Australia has some of the most terrifying and deadly fauna in the world. This doesn’t deter the locals from enjoying the great outdoors as much as us Kiwis. This post covers a camping trip with Sydneysiders B&K, and a little tourism before heading back to New Zealand. (15.04.2017 – 18.04.2017)
As anyone who goes camping knows, getting ready to camp can be quite stressful. Have you brought enough kitchen sinks? These are the things that kept B up at night. He awoke early to sort it out; I join him on a trip to the mall, and the supermarket.
Loitering beneath the escalating ramp there’s a DVD rental vending machine – my first and probably last. I wonder what people put in the return slot when nobody is looking.
We go to the Woolies. Australian trolleys have four swivel wheels, like in Britain. Who knows how many knee-injuries have occurred do to this ridiculous practice? I make the most of it and enjoy drifting the trolley about the deserted isles, chasing after B.
We soon arrive in the utensils section. Into the trolley fly plastic utensils – ‘let’s get two of the good ones, not the cheap ones’. Plastic plates and bowls join them; some foam coffee mugs jump in too. I hold my tongue. ‘Is there a problem?’ B asks with a cheeky grin, half tease, half challenge.
‘No problem’ I reply. ‘It’s not my country’. And it’s not my trip; I am just along for the ride. But my face argues that buying tonnes of plastic reusable things and throwing them out after one use is the epitome of short-sighted, self-absorbed western thinking and his lack of care about his active contribution to the pollution of the world with plastics makes Australia looks like shit and he’s a tosser too. ‘OK fine, we’ll take our mugs’ he says. I love the man, of course.
Back in the car, we talk about how long plastics take to decompose. It can take 450 years for a drink bottle to break down. B says it’s not such a bad thing; if plastics were around earlier, we’d be able to go to a museum and see Napoleon’s shopping bag, or the Duke of Wellington’s drink bottle. The mental image is too much for me, I cry with laughter – it’s so wonderful clowning about in person again.
Arriving home, we pack the car and have hours to spare.
Nearby is the Rookwood Cemetery, an enormous site, established in 1867 and still in use. Being a ghoul I thought it might have some interesting mausoleums and things, so B and I set out on foot to discover it. We get stuck in a golf course, follow a fence line, walk through untold spider webs which terrify me, run out of sidewalk and give up. It’s not a pedestrian friendly area.
Soon we are on the road, heading an hour west to Bents Basin campsite, run by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service. So many little America efforts in Australia, calling a state’s conservation department National is just another (and yes they don’t spell Bents Basin with an apostrophe).
We meet up with K&B’s friends R&C – Christchurch & Canadian folk also settled in Sydney. Seasoned Kiwi campers, this is their first trip out in Australia, so I am in fine company.
The fire danger board at the entrance is marked ‘moderate’, it’s lowest setting. It goes up to ‘Catastrophic’ – they don’t even have a colour for that. Moderate risk or not, the ranger sells us firewood despite no firepits being available. ‘Just make sure you isolate it’ she says.
B drives through the site. It is chokka with children. I cringe, watching them clamber through the bushes; don’t they know about Australian wildlife?!
We find a spot to pitch the tents. Soon there are two couples working together on a shared task; I perch on the powder keg. I gingerly assist around the edges awaiting the explosion. A testament to the partnerships; the explosion never comes. I am happy to help with tensioning guy-ropes.
City folk, we leave a metre or so between the tents for the fire pit. B and C begin scratching at the dirt with their fingernails, like reverse zombies desperate to re-enter the soil. As the folly of this process is recognised, C retrieves the few metal knives and spoons from a picnic set, and they set upon the earth with dining utensils. It is quite weird. I am uncomfortable with the whole process; my knowledge of Australian bush involves roaring flames. I don’t help.
A patch of dirt is cleared, and the kindling piled up. A splinter joins me for the rest of the trip. Damp grass is piled as tinder, and an hour or so of steady effort from R gets the fire roaring – a Doctor’s perseverance!
We surround and stare into the flames, working through our insufficient booze supplies. Children run by with kites, but it’s a little taste of the wild.
