Sydney-City of dizzy heights.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge is synonymous with Australia and New Year. A symbol of some stature, it is a charismatic icon in Australia and of course there were so many here we had been fortunate to see; the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru among them. Sydney was the last tourist destination of our Very Best of Australia trip and one Distant Journeys recognised in their planning. Our Hotel for this part of the visit affording a stunning panoramic view of the harbour and Bridge from every single room.

In 1932 the Bridge was completed, the vision of John Bradfield, Chief Engineer with the Department of Public Works. There is little doubt Bradfield was a genius, completing first a Bachelor Degree and later a first class Masters Degree, he achieved the University Medal on both sittings. He first conceived of the idea some 17 years earlier proposing 3 significant projects for the City; the North and South shores might be linked by a bridge, electrifying the railways and improving the underground service. WW 1 put these grand but visionary schemes on hold. His thesis on the Sydney Harbour Bridge earned him a Doctorate of Science in 1924 and so it was the proposal became a reality.

The Bridge was completed at a time when there were very few cars on the road but his vision of a 6 vehicular lane, 2 tram lanes, 2 railway lines and pedestrian and cycle paths still remains sufficient to deal with the 56 million vehicles a year that cross it. For whatever reason the tram lanes did not materialise but the space was assigned to the vehicular lanes providing 4 lanes in either direction when crossing the Bridge. A toll still exists despite the Bridge being paid off in 1988, but upkeep costs are high given this is a steel structure and maintenance is an ongoing matter.

The Bridge is the sixth longest Arch Bridge in the world with a span of 504m. Constructed in steel manufactured in Middlesborough, England by Dorman Long, who leveraged some of the Tyne Bridge design into their contract. During hot weather the Bridge expands about 18 centimetres but this was appreciated in the design and hinges afford the expansion with little interference in the function it performs for the traffic that traverse it daily. At its pinnacle the Bridge is 134m above water level. And we were going to experience this directly during our trip to Sydney with the Bridge climb.

Many years ago the Lion’s youngest sister visited Australia and was proposed to under Bridge. For our visit, this wasn’t an option so we were planning to climb this famous icon instead, and paid nearly $650 dollars AUD to do so. It is not cheap but if you can save the money, or earn a bit extra as you travel, it is a very worthwhile experience if heights do not scare the shit out of you. 6 of our trip colleagues were taking part in the climb with us making the trip even more significant since we were doing it with friends. The Horse Whisperer and Hyena, having missed out on the Scuba Dive, signed up, the Swan and the Peacock from the south coast of England, the Rabbit and Sea Lion from Barnsley, all joined us adding a celebratory and camaraderie feeling to the event.

You need around 3 and a half hours for this trip, we were booked onto the 4pm climb and didn’t actually get anywhere near the Bridge until 5pm. Our first task was to complete a health and fitness questionnaire, sitting in a circular room we completed the forms in a silent, industrious little circle scribbling away and hoping we made it through the first hurdle without too many drop outs. There were another 4 younger people on our climb and they must have wondered how they ended up with the Saga Tourers on this particular climb or whether some of us would even make it. Ha! not so not this group of oldies, we passed the first test with flying colours. Ben led us collectively into our second circle of the day, standing this time, we were asked to say where we were from and why we were climbing the Bridge. Our youngsters were from Peru, Denmark and England but whether we were young or old, every male in the group admitted they were only doing it because the women in their lives wanted to do it. How interesting that the women, universally, were the drivers for this particular climb. Having introduced ourselves to the team, and passed the second test, we were now handed our suits, the first part of the equipment we needed for the climb.

The suit itself has gone through several iterations before reaching its current design, a grey onesie with blue flashes on the arms and legs that zips up the back. You are assigned a locker and asked to leave everything that might fall from your person in the locker before you begin your ascent. Such is the importance of this request you will also undergo a metal detector frisk once you have gotten the suit on. There can be no chance of causing a major incident from a falling phone or watch once up that high. The suit equalises everyone, now all the same, aside from age, the first demonstrable sign of becoming a team has been delivered. Once suitably attired we moved into a much wider room which was kitted out with individual stations with belts and braces, a radio room and two sets of stairs linked by a platform. Our leader now emerged taking over from the delectable Ben, clearly on a higher pay grade and not to be troubled by menial but important tasks, such as allocating the right size suit to the assembled party.

G, as our guide liked to be called, was an experienced operator. He provided you with a confidence from the outset and took time to recall every single one of our names as he talked us through our paces. Our first task was to be shown to an individual station, direct leadership required here, as we were tasked to stand with our hands on the bars and await further instruction. Once everyone was in place we were instructed to step into the braces and secure the belted clips. Collectively we put our legs into the braces, silently following the instructions that were designed to eliminate confusion as each of us got into the gear. Having checked everyone’s clips were properly in place we were now directed to the front of the steps and platforms where we would now learn techniques on how to climb the steep steps of the Bridge in a practice run. G demonstrated how a cord with an open ended clip could attach us safely during the climb to the fixed structures of the Bridge. It slid on at the start of the Climb gliding along a continuous linear steel rail that sat just below the handrail. There were intermittent break points in this rail, but they could only be opened with a key by Guides to allow them to navigate up and down the group as we progressed. The clip afforded you a continuous link to safety throughout the Climb.

