Alice Springs- final stop in the outback.

The romance of Alice Springs, which I derived from the film ‘A Town called Alice’ fell flat on its face when we finally arrived there. Of course this wasn’t the Springs of the film, we would catch that a bit later when we visited the old Telegraph Office. In fact the key elements of Alice Springs trip were the visits we experienced on day two, but I’m getting ahead of myself let’s start at the beginning.

From the Stuart Highway we eased into Alice Springs through the narrow gorge between the East and West MacDonnel range of mountains. En route we were informed that Americans form over 1 000 of the 28 000 people that reside here mainly working out of Pine Gap a joint defence facility, one of three in the world, the others being located at Quantico and Yorkshire in the UK. The other place of interest was the maximum security correction facility just on the outskirts of Alice. Although Lassiters Hotel here is worthy of mentioning since it is where Priscilla Queen of the Desert was filmed.

Our hotel was situated on the edge of town with a meandering footpath along the dry as a bone River Todd, which was dry owing to the low rainfall in the area. We were informed it had not rained since September 2019, but despite this drought it was to rain while we were there. Aborigine families congregated by the river each evening in small groups of about 10 or 12 in number. In Alice we saw many more of these indigenous people than previous stops and it was an insight to the challenges that they experience. Many, unable to cope with western diets are plagued by diabetes, kidney problems and alcoholism. It is a sad indictment of the assimilation into Australian society that this has failed so spectacularly. Not that they need to assimilate of course, but western life has impacted on their health even if other elements have not impacted on their lifestyle.

The tigress pointed out BoJangles, on the left hand side of the current road we were on and proposed that it might be worth a visit then continued to draw our attention to potential restaurants and other places of interest in the town. The town resembled an industrial estate, with flat roofed buildings some adorned by beautiful murals of Aborigine life. The idyllic pictures did not appear to reflect the reality for most of the indigenous people we encountered. Finally dropped at our hotel the evening plan was a bush tucker barbecue and pick up in less than an hour. The long drive from Uluru over we were glad to find a great welcome at our hotel.

Our second day at the Springs was considered by us to be a bit of marching time until we boarded the Ghan, we had three stops to endure before then. But we were wrong these visits were equally fascinating. The first was to the School of the Air ( the world’s largest classroom). Based on the Flying Dr’s model the idea of educating children in the outback was first started in 1951. It covers an area of 1050 square kilometres and those children who are 50 kms from a school are eligible to enrol. The first lessons were communicated by two way radio but the internet had vastly advanced the quality of teaching interaction and individual lessons. Children are supported at home by a home tutor, sometimes the parent, and will spend a week in the school three times a year collectively with all the children. In the Northern Territories this is about 101 children eligible from 4 and a half years old. Each child is furnished with around $18 000 dollars of equipment including a satellite dish, computer, printer and web cam. Aboriginal children currently make up one third of the children in school. This model provides good outcomes for children who are attaining above average against those who attend school. We bought a book to donate to the library and dedicated it from our granddaughter’s (the mermaid) school in Livingston Village.

The trip to the Telegraph Office was the romantic aspect of Alice Springs I was hoping for, small buildings retaining the original furnishings and equipment. These were free for you to wander around in and gave a real sense of the life that early settlers here had to endure in the heat. The ‘spring’ aspect of the town was in fact a soak and not a spring at all but some how Alice Soak didn’t have the same appeal. Although given the amount of alcohol we saw locals consuming perhaps the factual name was more appropriate.

We then were transported to the Royal Flying Doctor’s service which came into operation in 1917. They cover an areas of 7 million kilometres in Australia and about 800 kms in Alice Springs. The RFDS have 40 aircraft in the fleet and 23 bases across Australia with an annual budget of $304 AUD. We had a great experience in both facilities and were about to embark by coach to our final stop on Anzac Hill when it came to light that the driver had kerbed the coach and the door would not open. We had now to wait for the repair service to arrive and who knew how long that might take.

We were now into this trip by about 2 and a half weeks, we had bonded at the barbecue and amalgamate anticipation for our trip on the Ghan was evident. So when the door refused to open more than a few inches, the team spirit we had been nurturing over the past few days kicked itself into action. The Lion and the Liverpudlian leant their backs into the 10 tonne coach (our luggage included maybe nearer 12 tonnes) above the wheel arch and tried to lift it. Yep share your views, crazy alpha males; however this strength finally reached the brain cells and was diverted to pulling the door a few millimetres more. They then looked around for a skinny person able to ease their way inside and start her up and release the door. A few pairs of eyes fell on me momentarily but I knew they were being kind as they quickly dismissed that idea. Then out of no-where the horse whisperer stepped up on behalf of the team to take on this particular challenge. And it was a challenge but there did seem to be a match between her delicate frame and the space to get inside. With space to spare she lithely slipped between the door and the frame and was inside in a flash. The driver, a female with bright pink hair, watched amusedly as she tried to speak to the company on the phone and we waved at her incessantly to get the instructions as to how we might start this beast up.

