Drought

Back at home I still had days where waves of homesickness and nostalgia swept over me. Victoria was suffering severe drought. From the time we arrived we watched green fields turn grey.

One morning in the middle of March, the temperature was already twenty-eight degrees at six o’clock. By eight the sun was filtering through the grey eucalyptus trees. In another mood the leaves might have looked silver, or tinged with blue, but that day they reflected the sombre tones of another forty-degree scorcher. The constant heat was debilitating nature. The earth was the colour of ash, the remains of life that once lived. Even the birds were quiet, flown to a more fruitful harvest.

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Our house backed on to a reserve, through which I walked each morning. My feet crunched slowly through the forest, the ground crisp with dead plants and twigs. The dog rolled, looking for cool relief but finding only dust and dried leaves. The water level in the pond had dropped another hundred millimetres, increasing the concentration of algae that clung to the rocks and branches now visible on the shallow bottom. Ducks sat aimlessly floating on the thick surface, some paddling lethargically towards us in the hope of some seeds.

We did put wild birdseed and water out in the garden, but only the pigeons remained loyal to us. Lorikeets and rosellas had flown away, taking their bright splashes of colour with them.

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The ‘hardy native’ shrubs withered before my eyes, more greyness above the grey mulch, although strangely, some of the imports survived.

The smell of dust took me back to a holiday we had in Bognor Regis as a child growing up in England. I remember walking along a hot pavement in anticipation of an ice-cream. Music and sounds are renowned for evoking memories, but I began to notice how many smells also took me to other places and other times. The scent of Australia’s yellow pollen-filled wattle flowers reminded me of my childhood at ‘Delapre’. In one of the greenhouses my father proudly grew a mimosa, although I never really knew why, as he suffered badly from hay fever, and the pollen can’t have been good for him. But he took pride in growing unusual plants, so I daresay it gave  him pleasure, as did the memory for me, so many years later.

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More of Tonga

On the Friday we tucked into our breakfast without reserve. No boat trip looming ahead wagging its cautionary finger as we dug into the omelettes and pancakes. No fears of the marine toilet as we poured our second cups of coffee.Our ‘Whaleswim’ experience was over, but there was still more of Tonga to explore.

We took advantage of the conveniently low tide and walked across the rocks to the nearest island. To a non-geologist like me, the rocks were fascinating. Some were clearly volcanic, black and sharp-edged with no mercy. Some were white and looked like the frosted up icing on a Christmas cake. In other places the rock seemed to flow like molten lava embedded with petrified sea creatures, the Tongan Pompeii. All along the shore were strange-shaped small rocks that could have been the fossilised excretia of prehistoric life.

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As we snorkelled over the corals we saw beautiful tropical fish  –  butterfly fish, emperor angelfish, triggerfish, parrotfish. A puffer fish was clearly taking a chance as he swam into a bush of coral. He didn’t get far before a shoal of iridescent blue fish chased him away. One coral had bright purple-blue tips and I thought it looked like a fibre optic Christmas tree.

The next day we flew to Nuku’alofa in the same rickety twelve-seater plane we had arrived in, but this time I had the ear plugs ready to mute the deafening engine noise.

On Sunday morning we were woken around five o’ clock by loud church bells. It would seem the Tongans have a short night on Saturday, as the roadside markets had been trading their kumara, coconuts and bananas until midnight.

We had booked an island tour, which involved hour-long trip on a dodgy boat. We made it safely to the Royal Sunset Island where we were greeted with a refreshing fruit cocktail. There were about nine people on that boat, people from all over he world. During conversation it transpired that one couple knew my daughter’s sister-in-law, who lived in  New Zealand.

Sometime over the previous few days I had managed to cut my foot and it was now beginning to turn septic, so I was anxious to get it into the sea for some relief.

We ate a barbeque lunch washed down with a couple of local beers before clambering aboard an even more dilapidated boat that would take us to the reef for some snorkelling. Fortunately the reef wasn’t too far out because as one person after another put their foot through the false bottom of the boat, I had a premonition we would be swimming back.

However the boat proved more sound than it appeared and we returned safely to Heilala Lodge, where we sampled a platter of local cuisine, of which the only flavoursome item was the grilled fish. When we were told it was the same parrotfish we had just been admiring in the sea, it rather lost its appeal.

