Monday, 20 December 2010

Fuchsia's Attic

I LOVE the snow. Granted, it’s a nightmare for all and sundry and is likely to separate people this Christmas, which is horrible, but it can look so beautiful when the sun shines on it, and it highlights so much about our lives that we wouldn’t normally notice. Forced to get out and walk or stay indoors, our patterns change. Our reliances change. And all across the nation, silence falls. The silence of each morning since the snow began to fall has been mesmerising.

It also means we can see who else shares our world. Not only have I seen paw prints (very cute) of domestic cats and dogs but also foxes, birds and possibly other animals. We catch an insight into how they behave and where they tend to tread. At Kings Norton train station yesterday, awaiting a delayed train, I followed some animal steps as they wandered off into pristine snow, wobbling along the upper reaches of the platform. They passed beyond the line over which passengers cannot cross, so I followed them from the fence behind the platform instead. That is, until they just vanished. I was baffled. Where had my furry friend gone? I never did find out: people were watching me suspiciously, so I went back to the platform to wait for my train and behaved.

Of course, the cold weather has down sides, including seasonal flu, of which I suffered the last few days of last week. It was my reward for a successful visit to Warwickshire College to talk to students about life in science and in the laboratory. Exhausted, we returned triumphant of having interested a few students and entertained (but not necessarily for the right reasons) some others. However, the following morning I was not a well bunny.

I’m back to work now and the rush is on to finish for Christmas and New Year, which means this is probably my final post of the year. It has not been a prolific year for writing here, for which there are many plausible reasons and excuses. But don’t be thinking nothing has happened – so, so much has happened instead. Principally, I got married, and it was, and still is, fantastic.

The year ends with pure contentedness. I often struggle to know what I would like for Christmas, but this year I really would be content with nothing, because where my life is right now, what I have with and around me already is all that I want. I’m genuinely grateful for my lot.

I have, however, lost my writing voice of late, and I do want that back. Telling stories here and elsewhere is how I hold on to memories – I used to hoard things, but don’t so much any more, favouring the tales I can share instead – but this has fallen by the wayside. Early next year I am going to work on finding my voice again, finding a time and a place to allocate to thinking and writing. The search for my very own Fuchsia’s Attic is on.

Merry Christmas to you all. I hope that you have a relaxing holiday, and that 2011 brings hope and joy to you in delightfully unexpected ways.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Friendship

IN the past 48 hours I have been struck by the power of friendship.

On Thursday morning I logged in to Twitter to see a number of friends and friends-of-friends whom I know through the whimsical (but marvellous) collective called Join Me posting some concerning messages. (Join Me is a story entirely unto itself, but it is a group of people connected through friendship, kindness and a lot of silliness to boot.) Around midnight on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, a press release had been distributed from the Road to Hope convoy, a non-activist convoy of aid workers hoping to get food to Gaza. The Egyptian government had denied them permission to enter the country, so they were attempting to reach Gaza by sea by hiring a boat from Libya. After fundraising to pay for the ship Strofades IV, and while waiting for permission to head towards Gaza, the Greek owner appeared to have an argument with an Egyptian broker and pulled out of harbour – the ship still moored, a number of the aid workers still on board and one of the convoy lorries in the ships doorway, which was half open. The aid workers were now hostages.

My friends were very concerned because they had reason to believe that one of their friends was one of those hostages. As somebody who has not been part of Join Me for a while, I assumed I wouldn’t know who it was. But I did. The person in question was a man named Kieran Turner, who, though I am not as close as many of my friends to him, I know to be a lovely bloke. The first time I met him he made a point of coming to speak to me, knowing who I was and wanting to know more about me. This news was highly alarming. Nobody knew what was going on, other than that a violent man had torn out of harbour – damaging the docks in the process – taking captive a number of aid workers on a vessel that would be liable to sink if the weather turned bad. Sailing with the back door open is highly dangerous.

Then the owner left the boat mid-voyage but the ship continued to sail. We now did not know who was sailing it or where it was going.

What followed was astounding. There had been only one piece of news coverage to date. No major news network knew of the story, so friends and joinees began a campaign to increase media coverage, thereby increasing awareness and maximizing the chances of people being able to help. People bombarded Twitter using the hashtag #GazaConvoyHostages, including asking celebrities to help spread the word, so that it would start to trend. Once it would trend attention to it would perpetuate, allowing people to be able to become both aware and up-to-date of the situation as it unfolded. Slowly news networks picked it up, first the Scottish Daily Record, then the Independent, the Guardian, the Sun, the Daily Mail and, eventually, 18 hours after it had started and 7 hours after they had first been tipped off about it, the BBC. It really was disappointing that the BBC had refused to cover the story for so long, especially when it involved British hostages.

Last night, however, we received word from Kieran that he was unharmed. Everybody was very relieved. Websites tracking the boat suggested they had docked and disembarked on Crete.

This morning, this turned out not to be the case. They were still sailing, still hostages. They were bound for Piraeus near Athens and, upon approach, became surrounded by Greek military, who boarded the ship. It could not be ascertained whether this was a good thing or not. Some reports suggested the hostages were being held by the commandos at gunpoint. Other reports suggested they weren’t in Piraeus at all. Others still thought they were in Crete.

As I write the latest is that the ship has been towed into Keratsini, the Greek commandos peacefully ensuring the passengers are passed over to the waiting British Embassy staff. But even now reports are conflicting, and the ship’s owner is attempting to claim that the captives came along voluntarily - though obviously, he is highly likely to say that, perhaps to save face. The reasons for the whole scenario have yet to be explained. What appears to be an argument over money (the Gaza element being unrelated) may have had political elements to it, we just don’t know.

Things are looking hopeful for Kieran and the convoy. Over the past two days I have been supremely impressed by the camaraderie of people affected by the events. Out of love for Kieran and the others, people have used the tools available to them – principally Twitter, Facebook and MarineTraffic – to spread the word, spread support and rally people behind them. It has been truly inspiring.

Update: Kieran and the other hostages have finally been released and the captain of the Strofades IV arrested. It is uncertain how the convoy will now proceed split over two continents and lorries and personnel in different countries, with passports not necessarily in the same place. But the hostages are free and well, and that's the best news.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

F.A.S.T.

A COUPLE of weeks ago, my granddad had a stroke. It was a complete shock, as to me my grandfather has always been the strong one of the family, nothing could ever happen to him. He is recovering well (he could walk and talk immediately after) but not completely healed, but was in high spirits and good shape at a celebration for his and my gran’s Diamond wedding anniversary only a week after the stroke. He even gave a speech.

On Sunday, in the middle of church, a lady in the congregation had a TIA (a mini-stroke). She had plenty of people around her to help, many of whom had been with her during her recovery from a full stroke just a week before, and she was talking and joking very soon afterwards. The congregation, luckily, included several nurses and a doctor. I’m very glad she was OK, but it shocked me, reminding me of my granddad but also alerting me to the fact that I have no idea how to recognise a stroke or have any idea what you need to do in such a situation. This despite the fact that I’ve seen adverts explaining what to do everywhere.

