Ningaloo Reef Road Trip

Stuck in suburbia, it is easy to forget how vast and incredibly beautiful this marvellous land of ours is.  Caught up in nonsense of our own making, we lose sight of what really matters. While the news is full of sorrow and hate, of ideologically motivated distrust and ego driven politics, nature proceeds onwards, as it has done for millions of years, and, through utter happenstance, leaving spaces of spectacular beauty that we are able to enjoy and appreciate – should we so choose.

That’s why it’s good to get out and experience the true nature of life itself.  To feel the sand, ground down and pooped out by parrot fish, between your feet.  To watch the beady eyes of a stonefish, and remind yourself that the malevolence in his gaze is a story of your own making.  To dive into the cold embrace of a turquoise sea, brilliantly blue and teaming with life, and see a turtle emerge from a cleaning station.  Another reminder of how life is a synchronised evolution, a beautiful ballet of adaptation and balance played out over millennia.

This is what our trip up the coast of Western Australia was about.  An immersion in nature.

Travelling to the Ningaloo Reef from Perth is an exercise in patience.  In our camouflaged campervan, we motor through a round trip of 3000 kilometres, down endless stretches of road through an often monotonous landscape to find the gems strung out along this small portion of the Western Coast of Australia.

The highlights are endless.  It’s a trip that needed a month, rather than 12 days.   But there are several standouts that live in my memory and bring a smile to my face when I think back to them.

Coral Bay

This small beach town had no space for our campervan, so it was a day trip affair.  We overnighted at 14-mile beach beforehand, and returned to Canarvon the following day.  It’s a tip worth noting if you are heading there to camp.  You need to book months and months in advance in the school holiday season.  Despite the campsite busting at the seams, the reef is largely empty, and we feel like we have the place to ourselves.  The staggering colour of the sea is a thing of exquisite beauty.   Below the waters, coral bommies team with life.  We spend the day on the water with a passionate crew from Ningaloo Reef Dive.  The display of nature is spectacular, but what warmed my heart more than anything was watching the kids discover a joy for being beneath the sea.  Snorkelling like professionals rather than first timers in a coral garden teaming with fish and turtles and sharks.  And no, they didn’t freak out.  They swam closer for a better look.  (Clearly they don’t have my freak-out genes).  Our once in a lifetime experience was snorkelling with a Manta Ray.  A thing of magnificence and glory, gliding effortlessly below us along the white sandy floor of the ocean.

Shark Bay and Monkey Mia.

We stopped on this peninsular for three days and enjoyed every moment of it.  Learning about dolphins at the early morning Dolphin Feeding, and watching the smile on my son’s face as he was chosen to feed one of them was a standout experience.  But it was the peace of the place that really settled my soul.  From the beach, the water is clear enough to see through, and its almost impossible to tell where the water ends and the sky begins.  It was so still and flat and shallow, that the paddle board was put to good use by the kids, who headed far into the distance on concocted tales of adventure and discovery.  Along the way they found a turtle and saw dolphins, and it was only later that I realised they were lucky not to encounter a Lemon Shark.  It is called Shark Bay after all, and while they wouldn’t have been in danger from it, it would be a scary thing to have swim underneath you.  Visiting the very quaint Ocean Park Aquarium and learning about sharks and stonefish and the sobering reality that our inability to clean up after ourselves will render turtles extinct within 20 years was yet another highlight of the trip.

Kalbarri

The Kalbarri is closer to Perth, and bordering on the open ocean.  The wind whips off the dancing sea and although the sand is white and the sun is shining, we found it a bit too wintery for a dip in the sea.  However, the scenery in this part of the world is gorgeous in a completely different way.  In the Kalbarri National Park, red rock formations and deep gorges have been carved out of the landscape by the Murchison River.   Natures Window was crowded, but we headed further in and clambered down to the river itself through rocky crevices both wide and narrow.  A sunset walk along the cliffs from Grandstand Rock Gorge to Island Rock, not only gave us spectacular views of the rock formations out to sea, but also the chance to spot a parade of whales, water from their blowholes dotting the horizon.   At this time of the evening, as the sun dips towards the horizon, the whole world turns a warm and dusty orange.  With a glass of wine in hand, we watch as it sinks into the sea, the sky turn purple and day turn into night.

