Cycling reflections on the way and coming back.
|My friend Simon has been a ‘quaddy’ for just over 30 years. He broke his neck in a paragliding accident. Pivoting from the elbow and with some difficulty, he can raise a spoon to his mouth with his right hand, but only if it’s strapped onto the palm round his knuckles.
Simon is lucky to still have this one below the neck discretionary able bodied function, which also enables him to manually control his wheel chair and computer. But the fact is, he still needs a support team to do all the other stuff; a combination of dear hearts from the local community who are paid a pittance by the government, his aging parents and his friends.
He has the coolest wheelchair, with all the latest do-dads, including a press button urine leg bag eliminator that dumps on the road when we are going for a stroll to the local pub. As an older man, I do so envy his freedom in this department.
His Apple computer is also ‘out there’, with a really good speak/write program that does his otherwise painfully slow correspondence for him.
Talk about spoiled!
Simon runs an alternative energy blog, which is how we met. I was getting stuck into the local anti-wind farm/climate change denier lobby in the local press of an adjacent municipality. In the course of his regular press survey work, he picked up on my letters to the editor. This prompted him to find my phone number and ring.
We quickly warmed to each other’s point of view and continued a lively email correspondence. He is such a font of information about anything to do with energy and the politics that comes with it. My letters to the editor became a lot sharper with the better information that he would supply.
He lives in a really vibrant little Australian country town. It is nestled towards the bottom of a range of hills that drop precipitously down to a wide coastal plain that boasts some of the richest dairy country to be found anywhere, as well as one of the country’s iconic National Parks; a stunningly beautiful walking and camping park that attracts visitors from all over the world.
Like a lot of rural communities that looked like they would molder into the landscape not so long ago, it has grown of late; lots of retirees, people escaping the big cities, artists, artisans, intellectuals, the ubiquitous welfare recipients who need somewhere cheap to live (though rising Real Estate Prices and rents means they are starting to move to less expensive climes) and of course, droves of tourists in the warmer part of the year.
And all these live cheek by jowl with the traditional rural people, like Simon’s parents, who in their younger days were dairy farmers.
It has the atmosphere of a village. Whenever Simon goes trundling down the street, there are greetings left and right and social diversions aplenty. A person can waste a whole heap of time there, chatting about everything from the price of milk to the latest good books in the town bookshop-cum-espresso bar.
Simon is an active pro-wind energy campaigner within his community, working strenuously against a very aggressive, even if small opposition group, whose hostility is focused mainly on the wind farm on the bluffs overlooking the coastal plain near a small township about ten ‘klicks’ or ‘kays’ (Australian for kilometers) further east. He is well known for this and is at times regarded by some of the older denizens, as a bit ‘controversial’.
I started to cycle to Simon’s town to visit him about twelve months ago, when I bought my first Human Powered Vehicle, which is a streamlined three wheeled version of his wheelchair, with a pedaling chain wheel pod sticking out the front. It was a two hundred kilometer (one hundred and twenty miles for the unmetricated: in the ratio of five miles to eight klicks) round trip training run for a much longer expedition of some six hundred kilometers, planned for later in the year. Twelve months later, I have returned
These journeys have their beginning in my home town of nearly five years, in a foreshore ‘village’ further up the coast towards the State’s capital city.
During the later nineteenth century, it was a coastal timber port on a very tidal and shallow Bay. Flat bottomed barges would come to the pier to take the timber that had been brought down a tramway from the hills above the town. The barges would lie in the mud in low tide, but once loaded, at high tide would be towed away to the state capital.
In the early days, particularly in winter, the only access to The State Capital was by sea. At that time of year, the coastal swamps were known to swallow stage coaches and drays, haulage animals and all.
The timber ran out in the early twentieth century and the town shriveled into a husk that is only now starting to sprout again. The timber stripped hills above it have a haunting, bare and windswept beauty, complemented by dairy cattle that balance precariously on their steep slopes.
It has lots of Real Estate agents (Realtors), food shops to attract passing tourist traffic, a servo and the beginnings of an industrial area, but still waits for a supermarket and tavern, after twenty years and several false starts. We have a developer ready to go with this project, but the recent near death experience on world money markets has put him on hold.
I and my dearly beloved, but frequently almost divorced Greek Wonder Woman Wife of twenty-five years, own the local caravan park on the foreshore.
It caters mainly for permanents rather than passing tourist trade, which generally goes on another twenty kilometers down the coast to the flesh pots of the main island that part blocks the entrance to our bay.
Winter is a good time in this industry to take a few days off, but is not ideal cycling weather. And while we haven’t had the usual drenching quagmire producing rains for the last dozen years, the weather can still turn on heavy showers and the consistent winds that make it a wind farm Mecca.
Leaving my dear wife, who waves and wonders whether I will return in one piece, I start my journey going round the roundabout at the seaward end of our street, which is a short access road that joins the main highway two hundred meters inland.