To my shame I’ve never really read them. I know they say “Act F.A.S.T.”, but I had no idea what F.A.S.T. stood for. So, because you can never repeat something important often enough, I went away and found out, and decided to post it below. The acronym was chosen because the faster a patient experiencing a stroke is seen to, the higher the change of recovery. The letters stand for things to look for to recognise a stroke, and then act immediately.

F. Facial weakness – can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye drooped?
A. Arm weakness – can the person raise both arms?
S. Speech problems – can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?

If a person fails any of these tests…

T. Time to call 999.

Plenty more information at the Stroke Association website (www.stroke.org.uk)
The NHS have an Act F.A.S.T test here.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Wedding

Rachel's sister Diana has taken to creative writing of late, writing some excellent poems. I hope she doesn't mind me using this style (modified where I feel the urge to ramble) to attempt to describe the wedding of Rachel and I in September. She's much better at it than I am, I just wanted to give it a go.


A STODGY breakfast; wandering barefoot and trouble-free.
A shower, a shave. Another shave. Another shower.
Putting on my suit. Getting too hot and taking it off again. Several hours still to wait.
Walking around in my fancy suit, slip-sliding in my grip-free shoes.
One last cup of tea.
Another shave; another look in the mirror, checking that everything is in order. My hair looks fine, stop playing with it.
More pacing, more packing.
Bradley off to collect button-holes and Rachel’s suitcase: the day according to schedule, so far.
A run through of the speech, to nobody, yet anybody. Another rewrite of that pesky sentence.
A quick freshen up; the suit on for good. Time to go.

Getting lost in Burnham but arriving in good time, alongside my ushers. Wandering around the grounds, enjoying the atmosphere. Slip-sliding in my shoes some more. Buttonholes ready. My team looking dapper. The choir rehearsing.
This is gonna be good.
My family arrive, all really excited. I’m not nervous: this feels right.
Guests start to arrive, the photographer zooming in on instant reactions, often based on blurry eyesight.
A lot of hugging, a lot of excitement.
A lot of make-up now on my shoulder.
Perhaps I should go with the formal peck on the cheek or handshake, suggests the vicar.
I try.
More make-up on my shoulder... some people are just too friendly.
Quick! Inside! Rachel has arrived!
Sitting at the front, hubbub around me. Anticipation builds; adrenaline kicks in. Am I nervous? Not about being married, but what if I stumble, trip on my words or Rachel’s train? No time to think this thought all the way through... she is here.
Standing, facing the front. Everybody else can see her. I await my cue to turn.
Harry smiles at me. This is it.

There she is.
Wow.
The smiling begins.
There she is: my fiancée, my Rachel, looking stunning. Look how beautiful she is. And...
...yep, she’s crying.
We face Harry; the ceremony begins - all according to plan, except perhaps the emergency hunt for tissues. She’s crying: I’m smiling. I can’t stop smiling.
Excellent hymns, excellent readings. The choir are magnificent, the service truly uplifting, a feeling shared by all. Our vows said, heartfelt and honest, but we are the centre of this event – no time to sit back and savour. So up we get, for further blessings – prayers from Helen, another hymn, the signing of the register. Much amusement and congratulating, next it is time to walk through the congregation. We thought this bit would be nerve wracking, but now we’re having too much fun.
Let the photos begin.
Time to stop smiling? Nah.

Family, friends, happiness spread among them all. This is a good day, though something funny has happened to my hair.
Lavender: once in cones, now down my back. The photos will look spectacular though.
The car. That horn. We’re off!
Time to calm down, time to say hello to each other. Time to cuddle and let it sink in: we’re married at last. How brilliant is that?
We made a child’s day by waving as we waited at the lights. A bride and groom in a fancy car alongside a family saloon beneath junction 6 of the M4.
Pootling to the reception, a tranquil haven amidst the commuter belt. Posing, celebrating, then boarding the ferry. Welcome, says Fraser, to Queen’s Eyot.
Meeting and greeting, posing and smiling, guava and Cava.
Surprise music, surprise coincidences, surprise guests (but welcome).
Ladies and Gentlemen, please stand for the arrival of the bride and groom.
That, we momentarily have to process, is us.

Food. Conversation. People meeting and befriending, unlikely duos and teams building: fun all round.
The challenge of guessing latin species table names falls to the curse of Internet phones.
The challenge of making balloon animals of latin species table names falls to the curse of having chosen complex species. Instead, silliness prevails. Yet somehow, iPhone-less, the grandparents guess Sarcophilus harrissii.
Speeches of impeccably high standard, unexpectedly poetic and personal. Such sentiment highly appreciated.
My turn.
The results of the balloon competition announced, it is time to get soppy.
No really, she didn’t believe I was proposing. Numerous times I had to ask!
Speech over and lavender removed from pockets, I’m still smiling, and it’s time to party.
The first dance; twirling with that train. Twirling to Train. We should have practised this.
Oh well!
Soon come the rest of the wedding party, jiving and twisting to the sounds of Jam Hot. We chat with newcomers and see off others, so glad they could come. Some people dance, others eat cake, others escape to the lawns on this mild September evening.
Another postcard, with chimpanzees.
The band are back, let’s dance some more. Look at me in my suit of balloons!
Then the conga heads for the door. Quick! Time to change, everybody is waiting! Time to leave the island, not even time to say thank you or good bye – it is off to Gatwick for us, and Italy beyond.
No time to reflect, just time to smile.
Me and my wonderful wife.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A day in the lab

THE big assignment of day two of the Creative Writing Course was to describe a typical day of our research. There’s no such thing, but here’s what I wrote (slightly edited to remove details that shouldn’t be published at this stage of my project).

There is no such thing as a normal day in my research group, rather many things that happen often, all of them with unimaginable effects, masked by mundane and repetitive tasks. From one point of view, the day starts with some counting, continues on to mixing volumes of colourless liquids and ends with some more counting. But from another point of view, the day starts with the segregation of living organisms according to the manifestation of different visible, heritable character traits, the genetic combinations of which you have carefully created; continues on to the creation of specific fragments of DNA and all manner of invisible yet complex constructs, which you rely on surrogate bacteria to grow and copy for you; and ends with the day’s round up of new fly progeny, which you will use to show the effect of combining two faulty genes, one step closer to finding what you are looking for.

Every day at 9am and 5pm the geneticists in our laboratory – myself included – pour into the fly room, a self-contained unit with microscopes. With a model organism of about 2-3 mm in length, high magnification is a necessity. Fruit flies have been used for years as a genetic model, pioneered by the work of Thomas Hunt Morgan in the early 1900s, as it is very easy to trace heritable, viewable characteristics over generations. For example, if one parent has curly wings and the other spotty eyes, the laws of genetics can tell us what their offspring will look like and in what ratio. Morgan did it with eye colour, and we still use this marker today, tracing red, white and orange eyes through the generations in predictable ways until you reach the combination you desire. It’s not the eye colour or wing shape or hair type that you’re really interested in, but such markers can be associated with mutations invisible to the eye, thereby providing a way to trace a mutation of choice. These laws of genetics have never been disproven (though often elaborated), which we’re rather happy about.

And 9am? Well, this is to collect them immediately after hatching, before they get busy with the ladies! In genetics control is key: you cannot afford for true love to blossom among your young ones – not usually anyway. So, to the soothing sounds of Melvyn Bragg, Jenny Murray or whoever else is educating the world from BBC Radio 4 that morning, we sit, count and matchmake.

