! We were using that area for dining, as you do.  If you can bear it, here’s a link with some fuller information on this floating gin-palace!

http://purecruises.com.au/2011/02/07/mv-flying-fish/

Tomorrow (that is – Boxing Day) sees the start of the famous (and famously dangerous) Sydney to Hobart(Tasmania)  Yacht race. I shall be on another (smaller) boat in the Harbour, following the  boats as they start out from the Heads (where Sydney Harbour meets the open sea). Courtesy of an AA pal and as a thank you for helping to make 100 desserts for a Christmas reunion last week.

Meantime, my friend Brenda (with whom I am staying),  has been a volunteer for the Cruising Yacht Club (organisers of the Race) for some years and will be flying off to Hobart on the 27th to prepare for the flotilla to arrive in Hobart.

And to finish the year off, New Year’s Eve will see me once again on the Harbour – moored as serenely as possible for viewing of the best NYE Fireworks in the World!  Courtesy of Lisa (old friend of my brother Sean)  & her partner David. I think I recall putting this shot of their boat on an earlier blog.

And should we tire of Bridges, Fireworks and food, we can cruise around the corner to Glebe Island where Jamiroquai, The Pet Shop Boys and Boy George/Culture Club will be giving a concert! What a life.

Apropos of nothing, I used to hate New Year’s Eve – it seemed that I sat somewhere each 31st December wondering where the year had gone, why I was another year older, why I had achieved nothing and why it was so unfair! Recent years have taught me differently; now I see a new year coming as part of the challenge, the adventure. Who knows what will happen – or even if one will see the year out (not being negative, things happen!).  But in line with my philosophy of trying to live each day as it comes ( to the fullest), how can I not be happy, grateful and inspired by the lucky circumstances that see me here in lovely Oz?

Even if Sydney is experiencing the coldest / wettest December in 50 years. These things are all relative : 26/28 degrees even if wet and muggy is not so bad.

To return to my watery subject, the oddest thing is that I feel quite unconcerned to be up and down, round and about the River, ocean etc. yet with no desire to swim in it. My recent visit to Magnetic Island (see Blog) saw me unusually venturing above the waist into the water – and that only because I was skinny dipping –  so sort of had to!!   I do wish I as comfortable with it – but  there is something about the power and strength of mother nature in the raw that is too much for me, and yet draws me.

I am also a little obsessed with the wonderful poet T S Eliot and, in particular, his masterpiece “The Wasteland” which not only includes a reference to Margate, it even has a section called Death by Water.  I suppose one can read too much into things?

So to Christmas and lunch.  We shall have smoked salmon (not Oysters as planned : the guests not like them!) and Brenda will crank up the Barbie for steaks (of course) and salad and veggies. I have made the dessert – a classic traditional Plum Pudding. Made really just with various fruits (raisins, currants, sultanas, flour, eggs, breadcrumbs and rum (call that rum “flavour”). It takes only a short time to prepare (mixing it is a bit of a bitch!) but then six hours in a bowl, on a saucer, in a big pan – constantly topped up so it doesn’t boil dry. For “traditional” read “for the days when servants had hours of time to kill”.  I was up till 01.30 on the simmering process, then waited another hour for it to be cool enough to refrigerate. We shall know in about  15 hours whether that was worth it – or if I shall be faced with a few wry faces, trying to say how “lovely” it is!!

So I shall get myself off to bed now – in the knowledge that some of you will possibly read this before I awake again – though I’d leave it till Boxing Day if I were you!  My love and best wishes to you all – sorry that I am not having Christmas lunch with family and friends in the UK but also – selfish as ever – happy to be avoiding the winter.  We may speak over the next day or three but meantime I hope the Christmas you get is the Christmas you want.  Old (and un-reconstructed) hippy that I am, I offer these few lines from that lovely old song by Greg Lake (who he – Ed?)

I wish you a hopeful Christmas,
I wish you a brave New Year,
All anguish, pain and sadness,
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.

They said there’d be snow at Christmas,
They said there’d be peace on earth,
Hallelujah! Noel!, be it Heaven or Hell,
The Christmas we get, we deserve.

JC x

It’s All Good……………

Australians – as I suggested in an earlier blog, have a certain way with words (avo=afternoon, for example.)