I watch the seas flop and belch against the sea wall, note the cappuccino breakers froth with the mud that is no longer held down by sea grasses, for they were mined out for house insulation back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. I wave to the fisherman at the end of pier waiting for bottom feeding mud dwellers that are all that is left of the fish stock after the long nets went in and the mangroves that bred their prey were torn out, leaving naked mud flats for nearly a kilometer at low tide and the coastline eroding exponentially at its height.
As I go east to visit my friend at this time of year, I get blown and buffeted by tail winds, making a good average twenty to twenty two kilometers per hour.
About four klicks down the road is the turn off to two other coastal villages. One of them is a pretty little beach cove which was the recent site of a huge political fight between a developer who wanted to put in a ‘sports village’ and the existing local community.
For their obduracy, he cut off their access to the local boat ramp because the road to it went through his land. They answered by resoundingly re-electing our much loved and hard working current Ward Councilor (a Non Greek clone of my Wonder Woman) against the developer’s political ally, our former Shire Mayor.
He has a track record of working with larger landholders. One of his most famous moves was to try and extend the boundaries of our township of four hundred and sixty-five people, four kilometres (two and a half miles) down the coast, to make it easier to subdivide previously out of town properties.
There were some very unpleasant electioneering tactics used by the former mayor and his cronies, which made the subsequent victory against them particularly sweet. However, the village still doesn’t have access to a boat ramp and it has to be said that the proposed development would probably have done much to increase interest in the original village, which has lost momentum over the years.
Development issues are a real conundrum, because we don’t want the kind of coastal ribbon development that has sprouted up in the sub-tropical and tropical northern state of Queensland (a Florida lookalike). Over-development of coastal communities ends up destroying the reasons for coming there, which is to escape the suburban sprawl of the cities and the environmental pressures they bring with them.
Ready or not, this energy and ordinance intensive lifestyle is coming straight through our town by way of a two lane dual carriage highway, which is being slowly extended down the coast, so that there are always road works, which turn to mud in winter. The road builders are currently working about ten klicks away, adjacent to a little coastal plain hamlet with a general store and the pub that sends the bus to take our caravan park resident drinkers to their Saturday night 'piss up' and a little sentimental country music.
It is an awful nineteen sixties structure, but it has beer. (Our four pubs died with our original township when the timber gave out).
The drained swamps and the highway continue for another ten klicks past large paddocks and herds of cows until the range of hills behind the coastal plain go into the sea and provide the cyclist with the First Decent Hill of the ride.
My HPV is a bit heavier than the ordinary bicycle, so it is a slow seven kph winch up the hill, past the turn off to the local little mainland fishing fleet port and the main island, which is also the penguin tourist capital of Australia.
I have never understood why watching penguins come out of the water to go to their burrows in the evening could be the basis for a global industry and some really elaborate observation infrastructure, but there it is. When the penguins aren’t waddling up the beach, and if one is very lucky, one can catch glimpses through powerful two dollar a minute telescopes, of the white pointer sharks socializing with the seals that frequent a small outcrop of rock about two klicks out into the Southern Ocean.
The seals lie around on it like Lycra suited fat ladies on an old fashioned Soviet Holiday, showing themselves off with guarded languor, to the secret police lying in the water.
Actually, watching the tourist boats watching the sharks that are watching the seals is more interesting, as one may even get to see the wind blow up the occasional skirt, or blow off the odd hat or toupee.
My greatest sense of fascination comes from the hypnotic rhythm of the massive seas that smash and break onto the beaches and cliffs, which is what you also see as you go down the other side of The First Decent Hill into a township at its end, where even the buildings lean with the prevailing wind.
This is where the HPV comes into its own, as the smaller air resistance profile (resistance is a cube of the surface area exposed) of the recumbent rider means more speed. And when ones head is less than a meter off the ground, sixty kph seems like sixty mph.
It doesn’t do to have punctures going down hills. When the brakes are applied on the affected wheel, the air valve is promptly sliced by the wheel rim. The inner tube just has to be thrown away.
When going for downhill speed, one really has to watch for potholes or road detritus that can destroy tyres and wheel rims, and cause crashes. Three wheelers are safer, with low centers of gravity, no balancing issues and stronger smaller diameter wheels, but they are not immune.
The view here is spectacular. Great plumes of salt and sand blow inland over the cliffs and the giant sand dunes further down the beach, fogging over the township, pitting protective surfaces, corroding everything made of metal within days and addling the brains of some the permanent residents.
They think the wind farm ten kays down the coast, just outside the main regional town, is spoiling their environmentally pristine outlook, when the truth is that anything pristine in the area was ripped out a century ago. The denuded hills maybe 'beautiful', but they are an ecological wasteland.
Environmentalism is a bit like religion. Its rhetoric and vocabulary provide cover for rich agenda subtexts which aren’t in the least ecological, particularly when it comes to perceived Real Estate self interest, or culturally acquired aesthetic values.
As I cycle over the crest of this Hill, I look for the graceful white turbines in the hope that they are turning and providing energy without carbon emissions. For me, they are a comfort and re-assurance that we have not completely lost our battle to save ourselves from the ravages of global warming; drought, loss of agricultural production and surface cover, fire storms, violent weather events, rising sea levels, mass indigenous species extinctions, feral opportunist species invasions and ultimately, the death of a large part of our own.