Then: to the lab! At the moment I am often making RNA probes and DNA constructs, trying to take a gene, of which nobody knows anything, isolating it and making copies. I use enzymes and salts and, despite the fact that I am simply mixing chemicals and occasionally heating them up, if I were to zoom in I would see the units of life sticking together in often novel sequences, proteins acting as robots on an assembly line, and antibodies scoping out a particular protein like sniffer dogs at an airport. Inside that tube is another universe, operating entirely by itself, with this scientist trying to peer in. I know what is going on only by working through established logic, hoping that I got the recipe right. All I see is one tiny bit of liquid mixing with another, but I hope for the best: I dream of magical things happening.

Sometimes, magical things do happen. After two days of hoping, my RNA probe might start glowing – for complicated reasons – inside a tiny fly embryo, revealing a distinct pattern that nobody has seen before. I can see, quite literally, what parts of the body use that gene and, reassuringly, they are exactly where I want them to be. So then I’ll spend a few days in a dark room, looking at the embryo at 63 times the size it actually is, photographing it and trying to work out what my gene does.

But I must be back in the fly room at 5pm (just in time to listen to Eddie Mair delving into the day’s news) to collect more new-born flies and separate them ready for matchmaking – which invariably happens on Friday, 3 pm, during
Gardener’s Question Time. The hour of genetics has come.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

One room: thirty realities

A MONTH or so ago, just days after handing in my 9-month report, I went on a creative writing course. My report had turned into a monster, far exceeding the suggested word and page count, and I was keen to do something different (and far less stressful) for a few days. Though the course was supposed to be linked to my PhD – which is in Biology – I hoped it would give me a break from thinking in a scientific way and provide some light relief. It did, but not without its own intensities.

Designed to help us talk about our research to a non-scientific audience, it was pitched as an invaluable training tool for communication skills. In the end, there wasn’t much science included at all, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, which is peculiar, because when I was at school I could not stand pure creative writing. I thought it was pointless. I no longer think it is pointless, but I never choose to do it. The writing I do here may sometimes be a little creative, a form of fictionalised truth, but it is always based on something that has actually happened, or something I am thinking based on actual events. But for a change, I wanted to try.

The course was run by two local writers, one an author of novels, and one a scriptwriter for The Archers. Neither knew anything about science, and that was the point.

We began with a simple challenge to describe something about ourselves in exactly six words. The bar was set with an example from Ernest Hemmingway: “For sale: Baby clothes. Never used.”

There were some excellent examples, including “I fear boredom so have friends.” Mine came to me immediately and, though not creative, I could say nothing else:

“I am getting married in September.”

After another such exercise, things began to get trickier. We were tasked with getting to know our neighbour, discovering the tale of a pivotal event in their lives and telling the group that person’s story as if we had lived it ourselves. This was quite a skill, and I relished the opportunity to tell my story as a Bulgarian–Israeli girl torn between conscription and a life of science, meeting boys and finding my identity. It was difficult to portray the emotions of another, but what I hadn’t anticipated was how much I would learn about how I myself come across – my story was subsequently retold entirely differently to how I might have told it to the group, and indeed how I thought of it myself. The topics covered were surprisingly personal and open, and set the mood for the rest of the course.

After this came the big assignment of Day One, to write and then tell the story of either the best or worst day of our lives. The day suddenly turned from empathetic storytelling to disconcerting psychotherapy. The stories were incredible, often perfectly pitched for a film script, but always raw, honest and revealing of a great deal of private anguish. It didn’t sit right with the appraisal mechanism at hand. Take, for example, the young Chinese lady who had suffered at the hands of an abusive partner for four years, only just mustering the energy to say “hello” to him every morning. Enough was enough, and on the last day of a holiday, with their flights home separate and on different days, she stayed behind and missed her journey home to finally say how she felt. Things didn’t go well, and she was left alone and broken in an unknown place, free but feeling anything but. She passed the time until the next flight home by going to the cinema — it was showing Love Actually — amusing to all around except to her. It was only mocking to her. Two years later, he came to apologise. It was unexpected, long yearned-for and appreciated but anything but cathartic. It dragged the feelings up once more, but it was done. It was over. She went back into her apartment, letting the happiness slowly seep through the shock, and then sat and turned on the television. The first thing to come on screen was Love Actually.

The group sat in shock: the course leaders were in ecstasy. They applauded the tension, the structure and devices of the story: the film-like coincidence of Love Actually and the emotions of fear then isolation in an unknown city. But such appraisal felt wrong given that what had been told was true. The girl was almost in tears as she read it. I applaud her honesty and brevity for being able to tell the tale, but I question whether she should have been encouraged to say it at all. This was being creative, but not with a hypothetical scene or event but with the harshest or most jubilant personal emotions of the people actually in the room.

Other stories told included an escape from a car crash, the perils of the number 11 bus route, resistance against a foreign government, being stranded in the middle of the Sahara for three hours without water, finding love, the death of a mother, and my personal favourite of the academic lecturer who is a scientist and laboratory head at the university for half the year, and a shepherd on the Mongolian steppe for the remainder. As he described the sensation of waking up in the wilderness I felt a pang of yearning to escape the bustle of civilization, although I have no intention of tending to livestock. If nothing else the day was absolutely fascinating, with thirty people sharing their lives. We all live in the same place, but the stories and memories that make us who we are are all so different, influenced by so many disparate and telling experiences from all over the world. Nearly 7 billion people in the world, all of them unique, all with an adventure to tell that you would never expect.

The story I told was personal but, in the manner you may have become accustomed to if you come here regularly, I tried to find the light-hearted side of it. This wasn’t difficult, because it was about the best day of my life, so far. You might get to hear it if you’re coming to my wedding.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Monday, 24 May 2010

Western Australia IV: Quilts, satellites and old farm machinery

FROM the rolling hills and farmland around Northampton we drove north, confusingly for us Brits, to Carnarvon. The landscape changed progressively but dramatically, from fields to forest to safari-style bush and dry scrub, towards desert. The drive took the best part of the day, with no settlements between the two towns and only two roadhouses; fellow drivers were so rare that we instinctively gave one another a cursory nod (or extravagant toot, flash and wave, depending on your state of sanity). We were starting to feel the distance we had put between us and civilization. Perth was three days drive away, and Perth was a long way from anywhere itself. Curiously, after sweating our way through the desert, Carnarvon turned out to be a fertile oasis, the fruit-growing and fishing capital of the west.

Our stay in Northampton had been short and sweet. The entire town was classed as a Historic Town by the National Trust in 1993, and it retains a clean, quaint and traditional charm. At the heart of the town is Our Lady in Ara Coeli, a sandstone church (one of three churches in town) with Gothic and Byzantine features, and the neighbouring Sacred Heart Convent, now a hostel. Shop fronts and old miner's cottages retain their half-century-old charm, petrol stations have pump attendants, and just down the road is a museum of old farming machinery. The town holds an annual Airing of the Quilts, where buildings are draped in colourful, handmade patchwork quilts. It seemed, in the warm dusk, to be an ideal place to settle for the night and rest ahead of the beastly drive we were facing the following day.