Once the entire group had learned to navigate the steep steps up and down, recognising the importance of keeping the clip on the right side of the body as you turned to descend backwards and not getting into a fankle. We watched and listened attentively, such was the importance of the information we needed to keep safe on the Climb. At this point a group returning from their Climb entered the room, buzzing with excitement. One of the youngsters on the group wished we could get started, almost 40 minutes of preparation having taken place so far. Once we had all mastered the trial climb, we were moved out to the comms room. We lined up facing each other as a radio was clipped to our suit braces with a set of headphones linking us with the instructor as we navigated the Bridge. One or two had to change headsets as a full and comprehensive check whether we could hear the guide took place. Once all were connected, and spectacles and hats were attached by strings to loops on the braces, we had a final brief from G before we headed off along the grey painted corridors toward a door that would lead us onto the Bridge.

We waited anticipating what lay ahead in a holding bay, the heat building in the suits, I was glad to have shorts and tee-shirt only underneath. We were offered a hat, but opted to leave this for collection once we had completed the Climb. After all I couldn’t have the hair messed for the photographs could I? Once outside we were immediately clipped to the rail, walking along the narrow mesh walkways giving you a waffle eye view of the ground below. Looking down is essential just to see the progress you are making in height terms, looking out just as important as the panoramic views alter as you ascend, and looking up just gives you time to pray to God you don’t fall. Once clipped we quickly began moving along the grid at pace, the guide constantly checking we were maintaining it. It was clear the Climb was not considered by Bradfield during the design, most of the steps and the rail were added by the climbing company, but the walkways with low pipes and occasional platforms leading to electric stations, reminded you these conditions were what workers had to endure every day just to ensure the safety and efficiency of the bridge.

Our first photograph enabled the other iconic site of Sydney to take centre stage, the Sydney Opera House was slid into the background. Just before we stopped for our picture two pipes either side of your head sprayed water in a mist to cool you down, a thoughtful addition this beautiful Autumn day. The sky was without cloud, the temperature not too hot, and the views spectacular to the east, west, north and south of the City. We had time to peruse these at leisure as we were each allowed two poses for the first picture stop. Once taken G led us up toward the summit, the pace continued as we made the Climb trying to remember to look down, up and out as we also tried to keep our balance on the slim but adequate steps. As we reached the pinnacle our panoramic view now included new bays, previously concealed behind hills as our ascent took us higher. We were directed by G to count how many cars passed between Red Cars on the Bridge below. Suitably tasked we all watched the cars, now the height of rush hour, criss cross the 4 lanes assigned from the South to North side with some purpose. It was noisy, bikes, buses, trucks and cars whizzing along as we tried to count past the best target of 30 before the occasional red car brought us back to zero and we started to count again. This delay allowed each pair to make a short video as we stood on top of the Bridge. The Lion was not a fan of this so we opted for pictures only and once we were all through the photo station at the summit it was time for the descent.

The descent was aided by individual guides waiting at the steep steps to ensure you managed the turn without a fankle and to let the individual before you clear the stairs before you began. These guides engaged you in small talk taking your mind off the task and cleverly relaxing you into this trickier aspect of the Climb. We arrived back in the holding Bay, exhilarated. I’m sure if you have read any theories of wellbeing, I would place this experience as Maslow described it; a “Peak Experience” one that brought you deep satisfaction in your wellbeing, one you were likely never to forget. The final team talk, led by G, afforded us a congratulatory talk keeping you on a high sufficiently long enough to complete the questionnaire for favourable feedback. Our final task was to collect our photographs and we were advised to buy them in a group of 4, which allowed a cheaper price to be achieved. Around $32 dollars allowed us to download all the photographs and videos (if you did one) to our phones. These we could share instantly with our families, waiting anxiously for word that we had completed safely the Climb of a lifetime. We did it…… go us❤️

 

View of Sydney Harbour Bridge from the North Shore.
Our Peak Experience.

Tjapukai-An Aboriginal centre

You cannot really blog about Australia and not mention the indigenous people. I have, on one or two occasions. mentioned them on our travels to Alice Springs and Darwin not always in detail because we were advised, quite strongly, these tribes did not want to interact nor be photographed and to respect their privacy. This made it difficult to speak to them and find out anything. The closest I came to a conversation was with an Aboriginal woman who was painting at the Art Centre in the Outback, she told me her painting depicted women gathering leaves to make medicine. She spoke quietly as she worked and nodded only in response to my questions keeping eye contact to a minimum.

The indigenous people were thought to have come here from Sri Lanka many thousands of years ago, when it would have been easier to transverse the vast lands of our planet long before the seas were imploded by the melting glaciers. Their history is well documented in Australia and makes for shameful reading; when Cook arrived here in 1770 he declared the island uninhabited, ignoring the indigenous people, their land rights and more importantly what they knew out this environment. Early settlers did not appreciate the ways of the Aborigine people and there were many battles, even massacres with the loss of entire families, foreign diseases imported unwittingly by the visitors devastated the indigenous people’s numbers in the early days. Christian groups in the early 1800’s with every good intention tried to protect them by locking them up but this invariably led to them being incarcerated or held against their will unable to move freely for fear they would be harmed. Today there is sill a high proportion of indigenous people locked within the criminal justice system as a result of the historic inequalities and pathways they have been forced down.

