A short hop from South America to Asia (10 days in Australia)
Well the Aussies certainly read the script, learnt their lines, and put on a full costume display (board shorts, flip flops, RM Williams Boots, safari hats) for our Australian 10 day leg. To avoid having to fly back to the UK in order to enter into Asia, we had put in a short break to catch up with family and friends in Australia. My fabulous cousin Suzanne and her family agreed to have us for a week in Sydney, and a special old friend who pricks our ecological conscience was only a few hours down the road in Canberra. From the moment we stepped off the plane and into ‘Border Control’ we were met by the cheery, optimistic good humour that we would become familiar with. The substantial difference between Dean’s passport photo and current bearded appearance gained a joshing from the Immigration desk “You’ve changed a bit mate”, to which Dean replied “I know, I just keep getting younger”, and yes the officer was called Bruce. Leaving Australia proved to be more problematic…..
The 14 hour flight, with a further 14 hour leap forward in time, chewed up our body clocks. Suzanne, who picked us up at the airport, fed us a spaghetti Bolognese and medicinal red wine before we crashed out at 9pm Sydney time, 7am the same day in Santiago. We had a solid sleep until 1am when Fred and I both woke and made a cheese sandwich, 4am was another waking when Fred and I, fully synchronised, had a bowl of cornflakes. Deep sleep must have punctured our wakings, we felt fantastic when we woke. Astoundingly the suburb of Turramurra is full of wildlife and tropical trees. Our dawn chorus was the sounds of the jungle, evensong was the rustling of possums in the trees that we got to see peering at us, all in Suzanne and Phil’s garden. Remarkably free of jet lag we set off for the pool at 8:30am to accompany Will (11) to his swimming lesson. Ollie (15) and Fred swam in the Olympic sized outdoor pool whilst Suzanne and I sat in the wonderful crisp sunshine and caught up on the comings and goings of our extended family across the world.
Suzanne showed us around the coastline on our second day, stunning views from the vantage point of McCarrs Creek, followed by an afternoon of swimming and cricket at the beach. I’ve been amazed at just how beautiful the landscape is here. Lush greenery, golden beaches nestled into compact coves, crystal clear waters, and stunning geology. Surfers took on the substantial waves, whilst we took to the water in the walled pool filled with the bracing Pacific Ocean.
We spent a gorgeous restful few days in great company, wearing fresh clothes, smelling sweetly, and wining and dining in terrific company. Two snuggly cats, two boys to play with, and plentiful Pokemons, was just what Fred needed. In the first 2 days they cleaned up, and the adults were treated to lengthy, excitable accounts of rare Pokemons they had captured. Phil, Suzanne’s husband had been working away, and on his return he took us all swimming in another Olympic sized pool, Sydney is littered with them. He also introduced us to the Aussie institution of the bowling club. Pints and cigarettes in hand, the predominantly male over 50s members, took us all under their wing and coached us on a ‘rink’. It was a highly competitive group of novices, largely good humoured apart from Dean nobbling me with a jovial bowl at my ankle bone which elicited much swearing and near physical violence, despite the presence of children. We celebrated our sporting day with a curry down the road, and it felt just like Saturday night at home, except instead of pigeons flying overhead we had Silver Cockatoos toddling along the road with us. Awesome – as they really do say round here!
Sunday was sightseeing day in central Sydney. Amazingly you can’t spend more than £1.50 on public transport on a Sunday in Sydney, no matter what routes and form of transport you take. Consequently, we explored on train, bus, and ferry. We started off at the outdoor market under the arches of the Harbour Metro station. Colourful, bright, cheery stall holders engaged us in good humoured conversations. Live music and fresh food made for a lovely atmosphere. We walked over the Harbour Bridge, eschewing the opportunity to climb to the top of its arches, instead leisurely enjoying the stunning views. I had no idea that Sydney was so green and beautiful. Largely low rise, with its historic decorative terraced homes protected from re-development, lush greenery cuts through it. The harbour itself is inland, sheltered from the Pacific, with a myriad of waterways working their way into the suburbs. Not only did Fred want to get out the property pages, so did I.