We pulled in to the Northampton Caravan Park, unfairly described by Lonely Planet as 'rudimentary', to find it full. But though not as glamorous and kempt as other sites we had visited, it had everything it needed plus a certain element other campsites lacked - friendly owners. They came to meet us as we pulled up and began to create space for us, clearing a corner by the office and stringing together extension leads to charge our van. They then invited us to a sausage sizzle that evening - to be held five metres from Ben - in support of the Returned & Services League (RSL), the Australian defence services veterans' organisation. It is a charity event they hold once a month and a good excuse for park visitors - many of them regulars - to get to know one another. To our shame we didn't go, although it was unlikely any of the food would have suited our dietary requirements. Instead, we rustled up something in the van and went out for a drink at the local tavern.

Image source: Gemma at Yukiba

The tavern is a long white building with a red roof sporting the word 'TAVERN' in enormous letters across its length. It was hard to miss. Inside it was precisely what an outback tavern should be expected to be: unglamorous, basic, the bar stools not particularly comfortable and not a hint of gastro-pub to be found. It sold beer, wine and peanuts, and that was about it; there was a TV showing Australian news, none of it relevant for hundreds of miles; bingo was the game of choice; and there were certain locals, a bit crusty round the edges, perving over pictures of naked ladies on the wall. I prefer the pubs of home, with their warmth, home comforts and drunk-but-harmless bearded old men, but it was a memorable experience nonetheless. We stayed for just the one drink, Rachel not enjoying her chemical lemon, lime and bitters, then returned to the campsite trying not to be noticed by the sausage sizzle crowd...

...which we failed, as Ben (our van) was so excited to see us return that his security alarm blared out a celebratory holler.

The following morning we arose before sunrise with three objectives: to fill our empty clean water tank (a necessity for the desert drive), to fill up with diesel and to make it to Carnarvon before sunset. However, having been given a makeshift pitch, we had no access to a tap, and only a metre of hosepipe. So began a lesson in applied physics as, under torchlight, we attempted to siphon buckets of water from a rainwater butt into a narrow inlet on Ben's side. The hole was tiny and inconveniently painted black; the buckets heavy for Rachel, who had opted for the job of manual lifting over that of sucking on a dirty hosepipe. Try as we might, most of the water ended up on the floor. Although our efforts improved with practice, it quickly became clear we were going to be doing this for some time, until another early-rising camper came to our aid by allowing us to park alongside their pitch to use their tap. Refreshed and refuelled, Ben was raring to go, and so were we.

It is from Northampton that you finally leave behind the world. Though the drive had been sparsely populated until that point, you were never far from a town of some size. Traffic was never heavy but sufficiently busy to warrant occasional overtaking lanes. After Northampton, landmarks stopped being towns but changes in the landscape - the fertile zone around the Murchison river and then the features of the ever-drying bush. Two tin sheds serve as roadhouses along the way, lifelines on the highway and at the junction to Shark Bay, and they evoke the usual service station emotions, but otherwise it is just you, nature and the possessions that you tow that occupy this vast expanse of nothing. That and a very, very long straight road.


This is the land of red earth, land of the kangaroo at dusk. Cars shimmer in the sun and heat haze; the Tropics are looming. We crossed vermin-proof fence no. 3, twice (we think). Miles and miles rolled by. It was a dry, dry world. For long distances we were the only vehicle. We were the only people.

And then came Carnarvon, a town of 5,000 people based on fruit farming, rich fishing and mining further inland. It is a holiday hub, and it was packed. What we hadn't realised was that while we had been racing North, invisible scores of families and their caravans had been doing the same. Quite where they had been on the roads we could never fathom, but there they were, filling up campsites. The school holidays had begun, and our plan to drive to wherever we pleased, whenever we pleased, was over. Booking pitches prior to arrival was now a necessity: settlements and their accommodation options were already limited, now very likely full, and hopping over to a neighbouring town as a backup simply wasn't an option. Neighbouring towns didn't exist.

For now, we were in. We raided the fish shops by the port, full of trawlers, nets and opportunist seagulls, settling on a fine selection of shrimp from The Crab Shack. We walked the One Mile Jetty (now only half a mile long after an arson attempt), watching mudskippers in the mangroves and trying not to get run over by the Coffee Pot tourist train. We met a man from Colchester.

And then the day drew to a close, with pancakes and mango puree on the dinner table. We could see the sun setting behind Carnarvon's dominating landmark - the OTC Satellite Earth Station Carnarvon, a companion satellite dish to a NASA tracking station that was once just down the road. The tracking station was built for the Gemini missions, and the setup was invaluable during the Apollo moon landings as it was the only dish able to communicate with the missions during re-entry. It was also crucial for tests of COMSAT's Intelsat satellites and for NASA's Skylab. Though the tracking station has since been razed, the OTC dish remains. Officially decommissioned in 1987, it has continued to prove vital in ongoing scientific research coordinated from - I have since discovered - the University of Birmingham, where I work.


On our road trip through WA, we had felt blissfully far from the trappings of the world. But here, in the middle of the desert, surrounded by hundreds of miles of nothing, there is an automated satellite dish controlled by computers only five minutes from my office. I wonder if they were watching me on CCTV as I climbed it?



Further reading: Birmingham Solar Oscillations Network (BiSON) at the University of Birmingham

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Western Australia III: Shark Bay Days

AS we drove north into bush we passed several place names on the map - isolated and tiny communities tucked away and unsighted from the highway - that contain only a handful of people. Some of these communities were abandoned, others apparently only in existence because of long-distance haulage railways. Some communities were aboriginal and as such, secretive to this English outsider. I began to wonder what kind of people lived out here, what characters could survive - both now and in the past. Where do they get their food from? How do they endure such isolation? And how or why were these settlements founded?

The following excerpt from Shark Bay Days, by a local author, provides no answers whatsoever to the above questions, but it did make me laugh. Though my query refers mainly to inland settlements, the Shark Bay area, now a World Heritage Site, is far from major towns and facilities, and in the 1950s would have been a remote and self-contained pocket of people. Pearling, fishing and mining of solidified blocks of cockle shells were the primary trades of a hard-working and hardy population; the area also contained an important landing point for cargo vessels collecting wool from nearby stations to be transported back to Perth. Today only 1,000 people live in the Shark Bay area, taking up only 1% of an area of coastline 1,500 km. The land and seas are unforgiving, though a beautiful location to visit. The population was inevitably much smaller at the time in which the book is set, and indeed in 1919, when the author arrived there, only 20 students attended the tiny school. With no roads, only sailing boats and horse carts, one can scarcely imagine how they survived out there. But survive they did.

