Category Archives: Australia

No 48: Malabar – A winter solstice beach (25 June 2017)

In 2014 I heard a story on the radio about ceremonies people create for themselves. A caller described a women’s winter solstice ceremony she had been conducting for years. The Winter Solstice, marking the moment when more light begins to fill your days, is the beginning of a new cycle and a nadir. The caller’s ceremony involved letting go of the past year – which I then sorely needed to do.

I had then run my worst turn around the sun to date and was, finally, starting to recover. I’ve missed marking the solstice in 2015 (I was in the northern hemisphere) and 2016 (I was focussed on other things), but this year I’ve returned to the idea and set off on a glorious winter’s day to beach number 48, Malabar.

I like how the demographics on the bus shift as I travel from home to beach. From the city to the University of New South Wales we are a mixed crowd leaning East Asian, from UNSW to Kensington mostly East Asian, from Kensington to Maroubra moving towards working-class whites and Southern Europeans. Beyond Maroubra – mostly working-class whites with maybe a few Aboriginals as well.

Malabar has a strange not-in-Sydney vibe – it feels like it could be a down the South Coast someplace … a village between the ‘Gong and Kiama. A row of old-school 1950s – 1970s family homes face the rich blue inlet and the undeveloped green headland to the north.

This is an ocean beach but set at the back of Long Bay and the big waves just don’t reach the shore. When the water is clean enough to swim in (which it isn’t always) it’s a great spot for a lazy paddle.

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I’ve come with my pocket datebooks of the last year. On most days, I’ve recorded three short bullet-points – an event, my mood, the weather, a movie I saw or book I finished reading, that sort of thing.

The sea is a saturated indigo, the sky pale cerulean. The park behind the beach is filled with families, the barbeques in high demand. I sit on a bench facing the beach and, accompanied by the metronomic squeak of a child being pushed in a swing, review my year. One day’s snapshot after another. It takes nearly an hour.

Looking up from my task I notice two frolicking naked 3-year old children – a boy and a girl – and think “I love Australia”. Shame about our bodies is a learned thing. And until they learn it and stop wanting to run around naked, let kids be free – it’s lovely that these kids haven’t had embarrassment and fear imposed on them. People see people in public and think what they will think – it does no harm (predators who act do harm). That the parents of these kids are, themselves, unashamed of their naked children and not fearful that someone might be masturbating in the bushes or about to swoop in to snatch their kids, makes me happy.

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I retire to the Malabar Beach Café for the writing of the Lists – one of all the worst things that happened this past year: the disappointment of a thing not working out with a man, the long search for work, the unexplained silence of a friend, the outcome of the US election, boredom & uncertainty. And then a list of all the best things: that I maintained old and developed new friendships, became a baseball fan again and attended games, that I met my birth mother and her family, the excitement and pleasure when I thought the thing with the man might work out, getting involved in the Women’s March in Sydney, and finally landing a job.

All those things – the good and the bad – are done. They are equally behind me – I can let them all slip into the past today and begin afresh.

I walk to the northern end of the beach and prepare to burn the paper – first the bad, then the good. All the best rituals involve fire. But the paper won’t light – it just smoulders and chars. Rather than take this as a bad sign I move to an alternative. I tear them into little pieces and fling them into the sea. (Actually, I discreetly sprinkle them in an area from which I hope they will quickly be washed away from the beach.) Frankly, it’s not as satisfying as fire – I’ll have to prepare better next year.

Ceremony finished, I go for a walk on the Malabar Headland.  I am passed by two teenagers on bicycles. When they get to the sign for the National Park which says “No bicycles” the boy urges the girl to ignore it, “who’s going to be checking? Come on” he pleads. She refuses – nope, not going to do it, it’s not about being caught it’s about the rule. I like the strength of the girl’s refusal to do what the boy wants – I think that bodes well for her.

Not much further along a couple in their 50s or 60s, difficult to say as they have clearly lived hard, pass in the opposite direction talking of the wisdom and regrets of age.

I think about the lifetime of experiences between the rule breaking teenage boy and the craggle-faced man with regrets. I think about how distant the man’s age must seem to the boy and how near the boy’s age may seem to the man. Time is a funny thing.

Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Ancient rocks, endless sea
Ancient rocks, endless sea

The last time I did this Solstice ceremony I had feelings of lightness and release, unexpected but real. Today I’m trying to feel those things – and am sort of succeeding: being in the moment, breathing in big lungfuls of clean air, watching the sea. But, it’s not quite as good as the first time. Then I was farewelling a momentously bad year, while this one just past has been … well, just a year really. Better than some, worse than others. Even if the ceremony is about putting things behind and moving fresh into the new year – the reality is life is a continuum and the effects of the last year will continue.

Time, in the end, is like the the sea, it keeps rolling in – today, right now, both are steady and calm.

And that’s okay too – it’s been a gorgeous day and I’ve enjoyed reviewing and letting go.

The wreck of the MV Malabar
The wreck of the MV Malabar

Malabar is not named for the region of India but after a ship, the MV Malabar which shipwrecked on Miranda Point on 2 April 1931. Europeans, since arriving in the area in the 1860s – had called the suburb either Brand or Long Bay, the latter still naming the nearby prison.

Wiki says that the area had been a camping location for the original Indigenous residents. There are said to be carvings on the headland and that a rock overhang on the south side of Long Bay was used as a shelter for Aboriginal people suffering from smallpox in the late 1700s. An English historian wrote in 1882 that Aboriginal people referred to Long Bay as ‘Boora’. Scraps, all we have are tiny scraps from a once thriving culture and the few strong descendants of the survivors of a horrible, horrible injustice trying to hold on to what remains and piece together some of what was lost.

