The narrow roads through the Otway ranges were spectacular, twisting through the fern tree forest along narrow ridges barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. This is cool temperate rainforest; mosses and lichen coat every surface, rock and tree. Birds and other wildlife were hidden and even the call of parrots was muffled by the dense, sodden undergrowth. I encountered few vehicles as I wound through this strange landscape. It felt as though I was in a different country, not having seen this kind of forest before. I camped along an overgrown grassy track deep in the forest. The only sound I heard was the chatter of a little stream in the ferny valley below.
A land not his own
A little fox cub crept into the clearing,
Sharp nose twitching
Furry ears pricked
Daisy padding, grasshopping
Soon chasing butterflies
Soft tail floating
Learning to hunt and be smart
Clever but innocent
Born in a land not his own
He is not loved here
But beautiful vermin
And will be destroyed.
The Great South Road was not particularly great. I have seen much greater roads than that I can tell you! Anyway, the cliffs and rocks were a pretty golden colour and the ocean blue. It was also packed with tourists and in some places hard to get to the viewing spots.
Via Geelong to Melbourne airport.
Changing places can mean changing yourself
The long term car park at Melbourne airport is the most boring place in the world to spend the night. No toilets, so I had to catch the shuttle bus before I went to bed in order not to get caught short in the middle of the night. I suppose it helped me find the quickest route to the terminal for an early start the next morning. I was on my way to see good friends, including my ex-wife, in WA.
I never sleep well before a flight and this was no exception, especially when a sudden heatwave made the night most uncomfortable. On top of that, my house battery seemed to have stopped functioning, going from 15 down to 9 volts in half an hour. 15 volts whilst charging on the solar panel is too high, indicating that the battery is not absorbing the charge.
The airport has also got to be the ugliest in the world; Australian dysfunctional, which is saying something. There is absolutely no chance of walking around outside through the endless traffic; no footpaths. Inside there are all the usual crappy shops and crappy fast food places you see around the world. It would be hard to find a healthy meal here, I thought, as I wandered through the haze of frying oil and coffee fumes.
From my journal
Why have people become so addicted to coffee? Every other stall is coffee. All varieties of coffee; hot, cold, strong, weak, milky, with flavours added and so on... When real coffee became trendy everyone wanted to be cool, beautiful, exclusive people and in the way of all trends and fashions they have become the norm. Mr and Mrs Mediocrity. Even the coffees have downgraded to the lowest common denominator. Let them go to franchised places and drink coffee flavoured slush out of polystyrene cups; served up by gum chewing 16year olds who do not look at you when you place your order.
Even people watching was not much fun; mostly Chinese people peering at the departure screens through thick lenses, or Aussies on their way to Bali with boardies, t-shirts and thongs. Perhaps I’m being a little un-fair; it is probably due to tiredness.
The flight was tedious too, the only excitement taking off and landing when there was something to see. The back of my chair * was being kicked * by a hyperactive one year * old for most of the * trip, arms and * legs flailing, intermittent * wailing.
No entertainment centre, no free beverages, and only 3 radio channels. Virgin would have rated very badly if I had still been doing those telephone surveys in Switzerland. Bah! Grump. Grump. Grump. Grump...
As we fly across Esperance I can see once again the wide spaces of WA and have mixed emotions. It kinda feels like home but I wonder if I could come back to live here? I’ll see how I feel after this week. Taking off from Melbourne was very different. There are lots of towns dotted about and the farms are smaller; generally more signs of Humanity. But I had a strange feeling; something like the land is worn out by too many people, the same sensation I had when I first came back to southern Australia from the vast desert. Somehow in WA I don’t feel that; as if the landscape is still more pristine and untainted. As if there is a huge reservoir of Nature waiting in the wings for Armageddon.
Coming back to Albany was initially a nice experience. Jean, my ex-wife and I were showing our good friends from Switzerland the nicest spots on the coast and the weather was sunny so everything looked particularly beautiful. More beautiful than most of the places I had seen on my travels; I wondered why I had ever left. Magnificent scenery, cliffs and beaches. Clean and clear blue water, white sand and the unique biodiversity of parks and reserves along the coast. The south west region really does offer the best of everything Australia can provide.
