In transit

Travelling always sounds so exotic, but the fact of the matter is that the actual travelling bit sucks.

Blows goats, no less.

First, you have to endure check-in.  The airlines and brochures present you with an idyllic view of check in, of smiley gorgeous women on the counter, handsome travellers all with $10,000 watches and smiles to match.

or of wonderful machines that take all the pain away

The reality of check-in is usually more like this:

Which, frankly is my idea of hell.

Now to be fair, this process has improved substantially with technology – I checked in online a few hours before my flight, chose my seats for the whole trip and printed my own boarding cards (with Opera in the end, after a fight with Firefox), meaning actual check-in for me was a 2 minute affair, wandering past the line of economy class hopefuls and straight to the internet check-in bag drop.  Not bad.

Next, there’s security.  Actually, in Australia, you first have to be quizzed by immigration (would it not be emigration on the way out?) as to why you are leaving the Lucky Country at all.  I mean, how very dare you!  These guys are ok – the Aussies are a friendly bunch (listen up TSA in the US..) and it’s no big deal.

But then there’s the line for the x-rays and scanners.  The experience here is totally dependent on location. Leaving Perth is a walk in the park – the international terminal only has 5 gates and security takes 3 minutes, but 9 times out of 10 leaves you hopping across the room post scan carrying your belt and shoes whilst trying to prevent your trousers from heading down around your knees by the mind power alone.   Coming back though –  Heathrow is a *nightmare* – security can take an hour.  Or more if they are having a bad day.  Dubai is also terrible – massive queues which most people think think they can ignore and just walk to the front.  Yeah, that’s always fun.  Not.

And then, once you’ve been ritually de-bagged and generally made to feel like a terrorist, you have to endure an enormous wait before boarding the plane.  And airports are universally miserable places.  Actually Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are ok, but even so, I’d rather invent a way to reclaim those 2 hours of my life.

Which brings me to boarding.

The staff patiently announce that boarding is open for parents with small children, gold club and first class passengers (who must be ushered away from the riff raff and into their upmarket cocoons as fast as possible) and anyone else ‘who needs more time with boarding’.  This last bit is actually translated by a strange airborne wave effect in the confines of an airline gate to mean ‘everybody stand up and attempt board now even though you have been clearly told to wait’

Semingly intelligent businessmen put down their copy of the New York Times and shove toddlers out of the way to get to their seats first.  The staff attempt to instil some order by boarding by seat row number, starting at the back of the plane first, but again, that seems to be lost in translation and basically ends up as ‘CHARGE!!’

So, once on the plane, smacking all the smug first and business class passengers about the head with your bags as you walk through the impossibly narrow aisles, frotting with the stewardesses (or stewards, depending on your preference), there’s the lottery of who’s sitting next to you.  There’s always a gargantuan fat person in every departure lounge, and everyone is thinking the same thing.  Please god, don’t let them be sat next to me. – I think the airlines employ these really fat people just to fuck with travellers heads.

And when you do get to your seat, there’s nowhere for your bags to go because everyone except you has ignored the ‘one piece of hand luggage’ rule and the entire plane’s overhead luggage capacity is full up before 1/2 the people have even made it through the door.

What is supposed to be this

ends up as this

Once you have stashed your bag at the opposite end of the plane, placing your valuables at the mercy of people who could well be a troupe of serial pickpockets on their way out for the summer season, the waiting starts.  The hours and hours of being crammed into a small seat with the ignoramus in front of you reclining his seat an inch from your face the split second the fasten seatbelts sign is switched off after take off, the not being able to sleep, of endless edited movies, of that annoying moving map thing which shows you in perfect clarity exactly how much misery is still left.

And I’m not even going to write about the horrors of getting off the plane and collecting baggage once you land. I prefer to pretend that bit doesn’t exist.  La-la-la-la.  My fingers were in my ears then – you’ll have to imagine that bit.

Then, once you’ve had every ounce of energy, patience and tolerance and ability to extend human kindness extracted from you, you are free to begin the whole point of the journey, the destination.

And I’m here, in England, with my kids, and they are awesome and worth every second of the trip.

Holidays, part 5 – shell beach and dolphins

The next day, we had a poke around Denham, stocked up on food and beer ($50 for a carton of Corona – thats really cheap!) and decided that we’d do a little exploring.

There aren’t a great many things to do in Shark Bay that don’t involve some kind of water/fishing/swimming type activity, so we loaded up the car and drove to Shell Beach, which is 1/2 hour from Denham back down the road we came in on.

Shell Beach is, as the name implies, a beach made of shells.  Just shells.  No sand or pebbles or anything else, just trillions of teeny white shells.  There are so many and the beach is so thick with them that they are mined and bricks carved from the deeper harder almost rock like layers.  Amazing.