In the 2016 census Malabar was home to 5,420 people of whom 64.8% were male – I’m guessing the prison population is skewing that statistic as the state is only 49.3% male. 359 (6.6%) Malabar residents are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders heritage. 67% were born in Australia with England as the top overseas location with 3.5%. One-third had one or both parents born overseas (England, the top location). 1,925 (35.5%) show their religious affiliation as Not Stated (again, I think that’s the prisoners as state wide it was 9.2% – 1,920 did not state their education level as well – state wide 23%). Catholic came next with 26.5%. The top language, other than English, was Greek for 90 people or 1.7%

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Malabar is 12.3 km (7.6 miles) from home.

Malabar is in the local government area of the City of Randwick, the State Electorate of Maroubra (Labor – Michael Daley), and the Federal division of Kingsford-Smith (Labor, Matt Thistlethwaite) (prior to Matt this was the seat held by Peter Garrett, presently touring the world with Midnight Oil).

Long Time a Coming – Long Reef (No. 47*: 16 April 2017)

You’d almost think I’d grown weary of this project given how slowly I’ve returned to it after my time away, but that’s not it at all. I continue to love the idea but sometimes it just becomes hard to get there.

No 47: Long Reef ... slowly, slowly
No 47: Long Reef … slowly, slowly

While unemployed, my weekends weren’t a break from my labours – I could just as easily search for jobs at the weekend as any other time. Even if I wasn’t looking for work at the weekends I felt the pressure that, perhaps, I could be, I should be.  While unemployed, I was also more conscientious of spending money and felt that if I stayed close to home I’d spend less than if I went to the beach. That may not be true, but that’s how I felt.

So, I’ve been meaning to get to Long Reef for weeks but now that I am again professionally employed in a 9-5, Monday to Friday kind of way – it’s finally time.

It’s Easter Sunday and a cracker of a day: blue sky, light breeze, hot for April but not scorching. Australians being Australians are flocking to their chosen places of worship: the beach, the footy grounds, and other places of recreation and beer. I’m heading for the Manly Ferry – such a perfect day for it.

I walk through the picnickers and off-leash dogs in Hollis Park on my way to Macdonaldtown Station where I join a trainload of Sydney’s diversity for the ride into the city. At Circular Quay, I make my way through the throngs to Wharf 3 – where I find there are enough passengers queued to fill a ferry and a half. I guess I’ll take the bus.

From Wynyard Station I get a limited-stops bus which drops me at Collaroy Beach in about 40 minutes, from there I catch a local bus back two stops and pop into Outpost Espresso for a pick-me up.

It’s nearly 2 pm, and closing time, the only other customers are a salty, sandy, end-of-summer bronzed family of five getting milk shakes and iced lattes.

I find myself in a state of joyful liberation because I am employed and it is Sunday and there’s nothing I must do. I have employment and pay coming around the corner – so, no worries.

With this feeling of lightness, I set off for the walk past the golf club and Fisherman’s Beach (No 27 – visited in April 2013). Around Long Reef Point the footpath is crowded with families and couples. A paraglider is circling on the breeze, casting the occasional shocking shadow – like a giant raptor looking for prey. The sea is an autumn steel blue and crashing into the rocks below. I turn the corner and eye Long Reef Beach from its tucked-in northern end sweeping south and melding into Dee Why Beach (No 21 – visited February 2012).

Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond
Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond

 

Walking on Long Reef Beach
Walking on Long Reef Beach

I walk up the beach to the flagged area, plant myself near the Surf Lifesavers marquee and survey my fellow beach-goers. They are mostly white, mostly local – I’m guessing. There are a lot of families, a few clusters of teenagers, a smattering of couples. A toddler with caramel skin, curly locks and nothing but her Manly Sea Eagles bottoms on – dashes, laughing, away from her Surf Lifesaver father, who is trying to wrap her in a towel.

The sea is a bit dumpy and the flags are planted narrowly together so it is through a crowd I wade into the surf. The water is cool but I grow used to it, dunking my whole self beneath a folding wave and I’m happy to bob in the power of the ocean for a wee bit while dodging little kids on boogie boards and full-grown men body surfing into shore.

I realise I have not been in the open ocean – not a bay or harbour – since before I left for my Midlife Gap Year. Anywhere. I visited some on my ride home to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland but for one reason or another didn’t swim at any of them. Admittedly I’m a bit intimidated by the surf – as a native of the American Midwest I came to ocean swimming late in life and being dependent on glasses to have clear vision – the power and mystery of rips and waves unsettle me. The last ocean beach I visited as part of this project was No. 31 Freshwater back in January 2014 – wow.

Autumn, Sydney-style.
Autumn, Sydney-style.

Wet and sea-salty I take up a position on the beach in the sun and enjoy the warmth of the autumn sun – generally more pleasant than Sydney’s often bitingly hot summer sun. It’s already late afternoon and I don’t stay long – but it’s been a lovely day for it and I’m glad I got to Long Reef before the beach season ends.

Long Reef was part of the homeland of the Dharug people, probably, before European invasion of Australia. The commonly used name, by Europeans, for the people who had been living in this area is Guringai, however, it now seems this is not what the people who lived here called themselves. Some rock engravings done by these people remain in the area.

European settlement began in 1815 when William Cossar (a master shipbuilder) was granted some 500+ acres (200+ hectares) including Long Reef. By 1825 it was in the hands of James Jenkins, a former convict who had been transported in 1802 for stealing sheep. His eldest child, Elizabeth, had inherited land in North Narrabeen in 1821 and with the 1825 acquisition, the Jenkins family owned all of the foreshore form Mona Vale to Dee Why. At the extent of their holdings they had 1800 acres (728 hectares).

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 Long Reef is 24 kilometres (15 miles) from home.

For census purposes it’s in Collaroy, which was, in 2011 home to 14,388 people of whom 50, or 0.4%, identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Conversely, 110 residents listed the United States as their country of birth. So there are more than twice as many Americans in Collaroy as there are Indigenous Australians.