In Alice Springs, at the telegraph station, we learned about the 1970’s children born of aboriginal women and white men who were removed to children’s homes often by force, separated from their mothers. This tragic set of affairs was to be referred to as the ‘Lost Generation’ and appalling stories are still emerging today from that period. Today Australia is trying to make amends for the deeds of the past, we read that Adelaide was the first City to fly the Aboriginal flag alongside the Australian Flag but it was evident to the tourists eye, this symbolic gesture has a long way to go before balance is achieved. The lands that have been handed back to the Aboriginal race were as a result of lengthy law suits and not through any altruistic attempt to right a wrong done. It will be a complex journey and it is clear it varies from state to state and territory.

After the Outback experience and the Darwin encounter with the Aborigine peoples, the indigenous people of Cairns, as we were to discover on our visit to the Tjapukai centre, provided an entirely different perspective. The map of Australia greets you but it is an Aboriginal Map constructed in the 1980’s to better inform people, a task the indigenous people could not have completed alone since the Aborigine people themselves would have little understanding of the size and scale of the area before the early explorers arrived. There are around 500 tribes and 300 dialects. Within Queensland alone there are 6 dialects spoken. tribes may know neighbouring tribes but rarely further than that and often marry between neighbouring tribes. Dreamtime legends and stories were passed through the generations from men on long hunting expeditions. The Djabugandji and Tjapukai tribes, known as the Djabugay people of the Kuranda area of Cairns rainforest, reflect the nuance and difference between tribes, they have different songs, traditions, dances and music from other tribes. In Australia, of those that completed a census, only 3.3% of the population, around 649,100 people identified as Aborigine.

Dreamtime is a term identified by scholars and now used universally to describe the cultural worldview and beliefs of the Aboriginal people. In Tjapukai the Dreamtime story of creation is based on their belief that following creation there were two seasons; Wet and Dry. Animals, Fish, mammals, plants and people are either wet or dry. If the father is traditionally of the Wet side (fishing) the son or daughter must marry into the Dry side, to create harmony. They believe two brothers from the wet and dry sides fought over superiority, the dry side was murdered by the wet, returning as a crocodile eating the wet side brother as he fished, on his death he became a mountain on the dry side. The simplicity of their view does have a familiar ring to it and makes sense, you can also relate it to a religious link with the creation and the story of Cain and Able in the Old Testament.

Our guide called herself Ruby however her aboriginal name, given by her grandparents, was Rainbow (Guti Guti). In aborigine families the grandparents name the children since they have more knowledge of the culture and systems of the tribe. She was a beautiful girl, black wavy hair pulled off the brow to reveal an open and warm face,with a wide smile revealing well cared for teeth (not like others we saw), tribal clothing covering her petite frame accompanied by delicate patterns of white and ochre body paint on her shins and arms. Rainbow was very engaging and willing to share stories and information about her people with anyone interested to hear them.

In addition to the history we also had a go at throwing a boomerang and spear. After our initial introductions we went to the grassed area for our Boomerang lesson. Only males use boomerangs or spears, women foraged for medicines while men hunted for food. The boomerangs shaped different for left and right hands, were intended to give the appearance of a flock of birds, it was not unusual for 10 boomerangs to be released at once. The Lion had a good technique and managed to return it twice when it was his turn. I on the other hand would have been more of a snake than a bird since my throw stayed close to the grass, 5 feet in front to be exact, suppose I might have been better at foraging.

Next up was the spear throwing; the spears were bamboo stalks with holes at either end, a wooden peg with a hook carved into the tip like a crochet needle, slid into the bamboo hole pinched close to the speak creating a spring to launch it toward the target. This ingenious weapon took a bit of practice but I was better at this than the boomerang, getting it at least near the running Kangaroo target. One thing for sure this little venture brought out the competitiveness amongst the alpha males in the group. With an invitation for anyone who wanted another go 6 of our team, all men, fought for pole position to do so. It was clear they wanted to demonstrate their innate hunter gatherer to their women but it was clear all of us women would be starving if that was the case.

Our next station was to observe tribal dancing, and the centrepiece activity, the Digeriedoo. Carved from red or white gum trees this is the oldest wooden instrument in Australia. If termites have already infested the tree there is a good chance it will be hollow and most of the work to hollow it out will have been done by the little pests. The cut and length of the instrument determine the pitch, much lower if longer etc and that can also be altered if it is soaked in water for a few hours . They use beeswax to soften the mouthpiece and fill any holes in the trunk. To create a sound (it’s not like playing a trumpet) the lips softly vibrate, like blowing a raspberry but constantly and air is taken in through the nose at the same time. A bit like the scuba diving, a tricky combination, we were invited to try to do this as he made it look so easy but we failed. It’s a practiced art to breath and raspberry at the same time.

The dancing and clothing worn has symbolic meaning for everything, the paintings on the body represent animals, ladies wear grass skirts and men, animal skins. The men also have animal tails or grass rolled with hair dangling from their waist like tails to decorate the outfit. Paint is naturally derived producing ochre, yellow and red, white or charcoal from the ashes. The dance they performed described the Cassowary, native to the rainforest and the symbol of the Djabugay people, its forage and encounters with other animals. This bird also appears in the paintings; paintings here differ from the Outback Aboriginals who paint in dots mainly, whereas here animals and people were evident. we buzzed with excitement at the chance to speak with the Aborigine people here, a very enjoyable presentation, informing us a little of the insight to the rainforest people of Kuranda.

