Is it weird to be back?

The number one question I’ve been asked in the past two weeks is “So what’s it like to be back in Australia?”. And the best word I can think of to describe it is…. “Weirdses”. That’s Dylan’s word.

When we first came into the house, Finn ran straight to the living room, pressed his face up against the glass to look at the garden and said “Wow. That’s what a lake looks like.” He meant our little spring-fed dam at the bottom of the slope, that after 6 months of living in Singapore suburbia, had metamorphosed into a palatial body of water in his mind.

Dylan ran off to find if there were any of her toys still in the house and she came back clutching her old teddy bear and another little one that someone had left behind. “Look mama!” she said, “my teddy had a baby when we were gone!”.

Yes we kept our farmhouse but it looks different now that it’s been spruced up for rentals to holiday makers and event organisers and it has already had 3 weddings booked and a corporate retreat. Google Cable Car Estate and you’ll find us there.

It’s still lovely and some of the rooms have been decorated with vignettes straight out of Country Life magazine. But sometimes I keep walking into the living room, meaning to play something I’ve just thought of on the grand piano, and then realising there’s just a empty space where it used to stand. It’s a bit like having a phantom limb.

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The vineyard looks fantastic, thanks to our trusty vineyard caretaker Paul who is the most reliable person we’ve ever worked with on the Peninsula.

I’d almost forgotten how gorgeous the light is in the afternoons, when it’s filtered through the vines hanging off the eaves and you walk barefoot on the floor over the dancing dappled shadows.

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Of course we had to have a party and invited all our friends and neighbours around for the afternoon. Peninsula style. Bring a plate! (This means pot luck, it does not mean we’re out of crockery!) Bring your dogs! Bring your kids! Bring their pajamas! Don’t forget the hummus!

Remember Bruno? Our rescue greyhound whom we gave to our neighbour Jo? He came over to hang out and he was a little stunned to see us again. “Oh, you guys”, he said with his amber eyes and tentative sniffs. Bruno looked so well, it made us all cry a bit. I’d never seen his teeth so clean and he had put on a bit of muscle as well, probably from running around in Jo’s beautiful paddocks and lavender gardens.

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The cows in the paddocks were mildly surprised to see us as well. But they went back to munching their cud after a few minutes. Nature’s most definitive law – life goes on.

I spent an hour near the dam, tracing fox tracks, like I was taught by a local hunter. They had entered through the south-east paddock fence where you could see tiny tufts of russet fur caught in the lowest barbed wire strand, and then gone down to the dam to hunt the wild ducklings at the start of summer, but yet this summer we had 6 ducks on the dam who survived. Last year none of the ducklings made it, so the ducks had learned a thing or two in our absence.

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In a sense, we come to the Peninsula to feel small amidst the largeness of nature. When you spend too much time in an urban environment, you start to magnify your problems and your sense of self-importance. The scale of the architecture is human, and wherever you go, things cater to your needs. In Singapore, I can order a masseur to come to my house at midnight, have a roti prata supper afterwards, and then buy groceries at the 24 hour supermarket a 2 minute stroll from my house. We have no frustration tolerance because everything revolves around us.

But in the countryside, nature puts you in your place. You walk in nature and you are an ant amongst the towering gum trees and the craggy mountains. You come back after six months of being away on a farm, and in the bush, the paths you painstakingly carved and slashed have vanished. Nature does not care if you hit the unsubscribe button and fly off to Boca Raton.

But yet your spirit soars. There is a certain bliss in being reminded of your smallness, your mortality. When you know you can’t control everything, you start to let go of the reins that never led to anything much anyway, and your incessantly worrying mind starts to relax and stops drowning out your emotions and the senses of your body.

When you walk, there you are, just walking.

When you eat, there you are, just eating.

So simple, yet so hard.

Is it weird to be back? Yes. Am I happy with the choices I’ve made? Absolutely. To be able to call two extraordinary places home, is a great freedom and a lesson in letting go.

Somehow I have a feeling that the antidote for the Weirdses is a great gift, a state of mind, called “Surrender”.

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Kakadu Travel Diary – Blog Part 1

We’ve survived Kakadu National Park, 20,000 square kilometres of saturated blue skies, burnt gum trees, drenched wetlands. An area 28 times the size of my home country of Singapore. It’s  beautiful in its own starkness but just so mind numbingly vast, what they call the Top End of Australia.

In Victoria where we live, we’re spoilt by stunning, undulating, varied vistas. For example, on the 2.5 hour journey to Mount Buller from our house, you pass by the gorgeous beaches of the Mornington Peninsula, the buzzing hipsters in Melbourne, the golden tinged vineyards of the Yarra Valley, cute little country hillside towns like Yea and Mansfield, then the vertiginous snaking road up through towering snow gums to the top of the mountain.