It’s in the Northern Beaches Council local government area, the state electorate of Wakehurst (Liberal – Brad Hazzard), and federal division of Mackellar (Liberal – Jason Falinski).

*The next beach in the alphabetical list is actually Little Patonga – another Pittwater beach needing a boat. Four of those have now been set aside to be visited in one weekend out on the water, eventually: Gunyah (Brooklyn) No 35, Hallets No 37, Hungry No 39, and Little Patonga No 46.

Getting Naked on Little Congwong Beach (No 45, 2 January 2017)

No 45: Little Congwong (Monday 2 January)

Little Congwong is not officially clothing optional and yet it is.

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So it was appropriate that I should visit while my friend Matthew is in town.

Matthew recently rode his bicycle from Eindhoven, the Netherlands to his hometown of Adelaide. I had been following his blog as I was preparing for my own big bicycle tour and, one day in December 2014, I was catching up on his story when I watched this video, and thought it was excellent.

I complimented the video, and, knowing he was summering in Australia (wisely not riding in the northern winter), I suggested that if he made to Sydney we might meet.

He messaged back that he was in Sydney and asked if I were free that afternoon.

I found him to be as interesting in person as he’d been on line.

Over the course of my mid-life gap-year, return to Australia, and time spent campaigning for Hillary Clinton we’ve maintained our on-line friendship – liking and commenting on each other’s stuff. While I was on my journey he was riding through Iran, Central Asia, China, South East Asia, and Australia.

He got home to Adelaide in August. Then, just before Christmas, rode to Sydney.

We’d caught up a few times before our beach outing and each time out I liked him more. He’s smart and funny, with a million stories of course, and, unlike any of my other friends, in pretty much the exact same place in life: mid-40s, having dramatically left behind an earlier version of ourselves to go on a big adventure, now on the other side of that we’re trying to figure out what comes next, how to be our genuine selves and be gainfully employed. Oh, and we’re also both on the market for boyfriends.

One thing Matthew enjoyed doing on his journey across the world was to sometimes ride naked. So, a perfect companion for a trip to an unofficially clothing-optional beach.

Matthew met me in Newtown and we set off on our convoluted bus journey to La Perouse under threatening skies. From King Street we walked down Erskineville Road, and into Swanson. We had coffees at Ella Guru Café while it rained.  We then pushed on to McEvoy Street to catch the 370 to the University of NSW and the 391 to La Perouse.

I hadn’t been down that way in, well, years. There’s something about that peninsula, once you get past Maroubra which feels apart from Sydney. It feels more like something down the south coast, some misplaced bit of Sussex Inlet or Nowra.

That is, until you get to La Perouse which is always more Asian and Middle Eastern than those places. And, of course, there are more Aboriginal people. La Perouse is one of the few places in all of Sydney where Aboriginal people have an unbroken record of continual residence.

I also like that Matthew is at least as frugal, if not more frugal, than I am so we perused the lunch menus of the restaurants of La Perouse with one eye and, not surprisingly, settled on the old-school fish and chippery.

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Once fed we made our way, down the stairs through the bush to Congwong Beach (No 16 – visited a lifetime ago on 3 April 2011), to the far end, and along a further bush path to Little Congwong.

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Just as we emerged we ran into a Polish family who warned us there are naked people on the beach – we know, we said. And Matthew chatted with the guy for a bit – here’s a place where we’re different, he’s happy for a chat with anyone.

Sure enough at the near end of the bush-backed, slightly curving 150m or so long beach there were a few topless and naked women sun bathing. There were some men and women in bathers. We kept walking toward the far end of the beach where there were some naked men and other men in skimpy bathers. “We’re definitely in your neighbourhood now,” I said. He offered to head back the other way and I was like, oh, no, I have no problem with naked gay men.

We spread our towels and Matthew got his kit off, but sat in such a way that his junk wasn’t all obvious to me as we chatted. I was happy clothed.

At the far end of the beach a lean, bronzed, naked, middle-aged man was exercising. He had dumbbells and did standing arm curls, and shoulder presses. He did squats and lay on his back doing bicycle kicks. And a variety of other exercises you’d expect on a 1950s parade ground of soldiers dressed in white t-shirts tucked into small shorts. But he was naked. And on the beach. We watched and chuckled. And Matthew mimicked him with is bottle of Dare.

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See naked man with dumbbells in the background.

Mathew went for a swim and fell into conversation with a young European man who was part of a quartet of guys parked near us. Matthew’s new friend, a Belgian, was married to another of the quartet but he, his husband, was up in the bush checking out the cruising scene. My time with Matthew has been an eye-opening, fascinating, education in the ways of life in a certain segment of the gay-male world. Having been dateless and single for quite a while now, I admit a certain envy of the easy, fearless (or at least less worried – about violence, about pregnancy), open, sex-driven culture he’s part of. And, really, it’s just fascinating and deeply foreign – a culture I can no more access than Saudi politics, Japanese yakuza, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It rained a bit. The sun came out and then disappeared again. When it was out it was like an overly powerful heat lamp much too close at hand.

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Walkers on the bridge to Bare Island.

I wasn’t going to swim. The water was fresh, but not too cool, just sort of dumpy and churning. In the end, I realised I’d regret not having gone in. I have come to like nude beaches; I like swimming naked. And I am at best invisible to the gay men on the beach and at worst irrelevant. So, with Matthew already in the water and chatting with another of the quartet of men. I stripped down, hugged my boobs and marched into the water. And then tip-toed to where they stood. It is a bit strange – the conversing with people while naked.

We emerged, dried, and laughed once more at the exercising man – now wearing a hat and chatting with a naked fisherman. Then we were done, we dressed, and made our way back to the bus stop and on to the City.

