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. 

canyon

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.

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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…

adam-black-p-3-parlour-acoustic-guitar-in-natural-angle

Pets

As a child I never had a dog. In fact the only pet we had for years was a sadly neglected rabbit. His neglect was probably the reason we weren’t allowed further animals. Any promises we made about taking a dog for a walk would have been brushed off with the accusatory reminder of how infrequently we cleaned out Snowy’s hutch. 

My brother Nigel managed to keep some mice for a while, but they had to be relegated to the great outdoors because their smell was enticing their country cousins to come indoors and join them.

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The boys also had stick insects, the very memory of which gives me nightmares. He kept them in a glass tank which appeared to be fairly airtight. However, when the many many many babies appeared, they were so small they managed to get out. We discovered them all over the house. When one intrepid explorer found its way into my bed, it was time for them all to go.

Our cousins had a dog named Peter. He was a cocker spaniel with perpetually daggy ears from flopping in his food. I suspect Uncle John took over the chore of exercising Peter fairly soon on, which didn’t help our cause.

We did eventually get a cat though, which came as a big surprise as we had always been told Dad didn’t like cats much and was allergic to them anyway. I know he did have problems with his nose. I remember a time when he went into hospital to have some polyps removed. And he always had a much-used hanky in his pocket.

Shortly before I left home, my mother employed a cleaning lady who turned out to be a bit of a charity case. But what she lacked in grey matter she made up for in kindness. Her eyesight wasn’t very good, so she never noticed any dirt or dust, but she’d always offer to make anyone a nice cup of tea at any time. She had two topics of conversation; one was the washing.

‘Nice day for drying,’ she’d say. Or more commonly in England, ‘Not a good day for the washing today.’ And that was it. 

The second subject was her cat Minna. 

‘Minna ate all her food today.’ Said as if that was unusual, but it was the same thing every day. ‘I gave her some nice fish. She miouwed and miouwed.’

But sad to say, the time came when this lady needed to be taken into Care. She was quite happy to go herself, but she was worried sick about Minna. So Mum said we’d take her.

She hadn’t been with us long before I heard Dad standing at the front door one evening calling ‘Minna Minna ,Minna’ in a sing-songy sort of voice. And shortly after that he was observed walking down the hallway cradling the cat in his arms as if she were a baby. And not so much as a single sneeze was heard.

So to compensate for my canine-less childhood, I have had a succession of dogs all through my adult life, at first for the children, although probably, if I’m honest, really for me.

dogs

(beautiful blonde dog on loan from my daughter)

 

Moving with Einstein

I can quite see why moving house is up there in the top ten Big Stresses. We accept the anxieties of getting your electricity hooked up at the new house the day before you get cut off at the old house, and oh what a shame, you can’t do that last minute vacuum through as there isn’t any power. And the tensions caused in relationships when one partner asks what they can do to help, and when told, goes and does something completely different. But what put the cherry on top of our cake was the neurotic pooch.

Confused and whining he attached himself to my ankle, tripping me up as I struggled up the stairs with laden boxes.  Although he clearly didn’t like the new house much,  he refused to go outside. At any time.

When everything was done that had to be done, and we were falling asleep on our feet, the dog still refused to go out for a last pee. So we went to bed, leaving the sliding door open so he could choose his moment.

But we were no sooner asleep than we were awoken by little Einstein (who previously had always gone eagerly to his own bed in his own bedroom  – i.e, the laundry) jumping up to whine in our faces. So I got up and took the little dog outside. He cowered by the sliding door while I stood in the yard freezing in my pyjamas, lifting one leg and going ‘ssssssssss’ in the hope that the dog might get the idea. But no luck, so I went back to bed.

At intervals during the night the patter of tiny paws were heard clickety-clicking their way up the passageway to the bedroom, where Einstein settled contentedly keeping us awake with the slurping sounds of him licking himself.

Eventually, tired and irritable, we all got up.

