Cuddling Koalas

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Brisbane: Bank Holidays, Barbecues and Biplanes

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge

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For generations, Sydneysiders tumbled out of the pub, looked up at the Harbour Bridge and felt compelled to climb it, in the way that others are compelled to make a hat of a traffic cone. They used to be able to scale the gate, negotiate the spikes at the top, then go up the steps to the arch.

The legendary climber, Bryden Allen, did it the hard way. He squeezed into one of hangers from which the deck is suspended, climbed 200 feet up the inside (“rather like caving…great fun”), roping onto struts, until he got to the lower chord of the arch, where – in his estimation – the “real climbing” began. He had to stretch backwards to reach the lower lip, grip on rivet heads, let his feet fly out into space and force himself up onto the ledge with his arms, and once there, repeat the move on the upper lip six feet above him. “From there the climb [was] easy,” he reckoned.

A decade later, the French high-wire artist, Philip Petit, climbed the bridge one night, strung wires between the pylons and walked across them in the early morning in full view of the rush-hour traffic. The police were good-humoured about it, even when Petit continued performing by relieving one of his watch and tie; but they arrested him anyway and the court fined him $200.

By 2011, when the former soldier, Michael Fox, climbed the bridge to protest the custody laws, the fine had gone up to $3,000 and there was talk of three months in jail, but the judge might have seen the irony of a custodial sentence and left it at a fine.

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The bridge is now watched by CCTV and patrolled by security guards and, in this jittery age, it is too easy to imagine a drunken prank being misread as a terrorist incident and some poor student being shot down from the arch by snipers.

But anyone with $228 (£140, US$170) to spare can now climb the bridge quite legally. Prince Harry’s done it, Oprah’s done it, and Usain Bolt, Katy Perry and Matt Damon. So have I.

The breathalyser seemed an unnecessary precaution at half-past ten in the morning, but the whole thing is organised like a commando assault.

Once the Climb Leader was satisfied that nobody was drunk, she handed us each a pair of overalls in BridgeClimb’s corporate colours and sternly warned us not to take anything out onto the bridge: not a camera, not a phone, not even a handkerchief. It seemed, again, a bit over the top, but then I suppose a dropped handkerchief could do plenty of harm if it draped itself over a motorcyclist’s visor.

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We were allowed sunglasses, provided they were secured with a cord round the neck like your Grandma’s reading glasses; and there was an optional clip-on BridgeClimb cap for anyone who wanted to look more of a dick than they already did in the overalls.

Then, once we had gone through a metal detector to check that we had done as we were told, there was a training session to make sure we were familiar with steps and ladders – just in case we had reached adult life without using them. We were kitted out with harnesses and one-way radios and, as often in Australia, more or less forced to apply sun cream.

We went out in single file behind the Climb Leader, clipped into the lifeline and followed her up a series of service ladders, as the cars and the bikes and the trucks thundered past, through manholes, under stanchions, watching elbows and heads, until we came out on the top of the arch. Helicopters constantly buzzed the bridge, as if this really were the military exercise it felt like.

It was thrilling, in its way, but it is not really an adrenalin activity. There is no sense of danger. A clumsy person could probably twist an angle or even break a leg, but a clumsy person could break a leg walking to the shops. It is hard to see how someone could fall off the bridge by accident.

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It is worth remembering that none of the 1,400 men who worked on the bridge between 1924 and 1932 used any protection at all, and only two of them fell off. They only had rivet heads as footholds, too: now there are steps welded into the arch. It is, in truth, more of a walk than a climb.

Nonetheless, it is quite something to see the business end of the bridge close up. You get a much better sense of its scale than you ever can from ground level. The Climb Leader told us that it was 440 feet above the harbour at its highest point, although to be annoyingly pedantic it is actually 440 feet above mean sea level. She also said that it was the longest single-arch bridge in the world, and apart from five others, it is.

The view silenced everyone: right across the harbour, over the Opera House, the Botanic Gardens, the Rocks, Circular Quay and the financial district beyond it, out east over Bondi Beach, north over Luna Park and Manly, and west towards the Blue Mountains. It is worth your $228.

We crossed over to the western side of the arch and walked back towards the south pylon, down the ladders and inside. I had lost all sense of time while I was out on the bridge. It felt like half an hour, perhaps an hour, had gone by but in fact it was three and a half.

© Richard Senior 2016

A Spin and a Soaking in Sydney Harbour

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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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped from original)

Winning Entry: Wanderlust Magazine Travel Writing Competition

Wanderlust

“A Flight I’ll Never Forget (no more than 700 words)”

Down Under (and Back Over Again)

I had been thrown round the sky by an aerobatic pilot before. But it was in an aggressively capable modern aircraft, built for that sort of thing. I had been strapped down firmly with a seven-point harness and had a canopy slammed and locked into place above me. And I was twenty, then, and had no fear.

