My introduction to Oz was at four o’clock in the morning being herded into the transit area at Darwin airport. Insanely, you have to leave the plane for 20 minutes regardless of whether you are going there or not, thereby ensuring that any small amount of sleep you might have snatched is rudely interrupted. Here I purchased the national snack Twisties and nearly threw up. “Life’s pretty straight without Twisties”, claimed the packaging. Hallelujah for that. These guys had taken extruded potato to new boundaries of syntheticism, and the claimed chicken flavour was a descriptive howler of enormous proportions.
The sun rose over the outback as we traversed the desert to Adelaide, where I checked in to the Hyatt and secured a tenth floor room. This gave me an outstanding panoramic view of what appeared to be Milton Keynes but without the people. There was a message for me, and soon I was swept away to Mount Lofty where friends were drinking poolside champagne. This was more like it. The next day we drove south down the coast to Noarlunga on the Fleurier Peninsula. My friend Anne told me that many locals had wanted to call it the Wine Peninsula, an accurate indication of the main activity round here. But no, they named it after some Frenchman none of us know nor care about. It looked a bit like Florida, with endless sprawling surf shops and lawn mower emporia, including one with a very large banner saying “Bugger the garden.” I could only assume that the locals had a fairly relaxed attitude to horticultural homosexuality. But in a country whose main brand of peanuts carries the slogan “Nibble Nobby’s Nuts”, you never know.
It was fine wine country reminiscent of Tuscany so it would have been churlish to refuse a tour of the vineyards. We went to McLaren Vale, paying visits to Pirramimma, Scarpantoni (which was unquestionably run by the local mafia), Coriole and Maxwells, where I drank more mead than is strictly advisable. After ten hours solid we repaired to a local restaurant to wolf down swordfish and kangaroo. Oh and more wine of course.
My mildly pissed condition allowed me to reflect on the extraordinary preponderance of faith healers whose ads littered the local paper. They included, and I kid you not, axiom counselling, breathwork rebirthing, esoteric meditation, a goddess circle, a pagan forum, spiritual alchemy, transmission meditation, and past lifetimes therapy. I don’t know why they don’t just tour the wineries and get slaughtered – after which anyone would be convinced they had all the answers, and you could certainly guarantee that many lifetimes would flash before you – either during the course of the evening or at some point the following day.
I was staying at the Coastview Hotel, and the antics of the guy running it were on a par with an antipodean Basil Fawlty. Breakfast rarely occurred, and if you asked for a coffee you were met with the sort of incredulous expression that comes with the outburst “Here am I trying to run a hotel and you people come in demanding service!” He claimed he really didn’t have the time to check his e mails, and when I pointed out that there may be bookings on them, he just looked at me as though I was mad. Sure enough the following morning a guy screamed up in a jeep and, on finding the office closed, he shouted “Fucking hell!” Then he tracked the owner down and said he had people arriving who had no confirmation of their reservations and what was he playing at?
A similar crap service episode occurred when we visited a wine area village called Clarendon. We were having a perfectly pleasant meal outside when I asked if we could have another bottle of wine. “Yeah mate, but you’ll have to come and get it yourself because we only do table service for the food.” Outstanding. So he could walk out with a plate but not a bottle. Now there’s a rule for you. Whilst on the subject of food, I have to say that the Qantas meal boxes on internal flights are quite something. “Taking in-flight cuisine to new levels”, bellows the slogan on the cardboard box. That’s not an inaccurate claim if the level in question is subterranean. The contents consisted of a stale sandwich with a dubious looking meat substitute inside, and a bottle of water, which in my book is not far off the bread and water treatment the original convicts must have received. Hey ho.
It’s raining in Melbourne and, as all the locals will tell you, this is the city where you can experience four seasons in one day. Whether this expression came before or after the Crowded House song is unclear. It’s also probably bollocks, because no-one ever seems to have seen snow round here. Anyway, I am staying in trendy Fitzroy, home of grungy Brunswick Street. Coffee shops and goth spots. Blues music and body piercing. I liked it here. There are precious few outstanding landmarks to visit in Melbourne, but the people and the atmosphere is what it’s all about. They are sport mad – Aussie rules, rugby, cricket, shove ha’penny, haigh altitude nose juggling – anything will do – and the Grand Prix was on the weekend I was in town.