The horse whisperer sat on the bouncy driver’s chair, seeking guidance from the driver, then deftly put the keys in, pressed a button and started it up, releasing the suspension that raised the bus and opened the door. A loud cheer of delight went up from the group as we finally boarded the bus and paid homage to the horse whisperer who revealed all of the confidence came from passing her HGV some years ago, you just never know what talents people have up their sleeve. As we all piled in, we kept asking if she would also drive the Ghan if it broke down.

We had a short visit to the moving tribute at Anzac Hill with memorable and informative signage that provided a summary of the war and conflict many had fought in and lost their lives. A fitting tribute looks down on the sad and desperate Alice Springs . We made one final stop before we headed to the Ghan and that was to BoJangles.

BoJangles is the local hostelry, used predominantly by the Aborigines whom the owner fiercely protects from prying cameras. But this grubby little pub was full of character and interest, from the boots on the ceiling, the coffin of Ned Kelly and the gun inset into the bar. every wall, every corner had something to catch your attention. As we prized our flip flops from the stickiness of the floor we enjoyed being part of a group in this little pub, and caused quite a stir among the locals. But it was a sad indictment on social policy in the country to see how the indigenous people are living. It will be difficult to reconcile difference and live in harmony here. We left the Springs with mixed feelings about the trip to Alice and what the reality of life for the poorest in this area was really like. Only the Ghan promised to divert us from this tragedy…….

The School of the Air Alice Springs

 

The Red Centre- the desert of Australia.

The book by Nevil Shute ‘A town like Alice ‘ was later made into a film with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch, It was my first introduction to the outback of Australia, albeit a synthetic one. In reality it is an unforgiving place; intense heat and the ever present interminable flies. There is little sign of habitation or people other than a scattering of Aborigine’s, cattle farmers, outback stations, police stations and watering holes. We had a 6 hour trip on a coach from our hotel in Yulara to Alice Springs with the promise of stopovers in places of interest on the way. Thankfully the Koala was still in charge of the drive so I knew we would be filled with information and facts along the journey.

You just cannot get your head around the size of the outback, in one of the presentations we went to they superimposed Central Europe into the outback and it swallowed Europe up. There are only two roads in and out; the Lassiter Highway from the south and the Stuart Highway from Uluru travelling North. John McDouall Stuart, I learned from the Koala was a fellow Scot born in Dysart in Fife, he came to Australia to escape a broken heart; catching a surreptitious glimpse of his girl hugging another man and unable to handle this rejection it set off a chain of events that would see him become a legend in Australian history.

Stuart was a surveyor turned explorer and the first man to reach the Northern Territories and make it back in one piece, he identified and named many of the elements he discovered in the area; the rivers and mountains in its landscape, often on behalf of his benefactors. There are markers to him almost everywhere in the area including a giant statue in Alice Springs. The Stuart Highway as it is now called is the main route north, we would rejoin it when we left Katherine and use it to get through Darwin, but for now we were driving along it toward Alice Springs.

The landscape is on repeat in the Red Centre and comprises mainly desert Oaks, spinifex (grass) and desert heath myrtle. Occasionally, but hard to see, cattle are sometimes roaming around or taking shelter from the blistering sun. Cattle farms are the main source of employment and income. Cattle stations can vary in size; we stopped at Curtin Springs Station which is a million acre cattle station. It’s position on the highway has allowed it to diversify according to the rising numbers travelling through. It manages to combine the onerous task of cattle farming here with ecotourism providing much needed watering holes, food and accommodation. The owner, now 93 is still living, his place reminiscent of his take on life and filled with humour everywhere you look; “ soup of the day” was beer, toilets marked Sheilas and Blokes told a pictorial story of Romeo and Juliet. While the showering facilities might look a bit sparse these are as close to luxury as your going to get in the outback. In the bar, a bottle of the ‘ f*****g good port’ kept the tourists amused and engaged in conversation for the short time they were there. While out in the beer garden the locals handled snakes or talked about the caged emus they keep. We had a swift beer here but not too much that would require us to need to sample the toilets.

Rounding up the cattle for feeding and watering on such a vast area of land could prove to be a bit of a challenge, so the Koala advised. The farmers operating on the Pavlov dog theory had educated the cattle to round themselves up. Watering holes were sought out by the animals and once they had entered the coral it triggered a mechanism on the gate that prevented them leaving. Some animals were shipped out to feed, there is so little here that fattens them. Farmers tended to select cattle that could adapt to their surroundings; the Belgian blue or Murray Grey cattle, for their small heads that mean easier births therefor less interventions and their ability to survive on very little water. This reflected the adaptive needs of survival in such a difficult terrain. Camels also roam freely here but despite my best efforts we only saw a few at Curtin Springs that were corralled ready for action should we want to foray into the Red Centre on camel back. Thankfully this was a short stop and we boarded the Koala’s bus with air conditioning and no flies in favour of the camel tour.