"During the 1950's John Woodward bought a little boat from a chap in Denham and went off fishing on his own. We didn't expect him to come back from his first trip. He was one of those happy chaps, always full of fun, who would always say "she'll be right" and never worried about anything. He used to go down to the lighthouse on Dirk Hartog Island, where all the big boats worked. He made a lot of trips and always seemed to get a few fish and get them safely back to Denham. He was fishing there on one of his trips and was anchored off the Island lighthouse. He turned in to sleep after dark and when he woke in the morning he was about five miles out on the west side of Dirk Hartog Island, and still drifting. The anchor had come off the bottom. He went to start his motor but the battery was flat, so he drifted all day, further and further out to sea and the land of no return. He thought that was the end for him as he had no way of getting back to land. When he had just about given up hope he looked around in case there might be a ship coming from north or south, thinking he might be able to put something up for them to see, when he spotted something sticking out of the water. It looked like a big shark fin and gave him quite a fright. All of a sudden it came to the surface. It was an American submarine going from Singapore to Freemantle. It came alongside him and wanted to know what he was doing so far out in a small boat. They gave him a new battery, food and cigarettes, and towed him to Dirk Hartog Island. In return he gave them the fish in his ice box, about 100 lbs. of good big schnapper. He wouldn't forget that trip. When he offered me a Lucky Strike, I couldn't believe it when he said they'd come from a Yank submarine. We couldn't really believe him, as he always had a story to tell, until we saw a photo of his boat alongside the submarine. Pommie John didn't take much notice of what had happened. Later on he shifted to Geraldton, taking his little boat with him. I think he was fishing at the islands off Geraldton when his boat was caught and sunk in a breaker and he swam ashore. I met his parents at the Victoria Hotel in Geraldton when they came out from England and persuaded him to go back with them."

Pommie John & The Submarine from Shark Bay Days by G.W. Fry, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA/L. Price, Moonyoonooka, WA; 1988/1995

Rachel and I went to Shark Bay, its main town Denham as well as Monkey Mia and Hamelin Pool, on our way back down the coast. There is much to tell about it - but for now, we shall keep heading north.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Western Australia II: Postcards of the outback


IT SEEMS a funny thing to say, but I have always wanted to see the Outback. It's a funny thing to say because, before I went to Australia in 2007, I had never really considered going to Australia at all. Many people have lists of the places they most want to go - I still do - but mine had places like Peru and, because of a Primary School project I remain fond of to this day, Mongolia. But as I travelled down the East Coast from Cairns to Melbourne over two months in 2007, I started to yearn not only to see more of this tremendous country, but to see the real country, away from the densely populated thin strip of land east of the Great Dividing Range. I wanted to see it all, but more than that I wanted to see the lesser-known west, where people are few and far between and the earth turns red. Given the privilege of returning to the land Down Under, it was always the plan to go to Western Australia and travel into the bush.

So here we were, Rachel, Ben and I, driving north into the countryside. First along the dual carriageways around Perth - initially getting lost and driving into the airport - into smaller suburban towns, repeatedly over the ever-diminishing Swan River and into the farmland beyond. The land was surprisingly fertile; I had had preconceived ideas that the area around Perth would be stripped of moisture, exacerbating the city's reputation as the most remote in the world, but the vineyards and pasture blanketed the landscape in two shades of green - that of grass and gum trees. It wasn't long before we turned off the Great Northern Highway and on to the Brand Highway, the split between the only two roads that cross the state to the north. The Brand Highway follows the coast, whereas the Great Northern Highway, a drive of stamina and strong engines, cuts north-east as far as Port Hedland, 1,635km away, with little in between. Missing the turning was non-negotiable.

I had not driven any vehicle for a very long time, and I had never driven anything as big as Ben. High-sided and heavy (and more importantly, subject to a $1,300 deposit), driving him was a daunting task. We could take no chances, nor could we attempt speed or sudden changes of direction or velocity. Road trains overtook us. We knew we would have to get faster and endure longer distances in the days to come, but for now we were taking modest steps. Our official final destination was Shark Bay, 833km away, but in our minds we really wanted to go further - to Coral Bay and Ningaloo Reef, a further 500km away. We knew that some days driving we would see few people and even fewer settlements; we knew there would be days when driving between neighbouring towns would take the entire day, with no services in between. So day one would be to orientate ourselves - our target became Jurien Bay, 267km up the coast. By nightfall we were exhausted: we had taken frequent breaks and switched drivers often. Less than two weeks later I would drive the same distance in one stint with absolute ease.

Over the course of our journey I became an irritating bundle of excitement.

"Wow! Look at THAT!" I would repeatedly shout. I was unendingly enthusiastic about everything, usually utterly mundane things or a cluster of particularly fascinating trees. Mostly it was the dirt: I was ecstatic all the way because the earth was red. The roads went on to the horizon, and the earth was red: simple features but, in my mind, captivating. I am enchanted by wilderness - for me it equates to solitude. My enthusiasm was undoubtedly irritating but I couldn't help it. I see the world in postcard photographs, and everywhere I looked I wanted to capture what I saw - trails breaking through the forest or the scrub, criss-crossing the world in lines of red dust; unfailing sunshine and outback; the continuum from fertile land to desert and back again.

"Wow! Look at THAT!"

I think Rachel wanted to hit me.

For a sparsely populated coastline, WA contains a surprising number of landmarks, so much so that it was not possible to stop at them all. First along our route was the Moore River National Park, a forest to the left of the road: desert lay to the right. Upstream on the Moore River was once the Moore River Native Settlement, a relic of Australia's shameful history. Moore River was a centre for the relocation of Aboriginal mixed-race children, removed from their parents for 'their own good' to be converted to the ways of the whitefella - and often then into slavery. It was from Moore River that in 1931, Molly Craig, Daisy Craig and Molly Fields, three Aboriginal children aged between 8 and 14, escaped and, without roads, maps or compasses, walked 1,600km to their home of Jigalong along the Rabbit-Proof Fence. Their story has been immortalized in Doris Pilkington Garimara's book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, subsequently turned into a feature film by Phillip Noyce. It is an inspiring tale but telling of a dark place in history - it was not until 2008 that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Aboriginal community for the Stolen Generations, 39 years after resettlement policies ended and 139 years after they began. We couldn't stop at Moore River because it was too far out of the way and, besides, the settlement no longer remains. It was enough to know that it once did, but I found it a curious notion that this empty landscape not so long ago had such a key role in history. I wondered what other secrets innocent landscapes hold both here and elsewhere around the world. The Aboriginal Land Trust took over the Moore River site in 1974 and it is now known as Budjarra - "mother earth".

Jurien Bay is a coastal town on the Indian Ocean. As the sun set on day one, tourists and fishermen alike stood at the end of the pier in silent contentedness. The sun scorched the horizon a deep orange as it disappeared into the dark blue sea, and a sea lion popped his head out of the water, coming to see what all the fuss was about - and steal the fishermen's catch while he was at it.




I can't be sure, but I probably said "Wow! Look at THAT!". Entirely by accident you understand.

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?

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Tasmania V: Beaumaris Zoo

IN Hobart, in the Queens Domain, there is a steep, overgrown hill that overlooks the River Derwent. Next to the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens and Government House, it didn't look particularly significant, but it was to be the most important thing that we would see all day.

As we walked through the gates we were touched with sadness. It was neglected, forgotten. A tourist bus approached, but it didn't stop. In fact, it barely slowed down on passing.

This field, used in the past 70 years first as a naval depot and now by the council, has a very important place in history. As the commemorative gates proclaim, it used to house a private business known as Beaumaris Zoo, or Hobart Zoo, and it was here that the world last saw something very special. In 1936, in a small, concrete enclosure at the bottom of the hill, the last ever thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, died.


