Category: A Bohemian Twist

Nightmare in the Tropics

The cane bins were frequently empty so we had time to nap, some nights we slept for 3 or 4 hours.

The night shift for some workers was ideal, it gave them a significant pay bonus and the chance to work in cooler conditions. However, I really disliked night work, I found sleeping during the daytime virtually impossible and quickly built up a sleep deficit. It left me feeling incredibly grubby and tetchy, unable to enjoy any free time during the day.

It had only been 4 weeks since we moved into our new home, a third part of an interesting stilted Queenslander home in Cairns. Already the cycling to and from the sugar mill had been replaced by a ride/share arrangement with a co-worker. Unfortunately our shifts swung out of sync as we both took any overtime available. This left me having to cadge a lift with others, use the infrequent bus service or hitch-hike. Some days as I got back to the house mid morning or lunch time I was beside myself with fatique and strung out on caffeine overload. It just wasn’t working for me.

To compound things the bedroom was incredibly stuffy during the daytime. I would open the front door and the small bedroom window to get some relief. The mattress was an old foam affair that made me sweat even more. When I got back from the mill I would shower, drink a load of fluid, cram some food in my mouth and crash. Sleep came instantly but was fleeting and fitful, my body against the foam mattress would sweat, sometimes my hair was soaked when I woke up. My only means of feeling better was to get out onto the verandah with a sleeping bag. The fresher air was helpful, but sleep was more difficult to achieve because of all the activity around me.

One third of the house was occupied by an unemployed couple who fought frequently. They had little money and were living on the edge. During the daytime it was more peaceful, but as the afternoon wore on their friends would turn up in utes with dogs barking. The noise level would surge as a turntable was filled with vinyl.

In the other third were the Aboriginal family we met when we moved in. Grandpa, Mum, Dad, his brother and three children. They were incredibly friendly and well organised. The kids went off to school with Mum each morning, the 2 young men were away working on a Tableland cattle station which left Grandpa in the house during the daytime. He would potter around the place from early morning, I don’t think that he did anything constructive, but he was always on the move. I could hear him plodding around, moving things and scraping chairs on the wooden floor. What was he doing?

Persistent activity during the daytime was tweaked to the max from mid-day onwards as Grandpa instigated his daily grogfest. Sometimes when I was sleeping out on the porch I would wake with an inexplicable eerie feeling and realise that he was sitting by me on the door step. He always had a stubbie in one hand, a smoke in the other and a ripped cardboard case beside him. As soon as I opened my eyes he would offer me a bottle. My sleep addled state only allowed me to smile inanely, shake my head and scream like a banshee deep down in my core. Eyes would swing in their sockets like scorched castanets. He would grin and take another swig as he lolled against the weatherboard. This was my cue to go inside and seek some solace there, back to the heat and sultry murk that was my depleted oxygen cell. By this stage my brain would be jiggling inside my skull, sleep, oh please let me have some sleep.

Dream after dream would be disturbed by Grandpa as he sculled the beer, or the young folk hooting raucously on the other side of the building. When the sun swung around to where Grandpa was sitting he would move under the house. His hammock set up so that he could still see things on the street. When the alcohol had stewed his senses he would begin to sing, it sounded like some dreary ancient warrior tune that young Aboriginals sang as they endured agonies of their teeth being smashed out with sticks during rite of passage! With his hand he would tap out a monotonous beat on a stilt that supported the house.

Eventually I struggled to differentiate between dream and reality, couldn’t tell if I was awake in Hell or slithering in and out of a nightmare. It had to stop, I was incapable of doing simple things such as going grocery shopping without feeling miserable and clumsy. On night shift week I would barely eat so I started to lose condition.

Temporary relief was provided by wearing wax earplugs. Being wax they were able to be molded into a perfect fit in my ear and excluded practically all external noise. Once the plugs were in place my body temperature seemed to go up which made the sweating worse. Perhaps the ears also act as body temperature regulators? In time the earplugs slid out and I would waken in a haze and have to jam them back in. I gave up with these after the second round of night shift because they were too much hassle in the intense humidity of Cairns.

Leonie was generally sympathetic, but understandably fed up of me being spaced out. We could do very little in our spare time when I was on night shift because I needed to put my head down and sleep whenever the opportunity arose. Our solution was genius. We decided to pool our money and buy a campervan, it didn’t matter about the condition as long as it drove, it would be somewhere for me to sleep after a nightshift. If I was struggling to sleep I could always get in a campervan and drive off to a quiet location for a few hours kip.

We scoured the local papers and found a VW campervan for sale in Edmonton at $550. The advert said it was driveable but needed some work, I could fix it. We had enough money so called from a nearby payphone and arranged to go over to Edmonton. It was an ancient split screen van with a crack across the passengers window. The tyres were worn down and the valences were rusted up but it started immediately. We were mobile. Score!

In a plume of black smoke we drove away like royalty. After dropping Leonie at the house I pushed a light blanket and pillow into the back and set off straight away to the mill for the next ration of night shift. In the car park I slept like a log for 2 hours. It was bliss. From then on the sleep issue ceased to be a problem for me and I was able to work as many hours as possible to build up some funds.

I have never worked a night shift since finishing at the sugar mill and have massive respect to anyone who does. You are made of much sterner stuff than me. Most creatures thrive by sleeping from sundown til dawn, I subscribe to that ethos entirely.


Barron Falls a Powerhouse

Occasionally in life you find a scene which is so powerful that you have no suitable words to describe the effect it is having on you. It is something akin to being deeply in love,

We lean on the rail at the viewing point and find it hard to fully absorb the immensely powerful scene. One of Leonie’s workmates had told her to grab the chance to visit Kuranda on the scenic railway because Barron Falls was at it’s majestic best. Only when the ‘wet’ has been in progress for a while and the mass of water begins to drain off the Atherton Tableland do the falls look this spectacular. At other times of the year it is a mere trickle, hardly worthy of the title waterfall. But today is one of our very special moments and we just gape.

I feel the sweaty lookout rail in my palms, it is a hot day, my body is thrilled with this view, enervating my hands. I realise that I am gripping the rail white knuckle hard as I scan the falls, tension across my shoulders. Waterfalls are difficult to describe in detail. The water pulses in places with random larger eruptions. The eye tries to focus on one part and follows the falling water quickly downward, however that part is quickly replaced by another lurching press of water that looks the same and draws the eyes back up. My eyes flicker over the scene unable to rest.

Despite being some distance from the falls the air is moist with invisible droplets wafting onto everything in the area. When I put my hand up to my hair it feels like damp candy floss. Another incredible aspect is the rainbow. Depending on the density of the water vapour it appears ethereal, like a vision from an engineered light show. The experience becomes surreal as my mind sinks into the view.

Leonie at my side breathes. ‘Spectacular Johnno. Imagine being a salmon and trying to leap up that lot!’

