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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Nigel

For the past five years, my brother Nigel had been battling cancer. No one could have fought harder. He became a vegetarian; he trialled unproven cures, he imported medicines unavailable in Britain. He researched and he remained positive in spite of having large chunks of his body cut out.

It seemed so very unfair that someone not known for lounging around in the sun should develop a melanoma. And even more unfair that the first doctor he saw told him it was only a mole. So by the time he was given a definitive diagnosis, the disease had spread, giving Nigel a gloomy prognosis.

After his health forced him into an early retirement, he spent some time writing memoirs of his years as a pilot. During my last year in Melbourne I had the privilege of editing his manuscript. I discovered many things I never knew about my resilient brother. In his unembroidered, matter-of-fact way he described incidents that might put one off ever getting into an aeroplane. He also, very humbly, told stories of acts of kindness and generosity that made me very proud.

When we spoke on the phone during Christmas 2015, he asked if I could come over to England to help him finish the book. His time was running out. I caught the earliest available flight.

Although he was very ill, in pain and exhausted, we worked together to produce a book from his manuscript. Sadly, my knowledge of formatting was scant, and I had no experience of inserting photos into a digital book, but we managed. And in the evenings as I sat drinking wine with him and his beautiful girls, we shared many laughs.

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It was a hugely emotional farewell at the airport, knowing we would not see each other again in this life, and I returned to my new home in New Zealand with a heavy heart.

A few days later I received an email with a photo of Nigel holding the first copies of his book.

He passed away about 3 weeks later, a great man, and  published author.

 

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The blurb:

Luck is a vital part of a pilot’s career, and timing is another. The author spent some 16000 hours at the controls of aeroplanes, always fascinated by what you could see from them, what you could do with them, the places you could go with them, the skills you needed to get the best out of them and most of all the sheer joy of flying them. This book is a treasury of his experiences.
The author takes us on journeys from Cessna 150s to Boing 747s, from Hurn Airport to Kai Tak, from smooth touchdowns to an upside-down landing, reflecting on what luck had to do with it all.

The book is available through Amazon outlets in both paper and kindle versions.

 

 

Enjoying the Garden

With Vaughn continuing to work in Australia, I found myself with an overstock situation when it came to potatoes. As I noticed them starting to sprout, I thought I might as well stick them in the ground and see what happened. I didn’t think much about them until I noticed there was some above-ground evidence of growth. I ignored them for several weeks until my curiosity became too strong to resist. I eased my fork carefully into the soil, anxious not to stab what I hoped would lie beneath. And I was not disappointed. I couldn’t wait for Vaughn to come home so I could show off our first crop of potatoes.

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Thus inspired, I began planting in earnest. I started seeds in trays in the garage, and dug the seedlings I bought from the nursery straight into the garden beds. But the rabbits and possums beat me to it. Word of all those tender young leaves must have been passed around the rabbit neighbourhood, as the next morning my beds were bare.

The solution was raised beds. Vaughn and Irwin created a couple of beautiful wooden boxes, each about ½ a metre in height, one meter wide and just over a couple of meters in length, thus saving my knees and back from kneeling and bending, and my seedlings from the rabbits.

We feasted on kale and spinach, cauliflower and broccoli, beans and celery, until I could no longer cope with the white butterfly caterpillars. Even after washing the vegetables three times I still found the odd little green beastie crawling up the side of the sink. So out came the cruciferous vegetables and in went carrots and beetroot.

Each morning I was woken at about 5.30 by the beautiful warbling of a tui as he breakfasted on whatever was inside the New Zealand flax flowers outside my bedroom window. To open the curtains and watch his little white poi bounce up and down as he sang, to look out on green fields, trees, ferns and no traffic, and to breathe in all that really fresh air, made me so grateful that we had made the move.

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But in spite of the great joys of our garden and of being close to some of our children, 2016 was a year of great sadness.

 

Coming to Terms with the Garden

In attempting to create a new home, I found myself looking at my belongings with critical eyes. Things I had quite liked in Melbourne now appeared shabby. But there were things my daughters remembered as part of their childhood home, and although appearing rather the worse for wear, those things radiated the comfort of the familiar to our eyes.

I had always taken pleasure from pottering in the garden. It was good to have a little patch with essential herbs and whatever else happened to grow: pumpkin plants creeping right up to the kitchen door yet yielding no pumpkins, tomatoes sprouting from the compost, lettuce and broccoli full of caterpillars. Flowers were easier until the possums ate them. I blamed the Australian climate; either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry; and continued to spend more money on seedlings than it would have cost to buy veggies from the organic shop.

But New Zealand was different. I had the space, I had the climate and I had the time. I started off with seedlings for instant gratification. First I planted things that had grown well for me previously, lettuce, capsicums, chillies, and eggplants. But I forgot about the rabbits. I got up one morning to find the tops nibbled off and several bunnies hopping into the ferns where no doubt they had cosy little burrows. I had a vision of myself as Mr McGregor chasing Peter Rabbit off with a gun. 