It’s highly sociable. I was invited sailing around Port Philip Bay in a 30-foot yacht. It was pouring with rain but it made me no wetter than when we were in full flow on the water, and it wasn’t cold. I took the tram down Nicholson Street to Flinders Street Station, an art deco affair that is a favourite rendezvous point for locals. Then a train to Sandringham, which involves going through Brighton Beach – very similar to its namesake in Britain, with the same beach huts but sand instead of pebbles. The sail gave me a great panoramic view of the city skyline. It looked a bit like Chicago from Lake Michigan, but with slightly less interesting skyscrapers.
The rest of my time seemed to involve eating and drinking in a range of places with English names – Malvern and Richmond – until I met someone in South Yarra which is not somewhere you’ll find in the UK to my knowledge. Here I had breakfast with an old mate. The owner of the café was running for councillor and his posters were all over the window – but strangely not in that of any other shop in the street. I don’t think he’ll get elected just because he can knock out a reasonable cappucino.
That was about it for Melbourne. I drank some Stella. I discovered a couple of cousins. I enjoyed the atmosphere. But it didn’t quite hit the spot. Interesting people can compensate for a bland environment. And in this instance they did. But if you arrived here without having contacts, I think most would find the environment a bit underwhelming.
It was raining as I pulled into Sydney, once again exposing the fact that I had only one long-sleeved item with me. But it was never cold – just wet, and the locals were full of stories about how it was the worst weather since records began. When isn’t it? I took the train north of town to Wollstonecraft. In ten minutes you’re in the sort of suburbs it would take an hour to reach in London. The feel is the same but the wildlife isn’t. I was having a beer on the balcony when half a dozen multi-coloured parrots swooped down and started eating bread from my hand. One even perched on my head. Later on I was sitting in the living room when a two-inch cockroach scuttled past, rapidly followed by a three-inch centipede. And this was a meticulously clean house. On the way home the following night, what looked like a small dog rushed past me and ran up a tree. On closer inspection it turned out to be a possum. And the volume and intensity of the birdcalls made it like trying to sleep in a jungle.
There were some things I wanted to do in town. The aquarium was average but the highlight was having a proper look at the legendary duck-billed platypus, that genetic oddity that has fur and a duck’s bill but lays eggs, unlike any other mammal. They are smaller than one might expect, about a foot long. I also took in the Museum of Contemporary Art, which housed a rather weird fabrics exhibition and a lot of wood and crushed lotus leaf creations provided by some Indian bloke.
I moved on to the thing I had really come here for – to walk up the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The guy who set it up originally had the idea when he wanted to provide a thrill to incoming business people he dealt with. It took him years to overcome all the safety issues and the result is thoroughly worth it. You have to hand in everything you could possibly drop from up there, don a pair of NASA-style overalls, be breathalysed, and sign a form absolving them of all responsibility if you happen to die in the process. A mate of mine’s colleague was rejected on the alcohol test because of a session he’d been on the night before – and you don’t get your money back. You are attached to a safety line with an ingenious universal joint that looks like a yo-yo, which allows you to move smoothly along while remaining safely strapped on.
Then you’re off, as it were. Under enormous steel structures, climbing up to road level where you emerge between lanes six and seven as the cars fly by, then up on to the semi-circular arch and eventually to the top, where you stand 450 feet above the bay. The world looks pretty sublime from up here. I’m not great with heights but this was fine since the surface area under your feet is quite wide. That is until you cross from one side to the other. Then it’s about a yard wide, which at that height seems about the width of a piece of frayed cotton. This was a fantastic experience, looking down on ocean liners going underneath, and enjoying brilliant views out to the Pacific horizon.
