Lost in the Grampians

After touring my way through the wine areas of South Australia, largely in the rain, I arrived in Halls Gap in the Grampians in late August 1997.  Tired of staying in hotels and B&Bs, after my stay in a little cottage in Burra, I’d discovered the world of the off season holiday chalet rental market, so I searched out a little holiday village on the edge of town and decided to stay for a couple of days.

I remember the place, largely because I remember getting lost in the woods on a walk; but what I didn’t recall until I reread my journal was just how much I enjoyed playing house for a few days.  I elected to stay longer than I originally planned and, rather than continue my progress east, I opted to do day trips out from my cosy little base, deciding that driving out and back each day was worth it to be able to enjoy having the time to unpack my bags, do some laundry and even iron it, and cook for myself in some approximation of ‘normality’.

I’ve told the story of getting lost a few times in the intervening years, and it was quite surprising to see how calmly I recorded the events in the diary, as the memory is quite an unsettling one, so comprehensively had I lost my way.  It was quite a foolish thing to do, to set off into the woods on my own without a proper map, but the officer in the National Park centre had told me that the route shown on the leaflet she sold me was easy to follow on clearly defined paths.

Both of these things were true, but only for the first 2/3rds of the route, which is about where I lost track of the path.  Or maybe it was before then, because by the time I noticed, crossing over a messy river, through a stretch of mud and tried to turn back, I couldn’t find the path then either.

It took me nearly four hours of scrambling hither and thither to finally find a path – I was seriously starting to think about what kind of place I should look for to spend the night – i did have some food, water, waterproof trousers and jacket, but it was not a pleasant thought given the amount of wildlife both large and small that seemed to be about.

I’d even started shouting ‘help’, when I thought I’d heard voices in the distance.  On the path I managed to get back to the road and then  I walked the 5km back to the car trying to sing to myself to keep me going, walking along the white lines in the middle of the road to give me some point of reference in the dark.

It’s funny that I didn’t record the thing about the story that always makes people laugh when I tell it, which is that I found the path only after noticing that the sun was setting and following that direction, but only after having stopped dead for a few moments wondering if the sun sets in the west in the southern hemisphere and working out from first principals that it does.

When I got home I couldn’t believe what a mess I was – covered in mud from all the full length falls down the wet hillsides; hands and knees scratched and bruised.  Fortunately no marks on my face.  Everything, even the rucksack has been in the washing machine today.

The next day, I hobbled around and had a quiet time.  Well and truly chastened, I think.

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Adelaide’s Lament

My arrival in Adelaide, in August 1997, after the train journey from Alice Springs was inauspicious.  After dry. crisp weather in the desert, it was dreary and wet when I emerged from the railway station in the early morning.  And, as taxis were scarce and hard to find, for the fist time on the trip, I had to properly test whether or not I really could carry my luggage by myself.  I could, but it didn’t stop me feeling rather damp and miserable.

Based on recommendations from the tourist information, I went to a place called the Brecknock Hotel, the first time I experienced the Australian tendency to call pubs ‘hotels’. It was so unprepossessing and the landlord so spectacularly grumpy and bad tempered that I decided to stay, if only to gather some good stories; and it was cheap.

It was very Irish too, featuring a surfeit of amplified fiddle music late into the night.  I wasn’t that fussed about the breakfast either: self service where it was impossible to simultaneously obtain both boiling water  and make toast without tripping the fuse.  My fellow guests were uniformly rather ugly middle aged men, but fortunately I had taken a book with me, so I didn’t have to look at any of them.

Each day of my journal during my stay in the city begins with ‘not that great a day today‘.  I toured the city and went out to the beach, but it was all too much like trying to find something to do at the English seaside on a rainy Wednesday, fighting the wind and wiping condensation from any windows.

I went book shopping, and inspired by a flyer the shop put in the carrier bag, I saw a play ‘Gulls’ at the Playhouse Theatre at the Festival Centre.  I noted its similarity to the National Theatre in London, in that it wasn’t immediately obvious where the door was.  The only thing I recorded about the evening was: Play not good.  One idea stretched too thin.  One note performances.  I think the lead might be in a Soap I’ve never seen.  Now, I remember the theatre, but sadly, not the play.

It was during this period that I started noting the programmes that I was catching on television; mostly British made things which because of my time in Moscow, I’d not actually heard of.  My memory is that I started following something which was on of a Sunday evening, and then made attempts to stay in places with a TV on Sundays!