Later, after a fabulous day at Kuranda and an equally brilliant journey back down on the scenic railway, we stop by the Real Estate office to pick up the keys to our new home. We had earned enough money on Green Island to rent a place, one third of a stilted Queenslander house. When we inspected it yesterday it didn’t look fantastic but it would be a roof over our heads and it was cheap. A typical fully furnished property with a grubby bed, grubby couches, greasy kitchen, worn carpets, mouldy bathroom and grimy toilet. We are young though and had to put up with worse on Green Island, we can handle this place.

We carry our packs up the ladder steps to the door, swing open the old screen and enter. It is dingy and hot inside, a place that I know will irk me. The house has a wrap-around verandah and that is where I intend to be when I feel hemmed in. The ‘wet’ is hot and sticky, I mean really sticky and sleeping at night is difficult if there are no fans or air-conditioning. This house has neither and the bedroom only has a small window.

Still it is home for now. Leonie sets about sorting a salad for supper and I go to explore the garden. It is interesting to me that the 3 kids playing around the house are Aboriginal. They are attractive kids with ginger blonde streaks in their dreadlocky hair. The garden is well overgrown, the grass is knee high. I find a bbq setting, plastic table and chairs. I head back to help Leonie with the meal so we can sit out there to eat.

The kids follow me back up into the house and are babbling amongst themselves. Their Aussie twang is so strong that I can barely make head nor tail of what they are saying. One lad of about 8 keeps tugging on my elbow and says.

‘Mubil un thems misistas Moibl and Frain. (insert *shaking head* here) Wotsya noimz digga?’ He repeats this and I just smile at him.

He keeps looking at me while the girls go over to Leonie and pick up some of the food to help her prepare the salad. How strange, yet refreshing, the way these kids naturally accept us. We are humans, they are humans and their world obviously one of sharing.

Leonie is great with kids and asks them if they want to eat with us. They have become part of our ‘family’ in an instant. We all go out, the children carry some juice and crockery from the kitchen cupboard. There are only two chairs so the kids just settle in the grass. We hand around the food, they take what they want. Leonie and I knock the top off a couple of stubbies and do a clinkers. The girls have me giggling as they raise their glasses.  ‘Cheeas moit,’ one of them says.

I notice an aboriginal lady standing near our front steps looking on. The lady speaks to the kids and they respond quite casually. ‘Weyowroit Mum. Avin dinna eyar.’

My head is in a spin with this place already.

Kids names are Bill, Mabel and Fran

Bound Over by a Lawyer Vine

My immediate thoughts when I hear the word ‘jungle’ are Tarzan and Jane. My mind sees dense thickets of vegetation with creatures lurking in the foliage, twigs snapping, gaudy macaws screeching in the trees and huge pythons slithering away then plopping into murky water. I would have to say my jungle mind is pretty uncomfortable and doesn’t sit easily inside my head.

Leonie and I are eating a meagre breakfast beside our beach camp at Turtle Cove. The last of the dry twigs are burning quietly and the billy is about to boil. I lean across and dip my fingers into the loose tea container, collect a good pinch and toss it into the now roiling water. I gaze on, my arms around my knees as the tea leaves bounce maniacally, after a few moments I put a cloth over my hand, take the curved handle of the billy and swing it.

Swinging a billy is essential to create the perfect brew, something I learnt from people on Green Island when we had barbeques on the beach. You need a degree of self confidence to swing a billy. Grabbing the metal handle that is in the fire requires an act of faith only bettered by a South Seas Firewalker. Once hold of the handle it has to be swiftly lifted out of the fire and allowed to hang in the fingers. The can is gently swung in ever increasing arcs until it reaches a point where the water would tip out if stationary. The arc then has to be continued right up and over the top. After a few complete revolutions the billy can is slowed down and put on the ground. Bizarre thing to do, but that is how the bushmen did it, and I do it still. Once on the ground a spoon is used to tap the side of the billy which causes all of the tea leaves to settle to the bottom, the piping hot tea is poured out and quaffed instantly. I have never tasted better tea, Tetleys included, and I am a big fan of Tetleys round tea bags! Good bushmen carry their billy  attached to their swag and will take it to the grave.

The following is undoubtedly familiar to many. I remember singing this to a collection of Sherpa’s as we headed to Annapurna Sanctuary, it didn’t take them long to catch on to the chorus and they gleefully belted it out. Needless to say, one of my favourite drinking songs and sung at every camp in Australia.

Waltzing Matilda

OH! there once was a swagman camped in the Billabong,
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree;
And he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, my darling,
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
Waltzing Matilda and leading a water-bag—
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Down came a jumbuck to drink at the water-hole,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him in glee;
And he sang as he put him away in his tucker-bag,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me!”

Down came the Squatter a-riding his thorough-bred;
Down came Policemen—one, two, and three.
”Whose is the jumbuck you’ve got in the tucker-bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.”

But the swagman, he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the Coolabah tree;
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong,
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?”

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

Nourished and packed we take our bikes across Captain Cook Highway and a short distance into the jungle, find some rocks and hide our bikes. From a distance the jungle appears to be impenetrable.  Jungle in Northern Queensland is tropical rainforest. One dictionary definition of jungle offers:- ‘land overgrown with tangled vegetation containing the dwelling place of wild beasts’

Wild beasts! Hmm. Like I said earlier, these thoughts don’t sit comfortably within my head.

The stream that we identified on the map isn’t anywhere as big as I had expected. As we are still only a few hundred yards from the sea I thought it would have deep pools and rushing water. In fact it is a gently tumbling brook with lots of moss and slippery stones.

I shoulder the day-bag and off we go, both wearing T-shirts, shorts and Dunlop Volleys. Walking in Australia often involves sticking to the stream beds and rivers as the bush, unless it has a track, can become incredibly tangled and practically impossible to negotiate. The stream beds of course are more open, with the added bonus of cool water.

We slowly pick our way up the stream. At first I hop from rock to mud, to rock. to gravel, hang on to a tree, swing around it and endeavour to keep my feet dry. Leonie, who is much less fussy, quickly steps into the water and starts to chuckle at my attempts to stay dry.

‘You soft Pommie bar steward. Get in the bladdy water and let’s get a move on.’

Leaning into a great buttress of a tree I look over my shoulder. ‘In the Motherland we are far more cultured and take great delight in using our dexterity. We are the original and authentic explorers, so don’t try to tell me how I should tackle this adventure. OK!’

I step over the buttress, slip in the soft mud, then skitter a hapless shuffle as I slide down the short slope into the water.

Leonie is beside herself, great honking laughter wowses through the forest. Her eyes roll back as she shucks her shoulders and splashes on up the stream, leaving me to consider how pleasant it is in the water once the initial shock has cooled my feet.

The rainforest soon opens up a little and it surprises me that the understorey isn’t as tangled as I expected. We stop frequently to natter about our new surroundings, unable to identify most of the plants and trees. It is clear that the tree tops are way above our heads and the lower branches have larger leaves, presumably this is so that they will catch more of the light.

Mosses of different greens cover the fallen tree trunks, the forest floor is home to old fallen leaves, rotten branches and lots of unidentifiable debris. Each time we stop I scratch around in the litter and notice plenty of insects, ants, some snails and other bugs. If we stay in one place for more than a few minutes corpulent mosquitoes appear and start pestering us. It is hot in the rainforest but there is seldom any open area so direct sunlight isn’t prevalent.