A kite falls time-and-again into our turf. C considers cutting the string; it’s a joke, but not really. I find the fire hypnotic, I can’t look away. We eat amazing steaks and burn everything late into the night, drinking and talking – it is ace.
In the morning I awake early and explore the campsite. There’s one amenities block for the 400 or so campers; the kitchen is booked by a particular group and off-limits. You don’t get that kind of bullshit in New Zealand. Further around is the Bents Bend picnic area; I explore. Dew glistens on spider webs, a swan floats upon a pond, it is an idyllic time to visit before the daytrippers descend. I have a moment.
My cellphone also has a moment (of reception) and lets me know my fire alarm went off last night. I am knocked from my reverie. I try to be cool, ambling back to the campsite. If the house is gone, what am I going to do from Sydney? Yet when I arrive back, I am glad B doesn’t mind giving me a ride out to get real reception. We get it and spend a few tense moments on the side of the road watching the ‘Taking picture…’ dialogue on my phone, as it communicates with the house camera 2,000km away in Wellington. It returns an unburnt lounge; all but my nerves are well.
We enjoy coffee and breakfast. Dishes and cutlery are thrown in the bin; cleaning the mugs is a drag.
B drives us out to the Warragamba Dam, the largest water supply dam in Australia that supplies the majority of water to Sydney’s 5 million residents. It’s pretty big. The stumps of flooded trees poke from the man-made lake, like rotted teeth. Plaques wank on about mayors and surveyors more than the 12 workers who died building it between 1948 and 1960.
Water is a real consideration in Australia generally; perpetual drought. But in Sydney it’s invisible, thanks to this dam and others. At B and K’s place, I had guiltily watched the water drain from the shower. In my mind I multiplied that by five million and it’s a staggering amount of water flushed – here is where it comes from. Two pipes. It’s a marvelous piece of engineering, but one wonders when we do this kind of thing – is it wise to do it so well? The city just expands to fill the available capacity, and if that capacity is reliant on two pipes, there’s a bit of risk there. I feel this damming is a little less rapacious than the New Zealand ’empty the aquifer’ system though – and really, my mind is blown by NSW Water storing 500,000 litres of water per person. I learn this little fact in the nearby Dam visitor centre, which is full of interesting things. There’s a recording of a kid on repeat, stating ‘water is life’ like some Fremen outcast. Eventually the child drives us from the exhibit.
We desire but cannot find ice-cream.
We drive to a nearby township for ice cream and to stock up our booze supply. The drive-through liquor store’s door doesn’t open; only then we remember it’s Good Friday. The ice cream makes it a Great Friday, and a night off the turps is an unwelcome but sensible idea anyway.
Back at camp, B and I head up a short bush walk to a viewpoint. I compare the vegetation in the wee creek beds to that around my home – though this is a wet area of Australia, it’s night and day. The place is brown and red, the scars of fire mark every older tree. More used to soft mosses, mud and bush where anything not green stands out, it feels so hard and inhospitable. Every twig I step on solicits a jump, as I expect some creature to kill me. When we stop to rest, the seemingly still rocks are crawling with huge red ants, supercharged by the climate. I’m glad I live in New Zealand where all I have to worry about is a wet butt.
It’s B’s turn to cook dinner tonight, and he’s got snarlers. The problem is the kitchen is booked, and some family has built camp around the only public BBQ. We have a small gas hob and a small frying pan. Enter some kiwi ingenuity; we flip the frying pan to resemble something of a hotplate, and put an aluminium tray on top. The aluminium doesn’t burn, the tray heats and we eventually enjoy a great feed – we weren’t going to do anything but look into the fire anyway.
Without booze the night isn’t as warm; the fire not as seductive. We retire shortly after a beautiful sunset.
After a leisurely breakfast and coffees (can’t we just chuck out the regular mugs?) we collapse our tents, say a fond farewell to R & C and head back to Sydney. We pick up some craft beer and just spend time. B and K head off to see the Lumineers, I miss out and watch Captain Phillips – it is less boring than this paragraph.
In the morning I am awoken by surprising action; folks are awake before me – it must be a work day. B and K knock back coffees and head off on their commutes. I kick back a while, make sure I don’t leave my passport in their house and leave a bit later.