This time, I was in a Tiger Moth: a flimsy-looking, open-cockpit biplane built of fabric and wood in the Second World War to a design from the early thirties. I had nothing but a pair of straps, much like the ones on my backpack, to stop me from falling to my death. “If you fall out they can blame me,” said the pilot as he strapped me in. I was not too reassured.

The septuagenarian engine coughed hard, spat out a gobful of smoke and settled into a throbbing rhythm. We chugged across the field, then turned and accelerated along the runway. The Tiger Moth limbered into the air, like an elderly man mounting a stile, and climbed at a leisurely pace as we pottered out towards the bay. There was a wonderful view from 3,000ft over the marina at the boats at anchor and out towards the Barrier Reef.

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In straight and level flight, it is easy to imagine yourself back in the days of boaters and blazers and croquet on the country house lawn. But we were not there for civilised flying.

“Okay here we go
,” said the pilot over the radio, chopped the throttle and pulled the stick right back. The Tiger Moth reared up to the vertical, stood on its tail and stalled. It fell sideways with a bang, as if a wing had come off, and spun. All my senses screamed that I was going to die. I gripped the edge of the cockpit, as if that would somehow save me.

The sky, the ocean, the marina, the reef whirled round me in the confusion of a tumble down stairs as the pilot dived to build up airspeed and unstall the wings and then pulled straight up into a perfect loop. Over the top, upside down; my headphone lead flapping about in the air; the wind howling through the rigging, the sun flashing off the glass in the windshield. I looked up at the ocean and down at the sky; and we tipped right over, back round to where we had started. Then, straightaway, sideways into a barrel roll – boats sailing upside down in the sky – under and over, and the world righted once again.

Terror to elation and back again. Rolling, looping, spinning. East to west inverted, west to east right side up. The engine snarling, then abruptly cut. Just the whistling of the wind in the wires. Sky and ocean switching places again and again, until I was no longer sure which was right.

But no one can hear you scream from up there.

(c) Richard Senior

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

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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.

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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

On Planning Trips … and Not Bothering to Plan Trips

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The How To sites are full of advice about planning trips, some ingenious, some questionable, some straight from the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious. I read none of it, though; and I ignored the advice from my friends. I arrived in Bangkok with nothing but a back-of-the-fag-packet list of countries, cities and islands I might want to visit.

My plan – half idealism, half naivety – was to book accommodation a night at a time, then decide each day whether to stay on or to go somewhere else. Where to go would depend where the buses, the boats, or the trains might run, and how long it took to get there. I had plenty of time. I was relaxed.

I stayed in Bangkok for longer than I should while I pondered whether to go north to Chiang Mai, south west to Phuket or south east to Ko Samui, and ended up going nowhere. Then I found out by chance that I needed to get my Vietnam visa in advance and had to stay longer while I made some hurried arrangements. The embassy wanted dates, and I had to guess on the spot how long it would take to get through Thailand and Cambodia, and I was too optimistic by several weeks, and wound up having to cut short the journey round the coast and forget about Chiang Mai. But that worked out okay, because I had time enough left after Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to see the rest of Thailand.

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There were a few times, as well, when I had to move from a guesthouse in which I could have stayed if I had booked two nights in the first place; and times when the trains were all fully booked and I had to wait until the next day, or settle for a long, uncomfortable journey on a bus. But the guesthouses were always clustered together, and there always was a train or a bus I could take without reserving.

The setbacks were small, and I have rarely felt as free as I did then, in the knowledge that I could, at any time, pack my bags, check out and get on a bus to the next town, the next country. I chanced upon amazing places that I had never heard of and would not have picked out of the guidebook if I had spent days going through it with a highlighter pen. It was a lot more fun than working through a detailed itinerary and knowing where I would be every day for the next six months.

It worked all the way through Southeast Asia; but in Australia I had to compromise. I paid several times more than I wanted to pay for the only place I could find in Sydney with vacancies, and trudged round until almost midnight to find a hostel bed in Byron Bay. (I was lucky – a friend spent the night on the beach there.) I was still reluctant to book any more than a night at a time, but now booked it online the day before, at the same time as I booked my bus ticket. I got as far up the East Coast as Hervey Bay, then found that the bus to Airlie Beach left at five in the morning and took fourteen hours to get there. It was a discomfort too far for me, so I backtracked to Brisbane and flew. No worries.