For some time the terrain has steepened, so after an hour we rest in the splayed butress roots of a large tree. We have brought insect repellent with us and decided to spray ourselves so that we can enjoy a snack. We spray our arms and legs, then some on our hands to rub onto our faces. After snacking on the usual scroggin mix and sipping from a flask of cold tea we sit peacefully and look around.

Now that we are quiet we become more aware of the birdlife. Mostly it is small birds that flit too quickly for us to identify. The occasional flash of brilliant blue, red or yellow alerts us to the presence of a bird, but they are frequently gone before we can pinpoint one. Eventually a tiny bird comes closer, the metallic blue on it body and tail is so striking. Later to learn that this is a Fairy Wren, so pretty.

We hear some movement higher and behind the tree, something large is definitely coming. My fears of the jungle rise up and my heart starts a flutter patter routine. The noisy movement stops, a moment later it starts again and we recognise a couple of small wallabies moving around. As they come into our line of sight they rapidly spot us and bound away up the slope, making an incredible din as they go.

Scuttling noises now alert us nearby, a lizard with jerky movements is moving across the forest floor a few feet away. Thinking that I can easily outpace a lizard I jump up and set off toward the lizard. In a flash it is gone, waddling comically over to a tree then disappearing into the undergrowth of ferns and mosses like an actor leaving the stage through a curtain.

This is so exciting. However, now that I have moved it is pointless sitting still. I will have disturbed anything else in the neighbourhood. We decide to walk on up the increasingly steep slope slightly away from the stream, it looks like easier going, more open ground. We try to step carefully to create little noise but we are inexperienced and crunch and crack our way onward, surely disturbing all the potential cassowary sightings. We come to a large rocky outcrop with denser shrubby growth at the base. I figure that we can stick close to the base of the cliff and scramble up and around any obstacles to see if we can find a way past to higher ground.

I push my way through various hanging branches, hold them back as much as possible for Leonie to get through. At one point we find a liana vine hanging in a great curve close to the ground. It is so big that we can sit in it like a swing (Tarzan and Jane territory). After a short distance it becomes clear that we aren’t making a lot of progress so I decide to try and head out of the thickets for the more open ground and get back to the stream to again try our luck there.

As I push through some cobwebby vegetation I realise that my T-shirt is hooked up on a vine similar to a rambling rose. Leonie is cursing because she is having the same problem. The miserable thorns are digging into my body through my T-shirt, and as I try to lift them off carefully they stick into my arm and scratch my legs.

‘Let’s just catch our breath a moment Leonie. We seem to be making matters a heck of a lot worse by fighting this triffid. Perhaps we should reverse a bit?’

‘You have my sarong in the bag, see if you can get it out. I will cover myself up more and try to force a way back to where we came from.’

With a great deal of difficulty I remove my pack and fish out the sarong. Leonie is able to push it onto the vine to her left and hold it far enough away to reverse out of the thicket. Once there she tries to hold some of the trailing devils out of my way but I am well and truly enmeshed in the pain zone. I reach over for the sarong which I wrap around my left arm, hold the backpack in front of me with my right hand and push using it like a battering ram.

‘Oh Jeez. That hurts….yeeeeow!’ I can feel the spikes ripping into my scalp but I am beyond caring and just push through the last few feet.

Leonie looks at me with a grim smile. She takes her tattered sarong and uses it to dab at the numerous scratches and rips on me. Phew this has turned into one heck of a painful weekend. Bluebottle stings yesterday, mossies like warplanes during the night and now the pinnacle of misery a Lawyer Vine attack.

Once back at the stream I strip off to wash myself down in the cool water. It does feel good and helps to soothe things. I sit in the stream naked apart from my trainers, and that feels even better, I never sat naked in a stream before. Starting to feel giddy I lay down in the water just below a small waterfall and let it slosh all over me, the clatter on my head is brilliant.

Meanwhile Leonie has rinsed out the sarong which we use as a mop, dress ourselves and quickly get back down to the bikes. Despite the pain it was a wonderful experience to be in that beautifully natural world for a  short time. I could never live in that environment, but for a brief period I felt part of it.

We pack our bikes and cycle back down the road, hoping to cover the 30 miles back to Cairns before dark, we have no lights on the bikes.

At Ellis Beach we are tempted by the food and drink counters where we stop to fill up on something tasty.

I go up to the juice bar and Leonie moans. ‘Oh my God Johnno, you must have piles or something. There is a humongous patch of blood on the back of your shorts.’

Blood? The vines were not that serious, just loads of scratches that stopped bleeding after I had bathed in the stream. I put my hand down to my backside and there really is a lot of fresh blood. I nip into the nearby toilets. Pulling my shorts off I realise there is something on my behind. I shout for Leonie who comes into the Gents and starts to laugh. ‘What the heck is it Leonie?’

‘Leeches Johnno. Leeches. You soft skinned Pommie.’

The silky warm water caresses my legs then hisses back down the slope.

This tropical soup that passes for the Coral Sea is fed by brown sludge from the rain swollen rivers of North Queensland. It is penned in against the coastline by the Great Barrier Reef, the ruddy brown colour seems out of place, surely you would expect crystal clear water, tropical fish and vibrant coral.

I half raise myself onto my elbows and narrow my eyes against the dreadful thrumming headache and glare of the powerful sun. After drinking far too much Stone’s Ginger Wine, and some gasping bilge that passed for rum, I am suffering as the heat intensifies, my throat is parched. My mouth feels as if somebody has ripped out my tongue and replaced it with a bath sponge. Why do I drink so much? Leonie is clearly suffering equally but lights up her first ciggie of the day.

‘How can you do that?’ I hear myself croak. My voice resonates inexplicably from my sinuses.

She coughs, winces and turns her head to gaze over the seething chocolate water. Another smooth wave cruises up to the slope, smushes down into the sand then washes froth up to her toes. ‘Because Johnno, I am an Australian and my mother’s milk was blended with alcohol. You, on the other hand, are a soft Pommie bar steward raised on milk from herds of fat, docile Jersey cows.’

Nonchalantly flicking the ash away from her knee, she draws hard, plumes the smoke in my direction and adds. ‘In other words, toughen up your act or you will be getting on the next boat back to the Motherland. Aussies just cope better. What’s more.’ Pausing for effect.’We own the Ashes.’ Leonie knows how much I hate being called a Pommie, and loves it when I am tormented by the Aussies about our supposedly inferior cricketing nation. They think they own the ashes, those precious burnt bails.

I flop back onto the sand, exhausted and incapable of any meaningful debate.


Sit Up And Beg bicycle. Lovely bike full of character.

We had ridden hard the previous afternoon to get to Turtle Cove before sunset. Our vintage sit-up-and-beg bikes held up well. I had been cleaning and oiling them, pumping up the tires and studied the map carefully. Turtle Cove was about 30 miles from Cairns and seemed to be perfect for our expedition, we craved a wilderness experience. From what I could deduce Turtle Cove had no houses, was miles from anywhere, had rocks on the beach and a stream flowing out of the jungle that looked to be pristine. Perfect location.

