Thursday, January 3, 2013

Australia for Christmas


I had to get up ridiculously early. In fact, it was only 90 minutes since I'd finally gone to sleep. I trundled over to my laid-out clothes, pulled on my suit jacket, pants, dress shirt, cufflinks, bow tie, belt, matching socks, and shoes, and snuck out into the winter air. A hulking blue whale of a van whisked me to the delightful LAX and before long I was coasting above snow-capped mountains and zooming between high rises in the city of sin. I spent the morning dozing in an abandoned wing of the Caesar's Palace convention center, before meeting my old friend D and getting lunch at the cheesecake factory. For a man with mere hours of unmarried life left, he seemed unusually calm and cool.

At last the appointed hour had arrived. We met in the foyer, and the six of us, D and his bride L, me, and three other friends clambered into a waiting limo. G had even flown out from Australia. L had also, thus ending the three years of long distance with D! 

We were dropped at the Little White Wedding Chapel on the Vegas strip and before long Elvis turned up and sang "For I can't help falling in love with you". Then the "I do"s and we all stepped blinking and teary eyed back into the sunny Nevada sky. A giant pink convertable whisked the newlyweds to the local landmarks for photos.

My photos:

While I waited for my CSing friend C to pick me up, I checked out the adjacent drive-through wedding chapel tunnel of love! C and I drove out into the North East quarter to Frenchman mountain and paid our respects to the great unconformity. We checked out the Bellagio fountain, then met at Circo for dinner. I had to cut my antipasto short and flee to the airport, where my flight was only an hour late. 

Like Jonah I was spat out back on the Pasadena pavement a mere 14 hours after I'd left. Which was lucky, because the next morning I had to do it all over again.


I left my laptop plugged in until the last moment to optimise its juice concentration, then made a bolt for the airport, arriving with enough time to have dinner with an old USyd associate who I hadn't seen in about five years! Spending more time in the air than the entire door-to-door Las Vegas caper of the previous day, I watched sequentially Prometheus, Brave, The Bourne Legacy, Total Recall, and Cosmopolis. Of the five, the latest Bourne installment was probably my favourite. I also managed to get in enough sleep to land without jetlag!

Shortly thereafter I snuck into the carpark before my lift arrived, and while dodging cars driving on the left was greeted by my mother and sister, A1 and A2. The previous designation of A and a is no longer valid, as my sister had turned 18 during my years of pilgrimage, and was now all grown up!

That evening we went for a rejuvenating takeaway Thai meal at my uncle's new place overlooking the harbour. I savoured the 50s decor and peanut curry in equal measure as the sun set beneath a clouded sky. Thus I renewed my acquaintance with my first skyline and set about an (entirely unsuccessful) attempt to gain 10kg in 10 days.

The next engagement on my already bursting social calendar was a trip the next morning to my brother's university. M, despite a 17 month handicap, had by dint of hard work and more hard work (and ability, talent, and good looks), beaten me fairly and convincingly to the title of Doctor. I was incredibly proud to watch him walk across the stage and be recognised with first class honours and the university medal. Welcome to the club ;P. Even better, that night we all went to his graduation ball, where my cup runeth over with excellent food, fine dancing, and a LOT of doctors. For me it was bittersweet, as the realisation that this very cohesive class of about a hundred students were in the final moments of their physical and professional proximity, and would never ever be all together again reminded me of my own class and partial loss of friends and family following my own self-imposed exile.

Two days later, it was time to get my party hat on again as A2's belated birthday party required celebration. Like me, A2 had the good fortune to celebrate her birthday in the middle of the exam block, and thus I was able to attend the birthday party as well as everything else! A2 attends the same university I did, but with few exceptions there has been complete turnover of the people involved. About a hundred people of all ages and associations turned up to rock the house and play the piano and dance all over the floor hitherto concealed by now sequestered furniture. Admittedly my involvement in family life has been minimal since I moved out in 2006, so it was pretty cool to realise that in the meantime A2 had found a bunch of super nice friends and colleagues to do stuff with. We all gave speeches and told funny stories and partied until the tiny hours of the early morning, at which point nearly everyone went home.