The thylacine was a marsupial carnivore, the largest in modern times, like a dog with stripes on its back. By the time of European settlement of Australia it had become restricted to the island of Tasmania, having previously been found all across the Australian mainland. It quickly ran into trouble: perceived as a pest to farming (a culture that had arrived along with the Europeans), a bounty was placed on the head of every thylacine. Even the government offered £1 per scalp in an age when £2 was a reasonable weekly wage. Numbers dwindled disturbingly rapidly.

The last known wild thylacine in Tasmania was shot by farmer Wilf Batty in 1930, a legacy I am sure his family would rather forget.

But was the thylacine really a pest?

Some sources say that the animal was in fact shy and unlikely to have been the savage hunter it is portrayed as. One photo, allegedly showing a thylacine stealing a chicken, was widely distributed and probably cemented the creature's image as a menace to agriculture. You may well have seen this picture, as it has become quite famous. But it is (and was) the only photograph in existence of a thylacine with prey. Subsequent analysis has suggested that the picture is of a mounted specimen in an enclosure, the chicken placed in its mouth:

"The most significant problem is that this photograph fabricates the idea that the thylacine was a threat to poultry and, by extension, sustains the notion that it was a threat to sheep and human endeavour in general. In his book, The Last Tasmanian Tiger, [Robert] Paddle interrogates claims of the thylacine’s predation on poultry, finds very few substantiated reports and points out that it has been referred to in publications so many times that it has been accepted in scientific literature and its significance magnified in a similar way to sheep predation. Paddle expresses no reservations about the power of representations and comments on the way the photograph has been cropped to disguise the caged environment and suggest that the thylacine is actually raiding a henhouse. The first appearance of the photo a little more than a decade after the end of the devastating government bounty on the thylacine, when few members the species survived, did nothing to support the idea that its protection and preservation was crucial."

Carol Freeman. "Is This Picture Worth a Thousand Words? An Analysis of Harry Burrell's Photograph of a Thylacine with a Chicken." Australian Zoologist 33.1 (2005): 1-16.

Above: Cropped image
Below: Original

The thylacine received full legal protection from the Tasmanian government - which had previously supported the cull of the species - on 14 July 1936. Two months later, on 7 September 1936, the very last one in history died in Beaumaris Zoo. After such a callous extermination, the species was not even allowed a dignified exit: Benjamin, as history has decided he was called*, died of neglect, left out of his enclosure overnight and exposed to the extreme cold brought in by the Southern Ocean. The thylacine died, to use the classic phrase, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Little remains of the Beaumaris Zoo site, but it is possible to picture how bleak it would have been by modern standards. The gates have been decorated with steel animals, looking forlornly through solid bars, their enclosures barely big enough for them to stand. The gates were open, so we wandered in.


In front of the gates is the largest remaining structure, a concrete pit that once housed two polar bears. Inside is a tiny platform on which the bears would stand and, presumably, wonder where it all went horribly wrong. I'm not opposed to zoos, but you have to wonder how justified the original zoos were when you see things like this. There was no room for them to walk. By modern standards it was mortifying. Rachel climbed in to the holding pen to one side but there wasn't much room for her, let alone a fully grown bear. For a creature that towers over us they had provided a concrete cell in which an adult human can barely stand.

 

According to the map on the gates, Mike the Leopard used to live in front of the polar bears. Giving him a name seemed to give him a personality, and I imagined a happy leopard, perhaps a showman. I like to think he would play practical jokes on the public, maybe perform a few card tricks or shape comical balloons. But if the scale of the map is to be believed this luxurious cat, suited to roam and hunt over vast areas, used to live in a cage no bigger than a car. Far from the entertainer, he was probably a very angry and bitter creature, which is simply heartbreaking.

We climbed the hill, the polar bears now below us. Beyond them lay the remains of the duck pond, but in all other directions, wild shrub. The zoo is now a wasteland, contaminated from years of naval fuel storage. Such abandonment was curiously appropriate as it left the site to silence, but it made it eerie also. Trees stood in the remains of the lion enclosure, turf concealing walls on which eagles once perched. The view over the river was appealing, but it would have been all the better if the animals had still been there. Now, instead, there was just overgrown bush, the two of us and, in front of the small corner that once somehow housed elephants, a man from the council, burning rubbish. We decided to leave, partly because it was all very upsetting, but mostly because we were probably trespassing.

Beaumaris Zoo closed in 1937. Whether this is because of the loss of the thylacine is debatable. In its time, the thylacine was hardly a star attraction. It was either perceived as a menace or not worthy of protection - it was seen as "stupid, dull and uninteresting; a curiosity from a far away land".

But if it were alive today, it would be the star attraction. Reverence for this mysterious creature has been amplified since its extinction, which occurred just long enough ago to escape memory. We like to imagine what it could have been like, how things could have worked out differently. I'd prefer not to imagine, however. I'd prefer that it were still here. Not stuffed in a museum or pickled in a jar, but living, breathing and definitely not pilfering poultry.

Which is why, for me, further attention needs to be drawn to the fauna of Tasmania. Although this time not caused by humans, there is another marsupial endemic to that beautiful island that is on the brink of extinction. The Tasmanian Devil  - a real creature, I promise - desperately needs our help, for an unstoppable cancerous plague is making its way through the population. We can't let it happen again, not on our watch.

This post continues at Longhand & Scribblings



*Name and gender are unrecorded. The name Benjamin was suggested by Frank Darby, a former keeper, and this name has been adopted. However, the daughter of the zoo's curator has denied both that the name Benjamin was ever used and also that Frank Darby was ever employed by the zoo. Benjamin's real identity remains unknown.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Tasmania IV: Curringa Farm

THIS year, on my birthday, I watched Mamma Mia!

I make no apology.



curringafarm.com.au



After our ridiculous and overlong journey to Curringa Farm, and the unprecedented hospitality bestowed on us by owners Tim and Jane, it was a pleasure to have a rest day. Philippa wasn't happy, however, her bodywork having turned from a healthy scarlet to a muddy grey on our journey along the least-used road in Tasmania, a thick layer of gravel cemented in every corner of her chassis. The sight of her might have been comical that morning had we not been so terrified of being found out by our rental company. We had very obviously driven off-road, something we were absolutely not to do. In the absence of a hose, we found a mop and bucket and mopped her down, dabbing her gently so as to not bruise her pride. She had the day to bask in the sun, and she seemed to have forgiven us by the next day.

Our accommodation, a self-catered cottage overlooking a private lake, was one of three on site, cut off from the rest of the farm. It was a quiet and secluded retreat. We were surrounded by grassland, rolling hills and trees stripped of bark by possums. We had more space than we knew what to do with: a large, fully-kitted kitchen and living room complex with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, electric blankets and even a hot tub. Miles from major settlement and beyond mobile phone reception, we even had a large screen HD television with digital reception. But I wasn't interested in the television. I wanted to explore.

We walked down to the lake, past a small makeshift enclosure at the bottom of the hill in which Tim and Jane were rehabilitating a wombat for a wildlife charity. He seemed quite content for us to watch him, so long as we stayed downwind.