I hung a few shiny jingly things around and carried on with more seedlings. I tried potatoes, sweetcorn, pumpkins, broccoli and beans. I felt very proud as my bean plants spiralled their way up the little bamboo tepees. The pumpkins grew like Triffids until they filled the whole bed and spread over the lawn. I watched the prolific leafy growth of the potato plants hoping it was an outward show of the activity beneath the soil.

And the weeds kept on growing. And the ferns, those beautiful New Zealand ferns, dropped their spores and marched towards the house like and invading army. The ‘lawn’ consisted of plantains, clover and dandelions, but I kept on mowing in the hope that grass would overcome. 

And then the rabbits returned and nibbled neat parallel lines down the sides of my biggest pumpkins. I pictured their enormous incisors chomping through the pale yellow flesh. I pictured them looking up at me and wiggling their noses with a kind of ‘we don’t care’ attitude. But I could not picture myself actually hurting them. So I got some wire netting and covered the ever-spreading pumpkin patch.

Another thing I didn’t anticipate, moving from big wild Australia, home of the top ten deadliest creatures, to New Zealand where there are no snakes, no foxes and no funnel-web spiders, was the large amount of animals that felt entitled to share our house. Mostly insects, and not very scary, but slightly challenging to get to sleep with large grasshoppers walking around on the bedroom ceiling, dodging all the daddy-long-legs that lurked in every corner in spite of my long-handled micro-fibre dusting device. Although I did feel an obligation to leave at least a few spiders as they had a purpose. It was just that sudden waking up in the middle of the night, brushing something off your face and wondering if you’d been sleeping with your mouth open. But they do say that the average human swallows hundreds of bugs in their lives without even knowing. However, I suspect that average was reached by comparing New Zealand with somewhere like Alaska, where it’s too cold for flies.

The other animal that visited regularly at first was the goat from the next field. I made a point of going to the fence to wish him and his retired race-horse friend a good morning with a flat handful of grass or half a carrot and a rub on the nose, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when one morning I was standing in our half-finished kitchen and heard a snuffle behind me. There was the goat, investigating greener pastures. I hauled him back through the lounge and out through the garage, past the vegetables which luckily he hadn’t noticed, and shoved him unceremoniously under the fence. I fortified the fence, but that didn’t deter him and he visited several times before Vaughn got back and made a decent job of securing the fence.

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A New Life

Thus began my new life in New Zealand. Einstein finally arrived in his yellow plastic kennel, none the worse for his experience. This time my only tears were those of frustration at being unable to drive. As it would be six weeks until our container arrived, I stayed with my eldest daughter and family.

They had booked a holiday in South Africa at that time, so I was able to house-sit for them and look after their pets. The morning dog walk proved challenging with one arm holding two leashes; Trixie, the golden labrador straining and pulling ahead; Einstein dragging behind, stopping abruptly as he discovered exciting new smells.

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I registered with a doctor, bought a car that sat in the driveway gathering dust, and started planning renovations to our house. My plan was to borrow a mattress and camp out at the house, spending my time stripping the wallpaper and starting to  create a garden. However, that was not to be, so instead I remained under my family’s roof and booked a professional painter, who did a far more thorough job than I would have done.

Once my cast was removed and I was able to drive, there was shopping to be done. We had left our white goods in Melbourne and required a fridge, a freezer and a washing machine. The kitchen and bathroom had to be renovated and a second toilet installed.

Being a complete novice at planning the sequence of events, I made many mistakes, calling the electrician in before the plumber, and the tiler before the painter had finished, but it all worked out in the end, and Vaughn finished his project in Australia in time to help us move in.

The thing that most excited me about unpacking the container was summer clothes. The weather had turned warmer and the garments I had been wearing in rotation for three months were neither comfortable nor appealing.

All our Kiwi family were able to join us to celebrate Christmas in our new place, and having them all under my roof turned it from a house into a home, my home.

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On our Way

So  the packing up began in earnest, taking longer than it would have done had I been able to use two hands. The emotional memorabilia currently filling two drawers had to be reduced to one shoebox. The clothes that I hoped would one day fit me again were relegated to the pile for the Opp Shop. I kissed goodbye to the china tea set my parents had carefully carried in their hand-luggage from England to South Africa many years previously, but had not been used for the past ten years.

Being unable to drive was less of a disadvantage than it might have been, due to the very convenient position of our house. I could walk to the shops, which I did every day, restricting my purchases to a comfortable one-handed carry. Wine necessitated a second trip. As did potatoes.

A yellow and red plastic kennel arrived for Einstein, confirming his first-class plane ticket. He was reluctant to go into the cage, even with tempting tit-bits placed at the far end. However, the kennel was simple enough to dismantle and build up piece by piece, so by the time we were ready to leave, it had become one of Einstein’s happy places.

When we moved from South Africa to Australia, Vaughn  had gone ahead, leaving me to oversee the final packing. This time, Vaughn was in the middle of a project, so the removalists had to be booked for a day when he was in Melbourne.