At this point we are approaching the end of our holiday.  We are relaxed and the sense of peace that comes from being away from it all is palpable.  We are in the company of people we love, soaking up the beauty and wonder of nature, formed and reformed tirelessly over billions and billions of years.  This moment will pass, like life itself, but resting in the moment, being in the moment, is peaceful.  I find great capacity for calmness in accepting that despite being a momentary blip in life’s inextricable story, we have the, perhaps unique, capacity to appreciate the world around us.  To enjoy it.  If only we make the time and the choice to do so.

Sharlene Zeederberg

Going Bush… camping.

I am not a huge fan of camping.  It’s one of those things I like the idea of, rather than the actual, somewhat uncomfortable, practicalities of it all.   So, it came as a huge surprise to me just how much I enjoyed our recent bush camping adventure.  And by bush camping I am talking a shared porta-loo and no showers.  Sounds yuck, right?  Except, it was excellent.

It probably helped that the weather turned up and did the right thing – beautiful sunny days, crisp mornings and huddle-round-the-fire evenings.  In what might have been a first for me, it did not rain.  Not one little drop.  Nary a fluffy cloud marred the strip of blue sky we could see from the depths of our valley.  I suspect this made a massive difference to my opinion on this weekend, as none of the things I like about camping involve being cramped together, vaguely damp, in a shelter you can barely stand up in, playing endless card games with tetchy kids.

And although significant investments in the camping stash – good mattresses, a party-sized gazebo, tables and chairs – were positive improvements, it was the location that tipped the scales from “meh” to “wow” in the camping rating stakes.

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A river runs through it

We visited Wollondilly River Station over Easter.  This unspoilt slice of nature, just a few hours south of Sydney (depending on the traffic) is reached via a somewhat jolting and slightly alarming 45-minute crawl down a bumpy, narrow, unsealed road that winds its way, somewhat precariously, down the mountain side and into a lush, river-runs-though-it, valley.

Although a popular destination, campers are spread out so that you feel, largely, you have a little slice of Australian heaven to yourselves.   By the time the tent was up, the evening fire prepped and the first Gin & Tonics poured, the stress of urban living had floated mysteriously away.

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Camping

Here, the kids were able to run free, inventing battles and adventures, as they conquered new territory and laid claim to never-before set upon islands.   They canoed and swam, built forts and raced around on bikes without parental consent or involvement.  They tested themselves against the elements, and fizzed about fired up by their imaginations.   And all I needed to do, whilst dozing in the hammock, was cast a periodic lazy eye in their general direction to make sure they haven’t abandoned anyone along the way.

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In search of adventure

Our campsite, nestled under trees, fronted a shallow river and gave us a beautiful view of morning mists hovering across mirror-still water.  In the afternoon, we were captivated by swooping swirls of red-tailed black cockatoos.

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Campfires are encouraged at this campsite, and wood provided.  We had the campfire going early morning to stave off the cold and from mid-afternoon to huddle around and cook dinner on.  There is a rule in our house of Scouts, and it is this – a camp, is not a camp, without a fire.   For the kids making fires is an absolute highlight, and while we didn’t quite get as far as putting the billy on to boil, there were marshmallows melted on sticks collected during earlier adventures, and plans to make damper (even if they didn’t quite eventuate).    On the downside, everything smells of smoke, but sitting around a fire, with a glass of wine and a hearty meal, talking with old friends is what special memories are made of.

It turns out that bush camping, despite the potential horrors associated with unsophisticated ablutions, is where the joy of camping lies.  Because here, in these sorts of places, it feels like you really are communing with nature.  Out of commercially run campsites, with their individually marked sites, shops and free WIFI, you literally unplug and drop out, and it is a gorgeous feeling, and one we plan on repeating soon!