They have similar affinity with phrases – some you will know :
no problem / g’day / that’d be right / bloody oath! / beyond the black stump.
You get the drift…….

One of my favourites though, is “it’s all good” = people use it to mean “that’s OK, everything’s OK, cool , even No Problem.

Sad to say that insidious (and invidious) multi-outlet burger monster, the  yellow arses (McDumpsville) has taken the phrase and tags it onto the end of their latest product launch. So we shall have to stop using it I suppose……

I hadn’t planned a whinge (!) so moving rapidly on to say I am quite living the Life at the moment.
An old friend of my older brother Sean lives here and Lisa, her partner and family took me out on Sunday. For a little spin around the Harbour – picking me up from my local Pier – this is how we do it here!

And mine hostess – in the Galley!

There are 4 sizeable bunks in the fore cabin – and shower room.  Liza and David have a double bunk, with their own en-suite shower room!  All mod cons, sat-nav and more.

We had a leisurely cruise down the Harbour – under the bridge (of course) but stopped en route (as you do) at Sydney Markets to pick up some fish and the most enormous prawns I have ever seen – I promise.  We ate those after mooring up in one of the little bays that surround central Sydney. I was home in time for tea after we explored some way up another of the many rivers that feed into Sydney Harbour.
I was struck later this week – on another trip – by how extraordinary it must have been for the first explorers here (Captain Cook, and then  the First Fleet etc) when they came in through the gap in the hills and found themselves in what we now call Sydney – initially it was called Port Jackson. Even today you can get a flavour of that first sighting as parts of this huge harbour have been left quite untouched. Here’s a shot or two taken from the Manly Ferry. That’s not a description of the crew, incidentally (though they usually are!) but an outlying town across the bay from Sydney; Manly sits across a spit of land with the Ocean and one end and the Bay at the other and you can walk from one end to the other in about ten minutes.

If you squint you can even see a tiny yellow beach centre right!!
Mind you, if you looked right and  behind this little hill ::::::

There’s the City and the Harbour laid out across the horizon.

Manly once had a well known – and somewhat disreputable artists colony – consisting largely of writers (mostly poets, as it happened) which caught my attention. As did a somewhat derisive poem addressed to the township from one of the more successful poets. Here’s a snapshot which I hope will be legible.

I hope it isn’t too hard to read; you get the bonus of my fingers in shadow at the bottom. Will I ever manage the technology that taking a photo requires? I doubt it……

I also took a trip up-river (past where I am staying) to a town called Parramatta which has early buildings to rival the oldest in Sydney.  It owes its existence to being inland and easily reachable by the river.  Having established the colony in Jan 1788, the earliest arrivals realised very soon that the local land would not support crops and – fearing starvation – they searched for more fertile land up-river and found it at Parramatta, establishing the town there in November 1788.
Its climate and accessibility made it a popular early choice for Governors (and their wives) and some of the earliest farm experiments and government buildings are still there. Sadly the town itself has grown in a rather disorganised fashion and now hides any quaintness it may have had with a rather boring centre of uninteresting offices and shops.
Though it was extraordinary of learn of one Convict (transported here for 7 years) who was working for the Governor in Sydney and who was moved to Parramatta when his gardening gifts were recognised. He was given a few acres, some animals and other support (and got married), with the proviso that they prove a man and family could be self-sufficient. Suffice to say they did, in less than two years, and were rewarded with further land etc. Eventually, having made a good living, they sold up and bought a larger farm further up-country and retired quite rich. I couldn’t help but reflect on a life that (back home) might have continued in criminality and maybe the gallows,  but which, in this colony at least, gave him a true opportunity for a new and successful life. I hope there were many more like him……

But Sydney – and the country around – is moving into Spring now (another reason not to rush back home!) and as the days get warmer, the beaches and bushland will get ever busier. I met with an ex-UK colleague (she now lives in Melbourne and Dubai) who said that the best reason for living in Australia was the sensible work / life balance and – though I could hardly say I am “working”, I do observe that little has changed in that respect since I first visited here (in 1985).
I interpret people’s attitude to work as being the means to fund people’s social life, family and friends and so on.
Work does not wholly seem to overwhelm lives quite as much as it appears to in the UK.   Feel free to disagree, of course; it may just be that I’ve become such a non-worker I have completely lost the plot!!

