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The Back Road Home from Wollongong, July 1999


Friday, 2 July 1999

So … hands up who likes screaming babies on planes? No takers?

And this one was just flogging into it. Each howl was punctuated by a second or two of quivering silence, when the little shit reinflated its lungs for the next banshee wail, as Mum and Dad sheepishly passed the wretched creature back and forth, to no effect. At that time, I’d have happily abandoned my seat to perch under the wing, straddling the plane’s engine housing. It would have been quieter. Concentric rings of fellow passengers, similarly discomforted, were donning headsets and cranking up the volume. I tried this tactic also. It made no difference.

Look, I think I’ve spotted a gap in the market, here. Apart from some superficial colour variations, babies are all pretty much similar – they all look like little Winston Churchills, for instance – and so are completely fungible. What I’d do is set up a baby exchange service at all the airports, so instead of dragging one particular baby half way around the planet, you’d simply drop your one off at the airport and pick up another essentially identical unit at the other end. Parade that one around the relatives (they’ll never know the difference) and reverse the process when you’re done and want to go home. What could be simpler?

* * *

At Sydney airport – between duty free and immigration – I ran in to one of my neighbours from Pukerua Bay. Small world.

Saturday, 3 July 1999

A whole day at large in Sydney. Despite vowing to take a more sensible logistical approach to the day, the first thing I did was rush into a bookshop and immediately encumber myself with several kilograms of reading matter.

First, a bus into town ($2.50) and a walk through the mall at Darling Harbour, where everything was closed because I’d arrived too early. I did manage to find a warm ham and cheese croissant and a hot chocolate to sustain me, then past the Chinese Garden – I don’t know why, but always balk at the $6 entry fee – and into Chinatown. At first I couldn’t find what I was looking for but I asked for help at Dick Smith, was directed to Sussex Street, couldn’t find anything there either, turned back towards town, and blundered upon the Australia China Book Shop by accident.

The ACBS doesn’t look much from the outside. The door onto Goulburn Street simply reveals two flights of – being honest – uninviting steps leading upward. Fortunately, I was not daunted and went up … and into a room lined with probably thousands of Chinese and dual language books. Many of the prices were denominated in yuan; obviously this was the Real McCoy. The woman who looked after me there was terrifically helpful, helping me to choose a set of language tapes; a really decent Chinese-English dictionary; and some children’s books with Chinese and English interleaved (my reading ability never did progress much beyond this level, and I’ve forgotten even that, over the years). She worked through the character indexing in the dictionary with me, to be were sure I could use it properly, then gave me an excellent price on the whole bundle. Just great! But – as I began to notice a few steps from the door – the weight would soon become a real problem. Idiot, I cursed myself.

On the ridiculous premise that I might as well be buried under two tonnes of baggage as under one, I next went to Abbey’s: one of my favourite bookshops in all the world; probably second only to Foyles of London. (To be fair, I realised I was going to have to find a locker in the subway; it was really just self-indulgence.) But for some reason Abbey’s didn’t do it for me today. I had a good browse and bought a copy of Eat the Rich as a birthday gift for my father – who will either love to hate it or just plain hate it, being one of those warm and fuzzy lefty types – but somehow it just never kicked in. The well-presented rows of beautiful textbooks remained two-dimensional and mute. Disappointing but cheap.

Mercifully I found a cloakroom at the railway station under the Queen Victoria building to ditch my books and my polar fleece – it was starting to get hot by this time – and was able to continue on, unencumbered, to the bottom of George Street and the Rocks. The usual Saturday market was in full swing; actually bigger and better than I’ve seen it before. Maybe the weekend was something special, or maybe it’s just grown over the years. Either way, it was fabulous. There was an opera singer launching forth in Italian; around the corner from him an Indian woman performing a traditional dance. Down in the market itself my attention was arrested by three women identically clad in fluorescent orange jackets, carrying orange cups of orange juice, and towing identical, wheeled, airline bags. They wore identical, black air-hostess-style hats and walked with an exaggerated elegance in perfect lock-step. Once they had circled the market, ending up outside the opal shop which now occupies what used to be the Earth Science Museum (what a shame that’s gone) they stopped and mimed a parody of the universal pre-flight safety demonstration. As I was shortly to write in the birthday card I sent to my father, “It’s street theatre, Dad, but not as we know it!”