The girls packed their snorkelling gear as the water looked amazingly clear, but we discovered that the water looks that clear for a good reason.  It’s only kneed deep for 2 or 3 hundred metres or more out out to sea.

Still, thats enough for small children, but even though its a breathtakingly beautiful place, its not very interesting for adults.  Plus the sea floor being made up of, yes, you guessed it, shells, is not exactly comfortable on the feet.  That said, we had a good time, but there isn’t really that much else to do there, so we sat down, had a drink from the cooler and once the girls dried off, we went home again.

The next day, we stocked up with supplies and drove the 1/2 hour to Monkey Mia, where there is a self contained holiday resort (which we didn’t want to stay at, as there is only one restaurant and nothing else to do).  The interesting thing about Monkey Mia is that for 30 years or more, dolphins have been coming in to the beach to be fed.  This got a bit out of hand in the 80’s so the Environment Department guys created a managed feeding program.  3 times a day, in the mornings only, dolphins swim in and get fed a small ration of fish.  The DoE guys pick members of the public to come and feed them – its very cool.

The water was a bit cloudy with sand when we went, but it was still amazing to see the dolphins up close, to watch them swim on their side with one eye out of the water, sizing us all up.

It was a very cool experience and the girls had a lot of fun, even though they didn’t get picked for the feeding.  They swam in the sea for a few hours, playing with some American kids (who were perhaps the most loud bossy children I have ever seen) before we’d kinda had enough sun, so we packed up and went home.

As the ocean in Shark Bay is really calm in good weather, we made a plan to come back and go out on one of the catamarans that sail around the bay looking for dugongs, dolphins, sharks and turtles.

Holidays, part 2 – Lancelin to Kalbarri

We left Lancelin early, as frankly the hotel accommodation left everything to be desired and we couldn’t stand being there any more.  That and we had a huge drive to Kalbarri to do before the end of the day.

Before last week, there was no road north from Lancelin, you had to go east inland 30km or so and hop on the main highway, which didn’t really come back to the coast again until Geraldton, 3 hours or so up the coast.  But the highways agency in Western Australia have been busy and have pushed a new road straight through the bush, joining up with the small coast road at Cervantes 100km or so away.

The new road is awesome and goes through utterly deserted bushland.  Deserted as its is part of a military firing range!  There are hardly any cars and nothing but huge wide expanses of virgin bush as far as the eye can see – perfect!

We stopped off at the Pinnacles, a national park with strange limestone rock formations that just stick straight out of the bright yellow sandy desert.  The Aboriginals who once lived in the area avoided the place and in stories said that the rocks were the fingernails of those who ventured there and got sucked into the sinking sands.

There were spectacular views across the bush to the Indian Ocean, 10km or so away.

The Pinnacles has to be one of the most accessible national parks areas in Australia, as they have actually laid out a track right through the desert that you can drive on, right through the rocks and emu.  No need (if you are spectactularly lazy) to even get out of the car.  I’d recommend having a look in the discovery centre  and actually walking about though – it’s an amazing place.

The girls got told off for this – apparently you’re not supposed to climb on the ancient and unique monuments… 😉

After an hour of exploring and driving round the little stone edged desert track, we headed off to get some lunch and petrol in Jurien Bay, a little town an hour or so up the road.  Refreshed and loaded up, we headed on up to Kalbarri – which was still 6 hours, or 400km or so away.

The old Indian Ocean Drive snaked its way through deserted and sometimes scorched bushland, the road half the width of the new sections earlier on and only affording small glimpses of the turquoise ocean as it headed towards the Brand Highway at Dongara.

We popped in for coffee in Geraldton and realised we still had a lot of driving to go, so we cracked on, heading for the pink lake at Port Gregory – its a huge lake, right on the edge of the ocean, that is totally pink.  Sadly, we just didn’t get there before the sun went down, and without the right light, the colours just weren’t there.  The scenery on the way was gorgeous though, fields and farms and rolling hills, lit with soft and dreamy light.  Light that shone right into my eyes for nearly an hour of driving, meaning my view was a light washed bug splattered windscreen with occasional views of the road!

Another couple of hours of driving along deserted roads in the dark, and we arrived in Kalbarri and to the Tudor Holiday Park, where we had a little cabin for the night.  What a difference from Lancelin – this place was very cool – clean, quiet with lots of restaurants only a short walk away.

We got a really good night’s sleep before heading off early for the next leg..

Next post, “off roading” to Kalbarri Murcheson River gorge and the drive to Shark Bay..

Back from the North

Sorry for the hiatus, we’ve been on holiday, far beyond the reach of internets and mobile phones and such modern conveniences. No, seriously, there’s no phone signal anywhere near where we went.

Australia – its a big place and it doesn’t take much travelling to leave civilisation far behind.