I am off again tomorrow with a friend here who is driving us 2/3 hours up the coast to what remains of a small sea-side community off the beaten track. Like a lot of country places, it is threatened by the growing mining industry here – many small towns, villages and even homesteads are suffering from the boom in mining (for iron and other minerals) or gas from coal seams which is also widespread. The coming years, as a result, will bring  huge financial bonuses here – but some fear it comes at the expense of land-destruction and that once the mining moves along, it will leave areas depopulated and poorer. Though central government (Canberra) seems to favour the $$$ it sees to balance books – especially from China, which will buy almost anything mineral, ore and gas to feed its own booming economy. There is almost no trading deficit here – at least at Federal level. Individual states are not much worse off.

Imagine if we could say in the UK that in 10 years or so, there would be NO government need to support the ageing population!  Because of an insistence on private pension / health cover that has been going on for many years (they call it “Super” – short for Superannuation  – and it has been compulsory), the population should be self-sufficient as it retires.  Add to that the booming billions from the industries I mentioned above and the coming years should be very good for Australia.

Unless the politicians manage to turn such a success into a disaster – we shall see……

Post Haste – I don’t think so!

Well, what can I say? This Blogging lark didn’t really keep up the speed it started with!

Off like a Guy Fawkes Rocket – soaring and fizzing and now? – more of a whimper than a bang. With only a couple of blogs in recent weeks, I’m winning no prizes.

Though quality is what counts of course. So – talking of quality, let me start you with the Two Ronnies (Google them if you don’t know!):

A row developed today at Sussex County Council when Library listings were announced and Southern Rail’s new Timetables were listed under Fiction.

A woman complained to Police that a squad of cavalrymen from the Light Brigade had crept up to her house and seduced her. When asked if she would prefer charges she replied ” yes I would. It would be noisy but I wouldn’t be kept waiting so long….”

Boom Boom (as they say). I won’t trouble you with any more.  Sometimes even I am surprised by the funny books Brenda has amassed. I am back in Sydney now – and no pun intended.

After a lively few weeks with Peter & Christine, their four young girls and mother Joan up In Queensland,  the peace of suburban Sydney is quite noticeable. I have been reacquainting myself with Brenda’s very neurotic dog Rimsky (as in…..) taking him for such unusually long walks he’s been flaked out by 7pm. Which Brenda usually is too – after days of trying to teach English to a range of immigrants from all over.  Though I don’ take her for walks!!

By Australian law, if you want to be Naturalised, you must reach a certain standard of spoken English. Some of her students are elderly women who have been coming to classes for years and still speak only Chinese or Iranian!

Meantime, out walking today , I found I may have been in the Bush way north of Sydney before…… spooky, I was only 14 then!

I went walking with one of the women who arranged my first trip out of Sydney when I arrived – remember Tom Groggin Station – the very up-market log cabin in an earlier Blog?  Penny and I hiked, scrambled and walked 12 or so Km through virtually virgin bush (yes there are markers – though I wore a screaming orange hat in case we needed to be spotted by helicopter for a rescue). It doesn’t seem far, but it took several hours. Quite oddly,  you do get a feeling for what the early explorers settlers must have encountered. Such thick and lush vegetation;  incredible trees – I called this one Busty Bertha!!

It is a gum tree of sorts, with the most amazing boles studded all over the trunk – which itself has no bark as we would know it,  just a smooth dark skin, like an elephant. You cannot resist touching it.

And who needs art in galleries, when this naturally eroded rock offers such stunning visuals!!

or this………

The landscape is almost completely sandstone – varying in hue from bright yellow, through orange to deep dark purply red. Sometimes the sand on the tracks is deeper  (and wetter) than an English beach (for want of a better word). Other times the bedrock rises underfoot and we slip and slide from the frequent small watercourses than criss-cross the land. Old oyster shells litter the riverside parts of the track – evidence of the eating habits of the original inhabitants here. Before what my thoughtful friends describe as The Invasion!  That would be Captain Cook and onwards……

Meantime, Brenda (and Penny’s partner Liz) were lazing about at their home overlooking the nearby Hawkesbury River a mile or three away. This vast inland estuary could easily have been the first main outpost rather than Sydney. Fate decreed it is now a very pretty backwater with several villages accessible by boat only, and a very popular spot for commuting and/or weekending from Sydney. Penny & Liz live here full time – high on the hill above the bay, but with vertiginous steps and gardens right down to the water. I didn’t venture down to the bottom; after our walk I rather feared that I might get down there, but my legs would refuse to come up again.