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We didn’t ride but this is, pretty much, the route we took to get there.

Little Congwong is about 17 kilometres from my home. La Perouse is home to 418 people according to the 2011 census. Of these, 27.9% identified as Australian and 19.2% as Australian Aboriginal. (Compared with 0.3% of all New South Wales, and 0.5% of all of Australia.) The balance were 17.5% English, 6.1% Irish, and 4.3% Greek.

Little Congwong is the City of Randwick, the State electorate of Maroubra (Labor – Michael Daley), and Federal Division of Kingsford Smith (Labor – Matt Thistlethwaite).

 

All of My Sisters in Burqinis are Enjoying Christmas Day at Lady Robinson’s Beach (No 44 – 25 December 2016)

In recent years, I’ve made the tradition of a Jew’s Christmas my own. In the United States that’s a movie and Chinese food. But this is Australia so: a swim, a movie, and Chinese food.

Lady Robinson’s Beach is on Botany Bay between the mouths of the Cooks River and the Georges River.

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European settlers (invaders) named this Seven Mile Beach but it was renamed during the tenure of the 14th Governor of New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson. He served from March 1872 to February 1879 and the beach was named for his wife, Lady Robinson, or Nea Arthur Ada Rose D’Amour. The fifth daughter of the ninth Viscount Valentia.

Sir Hercules’ career, Lady Robinson’s as well, reads like a stereotype of British colonial service: Administrator of Montserrat, Lt Governor of Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), Governor of Hong Kong, of British Ceylon, of Fiji, of New Zealand, Acting Governor of British Mauritius, High Commissioner for Southern Africa, and Governor of the Cape Colony. Yet, he managed to get home to London to die in October 1897, aged 62.

Their daughter, Nora Robinson, wed Alexander Kirkman Finlay at St James’ Church in Sydney in 1878. The groom owned Glenormiston, a large station in Victoria. This wedding was the second vice-regal wedding in New South Wales and, as such, attracted much public attention – a crowd estimated up to 10,000 gathered outside the church.

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Wedding party for marriage of Nora Augusta Maud, daughter of Sir Hercules and Lady Nea Robinson, to A.K. Finlay, Sydney, August, 1878 (Lady Robinson is seated, facing the bride)

I do suggest reading Sir Hercules’ Wikipedia page. It’s both fascinating and a strange and unlikely tale to be tied to this stretch of beach – which, on Christmas Day 2016 is hosting families from all around the world – a few of whom, were surely, from other places touched by Sir Hercules’ colonial hand.

The day, while breezy, is otherwise a perfect Sydney Christmas Day: sunny, warm but not too hot, not too humid. Just lovely.

Every bit of shade in the reserve has been colonised by a United Nations of families: East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, European, and African. Many are clearly Muslims, some probably Buddhist – the Christians come for a dip and go back to their parties and lunches at home.

Christmas is the day when I feel most Jewish, not that I practice, but on this day I usually feel very much an Outsider. But not here, not at Lady Robinson’s Beach, where today is, mostly, a day for non-Christians making the most of a holiday courtesy of the Christian majority.

There is a busy shark-netted swimming enclosure. Jet skis buzz along the shore. International flights circle, approach from the southwest, and land on Sydney Airport’s third runway while other planes queue for their turn to depart. In the distance, the cranes of Sydney’s port fill the horizon.

I love this beach. I love how it’s a bit gritty in a working class, working port, immigrant families way – the antithesis of the glitzy beautiful-people blonde-haired blue-eyed stereotype of Sydney’s beaches.

There are more women and girls on this beach in burqinis than bikinis.

And I love that too. I love that an Australian woman, Aheda Zanetti, started a company, Ahiida, to provide swimming attire that allows Muslim women, who choose to abide by dictates of modest dress, to fully participate in this most Australian of activities – swimming in the sea and enjoying the beach.

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I wade into the Bay – the water is cooling, refreshing but not cold. I move slowly to where I’m waist deep then dive in. Emerging I feel a wave of welled and condensed emotions – a rejoicing for my return home, finally, to Sydney, and the easy contentment that has brought me, also some nostalgia for the 19 months of travel and volunteering gone by and the knowledge I’m unlikely to have that kind of open-ended freedom again, and, too, some sadness, for hopes unfulfilled. All of that in the woosh of rising out of the water, raising my arms to splash the sea around me, and then feeling the heat of the sun on my wet skin.

I sit for a time on the beach and write – as I do, an excited family group arrives, first a dad and kids running past me into the water than the younger women, in colourful burqinis, then older women in flowing black hijabs and matching garb. They were all, seemingly, having a really lovely time – while making for a striking scene – these black clad women, wading in the shallows, the planes and port cranes in the background.

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I rode my bicycle home, enjoyed sweet and sour chicken at the Happy Chef then met some new Jewish friends for a screening of La La Land at Bondi Junction.

And so, another Australian Jewish Christmas in the books and a good beach from which to restart this blog.

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Lady Robinson’s Beach was an 13.5 kilometre (8.3 mile) bicycle ride from home.

The portion of the beach which I visited is in Kyeemagh, a suburb in the Bayside Council.

Kyeemagh is a wee little suburb – home to 780 people of whom 37.5 % were born overseas (Greece 10.5%, Lebanon 2.3%, and Cyprus 2.2%). English is the primary language spoken in 44.3% of homes. (All per the 2006 census.)

It’s in the Rockdale State Electorate (Steve Kamper, Labor) and the Federal Division of Barton (Linda Burney, Labor). (It has been a LONG time since I’ve been to a beach represented at both levels by the Labor Party.)

The Last Beach Before My Travel Began, No 43: Lady Martin’s – 17 May 2015

Is this a bit of a cheat?

I visited Lady Martin’s on 17 May 2015 – one week before I departed for my midlife gap year – but never posted about it.