And with that we ventured into the rainforest and to its lonely village of Kuranda by Skyrail, a tale I will provide in the next blog. For now lets enjoy the Djabugay people and their stories.

Great Barrier Reef- Scuba Diving for beginners

Our boat moored alongside a giant pontoon, almost as tall as the boat but much wider. This little city on the water was where we would begin our underwater exploration of the reef . Safety of course is premium so we spent 30 minutes on board discussing the skills necessary for the dive. It was my first ever, I have never snorkelled or been very good at diving at all so this was completely out of my comfort zone. On board the safety drill was provided with a real tank, jacket and mouthpiece. We had to observe not try it out here. It’s amazing what fear does to the brain as I watched every detail and forced it into my memory lest I forget when it got down to it. There were three of us doing the introductory dive, a young man in his 20’s, the Hyena in his 70’s and me. Me and the Hyena were already pals, this was going to cement that friendship and acting as a team was helping to conceal my fear, he was a good pal.

Once we berthed it was getting so real. First port of call was to get fitted out for a wet suit. There were rows upon rows of these in a variety of sizes all lined up like deflated penguins waiting to be handed out and filled up. The suit is necessary since it was stinging season for the jelly fish, I suspect this was a bit of a fib, since none of the other instructors or staff wore them, that is other than the Marine Biologist. Now he was a handsome young man, slim, bearded with just the right amount of fluff but he appeared with what I might describe as s designer wet suit. Camouflage, grey in colour it had a little flap across the front of his hips should he need to visit the toilet and slipping out of the skin tight outfit was likely to take time. This little flap drew your eye automatically to it because it was so peculiar. Trying not to seem impertinent I tried to look away , feeling less than ravishing in my penguin suit,without a toilet flap. It did have gloves though so none of my skin was left too visible. All wrapped up I then ventured to the rear of the pontoon where the scuba diving equipment was stored. Stacked neatly against the seating area with life jackets open and ready to wear. A range of tubes, I’d been instructed on using on the way here were flapping around waiting for the action to get underway. I eyed this arrangement cautiously because I’d already forgotten what they were all for. Soon I would be wearing it. I frantically tried to recall the three skills needed on this dive but no matter how I tried my brain froze with fear.

The tutor from the boat seemed uninterested in my anxiety and advised me to try snorkelling first just to get the hang of having my face in the water. I think secretly he thought I’d never do it. He did suggest I could do a helmet dive, but this just made me more determined. With my flippers in hand, mask and snorkel I made my way down to a stainless steel shelf with seating around the edge slightly submerged in the water. A small guy with ‘Snorkel Supervisor’ on his tee shirt eyed me with interest. I told him I was planning to dive but had never snorkelled before, to which he responded that diving was easier than snorkelling. Great news but I needed to feel that first. I sat on the bench and attached the flippers, feeling like Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate, I fixed the mask in place and ventured tentatively into the water. Failing to grasp the basics I inhaled a considerable amount of water through my nose as the mask filled with the sea water when I first put my face down. Gasping and spluttering I made my way back to the safety of the steel landing area. I tried again, but couldn’t manage to fix my mouth securely around the mouthpiece and water once again flooded in. Back to the den before the kindly supervisor suggested I sit on the edge and just face plank while trying to master the breathing. This seemed to work. Slowly but surely I managed to breath through my mouth and put my nose out of commission. With this renewed confidence I pushed off the edge and floated face down looking for the first time at the GBR. I smiled with delight at what I was seeing only to realise this lets water in and once again I was back up fighting for breath. The sight of the fish and coral were too exciting, inviting me to stay and have another go and before long I had the hang of it.

Parrotfish, butterfly fish, tiny plankton swam around me. The colours differ in reality, they were more bland than the enhanced photographs because your mask is probably not the best quality visor. The coral was high at some points, but delved deeper in others, small and round or long and bony the fish darted in and out feasting apparently unconcerned by my presence. Or the other 40 odd people in the water. After half an hour I felt quite pleased with myself and got out ready to face the dive. I found the Hyena and we approached the dive bay. I was feeling more confident now I had mastered the snorkelling. A heavy belt with lead weights was attached to our waist. The life jacket as next with its tendrils of tubes and the all important tank was then attached and secured to our torso. We were asked to stand up but I could not move for the weight was so heavy. With assistance I got to my feet. And we descended into the abyss.

The Lion was frantically photographing me for posterity purposes. I waddled down the stairs and we ran through the skills again. The removal of the mouthpiece to blow bubbles frightened the hell out of me. I was relieved to learn however that this was not expected during the dive but a necessary precaution just in case. I had to master blowing my nose to clear the mask, snot and water splashing around my mask as I tried to follow the instructions given. Suddenly the Hyena’s weight belt fell off and as the instructor tried to fix it I was asked to submerge and practice the breathing with the air tank on. Kneeling down on the ledge, holding on to the barrier for dear life I breathed slowly in and out unaware that the Hyena was having more trouble with the mask now.

