Sunday, August 31, 2008

The lowest point on Earth

At the very top of the Flinders Ranges, before you run out into the Strzelecki Desert, is a place called Arkaroola.

For some hours we'd been driving, at a very slow pace, through the driest landscape I've ever seen, due to the fact that we'd already shredded one tyre, and the others were in danger of giving up the ghost any second. The track was composed largely of broken glass, razor blades and six-inch nails, with occasional pieces of exploded ordinance shrapnel sticking out of the middle. The only wildlife in attendance was a succession of kamikaze emus, who would suddenly appear on the track in front of the car and play chicken (although I suppose they'd call it "emu") by galloping as fast as they could in a zig-zag pattern until they were nudged out of the way by the bumper bar. They were, quite possibly, the stupidest animals I have ever seen.

"Jesus, Loz, Burke and Wills must've been pretty bad shots. One of these things would keep you alive for weeks!" Leigh was in adventure heaven, as usual; he has an amazing capacity to be perpetually, er, amazed. (For overseas readers, Burke and Wills were Australia's quintessential folkloric explorers. They set out from Adelaide to discover the north coast of the continent, wandered around in the desert for several months and died like the ridiculous, ignorant fools they were.)

The only concession to vegetation were the great lines of river red gum, demarcating creek beds which were as dry as the Moon. It was a wonder that these fabulous trees could hang on through a drought which had not seen a single drop of rain for over nine years. But they did; their roots must have been so far down that they were able, barely, to pull some moisture from the ground. Even so, many of them looked like they were about to succumb.

"How are we going, mate?" I asked Leigh, as he perused the map.

"Well, according to this, Loz, we're about half-way between 'At a Loss' and 'Completely Fucked' ", he replied, then dissolved into great hooting gales of laughter. Irrepressibly, he continued: "So, as the navigator, I recommend that we stop for a beer."

This seemed like a good plan; after all, we had 1) plenty of beer, and 2) no fucking idea where we were. After a while, under the shade of a big river red, and a couple of beers under our belts, life was seeming pretty comfortable, if possibly tenuous. We heard a vehicle approaching.

An old, beaten-up Landcruiser pulled up next to us, populated by a few blackfellers.

"Gooday", said the driver, as they all climbed out. "Wher're you boys headed?" 

"Arkaroola," we replied in unison, "if we can ever find out how to get there," added Leigh.

"No probs," said the driver, "just keep going on this road, go through our place, then turn off when you get to the start of the Strzelecki Track. Too easy."

"Thanks, mate," I replied. "You blokes like a beer?"

"No thanks, mate; we're a dry community. But you fellers are welcome to have one." At that, they all relieved themselves at the side of the road, climbed back into their truck, and headed off with a wave and "Good luck."

"Nice fellers," remarked Leigh. I could not but agree, and we got on our way again.

We arrived at Arkaroola as the Moon was coming up over a moonscape; I know that sounds preposterous, but Arkaroola is a seriously weird-looking joint. It was once a grazing property, but plenty of different minerals were subsequently discovered there: lead, silver, zinc, etc., so the entire place, stuck out in the middle of nowhere, is an abandoned mine, with pits and holes and slag-heaps everywhere. And it was dry: an aridity that sucks the breath out of you, and allows no moisture to gather anywhere on your body. If you're sweating, you won't notice it, because your perspiration is immediately evaporated. 

Stuck in the middle of this wasteland is a resort. Now, I should explain something of the history of the place. It is owned by a family, descendants of the original land-holders, and in the 1930s, after it was realised that no-one was ever going to make a buck out of either as a farm or a mine, it should be bequeathed to the community as a nature park. So, for about seventy years or so, Arkaroola has been a reserve. In the 1970s it was decided to exploit the emerging tourist trade, and construction of the resort was begun. And, as Damon Runyon might have said, it was no sort of resort as to have any pretensions about. It was basically corrugated iron and slabs of red gum. Inside, it was luxurious only compared with the fact that if you were outside of it you'd be dead within three days, either from thirst or emu attack.

We walked up to a massive counter made of great slabs of red gum, polished like a mirror. A very pretty young woman gave us a grin and said "You blokes look like you need a drink. Find a seat; I'll bring you a beer." She didn't have to tell us twice. We appeared to be the only "guests", so we sauntered around the place looking at glass-cased displays of various minerals, posters and maps on the walls laying out the history of the place, etc. It reminded me of a cross between a mineralogical museum and a shearing shed, which was pretty much what it was, come to think of it.

"Well, Loz, we can either eat here at $40 a head, or we can cook something ourselves." Leigh, as is his wont, had investigated the menu as the first point of call. We were directed to the salubrious camping ground, some five hundred metres from the resort building. We drove up to it, and found a place that resembled, quite remarkably, the photo at the top of this story. It was the worst camp-site I've ever put a tent on, and that, in itself, is a wonderful thing, because it is always good to have nodes of comparison in one's life, I've found. Next time I'm struggling to erect a tent in two hundred knot winds half-way up a mountain in a blizzard with the possibility of avalanche any second I'll be able to say to myself: "Ah, but remember Arkaroola."

The only thing to do was to get as drunk as possible, and I must say, in this, we were unsurpassed.

When I woke up the next morning and peered out of my tent, nothing had changed. Arkaroola had not, overnight, magically turned itself into some Elysian field of plenty. It was still dry, windswept and lifeless. Without saying a word to each other, we packed up the camping gear, loaded the Volvo, and left that place to the vagaries of sun, wind and emu.

On the way out, we came across the same mob of blackfellers. We both stopped, got out and sat down for a chat.

"So you got to Arkaroola all right, then? What'd you think of it?"

"Well, quite frankly," I said, "it was pretty uninspiring."

The driver turned around to his mates as if he were an interpreter. "See," he said, "even whitefellers think Arkaroola's a shithole."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lizard brother

As you know, I like nothing more than a bit of nature-loving. I simply adore the unspoilt beauty of nature; there is nothing better than sitting on a deserted beach, somewhere on the east coast of Australia, taking in the magnificent expanse of a people-free natural vista. Oh, and catching great big jew-fish while you're at it.

My brother Brett, I and our families were camped at Mungo Brush, up north of Newcastle on a place called the Broadwater, a part of the Myall Lakes national park. (Check out Google Earth for it.) I shouldn't really say this, but this is the best place in the whole world. It is a series of coastal lakes that stretch for a hundred kilometres; each lake has its own unique quality, and a bloke can happily spend a good proportion of his life simply exploring the place. It is adjacent to one of the best beach and dune systems in the world; and it is, relatively, in pristine condition.

At Mungo Brush there is a camping area set up by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. They do a great job, all over the country, in maintaining ecologically-friendly camp-grounds for the public to use, There are a few rules: don't fuck the place up; take your litter with you; don't feed the wildlife, etc. I must say that, by and large, the Australian people respect these kinds of ecological imperatives, and most places I've been to are clean, well-kept and show that people are thinking the right way about their relationship with the natural world.

We set up our campsite at Mungo. Our kids were little, then, and the Broadwater was the perfect low-maintenance place for them to be safe - a shallow lakeside that you couldn't get into too much trouble from, and easy vision from the campsite to the water. Idyllic, and just the place to spend Easter with family and friends.

After a couple of days of sheer pleasure (one of my treasured photos is one I took of my late father playing in the lake with my daughter), we were joined by a mob of young blokes who came into the camp-ground late one night. They noisily set up their camp, then proceeded to drink like buggery until dawn  - once again, noisily.

Now, I am not one to cast aspersions on blokes who enjoy a beer or two - god knows, brother Brett and I have been known to get fairly voluble from time to time - so this kind of shenanigans didn't worry me at all. We got up the next morning, said g'day to the blokes, and went for a surf over at the beach.

At this stage of the story, I should point out a couple of relevant facts. Firstly, the wildlife at Mungo Brush consists mainly of dingoes and goannas. The dingoes are very timid, normally; although there have been reports of them being aggressive (and, at least in one incident on Fraser Island, actually killing a child), at Mungo they tend to stay away from the camping area. You can hear them howling, of course, but they tend not to cause any problems.

The goannas, on the other hand, are the perfect domestic scavenger. They're not really goannas, by the way; they're actually what is known as lace monitors. In any event, they are great big lizards that love hanging around the camping area looking for whatever scraps they can pinch off barbeques, and the like. They grow up to six feet in length, and the big daddies have broad backs and fairly nasty-looking claws. They love climbing whatever tree is handy if they're unsettled or frightened; that's why there is an old saying that if a goanna is coming towards you, lie down on the ground so he doesn't think you're a tree. They'll climb up a tree and rest for hours in the sun.