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Eventually, though, I ran out of time and never saw Alice Springs or Uluru, nor drove along the Great Ocean Road. Unlike in Southeast Asia, there was no chance to catch up later.

I moved on to New Zealand and got stuck in Auckland, puzzling over where to go next. I had not even come with any scribbled down ideas, this time. When I had eventually mapped out a route, I had no time to spare and could leave nothing to chance and had to book all my buses and hostels upfront.

I have never quite managed to get back to the carefree, spontaneous travel of those months in Southeast Asia. Either I have been too short of time, or the hotels and hostels have been too far apart and booked up too quickly for walk-ins to be at all practical. But I still only book as far ahead as I have to, and try to leave room to plan as I go along.

And I have never had to sleep on the beach, as my friend did in Byron Bay.

© Richard Senior 2015

Melbourne. Better than Sydney? Yes…I Mean, No

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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.

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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 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.

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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

A Hostel Environment

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I was woken at six by the sounds of five people simultaneously stripping beds, emptying lockers and stuffing things into backpacks. Zip – rustle – bang! – thwock – zip – rustle – zip – clang! – zip –  thump, thump! – crackle – zip. 

But they whispered so as not to disturb me.

I had the dorm to myself for most of the morning until a big scowling bloke burst through the door. “Hey, mate; how you doing?” I said, and he glared and said “all right, mate” in a sepulchral tone which made it sound like a threat. Then he collapsed on his bunk, groaned and muttered, jerked and bucked and I wondered if he was drunk, or insane.

I left him to it and he was asleep by the time I got back in the early evening, and I crept around the dorm to be quiet, but I was obviously not quiet enough. “Fuck! Fuck! Fucking-fuck!” he said, as the sleep began to wear off, Then he sprung upright in the bunk and said, “Fucking-fuck, mate! Fucking-fuck!” as if I had just crashed into his car. It was some of the most creative swearing I have heard since a farmer near the village in which I grew up paused to swear in the middle of saying the name of the nearest town.

So I left in a hurry again and went up to the roof terrace where they were having a barbecue and stayed up there until late. Then, at four in the morning, Fucking Fuck’s mobile rang at the volume of a fire alarm and he took the call, had a loud conversation, stumped out and slammed the door.

I went back to sleep for ten minutes or so until I was woken by urgent hammering. I guessed that Fucking Fuck had forgotten his fob – I had done it myself a few times – but it was another, much older guy, who might have been Fucking Fuck’s father. “Is Andrew up yet?” he asked loudly, as if it were quarter to ten. Then he invited himself in and shouted “Andrew! Andrew?” prompting groans and sighs and symbolic turning over from all around the room.

I told him that Andrew had left already and I never saw either of them again.

© Richard Senior 2015

Dingoes and Dad Jokes on Fraser Island

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Fritz was from Austria but had lived in Australia for decades. He was a likeable bloke, although his jokes were all terrible, and he told them relentlessly and we were stuck in a jeep with him all day.  Troy, who drove the other jeep, was as Australian as Vegemite and didgeridoos. He was a big man with a bush hat and mirror shades, and a head full of imagery like “as busy as a one-legged man at an arse kicking competition”.

We trundled off the ferry as it docked at Fraser Island and cut through the rainforest, where Fritz pointed out scribbly gums and funnel web spiders’ nests, then stopped at a lake where the sun arranged shapes on the water and the others swam and I sat on the bank and got bitten by sandflies. Fruit, cheese, biscuits and Fritz’s bad jokes, then back in the Land Cruiser, back through the rainforest and onto the beach and a fast run down the creamy sand, watching out for the plane which uses it as a landing strip.

The sky went into a sulk and flung a few minutes of rain at the windscreen. We slowed to look at wild dingoes loping guiltily along the beach and stopped to photograph the wreck of the Maheno, a grand Edwardian liner which slipped its towline and beached on its way to the scrappers in 1935. No one could be bothered to shift it from there and it has been left to decompose.

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Then back in the jeep, speeding down the Seventy Five Mile Beach, slowing to bounce over half-buried rocks, then taking a hill at a run. The sky had cheered up by then. Sandwiches, crisps and beer for lunch.

“Grab some more food, mate,” Troy said.

“No I’m good, mate.

“Another beer then.”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“Does your husband know you’re out?”

We stopped again in the afternoon to clamber up rocks and look out across the frothing ocean, and get bitten by more sandflies; and then again to laugh at a tour bus which had got too close to the water and sunk up to its axles and was listing hard to port. Then hurrying to catch the ferry back to Hervey Bay.

© Richard Senior 2015