Ute Lemper … The Hottest Vamp in Town

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Ute Lemper might have thought Perth was cold – she told us twice – in German and French, but the lady on the night was hot and the Perth crowd warmly enthusiastic. The New York based girl from Münster (the northern German university city), took us on a very personal journey through the love poems of the Chilean Noble Prize winner, Pablo Neruda and after interval, into songs from the likes of Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel.

In so many ways, this was musical theatre at it’s very best. Ute – pronounced “oota” – Lemper gave us the lover, the vamp, the siren, the lost and even the dangerous. And the musicians were of the same master class as the musicians Leonard Cohen plays with, each instrument a voice of its own. There was a moment, as Victor Villena’s bandoneon took over from Micha Moltoff’s violin, when it was impossible to tell which instrument still had the note. Vana Gierig’s jazz influenced piano, John Benthal’s guitar and Steve Millhouse’s double bass are central to Lemper’s performance with the bandoneon and violin adding haunting pathos, you’d go to see these guys even if Ute couldn’t be with them.

She sang the love poems in Spanish, occasionally breaking into the more accessible, (for this enthralled audience member), French and English, but love and heartache is an international language and Lemper gives wonderful theatre, so little was lost. The last of the poems, “The Saddest Poem / NR.20” was a tour de force and her scat singing beyond astounding.

Interval over, the lady reappeared, the blood red gown of tempestuous love, replaced by shimmering cabaret black and Lemper went back to her roots, simpering into Berlin dialect with Marlene Dietrich’s “Die Fesche Lola”, segueing into Lili Marleen.” I have to admit her interpretation unaccountably brought tears to my eyes, as she lent on Villena’s shoulder and sung the haunting, beautiful song. Then she led us into the brothels of “Amsterdam,” with Brel’s bitter/ sweet portrait of sailors, ports and prostitutes. Not many people can pull this song off, however she equalled Scott Walker’s version, singing in both French and English. Gierig then left the keyboard, exiting stage right, returning with a bowler hat and cabaret was on in earnest, as the musicians began Kurt Weill’s Die Moritat von Mackie Messer (“Mack the Knife”). Lemper blended this into “Cabaret”. It was utterly spellbinding.

There was more ”Milord”, but not enough. This lady is at the top of her game, giving us an unforgettable night of love, poetry, music, theatre and passion and I swear she looked at me in my second row seat and said “Et toi’ as she bade us farewell. Ne me quitte pas!

Eastern States audiences still have the opportunity to catch one of her magnificent performances, in Melbourne: Wed 18 September at the Arts Centre, Adelaide: Sat 21 September at the Barton Theatre and Sydney: Mon 23 September at the Sydney Opera House.

Greg Ross

Springsteen & I – a gentle, wonderfully different Rock Movie

The movie trailer:

http://youtu.be/HVQUeCi9V0s

Way back, even before Adam played fullback for the Arabs, I was in Melbourne and had just bought a new album. It blew me away, pure magic, fabulous rock and roll, a hell of a band and a singer / songwriter with a rock anthem voice and gutsy blue collar lyrics.

The year was 1975, the album was ‘Born to Run’, the band was the E Street Band and the singer was Bruce Springsteen. I loved it, still do. I remember writing to my mate Gordon, who was off travelling through Asia, especially to tell him he had to listen to this guy Springsteen and his music. Later, there was the dark, brooding Steinbeck-like album ‘Nebraska’, an absolute masterpiece. Springsteen tells stories of working class people, songs of hope and loss, that can make you weep, or dance for joy. One always gets me yelling along is ‘Glory Days,’ a song which has become more relevant as I’ve grown older. As a lyricist, for me he ranks alongside Cohen and Dylan and I was saddened when he didn’t make it to Perth recently, he’s the one act I desperately want to see – like Cohen, he gives everything in three to three and a half hour concerts to his audience. And in a sad note, I will now never get to see the fabulous Clarence Clemens play his wild, wonderful sax with the band, I guess it’s some recompense that his nephew has replaced him after his passing.

Anyhow, on a whim, I thought I’d pop out to the cinema on a wet winters Wednesday and watch the movie / documentary ‘Springsteen & I,’ as it’s been getting great reviews.

It’s very different and won’t suit everybody – my son Gordon walked out after half an hour, as he loves Springsteen, but thought it was going to be a concert, which it isn’t … for most of the movie.

It’s made up of Youtube ‘Selfies,’ short amateur videos people have made of themselves, talking about their love of Springsteen and his music and how it’s affected their lives. Admittedly disconcerting at first, I must admit for a while I thought it wasn’t for me either, but gradually I began to be drawn into the stories, featuring people from all over the world (none from Oz or NZ as far as I could tell). It became utterly fascinating and sometimes, so poignant tears would well in my eyes. I won’t describe the vignettes, rather if it interests you, I’d like you to experience it for yourself.

The format continues to break any rules, in that half way through, the credits role, but it’s not the finish. The screen goes briefly black then we roll in to last years concert at Hyde Park in London for 35 minutes of great concert work – that is going to be a helluva live concert DVD when it’s released! And after that there’s an Epilogue which yet again tugs at the heart strings.

For any fan of popular music, this film is a must-see, it shouldn’t work, but it does, probably for the reality that so many of us have grown up with musical heroes and music which identifies us and we identify with. Go with an open mind and heart, the emotional reward is both unexpected and soothing.

Reminiscing … Vampires and Audis

Great mate, Tony McManus, now Breakfast radio king in Cairns, has just written, reminding me of the Audi A4 launch I dreamt up way back in 2001, his words; … I recall the BEST Audi A4 launch was presented by you at Midland? Not long after I arrived in Perth? Still never been to a better car launch.”

Audi A4 Launch

[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l1.jpg]10The minimalist entry
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l2.jpg]00The "Art of Audi" display
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l3.jpg]00Walkin through the display, you had no idea you'd end up in the shed.
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l4.jpg]00Out into the main shed, note the candelabra
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l5.jpg]20The steam engine comes hissing and puffing into the crowd
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l7.jpg]60The Leshenault Lady restored to all her past glory
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l8.jpg]30Ghouls and vampires descend into the crowd hunting the girl
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l6.jpg]20
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l9.jpg]20The victim surrounded
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l10.jpg]00Count Dracula appears.
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l11.jpg]00He's got her!
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l12.jpg]10The Audi A4 and Bond to the rescue!
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l13.jpg]00The only way to deal with a pissed-off vampire - a gun won't do it!
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l14.jpg]00Saving the girl, as you do!
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_a4l15.jpg]00The Audi wins
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/audi-a4-launch/thumbs/thumbs_image.jpg]00The Inside Cover story from the West Australian!

 

Audi wanted the launch to be something different, away from the dealership showroom, so I poured myself a large glass of Shiraz and ‘thunk.’ I decided I wanted a desolate, wrecked sort of place. Went to visit the old East Perth Power Station but it was too derelict, too dangerous for people. Then after a day or two of searching, somebody suggested I take a look at the old Midland Railway Workshops. I rang the guy (Kieran Kinsellaheading up the newly established Midland Redevelopment Authority and arranged an appointment – he seemed bemused / intrigued.

When I got there, there was this massive shed, several of them, long and vast enough to park several Indian Pacifics in, huge! “Hmm,” said I to myself. “I like this. What could I do?” I noticed there was a railway line into the shed and said to Kieran, “Can I get a real train in here?” He said yes, quizzically, asking me what I was thinking. I couldn’t tell him just then, as a mad, mad idea was fermenting in my pea brain. I needed more red wine.

Back at the bar, the concept formed … in the fog! I wanted to have the invited guests inside the building, sipping champers and nibbles, then a train whistle would sound outside the building. The roller door would go up and a real steam engine would charge in pulling one carriage. The carriage would be full of ghouls and vampires, who would descend and walk through the crowd. Planted in the crowd, would be ‘the beautiful blonde victim”. Then as the ghouls surrounded her, Dracula would appear above everybody, demanding the girl. I know, I know, at this stage, I should have been locked up!

Then as Dracula just about claimed the girl, way down in the depths of the other end of the shed, literally about half a kilometre away, headlights would switch on and out of the darkness, the hero would come speeding up to rescue the girl.

Kieran liked it, (he was looking to have something happen there for the publicity), my boss thought, quite rightly, that I was off the planet, but Audi loved it and gave me permission to go with it.

There were almost insurmountable problems, but hell, that’s never stopped me, not the least being no power on site (more of that later!!) and finding a working steam engine was almost impossible. But I found the Leschenault Lady, a little old steam engine enthusiasts were slowly putting together. They needed funds to compete the restoration, easy. Then I needed actors, WAAPA was the answer. Then there were safety issues, we had to have volunteers to protect people – bringing a live steam engine into the middle of a crowd has certain complications, especially when they’re not expecting it! We also needed a real driver – racing a speeding car up to guests inside a shed has it’s own complications!

Driver lined up, we took the exhaust off the Audi – sound effects inside the shed, besides, the steam engine would be making a fair bit of noise, letting off steam as it were – and started practising. If I say so myself, the car looked spectacular, coming out of the blackness at a thousand miles an hour and David got the end slide perfect.

The big night arrived. We had signs up on the Great Eastern Highway, as most people had no idea where they were going. The debonair, impeccable, unflappable Peter Holland was MC (more of that later). Guests were ushered in through a small door, into a very modern setting of eclectic Audi things and associated luxury goods – watches etc – we had to have guards on duty as some things were very valuable – not that the invited guests would have touched anything! As always, in my events, Faith Nicholls from Comestibles did the catering.

So there it was, guests had wandered through the displays with drinks and food, then eventually found themselves in the vast shed, lit with a few lights, and candles and candelabras everywhere. Then as they were all wondering when the usual boring reveal would be, the lonesome whistle sounded outside the shed, most people didn’t take too much notice, as the major east – west rail lines are very close. Then the roller door opened and in came the steam train right into the crowd. The crowd went wild, more so when the vampires and ghouls came out of the carriage all heading for the blonde girl in white, who’d just been amongst the guests. I used the soundtrack from Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent Dracula film.

With the girl surrounded, the music built to a crescendo and then way above everybody, on a scissor lift, was Dracula, bathed in a red spotlight. He beckoned for the girl and slowly descended. Just as he was about to take / bite the girl, way out in the blackness , headlights went on and the Audi without any exhaust, started speeding towards the crowd. Great theatre if I say so myself (sorry!, I’m just laughing remembering it all). The car swooped to a stop in a fantastic broadside, a James Bond type bloke jumped out, grabbed two bits of wood, shaped them into a cross, warded off Dracula, grabbed the girl, threw her, elegantly! – into the car and they sped off.

The crowd loved it, wild applause broke out, then … then … the lights, sound, power, everything, except the steam engine went out. I panicked, this was not in the script. I ran / stumbled over to the generator, it was still going but no power. The manager I’d hired to oversee everything was baffled and panicking, bosses were yelling at me, I had no idea what to do, so I did the only thing possible. I thought, “I don’t know anything about power generators, they’ll fix this, I can’t contribute, so I’ll pour myself a wine and get some fresh air, while the experts deal with it.”

Within about five minutes, they fixed it – some dry ice, from the container next to the smoke machine, had fallen onto a connector point and blown a fuse. Most in the crowd thought it was all part of the show, Comestibles kept serving food and Peter Holland was completely, wonderfully, unfazed.

The next morning, I got a phone call from Inside Cover at the West Australian and found myself in a starring role the next day!

I’ve posted some photos I’ve still got of the event, they were taken by a Sunday Times photographer – Stuart? Apologies, I just can’t recall his name and from memory, there were just on 500 guests. Audi always said it was the best launch. And as a postscript, I now live in an apartment that’s part of the old railway workshops complex, indeed the railway line that goes right past the balcony, is the same one the steam train came in on. The Leschenault Lady went up to Kalgoorlie to do tourist runs on the Kalgoorlie – Boulder line, but I’m not sure where the grand little lady is these days.

 

 

 

Uncle Sam – One Bloke’s Impressions.

I wrote this blog whilst travelling the US in mid 2009, having deleted the original blog, people keep asking where they can see it. So herewith, I’ll add photos as time and place permit – some are on this laptop, others are stored at home.

Perth – LA

Salutations from the desert … US style – a little oasis called Las Vegas, “Vegas baby,” in local speak. But before I write of the joint, there is the journey to speak of.

I flew out of Perth just after midnight Saturday, bound for Los Angeles via Sydney. It wasn’t an auspicious start, there was a last minute plane change (blocked loos) and some bloke had obviously been making a nuisance of himself on a previous flight – I suspect he had something to do with the loos. The constabulary were monstering him, so we had a 40 minute delay, while they practised ‘Attitude Adjustment’ and Qantas scrambled for a replacement aircraft. It was just one of those things, better to have working loos and a subdued drunk than vice versa, most of us were happy with the outcome, then I stuffed up (it had been a bad week!).

I’d asked for an aisle seat, to which the lovely Qantas lady had said, “Sure.” I ambled on board, found the seat and waited for the two people next to me to arrive. A bloke lobed in (window seat) and close behind him, Jabba the Hut, female style. “Where are you?” she demanded in thick Kiwi accent. “I’m here,” I innocently replied, “No, that’s mine! She delicately informed me, “You’re in the middle and what’s that bag?” The overhead lockers on the short-haul Boeing were smaller than normal, I hadn’t been able to get my bag into one of them and was waiting to ask one of the cabin crew for help.

I was sure I was right, but everyone was being held-up, so I said, “No problem, we’ll ask the crew when they come along. “What about the bag?”, Jabba yelled. I could see two bags and one was more of a problem than the other, “I’ll just put it on my knee until the crew can help,” I replied, thinking, “Oh God, the plane’s full, I’m stuck here.” The crew were lovely, sorted my bag and explained that Jabba was right – my tired eyes (that’s another story – the new lenses had not arrived in time and I’m having close-up reading issues), meant that E looked like D to me. Further, because of the plane change, it was a different seating configuration, my ailse seat was now a middle row seat! I apologised. Jabba thundered into the aisle seat, unfolding all over the arms and into my space. She was obviously well-practised, forcing her way back against the chair, with her right arm claiming the arm rest. I knew I was going to spend the next four hours in the middle seat, hunched forward beside the aggressive mountain of flesh. I smiled meekly at the chap in the window seat, he just looked away. I couldn’t say I blamed him.

Somehow, Jabba continued to spread! She glared at me, I knew the cow was daring me to protest. Ah, why not! I looked at it, ”You know,” I said, “All my life, I’ve been terrified I’d have too much to drink one night and wake up beside something like you and here I am, haven’t had a drink and the bloody nightmare’s happened.” Well, it wasn’t going to be a good trip anyhow. Laughs from the neighbourhood, Jabba said, “Just f$^&# sit there and don’t move.”

“I hope you’re flying back to New Zealand,” I replied, as I resolved to hunch for the flight. Silence.

At one stage, I offered to pass over an orange juice to the bloke in the window seat, but he pointedly wouldn’t take it from me, “This is too hard, “I thought, “I hope things get better on this trip.’ They did, but one last mention of Jabba. As she left the aircraft, reaching solid ground in the terminal at Sydney, Mr Window Seat caught up with her, “Are you alright dear?” he said, as he reached for her hand!

Time to wing my way across the Pacific, in a Jumbo, I love those planes, just so damned reliable and graceful looking – to me, the DC3, which I flew in a lot as a kid and the 747 – 400 are the two best passenger planes the world’s had so far and this trip was suddenly looking a lot better. Upgrade! To Premium Economy.

Now I’d looked at that option, but couldn’t work out what you got for the extra money. Don’t hesitate. This is the way to travel long distance. You can stretch for miles, the seats are big and the price is considerably less than Business Class. Jeff, the American guy from Iowa beside me, had also been up-graded (the plane was full) and like me, he was ecstatic about it. It’s more or less the same as business class, except that you have two choices of wine and main course rather than four and the décor is a little less salubrious, but not much. And joy of joys, Vasse Felix was on the list! This felt like home! Things were looking good.

I wandered around, asking my fellow passengers what they thought. Like me, they were lapping it up, so much so, that when I told some of them I planned to write an article about it on my return, they all agreed to be interviewed and photographed. A young couple from Sydney, Luke and Kerry were heading for Las Vegas for some fun, they’d flown Premium Economy before and said they wouldn’t fly any other way on long haul. Jan and her little daughter Tori were flying to Los Angeles for a wedding, Jan thought it was fabulous for little kids as well – they could comfortably curl up and sleep. A mum and daughter also said what we were all sub-consciously thinking – how great the Aussie crew were.

Sue and Geoff were looking after us, Sue has been in the job for 30 years, in fact she’d just attended an Ansett Reunion down in Hobart and Geoff had been in the job for 21 years. He and I had a chance to talk later. Married for all those 21 years to Leanne, he finds the travel works well for them as a family. They have three boys, Tim (19), Nick (17) and Cameron (12) – all three play soccer. He usually does two long-haul fights a week, most of the time across the Pacific and they get a minimum 36 hour break between shifts. And yes, Jet-Lag affects them the same as you and I. He’s been with Qantas all that time, loves the company and it’s reflected in the quality of the service and the genuine good feeling, just remember that depending on the aircraft, there are either 32 or 36 premium seats available on long-haul flights, I’ve been First Class once in my life, (yes an upgrade) and business class, (when the company is paying), but this strikes as the perfect solution between comfort and wallet.

We couldn’t see much of LA as we flew in first thing in the morning, it took me a while to realise it was smog – five hours later, it still hadn’t lifted! I was flying on to Las Vegas with US Airlines, so I made my way by free shuttle bus to their terminal and my first dealings with the way things are done in the US – it’s very similar to buying a car, there’s always a catch and there’s always more money to pay. I checked-in my suitcase, “Jut swipe your credit card there sir.”

“Why? I’ve already paid for the ticket.”

‘Yes that’s right sir, but your luggage is extra.” I really began to appreciate the integrity of our Aussie way, the Yanks had already got me a few weeks back with their Visa Waiver programme. You do it on-line, Veronica (who does know about matters US) had assured me it was free, but try as I may, I couldn’t get past paying a $50.00 fee. It later turned out that Google had allowed a company to hijack the US government site with the “fee” by-pass. To be fair, the US Government has complained, but the rort goes on. I smiled to myself, when, like all visitors, I was finger printed on arrival (it’s OK, it’ electronic, rather than ink), thinking, “Yeah, you do this so you know who’s fingers have been burnt.”

But, hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m loving it and the people are fantastic, it’s just that you have to be completely on guard when you purchase anything, a “catch” is built in to the system. Oh yeah, US Airlines. A lot different to Qantas. Laid back? Herded really and nobody listens to the cabin crew, nor does the crew seem to care, people wander up and down the aisle (before we take off). It’s all very commuter and ‘shrug of the shoulders’, quite chaotic. I kept thinking, “Struth, I hope their maintenance is better organised.” Fifty minutes and the most un-drinkable coffee later, it was Viva Las Vegas.

Fourteen bucks gets you a return token to the airport on the shuttle, it was 30c outside and wonderfully, madly chaotic. In the shuttle bus, suitcases were piled in the aisles, people scrambled over them to find a seat and the driver kept calling out hotel names, somehow, I found myself at the Luxor Hotel.

Vegas Baby.

Now it needs be understood that Las Vegas is basically a bunch of themed hotels, (with gambling machines in every space), plonked in the desert. By day, it’s nothing to look at, but then the only reason people go out by day, is to fly in or out, this is ”Night City” and I love it!

It’s mad, glitzy, gloriously and obviously fake, but alive. It’s spread out, so much so, as of today – well, tonight – I’ll use the monorail to get around, but yesterday I walked it (after five hours afternoon sleep), from 7.00pm through to just after midnight. That old Presley song captures it perfectly… “turning day into night time, night into day time …” In fact Elvis talked to me on the sidewalk (he’d left the building) and the Bellagio Casino has a constant fountain display which is synced to Elvis singing “Viva Las Vegas,” you can’t help but stand there with the other couple of thousand and enjoy it.

Everything is larger than life, hundreds of small Mexican guys (none of them seem over five foot), line either side of the pavement, handing out cards offering girls and call-girl and strip joint cards. Millions of the cards lie all over the streets. Pedestrians only cross the road at traffic lights, nobody, absolutely nobody jaywalks. And the Aussies are in town, from Human Nature to that Aussie male strip review, ‘Thunder Down Under’.

Violence? Haven’t seen anything. Walking the streets of Vegas at night, feels far, far safer and relaxed than Northbridge back home in Perth, this is truly a place for everyone and their families to come and have fun and they do! The joint is pumping – you can wander into any casino, dressed as you want, street sellers sell ice-cold bottled water, bands play on terraces, you can get a great meal for $10.00 and a bottle of Jacob’s Creek for $9.95c and you’re allowed to walk around with a beer, wine or cocktail in your hand. Want to go to a show/ Cher’s in town, so is Bette Midler, B.B. King left yesterday (it’s OK, I’m catching him in Memphis) and Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood are doing a joint two nights next week. Oh yes, there’s also Marie and Donny Osmond every night, plus a host of entertainers I’ve never heard of.

I’m still stunned at the lack of menace and the goodwill and friendliness of local and visitor alike, I genuinely can’t wait to hit the streets again tonight, although I will venture out a little today (there’s no coffee making facility in the room – they want you down where the poker machines are) and on the advice of Deb and Mark, I’ve got to go see the lions in the foyer of the MGM Casino.

Tonight? At 7.00pm, I’ve got a front row seat at Cirque De Soliel’s ”Beatles “Love show, then, given my penchant for things vampire, I thought I’d amble up the strip and catch “Bite,” a vampire show on at Stratosphere Casino, it looks a little naughty, but hey, as the saying goes, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Monday and a hot wind was blowing into Vegas from the surrounding mountains. I’d woken late, well, this is a night town anyhow and I had two shows to catch this evening, but first, a little about Las Vegas.

Half a million people live in the CBD and the area has a total population of almost two million. Somewhere around 5,000 people currently move to the city every month and although there is a downturn, Las Vegas provides a relatively cheap holiday – if you don’t gamble! I may be the only person who came and never slipped a quarter into a machine –they’re throwing me out today! Year 2000 statistics show visitor numbers at 3.8 million and1,000 flights in and out of the international airport per day, so make no mistake, this is business on a massive scale. Oh yes, I forgot to mention yesterday that Tom Jones is in town, Rod Stewart is about to arrive and so is Eric Clapton, it seemingly never stops.

Speaking of scale, the power and water usage defies contemplation and yes, Global warming is causing furore. The city is currently sucking surrounding aquifers dry and the talk now, is of building massive desalination plants on the coast and piping the water in over the mountains and they want to build three new coal-fired power stations to cope with the need!

I went up the tower at Stratosphere Casino at midnight, the view from outside, in all directions at 909 feet is mind blowing, as you’ll see from the photos. Closer up, or more down to earth, (especially on the free monorail trip from casino to casino), behind the facades it’s just acre after acre of concrete parking lots, concrete worker apartments, vast parking lots and construction machinery sites, speaking of which, maintenance on roads etc, is carried out night and day, 24 seven as they say, it’s a jungle out there.

Speaking of which, first up the lions at MGM. There they were alright, in the foyer of the casino. They bring half a dozen in every morning from a farm 25ks out of town and boy, are these pampered pussies! They’re all hand-raised by their keepers, no guns (bullet or stun) anywhere, it struck me that these felines probably have a latte and yoghurt for breakfast! Certainly when they arrive, they’re given a shower and shampoo and blow dried by stylists before entering the glass cage. It’s quite surreal, but hey, that’s Vegas.

After a quick power-nap, I arrived at the Mirage for Cirque De Soliel’s “Beatles “Love” show. I had a great ticket, B1 – just two seats in front of me and virtually on the stage. The two people next to me and in front of me, were all from Missouri and although they didn’t know each other (as couples), they were unanimous about two things – Missouri was the most boring place in the world and Australia was exciting, different and free. Yes, folks, they love us over here.

The show? Ted (Bull) told me the other day he was jealous of my going to see Love, as he’s a Beatles tragic and he’d also been told that the show would never tour. That puzzled me, as I thought that’s what Cirque De Soliel shows were all about (touring). In hindsight, I think his information was correct, the technology and machinery used is so breathtakingly complex, I can’t see that it would be possible to tour the show in its current format, so you’re going to have to come to Vegas if you want to see it and you should.

The music of course is fabulous and while there’s not a narrative as such, there is a thread, woven around four young boys and lads, (the Beatles), using characters from songs, such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Mr Kite, Father McKenzie, the Queen, Sergeant Pepper and Eleanor Rigby. Somehow, the dark days of the blitz are woven in, leading to the hippy era, with gurus, flower power and groupies etc. George Martin has woven in outtakes of the Beatles chatting at recording sessions and extend the music and songs. It was utterly lovely, visually surreal, colourful and an absolute feast of fabulous acrobatics, music and characters.

At one stage, a vast curtain billowed out from a hospital bed and we found ourselves passing it over our heads, then whoosh, it was sucked back and diamonds began twinkling all over the auditorium, as Lucy swept across the sky. The show was stunning and also unexpectedly comfortably nostalgic, it brought back all the memories of those days. I’d go again. No, I didn’t buy any merchandise, I’ve already got the album and like everything from Cirque De Soliel, it’s premium priced, which reminds me, there was even a Beatles chopper on display, it seems every show in Vegas, has a wildly chopped Harley somewhere, California chopper bikes are an integral part of the culture, but that’s just fine with me I love ‘em, in fact, I’d love to bring my cruiser over and tour the states a la Steve McQueen.

Show over, I set off for the next one, “Bite” the vampire show at Stratosphere Casino. Now you have to catch a cab or the monorail, it’s just too far to walk. To put things in perspective, some of the major casinos take up the area in Perth bordered by say William, Wellington, the Swan River and Victoria Streets –virtually the whole inner CBD would be swallowed up by one casino / hotel complex! And it’s cunningly done, you have to walk through each casino to get to the next, the monorail stations are basically in the casinos and when you’re walking through, the paths take you all over the gaming floor. The monorail is interesting in that it’s electronic – remote controlled – there are no drivers and again, as I mentioned yesterday, you feel quite safe at 2.00am, no need for transit guards here.

I wandered through the famous Sands and found they love their motorsport –Nascar racing, them good ‘ol boys, (plus Marcus Ambrose from Oz), are heroes, suits me, I also love motorsport. So, how was “Bite”? Actually, it was a lot better than I’d expected, I’d really thought it was probably going to be a strip show and I was a little embarrassed to be going by myself, however I needn’t have worried,

It was very much in the genre of Anne Rice Vampire books, overtones of eroticism and horror, yes, trashy, but hey, it obviously appeals to the dark side of yours truly. They used classic rock songs, from the likes of AC/DC, the Stones and the Eagles etc, not to mention an excerpt from Nessun Dorma! – don’t ask me, I don’t know either, except to say I’d never considered topless show girls cavorting as vampires a natural fit for that particular piece of music.

Surprisingly, there was a guy with an excellent singing voice and yes, he was a tenor and some fantastic acrobatics, a la Cirque De Soliel, enjoyable trash, perhaps a great way to finish off a stay in Vegas. It was, by now, well into the witching hour (about 2.00am), I’d got off the monorail at MGM and was walking through to Excalibur, which leads to the Luxor.

On a bridge over the water, ‘Bite’ came to real life! Out of the shadows, a voluptuous and, I must admit, rather attractive young red headed lady of the night clicked her heels and stepped out into the spotlight, “Well! hello honey, you are looking good enough to eat.” Great line. “Where are you heading now?”

“Bed darling,” I replied, by now, I’d learnt how to deal with vampires, “Take me with you honey,” she purred.

“The thought is very interesting,” I replied, “But I don’t think I should.” She vanished back into the shadows and I disappeared into the glass pyramid of Luxor.

And now I’ve got to pack, I fly out for Washington and wonderful friends Oscar and Susie De Soto, who you all remember from their time in Perth as the US Consul General.

Washington. Now there’s a name to conjure up images of power. I’d arrived late on Tuesday night, (there’d been an hour delay leaving Las Vegas, it just seems to be the way of air travel today – the delays in booking in (interminable queues and security checks), plus seemingly constant aircraft breakdowns), mean two absolutes should be factored in to travel plans – you need to be at the airport two hours before the flight’s due to leave and you can’t rely on getting to your destination at the time, or date you thought you would.

When we taxied in to Dulles airport at Washington, they asked those of us who were stopping at Washington to stay seated, while passengers who were travelling on got off first, then the plane was held up on the runway. By the time we reached the terminal, they informed those travelling on, that arrangements had been made to put them up in hotels for the night. And even when we came into the terminal, we discovered there was still a 15 minute shuttle ride before we got to the baggage carousel in the main terminal. But what the heck, the suitcase was there and so was I, more importantly, so were Oscar and Suzie.

What a joy to see them again, it had been five years and although emails keep the lines of communication wide open, nothing replaces the pleasure of actually meeting up. They haven’t seen many of us from their days in Perth, Terry and Jenny McGill have been the main visitors (they’re visiting again in August). Oscar tells me that Washington and Perth are about as far away as you can possibly get from each other – almost directly on opposite sides of the world New York actually starts to be closer (to Perth).

Suzie’s still working for the state department, but Oscar’s moved to private enterprise, although still heavily involved in consulting with various departments such as trade, foreign affairs and the Pentagon. And yes, they would love to move back to Perth – Suzie vows they’d live there in a flash if it was possible.

Just as she was telling me that, Veronica rang and I passed the phone over. I could hear them reminiscing about Leeuwin Concerts and the fabulous lifestyle in the West. Time to get out the present I’d brought over. Some of you will remember the farewell gift a group of us gave them when they left – a Dean Alston cartoon of the two of them standing by their Jag at a Leeuwin concert, wine in hand, grinning like Cheshire cats, the framed cartoon has pride of place in their study. Luckily Veronica still had a copy and I’d printed it out on to two t-shirts. I rather think they liked them.

Morning. Everything is so lush and green, it’s very similar to New Zealand, almost a sensory overload to anyone from Perth, Las Vegas (dry desert) was much more like home to me. We drove into the city, parked and went walk-about. First the White House, it’s exactly as the photos show, very white, with beautifully manicured lawns and gardens. Security, as to be expected, is absolutely invasive, on every corner, every doorway and every second car, marksman patrol the roof of the White House. But in the midst of it all, Michelle Obama’s vegetable and herb garden is on open display, it sort of imparts a feeling that she is striving to preserve what she can of a normal life for her family.

Washington strikes me as a rather cultured place, there are parks (small corner spaces and large parklands) everywhere, beautiful, grand buildings, very clean, in some ways, reminiscent of Canberra. What really washes over you, is an enormous sense of history and place – from the Watergate building, to the top hat Lincoln as wearing on the night he was assassinated. I had never really understood that so much of the civil was fought in this region – just yesterday, they had to call in the bomb squad to deal with an unexploded civil was shell at a construction site.

I’m also very fortunate, in that Oscar’s a history buff, there’s so much I learnt yesterday (and we’ve only just started, there’s three more days to go), but a couple of quirky things spring to mind – George Washington was desperate to join the British Army as an officer, but they turned him down as he wasn’t from a good enough family! That was a world-changing moment! Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were well over 6 foot, imposing men. And a Dr Mudd was inadvertently caught up in the assassination of Lincoln, (he was later pardoned), however, his real legacy is the expression “Turned to Mud,’ in terms of reputation.

Actually, I met, Abe, George and Teddy (Roosevelt) later that day, which segues into baseball. Oscar, Susie and son Mike, took me to a baseball match last night, their team is the Washington Nationals, playing against the Pittsburgh Pirates. They’d explained that their team hadn’t won a match for five years and they didn’t expect things to change anytime soon, however the one consolation was that they sort of felt close to Perth, with the Eagles and Dockers long term loosing ability.

Sure enough, the boys lost by one point, but it was fascinating to be there, on several fronts. Firstly we went by subway and it worked really well, moving 20, 000 fans and commuters, secondly, the non-loutish behaviour of the crowd, they were all just so polite and nice teach other. I’m stunned and a little embarrassed to say it, but Americans are a far more civilised and polite bunch of people in public than we are, there just isn’t the naked aggression that we see after large sporting venues disgorge their crowds, mind you, their drivers are still just as inclined to give the fingers and they use the car horn almost non stop.

At the stadium, there’s slightly more choices of food, but still not much in the way of healthy Mediterranean choices, you can buy wine, in plastic glasses, it’s quaffable, very much in the Swan Valley sharp / a little too young mode, but hey, as a non beer drinker, I was very happy to sink a red. And after all, I’d just shaken hands with three former presidents, so a celebratory drink was called for.

Celebrations? The De Soto’s might have been resigned to the Washington Nats loosing, but the headlines in The Washington Post today, scream “Nats Can’t Stop Bleeding, Lose To The Pirates Again.”

We got home just after midnight, and were reminiscing about Perth, when Oscar told me a wonderful story, a couple of months ago, a copy of a Clark & Dawes Report (from the 7.30 Report), had been circulating Washington, from State department to department and nobody realised it wasn’t real! Until Oscar let everyone know it was humour.

In fact, as I write this, Oscar’s just found the clip, it’s an old one AND West Oz related – it’s the one about the bow of the oil tanker falling off and over the end of the clip, the Washington political commentators have written, “It seems politicians are the same everywhere!” I sent Bryan Dawes a message telling him they’d achieved fame here in Washington, here’s his reply;

Greg

Just passed this onto Clarke, he thanks you for your information. We are releasing a DVD of the best of the past 20 years in September, perhaps Oscar can represent us in Washington. Still chuckling at this end.

regards

Bryan

And Oscar’s now emailing Bryan the clip (with the political commentator bit on it), all which means I’d better finish up and go have a shower – we’re heading out to the country today, you see Oscar and Suzie just happen to know of a winery! Tonight? Suzie’s cooking a lasagne … more red wine!

“What’d you do in Washington Grandad?”

“Well, one day, we did Margaret River.”

“What?”

Thursday morning and Suzie suggested we have a lazy day and take a casual drive up into the mountains. I started to worry when Oscar grinned at me and started humming the first few bars of ‘Deliverance,” but I needn’t have worried, mind you, I’ll get him.

We headed out north about 50 miles (80ks) through rolling green gentle hills, great road systems, although very busy with traffic, all of which gradually segued into beautiful farming land, dotted with small villages, antique shops and wineries! Now to be fair, they’d said not to expect too much, but that was fine with me, as we found ourselves in absolutely gorgeous country, surrounded by tree lined back roads in 29c sunny temperatures. Just perfect. We turned into a winery called Tarara, they’d never been there, but wanted to see if it was any good. As we drove along the long winding tree-lined private road, a deer ran across in front of us, Oscar mentioned that as well as deer, there’s also black bear, beaver and the usual squirrels etc, quite magic really and there are apparently deer in Oscar and Suzie’s suburb, in much the same way as we have roos in our outer tree-lined suburbs.

The winery was lovely and although the vegetation and trees were very different from WA, it had a Margaret River feel to it, very much so. In fact, we sat out on a balcony and tasted wine, cheese, crackers and chocolate for a couple of hours and it was almost eerily reminiscent of the balcony at Vasse Felix. Fantastic, The wines? Pleasant, in my mind, similar to much of what we get from the Swan Valley, fine quaffing, but a little sharp / fresh, but in the scheme of things, there were no complaints from this little black duck … or the other two.

Eventually we collapsed into the car and meandered back, taking the long way, crossing the Potomac (which flows through Washington DC) and is pronounced Pi (as in bit without the t) toe mac – can’t think of any other way to write it) into Maryland and walked along side the old canal system, which still has water it in some areas, but here is dry and overgrown. It runs between the river (which is shallow and rocky, hence the need for a canal) and the railway, very picturesque. In many ways, it’s very reminiscent of New Zealand, especially around the Cambridge area and also the Southern Highlands in NSW.

I have to confess I missed the freeway drive home, but boy did I wake up when we got there, you see Suzie, as promised, had baked THE BEST lasagne (her Italian grandmother’s recipe – oh God! But they hadn’t finished, with great flourish, Oscar produced a 1995 Heytsbury Cab Sav, they’d been saving for a special occasion. This was Heaven!

Now yes, I did feel guilty, they’ve now got only one bottle of Vasse Felix left, but hey, the three of us did it more than proud. So there we were, across the other side of the world, savouring one of the world’s best reds. Was it good? Like velvet, stunning. Sleep, (we’re going touring in the morning).

Friday evening, Washington DC and it’s hard to know where to begin, although Suzie’s just handed me the best Tequila – based Martini I’ve ever tasted, a really good start to anything, but perhaps I’ll kick off from where we started this morning, at the end, for so many, Arlington National Cemetery.

This weekend is a national American Holiday. Memorial Weekend pays homage to the sacrifices of American service men and women across the last 400 years and soldiers have been busy planting thousands of flags on the cemetery graves. It is an astounding place, situated in the grounds of what was the Southern General Robert E Lee’s mansion. The house looks across in honour at military personal who’ve passed away either in old age, or during battle, in every conflict from the Civil War on. In fact the initial use of the grounds was deliberate, they determined to bury the dead at his house to teach him a lesson.

All past and serving personal have the option of being buried at Arlington if they wish, with the government covering the cost of the entire funeral, they truly don’t forget them. Suzie’s dad is buried there and just below General Lee’s house, in an unexpectedly elegantly simple grave, John F Kennedy lies at rest, along with Jackie and their two youngest children, to the left, in an even simpler grave, marked with a plain white cross, his brother Robert Kennedy also lies at rest.

Memorial Weekend sees literally millions of Americans descend on Washington DC to pay their respects, including many, many Vietnam Vets riding Hogs (Harley Davidsons) – yes, there were a few Hondas, Yamahas and Triumphs, so I didn’t feel too bad about my Honda cruiser back home. Half a million believe it or not, will ride from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Wall, another deceptively simple Memorial. I caught a poignant, solitary moment of reflection for one Harley riding vet, the picture says more than any words I can conjure.

We made our way up to the Lincoln Monument, an icon shrine for the country. I must admit that as I stood on the steps below, where Martin Luther King made his impassioned speech during the civil rights marches some 40 years ago, I was utterly aware of the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (carved into the wall behind me) and the reality that what both these honourable good men had strived for, has now culminated with a black president. Oscar tells me the next memorial being built in these grounds is for Martin Luther King.

The Korean War memorial is striking for another race-based reason, it features statues of soldiers struggling through harsh winter-soaked ground and as I looked at the obviously black facial features of one statue, Oscar pointed out that the Korean War was the first time black American soldiers had mixed with white American soldiers, prior to that, in the Second World War etc, they had been segregated, that shocked me.

I should point out that there is a beautiful World War 11 memorial, but you can only cope with so much in one day, there is also a massive Holocaust building, which Oscar tells me recreates the horror of the camps etc, right down to the horrors of the furnaces, but I just could not face anything that harrowing. I was also conscious that the German people are celebrating 60 years of democracy this week and for me, it’s vital to look forward to a shared future, although II was still in for an unexpected sense of shame and horror later in the day.

Now if you’re coming to Washington, while everything seems grouped together, there is a lot of walking involved and what they don’t do well, is sidewalk cafes etc, you get the odd ice cream and cool drink vendor, but practically nothing in the way of cafes and table seating under umbrella shade etc. My one complaint about the USA so far, would be the quality of their take-away eat-out food, it’s truly bloody awful, most of it is junk food, full of fat and sugar, it’s even virtually impossible to buy a yogurt that hasn’t been adulterated with stuff. Our next stop, the Smithsonian Space and Flight museum was a case in point, the only café / restaurant in the massive building, was a two tiered McDonalds! You either starve, or eat the fat.