I toured the Barossa valley in a small group, on the basis that if I didn’t have to drive, then I wouldn’t have to worry about how much wine I drank along the way.  Subsequently, when I had picked up another hire car, I visited place in the Clare and McLaren valleys on my own, having a chat, tasting what was available and, to be polite, buying a bottle, which I threw in the back of the car.  As the days progressed, the more clattering noises came from the back seat when I went over bumps in the road.

Things picked up as soon as I left Adelaide.  My first overnight stop was in Burra, where I rented a converted miner’s cottage, 20, Paxton Square, for a couple of nights.  My journal records my current delight; I am disproportionately pleased that I have the facilities to cook my own supper, sit in front of a fire and a private bathroom, all for A$25 per night.

I discovered a hitherto unknown interest in industrial history, which is very close to the surface in that part of South Australia.  Burra was a   town built by the miners who were encouraged to emigrate from mining areas in the UK.  Cornish men built their cottages in the style with which they were familiar, as did those from Wales, so there are little bits of home in the otherwise remote and alien place.

A Town Like Alice…for Real

A Town Like Alice was a favourite novel of my teenage years, and even though it’s only about Alice Springs to the extent that the town is held up by Joe Harman, the hero, as an aspirational place, when I was planning my trip to Australia in 1997, it was a key stop on the itinerary.  Add to that, years of British children’s television fascination with the School of the Air and the Flying Doctors, and I was really looking forward to my visit to the town.

My memory of my trip is of my fascination with the history of the town, and how the locals know exactly how and when the town originated.  The idea that it could be traced so clearly and definitively because it is so relatively recent, is such a contrast to the rambling history of any town in Britain.  There was no mystery, and I enjoyed hearing the stories, recounting the decisions on the  location of the telegraph repeating station and then the railway.  This was something that I experienced subsequently in the mining areas of South Australia and Queensland, but as Alice was the first place I heard these tales, they stuck with me.

But when I look at my contemporaneous journal it’s the people that I met who fill the pages.

I took a tour in the McDonnell range with a retired geologist whose commentary was largely about the geological history of the area, which, by happy accident, fed right into my own interest in geology and topography.  Tea from a billy and damper bread cooked in the fire featured in most of the exchanges I had while in the area.

Either ‘Lying down Woman’, or I was well and truly kidded

Fired with my enthusiasm for riding on a Harley Davidson at Ayres Rock, I was disproportionately pleased to find another biking tour guy who satisfied the biker appearance stereotype – a straggly goatee beard, long hair neatly plaited and tucked down inside his leather waistcoat; and extremely chatty.

Later I was persuaded under pressure, after more billy can tea, damper and lots of chatting with Willy, an aboriginal guide, to have a go on the didgeridoo, but could not get it to sound of anything other than someone blowing down a hollow stick. And then ticked off The School of the Air where the walls were adorned with school work from the scattered school children, and also photos of a visit by Charles and Diana – her looking very young in a nasty yellow dress a la Queen Mother.

It looks odd to me now that I noted these photos, as I wasn’t a fan and didn’t (and still don’t) pay any attention to the doings of the minor Royals; it was probably the anachronism of seeing the couple do their meeting and greeting  in such a remote place in the middle of Australia that struck me as so peculiar, but now I know I wrote those observations just a couple of weeks before Diana’s death.

From Alice I travelled south on The Ghan train to Adelaide where first impressions were not good….. but that’s another tale…….

Ayres Rock- 15 Years On

I’ve fallen a little behind in my occasional series of reflections on the round the world trip I did in 1997, which is entirely in harmony with the journal I wrote at the time.  Many of the entries begin with an apology to myself for not having kept right up to date, or for having been too tired/too busy to write my daily observations.

After some time touring the area south of Perth in Western Australia, as well as spending some time with family there, I arrived at Ayres Rock at the beginning of August.

Earlier than I am up most mornings, I have just returned from an exhilarating ride on a Harley Davison motorbike to view sunrise over the Rock (or Uluru as I’ve been told to call it.)  I thoroughly enjoyed myself with Glenn, proprietor, driver, guide and beverage attendant.

That early morning ride is one of the vivid memories I have of the trip and it’s good to read that I enjoyed it as much at the time as I now do in the recollection of it.  The obligatory trip to see sunrise could be taken in a big bus, a little bus, a car, or, as I discovered at the tourist centre, on the back of a bike, which immediately sounded much more fun, bearing in mind that whichever mode of transport I chose, I ‘d have to get up in the chilly, dark early morning.  I spent most of the trip chatting with Glenn (I wouldn’t remember his name but for the journal) over the coffee and doughnuts he’d brought with him, and nearly missed the moment of sunrise.

The Rock does change colour as the sun rises; because there was cloud this morning the transition was sudden and dramatic – dark red and then bright orange, as if someone had simply turned the lights on.

