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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A Book

While working in the nursing home, I had become very concerned about the number of misconceptions held by the general public regarding dementia. I had been one of those people myself before my training. I felt I needed to do something more, something that would help people to understand.

So I wrote a book; I wanted to create something that would be easy to read, not preachy; would bring greater awareness of the disease; that would help people such as residents’ family members and carers to empathise with the sufferer, and to affirm with the carers that it was normal to be angry and impatient.

I spent a lot of time researching and studying, learning as much as I could about the diseases causing dementia. When I completed my manuscript I sent it off to a publishing company that seemed to publish books of a similar genre. After three months, I received a letter from them, saying they loved my story, but weren’t publishing that type of book currently. However, I should try ‘xyz’.

Feeling optimistic, I sent the manuscript off to ‘xyz’ and waited. Three months later I received an almost identical rejection, with the suggestion I might try publishers ‘ijk’.

Too much time was being wasted. I wanted to get the book out there. I knew it was never going to be the Great Australian Novel. It was written with no literary training, no thought of structure or narrative view, but it was written from the heart.

I investigated the self-publishing route, feeling this was an admission of failure. Was it just an ego trip to have a published book? I sent the manuscript off to the first indie publisher on my list. They replied with a quote for thousands of dollars. After wiping away my tears, I tried the second publisher. They would publish free of charge providing the book would fit into a specific size. It didn’t.

The third company offered a partnership publishing deal, whereby, if they thought the manuscript had some value, they would offer to print off 20 galley copies for a fee considerably lower than the first quotation. They would retain 10 copies, which would be sent to reputable reviewers, and the author should try to obtain reviews with the other ten copies.

I didn’t know any reviewers, celebrities or people whose comments would add value, so I gave the books away to friends and family members.

Eventually we ended up with 1,000 print copies of the book, 10 boxes of which were stacked in our garage. But the easy part was over. Now I had to become a marketer.

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Local libraries were very accommodating, and the wonderful Eltham bookshop assisted, but after that, it was up to me. I created many diversions that prevented me from picking up the phone. My house had never been so clean.

Then I had a stroke of luck. The General Manager of a local nursing home read the book and passed it on to her superior, who ordered multiple copies for distribution throughout all their nursing homes. This gave me the confidence to approach other care facilities.

Eventually I sold enough copies to cover my initial investment and to make a donation to Alzheimer’s Australia, so part of my goal had been achieved.

Writing that little story aroused in me the desire to write more. But what would I write about next?

 

 

A New Hip

Somewhere in the middle of all our travels, my left hip became increasingly painful, to the extent that I had to resign from my job. Determined to remain as fit as possible for as long as possible, I made a daily foray to the local gym, where I looked around at the equipment and wondered how little I could do to justify the cost of the gym membership.

In spite of my rather feeble efforts at building up some strength, a hip replacement was necessary. I became almost excited at the prospect of being able to reach my feet and cut my own toenails once again. I was told it would take six weeks for a full recovery so I quietly thought four weeks would do it. Medics always tell you six weeks.

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When I came home from hospital I was diligent with the exercises, but in my enthusiasm I managed to injure myself. The pain was so severe I thought I’d dislocated the prosthesis. However, X-rays proved that I was just a hypochondriac, and the pain was muscular. I was told to go home and rest for the next few days. No more exercise.

My friends were wonderful, visiting, bringing food and humour. After several very lazy days I noticed my leg was rather red and swollen. A thrombosis.

For the first few days I was privileged in being able to use the ‘Hospital at Home’ service, where lovely nurses came by to stick needles in me. After that I was able to hobble down the road to the closest bloodletting depot.

Four weeks went by and I was still using two crutches. On the morning of the sixth week anniversary, I woke up expecting to feel pain free and ready to dance, but all I felt was discomfort and disappointment.

The whole process took twelve weeks, and I’m ashamed to say, I felt pretty sorry for myself!

(Image courtesy of <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/people”>People image created by Kjpargeter – Freepik.com<)

Nullarbor

Our last Australian adventure was a drive across the Nullarbor Plain. For me, it emphasised the vast openness of Australia, and the hardships facing people who lived in isolated places. I understood what people meant by ‘the Big Sky’. The land seemed so flat and the trees so sparse, there was nothing to raise the level of the horizon.

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The silence was almost deafening and the sun seemed brighter than anywhere else, but the most spectacular sight was the night sky. It looked as if millions of diamonds had been thrown onto a black velvet cloth, and the view took us all the way to infinity.

