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

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 

Tumbling through the Air in a Tiger Moth

I had been thrown round the sky by an aerobatic pilot before. But that 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; and I just had a pair of straps, disturbingly like those 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 wasn’t reassured.

The septuagenarian engine coughed hard, spat out a gobful of smoke then 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 its own 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. 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.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

Jetting Off

It is a postcard day in the Whitsundays with a flawless blue sky and turquoise ocean and little wind to speak of.

You flick the starter and open the throttle and ease the jetski out of the marina, keeping it under the speed limit. Then you are out in the water and gun it towards a cruise ship moored in the bay, circle that, then a half-sunken yacht, then tear off again – faster this time – turning, turning, turning, much faster than seems at all safe when you have never done this before; but you are following a guy who knows what he is doing and stick with it.

You hit a wave at an angle and take off, scare yourself and let go the throttle; but you are not supposed to do that and get warned not to do it again. Your job is to keep the throttle open, hang on and trust in the machine, much as you do on a motocross bike.

You are going faster now, gaining confidence. But then the guy you are following pulls a sharp turn and you wind off the throttle, and he is at the other side of the bay. You open it right up to catch him, too focussed to look down at the speedo; but you know – because they said – that you have 130 brake horse power, roughly the same as a 1.9 Audi A4 in a craft which is smaller than a rowing boat. It does 90 knots flat out; or 104 mph, 167 kph.

You slow and stop and edge into a cove at idle speed. The sun-dappled water is perfectly clear and green sea turtles the size of coffee tables swim past so close you could reach down and touch one.

You give the turtles time to get clear, then you turn and you open the throttle again; and you are confident, then, to keep the power on in the turns and leap the waves and trust the jetski to stay afloat; and you want to stay out on the water all afternoon but have only booked for the morning and reluctantly head back to the marina.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014