In the 4 hour drive from Darwin to Kakadu, you just see monotonous blurry stretches of the gum trees on flat land for most of the journey with only the occasional termite mound or dishearteningly boring McMiners town to break up the scenery.

We decided to take things easy because after 3 hours on a bumpy dirt road, all the kids were car sick and the only thing we had seen was an army base and a small patch of swamp with magpie geese on it. Apparently it was another hour to the cultural centre, and then another 2 hours to a waterfall! My head (and bum) hurt just to think of it. I mean, if you drove that far from Singapore, you’d practically be halfway to China already! We gave the cultural centre a half-hearted exploration, had lunch at a truly tacky resort and beat a hasty retreat back to Wildman’s Wilderness Lodge where we were staying, an hour outside Kakadu.

Actually, as it turns out, we had a far better time exploring the area surrounding the lodge as it is part of the Mary River system and has its own billabong and wetlands. The highlight of our stay was definitely the airboat trip. An airboat is like being on a souped up V8 race car that hovers on a cushion of air over the water. It is dead fast, crazy noisy and a lot of fun. The kids screamed with crazy glee as the Macca, the airboat driver, deftly executed turns and chicanes on the swamp, scattering enormous flocks of birds in the air and alarming kangaroos, wallabies, wild buffalo, feral pigs and crocodiles.

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In fact, the airboat was so fast, I feared that we were practically going to crash into the wildlife half the time. In the photo on the below right, you can see the most bizarre stork called the Jabiru. This one was about 1.4 metres tall with a iridescent teal blue face and flamingo pink legs. He had just caught its fishy dinner in the billabong and calmly ate it in front of us as black kite birds circled over head screaming for him to leave some remnants for them.

Speaking of wild buffalo, we were lucky enough to come across two wild male buffalo who were sizing each other up, preparing for a territory dispute. As we watched with great interest, they charged towards each other, and when their horns locked, they both turned at the same time and ran, tangled up straight towards our airboat, no more than 15 metres away!

Luckily Macca had the good sense to whack on the reverse and get us out of their path in a hurry – nobody wants to be smacked by half a ton of wild buffalo! I can just see the headlines – Singaporean family turned into Buffalo Biltong at Kakadu…

Here’s the youtube video I shot of the entire alarming event. The kids thought it was splendid, educational fun though and spent the rest of the day practicing buffalo wrestling moves in the tent.

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The wild lotus flowers are magnificent, velvety petaled, geometric and unexpected, rising majestically out of the muddy swamp.

Oh and the crocs are everywhere. A few weeks before our trip, some unfortunate fellow as bailing water with a pail from a fishing boat when he leaned a little too far over the edge, and a huge 4.7 metre crocodile jumped up and dragged him down into the water as his horrified wife and daughter watched. It was so fast he didn’t even get a chance to scream, and he was never seen again. The police went out and shot 2 crocs and found his remains in both, according to the locals. “He got taken just at this spot here. Ah you know, these things happen.” our weatherbeaten Northern Territories cowboy guide shrugged, “we’ll be right.”

That’s the thing about Aussies. Half of the time they’re freaking out about applying SPF 50+ sunscreen, speed limits, making sure that swimming pools are fenced off like Alcatraz and such, but point out that they live in the most dangerous place in the entire world when it comes to wildlife and insects that will kill you and they’re all “No dramas! Throw another snag on the barbie will ya and mind that redback spider under your coaster!” Finn can recite a list of 20 things that will kill you in under a minute just on our local beach alone – coneshells, blue-ringed octopus, the list goes on…

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It’s a crazy, rugged, cowboy kind of place. Finn got to ride in the front seat of the jeep – seatbelt optional. We often didn’t see a single car for hours in the baking sun. There’s a town called Humpty Doo and its gas station is called Humpty Pump. There’s a place on the Adelaide river that trains crocs to jump 2 metres into the air to catch dead chickens suspended from rods on the side of the boat. I spoke to a teenage boy who pulled out his mobile phone to show me videos of him riding a rodeo bull, where he hung on for 2 seconds before he was flung off like a rag doll and stomped on. “Jeez, that was a bit hairy there!” he grinned.  It’s a mad place. And when I say we survived it, I mean that I’m on antivirals, antibiotics and antihistamines after being bitten by a swarm of insects which led to a dreaded staph infection.

Did I mention the kids had an awesome time though?  The things we do as parents. More to be continued in Part II of our Kakadu travel diary soon…
xxx,
Yours, feverishly,
C