Outback Trip (part 1)

On my mental list of ‘Things I want to do in Australia’ was a trip to the Outback. Vaughn had already made the drive from Melbourne to Alice Springs, and on through the Tanami track to the Granites, taking in a 900km detour to see Uluru. His photos were spectacular and whetted my appetite to do something similar.

My opportunity came when he was once again working at Granites. We arranged to meet up in Alice, hire a vehicle and see what people meant by ‘the red earth’.

The road was straight. No twists, no turns. The only thing that varied was the colour of the earth either side, which changed from orangey sand to deep vibrant terra-cotta-rust, almost the colour of red-hot coals. No sign of life except random clumps of spinifex and small salt bushes which looked like bonsai trees, perfect but small.

The only fauna we saw was a small monitor lizard in the road, which we accidentally squashed. 

In the distance small whirlwinds whisked spirals of red dust punctuating the cloudless sky. After hours of driving we thought we saw Uluru in the distance and stopped to take a photo, only to realise it was the wrong shape. Too angular. It was Mount Connor.

We stopped at a little picnic shelter and hauled out the coolbox. Hundred of bush flies swarmed around us, and when we attempted to get the food out their numbers seemed to quadruple. Eating was impossible unless you were prepared for cheese and fly on biscuit with a mouthful of flies on the side. So we leapt back into the car for a hurried snack. 

At Curtin Springs we were greeted by an emu who turned out to be a resident. The heat was intense and we were glad to sit under the bough shed with a cold beer. The thatch consisted of dried grass thrown on top of wire netting, which seemed to work as the flies didn’t seem to be so bad there.  However, when I looked up, I saw the thatch was decorated with hundreds of funnel webs.

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We didn’t hang around there, but hurried off to make the 100km trip to Uluru, to get there before sunset. We found ourselves a good position and watched the awesome sight of the rock turning from sandy orange through luminescent rust to dark purple. Many photos later we made the long trip back to Curtin Springs only to find the kitchen had closed, so there was nothing for dinner. Fortunately I never travel far without an emergency snack pack, so we managed to fill ourselves up on cheese and biscuits with an apple for desert. 

It was a short night because we were up and out in time to catch the sun rising over Uluru. As we drove along, the sky started to lighten behind us and we felt as if we were racing the sun. The lighter it grew, the more we panicked. However, we drove around the massive rock in the nick of time to see it light up. From a distance Uluru looked smooth and featureless, but as the sun rose we could see its weather-beaten face with all its holes and gashes that are so meaningful to the Anangu, the Aboriginal owners of Uluru. We read some of the dreamtime stories and saw the mark of Kuniya the woman python.

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We had heard that one can climb the rock, but this is frowned upon by the Anangu , who regard Uluru as sacred; so out of respect, we chose to walk around, rather than up.

Geologically, Uluru is naturally grey, made of arkose sandstone. Over millions of years of earth movement, lifting, folding and erosion, Uluru remains the only visible tip of a massive underground rock slab, like a sandstone iceberg.

Once the sun was well and truly up and reflecting the red-gold iron-oxide content of the rusted sandstone rock, we headed off to Kata-Tjuta, previously called ‘The Olgas’. 

Whereas Uluru is sandstone, Kata-tjuta is a conglomerate of gravel and boulders cemented together by mud and sand. It did not appear to have the same luminescence, but that could have been due to the time of day we visited. We parked and walked the first section of ‘Valley of the winds’, but unfortunately it did not live up to its name and was scorchingly hot. I wore a net veil covering my whole head to keep the flies off my skin.

Driving on, Vaughn stopped to photograph two lizards before shooing them off the road to atone for the previous day’s killing. 

We saw trees shaped like Christmas trees but instead of pine needles their wispy leaves reminded me of an old person’s fine long hair. In several places feral camels roamed, apparently damaging the fencing at cattle stations. Ahead the sky was pink with dust, as if it was reflecting the earth…

 

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What I Have Learnt From Emigrating

If you think  emigrating will be hard, multiply that by 10. Every time I packed a box, a small piece of regret slipped in. Every time I had to part with something that I kept only for sentimental reasons, I parted with a piece of myself.