Standing alone at the entrance to Curtin Springs was a blue tree, not naturally blue but painted bright blue, it had no foliage and was an oddity amidst the greens and reds of the desert. On closer inspection the plaque along side the tree advised that this was part of a wider initiative called the Blue Project, to draw attention to mental health and wellbeing. The project aims to support people by providing them with a sign that in this area it is ‘ok not to be ok’, that people will support you. This initiative is now across Australia, although this was the only blue tree we had seen thus far, to heighten awareness of mental health. Incredible to see the family thinking of others in this way. Now some of the fun things around the site took on an entirely new meaning as they had almost all triggered a conversation with someone. Clever.

Our next stop was at the secluded Lake Amadeus, a salt lake, located in the midst of desert behind the sand dunes that occasionally line the highway. Amidst this repetitive bush terrain it was a sight for sore eyes, around 100 km in length it was named after a French Monarch at the time of it’s discovery. Bright white among the red terrain it was a spectacle we would have missed had we travelled the highway unescorted.

The expedition to the Northern Territories by Stuart, and others who were unsuccessful such was the unforgiving landscape, in the 1830’s was principally to scope the potential for development. Particularly for development of enhanced communication links between the North and South but so much more was discovered on this trip. Now 12 Microwave repeaters between Adelaide and Darwin enable better Television and communication links for the people there, but back in Stuart’s day it was essential to the development of the nation and his torturous expedition to the North facilitated much needed telegraph stations across Australia in remote areas and started new towns, such as Alice Springs Their inception in 1860 reduced the time it took to communicate with the UK to 5 days.

Our last stop before Alice, was the geographic centre of Australia, Erldunda. A cattle station, small zoo, toilets and petrol station are the only things of interest to see here. I wonder what Stuart would have made of it all, he returned to Scotland after all this hard work only to discover his sweetheart had been wishing a cousin well before he went off to war and not cheating on Stuart. I pondered the irony behind his expedition, whether the communication links we have at our fingertips today had been around in Stuart’s day, a text message or FaceBook plea to explain away this misunderstanding might have kept them together and the Red Centre would have remained undiscovered for another few years. Stuart died in London when he was 50 years old, far away from both loves of his life.

The blue tree project

Uluru- the Aborigine’s land.

One of the main benefits of an organised tour such as this, is not just the organisation and efficiency by the tigress but the knowledge and experience of the guides selected to drive us around. Our trip to Uluru was always going to be a highlight but the driver/guide for the 4 days we were in the Outback was exceptional. The Koala wore stereotypical Australian attire, I have no doubt to add authenticity to the tourist experience; bush hat, boots, shorts and khaki shirt, but it was his passion, love and knowledge for all things outback that provided the trip with real integrity.

We flew from Melbourne to Uluru in a tightly packed flight that took about 2 hours. The arrivals hall was tiny, in comparison to some airports we have been through, it had one luggage belt reflecting the number of visitors actually arriving here by plane. It is best to go to the toilet on the flight since the toilets at the airport consist of half a dozen chemical cubicles placed outside the actual terminal. I abstained but those who did go quickly turned green after the visit. As an alternative method of travel you can of course take the train to Alice Springs from Adelaide followed by a 6 hour drive to Uluru or if you fancy it take a camel. Camels were introduced to the outback in the 1860’s but having been set free when the railway was complete between Darwin and Alice Springs this short sightedness led to around 200 000 non native animals roaming freely and destroying everything in their wake.

Many tourists never really get to this part of Australia and you can understand why. The heat, the flies, the desolate landscape might not offer you the kind of tourist experience you are after. However the regal beauty and majesty of the Uluru and Kata-Tjuta mountains in the National Park are truly breathtaking worthy of worldwide appreciation. I have to admit that although Uluru was well known to me, the other, and arguably more interesting, Olga’s (aboriginal name is Kata-Tjuta) was completely new to me.

The new town of Yulara was created in 1976 to provide a corralled resort outside the National Park, primarily to counter environmental damage being caused by the unmonitored tourism near Uluru. Now under single ownership the facilities there became fully operational in 1980 and in addition to a shopping mall (more of a mini-market) post office, bank and restaurants it includes a range of accommodation from backpackers hostels to the five star Sails of the Desert. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to where we stayed. It was around this time (1980) the government handed the land back to the indigenous people after a toughly contested fight through the courts. These famous landmarks now reinstated to their original names, the government retain their support through its status as a National Park. Yulara , the new town in the desert with a population of 1.9 thousand, was our home for the next few days.