Just as the natural world is visibly sagging under relentless pressure, so am as I come down the narrowing road into the town. The volume of car and truck traffic starts to squeeze me onto shoulder edge road surfaces that are both dangerous and puncture prone.
On the seaward cliff side of the town is the caravan park, with views of the ocean to kill for, but under continuous assault by the wind. In winter, you do not so much admire the view from there, as take cover from it, or wear a bullet proof wind cheater and develop lopsided legs.
On the opposite side of the road is the pub, which is where Simon and I first met face to face for a drink and lunch. He was accompanied by a friend who drove the wheel chair equipped van and provided assistance with ramps, feeding and drinking.
I am a food lush and I mine the contents of my plate with the speed and efficiency of a front end loader. I manage to do this with some semblance of table manners, but even the least astute observer can quickly detect a closet glutton beneath the thin veneer of public decency and a fit looking physique. Further, I am usually pretty quick onto the second helpings cart. Nor am I as worried as I should be about how much is left for others.
Simon can’t eat by himself, except in the most basic way, so someone at table has to pay attention to his drinking and eating needs. And while his friend John was prepared to do all the work, it seemed unfair to let him do it all. So I had to restrain myself, slow down, pay attention and take my turn, to give John a break.
This was ‘hard work’, but good discipline and good for conversation. It was summer. The sun was shining over the ocean and the wind was taking a break. I got in some good behavior modeling and had a good time with my new friends.
Just a couple of kays out of town is the cemetery, which is where, late at night, my learner driver youngest daughter recently hit a big kangaroo at a hundred klicks and wrote off the car. Illuminated by the front headlights, fur, body fluids, glass, bits of plastic and steel exploded in all directions. She and I were OK, but the roo was as dead as a doornail.
The poor kid took it very badly, even though there was nothing she could have done to avert the accident. The animal charged across the road in front of us at full speed, but sixteen year olds just don’t ‘do’ death. I comforted her with all the limited empathy I could muster, but really my main concern was to get the carcass off the road and the tow truck summoned so we could all get home.
I have been on roads in northern Australia where there is an animal carcass every twenty meters for hundreds of kays and absolutely nobody with any sense drives without bull bars. Wild Brahman cattle and camels weighing hundreds of kilograms are part of the road fare, as well as kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, snakes, sheep, foxes, cats and emus.
In rural areas at night, cars take a relentless toll.
The landscape flattens out again and I cross over one of the local ‘rivers’, which is an exaggerated Australianism for what is really a creek or stream.
It was one of the big disappointments of exploration and settlement of this country, that there weren't any great rivers, because the continent is so dry and worn down by age. There are hardly any mountain ranges high enough to cause much serious precipitation, even assuming winds with enough moisture to capture it. So the locals compensated by upgrading the naming rights. Small streams became creeks and creeks became rivers.
I recall kayaking up this particular one from the coast some months ago. Because the coastal plain is so flat, one cannot see anything over the low banks, except herds of cows hanging around near the water. It gets very boring looking at banks and the ever narrowing ribbon of water to the front. So I tried my bull roaring skills on this accidental audience. The young Heifers got particularly frisky and excited. I had whole herds of them running along the side of the river, following me as if I were some kind of pop star.
In just under one and a half hours and thirty-five kilometres traveling, I come to the main regional town and seat of municipal governance.
It has the usual used and new car welcome flags on the outskirts, but at the edge of this particular town, there is even more.
Just in front of the car yards is a new intersection being built which will lead to a one hundred and fifty (but upgradable to two hundred) gigalitre desalination plant. It will supply up to a third of the state capital’s water, will be the largest in the southern hemisphere and cost a staggering three point four billion Australian dollars (eighty-nine to ninety-three US cents to the Aussie dollar).
This year the city dam storages dropped to nearly twenty-five percent of capacity. This is a product of not just an unprecedented drought, but twenty to thirty years of using the mantra of ‘no more dams’ as a cool excuse to defund the water supply sector, and use the money to prop up annual State Government budgets.
Naturally local environmentalists are outraged that our ‘pristine’ coastline will be sacrificed for this energy guzzling monster (ninety megawatts, which is the wind down time allowed for equivalent of one hundred and thirty, thirty meter bladed two megawat wind towers), especially when there are a range of cheaper and less environmentally intrusive technologies available to do the job, of finding ways to meet the shortfall between the declining run off and current use.
But like all last minute responses to emergencies, the lack of political preparation for major change and lack of time to implement conservation based solutions because of the parlous state of current reserves, mean that the only options left that meet the requirements of bullet proof and timely water security, are the mongrels.
This is going to be the story of the twenty-first century. By the time Green politicians emerge with a sufficiently conservative political judgment to win the democratic middle ground and yet still have a sustainable vision for the future worth fighting for, the ecological situation will be so serious, and the economic and political policy leverages so badly mauled by a long tradition of spendthrift prodigality and short term thinking, that all they will be able to organize is the funeral arrangements for the modern era.