The pet courier service came to collect Einstein, assuring me there would be plenty of water available and ‘comfort stops’ along the way. But the dog’s suspicions were aroused, and he was very reluctant to climb into his little yellow cage, even with one of my unwashed T-shirts there for company.

I arrived at the airport looking larger than usual and slightly sweaty, as my jam-packed suitcase had reached the maximum weight allowance, so I was obliged to wear everything that didn’t fit in.

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The plane journey was fine, although the stewardess was concerned that my cast should have been split in case of swelling. However, I was able to assure her I had checked with the doctor and also the airline policy. I had no plans to swell.

As I stood waiting to disembark, I watched the ground crew unloading boxes, bags and crates, but no little yellow cages. I was sure I could hear an Einie cry somewhere far below.

At the baggage carousel, eventually I saw my large blue bag bump through the opening. But people were all pushing to the front, and when I tried to reach one-handedly for my heavy bag, I failed to grasp it and ran along beside the conveyer until I was forced to give up. I glared at all the young males standing around, but none would make eye contact. By the time my bag came round for the second time, a lovely lady helped me lift it on to the trolley…

 

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Broken Arm

I sat on the cold tiles trying to support the broken wrist, calling out to Vaughn, who was watching TV at the other end of the house. The tone of my voice clearly did not convey the degree of the problem, as it was a while before he wandered through to check on the damage.

He wanted to bundle me into the car and go to the hospital, but I feared the trip might not be as smooth as I would have liked, so we phoned for an ambulance. Meanwhile I could feel myself going into shock.

It wasn’t too long before two lovely paramedics arrived and strapped me up.

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Certainly, arriving at A & E by ambulance cuts through the waiting around. I went straight to X-ray, where the staff told me I’d done a really good job and shattered both the radius and ulna.

So I wasn’t going home that night. I was sent to a ward, where I was not allowed to eat, in case there was chance I might have surgery the next day. I waited and fasted, all day. Vaughn came through with some clothes and a book. I have several dressing downs, and he chose to bring the old pink one that was my mother’s. The one I use when I colour my hair. The one with brown stains. The one I sent straight back home again.

No surgery the next day either, just another day of waiting and fasting. By evening, it was clear that I wasn’t going into theatre that night, so a kind nurse brought me a sandwich.

By evening of the fourth day of fasting, I was about to take a walk to see if there was a cafeteria open somewhere, when a nurse came to tell me they were taking me to theatre now.

The anaesthetist gave me a spinal block injection somewhere in my neck, which rendered the broken arm useless. He told me that as soon as I started to feel some sensations in my fingers again, I should call a nurse at once, or I would have the worst pain ever.

A 15cm metal plate was inserted into my arm, and I woke up back in the ward. It was night time, and I could hear a commotion somewhere in the distance, but wasn’t too worried about it. As slight feelings returned to my fingers, I duly rung my bell, as instructed.

I waited for a while, but nobody came, so I rung it again. After about 40 minutes, the pain in my arm was excruciating, so I got out of bed and went to the nurses’ station. Nobody there. I walked up and down the corridor, but couldn’t find anyone.

Eventually a nurse appeared and told me I should have rung…

I went home with a bright pink cast, and a house full of belongings to be packed up.

Packing Up Once More

The more I thought about our house in New Zealand, the more I longed to be there. Our New Zealand grandchildren were growing up so fast, I was afraid we would get there too late to develop a strong relationship with them, and too late to be of any assistance to their parents.

Vaughn thought he would be able to set up an office there and work from home when he wasn’t on site, so we began the packing up process once again.

From almost the moment that the decision was made, the intensity of the project Vaughn was working on increased to such an extent that he spent the next three months on site in some remote part of Australia, with short infrequent visits home.

The quotes from removalists varied considerably, but I made a decision and booked. Our lounge suite was the difference between booking a 20ft container or a 40ft one, so that had to be sold. The house was put up for auction and dates were fixed.

My main concern was Einstein. Moving the 5km from Eltham to Diamond Creek had been traumatic enough for him, so how would he handle a plane flight and yet another new environment?

But I had wonderful support from Jetpets, who arranged a door to door service, which included his vetinary check-ups. I even received a parcel one day, addressed to Einstein, with an assortment of toys for him to enjoy on his trip. I imagined from the price of it all that he would be sitting up in the pointy end of the plane enjoying tasty nibbles with the captain.

Two weeks before Einstein and I were due to fly out, Vaughn was home for a last check around and we were enjoying a lazy evening in front of the TV. I went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and while I was waiting for the kettle, I thought I’d do some stretching exercises.

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My kitchen counter served as a barre on which to rest one foot. As I reached out to grasp the ankle and feel the pull on my hamstrings, the foot on the ground slipped (I was wearing socks on the tiles). To protect my hip I put my arm out to save myself, and heard a nasty snap.

Sitting on the floor, I looked at my hand. The wrist was in the wrong place. My hand was dangling from a place about 4 centimetres higher than the normal joint…