During the long straight drives, I became fascinated by the clouds. Perhaps because they were changing, on a stage where the backdrop remained almost the same throughout. And as the sun began to set, the colours changed from interesting to dramatic.

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Roadhouses were situated roughly 200km apart, so were able to use their toilets and stock up with fresh water. When we reached the old goldrush town of Kalgoorlie, I suspect Vaughn wished he had brought his golf clubs to play the Nullarbor Links. This 18 hole course is spread across two states and two time zones, with the first two holes in Kalgoorlie and the last one in Ceduna, a distance of 1365km.

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There were many places we could have visited and sights we could have seen if we’d had longer and if our timing had been different. When we arrived at the Great Australian Bight, I would love to have seen whales, but the season was wrong

However, no regrets. The experience alone was enough to put life in perspective and be grateful for the opportunity.

The Rodeo

My second ‘Outback Experience’ came when Vaughn was working in Mount Isa. I caught the excitement of the rodeo while I was on the plane to meet him there. I was surrounded by denim and check shirts with a few ten gallon hats taking up precious space in the overhead lockers.  I found myself sitting next to two quite reassuringly urban-looking girls; ‘townies’, like me, I thought. Until the plane started taxi-ing toward the runway and their shrieks of excitement could probably be heard far down the plane in business class.

It transpired they were riding in their first rodeo. Neither had been to the Isa before, so it was double excitement, as we were off to the largest annual rodeo in the southern hemisphere, with 26,000 people expected to walk through the gates of Buchanan Park and $200,000 in prize money.

The girls were riding in something called the ladies barrel race, which they assured me was all about fun and not dangerous at all. I nodded and smiled, not having a clue what a barrel race might involve. Then the girls put their earbuds in and sang along with their ipod. I hoped they were better horsewomen than they were singers.

Vaughn and I started rodeo day with a good breakfast, just in case it was necessary to line the stomach, as I had heard that much drinking went on at these occasions. Indeed, the bars were expected to sell over 70,000 beers during the two day festival.  

We arrived at the showground early, planning to get a good seat in the sun, as I was feeling the cold. However, the first task of the day was to buy a hat. Quite apart from the wisdom of sitting directly in the uv rays, it was unthinkable not to be wearing a hat.

We walked through the funfair, where already the decibel levels were high with the screams of people being thrown around upside down in the various rides. I took a wide berth as we walked past, in case of flying vomit.

We found a hat stall and I tried on everything from a straw panama to a felt fedora. There were wide brims and low crowns, high crowns and curved brims, and I liked all of them. Eventually I settled on a black ‘akubra-style’, though at $10, definitely not the real McCoy. A true Akubra would be made from felted fur, has an ultraviolet protection factor of 50+ and would sell for about $150. Anyway, as it was unlikely I would be wearing my bargain basement special in Melbourne, it was just the job for the rodeo.

We got back to our seats in time to watch the junior barrel race; mini cowboys and cowgirls confident in the knowledge of how they defined themselves. That’s what they were: cowboys and cowgirls.  Enviable really. I still don’t know if I could classify myself, although I daresay many people could and it wouldn’t be flattering!

We watched as the children skilfully turned their horses in a clover-leaf pattern, tightly circling around each of three barrels. The youngest competitor was only eight years old and looked so small he was practically doing the splits as he sat astride his horse.

One little girl received loud applause as she galloped determinedly down the straight, racing against the clock, her pink outfit matching the binding round the horse’s ankles.

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Next was the junior bull ride. No girls in this event. Not many of the boys managed to stay on their bulls for the allotted eight seconds as the animals bucked and fought to lose their riders. I hoped that the cowboys had learnt how to fall and roll without hurting themselves too much.  Fortunately the three adult men in the arena were very quick to divert the bull while the child got up and ran for cover. Nobody was injured in this event.

I was anxious about the welfare of the animals though. What caused them to rear and buck? Contrary to popular belief, it is not caused by pain inflicted by something tight around their genital area. I noticed that as soon as the rider was off the bull or the horse, the stockmen in the arena released something that looked like a sheepskin belt from the animal. 

I was told it was a flank strap which was lined with sheepskin or some other suitably soft material. It was positioned around the animal’s flank and belly and fitted with a quick release. It was rarely pulled tighter than your trouser belt and never came into contact with the animal’s genitals. I chose to believe this as animal welfare was taken very seriously by the Australian Professional Rodeo Association. 