Once we set off from Cairns we quickly established a rhythm. The old bikes only had 3 gears, crumbling brakes and tattered saddles that nipped at the nether regions, but we were full of determination. Our previous ‘best’, Ellis Beach, was left behind, on we rode into virgin territory. We became possessed with a metallic tang of anticipation for our trip.

I found myself mumbling, ‘Appreciate it all, don’t miss a thing. Pedal, look, pedal, look. Appreciate it all, don’t miss a thing.’ The road surface was kind with only slight rise and fall, we began to power on, both locked into our own world where we filched through private thoughts.

We did stop once to grab a couple of cold drinks from a touristy stall. Australia is a great place for healthy food and drinks. We both had freshly squeezed fruit smoothies and a handful of our home-made ‘scroggin’ mix.

Imagine our delight when we reached Turtle Cove. Nobody there, nothing on the beach except a few pieces of bleached flotsam. A beautiful stretch of natural undisturbed paradise. We both quietly dismounted, dropped the bikes beside the road and made our way to the sand. No path led down so we had to push through some scrub. The sand was fine and deep, we tossed off our trainers and luxuriated in the cool texture as it accepted our feet. At the water’s edge we simply stood with the water washing up to our knees, grinning like two fools. Turtle Cove, our Paradise Beach.

We brought our bikes down, found a spot to camp, collected wood for a fire before night fell and organised ourselves to enjoy the treats brought with us. After boiling a billie and eating our supper we cracked open the grog. We slowly drank the bottle of Stone’s Ginger Wine, it made us euphoric, sitting in a tropical night under a vast sky that seemed to envelop us. It was so close that we could reach up and touch the stars. We laughed and talked endlessly, the conversation becoming totally forgettable after the bottle of rum had been drained. We washed the wine bottle in the surf, wrote a message with a promise to pay the finder a pot of gold, capped it and tossed it far out onto the sea. We hoped that somebody would find it on an icy cold day in Alaska, open it and smell the beauty of this tropical night.

The new day was progressing and I wanted to make the most of it.

‘Leonie. I need to get a brew going. It would be good to eat something to line my gut too.’

‘Ok Johnnyboy. Stoke up the fire, I have to visit the ladie’s room.’

I manage to pick myself up, distinctly queasy I find some more wood to resurrect the fire. Good fires always relight the following day without much fuss. Sinking to my knees I break the twigs and arrange them in the embers. Before long tiny streamers of smoke rise and I introduce large twigs, confident that the fire will burst open soon enough. Gathering the empty billy I move across the road and dabble in the small pools of the stream. I splash the cool water onto my face, it feels good. In my delicate state I stop frequently to mull over vacant thoughts, content to let my eyes see without thinking too much. The water is clear yet full of life, fascinating. Eventually I fill the billy and head back.

It irks me as I realise that I forgot to pack any medication. So we have no painkillers to help quell the headache. I pride myself on being organised, this is a silly oversight.

Leonie is arranging things for our lunch. She is a vegetarian and has to put a great deal of thought into food to make it tasty. She had brought tabouli, falaffel, a hard goat’s cheese, chutney, avacados, lots of salad and a handful of fresh herbs. She creates sandwich fills for pitta bread. We take our food over to the rocks, hop out to the larger ones in the water and enjoy our meal. After several doses of tea we are ready to crack on with our adventure.

We intend to follow the stream up into the jungle. We know there is no path, and that is the best part, a proper adventure, to go where no man has gone before! Well it will feel like that to us.

‘I am going for a dip before we set off. It will freshen me up a bit more.’

I rush down to the water and dive in. It feels great, I am reluctant to open my eyes under water because of the murk, so swim with my eyes tightly closed and surface when my breath starts to run out. It isn’t very deep because I can feel the sand under my feet as I kick. I stand up, the water to my waist, flick the water out of my hair and draw my palms over my face to sweep away the saltwater. What feels like a blob of sticky jello is in my hair so I try to flick it off, then push my hand into the water to rinse it away. With a sharp intake of breath I notice that I am standing in the middle of a ‘flock’ of bluebottles and the jello is actually a tentacle. I begin to feel the stinging in my fingers and on the back of my hand. Oooops!

‘Don’t come in the water Leonie. There are bluebottles all over the place.’ She stands, hands on hips, at the waters edge immobile.

My hand is hurting a little now and I need to get out. ‘Try to find something like vinegar to put on the stings. It isn’t a problem but it is hurting. Isn’t it vinegar that works on these stings?’

She glares at me and runs up to the tent. ‘Get out of there quick before you get stung somwhere else that might hurt your paler parts of your body a lot more than a twinge on your hand.’

I look around and see that I am more or less on the edge of the ‘flock’. Picking my way carefully I go back to the beach where Leonie has a small tube of Sting Relief. The jello has gone but there are angry looking welts and an emerging rash around the back of my hand and inbetween some fingers. She smears plenty of the cream on my skin, there is almost instant relief.

‘There you go Johnnyboy, you owe me another one! Lucky that I though to bring a first aid kit.’

I mutter grudgingly. ‘Yeah yeah, you Aussies are super stars. Only problem with this place is the dangerous wildlife, it looks very pretty but packs a heck of a punch. Typical Aussie.’


Next issue: Up the Jungle

Butcher’s Bike to Ellis Beach

Like any addict once the lure of the silver spoon strikes it is virtually impossible to resist, similarly the kick of travel and adventure has one mighty compelling high.

At the peak of my travel addiction I would have donned flippers and mask in a heartbeat if somebody had asked me to swim to Tahiti. Life was a surging rush and I wanted to be soaked in every possible way.

In Cairns, after deciding to stay in Australia rather than head off to Papua New Guinea, we needed to perpetuate the dreamtime we had been living on Green Island, yet we had little money to support our fantasies. Our new found jobs were providing us with a little surplus, barely enough to plan a major adventure. Talented Leonie came up with a solution, wondering if we could create leather goods to sell at the Sunday market to boost the coffers for another travel fix. I had been mainlining on travel for so long that the withdrawals were like a gnawing ache, she didn’t have to ask me twice, I needed a fix.

We figured out a way of making bespoke sandals from hides, bought some cheap hides and a few handtools, traced around our feet to get the general shape and proceeded to cut out the soles from the thicker parts of the hide. Great ideas often come in tsunami format, so once the entrepreneurial lid was lifted we were ready to sell our leather goods internationally.

Of course that never happened, but we did benefit from several interesting days on the Cairns Sunday market selling our stuff. We managed to break even and met loads of other Bohemianesque bodies. However, the greatest discovery at the market was a stall selling secondhand household goods. One Sunday I wandered over while Leonie was selling ‘stamped’ purses and beaded leather bracelets. At the back were two butcher’s bikes, both dull and rusty but with tyres and a semblance of brakes. Instantly I fell in love, swirling dreams of leisurely cycling into the sunset or laughing like hyenas as the bike bobbled down a grassy slope, Leonie in the front carrier, until we fell off into the wavy grass. (Or was that a scene from Butch Cassidy?) I bought them both for a few dollars and proudly walked my new travel facilitators back to our stall.