Although I have lived in English-speaking countries, I’ve made some embarrassing mistakes. Our language is different everywhere you go. In Australia I was quickly told that I couldn’t say I’d been rooting around in shops as ‘rooting’ had a very different connotation there. My flip-flops became thongs, which caused some confusion on returning to South Africa where thongs are skimpy undies. In New Zealand flip-flops are called jandalls. Gym shoes were once plimsolls, then they became trainers. In South Africa they were takkies and in Australia they were runners. Swimsuits changed from bathing costumes to cozzies to bathers, and now my New Zealand children refer to them as their togs. Felt tips turned into kokies and then to texters. Blue tack became presstick before returning to blue tack. Bed linen became Manchester.

Before leaving South Africa I bought some pretty bed linen for our queen-size bed. This was packed in the container with the rest of our belongings. When Vaughn arrived in Australia he bought a new bed for our immediate use, and we borrowed sheets and a duvet cover from his mum. But when our container arrived, with our old bed and all our linen (Manchester!), I found nothing fitted. There does not seem to be an international standard for ‘Queen-size’. The Australian bed is longer but narrower than the South African counterpart.

I also bought matching curtains in South Africa which mostly ended up being given to the op-shop because we later discovered Australian houses were sold or rented with curtains or blinds. Also the curtain fabric is different. There is a rubberised backing that acts as insulation, so my natural cotton curtains were just not suitable.

We could have saved ourselves some much-needed money if we had brought a stash of multi plugs and some adapters. Changing all the plugs on all the appliances worked out at several hundred dollars, and had we thought in advance, we could have used the multi-plugs plugged into an international adapter and changed one or two each month, as we could afford it.

Some of our appliances did not travel well. We elected not to bring our aging TV, but we did bring a washing machine that gave up the ghost shortly after being re-installed in our Australian home. It wasn’t cost effective to repair it as the make was not available in Australia. I should have checked the internet for available brands and costs of new appliances before filling up the container with things that could not be repaired.

Most people can expect their standard of living to drop when they emigrate, and we were no exception. I was almost looking forward to it, but in my naivety I thought it would be good for us  –  a refreshing challenge. What I didn’t expect was the feeling of deprivation when I couldn’t afford a good cup of coffee, never mind a jar of half-decent face cream. All the simple luxuries of life suddenly disappeared. When you’re feeling homesick and heartsore those things seem to take on greater importance.

I mentally beat myself up when forced to admit to myself that small luxuries really do cheer a girl up. I remember when I made one of my penniless forays back to England with the children many years earlier, my aunt gave me some money with the instruction to buy something special for myself. I bought a packet of earl grey tea, a jar of Helleman’s mayonnaise and a pair of frilly knickers. I felt unbelievably decadent and uplifted, which pleased my aunt greatly.

When we left South Africa, I regretted not buying more local craft, particularly objets being sold illegally beside the road, which doesn’t have a middle-man mark-up. The proceeds go to the artists themselves. One hopes. The country offers a wealth of beautiful original art work that is so distinctly African. Since leaving the country I’ve felt the need to have an ‘African’ room with brightly painted walls and lots of orange cushions and African prints, the only drawback being that the beaded dolls, the wooden figurines and the clay pots do require the occasional good dust to look their gaudiest best.

But at the end of the day, it’s not ‘things’ that matter. It’s people, especially family. And although I’ve been blessed with many lovely things and had many wonderful adventures, the only thing that would have been on my bucket list, if I’d made one, would have been spending time with my family.

 

 

 

Grief

That first year, I wondered. Would the pain ever go away? Would I ever be able to hear a song without feeling my eyes welling up? Would we ever be able to look forward to Christmas? Would I ever be able to look at mothers and sons out together, enjoying each other’s company without feeling stabs of envy, of anger? 

Every morning since Eddie left, I have woken up and for a split second started to luxuriate in the new day. Then suddenly the awful reality kicks me in the stomach and drives me into the foetal position where getting out of bed becomes an effort.