Returning up George Street I passed an old Chinaman playing an erhu: the traditional two-stringed violin-like instrument. He was playing Old McDonald. A few strides further on, a dread-locked West Indian sang Buffalo Soldier with his Australian band. Despite being part Jamaican myself, I have never identified with the West Indies (except, perhaps, when their cricket team is thrashing ours) and, ordinarily, I don’t like reggae. Oh, no. But for some reason this scene got to me and made me feel all soppy. I think there must have just been something in the air that day.

Damn, this is a great town.

After a flying trip to Dymocks, I collected my bags and caught a bus back to UNSW. Later I found a cheap noodle house and had Shanghai Chicken for dinner.

Sunday, 4 July 1999

I headed back into town early this morning, with the intention of visiting the natural history museum before the crowds arrived. Sadly, I became confused and went in to the Museum of Sydney instead. What they have in there, for your six bucks, is very imaginatively presented but of so little substance that the whole exercise is a complete waste of time and money [→ sidebar]; much like Te Papa – except that the latter, at least, is free! Half a dozen city blocks up the road I finally enter the right place, the Museum of Australia, which by this time was full of screaming brats. Bugger.

First I went to the paleontology hall which had not noticeably changed since my last visit. I do not mean to detract from its excellence, but if they want repeat business then something (not necessarily the whole hall) needs to be different each time a person goes there. As I passed through the ‘Big Bang’ exhibit I noted the same embarrassingly misinformed recorded voice, pontificating as on previous visits: ‘Blah blah explosion from the depths of space blah blah speeding away from the site of that first explosion blah blah….’ Oh, dear. (If you’re going to pretend to “inform” the public, guys, maybe you’d better learn some physics.) But on the whole, I enjoyed the walk around, even though I did remember most of it. The same went for the stunning mineral exhibit, too. Yes; it’s awesome, but in need of a little love.

Walking back up Castlereigh I had to walk around the inert – sleeping or dying, who knew? – form of some swaddled homeless person sprawling from a doorway and I noticed, a few doors up from the bus stop where I waited, someone else sifting through a trash bin. I guess Sydney is no more perfect than anywhere else, after all. The thought depressed me for some reason. I had lunch at an outdoor café in Randwick, then sauntered back to the UNSW to register for the course I was here for.

I discovered that today was not merely registration, but the beginning of the program. (I had not received a timetable.) Moreover, people are giving prepared presentations with overhead slides, etc. This is news to me. I begin to suspect that this is going to be a very, very, long week.

* * *

The individual days are long as well. Surprisingly – amazingly, since I hate exerting myself – the 0645 exercise sessions with Lex Dwyer are the highlight of the whole program. Paul Griffith’s coaching on better public presenting is probably good for me, but I don’t learn to enjoy it; just to do it better. Maybe. Another highlight is the series of marketing sessions run by Don Sexton. Sadly, though, the other academic content is disappointing. I don’t learn much I didn’t know already. I am glad when it is over.

I discover I am not the only person to feel this way about the Museum of Sydney:

”[W]e set off on foot to the Museum of Sydney, a sleek and stylish new institution, which manages to look interesting and instructive without actually being either. You find yourself staring at artfully underlit displays – a caseful of immigrant artefacts, a room wallpapered with the pages of popular magazines from the 1950s – without being entirely certain what you are expected to conclude.”
– Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country, p.13

Quite right, Bill.


Saturday, 10 July 1999

Awake at 7 rather than 6. Not much difference but the difference feels great! Had I better think about packing up? No, not just yet. Eventually, however, ‘one’ does arise, and packs up, ending up with a pack on one’s back, a laptop computer in one’s right hand … and an unwieldy – and damned heavy – cardboard box of course notes (3 Eastlight folders, culled down to 2) and overflow books balanced precariously under the left arm. Stagger downstairs and out, in two shifts, through the air-lock of the after hours exit before discovering that the main doors have been opened by the cleaners. A soft, cool rain is drifting down, but there is no time to appreciate it because the taxi arrives immediately.

