Cuddling Koalas


It was much like any other hospital. There was an ambulance parked in readiness outside the intensive care unit. There were staff milling about in scrubs. There was an X-ray department and a neonatal ward. The only oddity was that the patients were all koalas.

I met a few of them. Barry had scoliosis and they were hand-feeding him with a syringe. Kaylee had lost a hind leg and an eye. Others, whose names I missed, looked as if they had been sitting in a muddy puddle, which apparently means they have chlamydia.’Wet bottom,’ they call it in koalas.


The koalas, poor things, just want to climb high up a gum tree and curl up in a ball in the crook of a branch and chew leaves.  But their habitat is disappearing, because humans keep tearing it down to build houses, and if they are not burned in bush fires, they are mauled by dogs or knocked down by cars; or they get wet bottom or KIDS, which is the koala version of AIDS.

The Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie has been run by volunteers since 1973. They take in around two hundred sick and injured koalas every year and look to release them back into the wild if they can. They give free tours to visitors in the afternoons.


I had first seen koalas close up at the Featherdale Wildlife Park in the Suburbs of Sydney, where I had been a few days before. Red kangaroos were hopping free and were so used to humans you could bend down to stroke them; wombats too. Both had fur as soft as a rabbit’s. But it was the koala which melted my heart.

The keeper carried it out, holding it as you would hold a cat, with a hand under its bum and another loosely on its back while it rested its front paws on her shoulder. I stroked it briefly and got a very unflattering photograph next to it, but I wanted to hold one like the keeper.


I got the chance a few weeks later at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary a bus ride away from Brisbane. They had a platypus there, as well, and I tried not to laugh at it but it seems to have  been built from nature’s parts bin: a mammal with the bill of a duck, the body of an otter, the tail of a beaver, the fur of a mole and webbed feet, which finds its prey through electroreception like a shark, defends itself with venom like a snake and lays eggs like a bird.

Victoria the koala didn’t like the lady in front of me and turned away from her; no reassurance from the keeper would persuade her. She seemed comfortable enough with me, though. I made a cradle of my hands for her to sit on and tickled her fur with a thumb while she steadied herself with her paws on my chest. I didn’t want to hand her back.

© Richard Senior 2016

Journeys in the Sun


It was the last day of April, well into New Zealand’s autumn, but the sun was warm and the sky was a searing blue.

The single-track road cut through the Marlborough wine region, past the big, internationally-known Brancott Estate. The vines had turned yellow and stretched to the horizon on either side of the road. Beyond them were mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains. The distant peaks were a hazy blue, the closer peaks grey, the closest green.

I spent the night in Nelson, a pleasant enough town with a few Edwardian and Art Deco buildings and umpteen galleries and craft shops. I was glad, though, that it was only one night.

A man and woman in front of me in the supermarket queue squabbled over precedence. He was technically first but was standing between two check-outs, which she argued was “neutral territory” and that by standing there he had forfeited his place. They worried the point tirelessly like a nasty little dog with a bone and I wondered how empty your life had to get before it came to that.


A big, silly ginger Tom loitered around my hostel and strolled in whenever he got the chance. He was a stocky, solid thing, a regular tough guy: a Clint Eastwood of cats. There were scars on his nose, dried blood on his lip and his ears were serrated; he clearly liked nothing better than to belt the crap out of other cats. But with humans, he was just a ginger blancmange.

He butted my leg and wrapped himself round me and rolled on his back with his feet in the air, purring and dribbling with a stupid grin on his face. If all the cats he had leathered could have seen him then.

It took all morning and most of the afternoon to get to Christchurch, but it was a lovely journey, again. The InterCity bus motored back through the Marlborough vineyards and on through Havelock, which the driver told us over the microphone was the world capital for green-lipped mussels and lost himself in reveries about green-lipped mussel pies.

He kept up the commentary and pointed out the old school of William Pickering, whom he called a ‘rocket scientist’. Pickering would have demurred. Physics, electrical engineering and telemetry. Come on, it’s not rocket science.