Bike bought on Cairns Sunday market for a few dollars.

We never went back to the market. When we managed to get a few days together we would pack up our gear, load it into the front baskets and set off from work, often pedalling up the coast from Cairns toward Port Douglas.

It didn’t matter how far we pedalled. What did matter was being able to get a dose of that travel  syrup. Our early journeys, until we could trust the old bikes, were gentle meanders around Cairns, we stopped frequently to investigate things. We rode slowly to absorb it all and let the immense variety and beauty seep into our souls.

Once we were riding with open fields to our left when I spotted a hedgehog in the grass. A hedgehog? Long slow squirl as the mouldy brakes nibbled a catchy tune on the wheel rims. Dropping the bike I loped back to the dark hedgehog like lump with a curious elongated nose.


In the spotlight.

‘Leonie, come and have a squiz at this.’

Completing a 360 in around 5 minutes, one foot tapping the road, she wiggled her loaded butcher’s bike to a halt. Leonie’s bike had a narrower front wheel which looked a bit dodgy on the point of separation from the rest of the bike. In truth it barely functioned unless treated with extreme kindness.

‘What do you reckon to that? Is it an echidna?’

‘Well. I guess it is. Not sure, never seen one before.’

Leonie was full of hippie knowledge, a converted Bohemian, self-styled nouveau-Aussie-townie who knew everything about making dried potatoe into colourful jewellery. She had a penchant for extracting juice from dandelion stems and pressing fresh flowers. Her other mind juggling skill was creating  astrological charts crammed with mysterious witchlike signs. Indigenous flora and fauna were a shade alien to her nebulous thought pattern.

After scouting out the local terrain we began to hanker after a bigger challenge. We bought a road map and realised that a little further up Captain Cook Highway were long ribbons of palm fringed beaches. Ellis Beach became our prime target, a short journey from Palm Cove, practically a suburb of Cairns.

Ellis Beach was quite startling because we didn’t expect to find a mini tourist haven. We had set off early one Saturday morning, pedalling much harder than on previous trips. Our objective was to use the bikes purely for transport then spend time camping on the beach, lazy swim and wander around on foot before we had to head back to Cairns on Sunday. After leaving Palm Cove we pushed on steadily, enjoying the birdlife and smelling the ocean off to our right with a seemingly constant strip of inviting sand. It felt good to be extending ourselves.


Saddle sore? You bet!

This was our longest ride to date and our backsides were feeling a little sore in the bucket like saddles, so we decided to stop at a slight rise on the highway with good views out to Double and Haycock Islands. Enticing places that appeared attainable by small boat.

‘Hey Leonie. Perhaps we should buy a rowing boat? It would be ace to go out to those islands and camp there.’

Leonie was used to this kind of speculation. ‘Dream on Johnny Boy. Are you going to tow the bloody boat at the back of your butcher’s bike?’

She was equally familiar with my responses. ‘Mebbe! Give me a little more time with this idea.’

‘Crazy Pommie bar steward!’

We slaked our thirst with some curious concoction Leonie made from pomegranates, lemons and purified water. What on earth is purified water? Water is water, it pours out of the sky by the lake load, surely that is as natural and purified as it needs to be.

Refreshed we mounted up again and pushed on. Very shortly, round a smooth curve in the road it rapidly became obvious we were coming to Ellis Beach. Actually there was a sign that said … Ellis Beach.

The map showed virgin beaches in this area, imagine our amazement as homes appeared amongst the trees. Many with corrugated tin rooves, verandahs and pretty gardens alongside burger bars and ice cream booths that wouldn’t have been out of place on a spaghetti Western set. The giveaway sign that we were in tourist town were the beach wear shops, selling the usual bucket and spade mish mash. Family groups laden with towels were skipping across the road, older folk carrying umbrellas and foldaway canvas chairs made their way to the beach. Teenagers with eskies and tanned surfer boys with packs of Fosters joked as they kicked up the sand. Music was already blarting out from a rudimentary beach bar.

We stopped in the midst of it all, legs straddling the bikes, nodded disapprovingly through stiff smiles then kept on riding. Ellis Beach was a long development with a lovely beach but wasn’t for our free radical, Bohemian sense of adventure.

Tired and disgruntled we needed to stop. Once out of the busy beach atmosphere we decided to find somewhere nearby to pitch up for the night. The silky beach had given way to a rougher aspect but we still found a place to pitch our tiny tent, stash the bikes and go for a swim to replenish our skittered spirits.

The following weekend we determined that finding utopia would require greater effort to bust past dystopia and find our Shangri La. Next target was a whopping 60 mile round trip by butcher’s bike – Turtle Cove.

Life in Cairns was incredibly exciting after living on a coral island for 3 months. Being able to walk to a bus stop, get on a bus and travel to the next town felt like a massive injection of freedom. Leonie quickly found a job waitressing at a classy bistro down by the harbour working evenings so I had to forage the area on my own. Things were looking grim, but leaning on my ‘lemons to lemonade’ personality I devised a strategy.

We bought 2 ancient sit-up-and-beg bicycles cheaply at the Sunday market. With the sugar cane ripening the milling season about to get under way I cycled three times a week to the local mills. Eventually I secured a job at Gordonvale mill, Mulgrave, and started work hooking up the empty cane bins or operating the bin tippler which upended the cane bins onto a massive conveyor. Looking like bags on a luggage carousel the cane was transported  into the bowels of the mill to be crushed and processed into sugar.

Of course this introduced me to sugar cane, a sort of monster grass that the region is famous for. Because of the tropical climate things grow at an awesome pace. Folk in the area must need to cut their lawns a couple of times a week. I would wander into the cane fields just to be in the midst of the cane, giant blades of swishing grass. Before modern cutting machinery the cane was cut by hand, one of the toughest jobs in the world, I spoke to people at the mill who could remember cutting cane by hand and it sounded a hideous job for little pay.

The mill had to be productive, which meant constant input of raw cane, slowing of the input meant drastic change for the engineers as they toiled to accommodate the flow. I rotated jobs with a couple of blokes, one hour hooking up bins, one hour off, then one hour operating the tippler. It didn’t take a lot of skill to seamlessly infiltrate the bin into the tippler, press a button and wait as the drum rolled tipping the cane onto the conveyor belt, press another button to return the bin upright and then press another button to shunt the bin out of the tippler. At least it didn’t seem like a lot of skill to me…arrogance of youth..

Night shift was a destroyer. It always felt good to go into work in the cooler evenings, meet up with the lads, have the craic and then take over from the previous shift. Seemless. By  1 or 2 a.m. the eyes began to droop and I hated my hour on the tippler, it was stuffy and uber noisy, cracking din of splintered cane being crushed. I always wanted to sleep then, instant, deep and soul satisfying sleep, sleep beckoned like the addict’s needle.