We had a day to clean up and to catch up with other friends on their way through. Nearly everyone was busy with their own families, but in the meantime I was able to wander semi-lost through mostly forgotten fragments of my not too distant past and photograph the interesting stuff for later.

On Christmas eve M, dad and I were dropped on Pittwater by mum in the early morning. We applied sunscreen liberally. Sunglasses were obtained, and collars ceremonially popped. My grandfather's sailing yacht had been in for some repairs to the rudder, and after some minor confusion we set the sails into a stiff nor-easter and ploughed through the raging seas of Broken Bay. I did some sailing in high school, but all in high performance racing dinghies. It took some getting used to, but I loved the way the boat lifted over the waves and leaned into the gusts. (video: - various time lapses are nearby). Somewhere near Lion Island we saw a fairy penguin swimming along. Eventually we luffed up into the lee of Box Head, dropped the sails, and motored up the channel. Narrower than I remember, the sandy entrance to Brisbane Water is only barely wide enough for two boats to pass. We were just barely pushing against the outgoing tide, swung wide around half-tide rocks, and cruised up past my old school at Pretty Beach. Spared a flogging by driving spray, I was now soggy with nostalgia. We cruised up to the mooring and rowed in. The small dinghy could hold only two at once, so I rowed back out to retrieve the doctor and returned him to the shore. There we careened the row boat, which had been growing stuff at the mooring for about a month, and gracefully accepted my grandparents' offer of an incredible lunch overlooking the bay, before driving back to Sydney. That evening M and I battled fading light and incredibly confined spaces to fix a leaky coolant hose in his car. Having only four hands between us it was amusing to juggle an umbrella, a torch, multiple screw drivers, and swat mosquitos. At last the job was done and it was time for to eat five consecutive dinners.

While Christmas eve was a beautiful summer day with a warm sun and a cool breeze, Christmas day was more usual for Sydney this year. A series of thunderstorms dumped torrential rain incessantly from dawn to dusk. Family christmas was conducted at my uncle's place, where the table had been extended to the deck. Being young and vigorous, the under-30s were consigned to the deck, where biting winds served to augment our already voracious appetites. I ate until I couldn't move, and wasn't even hungry until 4pm! Meanwhile at home I'd scored a brand new electric shaver (thanks M!) and a rusty nail (thanks dad!). 

On boxing day we kept a close eye on the cricket and the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, and one of my teachers from high school R dropped by. Like many of my other awesome teachers, he'd just retired and was looking forward to some adventuring in the years ahead.

The following day I returned to the coast and spent an hour poking around the house my dad built just before I was born and the surrounding wilds where I spent much of my childhood. While there are now many more houses, some of the fundamental elements remain unchanged. In particular, the seashore, the smell, many of the same rocks and trees, places where M and I used to play. After yet another extraordinary lunch, in which my bread was mostly one-dimensional, A1's brother and I went for a walk around to Wagstaff, where I first went to school, and half-tide rocks, Lobster beach, and the intervening rock pools. We dropped in on some of my old friends from that time. N, who I remember as a 2 week old baby, is just about to finish school! I felt old.

The next day was, in many ways, the coolest thing I did all week. My old science revue friends C, M, and M's boy D met at central station and took the train south to Cronulla. We even made the connection to the Curranulla, a venerable old passenger ferry to Bundeena, a small town on the southern edge of Sydney. Although I had reasonably thoroughly explored this park during my undergrad years, this time we were going to try to walk the whole thing (28km, 18mi) in a single day. We were psyched and totally ready! A short walk took us to the trail head, and thence to the edge of the cliff, and the beginning of the Coast Walk. Stopping at the usual landmarks on our way south, we made it to Wattamolla by noon. Despite a complete lack of rain and dry waterfalls everywhere, the lagoon was crawling with people enjoying the beautiful weather. Above Wattamolla, however, we noticed a change in the wind and before long a southerly blew over with lots of wind and a few drops of rain. We clambered down the 'slot of doom', a steep canyon that cuts through a hundred metres of cliffs to the edge of the sea. Some of the most glorious rock hopping for miles around took us beneath the cliffs, over ledges, under boulders, and around the point until we smoothly entered the cove at Curracurrang. Here we walked up the nearly dry river bed to the waterfall and ate lunch on a rock in the middle of the pool, surrounded by hopeful looking lizards as clouds skudded overhead. We were making good time.