I gazed out the window at golden trees and crimson trees, wrapped around hills, reflected in streams; at great shards of stone thrust skyward. There were gentle hills one minute, great mountains the next. There were cows and deer and hundreds and hundreds of sheep.

We drove out to the coast and traced the outline of the island down, passed seals basking on the rocks and penguins staggering ashore.

On and on through the mountains, along roads so twisty I thought of the original Italian Job and Matt Monro singing, “Questi giorni quando viene, il bel sole, la-la la-la la-la …”

The bus interchange in the middle of Christchurch was wrecked in the earthquake of 2011 and the bus stops now in the inner suburbs. I jumped out, got my backpack and set off walking into town to the hostel. Then, halfway there, I remembered the other bag I had left under the seat and turned round and went back for that.

© Richard Senior 2016

Vineyard image: By Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Brisbane: Bank Holidays, Barbecues and Biplanes


Brisbane was deserted. The bus pulled into an empty terminal. There was no one on the information desk, no one at the ticket counter, no one in the cafés and bars.

All through the city, the lights were off, the shutters were down, the plazas were empty of people. Even the bottle shops, the pubs, the adult shops and the “gentlemen’s club” were closed; the “topless hairdressers” must have had the day off.

My hostel had its usual Friday night barbecue on the roof, but it was soft drinks only because it is illegal to buy beer on Good Friday in Queensland, except in a restaurant with food.

It is a much bigger deal than it is in the UK, where office workers get a day off and the banks and public buildings are closed but the shops stay open, the town centres bustle, the roads are gridlocked and there would likely be a popular uprising if they tried to make it illegal to buy beer.


Brisbane will never be as cool as Melbourne, nor as glamorous as Sydney; but it is worth a couple of days. There are heritage buildings like the Italianesque City Hall and Treasury Building slotted between modern blocks, and botanic gardens, and public art, sited seemingly at random: a stainless steel alien standing at crossroads as if he were waiting for the lights to change before he set about colonising the earth; and a herd of kangaroo made from machine parts on and around a bench.

I divided a couple of hours between the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, then sat outside with a Wagyu burger and espresso, watching a big monitor lizard muscle towards a man eating his lunch on a bench beside the river.

He tried to shoo it off with his foot but it ignored him, and he moved his legs to the other side of the bench and got ready to run. The lizard stayed where it was and kept looking at him and he realised, then, that it wanted a bit of his sandwich, so they shared it and both left happy enough.


The Queensland Museum has some dinosaur bones, a lot of stuffed birds, a big fat dead snake and dead cockroaches the size of matchboxes. But I only really went in to see Bert Hinkler’s Avian.

I knew about Hinkler already: an Australian who settled in England and became a test pilot with AV Roe & Co after the First World War. He was the first to fly solo from England to Australia, in 1928 in an Avro Avian, a little, single-engine, open-cockpit biplane made out of wood and fabric.

The biplane hangs from the roof, now, at the Queensland Museum and looks even smaller and flimsier than it does in photographs. I have flown short distances, as a passenger or with an instructor, in the similar but more advanced de Havilland Tiger Moth and it is a raw experience after even the most basic of modern aircraft. You are buffeted by the wind; it stings your face. Though you are wrapped in a fur-lined flying jacket and scarf, the cold still finds a way in – and it will be a great deal worse at the sort of altitude you would fly when crossing continents. There is the constant roar of the engine and the whistling of the wind in the wires and it would – I am sure – send me crazy after the first two hundred miles.


It is hard to conceive of flying the older, more basic Avian across the Channel to France, let alone the 11,000 miles from Croydon to Darwin across Europe and Asia and the lonely expanse of the Timor Sea, at a cruising speed of less than 80 knots, averaging the equivalent of London to Prague every day for fifteen consecutive days.

But once Hinkler had done it, a procession of adventurers followed him, CWA Scott, Jim Mollison, Charles Kingsford-Smith, Jean Batten, Amy Johnson; they shaved days off his time, until, by the late 1930’s, several had reached Australia in around five days.