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The swim had not done much to cure the cut on my foot, but one of the other guests at the lodge suggested I make a bread poultice, so I taped a slice of bread to my foot and covered it with a sock before going to bed. I  expected to wake up with the first signs of blood poisoning, but instead, the bread had drawn out all the pus and the foot looked healthy enough to get me home.

We considered ourselves really privileged to have that holiday when we did. Our finances weren’t great, but somehow we managed. Our feeling was that commercial enterprises would soon be moving in to create a more sophisticated holiday environment, which would possibly result in stricter regulations regarding swimming with whales. We were really fortunate to see Tonga when we did. And above all, we swam with whales.

Whales

Our first morning in Tonga we awoke to grey skies and strong winds. The feeling was that the whaleboat wouldn’t go out today, so we relaxed with our books in a semi-sheltered spot on the beach. However, it wasn’t long before someone came running to tell us our boat was here.

We flew up to the fale to grab our gear and were rowed through clear turquoise water that was only waist deep to the waiting boat, where we were introduced to Anna the guide, and the rest of our group.

The boat stormed over the waves in search of the elusive whales, but luck wasn’t with us. We were about to jump out for some snorkelling in a sheltered bay when our skipper spotted a whale. As we approached we saw him curve up and out of the water. Then his tail came up and smacked the water before he disappeared from our sight. We returned to the relative calm of the sheltered bay where the brave ones dived through a dark tunnel into a cave.

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I came to the unpopular conclusion that women have better peripheral vision than men. I suppose it comes from the hunters and gatherers days. Men, the hunters have had to focus on a specific point, while we gatherers notice things of interest at the far parameters of our vision, be it whale spouts, edible fruits or shopping bargains. I once gathered children, now I gather memories.

The following morning the weather seemed better and we downed a breakfast of bacon, eggs and Kwells in a spirit of optimism.

We followed several fast-moving whales until we found one that wasn’t in a hurry. Anna only allowed four people in the water at one time. The first group slid into the water and appeared from our perspective on the boat, to be within touching distance of the giant humpback.

Then it was our turn. Before I had time to get nervous, we were in the water and doing the ‘Whaleswim shuffle’ towards the whale. This ‘dance’ had proved to minimalise splashing and cause less anxiety to the whales. It consisted of head down, bottom up and legs riding an imaginary underwater bicycle. As we approached, the whale swam to the bottom. The water was clear but very deep, so our visibility wasn’t good enough for photos.

Then she came up, bringing her calf with her. The calf swam around and moved on to the mother’s head where they rested for a while, and we gently trod water, transfixed.

I raised my head to clear my snorkel and saw the hump of the mother literally a metre away. Then I realised she was moving towards us and the rest of the group were back-pedalling away fast. I looked into the whale’s eye and it seemed as if time stood still. So much wisdom, so much peace, as she regarded me with mild curiosity. She glided past, so close I could have touched her, but she steered her calf gently by before swimming into deeper waters.

We were all on a huge adrenalin high, not through fear, but absolute awe. For me, it was as if there had always been an unformed question in my subconscious, and now I had an answer. I felt as if I understood something I never realised was a mystery. It was nothing tangible but a spiritual feeling that was still very much part of this world. I felt humbled that so huge a creature had been so aware of our presence yet unafraid of us. She had shown off her baby as any proud human mother would have done.

Later we followed a pod of four whales whooping through the water at great speed. In the lead was a female with her calf, closely pursued by two testosterone-loaded males.

On our final day we were treated to the sight of a mother humpback teaching her calf to breach. They appeared to be having such fun in the water, oblivious of our existence. Yet for us it was a spectacular personal performance, outclassing any aquarium super-show. They rolled over, they lobbed, they breached, each activity greeted with an ‘ooh’ or an ‘ah’ and a battery of clicking cameras from the boat. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day to complete our Whaleswim experience.

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Tonga

During our second year in Australia we had the opportunity to fulfil a lifetime dream. When Vaughn and I lived in South Africa we paid an annual pilgrimage to the Cape coast each September to watch the southern right whales. Every year between July and November, whales come into Walker Bay to breed. Cows bring their calves in so close to the shore one could almost touch them, if that were allowed. We used to walk along the rugged shoreline until we found a whale or two playing in the shallows, then sit and watch until they swam away.