South of Curracurrang, the track winds around to Curracurrong, a twin waterfall next to eagle rock. I battled some wind gusts to get close enough to the waterfall to see it blowing up in the wind, something I had only seen there once before. We crossed the nearly always dry gully of Curracurrung and then traversed the Curra moors, although at times it was nearly impossible to make headway into the gale! Much to my amusement, C and M were blown backwards a few times. The trail tracks more or less directly south through the coastal heath, a wild, twisted, weather stunted forest of low shrubs and trees until it abruptly surfaces on the northern head of Garie beach. I ditched my sandals and we pushed on along the flotsam strewn beaches, skirting headlands just above the choppy sea and breaking waves, until it was time to summit the head above Era and descend to Burning Palms. For the first time ever, the group politely declined my offer of a water break on the saddle, keen rather to press on and make good time. At Burning Palms we opted to try and make it to the pools and then to the train station in about two hours, which seemed feasible. By this stage I'd stubbed my toe on a chunk of Australia and was leaking a little, so was pretty happy to leave the grassy path and return to rock hopping. By now we were pro and before long we reached the rock platform.

Between a towering, multihued cliff and the raging sea, with incredible views to both the south and the north, this particular rock platform harbours a secret. Close to the edge, the waves have carved a series of circular pools that are just big enough to swim in, and up to 10 feet deep. I don't get to go here very often, so I changed into my boardies and took the plunge, as thudding waves sprayed over the pools and bubbled everywhere. Peculiar erosional features channeled water away from the edge toward the cliff and eventually back out.

Opting not to climb the waterfall (and back way out) due to strong winds, we backtracked and hit the trail hard! Palm jungle never seemed shorter and without a break D and M led the charge to the top of the cliffs, after nearly a thousand stairs! After one last break to look at Werrong beach (though not too closely!) we redoubled our efforts and cruised along the cliff track towards Otford station. Without discussion we lifted our pace to an easy trot, and ran the last few km, arriving with minutes to spare. We were relieved to not have to wait another 2 hours for a train! Toe injury aside, there were no casualties and I at least suffered very little soreness the following day. There is something about wearing ridiculously wimpy sandals that encourages a gentle tread!

Nevertheless, I took the following days pretty easy, catching up with old friends and playing music, wandering through Newtown and checking up on all the old haunts. I even managed to pick up some mail for an ex-housemate at our ex-house, while being asked if I was interested in having multiple red-haired children with the current occupant's cousin. Needless to say, I politely declined.

Before long, new years eve rolled around and it was time to get into party mode once more. M invited some of his med friends, and I invited whoever I could find that hadn't already accepted a tastier invitation! As a result we had a terrific eclectic mix, consumed vast quantities of corn chips, cashew nuts, and smoked salmon, and managed to see both fireworks displays. C was keen to see the fireworks from a better vantage point at Blues Point, but last-minute road closures meant we had to run all the way around to the next point. We found a good spot seconds before the clock ticked over and the new year began. It was a pretty excellent display!

2012 was the most interesting year yet. Owing to time zone technicalities, it was a slightly short year, but 2013 will undoubtedly make up for it!

Next morning it was time to scoop all my stuff into a pile, consume it with a wheely bag, and head to the airport. I farewelled the family and got through the various circles of hell into the departure mall, only to be surprised by furious glass tapping on my way to the appointed gate. The family had snuck into a restaurant that faced the walkway and, hiding in wait, sprung their attack. One last round of smiles and waves and I was starting to think in destination time. I burned up some superfluous phone credit talking to the few people I hadn't managed to track down, boarded the plane, and took off. Sydney vanished beneath the left wing with airborne alacrity and I settled down to watch "Pitch Perfect", "Expendables 2", "Looper", write, read, and think.



It is fun to return home. At some point one becomes aware that although you're surrounded by a dimly familiar setting, the places you remember now exist only in your mind. Perhaps, they only ever existed there. Are memories images or feelings?


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