walking on very long beaches

I‘ve always loved walking. For twenty years or more it’s been my main source of exercise, and never more so since I moved to Australia. For me, an hour’s brisk walk (and I walk at six or seven kilometres per hour) clears my mind, resets my brain, opens up possibilities, recalibrates my spine and offers me precious alone time.

On a good day, when I turn back at the park and head east on Altona Esplanade, I feel so uplifted I could lift my arms and fly back to the car. IMG_7274 But it’s taken me twenty years to realise that there is one sort of walk that I adore above all others. I unconsciously seek it out when planning a trip. No other walk every measures up. After two decades of diligent practice I can now say that my favourite pastime is Walking On Very Long Beaches.

Queensland?

I didn’t grow up very close to the coast. It took half an hour by car or bus to get to Sandymount or Costelloe’s beach in Dublin. But all of my family fare better when close to the sea, and most of us now live minutes (or even seconds) from the water’s edge.

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I think the turning point for me, though, was ten years spent living in the midlands of England. The closest beach to Leicester was Skegness, and one autumn Sunday I couldn’t take it anymore. I pointed my car east and drove a full three hours non-stop to the coast. When I got there, on a chilly, murky spring afternoon, the tide was out. In Skegness the tide goes out about half a mile, so I had managed to reach the seaside without arriving beside the sea. Defeated, I turned around and drove the three hours back, without getting out of my car.

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Fast forward a decade or so to India, when I spent many happy months living in the village of Candolim just yards from a six mile long beach. Each morning I walked south to Sinquerim and the old fort, uplifted by the occasional sight of a dolphin just a few feet away in the surf, feeling like I had the whole beach to myself. Afternoons saw me strolling north towards Calangute, where the only concern I had was how far I would walk before jumping into the water to cool down. That beach gave me my sanity back.

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These days I live about a ten minute drive from a nice suburban beach with a lovely boardwalk and a park at either end. Winter and summer, it’s my favourite place to walk: not too busy, just the right length. If I want a change, I can walk at least an hour from Port Melbourne to Elwood before I run out of footpath and have to turn around. And if I tire of bay beaches and need to hear the crash of real waves, the grand sweep of Ocean Grove on the surf coast is only an hour’s drive away.

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My ideal beach length is “longer than the time I have to walk it”. In other words, I prefer to run out of time than to run out of beach.

Jamaica?

These days, the quantifiable self tells us that we should walk 10,000 steps a day, so I like a good 8-9km round trip walk so I can get my daily quota out of the way whilst staring at waves and getting my ankles wet.

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Every trip I take, I search for a location with a Very Long Beach. Tasmania, Ireland, Vietnam, Queensland, USA, the Caribbean: my travels have taken me to, or taken me back to, some of the most wonderful VLBs in the world.

Where are your favourite VLBs?

gong hei fat choi

We should have known it was going to be a difficult day. We stood in the early morning heat at the hotel before seven, while taxis came and went. None of them were ours. We had to re-book several times before somebody would take us.

A second day of computer problems plagued us all day, making the simplest of operational processes a huge ordeal. The clever idea of the Queensland state government to centrally coordinate all emergency response travel to the cyclone-affected areas was a good one, but it meant we were one step further away from controlling the travel of our own people. Things moved so fast – and then so slowly – many people’s heads were spinning before noon.

We continued to struggle to keep our head in the various games we were presented with. Queensland is hurting from wave after wave (pardon the pun) of flooding and cyclone activity. Despite the urgency of response required along the Far North Queensland coast, we could not forget the previous weeks of activity and the recovery process people are struggling through in Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Rockhampton, Emerald and so many other places. As well the ongoing threat to inland towns by the ex-cyclone as it winds down in intensity. Not to mention the Red Crossers in Victoria and other states staffing the National Inquiry Centre, answering calls from people registering as flood or cyclone affected, or taking calls from others seeking their loved ones.

What else could possibly happen?