But then the weather changed; it became very windy, not uncommon in Albany. I remembered one of the main reasons I had left. Even in mid January it is hard to find a warm spot on the beach to swim and laze about. Little grey clouds move in off the ocean when the cold sea breeze blows from the south.
The practicalities of living here would manifest themselves after a while. Finding a job would probably not be too difficult, but in an environment I already know so well and therefore not very exciting or offering a new direction to follow. It would be all too easy to slip into my old skin; not an attractive proposition. Changing location can mean changing yourself.
At the Perth check-in counter I first heard about the floods in Brisbane. The guy behind me was in a hurry to check on his home there to see if it was in danger. I was not really surprised by the news. I had heard all about the floods in central Australia and the Murray River before. La Nina was still hanging around. I confess I was not much consolation to the poor fellow.
A brush with La Nina
So here I am, back in Victoria. Still on the road. Still looking for “home” and still undecided.
I wasted no time getting out of the Melbourne long term car park. The night came early in the gloomy weather. Soon I was camped deep in the state forest at Lederberg listening to reports of heavy rain moving this way. At 9 am the rain started. This was no shower. It soon changed from light drizzle to torrential downpour. I got out of there fast, not wishing to be stuck in this remote forest. If anything happened I would have no phone signal to call for help.
Taking a road to a caravan park I had visited a week before, I passed through the Macedon Ranges not far from Melbourne. The road got narrower as the ranges closed in. Just by guesswork [as the signposts were awful as usual, I turned right and ended up on a gravel road heading up into the hills. There was no way I could continue up here in this weather, although I was glad I had seen this beautiful hidden valley with wooded slopes. The tops of the hills were shrouded in clouds and racehorses stood shining under the black cypress trees to avoid the downpour. A large horse stud with many stables was nestled amongst the trees. The place reminded me of the Ardennes in Belgium.
Trying the left junction this time I found my way onto the correct road but had not been prepared for the endless steep climb that followed. I could not see a thing as I climbed through the dense clouds and rain. Damn! These adventures just seem to happen without warning. But then, I suppose that’s what makes it an adventure. There was an inch of water on the road as I twisted my way through S bends, but the little bus coped well.
From what I could glimpse here and there, these hills were for wealthy Melburnians. Large mansions behind imposing gates and landscaped gardens were the norm and had been here since the early twentieth century, I would hazard a guess. Later, the manager of the caravan park told me it was where the rich of Melbourne came for the summer when it got too hot in the city. They were mere summerhouses. Nowadays most middle class families have at least a shack on the coast or a second home. I’m always amazed by that; I wouldn’t mind a shack as my first home!
The caravan park I had chosen was one of the few not flooded in the days that followed. I holed up and caught the drips off the ceiling but was cosy enough whilst I heard about the chaos further north. Virginia, a couchsurfing friend, had invited me to stay at her house but she e-mailed me to say that it would not be a good idea to camp on her lawn, which had turned into a swamp. Her veranda was already underwater and she had moved her car to higher ground for a quick getaway should the water rise further. In the meantime she was preparing emergency food for the flood victims who had been accommodated in local village halls. Another example of a community pulling together to overcome adversity. Bravo, these unsung heroes!
What would happen if communities no longer existed? Everyone for themselves? Isolation? A deterioration of civil behaviour and consideration for others? It is already evident in today’s world. Communities step in when authorities cannot cope. Already much of the most vital work is being done by local volunteers. Centralisation and larger authorities may well benefit financially due to economies of scale but the savings are made only within the administration of the Authority, whilst remote communities, or what is left of them, suffer the consequences. I believe that a better future lies in localisation. Who was it said; “Small is beautiful”?
I waited out the floods then made my way to Melbourne in order to catch the ferry to Tasmania.
A change is in the air
I’m on the ferry to Tasmania. It really feels like proper travel again. I remember such feelings from other passages on ships. Even ferries within Greece were like I was heading towards a different country. Not like air travel where you endure many hours of sleepless cramp and then arrive with a shock.