I had a packed programme for my two and a half day stay, each element of which I’d booked within a couple of hours of arrival, as, where I’d been the only tourist in Western Australia, at Uluru I was but one in a multitude, belying its isolation in the middle of nowhere.  The speed of booking meant my itinerary was a matter of chance and the advice of the woman in the travel office.

My early morning on the Harley was followed by an even earlier morning in a 6-seater, prop plane on my way to Kings Canyon.  There was a bus option, but if there’s a plane to take, why not?

I had the co-pilot seat, and with that came the responsibility of keeping an eye out for other aircraft, as I discovered that Ayres Rock airport had no air traffic control; instead there was a sort of open outcry in which every pilot announced his location and direction over the airways and everyone else looked out for them.  It created the occasional frisson of excitement when the pilot said ‘we should be able to see a helicopter/Quantas plane/Cessna….can you see anything?’  I shared the trip with an Australian Chinese family from Sydney who adopted me for the day, making sure I had a seat at lunch and taking lots of shots for me on my camera.

Landed at Kings Creek camel and cattle station, on an unpaved runway, from where we were driven in an open backed truck to the station for breakfast.  A huge helping of bacon and eggs, cooked in large quantities on a griddle, by just the sort of Aussie bloke you’d expect to meet on a cattle station. (!)

The walk around Kings’s Canyon was punctuated with pauses to identify locations used in the movie of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, but my memories are of the redness of the earth and the layers and layers of stratification in the rock.

And of the bumpiness of the flight back, which I spent with my eyes closed, except when called upon to perform my observer duties, although I did remark that Uluru and the Olgas, the other collection of rocks looked like pebbles on the flat red desert below.

Just in case you’re wondering, I didn’t climb up Ayres Rock.  One of the first stops on my itinerary had been the local cultural centre where I learnt that the local people neither understood nor liked the visitors’ obsession with climbing onto it, so that, and my general inability to climb down steep slopes, dissuaded me from attempting it.

And anyway, I had the perfect bird’s eye view from the plane.

Arrival in Australia – 1997

Continuing my occasional series of posts looking back on a round the world trip I did in 1997, using my memory, my contemporaneous journal and photos, this week 15 years ago I was in Western Australia.

I had flown from Johannesburg to Perth, and on arrival I remember having to go through the ‘something to declare’ channel, solely on the basis that, at the airport on South Africa I had bought a huge bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk to use up the last of my currency and I wasn’t going to give it up without a fight, in spite of all the dire warnings of the penalties Australia imposed on people trying to smuggle food into the country.  I passed the smell test of the Beagle Brigade, although one dog was successful in locating yesterday’s pack lunch in the holdall of one of the teenage rugby team who shared my flight.  They let me in with my chocolate, which at the time felt like a small but significant triumph.

I stayed for the first couple of days with family I’d not seen for many years.  It gave the opportunity to unpack both my bags – I was travelling with a back pack and a small bag on wheels, a set up that worked well for most of the trip, as I was both able, in extremis, to carry all my belongings myself, but also allowed me to leave a bag in storage at various stages of the trip so I didn’t have to take everything with me everywhere.  My journal reveals a certain pre-occupation with packing and unpacking and opportunities to use washing machines.  I even congratulated myself that after three weeks of travelling everything was fitting more easily into the bags, although I didn’t rule out the possibility that I’d left something behind.

I was also already recording the fact that I was getting behind on writing the journal; but that is what would happen if I was busy seeing things and spending time with people; but I was very conscious of the need to record as there would be so many new experiences I didn’t want any to be forgotten or overlaid.

I spent my first afternoon in Perth watching television with my young second cousin, off school unwell; and I noted that we watched Wheel of Fortune, Bewitched and I Dream of Genie.  He was politely bemused when I observed that these programmes were already old when I watched them as a child.

I clearly relaxed into a short rest from my trip – I spent time with the younger family members and slept quite a lot according to the diary.  The showed me around the environs of Perth, and we made a visit to Fremantle, including to the prison there which had been in continuous use from 1855 to 1991, and I think we were all a little shocked at the conditions in which prisoners had been confined, notwithstanding the dry wit of the guide, a retired prison warder who clearly felt that the closure had been a retrograde step.

But there was no rest for the round the world traveller, and, taking only my back pack, I hired a car a nearly clapped out red Toyota with 86,500 km already on the clock and set off south.