When I first saw this regional city in ’ninety-three, it had just lost its railway. The coal mining industry had long closed down, so the town had lost its links to its beginnings altogether. It looked and felt as sorry for itself as it was busy, absorbing waves of unemployable city welfare tenants, who were coming in to take advantage of the low rents.
I was feeling sorry for myself. I had made a bad career decision. My Helen had a serious case of depression, menopause and flu. Our eighteen month old permanently whingeing daughter was covered in mosquito bites from being amongst the coastal paper bark trees at the back of the holiday house we were staying in, at dusk. And my fifteen year old son, who had just been kicked out by his obnoxious mother interstate, was throwing an equally obnoxious tantrum, because he was bored and felt he had a sacred right to be entertained.
So when I saw it again when we came back into the area to live, the change in the town was a pleasant surprise. On Thursday afternoons it would be gridlocked into a parking queue because no one wanted to walk more than two hundred meters to shop. The shopkeepers, including some big international players, looked like they were making money, or at least their shops had a fresh coat of paint. Guided by the motto, ‘never build for tomorrow what you can paper over today’, that industry model of terminal bureaucratic cancer and administrative obesity, The Council, actually seemed to be building some physical infrastructure.
Almost five years later, on my way through, going south and east, I swing my HPV into my favourite bike shops for a bit of equipment here and some clothing there. I run into my darling wife (who overtook me on the way) also doing some shopping. We pretend that we haven’t seen each other for a week. We make leaving each other, again, such sweet sorrow. I head off once more, following the coast.
Following the coast is good because it avoids the worst of the area’s hills. It isn’t the shortest way to Simon’s home town, but it is the easiest. I appreciate the wind in my back and the new water proof jacket which I have to keep putting on and taking off because of the intermittent showers. I pray that the wind dies down, or at least changes direction more favorably for the return journey.
Twelve klicks out of the main town I pass a very latte chardonnay township which has become a really cool place to hang out in and everything (including its caravan parks) costs twice as much. It has a very nice beach front that is protected from the ocean and winds by a promontory. The highway skirts the place, so they don’t get passing traffic. They don’t need it and they get to enjoy a quieter life, except in the tourist season.
Being still only two hours out of the Capital city and having reached a certain standard of lifestyle, it is attracting knowledge workers whose office is a computer and a high speed internet link. They might commute to the city for a couple of days a week. They form the nucleus of new kind of permanent population that isn’t dependent on local industry for work, but the servicing of their wants and needs amplifies and makes for more profitable use of the seasonal tourist infrastructure, as well as that of the other local and regional goods and services purveyors.
They are better educated and more cosmopolitan than average and they themselves become a priceless walking talking advertisement for where they live, in the circle of affluence that they occupy, which is why the ‘sports village’ near where I live would be such a winner all round for everybody, if it ever got up.
I can’t help it. I am an old Real Estate agent, but we do need to be encouraging people out of the big cities as a matter of urgency; particularly people with intellectual and economic capital. Anybody not starting to move their Real Estate and business holdings away from vulnerable hyper-cities, simply isn’t preparing for the future.
At the 50 klick mark I get my first puncture and it was one of those sneaky ones, where the sharp breaks off in the tyre casing and if you don’t find it, it repunctures the replacement inner tube ten kays further down the road, which is what happened. I had to carefully (to ensure keeping the original alignments) find the puncture on the second inner tube in the howling wind and rain, match it against the tyre wall and dig the offending material out with a nail kept for the purpose.
One of the benefits of punctures is the rich and fruity language that they engender. I do not pretend to the standards of the masters and mistresses of this minor art form. However, in a stentorian army trained parade ground voice that carries for miles on the wind, I can string at least a paragraph of insults together, without drawing breath or repeating myself, which isn’t bad. It is ever so satisfying.
The local cows, attracted by the noise at the side of the road, lined themselves along the adjacent fence line and proved to be a very curious and attentive audience. I got the sense that they were starved for entertainment Swearing must have a certain rhythmic symmetry the cows find appealing.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I had a skewbald horse rather inauspiciously called ‘Flash’. He was hard to catch, halter coy, fat, eye rolling, pig rooting, shying and balk prone. Mr Turnbull, the farrier/blacksmith who shod him, didn't get on with Flash.
The old man would exercise his arm with whatever implement he had in his hand at the time, and his ‘way with words’, to assault the animal, every time that “mangy (whack), belch bellied (whack), snort farting (whack), tannery breath’d (whack), slack hoofed, thick skulled, mule stubborn (whack), piss spitting piece of pustulated, maggot mouthed (whack), flee bitten, forgotten ice box rotten knackery meat (whack, whack) that wouldn’t know droppings from oats in a paddock full of spring hot mares,” tried to rear or kick at him.
Flash gave as good as he got.
In the honored pantheon of my old English teachers, Mr Turnbull has a special place. He had more horse soliloquies than a Shakespearean actor and he certainly had rhythm.