But what a museum, from a V2 rocket, to the Apollo Moon landing craft, a joint USA / Soviet mission (the two craft docked together) to the Wright Brothers plane, a DC3 suspended above us, the Spirit of St Louis flying alongside, it never seemed to stop, just sensational, truly an exhibition of world significance, I’d love the impossible opportunity of walking the museum without the crowds, you could spend days there, but then that applies to all the Smithsonians.

To explain, there are several Smithsonian museums spread across the city, each specialising in an area of American culture and life, from the original Smithsonian castle (the original family home), to the latest, the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Indian factor was beginning to gnaw at me, I’d been in the country for almost a week, but there seemed to be a cloak hiding anything Red Indian, nothing. I kept thinking of Australia and New Zealand, regardless of (and not making excuses for) the abysmal treatment of the Aboriginal and Maori peoples, both countries very actively promote the respective cultures of their native peoples, not so the USA. Black culture and music appears to have become the de facto native culture, it’s as if the American Indian doesn’t exist.

As we walked in to the new Smithsonian American Indian museum, Oscar and Suzie told me that the crowds we’d seen at the Space museum would not be here, they were right and I began to understand why. This is a museum unlike anything I’ve previously experienced, except Dachau. The Smithsonian people have handed the exhibition over to the Indian people to run and it is utterly and intentionally confrontational. It’s embarrassing to be white, doubly so, when there’s no escaping what we (as Europeans) did to native races all over the world, if I was them, I wouldn’t talk to us. Treaties? Jesus wept.

I vividly remember a late night conversation in New Zealand with my brother’s ex partner, Sheila, as she gently, but strongly told me why the Maori people (she’s Maori) historically have no faith or trust in the written word, (or following on, education), to them as a people, it all went back to the lies of the Treaty of Waitangi, they quickly discovered there was no honour or truth in anything the English wrote, as they lost lands and were herded away. The Australian Aboriginal people, a far more fragmented, basically nomadic society fared even worse and it seems we practised the same evil intent on the American Indian and dear God, the current plight of the Indian people is frighteningly similar to that of Australia’s Aboriginal people and the New Zealand Maori – displaced, angry, lost, ravaged by alcohol, diabetes and lack of employment.

I am of course, no expert on these matters, but it does seem to me that the Maori are currently in a better place than either the Indian or the Aboriginal, better assimilated, accepted and more aggressive in demanding their rights. The American Indian appears to be in exactly the same current situation as the Australian Aboriginal people, regarded as an embarrassing nuisance and trapped in the gutters of society, although at least Australia and New Zealand actively promote their native cultures, here in the USA, it appears to be actively submerged.

The museum began to depress and worry me, although the architecture was wonderful. I found myself telling Oscar and Suzie there was too much bleak darkness and no light, that some samples of everyday past Indian life would help. Deep within me, I knew I was wrong, I just wanted relief, then we turned an amazing corner.

I’d told my gracious hosts that I didn’t want to visit any art galleries, as time was at a premium and I could see art at home, I wanted to learn about the USA. The museum had other ideas.

Fritz Scholder, (1937 – 2005), artist, sculptor, printmaker, American Indian, I’d never heard of him, but we walked into an exhibition of his work at the museum that literally stopped me in my tracks.

It is of course an unlikely name for an Indian painter, but then his father was German and his mother Indian. He single-handedly changed the face of American Indian painting, forcing it away from the stereotypes of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. An insatiable reader, he absorbed influences and culture from across the world, developed a penchant for English cars (Rollers and MGs) and, interestingly for me, had a fascination with vampire mythology.

Often referred to, somewhat dismissively, as “The Andy Warhol of Indian Art,” at one stage, he refused to paint anything Indian, but a gradual rage built up in him, as he learnt of the past litany of injustices and returned to painting with a vengeance, in the process upsetting many Indian people with confronting paintings that made no attempt to shy away from the ravages and dependence of the Indian people on alcohol.

Some of his larger works were uncannily like much of Brett Whiteley’s work, all of it is incredibly powerful. Thankfully there was a book to purchase. If you’d like to know more:

www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/scholder/

www.fritzscholderpaintings.com

I didn’t need another museum after that, too much to think through, besides, Suzie was cooking Alaskan Salmon and Oscar had been begging her all day to make a particular Tequila-based cocktail. Not only that, we couldn’t walk any further.

Oscar hailed a cab to take us back to their car and forty minutes later, the cocktails materialised. Oh brother! I was going to write this last night, but Susie killed that ability. The salmon? Maate! Stunning, matched with a Jacob’s Creek Pinot Gris served in Leeuwin Estate glasses – I tell you, we’ve turned them into West Oz ambassadors, which segues into a nice little close, several of you are emailing back, asking me to pass on your best wishes to them. I’m doing better than that, I’m passing on your emails and as you’re finding out, they’re taking great delight in making contact with you.

Saturday, out in the leafy burbs of Virginia. A touch of humidity was sweeping down the short manicured streets of Oscar and Suzie’s community. Gentrified s perhaps the best way to describe the area, lovely trees everywhere, the houses are usually attached three or four story town houses, timber rather than brick. Think of the housing development around Minim Cove at East Perth, although the houses have been here for many years. Settled, gentle, leafy, quiet, reserved, in many ways these small satellite suburbs are hideaways from the surrounding high-powered constant bustle and movement of traffic and people in what is after all the capital of the USA.

But still, there are deer in the woodlands, red fox and squirrels and birds in every garden, sanctuary is a good word, mind you, the real world is never far away, the other night, there were four of us at the dining table, all working our laptops, we even caught ourselves sending emails to each other – it’s not as bad as it seems, I was on-sending messages from several mutual Aussie friends!

Oscar and Suzie had an interesting experience arranged for me that evening, we were going to the nearby Wolf Trap National Park, to see a live radio broadcast by Garrison Keillor, “Who?” I can hear you say, I’ll get to that shortly, first Oscar and I went looking for a NASCAR shop. Son Gordon wants me to get him a Marcus Ambrose shirt, Ambrose is an Aussie, V8 racing fans will no doubt recall that he was a champion racer in Oz before he left to try his luck in US NASCAR oval racing and by all accounts he’s starting to do very well.

NASCAR racing came about with the days of prohibition, the good ‘ol boys souped up their cars to make fast white lightening runs (to quick for the law to catch ‘em), these days it’s a massive sport, but more popular in the southern states and looked down upon by the more sophisticated northern states – Eoin Cameron and I know full well what it’s like to be frowned on for displaying an interest in the vulgar sport of motor racing – think how hard it is to get a V8 Supercar race result on ABC TV on Sunday nights.

Anyhow, Oscar didn’t hold out much hope of finding anything and he proved correct, the stores in the massive sopping centres were filled with baseball and gridiron stuff, “You’ll find what you want in Memphis,” he reassured me. We did take a look through a book shop, very, very impressive and yes, books are far, far cheaper than we can buy them, even allowing for the currency exchange rate, it was very tempting to lash out, well, I did, a bit of light reading for the thousands of miles of flying lying ahead of me over the next few weeks, Ronnie Woods autobiography of is life with the Stones.

We picked p Suzie and went down to buy some wine at a massive liquor store ad found a fair amount of Australian wine, including some form Western Australia – we’d just missed out on the last few bottles of Leeuwin Art Series at $29.95 a bottle. There were a couple of Margaret River labels didn’t recognise, on close inspection, the wine had actually been bottled in California, with the wine apparently from WA. There was another supposedly from McLaren Vale, that had a sort of Aboriginal design label and a name that somebody had obviously thought sounded Aboriginal – to me, it was more Hawaiian, so there’s obviously some interesting packaging / marketing ploys going down with wine at the moment, perhaps a result of the world-wide wine glut. It needs saying that the people in the store knew their wines, although they had no idea about Vasse Felix, they knew how good Leeuwin Estate wines and NZ Cloudy Bay wines were, as expected, Jacobs Creek is everywhere and very cheap. Suzie stocked up on wine, cheese and nibbles and we returned home for a power nap before our trip to Wolf Trap.

The national park is just a twenty minute drive away, along a narrow, winding two lane road, very Caves Road, albeit a touch narrower, Along with several thousand other people, we parked up and walked along with our chairs, rugs, food and wine, a lot like home. In fact, when I mentioned this, they grinned and said, “Actually, this is your fault, you’re the one who introduced us to this outdoor concert / picnic lifestyle and when we came home, we continued it. We come here to Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Centre for shows and concerts all the time now.”

After we’d wined and dined on the lawn, we walked down to the building were the live broadcast was to occur. Purpose built, out of timber, it is a brilliant building, quite capable of hosting a symphony orchestra, a play, a rock band, or a radio show, people are seated in allocated seats inside, or they can choose to sit on the surrounding lawns outside the building, catching glimpses, or watching large screens (if they’re in use). I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

The crowd was very WASP, the only black people were acting as ushers, it was obviously as Oscar had told me, middle America. Apparently Garrison Keillor has a broadcast audience in the hundreds of millions, revered and loved by Americans, certainly they were in raptures with him. Type in his name on Google and Wikipedia and you’ll find reams of information, including podcasts etc. I was fascinated and found it almost impossible to typecast him. He’s not a radio presenter in the sense that we know as the norm – no desk, he stands at a microphone and does a show. Very definitely an entertainer, the show is obviously well scripted and rehearsed with a tightly adhered running schedule,

The show / broadcast, which travels around the nation, is called ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, he gives gentle social commentary monologues that ramble off in all sorts of directions, as he ad libs and weaves poignant homilies into the tale. There are musicians on stage, playing bluegrass, rack and gospel. Keillor sings himself, in a baritone and sings short poignant songs he’s written abut every day observations It’s all very ‘down home with the folks,” but just when you think, ”This is so corny,” he injects an edge. He brought out the top student from Washington High, a black guy, who’d just won a national poetry reading competition and he performed a piece about being black with a white teacher.

Keillor has a make-believe community called Woebegone, (yes, I know, but the American audience doesn’t). Keillor is razor sharp, not a shark … I don’t think and he weaves a tale of normal incidents around the fictional community – kids borrowing money etc. He also has a troop of clever performers doing skit radio shows a ala those of the 1950s. It is genuinely funny and there is an edge of sophistication around it.

And the Australian references didn’t stop there, although I don’t think many in the audience would have been remotely aware, he and his team did a very clever sketch about a politician under siege, with ‘concerned’ local citizens worried about wombats, then there was the direct pinch, breathtaking to an Aussie.

It s of course, Memorial Weekend in the States, (the actual holiday is Monday) and traditionally he always does the Memorial Weekend show from Wolf Trap. He announced that he was going to do a song about the effects of war – “The Band Played The Star Spangled Banner”. Sound familiar? You bet, we know it as the Eric Bogle song, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda!” Interestingly, he left in the caustic anti-war lyrics, I thought he might have changed some of them, as being too much for American audiences. It was received well, although quietly, as people suddenly realised what was being said in the song. It was interesting to hear an Australian icon anti war song used in an American context on their national holiday commemorating the sacrifices of the forces. I’m sure you can listen to his version on the internet, as the show was / s available on the web.

Is there anything to compare with it in Australia? Perhaps the closest thing would be Macca’s Australia All Over on Sunday mornings, but that doesn’t have the peculiar and interesting edge that Keillor’s show has. One thing’s for sure, it gave me a glimpse into middle America that I would never have known about and don’t think this was all about Republican values, on the contrary, Keillor’s a Democrat and an open supporter of Obama.

And sadly, my time’s almost up in Washington, we’re heading over for breakfast with Vince and Sandy Di Pietro (Vince is our head Oz Navy honcho in the States) before Oscar and Suzie drop me at the airport for my early afternoon flight to New York.

Sunday morning and sadly it was time to take my leave from the wonderful hospitality of Oscar and Suzie, although we did it well and, I finally got my motorsport fix.

Vince and Sandy had insisted we come around for brunch, even though they’d been away – Vince had only got in at midnight from Trinidad (we walked into Bob Marley being played very loudly … beautiful).

Vince of course, is our Naval Attaché in Washington, a navy fly boy of old. Most of you will remember him from his days as Commander of Stirling Naval base, which is where I first got to know him. I remember when a bunch of us were staying on board the USS Stennis, a US aircraft carrier out on the Indian Ocean somewhere. There was a presentation after dinner, with the American Admiral of the Fleet giving Vince a plaque as a memento of the aircraft carrier – he made a clever flippant remark about size, but our boy Vince then presented the Admiral with a plaque from Stirling Naval Base, saying, ”Mine’s much bigger than yours.”

Speaking of things navy, I don’t know whether it’s hit the Oz news yet, but some of our own ships, after a tour of duty in the middle east hot spot, have been warding off Somalian pirates from commercial shipping and are now headed for various ports around the globe on a goodwill mission. Even though we’re a small nation in terms of population, we continue to punch above our weight in these unsettled times.

Vince and Sandy have a beautiful bungalow in the leafy suburb of McLean – it’s where people such as the Kennedys dwell, “Struth,” said Vince, “You’re here, I’d better put the flags out!”

“Mate, where’s the bloody Ferrari?” I demanded, “I’m on a car starvation diet so far this trip and Oscar keeps inferring, nicely, that, well, it’s not quite cricket … sorry, baseball.”

“Come with me,” said Vince.

First stop the study, framed, signed Ferrari pictures everywhere and, this will make everyone back home feel good – well, some of you, a framed, signed Dockers jersey – Sandy’s the Docker’s fan – they have two daughters at Notre Dame in Freo. But there was something else in the study, an autographed “It’s Time” poster, with a young Gough looking out intently. I wondered how the previous administration reacted to that when they visited. We went downstairs.

There was Vince’s model car collection, mainly Ferraris – he’s a fanatic. Many of the models have been signed by champion Formula One drivers and he’s got one Melbourne GP cap signed by everyone from Schumacher to Sir Jack and Stirling Moss. He also has a small Steve McQueen collection, which he’s hoping to build on. I expected all this, but what really took my attention, was a signed boxing glove from Rubin Carter (the Hurricane). I remember and have always loved the Bob Dylan song from way back in the 1970s, that kick-started the campaign for justice, speaking of which, Andrew Mallard’s been forced to accept the WA Government’s payout and in reality is being pushed into the mire of endless court battles, which will scar both him and our society even further, thank heaven’s for the sanity and release of motorsport.

Vince pulled the covers off the Mondial, red of course, with the pre-requisite bone leather interior, it’s in fabulous condition, a true classic and he plans on bringing it back to Oz with him. Oscar felt it was probably one of very few Ferraris in town on diplomatic plates.

We celebrated the bonds of friendship over Eggs Benedict and champers, along with a phone call to Veronica and then it was time to head for the airport and a momentary opportunity to get a quick shot of the Pentagon as we drive by – it’s actually quite hidden from view and only five stories high, which brings the terrorist aircraft attack into stark perspective.

Airports are seemingly the same all over the world today, it’s impossible to park, and the machinations of security make it virtually a waste of time for family and friends to do anything other than quickly say goodbye at the door. And in fact I prefer that, it’s easier emotionally, far better to be greeted on arrival than say goodbye. Hugs and gone, into the bowls of Ronald Regan Airport. There are many in Washington who refuse to use the name, pointedly using the earlier National Airport title.

Actually the name’s quite fitting, the place is decrepit, with patches of modern additions here and there. As usual, you have to remove your shoes and shuffle through endless queues, showing your passport to a thousand different uniforms, all screaming out orders. Airports these days are dreadful places, they ruin the travel experience.

There’s more, Americans are unnervingly polite – except for those who work at the airports, they’re bloody rude, the whole experience is of being barked and yelled at with orders, we wouldn’t tolerate it in Australia. There’s no sense of service, friendliness, or wish to help, the air is indifference and, as I’ve mentioned before, the internal airlines are actually a worry, standards are abysmal.

We were herded on to a tired American Eagle plane. You might book with a particular airline, but they sub-contract, obviously at a price, so you have no idea, or control over who you’re entrusting with your safety. The big hard-faced blonde hostess (Reg would have correctly said, “Boiler”), ordered us to stow things away, while she waltzed down the aisle pointedly and rudely telling people off then glaring at us all. I’d fire the cow, but I think I get the impression, she’s the standard American airlines want.

The plane creaked, rattled and groaned out to the end of the runway, then (not his fault), the pilot announced there was an air show on and we’d have to sit there for an hour! Thank God I’d bought Ronnie Wood’s book. An hour later, we had to taxi back to the terminal to take on more fuel. It was a late arrival in New York.

I did go for an evening wander through Times Square (it’s just been closed to traffic as an experiment). First impressions? People everywhere, smelly, vibrant, massive, fascinating and, totally unexpectedly, strangely, very, very reminiscent of Auckland – I felt totally at home (memories of boyhood days). The similarity is weird, but maybe I’ll change my opinion today, when I start touring around properly.

These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York

And the heart goes on seemingly forever, nor does it stop beating, the term 24/7 means New York. Where to start? Well, I figured the best thing to do, was jump on board one of the topless bus tours and get the lay of the land. It’s not a bad deal, $67.00US, valid for 48 hours, night and day tours, hop on and off where you want and a commentary thrown in … together is probably a better word.

We set off from the Greyline terminal, beautiful weather, 29c, sunny as, but the tour guide was a street-smart Puerto Rican bloke with an Italian accent, speaking New York – even other Americans had no idea what he was saying. We’d catch bits about his family and the obvious plugs for various shops etc, but nothing about what we wee seeing, I got off at round Zero, as I wanted to see it, but also as I couldn’t take any more.

The 9/11 site is now under reconstruction, consequently it’s hard to get a sense of what you know happened. There doesn’t appear a reverence about the place, probably because it’s a construction site and security guards are everywhere stopping you from taking photos thorough the fences. I think it will be an emotional place to visit when it’s completed, looking at the plans etc, but currently, what you do come away with, is a sense of absolute vastness, at just how massive the area is. Suddenly the reality that two large aircraft could disappear into each tower, comes into perspective, the collapsing buildings must have been terrifying.

Back on the bus, this time an old hunch-backed guy. I wondered of he’d survive the trip, I needn’t have, he spent the next leg complimenting any pretty young girls he could find. Thankfully the ferry stop (for the Statue of Liberty) was only five minutes away.

Queues! Oh my God, there ain’t no getting away from them and most of us got totally lost trying to work out the system. The best thing to do is go to the loo, buy an ice cream and a bottle of water and go to the back of the queue. You will be standing in it, slowly shuffling forward, for about ¾ of an hour, watching menacing looking groups of Hispanic guys push in, daring anybody to say anything. I did of course, but suddenly nobody speaks English, but, it seems they’re not used to some big old no-fazed Aussie walking round in front of them and smiling back. It became fun.

The queue tightens, some realise they don’t have tickets and have to leave, and rejoin at the back, yep, it’s a shambles. Security guards start yelling orders, it seems we’ve got to go through an airport-like security check. By this time, I was starting to think, I wouldn’t bother, but then I was probably only gong to be here once and I did want to see the old girl.

It’s quite lovely, as with several things, people had told me that it wasn’t as big as I would expect, but it was exactly as I had pictured. Another queue, to up to the top of the base, half an hour later to be told, “No, you have to get a special ticket a week before hand.” I didn’t get off the ferry at the Ellis Island Immigration Centre, I simply couldn’t take any more queues, or yelling security and ferry staff, my head was aching. I’m beginning to suspect that tourism in New York survives because of sheer numbers, which also make things chaotic. It isn’t actually a pleasant experience as such, it’s far nicer to wander around by yourself (or in your own group), I know that if I came again, I’d hook up with the bicycle riding tours

Back on the bus, this time a fabulous guide, a younger switched-on pro, great advice on eating, landmarks and getting around etc, if I hadn’t have wanted to get off at the UN building, I’d have stayed on, he was that good, so my advice to anyone taking these tours, is get off ASAP if the guide’s no good and jump on the next bus ‘till you get somebody good.

I didn’t rejoin the bus and wandered up the street to the stunningly beautiful Chrysler Centre. This is as magnificent as everyone says and I love Art Deco. All I could think was thank God the terrorists didn’t target this building, as it could never be replaced. By now it was just after five and I ambled back to the Roosevelt Hotel for a rest and shower, I was going to hit Times Square that evening

I checked my emails, by the way, every hotel offers broadband, line or wireless, it’s $14.95 per 24 hour period and it’s free at all airports, which is not bad, like Australia, it’s virtually impossible to buy an internet or mobile phone service, even for a short period, if you’re not a citizen with ID. I decide to check my bank – money runs like water and got a shock, there was several hundred dollars I couldn’t account for, I rang Visa.

Interesting, although I’d pre-paid the hotel bill, the Roosevelt had still taken another $100.00US out, obviously in case I ran up extra bills, but as US hotels don’t provide even coffee making facilities, let alone a fridge, I’d made up my mind not t eat at their over-priced restaurants. And that’s a thing, eating is a cheap, or as expensive as you want to make it, $6.95US at a deli gets you a great take-away meal.

Back to the missing dollars, Visa solved the mystery, I’d intended to stay at the Chelsea Hotel, but the on-line reviews of the place were so bad and Veronica has some friends who’d recently stayed there and left after a day, it was so bad, so I’d cancelled my reservation back on the 16th April. Yeah, you got it, they’d taken out three days accommodation last night. Of course, I had no proof that I’d cancelled.

Luckily I caught Andrew at home, (he’s house-sitting for me), got him to switch on my computer and send me the various emails to the Chelsea. I’ll be able to give you a full description of the hotel tomorrow! Suffice to say, as I write this, there’s a card on the desk in front of me, which states, “You’re in New York, Be Direct About It.” I’m with you, well, the Chelsea at 9.00am.

Out into the night, with a couple of things in mind, first, I’d noticed the night before, street vendors on every Times Square corner, selling LV and Gucci handbags. Obviously they’re fake, but what the heck, so I rang Jodie and asked if she wanted an LV bag. Is the Pope a Catholic? I did the deal last night and that was fun.

“$65.00 sir, genuine LV sir.”

“I’ll give you $35.00.”

“Cash, very cheap, this is genuine!” Yeah right. I started counting out the money (US currency is very confusing, the notes are all virtually the same colour), got to $25.00, he snatched it from me and started folding up the corners of the blanket he had the bags on, whistles started blowing, people yelling and suddenly all the pavement hawkers were running, the NYPD was on the trail. $25.00 for a LV bag? The label says it’s real!

I then went across to the Barrymore Theatre, I think you’ve got to catch a Broadway show while you’re in town and this one is right up my alley, Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon in “Exit the King.” The bloke at the booking office was great, “Sir, you’ll get the ticket for tomorrow (Tuesday) night’s show, half price at the Times Square kiosk tomorrow. Good advice, I will.

New York feels incredibly safe, night or day, I stopped to a motorcycle cop, he explained that back in the 1980s and very early 1990s, the place was a nightmare, with upwards of 2,500 people murdered each year, cocaine was sold on ever corner and it was a very dangerous city, but the introduction of Zero Tolerance had changed everything, with murders, mainly domestic! Down to 500 per annum, in a population of over 20 million. All I can say, is that just like Las Vegas, New York, night or day, is a far safer, nicer place to be than Northbridge.

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped to take a photo of the Barrymore, with the sunset glowing in the background, a bloke was watching me, “How’s it turn out mate? He asked. Mate? Struth, an Aussie! Yep, from Brisbane. We swapped cameras and took photos of each other. It turned out his lady was back at the hotel resting, it seemed they’d done the Statue of Liberty ferry trip as well and fond it exactly as I had, too much noise, yelling and queues and had not gone on to do the other island, but they were in agreement with me, an amazingly safe, mad, massive, vibrant place, that they wouldn’t miss for anything.

Tuesday? The Empire State building, the Guggenheim, the Dakota Apartments, yes, the Chelsea, Central Park and the Broadway Show. Oh, yeah, thanks for the emails telling me you’re enjoying the tales, there’s always a lot more photos on the Loconut blog site want see more and yes, I’m very happy for you to on-send the sagas to other friends.

The New York final …and the first few hours in Memphis, Uncle Sam sure is a bloke of many contrasts. My first mission on Tuesday morning, was to call in to the Chelsea Hotel, re the money taken against my credit card. I didn’t really know what to expect – trouble? Contrition? So it was with mixed feelings that I walked into the joint. Here was musical and artistic history, but I was now there for the wrong reasons.

The bloke at the desk was just short of aggressive, but rang the accounts department, then said, “They’ll come down to see you.” A few minutes later a young lady did. The problem appeared to be a lack of communication, even the emails I’d sent the night before hadn’t been passed on / read. However, once she read them, she apologised profusely and set about correcting their mistake. I then felt relaxed enough to take photos, but I’m glad I didn’t stay there, it’s “Glory Days” are obviously long gone. I was also, by this time, convinced New York just doesn’t do tourism or service very well these days, the industry just doesn’t seem to care.

Next stop, one of the ‘same day’ Broadway ticket offices, these are great once you’re in the know, up to 75% discounts are available, but seat choice can be limited. I scored, 50% off row F – 6 rows back from the front to see “Exit the King” for $57.00, more on that later.

Back on the tour bus and another excellent guide, full of info, so they do have some good ones, but you just don’t know what you’re going to get. I guess the best advice for Aussies, Kiwis and Poms, is if the guide has a strong New York / Italian / Hispanic accent, you won’t understand a word over the PA system, best to get off and catch the next bus, they’re every ten minutes of so.

Going through Gramercy, we passed a huge conglomerate of apartments, 10,000 of them! They’d recently sold for around $10,000 billion, purported to be the largest residency deal in history – theirs or ours I suspect. Mainly one and two bedroom apartments, they were built at the end of WW11 to help house returning service men and women, these days, they rent out for between $1,500.00 to $3,000 a month – think those old brick apartments down on Terrace Road in Perth, only multi storied and taking up half a dozen city blocks.

Past the United Nations building again and all the country flags were flying, in alphabetical order of country. The Oz UN flag appears to be a light blue with yellow stars and the usual Union Jack corner piece, although I’m not absolutely sure if I’m right, the guide didn’t know either. On past the Trump Towers apartment building, amazing! We swished on by the Waldorf Astoria, but I didn’t need either the salad or walnuts – not at the prices I imagined then to be, I was looking for the Rockefeller Centre, as I’d been told the ‘Top of the Rock’ lookout at the top of the centre was a ‘must do.’

The building went up about 70 years ago and has some gorgeous Art Deco work internally. Walking up to the second floor to take the lift to the top, I looked out the picture window on my right, there was Radio Music Hall, compete with a sign telling me the Moody Blues were coming to town – a bloke could live in the states, just for the music alone!

The lift up to the top (850’ above sea level) is pure Hollywood. The roof of the lift is glass, a laser light show plays on the roof and the guide rails are lit up all the way to the top with blue lights – it’s like a science fiction movie, wonderful stuff. Then you go outside and get a little bit disappointed, because there are large sheets of Perspex surrounding everything, but you then discover there’s another two levels and no Perspex, magic. Next stop, the Empire State Building.

This is Art Deco paradise, but nobody seems interested. I appeared to be the only person taking photographs of the interior design features, it helped take my mind off the abominable queues, yelling, security and orders. Oh God! I swear we all had to show ID three times, queue in five different areas, be snapped at, ordered around, you might as well be in the army. I kept thinking, “Settle, settle, you’re only going to be here once, just put up with it.” Most people were just shaking their heads, with American people taking / accepting it far better than the rest of us. The view made it all worthwhile and yes, it’s taller than the Rockefeller Centre – have a look at the photo of the building with the weather dome, that’s the Rockefeller Centre. The 86th floor observatory I was on, is 1,050’ above street level (not sea level) and there’s another 250’ to go! Photos done, I got the hell out of there as quickly as I could. Next stop, the Guggenheim Museum, but first a little on getting around.

The topless bus hop on / hop off thing is a must in terms of getting reference points for where you want to go, the tickets ($67.00 US) are valid for 48 hours night and day, but time becomes the enemy, as you spend so long in queues and security checks, that hours are wasted, so the yellow cabs become essential. Most places you’ll want to go to (in the Manhattan general area), work out somewhere between $8.00 and $15.00, you can pay with cash or credit card, however if you hand over a ten bill for an eight dollar fare, don’t expect to get any change and, if you don’t key in a tip when you swipe the credit card, expect a torrent of abuse from the driver, who will then insist the machine’s suddenly not working and you’ll have to pay cash, either way, they beat you.

I must be fair … fare??, I did strike a lovely Sikh cabbie, who was originally from New Delhi, he’d lived in New York for 26 years and driving cabs for 19 of those, he was in Queens when the first plane hit back in 2001 and, like many, he thought that a restaurant must have caught fire, then the second plane hit and all hell broke loose, he said that nobody knew what was going on, there were fighter planes everywhere and he drove home to round up his family and stay home until things became clear. For him, the after effect has been that he’d only recently (in the last five months), started growing his hair and wearing the Sikh turban, as most New Yorkers thought he was a Muslim and he kept copping torrents of abuse.

The Guggenheim. This will remain a highlight for me and a reminder of how inspiring great architecture can be – it is art, it has a music of its own and New York (and Washington), have some wonderful, wonderful buildings. In fact the museum was actually smaller than I had expected, but exquisite in every detail. Then I went inside, Monets, Picasso’s Van Goghs, everywhere, topped off by an exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings, competed works and projects. One in particular blew me away. It was never built, but the model pictured another word. One of his clients had commissioned a building to feature cars and an internal planetarium. I just walked around and around the model, here would be the greatest automotive museum in the world, if anybody had the courage, or the money to bring the design to life, I hope somebody does some day. To my two architect friends, Chris Hardy and Audrie Scott, (hmm, both Kiwis – well, Chris did have to become an Oz to become a Perth City councillor!), I can see why you both have such passion for design.

Time was running away with me, the play was due to start at 7.00pm and there was so much left I wanted to see. There was no choice, I had to make the pilgrimage to Dakota House and, as it turned out, it was also the perfect opportunity to visit Central Park.

As well as the ubiquitous yellow cabs, there are also yellow rickshaws all over New York, I’d wondered about using them, but felt a little squeamish about slave labour – hard to explain, but the thought had made me uneasy. The Guggenheim is on the ‘Museum Strip’ alongside Central Park and the rickshaws are everywhere. I knew I had to cut across the park to get to the Dakota Building. One of the rickshaw guys asked me where I was going, I told him. “$15.00,” he said, “ Ten minutes, or we can stop off and look at stuff in the park as we go.” Part of me thought, “Hmm, it would only be an $8.00 cab fare,” but I said yes. One of the best decisions I’ve made on the trip so far, it is a brilliant way to see Central Park.

“There it is,” he said, “The Dakota Building and that’s Strawberry Fields just there sir.” I had to give him $20.00. First up, a walk through the Strawberry Fields memorial area of the park. There’s a lovely shrine to John Lennon, inlaid with mosaic tiles in the ground and a local bloke has become New York’s, unofficial Mayor of Strawberry Fields. Every morning he decorates the memorial with flowers in peace symbols and gives people a run-down on the Dakota Building – Yoko still lives there, hers (and John’s) apartment is the one at the top with the black railing around it. It’s a strange feeling to stand the entrance to the building and imagine Lennon starting to sign that autograph. That following moment will never make sense. No more photographs for the day, time to reflect.

I caught a cab back to the Roosevelt, showered and headed for the Barrymore Theatre. I figure if you’ve got one last night in New York, you’ve got to go to a Broadway show. There’s a lot to choose from – the usual Lion Kings and Phantom’s of the Opera, Mama Mia and so on, but the thought of seeing Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon together in “Exit the King” was irresistible, for an amateur ham like me.

The theatre was lovely, but I knew by now that New York just doesn’t do wine, if you want a beer or a cocktail, you’re in luck, but they simply don’t have a wine culture. Oh they have it, but they sort of sneer at you and say, “Red or white?” I said yes, to a red. Now this is supposedly an upmarket theatre. The wine was poured into a minute plastic glass – and it cost $8.00 US! I drank it, yep, Swan Valley sharp and went into to take my seat. It was a truly great seat, a little to one side, but spectacular. The lady beside me wasn’t so sure, “Hey, ya know, this ain’t so good,” she said, “ I ain’t been here before, how ‘bout you?” I replied that is was my first time. “ Hey, you’re English doll!”

“Na, I’m an Oz.”

“Well how about that, I’m Denise, I’m a security guard in Las Vegas. I could kill ya with one hit if I wanted to ya know.”

“Why would you want to do that?” I asked.

“Just thought I’d tell ya,” she said. “ I’m on holiday by myself, but I can take care of myself. My husband’s in the airforce, been in for 24 years.”

“Is he a flyboy?” I asked.

“Na, he’s a dentist, he’s gettin’ out next year. He wants to stay in Vegas, but I want to move back to Denver, we was there for 12 years.”

“You sound like a New Yorker to me,” I said.

“Hey, you’re pretty good,” she said.

“So, you’re not going to kill me?”

“Na. just kiddin,’ wanted to see how you’d react. I come to New York twice a year just to see Broadway Shows, whadaya reckon ‘dis is gonna be like?”

It was brilliant, off the planet, hysterical, clever, sad, poignant, twisted, fun and oh so reminiscent of certain just defeated leaders. Of course, Rush did it in Sydney and Melbourne in 2007, but this represents his (and Susan Sarandon’s debut on Broadway. And it would be totally wrong to not mention Lauren Ambrose, William Sadler , Brian Hutchison and Andrea Martin in their brilliant supporting roles. The critics have been raving and at the finish of this performance, the entire audience rose to its feet in rapturous applause. I looked around for the security chic. Gone. Then I remembered she’d also told me she collected autographs, sure enough, outside the theatre, there she was waiting by the side gate, I hope she got what she wanted, otherwise our Geoff may have found himself with a few bruises!

I usually do the blogs first thing in the morning, but I had to be up early, the coach dong the rounds of the hotels was picking me up at 6.30am, I rang them at 7.00pm. “Yeah, yeah, we’ll be there alright!” The Concierge told me they were always late.

Eventually we got to the airport and I had two hours before the plane took off for Memphis via Charlotte. Then something totally unexpected hit me, home-sickness, in an overwhelming flood out of nowhere, accompanied by a debilitating feeling of loneliness. I had no idea what to do, or make of it. Part of me just about changed my ticket there and then to head for home! I’m not joking. I really battled with it. Then I decided to ring Ted, to talk about John Lennon and the Dakota Building, just to keep things light. Bugger me, he asked if I wasn’t feeling lonely. Gulp. In the middle of half million people at La Guardia Airport. I lied, well, I did let it slip that it had crossed my mind at one stage. By now I was looking for a ticket office.

I got a grip, told him I had to get on board and did so. We taxied out and stopped. The pilot apologised and told us there was a stack of planes in front of us, delayed by bad weather over Chicago. There we sat for 40 minutes and all the while I was thinking, “I’ve had enough, I just want to go home.” And that feeling continued most of the day, I couldn’t shake it.

A change of plane at Charlotte and another hour or so to Memphis, yes, with the by now, obligatory wait, this time for just 20 minutes at the end of the runway. My bag was one of the first off, I went outside, looking for the usual cabs and shuttle buses, nothing, a few small buses with rental car company names on them, they were car park shuttles for their customers, but no cabs, or anything and there hadn’t been any transport advice signs in the terminal either. I had no idea what to do, or make of it. Then I saw a public transport bus, so I went over and asked the driver for some help. He told me his bus would get me there and to get on board and pay $1.50, gratefully I did so, as did two French women.

Almost an hour later, we’d travelled through some pretty rough neighbourhoods and we were the only three Europeans on the bus, with everyone looking at us, an interesting experience. Then a white cop clambered on board. In his 50s, he was a huge man, more than morbidly obese, but then I figured he wouldn’t need to run, his belt was full of guns and handcuffs. He stared at the three of us, “Come from the airport?” We nodded, He shook his head.

By now I’d noticed the signs all over the bus, stating that violence was against the law and anyone perpetrating violence against drivers and other passengers was up for 20 years in the slammer, there were also large billboards on the streets with the same message. I was thinking that I should have gone home and I don’t get nervous about anything. God knows what the two French women were thinking, they kept making nervous eye contact with me. The cop got off, which was a worry, then we stopped by a hospital, several young black guys with bandages and no shirts got sullenly on the bus. There was no doubt we shouldn’t have been there.

The bus pulled into a terminal, The driver got out, told the French women they needed to change buses, they got out and a lady driver took over our bus. “Where y’all goin” she said, I realised she was talking to me.

“ The Sleep Inn,” I replied.

“Where’s that?” she asked the rest of the bus. They all seemed to know. “I’ll get ya there now honey,” she said. She did a couple of minutes later. And surprise, surprise, it’s a really nice hotel, there’s small precinct of them AND, not only is the internet free, there’s a coffee peculator in the room, plus a fridge and a microwave and downstairs in the foyer, constant free popcorn and coffee, they could sure as heck teach Las Vegas and New York how to look after hotel customers.

I took a late afternoon walk down to Beale Street, ordered some Nachos while two guys played great live blues music in the pub courtyard, then wandered along Riverside Drive, beside the Mississippi, before coming back to the hotel, to write this blog and get an early night, for tomorrow, I’m off chasing Elvis, but I think I’ll get a cab.

Homesick still? It’s starting to recede, aided by the fact that there was a lovely email from Suzie and another from Brad Eoin’s producer), asking me if I’d like to go on air at 6.20am next Tuesday (love to) to talk about it all, but I wouldn’t’ want to be haunted by the feeling too often … “long distance information, get me …”

Salutations after several strange days. I needed to think about my time in Memphis before putting pen to paper, while at the same time, I was caught up in the American Way of doing business – travelling in the US of A can be a trap for the unwary; to explain.

The Hotel System

If, like me, you prefer to pay when you book accommodation etc, hotels across the USA still want to swipe your credit / debit card when you arrive, no real problem if you offer a credit card, but a real issue if you offer a debit card. They automatically (and without asking, or telling you), charge you anywhere from $200.00 – $500.00 US, apparently to protect themselves against guests running up debts at their restaurants etc. Most of them, by the way, don’t even provide coffee in the rooms, or fridges etc, just paper cups for a glass of tap water.

The crunch is, it can take anywhere from 5 – 14 working days for the money to go back into your account. It doesn’t take much calculation to imagine how much money these hotels are sitting on every day, which is not theirs to have or use. I currently have almost $2,400.00 AUS somewhere in US hotel aether land and they don’t like being questioned about it.

I rang VISA Australia and they’re as angry about it as the customers, but tell me there’s nothing they can legally do. They say they receive phone calls all the time these days from people with unexpected funds missing out of their accounts. The suggestion is to refuse to hand over a credit or debt card (if you’ve pre-paid) and if the hotel insists on a ‘holding deposit,’ then only agree to a cash payment that will be refunded to you when you leave.

Cancelled Hotels

I cancelled two hotels well before I left Perth, the Chelsea Hotel (New York) and the Artisan Hotel (Memphis). Both of them went straight ahead and took money out of my credit card for the nights I had been due to stay. The Chelsea Hotel refunded the money two days after I kicked up a fuss and called in to see them about it, the Artisan is playing cagey – I suspect there’s not much I can do until I get back and lay the official complaint suggested by VISA.

And the saga continues, I arrived at the Holiday Inn (Denver) yesterday evening (a day early) and although I had pre-paid, I handed over my credit card to pay for the extra day – guess what, the hotel has taken out another payment for the four days that have already been paid for. When I questioned the manager about it, she said, “Oh, well, l we’ll check that and see.”

I’ve never struck anything like it, the hotel industry in the USA is at best sharp and at worst, they are gouging thieves, I for one wouldn’t recommend visiting the US, unless you can stay with friends, which is lovely.