Sydney is mine for the day; I take the train to Town Hall and wander to the Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour. I don’t have time to do any justice to visiting Australia now; I opt instead to just go see the Endeavour, a true-size replica of Captain Cook’s 1764 British collier which surveyed Australia and New Zealand in the same trips. I had seen it from the plane coming in; this squat little bug of a ship, dwarfed by the nearby warships, those too dwarfed by cruise liners.
It’s a remnant of British empire that we celebrate Cook’s exploration so hard; the Dutch got here 127 years earlier, with Abel Tasman’s Heemskerck visiting in 1642. Maybe we don’t like that, having spotted the place, Abel Tasman thought ‘meh’, whereas Cook circumnavigated the place. At any rate, Captain Cook and the Endeavour are etched upon our national psyche, and our 50c coin. I was keen to take a look, and the Australians just so happen to care too and have built a replica.
So, relieved of $32 (little America!) I happily leave my bag in the cloakroom and potter about the ships. They are heavy on the volunteers – I ask many inane questions. I visit a patrol boat, a submarine and a destroyer. I recall being more enamoured with Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, but I suspect that’s just me being more interested in Britain than Australia.
I find the Endeavour more roomy than expected – I could stand quite comfortably in much of it. The efficiency of the cook’s oven is neat; sailors would be in ‘sets’ of six, and would have a net of food put in the big boiler. As was the way of things then, they’d boil the goodness out of everything – and didn’t even drink the broth! I enjoyed poking about the cabins, imagining Joseph Banks doing his cataloging, Tupaia doing his thing.
Up the way is the James Craig, an 1874 barque. Restored from a rusting hull in Tasmania by a team of volunteers from the 70s, it has a tale to tell. But it didn’t need to, as this charming woman got in first. Boarding the ship I was pounced upon, sat down and told all about the ship. It was something of a volunteer reunion or something, all these oldies hanging out having a great time pottering about – a worthwhile and enjoyable use of retirement. Anyhow, it’s ‘just a cargo ship’ – but they’ve put a deck in the hold and some sleeping quarters; I believe they hold events and things now.
I find a pub at Darling Harbour in which to eat a burger and chips. I ask for a pint to accompany – the waitress informs me if I want a schooner instead, I can have it free. I forgot about Australia’s weird beer vessel terms. I sit on the quiet deck, watching seagulls harass all comers and watch the different types of tourist amble past – I don’t think there was an Australian about.
I learn about the early Opal trade and the exploitation of Aboriginal divers back at the museum. It’s a good read; a wee taste of learning about the Aboriginal culture. It’s an ancient culture, with some key differences so foreign to the Western worldview, I look forward to learning more when I have time. One interesting aspect is that they don’t name or show images of the dead, as it may disrupt the spirit doing it’s thing. Museum curators are in a pickle.
I retrieve my bag and wander through Sydney. I pass the Queen Victoria Building and town hall, enjoying the stone of these heritage buildings alongside the swish highrises of Sydney.
I arrive at Hyde Park, and the ANZAC memorial. Only as I walk do I recall already having been there before.
The memorial is being treated with respect, I am impressed – until I realise there are close-to-plain-clothes guards quietly enforcing it. The donation boxes are blocked, replaced with a note ‘Let quiet contemplation be your donation’. I quietly contemplate.
I look at the New Zealand flag hanging with the Australian and feel the familiar sorrow for all these men, the senseless waste felt often during this WW1 centenary period. But seeing the flags together, I also lament the divergent state of the nations. We were both children of Britain then, but we drift apart with time, and that drift seems to accelerate of late. I guess it’s inevitable, but it’s always sad to lose a friend; sadder still to lose them because it turns out they’re a bit of a dick.
Over the road is the fine St Mary’s Cathedral – I stick my nose in then head for the airport.
At the airport I purchase a sandwich, chips and coke on my way to security. Minutes later I step out of line to chug my coke; I am an airport amateur.
Soon enough I am back in Wellington, shuttled home by a friend. No balloon at this end, but I do get to embarrass him with a running hug.