The back roads of any country area are easy to get lost in, and this one is no exception. Signage is for those who already know the way, because it is what the signs don’t say which can be so critically important. And if this results in turning left when you should have turned right, that can not only add an extra twenty klicks to the itinerary, but lead to having to traverse the longest, meanest and whizziest hill in the region.
This is because while there are many byways and through ways, there are basically only two ways to get to my destination; along the coast which is relatively flat or over the hills, which aren’t. And while on the face of it even simpletons should be able to tell if they are heading for hills or not, believe me, it is easy to be mistaken, especially if the roads and paddocks are surrounded by tree belts or hedging and the land is undulating.
While this landscape setting is very pretty and protective against the wind (One really notices it in a headwind when there is a gap in the cover and one has to drop three cogs and over a quarter of the bike speed.) it can make navigation difficult.
OK, so that is my excuse for why on my first trip I ended up climbing this humungus Last Great Hill. It deliberately tortures the weary traveler by appearing to end every half to one kilometer, only to turn into another and even steeper section, like in a bad dream. Mind you, it ends in an almost vertical drop that makes getting down to the bottom (and the entrance to Simon's town) as seriously exciting as it is dangerous. And one knows by the time one has luged (the HPV is a bobsled on wheels) all the way, that even if one’s name were Lance Armstrong, it would be impossible to get back up it again without a tow rope and mountain cleats.
This time, I was prepared. I studied maps of the area laboriously, because there was no way I was going to do that hill again. I made photocopies of them and carefully put them into the back pocket of my brand new, frantically expensive, fully breathable waterproof jacket, so that I wouldn’t lose them.
The trouble was that I had forgotten about the sweat that the breathable material is supposed to transfer from the inside to the outer surface. By the time I got to pull the things out to navigate, they had turned to gooey pulp and the printing ink had bled with the sweat through the jacket and onto the webbing of my seat.
I had scientific proof that the product did what the manufacturer said it would, but they never said it was ink stain resistant- more fruity language.
After Latte Chardonnaysville, the coast route has about thirty-five klicks of just dairy farms and no one around, so entertaining the cows seemed a reasonable order of the day. They loved it, just like babies when you go boo. I was the human joker, raising their lives of chewing, ruminating, excreting, suffering, basking in boredom and enduring the struggles of reproduction and rearing, one momentary notch, which is after all, what an entertainer generally does with any audience.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if regularly entertained cows with higher herd morale became more productive milkers in exactly the same way as human communities of workers do.
Dairy farms are so tidy, so Lord of the Ringsy Shire cosy, with lots of the aforesaid fence line wind breaks and long spectacular tree lined drives populated by clouds of avian attendants that screech and carry on with the approach of every stranger. Most, but not all these drives end in thankfully screened above ground hobbit shoe boxes in need of a good paint. The homes that are as grand as their driveways aren't for farmers to live in. They are for wealthy city slickers who need to get rid of excess money into a rural industry tax break.
There are fewer of the rusting bits of old agricultural machinery and car wrecks that litter most farming properties. The farmers are careful to keep the paddocks clean of fallen trees and weeds. It is premium land and their owners are obviously proud of it.
The cattle look well fed and healthy, the grass lush and verdant green, but it is deceptive. This is ‘green’ drought. In the last couple of summers the farms have been so low on water it was a moot point whether there would be enough left to get through to the winter rains, to water the cattle and keep the milking sheds clean. Once upon a time, this area got rain for nine months a year and dripped for the other three.
Financial crisis has almost halved the price of milk and the farmers are getting old. Young people don’t want to do it anymore. It is a hard, often uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous seven days a week job, that starts early in the morning and doesn’t finish until late into the evening.
Of all the producers in the soil to supermarket food chain, they take much more than they should of the commercial and almost all the climatic risk, and get the least return on their capital. Even in a reasonable year, most of them hardly make more than wages.
Over paid, overweight and air conditioned suits get most of the cream. If we want to protect our future food security, that has to change.
And one would have thought, that in an age of peak oil and climate uncertainty, there would be more of a trend to get out of oil based petro-chemical farming, and reverse the trend to ever smaller gene pools of plant stock and diversity narrowing mono-cultures; in short, building the beginnings of a threat sensitive, in depth defensive agriculture that puts a stop to the fanciful notion that we can go on having dirt cheap food forever.
When one starts to think in terms of a defensive infrastructure, the cost isn't the issue; deliverance is.
Climate change models predict a long term drying out of southern Australia, which may well mean much of the current food production will be forced into the climatically often (and increasingly) violent tropical areas of the north. Won't that be a barrel of laughs. Our last major cyclone completely leveled the national banana crop and the entire country went without bananas for six months.
The cold fact of the matter is that what is happening with Australian farmers is happening all over the world, so that when the crunch comes, there won’t be the international food stocks available to make good regional shortfalls. Only the affluent will continue to eat well. The poor will watch feasting shows on TV.