In the afternoon I climbed a hill. It wasn't just any hill, but one that towered over a landscape already teeming with contour lines. The views from the top , I assumed, would be spectacular. So, leaving Rachel to catch up on some telly, during which time she unexpectedly prepared a feast, I began my adventure. Through the fields I walked, unnerving the sheep as I went, until I found myself at the base of the hill. It turned out to be a lot steeper than I had reckoned on, but I perservered, puffing and panting to the end, intent on reaching its rarely-climbed peak, a view on the world that would belong only to me. Even here, on a farm, it still felt like wilderness. For that very moment, it was all mine.

Well, mine and that of the herd of cows that were waiting for me at the top.


I stared out over my kingdom, over the river Derwent as it kinks around the base of the hill and splits to form the lake on which our cottage stood, over the green pasture that rolls for miles, remembering the mountains and lakes to the north, the forests to the west and the city to the east. It was a dragon and a hobbit short of Middle Earth, I remember thinking. The air was thin up there.

It took all afternoon to recover from my exertions, so we relaxed on the sofas, making the most of the cottage's DVD collection. On arrival we had been assured by Jane, who had checked with her son, that the DVD selection was pretty good. But her son was only little, so this pretty good selection amounted to two musicals, a collection of Looney Tunes cartoons, About a Boy (in Japanese) and Stuart Little.

3.

And I don't care admitting it. I rather enjoyed Chicago and Mamma Mia!

In the evening, summoned by a possum on our balcony, we went for a walk in the dark on a wildlife quest. Every so often, if we stayed very still and quiet, we would catch a glimpse of a wild possum staring at us in mild curiosity, pausing to say hello before hastily vanishing to safety. We could occasionally hear kookaburras, and where the sheep had been in the daytime a group of creatures departed from us with that most Australian of gaits - a bounce. They were too far away to identify, but we hoped, based on what we had been told, that they were potoroos, although they may have been wallabies. It was down by the lake, the water still and the night dark and quiet, that we made our most surprising discovery. Something - we had no idea what - pierced the silence with a bloodcurdling shriek. It truly sent shivers down our spines. It sounded like death itself calling for an ambush. What on earth could it have been? What on Middle Earth could it have been? Was it a Nazgûl, one of Sauron's most terrible servants coming to get us? We suddenly felt very isolated and very, very alone.

Turns out, we learned later, that it was only a parrot, but it was enough to make us head home immediately and bolt the door!

In a final act for my birthday, I had a bath in the hot tub. The water was brown - it came directly from the water table that is rich in tannins from all the gum trees - and it flowed slowly. The bath had pumps, jets and fancy buttons, and, being me (and getting impatient), I couldn't resist pressing them all. But I did so before the water level had passed a critical volume. Six streams of dirty water fired at varying angles - all of them up - at the walls. Three streams came from one end, three from the other, a veritable projection of water everywhere but the bath. It was at this moment that Rachel came in to say hello. In seconds, though it felt much longer, the room flooded. Frustratingly, to turn the jets off you had first to cycle through all of the other power levels, each of them progressively stronger. With the room's ambient lighting it was quite some scene.

But I don't care, because I was having fun.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Tasmania III: Funny thing, landslides

"As one approaches the Martian tundra of Queenstown, the customary holiday fondness for cream horns, pies and other regional bakery fare recedes and the term 'undulating' emerges as pitiably inadequate. Talk about hills. Sheesh."

Helen Razer, The Age, Saturday 9th October 1999;
article found laminated on every table of the Regatta Point Tavern, Strahan

HOBART to Strahan is just one road, but what a road. From the minimal bustle of the tiny Tasmanian capital, you quickly span rivers and weave along valleys, crossing over flat, low-lying bridges that give the impression you must be below the water level. Then the ambling farmland, a lush green hybrid landscape that looks British (I should perhaps say Scottish) but remains somehow Australian, even though you can't put your finger on why. There are hedgerows. There shouldn't be hedgerows in Australia. You then leave civilization behind and have only a cohort of sheep between you and an enormous expanse of freedom. The road starts to climb, the fields become forest and before you know it you are roaring up and down mountainsides, gullies and gorges and around lakes and enormous reservoirs. The thought of what on Earth you would do if you broke down has little time to form in your mind before you have to negotiate yet another set of hairpin corners. Invariably, there would either be a sheer drop to one side of you or thick, unrelenting rainforest that probably housed monsters. Briefly you appear in a landscape stripped to bare, red earth, whereupon you drop, sharply and severely into Queenstown, a famous mining town, but then it is back into the thick vegetation once more. My concentrating face was almost permanently in use, even when Rachel was driving.

Our wheels through this landscape came attached to a hairdryer called Philippa. Philippa was a scarlet Hyundai Getz. She didn't have much power, but what she lacked in strength she made up for in spirit. She was the girl to take us into the Tasmanian wilderness. From Lake St Clair onwards was pristine, cold rainforest, a World Heritage site that is devoid of any development whatsoever. I'm convinced she was loving it as much as we were.


I've thought long and hard how to explain what it felt like to drive through this, and also how we felt taking a cruise into the wilderness from Strahan the following day, but there are no descriptive words to do it justice. The forest is so old it has no birds, as fruit had not yet evolved. Hundreds of square miles are left untouched, potentially unexplored. From the river, which is 35-metres deep at places, it is utterly peaceful, and this is the only way I can explain the whole wilderness experience. I was utterly at peace. We were at peace. It lasted a long time.

It even survived the landslide.

After two nights at Ormiston House we were heading to a farmstead in Hamilton. This meant, once again, driving along that magnificent mountain road. But heavy rainfall had caused a landslide above Queenstown and had closed it and, being the only road back to Hobart, we suddenly became rather anxious. We felt like we were experiencing the trials and tribulations of real explorers, thwarted by the elements on our expedition, only we had heaters and Tim Tams. We waited for an hour, parked in torrential rain, amused by cars reaching the barricade and, in their confusion, having a look, pulling back and then having a look again. After an hour somebody came to us and told us it would be a further few hours until the cliffs were safe and clear - by this time we would be arriving in Hamilton at night time, when we were not allowed to drive - and advised us to take another route.

Because, despite the A10 being the only road through the wilderness, there is another route.

So that is what we did.

We drove around the whole of Tasmania in a day. We stopped only to change drivers.We didn't stop to eat. We had to keep going to beat the sun. With no radio reception and no phone reception, and townships en route effectively non existent, we could not ring ahead to Hamilton to warn them we would be late. We couldn't contact anybody. Thrifty, the adopted parents of Philippa (who brought her up, it has to be said, very well indeed) had provided us with a map of Tasmania, marking all the Big Roads. We had two conditions of our rental agreement: not to drive on unsealed surfaces and not to drive at night. Unintentionally, we were about to break both.With hindsight, what we did was stupid, but I wouldn't have changed it for the world. It was just Rachel, Philippa and I, and 398 km of beauty that we would not otherwise have seen.


Trusting the Thrifty map, we went north, driving on roads that connect disparate, tiny habitations, and sometimes connect nothing at all, but carve through the finest scenery in Australia and the finest scenery I have ever seen. We didn't really have time to admire it, as we couldn't stop, not even for a photo. I was in my element, in part because I have had the great fortune to have been to Tasmania before - having honestly thought I would never be lucky enough to go back - and here I was, revisiting some familiar scenery (albeit briefly). So the road past Cradle Mountain I recognised, longing to see a wombat there again. I recognised Mole Creek, remembered the honey shop in Chudleigh and the turning for Marakoopa caves. As the afternoon got older, we were carving up and down mountains, confounded by the lack of easterly main roads across the state, still miles to go. But we weren't panicking. In fact, we were rather enjoying it, especially when we passed a sign saying "Paradise (Sheffield)".