The second thing I need to mention is my brother Brett. Don't tell him I told you this, but he has always been my best mate. He's huge: six feet-four and built like a brick shit-house. He has immensely strong hands about the size of your average dinner-plate. And he's one of the most placid, gentle guys you can imagine. I've only ever seen him riled up once or twice; it was scary. He is also, just like me, a committed environmentalist; the world of nature is his beloved domain, and he is a fearsome advocate for it.

Brett and I were sauntering back into the camping-ground after a great surf; we were famished, and were hoping that the girls, our wives to be precise, might have got a frypan of bacon and eggs on the go. As we walked into the area, we noticed that half a dozen of the blokes who had pitched tents the night before were clustered around a tree.

A goanna, big and fat, was clinging to the tree about eight feet above the ground. One of the blokes had a big rock in his hand, and before we could say anything he'd hoisted this rock at the goanna, hitting it square on the back. The goanna scrambled further up the tree, while another couple of blokes started pelting it with stones.

Brett looked around, spied a rock sitting on the ground, picked it up and threw it as hard as he could. It hit the first bloke precisely in the middle of his back. It was a big rock, and delivered with huge force. The bloke let out a screech of pain and collapsed to the ground. His mates all turned around to see my brother, with another big rock in his giant paws ready to unleash again. The guy who had copped the first rock got to his feet and turned to exact revenge on whomever had committed this dastardly act. He saw Brett, and started to have second thoughts. Brett casually tossed the rock from hand to hand, and said to him, in a voice full of absolute menace,

"Hurts, doesn't it?"

The musician and the ergotron

Way back in the dim distant, I was a travelling minstrel. To be a little more specific, I played guitar in a succession of peripatetic rock and roll bands. I was on tour for years, traversing the length and breadth of the country, playing everything from tiny hotels and community halls in the outback to big clubs and concert halls in the capital cities.

I've read a few memoirs of prominent rock artists, who generally discuss the existential angst of the wobbly life of the musician on the road. It's a life, they say, of hidden hardships: relationship problems, difficulties with their band-members, the gruelling grind of perpetual movement, ultra-late nights, no sleep, too much alcohol and too many drugs, etc. etc.

Wankers. It's fucking brilliant. How many people get to indulge their passion, work three hours a day, and develop serious mastery of their tools of trade whilst being cosseted from the real world by managers, roadies who work like dogs, and the fawning attention of sycophants who keep telling them how wonderful they are?

The only down side (and it's so trivial as to be almost not worth pointing out) is that occasionally you have to spend time with wankers who might later go on to write books like the above. Egotists who believe that what they do has some import in the general scheme of things. These idiots have never met an eye-surgeon, a nuclear physicist or a social worker. 

So, if you have a sensible disposition and a reasonably healthy liver, life on the road is a ball. I suppose I got my love of travel generally from my experiences as a musician on the road. I loved the feeling of coming into consciousness in the back seat of a car at dawn in a new town; taking in the sights and smells of different latitudes; meeting people who had the same, slightly or wildly different attitudes to life in general because of who they were, what they did and where they lived.

All of this is a preamble, of course, to telling you the story of the stupidest thing I ever did.

Now, I've been in danger of dying a few times in my life: surfing-cum-drowning, various work accidents on the job, etc. But all of these have been accidents of circumstance where I didn't have much control over events. The accident that almost took my life was an accident by design, and I was a willing, ridiculously dumb participant in it.

Of course, the reason why I can write about it so flippantly now is that it didn't do any lasting damage, as far as I know, and that it was, in the end, a pretty funny thing, considering.

I was playing in a kick-arse boogie band; as well as our original tunes, we played some Dr John, Stevie Ray Vaughan- type things, as well as boogied-up versions of Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix. I was the rhythm guitarist; it was my job, with the bass player and drummer, to set up a huge rhythm section from which our brilliant lead guitarist could launch himself into massive solos. We were, if I do say so myself, a pretty hot band; we were the band to go and see if you lived in that vast area between the Great Dividing Range and the New South Wales/South Australian border. (And, for out-of-towners, that's a big area.)

It was a Saturday night, and we were playing in a big pub in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales - not really that far from the place that I now call home. We'd come in to town at about 6.30 p.m., got our accommodation sorted, had a shower and something to eat, and had made our way down to the pub for the show. A typical night - no dramas; the boys had everything set up; all we had to do was stand on the stage and play our guts out. Easy.

We walked into the pub, and there was the band's gear all set up on stage, as usual. I could see that the roadie who doubled as a guitar tech had changed my strings; everything was plugged in ready for sound-check. We ambled up onto the stage, went through sound-check, then waltzed off into another section of the pub for a few Jack Daniels. Life was good.

I was sitting in the dressing-room; ten minutes before on-time. I was practising one of the riffs in the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post", which we were going to play for the first time. The riff, for second guitar, had a fiddly bit in the middle that I'd kept slurring in rehearsal; I wanted it to be good on the night.

We walked up the hall and onto the stage; the place was packed to the rafters. My guitar was still slung over my neck; all I had to do was grab the lead which was loosely draped over my microphone stand, plug in, hit the A/B box at my feet, and I was ready to go.

Just as I was about to do this, our second lights roadie came running up to the stage. 

"Laurie," he yelled above the general hubbub, "that light loom over there has come apart. Go and pin it back together, will ya?"

He'd pointed to a loom of cables on my side of the stage. I saw what he meant; a four-pin adapter had slightly fallen apart. I gave him the thumbs up, walked over, held my guitar to my chest with my left hand, bent down, grabbed the offending part with my right hand in order to squeeze the two sections together, and was blown fifteen feet across the stage.

The middle finger of my right hand had touched a live pin that was sticking out in between the two sockets; this was impossible. Only the socket part of a connection can have power delivered to it. Something had gone terribly wrong.

This knowledge, of course, didn't help me much at the time, for, to compound the situation, the electrical current had immediately caused my right hand's muscles to go into a seizure, which resulted in me not being able to let the fucking thing go. So here I was, on my knees in the middle of the stage, holding on to this electrical cable and screaming my lungs out while 415 volts coursed through my body. I thought I was screaming instructions to the other guys in the band, like "Get it off me!"; my comrades later told me that I was just issuing a blood-curdling howl.

The pain was all in my brain; loud sounds of popping and crackling bounced around my auditory cortex, and I felt like my entire body was rattling like the carriages on an old train. I felt my heart rate go into overdrive; it was pumping fit to burst. I could only wait for something to happen; all control of the situation was gone. Eventually, I found my vision starting to close in from the outside, like one of those cartoon endings: "That's all, folks!" I felt my heart falter - b-bump, b-bump, b- , b,... Everything started to go black, and I remember thinking "What a stupid way to die." It was all over.

Well, of course it wasn't, because I'm telling the story. The bass player, Keith, had run over to the wiring looms immediately and started kicking them apart. After about ten seconds, he calculated, he kicked the right plug out of the right socket.

I instantly dropped to the floor; I let the cable go, and, remarkably, came back to consciousness immediately. It was as if nothing had happened; I checked my body, as best I could, and found that there was no pain, I was conscious and clear-minded, and I was able to stand up and take in my surroundings without any further perceptual hallucinations. I had suffered a ten-second blast of high-voltage electricity and survived unscathed. Until I looked down and noticed a huge burn line across the fingers and palm of my right hand.

The audience, of course, was at sixes and sevens about all of this. Was this some kind of absurdist stage-act? The realisation that something pretty weird had happened came to them as the guys in the band half carried me back down the hall and into the dressing-room.

As it happened, there was a doctor in the house. (Really!) He had realised pretty much straight away that I was in trouble, and came flying into the dressing room as the guys settled me down on a bench seat. By this stage, I felt, at least physically, OK, but the shock of the realisation that I'd just nearly been killed started to settle in, and I slumped forward with my head in my hands. The doctor, to his credit, immediately began to check me out thoroughly: listened to my heart, checked my pulse, looked into my eyes, ears and anus (no, just made that up), and started asking me questions like "What's your name?", "What's your address?", and "What is the aerial velocity of a swallow?" (sorry, just made that up too).