My Greek Mother-in-Law, Pota, who lives with us, remembers the Great Famine in Greece during and just after The World War, when city people would come up from Athens to her village, with furs, jewelery, antiques and artworks, to trade for food. These things were of little value to the farmer peasants. A mink coat might buy three or four loaves of bread and a small pitcher of olives.
Quite co-incidentally, just after the end of that war, my father-to-be was a young British artillery captain teaching middle ranking Greek Officers, first in Cairo (where he met my mother) and later in Greece (after its government ran out of money to pay for the course overseas) how to bring down divisional fire onto large and/or complex targets. Part of what went with famine was the unfolding civil war with the Communists, at whose hands my father-in-law’s father was murdered.
Not even the Greek student majors and colonels could lay their hands on bread, pulses, meat or vegetables, so they all had to subsist on white bait and olives. At the end of the course, hungry or not, all the students went straight to the fighting fronts.
To the day he died, my father still couldn’t look at an olive.
Fourteen klicks from my destination and at an alternative entry point into the national park, is a township that hasn’t been quite the good doer that Simon’s town has been. However, it does have the most magnificent art deco pub in the Bauhaus style. On the top parapet lies a very large dead fish.
Australia is very big on large tourist objects like The Big Pineapple or The Big Banana or the Big Wombat. This town has the Big Dead Fish. If Salvador Dali had put it there, the place would be crawling with Tourists coming to gawp at the Big Art Statement, but alas, it is just a Big Dead Fish on a Mortuary Slab. Somehow it doesn’t quite capture the tourist zeitgeist, any more than a Big Dead Wombat would.
We had the argument over what kind of Big Thing we should have for our new Park at home. The Returned Servicemen League types wanted a tank or a small, raffles and BBQ fund raised version of the long favored traditional Space Odyssey Memorial Monolith Excalibur stone. The arty types wanted an ideologically progressive, government arts grant funded (maybe/one day) community based consensus consulted, local artist workshopped, and Council Arts Officer Approved Indigenous Sorry Statement (part of a very worthy reconciliatory gesture to aboriginal peoples for taking their land). I, having an albeit mild case of Asperger’s syndrome, suitably insensitively suggested the idea of ‘The Peoples’ Heroically Funded Biggest Bastard’.
There must be lots of derelict old twenty metre high statues of Joseph Stalin (but failing that, Lenin) still lying around in the old Soviet Union. They are probably giving them away for the price of the bronze and transportation. We could set him up in our park and do a fancy presentation on how much the people of our town oppose mass murder as a way of solving political differences. We would have the media coming in from all over the world to marvel at him. Our township would be on the map and rich beyond its wildest dreams!
What a revolutionary coup; not only the biggest, but the only Joseph Stalin in the Whole Southern Hemisphere!
They didn’t get it. They tore defeat and obscurity out of the jaws of victory and fame, just so that they could stay in the familiar and safe chorus line of Big Thingless towns on the road to somewhere else.
The Big Dead Fish pub has a personal story. Wife Wonder Woman Helen the Greek got her training for very possibly running the world in a then dying inner city shopping strip, about seven klicks north of our state capital’s CBD, back in the middle nineties.
She had bought a nice little subdivisible two street frontage shop and rear warehouse cheap as chips. She decided to run a bric a brac business in the shop while she did the subdivision. Hardly anybody ever came into the shop, so to fill in the time, she duly made herself El Presidentopoulos of the local Business Association and proceeded to get State Government funding and local government backing for doing stuff to raise the profile of the area.
Part of the job was getting to know the traders in the strip. A little way up the hill from her shop, she made the acquaintance of a small nuggetty fifty something Greek called Yani. He was busy doing a fabulously over the top trendy theatre restaurant renovation on a shop he didn’t own, financing it by mortgaging everything he did own and heading for disaster, because he hadn’t done his marketing homework, as in making reasonably sure there would be sufficient patronage for this palace to justify the fabulous expense of setting it up.
As if financial folly weren’t enough, he was married to a woman half his age, who had just had a baby by him.
Segue to our coastal caravan park around eight or nine years later and lo and behold this very same nuggetty little Greek turns up, absolutely destitute, wifeless and childless, with his right arm in plaster and looking for cheap short term accommodation. We took him in.
His business had indeed become a financial millstone which he was eventually forced to sell at a vast loss. He then put the last of his money into leasing the Dead Fish Pub.
This enterprise might have worked at least to the extent of providing a living of sorts, had things gone to plan. Unfortunately, his much younger wife had developed a wandering eye and it alighted on some aggressive young buccaneer who proceeded to get himself into a fight with her husband. Amongst other things, the bloke compound fractured Yani’s arm with an iron bar and put him in hospital for quite some time. By the time he got out, the pub was in the hands of the Landlord and his wife in the hands of her new lover, with whom she and the child had disappeared.
He was beached, filleted and left for the tide to wash away.
The last fourteen kilometers of the trip were spent ruminating on not just human folly, but the hazards we must all face. While it is possible to make our luck and avoid the more obvious risks of life, we can still go to jail and not collect two hundred. We all have ankles of clay, but some more brittle than others. I have made some pretty poor decisions in my life that looked a good thing at the time. Without Helen’s unerring instincts to protect me, I might have ended up like Yani.