I knew all this, yet still imagined it a great ordeal when I sat, two months later, in the economy cabin of a QANTAS jet on a 14-hour flight from Sydney to LA.

© Richard Senior 2016

Historic image: By Contributor(s): Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Picton Picked On


I spent the night in Picton because that was where the ferry docked.

It is on the same sort of scale as the arse-end-of-nowhere village I grew up in, with about half a dozen streets and a harbour. Notable people who have lived there are said to include the 37th-to-last man to be hanged in New Zealand. It has at least one heritage building, and Katherine Mansfield wrote a short story, The Voyage, about people leaving it for Wellington.

My hostel had the air of a seafront hotel in winter. I had a four-bed dorm to myself. A clock ticked oppressively in the communal room. A Japanese guy, sitting alone, was working his way through a big box of beers and there were two rows of empties on the table. There was a European guy at the other side of the room, ignoring him. He mimed deep concentration on his book as I walked in, so he could get away without saying hello. The Japanese guy was too distracted by the beer. We three seemed to be the only guests.

It felt wrong, somehow, to make noise in the kitchen, so I cooked as if someone were sleeping nearby, ate quickly and had an early night; I was asleep well before ten.


I was full of energy and cheer in the morning, then, and went for a run around Picton. It did not take long. Once I had showered and changed and tidied my backpack to kill some more time, there was nothing to do but check out and walk slowly to the bus interchange. There was still plenty of time to see the hulk of the tall ship, Edwin Fox, before I caught my bus.

It was built in Calcutta in 1853 (Edwin Fox, that is, not the bus) and took troops to the Crimea, convicts to Australia and migrants to New Zealand before it was retired and used as a bunker for coal. It was left to rot on a beach for decades and it is in a shocking state now. But that makes it more interesting, to my mind, than a carefully-restored ship on which the only original thing is the name.

It is claimed as the Oldest Merchant Sailing Ship in the World and the Ninth Oldest Ship Afloat, but I find it hard to believe assertions like that because they rarely turn out to be true.

I was bored enough to check the point, this time, and sure enough a quick Google search threw up a merchant sailing ship named Charles W Morgan which was built twelve years before Edwin Fox and still sails around New England. Edwin Fox, moreover, is in a dry dock, so it is not afloat at all, let alone the ninth oldest ship afloat.

But none of that matters much. It is an interesting old ship, and they ought just to leave it that.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Spin and a Soaking in Sydney Harbour


I sat in the sun on the edge of the jetty while I waited for the boat to come in. But they made me get up and stand behind a fence to avoid the small risk that I might, somehow, fall in the harbour.

I had forgotten all that. I had been in Southeast Asia for the past three months and no one, there, stops you from doing things because they might be dangerous. You are allowed to – have to – gauge risks for yourself, like an adult. But I was in Sydney, now; back in the developed world, where  you are forever being politely pushed about:

Could you put your seatbelt on please … take your bag off the seat … can you pop that in the cloakroom … please don’t touch that you’re not allowed up there … excuse me, that’s not safe … can you move back towards the wall, if you don’t mind… due to safety regulations… stand in a line, please … for the safety and comfort of all our passengers … could I see your ID again…and, erm, if you wouldn’t mind just WAITING there….

The jet boat had the pugnacious look and deep-throated growl of a racing powerboat, but worked like a jet ski with a big inboard motor which forced water from under the hull out the back. It went like stink, stopped in its own length and could be encouraged to spin like a coin on a table.

EDM pumped from the speakers at the back; the passengers punched the air. The skipper eased out of the harbour, past the Opera House, into open water, soundtracked by Avicii’s Levels. He whacked open the throttle, the motor snarled, the boat stood up on the plane and lunged towards the Heads. Then he flung the wheel over to starboard and held it in a tight turn while the passengers, feeling the G, gripped the bars on the seats in front; and straightened up, hurtled forward, and flung the wheel over to port.