After checking me out, the doctor pronounced that it would be a good idea to get an ambulance and have me taken to the local hospital for observation. I, of course, was having none of that. I had a gig to do, and I was gonna do it. 

About half an hour later, the band came back on stage. I cautiously plugged into my amp, hoping like hell that no further electrocution would take place, and asked the bass player "What's the first number?"

He just grinned at me, and the three motherfuckers launched into a fearsome reggae version of Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

That's not a wave

We rounded a bend, and stretched out before us was the genuine south coast of Australia. We were on the Great Ocean Road, on a Saturday afternoon in April, and a breathtaking array of massive limestone cliffs and wild, wild sea stretched before us to the horizon. It was spectacular enough to make you weep deliriously with pure, Coleridgian joy.

"Stop blubberin', ya big girl," Leigh commanded, as tears of amazement poured down my cheeks, "anybody'd think you'd never seen a cliff before."

"But Leigh, look at that," I responded, "it's a sight so perfect it's almost holy."

"Bloody hell, you could have told me I was going on a month's tour with a religious lunatic before we left your place, Loz."

"It's just my poetic soul coming to the fore, Leigh. You see, I have that romantic vision of our souls being a part of that living, breathing thing called Nature." He didn't respond, and when I turned to look at him, I noticed he was vomiting out the window.

We arrived at the Twelve Apostles, these great stacks of limestone formed over tens of thousands of years as the sea eroded the base of the cliffs. As we arrived at the car park at the beginning of the track to the Apostles, two huge buses filled with Japanese tourists arrived as well. They poured out of the buses and immediately began taking photos - of us, the car park, each other, our car and even the toilet block. We were swept up in this enormous throng of young, happy Japanese kids, and carried along with them towards the viewing platforms.  

The Apostles were spectacular, but having to take dozens of photos of Japanese people with their cameras, as if we were a couple of Aussies who had just come down there to provide that service, started to wear thin, so we booted off and drove to Port Campbell.

We arrived in a beautiful little sea-side village, where the only natural harbour along this stubborn mountain of rock existed. We drove into the picturesque camping ground, paid our fee and found a campsite. As usual, the Grey Nomads turned up in a convoy that amounted to a sizeable proportion of all of the aluminium produced in Australia in 2007. We watched, enthralled, as our nearest neighbour spent half an hour guiding his wife, at the wheel of the Landcruiser, into the place which exactly aligned the caravan with the little brown lines demarcating each camping spot. (This is true; we timed it.) Nothing less than perfection would do. Mission accomplished, after much gesticulating on the part of the husband, and with tears of merriment streaming down the faces of Leigh and me, he went to the back of the van and pressed two buttons, which sent the sides of the thing outwards, until the caravan had almost doubled in size.

"Stone the crows, Loz, this guy's getting set up for a rave party tonight. I bet he's got a dance floor and a mirror ball inside that thing."

To our amazement, another button sent a television antennae mast up on a hydraulic ram, until it towered over the entire edifice. He then pulled an electric cable, about the thickness of an adult boa-constrictor, out of a side compartment and plugged it into the power outlet. There was an audible "clunk", as the local power station's auxiliary generator kicked in to accommodate the massive load, and spotlights, strategically placed on all four corners of the Taj Mahal, came on and bathed the entire camping ground in a brutal, intense light.

"Jesus," cried Leigh, "he must think the place is gonna get invaded tonight! He must be pulling thirty thousand ergotrons out of the grid."

The old couple stood there for a couple of minutes, bathed in the glow, looking proudly at the magnificence of an entire superannuation scheme thrown into one piece of hideous post-modern mobile sculpture, then hurriedly disappeared inside. We never saw them again.

By this stage, of course, we were getting hungry and thirsty, so we ambled up the road into the village's main street. Port Campbell was a delight - an old fishing village that, because of its proximity to the Apostles, had naturally gone all entrepreneurial with trendy restaurants and nick-knack shops. We ignored these, and (wait for it...) hit the pub.

We had a great night at the Port Campbell Hotel meeting the locals, who were cheerful and interested in where we were from.

"Oh, the Blue Mountains?" said Phil, a big dairy farmer. "That's an amazing, beautiful place, Laurie. You blokes are lucky to live there."

I thought this was ironic, coming from a guy who lived in one of the most spectacular places I've ever seen, and I told him so - the Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge, the mountainous oceans, etc.

"Oh, here? Yeah, I suppose it's pretty good. Sea's pretty calm, actually; you should see it when you've got hundred foot-high waves bangin' into the cliffs. That's pretty spectacular."

I thought hundred foot waves were probably stretching the truth just a little, but it made a good story.

A couple of days later, after a brilliant stopover in the Port Campbell area, we struck camp and headed west. A few miles down the road we pulled into a little beach called Massacre Bay for a bite to eat. I was down on the beach having a look at some superb limestone rock formations, when I heard Leigh calling. I jogged back up to where he was standing, which was at a National Parks information board.

"Check this out, Loz," he said with a grin.

On the board was a notice in large, bold type:

"Warning: swimming and surfing at this beach are not advised. Waves of thirty metres in height are common."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Panadeine and trousers

A few years ago I was suffering from a really crook back; a monument to being forty-five and working like a navvy for a couple of months on an extension to the house. Being the cheapskate that I am, I hadn't employed anyone to give me a hand, so consequently I was man-handling great lumps of steel girders and timber framework all day long for weeks. I got the extension done, but then my spine collapsed in a puddle of calciferous gunk on top of my pelvis. I shuffled around the house for a couple of weeks, using a blender to mix up a heady concoction of scotch and panadeine forte that I sipped regularly from a pop-top bottle slung around my neck by a cord.

It didn't really ease the pain, just made me forget where I'd left it. The one really anti-social side effect this remedy had, though, was my inclination to yell the most foul abusive epithets at anyone or anything as soon as I felt a twinge. It was like Tourette's in slow motion, devoid of the precisely clipped utterances of that unusual condition. I would begin to bellow "AHHHHHHH.....YERRRRR.FFUUUUKKKKIN.......CUUUUUUUNT" after opening the front door for two elderly Jehovah's Witnesses. The spectacle of me, with wild hair, filthy t-shirt and equally filthy underpants spitting painkiller-laden scotch all over their copies of the Watchtower was too much for the poor old ducks, and they scurried away without even offering a "Hail Mary", or whatever they intone down at their stupid little Kingdom Hall. Good riddance, I thought, as I hobbled back to the sofa, thinking about the various ergonomic strategies that would allow me to actually sit on the thing.

My ever-lovin' wife finally realised I needed professional help, and solicitously advised me to "Get to the doctor, you dopey fuckwit!" I pondered this encouragement for a while, and hit the Yellow Pages.

Under "Health Care Professionals", I encountered an ad for some outfit that guaranteed to ease the pain of bad backs. "That's the one for me," I thought, so I had a shower and got my wife to run me down there. I kept the pop-top with me, though, just in case.

We got to the place, which turned out to be one side of a semi-detached in our local village. I extricated myself from the car with the aid of one or two "Fucks" and "Cunts", and hobbled up the wheelchair-access ramp to the door. Inside was a receptionist sitting behind a desk.

"Crook back," I said to her glumly.

"Yeah, I know," she replied, "I heard you get out of your car. Just go straight through, Doctor will be with you in a minute."

I shuffled into the next room, where a pretty impressive massage table was perched in the middle, with various charts explaining Christ knows what about skeletal diseases pinned to the walls. A couple of odd-looking therapeutic machines stood on the floor.

"Not bad," I thought, "looks pretty professional."

The doctor came in. "Hi, I'm Gordon," he said with a great beaming smile, " you must be Laurie. What have you got in the bottle?"

"Water," I replied self-consciously, a pretty poor excuse as I must have smelt like a cross between a moonshiner's and an ice lab. Gordon was about six feet four, and one of the thinnest people I'd ever seen. And, when my vision finally focused on his face, I realised that Gordon had a decidedly odd glint in his eye.

"Right, feller, strip, and up on the table!" he proclaimed, rubbing his hands together with what I felt was an evangelistic fervour. I took everything off, crawled up onto the table and lay with my head through the little hole at the top.

"No, no, turn over, friend; I want to do a history first!"

"Oh well," I thought, "at least he's thorough."

"Now, let's start with any childhood diseases. Asthma? Measles? Mumps? Tonsillitis? Anything more serious? Good. Now what about lifestyle?"