The koala collected us from the airport and took us directly to Uluru, as we circled the rock slowly he informed us of the history of its ‘discovery’ by the English and the Dutch. How the intrepid explorers claimed the land as theirs and named the rocks after Henry Ayers in 1873 and The Olga’s after Tsar Nicholas 1st’ daughter paying back their financial backers. Not only was the Koala knowledgable about the rock he told us about the desert heath myrtle carpeting the desert with amazing fire retardant qualities so valuable in halting the spread of bush fires here. About the spinifex grass that drew silicone from the earth into its blades, making it sharp and uncomfortable to sit on but invaluable to the aborigine people who thrashed it to release its resin to use as glue. Tall and withered looking desert oaks might be thin and scrawny in appearance but they survived in the dry, hot desert through a tap root drawing water deep down from what they call upside down rivers in the area.

The rock looks so different up close, pictures don’t really do it any justice, and most of it is underground. It is an inselberg, we were advised, an isolated rock hill that rises abruptly from the ground. Bit like a pimple on your face. It does change colour too, we saw that happening, a true chameleon in action especially during our sunset viewing. Although that viewing was made quite difficult by the fly nets we had to adorn to be able to spend any time whatsoever outside. Incredibly at this isolated location the tigress laid on Prosecco and nibbles with little portable seats to line up as we watched the infamous sunset. This event made all the more romantic by 10 000 flies trying to scurry up your nose, scramble into your ears and slide into your mouth. I was considerably challenged when it came to drinking my Prosecco through the fly net. I frequently forgot to lift it up only for more flies to detect the sudden moisture and surround me. The net had the effect of a cheese grater when you tried to force food through it, once more sending the flies into ecstasy and leaving me starving in the desert in the process.

Kata-Tjuta was a larger collection of different sized rocks; around 36 to be exact. Considered to be a sacred men’s area this is thought to be the reason for so little to be known about its history and the folklore that the aboriginal people associate with this area, unlike Uluru. However at least you could get out and walk through the magnificent Walpa gorge with the heads of mount Luru and Walpa stretching to the sky on either side. Along the gorge we saw camel droppings, tadpoles swimming a rock pool, grass growing and flowers blooming despite the arid conditions. The wind howled around us at one point, a warning from the spirits to tread carefully along the rough terrain. When you stopped looking down at where to place your next step the mighty rock face, smooth yet grainy, closed out the sunlight as they towered high into the skyline. Flies, despite the nets, buzzed incessantly around the orifices and we showed reducing tolerance for this pest seeking refuge in the bus at the earliest opportunity.

Our final night was spent having bush tucker at a remote barbecue where we were served best steak, baked tattles, salad and copious amounts of red wine while the band played Waltzing Matilda. Later I was part of a skiffle band arrangement of ‘I come from a land down under’ by Men at work largely uninhibited by the flies (or the red wine) who are adverse to the dark. Boomerang shows, bread making for bush bakers and bonding among the best group ever we trundled off to bed sozzled and satisfied.

Uluru-a poem

Desert heath myrtle carpets the red sand. Lone desert Oaks look so barren where they stand.

Spinifex with silicone tips seem almost out of place among the vast red desert that could be in outer space.

Uluru standing stoic amidst the desert sands, chameleon in the daylight and certainly never bland. The desolate unforgiving rock back in Aboriginal hands.

Awed by its majesty,the colours and its grace carving out the stories that give mystery to this place. Blowing gentle breezes that cool the sweltering brow, calling out like spirits voices to whom aborigines must kow tow.

Blistering heat aside, the beauty cannot hide, the rock of Uluru.

Adelaide- The wildlife experience

One of the highlights of the Very Best of Australia promised to be the trip to Kangaroo Island. It involved 2 days there with lunch on one of the visits. It was highly recommended and one of the places we were looking forward to; the bushfires soon put paid to that.

No-one could have predicted at the time of our booking that the seasonal bushfires would impact on Kangaroo Island to the extent that they did. As the Australian summer placed the thermometer into overdrive the bushfires were out of control in some areas. Global reports commented not only on the human cost but the wildlife too. One of the most heart-warming stories reported was that of the woman taking her shirt off and running toward the flames to rescue a Koala. It’s little squeals, perhaps of pain perhaps of relief at being saved, were one of my permanent memories of the devastating fires. That and a family hosing their home, hanging on for dear life to save everything they had, spraying the flames was futile but massively fuelled by hope.

So Kangaroo Island, as the world was to learn, was unable to host any visitors. Our trip was in jeapordy and if this was a key visit what would take it’s place? Distant Journeys are an experienced outfit in this regard and did all they could to appease our concerns, but they were clear from the beginning we would not be going to this island. Missing this was threatening our trip but a quick check with our insurance company soon quashed any ideas about cancelling so we awaited with interest what would happen next. And that was an additional day in Adelaide with a visit to a vineyard and an extra day in Melbourne. The wine tour was pleasing but neither seemed promising but I should have had more faith in the organisers behind our trip.