I finished the day by quaffing a couple of well-deserved beers in the rather homosexual Paddington district, and wandered home. The next day I took the ferry to Manly, so named because of the virile nature of the aboriginal inhabitants first observed by the captain of the boat that discovered the place. Perhaps the gay guys should move out here instead – it would be good for their egos. I enjoyed a dip in the ocean, keeping an eye on the strong riptides that can whisk you away without warning. It’s the same all round here. Down on the beach at Bronte we watched in horror as the waves pushed a couple of youngsters and their surfboards onto the rocks. One mistimed wave and they would have been mincemeat. But they got away with their lives and a severe bollocking from the lifeguards.
Bronte has a great saltwater swimming pool on the beach which is filled by the waves crashing in. Great fun. It reminded me of a similar smaller one I’d found on Easter Island, although that one had no-one in it. That night I went to Bondi Beach to meet someone who never turned up. Mildly pissed off to be stood up 12,000 miles from home, I decided to walk home to Bronte along the cliff tops in the dark. I was rewarded with one of the most memorable walks of my life as the moon lit my path and electrical storms played out spectacular patterns out to sea. It was truly magical and I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
The wind howled all night and it was raining again the following day. I moved to Darlinghurst for my last night in Sydney. This is a sexy, predominantly gay area and I thought it was ironic that Kings Cross was the local station. The trees and lampposts were plastered with posters offering a reward for Trevor the lost parrot. I roared with laughter when we bumped into the owner, a distraught homosexual on a bicycle with a butterfly net on a six foot pole. “I’ve found the tree he’s in but I can’t reach him with my pole,” he wailed pathetically. Trevor’s not daft – he’s having a much better time of it eating from the bins and shagging crows indiscriminately.
And so to Cairns – anchor point for the Barrier Reef and some dramatic rainforest. We drove past the cane fields and banana plantations and I was delighted to see a signpost to the wonderfully graphic seaside town of Yorkey’s Knob. Well you can’t get clearer than that, and I’m sure Yorkey is honoured. My destination was the Daintree Ecolodge. It sounds a bit new age, but it basically means a cleverly run hotel smack bang in the middle of the rainforest, with all the rooms on stilts. The lady was showing me round my room as I stepped out onto the balcony and came face to face with a spider as big as your hand. “What the @*! is that?” I exclaimed. “Oh,” she said nonchalantly, “It’s the Golden Orb Weaver. We have hundreds here.” And she wasn’t exaggerating. These giants were hanging off every tree on every path, and if you weren’t concentrating you’d turn a corner too quickly and have one covering your face like the blobby thing in Alien. Whenever you heard a scream in the distance, you knew that a guest had just walked into one, and everybody just shrugged their shoulders and laughed.
I decided to get right into the wildlife thing and tackle it head on, so I promptly went on a dusk river cruise up the mangrove swamp with Dan the local expert. As ever, it was pissing with rain and the mossies were out in force, but by torchlight we saw the most interesting things. Crocodiles, and fruit bats (big bastards these, and they make an excellent curry, as I discovered once in the Seychelles). There were kingfishers and herons, brightly coloured tree frogs that you could manoeuvre into position for photo opportunities, Eastern Water Dragons (that’s a two-foot iguana to you and me), and the Papuan Frogmouth, which is essentially an owl with a big mouth but no sharp beak or talons. So it bashes its prey around a bit and then extends its jaw to swallow big chunks whole. All of which made me think of dinner so I strode into the restaurant and ordered crocodile fritters. That’ll be one less of the bastards skulking around if I fall out of the bloody boat. By the way, the aborigine for crocodile is Bilngkumu in case you were wondering. Not that any of us has a cat in hell’s chance of pronouncing it.
Now, for those of you who moan about how much it rains in Britain: go to a rainforest! Oh yes. When it rains, it does so properly. Not droplets. Not stair rods. Not cats and dogs. Oh no. This is proper stuff. A bloke on your shoulder pouring a bucket of water over your head, say, every two seconds couldn’t begin to simulate it. It hammers down. It wakes you up. It makes an almighty racket. So there. Once you’ve experienced this, you’ll never moan about the rain again.