When it came time for the adult bull riding the bulls seemed to have trebled in size. These were massive testosterone-loaded monsters. In fact I had to avert my gaze from their huge bollocks. The rider had to hold on with one hand for the full eight seconds and was disqualified if he touched the bull or the equipment with his free hand. Mostly the cowboys seemed to lean back almost horizontally and use their feet to hold themselves in position.

The bareback bronco was similar except the bull became a horse. The rider sat on a leather pad with a handle which again was only to be held with one hand. Most of the cowboys wore hats, which usually fell off during their eight seconds of hell. I was surprised it was allowed in Australia with such stringent OH & S standards. I would have felt more comfortable if they had worn full helmets with face protection, plus probably a padded suit in case they didn’t get out of the way of the kicking hooves in time.

But that might have diminished the crowd’s excitement. There would have been no collective gasp as the rider fell beneath the bucking animal; no sudden intake of breath as the rider was flipped through the air like a pancake.

Other events which demonstrated skills the cattlemen used every day were Rope and Tie and Team Roping, all of which involved ropes being whirled around at great speed above the rider’s head until suddenly the loose animal was caught by the lasso. They made it look so easy.

It all represented a very different way of life; a life of hard physical work, of heat and dust, of falls and bruises. A life that on this special day might appear romantic and glamorous, but in reality, I doubt if many of us soft city-dwellers could hack it unless we had been born into it.

Outback Ponderings

At King’s Creek I was disappointed to find that the camel rides advertised on the internet were not available. However we  availed ourselves of the more glamorous (and a lot more expensive) option of a helicopter trip over Kings Canyon at sunset. It was my first ride in a helicopter and I was a little nervous, but reassured when I discovered it wasn’t one of those open-sided jobs. The ride was really smooth and we were able to take many beautiful photos before we landed back at the Creek. 

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We had pre-ordered a barbeque pack, so we sat under a million bright stars chewing our meat and watching the last flames of Vaughn’s fire die away.

The next day the sealed road came to an end and we found ourselves driving on gravel. We encountered some Frenchmen in a kombi who were stuck in the soft sand. Unfortunately we had no ropes or tow bar and despite our best efforts at pushing, we could not get them out. Fortunately they had 12 litres of water and provisions, and were quite happy to sit under a tree until someone came along with the right equipment. 

All the way I searched the horizon for animals. We saw some brumbies, all in beautiful condition with shiny coats. We had to ask ourselves how this could be. There had been some rain earlier in the week, evidenced by uprooted trees and shrubs, but had it been enough to sustain these animals?

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We stopped for Vaughn to take some pictures of the sky as the bird he was focussing on flew away. We saw trees with trunks so white they looked as if they had been painted. And everywhere, heat, dust and flies.

The terrain changed and we saw folded hills interlocking like the teeth of a zip. Further on distinct strata, arch-shaped like children’s first writing, mmmmm.

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We drove over 1500 kilometres without going through even a village, and I felt very ashamed of my comfortable life-style. I thought of the women there. How do they manage? How do they cope now, never mind fifty or a hundred years ago? At least now there are fast cars and internet, helicopters and air-conditioners.

When the current owner of Curtin Springs arrived there in 1956 with his wife and young son, there were two open bough sheds, a galvanised shed, a galvanised kitchen, a galvanised iron building called the bathroom and a galvanised toilet. During summer, the daily temperature averages around 38°C, but in winter it can get down to -8°C at night. When they arrived they had nine years without rain. They bored for water and much of it was salty. The lady of the house maybe saw another female twice a year. How soft am I?

During my life I have constantly been sustained and uplifted by the company of other women. When Vaughn and I were first married, he was very suspicious of my girl-time. It took him a while to understand that we weren’t out to chat up other blokes. Nor were we out to badmouth our husbands and partners. It was a time of affirmation, of communal chewing over of issues, and naturally, of drinking wine.

So I cannot imagine a life such as the ladies of the outback cattle stations endured. They would daily cook and wash for the family and stockmen. When all the crew were there the conversation would revolve around horses and cattle, such fascinating topics as bore maintenance and mechanical repairs, but never about children or fashion or menus. 

Who would have commiserated with them when they had a period pain? And how on earth did they cope with pregnancy and childbirth? I suppose for some people that was the only life they knew. They say you don’t miss what you’ve never had.

When we were in the helicopter we could see for miles and miles. Hundreds of kilometres of red earth spotted with patches of grass and small bushes. One cattle station and one small almost hidden Aboriginal settlement. No fields, no crops, no farms as I know them. Not a sign of a town. I felt a rising panic.