Our visit to Adelaide started with a panoramic view of the city from Mount Lofty then we were transported to Cleland Wildlife National Park. While not Kangaroo Island, this hidden gem was to delight those with animals in their heart over and above our expectations. We were handed a little bag of food pellets which promised the exciting prospect of getting up close and personal with all of the major Australian mammals, animals and marsupials. We entered the park with the complete freedom to wander aimlessly and explore these animals in their own environment.

Almost instantly we were drawn over to a collection of Kangaroos nibbling on the grass. They seemed unperturbed by our approach their ears the only signal that they had already heard the rustling of the little food bag. I was astonished to be able to walk directly up to the Kangaroo. I noticed a rather long bony leg protruding from her pouch, suggesting a joey might be in there and would come out. The mother bent down inserting her head inside as if coaxing her offspring out to see the visitors. But she was a little shy, I started up the video in anticipation. Then the little legs started to emerge in slow motion, followed by a head, its little body and long tail, she slowly edged out to see what all the fuss was about. A few moments glare in the cameras was enough for this reluctant visitor as she prepared to return to the cosy protection of her mother’s pouch. To those Australians that saw this video the size of the joey appeared unusual to still be reliant on her mother’s pouch. And I’m glad as a mother we don’t have that with our children. It was an incredible catch on camera.

The Lion extended his hand with food and the Kangaroo came forward gently nibbling the food from his palm and pausing while it was replenished. She had soft downy fur, her forelegs scrawny and her tail long, powerful and stabilising. Most of the females ventured toward us but the larger sandy coloured male scowled mistrustfully as we billed and cooed at the ladies. If it was to stand tall with it’s ears back we had to run like hell; thankfully he stayed disinterested but watchful nonetheless.

With the wonder and awe of the Kangaroo still seducing our senses we headed around the path to see the remainder of the park. The Emu’s rarely looked up and were unresponsive to bag shaking or the throwing of pellets, although others were more successful and had managed to feed them. Their feathery coats were brown and black with the appearance of being wet or waxy and they had two white marks with blue spots giving the impression of eyes at ether side of its head but which were actually located nearer the beak. We were mesmerised as they moved graciously amongst the grass.

Next the Tasmanian Devil scurried along the edge of the area it was contained within, looking nothing like its cartoon caricature this little creature had a bright flash of colour from its head to its tail. The Avery with native birds were largely unremarkable until the vibrantly coloured budgies caught our attention hopping from tree to tree and a parakeet waddled over to see what all the fuss was about. The large wombat, similar in size to the badger, with a wide square face was sleeping, laconically stretched out in the sunlight she roused to the the shake of the bag but clearly had little interest in food as she failed to move. The Dingos were of a similar disposition, sheltering from the strong sunshine against a large tree, viewing the visitors with little more than a passing interest. All of these animals had huge areas of a natural environment to thrive within. The park was silent, other than the calls of the animals periodically piercing the quite stillness of the place.

At 11am we were to make our way to the Koala sanctuary where we could get up close to the Koalas. The park had 28 rescued Koalas from Kangaroo Island but we were unlikely to see any of those. While we waited information about other animals we might see and on the Koalas helped to dampen the impatience to get the visit started. Two Koalas were meeting and greeting, one quite large and robust, clung to the tree and munched confidently on eucalyptus almost ignoring the visitors and their cameras. The handler was able to provide answers to questions while the Koala appeared totally unfazed by the whole thing. Our Koala was a little timid, reluctant to leave the arms of the handler, she was placed on the tree but almost immediately tried to reach out to the Lion before being taken back by the handler. Her furry, punk style hair over her ears were tinged with white were larger than expected, this is to compensate for poor sight. Their eyes like small beads of hazel were narrow and almond shaped. Unlike the Kangaroo her fur was dense and wiry with downy softness underneath, if you were able to get into the lower layers. Lily had had enough as she scrambled back into the handlers arms and we were left in awe at the friendliness of this little creature despite her timid character.

Our wildlife visit completed with wallabies, rock wallabies, possums, storks, pelicans, swans and even the dolphins in the Swan River in Perth was more than we could have hoped for. The regret at not visiting Kangaroo Island was forgotten as we delighted in sharing our photos, videos and experiences of the park with our fellow travellers. This was one of the highlights of the tour so far. You will realise this when you remember I was looking forward to the wine tour and have not even mentioned it.