Into town and the Budget rental car office. Unfortunately, I become so engrossed in finding the fare from among my mixed Australian and New Zealand currency that I forget to ask for a receipt; Budget would have reimbursed me. Staggering under arms-full of gear, first to a locked side door, then finally through the main door of the Budget office, I drop my stuff and join the queue. None of the people ahead of me have made prior arrangements; we have to go through the whole rigmarole by the numbers for every one of them. A particularly thick couple, clean and wholesome looking with two ill-behaved brats, point to the road atlas on top of my pile of baggage and ask the woman behind the counter if they can have it. Say what?

They must be English; it’s the only explanation I can think of.

Fortunately the whole experience was made bearable by the gorgeous young woman with the jaunty tits who joined the queue immediately behind me.

Eventually I was “processed” whereupon I learned that this was not actually the depot where I could get into my car. No, that was some distance down the street. So, picking up all my accoutrements, cardboard box and all, I staggered off down the road, past the Maserati dealership (if only!) to the car yard.

Here I was entertained by the female half of The Must Be English Couple, going over the car with a fine tooth comb, looking for the most minute scuffs and scratches, and making sure they were recorded on the rental agreement. Maybe she’s been had before but, hell’s teeth, I’d have made less fuss if I’d been buying the damn thing.

Finally I was under way, but Sydney is a difficult town to escape if you don’t know the roads and your sense of direction is as poorly developed as mine. First I drove for a while along the south side of the harbour, which actually runs almost directly due east, before realising and turning south. Then I got lost in a maze of little cities, indistinguishable because they have all merged together, finally pitching up at Randwick which I’d left in the taxi over two hours before. Fortunately the sign posting from Randwick was so clear that even I couldn’t get lost. From Rockdale onwards I followed signs to Wollongong, turning inland towards Macquarie Pass National Park just before I arrived in the town. I had attended a seminar in Wollongong some time before, and had pretty much exhausted the entertainment possibilities of the place in a single rainy night when I’d walked from my hotel to the township and back again. Unless maybe there had been a whole hunk of it I hadn’t noticed. I remembered picking up water-worn pebbles of petrified wood off the beach.

From here the drive was like climbing up the inside of a great canyon. Macquarie Pass seemed very beautiful but, amazingly, there didn’t appear to be a single lay-by in which to pull over and admire the surroundings.

Moss Vale was a nice little town, what I saw of it from the coffee lounge window as I sat munching my BLT and wondering how on earth I was going to find my way back to the rental park next week. Oh, well, I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

From Moss Vale it was Goulburn, Gunning, Yass, then, on a whim, Wee Jasper.

Wee Jasper comprises a general store and a pub. I sought accommodation at the pub – I beg your pardon: “tavern” – and soon found myself in a dark little cabin with a jug of milk and a few slices of bread. Turning on the light didn’t seem to make a lot of difference: the room’s single light fixture was fitted with a 25 watt bulb. Fortunately, there was a bedside lamp also. I descended upon the bar to socialise with my hosts – Doug, Scott, Kim, and a silent woman who seemed to be in charge of the kitchen. Doing my best Paul Theroux impression, I eagerly awaited an Australian version of Fuggle to sit down next to me and announce “I’m not like other blokes” in William Hootkins’ voice. Sadly, or perhaps not, the bar patrons all proved to be down-to-earth, sensible farmers, and I was soon too pissed to care anyway. Sometime quite early – as I recall it was very soon after the arrival of the ladies-night-out group from Canberra – I retreated to bed. The night was crystal clear and, with no city lights for miles around, the sky was a showcase. The Eta Carina nebula glowed above me.

Sunday, 11 July 1999

I was awakened several times in the morning, by a succession of dawn choruses: First up was a drunken yelling contest, in which the population of Wee Jasper and surrounding districts squared off against the visiting Canberra team, held in two rounds, at 0030 and again at 0230. The Canberra women won easily.