I don’t want to visit it again so I’m going back to my diary from the day to write it up now.

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Lady Martin’s is a wee crescent of beach at the bottom of Point Piper. I suspect in any other country it would be privately held and divvied up among the millionaires whose mansions hover nearby. These include the current Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull. Of course, when I visited back in 2015 he was fuming on the back benches as Tony Abbott went about his business of losing popularity.

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Sneaky access: the pathway next to the Prince Edward Yacht Club.

Here’s what I wrote then:

There’s real and lovely warmth in the sun – which burns bright when not obscured by clouds. The light shimmers blindingly on the weak harbour waves as they flush ashore with a rhythmic, sleep-encouraging hush.

A flotilla or racing yachts rush past out on the harbour.

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There is a party – a birthday party  perhaps – at the Prince Edward Yacht Club. A one-man-band plays groovy guitar jazz.

Among the party guests are many multicultural, multilingual families – a wee girl speaks French, English, and Russian. But mostly people seem to be speaking French. Which seems appropriate as I realised earlier today that I really will need to learn some of that language.

Had I come at high tide I expect there’d have been little beach to visit as the sand is wet right up to the retaining wall. As it is, there’s maybe five meters of beach running 100 meters or fewer and bisected by the yacht club’s pier.

The beach is Sydney-sandstone golden and surrounded by about a billion dollars’ worth of residential property. It’s a place to really celebrate the decision, early in Australia’s story, to keep beaches, all of them, even little ones like this – public.

It’s lovely. I’m so glad I came.

Next Sunday … will I have time for a beach before my flight?

The following … a river ride and the Giro d’Italia?

Close enough to a swim for May.
Close enough to a swim for May.

Lady Martin’s Beach is in the Municipality of Woollhara, the State Electorate of Vaucluse (Gabrielle Upton, Liberal) and Federal Division of Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal).

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Leaving Australia – Flying Forever – Arriving Finally in Milan

I write from seat 70J of Qantas Flight 127 halfway through the first leg of my three-legged journey to Milan.

We are somewhere over the Arafura Sea, perhaps – my last view of Australia passed across the portal some time ago. It was a beautiful view of reddish earth and worming watercourses meeting the blue of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Gulf of Carpentaria

I’m listening to Blue Sky Mine on the in-flight entertainment system –

I could not believe the stars of Warburton were waiting for me.

Those stars will appear tonight in their dense wondrous clusters over that remote Western Desert hamlet. As they will tomorrow. And the next night and the next; as I lay beneath a northern sky.

I’m excited and tired. I feel both the warm bolstering support of my mates and a little pressure to have the trip they expect – a pressure that is all me, not them. I am on the verge of a year of days – each of which stands on its own, clearly separated from its neighbours both by being actually different and through a sort of presence that comes with dealing with New all the time and of solving problems as matter of course. I feel like I’m going to thrive, be super present, be in my element, use my strengths, do things I like doing … all that good stuff. That’s how I feel about it but I fear weighing the thing down with expectations.

This day came as it always would with a last final rush of disbelief and a mistaken fear that I am unprepared. I am deeply ridiculously prepared. I have, in someways, been thinking about this trip since I was a teenager and in practical terms I’ve been planning for nearly a year and a half.

From early on I wanted it to be an organic journey – something I made up, more or less, as I went, with certain anchor points to aim for. That’s pretty much how it’s looking right now – I have plans for this coming week in Milan, some ideas of which direction I’ll point my bicycle in the coming weeks but nothing solid, and a ferry ticket from Le Havre to Portsmith on 9 July. I’m uncomfortable with not having sorted the first week or two of riding but recognise it is as it should be. That making it up as I go holds the life of the thing. Discomfort can be a creative energy.

I fell into conversation with my seat neighbour. We came to speak of my relationship with Australia. I spoke of the waves of Australian cultural exports which reached me in 1980s America which included Midnight Oil. He mentioned their street gig in New York. Which I was able to say was 25 years ago today because Jim had said so an hour earlier.

 

You know, I’m not generally a name dropper but he’s like how did you know that … we spoke of the Oils and other Australian music as Sydney disappeared from view.

Wait … what? I was going to Hong Kong (diverted due to weather to Manila – how my already long day became monumental).

I’m sitting on the tarmac in Manila watching episode one of season seven of Mad Men. A storm in Hong Kong had us diverted – the smidge of compensation was a beautiful sunset illuminating great walls of curvaceous clouds. But this is going to be one very long day. When we do take off it will be nearly 90 minutes back to Hong Kong and then who knows what will happen there with my onward flight to Doha. It’s an adventure.

To the credit of the customer service people in Hong Kong we Doha-bound passengers were efficiently gathered and rushed across the airport to join a flight just before it took off. To London.

There comes a point when being on an airplane almost becomes the totality of one’s reality. Right now I’ve been on board for 23 of the last 24 hours with nearly four and half more on this flight, a two-hour turn around at London then whatever it will be to Milan.

I’ve slept and watched a few movies. My newish attitude toward long-haul flights that it’s just time; this attitude is being tested but has mostly held sway. To say I’m glad that my next scheduled flight isn’t until October is a huge understatement.

As I was originally scheduled to have a nine-hour layover in Doha (oh how I long for that missed hotel room) I will arrive in Milan at pretty much the same time as originally scheduled. My luggage – that is my bicycle – well, I know it’s not on this flight. Nothing to be done about it right now so I can’t worry too much. Hopefully I’ll have time in London to talk to Qantas and find out where it is and when I might expect it in Milan. I’ll be there all week and I have travel insurance.

We’re flying over early Monday morning Russia.

Trying to see some sort of positives ….