I did achieve Hall of Fame for Mill Idiots though. One night I was sitting at the console, pressing buttons and getting right into the zone, I was almost overfilling the conveyor in my mind making the bosses ecstaticly wealthy with my talent. Cocky so-and-so I managed to turn a full drum with one empty bin still exiting OMG! The adrenalin rush was overwhelming,, panic and fear surged up into my throat, dried out my tongue and prevented me from shouting ‘STOP THE MILL before the conveyor runs empty.’

I was not a popular bunny that night. The mill did stop for a few hours whilst the bin was disentangled, and I didn’t get any bonuses on pay day!

Picture credit Australian Daily Telegraph

Night shift became a challenge but was immensely rewarding, it allowed me to experience tropical nights with little distraction.

Outside of the building the vast night skies loomed, the Southern Sky spreadeagled to be seen in a profound and uplifting display. New stars and constellations had me thumbing through books and charts, each night I was eager to get in and identify more. As I sat at the console practising meditation I taught myself to become more tolerant and focused entirely on getting through that hour so that I could dash outside and feel the immensity of a pure night sky.

A tropical night is incredibly noisy, the air vibrant with life, swarms of insects and Australia’s great array of nocturnal creatures scurrying about their business. I suppose the noise of Cane Toads will stick with me most intensely. Brought in to control the rodent problems amongst the canefields, the toads themselves proliferated to such an extent that they are now the problem, no doubt the rodents survived and thrived as well.

Frank was the ‘unhooker’. As the cane bins came to the mill his job was to unhook the chains with a kind of boat hook on a pole. That was it, that was what Frank did, all night, every night. On my hour off I would frequently drift down to his station, seated on a stool as he unhooked the bins Frank would tell me tales of his life, how he was injured in a car accident and developed a distinctive limp, how he travelled from Tassie to the Tablelands to Cairns migrating with the seasonal work. Frank wasn’t highly educated but he was intuitive, a natural and his acute appreciation of the night was humbling. One night as he sat there telling me a convoluted tale of a journey from Sydney to Coober Pedy and a year he spent opal mining we both got a jolt. A massive snake was intertwined in the grill of a bin, it’s mouth protruding in strike pose. We both lurched backwards, Frank toppled off his stool, scrabbled on the floor ready to run, when we hit the door to his hut we turned and realised the snake was dead, some joker had fixed it up in the cane fields to give people a fright, it worked.

I sat with Frank and enjoyed a lunar eclipse. My memory doesn’t recall the detail too well, but I remember Frank explaining everything about the event. Cane burns were a regular feature of the night sky, the cane fields were torched in a controlled burn to remove much of the husk before it was cut. I once went with Frank to watch a burn, an unstoppable intensity with associated roar and flurry of escaping insects and wildlife that generated immense fear in me.  Walsh’s Pyramid caught fire too. Walshs Pyramid (Bundadjarruga) (922 m) is an independent peak with a distinct pyramidal appearance, it’s the highest freestanding natural pyramid in the world. We watched the apocalyptic scene unfold for a few nights, as fires flared and smouldered along the steep flanks of the mountain, realising with trepidation that men were up there trying to stop the fires penetrate down to the properties. The thing about Frank was his ability to appreciate the space and magnificence of the world where he lived, I would often see him gazing up into the skies, arms resting on his knees with the unhooker casually cradled in his arms. I wondered often what went on in his mind as he stared into the vastness. Frank was special…Frank was killed in a car accident. I hadn’t felt such a loss before. Never had I expected to hold such powerful emotions for a man.

It’s the people we meet in life who make the experience so special.

Smashed in Rustic Portugal

The last ride had been exhilarating, in fact it had been downright scary, more like living in a clip from Easy Rider.

We were sitting at the edge of a cork oak forest, some of the trees half naked-red where the bark had been removed. We sat with our backs to the trees having just walked gingerly away from the last ride. We were shaken and not sure if we should go back to the last hamlet  and wait for a bus to the Algarve. Carole suggested we pack up and go home, we had been travelling for 3 weeks, hitching down from the North of England, sleeping wherever we found ourselves come evening and just letting the rides take us to any destination.

Out of Lisbon we had been picked up with a really nice guy, who spoke terrific English, treated us to lunch and provided me with an expression that I would use over again. An hour after the lunch stop we were cruising through some hills when the guy pulled off the road and said he was ‘Going to pick some flowers.’ We hashed over why he needed to wander into the forest to collect flowers when he clearly had enough dosh to buy some at a flower shop. Hitching his trousers up as he returned to the car he sighed and said, ‘Feeling much better now.’ We looked at each other with raised eyebrows as he continued the journey, chattering away like a good ‘un. He had to turn off in a rural location so we decided to get out and head more directly south toward the sea.

In no time at all some Hell’s Angels on gut crunching Harleys came down the road and stopped. Now I am not a chicken but a dozen Hell’s Angels looking like agents from Hell were beyond my capacity to defend the fair maiden standing beside me. I was ready to sacrifice her without a fight as long as they left me with at least one arm.

Picture credit

The leader with flowing black curly hair, a white silk bandana, aviator specs and a ZZ Top style beard kicked the bike stand out and pointed to fair maiden and told her to get on the back of his bike. Carole was stammering, ‘NNnnnnNo thanks’ So I picked up her rucksack, smiled at ZZ and walked over to his bike, my mind screaming in panic. Carole, bless her cotton socks, straddled the bike, took her pack and ZZ was off with a great spray of gravel. The other 11 looked at me and my gut sank, none of them spoke. Were they going to shoot me? Rape me? Tie a rope around my ankle and drag me until dead along the rough road?

One of the smaller riders, wearing a helmet with horns on top waived me over. Shizzle, shizzle what is happening. I could barely move but scutched across and an arm indicated I should get on the back…yes yes YES, incredible relief. Almost before my leg was over the back the bike was gunned and we roared away, I was thrown back so far that I thought I was going to land in the road so I did the ‘sissy’ thing and put my arms around the waist of the lunatic rider. Yeeehaar Felicitas was a Nicole Scherzinger look-a-like! So I clung on with increasing delight.

Picture credit

The delight turned to fear and the fear to abject horror as the ride unfolded. Nothing was going to slow these loonies, corners, goats, trucks and my need to go and ‘pick some flowers’ went unheeded. Flippin past like a reel of fractured celluloid, little made sense. I couldn’t see for the wind and muck hitting my face so I buried my head into Felicitas’s hair, she became my Angel from Hell.

Thankfully the ride did end quite quickly, after 45 minutes we slid to a stop because ambulances and traffic cops were dealing with an accident and the road had been temporarily closed. I noticed Carole nervously chumming up to ZZ and wobbled over to receive a great slap on the back. We were stars of the highway! The riders decided they were going back to Lisbon, once the tribe had powered away we were left sitting by the cork oaks and thinking it a good idea to find somewhere to pitch a tent when Pascoal turned up. Obviously the local farmer Pascoal had driven across his land on a curious rudimentary tractor to see what the hold up was. He wore rough work clothes and had a tough looking stubble that seemed to cover most of his face.