I stayed put focusing on slowly breathing in and out when the Instructor appeared and scribbled on a white board that the Hyena was not coming. Giving me the OK signal that we would go alone we left the safety of the ledge and took hold of a rope. Lowering myself down I glued my eyes to the man who held my life in his hands. My ears felt the pressure immediately and I had to pinch my nose and blow to clear them. Mastering this underwater is a bit different than on the aeroplane and water started to feed into the mask. I felt slight panic but managed to master the technique quicker when the pressure was on. Then without warning the instructor tugged my hands off the rope and we were diving, or swimming or whatever you call it. I was doing it. I was actually doing this thing I never thought I would ever do in my entire life. Weightless I felt nothing of the heavy belt of tank. I just swan and looked in awe at very single thing down there. he jerked my attention upward and there was a sea turtle swimming 2 feet in front of me. We followed it for a bit as it looked for food, faster in the water than out, it set a bit of a pace for this beginner but I was determined not to let it out of my sight. A large blue Maori Wrasse swam past, much larger fish were on the sea floor and I fleeting wondered if they were sharks. I was smiling again forgetting the seal and the rush of water into my mouth set me into a panic. The instructor took me to the surface where I apologised and steadied myself. But I couldn’t wait to get back down. We swim freely around the coral taking the sights in only in my memory since I didn’t have a camera to take underwater.

After 45 minutes we headed back to the sea pontoon, I was exhilarated jumping for joy once the weights were off and hugged the instructor for giving me that opportunity and one on one instruction. What an experience. My first thing though was to fetch a cup of tea, the taste of salt water in my mouth was too much and I needed a refreshment. I saw the Lion from the sun deck looking out to sea, no doubt frantically trying to see where I was. I left him wondering as I savoured my experience for a few minutes more all to myself before sharing it with anyone else. I dived at the GBR. Go me!!

Nashville and the American Superhero. Chapter 10 Book of the Lion.

So how does a West Lothian lad come to be in Nashville Tennessee? Irrespective of the story we were so glad that he was there. Our sister-in-law’s big brother had many years earlier gone to St Andrew’s University and met a girl from the other side of the world. I don’t know much about their love story, but I do know that it was about love and he followed her there, they married and had three beautiful children. Had we never landed in the hospital in Atlanta, we might never have met them. And that would have been sad. Instead it was this American Superhero who offered us a warm hand of friendship that was made all the more meaningful because it was from family, something we so badly needed at this time of crisis, even when your family links are as tenuous as this.

It’s not even that we were in as much need as we had been when the crisis was at its height; when we were alone and isolated in Atlanta, or vulnerable on the Greyhound bus. It was because we were miles away from home, that the Lion was not out of the woods yet and there was an inherent need for tactile family connections. We were with a crowd of holiday hungry tourists, hell bent on fun and frolics that our unfortunate turn of events had disabled us from being able to take part. We had talked about and longed for a trip to Nashville, because we love our country music, finally we had arrived in our most wished for location and all we really wanted was a little bit of home. Isn’t life funny.

We checked in to downtown Nashville to our hotel with the other guests, a quick resume of what was important and what our trip entailed with the tour guide and we were able to head off to explore on our own.

Nashville is synonymous with country music every street, every hostelry is linked to its musical history, The Ryman Auditorium was the original Grand Ole Opry which offered us the imagined experience of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton all standing on that centre stage gazing out on the church like pews to audiences hungry for something different. The gospel songs that so underpinned their religious life were at the heart of this music which, with that all important influence, not only sated but justified their satanic lust for entertainment. Me and the Lion sat on the pews staring at the stage, the two of us alone with our memories, sitting in silence but filled with loud imagined performances of those famous names that had filled our early lives. Memories of the Lion’s Da in the kitchen mending and making to ‘Cold Cold Heart’, or my Mum and Dad’s parties and their radiogram loaded with well thumbed vinyl albums blasted out at parties, enticing a sing-a-long to ‘ You’re my Best Friend’ by Don Williams or DIVORCE by Tammy Wynette.

The Lion told me when he was little and living in Glasgow, family parties were common and since they were the only ones with a radiogram it was hoisted precariously down the close, balanced evenly on the babies pram and guided, wobbling across Glasgow to bring Country Greats to the rest of the family and be shared by those not able to afford a music player. But country music had changed and we now had our own favourites among the legends and we headed to Legends and the Stage to hear new country from Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Terri Clarke and Toby Keith. We were in music heaven and this was also complete with the four hours we spent in the Country Music Hall of Fame. A veritable trip down memory lane peppered with auditory treats when we opened a gold disc that stirred our hearts and minds to days gone by. We loved it, it was our dream venue what was not to like? In fact we loved it so much we have now been to Nashville five times and had a real life country star living in our home ( a blog for another day).

On day one of our two day stay in Nashville we were contacted by our American Superhero at the hotel. A message left at the desk suggested he would pick us up that evening to meet his family for dinner. The Lion was still struggling with intermittent pain, but like me equally excited to be linked with family to home. We waited in our lobby for someone we had never met before, not knowing what to expect, or what they might look like. About 6 o’clock we ventured outside to wait when a blue corvette pulled up alongside our hotel, we were seated near the door taking in the evening sunshine and eyed this beautiful car with envy. A lone man slid out of the low slung seat with all the style of a man confident with his life and location. He walked toward the hotel. Whether it was intuition or just simply the timing I was drawn to him and called out his name. He stopped, turning toward us with a smile exactly the same as his sisters and I knew he was our man. The Lion eased himself up from the chair as we ventured toward this family stranger so glad to have someone in common with him that we both loved and that had brought us together.