Keep going, keep going. Focus on the trivia, the everyday, the small things. Hang out the washing, peel the potatoes, clean the bath. Don’t stop to think. Don’t listen to music. Don’t go to that place. Because if you do, the grief will hit you like a tidal wave that picks you up and throws you on to the rocks and tosses you around like a piece of flotsam. And you’ll lie there as it recedes, trying to draw breath until the next wave batters down on you. And the next, until you have no strength left, and no will to climb out and the water fills you and becomes you and you become the water.

They say the time will come when we can allow ourselves to feel. When I can wear his big tee shirt and play his awful music, and I can howl into the song because it is part of the music. I can pour out my anger and anguish and let the wind blow it into the skies where the clouds will take it over the horizon. Then the sun will shine through, thin rays of tear-filled light, enough to see a future that is not full of shadows, that is not like a moonless night, that carries just enough warmth to revive the soul.

And my sadness self-indulgent, because I know my boy is alright. That day, one year later, we threw flowers in the sea, and looked up. And there was my sign, written in the sky.

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Ashes

When I came back to New Zealand I tried to steer clear of social occasions for a while, but the longer I avoided people, the more awkward it became. With hindsight, I can see it was probably harder for other people than it was for me, as there is really nothing one can say. Some people conveyed their sympathy with a hug, some asked many questions, some simply said they were sorry to hear about my son, some came over with wine. Others did nothing, and that was okay, too.

We managed a quiet family Christmas, for the sake of the children, whose presence reminds us that life still goes on.

I feel so blessed at being part of such a loving family. Our closeness was illustrated when Edward’s ashes are scattered.

In a casual conversation, he had said that if he died, he would like his ashes scattered at sea, so he could visit his relatives spread around the world.

A date and time were arranged, and as his ashes were sprinkled in the Indian Ocean, so family and friends from New Zealand, England, Spain and other places around the world, all went down to the beach with flowers, to welcome his spirit to their land. Thanks to Skype, we were able to share that emotional moment across the continents.

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Tragedy

The phone calls I feared the most, came. The first call was to tell me Edward was critically ill in hospital. There followed 24 hours of severe anxiety, intestines knotted, throat constricted and dry mouth. I paced the floor, breaths fast and shallow. I prayed hard for his healing, searching to feel some connection with God.

The time difference made sleep impossible, knowing that they would all be awake in South Africa, when we in New Zealand, should have been sleeping. Vaughn was working away in Australia, which was perhaps just as well, as he would have felt helpless to ease my worry.

When the second phone call came, telling me that Edward had passed away, I went outside and screamed at God, disturbing two lorikeets, which, I felt afterwards, had come to bring me a message.

In my state of anguish, I phoned my two Kiwi daughters, and blurted out the terrible news. There was no gentle way to say those words. They both came straight to be with me and after looking online for flights, we decided we would go to a travel agent first thing in the morning, and let someone else sort out those details.

We managed to catch a plane that night and sobbed most of the way to Johannesburg.

Although it was good to be with the rest of the family, the reality of the situation smacked us all even harder when we were there, walking past his house, seeing his parked car, hugging his daughter, a little girl who would grow up without her daddy. And for my South African daughter, Nikki, who had always been so close to Edward and spent so much time with him, the grief was terrible.

We all clung together as we planned a fitting send-off. We cried to some of his songs; we laughed as we discovered old photos; with heavy hearts we remembered the good times.

Many people came to pay their respects and to tell us what a wonderful and caring friend he had been. He left a huge gap in many people’s lives. But for us, his family, we really had no idea how we would carry on with our lives, knowing there would be no more clumsy bear hugs from our gentle giant, no more of his particular sense of humour,   no more opportunities to look into those kind brown eyes and tell him how much we loved him.

And we always will, Eddie, my boy. We will think of you every day for the rest of our lives, and never stop missing you.