  • This day and a half in the deadening void of economy flights will serve as a hard full-stop between before and after. It’s a hard double return on the page breaking up the getting ready from the going.
  • I’ll hopefully get to ask questions about my luggage to native-English speaking Qantas staff.
  • I’m accidentally following the most-common traditional path of Australian gap-year takers: Sydney to Hong Kong to London.
  • The last time I went to Europe for open-ended travel – when I was a 19-year-old with a Eurail pass – I flew into London.
  • My first international flight landed at Heathrow, too.

Might try to sleep some more. Four hours to London.

….

And now, in the final leg of this very very very very very long long day of travel here I am in seat 13A on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Milan – Malpensa. Were it clear I would be looking at France down there.

Our approach into London came in right over the city – and even after all the travel I had to smile at the totally unexpected view: Tower Bridge! The London Eye! The House of Parliament and Big Ben! Yeah … wow. The Thames, brown sinuous silvery.

Um, London? I wasn’t supposed to see you until like July. But whoa – hey, look Tower Bridge.
And the Houses of Parliament! Big Ben! The London Eye!

All things considered I was doing pretty well and still in good spirits right until I dealt with a British Airways customer service representative who greeted me with an accusative and unsympathetic tone.

The first guy I spoke was pleasant and easy to deal with but he couldn’t help with my question about baggage and sent me to another counter. There, I began by saying I’d been flying for 27 out the last 28 hours and asked for her to bear with me – I’m a little out of sorts. I explained my situation and provided all the paperwork I could. She looks my details up on the computer says, not asks, that I’ve come in on a Virgin flight, not BA. No, I assure her I’ve just disembarked from the British Airway flight from Hong Kong. She tells me the computer says I was on a Virgin flight not a BA flight …. Well, um, I wasn’t. That sort of set the tone.

She looked at my onward paperwork and told me the people in Hong Kong hadn’t done it right – not with any, you know, charm or humour but like I had something to do with that. “If I ever see them again I’ll be sure to let them know.” She issued my next boarding pass and said I was done. And my luggage? I said – she said she’d added it to the system but couldn’t tell me more and to ask at the gate.

As I was putting my paperwork away she noticed a docket I was given in HK – which I had shown her earlier to her disinterest – and she says “You didn’t give me this.” A regular charmer she was, definitely the right person for customer service.

After leaving her I had a little, you know, total meltdown. Head in hands, weeping, struggling to breathe evenly. Eventually moving from general view to the limited audience of the ladies. There, someone, a worker of some sort, asked if I was okay – she was the only one who did. I thanked her for asking, explained why I was so out of sorts and assured her I’d be okay. It was then that I also realised that I felt like I was still on an aeroplane – you know feeling the movement.

Luckily the people at the gate were much more friendly, sympathetic, and helpful – they at least were able to tell me that my bags weren’t at Heathrow and were last in the system in Hong Kong. She assured me that they would be following me and that, generally, they put them on the next, most direct, route to one’s final destination. So we’ll see what they say in Milan.

In the meantime I had been using the free WiFi to message Jim and Vickianne asking them to ring Qantas in Sydney and see if they could learn anything. Unfortunately I finally got a reply from Jim as I lost signal joining the bus to the Milan-bound plane.

Boarding, I asked the flight attendants for water and if they could tell me who won Eurovision. They had been voting when I boarded in Sydney and I hadn’t been able to learn during my long, long, long day. Sweden, the favourites – had taken it out. One more win and they will either tie or move past Ireland for most winners. Guy Sebastian had come fifth: which – especially in my state – made me rather Aussie proud.

They showed the safety video first in English, then in Italian – I listened, recognised a few words, and was struck in a way by the reality of this journey. I think that moment marked the transition from this buffering void of tin-can travel to the beginning of my actual journey.

I wanted to say something of the final days in Sydney … of the way, in the end, it rushed up to greet me. That I was prepared but not quite as ready as I hoped. But still got out on Saturday afternoon to soak up something of the city. Earlier I’d run some errands at Burwood – I’d bought a luggage scale …

HOLY FUCK – THE ALPS!

… and had a final coffee from George at Mrs P’s – my final Australian piccolo for the year.

I went home and sorted the packing and felt I was in a pretty good place with it. Went to the city and rode the Manly Ferry over and back. Getting at times a bit emotional about it but resolved to just be in it, with it, enjoy the view, the rise and fall of the swell, the throb of the engines. Coming back with the Vivid lights – it was really good.

I promised myself that later I would let myself just feel what I felt and not push it away.

I’d hoped to meet Erin and Jonathan at Hart’s but they had pushed back their meeting time too late for me – I got the bus home, began disassembling the bicycle. Jim arrived with bad but necessary pizzas, red wine and a willingness to help or simply keep company. Not long after Vickianne came home. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was on SBS – Jim had never seen it. NEVER SEEN IT.

We were done around 1:30 or 2:00 and then I wept, I let myself feel what I was feeling – what was it exactly? It wasn’t fear or worry that made me weep. It was a certain sadness … a sadness at leaving Sydney for so long, for leaving my friends for so long – a sadness that was real and unassuaged by my joy and excitement for the trip itself. Maybe a touch of sadness too that … while everything has long since been done and over with Mitch that my leaving for this solo mid-life gap year is a hard mark between before and after.

….

I’ve been at Malpensa for two hours. Finding it strangely hard to break orbit from the flying world. My bags are … someplace and I’ve filed the paperwork to encourage them to find them and deliver them to me. I’ve bought a SIM and await its activation. I’ve had an espresso and a donut.

 

Screenshot 2017-12-07 07.49.15 (2)

Knowing When Enough is Enough – Waiting out the Rain and Realising the Test Ride is Over (Days 12 – 14, 1 to 3 May)

It rained heavily all night and continued in the morning. My original plan had me riding an unpaved road from Crescent Head to Port Mac – even if the rain stopped, which it wasn’t meant to for a couple of days, the road would be in dubious condition. I rang Busways at 8 am Friday morning and learned they would take my bicycle from Crescent Head. Unfortunately I’d missed the first bus which would have readily connected in Kempsey with the bus to Port Macquarie. Better to wait the day in Kempsey than linger here.