Later, about 0500 or 0530, the entire bird population of New South Wales converged outside my window to wish me a good morning. Finally, I actually awoke naturally at about 0845 and got up and showered. I wrote these words in my diary sitting on the steps to my cabin, with some pink parrot things which I later learned were gulahs warbling in the trees above my roof, the unmistakable calls of magpies and kookaburras coming from somewhere behind, and a bewildering number of other unidentifiable cries from the trees across the car park.

I was in the bush.

Indeed, I was almost disappointed not to find a red-back – at least – when I gingerly tapped out my shoes. The day looked like it would be fine so I guessed it was time to grab my pick and go walk up the river.

The bank of the river was littered with blocks of stone containing many fossils. I found some corals and brachiopods. The lithology, iron-staining, and preservation reminded me of the Stony Creek/Lanky’s Creek fauna from Reefton, and I was pleased to later discover they were about the same age (that is, Devonian). But, like the Reefton material, it was all rather badly weathered and nothing I found would justify the effort of bringing it back home. So I gave up and went to visit the local caves instead.

Carey’s Cave was worth the visit and the guide, Jeff, entertaining and knowledgeable. After that, I mooched around for a bit, returned to the pub where Scott knocked me up one of the world’s largest steaks, fell into conversation with a bloke whose name I didn’t catch but whose advice to go to Lightening Ridge I did, listened to a rather drunk fellow by the name of Bob holding forth on the subject of shooting ’roos, and retired early again.

Monday, 12 July 1999

My plan to leave Wee Jasper early and get a good start on the day came to nothing, because I slept in, so it was 0830 or later before I was on the dirt road to Tumut. I was anxiously looking for the turnoff to Coolac, apprehensive that I would miss it among the various farm-roads that were not marked on my map. As it happened, the road to Coolac was clearly marked and perfectly sealed: so conspicuously better than the road I was actually on that I’d have spotted it even if I hadn’t been looking.

The Australian bush is not like our New Zealand bush. It feels more arboreal, somehow; you can see into it. New Zealand bush is so choked with under-story that you’re lucky if you can see 20 feet in front of your nose, but Australian bush you can see through for miles. On the flat, here, there were no tree ferns, either, although I remembered a few from Macquarie Pass.

From Coolac there was Cootamundra, Young, and then lunch at KFC in Cowra. Next up the line is Canowindra which, if only I had remembered in time, is famous in paleontological circles for its Devonian fossil fish. When this piece of wisdom returned to me the following day I could cheerfully have throttled myself for missing the opportunity to stop at the local museum and possibly have a bit of a fossick on my own (although one requires an export certificate to take fossils away from Australia).

Between Molong and Wellington is reputedly a good area for Palaeozoic fossils, also, but the road mostly runs along very flat flood plain: the only rock outcrops I saw at all were miles away on some of the crappy little hummocks which pass for hills in these parts. My lasting impression of the drive was of a huge sky, with towering stacks of dark cloud.

Dubbo is famous for its ‘Western Plains Zoo’ where I pulled up about 1430. It is a zoo in the modern tradition where moats and rustic wooden fences take the place of bars and wire mesh. Some of the more placid beasts just wander around freely. Patrons drive, or hire bicycles, around a circuit. It being so late in the day, I had no choice but to drive. Being something of a zoo veteran, I chose specific quarry. First up, the Cape Hunting Dogs, which look like more brightly coloured versions of the Spotted Hyena at first blush, but when I finally wrestled the arthritic public telescope into service, proved to be far more appealing; a truly beautiful animal I shall be on the look-out for in future. I walked around a little lake, mainly watching the ordinary birds that had nothing to do with the zoo – small things like the New Zealand fantail and a brilliant, electric blue finch-like thing – when my attention was caught by something splashing in the water right at my feet. It looked like a big rat, but cute: perhaps it was a water rat for all I know: I certainly couldn’t pick one out of a line-up. Anyway, he seemed happy splashing away less than a meter from my toes, until I made a sound, at which he promptly buggered off. He must not have realised I was there until he heard me.