I awoke to the sound of guess what? Anyway, to be fair, it is a rainforest and today I’m going to take a walk round it with my aborigine guide Dawn. She says most aboriginals are named after things that were present at their birth, such as a honey bee or storm, which reminds me of the old Red Indian two dogs fucking gag, but we won’t go into that. The forest is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a hotbed of mosquitoes forming an orderly queue to chew your balls off. Oh how the companies who make repellent must be laughing. And so are the mossies. “Ere Dave, I think this is the new one from Bayer – it’s fucking magic, have a go.” “No, no,” says Dave, “This is the reformulated Mosiguard – I love this, particularly on fat Yanks.”
We examined a lot of trees, my favourite being the Strangler Fig which eventually kills its host after fifty years of arboreal hospitality. There were dragon-like beasts and spiders – you get quite used to them after a while. I discovered some appalling facts about aborigine history. Astonishingly, some documents from 1800 classified them as fauna. They were all talking about the new film Rabbit Proof Fence, which tackles the issue of the “lost generation.” Basically, any aborigine who looked white was taken away on the grounds that they might benefit from a decent education because their genetics would let them. Those who were fair only were because their mother had been raped by a white man. Irony indeed. So many aborigines have never known their parents because relocation records weren’t kept and names were usually changed.
All this depravity had no bearing on the fact that I was always going to do a session on aborigine art. I wanted to design some things for my daughters and maybe my girlfriend, if my efforts weren’t too crap. I grappled manfully with a range of ochre stippling techniques, and had a crack at a stylised water dragon and a barramundi, which is a big motherfucker of a fish which inhabits these parts. They also make an outstanding meal I’m pleased to report. I partook of a particularly tasty one yesterday, nicely topped off with pesto and lime. Yum yum, and bad luck to the grumpy would-be groper. It was only when the Americans started offering me cash for my utterly non-aboriginal efforts that I realised I was on to something. If I worked at it, I could have a sustainable living in a rainforest stippling jewellery boxes and burny beads. On second thoughts, where’s my return ticket to London?
I decided to celebrate my new-found artistic skills by having an outrageously hedonistic massage affair. I can never take the descriptions seriously, but approximately it involved being scrubbed with gritty salt, having hot oil poured over you, being wrapped in a terracotta coloured goo, being hosed down with a Vichy five-nozzled shower, having an oily head massage, then the full body massage. All to the non-stop sound of whale music dextrously mixed with a didgeridoo soundtrack. When it was all over, I was triumphant on two counts: 1) I didn’t fall asleep 2) I didn’t get a stiffy. And believe me, for any man in a massage parlour, that is a genuine achievement. Actually it isn’t at all. I developed a foolproof technique. I simply pictured some Hong Kong ladyboys trying to entice me from a seedy doorway shouting “Hey meester, you wan ficky fick? Only two dollar!”, and I stayed limp the whole time.
Americans eh? Moan moan moan. That’s all they ever do. This isn’t right. That isn’t right. The price isn’t reasonable. As ever it’s a minor miracle they’ve ever left their own country at all, so quite why they feel they have the platform to criticise everything else in the world is beyond me. Anyway, we are heading out of the rainforest to catch a plane to Lizard Island, so named because of its extensive population of, you’ve guessed it….yanks. Only kidding, there were some, but there were also lots of big lizards. Basically, in the same way that you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a dog in the street, so these 2-3 foot beasts wander about at will.
The flight over was fantastic. Twelve of us boarded a twin-engined Otter plane, the pilot started up, and we promptly went round in circles three times on the tarmac. “Sorry folks, the steering’s buggered, so unless you fancy taxiing here all day in circles, I suggest we return to the terminal.” We eventually took off in a smaller eight seater, generously giving the six-foot-three-inch Texan the seat at the back so he could stretch his legs out and kick the pilot in the back of the knees. His wife wore leopard skin glasses and quietly read her book. She didn’t like it when I said I wasn’t too keen on Dallas.
We flew low over classic reef islands, bright and aquamarine, before landing smoothly on a sloping runway significantly narrower than the South Circular. A four-foot square hut bore the sign Airport. We were welcomed with refreshing towels and whisked down the road in a minivan – about five hundred yards. And there we were. Paradise. Every postcard you can imagine – white sand and palm trees. Oh yes. I swam in the sea, which was bath temperature. I wandered around on the beach, enjoying the feel of the white granite sand between my toes. I fed Charlie, the seagull with the dodgy leg, on the balcony of my chalet.