Prices

Nothing is what is seems, or as stated. I’ve reached the conclusion that the American business system is based on lies. All of us in Oz have suffered the problems of buying a car – there’s the price, but … “You want a steering wheel? Licence? That’s extra” and so on, in the USA, that applies to everything you’re going to purchase, whether it’s a cup of coffee, a T-shirt, or a meal (and that’s another story again!). A $19.95 shirt becomes $22.95 and add another 30% if you’re dealing in Oz dollars, often there’s at least two taxes to add to a price, sometimes three! – Federal, State and County. The only way to try and understand what you’ll actually pay for something, is to automatically add at least 20% to everything and you’ll be somewhere near the mark – or should that be stain!

Tipping

Oh God! I am over it, Americans are the world’s best stand-over merchants, don’t let anybody tell you that tipping is voluntary, they’ve got scamming down to a fine art and believe me, it’s NOTHING to do with service.

I’ve previously mentioned the angry cab driver in New York, who blatantly cancelled my attempt at a credit card payment, as I didn’t press the Gratuity tab, but coming out of Memphis yesterday (Saturday) morning, from the hotel to the airport beat that. The pick-up had been pre-arranged, quoted ($30.00) and booked. Guess what, we get to the airport and the cost was $35.00. I’d taken the charge into account the night before and made sure I had the exact money on me (they rely on not giving you change), plus I had a one dollar note (for a tip). But the bastard beat me – I had no choice but to give him $40.00 and ask for $5.00 change. This guy was good. “Oh, … I’ve got the wrong shirt,” as he ‘felt’ for his wallet. I let it go for another 30 seconds, knowing I was beaten, then got out, thinking, “ Just get out of here Gregory.”

The Airlines

In my experience, American airline companies deserve to go broke, they are the greatest gougers in the world. Service is non-existent. You turn up at the terminal, there’s a check-in outside, signs everywhere telling you to tip, the bloke dealing with you earnestly tells you that “Your bag is seriously overweight Sir, is there something you can do?” There is, the solution’s in your wallet, plus $15.00 for your suitcase, (that isn’t part of your ticket price). There’s no food (not even a biscuit) while you’re flying – you can buy snacks, although coffee, tea and water is free.

Some companies have really good cabin crews – United Airlines are great, the worst is US Airways – don’t go near them if you can possibly avoid it. And gouge – they’re the experts in the trade.

I wanted to come out of Memphis a day early (I’ll get to that later) and rang US Airways to see what was possible. Anything was really, BUT! They insisted it would cost me another $291.00 US to change the booking – for what was a $188.00 fare that I payed for three months earlier.

I took a walk and decided to abandon the paid for flights and buy new fares, just walk away from the money I’d already spent. Yes, I still had to book through US Airways – the American system is weird, it’s virtually impossible to fly direct to anywhere, egg: You can’t fly from Memphis to Denver direct, you have to go to Phoenix (Arizona) then on to Denver. I was seated next to a guy from Phoenix yesterday, who was going to work in Texas (the other direction!), but he had to fly to Denver for a connecting flight. He told me it drives everyone mad and adds hours on to travel time, but nobody seems to be able to fix the system.

Anyhow, I rang the company and made a new booking – for $166.00 plus (of course!) a $25.00 service fee. I did try last night, to cancel Sunday’s flights, but their press buttons 1, 2, 3, & 4 system doesn’t cope, so I sent an email instead, a reply bounced back … “Thank you for your inquiry, a customer service (hmm) representative will be in touch with you in the next five days.”

How did the flight out of Memphis go? This time (5.25am), the check-in was inside the terminal, “ Your bag is over the limit Sir.” But to his credit, he wasn’t looking for money, “You’ll have to take something out sir.” I grabbed the plastic bag with all the electrical leads (camera, phone, laptop chargers etc), nope, still not enough Tired, not thinking properly, I then grabbed the toiletry bag. Yes, the weight was now fine, “That’ll be $15.00 sir.” See what I mean we’re already $40.00 over the quoted price, but by now I don’t care, I just desperately wanted to get out.

I get to security, shoes, belts etc off, then the security bloke looks in the toiletry bag and takes out the toothpaste, shaving cream, hair product, not to mention a debate about after shave. By now, I’ve decided to convert to Islam, I’m with them! Then all hell breaks loose, security guards are coming from everywhere, “You’re bleeding sir, what happened?” People are putting on surgical gloves. NO! I don’t want THAT examination! It seemed I’d cut my hand re-opening the suitcase, what’s more, I’d put my hand into my jeans pocket to get out my passport etc and smeared blood all over the white shirt I was wearing.

They gave me a tissue, I cleaned up as best I could in the loo, and, when I reached Phoenix, brought a new shirt at an airport shop – that’s how know $19.95 becomes $22.95.

Memphis

I have never been so confused about a place, or my own feelings in my entire life, in fact, I still think I need a few months to sort it all out in my head. I do think it has been a journey of self-discovery – realising that I’m one more middle class, middle aged and conservative than I had thought , with a defined comfort zone. However, something about the place made me very, very uncomfortable, within half an hour of arriving, my brain was screaming at me to get out and that message and feeling became more persistent every waking hour, until it utterly overwhelmed me. Yet there is no rational reason for my responses, I wasn’t threatened, the hotel (and staff – the Sleep Inn) was the best I’ve stayed at, wonderfully courteous. Perhaps I simply didn’t ‘get’ the place. Without exception, other tourists I talked to were really enjoying it – I’m already receiving emails from them, asking me to send them photos etc. And there was so much I wanted to see. I did, but I had to force myself, literally putting one foot in front of the other.

The city is poverty-stricken and it’s obvious. There must be middle class and wealthy enclaves somewhere, but I saw no sign of them. It’s not the absolute Third World shame of Halls Creek, but pretty close to the recently cleaned up Fitzroy Crossing. Houses are derelict, (the suburbs all are), there’s broken glass all over the streets and paths, it’s dirty and unclean. Cabs don’t patrol the streets and even when you call one, they sort of stop to see if you’re genuine. I went to the Stax Museum, it’s in a very dilapidated part of town and when I called a cab to go back to my hotel, the cab driver (black) suggested I shouldn’t really have been there on my own (he was being helpful). The cabs wouldn’t be licensed for private use in Australia, they’re that dilapidated. I began to realise the enormous difference between the Deep South and the wealthy, educated north.

To put things in perspective, it is similar to the Kimberley, without (I think) the hideous alcohol problem, there’s obvious unemployment, lack of education and decent living conditions. There was that same sense of loss, of things not being right. The other problem, that’s astoundingly obvious, is obesity. The black people, especially the women are enormous, gigantic and the minute you go to buy something, it becomes obvious why – shocking diet.

I could not find a supermarket – there was a massive shopping conglomerate in the middle of the city, called Peabodys’, but many of the shops were vacant and there was nowhere to buy decent food. Food – if you can call it that, is cheap, but dear God. It’s mostly shredded chicken and pork ribs, all friend, there’s no other way, with beans and corn. And everything seems cooked in sugary fat and coated in tomato sauce. I did think I’d eat Nachos, BUT, just like Las Vegas, they don’t have cheese, it’s the most hideous yellow, plastic, sweet goo covering the chips. I basically didn’t / couldn’t eat while I was there, I survived on coffee tasting thick shakes, or mile drinks.

Don’t get me wrong, the serves are generous to the point of disbelief, there’s no way you could eat a quarter of what’s supplied, even if it tasted alright. On my last night, I went for a paddle steamer cruise and the staff, would not let me take a small portion, they came over, got my plate and filled it past capacity, then poured tomato sauce all over it. My last meal was a bottled milk on the walk back to the hotel. But I looked at the local people and they were wolfing everything down and going back for more. Everything is washed down with beer, plus coke and lemonade etc, along with Jack Daniels. Wine? “ Certainly sir, we have a white and a red.”

Elvis & Gracelands

I don’t know what I expected, (I’ve been an Elvis fan all my life), but certainly nothing like what I found. This was business on a massive scale. Elvis is Memphis and Memphis is Elvis. Gracelands is about 15 miles out of the city centre, you hit Elvis Presley Boulevard and it explodes from there. I’ve posted a complete album of photos of the experience on my blog. If you’ve got the time, it’ probably worth the scroll. The house, built in 1939, was no doubt very gracious in its day, still is, so far as the exterior is concerned. The interior? You have to remember that it’s state of the art early 1970s, it would have been incredible luxury for the period … I think.

One thing I’d never read about, was his interest in horse riding and breeding Palominos, suddenly here was a real person, but I began to feel a little intrusive, almost as if this person’s soul has been laid bare for all to see, in what I sensed was his sanctuary away from the insanity of stardom.

The adulation at the grave site was palpable and also, for me, a little uncomfortable, again, that sense of intrusion, that this is big business and whatever the family can make a buck out of they will, in complete contrast to the minimal fuss around where John Lennon was murdered. And the reason why Elvis is now buried at the house filled me with horror – he was initially buried in a mausoleum at the Memphis Cemetery, but the police got a call one night about two blokes trying to break into the grave. They attended, only to find that it was two police officers trying to break in! The family petitioned the State Governor to allow the body to be reburied, in secure conditions at Graceland.

Souvenirs? You name it, they were available in countless tacky thousands, there’s even a Harley Davidson shop (Elvis loved bikes, as well as cars) – he also had a Honda, so I’m OK! The car museum has some fascinating stuff and the two private planes were interesting, albeit the décor, was, well, 1970s glam.

It’s worth doing, but probably memorable for all the wrong reasons, it’s just too much, but incredible, as it’s so over the top.

Stax Museum

Think Booker T and the MGS, Isaac Hayes and Ike and Tina Turner etc, a fabulous period of music. I’d forgotten that the studio had folded in it’s hey day. Sadly the collapse is attributed to the assassination of Martin Luther King (in Memphis). Until that dreadful moment, black and white people mixed freely (at Stax and Sun Studios), but as the rioting came in, the racial divide became bitter, new management took over and the ‘family feel’ was lost.

Sun Studios

This was a fabulous tour, the others (Stax and the Rock & Roll Soul Museum), you were left to wander around, but this was a real tour, with a great guide, I came away with as real sense of history and achievement, hell I even had my picture taken standing where Elvis used to stand, holding the same mike. I ad to fight to get into the picture, as an Elvis impersonator, wanted to have centre stage! I didn’t want to leave. And a fascinating bit of trivia, Sam Phillips, the legendary fonder of Sun (he passed away about five years ago), used part of the $40,000 he got for Elvis to co-found the Holiday Inn chain, which is where he made his big money, so it could be said that Elvis started that off!

The Rock & Roll Soul Museum

This is actually part of The Smithsonian Museum institution and was more informative from the point of view of piecing together the two cultures of black slaves (gospel) and poor white share- cropper farmers (hillbilly / country music).

Beale Street

This is where is all happened (and still happens), when the sun goes down. The music section of the street is closed off, blues and rock music echoes from every door and open space. It’s just a sensory overload of great music, although, t does seem to be manly tourists and local musos, rather than local people. Everything is there, from Gibson (the guitar factory around the corner), to the B.B. King Blues Club, a night on Beale Street is a must.

Memphis Conclusions

If you love blues and rock and roll, Memphis is an absolute must. I did it the wrong way – making my own way around, apart from the trams in the Main Street precinct, transport s almost non-existent, far better to book on a tour that takes you from your hotel to the main destinations, otherwise you’ll waste hours trying to get from place to place. Allow for about $35.00 US cab fare each way from the airport, stay in the main hotel precinct and allow around three days. The place will be a cultural shock, although I wouldn’t expect other people to be as unsettled as I was – I still have no explanation for it.

In a post-script, I sat next to a lovely young lady on the plane out of Memphis, she (Tamar) is from Georgia – the old USSR, not the USA – and in her third year as an exchange student at the University of Mississippi, she finds the place fascinating, but related to my feelings. She explained that her experience was that racism still existed and that a kind of reverse racism was in play, as the black people sought to exist, poverty is absolutely pervasive, unemployment amongst black people is very high, education standards were abysmal, although excellent facilities were in place and she also agreed about the food – she’d put on a lot of weight when she first arrived, but took advice as to getting proper food in from other places. She was going to work in San Francisco for the summer holidays, before spending a few weeks with a friend in New York, all of which she was sure would give her the cultural food she craved. Her aim is to return home to Georgia and work in education administration.

Talking to her for an hour or so (on the flight to Phoenix) helped me enormously, I understood that it wasn’t just me, Memphis is a very sad place, with an incredible history of oppression, hope and music, hopefully they can overcome the issues, nobody should have to live as they do.

Would I recommend it to visit, a guarded yes (for the music roots), but I would never go back.

Denver

More on this next time, suffice to say, I feel like I’ve rejoined my world. Proper food and the scenery! Magnificent. I’m in a hotel just 20 minutes drive from Red Rocks, where Leonard Cohen is to perform tomorrow night, so I drove over there – bloody Hell, you do have to think going through intersections! – yesterday, ran into 200 odd people running up and down the stadium steps and a photographer who covered the Moody Blues concert way back in the early ‘90s. It was so good to have something in common with somebody.

I asked him how far away the mountains were (you could see the snow-capped peaks), “About an hour’s beautiful drive,” he replied. Less than two hours later, I was standing at 1,430 feet … in falling snow! The scenery was so god, I’m going back today, although I’ll make sure I’m back in phone range to talk with King Cameron. I’ll send you all two lots of photos – the Memphis stuff with this email and a separate one with the Denver, Rocky Mountains stuff, (the little birds are Humming Birds, they come up from Mexico for the summer.

Postscript

United Airways have overcharged my credit card for the new flights to Denver, by $US 181.34 – unbelievable, as far as I’m concerned it’s fraudulent and it’s vital to get the message across to the unsuspecting public as soon as possible.

So, there I was in LA, a little earlier than expected, but a not unwelcome change of plan – more on that later, let us talk of Denver – well, Colorado really, I realised I’d spent four days in Denver and never once saw the CBD, apart from occasional glimpses of it from Highway 70.

It may well be a wonderful city, but there didn’t seem any incentive to go there, office blocks are office blocks, shops are shops and the road layout seems to deliberately avoid the city centre. Now there’s a thing, the road system, it’s magnificent, although it can be tricky for unsuspecting Oz motorists – they sometimes shorten names – Colo Springs is actually Colorado Springs, that sort of thing and you have to remember that the exits are usually on your right – the slow lane. Hmm, slow? Great roads, 110kmh (65mph) limit, but everyone sits on 120 – 130kmh. For the truckies amongst us, none of the semis are running tri-axle trailers, they’re all running duals, occasionally spread axles, but always duals, and the pans / trailers are at least 50,’ (8’ – 10’ longer than ours), so they’re obviously allowed to carry far more tonnage per axle than we are in Oz.

The trucks don’t run bull bars, but a lot of the cop cars have what we’d call nudge bars. The roads are concrete rather than bitumen and often grooved, to help with adhesion in ice and snow. Deer and moose are a problem in much the same way as roos are in Oz, so you’d think the rigs would run bull bars. Another interesting thing was the rule that heavy vehicles have to switch on their hazard lights when travelling up hill (and these are reasonable hills – we are talking about the Rockies). To put that in perspective, it’s approximately 1,420’ to the top of Greenmount out of Midland, Denver is already 5,000’ above sea level, heading west on Highway 70, within an hour, you’ve reached 11,000 feet several times, some of the gradients are over 10%!

This is tourism country, it’s the mainstay of the Colorado economy, which was built on gold mining – their Boulder City is a little bigger than ours! And that leads in on how best to describe the Denver region; really, it’s made up of satellite cities spread over a vast area of plain, at the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, connected by a large system of freeways. There are four airports (one, an air force base), but the International Airport takes the cake, it is HUGE and I mean huge, not to mention a LONG way out of town – the cab fare to the city? $75.00 US at a 45 minute fast run. The runway system is huge, taxing in or out from the terminal can take 20 minutes (with no delays), the pilots fairly fly along the ground. It was explained to me that business comes in the winter, (8 – 10 months of the year), for the skiing. With the snow and ice, those daring young (and older) men (and women) in their flying machines need all the distance and width they can get, to land or take off.

Like several other huge US airports, an underground monorail system connects the different terminals with the main terminal, so it can be a while before you get your bags and leave, or enter and get to your plane. Hiring a car was far cheaper than using cabs and quite simple to do, besides, Memphis had taught me a lesson about transport, only New York is a no-need-for-a-car joint, everywhere else is, very much like Perth, utterly dependant on private cars. It’s the usual story in terms of getting car rental quotes, it’s always double what you were originally told, but by now, I was becoming aggressive in price rearranging and it works – basically the US runs on the Asian system – if you’re mug enough to accept the quoted price, that’s what it costs (plus taxes!), but you can get the cost down. Having said that, you MUST scrutinise every bill (hotel, rental car, whatever) at the end, American business is simply incapable of sticking to any agreed price, they try it on. And once you know that’s how they work, it’s quite a delightful (in a world-weary way) exchange – they apologise in the most synthetic, sincerely cheerful way and you double check your wallet and fingers on the way out the door.

Roman, a lovely Polish guy I’d met on the Leonard Cohen internet site, who lives in Denver, had advised visitors well, the Holiday Inn, at Golden, west of the city, was just ten minutes from Red Rocks, an older hotel complex, wireless internet was free and so was car parking – oh yes, hotels in the States slug you around $25.00 per day to park your car.

The next morning, I drove up to Red Rocks, it was stunningly beautiful. Locals use the steep steps etc for exercise and for visitors that ain’t easy, one has to acclimatise to the height above sea level (you’re now 6,000’ above), breath runs short very quickly. A guy my age lugging cameras around and I got talking. He was there to photograph a concert that night and was the official press photographer at the Moody Blues concerts all those years ago, we clicked.

He told me about a place called Echo Lake, around an hour’s drive away, where he assured me I’d see snow. I went. I did. I went further, another 5,000’ or so to the top of Mt O’Brien, just over 14,000’ above sea level, snow was falling everywhere, beautiful. Snapped a couple of guys on Harleys at the summit, but they were beaten by the lunatics who rode push bikes to the summit and I have no idea how they managed it, I got hit with Altitude Sickness and it stayed with me in some form or other throughout most of my stay in Colorado.

It affects everybody differently and some not at all. At the summit, I felt dizzy, headachy and slightly nauseous, I was very glad I wasn’t on a motorbike. Well off the mountain by nightfall, I had a more or less permanent ache in the stomach, it made sleep difficult, but once I understood what it was, it was easy enough to ignore. Some people are never troubled, some acclimatise in a few hours, some take a few days and some never get comfortable, they say the trick is to drink a lot of water.

It is breathtakingly beautiful country, the pictures tell more than I ever could. Way down at the entrance to the park, there were some beautiful tiny birds flitting around a dish the ranger had hanging from his shelter. They were Mexican Humming birds and migrated to this region in the summer each year, oh boy were they difficult to photograph on the wing. 

I was due out at the airport at 6.30pm, as old friend Cherry Obremski was flying in from Oklahoma. Some of you will no doubt remember Cherry from her time living in Perth, working for the American Chamber of Commerce, while one of her daughter’s still lives in Perth, these days Cherry lives back home in Oklahoma, with her other two daughters.

She’d wanted me to fly to Oklahoma, but the peculiarities of the American flight system, meant it was virtually impossible to get a direct flight form Memphis, or anywhere else, I would have had to have flown to Denver, then to Oklahoma, then back to Denver, for another $1,000.00 US, so I’d suggested Cherry come over to Denver for the Cohen Concert – it’s a lot cheaper for US citizens to get cheap internal flights.

Ya’ll be please to know she ain’t changed one little ‘ol bit and it was lovely to see an old friend and reminisce about Perth. We found a chain Italian Restaurant close to the hotel and surprise, surprise, they had Oz wines and traditional Italian meals – I could eat at last, although the damn altitude sickness thing was making life a little difficult. The young waitress serving us (NO, I cannot write Waitperson!) was delightful and getting ready to spend a year or so in Australian, via Hawaii, she can’t wait to get to Oz. If I say so myself, our verbal picture of Margaret River had her swooning.

Cherry told me she loved the mountains and wanted to go – in fact she and her husband had lived in Denver 30 years ago and she missed it. I suggested Mt Evans, but she had other ideas, “Vaile, that’s where I want to go!”

“Where’s that?” I replied. Turns out it’s one of several ski resort places for the well-to-do, all within a 160 – 200km radius west of Denver – most of us have heard of Aspen, which is about another 50kms south west of Vaile. Aspen? Yeah, remember Andy Williams and his wife Claudette? From memory, she shot her lover up there, as you do. But I figured I was safe, we weren’t lovers and neither of us was packing a gun. Hmm, hang on, Cherry’s from cowboy country, I never thought to ask! Cherry???

Monday dawned, crystal clear and the sun shining. We decided to go to Red Rocks first, as Cherry had never been there – outdoor concerts weren’t her thing back in them thar’ days. At the venue, they told us there was a strong chance it would rain the next day and that we’d be well advised to buy plastic ponchos and we’d need portable small seats with backs – three hours without a back rest can be painful. We decided on that basis, that we’d go do some shopping. The phone rang, it was Roman Luszpak, Polish immigrant, civil engineer, Cohen fan and all-round bloody good bloke, was I in town yet.

From there. it was a lovely succession of meeting people I’d ‘talked’ to on the net, but never met. Leslie, who’d flown down from Vancouver, Lizzy from Florida – I could have followed her back there – Denise, Kelsey and last, but by no means least, the irrepressible and insane Mary with her long-suffering husband George.

Why is she insane? She is addicted to Cohen, they’ve gone to his concerts all over Europe and the States – I think she’d seen around 20 of them at last count, oh it’s not quite as bad as it seems, their son works for an airline, so they get free flights, albeit stand by. Vibrant and full of life, I kept looking at George. Now, he’s not exactly a wall flower himself, they run nightclubs and he looks a lot like the bass player from the Moody Blues, in fact I thought it was him at first. But he’d already told me that while he likes Cohen, he’s not a fan as such. Now don’t think he’s hen-pecked, he’s not, it’s more a matter of him indulging the lady he loves. Secretly, I think he has a great time anyway. One thing I can tell you, is that Cohen fans are the same the world over, any one of them would have fitted in perfectly with our mob at Sandalford, there’s also a slight interesting edge to Cohen fans, I can’t quite put my finger on it, perhaps it’s an aura of music, poetry, art, wine, love and laughter. I just felt utterly at home with them and we drank and laughed long into the night, which was good, as gnawing home-sickness was still a constant shadow.

It was the Big Day, Tuesday June 2nd, my raison d’etre for the trip, the Leonard Cohen Concert was on that night at Red Rocks, I also had to be back at the hotel in time for an interview with Breakfast King Eoin Cameron, so we planned our 350kmround trip with precision – Cherry was to drive, I’d take the photos, besides, she knew where she was heading. We briefly met Diana and Dave who’d also arrived for the concert, another lovely couple, but we were heading out doing the tourist bit. Everyone was worried about the weather, however I reassured them that I’d never been to a wet outdoor concert yet. Little was I to know how good that prediction would be!

I did have one stop in mind, the previous day, on the way to Red Rocks, I’d seen a sign saying “Buffalo Bill’s Gravesite.” Too much for me, I had to see it. Cherry laughed and said, “That’s so bizarre, even with Altitude Sickness, you can’t have imagined it.” I hadn’t. We went. And there he was, in his final resting place high up in the Rockies overlooking Denver. I knew he’d passed away peacefully, making money as a showman, but it was fascinating to see a legend from childhood days become real. There were plaques everywhere, including the slightly surreal fact that he was a Master Mason – it said so on one of the plaques. The inevitable tourist shop was actually very good, yes, it had the usual “stuff” but there was some interesting items amongst it all and I finally got to meet and talk with real American Indian people. This was / is Arapaho country and he’s regarded with affection as a friend of the Arapaho.

Back down on to West 70. The weather was atrocious, more so the closer we got to the mountains, but I was really glad we’d decided to come, as it was fascinating and beautiful. And the road system is superb, I took a few photos of the road just to show how everything moves, on a massive scale – three lanes, four lanes wide (in both directions). We passed through a three mile tunnel completed in the late 1970s at an altitude of 11,000’ The sheer scope of it all and the magical scenery was simply wonderful, in spite of the driving rain.

Although Cherry was a little disappointed, she didn’t remember this sprawling turnpike system, in her day (not that she’s old!), the road was a winding adventure and it took most of the day to get to Vaile, it took us just under two hours. We were there a couple of weeks before the season kicks off again, I know, I know, it’s supposed to be summer, but I’d learnt the previous day, that some of the flora only has a six week opportunity each year to flower etc.

I bet it costs a bucket load to stay there in season, there are condominiums everywhere, thousands of them, the whole resort is done-out like a German, or Swiss mountain village, cars aren’t allowed, they’re parked in large car parks on the edge of the town and buses constantly circulate for those who don’t want to walk. There were shops everywhere and everything was on sale, drastically reduced. I was fascinated to find Billabong as a major shop, selling ski wear! Maybe they do in the Snowies and NZ?

Robert Hitchcock could make a good living here, there were statues everywhere and for sale, much of it featured native animals, a timely reminder that I was in another world. This was home to Moose, Mountain Lions, Bear and Deer, camping out here is a whole different story to camping in Oz, mind you, scrub cattle nosing around your tent in the Kimberley can be a little tricky, but I venture to suggest not as tricky as having a mountain lion or a bear amble through. You’re advised not leave things lying on seats in your car, as bears have no hesitation in breaking car windows and climbing in to get what they want. I haven’t seen a scrub bull do that yet, thank Heavens! It was all very idyllic, although my own preference would have been to have seen bear and mountain lion in the wild, shops just ain’t me. Cherry suggested I buy Vaile t-shirts etc for grandkids etc, but really it wouldn’t mean anything to them or most of us, I just couldn’t see the point, besides, you’re talking to someone who years ago tinkled the ivories at the Skyline restaurant in Queenstown, so I know my mountain resorts. What I don’t remember from way back when, is the altitude sickness, it was constant. A lady in the tourism office said it might take a few days to settle and that lots of water was very beneficial. Maybe I’m just not a mountain man, as much as I love them. Time to head back to the lowlands of Denver.

We arrived back at the hotel to be greeted by a very sombre group, the show had been cancelled, due to shocking weather conditions. I must admit we’d been thinking during the day that it was going to be a cold, very wet experience and I couldn’t for the life of me work out how they’d keep the band dry, let alone warm, not to mention putting a 74 year old small bloke on stage in a thunderstorm. So really, you couldn’t complain, it was the only choice the promoters could make. They’d scheduled in a replacement concert for the following Thursday, but for many of us, it was impossible, people had to back at work, Kelsey had left her two year old with her mum and so on. I needed to work out what to do, but first the call from Eoin.

We’d actually arranged to do the interview the day before, but the twin disasters of the Air France crash and the bankruptcy of General Motors had relegated my US gallivanting to the next day, so apologies to those of you who missed it. It was a lot of fun and very good for the soul to talk with home again … and therein lies the key to the next decision. Cherry had to go back to work the next day, for me to stay on would mean cancelling other trips, rearranging flights and paying for more accommodation and car hire. The trip was already way over budget, costing far more than I’d planned or even dreamed, I’d seen the fabulous concert at Sandalford, I was missing my family and friends and I’d received an email about a job I’d love and the possibility of an interview during the second week of June, a week before I was due back, so the solution was a no-brainer really, time to come home.

The second I made that decision, a load seemed to lift from my shoulders, I thought, ”Yep, I’m coming home.” It didn’t matter if it took a little while to get there, I was on my way. I’d done enough travelling. However I still wanted to stop off in New Zealand, but the more I tried to change flights etc, the harder and more expensive it became – the airlines simply do not want to help, or here of any change you might want to make. It baffles me, I would have thought it was a service industry and that in these tight times. a customer with a reasonable request would be looked after. No.

It took me around four hours on the internet and phone that night to rearrange things, you’d be lost without email and internet connection these days. At least Qantas has an American 1800 free call number that actually puts you through to an Aussie back home. And things got interesting, in that I’d originally booked everything through the Flight Centre in Fremantle, as it was too complicated to do it on the web. I wasn’t sure who to contact, so I rang the Flight Centre, who told me I had to deal with Qantas direct. I rang Qantas, who told me I had to deal with the travel agent, this to and froing went on over several phone calls and emails, until I eventually struck a lovely young Qantas lady in Brisbane, who agreed that it shouldn’t be so difficult. She rang me back half an hour later, having changed my flights to get me out of Denver the next afternoon and out of LA on the coming Friday night, all for an extra cost of $36.00 US. I agreed with alacrity. What was fascinating, is that at the same time, the Flight Centre emailed me, then rang, to say that they could do it, but the airlines wanted another $650.00 US. I thanked them for insisting that I use Qantas.

In the knowledge that I’d have two nights in LA, Cherry asked me where I was planning on staying, but now I was watching every penny and thought, “Hmm, more money.” She came up with a brilliant solution, priceline.com I’d never heard of it. They put deals together for airlines and hotel companies across the USA, you log and put in a bid for where you want to stay / fly etc and it’s either accepted or rejected. Consequently I put in a bid for $50.00 per night for the Radisson and got it!

Now there was a catch, the system is designed to weed out overseas visitors – it doesn’t accept an overseas credit card, but Cherry put her card details in, with my name as the guest and it accepted it. So the tip is, if you’re touring in the states, can cope with a bit of uncertainty and have a US based friend who will use their credit card (you just give them the cash), you’ll save at least half on hotel costs, and, as I did, two thirds!

The last day in Denver, the clouds rolled back, Red Rocks, or Wet Rocks as I’d now christened it, was glistening in the sunlight, but not for me. Nor was I particularly sad about it, which surprised me, I just felt that the Universe obviously had other plans for me and that I’d happily go with the flow … as long as it led home! Although I was sad to say goodbye to the lovely friends I’d made, I know some of us will meet again and I was able to assure them that my prediction about never going to a wet outdoor concert had proven correct.

Cherry wanted to visit Boulder and if we had time, go up to the ski fields at Eldora, that suited me and off we buzzed in the rental Hyundai. Originally a gold mining settlement, these days Boulder is a somewhat larger and more refined city than our Boulder. It’s a university town, very pretty and about a half hours’ drive west of Denver. We looked at our watches and decided we had time to head up the mountains. I’m glad we did, one last tramp through the snow, more beautiful scenery and a lovely little town called Neverend. On the way back down, we stopped off to photograph some lovely scenery, a couple were taking pictures of each other, “Can I do that for you?” I asked.

“Bloody hell, an Aussie!” the bloke replied, they were visiting from Sydney. Yep, home was calling me.

It’s always sad to say goodbye to friends, when you really don’t know when you’ll see them next, but at the same time, you’re grateful that you’ve both had the opportunity to spend time with each other and catch up. Cherry reckons we should meet in Greece next year, I didn’t really have the heart to tell her, that apart from New Zealand (which is also home) and a little trip to Bathurst (which is home) in October, the last thing on my mind, was travelling.

I settled into the American Airlines Airbus, I do like flying with them, good planes, nice people and they’re a Frequent Flyer partner with Qantas, finished Ronnie Woods book just as we touched down at LA. Into the Radisson (they’ve got a free courtesy bus, as do most of the big chain hotels) and decided it was time to give a little thought about what to do over the next two days. The omens were good, this was more like home, free internet and decent coffee etc in the room.

After I’d showered in my sumptuous $50.00 a night Radisson suite, I ambled downstairs to grab a bite to eat and have a look at what was possible in terms of looking around LA on the Thursday and Friday. I went over to the Concierge, they always know what’s happening.

I said I’d like to see Universal Studios and probably Disneyland and I might go downtown for a look. She told me in no uncertain terms that I did NOT want to go downtown by myself, that it was fine to get a tram out to the beach and back, she felt I’d enjoy Universal, but that I might find Disneyland a little boring “… at your age sir, no offence.” No offence taken. She told me that LA was so spread out, I’d be better off taking a combined LA Sites and Universal Tour in one, I looked through the brochure and decided she was right, I’d do that, then see how I felt about Disneyland for my last day. She booked it for me and told me to be at the desk at 8.30am.

Now being in America is no different from being in Australia, sport is king, every bar, every hotel has at least two televisions going, playing baseball and gridiron. There is no escape, in much the same way there’s no escape from AFL or cricket over here. I gave the first bar a miss and headed into a restaurant space. Very nice, piano playing, quiet, elegant and you didn’t have to sit in the restaurant and do the a la carte bit, there was an accompanying lounge bar, serving drinks and snacks. Perfect, the Radisson was getting better by the minute.

A waiter came over, they had an excellent selection of wines and a great small meal menu. I told the waiter I didn’t want anything big, another guest spoke up and said, ”The Lobster Tortilla, it’s perfect if you just want something after a flight and it’s not expensive.” He was spot on, $12.95, yeah, plus tax, but it was perfect. I began to feel very good. This was how I’d felt in Washington, civilised.

By this time, the pianist was doing a great medley of Eagles numbers, very laid back, very Californian, I glanced over at the pianist. There wasn’t one! The grand piano was plugged in, no attempt to disguise the lead and the keys were, well, doing their electronic player-piano thing.

It was disconcerting, sort of not quite real, but I reasoned that if the hotel was full of pricks like me who’d screwed a cheap deal, then there probably wasn’t the money for a real pianist, was there? I ordered a desert and another red and pretended somebody like Adam Harris was playing. I went to bed quite content, but smirking to myself that nothing in the good old US of A was ever quite as it seemed.

Thursday morning, I woke up about 6.20am, pushed the curtains back and there virtually at moist eye level, was the Flying Roo coming in to land. I couldn’t take my eyes off her and thought, “Yes, only another day and a bit.” I could feel Oz. With a renewed spring in the step, it was time to go visit Hollywood.

As with most cities (including Perth) shuttle buses go from hotel to hotel picking people up for tours, it took about an hour and a half to get to the tour company’s depot, where we were all processed for the tours we were going on. The quoted $119.00 became $131.00, with something called a Fuel Allowance, then there was the tax. There was a lot of grumbling – a lot of Aussies and Kiwis who weren’t happy, but they had us by the balls, a long way from our hotels. New arrivals, including some English and French people were particularly unhappy, but the rest of us explained it was a national con, although none of us had seen the Fuel Allowance before. The driver pasted up the large sign telling us tipping was the norm (and specifying the percentages expected) and we set off.

Now the tour was fascinating and the driver / guide really good, we went all through Beverley Hills and looked at stars houses, including Bill Cosby’s, Frank Sinatra’s old place and across the road from his, Dean Martin’s old place, now owned by Nicholas Cage. There was Nichole Kidman’s joint and homes owned by stars I’ve never heard of, but I bet the kids would know who they were. The home owned by Jennifer Lopez was quite impressive, however Steven Spielberg’s house takes the cake, although only just, from the Aaron Spelling? house. But the house that really rocked for me and was more or less just an afterthought for the tour guide, was the house designed, built and lived in by Salvador Dali. I asked him to stop the bus while I quickly took a couple of shots. Wild, magnificent, impossible, I’d give anything to have a closer look, you’ll recognise it instantly in the photos.

What did strike me, was how very Perth it all was, green manicured lawns, obvious, if somewhat ostentatious wealth, sure the houses were older, but driving through Beverley Hills was eerily similar to driving through Peppermint Grove etc. Charley Chaplin’s house is now an exclusive private girls school and on it went, with quirky things, such as driving down the road where the Beverley Hillbillies old truck scene was filmed etc. Then we were off to downtown Hollywood, for a 45 minute stroll along the strip.

The first thing I ran into, was a wreath laid over one of the stars in the pavement and cameramen and reporters everywhere, “What’s cooking?” I asked, it seemed that David Carridine had been studying the Michael Hutchinson book on solo pleasure. I could say that it seems to be a hanging offence, but that’s so tasteless I won’t … oh I must, I must, it’s too good a line to leave out. I walked on, right into a statue of a pirate.

“Ahh!” thought I, “Here be Johnny Depp.” Nope, it was the entrance to the Ron L Hubbard building, I could feel Tom Cruise willing me to walk in for a character assessment, but I resisted and kept walking, following the stars. It’s a bit of a let down to find out that the stars actually pay an annual $25,000 to have their name on the pavement. “Hmm,” I thought, thinking of the ghost of Carridine, “I suppose the estate keeps paying up.” Then I came across several blank stars, where names had obviously been erased, fame is such a fleeting thing.

At the start of the Walk of Fame, there’s a garish silver monument, featuring four silver female stars of the screen, topped by a smaller Marilyn Monroe in gold, there are only two stars in the pavement beside this monument, one for the Beatles and one for Elvis. You’ve gotta take a photo, but there’s no meaning to it, well there wasn’t for me, I walked on.

There, in a cruel twist of fate, was a large billboard advertising Leonard Cohen’s Live DVD. I laughed out loud, mind you, the old boy should be proud, it was on the Whiskey a Go Go building. In fact there were well know places everywhere along this strip, the Comedy Room, the Viper Room and so on and Johnny Depp was around, he’s got a massive house up on top of the hill overlooking Hollywood, it previously belonged to somebody else well known but I can’t remember who, sorry. After a while, it just becomes a torrent of names you sort of half recognise. Next stop, the Hollywood sign – well, as close as you can get.

It was not a bad look-out, overlooking the Hollywood Bowl, with LA sprawling out in every direction, the tour guide assured us it wasn’t smog, just a bit of sea haze. Yeah right. We all turned around and took the obligatory photo with each other in the scene. Next stop, those who were getting off at Universal Studios, “A bus’ll be back to pick you up from here at 5.30pm, the entrance is over there, just show ‘em your ticket,” Fair enough.

You gotta love the upgrade system. See, you buy your ticket to these things, BUT, if you pay more money (another $50.00), you can go to the front of the queue and not stand in line. There are a whole lot of themed rides, all of which are free / part of your entry price, but you do have to queue, unless you cough up the extra. I couldn’t justify it and thought I’d wander round and see what on earth I’d come to see. I gradually realised it was all based on themed rides and lots of souvenir shops, plus a conducted tour of the movie lots. Oh well, in for a penny. I joined a queue, to see the Mummy Return’s of something like that.

Bad mistake. Not that there was anything wrong with the ride, quite the opposite, it was terrific, no, the problem was me, I’ve never been able to do roller coaster / swing type things, I get sick. Yep, this was a wild ride on a roller coaster, even backwards. In the finish I just closed my eyes and hoped I’d make it. I did, but it took an hour or so for my equilibrium to return. I also learnt that they wisely place large signs outside each attraction depicting what sort of ride it is, if I’d read the instructions (something I never do, as some of you know), I’d not have found myself with my stomach just behind my eyeballs 

Next up, Jurassic Park, it too was fantastic, with just one wild plunge down into the water at the finish, a lot of fun. I was getting into this. Then I remembered that Mark and Deb had told me I had to do the Water World Show (the Kevin Costner movie), I headed for it. Great advice, this show is outstanding, a genuine show and a technological masterpiece, don’t miss it! I came out of it really wowed and then realised I could hear the Blues Brothers, sure ‘nough, there was THE police car and Jake and Elwood were shakin’ it on stage. By now, Universal had me. I went next door to the Horror House, something I always like, but this was the only disappointment of the day, it was very poorly done, surprisingly amateurish and didn’t do justice to the great horror stars and movies they’ve produced. The only saving grace was the Frankenstein lightening generating set from the original Boris Karloff movie, a fabulous piece of film history. On with the show

I decided to take the Studio Tour. To get there, you travel down four sets of escalators, literally down a mountain side, I’m not joking! Then you queue up and get onboard the articulated, multi car tram for the tour. The tour guide was as camp as a row of tents, which sort of suited the tour, American people loved him, non American’s rolled their eyes, you could have grown instant corn on his spiel, but hey, it is show biz.

Now the tour doesn’t actually take you into a studio, although, if you are willing to pay some extra money (no, not the ‘go-to-the-front’ money), you can go on another tour that takes you into a working studio, but in all honesty, the free tour is so good, there’s no need.