Straightening up again then, and pounding ahead, the skipper chopped the throttle and locked the wheel and the boat whirled round its axis, sending a mini-tsunami over the whooping, shrieking passengers. Throttle back open, streaking across the bay, a brutal crash stop, an incredible deceleration, like nothing I had experienced before in a boat or car; another wave consuming us; soaked through to the pants.

Throttle wide open again, on course to ram the Manly ferry, then skidding away; then spinning around a buoy; more spins, more crash stops, more screams, more whoops, more Avicii, more soakings, then slowing and sliding back into harbour.

I peeled off my t-shirt, wrung out a gallon of water and drip-drip-dripped up the quay.

© Richard Senior 2015

Image: By FotoSleuth (Jet Boat Sydney Harbour) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped from original)

Losing Momentum in Auckland

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The rain cascaded off the awnings, bounced off the pavement, puddled in the street. I squinted through the rain-spattered window as the suburbs rolled endlessly by; and the bus stopped and the driver switched off the ignition and I realised that the last ten minutes of suburb had actually been the city centre.

I stayed on the bus and took it back up the hill and splashed through the puddles to my hostel. It was a few doors from a liquor store across from a strip club which was next to a brothel which was next to the Salvation Army. An old man tried to pick fights with passing cars as he shuffled up the street, swiping at them with his umbrella and shouting in Drunk English, “ay, yafaggincan-yafagger;fagarff!” But it was New Zealand, so there was none of the edginess which all of that implies.

I had been travelling for four months by the time I reached Auckland: two continents, four time zones, six countries, a dozen cities, twice as many towns, and more planes, trains, boats, buses, minibuses, taxis, tuk-tuks, songthaews, xe-oms and cyclos than I had kept count of. I had sustained the momentum until then but lost it as surely and rapidly as a car suddenly out of fuel. The rain did not help enthuse me.

I could hardly be bothered to explore the city, let alone work out where to go from there. Instead I skulked in the hostel reading, listening to music, doing laundry and non-jobs like tidying out my backpack: all the things you travel 11,000 miles for.

I tagged along with Fred from Brazil on one of his cost-cutting missions to the Countdown supermarket for the cut-price end-of-the-day sandwiches and a few cans of whatever beer was on offer, went drinking with Ernst from Germany to a bar called Cassette Nine, where – reckoned my guidebook – “Auckland’s most out there hipsters” go and the beer was on $5 a glass promotion and neither of us was fit to drive or operate machinery next day. It was still raining in any case.

Ernst and his hangover left for Coromandel and a Chinese guy moved in and told us we stank and opened a window, and found out our names, and where we were from, and what we did – or had done – for a living, and where we were going and where we had been, and sidestepped our questions of him. I never even caught his name. He told Fred that his English would improve if he stayed longer in New Zealand and me that I did not speak English in the way that most Englishmen do. Then, when he had insulted everyone, he said something about having work to finish off, left and never came back.

Pablo from Argentina moved into the dorm in his place at three in the morning, unzipped his bag, took out his laptop and tap-ta-tap-tapped for an hour. He turned out to be a nice enough guy, although his English was limited and my Spanish is pitiful so conversation was difficult.

Fred left and an English couple moved in; Pablo left and a Japanese guy replaced him. I carried on skulking in the hostel for a couple more days but eventually managed to come up with a plan and got the momentum back. It was still raining when I caught the Inter City bus to Rotorua.

© Richard Senior 2015

Byron Bay: If You Can’t Surf or Skate, Do a Handstand


No one in Byron Bay seems to do what parents call a proper job.

They run craft shops and galleries, surf shops and skate shops. They play Spanish guitars on street corners for dollars. They make and sell funky jewellery. Or they sit on the rocks and sketch. In their spare time, they surf. Everyone surfs. Old men, surf. Teenage girls, surf. Little kids surf.