It was late in the day and we needed to find somewhere to crash so we asked Pascoal, using sign language, if he had somewhere we could sleep for the night. His pouchy dark eyes showed a disturbing glint, but he nodded and made the universal sign for sleeping and got us to sit in his little trailer. The day was cooling, the earthy smell of the farmland and comfy hay filled trailer imbued us with a cosy feel, we allowed our bodies to bobble around gently as the tractor negotiated the fields, gazing up into the indigo sky.

It was clear that we were pulling into a farmyard so we both sat up to find a courtyard filled with ubiquitous chickens and a couple of grubby farm dogs. Pascoal motioned us to follow him and he went over to the door, crashed a filthy paw onto it and walked in shouting greetings in Portuguese. Members of the family turned up from different areas and we were introduced without understanding a word. With nodding head one of the older women dressed in black crossed to the kitchen and came back with tumblers and a big plastic bottle. She poured great slugs of a clear liquid into the glasses and we all skulled it Salud…POW! This stuff was surely made as bleach for the toilets, not as a drink to salute strangers. (Medronho from Arbutus unedo)

After another glass each we went back outside with Pascoal and got into the trailer again. Giggling, with fire in our bellies, we had no clue where we were going, and didn’t care. Pascoal visited another 2 farms with the same ritual drinking session, at one we were also given slabs of bread, sheeps milk cheese and olives. By now evening was beginning to fall, we were well soaked with the grog and just wanted to crash. Pascoal clearly had the same idea and walked us around the building to a barn, making the universal sleep sign. Our mouths were numb from the drink and our heads felt a little swollen with the buzz, at least we were going to get some sleep.

Through a doorless arch he showed us piles of sweet hay and motioned for us to use this as our bed.  Taking his calloused hands I thanked him for his generosity and we wasted no time in getting out our sleeping bags. Following years of sleeping on the ground I have never found it difficult to fall asleep, we both snuggled down, used our clothes as pillows and I fell into sleep instantly.

With great difficulty I woke up as Carole was whispering that Pascoal had come back with a blanket and was snuggled up behind her and was trying to have a little grope. We discussed it for a while and decided he probably just needed to be told ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Carole had a brief cameo with him and she seemed satisfied things were ok. I dropped off immediately.

Once again Carole woke me up, ‘He is still trying his luck. You have to do something.’


Shaking off my torpor, arms flailing a bit, doing the universal sign for you will get a slap if you don’t stop I told him, ‘Pascoal. Stop messing with Carole. She doesn’t want you to touch her! Not now, not ever. She is my wife and you need to respect that. Gorrit?’

Pascoal appeared to get the message because he flubbered his lips, turned away and settled down without another sound. To make sure he didn’t bother her again I switched places with Carole. From the new position my burning eyes took cooling comfort from a view through the window arch of the starry sky, with the peaceful sounds of sleeping heads and the calm of the world in the countryside, I drifted off once more.

‘Alright Pascoal, that’s it!’ yelling I bounced up and threatened to do battle with the Portuguese pest. Poor guy must have been desperate. I awoke to find him snuggled up behind ME and gently stroking my back and hair. The fire in his belly had clearly moved indiscriminately south.

At this point he did abandon his amorous tilt and left the barn, we slept on without further incident. Early the following morning Pascoal reappeared with hot coffee, bread, olives and figs cheio. As Jimmy Greaves used to say, ‘It’s a fanny owd wewld.’ Pascoal loaded us up again in the trailer and drove us back to the road. Before he left he shook our hands and, with a ridiculous grin, gave me a luscious smacking kiss on my lips!

For info on Medronho preparation read

Medronho or Portuguese Bleach

Australia was a jolt to the senses. It is such a massive country, with infinite variety of plant and animal life. What’s more the animal life is seriously peculiar compared to the rest of the world, and the plants are unique. So what plants you know here in England counts for zilch in Oz it really was upside down to me.

After Christmas (on the beach?) We hitch hiked down to Tasmania to organise work picking apples. The jobs were plentiful but the season hadn’t started and there was nothing doing so we hitch hiked back to Sydney.  With funds quickly depleting I just had enough money to get to Cairns and take a flight to Papua New Guinea, then what? No clue. Expecting a plan to form we hitched to Brisbane and took a train to Cairns, it was a 5 day journey because the ‘wet’ had started and the train had to wait at Mackay for the flooding to subside.

Eventually we arrived at Cairns and decided to spend the last of our play money on a day trip to Green Island. The heat and humidity in the tropics was unbearable, so a day on the water was welcome. Once the catamaran docked we trundled down the long pier toward the beach. At the end of the pier was a chalkboard advertising 3 jobs, Barmaid, Kitchen Porter and Receptionist.  With barely a second thought we asked about the jobs and were directed to the managers office. Duane was sitting in a pair of swimmers with a tinnie in his hand, feet up on the table. The briefest of conversations followed and we had ourselves jobs! Mad but true.

Do I look like a fish?

Green Island was like nothing I had experienced before. A true coral atoll, and only one hotel with a few permanent staff. Everyone else either visited for the day or were guests at the hotel. For 3 months I worked two shifts and in between snorkelled or walked into the jungly stuff, there was nothing else to do. I borrowed a couple of books one to identify the fish and coral. Another to identify the birdlife, and another to understand the flora. The first and easily identifiable shrub was the frangipani. With it’s creamy flowers and intoxicating scent. It was such a learning curve, nothing was within my experience and it was like being Robinson Crusoe to sit on a liana vine, strong enough to swing on, to look at cocoanuts growing freely, to have such unusual birds all around. The flora really gripped me because it was there to be touched, smelt and admired. Only one other person who worked on the island seemed at all interested in the flora. An old guy who was the caretaker/groundsman. He flicked a switch around the cabins occasionally or cut back things that were a nuisance for the guests. His crowning glory were the cocoanuts. He collected cocoanuts that were washed up on the beach and put them in mushy pea tins with the lid cut off and a couple of nail holes punched in the bottom. They sprouted quickly in the white sand and he tended them, basically this involved throwing a bit of freshwater on them each day. He had a mini forest of cocoanuts growing in tins. When they were a reasonable size he would put them at the end of the jetty and sell them to the tourists.

Idyllic as this life seemed it became ultra boring. Apart from drinking at the bar there wasn’t anywhere to go and most of the staff didn’t want to go anywhere, getting hammered seemed to be the apex of their life. After 3 months we couldn’t hack it any longer and moved back to the mainland, but the hook had been set and we lapped up life in Cairns. Released prisoners comes to mind, but the money earned on the island allowed us to rent a stilted house.

Without restriction on our movement we covered every part of the town gawping and babbling about every new plant or bird . We sometimes had to go to the library to discover the identity of things, or ask the Aborigine family who lived in one third of our house. We nailed them all over time and it began to feel like home.

No matter where we went in Cairns the frangipanis blossomed and thrived. We had a frangipani bush by the front steps, frangipanis were on the roundabouts, in every garden and epitomised North Queensland for me. I can still smell them and feel them in my mind. Potent stuff.

Normally Fritz didn’t stink like cat piss.