I could rave on about all the effects and scenes, like the Jaws exhibit etc, but the stand-outs for me, where the fountain courtyard that’s featured in so many horror movies, the subway scene where the road collapses down on you and a petrol tanker slides down besides the tram, then the whole thing floods, the Bates motel (from Psycho), they even had an actor playing Bates and an incredible scene from War of The Worlds, with a wrecked 747 – they tore a real one apart for the film. It is breathtaking.

Back up the top, I walked into one of my favourite characters, from one of my favourite movies, Beetlejuice and simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to have my photo taken with him. Food was an issue, it’s deep fried, or Fairy Floss, or cans of soda, nothing edible. Souvenirs? What do you want? The shops are everywhere, although I couldn’t find anything Blues Brotherish, nor could I find anything from the old classic horror days. I did find the perfect gift for son Gordon, he, like most of us, has always love the Back to The Future movies and there it was, a model of the Delorean as it appeared in the movie, I’d never seen one before.

This was truly a really enjoyable day, I’d recommend it to anybody, so I started giving serious consideration to Disneyland, not least because I wanted to get a couple of Disney things for granddaughters Caitlin and Lila. However, it was taking us well over an hour and a half to get to the hotel and I knew that I had to be at the airport by 9.00pm at the very latest (10.30pm take-off) the following night, but the Disney Tour didn’t leave Disneyland until 7.30pm. The driver told me it was quite usual not to get away from Disneyland until 8.00pm, as there were always stragglers, so it began to look a bit too difficult, the tip here, is that you should do Disneyland on a day you’re not flying out somewhere.

Back at the hotel, the concierge agreed, saying that they sometimes don’t see the tour bus back until around 10.00pm, she then said, “Why don’t you hire a car for the day? It’s only $45.00 and it’s a pretty straight run, a ticket for Disneyland’s around $69.00, so it’s basically the same cost as the tour and you can come back when you need to. Brilliant. She printed out some maps for me, marked the route and booked the car, telling me that if I got down there just after 9.00am, I’d beat the big queues. Done.

I went into the sports bar, yeah, I know, loud sports broadcasts, but I was tired and starving. I ordered fish and chips at a very reasonable $10.95 +! plus a wine and sat down. Another bloke came along, he’d been sitting there before. Now he was very interesting, he and his associates, who joined us a short while later, run a consultancy company working for Delta Airlines.

Now I couldn’t comment on Delta, but I did have some comments about other American airlines and the country’s airport system. They listened, then told me I was completely correct, the system was an abomination, simply because there were too many people to process, it was past critical mass. They told me it was no longer possible to provide service, it was just a matter of trying to process the numbers. Profit margins were nil and they expected a lot more airline closures, “Don’t expect to see baggage become free any time soon, in fact there’ll be extra charges for other things as well.” They said it was easy for somebody from Europe, or Australia to comment and the comments were right, but if I looked at Heathrow, that had also become a nightmare. They said Australia was the envy of the airline world, in terms of the service provided and it made it doubly hard when Americans returned and said, “Hey, take a look at how good it is in Australia.”

They were also very candid about the use of poor black people, telling me they had been the backstay of the American economy, (the minimum wage has just gone up to about $6.00 an hour!), that it was becoming harder to get people to work for the subsistence level wages offered, especially with the black people, who since Obama’s election were holding out the hope that he would fix their lot in life.

And there I had it, as confrontational as it might be, equality might exist on paper, but the economy relies on black labour working for virtual slave rates, they have no option but to force people to tip. I suddenly understood Memphis, if I was black, I wouldn’t trust, or like my white presence either.

I think President Obama has a weight on his shoulders that far outweighs that of any other President. We see him as an alternative to the lunatic war-mongering neo-con savagery of the Bush years, but the black people see him as the person who can change the system and lead them out of 21st century slavery and poverty. God help him.

Disneyland – I needed some fantasy.

Friday looked good, I was going home and thinking about my granddaughters was a good feeling. Hi ho, hi ho, a shopping we will go.

The rental car was a mafia staff car black Corolla and yes, by the time I’d put on insurance and a Sat Nav device, the cost was a long way from $45.00, $88.00 to be exact, but I no longer cared. The Sat Nav device was PERFECT!

… almost.

I leant very quickly that “Keep right” doesn’t mean “Go right,” it actually means don’t go right, just keep in a sort of right direction.” You very quickly get used to The Voice telling you, “Recalculating.” And, if you go through a tunnel, The Voice says “No signal, loss of direction,” as you emerge into the bright light of a thousand different exits, with absolutely no idea where to go, or what to do, but eventually, I found myself on some motorway, heading towards Anaheim. The Voice seemed happy, quiet even, having told me to turn right in seven point eight miles. I was cruising, so relaxed, I switched on the radio, then it happened.

The Sat Nav thing was stuck to the windscreen – it fell off and apart! The Voice started urgently saying “Loss of power in ten seconds, eight seconds, six seconds,” silence, except for three million cars and trucks rushing by me in four hundred different lanes, all of them knowing where they were going, except for one little black duck, sorry, Corolla.

Panic. Then I thought, “Just get off at the next turn-off, find somewhere to park and see if you can put it together again.” It took a while but eventually I got it reassembled, although I couldn’t get a voice, but it was recalculating where to go. I stuck it back on the windscreen and away we went. The bloody thing fell of three more times, but by now, I knew how to put it together again, while maintaining warp speed, it sort of worked out OK, leaving it on the seat beside me and glancing at it now and then, but I wished I’d used good old maps.

Next thing I know, I’m entering the Disneyland car park. The advice was excellent, I was there before the crowds. But I suspect that as I was there a couple of weeks before the heavy season, I got away with it. I think that far better advice came from Robin and Jim, who said, “Book a Disneyland hotel and you won’t have to queue.” It’s very definitely a destination for kids, you’ll need two days to do the kids justice, stay at Disneyland would be my advice – if you’re there with kids.

The whole thing is fantastically well organised, constant free shuttle busses run between the car parks and Disneyland, the ticket box sellers are really good in picking what you need e.g. Single person? Family? Living in LA? etc and in you go, with exactly the pass you need, simple and very well done.

It’s obviously a place for children, but you do see a lot of retired couples wandering around thoroughly enjoying reliving their childhood. As with Universal Studios, there are free theme rides everywhere and souvenir shops on every corner, blocks of them really. And just like my visit to Universal, I stuffed up with my first choice of ride. I didn’t really understand that it was a ride, it just seemed to be a display about Star Wars. Suddenly I’m inside a ‘space shuttle’ and we’re strapped in, with a mad robot piloting the thing.

It was brilliant, exactly like being in a Star Wars movie, launching, speeding amongst the stars wild manoeuvring, sudden stops etc, incredibly realistic, stunning really, but utterly beyond my sense of balance or stomach. I sat there praying it would end soon, that I wouldn’t vomit over everyone, that somehow my legs would work, if ever we landed. We did, but it took me two hours to get over it. The ride is wonderful, I’m the klutz.

After a long walk around in the fresh air, I decided to chance the Pirates of the Caribbean exhibition. It was really well done, quite magical and very much the norm for Disneyland stuff, it’s aimed at kids, it’s tame, it’s very safe and extremely well done. Their Haunted House was far better than Universal’s Horror House, with great use of holograph images etc, which is one of the reasons it’s almost impossible to get photographs, you’re allowed to use cameras, but not with a flash, simply because so much of what you see is electronic and also a flash would expose the machinery and people behind the scenes and who wants to ruin it for the kids? Not me.

Time for some lunch and a very pleasant surprise, yes, there were all the usual fried dreadful foods, but Disneyland also had fresh fruit etc for sale, this was the first time anywhere in America I’d seen healthy food choices made available for people, it was really good to see. I had a fabulous Scallop chowder, followed by a banana. A happy little Vegemite was I.

I went for a ride on the monorail. Well I had to. I remember reading about it when I was a kid, if fact this is the 50th anniversary of Disneyland’s monorail system, the first full time monorail in the world. I wandered through Toon Town, even met Mickey Mouse, but truth be known, through no fault of Disneyland, I was bored, it’s not for adults, taking kids there would be an absolute pleasure, but adults are far better off with Universal Studios. I decided to do one more ride, “Finding Nemo” in the submarines. As I stood in the queue, my ears pricked up, the announcement about the ride was being made in Australian, Struth!

Yep, true to it being an Aussie film,, they’ve kept the Aussie character , while you’re in the submarine, the guides voices are Australian (it’s supposedly an Aussie navy sub, but I didn’t see Vince anywhere) and the journey is through the Great Barrier Reef. I felt like I was on the bloody Manly Ferry. I disembarked, thinking, “Yep, that’ll do for this trip, you’re surrounded by Aussie voices, time to go.” I stopped off to get the prerequisite stuff for granddaughters, sizing is difficult, doubly so when you look at the price and know they’re going to grow out of it all. Speaking of which, I couldn’t resist buying something for myself – Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – he’s now perched on top of the Hookah Pipe in the lounge.

Back to the car and how to programme in my destination? It kept giving me several Radissons, but I couldn’t make it choose the one I wanted, so I typed in Los Angeles Airport, that confused it. After ten minutes of trying, I gave up and rang the rental company. “It shouldn’t fall off sir, I do apologise. Just press the Recent button, it should have our depot there.” I did. It did. The Voice? “There’s a volume knob on the side of the unit sir.” Off we went, it fell off two more times, but I got there in plenty of time. Threw my bags in the hotel courtesy bus and walked unsuspectingly into the nightmare that is Los Angels International Airport. Oh God!

The courtesy driver was really good, “Qantas? Ahh, now, their terminal is here, but sometimes their flights seem to leave from the terminal next door, there’s not much choice, but to get out and see which is the right one. It’s not far to walk if you’re OK and your bags have wheels, if it is the other terminal. I’m really sorry about that sir.”

It was the other terminal. I walked into utter chaos. The signs said my flight was to the left, but I couldn’t see anything Qantas, I asked, “No sir, Qantas is in the middle.” Fair enough, push through the hordes with their cases, all going back and forth with glazed eyes. Another four hundred metres and there was the Qantas queue, you beauty.

“Your bag’s a little overweight sir.”

“By how much?”

“1.5kgs sir, can you take something out?” An idea flashed through my brain, but it’s too violent to write here. “Not really, I’m already carrying my cabin bag and Disneyland souvenirs, surely 1.5ks is nothing to worry about?”

“You can pay the excess fee if you like sir.”

Yes, that’s the answer, how much?”

“$35.00 … US, sir.”

“No problems, here’s my card.”

“Oh no sir, you can’t give it to me, you have to pay at the Qantas counter on the other side sir, here’s your boarding pass, just take your case over there and they’ll deal with it.”

“Over where?”

“I’ll come with you sir.”

We marched across the hall to the other side, where he handed my ticket to a totally disinterested tart, who walked away. A few minutes later, by now there was a queue of us, a young lady asked if she could help. I explained the situation, “Yes sir, but I’ll need you boarding pass.” I pointed out the tart who had it, she went down to talk to her, Tart pointed at the counter, the young lady picked up my boarding pass, came back and to her credit apologised. Taking the money, she then told me I had to take the case to another area where it would be processed. I exploded. $50.00 AUS for 1.5kgs and I still had to go walking for another half a mile? A shrug of the shoulders, yes, basically. If I never fly again, it will be too soon. With any of them!

We all headed for a queue. Orders, loud orders. Stand here! Do that! Present that! Oh God! The case finally disappeared, now it was time to find the departure lounge. I and many others, went in the direction of the sign, only to find they’d moved it and it was completely the other side of the building. We found a queue. The queue. The only queue, with just one person checking passports and boarding passes for multiple aircraft, not only that every now and then a buxom barking bitch walked alongside us telling us we had to have everything ready, or we’d go to the back of the queue. On her second round, I couldn’t take any more and told her we were ready, the bloody airport wasn’t, could she get her boss, immediately. Applause and agreement from everyone, except Americans, they appear to meekly accept it and look horrified when you complain. However, the only effect it did have, is that she went away for a while and when she came back, she never spoke a word, although we did make eye contact, hers dropped, not mine.

In the holding cage, sorry, lounge, somebody said they were in the middle of alterations, somebody else piped up and said he’d been coming through the bloody airport for 15 years and it was always being altered and always a shambles. But there was some good news, we were to fly on the new Airbus, in fact it was the Nancy ’Bird’ Wake, I began to really look forward to that. Somebody was worried about being in an Airbus, I said that they were great planes, they didn’t just fall out of the sky, the Air France thing had blown up and we weren’t being told the full story, general agreement. And as I write this, the French Government has just announced that there were two known terrorists who had threatened French aircraft on board the plane.

On board we go, eagerly, only to find that Qantas have been greedy with their seats in economy, it’s tight, very tight. If you were anything over 5’11” you’d struggle and if you were big, you’d be doomed. I realised that there’s far more leg room on American planes (all of them), than Qantas. The greedy sods have put in an extra row of seats in every cabin. Now it’s not as bad as the shocking seating we had in the Boeing across to Perth on the Sunday morning, but there’s no excuse for it. Cramped up for 17 hours and they have the cheek to lecture you about deep vein thrombosis! I don’t think there’s as much room between the seats in the new Airbus as there is in the 747s and nor did other passengers.

On the plus side, the aircraft is magnificent, the grunt at take off is spell binding, you can tell how much thrust it’s got and quiet? It’s stunningly quiet. This is a fabulous aircraft that economy passengers will grow to hate because of Qantas. If I was Airbus, I’d sue them.

I’ve already written about all the health issues on the flight, which is not the fault of the airline, but what does need saying, is how good the cabin crew were, how efficient, how helpful etc, they were an absolute credit to both Qantas and Australia, shame about the company’s attitude to economy passengers. Sadly, I came away feeling slightly ashamed of Qantas and I wanted so much to praise the difference between them and US companies.

The staff and attitude are far better and our planes don’t rattle and shake like some of the American planes, but Americans can at least sit in a little more comfort (leg room). As I mentioned, the seating configuration on the Boeing from Sydney to Perth was an abomination, from memory, it was The City of Warrnambool, I can see why Nick Cave left. If I could only leave the bloody house, I’d go to the exhibition – I’ve just been told that the Swine Flu test results won’t be ready until at least 6.30pm tomorrow (Friday) night and possibly not until Monday! Our system couldn’t cope with an epidemic, five to seven days for a test result???

I also covered the debacle at Sydney airport and my return home in a previous email, so what’s left to say? A few thoughts and additions from some of you.

Many of you have written to say how much you’ve enjoyed it all, Faith (Comestibles), tells me it’s been a ‘must read’ item for her office staff. Nev Whittey wrote to tell me how he’d got into trouble at an American Yacht Club not so long ago, for befriending a black servant.

Barry tells me he also got Altitude Sickness in Colorado three years ago and rightly says, “..It’s like sea sickness, you don’t care too much, whether you live or die.”

Robin writes that she also hates tipping with a passion and can’t wait to see us all at the end of this month.

The McGills sent me a message (through Veronica), that they also had been hit with terrible homesickness when they were in San Francisco, despite the fact they were travelling together. Susie told me the same thing had occurred to her a couple of times while living in Perth, despite the fact that she loves the place,

Claire sent this fascinating link about Denver’s international airport, the Conspiracy Theorists are obviously having a ball, not taking their medicine http://www.anomalies-unlimited.com/Denver_Airport.html

Susie’s been really worried about what I now think about Americans and traveller after traveller agreed with me that travelling is no longer a pleasure, it’s an awful, awful grind. She also tells me that Memphis has just been voted the second most dangerous city in the USA. And here I must declare my abiding affection and gratitude for Oscar and Susie’s marvellous friendship. Indeed, I’ve worried about what I’ve written sometimes, as I had had no wish to in any way offend my treasured American friends (not just Oscar and Susie), but you can only tell it as you find it.

Me? I’m glad I did go. At this stage, I’d not go again. There were parts of America that I loved, but I kept thinking “I can see all this (except the moose, mountain lions and bears, which I never saw) in New Zealand, for far less money and far more pleasantly.”

I’m very sad that I couldn’t get to see my mate Gordon, seeing Leonard Cohen and Gordon were rally the lynch pins of the trip. I’m going to try and arrange that after the visit to Bathurst, if I’d known what I know now, I’d just have gone to NZ.

I really liked American people as friends and individuals, they are simply lovely and genuine, what I loathed is the American way of doing business. It’s no wonder their economy has collapsed, it’s built on deceit and slave labour. I loved Washington and New York was such a buzz, not to mention the once in a lifetime opportunity to see Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon in Exit The King – the programme and ticket are prized mementos. Memphis shocked me to the core, Colorado was magnificent, breathtakingly beautiful and Los Angeles was fun – as with Washington, I could happily live there.

I met some lovely new people, several of whom will I know become great friends, including my fellow Leonard Cohen fans and Rosemary (on the plane home) – she’s already offered to organise a tour of the Harley Davidson factory. Come to that, I think my time is over in terms of travelling alone for long periods, I wouldn’t do it again without a partner. It’s funny to have been so homesick to see family and friends, then be ‘locked away’ in isolation for days on end, unable to see anybody – I feel like I’m home, but not quite there, stuck in limbo, but I have had time to read P.J O’Rourke’s’ new book “Driving Like Crazy” (I was too sick to read it on the way home). It is wonderfully funny and wry and also a book for anybody who likes cars, the trip on the Baja with O’Rourke and Mike Nesmith (the Monkees), still has me in fits.

Finally, Veronica, Ken and Robina proved you can’t put a value on true friendship and yes folks, it’s true, there’s no place like home.

And one add on (June 2013). The Nancy Bird Wake is the Airbus 380 that became crippled over Singapore. If you want a magnificent read, the Captain’s book is a must-read.

All Good Things

Greg

Cat Dreams

Once upon a time, there was an opportunity to deliver a V8 Jaguar Sovereign from Perth to Broome, as quickly as possible. I lived to write a tale, in fact I even recorded a six part radio programme for the ABC. Herewith the tale of taking an iron cat north through the wild west.

http://snd.sc/1cmn2UY

Daybreak. Perth begins to stir. A Jaguar down on Barrack Street, lurks beneath copper sails. The cat lives faraway in Broome, 2,210 kilometres north and it’s time to go home.

Guildford is quiet, the Swan River tranquil and the vines in full leaf as we hit the Great Northern Highway. Radio reception fades, but it’s irrelevant, for the winding tree lined highway is a driver’s road and we are learning of each other, the Jaguar and I.

Enormously competent, the pedigree of the sure-footed cat, is that of the true long distance runner. There is none of the maniacal snorting and straining of the breathless sprint, just a subdued far-off rumble of predatory power and presence. The V8 torque dismisses hills, it’s only overtaking that brings awareness of the beast within. Pedal to the metal unleashes a snarl to raise the hairs on the neck of any die-hard Bathurst fan. Then cruising silence. A bit like a jungle attack. So quick, so lethal. “Jesus! What happened?”

The trees step back and the severe architecture of Benedictine Catholicism defiantly straddles the land. Small eddies of dust and leaves whirl across the street and the sequential pattern of windows in a New Norcia building speak of past lessons on perspective and line.

That beautiful haunting Sting melody “Fields of Gold,” comes to mind, as golden crops blur in peripheral vision. Birds feed upon scattered grain. 28’s too slow to escape, galahs just managing to flee. Crows? They scream obscenities and disdainfully hop to one side.

Somewhere along this beautiful road, intensive agriculture gives way to pastoral lease. We have reached a sympathetic understanding the Jaguar and I. As with all thoroughbreds, there must be time off the leash. Time to run. Time to hear the blood pump and the beat of the heart. Time for music, to soothe the savage beast.

“… And the tide rushes in, washing my troubles away and I’m really not so sure …” The soaring melodies of the Moody Blues fill the car. 160km/h is effortless. Time passes, time to pass. The five speed gearbox automatically drops two gears, the V8 roars and leaps. A glance at the speedo. 220km/h and still climbing. Back into the lane, ease off the loud pedal. 200km/h seems like 100km/h. Leave it there. A herd of wild goats glance warily at the cat, savage death just metres away.

Breakaway country and a different sort of gold. Mt Magnet has slipped inexorably by,. “… And the only thing I knew how to do, was to keep on keeping on …” Dylan rages across eight speakers. I glance at the dashboard clock, Bob might be “right outside of Delacroix,” but I’m closing rapidly on Meekatharra.

The landscape shimmers into a surreal blue and white haze. Somewhere, back down the track, perhaps Cue, I’ve taken a chance on next week’s Lotto and a couple of photos, as legendary gold mines slowly form and then fade in the haze. Inside the car, it’s 19c, outside, the temperature hovers around 35c. The road is deserted and the speedometer relegated to fourth place, as my eyes sweep the tarmac ahead, the tachometer and the temperature gauge.

The air is hot and still in Meekatharra, even the crows have cried enough. Replete and refreshed, the cat rests in the shade. Should I ask her to run further in such a fierce sun? The first stroke of the key brings a rumble of agreement from the heart of the beast.

After several mediocre years, U2 have found their lost soul. The sprawling wall of Irish rock music reverberates around the cabin. Kite is a tour de force, as is the eagle, on the carcass, on the road ahead. Callipers bite hard into four massive ventilated discs, hauling two tonne from warp speed to none. The eagle debates whether to cede or fight, then slowly, dangerously slowly, begins a wise flight of retreat. Jaguars however, do not take carrion and in the mirrors, the eagle reclaims possession.

“G.L.O.R.I.A. Gloria, G.L.O.R.I.A, Gloria” Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker, a stunning blues combination. On a road as deserted as this, the Jaguar is quietly and safely capable of cruising at 200 – 220km/h. There is something primordial and deeply satisfying in the combination of great speed and the insistent rhythm and beat of great blues music.

Lightening forks across a foreboding prematurely dark sky. The gamble. Stay at Kumarina, or make for the comfort of Newman? The cat surges forward and we run. The dramatic sky calls for equally dramatic music. Track 13, Nessun Dorma. I will dwell on this moment for years to come. Rain begins a hesitant dance upon the screen, Pavarotti is at full voice and there are goose bumps on my arms.

Overseas, a similar Jaguar had proven wonderfully sure-footed in torrential rain, although wiper blade capability restricted speed to around 160km/h. But here in West Oz, as we cross the Tropic of Capricorn, the torrent becomes such, that preternatural visibility is about four metres. Even 20km/h is too fast. Driving is unsafe at any speed. Nature wins and her two subjects huddle on the side of the road.

Time and storm pass. Wet, bedraggled and chastened, the cat and I seek sanctuary in Newman. Early next morning the sky is cobalt blue, not a trace of the previous night’s fury, not even a pool of water. The scenery is spectacular and the road, ahh, the road! Drivers around the world would weep at this place. Climbing up one side of Mt Newman, then across the Ophthalmia Range and down the pass to the Fortescue River flood plain, the long elegant curves and wide, wide straights present a road to beat all roads.

“Pleased to meet you …” Richards riff cuts in, as Jagger pauses. In front of us, there are two triple road trains on a sweeping right hander. That spine tingling roar, as the guttural V8 hammers out a message of supremacy. Back into the left hand lane, the needle still climbing, then in fluid motion, out to the right and past the second rig. An air horn slices through the Pilbara air, the Kenworth headlights momentarily flash in salute … “Please allow me to introduce myself …”

Half way down the pass through Munjina Gorge, I simply have to stop. It is too beautiful not to record on film. Rivers of spinifex and boulders tumble down the sides of the ravine. Red rock defines the edge of a vivid blue sky and strangely, the ribbon of highway seems somehow to belong, as if the Earth has said, “I will allow you to worship here, at the altar of true majesty.” Nature has humbled me once again.

As I stand besotted beside the car, I recognise the sound of a Cummins engine and the oil muted scream of a Road Ranger gearbox, as a Newman bound road train works hard up the pass. A mutual wave of acknowledgment. Somehow, I want to tell him that once his life was mine and that the driver inside never really dies.

The turn off to Karijini National Park evokes memories of another past, that of a tour guide driver and a coach company long gone. And Wittenoom, a now desolate space, reeking blue death amidst the false god of profit. Perhaps some things are best left as nature saw fit. Buried.

At Auski Roadhouse, a fellow traveller pulls in. He raves about the sound of the car as we had swept past. I rave about the scenery. Unfortunately, the road from here to Port Hedland is mind numbingly straight and flat, with just the occasional teasing glimpse of mesa country. My thoughts instinctively turn to cattle and cowboys and the ballads of Marty Robbins. El Paso never sounded so damn good. As Kristofferson once said, “If it sounds country man, that’s what it is!”

Mountains of salt and crushed iron ore. Monster trains, monster ships. Everything about Port Hedland screams hard yakka. Been there, done that. Broome beckons, 610 kilometres away. Unfortunately, the road ahead makes the Nullarbor look interesting. But on the bright side, the Jag can easily and safely travel the road, by daylight, in about three and a half hours, stopping for a drink along the way.

Easing out onto Australia’s Number One highway, the Cat seems to sense home is possible by this evening. Pausing at De Grey River, I look across to the old railway bridge and remember the days when the bridge served both train and road vehicles. Another time, a million years ago.

Slipping back into the driver’s seat, a new CD rumbles through the air, the unforgettable bass riff of “Gimme Some Loving.” The Spencer Davis Group takes me away, just as they did thirty five years ago, only back then, cars didn’t have sound systems like this, hell, most houses didn’t have a sound system like this!

Some time later, Jimmy Barnes “Soul Deep” album thunders round the cabin and it’s time to cut loose. 180km/h, 190, 200, 220, 230, 240. I remember the quiet English boffin, with one hand on the wheel, explaining that cars with a few kilometres under the belt, often achieve considerably more. … “I love you baby, river deep, mountain high …”

Back to reality, there ain’t too many rivers and mountains around. There is a lone Greyhound, but no match for the ferric feline, it fades out of sight as quickly as it appeared. At Sandfire Roadhouse, the cat drinks long and hard, 300 kilometres from anywhere. The explorer Leichhardt wrote in his diary of this place “… the very sand seemed on fire.” I know just the track, Leonard Cohen’s “Waiting for the Miracle,” a magnificent seven and a half minute opus of desert music, “… The sands of time were falling from your fingers and your thumb ..”

A black speck in front of me wanders to the far side of the road. As the Jaguar closes, the dark spectre shape shifts into an elderly ragtop Suzuki 4WD. The driver is obviously drifting in and out of fatigue and perhaps heat induced sleep. Flashing headlights, I warily slow down and draw along side.

She has seen me and yells out she’s OK. But I think she is not, remembering an effete art critic, who thought he too was in control of this road. However the sanctuary of Roebuck Roadhouse is only 15 minutes away. Leading her to safety, she agrees to rest overnight.

Broome, 30 kilometres! It is that mellow time of the day, as the sunsets and we cruising under dark clouds rolling across a blood red indigo sky, The beast is almost home and the savage V8 soothed by a laid back Mark Knopfler telling it “The Way It Is.” Stunning cords from a silver guitar and overwhelming lyrics for a driver who recently stood drained, upon the battlefield at Culloden. “And high on the wind, the highland drums begin to roll. And something from the past just comes and stares into my soul.”

The tropical paradise that is Broome comes into view. I switch on the radio, “Treaty yeah. Treaty yeah …” Yothu Yindi. Way to go! One last triumphant surge of the mighty V8, didgeridoos wail over a pounding bass and the Jaguar is home.

GR. ©

The Wheel Dreaming Journal – a Month on the Road Round Oz – 2008

This is a Blog, from 2009, when I did a promotional trip through the East coast of Australia. I haven’t altered anything, or updated it, rather I hope it paints a picture of a point in time and helps overseas friends understand Oz a little more. I’ll sort out some photos to accompany the tale over the next couple of days.

So, four weeks on the road, selling the Wheatbelt and the Motorplex, with a weekend at Bathurst and another at the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide. I’ve decided to write a daily Blog for friends and anyone else half interested. I’ll try to update it each night, although occasionally it might be every couple of nights. There are also related Photo Albums, with Wheel Dreaming “On the Road” albums for each week, plus individual albums for the Bathurst and Clipsal motorsport weekends. Just click on the album you want to look at and the photos accompanying the tale will all come up. I hope you enjoy the ride, where ever it may take us both. All Good Things, Greg

Friday 1 February 

Four cases of Vasse Felix, where to stow them? Ah yes, in the boot behind the back seat. Cartons and cartons of brochures, laptop, camera, mobiles, IPod, all plugged in. Reverse angle out of the drive – the car is sitting low – packed to the gunnels. Go.

Three fresh crosses, grey sand, blackened trunks. The section of road where the truckies died outside of Southern Cross on New Years Day, is only a kilometre or so long, just a narrow band, where the raging flames swept uncontrollably through. Two more minutes, they’d have been safe. How fierce was it!

At Coolgardie, I turn for Norseman. I haven’t played on this road, since Charley and I swapped around an XKR and his DB6. Dorrington would call us hoons, which is why they cannot reign in the road toll. We could help, but they will not listen. Lake Cowan outside of Norseman is a gorgeous place – twin steel rails, salty clay and a stillness. The XR6 Turbo burble resonates against the rock face across the road.

Norseman. I used to tell Greyhound passengers it wasn’t the end of the earth (Tammy Fraser bestowed that honour upon Meekatharra) but if they stood on the roof of the coach, they’d see it (the end of the earth!) from there. Exit east.

Up in the Fraser Ranges, I have to play Dire Straits. It’s all about the circle of life. Years ago, around 5.00am, up around those same sweeping bends, with passengers asleep, I threw on the Walkman and that glorious silver guitar album flowed into my ears. Walkmans are now long gone, replaced by a far thinner machine that doesn’t play just one cassette – it has thousands of albums. An entire CD collection in something not much bigger than a business card.

Balladonia. No need to stop, but the circle keeps spinning. In the early 70s, a bunch of us on motorbikes pulled in to camp for the night. The publican didn’t want bike riders in his pub – he was happy to sell us beer, but we had to drink it off his premises. A touch annoyed, we lobbed a rock or two through the neon sign out on the road. Years later, the same bloke had become a good mate – we even shared a 1927 Bentley together, yelling obscenities at motorists as we passed them on the M1 in England, at 100mph. Hell, the circle’s even tighter than that – Maurice owned the car by then, but it came from the collection of another dear friend – well, her husband.

The 90 Mile Straight comes to a sweeping end. Caiguna. Fuel is $1.80c per litre!! But the publican’s a good bloke, even gives me the low down on where the constabulary might be at that particular hour – not that I need to know of course, I’ve already taken a speedometer shot – under the prerequisite controlled conditions!

Madura. Ahh, I remember the woman who ran the place years ago, we used to call her Vinegar Tits, such was her charm and manner. But it’s a beautiful spot, which photos somehow do not do justice to. And yes, in case you’re thinking, “That’s an Indian name,” you’re right. They decided some time in the late 1880s, that it would be a great place to breed horses, bringing breeding stock from the British Army in India. With no wharves or jetties, they swam the horses from the ship to shore. Bad move. If they’d talked to the Aboriginal people, they would have told them about the sharks. Slaughter.

Speaking of which, Mundrabilla Station hove into view, (well, sort of, darkness was quickly falling). The brothers Kennedy took up the lease in the mid 1880s. Genteel farming folk, they had a novel way of dealing with the local vermin. They poisoned the flour and took to shooting an Aboriginal every couple of months and hanging the body from a tree on the plain, known to this day as the Hanging Tree. The Aboriginal people eventually took a terrible revenge, but that’s another story. Sorry? Jesus wept!

I’d covered 1,239kilometres after leaving Dowerin. Time to stop.

Every bar across the Nullarbor has one – a toothless, bearded, knarled cove, incapable of coherent speech, but wanting to be involved / noticed. I turn to the others in the bar,”Where are you from?”
“Toodyay.”
Yeah” I know it well. What do you do there?”
“Work part time for Barrett Displays, a Perth company, we put up stuff at shows like the Dowerin Field Days.”
Hmm! There’s no escape from work. Think I’ll go to bed. They were nice people though.

Saturday 2 February 

Not a good place to grab sleep, it’s a major changeover stop for east / west truckies. I must be getting older, the sound of diesel engines firing up is no longer comforting and the light shining through the threadbare curtain fooled me all night long – I kept thinking it was daytime. But no, it was 2.00am, 3.30am, 4.20am. I gave up and got up, saving my treat for after the shower and after I’d flushed a very large, very black spider off the shower curtain and down into the depths of wherever the grey water goes.

I have learnt over the years, ALWAYS take good coffee and a plunger on a trip. Dame Zara Holt never convinced me about Maxwell House! On the road again, but the white, white dunes of Eucla are not to be seen this morning, a misty salt water laden haze is everywhere.

Struth! The Next G phone lights up! In fact there’s coverage for about 30ks either side of Eucla. There’s a message! Could it be some gorgeous lady who has decided she’s missing me / we have a future? No, it’s my son; he wants $150.00 to see the Police tonight! Hang on, there are two messages! Ahh, Anthony, wishing me well on the journey.

Up the Eucla pass, I wonder if Harvey Gurney is still around, with his amazing collection of meteorites. We discovered, in my Greyhound days, that we had a connection. My uncle was “The Super” in Ion Idress’s book, “Across the Nullarbor.” They had called into the Gurney Homestead. Reading that book as a young boy in NZ was really the catalyst for my need to be in Oz.

I’ve hitched across the Nullarbor (when it was dirt), motorcycled across, trucked, trained – hell, I even rode a flat car behind the Gough Whitlam locomotive one starry, starry night – coached and car’d – is that a word?

Refuelled at Border Village, the Bight looms large on the right. In my Skinny Dog days, (on the 24 hour shift break), we would sit out on the cliffs with mellowing herbal-type cigarettes and cheap wine, watching the whales and philosophising. Dylan springs to mind. I know! “Desolation Row.” Christ, it’s so damn good that song.

By Nullarbor Roadhouse, I’m in full voice (and full throttle) with all the windows down, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Of course, it segues into “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?” The cliffs snake alongside me. I think of Thelma and Louise, “Hell girls, turn around and live, I’ll show you how to kick ass and win”

Funny thing, it occurs that the last Speed Limit advisory sign I’ve seen, was at the border of WA and SA. Finally, just after Nundroo, one looms into view (110). I glance at the trip meter, 329kms since the previous sign! Back home in the Nanny State, they’d have apoplexy. I look at my carefully prepared schedule (by me). I’m due to stay in Ceduna tonight. Bugger! Ceduna’s just 30ks away and it’s only 11.00am (Perth time). Got that wrong! Ahh well, I won’t have King George Whiting for dinner, dunno where I’ll be. More fuel and it’s time to boogie.

I never get over how dead and parched this area of South Oz always looks to me. I simply cannot get my head around the fact that it is grain country, they must make a living, but I could not live here. I try putting my photographic artist’s hat on, but nothing appeals … well, there was a twisted wreck of a tangled tree, but I was gone before I could stop.

York number plates on a tray top truck? What’s that doing here? What’s he carting? Ahh!, horses! I’m tempted to pull him up and ask what he’s doing, but reach the conclusion it’s something to do with rodeo, or mustering, it’s not racing. Can’t tell you how I know, but I do.

The sky is black. Very black. Razor thin blades of lightening shoot out of the darkness. Hmm, now we’ll see how the XR6 handles, weighed down with a boot and cabin full of gear. The torrent comes in hard. Full speed on the wipers and back off the throttle, down to about 95k/ph around Iron Knob. The road is starting to flood, even the truckies are talking about it on the CB.

The city limits of Port Augusta appear in front of me. That’ll do for the night, I’ve covered 2,259kms since Friday morning and there wasn’t much in the way of sleep last night. Another funny thing, not one police car, not one speed camera, across two states and 2,200+ kilometres. That must be going to change. It’s pot luck picking a roadside motel, however I’ve scored. The Comfort Inn is clean, comfortable, quiet and has a restaurant serving basic but very fresh food. You guessed it – King George Whiting, I couldn’t resist and snuck-in a Vasse Felix Sauvignon Blanc. Tomorrow it’s Broken Hill. I may stay there a night. Many years ago, I took some of the Brushman of The Bush up to the Pinnacles and around, but that’s another story.

Sunday 3 February

Sunday morning and the motel car park is virtually deserted – just my car and the cleaning ladies, looking relieved that I’m leaving as well. More rain, as the Flinders Ranges loom in front of me. Some 20ks south of Port Augusta, I turn left, heading for Horrocks Pass. The last time I travelled this road, was way back in 1984, when I drove a coach chassis from Sydney to Perth. It’s a lot more comfortable in the cocooned, climate controlled XR6 armchair.

On the other side of the ranges, the lady serving at the Wilmington Café tells me (after ten minutes), that there’s no hurry, she’ll make my smoothie shortly. I smile, it’s just the way it is in the country, no matter what state you’re in … and mine’s relaxed, I’m way ahead of schedule.

80ks later, I see the first police since leaving Dowerin, there’s two of them, having a chat beside their vehicles in the main street of Peterborough. The car does get their attention, but road train after road train rumble through – they have bigger fish to fry.

Inland South Oz still worries me. Peterborough is a perfect example. There are some truly beautiful old buildings – stores, homes etc, in the town, mouth watering really. But the town is somehow old, tired, dilapidated. I’ve never seen the same look / feel in the West, even in ghost towns. This is something different, almost as if hope has been dashed. That magnificent “Carnivale” series springs to mind.

The feeling sticks right through onto the Barrier Highway, as I forge east for New South Wales and the fabled city of Broken Hill. Even the power poles tell a story. In South Oz, they’re distinctively Victorian, with their Christian Cross look. The minute I cross the border, the power poles morph into something all together different. Damned if I know what to make of it.

The road gets wider and starts climbing the small range west of The Hill. Traffic lights, bustle, even on a Sunday. I’m gonna play tourist, but not to the mines, it’s art I want to see. And it’s everywhere. The local tourist bureau has a superb book about Broken Hill artists. I buy it, but unfortunately, 80% of the galleries are closed on a Sunday! Go figure!

Be that as it may, there is gold in them thar hills! The 2007 Archibald entrants are on display at the Broken Hill Gallery. I buy the book and start examining them all. The winning prize doesn’t do it for me. Some of the paintings are exquisite works of photo realism – I have to get within inches of a couple of them to tell! My votes? Danell Bergstrom’s painting of Jack Thompson, but then I like Thompson – forgive me for what may be an overinflated ego – he reminds me of me. Bill Leak’s Portrait of Paul – very powerful, Michael Mucci’s portrait of Peter Garrett and Evert Ploeg’s portrait of George Ellis.

Alas, the Brushman of The Bush are all fading, although Jack Absalom’s still cooking, but off on his annual break. Hughie Schulz has passed on, to that naïve wilderness in the sky, and Pro Hart’s gone to investigate the availability of Rollers in painters heaven. I talk to a gorgeous, gorgeous lady at Pro Hart’s gallery. Wafer thin, but elegant, possibly in her eighties. Mary McGuire, once of the ABC, she lived next door to Hugh and Beth. She gives me a very personal tour of the gallery. I will write to her. I’m looking at the pipe organs on display, when some people walk in. A silver haired chap pulls out all the stops and Bach powers through the gallery. It’s quite surreal.

I like Pro Hart’s work. It’s comfortably familiar, sort of very Australian, but I’d never quite got around to buying anything. And there it was. One of his prints, not the usual kaleidoscope of riotous Pro Hart colour, but a muted blue Brolga catching a frog. Number 94 of 100, I had to have it.

Outside, his cars sit silently waiting – forever now. The Roller is one hell of a painted lady. Bloody wonderful. I can only think of one other – John Lennon’s psychedelic yellow canvas. Here’s to anyone having the balls to make it happen. The beautiful Bentley sits untouched, in the shadows now. There’s a sculpture park across the road from his studio. I like the faces. Perhaps it’s the theatre of the man and his work that deeply appeals to me.