I was very ready, however,  for the barbecued lamb and veg followed by Cherry Mud Pie! (imagine that…. yum).

Barbecues, by the way,  are NOT just a summer occupation here – both Liz and Brenda have large gas barbecues in the back gardens and use them almost daily.

As I sit here now – watching Motor Racing from Belgium on the TV and writing this, I know I’ll be dragging myself up from the seat soon – legs and glutes aching!  and the bike ride I half-planned for tomorrow will NOT be happening!!

This is Penny below as we clambered up another boulder-strewn hillside.

It is just coming into Spring here and plants starting to bud and shoot. Some strange and wonderful sights : this tiny (1 inch wide) bud opening like a tiny, perfect coat button.

There are at least 500 varieties of eucalyptus trees & bushes, dozens of Banksias and even more that look like these previous two but aren’t. I could never be a Botanist.

In fact I discovered the other day that I am a “Scanner”  as a descriptor of how I approach life, work etc. This was a new word to me – but a welcome piece of information, counteracting the guilt I have felt all my life for not “applying myself” to a career. According to my “research”  the behaviour of a Scanner is to dip into everything – the world is fascinating, there isn’t enough time to check everything out etc – and after a period of brief intensity, to move on. Be it acting, exhibitions, poetry, cycling, praying, keeping fit, learning to sketch, writing Blogs (!) singing, looking for work, whatever,  etc etc etc

(The opposite pole, by the way is a “Diver” – the person who needs to microscopically investigate one special subject or topic – down to its atoms etc . Way too much information for me).

Anyway, it seems it’s OK to use my talents this way – and it explains why I have been an office worker, actor, tour director, administrator, Butler, Hotel worker, – and that’s just a few I can remember at the moment.  Armed with such information I shall be planning even more fancy flights of fancy!!

Forthcoming “Scanner” activities will include:

investigating House Sitting / Caretaker (so don’t be surprised if I end up somewhere in Europe when I finish here; come and visit me)

finalising some “consultancy” work  (cough, cough) with my old event pals from the UK who are doing cloned shows here like Better Homes & Gardens / MasterChef Live and the Baby & Toddler Show. Yikes!

More Poetry : a historical/biographical/whimsical poem for every year I have been on the Plant – at least 1949-2009 anyway!  60 for 60.

And on that optimistic note I will close.  Stating only the obvious : this is not a dress rehearsal and what’s the worst that could happen?  (Most of it already happened, anyway!).

Take care. Love to all.

JC

Derby and Joan………

We none of us are getting any  younger, are we?

Yesterday (Sat 16th) my next sibling down – Philip – was getting a surprise 60th birthday party from my other siblings, family and friends – which I of course was unable to attend, being 11,000 miles or so away.  The Lucky One? – indulging my travel addictions! – but missing family fun.

My friends Peter and Christine – with whom I am staying – live  (with their 4 daughters and his mother)  on the Gold Coast of Queensland, close to the “city” of Surfers Paradise.  Not sure how accurate that name is these days; the entire beachfront here is lined with tower blocks of apartments, hotels and holiday rentals. Those on the second row back will be lucky if they ever see the sun at all!

 

Queensland has always been – it seems to me – a little like Perth.  Like a rather brash, unruly younger brother to its more sophisticated rellies (Sydney/Melbourne) – rather like Leicester Square next to Covent Garden.  Both very popular with visitors but one slightly more garish and with its hair let down.  The Gold Coast –  more Las Vegas than Leamington Spa!!

Brisbane itself I don’t know well, but will be investigating soon.

(( “Rellies” by the way – is a typical Aussie shortening for convenience. We say relatives……  you can try your tongue and brain on “avo”, “dahls”, “smoko” for some more linquistic puzzlers!))

Mine hosts kindly (and very expensively) took me out to dinner on my first night here – to a purpose built dinner theatre venue called Draculas! Think theme park crossed with Rocky Horror Show, crossed with The Trocadero and you get the picture. From the coffin room style entrance, through the Ghost Train cars which took us in pairs down the main dining area; the enormous (a litre?) goldfish bowl cocktail glasses to the serving staff impersonating  Avatars, Vampires or Zombies,  right through to the show itself.  A combination of schlock horror / heavy metal crossed with ventriloquism, cross-dressing, puppetry and plain old rock from the 60s to the 90s which carried us along by force of enthusiasm, noise and sheer-salesmanship for 3 hours. I was exhausted, over-excited and dying to buy my own set of fangs (only $35!!) by the end of the night.