For the last two weeks we had spent hours every day swimming and snorkelling in the Red Sea near Dahab. With no fresh water for washing, apart from salty skin, we were really clean.  He was intermittently snoring and gurgling in his sleep  in a strange way, as if his throat had been cut. He’ll be alright, I flicked sand off my face and snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag.

“Fritz stop doing that! If you spit on me again I am going to … Oh shizzle”,

“Fritz wake up….WAKE UP you dopey Austrian there’s a camel chewing the leaves on this palm tree.”

The date palm had become our home. We had set up a makeshift camp, during the day time we buried our rucksacks in the sand and wandered away down the endless beaches to a bay where an Israeli girl had built a shack. She had food and water that desert Arabs brought her and sold glasses of water to travellers who happened by.

I met Fritz at Nuweba, a tiny settlement in the Sinai. We blagged food from religious hippies who had a curious tented compound, they would feed us a meal if we joined in their Bible reading and hymn singing at night in a massive Boy Scout tent. Nuweba was a bit safe for me and Fritz, and when somebody told us about the Israeli girl near Dahab and the monastery at Santa Katarina we hitched a lift in a pick up truck and settled into life under a date palm.

The desert is a truly beautiful place, of course there isn’t much vegetation as we know it here in England, but there is loads to see, sort of grasses, weeds and random scruffy bushes. We had hatched a plan to catch wild camels and take tourists (we assumed that there would be tourists in the town) on camel safaris to Santa Katarina.

The few date palms around were clearly a magnet for wandering camels. The Arab owners hobbled them at night, but they could still roam enough to find food. The date palms weren’t the lovingly trimmed things we see on the esplanades around the Med, they were constantly pillaged by camels and home to roosting birds, each was like an individual oasis for the creatures there.

Things are looking up

We loved our date palm, even tried climbing up into it. Big mistake. They have evil spikes at the base of the fronds, somehow the camels got around that, but we cut ourselves to ribbons before submitting to raucus laughter from the ‘real’ camel herders. Early morning when it was quite cool we would lay in our sacs looking up into the tree watching spiders and birds, insects of all sorts wandering around happily in their private world.

One day we were laying on some sand dunes watching the foam floats we had put onto some baited line to try and catch fish for the Israeli girl to cook and sell. We didn’t wear clothes, there was no point. During the daytime it was hot, nobody else wore clothes except the Arabs, so it came as a shock when we saw two girls wandering down the beach wearing bikinis. Fritz was off like a greyhound after the rabbit, Leonie and Nurit arrived in our lives and things took another bizarre twist.

Nurit was stunning, an Israeli with eyes like melted amber, Fritz fell in love instantly so I was left to pal up with Leonie. She had been working in London and was staying with Nurit in Beersheva on her way back to Australia for Christmas. Leonie had travelled overland as far as possible from Australia a couple of years previous, her tales of pig toilets, drug dealers in Thailand, the temples in Burma and so on were more grist to the mill for my wanderlust.

Within a few days Fritz said he was going back to Beersheva with Nurit so me and Leonie kind of tagged along. We spent a few weeks in Nurit’s flat. It was nearing time for Leonie to make her way to Athens for her flight home. She said that I should go along with her and stay with her family in Australia for Christmas. So, as you do? I agreed. In Athens I had to blag a visa at the Australian embassy, saying we were going to get married in Sydney and that was it. Thai airlines had gone on strike, so when we got the airport we had to be put up in a 5* hotel in Athens for 2 days, the flight eventually took off and we had to spend another night gratis in Bankok before arriving in Melbourne.

Of course this is where the gardening and obsession with plants evolved. In Melbourne we had to exit the plane on the tarmac a long walk from the terminal. My first impression was of the humidity, heat and smell. The astringent head clearing smell of Eucalyptus, it was so overpowering that I expected Skippy to hop across the runway, and passport control to be a koala chewing a gum leaf.

Ted was a great travel companion. He regaled me with details of a trip taken to Israel the previous year during his summer break from uni. The bus journey was long and very rough, buses in those days on Crete were little more than a truck with wooden benches. He talked of tensions and a society that had adopted traditions from everywhere, of Bedouin settlements,  mesmerising cities such as Jerusalem, the Red Sea! Man it was gripping stuff and I just couldn’t wait to get there and see for myself. We stopped in Heraklion to visit Knossos. Walking through the town Ted bought us both a straw hat. A discussion followed about where the straw came from to make the hats, we both guessed wrong as it turned out. Somewhere I have a pic of me standing behind a part demolished red pillar at the Palace of Minos near the main entrance wearing my straw hat.

The Cretan countryside was ram jammed full of exotic looking plants and trees. As I was to learn later, many of these were found throughout the Sydney gardenscape. The towns and villages were bedecked with pots of brilliantly coloured flowers, most I didn’t know but the geraniums struck a chord, my mother always grew them in a big pot by the front door along with dark blue lobelia. A wonderful combination that I still use today for my clients.

Geraniums on every doorstep

We eventually arrived late at night at Lerapetra. With barely a light  in the town we bumbled our way to the sea and found a beach outside of town to bed down for the night. The following day we hiked out to a tiny cove where  travellers had been living in self-constructed shelters for some time. We got there and found all occupied so had to construct our own. We found some sheets of old plastic and driftwood but nothing was particularly long to raise the roof. A dried out wadi had a stand of bamboo and we decided to cut some to create a spectacular shelter. Another pic somewhere in the archives.

Have you ever tried to cut mature bamboo? It needs a diamond saw or anvil loppers to make any impression. A South African had a rusty machete which we eventually hacked out several pieces and used some old string to cobble things together. I never realised that bamboo was so robust, my only previous encounter with bamboo was in a Chinese restaurant.  This prompted a careful inspection of the thicket and I soon realised what a wonderful plant bamboo can be.

We pitched up there until Kevin finally arrived. He looked like he had been through the mangle, nasty cuts on his legs and arms where he had fallen constantly on the untreated roads, been knocked off his bike with a moped tractor! and found another outrageous traveller in the shape of a beautiful German girl attempting to ride her bike down the Cape Town…wow

Each day I spent hours in the pine woods on the headlands, wandering around appreciating all the shrubs and trees, nothing was planted by humans it was all natural and very, very scruffy. I loved it.

Swimming was incredible, crystal clear water with loads and loads of rocks to dive off…and that was where this trip ended. I dived off a rock and decided to swim down to the bottom, without a mask it was impossible to see clearly and as I pushed off the bottom I got a massive piercing stab in my foot. Sea urchin. The ball of my foot below the big toe was covered in needles. Most couldn’t be dug out and I had to make the decision to go home for treatment. When I got to the hospital in Lancaster it was a first for everyone there, nobody had been asked to remove embedded sea urchin spines before.

For months my mind mulled over the sights, the crazy people, but most of all I remember the scents and the smells from living for a few months in the bush and assimilating all that the magnificent plant world had to offer. I had no camera so no record remained to identify those plants but I couldn’t wait to go again with a Plant Finder in my bag.  Lovely green England had lost it’s appeal and I longed for the sun and harsh strange plants of the Mediterranean.