By mid-afternoon more news started to reach us of wild weather in Victoria. The scenic town of Hall’s Gap in the Grampians has been evacuated this evening due to an imminent major landslide (rain-related, of course). As I write, Red Cross people are working in a relief centre now open in nearby Stawell. Local emergency services have already pre-positioned search-and-rescue teams, which is never an encouraging sign.

People in Mildura, in the far north-west of Victoria, have found themselves suddenly congregating in the high street, waist-deep in water from rain that fell over no more than an hour. Two relief centres have just been set up, with Red Cross in attendance.
A lot of western Victoria and central Melbourne is seriously flooding. They are predicting around 200mm of rain this evening across western and central Victoria, and Melbourne itself, but anything more than 100mm will bring most river systems back up to major flood level. The water is less than three houses away from some colleagues who live by the bay very close to central Melbourne. Motorists on the St. Kilda Road were over their wheel arches in floodwaters this evening.
Meanwhile in Queensland, not forty-eight hours after the height of Cyclone Yasi, the Red Cross deployments continued along the coast today. We are also watching Alice Springs in NT very closely: it is under a severe weather warning as ex-cyclone Yasi continues inland.

Oh, yes, and Adelaide Red Cross were only stood down from a heatwave response on Monday, and WA are still working on long-term recovery outreach operations following the floods in Carnarvon in December.

So a few colleagues and I went out for a quick bite to eat on the way home. We ended up in a Chinese place across the road from the Red Cross offices. Halfway through our meal, the noise began. What else could possibly go wrong tonight? Suddenly, the crashing and banging made sense, as two huge Chinese dragons entered the restaurant. Gong Hei Fat Choi, everybody! It’s Chinese New Year! We just hadn’t realised. The packed restaurant clapped and cheered as the dragons came in and terrorised us, dancing and prancing and chasing little children (much to their delight) and gobbling up red-and-gold envelopes with coins in, in payment for prosperity for the year to come.

The Red Crossers at my table took photos, clapped and cheered, and for about five minutes forgot the litany of emergencies and situations swimming around our heads. As the red dragon approached our table, we snapped away on iPhones and cameras, laughed out loud and waved madly (alright, that last one was just me). The banging and crashing of cymbals and drums reached a crescendo as the dragons produced a Chinese sign which (presumably) said they had been bribed enough, and would leave us alone for another year of prosperity.

As we paid our bill and slipped away into the night, those few minutes of light and sound and levity stayed with us. It was a tough day, with more curve balls thrown at us than we cared to count. By bedtime the Red Cross emergency response across the country was even bigger than before, but we will handle it. It’s what we do.

voting in a new election

Last time I voted my Dad was still alive. Last time I voted, I was living in England and trying to figure out who was going to get my single vote in the constituency of Brent East. I had to walk about a hundred paces from home to the local primary school to cast my vote. I didn’t back the eventual winner, a Liberal Democrat called Sarah Teather.

Five years later, we live in a new country. I have gone from proportional representation in Ireland, and the ability to vote for both Dail and Senate, to an “x” in a single box for Parliament in the UK (nobody gets to vote for the upper house there), to some sort of hybrid here in Australia.

Because both Orlando and I will be out of our home state on Saturday – he in Hong Kong and I in Tasmania – we found an Interstate Voting Centre in Sydney during the week and voted early. Here in Australia, it is illegal not to vote. Enrolment on the Commonwealth electoral roll has been compulsory since 1911, and voting at federal elections has been compulsory since 1924 for all citizens on the Commonwealth electoral roll. As a result, there are lots of ways to cast your vote. Mobile polling places have been popping up around the country in very remote areas for a few weeks now. Colleagues posted in tiny Pacific Islands lined up to vote in Australian or other embassies in the past week or so. Most major airports have early polling stations on site so that you can vote before you fly – a very clever idea I think. And in every state capital, and many other places besides, there are plenty of interstate voting places where you can pop in, fill in a quick form, and they will magically conjure up a polling card for your own constituency right before your eyes.

There is no excuse not to vote… except for the dearth of reasonable candidate parties to choose from.