They must have known I was a guitarist – they put me the furthest away from the main area as they could. Which suited me fine. I tripped over a few lizards, had a beer and scoffed a decent dinner of quail in a Thai style, coral trout in a green curry sauce, and had an excellent Tasmanian cheeseboard washed down by Starvedog Lane wine. I had to have it, if only for the name. I was rewarded for my bravery when the waitress brought the bottle proudly depicting two dogs copulating. The picture also showed a solitary bone on the floor, but it was unclear whether he had given it to her or not. Oh, and it tasted bloody marvellous with the Tasie cheeses. It is at this point that it becomes apparent precisely why there is a limited baggage weight on the flight over here – they need the rest of the plane to squeeze in the Duchy Originals, Stella Artois and Gilchrist & Soame body lotions. It’s a wonder they have room for the guests at all. But I’m extremely grateful.
The following day is one of the best of my life. I am snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Words don’t really do justice to the variety of colour and form here. On the surface, one is vaguely aware of some variations in underwater structure. Different hues of blue, aquamarine, some deep greens. But below a few metres the light changes and there is a different spectrum. We first went to No Name Reef, so-called because they left it clean off the original reef maps. Here we saw black tip reef sharks, parrot fish and an enormous camouflage cod called Daisy. Daisy was four foot long, and would come up and nick a pilchard if you were happy to dangle it and keep your fingers tucked in.
Then we went over to the Cod Hole. Here potato cod will mill about and come for dinner if you wave the right titbits. But the real treat for me was when we came back to moor in the bay. An eight-foot tawny nurse shark, a white tip and several five-foot gropers came to the boat for a feed. We were dangling fish out of the boat when one of the dive girls asked if anyone wanted to get in with them. You betcha! I crept in and swam around with these giants. It was a pleasure and an honour. And by the way, the skin of a tawny nurse shark is like mild grade sandpaper. She liked a stroke, a bit like rays when they come to the surface in an aquarium. Unbeknown to me, the whole episode was captured on video, so I have the proof.
That evening I was asked by someone’s wife to have dinner with her because her husband was ill in bed. The poor bloke had been throwing up almost the whole time we were out on the boat. So I chatted with her about politics, as you do. Then it all went very quiet and I wasn’t ready for bed, so I went down to the staff bar, played pool and drank too much Tasmanian lager. These guys were ultra polite by day and partied hard in the evening. In the morning I played my guitar on the beach – always a life-changing moment if you’re on a paradise island. This particular guitar is an absolute dream it you’re travelling. It’s incredibly light and slim so it just slings over your shoulder. Great. Then it started pouring with rain so I thought what the hell and dived into the sea. I was going to get soaked anyway.
I discovered that the tall Texan ran a large number of the Hooters bars in the US, so I told him about my experience in Singapore. He confirmed the quality of the staff in the Nashville one that I had enjoyed so much. It was time to go, so we climbed aboard the twin-engined Otter (no steering problems this time), and cruised over the reef to Cairns.
Cairns is really not at all exciting. Parked on a rather grubby stretch of beach, it is laid out in an unsurprising grid and seems to cater mainly for the Japanese. It suffers climatic extremes, and in the last rainy season the river rose twenty five feet and flooded the whole area, cutting it off from the rest of the coast. So the place was rammed full of Japs and other tourists who had flown into the airport and couldn’t get along the coast to anywhere else. Given the blandness of the place, that’s a pretty tough gig.
I didn’t really want to be here but had no choice because I needed the connection to Hong Kong, and since they stopped the morning Lizard flight a while ago, it was Catch 22. Right. Get positive and make something happen. I’m not the kind of guy to travel 27,000 miles and start moaning that there’s nothing interesting to do. No siree. But there wasn’t. I had some tapas and a few beers and wandered around the town. Johno’s live music emporium only looked marginally inspiring and I wasn’t convinced about the band billed for later: Reggae Knights – oh dear! So I watched a porn movie in my room and went to bed.