Off season I had the wild coastline pretty much to myself, and I frequently found myself the only car in a park designed for hundreds, and that places that had been recommended to me as good places to eat were closed.  And for the first time I did actually agree with all the people who told me it was cold.  In the evenings I noted an absence of heating in the room, which forced me to retire to bed to keep warm and to watch my first ever episode of The X- Files eating a take-away pizza.  I also specifically recorded that I’d been out after dark for the first time since I’d left the UK in order to pick up the aforementioned pizza.  But I remember feeling residual anxiety about the dark, after all the dire warnings of the dangers it held in South Africa.

At the end of my entry for the night in Dunsborough : Tomorrow I’ll have to do more concentrated touristing.

July 1997

Continuing my occasional series reviewing the round the world trip I did in 1997, I’ve reread my journal from this week, and looked at the photos I took.  I was in South Africa, and my memories are of hiring a car and driving through the wine areas around Stellenbosch, along the coast to Knysna and to Oudtshoorn.  I remember the deep, deep blue of the sky and the grey green of the mountains beyond the vineyards and the white of the old farm houses.

My journal gives me both less and more detail.  There are comments on things that, now prompted, I do remember, and others that I still don’t recall clearly at all.

When I first took possession of the car, a 4 door white Toyota Celica, rather large for it to be the smallest available, I immediately head off down the Atlantic coast heading for the Cape of Good Hope.  There I remarked on the dramatic topography, the blueness of the sky and the high wind.  I watched serious looking rangers with guns chasing marauding baboons away from groups of picnickers.  The baboons darted in for an attack, a stubborn look on its face – not an attractive animal.  Lots of unpleasant tourists too.

Hark at her!

Only a day later, just one week into what was to be a five month trip at the start of which I had promised myself that I was not going to buy lots of stuff along the way, I chanced upon an art gallery in Constantia, and bought a painting.  Bought a huge picture.  Bought the most expensive picture of my life so far.  The VAT I wouldn’t have to pay if I exported it would cover the cost of shipping it to Scotland. Ho ho.  I still have that painting hanging in my living room and I look at it many times each day, and I’ve never regretted buying it.

Shell shocked after the purchase I went to the nearby winery intent on joining the advertised tour, only to find that there wouldn’t be one as (a) I was the only person there and (b) there was no guide.  Instead I was offered a wine tasting in a room clearly designed to accommodate 4 coachloads at a time.  I was met by a bored woman.  To encourage conversation in the otherwise potentially awkward situation (in case I would be expected to talk with any knowledge about wine) I decide to offer up Russia as a conversational opening.  Bought a bottle of Merlot/Shiraz and threw it in the back of the car.

Reading through the diary these two things are repeated at frequent intervals: talking to people about Russia, as I found that it was a good way to generate chat, and buying a bottle of wine.  Those, and recording the advice I kept receiving that I must not be out after dark, which in effect meant arriving at my destination by 6pm.

I also frequently wrote about finding a congenial spot in which to sit and either watch the world go by, or to read, at the time, Babel Tower, by AS Byatt.  A big fat book bought in Cape Town.  It didn’t make it back to the UK with me, so I’m wondering if I recorded where I left it!

I made frequent comments about the reliability of the information on my guide book – The Lonely Planet – and also noted down each time a person gave me a recommendation which didn’t tally with the book.  One great source of advice was H, the landlady of a B&B I stayed in twice in Stellenbosch.  Now I read the journal I remember the long conversations I had with her.

She couldn’t hide her fascination with the fact that I was travelling alone, a thought which had never previously occurred to her.  She was only one of the people with whom I had oddly intense conversations.  I ask myself if the people I have met share so much about themselves with everyone, and wonder if I am peculiarly privileged/afflicted. 

While writing my last entry in South Africa, while waiting for my flight to Perth at Johannesburg airport, I noted that I’d done 2,200 km in the hire car.

15 Years Ago

On 1 July 1997 I set off on what turned out to be a 5 month round the world trip.  I’d recently finished a stint of working in Moscow, and was reluctant to return to the familiar world of work in London.  I’d never had any kind of long break before; I’d gone from school straight to university, and thence directly into a job.  I’d been made redundant once, but took the job in Moscow right on the back of that, and I didn’t want to rush into another thing again without a period of reflection.

My objective was Australia where I wanted to see the red desert, the flying doctors and Sydney Opera House, but decided to stop off in a few places on the way there and back, and bought myself a round the world ticket and a stack of guide books.  Having just spent a couple of years dealing with the idiosyncrasies of mid 1990s Russia, I wanted to travel through places where language shouldn’t be a barrier, where I could hire cars and drive myself, and where my credit card would work.  It might not have been everyone’s idea of an adventure agenda, but it was what I wanted.  That, and good wine.