When we came across an advert for a holiday in Tonga where you could swim in the water with whales, we booked straight away.

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Even before we arrived at the Whaleswim destination, the Tonga we saw was a another new experience. We flew into the airport at Tongatapu, where any thoughts of buying lunch were a Western World fantasy. There were none of the duty-free shops or fast food outlets that we were used to. Just some plastic chairs and an empty coca cola machine.

As we came out of the International airport locals approached us offering taxi transfers to the domestic airport, trips to town and full island tours. Vaughn seemed to be accepting an offer, but I clearly retained some of my South African mistrust, as I didn’t feel comfortable and was sure we were going to be ripped off or abandoned somewhere in the jungle.

At the domestic terminal our tickets were not available so we accepted the offer of a ride into town, sceptical though I was. It would be an adventure. Better than sitting in the airport for five hours on hard plastic chairs.

We passed a large building that we were told was the king’s palace. On the opposite side of the road, discreetly shielded by a clump of trees, was the house of the old queen. At intervals beside the road we saw colourful graveyards consisting of three or four mounds of sand topped with flowers, garlands and banners.

We drove through the thousands of coconut palms we had seen from the air. From above it looked like neat allotments, rectangular and separate. From the ground it seemed haphazard, the random scatterings of nature. Our driver told us the plants between the palms produced tapioca.

Fortunately his taxi had good brakes, because the road was owned by fat lactating sows, followed by piglets the size of rabbits. Dogs of undetermined genealogy roamed freely.

We reached the town where the majority of buildings had been flattened during the previous year’s coup. The remaining shops contained half-empty shelves. We stopped for a cool drink, but there was no bottled water, no fruit juice, nor any sort of sugar-free soda. We later heard that diabetes is a big problem in Tonga.

From the town we drove out through roads of increasing rural appearance. My apprehension grew in direct proportion to the decrease in the width of the road. Strangely, the sight of a trampoline in someone’s garden seemed reassuring. The comfort of the familiar.

We stopped under a tree where our gaze was directed upwards to about a hundred flying foxes or fruit bats hanging like Halloween decorations. Without thinking I put my hands to my neck as a Dracula-like shape flew over my head.

bats

From there we drove to the Blow Holes. All along the shore the thundering crashes of waves echoed as fountains of spume erupted through the tight holes in the rocks. The air was full of a power that was almost physical. I could have stayed longer, absorbing energy from the ocean, but it was necessary to return to the airport.

blowholes

Although there was no sign of either our tickets or a voucher, we were eventually told we could board. Every passenger was weighed with their baggage, and the total weight  called out loudly for all to hear, while the pilot made some basic calculations. There were a couple of very large Tongan gentlemen present, so my eighty  kilograms seemed modest.

The twelve-seater plane was loaded although there were only six of us on board, plus the two pilots.  The safety drill was so casual that several people looked surreptitiously under their seats to check if they had life jackets. For a deafening hour we bounced through the clouds until with a roar and a screech we made a perfect landing in Neiafu.

We ran through the rain into the tiny terminal building, where we were relieved to find someone waiting to meet us. Into a taxi and on to a boat we piled our paraphernalia, smiling to ourselves at how our children would be amused that we had as usual, brought the rain with us on holiday. The sea was choppy and I was sitting dangerously close to a stack of two hundred and forty eggs.

It took over an hour to reach our island resort, but we arrived without mishap and were shown to our gloriously unsophisticated fale. The resort had been built, mostly from local materials, in an area hand-cleared of dense jungle. Our cabin or fale was made of wood with walls of woven palm leaves.

fale

After a cursory wash in the open-air shower we went to explore. The island was totally wind and solar-powered, hence the stipulation that no hair-dryers were allowed. We found the four windmills whizzing round furiously in the strong wind.

As darkness fell, we weaved our way up to the bar and restaurant where we met members of the previous Whaleswim group.

