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The forecast is hot and sunny

26 Aug

Dickon on Waikiki Beach

I was asked the favourite place question again the other day.  Rain drops were chasing each other down the window in a race to the sill, the boys were sniffing and nose blowing, and we were all shivering slightly in a not put quite enough clothes on for the weather sort of way.  I gave my it’s hard to choose answer.  Then I looked out of the window, and it came to me.

We spent last winter on the beach.  From November to March we were in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia.  We swam every week, usually every day.  Sometimes we swam in pools, sometimes rivers or lakes, but mostly we swam in the sea.  Clear, tropical, saltiness, as warm as bathwater.   Sometimes there were big waves to duck under and make us scream, sometimes there were little spotty fish and coral to marvel at through leaky masks, sometimes there were surfers wearing Santa hats.  Always it was warm.  I couldn’t choose just one, but my favourite place was the beach*.


* Disclaimer: I reserve the right to have a different favourite place next week. And the week after that.  And so on.

Red Dog

30 Mar

Bungy jumping Granny McGarvey, little convict Grace, transported for stealing apples, Tahi the one legged kiwi.  We’ve had a few travelling companions since we left home, but none as memorable as Red Dog.

Everywhere we go, we keep an eye out for local books to read the children.  Often they’re really helpful to explain the new things we see around us, whether it’s bush tucker or volcanoes, and the adults usually learn something too.  So when we discovered that there was a famous Pilbara dog, who’d had a book written about him by Louis de Bernieres, we had to get it.

Red Dog, so called because of the local red dust in his fur, belonged to no one and everyone in Karratha, at a time when the North West Australian mining town was little more than a collection of caravans.  He’d turn up at people’s front doors expecting to be fed and watered, and they’d always oblige.  He got the best seat on the mine buses and travelled the length and breadth of Western Australia, hitching lifts with his friends.  In this impossibly remote, rocky, arid, place, largely populated by men far far away from their families, the lovely dog found it easy to make friends.

Although Red Dog is not a strictly a children’s book, there’s plenty in it to keep them interested.  Red Dog’s famously stinky farts feature heavily, as do stories of his battles with local cats, and gun wielding caravan park caretakers.  Like all the best books, it’s funny and sad in equal measure, with beautifully drawn characters and atmospheric descriptions of the otherworldly landscape of the Pilbara.  Apparently it’s being made into a film, I hope they do it justice.

Our book, with its own covering of red dust, is now in an Australia Post box on a cargo ship, making it’s slow way home to London.  One day, we’ll be able to read it again and remember our big adventure in the ancient red desert on the edge of nowhere.

Off season

25 Mar

We’ve been in Australia during the ‘off season’.  Where I come from that means we wear more layers and turn the heating up, but stuff still happens.  It takes very unusual weather to close London.

Round these parts it’s a bit different.  Once the school summer holidays end in early February, huge swathes of Northern and Western Australia simply shut down.  Shops are closed, museums are closed, roads are closed, even huge many thousands of square miles national parks are closed.  Sure, you can call ahead and ask what’s open, but you don’t always get a straight answer.  He might be running his tour, or he might have gone bush.  The train does run at weekends in the off season, but they might be repairing some flood damage to the tracks.  You have to call Arnold and ask him to open up the museum for you, no I don’t know whether he’ll be around or not.  When you’ve driven three hundred kilometres to get there, it can be a little frustrating.

We knew we’d have to contend with rain, serious rain.  We knew that this would mean that roads would be closed.  We understood that.  But it never occurred to us that art galleries and museums would be shut up.  That tours would be not running until April.  That we’d arrive in a tourist office and ask what there was to do in the area and they’d look at us as if we were slightly deranged.

But it’s not all bad.  Apart from the obviouses, like half price accommodation, there have been lots of benefits.  When we have found an open museum, we’ve been lucky enough to see it without the crowds.  We had our own personal guided tour of the pearling museum in Broome, by a very friendly and entertaining local who was delighted to actually have some visitors.  The children tried on early Japanese diving outfits, we ate pearl meat and we held one of the most valuable pearls in the world, without having to compete with a cruise load of other tourists.  We got to ask lots of questions and the things we learnt have really stuck with the children.  They now turn their rashies into helmets and dive for pearls in the swimming pool.

And we couldn’t go to the famous Kakadu National Park because it was closed, so instead we had a wonderful three days camping in Litchfield National Park.  Where we got drenched on a daily basis in rain so fierce it made us laugh and were literally the only people there.  Falling asleep to the sound of drumming rain and howling dingoes is an experience I’ll never forget.

In many ways the emptiness and closedness feels fitting in this place of huge spaces and few people.  We may have missed out on tours and activities, but we’ve enjoyed having the place to ourselves.  And what a place.

It’s a look

24 Mar

Oh how we laughed when we first saw people wearing fly nets. How stupid do they look? We chortled amongst ourselves.

After two months in Australia we’ve caved. The flies are unbearable, pestilential, biblical in their plague-like proportions. They settle on your eyes, in your nostrils, buzz in your ears, get caught in your throat. They are particularly offensive at dawn and dusk. Horrible when you stop at the side of the road. Distracting when you’re trying to drive or erect a tent.

Bloody flies.

An education

23 Mar

He strides purposefully towards us carrying a didgeridoo, a couple of boomerangs, a conch shell and a large torch.  “Tonight, I’m going to educate you.  Teach you about my customs and my country.  Follow me.”  So we followed him, away from the gently lapping water of the dusky beach and into the inky black bush.

The children trot after us, slightly nervous about what this evening holds and slightly nervous about being out so late, in this place that they know holds so many dangers.  “What if we tread on a snake?”  “You’ll be fine, just walk in single file.”

For about ten minutes we follow Capes, an ex-Aussie rules footballer and a Mulgana Aborigine from Monkey Mia,  along a sandy path through the low scrub.  Occasionally he points to a bush and tells us what it’s useful for, or highlights animal tracks with his torch.  Soon the evocative smell of woodsmoke drifts through the night air and he leads us to our camp.

For the next hour or so, he tells us stories about turtles and thorny devils, making illustrations with a stick in the sand, sings the songs of his people, teaches us to play the conch shell, with mixed success, and cooks the best mullet I’ve ever tasted, on the roaring, sparking, smoky fire.

Afterwards, as we walk back through the bush to the caravan park, all trace of nervousness in the children is gone and they bounce around excitedly like baby roos, asking Capes questions and hunting for tracks with their little torches.    I ask Eve what she’s learnt.  “I learnt lots of things, but I think the most important thing was that we should only take what we need and not be greedy, otherwise there won’t be enough for everyone.  I also learnt that I like fish.”

An evening well spent.


This post was written for The Gallery at Sticky Fingers.  The theme this week is education.

Monkey Mia

22 Mar

We’re playing pearl diving. A heavily suntanned, retired couple bob around in the warm turquoise sea, talking about investments and stock prices. On the fine yellow sand some toddlers are building a sandcastle and three bikini clad backpackers lie on their towels reading fat novels. A little way out, there are small fishing boats, rods dangling hopefully over the side. A group of young men throw a ball noisily in the shallows. You could be on any beach anywhere in the world, except for maybe in North Yorkshire, where hypothermia would have set in by now. You could, if it wasn’t for the five dolphins swimming up and down the shore, playfully chasing minnows and weaving curiously around the delighted humans.

Monkey Mia is an unusual place. No more than a holiday resort really, in Shark Bay, one of only twenty-odd places in the world that meet all four World Heritage criteria for places of natural importance. One of the area’s biggest drawcards is the stromatolites, the living descendents of the earth’s earliest producers of oxygen. They’re not much to look at, rock-like creatures that bubble occasionally, but ex-geologist husbands find them very exciting. Scientists aside, most people come to Shark Bay for the stunning wildlife, dugongs, rays, turtles, sea snakes and the famous dolphins. In the 1960’s, a small caravan park was established at the end of a dirt track in a place called Monkey Mia. People would come to fish and the local dolphins soon worked out that if they hung around in the bay they’d get a free feed. Before long, people were coming to Monkey Mia just to feed the dolphins and their images graced postcards all over Australia.

I have to say that I was in two minds about visiting a place to feed dolphins, it sounded a bit cheesy and commercial, like a glorified aquarium. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. After it was discovered that unregulated feeding was altering the dolphins’ behaviour and causing serious problems to the population, the Department for Environment and Conservation turned the area into a reserve and took control of the feeding programme. There are now very strict no touching rules, areas which are for dolphin swimming only and continuous research into their behaviour. Only five mature females are ever fed and they’re only given a small snack, never enough fish to stop them hunting for themselves. Despite this, many more dolphins come into the beach every day. They know they’re not going to be given fish, they just like interacting with humans. The dolphins who come into the beach today are the children and grandchildren of the first animals to be fed. Dolphins spend a third of their day socialising, and these particular dolphin families have chosen to include humans in their coffee morning.

We continue our game of pearl diving, stopping now and then to watch as the beautiful creatures race past in pursuit of a long tom. The long tom lives to see another day but the dolphins don’t seem to mind. And nor do we.

Poste Restante

21 Mar

Since we’ve been away we’ve made full use of the modern technology available to us to keep in touch with family and friends.  Email’s good, so are Facebook and Skype and FaceTime’s lovely.  But really nothing beats a proper old fashioned letter or card.

I was kind of surprised that poste restante still existed in this modern age, but it does.  You just ask people to send you stuff care of your chosen post office, then turn up with your passport for ID and receive a pile of letters and birthday cards in return.

There’s something about seeing a person’s handwriting, knowing that they’ve taken your letter to the post office themselves, that they’ve actually touched it, that makes it a completely different experience to an email.  You can’t fold an email up and tuck it inside a book to look at later in a quiet moment.

I hope people never stop writing me letters.