"I knew you were going to ask about that," I thought with some trepidation.

'Smoke? Hmmm, that's too bad - how many a day? Ooh, that much? That's not good, friend. Now what about alcohol? How much do you drink per day?"

"Er, about five or six, I suppose," I mumbled shamefacedly.

"Goodness, friend - you're going to have to cut that in half!"

"I thought I just did, Doc."

He ignored me as he proceeded down his checklist. We covered gout, sinusitis, and a couple of other relatively mild complaints that most blokes with a few decades of fairly serious living end up with, and we got down to my diet. "What do you have for breakfast?" he enquired.

"Oh, the usual, I suppose Doc."

"Weetbix, juice, that sort of thing?" he asked.

The pain started to find its way back to my cortex. "Shit, no, Doc - I'm a musician. Two cups of double-shot and four cigarettes!"

He looked at me as though he'd finally found the patient from hell. I was obviously a challenge; if he could save me from dying from a variety of diseases before I walked out of his surgery, the medical journals would be queuing up for his submissions.

"Laurie," he said in a very serious, but oh-so quiet voice, "your back pain is entirely related to the poor energy that is flowing to your spine due to your - I'm sorry to say - death-making lifestyle."


"Your back is the focus of a number of chakras that distribute energy throughout the body. Now, I'm going to work on a manipulation of your back. Roll over, please."

I dutifully, if bemusedly, complied, wondering if I could reach down to the pop-top which was lying on top of the pile of my clothes. I gave up, as Gordon started to furiously punch me in various spots along my spine.

"Fuckin' Jesus, Doc!" I exclaimed, as pain shot through my back and threatened to blow the top off my head. "This is killing me!"

"It'll hurt for a little while, Laurie," he calmly pronounced, "now, I want you to think of smooth things. We need that smoothing energy to transfer all the way down your spine."

"You mean, like river rocks, or something?" I replied, somewhat befuddled by the turn of events. He finally finished pummeling me, and motioned for me to turn back over. He got up on the table himself, planted a knee right in the middle of my chest, grabbed hold of my shoulders and started to heave them upwards.

The pain was excruciating; my whole spine felt like it was being ripped clean out of my body. I bore it for about five seconds before I finally screamed "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK OFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!!!" and pushed Gordon as hard as I could. He fell back against the wall, and I leapt off the table. I wrestled half of my clothes back on, and turned to see Gordon squatting on the floor, rubbing the back of his head.

"What sort of fucking doctor are you?" I snarled at the great big string bean.

"Well, I'm not a doctor, specifically, I'm a chiropractor," he replied.

"No, mate - you're an A-Grade lunatic charlatan!" I yelled, and hurried out the room, past the astonished receptionist, out the door, down the ramp, and straight into a telephone pole.

I woke up, about three hours later, in what turned out to be the emergency room of the local hospital, with a bloke in a white coat peering over me. He turned out to be a real doctor.

"Ah, Mr F____," he said, "back in the land of the living, I see."

"What... what happened?" I groaned.

"You had a bit of an altercation with a telephone pole, I'm afraid. You've got a subdural haematoma on your forehead - that's a bump on the head, for you - but you're lucky; there's no concussion, and you're free to go as soon as you feel up to it."

I lay there for a moment, and then it dawned on me - my back felt fine. I've never worked out whether is was Gordon the Goose's "therapy" (although I doubt it), or whether the force of the impact with the pole put whatever was out, er, back in. I prefer the latter.

"Just a little bit of advice, Laurie," said the doc.

"Ah, Doc, I think I've had about as much medical advice as I can stand, today," I protested.

"No, Laurie, I was thinking more along the lines of sartorial advice: normally, when a bloke goes to visit Gordon Gay on a Friday afternoon in downtown Kurrajong, it's a wise move to leave the premises with one's pants on."

Monday, August 18, 2008

What's a mate for?

If you live in the United Kingdom, a "big drive" consists of ten or fifteen miles between your, and a neighbouring, village. For this you will invariably pack a thermos of tea and a travel rug, (plus a couple of sandwiches if you're really organised). I know this, because when I lived in England, my wife's relatives, for their annual vacation, would load up the car with a panoply of camping equipment, food for a fortnight, and a trailer-boat on the back, and drive exactly five miles down the road to a camping spot by the river. I'm not kidding.

Once, after we'd stayed at their place for the weekend, they were horrified that I could even contemplate the idea of driving fifty miles back to London at ten o'clock on a Sunday night. When I assured them that that was, indeed, our plan, Freda bustled off into the kitchen, furiously making sandwiches and boiling water for a thermos, in order to determine that we would not die of a malingering death by starvation during a trip she no doubt considered the province of fools and colonials.


Leigh and I had just covered seven hundred and fifty kilometres since we'd decamped, at dawn that morning, from a beautiful little spot on the south coast of New South Wales.

"Big drive," I remarked to my mate as we climbed out of the car at Wilson's Promontory.

"Fucking thirsty, Loz," he replied. Leigh and I had an understanding on our trip. I wouldn't smoke cigarettes in the car, and he wouldn't insist on having a beer while I was driving. This worked spectacularly well, I have to say - I cut down on smoking, and Leigh found that sobriety wasn't as bad as he'd imagined it, all those years ago. 

I was pretty thirsty, too, so , instead of pulling out all of the camping gear and setting up, we just unfolded a couple of camping chairs, opened the esky, and ripped into a number of beers. It was late afternoon, and we realised we'd have to get the tents out, sooner or later, and get ourselves organised, but, for the moment, we were luxuriating in that beautiful lethargy that comes from sitting in a car for seven or eight hours with the road trawling interminably past. It had been a great day, actually - we had both encountered territory through which neither of us had ever travelled. It was the first stage of our adventure, and we were, at last, into the zone of the unknown. I'm always excited by getting to a brand new place, and this was no exception.

Wilson's Promontory (or just "The Prom", as it's known by locals), is the southernmost tip of the Australian mainland. It is a huge national park, brilliantly foreseen as a national treasure by our ancestors: vast, magnificently wild, and possessed of some of the most exquisite scenery on the planet. As you drive in, great plateaus of acacia, bottlebrush, banksia and spotted gum give way to creek valleys dominated by water-plants: sedge and native lilies, with ducks and swans feeding on the abundant life. You round a bend, and finally, a seascape of wild water, huge swells and massive, soaring granite island-plugs ripping their way out of the ocean reminds you, once and for all, of your ridiculous insignificance. We were enchanted.

"This," opined Leigh, pointing to a chattering mob of southern rosellas, as he settled into beer number five, "is going to be a bloody good stop-over, Loz."

I was just starting to get that rosy glow happening myself, and I could not but agree. "You're right, mate; now, how about we get organised? A man occasionally needs to eat."

At the mention of food, Leigh became rather more animated. "Perfect, mate - let's get these tents up, then it's my specialty for dinner: beef a la Sackville."

We dragged the tent bags out of the car, dumped their contents onto the ground, and then a very strange thing happened.

It started to blow a gale. Not just one of your run-of-the-mill, piddling little autumn zephyrs, though; we had innocently found ourselves, at one of the wildest places in the entire country, in the teeth of the biggest hurricane to hit Victoria in forty-five years. 

And we were pissed. You see, we hadn't calculated the combination of meagre food intake, long hours in the car and a setting sun on the body. Those five beers had, effectively, done the job of a full-bore night on the tiles. And the wind blew harder.

Stupidly, we threw caution to the wind (where it blew away across the ocean at something approaching the speed of sound), and got down to the drunken business of erecting not one, but two tents in one-hundred knot winds. I was lying across the polyester base of my tent, desperately attempting to hammer a stake into the ground. Leigh was wrestling with one of those collapsible, flexible tent frames, which was acting like a rodeo cowboy's lariat in the gale, whipping him soundly around the head and shoulders. He struggled to, and eventually got, the things through the tent fly and anchored them, suffering numerous cuts and abrasions in the process. The whole time, he hooted and cackled with hysterical, insane laughter. Meanwhile, I'd managed to bang the tent pegs into the ground, suffering only a thumb that was twice the size of normal and bleeding like an abattoir's blood-bin. It was freezing; my blood developed a crust of ice immediately upon oozing out of my throbbing hand, and we still had one tent to go.

