Monday, 26 April 2010

Western Australia I: Ronny

IN June 2009, Simon and Rachel flew to Australia on the Big Plane. They stayed with Rachel’s sister Julia and brother-in-law Alex in Sydney for two weeks, where they saw the sights, ate too much Thai food and bought a ring. They then took a longer-than-expected flight to Perth in Western Australia, hired a bigger-than-expected camper van and drove a further-than-planned 2,000 miles. With two weeks left and no plan, they quickly revisited Sydney before taking a further flight to Hobart, Tasmania. Here they drove around mountains and through rainforest, they befriended a wombat and Simon climbed a very big hill. This is their story.

WHEN Julia and Alex got married in 2008, one of their groomsmen was a man named Ronny. He came to Sydney while we were there, and we all - Julia, Alex, Rachel and I, along with Ronny, his girlfriend Emma and a selection of Alex's friends - went out for a meal one evening. I'd not met Ronny before, as I had been unable to go to the wedding, but Rachel had, and he seemed quite the character. He had many stories to tell and his giggling was infectious.

Ronny lives in Perth, and on discovering we were about to fly there he invited us to stay. We were surprised by such an invitation, though were very grateful. We didn't really know him nor did he know us, so we took his invitation as a matter of politeness and felt guilty for potentially pushing him in to making such an offer. We were very wrong.

We landed in Perth on a stormy afternoon. The flight and landing had made me feel quite unwell, which is unusual for me, so I was extremely grateful that Rachel did the legwork to get us into the city proper. This was no mean feat, as Perth's buses are deployed seemingly randomly, with the numbers on the timetables not matching the numbers of buses to which they apply. (We would later find that the trains are equally as unclear - tickets are sold by zone or section, with nowhere telling you what this means or which zone or section each destination is in. Our advice to new travellers is to use the CAT buses as much as they can instead, because they are free, are colour-coded and go in circles.) Rachel was struggling to find any food she could eat (Sydney airport's domestic terminal is impossible for gluten-free and Perth's Esplanade bus station was almost as useless) and we were both a little ratty when - one walk with all our luggage across the city centre (up a hill) and one lesson in Transperth train networks later - we finally reached Fremantle, where we had booked a hotel for a couple of nights.

We checked into the Norfolk Hotel. It had looked lovely on its website, so I booked it as a treat for Rachel, knowing we were about to spend two weeks in a tiny campervan. But great as the restaurant below might be (though it served nothing gluten-free, so we wouldn't know), the upstairs accommodation was basic and not as glamorous as I had presumed. It wasn't our worst accommodation experience - that honour goes to the Pickled Frog in Hobart - but it was certainly below par. So was Fremantle, which we had thought would be chock-full of arts and crafts and folksy music. Asides from an Aboriginal art shop, there really didn't seem to be anything of the sort. It was windy, cold and rainy - it was winter after all - and there was barely anything suitable to eat. It wasn't a good start and I think we were both genuinely disappointed. So it came as a complete revelation when Ronny rang us that evening. His offer had been genuine.

The following morning we checked out a day early in far better spirits. Suddenly, as a result, Fremantle grew on us. We found a cafe called Ginos that made the most amazing cooked breakfasts that could easily be made gluten-free. We walked around the docks and esplanade of Fremantle, where a pack of galahs were pecking at the ground. Behind them was the Little Creatures brewery where, at 10 in the morning, we sampled alcoholic goodness - beer for me, cider for Rachel. We went on to the Shipwrecks Gallery of the Western Australian Museum, which was very good and contained the remains of the Batavia - the subject of murder, mutiny and execution. As a final farewell we caught the orange CAT bus in a loop around Fremantle, of which there was much else to explore (and which I am sure is a fine spot in the summer), and caught the train to West Leederville where Ronny and Emma met us.


Ronny and Emma had been together for six months. They had moved in to this new home, their first together, only eight days before our arrival. And here we were with mountains of luggage, taking over their house. Their hospitality was an immense gesture to say the least.

