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)

 

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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

Sharks

The day after our swim with tuna we were out of bed before dawn, heartbeats racing in anticipation of the shark dive. Once on the boat we were offered cappuccinos, proper steaming frothy ones.   Vaughn & I sat in the cabin as we bounced our way through the choppy sea. I gripped the table for some stability and chatted to a lady across from me, also gripping the table. We talked constantly the whole 2 ½ hour ride to take our focus off the other passengers who were making good use of the vomit bags and buckets.

When we stopped I found my hand was in the air to go into the cage first. It turned out not to be the cleverest idea. My wetsuit was uncomfortably tight around my neck and my mask felt loose. I adjusted the mask and lowered myself into the cage, careful to follow directions and hold the bars inside, not outside, in case a zealous shark came by.

Once in the cage I rinsed and purged the regulator and took a breath. I spluttered as I breathed in a lungful of salt water. Panic gripped me around the chest and I re-surfaced.  A couple of deep breaths of fresh air later, I re-purged the regulator and dropped back into the cage. I didn’t feel good, but pride kept me from giving up – I was the first girl in  –  I had to do this thing. The three guys in the cage with me seemed OK.

We stood for ages, a sentinel at each corner, with our toes hooked under the bar because we were all too buoyant even with weight belts on. Myriads of small fish swarmed the bait in a feeding frenzy. A large pencil-shaped garfish glided past. But no sharks. The cage bounced and rocked, tossed like a cork on the waves and I started to feel very nauseous and very cold.

I was on the point of surfacing when the first shark cruised past. He wasn’t as big as I expected and I looked anxiously at the gap in the cage, wondering if a shark could get through. A second shark swam past, showing no interest in the cage, making a bee-line for a large lump of tuna closer to the boat.

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Sudden waves of nausea gripped me and I knew I had to get out. As I was on the ladder a much larger shark bumped the cage and looked as if he would swim between the cage and the boat.

The crew pulled the cage towards the boat and told me to use the next wave to jump on to the platform. I’m not sure how my legs got there, but the thought of the shark below could have been an incentive.

I just managed to haul myself to the corner of the platform before I was violently sick. Things then went from bad to worse for me. Vaughn was still in the cage, so I tried to struggle out of my wetsuit on my own. I couldn’t get it past my calves, and the effort to get thus far caused me to stagger to the edge, a totally undignified figure, wetsuit round my legs, and vomit again.

Eventually I found someone with a strong stomach who helped pull the wetsuit off me, and I crawled into trakkie pants and my dri-mac. I stood with white knuckles gripping the rail, occasionally leaning over for a horrible dry retch as the smell of tuna casserole and barbecued chicken mingled with bait and the fumes from the engine.

A massive shark came by and tried to bite the edge of the platform, just below the place I had been sitting. Sharks came and went, people were in and out of the cage, cameras clicking and whirring like a busload of enthusiastic tourists. For seven hours I stood watching it all, declining offers of lunch, cake and beer, too ill even to go into the cabin for my sunglasses and factor 40, an omission for which I paid dearly. The next day my face was a blotchy mess, my nose resembled Rudolph’s and I was reminded of the quotation “Marian’s nose is red and raw’. To crown it all, my knuckles that had gripped the bar so passionately were also burnt, looking for all the world as if I’d had a day of pugilism.

shark biting cage

When the last person was finally climbing out of their wetsuit and the cage was being cranked back on to the boat, I heaved a sigh of relief that we might be heading back to terra firma. However, the boat reversed in the opposite direction, and we stopped again beside a rock island that was swarming with seals. No wonder the great white sharks were abundant in the area. Fortunately we didn’t hang around long and were soon streaming back towards Port Lincoln. A couple of dolphins arced beside us for a short while, taking my mind off the state of my stomach.

Once back on land I staggered drunkenly to our apartment where a good hot shower and cup of black tea put me in a slightly better state of health.

Fortunately Vaughn was one of the two people on board who had not succumbed to sea-sickness, so he had a really good day with wonderful photos to prove it.

shark head 2

But I don’t know what makes me forget the fact that I’m not good in boats. It has always been thus, from the days of the cross-channel ferries until now. Yet somehow I am still drawn towards water and boats, maybe in the naive hope that I will finally have developed sea legs.

Large Fish

The next adventure was a second attempt at a cage dive with great white sharks, this time at Port Lincoln. We hoped for greater success and calmer seas than we’d had in South Africa.

We knew it was going to be an eventful weekend when the Rexair flight staff at Adelaide nearly put us on the wrong plane. It felt like an omen of sorts. However, we bounced down into Port Lincoln on time and found our little hire car.

As usual Google managed to confuse us but we only took one wrong turn before we found our accommodation. We checked in and relaxed with a beer beside the marina while we investigated other activities available in the area. One thing that appealed was a visit to a tuna farm, where we would be able to swim among the fish.

After lunch we boarded a boat where the guide, an ex-fisherman, gave us a brief history of the tuna farming industry and how methods had changed over the years. Their main market was Japan, which required fish weighing around 26-28 kg.

We arrived at a large circular net inside which there was a floating platform that we climbed on to. We were invited to feed the tuna with sardines. I held one up as instructed and a tuna jumped out of the water to grab the fish with such enthusiasm he nipped my finger. After that I was a bit reluctant to get in the water and swim with them in case they got excited by the smell of blood.

But I’d travelled all that way, so in the water I jumped. Large tuna were zooting about in all directions. People on the platform were throwing fish close to the swimmers, so tuna were coming towards us like torpedoes; 20-30 kg solid fish bullets with sharp pointy teeth. But luckily they have small mouths and an excellent built-in radar system that enabled them to veer off to the side just millimetres from your face without slowing their momentum one second.

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When everyone had finished their swim, a large platter of tuna sashimi was offered around, which seemed a little unfeeling, as the fish were watching us eat…

Sashimi-Tuna