After our celebratory introductions he beckoned toward his beautiful car, roofless there was clearly no other way to travel in such glorious sunshine. But I noticed very subtly the Lion hesitated as the journey flashed before him and he contemplated how he might go about getting into such a low lying vehicle with his sore back. This seemed lost on our host, and reaffirmed that unless you have lived it and its happening to you its not really going to penetrate the conscious activity of others. It was not lost on me and I looked at the Lion sympathetically hoping he wouldn’t make a fuss and be able to make it into this fabulous carriage without upsetting our Hero, despite his back limiting injury…………………………….

Chattanooga Choo Choo. Chapter 9 Book of the Lion.

Chattanooga gained notoriety following the roaring success of the ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ a song written by Mack Gordon and originally recorded by Glenn Miller in 1941. A film was later made in 1984 but we were neither caring nor interested in the musical history of this City, we simply wanted to catch up with our tour. We had already missed out on our trip to Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls, but this had little impact on our current state of mind. The fact we were even here was a miracle in itself.

Recently discharged from University Hospital Atlanta, the Lion was still subdued by class A drugs designed primarily to contain his back pain but also stupefying the brain and his senses for the same price. Our Greyhound bus trip had been eventful but finally as the bus lurched into the station at Chattanooga we disembarked safely, intact and none the worse for the encounters or dramas on the way. Our new found friends wished us well, and I hurriedly ushered the Lion off the bus ensuring they remained aboard for their journey to Ohio, hoping they stayed on the right side of the law.

We took a taxi to the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, which was located in the south side of the city trying to take in the sights while making sure the Lion was comfortable. We unloaded our cases, including our newly purchased bag for excess weight, onto the forecourt and surveilled our surroundings. A large train modified into bedrooms, dominated the landscape which, although no one told us, I was pretty sure was the infamous Choo Choo. Beyond this unusual hostelry, about 300 yards across the driveway lay the more conventional entrance to the larger standard traditional hotel,

I did hope we were sleeping in the train as I guided the Lion to the check-in desk, given our luck on the BA flight this was a strong possibility but our luck didn’t last. Having managed to coral the Lion into the reception I sought assistance to collect our baggage, while he clung to the reception counter and steadied himself. The tour guide had left instructions to be contacted as soon as we arrived and he joined us directly, It was like meeting a long lost friend, such had been the extent of our isolation in Atlanta. He hugged us, or at least approached the Lion with that intention before I prevented him from making any physical contact that would set the Lion’s back off again.

We then made our way to our room (not on the train), and flopped onto the bed exhaling an incredible sigh of relief. I was still so uncertain about continuing with the tour, but the Lion again assured me he would be fine. I studied him closely, trying to seek reassurance in his body language but seeing nothing that confirmed what he was saying. I unpacked his medication and our cash, that had made us feel so vulnerable on the bus, glad to have the security of a safe. There were significant volumes of tablets within assorted coloured containers. They had American names but appeared to include diazepam and Tramadol. These, in various permutations, were to be taken daily for the next two weeks. This didn’t bode well for the usual holiday experiences where alcohol might feature on more than the odd occasion.

We had started out on this holiday with friends, although they had continued with their holiday while the Lion was in hospital. I have tried to reconcile their abandonment of us in our hour of need with their need for a holiday. It’s something I continue to find difficult to understand, we could never have left them had the shoe been on the other foot, but then it was a holiday and perhaps I was just being unreasonable. Within the hour they arrived at our door glad we had made it in time to make the next leg of the journey to Nashville, The lion put on his mane, his bravest face and agreed to join them for dinner. I was not entirely sure this was a good idea, but we had to eat and so managed to join them despite being physically and mentally exhausted with our journey to date.

What became evident was that they had absolutely no clue how bad the situation had been, and were trying to make the most of their holiday and who could blame them. We ate and I ordered a glass of wine, I felt entitled given the last few days dramas, and soon that turned into two more. For the first time in 3 days I was able to relax, the Lion appeared to have relaxed but on closer inspection I noticed he was grinding his teeth as he continued to stay seated for longer than he was able to. We made a fast exit from the dining room, or at least as fast as the Lion could go and returned to our room. It would become a familiar pattern throughout this trip. Although it was now apparent that the potential to make the rest of our trip was looking more than hopeful the word holiday didn’t inspire me with any pleasure at all not in this situation. Back in the room I played nurse, (calm down he was ill), settled him in bed and dispensed the evening meds before tucking the Lion into one of the enormous king sized beds in our room.

I finally made it to bed, having tidied the room, arranged our clothes for the next day and re-packed the wardrobe cases ready for the off the next day. As the Lion drifted into his slumber ably assisted by diazepam. I wondered how he would be on the rest of the holiday, given his ongoing pain. He had little option at this stage, we’d made our decision coming here away from Atlanta and the airport. Our music tour of the Deep South was going to be an interesting trip, there was little doubt it would test us and as we now know, the Lion has no recollection of any of it given the meds he was prescribed for that trip.