I’m so immersed in thought about all the art, that I drive out of town forgetting to refuel! Me, who never misses anything with cars. I laugh and turn around. In case you’re wondering, the car’s giving about 11 litres per 100 kilometres – just under 30mpg, there’s a 610k range to the tank, about 56ks less than the non-turbo Falcon on a similar long run. On the road again, the rain comes in and the clouds roll out as far as I can see into the distant east. It’s going to be a wet drive. The low profile tyres aquaplane on pools of water, a little more than I would like, but it’s very controllable.

Back to that South Oz thing. Here I am in outback New South Wales, it’s barren yes, but it feels fine. Ancient, but alive. Is it something to do with South Oz being the driest state? Stephen Donaldson’s “Trials of Thomas Covenant” come to mind, it’s as if Lord Foul’s Bane has descended on South Australia. Whatever, NSW feels good. Power on. Now there’s a thing. Everyone travels at 120kmph. Yep, they all back off for towns etc, but out on the open road, 120 rules the road. It makes sense. You make a mile, boring tiredness doesn’t set in. It should be the open road limit everywhere, with an allowance for passing manoeuvres. And still not a police car in sight.

259ks later, I’m pulling into Wilcannia. The countryside has obviously had a lot of rain, everything is green and it’s still raining. If I can find a half way decent motel, I’ll stop for the night. The Shell Roadhouse also has “Graham’s Motel” out the back. It’ll do. “Ya eat here at the roadhouse mate, but we close ‘er at 7.00pm.” No worries, I want to watch the ABC news anyhow. I wonder if he was Graham?

I’m the last one left in the dining room. The waitress – I simply cannot write “waitperson,” has placed all the surrounding chairs on the tables, “Would you like me to take my meal to my room?”
“Na, no worries love, me mum’s making a roast tonight and I can’t bloody wait. She burns everything else, but gets them right.” I smile and keep masticating.

So here I am, Miss Marples sleuthing away on the television, as I type. Seedy. That best describes the motel. I think a Shiraz might fix my point of view.

Monday 4 February

Wet, wet, wet. And that’s just the humidity (around 95%). Leaving Wilcannia, I see the Darling River is swirling with mud red water flowing swiftly under the bridge, the Darling lives again. A group of young Aboriginal boys give the car the thumbs up with wide, appreciative grins. Next stop Cobar, 259ks away.

The Barrier Highway stretches into the cloudy distance, visibility is that tiring, glaring silver. I prefer the sunshield down, blocking out as much of the glare as possible. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen any roo carcasses, since way back the other side of Ceduna, (I eventually do, just outside of Gunnedah). It’s quite different to West Oz, where rain will bring roos out in broad daylight, to the edges of the bitumen, lapping at the pools of water on the road.

I’m just starting to realise I haven’t really seen any stock, when we start climbing up into the MacCulloch Ranges and suddenly goats galore appear on every side, for miles. This is a road for cars to travel by daylight only! The odd sheep or two come into view, but not many. I can only assume either the pastoralist is running goats, or he’s lost his gun licence.

It might be wet, but the scenery is lovely, there are trees everywhere and it reminds me of those areas of the Kimberley, where rivers run, different trees of course, but that same lush green of cascading foliage. Cattle start to appear. I’m glad, I am at heart a cattle man, always loved working with them.

Cobar. The rain breaks just as I enter the town. I like the speed warning system in NSW – signs reading “50km zone ahead” – it works well and there can be no excuse for thundering through any town. It’s a busy, pretty little place, which sort of belies its mining background, although they’ve made quite a statement with the town name emblazoned on the eastern end of town.

The XR6 settles back into her rhythm for the run to Nyngan, when I am startled to read a large roadside sign, declaring I am entering The Bogan Shire! I think it’s serious, but I’d either keep it quiet, or change the slogan. Ahh well, I suppose it’ll be easy to pick a local – duck tail and singing “Achy Breaky Heart.” About 50ks east of the town, I find I’m entering familiar territory – Wheatbelt country. Sure enough, as I hit the outskirts of town, an AWB sign greets me – bet that company doesn’t have much life left, the Rudd government will surely be looking for scalps.

I pass a local express coach and it hits me. It’s the first I’ve seen in four days. Yes, there’s been the odd tour bus, but no express coaches and certainly no buses or coaches on the Nullarbor. Maybe they took them off the road at the same time as the police cars? I remember in my Greyhound Days, during holiday periods, there’d be 20 or 30 coaches a day on the Eyre Highway, let alone major state roads like this. I wonder where old express coaches go to die? I wouldn’t mind picking up one of the Skinny Dog’s American Silver Eagles, those mothers could step out and were very stable, they handled. Make a great motor home. And a partner could drive one with ease – they had Allison automatics.

The Barrier Highway finishes at Nyngan – if I’d turned left, I’d have been at Bourke in 70ks, but I wasn’t going that way. Nyngan reminds me of Huntley in New Zealand, minus the mighty Waikato of course, but a very similar feel and look. Speaking of feeling, most of the road to Nevertire, is a bloody disgrace. That there aren’t dead people from one end to the other is a tribute to the skill of the truckies, who have to keep their rigs on a straight path, in what is effectively a sunken bitumen goat track. Perhaps while the new Federal Minister for Agriculture is touring round, he might check the road out and have words in ears.

An older green Toyota Hilux comes towards me. Wyndham plates! Damn, he’s a long way from home and I don’t envy him what must be a kidney jolting ride. Two emus, as mad as they always are, dart back and forth across the road, necks twisted behind them. They are the most unpredictable animal of all when it comes to safely driving past them. If the bastards could open a door and get in with you, I reckon they would. With those wild mad eyes, I’ve often wondered whether a good dose of Thyroxine would settle them down. You still couldn’t eat them of course. Now that would be road kill to try the Top Gear team out!

The rain is still thundering down. The office rings. I’ve had Next G phone contact (with the high gain boot-mounted aerial) basically all the way from Ceduna, a couple of fade spots, but pretty good. The GSM phone only works in the larger towns, (just like back home in WA). I have to stop talking for a while, the road is awash with water, anymore than 80km/h is downright dangerous. The windscreen wipers are barely coping. It’s worth a photo. As I cruise into Tamworth, good mate Neville Wittey rings (Nifty Nev, The Beautiful Banker and I are going sailing on Sydney Harbour after Bathurst), “Be careful mate,” he warns, “It’s prone to flash floods up there, we want you alive and well.” He ain’t wrong … on both counts. Then I see a sign – it’s the guiltiest looking Koala I’ve ever seen in my life, so I photograph it – if you look closely, even the spider’s nervous!

Now when you’re in Tamworth, there’s one thing you simply have to do, go see the Golden Guitar. So I do. And in time honoured GR fashion, the only place to set up the obligatory shot, is in a non parking zone. Hughie’s watching, the clouds part and the sun comes out … briefly. I enter the hallowed halls of the Golden Guitar Tourism shop. Mate!!

I don’t know what to buy – a pink Stetson? A C&W CD – there’s thousands of those, a Tamworth tea towel? A Tamworth ruler, pencil sharpener, glasses, pictures, mouse mats? Then I see it! My God, it’s magnificent. So tasteless, so awful, so kitsch it is simply wonderful. A Golden Guitar snow dome. This could be the best $4.50 I’ve ever paid out in my life. The lovely lady behind the counter assures me the price includes a very safe styrene box. Bugger Broken Hill, this IS a work of art!

More miracles. On the road again, it’s 4.35pm, 42kms north of Tamworth, I’ve just finished reassuring Mr Michael Whyte, Brand Ambassador at Vasse Felix that I do have sufficient of their product on board to meet all possible emergencies, when the first Police car I’ve actually seen on the road passes me. I glance at the trip meter, I’ve covered 3,728kms to finally find the thin-on the ground blue line.

Now you may be wondering why, if I’m heading to Warwick as my first major stop, that I came via Tamworth. Simple, the place is an Oz icon and it will lead me in the morning to another – Tenterfield. I’ll saddle-up in the morning, ride out of Armidale and tell you more tomorrow night.

Tuesday 5 February

67 years to the day that “Banjo” Patterson stepped off the perch. It seems appropriate therefore, that I’m planning on visiting Tenterfield this morning, it’s often referred to as the “Birth Place Of Our Nation” – Henry Parkes made his famous Federation speech there in 1899.

The phone rings. It’s Brad, Eoin Cameron’s producer, the West’s breakfast radio king wants to have a chat about the trip and the car – he’s a mate and having seen the snow dome pic, like me, is in awe of it’s sheer beauty and elegance – he must know more. He introduces me as a rev head. I smile to myself, he’s right of course. It’s interestingly therapeutic to talk with a friend from home, when you’re thousands of kilometres away. Sort of reassuring that your own world still exists, although you’re not there … if that makes sense.

Car repacked, I hit the road for the next town north, Glen Innes, quietly pleased that it’s a relatively short distance to drive today (312ks to Warwick), as within a few minutes of getting behind the wheel, I realise I am tired. The past few long, heavy days have extracted a toll and I suspect the concentration levels in the constant downpour yesterday are a factor. The speed limit of 100kmh will do me just fine today, in fact I opt for cruise control, a rarity for me.

Glen Innes is just 100ks up the road from Armidale, but I feel I’ve moved to the Highlands of Scotland … sort of. There’s a strange mix / emphasis on the Celtic – not that I object, I just have trouble reconciling Stonehenge replicas, with images of Scottish pipers – I’ve been to Stonehenge and the real Highlands. I did not find a Skull and Crossbones anywhere around Stonehenge, although admittedly, it’s not all that far (geographically) from Cornwall – if pirates spring to mind. No matter, the town is very friendly. A lady in the local optometrist tells me it hasn’t rained for 15 years! They are loving the wet! I’m on her side.

And she on mine. After asking me where I’m from and where I’m headed, she tells me, “Careful, the boys are out on the road today!” Good advice, gratefully received, but I am tired and will push no boundaries today. And to Steve (my brother … and my cousins Hope and Naomi) I know you’ll be smiling at good vibes re Glen Innes – my parents bought into the the new Auckland housing estate in 1955, we spent four or five years there, before moving to the North Shore, when the “Coat Hanger” went up.

Bloody Hell! She was right! At Dundee, 39ks north of Glen Innes, a pursuit car approaches me, radar mounted on the side window, just like the wild west! At last, 3,942kms after I left Dowerin, there is a real police presence on the road. Mind you, they’re very anal retentive in NSW about speed cameras, there are signs everywhere warning about loss of licence, heavy fines, Armageddon, etc, etc. Nonsense. One police car on the road does more for good behaviour and etiquette, than half a million dollars spent on warning signs.

Ten minutes later, at Deepwater, I see a “Double Bubble” (red and blue lights on the roof) in front of me. I knew he was there, as truckies had warned on the CB radio, that he was on the prowl. I slowly reel him in. Obviously he’s not using cruise control. A short while later, half way down the Bolivia Hills, he pulls into a Rest Area. I see no need to alert anyone to his presence.

Tenterfield. I talked of this town with Eoin. Who, who’s true-blue, doesn’t know some of the lines from “Tenterfield Saddler.” I’d assured him I would have it playing on the iPod, as I drive in …” Time is a traveller …” I stop to photograph the town’s welcoming statement, referring to Henry Parkes. As I get out of the car, cicadas sing in my ear. Eerily reminiscent of boyhood days playing in the Auckland bush.

It’s cattle country, granite outcrops, steep, steep hills and very reminiscent of Toodyay in the west. Just north of the town, I find an old, dilapidated railway bridge, crossing the Tenterfield Creek, which is swelling by the minute. Like the saddler (and his grandson), the steam engines are long gone. But I spy a remnant – a sign, declaring the area is for the use of Travelling Stock. Drovers, now that evokes a wonderful mental image.

60ks later, I’m in Queensland. The weather’s been kind so far today, but the rain starts again. Another 60ks and I’m in Warwick, which is to be the start of my real working journey.

I ring Bill Campbell, manager of Morgan Park Raceway, the inspiration for the Wheatbelt Motorplex, he’s cannot see me until tomorrow, but is pleased I’m in town and wants to catch up. I call into the Morgan Park Performance Centre. Good people, they’d given us excellent advice, (from a business perspective), in September last year. I decide to give them the XR6 for it’s long overdue service tomorrow morning. I’ve got to support the little guy in the country town and he’s wrapped to get the business.

I have my first print media interview, with the Warwick Daily News – they interviewed me and Dale Metcalf (our Shire President), when we visited in September last year. I then go down to photograph the Condamine River, which is on the rise, not far from flooding for the second time this year! “Send her down Hughie,” everyone agrees.

There are names that simply roll off the tongue, if Oz is in your blood – The Darling, Broken Hill, Broome, Kalgoorlie, the Kimberley, Tenterfield, Tamworth, the Condamine. Being in all these places, is truly a sense of place. I feel I belong – I’m paying homage.

I book into a motel I’d spotted under construction last year – The Coachman’s Inn. When I get into the room, I notice the clock is showing the incorrect time. I’ll fix it later. At that point in time, I was stuffed – not quite in the manner of a John Cleese parrot, but sorely in need of rest. I make the obligatory phone calls to the office, then lie down on the bed, having booked a table at the restaurant for 7.30pm. My natural alarm clock wakes me at 6.00pm. I turn on the television, to catch the news. No news? I turn to WIN TV – the antiques programme? My brain flounders, then I work it out. Of course, there’s no daylight saving in Queensland, I’m actually an hour ahead of them – which is not bad for a Sandgroper! In reality, Queensland is only an hour ahead of WA.

The restaurant is called ” Ruperts.” It shouldn’t be here! I’ve got a couple of favourite restaurants in the West – Bradleys in East Perth, Vasse Felix, Cape Lodge and Vat 107 in Margaret River, The Rivers Edge Café in Northam and Jackson’s in Highgate. I have just discovered another in Warwick!! Very Jacksons / Bradleys in ambience and décor. The food is exquisite. I’m wonderfully dumfounded. They even had music by the German composer, Edgar Froesse, who I took to the Pinnacles many, many years ago. The Moroccan Barramundi was magnificent and the Cinnamon Pear in Pastry was to die for, all while watching road trains thunder by outside the window (you can’t hear them). Surreal, wonderful! My only complaint? A great wine list, including a couple of Margaret River wines, but NO Vasse Felix! Michael, my dear friend, their wholesaler is Brisbane based – you simply must call them and fix the problem!

Tomorrow? Well, I meet with Bill and the Warwick Shire – we’re going to set up a Sister City / town relationship with Dowerin – both places are 165km inland from their respective state capitals – the car should be serviced by midday and then I’ll head for Brisbane, in what the weather boys says will be nightmare driving conditions, down through The Gap etc.

But now, it’s been 4,150kms from Dowerin to Warwick and just for once, this bundle of energy needs rest. See you tomorrow.

Wednesday 6 February

Morning and straight down to work, making and checking appointments over the next couple of weeks. Then get the Turbo over to Matt Clift at Morgan Park Performance Centre for its overdue service. He obligingly drops me off at Morgan Park, where there is a scheduled practice day. A good chance to talk with people who are happy to drive 160 clicks or more to hire a race track. Not long after that, I find myself in the passenger seat of a much older hoon than me, as he throws his souped-up Rodeo … diesel!! … ute around the track, evading the odd startled roo or two. It’s a great life really. And just in case you’re laughing at the diesel concept, Audi have been so successful at Le Mans with diesels, the powers-that-be are probably going to ban them.

I’m doing serious busy work, photographing and measuring buildings etc, when a very smart combination pulls up – a hot looking XR6 Turbo ute, towing a sweet looking yellow open wheeler – it looks a little like the Lola’s of old. The guy who owns it has come up from Sydney for a couple of days to learn about the car. He’s just bought it, from Grant Watson of Pro-Sport Developments (who’s also there to instruct) having traded up from his MX5. I think about asking him to pose with the car, when a pair of legs articulate past me. Emily is eminently happy to pose with the car – I still have no idea what make of vehicle it is … I lost my train of thought. Back to business Gregory!

A couple of phone calls confirm for me that some of the people I want to meet in Brisbane, have already left for Bathurst. As I drive down through a mist laden Cunningham’s Gap, I hear on the radio, that Brisbane is in need of two hundred – that’s right, two hundred buses immediately, just to cope with the numbers of passengers. Queensland, like WA, is pumping. There’s no real point in trying to entice people away to the Wheatbelt from the Banana State, like us, they can’t find enough workers. I know some are doing it tough, but it really is an incredible resource-driven period in our history.

I decide the best thing to do, is cut back down to NSW and start the WA spruik from there, which means cutting through Beaudesert and Nerang to the Gold Coast and across the border. I simply have to stop for a brief minute on Mt Tambourine, many years ago, riding with a bunch of fellow bikers, we camped up here for a weekend – I had the then first four stroke 750cc Suzuki and she handled! I remember we sat around the campfire listening to the new Manfred Mann album and the song, “Blinded By the Light.” Hell, I’ve gotta play it. And so I found myself, almost four decades later, thundering down the mountain, …”Wrapped up like a deuce …” How sweet it is.

There’s water everywhere! Rivers running across bridges, unreal. I’m now into my fifth day of rain and I’ve only been on the road for six days. Back down on the flat, through Nerang and into the God Coast, I ponder the peculiar fact that I’m not enjoying myself and finding both work and driving a chore. Something’s wrong. It doesn’t feel like a flu, but spark has gone walkabout. Maybe it’s the slow speeds? But I’ve just spent half a morning on a race track. Work continues. A phone call or two later and we’ve set up for Warwick and Dowerin to establish a sister city / town relationship. Warwick’s been very clever and has applied to officially be known as the Horsepower Capital of Australia, it’s a good call, they have both Morgan Park Raceway and their horse shows and rodeos.

Back in New South Wales, the Pacific Highway opens up, although there’s still the omnipresent radar warning signs and huge billboard posters every twenty ks or so, depicting a woman with a wry sneer on her face and her fingers held just so, indicating a very small fish and words to the effect that speeding doesn’t impress her. The silly bastards don’t get it. Men don’t speed to impress women, or anyone else, in much the same way women don’t dress to impress men – they do it for themselves, or to impress other women. But hey, who am I to try and explain the psychology of it all to those in authority, after all, they’re the experts.

The feeling of lethargy is overwhelming and I know I have to stop. At the same time, I realise the clock has gone forward an hour, now I’m south of the border. I decide to head off for Byron Bay, 10ks off the Highway. It’s packed, with the younger set – died blond surfie hair, suntanned breasts and navels as far as the eye can see, against the dark grey, rain-sodden sky. I think about stopping, but I’d look like Uncle Pervy amongst all the young things, it would be too uncomfortable, besides, the joint looks like Margaret River or Dunsborough during Schoolies Week. I motor back out to the Pacific Highway and head south.

30ks down the road, the sign says Ballina. That’ll do, so I head to the coast
and book into a motel. Still struggling with tiredness, I put off the computer work I need to do, deciding to have a shower, then grab a bite at the restaurant, in the hope that maybe an early night will do the trick. Zipping open the toiletry bag, everything becomes abundantly clear – out falls the daily medication. A few years back, I had a minor altercation with Thyroid cancer and ever since then, I’ve needed a daily fix of Thyroxin. How stupid! I wrote about it the other day, (something about emus) and it still didn’t ring a bell. Problem solved, no wonder I’m run down, I haven’t got a metabolism. I OD on an extra couple of the little helpers – better to look like a live emu than a dead one.

Thursday 7 February 

Not only is the sun shining for the first time since I left Nullarbor Roadhouse, I am feeling positively dangerous! Like Freddy, I’m back! Dashing off emails to my chairman, media outlets, and the office, there’s no stopping me. Next thing I know, in between a thousand phone calls, it’s 10.00am, the motel wants to chuck me out. Fair enough. I pop up to the beach for a quick squiz. Gorgeous, good for the soul. Time to boogie – I’m headed for Bathurst, but probably won’t get there today.

It’s a beautiful run down the Pacific Highway. A couple of times, I have an incredible sense of Déjà vu – around the Bundjalung Forest area, it’s exactly the same as driving along the coast road towards Bunbury, or the last thirty ks into Margaret River. Of course, the sugar and banana plantations bring you back to reality. But it’s also very similar to much of the North Island of New Zealand, particularly from Auckland up to the Bay of Islands. And not just in terms of the scenery. It’s bloody slow going, just like in NZ. There are road works every ten ks or so – stop and crawl. A town every ten ks … stop and crawl. You just can’t make a mile. However there is a bit of light relief, a lady holding the Stop / Go lollypop has fitted a stubby holder to the poll and keeps her water bottle there – wasted talent. The 100k speed limit is as boring as bat shit. At one stage I thought, I’d open up a bit, then thought better of it. Next thing I know, a gold Falcon (obviously a rep), shot past me. I thought, “Hmm, dunno.” Ten ks later, there he was, exchanging pleasantries with Plod in an unmarked white Falcon. Always go with the gut, it never fails.

I’d planned on driving down to Maitland (just north of Newcastle), then across to Bathurst, but I really can’t be bothered with the snails pace of the so called highway any longer, it’s driving me mad. So I take a quick look at the Gregory’s. Ahh! It looks like I can turn off at a place called Urunga and cut across something called the Waterfall Way, over to Armidale and down to Bathurst from there. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the village-hopping mail run I was stuck with. Exit stage right.

Right? Maate!!! What a find! What a treasure! What a beautiful, beautiful road! And what a driver’s road, car or bike, it doesn’t matter. Let me tell you about it. The banana plantations quickly cease and suddenly the road gets tight and curvy. I’m still down on the plain, but there’s a veritable mountain ahead, as well as a police car. Oh well. A tight right hander comes up, easy. But the small blue Korean car coming towards us has no proper line into the corner, no idea really and veers wide into the path of the police car. Wrong move at the wrong time. I briefly glance at the driver and I’m instantly sure she would never speed and probably has a clean licence. BUT she has no idea of car control, or how to drive.

I’m already braking, as I know the constable is going to do a U-turn. Sure enough. Now for the hill climb. How sweet it is! And the scenery! To die for. Three quarters of the way up, there is a gorgeous waterfall splashing down the granite face, (Newell Falls). I’m talking to Jodie (one of my daughters) on the phone and tell her what I’ve stopped to see and that she’ll have the pics on her computer in the morning). You can even see way down to the ocean. It’s stunningly beautiful, the sun is streaming down and the world is good!

As I drive further up, looking across to the other side of the steep, steep valley, there are white waterfall ribbons dotted here and there and the granite cliff face on my left is weeping water everywhere. So fresh, clean and alive.

Up on the tablelands I find the road gets even better. The XR6 Turbo was built for this. I’m in heaven, somewhere to play, Dorrigo passes by, then Ebor. Whoa! What’s that? Guy Fawkes River? This I’ve got to see. Metres away there’s a beautiful thundering waterfall – in mid February! Other sightseers and I all agree, the lush greenness of everything and the abundant water exudes good karma. But I have to get back to “my precious” – the road.

Somewhere just south of Armidale, I pull into a Caltex servo to fill up. I’m looking for a Premium pump but can’t see one at first. Then I see what looks to be Premium. I take the pump off the hook, but notice it’s cheaper than standard. A closer look reveals it’s an ethanol mix – not good for the turbo engine. I put the nozzle back and pick up the other one. However the attendant doesn’t seem to want to turn it on. Perhaps he wants to talk about. I don’t, so I drive off for the next servo. Why waste time? I’ve struck this before, having to wait while somebody flicks a switch – if they notice you.

The BP down the road gets the nod, I can tell which is the Premium pump. I do a quick calculation, 560.7ks and 57.95 litres – that’s about 27mpg – apologies to the metric lovers – it doesn’t make sense to me until it’s in miles per gallon. I can’t knock that sort of consumption – the car’s loaded with luggage and we have been playing.

It’s late arvo and I’ve still got an interview to do in Tamworth. It appears I’m going to be held up by a coach, but no worries, they obviously got their vehicles mixed up, when they put the 100kmh limited sticker on the rear of this sucker. Next thing I know, it’s almost 6.00pm. To heck with it, I’ll bed down in Snow Dome territory for the night. Bathurst beckons – I’ve been in training.

Friday 8 February

So there I was, Friday morning in Tamworth and just like an old western, I was about to lit-outta town. The bloke running the Best Western motel had been very obliging the previous night – a hose to wash the car (they’ve only been allowed to wash with a bucket for months!) and he kept pouring me glasses of wine at the bar – they didn’t appear on the bill either! He hadn’t finished playing host-extraordinaire either. As I handed in the room key, he said “Which way ya going, the long way or the short way?”
“Keep talking,” I replied
“Got a map?”
“Yep.” He took a pink marker and drew a line from Tamworth through Werris Creek, Coolah, Mudgee and Ilford to Bathurst. “Cuts out an hour or two, there’s no traffic, it’s all sealed roads and a bloke can make a mile.”

He was right, most of the trip, till just south of Mudgee, was on flat plains country, which had obviously had a lot of water in recent times. In fact just after Werris Creek, there were several rivers crossing the road, ah well, I was driving a Ford. He was right about the lack of traffic, after the Werris Creek turn-off, it dropped down to a car every couple of ks or so and they were all travelling at a steady 120kph. As he said, you could make a mile.

The little hamlet of Coolah got my attention, with its bold entry statement -“Home of the Original Black Stump,” one of my favourite expressions. I had to stop, besides, I was looking for a post office. Luck was with me, the town had a post office and they had Black Stump stickers for sale. There was a small crowd around the car, as there usually is, one of them said, “Motorsport? It’s my passion. Where’s Dowerin and how do you pronounce it?”

Barry (Wells) is retired, in his early 70s and still rides his motorbike touring around the joint, in fact he’s going back to WA on the bike with a bunch of friends next year. We stood and chatted about Bathurst – he used to pit crew for a Maserati team. I had to give him a copy of “Dowerin Daredevils and a cap, he was wrapped.

This region’s obviously low on the NSW government’s radar – the weeds and grass are actually growing through the bitumen road and often the white lines on either side of the road are completely covered with vegetation. Then I cross the Golden Highway (between Dunedoo and Leadville), to find a large sign declaring it was the Mid Western District and illegal to take grapevine cuttings past that point. No problems there, to make life easier for me, Vasse Felix had very kindly worked alchemy on the cuttings and put them in bottles, of which I had plenty!

The Next G mobile cut out (as I’ve said previously, the GSM only works in larger towns), but out here, Next G wasn’t much better, high gain aerial or not, however the road has improved dramatically – obviously someone influential lives around here. Naughty thoughts of course, but it’s interesting to note that for about 10ks either side of a quite lovely farm and home, the road is perfect – just like the farmhouse really, then it becomes second rate again. But hey, maybe I’m just a cynical old bastard. At Mudgee, I realise it’s the first time I’ve seen an Elders branch, since leaving the west. It’s a large town and kids at the local high school give the car a big wave -“Hmm, how’d you like to convince your family to move to the West?”, I think. Must found out what the employment and economic situation is around this district.

The road starts heading towards hill country and I find myself driving alongside a large dam / catchment that’s obviously low, but definitely has water, it’s called Lake Windamere. By the time I reach the turn-off at Ilford, there are familiar black clouds closing in. Well, I can’t complain, I’ve had two days of sunshine, however the thought of a wet weekend wandering around Bathurst doesn’t fill me with joy.

The road’s been running alongside the Wollemi National Park for 70ks or so and I’ve been wondering how Wally’s going. As some of you know, a couple of years back, I won a Wollemi pine in a Weekend Australian competition. It was immediately obvious when I unpacked him, that his name was Wally. Wally the Wollemi now lives very happily in a wine barrel on the back patio, chatting to fellow barrel tenants – the herbs and Roma the tomato plant. Hopefully son Gordon and / or Kate (Irvine) are keeping up the liquids to Wally and his mates.

As the car climbs up into steep hill country, I notice a slightly different type of gum tree. I’m just wondering what it is, when I come across a dead Koala on the road, something I haven’t seen since a trip down to Phillip Island in the early 1970s. Bugger. It’s a bit like the atrocious pictures of the slaughtered whale and calf on the Japanese “scientific” ship. Yeah, right.

The last little town I pass though, is Sofala, an old gold mining settlement, nestled at the bottom of a very steep valley. As the road starts to wind down to the town, I see a Corolla sitting at an impossible, insane angle, ten metres off the road. God knows what the driver was doing, or what speed to get the car up there. Three days later, I’m still trying to work it out.

Bathurst! The holy grail of all true blue motorsport enthusiasts.

I drop my gear at the motel and head over to the track to find Ken and Robina, who’re in town as part of a four strong WA HQ racing mob. Ken’s racing Robina’s car this weekend and it’s wearing the Wheatbelt Motorplex logo splashed across its bonnet. Not only that, we’ve done a deal whereby the transporter has the logo across both sides of the pantech.

I find them just as Ken’s about to head out for the first race. It’s almost déjà vu for me, as some of his team work for Barbagallo’s or used to work there, it’s a reunion of battle-hardened souls! One bloke wants to update me on all the gossip. “No! I’ve escaped! It’s all a fading memory. Stop. Desist. Here, have a glass of red!” Only joking of course.

The HQ series is bloody fantastic, it allows people to enter the sport without the horrendous costs – it still ain’t cheap – you use about $3.00 worth of fuel on every lap, but it’s worth it for the enthusiast. And who knows, for a young driver, like go kart racing, the sky’s the limit in this training ground. But for mature drivers, like Ken, it’s all about lifestyle, fun and that wonderful surge of adrenaline, which Ken’s about to get in buckets!

I’m standing on the roof of the pits, taking pics of the cars as the come through The Chase, under the bridge and down into pit straight, when Ken takes a nudge from behind and the car spins out of control. I capture it all, even when Ken gets out of and jumps the fence. Luckily there’s no damage, although Robina needs a fortifying drink.

We decide to meet that night at the motel I’m staying at – The Governor Macquarie, as it appears to have a reasonable restaurant. WRONG! The staff are lovely, but the plastic over the table clothes is disturbing – sort of 1970s Golden Fleece roadhouse. Your arms stick to it! Oh well, we’ve snuck in some of Janet’s finest. Several of the dishes on the menu “… aren’t available tonight, sorry,” which is curious, as the restaurant is busy (all accommodation is booked out in the town).

Ken and Robina order fish. The batter seems to be puffed up surrounding whatever’s inside. My lasagne arrives – wafer thin, dry and crusty – you get that way after several days in the freezer. The chips are edible, the salad is, well, recognisable. We can’t eat, so we drink wine and talk, discussing our accommodation. My unit has no remote for the TV and it won’t work without it – somebody’s obviously tried, as the front panel is broken off, there’s no remote for the air con unit – it’s set at whatever temperature the motel people feel is comfortable for me! It vacillates between pumping out hot and cool air, but at least it’s a split system, not the God-awful wall mounted things that ruin any chance of a quiet night. The bedside radio is very economical – the station change knob is missing, however I discover I can remove the volume knob and use it to change stations. However the water’s hot and the joint is clean.

Ken and Robina have scored really well. They’ve booked what was a converted convent, but had not been able to get a confirming fax / email, although all looks well on the website. When they’d arrived, there was a note on the door to ring a number, if nobody was there. They rung. A lady was a bit put out, as she was busy, could they go and do some shopping or something? No. Eventually she turned up, explaining her husband was in hospital – he’d fallen off his motorbike (as you do apparently – although neither Ken nor I have followed this practice) and she was taking him his lunch.

It turned out the rooms didn’t have en-suites, however there were two communal showers – men to the right of the corridor and women down the other end, off to the left, “Oh, and you better be careful, there’s no doors as such, so people do get it wrong and wander in.” There was no soap or towels provided either and worse, the wash basins had been installed for children – on your knees was apparently the best way to wash you face or brush your teeth. They asked for milk to put in their bar fridge, “Oh, you’re the lucky ones, the other rooms don’t have a fridge. Now your room key also fits the front door, make sure you keep your room locked.” Ken asked if everyone else had the same key (opening the front door etc), “Yes.”

On that note, all of us laughing like drains, retired for the night, to prepare for a weekend of motorsport, little did we know that we hadn’t experienced the last of Bathurst’s Fawlty Towers hospitality.

Saturday 9 & Sunday 10: The WPS Bathurst Motor Festival

Bathurst. To anyone remotely interested in motorsport, the name conjures up an incredible image of adversity, speed, danger and excitement. It’s utterly correct to refer to the track as a Mecca for enthusiasts – one simply must go there once in a lifetime.

Last year, my daughter Jodie and partner Brent drove around the track. She was so astounded at the steepness of the mountain and the insane bends, that she rang both me and her brother, in awe of what the drivers cope with. She of course, grew up force-fed on a televised diet of the annual Great Race.

I drove into town on the first day of the annual WPS Bathurst Motor Festival. The programme of events included parades of street cars and bikes, HQ Holden racing, Formula Vee racing, Salon Car racing and finally, on the Sunday, the Bathurst 12 Hour. Unsure of where my motel was situated, I called into the tourist bureau to enquire and ended up buying the odd souvenir or two – I’m quite sure my soon to be four year old granddaughter will appreciate her Bathurst tee-shirt! And, may I be the first to tell you all, after starting my Snow Dome collection with the Tamworth work of art, when I enquired about a Bathurst snow dome, lo and behold, they told me they were coming, for the first time!! There is a God.

Privately, this trip has turned into an opportunity to pay homage / respect, to some Australian icons – Pro Hart, Norman Lindsay and Bathurst, quite different to my usual pursuit of natural wonders, but just as vital in terms of nourishment for the soul.

I feel I should point out I am not a racer and never will be. I am a very fast, capable long distance driver – the sort of team member you’d put in the car for the middle run of the Bathurst – there won’t be an accident, the car will be nursed and I’ll have increased the lead a touch. I LOVE being at one with a beautiful piece of machinery. There is this ephemeral synergy between driver and the machine, as it literally comes alive, responding to touch, feel and instinct. Perhaps my connection with Norman Lindsay and driving is a little less subliminal than I thought.

I am finding the XR6 Turbo an exquisite piece of machinery – very European. Yes, I would love the sound of a V8, but this car does have a very sexy burble, it handles and goes. Dear God does it go! It’s very predictable and oh so safe when it comes to a passing manoeuvre. It is a little under-braked in terms of the performance available (sub six seconds to 100kmh), but then Falcons have always had useless brakes, you learn to live with the shudder. C’mon Henry, get it right! Bad brakes or not, I think I’ll buy this car off the company when its time is due – it’s a classic and will be worth keeping.

So, I arrive at Mt Panorama, looking at the huge painted sign way up on the mountain side, a beacon for enthusiasts everywhere. There aren’t many people and there isn’t the buzz or atmosphere of a V8 Supercar round. It immediately strikes me that this is a weekend for enthusiasts, not fans – if that makes sense – there are none of the beer swilling, abusive yobos who unfortunately seem attracted to V8 Supercars or AFL. There are competitors and families everywhere and a relaxed, amiable atmosphere, even amongst the 12 Hour teams, although the Alfa Romeo crowd do seem a little pretentious.

Making my way up to the HQ racing teams, I am astounded to see that this entry-level form of racing, now in its 20th year, (there were a lot of HQ taxis pumped out in the 1970s), has attracted in excess of 55 cars, from all over Oz, including four from the West, one of which, Ken Coppin’s car (No 11), well it’s Robina’s really, is sporting the Wheatbelt Motorplex logo. Ken’s about to go out on the track for the first time, for the first HQ race.

The race is on. I’ve photographed the start and now I’m on the edge of the roof, taking photos as the cars stream through the bend of The Chase and down to the final corner leading into Pit Straight. It’s tricky photographing race cars, you have to pick your mark well before you shoot it, following it down, to keep focus. And so the lens picks up Number 11 on the other side of The Chase. All Hell breaks loose, number 11 spins and clouds of dust fly up. I keep shooting. The car spins to a stop on the grass. Ken jumps out and leaps over the fence to safety. He’s fine.

Robina’s nerves are shot to pieces, but I’m smiling with déjà vu – some years back, I was running a track day out at Barbagallo Raceway and Ken lost his Lamborghini, backwards, into the sand trap at the end of pit straight. I’d sent the incriminating photo into Neil Dowling, motoring editor of The Sunday Times – Kens’ never lived it down. When Ken and number 11 arrived back at the pits, I told him I’d caught it all and had to make a phone call. “Who to?” he said. When Neil answered, I passed him over to Ken. An hour later, Neil had the pics. Oh joy of joys! After all, what are friends for?

The track is 6 kilometres long, (to put that in perspective, Barbagallo is 2.5kms) and it is STEEP. They run a bus up and down the mountain – it ain’t free at $5.00 each, but hey, there’s no other way to see it all. I am shocked at how steep and winding it is, as the bus travels alongside the track up to MacPhillamy Park. Then when I walk down to The Esses, like my daughter, I am in absolute awe of any driver flinging a car down through it all at any more than 65-70kms and hour. It’s not only insane, considering the speed V8 Supercars travel at, it is impossible.

Then there’s Conrod Straight. The drop is phenomenal. I have never in my life seen anything like it. Television does not do it justice, you simply cannot begin to understand how difficult and frightening this track is. I suddenly remember past footage of Brock at the wheel, chatting away to the camera, making small, easy, considered adjustments and I realise he was an absolute master of his craft. It also brings to mind the harsh reality of how dangerous the open road is, compared to the inherent, stringent safety precautions taken with the establishment of a race track.

We’re all back to the track early Saturday morning. Beautiful weather and still not a lot of people. The official attendance figure for the three day weekend is 30,000 which is maybe a little optimistic – I’d estimated about 5,000 on the Friday, about 7,000 on the Saturday and perhaps 10,000 on the Sunday. I know the pictures I’ve displayed feature mainly the West Oz cars, but hey, they were our boys and deserve some recognition for the effort and expense of coming over to Bathurst, What’s more, all four ended up in the top 20, with Ken Coppin scoring 5th! The other West Oz boys were, Anthony Fogliani (No: 24), Rod Jenzen (No: 33) and Grant Howlett (No 9). Then, when I’m just about out of batteries, way up on the top of the mountain, I hear the commentators talking about Daniel Gate, the lone West Australian entry in the Saloon Car races, doing really well in 10th spot. The programme says he’s in a Commodore, but it looks like a Falcon to me! (No 5, in white).

The racing over for the day, half a dozen of us are waiting for the bus at 5.30pm, up the top of the mountain. It doesn’t come and it becomes increasingly obvious it isn’t. I ring up Call Connect to put me through to the Bathurst Racetrack at Mt Panorama. No luck, there is no such place, the operator apologetically tells me. The track-side marshals can’t help us, as their two ways are apparently switched off. Hmm! We decide we might as well start walking down the track and off we go, down through The Esses. Somewhere around Falken Elbow, our bus magically appears, coming up the wrong way, picking up the marshals, We hop on board. The driver’s not remotely concerned about our plight and just shrugs and I don’t mind, it makes a good story to finish the night off. Little did I know that the town of Bathurst had one more trick up its hospitality sleeve.

Ken had booked everyone into a tavern restaurant in the middle of town. Very nice – décor not dissimilar to The Globe at the Perth Hilton. We ordered early, as there were a lot of people and the 12 Hour was due to start at 6.30am the next day. Two hours later, after repeated attempts to get our meals and with nothing to eat to soak up the drinks, we were panicking. But not half as much as the chef. This was a magnificent show, worthy of Basil Fawlty. Stress? You bet. Perspiration pouring down his thin, harried face, continually mopping his brow, yelling at the waiters, at one stage he deliberately knocked all the orders off the hook onto the floor, scattering them across the kitchen. A calm young woman picked them up, but of course, order of orders had gone completely. A frazzled manager came over and offered us free drinks, but we didn’t need any more drink, we needed food! Eventually our table of eight was served -except for me. However, by the time another 20 minutes passed and one amongst us had sent his uncooked steak back – “just too blue Blue”, my fish finally arrived, but by then I was no longer remotely hungry, a headache had set in and I just wanted to get out, which I gracefully did, sending the meal back for some other starving client, of which I am sure there were plenty.