There is something special about turning up to visit someone having pedaled a hundred klicks to get there. It is like giving them flowers that you have planted, watched over, harvested and lovingly arranged into a posy. Even if it were something being done as much as anything for the training benefits, it is still a gesture whose fabric is as warm as it is richly caparisoned. And you can see this in peoples’ faces when they open the door and welcome you in to their home.
Travel has become so easy and casual that we take it for granted. But when one has done it by the sweat of one’s brow (and every other part of the body) and involves taking significantly increased risks on the road, it becomes something people talk to the neighbors about; something dearly remembered.
The house Simon and his parents live in was purpose built for the life that they have had to lead and it is marvelous the difference much larger than normal sliding doors make to the feel of a place. They open it up and make it seem so much larger. The main bathroom is spacious enough to allow maneuvering of a wheel chair with an attendant. This makes it seem so luxurious. Simon’s bedroom is a masterpiece of comfort, with a bed that does any angle you like and a plasma TV that wakes him to his favorite news program in the morning.
It was decided that since they had already put me up and fed me a couple of times, it was time that I took them out to dinner. Having arrived, settled in, caught up and had some refreshments, we all headed off to the local pub, with Simon leading the way in his electric chair, pulling us mere walkers into his wake. And while forcing owners to put wheel chair access into all public and commercial buildings has been an expensive hassle, one can see that it has all been worthwhile when Simon can wheel himself into our destination without help, even if it is through the back entrance.
Like the one with the Big Dead Fish, the local pub is also a magnificent building. It is a somewhat older nineteenth century wooden structure with great verandas that stretch across the five to six meter footpath. Generations of publicans have kept the money up to it so that it is smart and comfortable for locals and visitors alike.
In Australia, pubs have a special place not just in society, but in its economic modeling. Generally speaking, they are the first things to be built when a township is formed and the last thing to go when it dies.
About four hundred and fifty klicks up the coast near the state border, there is a township where everything is shut, including the old bridge over the river, except the pub. It’s a rambling old place run by a man who looks like the Whiskey Priest in Graham Greene's ‘Power and the Glory’. He tends to his remnant flock in a building that’s down on its stumps and whose floors buck and weave like the fly blown sailing ships in the pictures on the cracked and splintered lathe and plaster walls of the dining lounge, where you can still get a fair steak cooked and served by a huge middle aged woman, the publican's wife.
She’s a dead ringer for the spiv haired toothy larrkin third from the right middle row, in the faded nineteen forty-seven footy premiership side photo hung next to the door to the kitchen, that no longer shuts.
She speaks in rough alto, through a voice box that's been pickled in alcohol. Her conversation, once she gets back to the kitchen, is tattooed with coarse expletives. Her hopes, like the town’s, have long since floated down the river with the beer bottles filled with empty promises and desperate entreaties, that she dropped over the bridge on countless summer nights, under the somber light of the moon.
Yet once upon a time, some publican wandering through that part of the countryside, discovered a nice spot on the river and said, “This would be a good place for a drink.” As the pub went up, government officials, farmers, graziers, miners and timber cutters decided that the basics of civilized life and means to attract labor now existed there, and built a road and bridge, bought freehold land, timber leases and prospecting rights within reasonable riding distance. Shop owners, artisans, undertakers and professionals then set up their distribution and service industries around the pub, thus forming the mains street. Voila! A town.
And just as the Mexican Indian peasants spend their hard wons up against a Roman Catholic altar and the church around it, in Australia, they spend them down the urinals of their pubs. This is why Aussie drinking holes are often the architectural rivals of Central American churches. Simon’s pub, just like the Dead Fish one, is a secular cathedral.
Bar staff pull leavers and press buttons like organists playing liquid hymns of praise through pipes and faucets, into glittering chalices frothing and bubbling their tunes into spheres that join the earthy golden pleasures on the bar, with the heavenly spirits stored above it.
No economic model always works. About another hundred klicks east of Simon’s town is a pub that was established in the usual ‘nice place for a drink’ way. It is a beautiful double storey tombstone Italianate Rococo number that was common at the peak of the land boom of the late eighteen eighties. It was bad timing however, because the depression of the eighteen nineties hit the place before the colonial government had the chance to build the promised railway and drinking stop on its way past to the adjacent projected port. It took another eighty years to pay off the railways that they did build.
So there it sits; a derelict white stucco peoples’ palace that is as lonely as a cloud, except for the cattle that wander through where the bar used to be.
The dining hall in Simon’s pub is dominated by an open fire in the middle of the room. It’s a Wednesday night and there are maybe twenty people there for dinner. The family has known the forty something waitress since she was a kid, so there is the requisite catching up and banter while food and drinks are organized.