Tomorrow we would depart for Nashville, and realise a dream we had shared for many years, but first I had to make a final sweep of the room for any small bits of paper that the Lion might be inclined to bend down and pick up……………………………

Deal or no deal. Chapter 8 Book of the Lion

It’s not that I was threatened by the people on the Greyhound bus, it was more feeling vulnerable with $2000 and $100 of class A drugs in my handbag. THAT makes you vulnerable, especially when the Lion was high on what’s ever the discharge meds were. Prescribed class A drugs are usually better quality than street drugs and of course you get more for your money. This made my handbag bulge rather suspiciously and if I had seen it I would have searched me and the bag. The Lion’s grey pallor also did nothing to detract from our possible criminal status and only served to reinforce the appearance of drug dealers on the run.

I didn’t want to draw attention to us unnecessarily, for all of the above reasons. So I leaned against the window, trying to be anonymous and prayed we made it to Chattanooga unscathed. No one gave the Lion this memo however and so the journey began. On the seat directly opposite us was a young American boy, he wore a navy blue matching basketball vest and shorts, with a while number 5 blazoned across his chest. His hair was neatly shaved and he had a diamond earring in his right ear. He also wore brand new white shin length cotton socks and brand new white sneakers and looked askance at this rather odd couple opposite him. Across his lap he had the most enormous boom box that he hugged with the defiant pride that befits a teenager having spent his entire pocket money on a radical purchase. He was a good looking black boy, with a broad smile oozing charm and fun. “Where y’all from?” He asked to no-one in particular and I stared right ahead. The Lion however said “We’re from Scotland”.

I turned to look at him in disgust, this was not the plan, but the young boy was hooked, firstly he did not understand the accent and so he grew more intrigued by this older couple sitting opposite. We piqued something in him, obviously and so he asked ” where’s that?” he had of course, as we were to learn like many Americans never travelled out with his own country. The Lion tried to explain the geography, but when your whole world is in one place, it is difficult to transfer the idyllic scenery and awful weather in a meaningful way. Every time the Lion spoke the boy hit the boom box in guffaws of laughter. He was clearly amused by the ‘fairy story’ and daft accent he thought the Lion was telling. So a little upset by this the Lion added he had been in hospital in Atlanta and regaled the story of the past few days. This was also interesting to me, given he had been comatose for the whole time and I thought he’d little recollection of any of it.

Before he could continue the young boy, now inching closer to our side of the seat to get an intimate look at this funny accented couple, declared he had just been released from Atlanta Jail. I drew my bag closer to my chest and thumped the Lion in the ribs at the same time, the lad continued that this incarceration was for stealing a car and crashing it following a police car chase. This was a fairly loud conversation and I was growing increasingly uncomfortable as we were only 10 miles into it. Although everyone would probably have heard this, no-one else looked around. This was clearly not the Edinburgh bus, where the whole bus would have turned to look at who had the audacity and shame to declare they had been recently incarcerated and the actual confidence to openly state this. That is what I love about America, there was his history right there in our face and he had no iota of concern. This says so much positively about social status in America, and I love that equalising confidence at least as it appeared in that moment, however back to our story.

Three seats down, there was a grey curly haired person, wearing a denim jacket facing forward and preventing me from determining their gender. This story had clearly travelled to their ears, he ( because we learned it was a man) placed his arm along the metal railing at the back of the seat and as he turned around we could see diamond earrings in both ears, ( clearly some badge of unity) before saying he too had been in Atlanta Jail and how bad the treatment had been there. ( Had they heard of the Bar-L) The young man reaffirmed this hardship and asked the older man what he’d been in for “dealing narcotics” came his reply and I almost fainted. The handbag was now completely immersed in my stomach as I pulled it tighter and tried to conceal the ‘narcotics’ within.

The conversation switched from all matters relating to Scottish geography to the more familiar territory in Atlanta Jail. The conversation was interesting but it began to develop into background noise as I plotted how we might get off this bus with our drugs and cash intact. The only other passengers were men sporadically spaced out on the remainder of the bus, the large guy occupying the whole seat in front of us was Mexican and a truck driver studying his map planning his next route north. He advised us he’d never heard of Scotland either hence his story was also available to the Lion who was now high on life as well as drugs and chattering unabridged to all in sundry. I remained silent and prayed we arrived soon.

It was now about half an hour into our journey, and the bus was slowly and rather laboriously climbing a rare incline on the interstate. It began to lurch, and stutter, perhaps appalled at the conversation. I looked to the Lion, who knows a thing or two about large vehicles, and he was momentarily distracted from the Jail chat to advise me something was not good with the bus. This funny chugging continued for about another mile or so, when Slim Whitman announced from the cockpit, “Atlanta we have a problem” as the bus limped over to the hard shoulder. We were going nowhere fast. You could not make it up. We sat there lost for words, the panic gaining momentum in my physical response. The Lion was non-plussed but the whole bus was now up off their seats and general mayhem was about to break out. Slim Whitman crunched and pulled at the clutch, the brakes then the steering wheel before he cut the engine and arose from his floating seat. I craned my neck to see what he was attempting next and hoped to god he could fix it.

He opened the door disappearing out alongside the bus while he made a few cursory checks and then got back on board. I realised I wasn’t breathing and took in a sudden gulp of air as Slim announced we had ran out of fuel and he needed to switch tanks. That technical information was lost on me but comforted the Lion as the vehicle sat for a few more moments, made a couple of further lurching noises and then started to roar into life. Within about ten minutes we were on the road again and the bus fell quiet, losing the impetus of great stories as each of us just waited and hoped we would get to our destination………………………………………………………..