We were working on the second tent. By now, the gale was blowing so fiercely that entire tree-limbs were cavorting across the sky; any normal human, I thought,  would have been safely at the bottom of a nuclear fallout shelter. Which reminded me: where was Leigh? The bastard had disappeared. I kept working, idiotically trying to mangle my thumb even more. Suddenly, Leigh appeared, carrying a familiar object in each hand.

"Hey mate," he screamed above the wail of the storm, "would you like a glass of red?"

It started to rain. A million jagged ice-needles started hitting us horizontally. I forced myself to believe in God for a second, just so I could abuse the fuck out of him. Leigh, meanwhile, calmly sipped at his wine with a look of total bliss on his ugly mug.

We got the second tent up, eventually, and they were both billowing and bulging as every gust flattened them before they could pop up again. If the elements had added just a touch of snow to the proceedings, we could have been at the south col of Everest. I was worried about staying alive for another three or four minutes, but Leigh was in camping heaven.

"This is fucking brilliant, Loz," he screamed at me again, falling into great cackling shudders of laughter. I was thinking that "brilliant" was the sort of word that could be applied to the downward thrust of a tent peg through the insane little gnome's forehead, but before I could bring that ambition to a satisfactory resolution he was away again, rattling around in the kitchen box. He dumped several articles of kit into a plastic garbage bag, motioned towards me with his free arm, and was away up the track.

"Fuck this for a joke," I thought to myself, and dived into the comparative safety and warmth of the Volvo. After another two hastily-downed glasses of wine, I was feeling somewhat less concerned that a tidal-wave was about to appear over the dunes in front of us and wash everything to kingdom come. Suddenly, Leigh re-appeared at the window, grinning. I cautiously opened it about a millimetre, and he yelled "Dinner's on!"

I got out and battled my way into the wind, behind the chortling and singing little bastard, until we came across the camping area's laundry block. Inside, everything was quiet. Heat from the recently-used dryers permeated the room. On top of two adjacent washing machines was a table-cloth, immaculately laid with plates, knives and forks, a bottle of Penfold's, and a great, steaming tureen from which emanated one of the most delicious odours I have ever smelt. Leigh motioned me to a high stool beside the "table". He poured two glasses of wine, handed me one, and intoned

"Bon appetit, my friend".

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Death by crocodile

Once you really start to get into the South Australian outback, the road itself becomes a living thing, almost. It ties you to the landscape - flat and straight, so straight that for mile after mile you seem to be disappearing towards a never-arriving horizon. A bend is a novelty; you almost want to shout with glee as you move the steering wheel an inch to one side. The road is just about the only thing that reminds you that other beings inhabit the earth.

We'd been driving like this for hours when we came across a place called Parachilna. It was getting late, and no time to be out on the road at roo o'clock, unless you were driving a huge rig that could just scoop them out of the way like cow-catchers on an old railway locomotive. (Dead kangaroos litter the highway out there; in one hour you can see a kangaroo in all possible states of decomposition.)

Parachilna was famous, we'd been told by our little travel book. It had a pub. The pub served what it called "feral food", which was an unintentional irony, I'm sure, because the food it referred to consisted almost entirely of native species of animal: roo, crocodile, emu and so-on. We rolled off the highway into the town, which was adorned by the pub, and an old, abandoned and dilapidated  school yard, where the classrooms were boarded up and falling down at the same time. The only building worthy of not being scuttled was the old washroom. The place had been turned into a camping ground. There was absolutely nothing else there.

The ground was made of sand and rock. The only vegetation in the entire place was one or two stumpy little trees that clung miserably to life in the face of a howling easterly wind pouring down from the Flinders Ranges, away in the distance. There was dust everywhere. 

"This," I said to Leigh as we climbed out of the Volvo, "is as close as I want to come to hell in this life."

"Amen to that, brother," he replied, "but I tell you what - I could eat the crutch out of an old lady's nightgown through a cane chair."

(My mate Leigh is probably one of the most astute, intelligent and funny people I've ever met. But when he's hungry, it is unwise to get between him and a side of beef, if you know what I mean. He reckons that anyone who spends more than two hours between feeds is probably doing damage to several major internal organs.)

We hit the pub, which happened to be the most fascinating of places. A small bar, adorned with the most bizarre furnishings: bits of corrugated iron nailed to the walls; framed mementos of movie stars who had rested here; parts of the skeletons of long-dead and unrecognisable animals (probably eaten by the guests) - I fell in love with it immediately. As usual, there was a barmaid, and a reasonably young bloke with a beer in his hand chatting her up.

When you're a stranger in these parts, the locals are usually brilliantly friendly, no matter if you've seen Wolf Creek or not. It was no exception at the Parachilna Hotel - we were immediately welcomed by the assembled crew, and, de rigeur, had to swap stories on the spot. Asked where we were headed, we replied "Birdsville." This excited much animated conversation by the locals, because Birdsville was a further seven hundred kilometres away through the Simpson Desert, and you don't go out there unless you really know your business. Otherwise, you die.

So we asked about pitching a tent in the old school yard. 

"Go ahead," said the barmaid, "I think the hot water's on."

We climbed back into the Volvo and crept up the track, being buffeted by a wind which threatened to give the car a thorough sand-blasting. The camp-site was impossible; you couldn't get a peg in the ground for love nor money, so we ended up just dragging big pieces of rock onto the guy ropes and hoping for the best.

Once the tents were reasonably ship-shape, we returned to the pub.

"Dinner?", asked the barmaid. We were led into a long room furnished with bare timber tables and benches; lots of them too. It was obvious this place catered for a mass of people in high tourist season; tonight it was just us.  Another young woman came over to take our order. We decided on the "Feral antipasto for two", and Leigh told the waitress "How about we get started on that and then we'll think about mains?"

"Oh yeah," she replied with a knowing smirk.

"What was all that about?" I said.

"I think she fancies me," replied Leigh. Hmm, I thought: tall, blonde, very pretty, about twenty-two or three, versus dishevelled, gnomish, travel-stained senior citizen; yep, that'll work!

The platter arrived. It was about the size of a pair of elephant ears (African, not Indian), loaded to the gunwales with an enormous variety of foodstuffs. Seared medallions of kangaroo-rump rubbed shoulders, so to speak, with fat slabs of pan-fried crocodile. A huge tub of emu pate sat in the middle of the plate, surrounded by fresh-water crayfish, creamy chunks of goat cheese, and lashings of artichokes, peppers, avocados and radish. It radiated "coronary occlusion."

"Jesus wept!" cried Leigh, as he dived into the cornucopia with the alacrity of a seventeen year-old given the keys to Anna Kournikova's underpants. 

Half an hour later, I was in another dimension; buttons were popping, my eyeballs were bursting out of their sockets, and if someone had even mentioned "Just another tiny wafer, Monsieur," I would have done a Mr Creosote all over the Parachilna Hotel. Leigh just kept on ploughing it in, until finally he, too, groaned to a standstill.

We sat back, drawing on huge pints of Coopers. I was considering the possibility that I may not have to eat again until about 2012. At last, Leigh managed to murmur

"Fuck... me... dead. I don't know about you, Loz, but I think we're gonna have to come back again tomorrow night!"

The waitress, noticing our condition, came over with her little notepad in hand.

"And now," she enquired sweetly, "what would sirs like for mains?" .

Never trust physics to a bloke with a septic tank

Australians are renowned for two great recreational passions. These are, as I'm sure you're aware, Philosophy and Quantum Chromodynamics. I'm a bit more on the philosophy side, but I've got a few mates who like to tinker with crystal radio sets and the like. Just the other day, my mate Graham the Barbarian and I were sitting around in his shed having a cold one and cleaning the rifles, when out of the blue he said "Loz, this fuckin' M-Theory has got me buggered."

"How do you mean, old son?", I enquired. "As far as I'm concerned the whole thing's a doddle."

"No, no - it's not the theory's mathematics that's the problem, it's... Look. I haven't told the missus about this, cause she'd hit the roof. You know how big she is on a particle explanation, so don't let on to her about this, right?"

"My lips are sealed, pal," I responded, eager to hear the bloke out.

"It's these dimensions, Loz." He leaned over towards me conspiratorially; "I found another one of the little bastards yesterday, behind the septic tank. Sittin' there as large as life, if you know what I mean, given that they're not real big buggers, an' all that."

"Well, the Planck length is not something readily observable to a bloke with a tape measure," I agreed. " Graham, you haven't been doing anything unusual around here, have you?"

The poor bloke was abject. He waved me over to the fridge. We ripped the tops off another couple and he continued.