So, 2300km (1430 miles for the imperially minded) later, we’re back and I can tell you all about it 🙂

We went to Shark Bay – a World Heritage Area (as they are fond of reminding you at every turn) due to its unspoiled, diverse and unique flora and fauna, both land and marine. It’s also quite a long way from where we live (but not really that far, given the enormous trans-continental distances that Australia has to offer if you really are determined to ‘go walkabout’)

We drove to Lancelin first, then on to Kalbarri and then finally to Denham in Shark Bay. I’ll have some stories and pictures for you this week 🙂

favourite place

Everyone has a favourite place in the whole world.

It might be your garden, somewhere you went on holiday, your bed (as in the case of Jay, who loves her bed more than anywhere else) or somewhere you grew up.

In my case, this place is Oldbury Woods, nr Ightham in Kent.

I grew up a few hundred metres from this place and spent my summers larking about playing army with my friends, building camps, learning how to make fires so we could cook baked potatoes in the ashes, my autumns scrumping strawberries, apples and pears from the orchards over the back, my winters sledging down its slopes and the spring walking about in the heady earthy green smell that just busrts out of every living thing.

Oldbury Hill is the site of an Iron Age hill fort – dated from around the 100 to 50BC  – its pretty big, the ramparts being 2 miles long on the 2 longest sides.  The woods that cover it are part of an ancient oak forest that used to almost totally cover England and a lot of Northern Europe too – called Andredslea or Andresweald in Saxon (pre-Normal conquest) times and its a magical place.  The hill itself is pretty steep, a naturally defensible place with a flat top, made of greensand, so it drains well.  There’s a natural spring in the middle of the fort, which must have been an added reason to build there.   The ramparts, of which there are two, one after the other, are still just visible and were once separated by a deep ditch, now a shallow path but still visible on the top of the hill, as are the footings and trenches that used to be the bases of buildings.  Amazing really – its more than 2000 years old and even though the fort was made of just wood and earthworks and its overgrown with trees, you can still see where it was and visualise how impressive it must have been.

Running through the middle of it is an ancient trackway – ‘wagon road’ – which dates back to 3000BC and older. It’s sunken 40 feet into the rock at either end from millennia of traffic, wagons, horses, pilgrims etc that used to use it as a main thoroughfare to Canterbury and the coast beyond.

The fort was overthrown by the Romans around 50BC, probably by Julias Caesar’s advancing armies – there is evidence of burning by where one of the gates would have been and lots of arrowheads and slingshot from the battle found by local archaeologists.   There’s also Roman remains in the valley to the foot of the hillfort, so there must have been peaceful settlement after occupation.  Its a very interesting place.  More unusually, the greensand forms an ovecrop on one edge and also some pretty deep caves where evidence of middle palaeolithic (old stone age) occupation (50,000BC) with stone axes and flint (from the chalk downs not too far away) arrowheads uncovered.

So its a pretty cool place, steeped in history.  And I grew up with it as the view from my bedroom window.

The most special part of it is a tree with a hole in it.  Its a magical tree, my sisters and I used to clamber through the hole to our parents waiting arms when we were little and our kids have done the same.  I need to get my mum and dad to send me a copy of that photo 🙂

So here, for your viewing pleasure, are some pics from when I took Ella and Henry there on such a gorgeous Spring day.

Oldbury Woods – my favourite place in the whole world.

old ramparts - now a path along the ditch

Walking along the top ramparts

The path along the top

kids at the top

woody path

Ella walking

Henry after walking down the hill

The hole in the tree

So, where’s your favourite place and why?

castles castles and more castles (part 1)

The thing about England (and the rest of the UK come to that) is that almost everybody lives in a castle.

There are simply millions of the things scattered about the country that if you don’t live in one, you live next door to one or a pile of stones that used to be one. I’m not even kidding – where I grew up in Kent, where my parents still live, there are probably 30 castles within 20 minutes drive of their house. There’s even a handful of Roman Villas, an old (now ruined) Palace (one of the biggest in the country in its day) and a bunch of pre-historic remains.

Kids love castles – they come with tales of knights, dragons, torture, kings, princesses, behead-ings, dungeons and, of course, garderobes (toilets that empty poos into the moat)

So we went to see some of the local ones.

First up – Leeds Castle. Not near Leeds, West Yorkshire, but Leeds in Kent. Its one of the prettiest best preserved castles anywhere, set in a large parkland with a fairytale moat and stories of King Henry VIII, plus it has a massive maze and lots of things for kids to do.

Sadly, it was frickin’ freezing and miserable on that day, but we kinda wrapped up (not enough though) and just went for it.

There were also (as is customary in these places) lots of peacocks.

more Melbourne pics

Last photos from Melbourne I promise

These are general shots of Melbourne people plus the cool street art of Fitzroy, just outside the CBD. Ideally, I’d like to go back there on a sunnier day with more time and just the Holga.