Melbourne- another city new friends

The trip from Adelaide to Melbourne was by air and took around 1 hour, the shortest transfer yet. Moving around Australia with a relatively large number of people on the trip is made all the easier with a tigeress in charge. Every detail of the journey is explicitly planned with no margin for error such is the confidence of our tigress in her mission. And we are truly grateful. I cannot be easy manoeuvring 28 grown ups in and out of hotels, onto buses and into airports with the minimal of fuss and precision timing. Our Tigress is experienced and it shows. She has perfected the snarl of a mother herding her cubs who means business at the first baring of her teeth and they respond as they know what’s good for them. We have quickly recognised leadership when we see it and acquiesce to her demands with all the respect her position commands.

Our first stop in Melbourne, a city where the tigress now lives, was to commemorate the war dead at the Anzac shrine. An imposing building holding the respect of a nation for its fallen soldiers, particularly at Gallipoli. Many were lost that day. It is a moving place, emotion screams at you from the walls in silent passage as you move through the various exhibits, uniforms, pictures and stories. The most moving of all is within the shrine where a pyramidic structure in the roof topped off with a window allows the sunlight to stream through and move across the words at the 11th hour of the day. To accommodate the visitor needs, beyond that the rest of the time, a light is shone instead every half hour. So it was that we were assembled ready for the last post playing as the light moved across the inscription hovering over the word love.

Following this visit we moved on to see the newly erected Formula 1 track and even got the opportunity to drive around it. Not being a petrol head I didn’t get off to view the starting grid, but found the experience worthwhile all the same. It was then the intention to move us around the City had it not been for Shimon Perez we may well have achieved it. The federal police stopped us at the bridge over the Yarra next to the Rod Laver stadium for almost 20 minutes as the convoy carrying Mr Perez to its final destination had its own tour of the city. Hum drum as it was this caught even the tigress out as she had not really considered this might happen. The city tour abandoned we were despatched to our hotel to get on with the washing.

We wandered around the banks of the Yarra river the next day, having been recommended a bar floating on a pontoon on the river we climbed underneath the bridge just in time to escape the deluge of rain. Laughing at our good fortune the wind turned suddenly blowing the rain straight at us and we got soaked. Unperturbed by this “shower” we considered it safe to continue our walk along the river banks only to be caught once again. We huddled under a tree as the rain stoated (great Scottish word) off the sandy gravel, my feet turned golden not with the sun but the mud we were swilling about in. After 20 minutes we had reached the point of making a run for it, through the puddles and dodging trams and cars back to the hotel drookit (another great word) from all the rain. Somehow the weather from Scotland had sneaked here with us in our case. We experience a lot of rain in Scotland hence the great range of descriptors we have to cover our weather.

On the last night in Melbourne we stopped at the bar before heading out for a sedate evening meal, early night, limited alcohol, scratch that we never made it. Almost the last men standing we joined a few of our fellow travellers who had the same idea, in the bar. This being a Wednesday the hotel puts on bar nibbles and so it was that samosas, arancini, potato wedges and chicken pies were being shared around and this seemed to satisfy the immediate hunger. Thrown together through fate we were now a few days into the trip and names and faces were becoming familiar. Conversations were friendly and upbeat, people were breathing new life into old tales as we established links and experiences that signalled shared opinions and values secreted within the stories that were being regaled. Wine and beer fuelled the chatter which was cheerful and effusive. A new respect and early friendships were beginning to emerge as information flowed and was digested saved to the memory of a truly wonderful holiday and lovely night.

Melbourne was more about people for me, the city itself was not the main attraction of my visit. Meeting new friends and old family was the key to making this stop extremely memorable. I know we have never fought in a war but in Melbourne we have a shrine to our memories.

Melbourne, city of family.

If you’re looking for a City that buzzes, then Melbourne is for you. A population of 4.5 million, construction cranes and boring drills reflects a city that has no intention of staying static. We stayed on William Street at the Carlton Suites Gateway just on the banks of the Yarra River. The thing that many of us were anticipating most about this city visit, wasn’t the historic sites, the museums, the sporting arenas. No this visit promised us the sheer unadulterated pleasure that only the presence of washing machines in our rooms can bring to errant and sweaty travellers. Although only 10 days into our 4 week trip this was a critical requirement.

For me Melbourne was all about people; meeting up with family whom we hadn’t seen for over 50 years. Two members of my fathers family emigrated to Australia in the 1960’s; the Hastie’s and the Cruickshanks relocated to the suburbs of Victoria but close enough to retain contact with each other. Our visit to the area reflected a lot of Scottish heritage in the Victoria address book but there were also elements of Irish, Dutch and Aboriginal names on the roads and highways we travelled. Melbourne was a penal colony built by convicts, unlike the free settlers of Adelaide and Perth. The £10 fares encouraged many hard working honest people to relocate to the area. This included my family.