My basic itinerary, reflected in the stops on my airline ticket was:  London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Perth, Alice Springs, Melbourne, Cairns, Sydney, Auckland, Christchurch, Tonga, Vancouver, Boston, London.  The savvy of you will have spotted that I was going what many regarded as ‘the wrong way’, following Autumn, but I’m not a sun worshipper,and although it hadn’t been part of my calculation, going everywhere off season took away a great deal of the anxiety of finding somewhere to stay, and allowed me to practice the art of spontaneity without worry.

I wrote a journal most days throughout the trip, and I’ve been rereading it for the first time since.  The overlap between what I remember, what my photographs show, and what I chose to record in the diary is interesting.  There are many things which I wrote about which I’d entirely forgotten, while some things which are bright and distinct in my recollection don’t seem to have made it onto the page.

It’s also very interesting to see how my writing style has changed, and – dare I say – improved!

The opening entry for the adventure is all rather downbeat : Didn’t sleep very well the night before the first flight and did not, in all honesty, set out with any great enthusiasm.

 Oh dear, she doesn’t sound like she’s going to be much fun as a travelling companion.

And then, almost as the worst kind of omen, I was allocated a ‘middle seat’ on the plane, between a couple of rather broad South African ladies; one of whom, it appears gave me the benefit of her experience of a couple of days in St Petersburg: couldn’t drink anything not even bottled water, couldn’t buy anything not even plasters, saw nothing but run down buildings and poverty.  

It was but a brief foreshadowing of many conversations I was to have over the next several months: two things that most people felt compelled to comment upon were, firstly, their view of the dangers and privations of living in Russia, and secondly, how unusual it was that I should be travelling on my own, as I was clearly neither a student nor retired, so why wasn’t I working.

I stayed in a hotel called the Metropole, in Cape Town, chosen partly as it shared its name, if few of the attributes, with what was, at the time, one of the fanciest hotels in Moscow.  I’d read the guide book on the plane, but it’s clear from the journal that I didn’t really know where to start, so I kept being drawn back to the Waterfront area, with stops along the way and round about; but I was preoccupied with the repeated warnings that I shouldn’t be out on my own after dark.  Returning to my room at dusk each day I seem to have spent the evenings watching Wimbledon on the television, wondering if I was missing out on anything as I couldn’t understand the commentary.

Two experiences which are etched on my memory are walking to the top of Table Mountain, and visiting Robben Island.

Reading my reaction to Robben Island makes me think about the difference between seeing what you expect to see, and being surprised at what you encounter.  I suppose I had seen news coverage of the prison, and read the history of the treatment of the political prisoners, and it’s clear from my diary that what I saw on my visit corresponded to what I had anticipated; small cells, and harsh and humiliating treatments.

What I reflected on more specifically was that the guide who showed us around the prison and the island was himself a former prisoner who had made the decision to return, in spite of what happened to him there; it’s a powerful way of reclaiming your own story.

And I hadn’t expected the village to be there; a whole community that had previously been home to the prison staff, houses, a post office and a primary school with a rapidly shrinking roll, and ginger haired children running around us as we toured the island.  It had been a whole micro society centred around the prison, in sight of, but isolated and distant from the city of Cape Town.

I also specifically noticed the discomfort of the boat to the island which was unimproved since it had been used as the prison supply vessel.

And the final sentence of the entry for 5 July was, I must eat something healthy tomorrow.….. So some things never change!

While We’re on the Subject of…… Penguins

Jill’s comment yesterday about the penguins at Boulders Beach in South Africa sent me back to flicking through my albums of my round the world trip in 1997.

My first port of call was Cape Town at the beginning of July, which everyone told me was a very odd time to visit South Africa; but it was off season, I didn’t need to plan too much in advance and could roll up to places unannounced and get a bed for the night.  To my eye, the weather was lovely, even though locals told me it was cold.

Before I went, I had no idea about the penguins, so close to the town.  But I went, I watched them and then I stayed at a bed and breakfast right beside the beach, which embraced the pure penguinness of the place.

While I was travelling, in my pre-digital camera days, I would have the rolls of completed film developed whenever I reached a place I would stay for a couple of days or enough time for them to be precessed.  After I’d weeded out any real duffers, I posted the prints back to my parents in the UK both for safe keeping, and so they could see where I was and what I was doing (this was also before I knew how to send email, or even if it were possible).  I kept the negatives just in case.  So when I got back to the UK after 5 months away I spent several enjoyable days reviewing the photos and remembering the adventures I’d had.

So now I’m thinking that maybe 15 years on I might occasionally post a reminder to myself where I was each week, and reflect on  the miles travelled and the people met.

Interested?  If you know the places now, you could tell me how they’ve changed in the intervening years.

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