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In Loving Memory of Edward Michael Smith

27/11/1977 – 9/11/2016

Jo’burg Stress

While I was in South Africa for Megan’s party, I could feel that knot of tension returning to my tummy. It seemed as if everyone I met was taking pills for stress or anxiety. They had the constant worry of safety and security, of paying their insurances, their medical aid, their armed response; of holding on to their jobs, as it wouldn’t be easy to find another one.

On the highways we either sat bumper to bumper without moving, or people raced past at 180 kilometers an hour on the hard shoulder while talking on their phones.

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Suburban roads were full of pot-holes; entire areas had become run-down whilst in other suburbs huge ostentatious developments had sprung up. Affluence and poverty, side by side.

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All night I could hear the wailing of emergency vehicles and I prayed that my family and friends were all safely tucked up in their beds. On some days there was no electricity; other days no water; sometimes neither. Yet people took it all in their stride. It was an irritation, an inconvenience.

I came back to New Zealand full of worry, and I dreaded the phone ringing because it was never good news.

 

A Special Birthday

In July of that year I was privileged to be able to go to Johannesburg to celebrate my granddaughter Megan’s 21st birthday. As she was born on Independence Day, she chose to have an American theme. Before I left, I managed to find some fabric with red and white stripes and some more with white stars on a blue background, so was able to make flags and sashes.

The girls here in New Zealand helped me create a movie of Megan’s life thus far. It was a good excuse to look back at old photos and re-live memories. I chose some background music and posted the movie on to YouTube. However, for some reason it wouldn’t open in South Africa, possibly due to the music copyrights. Luckily I had backup on a USB.

The day of the party we spent decorating the hall and setting the tables. The venue had not put out the vases we’d asked for, so we asked the staff to change them, only to find the ones they brought out instead didn’t work, so we had to ask them to take those away and bring out the ones they’d originally put on the tables.

But with some improvisation, we created a very festive party room. As the venue was some way out of town, Nikki had arranged for a private bus to pick up and drop off, as she did not want anyone driving home after too many drinks.

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After the final song had been played and the final dance danced, the lights went on and the grand clean-up began. Some time later, we dragged our weary selves out to the bus, where the party was still in full swing. In one hand I was carrying a black dustbin bag full of table decorations. In the other I held the remains of the cake.

Which was why I had no spare hand to hold on to the rail as I tried to climb onto the bus. Which was why I felt myself falling backwards in an undignified heap on the tarmac. But  I didn’t drop the cake.IMG_3785

However, I gashed my head against the wall, and it started bleeding quite profusely. After passing the cake to someone else, I grabbed the rail and climbed aboard the bus. The young people were most concerned at the sight of blood pouring down my neck, and the general consensus was that I should go straight to Accident & Emergency.

The damage to my head was superficial, although my pride still hurts. Amazing really, that out of a bus load of inebriated youth, the only one to fall over was not-so-drunk Granny!

Extending the family

My efforts at gardening were random and amateur. I joined the local garden club, which inspired me, but made me wish we had made a Grand Plan before rushing ahead with raised beds and a second shed. Had I waited, I might have placed things differently. I regretted not creating an area where I could sit with a cup of tea, surrounded by colourful and fragrant plants. It would have been a place of relaxation for Vaughn, if he ever had the opportunity to unwind.

However, we both found great satisfaction in being able to produce most of our own vegetables, often with plenty to share around. We discovered a feijoa tree next to the old shed, the fruit of which I used to make chutney.

To complete our family, we acquired four red shaver pullets, which in spite of not laying eggs for quite some time, gave us much amusement. I had always been slightly frightened of chooks, with their pecky beaks and flappy wings, and I never dreamed I would be picking them up. But I grew to love those girls, and great was our excitement when the first egg appeared. When Vaughn was at home, we vied for the privilege of collecting the eggs, sometimes well hidden, and feeding the sheep with their nuts.

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While driving into town one day I heard on the radio that Alzheimer’s Tauranga were looking for volunteers. I drove straight there and was welcomed into the whanau.

So between Nanna duties, Garden Club, writing group, book club and Alzheimer’s, I managed to keep very busy.