In order to travel from Wellington to Melbourne it is necessary to persuade the aeroplane to take off and fly. The aeroplane that we were sitting in was demonstrating a marked reluctance to indulge itself in such a controversial idea.
"Im sorry for the delay," announced the pilot, "but the engineers want to perform some final checks on the ailerons and flaps."
Through the cabin windows I could see the wing of the plane. Interesting and complicated swathes of metal rippled hither and yon upon it as the wing distorted itself in obedience to mysterious commands from large oily gentlemen who scratched their heads at it. Eventually they pronounced themselves satisfied and the plane taxied out to the runway. Our Australian holiday was about to begin
The plane roared into the sky. I watched Wellington airport shrink away to almost nothing as we climbed rapidly. Then the engines seemed to hiccup briefly and the plane dropped like a stone for a few hundred feet. My tummy tried to climb out of my ears and I felt a freezing terror as the ground loomed close again. But then, just in time, the throaty roar of the engines resumed as if nothing had happened. We soon regained the height we had lost.
The cabin crew poured food and drink into us to calm us down and it wasnt long before Australia stretched out beneath us, brown and sere. We landed at Melbourne without incident. We taxied to the gate and stopped. A man walked out and peered thoughtfully at one of the engines.
Everybody scrambled to get their hand luggage from the overhead lockers and then waited impatiently for the door to open. Through the cabin window I could see the air bridge edging its way towards the forward door of the plane. It gently kissed the side of the plane, missing the door by several feet. It slowly backed away and tried again. This time it came in far too low. It bounced uncertainly for a while as the driver tried to raise it up. He failed miserably and the air bridge retreated all the way back to the gate and then came forward in slow jerks to try again. It was almost twenty minutes before the air bridge finally managed to attach itself.
"The driver must be a trainee," I said to Robin. "Perhaps they should have stuck L plates on to it."
"I cant hear you," said Robin. "Im not wearing my glasses."
We were in Melbourne to see Robins sister Wendy and her three year old daughter Ella. Wendy drove us around in a huge four wheel drive monster machine that she referred to as "the truck". It was fitted with an altimeter so that we always knew how high we were driving, but since Melbourne is one of the flattest places in the world, the dial sat at zero for the entire holiday.
We drove out to Brighton, one of the more salubrious suburbs. Robin and Ella went to dig holes in the beach and paddle in the sea. Wendy and I sat in a nearby café and watched them.
Flies buzzed enthusiastically around the café. Corpses piled up in their hundreds on the window sills and overflowed on to the floor where they crunched underfoot. A man came and sucked them up with a vacuum cleaner. Presumably he took the bodies back to the kitchen to bake them into the spotted dick. He left a lot of corpses behind. Perhaps they werent ripe enough for the spotted dick yet.
Patrons throughout the café were doing the Australian Wave the hand brushed languidly through the air in front of the face when the flies got too close. I could trace the paths of the flies across the room as first one table of people waved, and then the next and then the next as the flies advanced.
Robin and Ella came back from the beach, red faced, exhausted and happy. We piled into the truck, and Wendy drove us round to show us some of the sights of Melbourne. Ella was very tired after all her hard work on the beach.
"I want to go home now," she said.
Wendy was determined to show off her city to us and she didnt want to drive straight home. "Were going home the special way," she said to Ella.
"Oh no!" wailed Ella, heartbroken. "Not the special way!"
I think shed been taken that way before.
Melbourne was extraordinarily hot, humid and sweaty. Molten people flowed down the gutters as the high, hot sun beat down relentlessly. The air conditioning in the truck was a blessed relief.
"I wonder what the temperature is?" I asked Robin.
"I dont know," said Robin. "Im not wearing my watch."
From Melbourne we flew to Perth. At least, that was the plan. However the plane just sat on the tarmac at Melbourne airport and showed no signs whatsoever of taking off.
"Im sorry for the delay," announced the pilot, "but weve got a leak in the coffee brewer and we arent allowed to take off until the engineers have repaired it. Whats more, its the rear coffee brewer. Very tricky, trying to fly with a leak in the rear coffee brewer."
A man with a wrench strode purposefully to the rear of the plane. Sounds of plumbing permeated the air and then he left again, looking pleased with himself. The crew closed the cabin door and we taxied down the runway and took off for Perth.
Every time I visit Western Australia, I am reminded all over again what a strangely surreal place it is.
We drove along a dual carriageway. As with all dual carriageways, there were regular openings in the dividing barrier to allow cars to cross over and change direction, should they care to do so. And then we saw a sign. In huge, official letters it said:
Median Opening Closed
And sure enough the next opening wasnt there!