The art of holidaying

We have different holiday styles, my husband and myself.  His involves a lot of sleeping and reading and resting and relaxing, while mine seems to moving, doing, visiting, seeing, achieving.  I think he may have the right idea, but I don’t seem to have the skill set required for restful recuperation.  I am trying though, and sheer exhaustion is helping me get there.   Today, after I got up at 6am and walked along the beach for 4km, I fell back into bed and slept until 11.33.  Unprecedented.  Oddly – that feeling of lethargy and slight breathlessness that has accompanied me for most of this year  seems to have abated as a result.  Think my body is trying to tell me something.

Actually, combining our two holiday styles works best.  Rest day, Do day, Rest day, Do day.  I just have to remember it is okay to rest.  I think I have always been highly strung, achievement focused, busy.  I get itchy in my head after sitting still for too long (and by too long I mean about 25 minutes).  My mind pulls up the list of shoulds and coulds, things still undone, opportunities abandoned.  I literally have to get up and move about, make something happen.  Write something, bake something, fix something, think something.  Make a list, set a task, put together a plan.  I think resting is a skill and I don’t appreciate its value enough.  I have to learn to rest and appreciate stillness, rather than trying to fill the quietness with activity.

Which is what this Christmas holiday is about.  Here in Perth we aren’t on any mission to see new things.  We’ve done most of it before anyway.  We are beaching and chilling by the pool, eating too much, going to movies, playing board games, hanging out with family and sleeping.   Right now the kids are wallowing in the pool, making up games and playing together without squabbling, and with no device in sight!  (Now, that actually is an achievement!).   And, I am enjoying sitting here (okay I am typing, but with no sense of pressure about having to do it – despite the fact that Christmas Eve is almost upon us!) .  In fact, maybe feeling more rested makes us better able to enjoy and appreciate the wonderfulness of our lives. Maybe activity begets activity and rest begets appreciation?

Whatever it is, I am liking this feeling of peace – however momentary.  I need to remember to appreciate things more in 2017.  To slow down and focus on what matters, to do the tasks I choose well and mindfully and to do things for myself for no ulterior motive other than enjoyment.  Perhaps that is the best Christmas gift we can give ourselves – learning the art of appreciation 😉

Wherever you are in the world, thank you for being part of my extended circle of family and friends.  Wishing you all a wonderful, peaceful, restful Christmas and a 2017 full of hope and an appreciation of those moments of joy!

Skiing in Australia

Skiing is not something I naturally associate with Australia.   Despite being here for 15 years, the beach-stereotype is still firmly entrenched.   But in the winter months, Kosciuszko National Park plays host to a vibrant ski season, and thousands of Aussies trek down here to spend time cavorting in the snow.

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We went for a weekend.

Despite it being a five-hour drive away, it is an easy enough trip. We head down after lunch on Friday afternoon and pull into Jindabyne in time for dinner and ski gear pick up.  Our accommodation is a ram-shackled ski lodge styled bed and breakfast, perfectly comfortable rather than luxurious, run by some ex-South Africans.   They are ready to pack up and explore the rest of Australia, and the house is on the market. While they wait for a buyer, they tend to the needs of us snow enthusiasts with hearty breakfasts early in the morning, and a roaring fire late into the evening.

On Saturday, we suit up and pile into the car to head to the snow. The ski-tube is a delightful relief after our New Zealand experience of snow-chains and switchbacks, and we decamp at Bullocks Flat and kit up.   Boots on, skis and poles over shoulders, helmets swinging from a spare finger, we clatter and puff our way to the train.

It’s the part I hate most – the slog. Carrying gear that is heavy and unwieldy (because of course, you aren’t just carrying your own ski’s – no, you’ve swapped your poles for your kids ski’s too), clonking about in boots that are not designed for straight legs, sweating from the effort, but wrapped up because it is freezing on the lifts.