5.45am Sunday morning. I must be mad. Oh well, into the shower and off. Practically nobody there, but the atmosphere was building. Just as the race started, the sun came up, which made photographing the start a little tricky. I then took a walk up to The Chase, to get a different angle on the cars. The Holden wagon looks good, mind you, it’s a direct pinch off Chrysler’s Coke Dealer wagon – I assume they’re paying a copyright fee. One of the Celica’s had an awful sounding exhaust, like a screaming banshee. The turbo Falcon was whisper quiet and the Hyundai was acquitting itself well. The only trouble was, I had to stop taking photos – it was so cold, I couldn’t get my “trigger finger” to push the button! And the cold, rising damp was seeping through my casual Dunlop’s. This was early February – October would be bloody dynamite!

I decide to wander over and have a look at The National Motor Racing Museum. It is fabulous, with an incredible selection of iconic race cars and motorbikes, well worth a visit by anybody. Later, in the afternoon, I walk around the pits. It’s beginning to be a war of attrition, however both Alfa and Hyundai have solved their individual parts crisis, raiding standard cars on hand – it makes sense to me, most dealerships raid new unsold cars for parts, if there’s a problem with an impatient, or angry customer.

The Holden wagon’s had a massive shunt and is out of the race, but it’s nothing compared to the unbelievable accident 57yr old Len Cave has in his Mazda, coming down out of Conrod into The Chase. You’ve probably seen the pictures on the news – the car rolled ten times, travelling at around 250kmh, ripping the engine, gearbox and front suspension out of the car in a veritable fireball. He walked away! His place in motorsport history is already guaranteed legend status, not to mention the inevitable You Tube fame.

The 12 hour finally finished at about 6.30pm, with Mitsubishi and BMW taking out the big places, the Falcon XR6 Turbo was amongst the leading pack of big iron, I’m not surprised. It was fabulous to be there. Of course, you see far more on television, but there’s no atmosphere. I think I’ll have to come over for The Bathurst.

Monday 11 February 

Monday morning and the Big Smoke beckons – Syd …e…ney. Just a short hop across the Blue Mountains and a quick dash (hmm!) from one side of the city to the other and I’ll be on the beach in Manly. But first, the papers. Ahh! I feel a bit like Alan Carpenter – there’s no escaping Brian Burke. The familiar fedora and dark glasses are on page three of the Sydney Morning Herald. Next a chat with some media folk and just before I say farewell to Bathurst, a drive around “The Track.” There’s a genuine reason. You see I’m required to get relevant video footage of the promotional tour and the serious side of work is well and truly upon me. The only trouble is, I have absolutely no idea how to use the video camera. There is a 1,200 page manual, written in “Nerd Speak,” but it’s baffling – I mean “Press the Enter button.” BUT, there is no enter button and so on. Yes, I am sure any 12 year old could work it out in half a second, but a middle aged cove working on logic alone, has no hope.

Anyhow, I’ve decided to try and kick start the bloody thing and film a lap around Mt Panorama. Eventually, somehow, I get it to Format The Disk and suddenly it fires up. Away we go. Half way up Mountain Straight, I see the winery cellar door and an ad reading, “Brock Memorial Wine.” Gotta have that. I drive round again, pull in and buy a red and a white. Do I want a taste? No I don’t think so, the radiator is full, but it’ll be a great souvenir. I purchase a set of Mt Panorama glasses as well. Sucker I am. I set course for Oberon and thence to the Jenolan Caves.

There’s something that’s been bothering me about rural NSW towns – they all seem to have angle parking. “Good,” I hear you say. Yes, BUT, it’s the opposite angle to your approach, in other words, you have to back in, with the nose of the car pointing in the direction you were heading. In principle, it’s not a bad idea, but in reality, I notice that people are very wary about backing to the curb – they can’t see where the rear of the car is, so they back very slowly, for fear of damaging the car. It holds everybody up. It doesn’t work.

But no matter, what a beautiful road, a wonderful winding route up through the hills, across the top and then down, down, down, down, into the very depths of the earth. The scenery is magnificent and the Old World Caves House hotel at the bottom, is an unexpected delight. The tunnel road is closed for another 35 minutes, so I order a long black and sit on the veranda, surrounded by blue wrens, exquisite parrots and the beautiful sound of bell birds all through the bush. It really is a magic place. I vow that if I am ever lucky enough to fall in love again, I will bring the lady here.

Up and away. And I’m glad when the road finally comes out on top of the mountains again, there are fallen rocks everywhere. I suspect there’s a fair chance you could have a small rock fall on your car at any time. The desire to play tourist gets the better of me once again and I decide to make a quick stop at Katoomba to photograph The Three Sisters. Oh my God! There are tourists, coaches and cars everywhere and boy are the locals ever in on the act. The minimum fee for parking the car is $3.50. I take a couple of shots and yes, it is beautiful, they truly are Blue Mountains, but the swarms of people everywhere take the gloss off it all. I can’t wait to get away.

The phone goes. It’s Claire from the office. It seems the water’s been turned off and the evaporative air conditioning isn’t on – not that it’s much good anyhow – I’d better replace the system when I get back. Meanwhile the girls are dying – it’s late morning and 37c and climbing. “Can we go home?”
“Yes.” She also tells me that a client of her husband Adam (who’s the Dowerin Elders manager), was driving to South Australia the other day, in his truck with horses and saw the field day car go past. He rang Adam to ask if he was seeing things. Yep, that was his truck with the York plates. There’s no escape in a sign-written car as obvious as the XR6 Turbo.

I tell Claire I also need air conditioning, (in the car), not because it’s hot – it’s only about 23c, but the humidity is uncomfortable, although the locals are all driving around with windows down. I remember to ask her to change the message on the answering machine before they go – a client has rung me to say it still says “Merry Xmas!”

The one place I really want to see this afternoon, is the Norman Lindsay Gallery and home at Faulconbridge, it means I’ll strike Sydney at rush hour, but I figure it’s worth it. It is. There’s something about Lindsay’s open worship of and delight in women, that’s always stuck a chord with me – I’ve always preferred the company of women, although I do have a few close, much treasured male mates. I loved the film “Sirens” of course, however the etching exhibition at the WA Art Gallery last year, didn’t do much for me and I hoped I was not going to be disappointed, although I was prepared for it. In a way, Norman Lindsay’s work affects me just like Pro Hart – I’m not convinced either were the greatest artists / painters on the planet, but there is something about each artists work – an almost intangible Australian factor. 

Lindsay appears to have a perfect eye for the voluptuous, sensual beauty of the female body, but his treatment of eyes worries me. I do however, find three really lovely prints – “Unknown Sea,” Ulysses” and “Spring.” I’ll have them framed when I get back to Perth. And grandad simply cannot resist getting a copy of The Magic Pudding book and a Magic Pudding soft toy for Caitlin.

Out in the gardens, the statues and fountains are right up my alley, in fact, if ever I move to Margaret River, it’s exactly what I would do. I could live at Lindsay’s house, very comfortably. I know, I know, Bathurst to Norman Lindsay! I can’t explain it either – perhaps it’s all in the art of driving. The phone goes, back to business and on to Sydney.

The contrast of the peaceful tranquillity and beauty of the area and Lindsay’s place, compared to the rusty overhead electrical gantries for the railway system is a shock. Miles and miles of awful rusted steel beams. There’s been no attempt to paint them, they just look hideous. I realise what a fantastic job the Lawrence and Gallop / Carpenter governments have done in the West, putting in overhead gantries that at least try to blend in and not to be too obtrusive. The subliminal message in NSW seems to be, “We’re busy, haven’t got time, it’s not important,” – in a state that has the sublime Opera House! But then again, they did let some cretin build that awful apartment block next to it. Noveau Riche?

Traffic. Oh boy! It takes about an hour and a half to cross the city to Manly, although there are no delays, it’s just heavy traffic all the way. And WA is featuring heavily on Drive Time ABC – apparently we’re going back to the 1960s and reintroducing strict rules for the length of school girls skirts for heaven’s sake! Has WA gone bonkers in the last week? People are ringing in with their own silly stories about such stupid rules in the 1950s and ‘60s – I remember them well! NZ was just as anal retentive in those days.

The Accor Pacific Manly is right on the beach. I have work to do, so I order room service. And here I am, it’s just after 11.00pm, the balcony door is open and the surf is rolling in just metres away. The door can stay open all night. I realise how much I miss the ocean and water. Why wouldn’t I, I’m a Piscean after all.

Tuesday 12 – Friday 15 February

If this was a holiday, there’d be a thousand photos of everything from Taronga Park to Kings Cross – hmm, both zoos after a fashion I suppose – however business it is and therefore nothing of real interest to write about, I haven’t driven the car since I arrived on Monday evening. There was however, a little appearance on Ch 7’s “Sunrise” programme yesterday (Thursday 14th) morning.

Now a 7.15am call, means being at the studio around 6.30am and if you’re happily ensconced at the Pacific Manly, well, it’s a fair hike by cab and a 5.00am kick off! Way too early, even for an early riser like me. No matter. The Sunrise studio is on the ground level of a building on the corner of Martin Place and Elizabeth Street in the middle of Sydney’s CBD.

I wasn’t sure what format they would take with me, I just needed to get the message out about wanting people to come and live and work in the Wheatbelt. I became concerned when Wilson Tuckey, (our local Federal member), was shown in Federal Parliament – there were some very disparaging comments and I thought, “Oh bloody Hell, they might swing this one on me and ask me about it,” However they were gorgeous and left it alone. If you saw the interview, you’ll swear my handing the Vasse Felix wine over was a set-up. It wasn’t! Sure, I wanted to present it to Mel and Kochy (although he doesn’t drink), along with two gift books on WA, however there’d been no chance to prepare either of them for it. Mel just happened to drop a line about beautiful Margaret River and the segue was perfect. Even Kochy said to Mel, “You knew!” She didn’t.

The results of that interview are nothing short of astounding! I’ve been in the marketing and promo game for a long while now and never seen anything like it. I would have to say that if you need to get a message across to the Australian public, then either an appearance, or an ad on “Sunrise,” is as good as it ever gets. Phenomenal! In hindsight, one can see the brilliance of Kevin Rudd’s strategy in the last couple of years – and didn’t that work! The only complaint came from my gorgeous granddaughter, who apparently turned to her mum while I was on the box and said, “When’s granddad going to look at me?”

I had, perhaps naively, thought I might get a dozen calls. Try 300, plus 300 emails, with the number growing every hour – a day later! I literally could not cope – I’d be answering the mobile and hear other calls trying to come in, at the same time watching emails fly into the laptop. By 10.30am, I rang the good people at the Wheatbelt Development Commission and said, “We’re in a paradox of wonderful trouble, I need help.” Grant and Allison flew into gear and set up a special email address:  grainchange@wheatbelt.wa.gov.au  and yes, I will take the credit for the name grain-change, I coined it a few weeks back. They have now seconded three people to man the emails and answer the phones.

We’ve attracted welders, electricians, pilots, truck drivers, plumbers, landscapers, teachers – hey, haven’t we been told that we can’t get them? I’ve now got 12 willing to move and teach in the Wheatbelt. Then there’s doctors (2), nurses, community care workers, working locomotive drivers and a plethora of people, male and female, who all want to be train drivers – can’t say I blame them. Yes, of course there’ll be some who aren’t suitable for various reasons, but I suspect we can place a fair number of the qualified / experienced people in the jobs available.

By 3.00pm yesterday, I’d placed a message on the company mobile, telling people to utilise the new email address and decided I’d collate and start forwarding the emails later in the evening – it took until just after midnight, then I was up again at 6.00 this morning, typing in the hundreds of phone messages, to pass on to the WDC.

But I did take a break late yesterday afternoon, for one of my favourite journeys – a ride on the Manly Ferry – not the cat, the old lumbering green machines. I love that ride! If I lived in Sydney, it could only be Manly. Just the thought of riding the ferry into the CBD everyday fills my heart with a feeling of well-being – any jobs going?? And there is song I’ve always loved, from a band I always loved, you know the one …

Meet e down by the jetty landing
Where the pontoons bump and spray
I see the others reading, standing
As the Manly Ferry cuts its way to Circular Quay
Hear the Captain blow his whistle
So long she’s been away
I miss our early morning wrestle …

Reckless – Australian Crawl. Hell, I haven’t got that on the Ipod – I’d better go buy it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIrUqsB-0vw

And now it’s midday on Friday and I’m about to stop work for the week. Nifty Nev and the Beautiful Banker are taking me sailing this arvo – we might play recklessly in the wake of the Manly Ferry. And tomorrow morn, I leave Sydney to spend a glorious weekend in the Southern Highlands, with Dennis and Estelle – they tell me I’m going to watch the Australian Women’s Cricket Team . That’ll do.

Friday 15 February

So, Friday arvo and I’m wheeling the XR6 through the back streets of Neutral Bay, looking for the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. A very polite chap stops me at the squadron gate, explaining that parking is for members only, “Yes, of course,” I reply, “I’m just here to pick up some gear from Mr Neville Wittey’s boat, but have no idea where to go, would you be kind enough to point me in the right direction?”
“Certainly sir, down through there, up to the left, onto the roof and down onto the Hard. I shall see you back in what, 10 minutes?”
“Well it may be a little longer than that, but thank you so much, it’s so confusing when you’re from the bush.” Smooth as cut glass really.

Nifty Nev was ready, grinning like the proverbial, “We’ll motor over to the Cruising Yacht Club in Rushcutters Bay, stopping to watch the 18′ skiffs Invitation race – I train some of them – then pick up the girls from the club.”

“Tamara” is a beautiful old double gaff rigged motor sailor, built in 1945. Janie (the Beautiful Banker) and Neville purchased her late last year, in fact this would be the first time the Beautiful Banker had been out on her. The only change they’ve made so far, has been to add bow thrusters, worth every penny.

Janie, Jo and Bernadette, having escaped the rigours of the banking world, boarded and with Nifty Nev at the helm, we went cruising, Shark Island, Rose Bay – Aussie Homes John Symonds has a reasonable pad down by the water and Kiwi Nev, another yachty, with a bit of an interest in Alfas, lives close by. Just before South Island, we turned, straight into a veritable amada of yachts, the combined twilight sailing fleets of Royal Sydney and the Royal Oz Naval Association, then past the house of opera, under the bridge, Balmain,  turning one last time at Goat Island.

All was well with the world. On the mooring, we sat sipping wine and great fare from DJ’s, as the water lapped around the boat. Mellow, quiet and peaceful. Jo suddenly came out with one of those tales that jolts you into remembering each of us has depth and stories of loss and love, it’s so easy to forget the rich tableau we all live and create.

A decade ago, she oversaw the sale of a shopping centre in Dijon, to a Frenchman she had only ever talked to on the phone. They established a trust, while quietly and unexpectedly, another element crept in – they liked each other. He completed the purchase, then wrote to her and asked if she would come to Paris and see him. She thought about it, “Why not?” He later hesitated a moment when she voiced her agreement, then said, “There is something you must know, I’m black.” Jo still remembers smiling into the phone, thinking to herself, “They say there are three things a woman must do in her life – Go to Paris, fall in love with a Frenchman and make love with a black guy. Greg, I am so lucky, I managed to do all three at the same time.”

Yes, she had to come back to Sydney and gradually time and distance saw communication falter and fade. Then just last week, she picked up the phone and his voice flowed across the line. He had finally traced her, having searched for her, over the last five years. Where it may lead, she has no idea, but there is already a beauty to the tale.

We drove back to Nev and Janie’s apartment at Rushcutters, exchanging gentle tales of life over red wine on their rooftop balcony. A splendid Sydney night. It was time for me to drive back to Manly. “Easy,” said Nifty Nev, “Straight ahead out of the basement, left, left and you’re in the tunnel.” When the sign came up on my left saying Vaucluse, I rang him, “Mate, where the bloody hell am I?” No, I couldn’t tell him how I got there, but we had a great conversation for ten minutes, while he directed me.

Saturday 16 February

Out on the balcony, watching the surf roll onto the Manly Beach, I sipped my coffee and read the Weekend Oz – as one should / must – do every weekend, when I spottedJohn Connelly’s column in the Business Section. A couple of weeks back, he written that he wanted people to send in their favourite Oz driving journeys, I’d emailed him about this trip. He’d graciously awarded me “first prize” and recommend that readers should log on to my blogsite, although the sub editors obviously had trouble with the word Dowerin and decided I lived in Darwin – I must admit we’ve got a couple of old crocs up our way, but it’s not quite Fanny Bay! You are a gentleman, John, thank you.

Time to stroke the turbo in earnest. I looked at the directory, yep, cross the bridge, take No 4, then 7, then hit the Hume for the Southern Highlands. I’d just passed through Parramatta, when Dennis rang, “Where are you? Parramatta? What are you doing there?” He didn’t feel I’d been quite as successful in my fast tracking directions as I had thought and I could hear laughter. “Hmm, well, you are almost on the Hume, I reckon we’ll see you in about 45 minutes.”

The beautiful thing about enduring friendships, is that time and distance have no diminishing effect. It was such a pleasure to see Estelle and Dennis again – we had first met long ago, when Dennis was working for BMW back in Perth and discovered we were both North Shore Kiwi boys – Dennis from Takapuna and me from Northcote. There is also a bond of place with Estelle, for she comes from Broome, a place that tugs eternally at my soul. Her maternal grandfather was Judge Reynolds and her paternal grandfather was “Old HK, The Unsinkable,” yes she’s a Kennedy.

I have never been to the Southern Highlands before. It is a beautiful, beautiful area. They rightly love it, have the most gorgeous home and an almost idyllic lifestyle, with work interrupting now and then. We went cruising, with Dennis at the wheel of the Turbo. “Oh Gregory, isn’t she wonderful, the power!” He’s a car man at heart you see. Round Bowral way, we parked at Bradman Oval (opposite the Don’s boyhood home) and watched the Australian Women’s Cricket team play the English, before taking the obligatory tour of the museum.

Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale, Southern Forest, Bundanoon, Exeter, this area takes my breath away, I could live here in a flash. In fact I want to. There is nothing like this in the West, gentle, elegant, green, bookshops, antique shops, fabulous cafes and restaurants at every corner. It’s not “Flash Harry” in that Dunsborough way, just classy and so comfortable.

That night we dined at Esco Pazzo in Mittagong and to my utter joy, they served New Zealand whitebait fritters! I had searched half the North Island for them last year but found them nowhere and here they were. We duly washed them down with a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, after which I presented the owner with two bottles of Vasse Felix, telling him it was the only thing missing from his wonderful restaurant – I suspect he has not had a customer do that before.

Sunday 17 February

There is the most incredible painting of a tree in the hallway of Dennis and Estelle’s, it’s riveting in its unbelievably intricate detail and form. I’ve never quite seen anything like it. There seems to be a story in every stroke, every layered piece of bark, nobody who loves trees could fail to be moved and enchanted. “Where on earth did you find this,” I asked.
They smiled, “The artist is in there on the computer, it’s our son Jeremy.” Their son and heir is a touch embarrassed by my enthusiasm, then tells me he hasn’t painted anything since! I lapse into shocked silence, then lecture mode. He may not thank me, he may well be glad to see me head off for Canberra in the morning, but nobody with such a gift has the right to deny the world such talent. We talk of my meagre talent for taking the odd snapshot and how I would kill to paint. Should you read this Jeremy, I’m still nagging, ya gotta go for it mate!

The lovely Rachel, (Ms Ciprian), agrees to accompany us on our Sunday drive. We stop at Mittagong’s Marmalade Cafe and another miracle! I knew I loved this place. The milkshake is served in the ice-cold aluminium container, a real chocolate milkshake, filled to the brim. I am in Heaven, a time-warp, back to my childhood days in New Zealand. There is a book shop, I find a copy of “Across the Nullarbor” and buy it. Another book shop, another impulse purchase, a superb, uniquely different edition of “Kama Sutra.” An antique shop and a wonderful replica of an old sign for Brough motorcycles. I have to have it. A gift shop and the most exquisite music themed coasters I’ve ever seen, perfect for my wooden eight seater table. I have to have them. “Dennis, get me out of here, I can’t afford the place!”

My hosts find a fabulous old pub, the Village Hotel at Burrawang. A pinot noir and some chocolates, as we look out over rolling green tree-lined hills, a perfect background for a family photograph. Back in the car, the roads offer an almost overwhelming source of beautiful countryside, straight out of some country squire magazine. Mind you, Dennis and Estelle have a lovely garden to wander around, complete with a young Pan serenading red flowers across a small pond.

As I write this, it’s almost 10.00pm Sunday night, the log fire’s burning, the wine’s settled and the duet from the “Pearl Fishers” has just finished playing. It really doesn’t get much better than this. To friendship.

Monday 18 February

It’s the middle of February, yet last night Dennis had a fire blazing and this morning there’s a beautiful soft, ephemeral mist falling around the trees. It’s sad leaving friends when you really don’t know when next you’ll be in each other’s company. I find it best to get going, doubly so, as I’ve really enjoyed the last few days with Neville and Janie, then Dennis and Estelle. Nights in motels are lonely times if you’re by yourself and I far prefer the company of friends. Estelle has already pointedly told me I should move over and explained that there are lots of very eligible ladies in the district. I am sorely tempted, I’d be half way between my daughter, brother and other family and friends in Aotearoa and my other children, granddaughter and friends back in the West. I certainly haven’t felt so inclined to move in living memory.

As I head back onto the Hume, I realise I’d really rather be heading home now, but I’m committed, there is a job to do. And there are compensations, I love driving – that old saying rings loud and true in my ears – “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

The side trip to Canberra is a gamble. I’ve been trying for some weeks, since mid December, to set up a meeting with Tony Burke, the new Federal Minister for Agriculture, but with no luck so far. It’s feeling very much like a classic politician manoeuvre – “ignore the bastard.” I’d like to talk to him about the future of Federal funding to regional projects and invite him to attend the 2008 Dowerin Field Days and had expressed those wishes in my initial email approach, which elicited no response. Some weeks later I sent another, slightly facetious email, saying that “even bugger off as an answer would at least let me set my schedule” – I figured as a New South Wales union man, he’d connect with ‘cutting to the chase.’ Wrong, nothing. “Hmm,” I thought, rhetorically, “Surely they haven’t lapsed into arrogance already?” Anyhow, I’ve decide to chance it and just lob in and see if I can pull a meeting, although I’m aware that the house is sitting.

I ring the Agriculture Minister’s office. “Oh I’m so glad somebody understands how busy he is,” responds the very polite and genuine young lady on the phone, “But the best way to meet with the Minister, is to send an email request.”
“I’ve done that, twice,” I reply, “but the system stuffs up, as you people don’t answer emails.” Silence, made funnier by the concerned AFP bloke knocking on the car window, who doesn’t like where I’ve parked the car, I follow the lead of our political masters and ignore him, it seems the Canberra method. The polite young lady comes back, “Could I have your number sir and I’ll get somebody to ring?” Oh dear, straight from the book. This mob aren’t talking to anybody they don’t want to.

I ring up Wilson Tuckey’s office, “Come in, come in, Wilson would love to see you, I’ll come down to the desk and get you.” It rather matches the congratulatory emails from Brendon Grylls I’d received over the weekend, re the Sunrise programme, in fact, while I’m in Wilson’s parliamentary office, my phone rings with yet more people wanting to move to the Wheatbelt and once again I have to turn the phone off. One things for sure, I’m not going to meet even the under secretary for the under secretary’s secretary of agriculture, all very confusing for a chardonnay socialist!

Oh well, Dennis has alerted to me to the amazing fact that the War Memorial currently has a Lawrence of Arabia exhibition. It seems appropriate today, as he was hung out to dry by politicians, who totally ignored his advice and left the world with a mess we’re still trying to cope with to this day. I haven’t got the will to chase Burke anymore, it’s Lawrence for me, although I will keep the phone on, just in case.

I find the National War Memorial an incredibly moving place, there is something gut wrenching about the waste and ruin of life, my own father came away a shattered changed man, a fun loving boy returned as a closed, tormented male. And it hasn’t stopped, with the damage to men my own age, who were snared in the treacherous quicksand of Vietnam. And on to an all together different stage of war, not so long ago, I witnessed my much loved ABC, try to ruin the reputation of Vince de Pietro, a good mate and a damn good man. I’ve never quite forgiven Aunty for that sloppy piece of bloody, one-eyed journalism.

Down the stairs and there it is, Lawrence’s robes and headband. I am stunned. There’s more; a ceremonial set of robes given to him by Feisal, the portrait by Augustus John, his 303 Enfield and his dagger! His journals, even the bowls he ate from in the desert. I am simply overwhelmed, although please, I am not forgetting the magnificent Light Horse for one second, it’s just that Lawrence has suddenly become more than myth for me and I love Arab culture and history. Perhaps the words of an Aussie pilot, who worked with Lawrence in 1918, (Lieutenant Stanislaus Nunan), best describe Lawrence of Arabia – “There is a wonderful Englishman here … he is Major Lawrence … he is only about 27 and not very big, but is a real life superman of the variety novelists like to invent … One day he will be around with his red tabs as Staff Major and the next in Bedouin dress … bare feet, flowing robes and headdress … Goes out with a few of his dusky cutthroats and a few camels loaded with gun cotton and blows up trains and the line to Mecca. The Arabs stop him in the street to kiss his robes.”

And something Lawrence wrote has always rung loudly in my ears … “All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible.” Halle… bloody …lulah!

Next, Old Parliament House. It’s interesting, but for some reason, I don’t feel a sense of history. Perhaps being the National Portrait Gallery takes one’s mind off the fact that this was once the seat of power. There’s a great portrait of Keating on a wall. I miss that rapier wit, the wonderful unintentional (I think!) arrogance of someone on a mission. Things are looking frightfully bland these days.

The phone still hasn’t rung. Oh well. Might as well go to the National Gallery and pop over to the High Court while I’m around. You know, they get public buildings right in Canberra. Yes, they’re concrete, BUT they work. The High Court is a fabulous example of near perfect architectural concept, thought and practice, the sense of walking into fate, power, answers, decisions, is utterly splendid. I shudder as Perth’s monstrosity flashes through my mind – the Convention Centre, modeled on a cockroach, ruining the cityscape.

I have never yet been let down by the National Gallery, it is a glorious place and currently they have an incredible Australian Surrealist exhibition on show. It is mind-altering. Afterwards, I simply have to take the Sculpture Walk. And just when I’ve photographed the unsettling heads in the pond, a gorgeous tiny blue wren pops out of the reeds, cocks its pretty little head and brings me back to the world of nature. The vivid blue of its feathers convince me. I need to make a purchase at the gallery store – Nolan’s Ned in Tin, come to think of it, I’m going past Glenrowan, tomorrow. Mick Jagger? What were they thinking??

Tuesday 19 February

The 19th day of the trip and time to get back into driver mode. It’s 600 plus ks  from Canberra to Melbourne. One of the great things about travelling these days, is you can listen to home town breakfast radio on the laptop, rather than some foreign city news. But bloody Cameron lets me down today – he’s broadcasting from Darwin! Is that a present for topping the ratings again mate? Never mind, at least local WA news gets a run, usually the only West Australian news eastern states journos talk or write about is Brian Burke! He’s like Chicken Man – everywhere!

The weathers going to be warm (by eastern states standards), 27c – 30c, time to get out the shorts. I haven’t had much call for them on this trip. Peak hour traffic in Canberra is about the equivalent of Perth, you really are moving all the time and before long, I’m back out on the Hume Highway heading south. Then it starts, road works for hundreds of kilometres, basically from Yass to Albury (on the border). It certainly augers well for the Hume Highway in the future, but the price to pay at the moment is a slow crawl every five minutes or so, the pace is about the same as travelling the Princess Highway, it must add a lot of time to truckies timetables. It’s pretty country though, very much mixed farming, although more cattle orientated than sheep, but very familiar territory to a West Australian, however, at least when the traffic does flow, everyone’s back up to 120ks.

I’ve slowed down for a little country town called Holbrook, when something ludicrous jumps into my vision – a bloody submarine half buried in a local park. I have to stop, it’s so Monty Python, it’s wonderful. “Why,” burns itself across my brain. It turns out the town was renamed Holbrook in 1915, in honour of Lt. Norman Holbrook, a submarine commander of HMS B11, during WW1 – he won the VC. When the Otway was decommissioned in 1995, the navy gave a fin from the sub to the town, however a fund raising push saw the town purchase the outside skin of the submarine, so even though the ocean’s about 240ks away, it’s not quite as mad as it looks – sort of!

Actually Holbrook is one of the few towns the Hume Highway travels through these days, most are bypassed. Even the famous “Dog in the Tucker Box” at Gundagi, is only really accessible on the other side of the highway and sadly it’s not worth stopping if you’re going south. The road works continue. At one place, there’s a large sign pleading for workers – that’s familiar. It must be one of the largest road construction projects currently underway anywhere in the country, the sheer scale of the operation is massive.

There’s no stopping at the border and the twin towns of Albury / Wodonga are just signposts on the side of the road. I do get off the highway for a short 6k trip to the Victorian town of Wangarratta , for two reasons. The first being a mad song from way back when, by The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band – Wangarratta Wahine. … “My wahine in Wang, Wangarratta …” It never made any sense, but was wonderfully crazy. I seem to recall it was about a very short affair – heaven forbid that one should use the term “one night stand!” – when the band was travelling the Hume, as all east coast bands did back then. Oh alright, check this out on You Tube, you won’t regret it :

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQwl40wVo7s

The band was Melbourne based, Camberwell boys. Mic Conway was Captain Matchbox and his brother Jim was / is a fabulous blues harp player – check out the other Captain Matchbox clip on You Tube. Sadly a shocking truck crash in 1979, killed two band members and ruined the band emotionally and financially. These days Mic Conway has his National Junk Band, but unfortunately Jim Conway is battling Multiple Sclerosis.

As I drive into Wang, a huge edifice tells me the town is home to the Australian Jazz Festival, no mention of Captain Matchbox. I stop at the tourist bureau, it’s festooned with Ned Kelly stuff – Glenrowan’s only 16ks down the road – and there’s information galore about the jazz festival, BUT, no mention of Captain Matchbox, or their most famous home-town boy. I ask the young lady at the desk, “No, we don’t have anything about him do we? I suppose we should.” She looks at me strangely and I know she’s thinking, “He’s too old to know about him.” To be fair, some of you will recall Nick Cave telling us in the “I’m Your Man” documentary that he couldn’t wait to get out of Wangarratta, but hell, there’s a portrait of him in our national gallery. Oh well, back to “Give me a home amongst the gum trees …” Stuff it, I hit the iPod and Cave starts playing minor fourths with “Suzanne.”

Next stop, Glenrowan. It’s a two k diversion off the Hume and 2ks back. Now if ever there was a lesson for all towns re not baseing existence on one industry, this is it. The town is Ned Kelly, which makes the fact that the Police Station is the first building you see when you drive in, a little strange. There’s a tourist coach in town, unloading bemused elderly Italian ladies. Think of Ned as a larrikin Don ladies. A couple of shops are doing a thriving business, but almost half the shops in town, (tourist based or otherwise), are closed and for sale. It’s all a bit depressing. I pick up a stuffed Ned for Caitlin, but nothing else has any sort of style. I am very, very pleased that the blue wren made me purchase Tin Ned at the National Gallery.

On the road again. I keep forgetting to mention that the car scares the hell out of truckies … and probably other car drivers … they all think it’s a Candy Car (Police Pursuit vehicle). I’m probably doing more to slow the traffic down than all the road signs in the country. Occasionally, when I hear, “Backdoor, backdoor, Southbound, southbound, black XR6 coming quickly,” I get on the CB and let ‘em know it’s OK.

I’m in the middle of two phone calls, one from my office and another from an employment agent who wants in on the Wheatbelt act – yeah, I know, two mobile phones??? One’s mine and one’s the company’s and yes, they’re both hands-free. Anyhow, a bloke pulls alongside me in a sign-writers ute and indicates he wants me to stop. I do, thinking he probably wants to talk about the sign writing on the car – it impresses a lot of people. Sort of, he’s a West Aussie from Midland, working in Victoria, for a Midland based sign writing company doing signs for the Ray White franchise. He’s wrapped to see somebody from home and LOVES the idead of the Wheatbelt Motorplex. Paul Skully’s his name, he’s the bloke driving the Star Signs ute with the Dockers sticker, wearing a green Wheatbelt Motorplex cap.

A bit of fuel and I’m on the home straight for Melbourne. It’s been a beautiful day to go cruising, warm sunshine and fast moving traffic on a great road system, especially south of the border. I’ve been in an easy-going reflective mood today, listening to Johnny Mathis and Sinatra type stuff. I’d clicked over to Harry Belafonte just before the Caltex. A few tracks in, just as I feel the big city somewhere out there, Belafonte’s magnificent blues track, “Midnight Special” comes on. I’ve loved this since I was a kid – I bought the Midnight Special album from the RCA Club in about 1964. AND, it’s the first recording of Bob Dylan – he’s playing harp. It’s worth a listen and great driving music, ya just gotta edge the foot down a little and sing! … “yonder comes Miss Rosie, piece of paper in her hand …”


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1VuXMcyqOA

That’s a thing, it occurs to me that I’ve hardly seen a car and caravan on this trip and very few luxury cars, accept around Colo Vale / Bowral and Sydney. Not only that, I’ve done almost 7,000kms since leaving home and today’s only the second time I’ve seen a cop car stopped and giving somebody a ticket – a northbound truckie just outside of Euroa.

Melbourne buildings fill the skyline. Good stuff, I’ve always liked Melbourne. Last time I was here, was to see the Royal New Zealand ballet perform “Dracula.” Funny thing, as I pull into the Melbourne Marriot, there’s a theatre opposite and guess what’s on? “Keating, The Musical.” Well, he was known as the Count. I think I’ll book a ticket for tomorrow night.

Wednesday 20 February

Melbourne should really be called Vivaldi – there’s more than a grain of truth to the “four seasons in one day” line and it would also compliment the elegance and culture of the town. I lived here for a while, way back in the early ‘70s, playing a bit of rugby and going to great shows, including a fabulous concert with Leon Russell, who appeared on stage wearing tails and a grey top hat. There were two grand pianos on stage, a black guy playing keyboards along with Russell, who at one stage jumped up on his grand, pumping Cajun from a guitar. It was hot.

I worked for a time as the country rep for Healing Electronics. Hell, I’d forgotten all about the Mansfield Run! When I started, the company decided I would take over a V8 Holden Premier from one of the board members. He’d been up to the snow country and blown the engine – God knows how, those 4.2s were indestructible. Anyhow I went up by bus to get the car with its replacement engine and set off back for Melbourne.

Radial Tuned Suspension, Trimatic box and a V8 thumper. Hey, I could travel around Victoria for a year or two in this sucker. About half way between Mansfield and Melbourne, I found myself on a bridge. Coming towards me was a car and behind that, a tray top dual axle truck. For some reason, the car suddenly stopped. The truck couldn’t and pulled out into my lane. He tried to tuck back in, but lost it. The truck was sliding sideways along the bridge, taking up every bit of space. Sometimes, no matter what you know, there just isn’t any escape route. I knew I was in a lot of trouble and that I was going under the truck. The only thing to do was lie down on the seat and try to keep my head.

The car stopped moving. Somehow, I crawled out of the passenger side door, up against the bridge railing. The new engine had been pushed in through the firewall. Nobody, including me, could believe I was alive. The truck driver was even luckier, he’d gone through the windscreen, into the river below, but was more or less unscathed. Basically nobody was hurt! I took a souvenir and got a lift back to Melbourne. I’ll never forget the look on the sales manager’s face when I walked into his office, “How’s the car?” he said.
“The new engine’s not much good either,” I replied, putting the steering wheel on his desk. The bummer was the replacement car, they didn’t buy another V8 Premier, they gave me a new Kingswood wagon, in puce yellow. Back to the future.

Melbourne’s a great place to have a car, sure some of the major arterial roads – Toorak Road etc, can be slow, (trams), but it’s very easy to get through the city and there’s a logic to the layout of the joint that makes sense to me, whereas I get confused in Canberra and Adelaide. I hope Alannah the Dynamo gets trams up and running in Perth, if anybody can, she can. On my way out to the Confederation of Motorsport (CAMS) in East Malvern, I’m shocked to see some of the trams are painted in a dull two tone grey. It’s bloody awful and I wonder what lunatic thought it was a good idea. Admittedly they blend in with the grey, wet day, but the South Yarra Tram company needs a kick up the backside.

Business done for the day, I try to buy a ticket for the Keating musical. No hope, it’s completely sold out, not even one ticket! Ahh well, I’ll watch television tonight. Keith rings. He’s just arrived back from Thailand and wants to know what I’m doing tomorrow (Thursday). “What do you suggest?”

“Well, I thought we’d meet at “The Sherlock Holmes” have a cleansing ale, then we’ll go to my club for a looooong lunch. There’s a friend of mine I think you’ll get along with, he’s a wonderful cartoonist, does children’s books, we’re doing collaboration together. You’ll need a jacket and tie.” Suits me, I’ve just got one appointment for the morning, “What’s the club?”
“The Savage Club.” He’s got me. On the phone to Ted later in the evening, I ask him about it, he’s not sure either, but then Ted’s originally a Sydney boy. Before I hang up, the gorgeous Jules, wife of Ted, insists I MUST visit Pellegrinis for coffee.

Thursday 21 February 

The phone goes first thing in the morning, that’s apart from the regular callers looking to work in the Wheatbelt. Yes, the publicity’s still working – so am I in case you’re wondering! Anyhow, the Tractor and Machinery Association meeting set for Monday 25 in Adelaide is cancelled. Ah well, I’ll head home across the desert a day earlier. The phone rings again. My one appointment for the day is also unfortunately cancelled, which means I probably have to fly over for a meeting in the next week or two, damn it. There’s an email from King Eoin, will I talk about the Clipsal 500 and the trip on Monday morning? What does he mean, “You can talk under wet cement?”

With time to kill, I grab the Oz and set out to find Pellegrinis. To no avail. Sorry Jules, I traipsed up and down Bourke Street, looking like a seagull at Cicerillo’s. In the finish, it was “any café’ will do”. I sit down. There’s little birds flying around the room, occasionally landing on tables, it takes me a second to recognise them – sparrows. I start browsing the Oz. There he is again, Chicken Man, Brian Burke! Sherlock Holmes here I come.

Keith arrives, his usual dapper self, wearing a vivid loud tie, featuring chillies of all colours. It does stand out against the black shirt. I like loud ties, I have a much treasured Liz Davenport Phantom tie – the real Phantom – the Ghost Who Walks! “Shall we go to the club?” says Keith. Blood oath.

We’ve walked to small side street and there is an old building, freshly painted with a large older style wooden door, painted red. We enter another world, a bygone era, straight from the 1920s and 30s. There are artefacts EVERYWHERE and paintings – McCubbin, Lindsay, Streeton. I simply cannot believe what I’m seeing. Cavernous fireplaces, old, old wine coloured leather armchairs, a grand in one room, an upright upstairs. It’s exactly the sort of club the Phantom would meet in, although the Ghost Who Walks doesn’t drink. I look around for a tall cove with a hat, gabardine coat, dark glasses and wolf called Devil. He must be back at the cave.