The family of Black Rhinos are obviously one of the zoo’s most prized exhibits, not least because their second calf was born just a few months before, and what a gorgeous little fellow he was too. If someone had been there with a good story about their breeding program for this nearly extinct animal, they could have taken me for a hundred bucks on the spot.

But rhinos are sedentary herbivores – or at least they seem so to me – happy to mooch around a paddock and scoff hay all day. The next exhibit did not please me so well. These were the cheetahs, the swiftest beasts on the ground, and obviously needing huge areas to stretch their legs. Unless there was a lot more paddock hidden somewhere that I couldn’t see, they didn’t have it. There are no mammals on earth to compare to the big cats: the cheetahs were stunningly lovely and the tigers, my next stop, were simply awesome. A girl in her early teens, who was cycling around the zoo, and I sat watching them quietly, bearing with fortitude the philistine interruptions of small boys trying to roar at them, and their parents’ equally moronic repartee (“oo, look at the tigers!” was as good as it got). Most days I’m appalled by my own species. If you’re out there and listening, Scotty, please, mate, beam me back up – I’ve had enough of this.

The tiger enclosure was also too small.

I continued driving around, manfully resisting the temptation to improve the human gene pool by running over a shoal of, apparently unattended, very small children on bikes who were wobbling all over the road. One particular little shit gave my brakes, and my better nature, a testing which either one of them might easily have failed.

Pausing to let an emu cross the road, I made for my last stop, the Galapagos Tortoise. Well, it must have been the day for young teenage girls, because here was another one, standing well back, and entreating the other four fifths of her family to stop poking the poor thing. I’d have kissed her but I feared being arrested for paedophilia. The tortoise in question had mostly retreated into his shell although he popped back out for a look around once the girl had managed to drag away her siblings and mother. As I followed them back to the car park, excited squeals announced the arrival of the next bevy of children to persecute the poor sod.

On balance, the Western Plains Zoo is a pretty creditable effort; much smaller than San Diego, of course, but what there is of it is of the same sort of standard. The breeding programs are a wonderful blow for the forces of good. My only concern is whether the big cats, particularly, have enough living space.

Somewhere I saw a road-sign referring to an observatory. Well, ordinarily I’d have been in there like a rat up a drainpipe but it had been overcast and rainy all day, and there seemed little prospect of it clearing, so I decided to move on instead. With just an hour or so of daylight left, I pressed on to Gilgandra and stopped the night at The Village Motel. I could have gone further, but my travel consultant from the bar at Wee Jasper had advised against arriving at Coonamble or Walgett after dark, and especially not when the pubs were emptying.

Dinner was a “burger with the lot” at the truck stop next door.

Tuesday, 13 July 1999

Let them truckers roll! And roll they did, starting from about 0500, right outside my window. That explained the formerly cryptic notice on my wall: “Checkout time is 9:30 A.M. As the office is not open in the morning, please settle your account the night before.” Very cunning.

It’s a short drive from Gilgandra through Coonamble to Walgett, but I was driving through thick fog so I had to keep the speed down and it took a while. However, at Walgett the fog rolled back and in minutes I was ripping along under blue skies and a rolling fleece of white cumulus. It was not yet 1100 when I reached Lightening Ridge, and checked in to a caravan park for the night. Unfortunately, by 1230 I had pretty much done the town, and had a pie for lunch. If I wasn’t so mean I’d have turned my back on the lousy $20 I’d paid for my caravan and moved on already. But I am so I didn’t.

There is a tourist attraction at Lightening Ridge called “The Walk-In Mine” which, rather as the name implies, is just a mine which is open to the public although, no doubt, they have deepened and widened the adits more than they would normally bother. At the end there is an interesting half-hour video to watch, and then you come back.