The train takes us up to Blue Cow and we disembark into a winter wonderland. Snow abounds and glistens in the bright sunlight pouring out of a blue sky.  It is a different sort of environment to New Zealand. We are not as high up, and rocks and bushes form part of the scene.   From high above, Arabella spots a grumpy echidnae making its way home, and we glimpse a bright parrot perched incongruously on a wintery branch.

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It takes me a while to remember what I am supposed to do and I am relieved when Matt wants to do repeat runs on Easy Starter. We spend the whole afternoon there, so that, when we return on Sunday, suddenly we are both in the groove and enjoying the green runs Perisher has to offer.  It has taken my whole life, but I have finally gone from enjoying the idea of a skiing holiday, to actually enjoying skiing.  Snowboarding wipe-outs are a distant memory. We are now skiers, and I for one am happier for it.

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On Saturday night we head to a fabulous Mexican restaurant for ribs (yes, that well known Mexican dish). The vibe at Cocina’s is warm and noisy – and the food utterly yum. We drink red wine and toast ourselves silly, and celebrate the opportunity to visit this lovely part of the world with good friends.  How fortunate we indeed are.

Falling in love with Perth

I’ve always been a little disparaging about Perth. Friends and family have moved here despite my rather derisive comments about how small and parochial it is.

But during the last few days I have secretly fallen in love with Perth.   I think it is the colour of the sea that has stolen my heart. But it also reminds me ridiculously of Africa. Of olden days Zimbabwe and the high veldt in summer – all roasted yellow grass and wide-open spaces between low mustard coloured buildings. The colour palette is like a 1970’s photo – faded in the ceaseless heat.  No wonder it is jam-packed with displaced South Africans.

In truth, it is the smallness that makes it so enchanting. People are friendly. They smile and give you advice (like, “Watch out, we all drive like maniacs here.” True – defensive driving required!).   It feels unspoiled. Innocent.  That could be the holiday talking. The fresh breeze rolling off the turquoise sea. My take on Freemantle is a little different to Tim Winton’s.

I think mostly it is the sea that draws me to this place, perched here on the edge of a great desert, the Indian Ocean lapping at its shores.  The beaches are quite spectacular. I declare them to be the most beautiful of all the beaches I have been to in my life.   The sand is white and soft and warm. The sea sparkles aqua, a colour that comes straight off a tropical island post card. And it is clear. You can swim up to your neck and still see your toes. I find this deeply reassuring given the hostility Great Whites have for Western Australians.

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It is a town that feels not at all full.  It helps, I think, when people are not packed so tightly together. You have space to breath in. Space to appreciate your surroundings. The very opposite of Sydney, where there are people and cars and noise and buildings every which way you look. Where there is no personal space at all.  Just thinking about going to the beach in Sydney gives me heart palpitations. Navigating the traffic jams, trying to find parking… dealing with all those botoxed stiff upper lips.

No, I’ve fallen quite in love with this isolated little city which doesn’t give a damn about the rest of Australia. Where everyone seems to be sun-kissed and smiling and even the blistering heat doesn’t seem to phase anyone. Yes, it feels a lot like being on holiday. But wouldn’t that be an awesome way to feel everyday?

A Scatterling from Africa

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Ever since our trip to South Africa last year I have been feeling vaguely homesick.  Is it homesickness, this wistful longing I have for South Africa?   After all, South Africa is not my home nor has it been so for nearly two decades. Give it a couple of years and I’ll have lived in Sydney longer than any other town, including the one I spent most of my formative years in.  And despite the requests from my children, we are not about to pack up the house and move back to Johannesburg.  No, my home is right here in this beautiful land girded by sea.  A place I love.

Yet something in me still pines strongly for the land of my childhood, for the place where I come from.  I would say I was “root” sick, but in Australia that has all sorts of nasty connotations.

And that is the thing.  The idiosyncrasies of your adopted culture trip you up and make you constantly aware that you don’t quite fit in.  Culture codes, that you absorb like language when you are immersed in it from birth, have to be learned from scratch.  And, like a second language, you are never as fluent in it as your first.  Regardless of how well you adapt, there are little things that always mark you out to be a stranger.