Ships are slow. You have time to say goodbye to the world you are leaving behind. Time to adjust, relax, reflect, dream and anticipate. There is an atmosphere that affects everyone. Passengers come on deck and watch hawsers being taken on board. The engines rumble; a hoot and the space between ship and shore widens with white foam. Little children wave even though there is no one to respond. Cameras click and blokes watch tugs and freighters play their game of push and pull between the buoys. Seagulls swoop in the hope of a churned up fishy meal.
It takes us an hour to cross Philip Bay and head out into the Tasman Strait where the first swells are felt. The journey becomes the experience. Slow travel.
The wind is up to 30 knots, not unusual in the Strait and the crossing rough. Three girls in their late teens get up from their seats and waddle like ducklings in line towards the stern of the ship. Two steps forward, one to the right, two forward, one to the left. Forward, right, forward, left. All perfectly synchronised, as though they have been practicing for hours.
A white-faced girl leans heavily against the counter in front of my seat. She looks miserable and meeting my eyes says in a weak voice; “I feel terrible; think I’m gonna throw up.”
[Not anywhere near me, you’re not.] “Try getting some fresh air. On that side,” I say, pointing to the leeward side of the ship [for her sake, not mine].
Four hours later I see her again. She asks me whether I’ve thrown up yet. “No.” She has not either and I tell her not to give in to it. “It’s a good sign you have lasted so long. Well done.” She looks relieved and better already. We are halfway and people are getting used to the motion.
The ship’s company falls into a sleepy siesta mode. Trying to stop myself from falling asleep on my book, I go outside onto the top deck. It sure is brisk up here; the fine spray stinging my face. It seems rougher than the forecast had predicted. Three metre, wind streaked swells with a mass of whitecaps on top. Every so often a wave crashes into the windward side, the ship shudders and spray comes over the bridge, clattering onto the deck like hail.
I am awake again and hungry. Found me a coffee and am eating the rest of my fruit [which the quarantine man had allowed me to take; as long as I consume it during the voyage].
Arrival at Devonport was rapid, I missed the call for disembarkation whilst I was on deck enjoying the prospect of a new adventure and chatting to a young German. His girlfriend came out and told us everyone had gone down to their vehicle. Someone said; “decks 3 and 5 are getting ready to leave”, and I suddenly realised I had not made a note of which one the bus was on. At least I did know on which side of the ship to look...hold on... did I drive in through the bow or the stern?
“Have you got any vegetables or fruit on your vehicle?” asked the quarantine officer; “plants or soil, compost or any plant material?”
“Not a thing” I replied confidently, “I got rid of all that at the other end.”
“Can I look inside your cool box please sir?”
“Sure.” I opened the lid and there, staring out at us was a large Cos lettuce. He thrust an accusing finger right into the lettuce and frowned at me. I cringed.
“Oh, yes! Forgot all about that.” I scrabbled to quickly remove the offending vegetable and also the cucumber underneath. He had his plastic Ziploc bag ready, shoved them inside and said sternly, “if this was WA, you would have been given a hefty fine, do you realise that?”
The evening of my arrival in Devonport I made my way to Port Sorell. The rolling countryside was reminiscent of England’s West Country; Devon, or Cornwall, a region I love. The evening light warmed vegetable fields and horse paddocks. In the distance higher, forested hills were deepening to purple in the haze. Sheep cropped velvety grass carpeted the bumps and creases surrounding little weatherboard houses from another time. Dry stone walls and Hawthorn hedgerows. Willow and Bramble lined brooks babble through rocky grey gulleys. [OK, I know they are weeds but they look pretty and tug at my heartstrings.]
Port Sorell is on a river mouth; sandbanks and salt marsh; old wooden boats left high and dry on the mud of a tidal creek. Rickety weathered grey wooden jetties jut out at odd angles. They don’t seem strong enough to tether a boat in a breeze, let alone support the weight of a person. A Marsh Harrier flies low and fast, startling Lapwings and ducks paddling in the mud for food. There are happy sounds of children playing games around the campsite and occasionally the clop clop clopping of another nail being hammered into a jetty needing to be shored up for the umpteenth time.
The tranquillity is deceptive though; 21st century Australia has arrived here too. Estates of macmansions and holiday homes are springing up right behind the beach. Powerboats zoom up and down the estuary with water skiers swinging behind. Now a helicopter is constantly taking off and landing with groups of kids from the youth camp. How to build a bonfire and learning to cook is no longer entertainment enough for the low attention span of the modern child. Helicopter trips around the estuary are where it’s at.