Again I stalked the town. I took to visiting all the jewellers in search of something to take home to Jo. Although the place is famous for opals, of course, it was a little titanium and gold pendant which took my eye. More stalking …

Time for a book! J.G. Ballard’s User’s Guide to the Millennium (a mixture of good oil and pretentious crap – especially the stuff written for New Worlds magazine which, if you’ve never read a copy is just plain garbage so save yourself the bother) would help occupy a few hours. Then catch up with the diary, almost; “downtown” for a Chinese dinner, and so to bed.

Wednesday, 14 July 1999

For once I got up early and was off just after 0700. The drive south – almost back as far as Walgett – was memorable for the wildlife: kangaroos, a dingo, emus, and any number of birds: gulahs, kookaburras, cockatoos, and many others I couldn’t recognise. The birds, actually, were a bloody nuisance. They’d leave it until the last possible moment and then launch into the air directly in front of the car. I did a certain amount of braking and swerving to avoid the damn things, but, even so, over the course of the 400-odd kilometre drive via Moree, Warialda and Inverell to Glen Innes, I still struck two: an attractive black and white thing and a gulah.

Again, there was a great deal of mist about so driving was slow and kind of eerie: I felt a bit like Bruno Lawrence in The Quiet Earth. Around Glen Innes it started raining on and off.

Now, when I’d visited the Australian Museum, I had noted that a couple of interesting minerals came from around this area – specifically Deepwater and Emmaville – so I set off north again to go there. Deepwater was flat and uninspiring. I couldn’t even see any decent outcrop in the river. So I left the sealed road and drove through Stannum (I assume one mines tin there) and Torrington (isn’t that where Two Ton Ted, who drove the baker’s van, came from?) Just before the latter township, a woman had set up a sign saying ‘minerals for sale’ or something along those lines at the gate of her house. So I bowled up expecting to find some local stuff, but she told me she didn’t bother to stock anything local. Apparently swarms of people – “fossickers” – go there to find their own. So much for my clever observation in the museum. Anyway, I bought some Western Australian emerald crystals from her and headed off via the Emmaville museum (it’s ok but desperately needs better curation; the labels are vague at best and many I noticed were downright wrong) back to Glen Innes. By now the rain was falling fairly steadily; just right for a drive through Gibraltar Range National Park, to Grafton.

Well the park is terrific: at last some bush a Kiwi can relate to! Actually, the road goes over a series of high hills and the bush is noticeably stratified with altitude. It was really only the top bits, where there were many tree ferns, which strongly reminded me of home. Further on, descending the eastern side, the tree ferns disappeared and were replaced by palms of various sorts, looking deliciously tropical. Fifteen of twenty kilometres before Grafton, just as it was starting to rain again, I stopped for gas. The young woman at the service station told me the rain was serious: there was widespread flooding; streets were closed as far away as Sydney.

I drove as far as Woolgoolga through increasingly torrential rain and, soon, darkness, then stopped for the night at a motel.

Thursday, 15 July 1999

Woolgoolga, Coffs Harbour, Kempsey, some kind of lengthy magical-mystery-tour detour around flooding, Taree, then a lunch stop at Tuncurry. The Pacific Highway – Interstate 1 – is a shocking road. You have to constantly swerve to avoid potholes; it’s worse than some of the dirt roads I have driven.

After lunch I finished the drive through the Booti Booti and Myall Lakes National Parks, stopping at a road cut to investigate the badly weathered Carboniferous sandstone (strongly bedded, many holes – moulds? – with evidence of burrowing and other bioturbation) just north of Bungwahl. The parks were attractive enough, though my time was beginning to run out so I was unable to give them their fair due. Really, they looked worth going back to see properly. I then rejoined the Pacific Highway just north of Buladelah, and continued south.

Just before reaching Newcastle, not wishing to ever let a chance go by, I turned inland via Maitland and Singleton so as to approach Sydney via the Wollemi and Yengo National Parks; about a two hour drive through nice scenery. The warm brown, almost orange, sandstone which characterises The Rocks is very conspicuous here. As darkness fell, somewhere between 1700 and 1800, I pulled in to a motel in Windsor, and dined at the local Chinese where the canned music started out Irish – Shane McGowan in one form or another – but had given way to Leonard Cohen before I left. Who said he was dead?