Keith is greeted with genuine enthusiasm by those at the bar – rightly so for somebody who was a major player in one the world’s super groups. I have sometimes pondered how the world moves – many, many years ago, when I was just a teenage lad. I took a young lady, whose father, from memory, owned the Taranaki Brewery, to see the Seekers in concert at Pukekura Park in New Plymouth, never imagining that years later, one of the performers would become a  good friend. Actually, he’s always said that that particular concert was a lovely night.

Back to the Savage Club, so named after Richard Savage, an eighteenth century poet, along with the double-entendre of the spirited nature of its founding members, people such as Sir Arthur Streeton, Sir John Longstaff, Frederick McCubbin, David Low and Alberto Zelman. There was even a Ming Dynasty – Menzies was Club President from 1947 – 1962. It’s a very civilised joint, far from the madding crowd and home to those who value good-fellowship, literature, music, drama, art and science, not to mention eccentric theatrical behaviour. I feel totally at home. This is a club for me!

Keith introduces me to Michael Salmon. I know in an instant we’ll get along. Anyone who can seriously discuss the role of a cartoon dinosaur in promoting an outback Queensland town, while pouring copious reds, (Michael, not the dinosaur – although there’s an idea!), has my undiverted attention. The wave length is amazingly similar. It’s not often that you find three blokes sitting at a lunch table, drinking red wine, belting out Latin declensions. All becomes obvious, as he castigates me for looking so similar to Derryn Hinch – I’ve been accused of that before! – he’s another bloody Kiwi, (so is Hinch come to think of it), originally from the Beehive capital, he’s even lectured at my old Alma Mater!

We finally “walk” out of the red door just after 6.00pm. I thought six hour lunches had gone! Thank heaven’s there’s still a civilised approach to life somewhere in the world. And that really was the end of the day and a superb Melbourne stay. It’s worth looking at Michael’s website, I must get some of his work for Caitlin. www.michaelsalmon.com.au A lazy night watching the fabulous music series on ABC – Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay singing a duet together?? And that bloody ABC logo all over the screen! Hmm, who’s this Bunyip cove? Ahh! Sleep, gotta dash for Adelaide in the morning.

Friday 22 February

I have long admired clever lines from an old Procol Harum song – “The mirror on reflection, climbed back upon the wall …” It has been a curious day of forgotten memories surging back. A long drive over roads no longer travelled can do that.

There’s a small group of friends and family to whom I send this blog in email form, before posting it on this site. I sometimes wonder of it’s well received, or just seen as mailbox clutter. I’ve got a mate, who I named my son after. We haven’t seen each other for well over thirty years, but we had some fun way back when. I shall take the liberty of reprinting a little of the email he sent this afternoon:

Greg Ross, I’ve been reading your daily accounts from the beginning and thinking about replying and what has finally got me over the hurdle of lethargy was your recounting the crash in Victoria. It must have been 1974 because I was in Melbourne staying with you prior to launching myself on to the travelling scene in South East Asia, and I can remember the great red welt across your torso from the seatbelt. … Your trip has been one of the highlights of my enforced idle days. Tomorrow is Saturday, three weeks since I was operated on for prostate cancer. The surgeon seems to think he got to me in time. Time will tell. The cancer was diagnosed on December 14. Erina and I had air tickets booked and paid for — her to attend and present at her annual ESOL conferences in South East Asia — this time to Cambodia and Thailand. I usually go too, as do Sam, now 17 and Sophie (15), but this year I was to attend the Oregon Truffle Festival where a book — “Taming the Truffle” — I’ve co-authored was to be launched.
(see www.timberpress.com/books/isbn.cfm/9780881928600
I was supposed to be one of the speakers and I was going to spend a couple of weeks with Scott Bent — did you meet him? I met him in Laos in 1975 and we were both evacuated from Cambodia in March of that year — me by the RAAF. He came through Dunedin early 1976, if I recall correctly. I last saw him at Lake Tahoe in 1980.

Anyway, all trips were cancelled, but the upside is I’m to go to Oregon next January as keynote speaker.

That’s my present situation. I still work — three days a week — at the Otago Daily Times. Erina teaches at the University of Otago Language School — English for foreign students.

… I’ve been going through old letters over the past months with the idea of producing something about or based on that period of my life. Don’t hold your breath (or worry), I’m still the best procrastinator in the business. What I need is some of the drive and energy you so clearly possess. Keep going.
Gordon

The need to go sit with my old friend and share a bottle of red or two down Dunedin way is now very strong. Indeed some lovely things happened to me in that southern Scottish city and Gordon was there for most of them.  We went out to Port Chalmers one weekend and called in to look at the university aquariums. As I stood watching a seemingly empty tank, save for some seaweed, a seahorse floated out from amongst the leaves. As naïve as you may think I was, I had no idea seahorses were real, I genuinely thought they were a fairy tale. I have never forgotten that moment. Magic does happen.

This morning was grey and drizzly, in that Melbourne way, but no matter, it felt good to at last have turned west, in the direction of home. Yes Rose! I am coming home, although the Southern Highlands are calling, calling. God, the past is calling. I digress. I’m in the middle of the hills and curves east of Bacchus Marsh, when I suddenly remember Barry, the Kodak scientist I flatted with in Camberwell. He had a black drophead E- Type, loved pistol shooting and came from Ballarat. I laugh out loud at the mad, mad memory of the two of us in the E-Type, with pistols stashed behind the seats, top and throttle down, heading out to the gun club on Saturday mornings. Then there was his wonderful mate in Ballarat, who had realised that working was absurd and had come to a complete and quite graceful stop. At one stage, the government found him work, picking weeds from a punt on the lake at Ballarat. He managed to go down with the Titanic. Yes, the HMAS Weedpicker sunk in the lake and there was a wonderful photo on a page of the local rag, with our friend saluting from the sunken ship, knee deep in weeds. I believe “they” desisted from attempting to find him anymore work.

Kryal Castle appears on the horizon, completely bonkers raving mad? I d seem to recall a recent rave party story about the joint. But fancy building a castle in the area where they staged the Eureka rebellion! Still laughing like a drain, I scroll the iPod. Ahh, yes! The Black Sorrows. Their music has aged so damn well. As the rhythm of “Chosen Ones” settles, it somehow matches notching up the pace a nick or two, that sweet, turbo burble has a music of its own.

Somewhere along the way, a sign says ‘Giant Kola.’ Sure enough, just like the lobsters, bananas, prawns and apples across the rest of Gondwanaland, a bloody great Koala has been erected, sorry, sculptured and cast. Hang on, they eat the others don’t they. Be afraid koalas, be very afraid. Like the Tamworth snow dome, it’s so tasteless I have to take a photograph. It’s for sale by the way, along with the tourist park and shop, if you’re looking for a change of life … or a giant koala.

A little further down the road, it’s incredibly windy, leaves and tumbleweed blowing everywhere and small dust storms all around the horizon. I spot what looks to be a piece of bark blowing slowly across the road in front of me. bloody hell, it’s a tortoise, with a long neck, There’s a car coming towards me and I can’t evade too much, so I line him up to try and pass over him. Looking back, thankfully he’s pulled his head in, probably thinking , ” Mummy warned me!”
Then I started thinking, tortoise? Where’s the water for heaven’s sake? Next thing another sign, ‘Green Lake Recreation Area.’ It’s a dry dustbowl, with a forlorn looking abandoned jetty. It reminds me of that dried, dead sea somewhere in Russia. This is not good, the land’s in trouble around here and I’m just 11kms out of Horsham, broadacre country! In fact, as I pass through Horsham, I see the first big machinery dealerships I’ve seen since leaving the WA Wheatbelt, John Deere one side of town and Case the other.

There ‘s a weird thing about roadside rest stops in Victoria – none of them seem to be anywhere near the road, there’s almost inevitably a two or three kilometre drive to reach the rest area. The stop at Wimmera River is a case in point and there sure as hell ain’t no water in the Wimmera. If I was a tortoise, I’d be on the move too.

Just before Nhill, there’s a farmer out doing a bit of weed control, a plume of dust alerts me to the tractor’s presence. The other side of Nhill, the road is atrocious, so bad, they’ve put up signs saying it’s bad and posted an 80kmh speed limit. In the middle of all this, there’s another big sign declaring that fatigue kills – not as much as a dangerous road like this! Fix the road for God’s sake. Not long after, I enter South Australia and the difference in road quality is amazing, smooth, well maintained and safe.

Close to Adelaide, Tailem Bend comes up and I spot the mighty Murray River. It’s a bit surreal, as the land is so bare, it’s a shock to see the river. Then Murray Bridge and up into the hills, past the National Motor Museum and finally the dramatic, lovely steep drive down into Adelaide.

Getting accommodation in Adelaide for this weekend was almost impossible even eight weeks ago, however the Grand Mercure Hotel did have an exorbitantly priced room. The name was reassuring. Wrong. There’s no help with bags, grab your own trolley and walk everything up the stairs. “I asked for parking, I assume that’s organised?”
“Yes, we’ve got parking available downstairs, if you can find a spot.”
Can I leave my car outside while I take my gear to the room?”
“Yes, if you’re not too long.”
“Can I order newspapers delivered?”
“We used to, but they kept getting stolen.”

The vibes are not good here! The room is, well … best taken with a glass or two of red. I open the curtains and look directly out to a blank wall four feet away. It feels overwhelmingly like a cell. Still, the restaurant wasn’t bad and I’ll be spending most of my time at the motor racing. Come to think of it, it’s a very good incentive to get the hell out of here as soon as possible Monday morning – the Nullarbor is looking very inviting!

Saturday 23 February

Saturday morning and I have two days of motorsport, here in the City of Churches. I decide to walk to the circuit, it’s only three ks or so and gives me a chance to walk through Rundle Mall, in the heart of the city. I’m shocked, it’s pig sty, litter everywhere, even in fountains, the place looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for a month. I’m still stunned when I get to the Clipsal 500 track and need to use the loo – well, I am 56 and it’s early morning! The portaloos aren’t clean either, what’s wrong with these people? The toilet’s in such a stat, I decide it’s healthier not to wash my hands! My golden rule running events such as the field days, is keep the toilets clean and fresh, the message is you care.

It’s another grey day, with sunshine coming through in the afternoon, although a blustery, cool breeze later springs up. The merchandising is spectacular, food, souvenirs and team merchandise stalls are everywhere, plus bars. I’m a bit concerned about that, it’s just too much. Sure there’s signs saying things like drink sensibly, but the reality is you can’t walk 20 metres without striking another liquor outlet. I guess that’s where the money is, but the sheer pressure of it all unsettles me, not that I mind a drink as you know!

I suddenly find myself walking behind a bevy of very pretty young things, with acres of naked flesh and very, very short skirts. In the finish it becomes more comfortable to stop and look at a merchandising store – some bastard might think I’m following them! And I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it was walking up the stairs in one of the overpass tunnels.

What does impress me, is the size of the event, this is very big and very successful. There are a lot of people here. My estimation later in the day is somewhere around 75,000 – 90,000, in the evening, I’m told it’s 82,000 and this is not the main day, Sunday will be huge. If one accepts that this is a three day event, then it’s fair to say the paying crowd will probably total 200,000 – 220,000 people. We have got to get a street circuit in the West.

A down side of street circuits, is the need for concrete barriers everywhere, they’re very unforgiving, but very necessary. There is a bad shunt mid morning, the driver hit’s the wall at full speed, it looked as though throttle was jammed open. I don’t have a good feeling about it and as I write this, it’s worse, it’s 8.00am Sunday morning and the driver’s on life support. I know I love the sport, but it is incredibly dangerous. There must be a way to get the message across to people, how dangerous driving can be on public roads, (if you don’t drive to the circumstances), by using motorsport as an example of how things can go wrong in spite of enormous care, skill and attention to minute safety detail.

I watch the warm-up for the V8 Supercars, it is an incredible spectacle and the noise is far easier to put up with than the banshee screaming of Formula 1. Then I head over to the 500 Club for lunch. This is a very civilised way of attending the circus, reserved grandstand seating (you need a hat, there’s no roof) and a club environment for a sit-down lunch and, thank God, clean facilities. The people at the table I’m on, have come from Sydney, Mount Gambier (two ladies who’s husbands couldn’t attend, but they still came!) and even MacKay, although I win the distance stakes. And I have to laugh when I see the wine on the table is from Margaret River! Somebody’s stuffed up on the Adelaide / South Oz promotion front.

After lunch, I amble over to the Murray Walker Exotic Car exhibition. Lambos, Ferraris and Audis don’t mean much to me these days, having been marketing manager for them in the west (in years go by), not to mention, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, MG (remember them? The Chinese are building them again!), Alfa and even SsangYong, which means Two Dragons – a lovely Korean fable. However the Bugatti, Ford GT and Pagani do grab my attention. I know how good they are.

In my wanders, I pass a large stage, taking a quick photograph, I’d heard there was a Shannon Noll concert on that night, but then somebody tells me it’ll be worth watching the concert on Sunday night, “Why?” said I.
“It’s Santana!”
“Who! Mate, you have my undivided attention. A good friend had bought me a ticket, but as this trip came up, I couldn’t go. Now you’re telling me I can see him!” It turns out my 500 club pass will get me into the show on Sunday night! There is a God / Goddess!

The first race of the season fires up. WA’s home town boy Garth Tander (well, he now lives in Melbourne) manages to get past the front row boys and it’s on! It very quickly becomes obvious the Ford teams have got their acts together this year. Then there’s trouble for Winterbottem, a dead battery and the team loses a minute. Tander also pits several times with trouble and they eventually wheel the car in the garage, although later, they bring it back out, but it never gets up to speed again. Courtney, who looks like he’s going to win, he’s going so strongly, gets caught up passing Jason Richards, who really should have moved over, he was being lapped and suddenly Courtney’s back to the mid field. Eventually he recovers a little to finish in 10th place. The first race of the season is close to a whitewash for Ford. My son Gordon will be ecstatic – he’s a fanatical Ford cove.

The first ten places are as follows”
1. Jamie Whincup Vodaphone Ford Falcon BF
2 Mark Winterbottom FPR Ford Falcon BF
3 Craig Lowndes Vodaphone Ford Falcon BF
4 Lee Holdsworth Valvoline Cummin Holden Commodore VE
5 Steven Richards FPR Ford Falcon BF
6 Steven Johnson Jim Beam Racing Ford Falcon BF
7 Will Davison Jim Beam Racing Ford Falcon BF
8 Rick Kelly HSV Holden Commodore VE 5000
9 Mark Skaife Toll Holden Racing Team Holden Commodore VE
10 James Courtney Jeld Wen Motorsport Ford Falcon BF

It’s also great to see Dick Johnson’s race team (Jim Beam) back in gear, they’ve had a few lean years and a hideous time with a West Australian sponsor, (Norm Carey’s company) who collapsed in a financial quagmire. Sunday will be very interesting, I’ll be the Holden teams worked all night! I’ve only attached a few photos, if you’re into motorsport, there’s a big gallery of about 80 pics on my blogsite.

Sunday 24 February

Sunday kicked off at around 12.45am – I sort of heard my personal mobile ring, but decided, in a deep sleep haze, that I hadn’t. I woke early and was busy writing Saturday’s Blog, when the phone did indeed ring. It was Penny Searle, President of Garrick Theatre. She had tried to get me the night before (WA time) and had some lovely news. Now settle, this doesn’t mean Hollywood and there’s no need for Russell Crowe to look nervous, however it seemed I’d won a Best Supporting Actor award on Saturday night, for my part in “Man & Boy” last year. Wayne Garton deservedly won Best Actor for his role. Chuffed I was.

Out to the track, for the big day and what a crowd, officially, from the Thursday through to the Saturday, the numbers were 197,000 with a further 90,000 to 100,00 expected today. That’s 280,000 – 300,000 people! They would have reached that figure, there was no spare room anywhere today. It’s phenomenal support for the sport and very noticeably, an increasingly large contingent of female fans. NO! Not the paid girls in little short skirts. And yes, I did happen to see them again!

I was heading for the grandstand, when I spotted an old mate, David Bignold, who was once GM of Community Newspapers. When he cranked open Western Suburbs Weekly, I saw it as direct marketing for the Barbagallo Group and immediately started advertising in it. One Christmas, Community Newspapers hired three choppers and took their best clients for a day trip down to Margaret River and back, visiting wineries etc, we lunched at Wise Winery, flew into a brewery and then back to the chauffeured limo waiting at Jandakot Airport. I think we went to Black Tom’s afterwards, but I’m a bit hazy about it!

Anyhow, Dave’s now GM of MTECH Fuel Savers and exhibited at last year’s Dowerin GWN Machinery Field Days. “I’ve been looking for you,” he said.
“Why?” I replied.
“I want to put one of these fuel savers in your car, you do a squillion miles and get a bucket load of publicity – every bastard in Australia’s reading your blog after the Oz the other weekend.”
“Alright, when?”
“Tomorrow, it’ll take half an hour and you’ll get 20% better fuel economy.”
Hmm. “Listen, it won’t stuff up the turbo will it? I do not want to come to a grinding halt out on the Nullarbor.”
“Nup, it’ll be the best thing you ever did, take this and read it and we’ll put it in at 9.30 tomorrow morning, you’ll be gone by 10.15am.”
“Struth Dave, ya better be right. You know me, I’ll tell everybody if it works and I’ll tell everybody if it doesn’t.”
“Have you been keeping accurate fuel records on your trip?”
“Is the Pope a Catholic?” This’ll be interesting. If you want to know all about it, go to their website: www.mtechsaver.com.au  I’ll report how it all pans out on this site.

On with the show. Unfortunately there’s a really bad accident during the ute race. It’s chilling to watch, in fact it looks far worse than yesterday’s horrific smash. I watch the Supercars warm-up, then head to the 500 Club for coffee and lunch. It’s terrible, they announce that Ashley Cooper, the driver in yesterday’s accident had died. Everybody feels down, doubly so, because we’re all very worried about the ute drivers. At this stage, (11.00pm Sunday night), two of the drivers have been released form hospital, however Matt Kingsley still is still there, although thankfully not lisetd as critical. 

I give Wheatbelt Motorplex caps and stickers to our table, Belinda and Diane (from Mt Gambier) are back, as are Ben Greer and Scott Horwell from Sydney. Scott’s doubly happy, because his team, “The Rabbito’s” won their match by 44 to 0 last night. He tells me I should ring one of my daughter’s (Jodie) who is a Rabbitto fanatic and tell her. I do, she’s wrapped, doubly so, because the team is apparently coming to play in Perth this year. I promise to get tickets for her. It’s a bit of Ford table this mob and they’re very pleased to learn that I drive an XR6 Turbo. Actually I’ve discovered over the last two days, that the HSV team is not very popular with anybody, Mark Skaife especially, is actively disliked and Garth Tander pays a bit of a price for that. It appears to be a little more than just the usual tribalism between the red and the blue fans.

It’s time to go back to the grandstand for the Clipsal 500 race. There’s not a spare seat in the house. The Airforce drops in, in force – four F18s, They are wildly impressive, no matter how often you see them. A couple of people sing the National Anthem – no idea who they were – a bloke and a bird, at least they weren’t flat – more girls in very short skirts and thigh length boots performs what could loosely be called a dance and suddenly the One Minute board is being waved.

What a race, action packed from start to finish and whenever you began to believe you knew how it was going to end, all hell would break loose. I counted at least ten times when the Pace Car came out. I thought I’d write down exactly how I noted things (on the back receipts in my wallet!).

  • Supercheap are in deep trouble, Ingalls’ out by lap 6 and the other car’s struggling. Ingall’s car is pushed off the main straight and has to wait while they try to get the other team car running. Not a good 44th birthday present for Ingall.

  • The Jim Beam second car, no 18 is stuffed shortly afterwards.

  • The second Jack Daniels car suffers a spectacular engine failure.

  • By lap 22, Rick Kelly in car 15, watches his car pushed into the garage, but it comes out again.

  • Veteran Murray Walker is doing a fantastic job as co-commentator.. Old pros are just so damn good.

  • By lap 25, things are looking good for Tander, he’s moved up two places, past Skaife and Courtney.

  • Lap 28, Courtney gets hit.

  • Something happened on lap 29, but I can’t read my own writing! What’s new!

  • Lap 32 and Tander is in trouble, with his car pushed into the garage – a bit of karma really, as Rick Kelly was very obviously holding cars back so that Tander could move up.

  • Lap 40m and Skaife’s in trouble – his steering is sticking. He’s back out on the track by lap 43.

  • Steve Richards spins and the Safety Car is out, Tander comes back out. The race restarts on lap 44.

  • By lap 45, it’s looking great for Ford again, Whincup leading, followed by Courtney, the lone Holden of Holdsworth and then Lowndes.

  • On lap 47, car 50 driven by Thompson smashes into a wall and the pace car is out again, Skaife comes back out on the track.

  • Lap 51 and Lowndes and Whincup get past Holdsworth, the Ford boys are beginning to look invincible.

  • Lap 55, all hell breaks loose. Lowndes attempts to pass Courtney, it looks like he’s nudged, hard to tell, but it puts him off line, he spins and disaster strikes, with both Courtney and Lowndes smashing into walls, taking Winterbottom out as well. Three top running Fords out of the race. The whole thing’s changed dramatically and there’s a huge cheer from Holden fans.

  • Lap 60 and Whincup still leads but he’s being hotly pursued by McConville, who really deserves to be up in the top league again – he came out to WA and did some Audi track work for me (an Audi client guest day) a few years back and I found him to be a really lovely bloke. He’s followed by Holdsworth and Kelly.

  • Lap 62 and Coulthard in 111, is stuffed.

  • Lap 65, Johnson in 17 gets a drive-through penalty, but I’m not sure what for.

  • Lap 69 and D’Alberto in 55, the Bottle O car, loses a tyre – not a wheel – the tyre bounces all over the track. Safety car is out again, The car limps back and they change the wheel, but he only lasts a lap, the left front end is obviously suffered massive damage.

  • On the restart at lap 71, Coulthard comes back out again.

  • Lap 75, three laps before the finish! And Paul Dumbrell in 16 hits the wall so hard he moves it and a forklift has to push it back into place, Then we have a two lap sprint for the finish. Somehow Whincup holds on. The top ten results are as follows:

1  88 Team Vodaphone Jamie Whincup Ford Falcon BF

2  Cummins Race Team Lee Holdsworth Holden Commodore VE
3  14 Team WOW Cameron McConville Holden Commodore VE 5000
4   7 Jack Daniel’s Racing Todd Kelly Holden Commodore VE 5000
5  9 SP Tools Racing Shane Van Gisbergen Ford Falcon BF
6  5 HSV Dealer Team Rick Kelly Holden Commodore VE
7  51 Tasman Motorsport Greg Murphy Holden Commodore VE
8  3 Tasman Motorsport Jason Richards Holden Commodore VE
9  17 Jim Beam Racing Steven Johnson Ford Falcon BF
10  25 Fujitsu Racing Jason Bright Ford Falcon BF

It’s one of the best races I’ve ever seen in my life, there was barely time to have a drink of water. If this is how close it’s going to be, bring on the rest of the year!

Santana? I stuck around, couldn’t miss it. The music was great, although the sound system was distorting a little, but unfortunately for this little black duck, the crowd was just a little feral – standing room only, (you couldn’t sit down), beer cans everywhere and every third person blowing cigarette smoke. I gave it an hour and thought, “I know why I’ve got that magic home theatre system and the ever-growing collection of concert DVDs,” called a cab and came back to the hotel. Tomorrow, I head for home across the desert, can’t wait, four weeks is a long time on the road.

Monday 25 February

The morning kicks off with Eoin on ABC. It appears he and Brad have nick-named me “The Rev Head Recruiter,” I like that, it’s sort of right. He, like me, really wants to see a street circuit Supercars in the West. I tell him I’m going to ring another mate, Perth City Councillor Chris Hardy. I don’t have to, later in the morning Chris rings me, “You’ve lined me up again you bastard. You know I want it to happen.”
“Alright,” I tell him, “I’ll ring the Blonde Bombshell.”

I’ve always liked Lisa Scaffidi, Perth’s Mayor, so I call her. She’d like it to happen as well, but the city simply doesn’t have the money to pay for it, which I well understand. She reiterates the decision against it was really Events Corp and the State Government – the infrastructure costs (which are, I know, colossal) and also, it was felt that the people car racing attracts are the wrong people!!

Hmm! Oh dear, what does that say about me and Eoin Cameron? Although, I do recall a snotty Western suburbs bling covered real estate flogger’s wife, telling me at a black tie function a couple of years back, “You? You’re just a larrikin.” I took it as high praise. The feeling over here in the eastern states, is they’d like a Perth based street circuit for the V8 Supercars and the Wheatbelt Motorplex for motor cycle racing and second tier car racing. I’ve got some work to do when I get back.

I get out of the strange Marriot hotel as soon as possible and drive over to Pulse Automotive at Norwood, for the fuel saver to be fitted. As I said to Eoin, I’ve got memories of Peter Brock’s Polariser crystal disaster, but who knows. The fittings all very professional and like Dave said, quick. The air cleaner lid come off and they fit a small ceramic air flow sensor, a ceramic water temperature sensor is fitted around the water pump housing and two more ceramic sensors are placed into the fuel tank. These days, with anti syphoning devices, you can’t get things in through the tank entry and they do have to go in through the plate under the back seat, but it is genuinely a 35 minute exercise. The cost for the kit is apparently $399 and there’s a $50.00 fitting charge. Dave tells me the fitting process is vital, if there’s a problem, it’s inevitably in the fitting.

They fire the car up and rev it for a minute or two, apparently to get the car’s computer systems used to the changes in air and water, plus the altering state of the fuel – it’s magnetic impulse based. I sort of understand, but my eyes do glaze! One things for sure, I’m not going to alter my driving habits, that is, drive for absolute economy, if it’s going to give up to 20% better fuel economy, it has to happen with all driver styles. Dave tells me it can take a day or two for the massive computer systems in cars these days to adjust and they never really know from vehicle to vehicle. With that, I’m out of the city of churches.

I’m half way up the track to Port Augusta, when the CB goes, it’s the bloke in the truck I’ve just passed. He wants’ to know about the field days, as he and his partners have a new fertiliser company they want to promote. I pull up and give him a copy of our Prospectus. Advertising on the car is very, very effective. The view from the road close to Port Augusta, across to Spencer Gulf is quite lovely. Port Augusta itself, always reminds of Port Hedland. Just before the number one highway turns right and becomes the Eyre Highway, there’s some graffiti covered water tanks I‘ve always meant to stop and photograph.

Covered in football final cheer quad messages, there’s also some fascinating “art” and social messages. I can see what people mean when they talk about graffiti artists, there’s definitely a lot of talent involved, but I hate the lack of respect for property. It’s a conundrum. One of the more spectacular pieces of work contains the deliberate statement – “A dingo ate my baby.” Yet I’m sure the work’s not that old. The Harley sign has the words “Armidale WA chapter” scrawled above it and there’s a very poignant message from family and friends re somebody who’s died. The whole scene is quite telling in terms of social structure and travellers past and present.

Time for music again, the country is my sort of country – iron ore (Iron Knob’s up and running again), mesas, hills and good roads. Ah yes, The Animals. “House of the Rising Sun: fills the cabin, Both loud pedals up. Go. “We gotta get out of this place ….” I remember taking my son Gordon to see Eric Burden at the Regal Theatre a few years back. He turned to me and said, “How come this old bloke is playing these songs?” I think I’m getting older!

At Kimba, the half way point across the continent between Perth and Sydney / Melbourne, a group of motorcyclists pull in to refuel. The weather’s gorgeous and I suddenly miss my bike. Chris Roberts (Waroona), Michael Kyte (Armadale) and Damien Hancock (Mandurah) are on their way to Phillip Island for the motor cycle racing and then going touring around Tassie. We chat about the Wheatbelt Motorplex and I hand over the last three caps. Next thing, a fantastic combination pulls in, this time heading west. Norman Menadue and Sandra Harris have just done a month long trip around the Snowy Mountains. Theirs is a great touring set-up – big comfortable big towing a trailer, which is set up for power – hell they even have a laptop. We chat away, then it’s time to a make a mile, like me, they’ll make for Ceduna for the night.

A quick calculation for fuel consumption (I’d refuelled on the way out of Adelaide and then again at Kimba). 439.5 kilometres and 42.5 litres of fuels. Hmm, at first glance, that’s down from about 11.2kml to 10.402kml. Way too early, but interesting and believe me, I wasn’t stuffing around, the horses and I were playing.

Tuesday 26 February 

Tuesday morning and what will probably be the second to last day of the trip. It’s going to be a long haul, probably to Norseman, but maybe to Kalgoorlie, perhaps even home, we’ll see. Time for the Rev Head Recruiter to hit the road.

It’s a beautiful day, quite different weather to the start of the month. The first town I pass though is Penong, about 70ks west of Ceduna, a funny little place – their welcome sign spells Nullarbor incorrectly, but it’s nicely done and there’s a curious assembly of windmills on the eastern side of town, presumably water has long been an issue out here.

I’m just settling into a rhythm, when I come across a shocking reminder of the carnage inflicted on our wildlife. A wombat has been terribly injured and is literally crawling in agony across the road. Its pain is palpable and heart wrenching. Thankfully I still have mobile range and put a call through to the police at Penong, asking them to come and do what has to be done. Damn.

The Eyre Highway around Yalata is quite lovely, the road is very straight, but made up of undulating tree covered hills on old stabilised sand dunes. It’s a welcome panacea after the poor old wombat. However it’s not long before the trees disappear and the Nullarbor welcomes me. There’s a bit of a misunderstanding about the actual Nullarbor with many travellers. In fact the Eyre Highway only touches on the true Nullarbor briefly in South Australia and very briefly around Caiguna in Western Australia, most of the vast treeless plain lies to the north of the highway.

I love it out here, always have done. They talk about the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, but out here, the road seems to run along the very edge of the earth. The way the cliffs break and tumble into the power of the Southern Ocean is awe-inspiring, truly the Great Australian Bight. It’s the wrong time of the year for whales (May to October in case you’re wondering), but the day is so lovely, that I know I’ll get a couple of great shots at one of my favourite site-seeing stops. Sure enough, the cliffs are bathed in sunlight, the ocean is an almost tropical blue and there’s even a small pod of dolphins feeding in the waters below. A young German family are overwhelmed with the beauty, epic size and isolation of it all. We agree it brings tears to the eyes. Back to reality, I must be getting close to home, the bloody flies are in! By the way, this spot is just on 75kms from the WA border.

I’d fuelled up at the BP in Ceduna and filled up at the BP on the border, the same places I’d stoped at on the way over, mainly because I’ve been travelling at similar speeds, so it’ll make for a reasonable fuel comparison when I get home and have time to compare notes and dockets. This morning’s consumption works out at 47.69 litres for 475.8kms, which is pretty damn good. I’m impressed. Of course it needs a more critical long term analysis than a couple of fuel dockets, but I’m beginning to get a gut feeling there might be something in this fuel saver. We’ll see.

I call into the Amber Motel at Eucla, my old stomping ground in my Greyhound days, it’s looking a little unloved. Steve Patupis, the truckie who started it way back in the early 1960s has now passed away, however his family still run the joint. My Eucla connections are wide spread. Way back in the late 1980s, (about 1987 from memory), a fashion designer named Eero Tarik built himself an underground home out on the plain. He and a young lady fell in love and decided to get married. Theirs was the first (and I think only), marriage at Eucla in the 20th century. I covered the wedding for Woman’s Day magazine, (as a photographer) and my white Rover 3500 hatchback was the wedding car. I must try and find those photos, it was very Lawrence of Arabia. I ask about Eero at the roadhouse, just a blank look, that seems to say, “Oh God, another brain-dead traveller.”

I drive down to the ruins of the old telegraph station complex. It’s almost completely covered now, the shifting white dunes are slowly, but very surely, reclaiming mankind’s puny effort. Taking a new bottle of water out of the fridge, for some reason the copy of “Across the Nullarbor” that I’d found in Bowral, falls off the seat. I know I have to call and see if Harvey Gurney’s home and still remembers me. There’s that circle of life thing again. My boyhood and lifetime mate, Colin Cleave, had emailed me the other night, reminding me that I was in New Zealand at this time last year, in fact, it will be Lisa and Aaron’s first wedding anniversary this coming Saturday. Time! Where does it go?

Harvey and Nancy Gurney’s home is perched on top of the Hampton Tablelands, overlooking the Eucla Pass. The view across to the ocean is stunning and they’re home. In fact Nancy’s running a great cottage industry, making quilts to order for people all over Australia. The internet gives her constant access to everyone everywhere. It really is an amazing tool. She proudly shows me a couple of quilts she’s just finished, one for a chap in Perth, who’s ordered it for his yet-to-be-born granddaughter and another for a died-in-the-wool Melbourne football fan, in the team colours, with a football motif stitched throughout.

We chat over coffee, about old times and gossip and try to remember exactly what year it was that Ion Idress and my uncle (Colin Smith “The Super”) came though and stayed with Harvey’s mum and dad. He remembers them both very well (in fact they came again a few years after the first trip). We finally agree that it was the year of my birth, 1951, as Harvey was 12 years old at the time. I tell him I’ll check with my cousin Hope back in NZ, she might be able to confirm the year. There’s a lot of pleasure for me, in sitting here 57 years later, continuing the two families association. Not only that, Harvey’s got years of old home movie footage, including stuff featuring Idress and my uncle, but of course they can’t play it any longer. I suspect there’s some great history in those cans and promise I’ll have a chat to my friends at “Postcards WA” about transferring it all to DVD. And one thing Nancy and Harvey have always promised themselves,  that they’d one day attend the Dowerin Field Days – they’re coming this year.

Out on the Eyre, I’m in that lovely happy, mellow, memory – contemplative state. Time for the “I’m Your Man” soundtrack. Wainwright’s as camp as a row of tents and consequently there is something a little incongruous when he sings Cohen’s heterosexual lyrics, but hell he does great interpretations. Then Perla Battala comes on, with her stunning version of “Bird on The Wire.” It’s magnificent – her powerful emotional voice, an accordion, double bass, drum kit and sympathetic organ. Goose bump territory.

Up through Madura Pass, time and distance fly. Yeah, Dylan’s magnificent, “Blood on The Tracks” – … “the only thing I knew how to do, was to keep on keeping on.” I refuel at Caiguna and hit the 90 mile straight, just as what I think is the greatest love song ever written fires up –
“If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangiers …”

I look at the time and quickly glance at the map. Yeah, I’ll make it to Kalgoorlie just on nightfall, which is good, as Lloyd Morley, Telstra’s WA Regional Manager had asked me to call in if I can. He’s very concerned about the difficulties I’ve been having with mobile phone coverage, he thinks the phone might need recalibrating or something. I like Lloyd, he’s a nice bloke, I’m always a bit sorry when I have a go at Telstra over mobile phone coverage, but hey, it’s not personal.

When I eventually get home, I’ll sit down and do all the fuel and distance figures for the car. Suffice to say, I’ve reached the conclusion that the Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo, is possibly one of the greatest touring cars Australia has ever produced. Two motoring editors, Neil Dowling (Sunday Times) and Bill Buys ( Community Newspapers) had advised me about how good the model was, when I was investigating the purchase in November last year. You were right gentlemen. Of course, you can’t really try the car out on public roads, but a couple of track stints confirmed how unstressed and capable the car is: At 200km/h, the engine’s just ticking over at 3250rpm, consuming 23.8 litres per 100kms and at 215km/h, she’s still doing it easy at 3,500rpm, using 26.6 litres per 100kms. I should add, there’s more punch left at 215kmh, but racetracks don’t go on forever – running out of road is disconcerting.

Back to the 90 mile straight – alright, the 146km straight – see, it just doesn’t have the same romance when you say it that way, which is strange, as French is supposed to be the language of love and emotion, but when you express distance in kilometres, it just sounds … technical. The road ahead is turning that blue sky mirage haze of a warm day.

Norseman, a quick refuel and I’m on my way north to Kalgoorlie. Ten ks out of town and the road train in front of me has to take evasive action. Then so do I. There’s a drunken Aboriginal bloke wandering all over the road, walking down to Norseman. He’s using both lanes, lurching from side to side, waving and smiling! This is going to end in tragedy, not just for him, but for the poor unsuspecting driver who collects him. And so I finish the day as I started, calling the police. Phone call done, the radio comes back on. The WA Premier is backing calls to restrict benefits paid to some Aboriginal families, converting the payment into food vouchers, in an effort to try and stop the hideous alcohol problems that ravage many communities. Carol Martin, the Kimberley MLA, is interviewed, saying we’re not addressing the problem in a culturally sensitive way. I know what she means, but I’ve just dealt with the reality.

Kalgoorlie, I’ve driven 1,392 kilometres today, that’ll do very nicely.

Epilogue … One For The Road

10,380kms, $1645.00 worth of premium unleaded – sorry, it’s too hard to work out the exact fuel consumption – some dockets don’t show the actual litres purchased, however as a rough guide for a 2 tonne car laden to the gunnels with stuff, (and not driven like a Getz on the way to a bowling club match), fuel consumption appears to have been somewhere around the 9.85kms per litre, which ain’t half bad … if you knew what I know!

Now on to the MTech fuel saver, it is still way too early to say what the definitive effect is and to be honest, I’ve been so busy back at work, I haven’t had time to concentrate properly on trying to ascertain what is happening, BUT! “Pre MTECH” on the trip, whenever I refuelled the car, the computer would tell me I had a safe range of 575kms. Now, when I refuel, the computer tells me I’ve got a safe range of 656kms! I have very definitely NOT changed my driving style, the car IS a lot lighter (not packed for a month on the road) and it’s motoring up and down the return 325km road trip between Dowerin and Perth every couple of days.

I’m now keeping a dossier on the amount of fuel and kilometres, which unfortunately I stuffed up last week, by putting standard unleaded in the car, fuel consumption collapsed – it is very definitely worth the extra price of premium, for the net gain in extra kilometres. But back to the MTech Fuel Saver – my gut feeling is getting stronger that is actually works! God knows how, but it is increasingly looking like it’s giving me an extra 75 – 100kms out of each tank of fuel, which, if it proves correct, more or less matches the claimed 20% increase in mileage. I’ll post a weekly update on my Blog Site on Saturday mornings, giving exact fuel consumption and mileage figures. If it does work, you’d have to weigh up the $450.00 fitted cost against the mileage you do, to work out how quickly you’d recoup your money. Although if the claims about reduced emissions are correct, then the World (and your grandkids) are way in front anyhow! If, like me, you do high mileage, or you’re running a fleet of vehicles, this invention might just be a small Holy Grail!

I looked at this blog and discovered I’ve written in excess of 27,000 words about the trip! Oh well, my brother Steve loved it, although cars bore him to death and at least I was able to remind daughter Lisa, that her first wedding anniversary was due, not to mention Oscar and Susie, who are dreaming of returning to the West and drinking Vasse Felix! In fact, to those who sent emails, I know, I know, I owe you a response, apologies, it’s coming!

What have I learnt? Not as much as I’ve forgotten, however, I figured when the Federal Minister for Agriculture gave me the brush-off – not even a “sorry he’s busy,” that the new Labor government probably had very little interest in the bush, that’s been confirmed by an email I received at work today. I suspect this is a Federal Government for the city, not the bush. I want desperately to be wrong.

There is practically no police presence in regional Australia, nobody’s out there patrolling the roads, they’re in the cities and the large regional centres, but you’re on your own out the back of beyond and in many cases, in front of beyond. On the other hand, I saw practically no bad behaviour out on the open road, no tail gating, no aggressive, mad 4WD owners, nothing but courtesy, so the police probably don’t need to be there.