Ronny's idiosyncrasies never failed to amuse me. He'd spend his spare time honing his skills at Wii bowling while watching the Tour de France (on the same TV), uttering a high-pitched wail every time he missed a pin or heard something amusing. His manner was completely spontaneous and his attitude at all times based on a principle of pure fun. You'd be reading or talking to Emma and suddenly: "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!", followed by a giggle. Then he'd receive a phone call and, with all seriousness, he'd rush off to work at the hospital and save somebody's life.

The next morning we awoke to an empty house, both Emma and Ronny at work. Ronny had left us a note, welcoming us, inviting us to make ourselves at home and permitting us - nay, encouraging us - to take his car for a spin and explore Perth. We didn't. We didn't have insurance.

"I knew you'd be too chicken" he said to us later.

One evening we were watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the lifeguards at Surfers Paradise. It featured a particularly dramatic rescue of a man; unconscious, the crew performed CPR on him for a very long time. This prompted the revelation that, though medically trained, Ronny didn't know CPR (much to Emma's horror), and the further revelation that that day he had answered an alarm from the neighbouring neonatal unit from his own radiology unit, only to be confronted with a very ill little person that he had no idea how to treat. Luckily, somebody who knew what to do was right behind him.

Four days after leaving Sydney we were on the road again. Ronny took us to collect our van early on his way to work, getting so excited about where we were going that on several occasions he forgot to put his hands on the steering wheel: at one stage he started to map read. He left us his spare keys for when we returned so that we could use his home as a base once more and then, after thanking him, he was gone. Alone on the Great Eastern Highway, we found our rental outlet, sat outside until there were signs of life, went inside, paid a lot of money, were unexpectedly upgraded, took a practice drive alongside the Swan River, loaded up on groceries and left the city.

Perth is the most isolated city in the world. Although on the Australian mainland, it is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney. Given this, to head into the country from here says a lot. We were off in search of the real Australia, the red dust of the Outback, a very long way from home and from Australia as we had known it until now. Rachel and I, at the wheel of Benedict Cummerbund the Ford Transit (extended in every dimension to suit your every need), were off on a real adventure.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Tasmania VI: Pushing it

THE first time I went to Tasmania I arrived - after two months of constant movement - tired, hungry and underweight. I didn't feel very well. But, determined to see Hobart of a Friday night, I got myself up and out and wandered towards the city centre, a little delirious, first finding a park overlooking the expansive estuary of the River Derwent, where sailing boats pirouetted like dogs chasing their tails.

From here I wandered down through Battery Point and discovered Salamanca Place, a waterfront area of renovated old sandstone warehouses, now smart apartments, restaurants, pubs and art galleries. I really liked it - it was smart and stylish but not so pretentious as to scare away the average punter. The art galleries were full of people, sipping champagne and admiring the exhibitions. The restaurants were buzzing, the area thriving on this warm Friday evening. There were buskers, the pubs had live performances, and people were having fun. Just wandering around was making me feel better.

I walked through some of the alleyways between warehouses, at first not sure if I was allowed, where I found craft shops and cafes. I was following my ears, as I could hear some kind of commotion coming from within the complex, set back from the harbour. I soon came upon a courtyard behind the warehouses where, at the base of a dominating rock face, a band were performing. To one side there was a barbecue and a makeshift bar. I no longer remember the music that was being played but I remember that it was making people dance. I had stumbled across a public party.

I stood at the back feeling highly self-conscious, not knowing anyone or if I could join in. For all I knew I could have walked in on a private party, so I tried to stay out of sight and was about to leave when a lady started chatting to me. She told me that there is a gathering and live music there every Friday. It's the place to be in Hobart, where most people start their evenings before going off elsewhere, only to return the next day for the "famous Salamanca market". I had never heard of it. I made a mental note to come back.

The lady's friends were dancing, but she was at the back holding a baby. We chatted for a while, getting on well, and she invited me out with her friends to sample the Hobart evening scene once the Salamanca party had ended. Tasmanians are very friendly and hospitable people, but this was thoroughly unexpected.