We found the Sydney offices of the Australian Electoral Commission before work on a sunny Sydney Wednesday morning, and presented ourselves for our first formal duties since we became citizens nineteen months ago. We filled out the details on the front of our polling paper envelopes, and the polling officer came back within minutes with two pieces of paper. No ID check, nothing except a casually-requested verbal declaration that we had not voted anywhere else beforehand.

The first – lower house – polling card was easy. About one-third A4 size, it had a nice little list of six local candidates on there. Our instructions were to vote 1 to 6 in order of our choice, and not to leave any box unmarked. Easy.

The second – Senate – polling card was more like a roll of polling wallpaper. Easily more than double A3 landscape length, there was a row of party names along the top of the paper with a box associated with each. Below a thick black line, a list of candidates was listed below the appropriate party name. In all there were 60 names listed under 20 parties or marked as Independent. Some party names I recognised – Labor, Family First, Liberal, Greens. Some were indistinguishable from each other: Socialist Alliance, Socialist Equality Party, Socialist Alliance. One sounded like a locum politician service: Senator On-Line. Wonder if they are a 24-hour service?

Then the barking mad parties came: Australian Sex Party. Climate Sceptics. One Nation. Shooters and Fishers.

I wish I were making those names up.

I had two choices. I could mark a “1” in a single box associated with a political party above the line, or I could stand and mark every one of the names below the line from 1 to 60 in order of choice. If I didn’t do it right, my vote would not be counted as I would have spoiled my vote – over here it’s called an informal or donkey vote.

I seriously considered doing the latter. I am used to proportional representation. I always felt cheated in the UK with only one measly”x” to mark my choice. But there were too many of those anonymous parties listed and I didn’t feel confident. Do the Australian Democrats, the Nationals, Building Australia or the Christian Democratic Party deserve a higher number than the rest?  Who are these people anyway? What if I go through the full list as best I can starting from 60 and working up, and somehow when I get to the last box I am still only on number two or three?

I bottled it. I marked “1” in a single box above the line, spent ten minutes trying to fold the polling wallpaper into a reasonable size, returned to the polling officer and handed in my vote.

Job done… for another three years at least. Let’s hope.

home alone

I woke up this morning alone in the house, an unusual experience for me on a Saturday. Because we both travel quite a bit, I’m used to having the house to myself, but not for a whole weekend.

It brought me back to my twenties, when I mostly lived in country villages quite a distance from friends – a couple of hours by car at least. If I wasn’t actually driving to visit some of them, it was not unusual for me to go home from work on Friday and not speak to another soul until Monday morning, apart from the odd shop assistant. Some Saturdays, the weekend stretched out in front of me like an empty desert, and I would divide the time into manageable two-hour chunks and then try to fill them all.

So as I lay in bed this morning, I was acutely aware that a weekend to myself is only fun because it is rare.  Twenty years ago the very same set of circumstances weekend after weekend were soul-destroying at times.

This morning it was different. I luxuriated in a bed all to myself, and a full day to do whatever I wish.  I contemplated a treatment for my hair, and a spot of shopping for bamboo for the garden. I almost certainly will spend some time tidying my wardrobe (I feel so Zen when it’s all done). A bit of quiet time is always good for me, so a Saturday night in with home-made pizza, a decent bottle of wine and a few movies is heaven to look forward to.

But the best part is that I’ll be back with my wonderful O on Sunday night, watching online TV in bed, bickering about chocolate crumbs, and keeping my feet warm in a better way than pink bedsocks. That will be the highlight of my weekend.

a hot night

We lie in bed reading. It is after eleven at night and still in the high thirties temperature-wise. The sash window by my head is open, as is the back door and courtyard door, to catch any chance of a night breeze to cool the house.

“What’s that noise?”, I ask. It has been going on for about five minutes at this stage. I can’t place it, but it sounds like it is coming from immediately next door. I am a little irritated that they would be doing something so disruptive so late in the evening. It sounds like somebody is continuously breaking firewood, or unravelling a huge roll of lino onto the floor, so that it makes a smacking/cracking noise as it hit the ground. It is loud. What the hell is it?