I was excited to be able to catch up with the Hastie’s on our first night in Melbourne. Only 3 of the original 4 who arrived in 1964 remained, but they had added 6 children and 3 grandchildren to the brood in the interim years. My Aunt, now in her 86th year had not lost one ounce of her West Lothian accent, other than her grey hair she had the same smile and was instantly recognisable when I emerged from the elevator. Both of her children, my cousins, had Australian accents but proudly claimed they still had British Passports. My eldest cousin, a tall, beautiful woman with golden brown hair and instantly recognisable eyes, I had not seen for over 56 years. She had never been back home. Married now to an Australian with 3 children and 2 grandchildren. She was a bit of an enigma to me when we were small, I was always looking up to her. My lasting memory of her was playing on the swings the week she was leaving for a better life and how I cried. Behind her beautiful blue eyes, however there dances a dark shadow, a heartbreaking loss so raw and so personal it threatened to destroy her family.

At the age of 19 her daughter Brodie took her own life, subjected to workplace bullying. This tragedy, when it happened was a mystery to us in Scotland since no-one could articulate the story without a guttural pain chocking back the words and us too polite to probe. Since that time my cousin has campaigned for Brodie’s law to make bullying a criminal offence. And she has achieved it, now running the Brodie’s Law foundation she tirelessly works to improve organisations and highlight the impact of workplace bullying. If I looked up to her as a child, I was even more impressed now with the strong, powerful woman before me.

My other cousin, her brother, bore an incredible resemblance to his dad, even as a baby I’m sure he had a moustache, I can hardly recall seeing him without it. He struck me as the one holding the family together, stepping into his father’s shoes. He held family dear in his heart and had organised this reunion, despite being awful at managing messages the importance of maintaining links was not lost on him. He clearly played a role when he lost his niece; the entire family had been impacted. And he was also out to see the newest Hastie currently residing in Brisbane when she arrived to cement the family ties so necessary when you first move here.

The Cruickshanks, dad’s sister and her family moved here from East Lothian in the 1960’s too. My cousin, his wife and their daughter met up with us in the Yarra Valley. My cousin and one of his son’s had visited Scotland recently but it was still great to meet his wife and daughter. Still resident in the same place they arrived to all those years ago they took us out to the Dandenong’s to provide us with an ariel view of Melbourne’s skyline. However the poor weather put paid to that as the mountain was swathed in mist and rain. We needed umbrellas for our visit and for a bit it felt just like being at home. Once the mist cleared however, we had an amazing panorama of the central business district’s high rise blocks in Melbourne.

The Sky Centre also boasts an English garden and play area for kids with a restaurant and banners celebrating the location as a wedding venue. Large totemic sculptures by the famous artist William Ricketts stand proudly around the gardens and are truly stunning examples of what you can do with a chainsaw. On our drive out to the Sky Centre the depth and sheer density of the woodland was a stark reminder about the threat my family live with at the time of fires. My cousin pointed out homes within the forest with debris on the roofs that made them vulnerable to fire. He explained that you need to put a tennis ball in the gutter to block the down pipe and fill the gutter with water to stop fire spreading.

We made up for the delay in commencing our sight seeing caused by the weather by sharing family stories, of our grandparents, aunties and uncles and cousins now living elsewhere in Australia; Newcastle, Airlie beach and Rockhampton. This cousin played Australian rules football and was good at it, we had newspaper cuttings to prove it, sent by a proud mother to my father over 50 years before. I had intended to bring them with me on this visit but forgot them. As his wife and daughter are currently logging the club’s history they were delighted we had kept these and I have promised to send them on. My second cousin I had already met through Facebook so it was wonderful to meet her in the flesh, say what you like about this form of social media but the connectivity to family across the globe is a truly wonderful thing. I knew what her son looked like, how he was doing in school, the family time they spent together. We bonded over a short ride to a local village and she filled me in on the family and how they were all doing. Proud of her roots she had wonderful stories about her grandmother (my aunt) and the close bond they shared, we drove past their old home in Coldstream and I could imagine them living there. We took a stroll to Olinda where the shops and restaurants are individual, quirky but friendly. The Lion, overhearing a Scottish Accent stopped to speak to the gentlemen only to discover that he was from Edinburgh and his brother lived in our town!

Melbourne gave me a great feeling of belonging, not so much with the city. It did however give me family time, so precious on this trip and it’s also the place where I made new friends……………

Adelaide, Queen of King William.

After Perth our next stop was Adelaide, the city of churches. Called after King William’s wife, Queen Adelaide, We learned it was noted for its religious tolerance at a time where tolerance was hardly invented. Adelaide had welcomed the Lutheran followers from Germany who were escaping religious persecution in the 1870’s. At a time when benevolence wasn’t high on the agenda in many places, Australian’s in Adelaide were welcoming everyone to join them and live harmoniously. We didn’t get to church in Adelaide and if it is a city with many churches we did not see too many of them. Having said that the liberal feeling here was evident, the welcome and warmth of this quirky city apparent on our three days living here.