The second day was almost a repeat of the first, with the dog never out of sight. While boxes were being unpacked in the kitchen, he sidled over to his bed watching balefully out of one eye, just in case we should do a runner and leave him in this terrible place. When we needed to go out, we felt obliged to take him in the car with us, but he declined the invitation and ran up to the car then away from it several times before being lifted unceremoniously into the back.

That night we kept the bedroom door closed. But the whining and scratching forced Vaughn out of bed once again to give the little dog a bit of reassurance. This was repeated several times and reminded me why nature designs us to have our babies when we are young and can cope with broken nights.

By the third day, the dog was beginning to get the message and actually went outside for a big session, thankfully not on the tiny patch of artificial grass, which would shortly have to be removed. We decided it would be safe to leave him home alone for a short while. However, on our return, we found he had pulled the cords off all the downstairs vertical blinds. The high pitched noisy yelping that greeted us indicated only that the little dog was unrepentant and quite certain we were as pleased to see him as he was to see us.

The excitement drew the neighbours out to check we weren’t killing the creature. One lady said she had a dog like ours once. He lived for 28 years. Clearly she never moved house during that time.

m & Ein

Downsizing

The next item on our plan for the year was to downsize.  Our large empty home had become a constant reminder that since we arrived in Australia the immigration laws had changed, and none of our children had the right qualifications to even be considered for entry. So we wouldn’t ever be enjoying the sounds of children running up and down our stairs to their rooms. We wouldn’t be shivering on a drizzly Saturday morning as we cheered our grandchildren on in their Auskick games. Or watching ballet performances or school plays or dropping everything because one of them phoned to ask us to pick them up, the way grandparents expect to be involved.

I was very angry with the Australian government, but my one letter to the minister did nothing to soften their policy, so the answer was to change our own plan.

We therefore decided we would push as much money as we could into our pension funds, and move to New Zealand within the next ten years in order to be close to at least one family group. My daughter Abigail and her husband Irwin lived in Tauranga with their two children.  After many spreadsheets, Vaughn managed to reduce the ten year plan to a five year plan. Once our Australian house was sold, we would buy a house close enough to the New Zealand family that we could be called on in a hurry, but not so close that we would be forever on their doorstep cramping their social life.

We spent many happy hours scouring the internet for suitable places, and sent Abi and Irwin on weekly house hunting expeditions. We saw several that looked really attractive, but on viewing, the wonders of a wide-angled lens became apparent. However, one day we had a phone call from Irwin in New Zealand, saying they had seen a house on a lifestyle block they thought we would like. We should go and check it out quickly as it would not be available for long. We put in an online offer, subject to our liking the place and booked flights for the weekend.

We were not disappointed. Our offer was accepted and we had bought our next dream.

But the immediate problem was to find somewhere to live in Melbourne for the subsequent five years while we earned enough money to enable us to live that dream. Every place we looked at was either too big or too small; too far out or in need of an overhaul. Visions of sleeping bags outside Flinders Street station flashed through my mind.

Then we saw it. A double-storey unit, living area and main bedroom with en suite on the ground level, plus two additional bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. It would be perfect because when the family came on holiday they could make as much mess as they wanted upstairs and I wouldn’t have to see it.

Packing up became a déjà vu exercise in prioritising. We couldn’t take both lounge suites. Nor the dining room furniture. Nor the two single beds, and so the list went on. But parting with those things was really the easy part. The hard bit came when I had to sort through the small stuff. There was the morning I discovered my ‘sentimental’ box. It was full of cards from the children and little pictures from the grandchildren and the last letter my father ever wrote. I thought I would throw some stuff out, but I sat and cried over every item and saved the lot.

IMG_1177(Just a small selection…)

Kayak Safari

On our last evening in Cape Tribulation we joined a kayak safari. Vaughn and I had borrowed a kayak during the morning for a gentle paddle around the area, so I was quite confident that I could sit in the back and dip the occasional blade in the water, just enough to be pleasant without being strenuous.

However, when we arrived for the safari, the tour guide insisted that the lightest person sit in the front, so there was no slacking for me that evening. Paddling on the choppy waters, contending with currents and sinking sun was not something I would put on my list of things to be repeated.