You are never more than six feet from a surfboard. They are on sale and for hire in the shops. Strapped to the top of Volkswagen campers, slung in the back of vans, poking through the hole where the window used to be in an old Holden estate. Laid out in rows on the beach.

I watched the surfers riding the swell and gliding right onto Main Beach, or else falling headlong into the waves, then getting right up and trying again. It has got to be the coolest of sports.

But if the surfers are cool, the lifeguards are cooler, strutting about the beach, looking as if they have been carved out of marble. Those who are neither surfers nor lifeguards find their own way to be cool. One spent a day on the beach doing handstand after handstand. Another stood facing the sunbathers, juggling four balls without pause for a morning. He was not after spare change: just showing off.


One evening I saw a guy on a mountain bike pop a wheelie and sustain it all the way down Jonson Street. A unicyclist passed him, going the other way. Guys in their twenties and thirties skate barefoot round town on old-fashioned downhill boards. I saw one the other side of 45 skating down Marvell Street. Even he looked cool.

Jonson Street, Marvell Street, Tennyson Street, Burns Street: it was all, apparently, a misunderstanding. Captain Cook sycophantically named Cape Byron after Vice Admiral The Hon. John Byron, whose grandson, George, would become a famous Romantic poet to help him pick up girls. But a clerk in Sydney assumed it was that Byron, and named the streets of the town after all the poets he had heard of.

I am not a surfer and I have not skated since I was 15, and I have never learned to ride a unicycle; so I went sea kayaking instead.

I paddled hard through the waves the surfers are there for, let them lift me up and carry me over and slap me back down at the other side; then again and again, until I was through and into smoother water. I spotted a pair of dolphins out to the left, leaping joyously out of the ocean: a wonderful sight. They slipped under the water and disappeared and I paddled on round the easternmost point of Australia.

The sun was hot, the sky was clear and it was hard to think of a more perfect morning.

© Richard Senior 2015

Is Melbourne Better than Sydney? Erm…

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Canberra qualified as Australia’s capital by being neither Sydney nor Melbourne. The rivalry between the two biggest cities was legendary even then.

The conventional view is that Sydney has all the financiers and Melbourne the artists and restaurateurs. But it is not as clear cut as that. Melbourne was once the biggest city in Australia, the richest in the world. It made its money from gold. But the gold rush ended and the money men gradually moved on to Sydney.

Not all of them, though. Two of the big four Australian banks and five of the ten largest companies have kept their headquarters in Melbourne. It is still one of the world’s most expensive cities. Sydney, in turn, has at least as many of Australia’s best restaurants as Melbourne – some authoritative lists give it more – and it is hard to suggest that it is lacking in culture with one of the great opera houses perched on the end of its harbour.


I had spent ten days in Sydney already on that trip, and loved it, and after a month of mostly small towns up the East Coast, I was glad to be back in a big city again. Melbourne immediately felt different. Doubtless it, too, has swaggering bankers bellowing into their mobile phones about money; but they are not as conspicuous as they are in Sydney, and I saw only one Lamborghini all the time I was there.

Sydney works hard at being cool – despite the money-mad men in suits – but it is hard to imagine street art flourishing there to the extent that it has in Melbourne. Every lane, every alley is painted end to end with cartoon Buddhas, fluorescent abstracts and politically-charged epigrams. It feels remarkably bohemian for a rich city in which most people, nowadays, must surely do corporate jobs.

Sydney looks, to a European, much like an American city; but Melbourne suggests somewhere closer to home. Not Britain, though, as you might expect. The Greek Precinct and the predominantly Italian Lygon Street add Mediterranean notes. But I was put in mind more of some romantic, tragic old city in Central Europe as I watched the heritage trams clatter down the middle of the street, past stuccoed buildings with cupolas and epic doorways.


I had the same feeling again in the Royal Arcade, with its chequerboard floor and wrought iron roof, its stained glass windows and marionette-like figures of Gog and Magog. Budapest, perhaps; or Prague.