“It is becoming just like the rest of Australia” said the female half of the elderly couple wistfully. After 40 years living in this village, they still have their bit of exercise every day, rain or shine, to take in the air and gaze fondly at the vista of low mountains and golden sands. Arm in arm they turn slowly back towards their spotless and well tended Home.
On the other side of the same estuary is Narawpantu National Park. Reached by a circuitous route through more wonderful scenery, I became more and more impressed with Tasmania. The National Park is renowned for the density of its wildlife and it did not disappoint. I saw no less than four large marsupials I had never or rarely seen in the wild. Pademelon, Wombat, Bennett’s Wallaby and Forester Kangaroo. The animals totally ignored me and I was able to photograph them with ease. I guess they were used to the many tourists.
These initial impressions of Tasmania were delightful and have been supplemented many times over in the months that I have been here. I have seen vast wild rainforests, alpine landscapes on rugged mountains, placid lakes and stormy coastlines. I have seen snow in the summer and swum in icy rivers. I have kayaked on remote lakes with mirror perfect reflections of the surrounding ranges. I have sailed through scenic Hobart on a wooden gaff cutter which has been left in my care by the trust of a stranger. I have driven to many corners of this small state and lingered in mining towns and rural villages, harbours and fjords, cities without stress. Places with much culture, history and Art. I have been charmed by this island.
But, most of all I have been charmed by the people, and one in particular.
We had agreed to meet at the pub in Georgetown at the start of the Tamar Folk Festival. I felt surprisingly calm as I wandered around looking for her. Years ago, I would have been nervous meeting a single woman, not sleeping well the night before. But I had changed, especially in the last few years. There was no stress, no urgency, and no expectation. I was simply meeting someone I had got on well with before, someone to enjoy the festival with.
Dark hair, I think. Looks about 50. Glasses? I could only vaguely remember what she looked like. Our previous meeting had been more than six months before and a lot had happened to me in that time, many impressions of people and places to blur the memory.
Ah! There she is. Nell walked straight towards me and smiled. We kissed politely or shook hands, I cannot remember and it was not significant at the time. The main concert was about to start and we headed off towards music.
The next few days have now blended into a dreamlike impression of music, song, laughter, tears, emotion and romance.
Nell was in her element at the festival. She had been involved in the music scene for most of her life and knew many of the performers personally. So for me it was a wonderful experience to meet the artists and become deeply immersed in the music at a personal level. I was welcomed into their circle and even participated in a choir. All of which were very new experiences for me.
Nell and I were immediately attracted to one another. At first we were not sure whether it was just that we seemed to have a lot in common, such as our Dutch upbringing or the way we felt about nature, the environment, life’s priorities and all kinds of issues. In fact we seemed to have nothing much to disagree about. But after a short while, we realised it was more than just intellectual compatibility; we felt other connections. [Do 60 year olds still exude pheromones?]
I could tell you that we rushed to Nell’s bedroom, ripped each others’ clothes off and made mad, passionate love that first night, but that would be a lie... It was the second night.
No, not strictly true either, what we really wanted to do was hug, kiss and be close to one another after some years of sleeping on our own. It felt good, we fitted together very well.
Both Nell and I have a fair bit of experience of partnerships but have also felt the pleasures of personal freedom and have therefore decided to follow a middle path. We will not live together but will spend good times doing all kinds of fun things; travelling, kayaking, sailing, the Arts, eating, making love... Although Nell works, it is in the tourist industry and seasonal, so she has plenty of free time in the off season. As for me, well; I may get a little job, if anyone will have me, but if that does not eventuate, never mind. I will just spend my savings; while I still can.
So have I found a Home? This is probably as near as I will get. Nell has made it so; she has tipped the balance in favour of Tasmania.
Without her, I may possibly have made this island my home anyway for it has so much to offer me personally. But undoubtedly, without her, I would first have continued my journey in my rusty dusty trusty bus. Back to Victoria on the ferry and up the east coast to Queensland; just to see if elsewhere was just as nice as here.
Just to see if HOME IS REALLY WHERE YOUR HEART IS.
Testing the concept.
Just to see...