Adelaide is a lot different from Perth it is not dominated by Glass and Steel columns and Corporate buildings. It does have a more colonial feel and is the capital of Southern Australia, becoming so when the country was initially divided into South and North. The city itself is contained within 1 square mile, surrounded by trees that are quite distinctive if viewed from the local panoramic viewing station for the city; Mount Lofty. Of course there are suburbs beyond the city boundary that Adelaide incorporates but the city itself is distinctive and contained within that one square mile. The general surveyor in the early 19th century, William Light, was responsible for the development of Adelaide and it was his vision that was responsible for the city layout as it is now. He is buried beneath his theodolite in the central area of the city reflecting his influence and standing. Well William, thank you I thought you did a pretty amazing job.

As with other major cities, there is a Chinatown here, albeit a bit small in size, but providing the city with the must do touristy bit (although I must admit we didn’t do it). Most of the restaurants are on Gouger Street where you can wander among the aromas of fusion spices and Italian garlic, enticed in by flickering candles, white linen silver cutlery and the forlorn empty wine glass, all the while containing the grumbling of a very hungry stomach as you try to agree on where to eat that evening. A vibrant market where fruit, vegetables, wine, cheese and cakes were aplenty, was located on Victoria Square. This is a spot where you can buy most things including fly nets, a must for the outback. They are cheaper here than they were in Perth where we paid almost $11 Australian.

The excellent thing about a lot of cities in Australia is that the trams in the city are free and Adelaide is no different. This is a huge bonus in searing temperatures but the Lion does like to walk so it was highly unlikely that we would even use the tram on any of the trip. Never the less you can take the tram all the way to Glenelg beach or if you prefer you could cycle there, its a short journey outside the city. The free trams are plentiful and easy to identify. There are also lots of places where you might board and disembark as you navigate this tight little city.

Glenelg beach on the city limits, was a vibrant seaside town, with a funfair, big wheel and lots of children. Along the esplanade there was a flume swimming pool and arcade accommodating the number of children visiting so they were at least contained. Volleyball nets lined the beach near the entrance with several young men playing giving the tourist without purpose something to focus on. We took off our shoes and sat on the sand watching over 30 kids of all ages learning to surf. One of the team, obviously with some kind of responsibility, had ‘Age Group Manager’ emblazoned on his back suggesting this was an organised tournament perhaps. Kids as small as 3 were participating. I couldn’t really see this working on Portobello Beach, Edinburgh- the temperature would be an inhibitor for a start. One of our fellow travellers, braved the waves and went in for a swim. We looked on enviously as the warm sea swept its waves over the golden sand and we wished we had brought our swimmies. Actually I wished, the Lion would not contemplate any activity that might involve getting wet. He didn’t even paddle.

After all this we finally checked into our hotel, Peppers, located on Waymouth Street and this, to date had the most comfortable of all the beds. I’m slightly behind in my account of all things Australia so have slept in two other hotels since. Adelaide and can say with some confidence that the Peppers bed was by far the most comfortable to date. We have been living out of suitcases so the wardrobe was defunct for the trip and although the bed was comfy, space was limited with all the bags open and spewing outfits onto the floor as we tried to identify suitable attire for the regular evening stroll.

Adelaide also had a festival fringe going on. Now in its 60th year this was identical in spirit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in fact many of the acts were advertising the fact that they had been there. Some of the street acts, and notably a Swede, performing juggling and acrobatics, I recall from the High Street in Edinburgh. He was just as pleasing to the crowd here as he was there. The Fringe is free to enter and was teeming with families, friends and participants in full costume wandering aimlessly or with purpose among the lively crowds. The sun was streaming through the leafy glades overarching the grounds as we took in the various street food and free performances.

We watched as young people received a trapeze lesson. I contemplated this for a nano second, that was until I saw that they had to pull their legs up, hang them over the bar and then drop their body and dangle their arms where the more experienced guy would catch them as they swung some 30 feet above ground. The antics of those willing to try it out kept us mesmerised for ages and my initial enthusiasm for trying this out waned as a flurry of participants missed the waiting hands and fell 30 feet into the safety net. Food and drink was on offer everywhere and there were shows for adults and children alike. It was good humoured and fun giving us a warm fuzzy holiday feeling. We left there wandering aimlessly from side street to side street like commandos back to our hotel, dodging buggies and couples unwilling to split the pole. Something to note is that shops don’t open on Sunday, and many restaurants were also closed. So it was good to find some places were open because of the festival.

We only had two full days in Adelaide, but it was a city I felt at home in and welcome. Not as big and bright as Perth, but a warm welcome awaited us and it was certainly a highlight of the tour. But then there were so many of these as we would find as we wandered around Australia.