Then again looking over the dome and clock tower and monumental staircase of Flinders Street station, which could be a setting for a Graham Greene story of spies and émigrés and whisky priests.

But Melbourne, nonetheless, is a forward-looking city; a city still in flux. The population and economy are growing year on year. The suburbs are creeping out. Tired neighbourhoods are being redeveloped. It has the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth tallest buildings in Australia. (Sydney starts at ninth.)


The once bustling, and gangster-riddled, dockyards have been turned into luxury flats and a yacht marina with black swans and lively bars. Fitzroy has morphed from one of the seediest quarters into one of the hippest, with enotecas and bodegas, galleries and vintage emporia doing business out of Victorian shops.

I ate well in Melbourne. Tapas at the iconic MoVida; pleasingly authentic Sicilian at Rosa’s Kitchen; Mod Oz at a gastropub over towards Fitzroy Gardens, and Cantonese in Chinatown. But then I had eaten well in Sydney too.

So which is best, then: Melbourne or Sydney? The old, insoluble argument. It is a sterile debate, because cities cannot sensibly be ranked, except with dry statistics. But after a few days in Melbourne, I was certain I preferred it to Sydney. Then, when I ran out of time and went back to Sydney for my onward flight, I changed my mind and decided that I liked it better.

But if I had returned to Melbourne after that I would probably have changed my mind again.

© Richard Senior 2015

Queenstown in May


It was off-season in Queenstown. The sun had apparently been packed away for winter. The mountains were hidden under cloudy drapes. The glorious colours I had seen on the postcards had been taken off display. Tarpaulins were roped across the decks of the sailing boats at anchor on the lake. They had not been touched for months. Even the notorious bars were quiet. I had no winter clothes, so wore everything I had at once, and sat with my back to storage heaters while I was in the hostel.

The jet boats were still taking groups out, and I heard there was whitewater rafting nearby; but it was unthinkable, at that time of year, to do anything which soaked you through. There was bungee as well, but I am too cowardly for that. I took the cable car up Ben Lomond to ride the Luge instead.

The track winds steeply around the mountain and propels you through tunnels and over humps and round banked corners as you barrel along it in a three-wheeled cart. There is a ski lift, then, to take you back to the top so you can do it again and again. There had been a frost in the night and whenever I approached a corner too fast – which I usually did – I went round it sideways and careered into the buffers around the edge, then wobbled back onto the track.


The clouds began to peel away as I waited for the cable car down. It exposed the creases and folds of the mountains and the glorious pallet of colours in the landscape: the dark, dark green of the pine forests, the vivid blue of the lake; the burgundy and green of the heathers; the purple-grey Remarkable Mountains with their white heads stuck in the residual clouds; the wine red leaves, the raspberry leaves, the yellows and oranges, and bronzes and tans; the lime green lawns and the yellow wild grasses. A steamship eased itself across the lake, a stroke of white on a canvas of blue, with a curl of black smoke trailing like a streamer from its funnel.

TSS Earnslaw was built in Dunedin in 1912 and has worked Lake Wakatipi ever since. In the early days, it carried sheep to remote farms which had yet to be connected by road. Now it carries tourists.

You can go stand in the engine room and get in the crew’s way if you like. (They will just shove past you.) The ship was built a long time before health and safety was invented, and the space is crammed with exposed parts which are hot, or sharp or moving. There are big brass gauges and oversize bolts and levers which need swinging on to move.


A stoker humps coal into the belly of the engine, while another walks round with an oilcan and squirts everything he sees to stop it from seizing up. He turns wheels, opens vents, throws levers, and – after a busy five minutes – the engine begins to chuff and snort and shake. The engineer calls in to look important, wearing white overalls to show that he never has to do the grunt work himself. He points and gives orders and then flicks the telegraph to full ahead and the ship powers across the lake at four knots.

The sun stayed out but the temperature never crept much above seven degrees. The cold seared into my bones. It is a beautiful place, but I was rather glad when I ran out of time and had to head back up to Auckland.

© Richard Senior 2015