The Opera House was a revelation. Not white, but cream tiled, it glistens in the sunshine, its architecture even more impressive up close. We had a pitstop in Phil’s office on the 38th floor of a new harbour front office block, where we got to appreciate a bird’s eye view in 360 degrees. After a ferry ride across the harbour we arrived in Manly for fish and chips before a walk round the bay. Clever engineering of ketchup packets caught me out, opening it the wrong way, I managed to splatter Fred, myself and a row of 4 Aussie teenagers sat behind us on the seafront steps. Thankfully they took it in good humour, fortunately I was wearing a jumper with a paint splatter effect so no impact for me, Fred on the other hand took the full force and looked like an extra on The Walking Dead.
We washed ourselves down on the promenade and headed round the Manly Beach bay for a bracing walk. Multi million dollar houses lined the way, but you could see why they chose this gorgeous spot. Entertainment came in the form of novice paddle borders battling on choppy waters. Tanned, and with sun bleached hair, surfers on a day off due to messy waves, sat on the rocks in hysterics enjoying the misery and frustration of the holiday makers wanting to complete their Australian dream. The bus back to the car was packed so we all had to split up. Fred found a young female companion and was soon deep in conversation. I earwigged from across the aisle to him marvelling that she had been to Everest base camp. They exchanged travelling stories and, as he talked animatedly to her, I was comforted that he has got so much out of the trip than I realised. She had visited India a number of times, although 5th generation Fijian her family’s heritage was Indian, and allayed some of Fred’s fears about our upcoming India leg. She was on the bus going home having finished a volunteering session at a children’s hospice, she did every other Saturday in addition to working full time. They parted friends and Fred richer for 30 minutes of conversation with an adventurous and compassionate person.
Monday we set off for Canberra to see our old friend Richard in a hire car. Before entering vegan heaven, we sneaked in an Aussie MacDonalds on the motorway, very naughty but pretty good. The highway from Sydney to Canberra took us through rolling hills and lush grassland full of livestock. Small holdings and larger farms sported corrugated tinned roofs, much to my delight. Nothing like vernacular architecture to make me happy. On the recommendation of Phil we stopped at a vineyard that uses Biodynamic growing methods. We left the highway to take a country lane to the Lark Hill Vineyard. Within a few minutes we saw the carcasses of Kangaroos who had not made it across the road, not just a few but dozens. Thankfully Fred didn’t see them, but did shout out his spot of a huge mob (yes that is the collective noun for a group of Kangaroos!) on the edge of some scrubland. We pulled over and turned around to find them again. Pulling onto the verge we were amazed that they just sat and looked at us, windows were wound down and we fumbled for our cameras. We managed to get a few shots before they decided they’d had enough of our staring competition and they bounced off. We were tickled at their springing high speed escape and couldn’t believe our luck at stumbling across them. As those of you who have read our blog will know, we only enjoy animals in the wild or supporting institutions that have rescued animals.
The Lark Hill Vineyard was an absolute treat. A small family business, the owner took us through to the cellar, and educated us in his wines and the Biodynamic process. Dean had drawn the short straw, deciding to economise by only putting himself on the hire car insurance. His loss was my gain. As he professionally sniffed, swilled and spat (as taught by our friend James the wine merchant), I absentmindedly forgot the smaller details of the process. We worked our way through the fizzy Pinot Noir, whites, and reds, eventually settling on a mixed case to take to Canberra. As we left Fred’s parting words were “Thank you, you’ve made my parents very happy today”. How right he was.
Fully laden we arrived into Canberra earlier than expected. No traffic on the highway and an empty capital city caught us out. With time to spare before our host was home we headed up to the Royal Mint, another of Phil’s recommendations. It took us 10 minutes to cross from one side of Canberra to the other, including going past the Canadian Parliament, and taking a wrong turn. No need for congestion charges here. Like most of the museums and galleries in Canberra it was free. We enjoyed an educational video before exploring the exhibits charting the history of money and the Mint. All the operations are visible to the public via a gallery that overlooks the warehouse and operations. Cutting edge automation was on display, Penny and Titan danced for their audience in between performing complex tasks. I was pretty sure Titan was inappropriate on at least one occasion as Penny passed. Fred left happy, having cast his own coin, with a fresh desire to see his Great Grandfathers coin collection. Before we left we had a Mr Bean experience with Dean battling the door and lock of the car, except it wasn’t ours. Uh Oh. As we turned away we explained to another visitor in the car park our error, not that we were doing a spot of breaking and entering in one of the most secure places in the city.