When you are plucked, or in my case, when you pluck yourself, out of your beginnings and plop yourself somewhere else you stand out like guinea fowl amongst the cockatoos. Literally a foreigner in a foreign land.

Australia might look largely the same as South Africa, and we might share a lot of similar values, at least at a surface level, but below the surface the currents that tug and pull on the cultural landscape are different, and they leave a different shape.  A shape you don’t quite fit into.

Not only do you have to navigate the linguistic quirks of your new abode, when you come into a new country as an adult, you have no natural, inbuilt cultural reference points, no shared formation memories with your contemporaries.  You don’t understand what it means to hear Jimmy Barnes belt out Khe Sahn Road at a charity benefit.  You weren’t there the first time.  And you don’t know what Australia was like in the middle of the Vietnam war.  And while you might have enjoyed a similarly defining moment at your first Johnny Clegg  concert, when you grew up and realised life is not all rock and roll, it’s not the same experience.   Your reference points are entirely different.

Watching Searching for Sugarman reminded me of that.  Reminded me of my youth and my South Africaness, those two things being intractably intertwined.  Of crazy university days and of growing up, properly, in the shadow of a mountain shaped like a table, whilst my country wrestled with its changing shape.  It reminded me of beach-side bike rides and first kisses and watching Mandela lift up the Rugby World Cup.  But more than anything, it reminded me that there was once a time where I did feel like a fitted in, naturally, without effort.

I think this visceral connection to our origins, our roots, to the place where we were formed, is a harkening back to a time where we knew we belonged.   Despite having lived nearly half my life outside of South Africa, it seems I am still South African.

I suspect that is why people stick together in their little enclaves in Australia, land of the immigrant.  It is something we deliberately tried not to do.  No St Ives or Double Bay for us.  We wanted to be absorbed, wanted to feel Australian.  But perhaps that was a mistake?   Good coffee and great deli’s aside, the unsuspected Italianness in our suburb is yet another reminder that we are have cut ourselves adrift from our roots.

Perhaps we are just programmed to feel most comfortable with our tribe of origin?

Does it matter?  It didn’t use to, but as I get older I wonder about the ease at which I abandoned my country, my culture?  I feel I underestimated the damage that can do to your sense of place in the world.  No wonder people hold fast onto their traditions when they are in a foreign country.  They are holding on to their sense of themselves.

Maybe that’s why we get such a sense of pleasure from watching the Springboks trounce the Wallabies or hearing Trevor Noah on QI or visiting The Lucky Tsotsi or making a trip to the South African shop to buy biltong.  It reminds us of where we come from.  And that makes us feel whole.

 

 

 

Questacon – Canberra Road Trip Part 3

Quite possibly the highlight of any family trip to Canberra is a visit to Questacon.  Questacon is “The National Science and Technology Centre”, or as we like to call it, “the very cool science museum”,  located on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin.

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Designed with kids old and young in mind, this interactive, busy and informative museum kept my kids so enthralled, we had to go back the next day to take it all in.  (It is well worth getting yourself a annual pass, like a Powerhouse Museum membership, to give you the freedom to come and go as you like).

It is a bright and spacious building, cleverly laid out and jam-packed full of hands on experiments, shows and displays. The “vertical drop” got the most attention from my small people, in particular my daughter seemed to love dangling over an abyss and letting go to experience “free falling”.  Watching neon scarves zoot around a wind tunnel maze and shoot out in unexpected places seemed to grab their attention too.  My son was especially entranced with “The Gravitram” and spent ages staring at the pool balls hurtling along their wire tracks.

We all laughed our way through an entertaining explanation on “Collisions” (I wish my science teacher had explained Newton’s Laws of Motion in quite the same way!), got shaken up in the “Earthquake” house and pushed, pulled, threw and jumped our way through a variety of experiences and came out wanting more.

It is busy during school holidays, so grab an annual pass online to by-pass the “Q’s” and get there early.

 

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The Vertical Drop
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The Gravitram

 

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Worlds under the sea