"You know how I borrowed Leigh's excavator to dig the new transpiration pit? Well, I made the fuckin' thing a complete circle, right around the back of the chook-pen, up the side, past the grey gum, and back over to here. Dunno why, just got carried away. Anyway, I was lookin' at it, and a thought came to mind. You know those old magnets we picked up from the railway yards a few months ago, well I threw a few of them around the hole, got some of that copper wire that fell off the back of Barry's work truck last week, and... well, I've rigged up me own cyclotron."

"Fuck me dead, Graham, I knew you were a handy kind of bloke, but this is ridiculous! Go on."

"Well, I tapped into the 33 kilovolt power line that runs through the back of the place, and Bob's yer uncle! Got the laser scope off the triple 4, hooked it up as a particle generator, and mate, I tell you I'm the only fuckin' bloke in Kurrajong that can smash atoms!"

"So, have you managed to find the Higgs yet, mate?", I attempted to jest.

"Well, see, Loz, that's my problem. Once I got the thing really revved up (an' I tell you, I nearly got busted when the missus' lava lamp started to go dim), out popped all of these other bloody dimensions. This is what I've been tryin' to tell ya, mate - this string theory business is for real."

"Well, mate, I reckon you better get on the blower to CERN and give 'em a heads-up - they'll probably want to come over and have a look."

"But mate," Graham almost sobbed, "that's the problem. I've got a bet goin' with Len and his fisho mates down at the Arms that the Large Hadron Collider is gonna wipe string theory off the planet, and if this gets out I stand to lose half a case of beer!"

Saturday, August 16, 2008

On the road (again)

After my last effort, it's probably time to reflect on some of life's purer pleasures. 

The people of Kangaroo Island are Australians - they're just not your typical Aussie. They live in a place which is lauded by all of the travel books for its uniqueness, a claim I found to be true in at least one sense, but we'll get to that. They present as almost mediaeval, in many respects: clannish, self-contained and, of necessity, self-reliant. 

To get to K.I., you have to get a vehicular ferry from a place called Cape Jervis on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia. It costs $180 per car, plus $80 per occupant, so it's not a trip that the K.I.ers, themselves, do frequently. So in effect, they are economically, as well as physically isolated from the rest of the country. They're pretty decent people, though - as we found out after being warned of the Deliverance style lifestyle. Leigh struck up a conversation with the barmaid on the ferry (as he is wont to do - I must devote a blog episode to this mate of mine), and was asking her about the island. "Do they speak English over there?", he joked to the girl.

"Sort of", she replied, 'but they hate tourists!" 

I must point out that Leigh has a long mane of strawberry blonde hair that he usually keeps in a ponytail. When he takes off the bungy cord that holds it all together, he resembles a dwarf version of Hagrid. He can be a very unusual sight, especially with several pints of the amber under his belt, and one that a good ol' boy just might take an instant dislike to.

Well, we disembarked at the ferry terminal in Penneshaw, the "gateway" village. I was immediately taken by the place. Apart from a few obvious touristy things, it was a charming little village that positively leached history. Of course, we hit the pub straight away. We were starving, and had a horrible t'irst. "Two schooners of your best, my man", I ordered from a bartender who resembled Davey Crockett, and who I was convinced had pieces of koala flesh still stuck under his fingernails.

He went away and returned with two thimblefuls of the amber. "What the fuck do you call this?", enquired Leigh in a voice that revealed that the t'irst was really starting to hurt.

"They're schooners, mate", replied Davey. "Did you mean a pint?"

"I want a drink that I can feel goin' down, pal - if this is a schooner, perhaps you'd better go out and fill up what you call a bucket!"

Sensing that caution was the better part of valour, and remaining fully cognisant of the possibility of shotguns, banjoes and rocking chairs being customary appurtenances in these parts, I guided my ravenous companion to a table, where he sat, glumly looking at the dismal offering in front of him.

"You know, Loz", he opined after the third thimble of what was, I had to admit, a great drop of beer, "I reckon I could just about eat one of these Kangaroo Island penguins."

We hit the restaurant, which wasn't so much a restaurant as just another room in the pub, adorned with all sorts of historical paraphernalia, stuffed fish and photos of K.I. football heroes. After feasting on local fresh fish, magnificently cooked and presented, and a bottle of a beautiful local shiraz, we retired, totally sated and in love with K.I., to the pool room. 

Two young women, both about twenty or so, were playing pool. "Mind if we join in?" I asked.

"Sure, fellers", responded the taller of the two. We exchanged the usual niceties. They were both K.I. locals, born and bred. They told us a lot of the unofficial history of the island; how it was actually a melting-pot of old culture from Australia and New Zealand and the islands.

"The hardest thing here is that all the decent blokes are married, and all the others are dickheads", said Shona. "All got one thing on their minds."

"You bet," chimed in Stephanie, a good-looking girl with plenty of attitude. "Just want to stick it in ya, all the time. I respect my cunt a lot more than that."

"Well, that's telling it how it is," I replied. They were great girls; we had a ball, and they introduced us to everyone in the pub. We ended up sitting outside as the night sky exploded into life, swapping stories of our travels (totally exaggerated, of course) with theirs of island life. Davey (who turned out to be Ian), was one of the nicest blokes you'd ever meet (the koala flesh turned out to be a little of the fish he'd been cleaning for dinner), and told us to just camp anywhere we liked. Although it was true most islanders weren't keen on tourists, they enjoyed travellers. It was a distinction we were to become more aware of as our adventure progressed.

In the end, we did experience language difficulties with the locals, as the ferry barmaid had suggested. Except that, by about 2 a.m. outside the Penneshaw hotel, it was Leigh who was speaking a variation of Swahili, whilst I was doing my best with pidgin Icelandic.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Fear, at my heart, as at a cup
My life-blood seemed to sip.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

For a theist, Martin Luther King Jr was a pretty cool guy. An eloquent user of the big metaphor, King encapsulated grand ideas in succinct, penetrating images. I was thinking of "I have been to the mountain-top" the other day, on the twentieth anniversary of the worst day of my life.

To be able to go to the mountain-top implies that one has, as well, been to the abyss. A work colleague, at elevenses on Thursday, remarked to the staff in general that I seem to have a perpetually sunny disposition. "How come you're always so chipper, Laurie?", she asked.

I told her the following story.

It was a Saturday morning in late winter, bright and sunny outside. I was working on an essay on Kant's Critique, a project I'd been studying hard for. It was all falling into place, and I was ready to seriously get to grips with space, time and consciousness. I was thirty-five, and as intellectually fit as I was ever going to get. (Oh, the delusions we suffer!)

I was alone. My wife, Chris, had taken our five year-old son to his soccer match - she'd taken our infant daughter, too, and left me with instructions to at least get a little bit of house-work done. The phone rang.

"Do you own a blue Hi-Lux?" asked a voice I didn't recognise. "You'd better get up to Comleroy Road - your wife's had an accident. She's trapped in the car. The ambulance is on its way. I think the kids are OK."

All of this was delivered in rapid-fire. From that point on, reality seemed to roll out in a hazy, slow-motion nightmare. I must have rung a neighbour, I must have been screaming at him, because he was at my place seemingly instantaneously, and we drove off at high speed.

We got to the site of the accident, a bend on a winding country road about ten kilometres from our place. My wife had had a head-on collision with a four wheel drive. I remember seeing our car, a ute. It was unrecognisable. It was smashed to bits. I ran toward it. I think I was screaming. My wife was inside. She was smashed to pieces. Twenty years later, the memory of that sight still makes me cry. She was alive, just. The impact had forced the gearbox and half the motor through the firewall, which had smashed her legs back under the seat. The steering wheel and column was a tangled mess of steel pinning her upper body, somehow, to the roof of the car. She was conscious. She whispered "Laurie. The kids."

The ambulance arrived. A guy pushed me, or carried me, I don't know, to the side of the road. My children were being held by two women. I grabbed them both - they were in deep, deep shock. Their eyes were glazed. They weren't making a sound. I held them tightly to me. It was all I could do, it was all I could do. I sank to the ground, the baby in my arms, my little boy clinging to me. The great philosopher died on that spot, on that day.