On a gentler note, the BLOG  is titled Derby and Joan – see above – because Joan (Peter’s mother) was quizzing me about England and places she remembered, including – as it happened – Derby. Or Durby as she called it…….

One of the loveliest things about people here is that , despite a rather ambivalent past history with successive British governments, and despite enormous changes in the ethnic make up of the population (even in the 10 years or so since I was last here), so many people still have ties to the UK and Ireland and want to talk about where they or their ancestors came from. Even if they have never been to Europe and don’t plan to go anytime soon!

I keep getting blamed for bringing English weather with me! Though it is winter now, here in Queensland they insist the last 2 years have seen a change in climate towards wetter, colder winters.

This is the first time I have been In Australia in the “winter” and I suppose I would equate it with an English autumn; often cold and misty at night. I notice more than the locals do though, that when the sun shines, there is some heat in it – despite mid-winter – something that would not be the case in mid-December in England, even if the sun deigned to shine!

The last few weeks – though based in Sydney – have seen me making short trips away (usually with my old friend Brenda) both up and down the coast and inland to the Blue Mountains. So-called because the blue-ish green tint of the native eucalypts,  especially in the evening light, gives the mountains that sort of hue. They are very beautiful – incidentally – and it’s fun to imagine the difficulty the first settlers had in getting up the hills to start with. Unlike Britain, where following a river up will usually find a path through mountains, the land here doesn’t do that and often they followed for miles only to fruitlessly arrive at a blank and towering cliff, with little hope of ascending it!

Brenda lived at one time in a small town called Blackheath – around the  4000 feet mark – and there are other friends who recently moved to Richmond. Windsor is nearby,  as is Pitt-town. You will note the derivation / influences of the place names!

Many of the coastal areas bear a combination of Aboriginal as well as European names.  A glance at the map that follows shows quite a selection – and will also give you some idea of the distances involved here.  When compared to the UK, you realise what a very small – and quite crowded – country the UK is.

Spent a pleasant 2 days in Eden – almost as far south in New South Wales as you can go. Once a huge whaling industry was based here; now only tourist come – though they come for whale watching as numbers of Sperm and Blue whales still pass close by the shore on their way south to Antarctic breeding grounds. Sadly, we were too early in the season  to see any – though it was galling to find out that as we drove back on the inland route, whales were being sighted in Sydney, off Bondi Beach!!  Here’s a shot taken near Eden, trying to pretend it is a cliff, rather than a 2 foot riverbank!!


It could be a lunar landscape, almost! Did you ever see such a think sandy riverbank; just where the River runs into the sea near Eden.

I took the train up from Sydney to my current location – on the map above passing through Tweed Heads and into Queensland….. that part of the journey is 11 hours by train. The coastal track stops just into Queensland and the last 3 hours to Surfers Paradise are by coach! A further 1.5 hours would get you to Brisbane.

There WAS a rail track onwards to Brisbane along the sea, but a lack of passengers and poor maintenance of rolling stock, track and stations meant it was closed 2o years ago! As one Rail employee said to me :  1100 Km or track is a lot to maintain.

For the geographically-challenged amongst my readers, that’s the distance more or less, from Lands End to Jon O’Groats!!

Here – by contrast – is Werri Beach – somewhat near Kiama on the above map. Very different country : pastoral, cows grazing everywhere and green meadows running down almost to the sea. It reminded me of parts of Ireland……

Though with different trees and, of course, no Guinness – or diddly-diddly-dee tourism!!

I really am blessed that I have friends here – and that they have friends who embody the Aussie spirit of generosity and laidbackness (what a horrible portmanteau word! I apologise if I made it up).   In the last few weeks, I have been offered (or accepted):

Sheep-farming  (shearing comes later) or cattle farm visits; Sailing in and around Sydney Harbour from 2 different people; Beach houses / millionaire’s country retreats / bush cabins; Cars on loan; Lunches / Dinners in very exclusive venues in Sydney and beyond; Bike riding in the Blue Mountains; Dog walking all over the place – everyone seems to have dogs!!