The single other passenger, myself and my bicycle rode in the cabin of the bus for the half-hour trip to Kempsey. There I found a café with WiFi and settled in for the day. Lou’s is a weirdly old-school diner-like place which I really sort of liked. But four hours of sitting anywhere watching the rain fall kind of sucks.

I noticed two things about Kempsey.

One, in some ways it looks like more of Australia should by its high proportion of residents of Aboriginal heritage. It seemed, on the surface anyway, there was reasonable integration of black and white with everyone just going about their everyday working day. In comparison, other Australian towns I’ve visited with high proportions of Aboriginals – such as Katherine in the Northern Territory – feel like they are segregated places where many Aboriginals appear to be living quite different lives than their non-Aboriginal neighbours.

Two, it was the least friendly place I visited. People weren’t rude but compared with elsewhere fewer made eye-contact, fewer said ‘hello’, and fewer asked about the bicycle and my trip. There must have been five or six staff on over the course of my time at Lou’s and not one engaged me in even passing conversation.

As the afternoon wore on and the time for the bus to Port drew near I began worrying that the driver might not take me – the bus was also a school bus, I had no idea how many kids it might serve. While waiting I started thinking of my options. This would be the last local bus until Monday. The rain was meant to continue until Sunday – so if he wouldn’t take me I’d be in Kempsey for another 36 hours, in the rain – a very unappealing idea. Alternatively I could throw in the towel and get the bus to Sydney either later that night or the next day.

Fortunately Chris, the driver, did take me to Port along with his menagerie of school children and a pair of accompanied special-needs adults. The bicycle filled the luggage area and the bus made its meandering way to the coast.

To be at a hostel in Port Macquarie was a little strange for me. My ex-husband’s parents lived in town for a number of years during our marriage so we spent quite a few holidays there. To be staying among the tourists was peculiar. The centre of town was as boring as ever.

I had arrived on Ironman weekend and the place was chockers with ultra-athletes or those who hoped, on Sunday, to join their ranks.

It rained heavily off and on Friday night and all day Saturday. While enjoying a new development since my last visit – the arrival of genuinely good coffee served in a genuinely good little café, Blackfish – I realised that whatever weather came on Sunday I was done with the test ride. I had learned what I needed to learn – about how to pack and what to carry, and I had tested my gear. More importantly I had tested my strengths: physical, mental and emotional and had found myself strong, resilient and ready.

The route south was again meant to be on many an unpaved road and even if it stopped raining the storms of the previous fortnight would have done some damage. I’d had enough. I rang Greyhound and booked myself and my bicycle on to Sunday’s evening bus to Sydney.

The Hastings River muddy with storm run off pushes into the sea at Port Macquarie.

Riding in Pounding Rain is Better Than Sitting at a Desk: Scotts Head to Crescent Head (Day 11 – Thursday 30 April)

Stephen rode with me the first 20 undulating kilometres from Jacky’s mum’s house to their house on Stewarts Point Road. Along the way a friend of theirs caught up with us on his road bicycle. In his mid-70s and absolutely fit as a fiddle he was out on a cool-down ride and talking of his plans for riding in Suluwesi later in the year. People often say of older people doing stuff … oh, such an inspiration … but in the case of this fella he was trim, strong and looked relaxed and happy. However you get there that’s a good place to be anytime of life but certainly in your mid 70s.

It would be my longest day’s riding so far – about 73 kilometres – some on the highway but a lot on country roads. As Stephen promised once I’d passed the servo at Clybucca the topography flattened out. The land was marshy and wet with recent rains but, as ever, filled with cows now joined with crane-like water birds, standing on their long legs in the wet. With the flat came headwinds shifting to side-winds on the road to Smithtown.

The people of Smithtown are missing an obvious tourist opportunity. They make the Milo but you wouldn’t know it as it looks like any small country town but for a wee sign pointing toward “Nestle”. No Big Milo Tin. No kiosk selling hot and cold Milo and various Milo treats. I so would have stopped.

Seriously, this is where they make the Milo. Macleay River at Smithtown (the town is behind me, but still).

Sum-Sushi in nearby Gladstone got my business instead – serving a surprisingly good wood-smoked salmon roll, which I topped off with an apple slice from the nearby bakery.

Sitting there the sky to the northeast had gone leaden and the rumble of thunder sounded distantly. The south, the direction I was headed and from where the wind was blowing, was clearer with some patches of blue even. It was still 25 kilometres to Crescent Head and I thought of stopping at the hotel in Gladstone but … didn’t.

The rain began falling within 10 minutes of my leaving the bakery – but it was warm enough, not falling too heavily and the road well populated so if I got into serious strife help was near at hand.

I was riding along the Belmore River and it was all really very pretty. I was getting more and more wet but, well, all you can do is pedal really. It was flat and as the rain picked up the wind had lessened; I was moving at a good clip and should be in Crescent Head soon enough.

Well, not soon enough to arrive before the rain really began bucketing down. Ten kilometres out the road forks – one way to Kempsey the other to Crescent Head – and just past that it began hammering down. I was soaked through and through. My shoes – surprisingly dry-ish until then – filled with rain and I squelched through each pedal stroke.

I began singing. Loudly. Midnight Oil’s Sometimes and Power & the Passion – I tried I am Woman but couldn’t remember the words.

This is a weird sort of mash-up video for this song – but includes some good stuff, so, why not?

Many reading this might think this sounds miserable. You might think this was on par with the tough day on the Crawney Pass or the challenges of getting over the Moonbis … but, no. I was happy – well happier to be riding in the rain than sitting at a desk. I felt alive and as in control of my life as any of us ever are.