The rescue crew freed my wife from the car by just cutting it into even more pieces. Chris kept dying; the ambos kept resuscitating her. She stabilised. I got into the front of the ambulance, my neighbour put the kids in his car, and we drove twenty ks to the hospital. Every time Chris came back to consciousness she would start to scream in agony; it is the worst sound I have ever heard. I was in a funk of shock and abject terror. We got to the hospital, and she was raced straight into X-Ray, then theatre. The kids were examined. They were OK, just some minor bruising from their seat belts. The gearbox had come to rest on the back seat between them, and my son had a little burn on his leg. He didn't even notice it.

Other people took over my life. The only thing I could force myself to do was to ring her parents. "She's in theatre. She's broken lots of bones. I don't know. I don't know. You'll have to come quickly, I think." These poor, elderly people were horrified and terrified just like me. There was nothing we could do for each other.

Eight hours later, a little Pakistani orthopedic surgeon came out of the operating theatre, covered in blood. He walked up to me. I had never seen him before. He took me by both arms, stared into my face and said "Your wife will live."

Chris had broken nearly every bone in both feet and ankles, both tibia and fibula, her left femur, her pelvis in several places, all of her ribs, sternum, collarbones and both fore- and upper-arms. She had no head injuries. She "died" over a dozen times. She had fourteen operations to put the parts back together; she was in hospital for three months, and signed herself out when she couldn't stand it anymore.

My children are healthy and happy. That little glazed-eyed two year old girl now has her own little girl, who you can see on the right of this story. My son plays classical guitar beautifully, and is something of a wine connoisseur. My wife is a brilliant teacher.

There is no god. Every day is a bonus. Science saves lives. Life is beautiful.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Let's abolish middle age (part 2)

We'd just been to Cape Otway, the second-most southern tip of mainland Australia, a scene of incomparable beauty, with prepossessing five-hundred foot cliffs overlooking one of the most treacherous pieces of water in the world, a place where many a mariner had come to grief.

Driving out of there, on the way to the Great Ocean Road, we came upon a couple of Grey Nomads - Roy and Edna. We knew these were their names because, like many of the GNs, they were painted in a very professional manner on the back of their caravan. (Everything about these vans is professional, and it's not hard to gather the belief that the caravan is the sole reason for their journeying - whereas they could only show off their cute little suburban brick-veneer homes to a handful of people, now they could take their masterpieces of domestic hubris with them, and show off to the entire country.) The GNs put other pieces of relevant information on the back of their vans, like the CB radio channel they prefer, just so that other GNs, coming up behind them, could have a chat about the capacity of each other's on-board freezer, or something, while they infuriated every other driver on the road by slowing to about 40 kph.

Sometimes, the vans have slogans on them as well, little emblematic blandishments that attest to the "character" of the van and its occupants. Leigh and I took great delight, on some of the more tedious passages, of coming up with slogans we thought were more appropriate than "Caution: Grey Power Ahead", and "Pat's Porta-Palace"; Leigh's suggestions ran along the lines of "Dun Livin'".

Well, Roy and Edna's van won the prize for delusion; on the back of the rig, between two beautifully-rendered naked young people, was written "THE PASSION PIT".

"Fuck me dead!" exclaimed Leigh as we got close enough to make out this wondrous revelation, "we must've finally come across a pair of kids driving one of these things."

"Not so fast, boyo," I said, "No-one under the age of 50 are called Roy and Edna."

Sure enough, as we finally crept around them (yes, they were doing 40 kph), Roy and Edna turned out to be at least two hundred years old apiece. Old Roy's rheumy eyes were fixed on the road; he had that dumb, glum visage of someone whose only object in life is to get it over with. And no wonder, because, when I looked across at Edna, all I could see was a mouth oscillating at about thirty gigahertz. She was giving poor Roy the biggest serve on Earth; you didn't need to hear what was being said to understand that if Roy had still been on top of those cliffs at Cape Otway, he, Edna, the Landcruiser and the PASSION PIT would have been hurtling towards the cruel sea below.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On the road

Here's a funny story. In the South Australian outback, Leigh and I would often drive into a little town at about lunchtime, looking for a suitable watering-hole and a bite to eat. Now, at this time of day, these places are always like ghost towns. There's nary a car on the road. Nobody around. The place is quiet, utterly deserted.

So one of these places, suffering under the unusual name of Quorn, about 400k from Adelaide out towards the Simpson Desert, was our place du jour. We drove along the typically deserted back streets until we came to the central business district, which consisted, as far as I could make out, of four pubs within about fifty yards of each other. (It's a notable fact of Australian country life that the smaller the population, the more pubs per town. We were in a place called Eden, which, by the way, thoroughly lived up to its nomination, and I remember reading a sign as we drove in that said: "Eden - a drinking town with a fishing problem.") Anyway, in the main street of Quorn there was not the slightest shred of evidence to convince us out of the eerie belief that a flock of UFOs had recently landed and extracted the entire population, plus their automobiles, to the Andromeda Galaxy or thereabouts.

We chose one of the pubs, a grand old edifice called the "Austral" (I know, pathetic, isn't it?) I pulled up in parallel-park position right outside the front door, which happened to be open. We got out, stretched, and walked on in.

Inside was a barmaid, a woman in her mid-forties or so, and an old guy slowly enjoying a small beer. I gave the barmaid a "G'day", and we ordered a couple of beers and enquired about the food situation.

"No problems, fellers, I'll fix somethin' up for yerz." (That's how they talk out there.)

She came around from behind the bar, walked out the door, then immediately returned, giving us a quizzical shake of the head.

"That'd be right - bloody Volvo drivers!"

"What?", I said, "What have we done?"

"It's angle parkin' in this street, ya galah! Yer fuckin' parallel-parked!"

"Well, how was I to know?" I replied. "There aren't any signs."

"Ah, everyone knows it's angle parkin', boofhead."

"Well, what does it matter?", I rather defensively responded - "there's no-one here anyway."

"Well that's why, ya drongo - nobody can get a park!"

Postscript: About a week later, after we'd been up to the desert, we arrived back in Quorn, ravenous, on a Saturday night. The place was jumpin'. Cars everywhere, lights, people all over town. What a change from the week before. As it happened, there was just enough room, amongst all of the properly angle-parked cars, for me to get a spot parallel-parked in exactly the same place as I'd parked the week before. 

"Watch this," I said to Leigh. We pulled up outside the pub, got out and walked in. The same barmaid was there (the place was packed), looked beyond us out the door, and gave us just the slightest dismissive shake of her head, and I swear I saw her eyes roll around. Later, as we sat down to eat in the pub's restaurant, a waitress came up to take our orders.

"You'd be the bloody Volvo drivers, then," she said.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Let's abolish middle-age

Recently, my mate Leigh and I jumped in the Volvo and had a quick run around the countryside. Eight thousand kilometres later, we returned. I won't bore you with the sightseeing details, except to say that you've got to do this trip. It was fantastic; the south-east corner of Australia is as diverse, beautiful, wild, intimidating and heart-breakingly, gobsmackingly spectacular as nearly any place in the world.

Like I said, I'll tell you all about it if you really want me to. But today's post is about something else: getting old, and what to do about it. You see, along the course of our trip, we met lots of a rather modern species of humanoid: the Grey Nomad. This unusual species displays characteristics and habits that are decidedly peculiar, and got me thinking about the nature of aging.

Now, I've come to believe that "age" is a social construct. I'm 55, and Leigh is 59, but we still act, and think, like blokes in our twenties. At least I like to think we do; unfortunately, it's been that long since I was twenty that I have no recollection of any thoughts I may or may not have had at that age. I can imagine, though, that they were the normal thoughts that young men have, or, if you like, the single, solitary thought that most young men use to keep themselves in a permanent state of priapic befuddlement. Now, of course, our bodies betray us more often than they used to; we are the victims of a life of wear and tear. The knees and ankles ain't what they used to be; we're not as strong as we were, etc etc. And our faces - well, let's just say that we're in no danger of displacing the current Mr Universe from his spot.

Well, we loaded up the Volvo with all the things we thought we'd need on a 28-day camping trip: a couple of two-man tents (no way were we considering sleeping with each other); a one-burner stove, billy, couple of pots and pans; bag of clothes each; some food staples (rice, sugar, flour, coffee) and plenty of drink - and that's about it. We thought we'd just play it by ear - camp where we liked, stay in any one spot for as long as we deemed appropriate, not make any firm plans or rendezvous points. We were off to see parts of our glorious country neither had visited before, and we were going to do it sans mod cons.