And I had a sudden longing for England. For villages with individual characteristics, for hedges and trees and fields full of grass or crops, for old buildings and dry stone walls, cottages with thatched rooves, churches and pubs. For history, my history. The secure feeling of belonging that I never really felt in South Africa.

The last time I was in England I went into the bank where I still held a small account. The bank where my father banked and probably his father before him. The bank where I opened my first savings account. As I got to the teller she looked up and said ‘Hello Marian’. I looked blankly at her and she said she remembered me from school. That would have been forty years ago and it was an endorsement that I still belonged.

But I found in Australia, a culture of open friendliness. I cherished the smiles and chatter of shop assistants, the random conversations between strangers on trains, and especially the exchanges between fellow dog-walkers. One day Vaughn accompanied Einstein and me as we walked through the reserve. We came across an older couple with a fat spaniel. We greeted, commented on the day, then the lady proceeded to tell me about her sister’s divorce and how it was affecting her dog. After we moved on, Vaughn asked how I knew those people. I’d never met them before in my life. It was a perfect example of Aussie  ‘mateship’ and openness, the fact that people trusted each other with their stories.

Guilt

After we downsized, I started to feel the pressure. I felt guilty when I wasted time. I justified time spent doing the crossword or working out a sudoko by claiming it was good for my brain. That needed exercise as much as my body. Which was true, but there were many occasions when I could have spent my time more productively.

Working with the elderly led me to assume that I would also live till I was well into my eighties or even my nineties. But we’re not all given that opportunity. And the less hours I worked, the more pressure I put on myself to spend my time in more meaningful activities. 

It increased dramatically when I became crippled with an arthritic hip and was forced to give up working. Eventually the hip was replaced, but my recovery time took far longer than I expected. The doctor told me it would take six weeks. Arrogantly, I thought it would only take four for me, as I was pretty fit and relatively young for this operation. So when I experienced a bladder infection, followed by sprained tendons, followed by a thrombosis, I felt pretty useless. Physical recovery took twelve weeks, and mentally, even longer.

I felt a restlessness, a niggle that was driving me to do something, something worthwhile. But I hadn’t a clue what. And I was scared that I’d only realise what it was when I had run out of time. 

It didn’t help to read motivational books. I understood the psychology and philosophies. I acknowledged that I couldn’t change the past; I could only change my attitude to the present and the future. 

Women of my generation were supposed to be super-mums, maintaining a well-ordered home as a carry-over from the 50’s; raising disciplined well-balanced children at the same time as holding down a top professional job and writing a book in our spare time. It’s no wonder we drink a lot now. Well, some of us, anyway.

I have always believed the way to get the most out of life is to keep everything in balance, but those scales are very wobbly. It only takes something small like a sore throat to tip the scale on the physical side. The walks get shortened, gym doesn’t feature and suddenly I’m putting on weight. 

I questioned what mechanisms I had in place for restoring the balance to my life. It seemed to keep coming back to self discipline, something that disappeared along with a smooth skin, strong teeth and a toned body. Although, on reflection, self control has never been one of my strengths. 

When we moved to a smaller house, we carefully measured all our furniture and cut out scaled down shapes which we arranged and rearranged in an effort to squeeze everything into the new place. We had to part with many treasures, including my piano keyboard. As a replacement, Vaughn bought me a beautiful guitar, which I had no idea how to play. I vaguely remembered a couple of chords from over forty years ago, when I used to sing along to Nigel’s strumming, but I couldn’t seem to get my arthritic wrist round the stem well enough to hold the strings down. So I booked myself in for some lessons.

I was introduced to my teacher, who looked to be about twelve, and turned out to be only a few years older than my eldest grandchild Megan. However, he was enthusiastic and unperturbed by my age and told me everything was awesome, so it was all rather fun. Gradually I managed to get over my nerves and come to grips with sufficient chords to play a couple of tunes. Many of the old Bob Dylan tunes seem to revolve around the same four chords, so I felt I was getting somewhere.

But my epiphany came when I bought a book of tunes for buskers and found I could increase my repertoire of both chords and songs to such an extent that it was almost a pleasure to pick up the guitar. 

Sadly, that was short-lived, as arthritis made holding down the strings a bit of a painful chore. Then the guilt returned; that same feeling I had as a child when I shirked piano practice, an exercise or lack of one that I regret to this day. I have deep envy for people who can sit down at a piano and create beautiful music, although I am now mature enough to realise that ability usually develops from hard work and hours of dedicated practice.

And sadly, my guitar now sits in the cupboard gathering dust, a testament to my lack of persistence and self-discipline. Maybe one day I’ll try again…

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