People still treat the journey across the Nullarbor as The Great Trip – drivers wave and smile instinctively, but that stops as soon as you reach major towns. City drivers in the eastern states are so much better educated and patient than Perth drivers, who have no idea about merging, or anything else to do with the smooth flow of traffic. Only in Perth is the fastest lane the left lane, as everybody refuses to get out of the right hand lane. Oh, yes, while there are fixed speed cameras on highways, taking footage to check times on trucks (safe rest periods), I never saw a Multa Nova cameras hidden anywhere, until I returned to Perth. I arrived home in time for the long weekend and the “Road Safety Blitzkrieg” with Double Demerit points. It is so bloody pointless, people still kept killing themselves and the Multa Nova cash registers kept ticking over, making a fortune. One can only conclude that the authorities are not serious about reducing the road toll. Yes, they make “tut tut” noises, but that’s all. The treasury coffers continue to fill, for what?

Tired? You bet, 27 days on the road by yourself is a long time, would I do it again? Well, there is the glorious Matsos’ Run coming up in mid May, but yes, I’d do it again. Will I move to Bowral / Colo Vale. Do not tempt me!! Dennis, do they need an event organiser, a West Coast Promo man, a marketing manager, a journo?? Would I take somebody with me next time? I hope so.

I’ve made one last Wheel Dreaming album with a few more photos to wind things up, a couple feature flint I found long ago at Eucla, you can see where one piece has been worked into a tool, then there’s the glorious hunk of limestone, absolutely full of fossil shells, I‘ve had it for years. The souvenirs I purchased are now hanging on the garage wall – feast your eyes on the Brock Le Mans ad. Daughters Jodie and Saraj loved their sculptured mermaids (from the Norman Lindsay Gallery – I couldn’t mention them in the blog, or they’d have known!), granddaughter Caitlin was straight into her pink V8 Princess T-shirt, while son Gordon has managed to wear every V8 / Bathurst and Clipsal shirt this week.

Arrived home last Wednesday arvo, to a mountain of mail, amongst which, was a parcel from Sydney. It was from John Connolly (The Australian), a fabulous book, “Ultimate Garages” and a letter wishing … “may your road trips continue.” I’ll drink to that. Now, is there a lovely lady who would like to share the journey for the next decade or two?

Thanks for sharing my journey, may all your dreams come true.

 One for the Road

10,380kms, $1645.00 worth of premium unleaded – sorry, it’s too hard to work out the exact fuel consumption – some dockets don’t show the actual litres purchased, however as a rough guide for a 2 tonne car laden to the gunnels with stuff, (and not driven like a Getz on the way to a bowling club match), fuel consumption appears to have been somewhere around the 9.85kms per litre, which ain’t half bad … if you knew what I know!

Now on to the MTech fuel saver, it is still way too early to say what the definitive effect is and to be honest, I’ve been so busy back at work, I haven’t had time to concentrate properly on trying to ascertain what is happening, BUT! “Pre MTECH” on the trip, whenever I refuelled the car, the computer would tell me I had a safe range of 575kms. Now, when I refuel, the computer tells me I’ve got a safe range of 656kms! I have very definitely NOT changed my driving style, the car is a lot lighter (not packed for a month on the road) and it’s motoring up and down the return 325km road trip between Dowerin and Perth every couple of days.

I’m now keeping a dossier on the amount of fuel and kilometres, which unfortunately I stuffed up last week, by putting standard unleaded in the car, fuel consumption collapsed. It is very definitely worth the extra price of premium, for the net gain in extra kilometres. But back to the MTech Fuel Saver – my gut feeling is getting stronger that is actually works! God knows how, but it is increasingly looking like it’s giving me an extra 75 – 100kms out of each tank of fuel, which, if it proves correct, more or less matches the claimed 20% increase in mileage. I’ll post a weekly update on my Blog Site on Saturday mornings, giving exact fuel consumption and mileage figures. If it does work, you’d have to way up the $450.00 fitted cost against the mileage you do, to work out how quickly you’d recoup your money. Although if the claims about reduced emissions are correct, then the World (and your grandkids) are way in front anyhow! If, like me, you do high mileage, or you’re running a fleet of vehicles, this invention might just be a small Holy Grail!

I looked at the blog and discovered I’d written in excess of 27,000 words about the trip! No wonder I haven’t heard from some of you! Oh well, my brother Steve loved it, although cars bore him to death and at least I was able to remind daughter Lisa, that her first wedding anniversary was due, not to mention Oscar and Susie, who are dreaming of returning to the West and drinking Vasse Felix! In fact, to those who sent emails, I know, I know, I owe you a response, apologies, it’s coming!

What have I learnt? Not as much as I’ve forgotten, however, I figured when the Federal Minister for Agriculture gave me the brush-off – not even a “sorry he’s busy,” that the new Labor government probably had very little interest in the bush, that’s been confirmed by an email I received at work today. I suspect this is a Federal Government for the city, not the bush. I want desperately to be wrong.

There is practically no police presence in regional Australia, nobody’s out there patrolling the roads, they’re in the cities and the large regional centres, but you’re on your own out the back of beyond and in many cases, in front of beyond. On the other hand, I saw practically no bad behaviour out on the open road, no tail gating, no aggressive, mad 4WD owners, nothing but courtesy, so the police probably don’t need to be there.

People still treat the journey across the Nullarbor as The Great Trip – drivers wave and smile instinctively, but that stops as soon as you reach major towns. City drivers in the eastern states are so much better educated and patient than Perth drivers, who have no idea about merging, or anything else to do with the smooth flow of traffic. Only in Perth is the fastest lane the left lane, as everybody refuses to get out of the right hand lane. Oh, yes, while there are fixed speed cameras on highways, taking footage to check times on trucks (safe rest periods), I never saw a Multa Nova cameras hidden anywhere, until I returned to Perth. I arrived home in time for the long weekend and the blitzkrieg about Double Demerit points. It is so bloody pointless, people still kept killing themselves and the Multa Nova cash registers kept ticking over, making a fortune. One can only conclude that the authorities are not serious about reducing the road toll. Yes, they make “tut tut” noises, but that’s all. The treasury coffers continue to fill, for what?

Tired? You bet, 27 days on the road by yourself is a long time, would I do it again? Well, there is the glorious Matsos’ Run coming up in mid May, but yes, I’d do it again. Will I move to Bowral / Colo Vale. Do not tempt me!! Dennis, do they need an event organiser, a West Coast Promo man?? Would I take somebody with me next time? I hope so.

I’ve attached a few more photos to wind things up, a couple feature flint I found long ago at Eucla, you can see where one piece has been worked into a tool, then there’s the glorious hunk of limestone, absolutely full of fossil shells, I‘ve had it for years. The souvenirs I purchased are now hanging on the garage wall – feast your eyes on the Brock Le Mans ad. Daughters Jodie and Saraj loved their sculptured mermaids (from the Norman Lindsay Gallery – I couldn’t mention them in the blog, or they’d have known! Granddaughter Caitlin was straight into her pink V8 Princess T-shirt, while son Gordon has managed to wear every V8 / Bathurst and Clipsal shirt this week.

Arrived home last Wednesday arvo, to a mountain of mail, amongst which, was a parcel from Sydney. It was from John Connolly (The Australian), a fabulous book, “Ultimate Garages” and a letter wishing … “may your road trips continue.” I’ll drink to that. Now, is there a lovely lady who would like to share the journey for the next decade or two?

All Good Things

Greg

Arrested Aboard the USS Stennis

I wrote this a few years ago, back when John Howard was PM, George Bush Jr was President, and my cabin mate was just the Member for Rockingham. I’ve been asked a few times in the last couple of months if I’d consider posting it, along with photos, so here it is:

USS Stennis

[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image13.jpg]100That's a portrait of Senator John Stennis on the wall - the band's practising in theJohn Stennis room.
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image11.jpg]20The USS Stennis - Nimitz Class nuclear aircraft carrier
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image5.jpg]60The air fleet over the mother ship
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image.jpg]30Some Facts and Figure
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image6.jpg]30A fascinating photo of the ship under-going sea trials.
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image17.jpg]50Ready to fly out, me on the left and good friend Maurice Brockwell, sadly now passed away.
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image8.jpg]40This was us landing flying in on the 'Greyhound'.
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image18.jpg]30The 'Welcome' sign on the operations board
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image12.jpg]40An FA18 Cockpit
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image26.jpg]40Ready to launch, that's a heat shield raised behind the fighter plane
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image22.jpg]30Take off - the planes are launched by steam catapult - you can see the steam
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image15.jpg]30
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image9.jpg]40They actually test and run-in jet aircraft engines at the stern of the ship
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image24.jpg]30Landing - you can just see the hook in these photos
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image20.jpg]30
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image23.jpg]30
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image21.jpg]40
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image19.jpg]30
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image1.jpg]30Stored below deck
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image7.jpg]70The Captain's Chair
(L-R) Mark McGowan (Labor Opposition Leader), Vince de Pietro (Washington Naval Attache), Maurice Brockwell (dec), not sure who the guy is kneeling, me perched in the Captain's Chair, Cpt 'Weasel' Gallagher and Russell ? on the right
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image25.jpg]50Cpt Gallagher and Vine De Pietro - Vince was Commander of Stirling Naval Base.
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image4.jpg]40FA 18 take off at dusk
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image3.jpg]30Missile launch
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image2.jpg]30The Operations Room under the flight deck
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image14.jpg]30The band rehearsing
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image10.jpg]30Exchanging gifts from the Oz navy to the USA navy
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image16.jpg]30Leaving the aircraft carrier by boat
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image28.jpg]10Proof the arrested landing
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image29.jpg]30Proof I did actually steer the ship
[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/uss-stennis/thumbs/thumbs_image27.jpg]10The Submarine is nothing to do with this trip, that's another story.

Basically you’ll be in a dark cave for the next 45 minutes. Your jacket is inflatable and has a whistle, flare and a torch. If we land in the drink, which we won’t, pop the flare and blow the whistle.” The US sailor smiles at us. We climb on board the grey United States C-2 plane (they call them Greyhounds – for moving people and parcels!) and strap ourselves in – real belts – two over the shoulders and one around the waist (only just in the case of the writer!). We are facing the rear of the plane. Apart from the pilots windscreens behind us, there only two windows and I haven’t scored either of them. The engines begin to wind up, hydraulics come into play and the tail section of the plane closes tight. It is a cave! Our sailor grins at us, “Now this ain’t no regular airline. No food, no drink, but if you’re feeling a bit queasy, hell we’ve got bags! And I’m coming round now to make sure your belts are tight, cause when we land, we stop. Quickly.”

Flying backward in the dark affects the senses. I know we’re flying out from Perth to meet the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, about 200 kilometres off the coast of Geraldton, but there’s no point of reference to gauge our progress, just a couple of dim cabin lights. Everyone looks the same, dressed in green life jackets and a curious combination helmet with earmuffs and goggles called a Cranial. We look like a bunch of marines. The scene looks like a thousand military based movies. Not only is the plane grey outside, it’s painted grey inside. The engines drone, conversation is impossible. I wonder what it would be like to be strapped in here flying out to a combat zone.

Around the same time that I notice several of us (myself included) are beginning to try and adjust the tight earmuffs, there’s a change in engine note and our man is on the microphone, “We’ll be landing in five minutes folks. Just sit upright and don’t move ‘till I tell you.” The American accent is infectious and I want to yell back “Yes Sir.” The engines rev up, slow down, then rev up again. We seem to be climbing. Then wham! From go to whoa in about three seconds. There’s no wheel touchdown as such and the overriding impression is just sort of suddenly stopping in mid-air.

The plane taxis around, stops and the tailgate opens. For a minute all I can see is a blaze of white light, then my eyes adjust. We’re on the deck of the aircraft carrier. The ship dips very slightly and there’s the blue sea of the Indian Ocean. We stumble out of the rear of the plane, disorientated but aware – almost like an out of body experience and are led into a doorway. Smiling faces greet us, take our flying gear and we are led down two or three flights of stairs to the Wardroom.

It seems the officers dress in khaki uniform, whilst the rest of the crew are in traditional navy blue. Lt David Oates, the ship’s Public Affairs Officer introduces himself and gives us a run-down on the tour. The group is broken up into two – those who’re flying back the same day and the ten of us who are lucky enough to be staying overnight. The overnighters’ first port of call is the mess for lunch.

As to where we are in the ship, none of us would know? Thankfully Amy Bender, our tour guide and guardian angel does. We grab plates and trays and walk the walk of hungry travellers – well not all of us, a couple of people are looking a bit green around the gills and politely refuse the sausages, fried onions, fried chicken and pastries. I fill my plate and fill a glass with a strawberry / kiwi fruit drink. Onya Elvis.

The whole thing still seems a bit surreal. One minute I was standing in the airport at Perth and the next minute I’m in the bowels of one of the most awesome ships the world has ever seen. A little bit about her. The keel was laid on 31 March 1991 and she was commissioned on December 9 1995. This monster is 332.8 metres long, 78.3 metres wide, 74.4 metres high, weighs 98,556 tonnes and carries 13,265,000 litres of jet fuel! Currently the ship carries in excess of 5,000 crew and 80 aircraft – somebody whispers that it’s probably more planes than the Australian airforce has.

The ship represents an almost unique blend of old and new technology, for whilst it is steam turbine driven, the steam is generated by two nuclear reactors. Later in the day, Captain Gallagher brings things into perspective for us, “This ship has a life expectancy of fifty years. In fact the person who will be this ship’s last captain is about four years old at the moment. In those fifty years, we will refuel only once, in about twenty years time!”

Lunch over, we’re escorted to our quarters to freshen up. Our bags have been placed in the two person guest cabins. Each of us has been given a superb travel and information kit and security card to unlock our cabin doors. We quickly learn that a “Head Stop” is naval speak for the toilet and that Aussie words or phrases such as, loo, or pointing Percy at the Porcelain lead very quickly to a bursting bladder. Next stop the bridge.

My legs are giving way on me, as we climb what appears to be the tenth set of stairs in three minutes. Looking around, I see that most of us are in the same boat – exhausted and perspiring. We stumble into the bridge. Captain Gallagher warmly greets us and invites us to look around. The flight deck below is a mass of movement, both humans and machinery. We watch in awe as steam driven catapults run back along their tracks and are hooked up to the jet fighters. Heat shields rise up from the deck directly behind the jets. Arms raise, hand signals are exchanged between ground crews and pilots. Full thrust is applied. The roar is beyond belief, even up here behind the glass. The deck glows red. Wham. An F/A-18 rushes down the deck, dips towards the ocean and then begins an inexorable climb towards the skies. It is an unbelievable sight. Sometimes two of them take off together, from the two different runway areas.

I become aware that we’re steaming north instead of south towards our destination of Perth. The Captain explains that he has to turn the ship into the wind for take-offs and landings and maintain the ship at a speed which will give the aircraft a deck wind speed of about 30 knots. With the aircraft all in the air, there’s time for questions. One of us asks what the ship will do (boy speak for how fast will she go). The captain indicates a computer screen in front of his chair. We are stunned into silence. At the moment the 98,000 tonne mammoth is cruising at 33.9 knots (61km/h)! There is no sense of movement, indeed the only indication of enormous speed, is the wake of the four screws. He tells us that it’s quite possible to surf on the wake.

“Would you like to steer the ship sir?”
“Is the Pope a Catholic” I think to myself and move in behind the small wooden wheel. Slowly things begin to make sense. One group of sailors is looking after engine speed, another is looking after direction (the course). The ship has two rudders and although at first it seems to respond very quickly, I am gently reminded (“Sir we’ve travelled quite a way.”) that the ship’s probably covered two kilometres since I altered the course by two degrees and consequently I now have to correct my correction.

Then we are taken down to the communications and radar rooms. On the way down the seemingly endless stairways, I gradually become aware that there are a lot of women on board the ship, something I hadn’t expected. I ask Amy about it. She tells me that currently about 10% of the crew are women (about 500) and that the navy is actively seeking to bring the percentage up as close as possible to 50%. Another question springs to mind, but I decide to leave it till later.

The communications room is a movie set. Computer screens everywhere, simulations, chartered courses. It is breathtaking. As we sit down, we see the sign written on one large wall screen – “Welcome on board mates.” Suddenly there’s an incredible noise. Aircraft touchdown. The flight deck is only about 7.6 centimetres above our heads and the sound is the arresting wire taking the strain of a jet under full power. The flight deck is small and when an aircraft lands, the pilot immediately applies full thrust, for if he misses the arrester hook, he has to be able to take off again. Just imagine the adrenalin rush as the arrester hook catches the plane, all you can see from the cockpit is the ocean rushing towards you, instinctively you apply full power and then back right off as the hook bites – all in three or four seconds! Lt Glen Leverette, the boss cocky here, explains that landing on a ship is basically a controlled crash landing. We’ll meet Lt Leverette a couple of times later on.

The radar room next door is another eye opener. It’s being run by half dozen young sailors, led by a nineteen year old girl. “Great to see you all,” she says, “My job is to send the aircraft out and bring them, in safely.” We look at the radar screens. She has about $US600 million worth of fighter planes under her control at this moment. “I’ve got them stacked at two mile intervals. That lets me bring them in and land them 54 seconds apart and also gives me time to make up for a “bolter” (a plane that misses the arrester hook), or slip in a plane short on fuel.”

Our guide leads us away to our next stop. As we climb more stairs and walk along the seemingly endless corridors of this floating city, I realise how unnervingly polite the sailors all are. They stand to one side as we walk past, invite us through doorways first and without fail address us as Sir or M’am. We end up in the room above the Bridge called the Island and it’s here Commander Mike Allen, known as the Air Boss (it’s written on his yellow tee shirt), controls all take-offs and landings. What he says goes. He’s in constant radio communication with the flight deck crews and the radar room. Nothing takes off or lands without his say so. The activity he commands is almost beyond belief.

The awesome power of the aircraft and the launching and arrester systems is mind blowing. A fully loaded F/A-18 weighs about 30,390kg and is launched from a dead stop to 264km/h in two seconds. When the same plane lands at 256km/h, it’s brought to a complete stop in 107 metres. The ship can launch an aircraft every 30 seconds!

It’s mayhem in the Tower and very cramped with the ten visitors, but somehow the crew work around us, smiling and laughing, making sure we can see everything. The Air Boss surveys the deck below, barks out orders on his microphone. He and his offsider are both trained pilots and we are told that the Commander Allen will shortly be given command of his own ship, whilst his offsider is leaving to join the commercial world of aviation, the nemesis of the navy. The navy trains its pilots so well, that airlines all over the world clamour to woo them onto the decks of 747s, with salaries the navy can’t hope to match. In fact, by the time this story goes to print, almost the entire crew on board the aircraft carrier will have changed, including the captain.

Amy smiles at us and leads us down to flight deck level. We file into a room to be confronted by “Mr T.” Chief Warrant Officer Adrian Turner is a gentle giant, about 2.5 metres tall! There’s no fat on him and the biceps on his arms are wider than most of our legs. We’re about to go out on deck and he’s explaining why we need the life vests – “Y’all might fall in the drink” and that we must stay close to him. He’s wonderfully funny and incredibly polite to a bunch of people who must be a bloody nuisance and yes, he sounds like he’s reading a movie script. Cranials on, we march out onto the deck.

The smell of jet fuel is overpowering, the heat from jet engines simmers across the deck and the noise, even through earmuffs, is colossal. Jet engines under full thrust, the almighty bang and wallop of the catapults as they come to stop. Steam hissing and rising everywhere and incomprehensible voices issuing commands via the ship’s public address system. We all look at each other, shaking our heads in disbelief, the hive of activity going on around us is mind boggling.

There’s a short lull with all the aircraft up in the air and we are led across the deck to a small area at the right rear of the carrier. This is where the Landing Signal Officer guides the planes in. A plane lands every 54 seconds. The pilot visually lines up the flight deck centre line and a system of lights to the left side of the deck. If the amber light (known as the “ball”) is not horizontal with a row of green lights, then he knows he’s too high.

We are standing just five metres from the aircraft as they come in and with the setting sun behind them, they look incredibly predatory and menacing. Gradually I become used to the approach angles and at one stage, when a plane seems too high, sure enough, it’s a “bolter” and he has to go round again. Controlled chaos seems the only way to describe the scene on the flight deck. As each plane comes to a stop, the wings fold and the plane moves to the side of the ship to refuel, the arrester cable snakes back into position, crew clear the deck and another plane lands, all in less than one minute.

The fastest planes land first, followed by the refuelling plane, the electronic plane and finally the helicopter, which is always deployed first and landed last, watching over the ship and aircraft ready to retrieve any “men overboard” or downed aircrew.

Back to our cabins to freshen up and then to the Officers Mess for dinner with Rear Admiral Gerald Hoewing, Captain Richard “Weasel” Gallagher, Captain John Sherman Jr (Commander of the Air Wing) and the other officers. The meal starts with a mandatory grace then we are seated. I’m a bit startled to see glasses of Coca Cola next to the water on the table. I’m even more startled when I realise that the drink is actually iced tea, not Coke! Of course, American ships are dry – no alcohol.

There are six of us at the table, two of whom are guests. On my right, Anthony Gonzales, the Chief Engineer, makes a joke about “RC,” (the person opposite me) never doing any real work and only flying. I ask RC what aircraft he flies, he replies that unfortunately he has to fly all of them now and then. The Chief leans over and tells me that RC’s name is Robert C Thompson and he’s actually the Deputy Commander of the air wing. We laugh over the reputation of fly boys and how they’d like to change his nickname to JC.

As the dinner conversation meanders on, I become acutely aware that the only opinions aired are from the two West Australian guests. No matter how provocative the topic, these guys don’t agree or disagree, they nod their heads, offering one word replies such as “Uh hu,” “Right,” “I see,” but there is no engagement in debate. Certainly they are only too happy to talk about home, family and career ambitions, but anything else is obviously off limits. It is a masterly display of polite controlled diplomacy.

A good mate of mine, Vince Di Pietro , ex Commander of Stirling Base (now based in Washington), has flown out with us. The Admiral calls everyone to attention and hands over a commemorative plaque from the USS John C. Stennis to Stirling Naval Base. Cdr Di Pietro also has a plaque, but says although his is a lot smaller than the Admiral’s, he’s not embarrassed, as his island is a lot bigger than the ship! Dinner over, our guide Amy tells us that the tour is scheduled to continue until 2230 hours. Struth, we’re off again. Next stop? The hangar.

Half past eight in the evening and everywhere we look there are people working. On planes, under planes, in planes. The aircraft are tied down within a couple of feet of each other, which brings something else to mind – there’s virtually no movement, no sensation of being at sea. The lighting throughout the hangar deck is very soft, similar to the lights inside a movie theatre. I stop and ask a couple of people working under the nose wheel of an F/A-18 how they can see what they’re doing, the reply is, “We get to be like owls Sir!”

Half way along the hangar, a contingent of about 50 sailors are hosing down and sweeping the floor, followed by a sailor driving a street sweeper. Meanwhile joggers run past us, on their way to the gym area at the back of the deck. The temperature in the gym can be altered to give different climatic conditions, for combat training. This aircraft carrier is, in effect, a small city of 5,000 people.

Our next stop is the jet engine repair room, at the rear of the ship. If an engine can’t be repaired in the aircraft, it’s removed, rebuilt and then test run at the back of the ship. We look incredulous. They mount the engine with the rear end pointing out over the stern and run the jet on full thrust for several hours, which would be a spectacular sight at night.

Next stop is to inspect the oxygen and nitrogen operations. They actually make all their own oxygen and nitrogen on board. Oxygen for the pilots to breath and nitrogen for the tyres on the planes. It’s an interesting comment on the cities of the world that they can’t manufacture either whilst tied up in port, the atmosphere is too polluted with methane and carbon dioxide.

Still we haven’t finished. There’s a museum area set aside to commemorate Senator John C. Stennis after whom the ship is named. We step inside to be greeted with the strains of Santana. The ship’s jazz band is practising for an appearance at a Westar Rules footie match in Fremantle. On drums we have Ensign Rodney Moss, on lead guitar, Commander John Kuehn and on keyboard, Lt Glen Leverette. I wonder what the very severe looking Senator Stennis would make of all this. These boys are good and I’d like to stay, but by now it’s 10.30pm and we are tired.

As we walk and climb back to our quarters, we pass through a large room full of people. The money changers from Thomas Cook in Perth are on board, changing US dollars for Australian. Anyone in any doubt as to the economic value of these visits to our shores would only have to spend five minutes in this room to understand the boost to the local economy. Even allowing for a spend of just $500 for each crew member, we are talking about $2 ½ million in three days! And this crew begged their Captain to bring the ship to Perth. They were supposed to call into several ports in Asia, but the crew had experienced Perth hospitality once before on their maiden voyage. It’s reported to be happy ship, with a much respected Captain. He acquiesced. Oh, just in case you were wondering about the value of the Aussie dollar – Thomas Cooks won’t exchange them back for the greenback!

Further along, we come across a long queue of patient sailors. There must be two or three hundred of them – literally. We ask Amy what could be so important at this time of the night. She smiles at us. There were two planes at Perth Airport, one for us and the other for far more important cargo (my words, not hers) mail – letters from home. These young people had worked a fourteen to fifteen hour day, but they weren’t going to bed without getting mail from home. My heart went out to them, they were the same age as my kids, but thousands of miles from their home. Here we were in one of the most powerful ships the world has ever seen and yet the reality was that these teenagers were no different to young people anywhere in the world, in their need for love, affection and news from their families.

Bedtime and we are exhausted. Amy tells us reveille will be at 6.00am and she’ll come and get us for breakfast at 6.30am … on Sunday morning! Tired or not, it takes a while to nod off. There’s no engine noise as such, but steam pipes hiss, things clang and every now and then a strange scrapping sound comes through the ceiling. I have no idea whether I’m facing north, south, east or west. I don’t even know where I am in the ship. I call out to Mark McGowan, (the Member for Rockingham) in the bunk above me, that if the ship started to sink, we’d never get out. He thinks about it for a minute and then replies he feels they are so friendly and courteous, they’d probably come and save us before themselves. In the secure knowledge that he’s right, I fall asleep.

Most of us hit the showers around about 5.50am and are thoroughly confused by the Navy tap system. Eventually we work it out and by 6.30am.we’re ready and willing for Amy. We are to have breakfast with the enlisted “men” – the ordinary crew. This means we climb down 30 sets of stairs and walk along forty corridors. The main mess is gigantic and the system is a bit of a cultural shock. There are no plates. We pick up what appear to be rubber trays with moulded sections and move along the serving windows. Like lunch, there’s lots of fried savoury dishes and lots of sweet dishes – Elvis is obviously still in the building!

We’re invited to sit down with the crew. I luck out a bit, in that the two young guys I talk to seem a bit non plussed by my presence. It occurs to me that my own son and his mates go dead quiet when I attempt to join in their conversation. Smiling to myself, I turn to Amy at the next table and ask her about sex.

“Oh sure,” she says, “It happens, but it’s not allowed and anybody caught is in very serious trouble. I mean if somebody opens a door and finds two people at it, then it’s going to hit the fan and that goes for kissing and cuddling in the corridors as well.” I tell her that I noticed several couples lounging around corridors last night who obviously had more on their minds than the shape of the ship. She laughs and says that as long as a couple were careful, called no attention to themselves and quietly snuck out to a hotel when the ship was in port, then they would probably get away with it. However, it was imperative for the chain of command that officers did not have relationships with ensigns, either on or off the ship. She hastened to add that she was married to an ex navy man and they had decided not to have children, preferring instead to build a financially secure lifestyle for themselves.

Breakfast over, we visit the hospital. There is a fully equipped theatre and the ship carries a General Surgeon, an anaesthetist and several doctors. All but the most serious cases of illness or injury are taken care of on board. All others are stabilised for safe air transport to the nearest land based hospital. As it happens, there had been a transfer to Murdoch Hospital the day before and we are told that the standard of Australian medical care is regarded as amongst the best in the world. On the way out of the hospital area, several staff are busy separating small packets from each other, “What are they?” I ask.
“Condoms Sir,” is the reply. It seems the crew (male and female) get a precautionary “travel ashore kit”, whenever they’re in port.

Amy leads us up to the flight deck. It had been impossible to tell, but the ship was no longer moving and lay at anchor in Gage Roads off Fremantle. Already the first of the barges is coming along side, commencing the start of the huge store replenishment to be carried out over the next three days. Our mobile phones work for the first time. Up on the bridge, we find the Admiral in quiet reflection, looking out the window towards Fremantle. He’s looking forward to joining his wife at Burswood Resort. Somebody mentions the golf course, he laughs and says there would be absolutely no brownie points in even thinking about picking up a golf club. A flotilla of ferries and boats are making their way out to the ship and it’s time for our official farewell in the Wardroom.

The Admiral, the Captain and all senior officers are present. The Admiral appears genuinely delighted that we have been able to join him and his crew. He presents us with certificates for our arrested landing and for steering the ship, plus a photograph album which includes pictures of ourselves landing on the ship. As always, with corporate hospitality and PR, it’s the little touches that make the difference.

As we head to Fremantle on the pilot boat, I look back. The awesome ship that is the USS John C. Stennis looks like a large dark city block sitting on top of the water. What I have I come away with? What have I learnt? The American navy believes that in the foreseeable future, we won’t see a repeat of the ship to ship battles that were a major feature of the Second World War – the Sydney / Kormorant battle springs instantly to mind. The idea of aircraft carriers like the Stennis, is to take the fight to a regional area, with the intention that the presence of the ship will act as a deterrent. I have become comfortable with nuclear power as a means of propulsion, it’s a lot more environmentally friendly than diesel or coal. However nuclear weapons remain anathema to me. As a person who has had absolutely nothing to do with any sort of military lifestyle, I have developed a profound respect for the intelligence and humanity of the people who serve on board the ship. I have learnt that not only is the Captain a trained fighter pilot, he is also a nuclear physicist. I am also stunned to find that in spite of the most incredible technology available, on the most modern aircraft carrier in the world, extensive man power is irreplaceable and absolutely necessary. I am pleased the Americans are our friends, they actually like us. Not in some condescending attitude to “you colonials,” but as fellow people with similar hopes and dreams, forgetting George Bush and his rabble government with our sycophantic Prime Minister. Earlier that Sunday morning, as we’d stood out on the quiet and still flight deck, a bugle call had played out over the PA system. Everyone stood to attention. I felt a touch awkward, a bit like being asked to pray. The Australian national anthem rang out across the ship and the water, followed by the American anthem. It was a good feeling.

Greg Ross

Anzac Day – A Personal Perspective

Anzac Day Story Illustrations

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[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/anzac-day-story-illustrations/thumbs/thumbs_p1000868.jpg]00Ann, my finance (on the left)
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[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/anzac-day-story-illustrations/thumbs/thumbs_p1010096.jpg]00'Then we take Berlin"
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[img src=http://www.gregross.com.au/wp-content/flagallery/anzac-day-story-illustrations/thumbs/thumbs_p1010120-copy.jpg]00First we took Manhattan, then we took Berlin

Journalists always seem to come up with new angles for Anzac Day stories. This year, much is being written of the damage done to service people on the front line. Thankfully these days it’s recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although I imagine there are still some who stubbornly refuse to accept there’s anything wrong that a a couple of beers with ‘the mates’ won’t fix. Things are very different from the days of past conflicts, such as WW1, WW11, Korea and Vietnam.

Here, my thoughts go to my own father, who lied about his age, signed up for the NZ Navy, quickly found himself being trained in radar, then rostered from allied ship, to allied ship, (English, New Zealand, Australian and American), teaching other sailors the finer points of radar. Unlike his Rat of Tobruk older brother, he came back as damaged goods, his wife and family trying to understand the problem. I recall at the age of 15yrs, going to see his aunt, in the quest for answers. I was shocked when she told me, he’d been a very funny teenager, with a great sense of humour, this was not the bloke I knew. On his return from the war, she’d found him a very different, very quiet man.

I’ve never forgotten the stories of my mother’s eldest brother, he’d served at Gallipoli. As a young boy of seven or eight, his tales both horrified and astounded me. He opened up one morning when I questioned why he vehemently didn’t want me to have Vegemite on my toast, telling me it smelt like the dead bodies lying on the fields.

Years later, I was fortunate enough to become friends with a lovely couple, he an ex SAS soldier. It turned out she had deliberately sought out the friendship, as she knew her husband needed to talk with a bloke who thought it was OK to laugh, cry and show emotion. Indirectly, that led to me offering to help organise an SAS fund raiser for the widows and children of soldiers killed in action. And now and then, I’ve come across broken men, the same age as me, who’d found themselves in the disaster that was Vietnam. There but for the grace of the dice! There was a ballot in my day, If your birthday came up, you were conscripted. It didn’t, I wasn’t.

In recent years, I’ve come to know Germany very well, indeed my fiance is German and I’ve seen what it’s like to be history’s reviled loser. There is no open celebration of sacrifice and bravery in Deutschland , just small graves in little villages and constant reminders, both self-inflicted and imposed by others, of the dark hell of the Nazi era. We proudly display our flags, although not with the mad excess of our American cousins, but the Germans have only recently given themselves permission to fly their flags at home and at sports matches. The dreadful bogan “Australia, love it of F#@$ Off” car stickers would bring a jail sentence in Germany.

Trying to explain Anzac Day to my German friends is difficult, as I understand only too well, they cannot find a way to immortalise their own service people in the way we can. Theirs is a very different remembrance, 365 days a year. Outside the Reichstag in Berlin, a small monument of stones immortalises the members of Parliament who stood up to the Nazis and were executed. Then of course, there are the soul-shattering concentration camps, such as Dachau and Auschwitz. Everyone who has the opportunity to visit one of these camps should do so, but beware, there are no words to adequately describe the drained, exhausted feeling as you leave.

For me, the most unsettling, poignant, incredible ‘monument’ in Germany, is a simple suburban railway station in Berlin. Grunewald Station is picture postcard perfect, surrounded by beautiful, elegant house and bustling with trains and commuters. But as you walk along the passage feeding the various platforms, there is one with no lights, no public address speakers and no people. Gleis 17 – Platform 17.

At the top of the stairs, it’s as if you’ve entered another world. There are two platform areas with four tracks. The platforms are covered in rusted / rust coloured metal and trees grow over the tracks at either end. It’s obvious no trains ever stop here. It’s forlornly beautiful in a strange, unsettling way. Then as you walk along the platform, piercing reality knocks the breath out of you. The metal overlay is divided into sections, each one has a date, the number of people and their destination. I defy anyone to read, “12th October 1944, 31 Jews from Berlin to Auschwitz” and not have harrowing tears well up in their eyes. Yes, this was the final stage of a terrible journey to Hitler’s Final Solution. The horror mounts as you try to make sense of this history at a suburban railway station and the eternal question circles and circles through your mind, “How did this happen?”

Historians and the Germans will try to find the answers for eternity.

I leave shaken with the lady who is now my fiance. She was right, as emotionally exhausting as it was, I had to see it. It is the most moving WW11 memorial I have ever seen. But more that that, any nation capable of confronting their past in the way the Germans do, makes them a friend worth having and a people to admire.

20 minutes later, back in Berlin and a short walk across the grass in front of the Reichstag, we come to Wilhelmstrasse, accurately signposted as the Topography of Terrors. Razed to the ground at the end of the war, this was the Gestapo Headquarters. It’s possible to stand in a basement section where people were routinely tortured and summarily shot. I do.

I look up. And find that sometimes, we learn nothing. A section of the Berlin Wall stands right over the Gestapo ruins, as a monument to on-going insanity. How could the Russians, who lost 20 million people in WW11, construct another evil on top of such evil?

12 months later, I’m back in Berlin, for an open-air concert to be held at Waldbuhne Stadium, once a potent symbol of the Nazis. Hitler had it built for the 1936 Olympics, later, he had a private box there, where he would attend orchestral concerts.

This concert would surely make the evil bastard writhe in hell. A Montreal Jew of Russian stock, is performing this night. Leonard Cohen.

As you walk towards the stadium, the imposing concrete menace of Nazi architecture stands over you, then you enter the arena walking down 90 or so stairs. We were very lucky with middle seats in Row 3, amongst many friends, Cohen fans from around the world. One young woman, in her early 20s, held my arm saying, “ God, I can’t believe I made it in here. My heart was pounding, tears running down my cheeks, I couldn’t breath, but I’m here! I’m here!” From Israel, she had lost many of her family during the Nazi era and this journey was still terrifying. We drank wine to a better world and sacrifices made.

Then he was there, a little elderly, Jewish gnome, singing “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin,” in the very heart of Nazi territory. By the time he got to the second chorus, 25,000 Germans (and a sprinkling of interlopers, such as me), were on their feet, singing … “Then we take Berlin!” The significance was lost on no one, everywhere you looked, people were in tears, including me – seven months later, the tears still glisten as I write this. Every time the band reached the chorus line, Cohen, with a huge grin, would remove his hat, stop singing and let the audience go. As he wrote so many years ago … “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

So as dawn filters through the long white clouds of New Zealand, then streaks across the vast Australian island continent and people gather to hear the Last Post, Anzac Day must be a remembrance of loss, it must never be a celebration of war, but there can be no doubt that individual selfless, physical and emotional sacrifice has brought us a better world.

All Good Things

Greg Ross

 

 

 

Jamie’s Italian … On Queue … A Review

It started with a 40 minute queue on the footpath, although staff came out twice during that period, giving out free tastings of bread and olives etc. Eventually you get to the pointy end, where you’re informed of the waiting time for a table, in our case (four people) one hour. You’re given a choice of waiting at the bar, or going elsewhere, (they’ll call you on the mobile when your table is ready).

We made the mistake of waiting at the bar, where the service was chaotic and beyond slow. It appeared they were short-staffed and staff are still finding their feet. It must be said however, all staff were really pleasant, genuine, cheerful and very helpful, a big step up from the usual Perth restaurant / cafe staff attitude.

The wines and beers are virtually all Italian, so if, like me, you don’t know Italian wines, it’s a bit ‘Hope and Pray.’ They’re a little stingy on the wine pour, but overall the prices per glass are average for the industry – $7.50 – $11.00 per glass and $10.00 for a medium beer. However given the chaos and time taken to get a drink, you’re probably better off popping over to the pub, or bar across the road and let’s be honest, most of these wines, in Europe (where I spend a lot of time) will sell for 2 – 8 Euros a bottle ($4.00 – $11.00), so young Jamie is following a Perth trend here – ripping the customer off for a bottle of wine.

The restaurant décor is concrete basic and extremely noisy, if there was any music, I certainly couldn’t hear it. In reality it’s a large barn seating 300 people, but the ambience is somehow pleasant. As we had been advised, it did take an hour for a table to become available. The staff were really good, you couldn’t help but like them and the menu prices were a very pleasant surprise – entrees at $8.50 – $12.00, mains from $16.50 – $30.00 and deserts at $8.50. Drink service at the table was a vast improvement on the bar service and there was a nice touch with free bread and olive oil, beautifully presented. The food was obviously fresh and varied from “nice but bland” (the Jools special) to “fantastic” (Blue Crab Risotto) and the deserts were excellent taste treats.

In conclusion, this is not the right place for a romantic night, but great for a group of friends looking for a good night out with good quality food, in a fun place, with the best serving staff I’ve seen in Perth – amazing! The food prices make up for the queueing and the wait – allow for the queue factor and plan pre-dinner drinks at a nearby bar, or maybe you could bring your own champaign with you and after you’ve done the queue, drive down to the foreshore for a drink – oh, sorry, it’s Perth, you’ll get arrested for public drinking!. Between the two of us, we had two beers, three glasses of wine, a glass of champaign, a main and a desert each, all for less than $100.00. The cost without the pre-dinner drinks was $64.80 which was very acceptable, but the way the system is, you will spend money on pre-dinner drinks somewhere, so it will inevitably be a $100.00 night for two. It will be interesting to see if the queues drop off in the next few months, at this stage an almost two hour wait for table at a Perth restaurant on a Monday night must be counted as a great business success.