The shops were close to closing as we went through Deloraine, a small town that seemed satisfyingly old-fashioned, tucked away and cut off from the rest of Australia (something you could say of the entire state). From here we joined the A5, a highway that would take us nearly all the way to Hamilton. It was a highway that would be our undoing.

The A5 connects Deloraine with Melton Mowbray, via the farming town of Bothwell. It travels up to the Central Plateau Conservation Area, the highest flat land in the state. The plateau spans from the Walls of Jerusalem National Park to the Great Western Tiers and is home to a thousand lakes, including Great Lake, the second largest in the state and 1,030 metres above sea level. It is a fisherman's dream and a popular holiday location for families in the summer. It was not the summer. It was cold, bleak and up here, empty buildings were simply eerie. I've seen too many horror films.

Worryingly for us, at the highest point of this road, when our options were to keep going or turn back for several hours in search of a single alternative (let alone a suitable alternative), despite being an A-road and on our map, the tarmac ends. I had wondered why we had not seen any traffic for hours. For 27 km we slid and skidded along wet gravel, trying to avoid enormous potholes and the greater risk of sliding into the second largest lake in Tasmania, which was only a few metres to our left. Keeping up our speed was impossible and, frankly, dangerous. The sun was lowering, providing an idyllic backdrop, but far from tranquil we were terrified, particularly when lorries hurtled by in the opposite direction.

I have since discovered that the A5 is the least used highway in Tasmania.

It then became a race against time to reach Hamilton, and a race that we failed. Despite my best efforts (Rachel and fallen asleep), it was very much dark when we rolled up at the home of Tim and Jane at Curringa Farm. They had just finished their dinner and their son was playing with their pet cockatoo.

They asked us how we were and where we had come from, and took pity on us for our journey. In the warmth of their kitchen, they proceeded to show us incredible kindness: filling up tupperware with portions of their own dinner, they not only gave us a free evening meal but also a hamper of homemade bread and jam, butter, milk, bacon and eggs from the farm. Tim and Jane are sixth generation farmers at Curringa, a large site in the Derwent Valley. They have three holiday cottages at the far side of their land, overlooking a lake, itself annexed to the river Derwent, which flows to Hobart. At the time of visiting, they had, at least, one pet cockatoo and one pet wombat.

"Do you like fishing?" asked Tim. A previous visitor had left a fishing line in our cottage, so Tim went off to fetch us bait and lure. I didn't have the heart to say I didn't have the faintest clue what to do. "Feel free to fish beside the lake or take the canoe out", he added. "Although, if you see a boat pass by, you best not get caught. You need a licence to fish."

Jane asked us of our plans for our short stay, whereupon Rachel mentioned that the following day was my birthday. At this both Jane and Tim got very excited and, entirely unprovoked, produced a bottle of champagne from their fridge.

"Sorry it's not local", apologised Jane.

After a day of hurrying, hunger and panic, landslides, unending vistas and extreme isolation, their sudden hospitality could not have been more welcome. It set up our stay there nicely.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Tasmania II: The best little pub in town

STANDARDS of accommodation, it seems, are far lower in Tasmania than elsewhere in Australia – hostels are usually hit and miss but prior research into those in Hobart suggested that they are well below par. I had stayed before at the Hobart Hostel, which was acceptable, but, keen to try somewhere else, we weren’t having much luck. In the end, Rachel being braver than I and making the decision, we took a risk on the New Sydney Hotel, which claimed to be a hostel but was entirely absent from hostel-booking websites. Its own website hadn’t been updated for years (it has since been given a spring clean, but is still spectacularly vague). Rachel gave them a call, discovering that they did indeed provide accommodation and at a ridiculously cheap rate (less than half price of anywhere else). Reviews of everywhere else seemed so dire that we cut our losses and decided that if it was going to bad, it might as well be cheap.

As it turns out, the New Sydney Hotel, an Irish bar in central Hobart, has a fantastic atmosphere, good beer and a tempting menu. The staff were friendly, helpful and not at all worried that we had arrived late. We had a drink in the bar before heading to bed, feeling content. Unfortunately, our room was very cold (it was winter in Tasmania), but they gave us dozens of blankets. The room was bare, the television had a broken aerial, but we had the floor to ourselves and we couldn’t complain, given the price. We spent the evening looking at leaflets for Tasmanian attractions, often distracted by pictures of cute animals.

The real problem with the New Sydney was its lack of a kitchen. For many this wouldn’t be a problem, as you could go out and buy breakfast, but finding a gluten-free breakfast in Hobart isn’t so easy. A barmaid let us use the pub’s cutlery and crockery, even fetching us some milk from the bar for our Rachel-friendly cereal, but we realised that we would have to find somewhere else. So, with heavy hearts, we bade farewell to the ‘best little pub in town’ – almost without paying, simply because they forgot to ask – and began ringing around.

Hostels in Hobart are few. Montgomery’s YHA, probably the most popular hostel in the state capital, tried to charge us $110 a night for a room above a karaoke bar. So the Pickled Frog became our only other option. It had promise: it has won many awards and claims to be the best hostel in Tasmania. But this, we can reveal, doesn’t bode well for the others.

It is easy to see how the Pickled Frog has become much loved. In the summer, the atmosphere could truly be the hostel’s strength. The entire lower floor is dedicated to lounge spaces, comfortable communal areas and a large kitchen, all resembling an old, adapted tavern. We would sit by the roaring fire, strumming the communal guitar or listening to the music pumped out by reception - good stuff, like the Cat Empire and Xavier Rudd. If there had been more people around I dare say we might have met some fascinating people.

But finding dirty bowls tucked in the furniture of our room – goodness knows how long they’d been there - certainly dampened the initial appeal. And it got worse. There were things growing in the toasters. A sign on the bathroom doors warned of a long-passed, one-morning-only water pipe switch-off, which had prompted a disproportionate overreaction: that is, nobody bothered to flush the toilets. Things were growing on the bathroom ceilings. We don't mean to be snobs: you expect hostels to be basic. But on the first morning we both felt that we had come out of the showers dirtier than we had entered, so on the second morning we didn't bother to shower at all. We were keen to escape and so after three nights in Hobart we left, smelling something awful, heading out of town in a hairdryer-on-wheels called Philippa.

Imagine our surprise and delight then, when, after a day’s driving along a road that deserves an entire book unto itself, mountains, ravines, gorges and rainforest between us and the Pickled Frog, we arrived at Ormiston House in Strahan. For less money per night than Montgomery’s YHA we checked in... to a mansion.


Post script
If you need to stay in Hobart, we really recommend you go for one of the more expensive options or, if you do want a hostel, I can’t recommend the Hobart Hostel enough over the others. With hindsight, it's more than acceptable, and the staff were top people. Overall, however, we recommend you head out of Hobart and visit Mike and Carolyn at Ormiston House. It. Is. Beautiful.