When I’d found a motel, dealt with my sodden gear (all hail Ortlieb panniers – nearly everything in them was dry) and showered – I lay on the bed, watching well-earned TV, and felt strong – physically, mentally and emotionally. These days of riding have been testing but in the best sort of way … I’ve been tested and met the tests (so far).

Sometimes you’re beaten to the call sometimes; Sometimes you’re taken to the wall But you don’t give in

The next few days will test my patience. Another storm system has settled in; the local bus will take me to Port Macquarie where I will have to wait it out. I had already planned to spend two nights there so here’s hoping come Sunday the worst of this will have passed and I can press on.

Only 7 km to a Vanilla Slice: Urunga to Scotts Head (Day 10: Wednesday 29 April)

It rained overnight but the sun shone warmly again in the morning as I packed the tent away and loaded up my bicycle. I’d been an object of some interest around the campground the night before and this continued in the morning until I finished packing and rode away around 10 am. (I’m still struggling to master this early start thing.)

Back up the hill I’d climbed yesterday afternoon to Hungry Head but, this time, stopping to take in the view – the first of the Pacific I’d enjoyed on this ride. The north looked sunny and beautiful; the south – where I was heading – overcast.

The trouble with these blog posts is there’s actually not a lot of ways to talk of roads, views, and riding that doesn’t vary that much: undulating country roads and highway verges – there’s just not much to say about them.

There’s also not a huge amount to say about what I was thinking about – what was I thinking about? Well, the thing with riding – for me anyway – is I tend to do it from a fairly deeply mindful and present place. I’m looking at the road ahead, listening for the traffic coming from behind, noticing the smells and feeling the direction of the wind.

My mind wanders to contemplate various things … I’ve been thinking about Trust – and may write something separate about that – and on this day I was thinking rather a bit about Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Australians who had been executed by the State of Indonesia while I slept in my tent in Urunga.

The two issues relate, of course, trust and the executions – the betrayal of the trust that the system will recognize reform and reward it with life. A betrayal of trust not dissimilar to that suffered by young black Americans who – while I slept and Indonesia was executing – were rebelling in Baltimore.

Life should simply be fairer and more just for more people – we should recognise that we are all in this together and that we all benefit when more of our fellow human beings are thriving than are suffering.

Anyway … when I’m not watching for twigs or cringing in the turbulence of a Double-B, this is the stuff I’m thinking about. That and what I’ll eat next.

I left the highway at Nambucca Heads and took the backroads to Macksville. Seven kilometres out of town it was clear I’d just missed a rain shower: there were wet patches on the road and that fantastic rain-on-hot-bitumen smell. As I passed the showgrounds the heavens opened, seemingly from nowhere, and hammered me for just long enough for me to get wet, get my jacket out, put it on and ride on. Then it stopped.

Nambucca River at Macksville

I had set my mind on a vanilla slice from just before the rain and I was on the hunt for a bakery as soon as I hit town. Quickly found one, and my vanilla slice, then a café for a matching pot of tea. Such civilised bicycle touring!

The highway from Macksville to the Scotts Head turn-off is shit – busy and with a narrow verge – but it was only a few kilometres. Then I was back onto rolling country blacktop again for the final hour or so into Scotts Head. A bit of a brutal climb greeted my arrival into the town but the top rewarded me with a stunning view of the ocean, headlands rolling north, and orangey cloud diffused sunlight illuminating the whole of it.

My Warm Showers hosts for the night, Jacky and Stephen, are recently retired and tour locally mostly but have made a couple of jaunts to Europe and other, non-bicycle, travel in Asia and South America. They were hosting me in Jacky’s mum’s house – she has passed away and now it’s shared as a holiday/beach house amongst Jacky, her siblings and all their kids.

It was another enjoyable Warm Showers evening: eating, drinking and socialising. I slept in a single bed in a room decorated with an old wall map of Australia showing a circuit journey around the continent. One of many such road-trips Jacky’s parents had enjoyed making.

Again … Google won’t let me embed a map with my changes (if anyone knows how to do that, let me know) I rode from Urunga to Hungry Head, Nambucca Heads then the backroads to Macksville before rejoining the highway to the Scotts Head turnoff.

A Truly Lovely Day for a Ride: Bellingen to Urunga (Day 9: Tuesday 28 April)

It’s not that I dawdled but I had some stuff to get done and I decided to do it at Ian’s and in Bellingen on Tuesday morning: the bicycle needed some looking after, I needed to catch up on some writing and posting, and I wanted to post some things home. It was nearly noon when, full of coffee & cake, I pedalled out of town on the North Arm Road bound for the coast.

It was warm, hot even, the sky a boundless blue bowl, the breeze negligible. I was whistling a bicycle tourist’s happy tune as I rode up and rolled down the undulating road past farm houses and paddocks full of milking cows. There was the smell of wood-smoke mingled with cow dung and the river glistened off my right shoulder.

Approaching Raleigh I paused for a heard of milkers crossing the road to be relieved of their dairy-goodness. They lumbered slowly and heavily toward the milking shed.

I turned south and joined the Pacific Highway for the first time for the run to the Urunga turn-off. It wasn’t far and it wasn’t bad – about the same as the New England but with, perhaps, more tucks and, of course, lots of construction zones.

I had only meant to stop for lunch in Urunga but when I pedalled away it was nearly 3 pm already. I got a few kilometres down the road to Hungry Head and realising I’d have at least another 12 kilometres of highway riding to the next town and caravan park so I decided to turn back and make my home in Urunga for the night.

The caravan park there is modern and well-appointed with free WiFi and a good camper’s kitchen – a win all around.

I actually took the North Bank Road route via Raleigh – but can’t get Google to let me embed that map.