The curiosity gets the better of Orlando and he gets up to investigate. Quite what he thinks he is going to see in the dark on a quiet suburban street without peering into a neighbour’s window I am not sure. Moments later he bursts into the bedroom.

“That noise is the house down the road burning!”

I leap out of bed and pull on my Japanese kimono. Right enough, the house four doors down is ablaze. On closer inspection it appears that something along the side of the house has caught fire. The fence is already alight and angry flames are licking the house. Luckily it is a brick house, one of the few around here, but it is surrounded by weatherboard homes like ours.

The embers catch my attention. A colleague’s home was threatened by fire only two weeks ago when a stray ember from a controlled burn (he lives in the country) set trees alight on his land. I know embers can travel miles, never mind yards, and our wooden house is only about a hundred yards away. I peer at the sky trying to figure out if the wind has changed yet. I think we are safe: what little breeze there is seems to be wafting the embers away from our house onto the wide street.

The fire truck arrives and the fire is controlled in moments. The smoke, on the other hand, is uncontrolled and I rush to the bedroom to close the window. Too late: we lie in the dark with the distinctive smell of burnt wood in our nostrils.

I sleep fitfully. The temperature doesn’t go below thirty until morning. What a hot night.

the bay #2

Christmas week, down at Altona beach. I have been avoiding exercise for weeks, but that means no quiet time time by the beach either. It is time to get back into my stride.

I park the car for the second time today under a shady tree, and start walking. Immediately I can feel myself relaxing, my stresses blowing away across the water. The tide is far in, although the water level does not vary much in the bay. The sun is shining through wispy clouds.

I power-walk down the boardwalk with Christmas songs playing in my headphones. Tinsel wreaths hang from balconies and I can see Christmas trees in some windows, but no twinkling lights so early in the day. Despite the heat of the evening sun it does not seem incongruous to my northern-hemisphere mind.

I see an entire family of Pacific Islanders (Tongans? Samoans?) sitting chest-deep in the sea chatting and hanging out. On closer observation many of them are literally picking mussels off the rocks and eating them. Now that’s fresh seafood.

I realise that I have been in Australia so long now that, not only can I differentiate between Greeks and Italians much more quickly, but I can usually identify Sicilians at twenty paces.

An elderly man walks towards me in what was clearly a Groucho Marx face mask of glasses, big nose and hairy moustache…. then as he walked past I realised that was his real face.

Young surf lifesavers are out training on their boogie boards and boats. I know how cold that water is, even in summer. I am glad somebody wants to do it.

I walk past a family about to share a big box of fish and chips from the place across the road. As I pass I get that divine waft of hot potato, vinegar and seaside. There is something perfect about that combination.

The kite surfers don’t have a gale-force wind this evening, but they are skimming along at great speeds, somersaulting and perfecting their jumps. Listening to Aled Jones singing “Walking In The Air” seems completely appropriate as I pass by.

Happy Christmas everybody.

the bay

Saint Kilda, early morning. I stand at the Lagoon Pier and stare out across the bay. I cannot see the horizon: the summer morning haze is perfect and it blurs the distinction between water and air. The bay is millpond-still and it feels as if I have the world to myself.

The water’s surface barely ripples, in colours of silver, grey and the palest blue. I peer downwards as shoals of tiny fish dart and swarm. An eleven-legged sea star rests on the pier leg. Mussels crowd on underwater rocks.

Behind me, a man and a woman stroll along the deserted strand with their dogs, and a cyclist joins me in my morning reverie at the end of the pier. In time the boardwalk will be thronged with rollerbladers, joggers, mums with strollers, wheelchair users, cyclists.

The sun begins to fight its way through the hazy clouds. The horizon becomes just a little more defined. Is it my imagination, or have the barely perceptible waves also become more pronounced?

For now, I stare out to sea and take in the silence.