Not to mention the wonderful vistas and the sheer fun or travelling long distances with no particular rush to get anywhere……. if I go much slower as I adventure along, I shall probably stop completely.

Until the next time…………..

Joan, Joan, where are you…………………………………………???

No Worries?

My main worry is that I am having such a chilled time that I have become very idle in the Blog department! Since my last blog (May 21 I think), a month has flown by and I have been in and out from Sydney a few times, latterly a few hours south to my ex’s (that’s Steven) near Canberra – where his partner Tony has a sheep farm.

Seriously. At the moment there are only 450 sheep on the 3300 acres – their part of the country is only just recovering from an 8-year drought, when animal stocks were almost zero and many farms and holdings were sold off.  Tony’s family has been on this farm since the 1890s – and in Australia since the 1830s, so it’s great that he survived.  Especially since I can now add Sheep Wrangler / Drover to my CV. I think the proper term could also be Jackeroo – but I feel a bit Senior for that.

(Talking of which, I quite blatantly request a Senior Concession Fare on the bus from Brenda’s into the City – tho I am not entitled (being non-Aussie) and also not old enough, as their age for Concessions is 65. So far it has worked and I get full use of trains buses and ferries for $2.50 a day!)

I digress.  Here’s a typical view of the land in the southern tablelands where Tony’s farm is situated.

A very nice young Aussie called Mike came to the farm for half a day, to scan the sheep. As in scan for pregnancy. As I recall, 390 or so were with lamb! They had to be rounded up, passed through a paddock or two and finally funneled into Mike’s machine. He had the worst job – shoving the hand-held scanner between their rear legs to get a reading. This caused lots of them to wee themselves. What a day job, eh?

I was (at first) charged with feeding the ewes up the last little ramp into his machine, but didn’t have the strength to really shove those who lowered their heads and refused to budge. Plus their wool has lots of sharp burrs which – despite my gloves – were really working into my “townie” hands.  Tony had a trick of grasping them somewhere “down below” which I didn’t fancy even trying to learn, so I moved down the line and found I had a good knack for funnel duties – aided by a useful wooden staff I picked up in the meadow, which I used to prod them rather effectively in the left buttock! We soon had them running through pretty neatly.

I shan’t be taking up a career as a sheep farmer anytime soon, however.

Moving on……

This is the Deep Space Station in the hills outside Canberra. There are 3 in the World (all owned/run by NASA):  this one, one in Spain and one in California. They spend their days communicating with satellites / spacecraft / stations we have up there (so to speak) and also listening into Deep Space for any signals that might be coming To Us. ET phone home – that sort of thing.

It opened in time for the moon landing in 1969 and has some stunning equipment, films and footage from those days as well as many other space excursions. At the moment they continue to monitor two spacecraft now at the very edge of our Galaxy and have been tracking for 10 years or more. They are watching Mars, Pluto, probes and meteor showers.  Is their work about looking at the past (light years etc) or the future – who knows what they will find?

As luck would have it, the very time we were there,  this huge disc (300 feet across) tilted and turned till it was lying flat and facing straight up. Like a scene from a James Bond movie!  Though we are actually sitting on the back terrace having tea and cake.

We were out for the day to visit some of Tony’s family history. His surname in De Salis – note the De – not de! And the family dates from ad the 9th century in a Swiss province close to the Italian border called Soglio.   This happens to be the name of the property he currently farms and where I’ve been staying.  Say “solio” not sog – and you realise how Italian it is.  Until about 1930 all the males of the family held a courtesy title of Count – and indeed there is a current Count and Countess Charles De Salis – they run a very upmarket B&B in a stately home in Somerset!

Back in the 1830s,  sons of the then Count came to Australia and over the following generations bought, farmed, sold or lost a number of very large estates – one of which now forms an entire suburb of Canberra itself. Our trip that day took us to one earlier property which even includes a beautiful small walled family cemetery – part of the national heritage trail these days.


This branch of the family is actually called Fane De Salis – but that’s too confusing to try and explain here! Suffice to say, a visit to this historic place – where the cemetery gets the best spot – on a little hill adjoining the two rivers which run through the property – was a really special occasion.

Of these two rivers, one – the Murrumbidgee – runs along the border of Tony’s current property – though Soglio is about 30 miles away!