We had a wonderfully warm welcome from Richard, who true to form had prepared a stunning vegan feast for us. The evening was spent catching up and making plans for our 3 days in the city. With a wealth of museum’s and art galleries in Canberra that we wanted to work our way through, we were over the moon to discover that the British Museum’s ‘The History of the World in 100 objects’ was in Canberra on tour for the next 2 months. Richard had been wanting to take it in so we agreed that we would make it our first stop the next morning. It didn’t disappoint. Goodness knows how they were able to decide what to include, but they did a fabulous job. Organised in chronological order, they had also cleverly curated it by theming the periods in time (see link) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_History_of_the_World_in_100_Objects. If you get chance it’s a must see. Of course being Canberra it was virtually deserted, not surprising when your capital city has a population of 400,000 and is a flight away from the most populated parts of the vast country. Much to our amusement one of the few other visitors was the couple who had caught us doing battle with the wrong car at the Mint the day before. We would see them once again in the next 2 days, a very small world. The Exhibition was housed in the National Museum of Australia, so we spent another hour taking in some of the collections before heading across town to view Canberra from the peak of Mount Ainslie. From here you see the architect designed city in its full, organised, glory. On the ground it feels pretty soulless, nothing has spontaneously emerged, and it is eerily empty. Shops are in precincts, houses are on cul de sacs, there is even a petrol station block with 4 gas stations. From above you see the stunning parliament house, bold boulevards leading to it, and a huge city centre man made lake nestles amid all of this. We admired it, but I’d challenge anyone to fall in love with it.
Lunch was at a vegan co-operative for more delicious food. In addition to wolfing down the bowl of red pepper soup, brown rice and sourdough bread, which Fred loved, we got treated to vegan banana muffins and the wonderfully named ‘bliss balls’; coconut and dates if you’re interested. Staffed and frequented by an alternative crowd largely from the university, we loved it here. We left Richard to complete some work on his PHD and headed off to another Olympic sized swimming pool. We were thankful for some exercise when dinner came and we wolfed down more delicious vegan food collectively prepared under Richard’s instructions. It was so good we went for firsts, seconds and then thirds.
Canberra has such a fabulous range of places to visit that it’s hard to narrow things down, even with 3 days in the city. Fred decided on science and technology at Questacon for the morning. For the second time in Canberra Dean got a discount for being retired, and for a modest fee we got to enjoy the terrific exhibitions and interactive spaces. A lecture theatre on site was running 2 sessions; The History of Man in Space, and Natural Disasters. We were treated to both of them, fabulously delivered by the young staff. Home schooling was working out well in Canberra. Time constraints had meant that we had not been able to visit the First Australians building in the Australian National Museum the day before, so we left Questacon to get a better understanding of the Aboriginal heritage of Australia. It was absolutely stunning. At the entrance a film of ‘The Apology’ runs on a continuous loop. On 13 February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave a speech on behalf of the current and previous Australian Parliaments for the wrongs committed against the First Australians. I wept as I watched it, moved by the simplicity of the apology and the deep and instant response of those listening. It’s a very short film and I’ve attached the link for those who have not seen it https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=the+apology+kevin+rudd&view=detail&mid=6748EAC6572217E0CE456748EAC6572217E0CE45&FORM=VIRE We moved through the exhibits silently, totally absorbed by the history and personal stories.