Who knows what we talked about that evening, but I did discover that dairy cows are particularly responsive to human beings because they are handled by them every day in the vital relief of the weight of the milk in their udders and giving them extra McHappy feed that tastes even better than grass; you know, low fiber and nutrient, high fat, sugar,salt, artificial coloring and flavoring. And I thought I had that something special that cows need to raise their dreary lives to the next level. The conceit. The hubris.
It was warm and pleasant company next to a warm and pleasant fire. Simon’s Mum and Dad so love their son and one can see how much it still grieves them that his injuries will never heal. And I’m sure they worry about what will happen to him when they are gone, for he is now fifty and they are in their seventies.
He has good carers and a supportive, even if under pressure government health system and lots of friends, so they shouldn’t worry too much, at least in the short term. Already much of the work off supporting Simon is done by others.
The real worry is how well the government funding will stand up over the next twenty to thirty years. I suspect that local community volunteer supporters and friends will have to do more as time goes by.
As with all pub meals, their main virtue is in the quantity of food and the amount of fat and oil they smother everything in. But that night, I didn’t need to worry about kilojoules (calories). We didn’t stay out late and everyone was in bed by nine-thirty. I was out like a light.
There is nothing like a really good breakfast to send a cyclist home on. Mum did me proud with all the big breakfast goodies, from fruit juice to muesli and fruit, bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade and lots of coffee. I was running on that nearly all day. I could feel the energy just pumping me home through the head wind.
I felt a lot less tired on my second day of riding, but then it probably doesn’t do to give blood the day before a long cycling trip. I know it sounds a really obvious thing not to do, but it was only five hundred mills (about a pint) that they took.
It was enough to slow me down and it was a dumb thing to do.
It rained on and off and no matter how much the road shifted in direction, the wind was always against me. I managed to destroy a tyre trying to get back onto the road after being forced off it by a truck somewhere between our regional center and the windy caravan park on the cliff.
Fortunately, even in a head wind, I can still hear a truck coming up behind me. If I am proceeding onto the brow of a hill or into a blind corner and it is likely to try and overtake me (take it as read) I get off the road. If it is a choice between an oncoming collision with another vehicle or taking me out, it is a no brainer for the truckie.
The Kevlar lined tyre didn’t go down for another few klicks until I reached the road works and the place with the shamefully ugly sixties pub. There is a nice lady there who works for a job search mob operating out of the township’s ex-primary school, who gave me the use of the shelter shed to keep me out of the rain while I replaced the tyre. Then, may good luck smile upon her, she sent me on my way with a hot coffee to warm my spirits on the last part of my journey.
It was a coming home to still cappuccino seas, slamming garage doors and the clap of the Perspex cover on the light well in the living area, when I opened the slider to come in from outside.
B’ffy the dog wags his tail from his ‘place’ next to the door (for that is as far as the Greek will let him in the house, and that was a twelve month battle). He inquires about ‘walkies’ and cuddles. The cats are prowling round the kitchen waiting for a feed. The washing up needs stowing properly in the dishwasher. The fire needs wood. My daughter Princess is doing her homework in the living room because her bedroom is too much of a mess to consider working in. She grunts something as I walk in and gives me some virtual eye contact (moving her head slightly in my direction while keeping her view firmly on her book). And my wife is nowhere around because she is busy doing something with our businesses, or at a community meeting or dealing with several things at once.
She is so speedy that woman, which is why she hates working with me. I’m ‘slow’ (methodical). Couples working together as well as living together can be hard. She and I seem to have spent much of our married life working in a state of cross purpose and mutual misunderstanding that has been very hard on both of us.
She can detect emotional subtext at long range. I sometimes detect it when I have tripped over it. She is spontaneous and intuitive. I am a dogged user of systems, routines and analysis. She listens as much as I talk. She sees the big picture. I see the details. She wants the facts as quickly and economically as possible. I like to embellish. I like discipline, rules and authority. She likes to manage people with the subtlety of a fly fisher. She is a doer and I find reasons why it can’t be done. She is an entrepreneur and I am a conservative.
It hasn’t been a guilt free process, but I have retired to my writing with her enthusiastic blessing (pushing). And while that hasn’t been exactly a ringing endorsement of my current value in our working partnership, I have my chance to make her proud of me doing something I really love, and for that, I can never thank her enough.
Bless you always, dearest friend. You are ever in my thoughts, for you and I have done so much, worked so hard, forgiven so often and loved as much in anger and frustration as in tenderness. Yet we would have it no different, for even the vices of one are dear to the other. No one now could fill shoes in which so much had been invested, so much adjustment done and so many compromises made. How many years would it take to understand another as do you and I? We are home to one another, even if all else is lost. For all else is as nothing compared to the intimacy and honest goodwill that binds us. With you, regret or doubt is but a passing shadow. The love of you is the best part of me. I would rather die than betray or harm you. When I am away, my fondest hope is to return and when I am with you, it is the best place to be.
If there is any meaning at all in the journey of life or in a cyclist going from and returning to hearth and home, that is it. And the wealth that we find there, is the stuff that will carry us through no matter how tough things get.
But that story, you must be relieved to know, will have wait for another time.
Christopher 'Kiffit' Nagle