Friday, 16 July 1999

I arose early and, I have to confess, with some trepidation, to essay the drive in to the city, to return the rental. My apprehension was heightened by having forgotten the name of the street in Kings Cross where I was supposed to leave the car, but I put in a call to Sharyn and encouraged myself by remembering that, after a couple of hours practice, I was driving through Rome like a native, and those bastards are way crazier than anything Australia has to offer. As it turns out, my fears proved groundless. Sharyn called back before I’d even hit the M2; the Australian commuters were purposeful, competent and courteous – unlike the Italians who are, let’s not beat about the bush, raving lunatics; the street signs made sense; and even my brief discomfiture at discovering the M2 was depositing me on the north side of the harbour, rather than the south, subsided quickly. I crossed the bridge, paid my two buck toll, took the Grosvenor Street exit and within minutes found myself trolling east on Williams – just where I wanted to be – hung a left when I saw the Budget sign and cruised into their lot on Crown. Yes, the south end of Sydney harbour bridge at 0800 on a weekday is as busy as it would be if the entire mobile population of New Zealand was driving through, say, Ekatahuna simultaneously, but far better behaved I suspect.

From the car depot I caught a cab to my hotel, then headed back into town by bus. My first order of business was to give Abbey’s a second go, since I clearly hadn’t been in the mood the previous Saturday. Almost immediately I discovered their language section upstairs – the Chinese block alone was almost a mini edition of the treasure trove in Goulburn Street. For some strange reason I had never ventured upstairs there before. I was just in the agonising throes of deciding whether or not to buy a huge, beautiful, but expensive book on the history of Chinese art when my cell phone rang. Could I please go out and visit the head office of one of our Auckland clients? Details were being faxed through to my hotel. Well, fuck you very much. Anyway, I did it and it was nice to catch up with Gerard again after two years or so, but unfortunately the head office was located in Blacktown – nearly an hour each way by cab, so that essentially wrote off the rest of the day.

Getting on towards dinner time, I walked from my hotel, the McLaren, to the North Sydney shops, but they were all closed. Closed? At 6 PM on a Friday? Basically, Australians and Kiwis are indistinguishable. We share the same qualities and shortcomings; the same outlook on life; the same deep, national appreciation for huge quantities of really cold beer. Don’t let the parochial sporting chauvinism fool you: we are fashioned from the same stuff. Yet here was something genuinely “foreign” – darkened windows and closed doors early on a Friday evening. Maybe it was just a North Sydney phenomenon and the CBD was hopping: I don’t know.

I ended up hopping, though. Channel hopping between five equally crappy offerings on TV. After a very passable dinner of Mongolian Lamb at Ho’s noodle shop, I ended up watching Fantasy Island. For Christ’s sake.


Saturday, 17 July 1999

Last day. The day to stock up on presents. I bought well, though probably not wisely. We would see. Anyway, the plastic took a hammering.

About 1100 or so I drifted back to the George Street market … and Sydney worked her magic again. This week the orange airline ladies were replaced by two or three (I never actually got a clear view of them) Italian-sounding singer/musicians, of the type you used to find serenading you at Italian restaurants in the ’70s, wandering among the stalls. Of course, the stuff they sell there is mostly junk although one time I bought a nice ammonite there for a really reasonable price. I nearly did the same again this day, but in the end I was too mean to part with the 50 bucks they wanted. I still had two “new” Asaphus trilobites at home that I had barely drooled over before setting forth on this trip. So I hardened my heart against the little ammonite and plunged into The Rocks. A jazz trio was the first diversion. They were very good. I don’t know who pays these people – if they get paid at all – but they were not buskers, at least not in the usual sense. There is no hat or other obvious receptacle for money; applause seems to be all they want.

Around the corner a stall was selling black and white photographs, framed or rolled, of Alistair McNaughten’s studies of aboriginal life. I bought one of a gorgeous little kid hugging a sleepy pet. Any other time I’d have dismissed it a too cutesy …

… but not today.

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