As a suburban London boy – and never a country dweller really, I find it fascinating and enthralling to explore a family that can trace it’s occupancy of the same land for 150 years and the family itself back over 1000. I feel sure I shall steal some of their story for future writings.

Meantime, their life – that’s Tony and Steven’s – carries on in a gentle and natural way. Steven is an artist (some of you will know that) and now continues to make his art in some of the rooms in the farmhouse, as well as lending hands – when the need arises – to farm stuff. Suffice to say that he prefers making art to sheep wrangling! He is currently teaching art at the Australian National University in Canberra, as well as working on his own PhD with a project concentrating on Bronze Serpents and their appearance and meaning in cultures worldwide

See http://www.stevenmarkholland.com. for some examples of his talent.

I leave you with a dinner scene from Soglio. Jane and Greg (the neighbourly tenants next door), me (serving the roast mutton), Mike De Salis (Tony’s cousin) and Tony  himself. Steven on camera.

Don’t be fooled by the jollity of the occasion. We are having fun of course, rugged up (as we say here) with several layers and the wood stove on which we rely for cooking and hot water. Head beyond this room to the bedroom wing or outside areas and you risk a severe chilling, in a not-so-fun way!!

Canberra is over 3000 feet and I had forgotten till I arrived that we are still in winter here. Frost and not a heater to be found in the shower! Yikes ; high speed washing – if at all – was the order of the day. I began to wonder why I was in the habit of showering daily – I decided I would rather not impersonate a brass monkey.

Sydney or Bust (I think I mean “Bush”)

A fairly straightforward flight from Perth brought me to Sydney one Thursday afternoon over a week ago – and a rapid couple of trains got me via the centre of the City to West Ryde, the nearest train station to my friend Brenda.

I was so early (for that read ahead-of-my-gestimated arrival time) that she’d hardly got ready to meet me and it took longer to do the final 3 miles or so than the whole journey from the airport!!  Our reunion – after 11 years – was brief as an early night called.

We left Sydney at 6am Friday – the 13th – for what became an 8+ hour journey into the wilderness. We eventually arrived at Tom Groggin Station (google it if you like). An old property right on the NSW/Victoria border – indeed, the Murray River which marks the border thereabouts, actually runs through the property! Here are some photos I took there.

Please don’t think for a moment we were roughing it! This is the main house at Tom Groggin.

Below  is part of the old farm down the hill – where a famous Australian poem (and film etc etc) has taken it’s inspiration : called The Man from Snowy River (if you like poetry, Google that as well).

When you enter the property there is the working farm – “our”  house is a further 4 Km (2.5 miles) up the hill, across the River Murray and then across a smaller river (the Omeo) – twice! All our possessions were transferred to a 4-WD Toyota at the farm for the final part of the trip. When the water is too high at the Omeo – everything gets carried over this bridge – which of course we had to try. Terrifying for this townie!!

It’s really a home-made mini-suspension bridge and (as you might imagine) sways and bucks a bit as one crosses! The most disconcerting bit being to look down through the metal mesh and realise only a few Meccano-like screws and a single cable are holding you 40 feet above the rushing river! Oo-er….

Not sure whether to take it at a run – or tip-toe!!

This is some of the view from the house – we are next to a National Park, quite close to Australia’s highest mountain – Mount Kosiosko (not sure about the spelling) and have crossed the Great Dividing Range to get here – in the Snowy Mountains. We came through a snowline at about 5000 feet and are about 3000 feet now in a gentler valley. At night though it is close the freezing, so we are glad of the enormous log fire.

The house is owned by a wealthy Sydney businessman and has 5 bedrooms all with en suite bathrooms, huge lounge and dining areas (inside and out)  and some lovely pieces of modern Australian and other native art.  It has been an enormous treat to be here, watching wild horses (brumbies) grazing up and down the hill, kangaroos (natch!), emus and herds of Black Angus cattle – which also supplied some of our dinners!!

You never saw such clear skies and legions of stars in your life, I bet!! We even managed a full moon, by good fortune.

After a bracing and relaxing weekend away, it was back again to the bright lights of Sydney, including this awesome sign when we stopped to use a road-side service area loo!!

Yikes…….

Good idea to look down the dunny (that’s Aussie for loo)  before using it!!