If we weren’t emotional enough, I was finished off by visiting the Australian War Memorial where they have a’ Last Post’ ceremony every day at 4:50 with the ‘Last Post’ at 5:00pm. We spent a week around Amiens visiting the Somme and surrounding areas four years ago. The memorial in Canberra echoes the impressive Theipval. We made our way across the gardens, past statues, plaques, and heavy artillery to the memorial building and chapel. A pool of reflection sits at the centre of a balconied courtyard, upon which are written the names of all of the fallen in all of the wars that Australia has been part of. Controversially there is no reference to the Aboriginal War, and the fallen First Australians. We found ourselves a spot at the heart of the building, up some stairs to give us a view of the ceremony. Around us buses of school children, the elderly, veterans, every day Aussies and visitors from abroad filled the space. Military representatives from 20 plus countries stood to attention as the story of an ordinary soldier was told first. Every day they share the history of one soldier who’s name is on the walls. On the day we were there it was of a 47 year old man, originally from Shropshire, who had enlisted at 44, and had been hit by a bullet in the stomach in the IWW. The simplicity of the story, the absence of heroism in his death, the human experience of his family left behind, was so impactful. After 10 minutes the ceremony was over, closing with the haunting ‘Last Post’. Emotionally drained we headed back for a rest and distraction from the failings of the past, and the frustration that our politicians have not been better students of history in their youth.
Great conversation, vegan pizza and more lovely wine restored us on our last night. We set off for Sydney better educated, seriously contemplating becoming vegan, and having had a wonderful time with a great friend. We came a little unstuck when we spotted another MacDonalds on our return journey, guiltily slipping in for a ‘dirty’ burger. We were glad we did when we had the most delightful encounter with a first Australian. Waiting near our table for his order, he started up a gentle and curious conversation. A felt hat decorated with feathers and small badge flags sat on his head. In a suit and tie, he smiled throughout his conversation with us. He shared his experiences of England which he had visited and thanked us for visiting the First Australians museum. Another beautiful memorable moment in the most incongruous of settings. I’ve never left a MacDonalds feeling spiritual before.
Our lovely kind cousins cooked for us and provided more wine, we had drunk the case in Canberra between the three of us, and Fred got his last night with the boys, cats, and wild Pokemon. A final express wash and dry meant we set off for the airport fully laundered. We were chauffeured to the metro station by Suzanne and then Phil took us to our final train change to make sure we made our flight. Their hospitality and effort was amazing as they looked after us, and made sure we got to see the best of Sydney. Their fabulous sons meant that Fred left with a heavy heart, wanting us to buy the house next door so he could see them every day. Suzanne and I felt we knew one another better than we did before we went to stay, it’s the bonus of intimacy that Facebook gives you, but by the time we left Suzanne and I were firm friends, not just family that had met once at a funeral.
Of course we couldn’t leave Australia without a bit of excitement. Jovial Bruce was not on duty at Border Control. Having failed the computerised facial recognition test, Dean was ushered to the supervisor’s desk. Fred and I joshed for a few minutes, as we waited having exited. The few minutes turned into 5 and then 10. I managed to get a view of the proceedings by craning my neck. The Supervisor did not think Dean was Dean, whether he put his glasses on or took them off. The Supervisor’s Supervisor did not think Dean was Dean either. His driver’s licence, credit cards, Fred’s birth certificate etc seemed to have no impact. There was not a smile in sight, but remarkably Dean kept his cool. Eventually, and we have no idea why, after 20 minutes and a whole pack of Border Control senior managers making him take his glasses on or off, they let him out of the country. Maybe they’d taken a liking to him and just didn’t want him to leave…..
I’d been quite sniffy about Australia before we went, not seeing the attraction; a bunch of Brits in a hot country, good at sport, that is a cultural wasteland. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Australians are a cheery, multicultural, optimistic crowd. They smile and say hello, find everything ‘awesome’, look after themselves and others. They have the humility to apologise for the past, even if it was the past of others, and the First Aboriginals have the generosity of spirit to accept. The tiny bit of the landscape we saw was beautiful and left me chomping for more. We will be back, covering the vast distances with plane journeys (apologies Richard), trying to see just a bit of this diverse place. Until we do, we will have to suffice with ‘Dreaming’ of the magical land and people that we got just a tiny glimpse of.
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx