As the year moved on I was told at work in the strongest terms despite the pandemic or even because of it, I should give myself a break. At the time there was a possibility that people may only be able to travel up to 250 kilometres from home. So I planned around that.
I did not want to stay at home on the couch and watch Netflix but I also didn’t want to spend a lot of money.
I also wanted Karen to have a holiday too.
So while thousands died across the world, I went on holidays and I am going to write about it. I’m sorry if that seems tone deaf. I guess I was following health advice from my government, maybe spending money in the area was good for some businesses but I went on holidays. I had a nice time and know that is only due to the grace of God.
Karen and I drove down to where we were staying at North Tamborine.
It was a Scottish themed manor named Stonehaven Guest House, by that I mean there was a lot of wood in it and Scottish themed paraphernalia everywhere. We stayed in a room called Edinburgh. Next day was Balmoral. One day I walked downstairs musing to my wife about the Australian battle Coral-Balmoral during the Vietnam War and wondering how Balmoral related to Scotland.
It’s where the Royal Family holidays of course which my wife reminded me of with the patience of a saint. Damnit and I’m the one with the Scottish heritage.
We loved the place, the staff were great but kind of left us alone which suited us. There was a beautiful backyard with a creek and a gazebo that was lit up at nights.
The backyard. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
The creek out the back. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
Our first night we walked around our up the road and got a layout of our surroundings. Up the road was a series of shops and the local ANZAC Memorial.
We went to a nearby Irish pub but they were booked out until later with the spacing required due to COVID-19. Fair enough. I looked around on my phone and made a call to a place called The Fox & Hounds Inn.
The gentleman on the other end said he would be happy to take a booking and asked me what time and I said now was fine. He laughed and told me he still didn’t open for another 8 minutes so we agreed to half an hour.
The pub was cosy on a cold winter’s night and even with social distancing there were a few customers that night. I got some salmon with a thing called bubble and squeak. I didn’t mind but didn’t love the bubble and squeak but my goodness the salmon was amazing. Karen really enjoyed her Guiness pie too.
Some of the pub is made with parts of a pub imported from England contributing to the construction of the inn.
Copyright Lloyd Marken.
We were the first to arrive. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
Thank you Fox and Hound Inn. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
There were also English ales available with a range more varied and authentic than say what you would get in Brisbane at the franchise Pig’n’Whistle. Nothing against the Pig’n’Whistle which I love but when in Rome you hope you’re enjoying something you can’t get back home.
We finished off with dessert, I got a Raspberry Eton Mess which basically was a mixture of cream, meringue and raspberries in a glass and my goodness it was good.
I think Karen had an apple and rhubarb crumble but I didn’t care because I had the best dessert after she beat me with the best meal. An even draw.
All night there was one waitress working the floor, taking orders, delivering food and passing good vibes along to every customer as they waited for food or got served drinks.
The owner out the back worked the entire kitchen by himself and the food was delicious and kept coming.
The waitress was so good, I called him out from the kitchen to pass on how much of a credit she was to the place and he agreed advising me he didn’t have her there full time because she was still going to school.
A lot of us will live entire lives without being able to remain that calm and quick under the pressure of a restaurant setting. I think she’ll go far, I wished I had also passed on what a great job he did.
The fireplace. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
The interior. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
Karen and I. Copyright Lloyd Marken.
It could have been being on holidays for the first time in a while but there was a little magic in the air.
The kind of magic you have when you’re on holidays and you find a little place to eat that just fits the bill and the staff are so good and the place is so nice you feel it was almost done all for your benefit.
I awoke rather late in what would be last day in a foreign capital. I should have risen at dawn, I should have carried on throughout the night but I didn’t. My funds were limited and my mind was elsewhere. When I got back to the Premier Inn at Bexleyheath I took a bath and tried to clear my head. I awoke late on Thursday April 5th and walked towards the train station. Originally I had envisioned leaving the wedding to sit at the airport with my brother until our planes took off. But the flights booked included one out of Heathrow at 10:35pm so I was going sightseeing. I got to Bexleyheath station and hopped on a train that had been delayed. In 2002 I caught trains for 3 weeks without incident, now I was finding out why locals mocked the reliability of British rail.
We did eventually move as I studied my old maps from 2002, the line went into London finishing at Charing Cross. I was keen to see Hyde Park, Westminster, Tower Bridge and most importantly St Paul’s. So I figured I would change trains and head for St Paul’s but then I saw Charing Cross was at Trafalgar Square I decided I would just hop off there. Years ago I had gone on a tourist bus there and we had gone into a local pub for lunch surrounded by businessmen doing the same. Romantically I envisioned a similar destination this time with me taking the chance to try a warm beer for the first time. The journey was slow but slowly the houses gave way to apartment buildings and leafy parks to industrial areas. More and more buildings climbed higher into the sky and then started to become of older architecture. I didn’t need a map to tell me I was getting close and then when I hopped off my train I saw clearly the London Eye.
Coming out onto the main street on a sunny afternoon I looked around for a pub but soon decided I didn’t want to spend time or money on food. I saw a shop named Garfunkels that served British breakfast for about 10pound, I suspected it was a franchise and in I went to sit down with a nice window seat looking at Trafalgar. I settled in to do some people watching but instead ended up reading my Michael Caine biography What’s It All About? Reading about someone who came from London while in London also seemed appropriate and fulfilling.
Having chosen a rather boring meal to eat while in a foreign land I noticed with the sauces there was bottle of something I did not recognise – malt vinegar that the bottle said was to be poured over the chips. I could tell from its placement that this was as common in England as the other sauces and while not a huge vinegar fan I decided to have a go and found I quite liked it. Now I was truly cosmopolitan and eating something different.
Copyright LLoyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
I paid and walked over to Trafalgar Square. I was thrilled to be in old London town and such a place made the experience all so real and yet I was alone and with vaunted memories of 2002 that today couldn’t possibly measure up to. It was here in 2002 during a particular heat wave that Nadia and I joined others climbing into the world famous fountains to cool our feet. Now there were signs everywhere saying keep out of the water. Lions I had once bravely climbed towered above me out of reach. These were feelings I would often have throughout the day.
So I set off for the one place I wanted to go above all else – St Paul’s Cathedral and headed straight for Paul Mall.
I didn’t get too far before I righted myself and found if I stuck to The Strand it would take me there. Apologies to all Londoners who will be tearing their hair out at my lack of geographical mainstays. So off I went, the amazing thing about London is there is so much to see or do in such a small area. At one point I saw a black gothic building and stopped to take a picture as the battery on my phone gave out. I had a spare charger on me but needed the phone to last a while yet so I stuck to The Strand and headed for my destination. Along the way I saw police and a gentleman outside a Church that looked like some trouble brewing or blowing over.
When I got to St Paul’s there were bag inspections and dozens of people sitting down on the steps. I walked up and was asked to open my bags and I warned the gentlemen that one compartment had dirty clothes in it. Those around me were asked if I was going to the evening service but not me. The Church had closed to the general public in the last half hour or less but there were evening services. I will tell you about my love for St Paul’s another time but it was one of the highlights of my trip to London in 2002. Over the years when I ask people who have gone to London did they go and see it and they always helpfully reply that they’ve been to St Peter’s in Italy or there is really quite a nice cathedral in Kent. Having not gone to those places I will give them the benefit of the doubt but how you can dilly daddle around with Big Ben or Trafalgar Square when St Paul’s Cathedral is right there is really beyond me! Ahem but to each their own.
I walked and sat down on the pews waiting for the evening service and taking in the grand sight above me. There was something comforting in how it was just as beautiful and grand as I remembered her but soon my thoughts turned to how in less than six hours time my flight home was scheduled to take off. Could I afford to spend my time here taking in what I believed would a be a very special experience. Perhaps not. I got up and walked over to those who had welcome me and said “I’m terribly sorry but I’m going to have to leave.” As I stood there with a suitcase wrapped around me she replied “Maybe you can come back tomorrow.” And I smiled and I said “That would be lovely.” And it would be and maybe if not tomorrow then one day soon. On my way out I grabbed my loose change and put it in the donation boxes and hoped this squared me away with God who had been kind enough to get me here to see my favourite place in London and to support the staff who had kindly taken me in for the evening service I was now abandoning.
In 2002 one of the few well known tourist attractions we did not go to was The Monument so off I set to see that. My journey that day became a series of seeing the hint of famous landmarks in obscure and unexpected ways that let me know I was finally nearby. The Monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Dr Robert King and erected as a memorial to the Great Fire. Standing at 202 feet or 61 metres if laid down on its foundations the end of it would reach Pudding Lane where the fire was believed to have begun in 1666. I am getting worse with heights and more out of shape every year so I was glad I had been recently going to the gym when I entered the narrow spiral stone staircase of 311 steps leading to a viewing platform. I stopped as other came down past me. One gentleman hopefully said to me “That I would have left the suitcase at home.” Out of breath I fired back “There is no home.” So I told him. Heh. Ahead of me was a father taking his kids up the monument with their grandfather. Dad was struggling but with great pride noted aloud that his father in his 70s was shooting ahead. Age is just a number I guess.
I’ve abseiled off Kangaroo Point at 18 metres and off 20 metre towers. I’ve stood on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge but it was just as well I did not know that I was 48.7 metres above the ground right at that moment.
The Copper Urn with flames gives the monument the extra 13 metres. To be truthful though with the wire fencing around to stop jumpers made me feel more safe and I felt pretty comfortable despite the height. As I went to leave I suggested to a couple at the door “You go first, you’ll be faster than me.”
Now I made my way to the Tower of London which was understandably closed and then I walked across the beautiful and unique Tower Bridge. Years ago Nadia and I spent a day in London together where we went to Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Globe Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, Convent Garden and yes Trafalgar Square.
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Chockfull of peak hour traffic Tower Bridge was still enchanting but I was now strictly sighting tourist landmarks rather than experiencing them. Instead I experienced the hum of the city as workers left for the day and young people and tourists took to the river for entertainment or a meal. The day’s ending suited my own feelings of wistfulness and farewell but also that a new part of the day was starting.
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
I crossed the river 3 or 4 times I think finally crossing the Millennium Bridge which I had not done fifteen years ago. I was on the wrong side of the river when I went past the Globe Theatre which Nadia saw in 2002 while I was on HMS Belfast. Maybe next time.
Some things had changed and looked more touristy, some things remained the same. There were a lot of concrete structures on each bridge that looked like old worn down ticket turn stiles of a bygone era. But I did not remember them from last time.
The sun continued to lower and I looked to see The London Eye off in the distance not thinking it could be much further but it was. Finally I came to an area with a Merry Go Round around Southbank where a busker was playing a beautiful version of Rocket Man. I took note of his name at the time and gave him all my loose change but I cannot remember it for the life of me.
The lights were coming on now and the song moved me as I strolled away. These kinds of moments are what make trips, of what makes life. I was impressed by how many performers were entertaining people along Southbank. There is a whole culture to buskers in London followed by bloggers with their own dedicated youtube sites. Some make a living, not great money but a living doing what they love and my hat off to their achievement of that, their talent and to what they bring to the river Thames every day.
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
I walked all afternoon covering at least 10 kilometres with 7 kilos are my back. I don’t know if Karen would’ve liked that but not for the first time did I think about her being there.
The London Eye came into view and I knew I was close. Big Ben was surrounded by scaffolding as I crossed Westminster Bridge.
It was where we essentially started our journey as London tourists in 2002, the tourist vendor on the corner I checked out to see if there were suitable gifts. This was where we first came in 2002, this was where that bastard attacked and killed people on 22 March, 2017 injuring 50 and killing five. I had thought about us on that bridge as a family fulfilling a lifelong dream on a weekday morning back in 2002 when that terrorist attack took place. As soon as I saw the concrete structures again on Westminster Bridge I knew what they were for and that they had not been there in 2002.
Less than a year after September 11, 2001 we travelled across the globe with new restrictions and laws and heightened security and at war. Now all these years later there had been even more terrorist attacks and more heightened security. Yet all around me were people out and about having a good time. That made me happy.
I saw up ahead Churchill’s statue and decided I would say hello before leaving. Photos of me with my siblings and Churchill were some of the first taken of as a family in London all those years ago. I was coming full circle almost by design but when I saw the Cenotaph I knew I had one more place to go. My face was red from wind blast, my steps were slow and deliberate due to blisters. In the beautiful blue twilight of a European autumn evening with golden shimmering lights and dropping temperatures I crossed the road and bowed my head in front of the war memorial.
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
When I descended down Westminster station I asked for directions. It was getting late and I had not the time nor energy to waste. A kind staff member sensed this and told me to catch the next train and switch at South Kensington. I swapped and waited anxiously for my train. I’ll admit that I had left in good time but if my train was delayed like earlier that day I was well and truly stranded. As a man who does not think of himself as brave I am it would seem casually reckless none the less. Next I had to swap trains again as I was going to Heathrow Terminal 4 and this train was only going to Heathrow Terminal 1, 2 or 3. One more anxious wait and my train came, soon I limped up to Terminal 4 to get my bag checked. I was asked where my boarding pass was and I helpfully replied “I thought I was getting that from you.” Thankfully again this good staff member showed me where to go where China Southern Airlines and I returned a few minutes later with my boarding pass. I had an hour to spare until take off but he told me with relief that I had just got in. Fair enough.
I now entered a gift shop having gotten things for some family members at The Monument, I now got a tote bag for Karen, a stuffed toy for my older sister, a tea towel for parents and a snow globe for some children. Plus magnets. A long term collector of spoons I didn’t get one. It did not seem long until we had boarded and were taking off from the tarmac. I had made it, I was on my way home. When I first booked the flights my imagination had gone to taking Karen to London in the near future. Now I was not so sure. It had been an eventful trip, it felt like a monkey was off my back in my long term longing for travelling overseas and yet also it seemed more possible now than ever. Seeing London again was wonderful but Karen’s absence also made me realise that there were other things more important. I don’t know what the future will bring, who does? The golden lights of a metropolitan city lay out before us outside the window. I looked desperately for a landmark and seconds passed as I failed to recognise anything. Then I saw what looked unmistakably like Tower Bridge and I smiled. In that moment for whatever reason I was struck by a feeling of farewell like I was seeing London for the last time and so I wished it well and thanked that beautiful grand old city of fond memories and my sister’s home. The wings tilted and the ground went out of view and I began my journey to Brisbane and my home.
I wish Harry and Megan the best but for me there was only one wedding to attend this year and it was the one of Nadia Marken and David Ward. After waxing lyrical about how coffee is served on Southern China Airlines and Dutch biscuits it would seem rude to speak less about the whole point of my trip but it involves people who deserve some privacy although I am emboldened by the fact that my sister has her own blog. There are things simply put, I cannot share but I will try to get across something. We raced home Tuesday morning along Bexleyheath in my sister’s car. British traffic is more aggressive that I’m used to and it gets really interesting when driving around the narrow streets of suburbia. My sister though was an old hand at driving on English roads, more an English driver now than an Australian one. Her wedding was in less than 24 hours but she was for the most part relaxed if mission focussed. Dave took my brother and I to a local burger joint that he and Nadia frequented while Nadia went for a hair appointment. Having lost some weight on the flights over I chowed down on some delicious greasy food. Dave seemed to know the manager well and I got the sense that this was one of the hangouts for them and their friends. This is also where I met Dave’s parents who are two very lovely people.
Dave’s siblings and our parents couldn’t make it to London. Dave and Nadia will travel to Canada to celebrate their wedding there and next year will come to Australia to celebrate with us. I’ve called it the tour throughout the Commonwealth but don’t know if it is catching on. Dave’s family and our family have experienced some of the same emotional journeys in watching their loved ones fall in love with each other far from home. There was something reassuring in getting a chance to talk to people who have had a similar experience to your own. On top of that they are pretty cool people in and of themselves. Dave’s Dad can cut a rug pretty fine even if the floor is made out of hardwood and can reverse any motor vehicle out of a tightly spaced park.
Dave’s Mum has the biggest heart and so it was no surprise when her and me volunteered to help unpack with Nadia at the reception venue The Crown Tavern in Lee that afternoon. We arrived with all the tables and chairs already set up by the fantastic staff, Nadia surveyed all and talked to the manager.
Copyright Lloyd Marken or is that Nadia Ward?
Copyright Lloyd Marken or is that Nadia Ward?
Place settings, table plans to go on easels and welcome signs all designed by my sister were unboxed and set up. I was impressed to see a bride well organised and decisive without being stressed. There was something relaxed in how she had picked up me up from the airport and gone from one location to another ticking off things for the wedding but now the day was coming to an end. We were located on the second floor of the pub with a beautiful balcony outside with plenty of space to smoke cigars. I wondered if such a thing had been as big a consideration for her as it was for me when looking at wedding venues. There was a dancing area away from the assembled tables with a bar and a fireplace that had a bookshelf painted on it. I loved it. At the end of the main room was a long table and I was informed that I would be seated on the end of it with my brother. Dave’s parents would be seated at the other end. I nodded, touched by the gesture.
I was asked throughout the day how I was doing with jet lag but I stayed up quite easily until that evening and work up comfortably early Wednesday morning. I believe this was primarily because I had already been running on London time when I was in Brisbane but who knows. Along the main thoroughfare of Bexleyheath there are plenty of pubs with long histories and odd names. I went into one and encouraged by my loosening pants ordered some toast and a coffee which came to less than five pounds I think. The quiet Wednesday traffic seemed to consist of mostly old regulars a lot with thick working class English accents. No families or tourists but the manager didn’t seem to mind, not exactly a peak time for business and I liked the quiet.
Copyright Lloyd Marken
Copyright Lloyd Marken
I then made my way to my sister’s place where we were served generously by Dave, Johnny Walk Blue each in a tumbler to celebrate while Nadia had her hair and make-up done. This was where I witnessed Dave’s Dad impressive manoeuvring skills with a motor vehicle. I met some of Nadia and Dave’s best friends in England which was a real privilege. I wrote years ago that my sister has a family now in England and this was my chance to get to meet them. They too are fine people, all teachers, and all super smart and dare I say kind of hip. They reminded me of a recent Judd Apatow show in the way that they spoke, quick witted, political and philosophical with a smattering of deadpan and earnest. I could only dream of talking like them.
The ceremony took place at Danson House upstairs in the Sir John Boyd room. The earliest records of Danson estate go back to the late 1200s. Originally built in 1766 Danson House had fallen into some disrepair during the 20th century. English Heritage and Bexley Heritage Trust worked to restore and reopen Danson House from 1995 to 2005. Since then Danson House has become the register office for Bexley borough and I was told at one point the impressive number of weddings that go through there on an average Saturday. I think each ceremony is done over a 30 minute period as opposed to the hour or two allocated to the Churches I looked at in Australia for my wedding. The official running the ceremony was a sweet woman who when told my brother was live streaming the wedding on his phone to my parents was visibly touched and said hello to them on screen. From then on she made sure my brother was close to the action with a good view of proceedings. My father, mother, older sisters, sister in law and wife watched in the middle of the night from the other side of the world. Where I had expected myself to be instead of where I was now missing my wife. When the phone was held up to me I spoke briefly and smiled.
I’ll tell you the truth gentle reader, I didn’t do this for my sister nor did my presence serve her wedding well. I came because I wanted to for myself and I’ll never be sure if that was the right call but she came for me and so somewhere deep inside me I was driven to go for her. Someone I discussed the possibility with simply said “Yeah but she’s your sister.” And it struck a nerve so there I was in Bexleyheath but to what success I can’t say. No matter my sister beamed on her wedding day and I got to be there. Is there anything else to consider but that?
The Sir John Boyd room only housed 25 guests, again a great honour my sister had given me to be included at late notice, and so all guests met up at the Danson Stables to enjoy the moment due to the rainy weather. Meanwhile my stalwart 73 year old father drove his girls’ home in the middle of the night after the ceremony around Brisbane. We received a text telling us everybody was safe at home in the tardy bright sunshine of an early afternoon as we left Danson Stables. The connection across vast differences and realities never ceases to amaze me.
Next we headed to the Crown Tavern in Lee. The formal proceedings got underway as four speakers, Nadia and Dave’s closest friends, got up to speak along with Nadia and Dave themselves. Most of these friendships went back to Dartford in 2009 or 2010 where a bunch of foreigners landed in England to teach. All the speeches were full of amusing anecdotes but what I enjoyed the most about was the sentimentality and open expression of love that they each carried in their own way. I was most touched by Dave’s speech, I’ve always loved a wedding and there is something very special about a couple in love on their wedding day and I was moved by the sight of how happy my sister and her husband were in that moment. I believe I had Pan fried Gressingham duck breast, duck leg croquette, chicory, roasted sweet potato and cherries in brandy followed by whisky treacle tart with clotted cream. Delicious whatever it was.
As the festivities got under way I went outside on the balcony with the smokers and had a cigar that my brother Earl kindly cut for me despite not smoking himself. The crowd waned and changed on the balcony over the evening but again and again it was where I returned. My father had kindly given me the jacket he took to London in 2002 and I was grateful for it since it had recently snowed in London and I didn’t know how cold it would be. On the balcony surrounded by Londoners and Canadians this jacket briefly seen being worn by me at Danson Stables was brought up.
I insisted I wasn’t that cold which I hadn’t been (pay attention to these words) and so began a long night of “enjoying” the cold. Having not felt very cold last winter and suffering through the humidity of a 6 month Australian summer I found being a little chilled refreshing but have to admit later on when I took off my suit jacket I was at times shivering. Nonetheless I enjoyed my company, it was like all the cool kids hung out on the balcony and everybody was very nice to me even though I was an outsider. I enjoyed just listening to them for the most part since they as witty as they were.
At one point we saw a fox crossing the road which is less likely to happen in my neck of the woods. Sometimes I stood out there for a brief couple of minutes alone and contemplative.
I saw the newlyweds cut their wedding cake a 3 tiered creation from 3 different friends with 3 different flavours, all impressively made.
I saw my sister share her first dance with new her husband and shared a look with my brother in that moment.
Later Earl danced with Nadia growing in confidence and busting some serious move whereas at the end of my song with her we had swayed in one spot not even rotating a full 360. Finally the time came for Nadia and Dave to leave and we wished them well. Two of her friends, a wonderful married couple were also staying at Bexleyheath Premier Inn and we ubered home with them. Again my outstretched notes were denied. I was due to fly out in 24 hours and so had decided I would see some of London but the most important part of my trip was now over. My congratulations and best wishes to the happy couple Nadia and Dave. It was so lovely to spend time with you on your wedding day with your English family.
We’ll skip ahead now gentle reader to the return commute as it won’t hold much interest in comparison to once you have read about my time in England. I was scheduled to leave Heathrow 22:35 local time CZ 0304 travelling 5911 miles in 11hours 10minutes to Guangzhou. I noticed this was a shorter flight than the one I took over and put it down to the aircraft now being a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The 787 is a newer aircraft but not the true successor to the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet. Boeing instead designed this to replace their 767s with technologies that made the plane weight less and travel more efficiently. The Airbus A380 is the biggest passenger jet now as the Boeing 747 starts to be retired out of service and even it is in a battle to draw a profitability for Airbus. That makes me very sad. We used to build grand things, now we just build efficient ones but as a passenger who knows nothing I was happy to catch the 787 to get home faster but probably enjoyed being on the A330s more.
Upon boarding I noticed I was now on the right hand side facing the front and the side rows were 3 abreast and the seats had coverings that were more purplish than blue. Alas no Angry Birds. I was seated between two young men in the centre but they couldn’t have been nicer. We did fine accommodating each other but barely spoke. People don’t get names or make small talk anymore, if they ever did, everybody locks into their screens and politely gestures to each other and that’s about it. I had my meal which was lovely and then tried to sleep but I couldn’t, my legs were stiff and sore and I just couldn’t nod off. So I went to the bathroom and stood outside for half an hour stretching and generally just standing hoping I didn’t look weird. Eventually I returned and did manage some sleep, I think at some point Daddy’s Home 2 (I hadn’t even watched the original) and The Foreigner with Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan were watched and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Or maybe that was the last flight. The windows were tinted out blue rather than needing actual shades to be pulled down, the kind of technological breakthrough that amuses some and befuddles me.
I’m a strong believer routine makes new realities lived in very quickly and I was coming off the end of a long week where a large part of it I had been a passenger with Southern China Airlines and I was getting used to it. The ads you couldn’t skip that ran before each movie for Lexus in Chinese, the safety videos at the beginning of the flights and the terminals at Guangzhou. I was going to miss it you see.
We landed 16:45 local time and I promptly went to the toilet after clearing customs. Changing my socks and undies in a vain attempt to make up for a lack of shower facilities I charged my phone and read my Michael Caine biopic. I returned to the shops to pick gifts for loved ones, my only regret is that I had to limit myself due to carry on weight and money, Chinese pizza will have to wait for another time too. In my earlier trip I had noticed a smartly dressed Panda and fell in love with the idea of getting it for Karen. I have since discovered her name is Pia.
The airport made me think of a real cool idea for purgatory. I don’t mean it was unpleasant to be there, the place was sleek, modern, glass and steel with planes lifting off into the heavens outside. Brightly lit stores and eateries beckoned and small nooks of carpeted corners made me think of cool hiding places for kids. The smog outside and the unfamiliar surroundings were very atmospheric to me along with all the strangers that surrounded me. I was alone but there were clearly families and couples. What if there was a way station like this in heaven? There is a film from the 80s called Heavenly Kid which has a subway station as purgatory, why not an airport? Once again reading Michael Caine made me sleepy so I went for a walk but this time I was only in China for 4hours 45 minutes and they start boarding before then. To be quite honest it struck me that 5 hours was a perfect break for such commutes rather than racing to your next flight to save a couple of hours in transit. Again I recommend China Southern Airlines and the Canton Route although I was grateful I had not been there for a 17 hour stop over.
We were scheduled to fly out of Guangzhou at 21:20 in an Airbus A330 with CZ0381 to cover 4388 miles in 9 hours and 5 minutes. On my fifth and final flight I got the window seat with a young Asian woman sporting heavy make-up next to me. We didn’t talk much either but she didn’t get grumpy when I had to wake her to get past her. Before we left we were told there was a hold up due to some kind of activity around Hong Kong. I started to nod off and continued as we taxied but managed to be wide awake as we flew down the runway and up and away. The meals offered for dinner and breakfast are usually of a Western and Asian bent. I had tried them all and enjoyed them but decided to pick the Asian ones after getting a noodle soup for breakfast on the Dreamliner. I had previously been worried there would be too much liquid and was worried about spilling it but this wasn’t the case at all and it tasted fantastic. When I got the meals this time the flight crew member serving me smiled and said “You always go the Asian one.” approvingly which just tinkled me pink for some reason. Maybe that was unusual.
As the sun rose I took some photos and also as my homeland finally came into view making use of my window seat.
When we reached Australian shores a lot of the flight was still to come which gives you a sense of the distance you have to cover in Australia to get anywhere. In an afternoon I had walked over 10kilometres, last year in a day I had driven over 900 kilometres and in my last plane flight I was covering 7061 kilometres in about the same amount of time as the driving to Newcastle took. The Captain apologised for the delay getting us to Brisbane but these things happen and again I was very happy with their service.
During our descent at 4,000 feet we went past the airport and banked right the 240,000 odd kilogram passenger jet over Moreton Bay with me looking right out the window at a sea of water. I quite enjoyed that and then we came into land.
It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning and I looked out the window to see aircraft personnel loading and emptying cargo in shorts and polos with bronzed arms and legs. How Australian I thought. There was something that felt very Chinese to me in Guangzhou, very Dutch to me in Amsterdam and very English to me in Heathrow too. How to describe it I don’t know but I find something comforting in how all of those airports and all those people were the same and yet through some kind of quirky thing different. It’s something we should celebrate too and one of the joys of travelling far and wide. But I was home now as I got into my car with Karen and drove to our apartment.
Total distance traversed within the week in planes was 20,607 miles or 33,163 kilometres. I had been in London just under 58 hours, my total commute time was easily over 32 hours on the way over and close to 25 hours on the way back or roughly I spent 57 hours travelling to London and 58 in it. I’m actually surprised by that, I was assured my commute would be longer than my hours in country so I’m embarrassed to have come up short. Still my brother in law was right; Nadia was in Australia from Friday morning to Monday morning. 3 days and 3 nights. I had been in London 3 days and 2 nights with a slightly longer commute. If she wants to take back the title for craziest commute she is more than welcome, I’m just glad we got to go to each other’s weddings. I’ll tell you more next time about Bexleyheath, an Australian in London and one of said weddings.
Karen and I awoke just before 6am and sunrise on Monday morning the 2nd of April in Brisbane. I had stayed up until roughly 4am writing a review of A Quiet Place for Scenestr Magazine. Karen drove me to the departures drop off at the International terminal. It was to be some of the longest time we had been apart since I left a part time job about two years ago that occasionally I had stayed away on. There is a shame I feel in blasting across the world on a trip while she stayed home. It’s more complicated than that of course but I hope I can make it up to her in the future or that maybe we can work together towards a fulfilling goal in the future along similar lines.
My first flight CZ 0382 was an Airbus A330 scheduled to take off at 9:55am to fly 4,388 miles from Brisbane to Guangzhou in 9hours and 5 minutes. Disclaimer, I’m going off the Itinerary not necessarily the exact miles and times that transpired in reality. In a reoccurring theme all my flights seemed to be down the other end of terminals in far narrow corridors. I was seated in the centre of three seats on the left with the aisle seat. Next to me was a small boy of five with his grandfather on the right hand side aisle seat. Fantastic I thought plenty of elbow space. Strapped in for my first international flight of 15 years and first airplane flight in 9 years I kept my eyes peeled taking in the moment. Turning my head to the far away windows to catch a look of the passing and falling away countryside. Flight has never become boring or routine for me and I always wait with excitement for that instant where the plane lifts away and rises. The kid next to me could care less at one point taking off his seatbelt which I quickly put back on with his grandfather’s thanks. Once he was able to get back to playing Angry Birds on the screen at the back of the chair in front of him the better. I enjoyed dinner and managed some sleep amongst my own attempts at Angry Birds.
I learnt quickly if I wanted to go to the toilet go before they come out with the food since you’ll have your tray out until they come and collect plates roughly half an hour later after the all the meals have been consumed. I was also closer to the rear then I realised and had my eyes on the toilet to the front before a kind cabin crew member showed the back one was vacant. No matter, I could use the walk depending on how serious I was taking the DVT threat and how helpful I thought ten extra paces was to combating it. Since I was going on less than two hours sleep I found it easy to nod off but would always be disappointed when I awoke to find only half an hour or at best two hours had passed. I don’t remember if it was this flight or another where I slept through most of the live action remake of Ghost in the Shell but I did. I also constantly put up a 3D display of our plane and route which had come a long way since the maps I watched on a big screen in 2002 on the Qantas flights. As we landed this display seemed to interest the kid and he looked at it and outside the windows seeming to now feel more connected to the experience now he could see a rendering of what was going on outside. Fair enough, maybe I had started something. He had certainly turned me onto Angry Birds.
Eventually we landed in China and I stepped off onto foreign soil for the first time in 15 years and the first time in China. I went through customs with over 7 hours to kill in Guangzhou airport. As a man I naturally went to the bathroom opening a door to see a squat toilet. While considering the old when in Rome mentality I figured not all would be the same and sure enough another door revealed what I was more used to. That killed a good hour. I looked at the shops, considered getting a pizza in China just to see what it was like but in the end decided to hold onto my money and see how the trip panned out. Outside the air had some smog to it and gave way to night time quickly.
I had wondered if China Southern Airlines would be a cheap alternative to other airlines but I would highly recommend them. The staff were polite and spoke Chinese and English to their passengers switching from one to the other with ease. The food was great including instant coffee they served premixed with milk and sugar into a plastic cup. I could imagine true believers would think it too sweet, and horrible to have it in a plastic cup but the taste and convenience was right up my alley. Many years ago when I flew with Qantas people placed chairs literally 45 degrees back whether somebody was sitting behind them or not. I don’t know if the chairs go that far back on China Southern Airlines because nobody tried it. Everybody seemed to be on their best behaviour, maybe it was the formal politeness of the crews, maybe something in their culture but I would happily fly with China Southern Airlines again. Apparently Guangzhou is the home base of the airline and it has been aggressively seeking the Australasia market since in China the government made Air China the national carrier and it has the North American market so Southern China Airlines are trying to build up the Canton route for Australians to Europe over the traditional Kangaroo route. I even like the colour scheme of Southern China Airlines with blue chairs and blue livery on the plane and blue fibreglass on their boarding stairs and the uniforms are very umm.. smart.
After looking over the shops twice and starting to nod off reading my Michael Caine bio I decided to walk around the place again. Ending up in another area I came across some multi-coloured leds and a walkway that talked about the history and current status of Guangzhou. I enjoyed this very much and maybe one day I will check out the city itself with its large media tower.
Finally it was time to board CZ 0307, another Airbus A330 scheduled to fly 5689 miles over 12 hours and 40minutes leaving at 12:05am local time. This was to be my longest scheduled flight and so I descended some stairs to an underground bunch of terminals again away from the main fanfare. This time there was no plane outside the door but a big bus that we all squished into standing up holding onto dangling grips. We drove for what seemed like one end of the airport to the other at one point stopping abruptly as another vehicle whizzed by in front of us. We got out to ascend mobile stairs into our plane which I always find more exciting than just going down those extended walkways. Now I was on the left hand side with the aisle seat in a row of two. A small young Asian man had the window seat and seemed polite enough although he was coughing which made me wonder if I would come down with the worst of a cold on my sister’s wedding day. Again I seemed more fascinated than others by the fact that the plane was taking off looking out the windows as best I could.
I found it interesting in 2002 that I was flying over war torn Afghanistan and now I was flying over the snowy wastelands of Russia and China. It’s best not to think of what would happen if you survived a plane crash, oddly I still enjoy turbulence like it’s a carnival ride but now a little older I was more aware of how fragile the whole enterprise is. I was 30,000 feet up in the air with some tin around me. I ate dinner happily, having forgone the pizza earlier and managed to nod off, wake up, nod off. Not long after finding out I had only been asleep a little bit I would thankfully manage to nod off again. The time went and I looked down and there was Europe. I couldn’t make out if it was snow or water below when I saw Holland but whatever it was it was beautiful.
I landed in Amsterdam local time 6:45am to catch CZ 7858, a Boeing 737-800 Jet operated by the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines scheduled to take off at 8:35am local time to cover 231 miles to London in 1 hour 25minutes. I cleared customs, walked along the airport to my waiting terminal off by itself somewhere again. When we boarded I found myself in the middle for once of a 3 seated row on the right hand side. There was also no screen on the back of the chair which kind of took me by surprise, was I about to engage in conversation with my fellow travellers? I found the Dutch crew very warm and friendly, the Dutch accent and language to my ears sounds joyful and I really enjoyed my time with them.
There was a message about getting a form if you did not have a European passport. I mentioned I was Australian to the flight crew and they gave me the form as a precaution. On the window seat was a gentleman who took this as an opportunity to ask me what I thought of the cricket. I told him what I thought but ironically and apologies to my late grandfather I don’t really follow cricket and added this to the conversation. The man and I talked a bit, he had just finished working many years in warzones. I asked if he was a correspondent or been in the service, he said he’d been working for non-profit as part of his Church. He was now looking to travel the world with his family for the next couple of years. On my other side was a middle aged Kenyan man whose family was in the row in front of us.
When I boarded my flight in Brisbane I had noticed a lot of Chinese people who gave the appearance of tourists. I had wondered if they were all going home, how many of my fellow passengers would be taking the whole trip with me. I can’t tell you who did but it seemed a lot of people from the first flight had been going home to China, the second a lot had been leaving China for Holland and now a lot of people were making a connection with flights out of Africa to come to London. We were served biscuits and possibly sandwiches for our outrageously short flight, the biscuit was a Dutch brand with a caramel filling which to this ‘ere sweet tooth was delicious!
We were told by the Captain over the intercom there was some congestion over Heathrow and we would be going into a holding pattern. Fine by me, what’s another twenty minutes between friends after all this time? Sometime after 9am Tuesday London time we were landing on the runway and I looked out and saw green as only England seems to make it and wide body fire trucks that suddenly my brain remembered admiring one early morning in 2002 over the exact same airport. My brother had arrived a couple of days earlier and guided me to my sister’s car and we set off on the highway for her home.
I had made it, I don’t know quite how to describe what that meant to me. How impossible such a trip has seemed all these recent years and how much it meant to me to be in the car with my two younger siblings who I grew up with in a house all those years ago. In that moment I felt really happy. Next up we will cover the return commute because it would be really anti-climatic if that came at the end.
If Roy Orbinson could brag “I Drove All Night.” Then surely I could add “I Flew All Night” to see my sister get married on the other side of the world. Long term readers will note my little sister lives in England and yet I am here in Brisbane, Australia. She is well travelled and successful in her chosen career as a school teacher. In 2011 I married my wife Karen and Nadia flew to Australia to be there. She arrived on a Friday morning following a commute that included a five hour stop over in Singapore sporting some jet lag, the wedding was on Saturday and Sunday evening we had dinner before she flew out Monday morning and Karen and I drove up the coast to Maleny for our honeymoon. Roy Orbinson and I, it is fair to say are in good company. Having set the bar so high as my new brother in law noted in his wedding speech it seems I was determined to top such an exhausting commute.
The idea came to me not long after watching Paddington 2, I awoke one Saturday morning to the idea that somehow I would make it to London for my sister’s wedding. When the engagement had been announced I had simply relegated myself to the idea that I would not be able to attend with my wife. But the idea came to me in my sleep that I should go and once these things take hold in my mind they are very hard to shake. I looked up the cheapest flights available, one was a 38 hour commute with a 17 hour stop over in a place called Guangzhou. I worked with an English lad recently who told me of his flights over to Brisbane with long lay over in the Middle East and a stop in Perth. Uncomfortable long commutes that saved hundred of dollars were more appealing to me than any sense of comfort. So long had I not travelled internationally that surely a Chinese airport would prove vastly interesting to me at least… I hoped. I flew to London courtesy of my parents on a family holiday in 2002, we went from Australia to Singapore in 8 hours before boarding a 14 hour flight to London. I had been 21 and 78 kilos. Now how would I fare older and heavier with such a commute? An attack of deep vein thrombosis seemed very possible.
But the more I thought of it the more this all seemed to steady my course. I would go to my sister’s wedding, I would not sightsee, I would not have any spending cash, I would not take my wife, I would get in a steel tube, deposit myself at the other side of the world, attend the wedding, sleeping on floors of my sister’s apartment, climb back in the steel tube and arrive home. I talked to Karen, I looked ahead with our budget, I made a decision. I rang Flight Centre who had given me a quote a couple of weeks earlier. If the price had significantly gone up that would be the end of it, it was not- the flights to be booked now were $5 less. I bought the tickets, I was going.
I messaged my sister who was surprised and worried about the expense but happy I think. She arranged motel accommodation for me out of her own pocket in her neighbourhood of Bexleyheath, as a windswept and global traveller, she offered advice, she was generous and helpful to a fault. My only hope was to not get in the way and already she was doing things for me.
I went to a currency exchange and got some pounds and yuan. The gentleman there asked if I needed any travellers cheques. I told him this was it, he asked me how long I would be in London because those amount of pounds wouldn’t go very far. I told him I would not be long, I was to go to a wedding and fly out the next day. He nodded, assured of the amount now and impressed by my plans. Still it made me think of how people in days gone by had arrived in countries to settle with little in their pockets. I could not imagine doing it but they had. For me there was something that made it real when I got the other currencies more so than when the ticket had been booked. My mother gave me a lend of some money for an emergency, the emergency thankfully never came so I returned the money and gave her a tea towel and some magnets from far away lands.
This was only possible because of the generosity of others, my brothers and new relatives bought dinners, I was hurried to Ubers already paid for by fellow passengers who refused my outstretched notes, I walked past tempting eateries in airport lounges only to smile when the food was passed out on my flights hours later. The kindness of others and good luck made this trip possible and I will forever be grateful.
I was married the 10th of September, 2011. The following week as newlyweds my wife and I stole away for 3 days up in Maleny where we had spent our first holiday as a couple three years earlier. We both came down sick by the second day, that was six years ago. We’ve had nights away, gone to many events and driven out of town for a day. In late 2012 I drove to Port Macquarie to see my best friend while Karen worked. We had dinner and played board games and drove back home the next day. But for me my honeymoon was my last holiday for six years until this October. This October I threw caution and savings to the wind and drove down to Newcastle. We set off early morning on a Saturday, driving from the north side of Brisbane to the Gold Coast and finally crossing the border and going past Coolangatta. These are familiar sights and places often visited so it was not until getting into New South Wales that the journey begins to feel adventurous and new. These are still roads I’ve travelled before but less so. The coastal area of New South Wales is beautiful and for me there is something that you get out of road trip that a plane flight can’t replicate. Driving really makes you feel like you’re getting to escape and you have wrested control of your destiny. All bullshit of course, the tedium of driving back is never far from your mind but still there is something beautiful in the lie as you grip the leather steering wheel of your 2003 Toyota Camry Sportivo and the horizon lays off in the distance.
We stopped at Ballina for breakfast to catch a glimpse of the Big Prawn. Travelling down the coast from say Brisbane to Adelaide or Brisbane to Sydney certain stops are well established due to distance from each other. Ballina is such a place, we parked at the latest Bunnings Store which now stands next to the Big Prawn. When last here in 2012 the Big Prawn of my childhood was in bad shape, a pale pink due to neglect it now stood proudly repainted and hovering above the parking lot. I assume that Bunnings paid for it and restored it but who knows. It is near a roundabout and a set of shops and petrol stations where often people will stop, refuel, grab a bit and leave. Given that Bunnings often have sausages on the barbie for various community organisations raising money I’d say the Big Prawn can only help to entice customers. Karen and I though walked off to the shops darting through thick traffic with no lights nearby to slow them. We stopped in a local bakery and ate egg and lettuce sandwiches the way they used to make them. As a kid travelling around on school excursions or holidays I lost count of the number of times I ate egg and lettuce sandwiches but these days people put too much mayo in the egg and it’s not the same. At this little bakery they were perfect. Perked up by our coffee we made our way back to the car and continued driving.
The next stop people will often head to at this point is Coffs Harbour and we were no exception parking at a massive shopping mall just down from The Big Banana. The Big Banana and The Big Prawn are representative of novelty landmarks that became popular in the 1980s for enticing business to small towns along the way of road tripping families. The Big Banana though is an actual tourist attraction where bananas are farmed, it serves as an “educational showcase” and a fun park. As a kid I went there in 1992 and quite enjoyed it. This time I drove past and stopped in at the mall to get KFC for lunch. I try to avoid fast food these days so maybe it was time passing but I found the KFC at Coffs Harbour better than most of the stuff I’ve tasted in recent times of my local area. As mentioned there is something beautiful about the NSW coastal area and I continued on without stopping for the rest of the day. As night time neared our petrol tank started to get close to empty. We live near the Brisbane airport which has several hotels nearby. It feels off by itself but not yet isolated from the places in town you want to get to. I booked late and didn’t have a lot of options and so picked the Mercure at Newcastle airport hoping it would be a similar thing. As we turned off the main highway the sign said Williamtown and I realised we were headed to a military community. RAAF Williamtown was obviously close to Newcastle airport, a massive four wheel drive on a two lane road came up behind me sitting on my arse as I drove the speed limit exactly. Terrific I thought we’ll be surrounded by hyper aggression our whole stay but of course I know military people better than that. We found the gas station and just down the road the Mercure hotel. The staff were excellent, the lobby had a few people that looked either military or ex-military. Next to the car park were buildings fro Boeing and other defence contractors. We were obviously staying in the same place they would for business trips. We went down and ate in the hotel restaurant and then went back to our room and caught some shut eye.
The next day on Sunday we set out for Newcastle. Newcastle is host to many a fine thing, it still exports coal to the rest of the world, historically it was a major steel producing town and boasts some beautiful beaches. I travelled through there as a kid but had no real memories of it. It is also to home to Fort Scratchley. I was interested in Newcastle for a few reasons, it was in range of our three day trip but would mean I had driven further than I ever had before (Port Macquarie) and with Fort Scratchley I had a place to go to that would take no more than a day to visit and take in. The stage was set, Fort Scratchley features the only land based guns in Australian history to have fired in anger.
Original construction completed in 1882 the Fort was intended to protect against a possible Russian attack. Instead the Fort would see action during the shelling of Newcastle sixty years later. Rather than a gung-ho recap of the incident the Historical Society reflect on both perspectives. The Japanese did their job, positioning themselves well and getting off 25 shells before managing to escape successfully. When the guns at Fort Scratchley bracketed them, they left and the shelling stopped. After the war it was home to the 113 Coastal Battery Royal Australian Artillery which was a unit of the National Service Scheme. The Army left the site in 1972 and the it now functions as a Museum since 2008 with a great deal of support from the Fort Scratchley Historial Society who have made it into a first rate place to visit. These volunteers are always happy to give you space or alternately inform you of any part of the site’s history. Additionally they man the guns that are still fired for ceremonial purposes. The two 6-inch Breech Loading Mark VII guns still get fired by them, these were the guns that were used by the Fort from 1911 to the Shelling of Newcastle and after until about 1962 when the Fort switched to Bofors AA guns. Additionally they also fire 80 pounder gun in its underground casemate and a Nordenfelt 1.5inch gun which may be the only working example left in the world. They also fire a Two Pounder Time Gun most days at 1pm which we were lucky to see on the day we were there.
If you have no interest in military matters the Fort is still high up on a hill with panaromic shots of Newcastle and is just a nice place to visit. Some things may surprise, in addition to the various displays of medals and small arms there are stories that move. A radio plays war time messages from the Australian Prime Minister metres away from a piece of shrapnel that tore through a young boy’s bed after his mother took him out of his room during the shelling minutes earlier. Alongside medals are a German helmet that had a bullet go through it fully implicating the horrors of war. Simple mementoes sent to home or from home from people facing death and missing their loves ones. Badges given to widows and mothers of slain young men never to come home. Peace time memories too of men who made a career out of the military either part time or full. Building the fort or upgrading it but always focussed on the men under their command. Treasured gifts given to them upon retirement handed over to the museum from families who know they will be valued here.
In addition the Fort is part of the history of the Australian Women’s Army Service during World War II, where several female soldiers learnt to operate searchlights, anti-aircraft equipment as part of the nearby 18th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery. This would have been an opportunity for these women to learn a trade and be at the sharp end of a service that had to fight so hard to even get sent overseas. These opportunities were only made possible by the increasingly shortage of available manpower and we owe these women a debt of gratitude for leading the way. Over 30 women served at Fort Scratchley during the war mostly as radar operators.
We bid farewell to Fort Scratchley mid-afternoon as I made the decision to head to Sydney. Karen’s family lived in Sydney for year when she was 8 and so we headed off to there. Coming into Sydney there are so many beautiful mountains and the freeway travels over many valleys. When we got to where Karen grew up all the houses had been renovated and it felt unfamiliar to her twenty nine years on from where she was last there. It has often been a running gag for me that she missed World Expo 88 in Brisbane as part of the bicentennial celebrations. Between Expo and the Commonwealth Games of 1982, Brisbane went from being a “town” to a “city”. Often I will remark that the First Fleet Re-enactment in Sydney in 1988 was “a couple of tinnies in the harbour.” I’m trying to funny but Expo was a big deal and I’m sad that she missed it. Travelling to where she lived during that year though allowed me to have a sense of why she has fond memories of it and how much fun it would have been for a kid. On a whim we drove around looking for the nearby corner shops. When we parked in them and she saw they had barely changed she was thrilled and I will remember that moment with affection.
The day was Grand Final Weekend in Sydney for the National Rugby League, not knowing how traffic would be in town I decided to head towards Darling Harbour for dinner. I think I had an idea of going to the Casino but we never made it. Following directions as best we could the traffic proved not too hair raising and we found ourselves on track to drive over the Sydney Harbour Bridge which was a secret thrill for me. I can still remember my Dad taking us over it on rainy Sydney day in 1989. We made it to Darling Harbour but kept on getting lost and finding ourselves back in the tunnel crossing back to the other side. When we returned to Darling Harbour I spotted the car park area for the Sydney Convention Centre. Karen was none too pleased at the going $29.00 rate to which I replied “Honey we’re here.” Coming out of the car park I stood in the square and saw Centrepoint Tower.
We were here indeed. It had been nine years since I’d been to Sydney just before I met Karen and for a tank of gas I could’ve come here all along. In that moment the world became a little bit more full of possibilities. I told myself that while I still have things to save up for I am not much closer to them now than I have ever been and maybe six years between holidays is far too long especially if you don’t get to reach your other goals. We wandered down along Darling Harbour and eventually found ourselves a restaurant with staff who were very kind and the food was good too. We would’ve liked to stay but the long journey back to Williamtown beckoned and it was almost 9pm.
Sydney traffic proved to be light and easy to get through but as we came out of the citybounds onto the freeway that snaked through all those cliffs and over deep valleys there were few street lights. I flicked my high beams on where I could but often there were cars in front. Sometimes it was comforting to just park behind them and follow along but sometimes they went too slow and I decided to be a bit brave and strike out on my own. Cars came the other way not switching off their high beams and the road swerved on tilts as the darkness was ever present. More aggressive drivers went past. As time went on I could use my highbeams more and eventually the road levelled out to flat countryside for miles. The rest of the journey passed in relative peace despite remaining darkly lit but I will not lie that I had been tense there for a bit. If one of our tyres had gotten flat I would’ve had my wife stranded in the countryside for a few minutes while I changed it late on a Sunday night. I had been somewhat reckless but we had come through the other side getting to see Sydney as well. Perhaps sometimes you have to make a play for it all, we did. We drove through Newcastle well past midnight with young people out about making their way from night club to night club, some heading home. We drove down deserted roads and past orange lights and back across Stockton Bridge passing all the industry of Kooragang Island. It was quite a sight to see and share with Karen, just being somewhere I hadn’t been before, seeing something I hadn’t seen before. Needless to say I went straight to bed when we got to the Mercure.
It had been tempting to stop in at Fighter World near RAAF Williamtown on the way out where many former RAAF planes including CAC Sabre, F-111, Mirage 3, MIG-21, Hunter, Meteor, Vampire, Fokker Triplane and replicas of Spitfires and Bf 109s. A friend of mine who served at RAAF Williamtown advised me the café was nice. Alas we had a long drive ahead of us and I was feeling it. Monday was a public holiday but I planned to be back at work the next day. Fighter World will have to wait. Instead we ate breakfast at the hotel like we had the day before, an extra expense I felt well worth it as it allowed us to fuel up and get underway with full bellies and minimal hassle.
The trip back, as they often are, was more tedious, I wanted to show Karen Port Macquarie since she missed out in 2012. It was raining and would remain raining for the rest of the day. Driving to Port Macquarie would take us off the freeway and take up time but we stopped for lunch there and I showed her the Historic Courthouse that still stands in the town. We headed back to Brisbane shortly after where I stopped at Grafton to fuel up. It was now coming up to 5pm and the sun was setting shortly after we passed Ballina. It continued to rain, the road stretched out into the darkness again but now in the wet. I turned my high beams on and concentrated. We got past Bryon Bay and as we neared Coolangatta and the Gold Coast the roads became well lit but the rain came down heavier decreasing visibility. Most slowed down, water piled up on the road, hydroplaning was a possibility. Some drove aggressively but most wanted to get home in one piece. How ironic I thought if something bad happened while we were now back in familiar surroundings. Just short of 9pm though we pulled up in our driveway with Red Rooster and concluded our first holiday together in 6 years having driven 1897 kilometres since leaving our driveway on Saturday morning. I felt very grateful for the holiday and reflected that not everybody gets to have them which makes me only more grateful. I hope you’ve enjoyed this recap and a shout out to the Fort Scratchley Historical Society and the excellent work that they do.