After a meal of delicious fresh tuna, as good as any meal you could get in Melbourne, we retired early. Considering the noise of the elements, and pillows that felt like bags stuffed with tennis balls, we slept well, excitedly anticipating  getting up close and personal with whales the next day.

More Tears and Nostalgia

When I passed the one-year anniversary in Australia, I felt no sense of pride or elation. Just one year crossed off the calendar. In some ways the second year was slightly less painful for me as my personal goals made it easier to stay motivated. I felt as if I had been led into choosing a career in Aged Care. My life became busy and I started making some friends.

But in spite of the increased pace of life, I still had plenty of really low days. During the Easter holiday I had a wonderful trip back to South Africa to visit the family. The holiday was superb, but unsettling.

Just as the little ones got to know me, I had to leave.  Everyone’s life seemed so established, I couldn’t think of any reason why any of them would want to move. They had good jobs and lovely homes. It would be very hard to give all that up. For my first year in Australia I held on to the dream that one day we would all be together, in Australia, but after my visit, seeing their situations from a distance, I realised that might never happen.

On Mother’s Day I had to fight back tears the whole day. Tears for my children and tears for all the things I never got to say to my mother, and all the years I spent so far away from her. It seemed that I had spent my whole life following the dreams of the men in my life, without necessarily buying into those dreams fully myself. But nostalgia is poor therapy.

Nevertheless, everyone indulges in reminiscing. Almost everyone has had some good times. Somehow, as migrants, we feel we have more right to indulge in emotional wistfulness. Perhaps we feel guilty to let go of our past as it may seem a betrayal of our heritage. I read a sentence once that went something like this: ‘Migrants have lost not only a home but a country, and spend the rest of their lives tapping in vain at the window of their past.’

I did not wish to fall into the trap of constant dilemma and nostalgia, something I had noticed in English friends living in South Africa. When they were on one place they longed for the other, never fully connected, never fully ‘in the moment’, constantly homesick for the other place.

We need to feel we belong somewhere, whether it is the place of our birth, with geographically distant loved ones, or even in a different time zone. And I wasn’t ready to ‘belong’ in Australia.

The whole procedure of emigrating is an on-going process that must be worked through. I felt myself go through all the stages of grief documented by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial & isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

My only choice was to work through it. I allowed myself to feel the depth of the pain. I had trained myself to drift through each day on a superficial level, avoiding focussing on anything emotional. But it was all suppressed, and in hiding from my feelings I had been hiding from my true self, so I let those tears fall and wash away the negativity and bitterness. I stopped bottling up my feelings and consciously let the tears do their healing work.

Acceptance did eventually come, and with it the strength to feel the pain without anger. And once again in my life, my passage was eased by the support of girlfriends.

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My Father

Into my state of grieving came my brother Adrian’s phone call to say my father had died.  I couldn’t take it in. He was supposed to live forever, so he could always be there with his concern, his strong principles and his sound advice. So many things I didn’t tell him. So many times I let him down and disappointed him, yet he never showed it, nor did I ever feel his love had diminished. I never realised he was my role model, so I never told him. We should have been celebrating his ninetieth birthday in September. Instead I had to make the trip alone, in the British chill of January.

No matter where in the world I live, part of me still belongs in England. As we drove south from Heathrow Airport I felt tendrils of emotions seeking out the roots that still lay buried, barely under the surface. Our formative years play such a crucial part in our emotional stability. Rumer Godden, in ‘A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep’ confessed ‘I am still homesick for the feel of our verandah stone floors hot from the sun, and the warm Indian dust between our toes.’

It was good to be with the family. The weather was glorious, although cold. The day of the funeral I was reminded of how we made the same journey almost exactly six years earlier when my mother passed away. We travelled in convoy to the crematorium, and when our limo drew up behind the hearse, the funereal director, who had been a personal friend of my father, walked in front of the procession, wearing his top hat and tails, tapping his stick as if in some Dickensian melodrama.

During the cremation, so deeply symbolic of a passing through to another life, I could not help but be smacked in the face by the finality that there would be no more hugs, and no more blue aerogrammes written skilfully in Dad’s squiggly handwriting.