In preparing this story some three years after the event in question, I have only just remembered that she made this invitation, for what happened next had rather replaced that memory. Amongst the mêlée of the craic, midway through a sentence, she rather unsubtly and unexpectedly manoeuvred her clothing and started breastfeeding. Naturally, there is nothing wrong with breastfeeding, it is a perfectly normal thing. But being British and male I panicked. I hadn’t expected this turn of events. Where should I look? At her face, yes. Or the floor. No, not the floor, her face. Keep talking, just keep the conversation going; she’s only breastfeeding. But does she have to? Of course she does, the baby needs it. Keep calm and carry on. What were we talking about? Oh yes, she just invited me out, I remember. Where? Help.

Once I had managed to control myself I quickly realised that her attention was now, understandably, permanently elsewhere. That was the end of my wild Friday night in Hobart.

The following morning I returned to the famous Salamanca Market, a very fine street market. I sampled passion fruit fudge, mixed and matched pewter animal casts, bought a fluffy kangaroo and the most delicious apricot jam. The standard of produce, artwork and entertainment was very high, although inevitably there was still a group playing panpipes along to a recording, as you'll find in most markets around the world. I loved Salamanca. I loved Tasmania. I never thought I would go back.

So when, in July 2009, our plan to drive across New South Wales and South Australia via Wagga Wagga and Lake Mungo was abandoned and instead we flew to Hobart in time for Friday night, I became very excited indeed. We sipped wine and beer to a soul, rock and roll and ska band under that rock face at Salamanca Place, then on Saturday we returned for the market, where I bought some Australian Breakfast Tea, some passion fruit fudge and the most delicious apricot jam.

Salamanca Place is a hub of activity in an otherwise sleepy city, nestled in the corner of Sullivans Cove, where statues of explorers and penguins hint at the port’s importance in the initial exploration of Antarctica. Tasmania is so far south that to sail due West would take you to Argentina, missing South Africa completely, and to the South there is nothing between Sullivans Cove and Antarctica. New Zealand is closer – present day flights to McMurdo Sound and the South Pole disembark from Christchurch on New Zealand’s south island – but Hobart remains an important port for the southern continent. Indeed, as we walked around the market, we were in the shadow of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights), a cruise ship, painted bright orange to be spotted in the ice fields as it takes tourists to Terra Incognita itself. I looked on the ship with envy.

In this shadow, we spotted something remarkable. Of the many fast food vendors in the market, not one appeared to sell anything free of gluten (Rachel had recently been diagnosed with coeliac disease). Then we saw a crêpe stall, which I wrote off immediately. But Rachel persevered, and discovered that they had a separate batter mix suitable for coeliacs. She was, very simply, delighted.

We ordered one savoury and one sweet crêpe, and while they were being cooked, the German cook explained about the batter and how it was proving popular. But we seemed to be distracting her, and she very nearly used the wrong mixture. Rachel pointed this out, and the cook apologised.

She was then distracted once more, and nearly used the wrong utensils. Rachel pointed this out. The cook corrected her error. She stopped chatting with us and instead made conversation with her assistant.

Then she went to put cream on the sweet, raspberry jam crêpe, despite our prior request not to do so. Rachel pointed this out. The cook started to talk in German, presuming we would not understand. But she made a critical error.

“Es ist ein bißchen pushing it!”

An unfortunate lapse into English, if ever I heard one.

Tasmania remains a very special place for me, and there are so many other stories I could tell. But, so as to not push my luck any further, and to keep some memories just for ourselves, it is time we moved on. Before all of these Tasmanian shenanigans - before Beaumaris Zoo, the landslide, Curringa Farm, Ormiston House, the West Coast Wilderness Railway and those five happy Tasmanian devils bounding around their enclosure at Something Wild, near Westerway - we drove for 2,000 miles along the Western Australia coast into the desert in a mad race to see the largest fish in the world.

Who needs package tours?