Now, the only reasonably firm part of our plan was that we'd get to know a place by visiting one of its pubs, and see what happened next. As it turned out, this was a masterstroke of foresight, because it led us into some exceptionally wild adventures. And the funny thing about it is that most of these adventures occurred with people about half our age. Think about this for a moment: here we were, two late middle-age guys having a ball with a whole crew of youngsters, everywhere we went. How does that work? I've got some theories.

But now, to the Grey Nomads. These are people who, as they hit retirement, get out on the road to see Australia. Well, good on them - it's a great thing to do, obviously; much better than copping your last pay cheque and the gold watch, settling down in the comfy-chair in front of Neighbours then curling up your toes and carking it.

But it's the way that they get to see the country that started to get me concerned. You've got to realise that the GNs are the most important supporters of the regional Australian economy; they keep entire towns alive. We went through South Australia, for instance, at the end of the worst drought in the country's history. Evidence everywhere of people just walking off the land; towns shuttered and boarded - it was pretty horrific, and it was only the GNs, in many cases, that kept these places faintly buoyant.

The GNs do this: use the superannuation, or sell the house, or somehow get their hands on a great big stack of money. They buy a Landcruiser or Nissan Patrol with all the bells and whistles, and a dirty great fucking caravan big enough to house Ali Baba and forty or more of his mates. (I was taken on a guided tour of a couple of these monsters - I mean, they've got dishwashers in them, for fuck's sake!) So they hitch these behemoths up and take off on a three, six or twelve-month tour of the country. This is going to be their last hurrah; their swan-song. We saw the country, Edna; now we can die in peace.

Now, Leigh and I had a kind of system: we'd usually pull up at a camping ground mid-afternoon, set up, then reconnoitre the area. Then we'd hit the pub, and see what eventuated. This usually worked rather well, except for the time at Apollo Bay when the three Vietnamese prostitutes commandeered the pool table (but that's another story).

We started to notice another system in operation. We'd be sitting outside camp with a beer in hand, having successfully negotiated the process of erecting tents, when a whole convoy of GNs would arrive. They'd spend half an hour getting their rig into exactly the right spot, wind out all of the paraphernalia on their vans, erect the TV mast, and go inside, lock the door and stay there all night. In the morning, by the time we got up and checked that there were no pieces of our bodies missing after the night before, the GNs had gone!

They just drove from one camping ground to the next! The only time they got to see the real world was out the window of their rigs, which were nothing more than their suburban homes chucked on a tri-axle trailer. They never went for a walk. Leigh and I did plenty of big hikes while we were travelling; the GNs do none. While we went trekking up a 3000ft mountain, the GNs sat in their campsites, spraying their caravans with spider repellant and chatting to each other about the benefits of having a luxury en-suite on the road. Or cleaning; these guys were fanatical about owning a spotless caravan. By the time we got home, the Volvo looked like it had been through a mud bath - which it had, several times, but the GNs' always looked as though they'd just rolled off the assembly-line.

The thing is, these people were barely older than us. There was nothing stopping them doing fairly big day walks, as we did - and the only way you could really see much of the landscape on our trip was to trek into it. This all passed the GNs by; they never went to a pub, played pool with the locals, and got hammered. We did that sort of thing probably too much, but fuck, it was fun.

By the time we got home I realised I'd had one of the very best experiences of my life. I felt good. I was fitter, tanned and ready to plough myself back into life. I can just imagine a pair of these Grey Nomads coming home and turning the television on. For many of them, nothing would have changed. And that's a great pity. Because they'd have missed out on a great opportunity to find the boy, or girl, within. be continued.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Breasts and The Lord Jesus Christ

Having a good church upbringing is one of those things that can either work in one's favour, or go horribly, horribly wrong. If you're lucky, you sense the complete idiocy of religion by the time you're about thirteen or fourteen. At his stage of life, your thoughts are beginning to turn towards the idea that those creatures of the opposite sex (or the same, doesn't matter) are starting to look pretty damn attractive in a very mysterious way. Contemporaneously, the messages you are receiving from the pulpit (in my case, delivered by a quite lovely man called Pastor Holloway, who had a thin, reedy voice and a complete lack of brains) are becoming less and less relevant. Whereas you were once fascinated by the more salacious bible stories (knowing that Eve walked around starkers did wonders for my fertile, pubescent imagination), the real thing makes any reading of the bible tedious.

My "awakening", if one likes to put it that way, came with the arrival of a new pastor and his family to our church. He had a daughter. She was my age. She had breasts. She was beautiful. I fell in love. I am writing in short sentences. I'd tell you her name, but she is still alive, and would probably consider this entire story to be quite inappropriate for a public place, for reasons you'll discover shortly. 

This was 1966, a time when girls wore very tiny miniskirts. How lucky were we to live in that era - Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix and tiny miniskirts. Although my now future girlfriend wasn't in the same fashion league as the Carnaby St. models, she nevertheless showed plenty of leg. Did I mention she had breasts? Anyway, the combination of breasts, hips, legs, a pretty face, long honey-blonde hair etc drove me wild with desire. I was her Samson; she my Delilah. For her, I fended off all of the bigger boys from the area who, as non-churchgoers, lusted after her and invited her to participate in their heathen orgies. I swept her off her feet with my charm, poise and witty repartee. All of this occurred within my own head.

Eventually, however, we became boyfriend and girlfriend. I endured the church services and the youth group on Friday nights (where we would sing incredibly inane "choruses" and be lectured about growing up to be good christian men and women by a guy who was about thirty, and one of the most obtuse individuals I have ever met) so that I could furtively hold her hand when no-one else was looking, or sometimes even steal a kiss (now there's an expression you don't hear much these days).

By this stage, I was over religion. And the more I was immersed in it, the more idiotic it appeared. It was a fundamentalist church along the lines of the Baptists, replete with a baptism pool that rested under the floor in front of the pulpit, and when there was a baptising to be done, the poor sucker, dressed in a white robe that was clearly made out of a bed sheet, would have to wade into the water with the pastor and get dunked. It was a very holy experience, accompanied by the serious intonation of some very serious verses from the bible which I forget now, because for the entire time I would have my gaze fixed on the opulent thighs of my girlfriend sitting next to me, wondering if I'd ever catch a glimpse of that far holier thing above. (I never did, more's the pity.)

In 1967 Billy Graham came to town. This was a big deal in Protestant fundamentalist circles; Billy was the man who'd saved more souls than any other shit-for-brains, fucked-up charlatan in history. We had to go see him, naturally.

I lived in Newcastle, so we all got on a bus and travelled down to the Sydney Showground, where Billy was going to do his thing. Now, it was a kind of tradition in the church that young people would, at about the age of puberty (yeah - go figure), make a public commitment to the Lord at a "gospel service" that the church held every Sunday evening. (I tell you, with the time I spent sitting in that fucking church hall I could have written the great Australian novel by now.) This commitment was part of the preparation for becoming a baptised, wafer-eating full-bore religious lunatic. As I was considered a bright young man and possible candidate for the ministry itself, it was assumed that I'd be making my commitment any time soon. And I tell you what, the pressure was real. It was largely unspoken, but it was there, all right.

Meanwhile, I'd been having real difficulty getting to second base with the beloved. Those breasts were enormously inviting, but they were as off limits as a conference of world leaders is for Osama bin Laden. As soon as my hand got to within cooee of these voluptuous treasures, a warning sound would come from her. You see, she was a fully committed, baptised young evangelical by this stage, and she was saving her body for the sanctity of the wedding night, tits and all. If she'd been a catholic she would have become a nun, for sure. I, on the other hand, was a fully committed lecher, quite a normal state of affairs when you're fourteen and a half.

We got to the event, and there was Billy, launching into this massive sermon which was supposed to be the best of its kind. I cannot remember a single word of it. At the end of his tirade, though, he gave the "call" for we sinners who had not been saved to "come forward and accept the lord Jesus Christ into our hearts as our own personal saviour." All eyes turned towards me, including those of the beloved. I thought "This is a fucking set-up." But then, another thought occurred, and I stood to my feet and walked out to be welcomed into the fellowship of god, with about three thousand other deluded souls whose motives, unlike mine, were, I'm sure, pure.

That night, on the bus going home, she let me fondle those breasts.

We broke up, shortly after. I was never baptised. I'm going to hell. Years later, she married some equally fucked-up christian and - get this - became a missionary in France. I kid you not.

Still, I think the female breast is just about the only thing that could persuade me of Intelligent Design.