Back at Chideock, the atmosphere improved as the whole family sustained themselves on soups and cold platters while doing our best to deplete Adrian’s wine cellar. Thus fortified we were able to face the thanksgiving service in the afternoon. In contrast to the morning, I found it uplifting as I viewed the church packed with people paying their respects, thankful for their own relationships with my father.

Once we had Dad’s ashes, my brothers and I decided to take him for one last trip to the top of Golden Cap. Golden Cap is a cliff, a mile or so from Adrian and Jean’s house, so named because of the shape of the hill and the colour of the cliff face in the rising sunlight. The cliff is surrounded by farm land except on the  southwest side, which looks out on to the sea.

GOLDEN CAP

When we were children, a good Sunday afternoon walk would be a hike up Golden Cap. In those days there was only a narrow footpath beaten through the bracken. Later Dad threw the challenge to his grandchildren and still managed to race them to the top. Everyone who did the climb got a homemade certificate.

So on an icy January morning, Nigel, Adrian and I made the trek up the hill, weighed down with coffee, brandy and an urn of ashes.

It was the end of an era. The loss of a dear parent, advisor, mentor and carrier of all my history. Who would now be able to tell us the names of the people in those old sepia photographs? And who would be able to tell my grandchildren real life stories of World War II?

I grieved for my children, saddened that I couldn’t be with them to help them cope with their own sorrow. But my plane took me back to Australia, to carry on with my new life there. And we all took another step up the ladder of maturity.

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First Melbourne Christmas

Money was tight, and I still hadn’t stopped converting the cost of everything from dollars back to SA Rands, a foolish but common habit. I felt I should look for work, but in view of the promise of visitors from November to mid-January, I didn’t think I was very employable. Besides, everything I had done or been in the past really had no relevance in Australia. I felt diminished as a person, with little value or purpose. So I very half-heartedly emailed my CV off to a couple of agencies, but didn’t bother to phone or follow up, so it was no surprise when offers of jobs were not arriving in every mail delivery.

As time went on, I felt a strong calling to investigate the possibility of working in Aged Care. I would have to retrain, which was challenging in itself, and it gave me a goal to work towards. I enrolled at Box Hill TAFE to start the following February.

Meanwhile I had a project to keep me busy: re-landscaping the garden. The existing garden was neat and characterless, with no real area for entertaining, so it had to go. We hired a digger and excavated into the hillside, creating a scene that looked like an open cast mine.

Eventually we had a large paved entertainment area, which I hoped would have a Mediterranean feel to it, with steps up to the next level, where colourful native Australian shrubs would draw the eye and cheer the soul. It was a five-year plan.

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Unfortunately two things hampered this plan. One was the unpredictable Melbourne weather, and the other was the arrival of a little black fluffy puppy called Einstein, named because of the hairstyle, sadly not the brain, though we lived in hope.

He obviously felt his first job in his new home was to get rid of the irritating little black batons that stuck up at regular intervals across the garden beds and made him wet. Every evening Vaughn came home from work and had to replace sections of his sprinkler system that the dog had so carefully destroyed. However, as Melbourne’s drought continued, any form of watering system became redundant and to ease our consciences we lugged buckets of water from the sink and showers in an attempt to save the more expensive plants.

Initially, Einstein did not like going for walks. To get him used to the leash I took him out through our back gate into the reserve and up to the duck pond. At first there were little skid marks through the dusty path where he had put on his brakes, but he soon got used to the idea and came quite willingly. That was when I hoped he would grow into his name, as he really seemed to be learning fast.

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During that time I was constantly on the computer, planning and making spread sheets for when the family arrived. I had lists of places to visit, lists of meals and lists of presents. I dreamed,  I updated and I dreamed some more.

Then suddenly they were here! The days flashed past in a flurry of excitement and activity. Every day was perfect, even though the temperature soared into the 40s and we sat outside draped in wet sarongs with our feet in a little blue shell paddling pool. My family laughed at me for putting ice cubes in the dog’s water bowl and I wanted each moment to last forever.

But as all good things come to an end, we soon found ourselves back at the airport saying tearful farewells. I spent a bleak few days, with every little thing reminding me of them: Megan’s socks left behind; the milky smell of Luke’s pillow; a child on a swing, whose voice sounded like Caitlin’s.

And into that pain came my brother Adrian’s phone call to say my father had died.