Another sign said:
Audible Edge Lining
And sure enough, the edge of the road was lined with a rough undulating strip that made the car vibrate noisily should the wheels accidentally stray on to it. A good encouragement to straighten up and fly right. After several miles of this, the strip disappeared and another sign said:
End Of Audible Edge Lining
It didnt seem to have occurred to anybody that I could work this out for myself by virtue of the fact that the lining wasnt there any more.
There were a lot of roadworks. I could tell when the roadworks began because a sign said:
and another sign indicated a reduced speed limit. When the roadworks finished, a sign said:
I could never decide whether this sign was giving me information or an instruction. Or perhaps it was a banner that a protest march had left behind.
As we drove along the main highway, the occasional minor road led off from it. One of these roads was called Fifty One Road. Later on we spotted another one. It was called Sixty Eight Road. But we didnt pass seventeen other roads between these two. We only passed four.
Nobody in Western Australia ever throws anything away. They keep everything, just in case. This became quite obvious to me on the day that we visited the small town of Pinjarra. Two ancient logs lay in the middle of the lawn just outside the tearooms where we stopped for lunch. There was a plaque attached to one of the logs, and on the plaque the following message was engraved:
In about 1880 these Indian Teak logs were washed ashore
south of Mandurah. They were pulled over the sand hills to
the Herron homestead by a bullock team driven by Robert
Herron where they lay for the next 111 years.
The plaque was dated 15/10/91, so by the time I read it, the logs had been lying there for a further twelve years. For 123 years, nobody has been able to think of anything to do with the teak logs except attach a plaque to them commemorating that fact. But they are far too good to throw away. They might come in handy one day
"I wonder how far it is from Mandurah to Pinjarra?" I asked Robin. "How far did those poor bullocks have to pull the logs?"
"I dont know," said Robin. "Im not wearing my hat."
Perth was hugely hot. Every day I felt as if I had been hit in the face with a red hot bar of metal. Melbourne had been hot, but Perth was incandescent. I could feel the fillings in my teeth melting and my toenails frying in sweat. Each day seemed hotter than the last, each night more sultry.
Friends from New Zealand rang us up. "Its ever so hot here," said Annette. "Its 29 degrees!"
"We had 29 degrees," said Robin. "We passed through it on our way to 40 degrees."
Perth had its hottest day for six years. Even the locals felt mildly uncomfortable. I felt like my blood was boiling in my veins. Puffs of steam came out of my ears. When I went to the loo, the urine evaporated before it reached the toilet bowl.
"Lets go south to Margaret River," said Robin. "It will be cooler there. We can visit my sister Jenny. And if we drive down, we can spend a few hours with the air conditioning in the car turned right up!"
And so we did.
Margaret River proved to be just as hot as Perth but with the added disadvantage of thick clouds of flies desperately seeking moisture from all the people. Everybody did the Australian Wave all day long. Flies creepy-crawly tickling in your ears and up your nose. Buzz, buzz, buzz.
A fly flew into Robins mouth and she swallowed reflexively and then spat. A leg and a wing came out but the rest went down her throat. Throughout the day she kept burping at irregular intervals.
"Tastes like fly," she said in disgusted tones.
Robins sister Jenny owns a 50 acre block of native bush where she encourages the growth of native plants. She harvests the seeds for sale and generally does her best to conserve and protect the land. She showed us round proudly. In the centre of the block was an open area of dry, dusty earth, pounded down by the relentless sun. A small plastic toy boat lay forlorn, encrusted with dirt.
"In the winter," said Jenny, "we get a fair bit of rain and this area becomes a shallow lake. Its called Lake Jenny. And the boat is called HMAS Jenny. She patrols the lake and keeps it safe from pirates and piranha fish."
"I wonder how deep the lake gets," I asked Robin.
"Im not sure," said Robin. "Im not wearing my earrings"
Sometimes Australia can be magical. One warm twilight evening we were driving home from Jennys along a quiet country road when a pair of kangaroos came bounding across the field on our right. One of them bounced into the road just in front of the car and casually lolopped along ahead of us, keeping us company. Its friend remained in the field and stared at us in horror.
"Oh, oh, oh! I need to get out into the road, but theres a roaring monster there. Oh, oh, oh! What can I do?"
Eventually the roo in front of us decided that it had travelled far enough down the road and it veered left, off the road and into the bush. As we passed it by, I could see it looking around for its companion. It seemed puzzled.
"Funny Im sure there was someone else with me when I started out. I remember it distinctly. I wonder where they went?"
We drove away and left them to it. I hope they got back together again. Im sure they did.
"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" asked Robin.
"Ive no idea," I said. "Im not wearing any underpants."