Part one of our journey by Greyhound Bus. Chapter 7 Book of the Lion

Greyhound Bus travel was on my bucket list, and since we were now in America, and stranded in Atlanta after the Lion had morphed into a Hyena, it looked like this was going to be a reality. Although well covered by travel insurance, I considered that was purely for his intensive care in Atlanta University Hospital. I drew the line at taking an expensive taxi just to catch up with our pre-booked tour that had left without us and was now some 120 miles away. $350 seemed ridiculously expensive for a taxi and since bus travel presented a cheaper and available option, that was what we opted for.

We had elected to carry cash on this holiday, we were not big on credit card use and since we had no idea when we might get to a bank that had seemed a sensible option. But when we left the hospital, with the Lion in Hyena mode, I felt vulnerable. I clutched my handbag close to my heart, while struggling to manage two wardrobes masquerading as cases and the bewildered, pain-ridden and disorientated Lion. We took a taxi to the bus station and should have become concerned when the taxi driver asked with incredulity “are you taking the bus???”

The bus station was awash with travellers; families and individuals, all ages, ethnicity, shapes and sizes. My senses went into overdrive as I scanned the vast area in an attempt to orientate myself with these unfamiliar surroundings. I spotted a bank of seats where I could safely lodge the Lion while I sought to purchase our tickets and work out which bus we needed to take to Chattanooga. He looked so small I thought as I trundled toward the desk with the two overly large cases. I waited in the queue for about 10 minutes before being called forward by a smartly dressed but intimidating Atlanta woman, scowling at my bags. I asked for two tickets to Chattanooga and she looked as if an alien had just asked her for directions to NASA. She stared at me for what seemed minutes and I panicked that she had mistaken me for a fugitive on the FBI most wanted list, who happened to be my doppelgänger.

It was the bags and the accent that usurped her. After she gathered herself together, she advised that I had to have the bags weighed first and assess whether they had met the criteria for transfer to the bus. A bus I had no ticket for yet, I have to add. The Lady pointed to another desk and asked me to lodge the bags there before returning to her desk to purchase the ticket. I glanced across at another lengthy queue, gave her my finest forced smile and trundled the large cases over to the weigh station. I could feel the tears threatening to spill, but I drew in my breath, glanced at the Lion who was half asleep and hoped no one tried to steal my handbag. After a fashion, 15 minutes to be exact, the baggage handler took my cases only to advise me, unsurprisingly, they were overweight. In order for her to accept them I had to decant items into hand luggage and represent them. In response to my information that I had no hand luggage, she pointed me in the direction of the first desk where I might buy additional bags. Sufficient to say that queue had also filled up again.

I trucked back to the first desk where smarting with frustration at another 10 minute wait, I bought the bag before returning to the weigh in desk decanting knickers and other oversized items into the hand bag. After a further but shorter wait, my lighter cases were finally accepted. I was provided with the required luggage tickets to present for my onward journey and returned to the ticket desk where I finally purchased the bus tickets and some 45 minutes later, returned to the Lion. He was struggling to stay awake and I noticed he had been joined by a young black American boy, who was taking up two seats with his expansive backside and a large red velvet pillow that was totally incongruous with his physique.

Despite my initial reservations and ill placed fears, he smiled at me and asked if the New Orleans bus had left yet. He too a bit vulnerable and uncertain. No sooner had I responded and alerted him to my alien status, I turned to start fussing over the Lion. But was prevented by an announcement “They are getting in Line at Door number 9” which came lilting lyrically over the loudspeaker. This colloquialism brought a smile; a uniquely American phrase, that reminds you that travelling is real, different and so interesting. For a nano second I was lulled into tourist mode, only to crash to reality when the Lion was unable to stand up and walk to the Line. Johnny Cash he was not.

With the help of the rather large American boy, the Lion was frogmarched (getting to be a habit) to the Line and I escorted him to the coach stairs where we had to identify our luggage, match the ticket numbers and acknowledge the HEAVY banner that had been strapped across the buckles.

My first impressions of the greyhound bus was that it was grey. Inside the chairs were plastic and mostly burst with foam spewing out, it was cold and unwelcoming,hardly the bucket list ride I had hoped for. The coach was clean enough, but it was clear that it was pre-loved. I guided the Lion to the mid section and again left him to the aisle seat. Most people were travelling solo and had taken single occupancy of the seat, sitting in the middle to ensure no strangers dared to share it. Some required the whole two seats just to accommodate their bulk. I felt so slim, there were some benefits from this experience at least.

The Driver emerged and walked the length of the bus, I thought he looked like Slim Whitman, with a pencil moustache, slick backed hair, and warm brown eyes. He wore a smart, creased shirt and was impeccably presented with a slim black tie held neatly with a gold pin, belted slacks pressed with knife-edged seams and shoes that shone and sparkled as he navigated the narrow passage of the bus. He quickly checked the toilets at the rear before clearing his throat and loudly declaring in a southern drawl. “This is the finest greyhound bus in the fleet, we will be travelling to Ohio and on my bus I will not tolerate no alcohol, no knives and no narcotics” I tried not to process that information and watched him closely as he thrust himself forward dominating the other passengers, establishing himself as the alpha male, marking his territory and making sure that everyone understood who was in charge. We sat in awe of this entire experience, terrified but somehow strangely safe, as the bus slowly edged its way out of the station……