Our tour included a ‘sundowner’ on the rocks. Sadly, this was not a glass of something strong over clinking ice blocks. As we rounded the cliff, we were instructed to haul our kayaks on to the beach and follow the leader, who was scrambling up the rocky cliff face hauling a bag containing cans of iced tea. I managed to climb to the top without looking down, and settled on a rather pointy rock to watch the sun setting over the sea.

But the descent was not something I’d signed up for. Trying desperately hard not to whimper, I groped my way slowly down, feeling gingerly for footholds and trying not to break my nails on the sharp rocks.

By the time we were back in the kayaks, the sea had turned black and the rocks had taken on eerie proportions. The tide was receding quickly, making it difficult to negotiate between the outbreaks of sharp coral. From time to time we saw several large dark shapes looming up out of the water. Speculation ranged from crocodile to dugong.

Never have I paddled so hard.

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Cape Tribulation

During the winter months Vaughn decided we needed a holiday in a part of Australia we hadn’t yet visited, so we booked to go to Cape Tribulation, an hour or so’s drive north of Port Douglas, where the Daintree rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. It is the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites converge. Once again, I would be both in the water and on it.

On the drive up from Cairns, we pulled into the AJ Hacket Bungy jump where Vaughn had booked to try the 50 metre jump. That was one experience I could live without. As it was, I had stomach cramps just watching. Vaughn the fearless performed a graceful swallow dive from the top, but I still say he screamed like a girl. He claims he was shouting ‘Woo-hoo’, but I have my doubts.

When we finally arrived at our beach house we dropped our bags and took a long walk along the beach. The tide was low exposing the mangrove roots. They looked as if they might get up and run away, or more spookily, crawl stealthily over and grab us. It felt as if we were going to fall off the end of Australia.

Signs everywhere warned of the danger of fresh-water crocodiles, so we stuck to the paths and kept a watchful eye out. However, on one of our walks through a forest we heard the unmistakeable thrash and crack of a crocodile’s tail. We didn’t hang around there.

croc sign

The following day I had a careful breakfast of fruit as it was our day for exploring the Reef. The sea couldn’t have been calmer as a luxury catamaran took us to Undine Reef where the water was 26° and the viz about 30 metres. We spent several wonderful hours snorkelling with turtles, watching with awe the wonders of the ocean. Happily I was not the slightest bit nauseous that day.

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The next day Vaughn was doing some photography so I decided to go to the beach and lie in the sun.

By way of explanation for what happened next, I need to digress. As a young child, I remember my parents had a gramophone. Not one of those HMV things with a daffodil-type trumpet on top that you pictured playing Charleston or tango dance music with elegant 1920’s couples dancing round their large manor house rooms. But ours was definitely the forerunner of the record player. It sat in a large wooden casing in the dining room. We had a number of vinyl 78s which my brothers and I used to get out and giggle over on a Sunday. For serious listening there was Nessun Dorma, but we frequently had a touch of the sillies over ‘Donal where’s your troosers’ and something even dafter that had the often quoted (by us) line: ‘Don’t step into the lift Dad, the bottom’s fallen out’.

So that day when I was busy lying on the beach sunbathing (the choice of the word ‘busy’ is intentional) with my face covered to keep off unwelcome uv rays, I sensed rather than heard something or someone close by.  I had already moved position twice, once to escape some noisy Americans, and secondly to position myself further away from the mangroves and any lurking croc that might choose to come out and snaffle me up, so I casually flicked the towel over, exposing one eye.

To my horror, I saw, not a croc, but a bollock-naked male sporting a Mohican haircut standing right beside me. He was dragging a canoe up the beach. He parked it beside me and proceeded to walk up the beach looking under the mangroves for something. His clothes, maybe? But at least he had his back to me. However he then he decided to turn round and come back, still naked as the day he was born, and that was when I replaced the towel over my face and found myself quietly humming  ‘Donal where’s your troosers’.

Shortly after that, Vaughn came to tell me he had seen an enormous lace monitor lizard right beside our chalet.  I told him I had also been gifted with a sighting of a rather different wonder of the natural world.

lizard