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)