Kakadu Travel Diary Part 2

I’m still in a weird, stream of consciousness mood from the steroids and antibiotics. While trying not to get sucked into the rabbit hole of the internet (too much negativity, click bait, comparing and crazy stuff going on that I can’t do anything about), I decided to finish posting my Kakadu photos.

On our last day in Kakadu, there was a knock on the door of our tent and we were informed that someone had cancelled their fishing trip and we could take the slot if we wanted. Finn was so thrilled because he had been told that the fishing boat was fully booked for the whole week. He changed in two seconds, and ran out of the door with me following behind. Then I heard a big thud – he had tripped off the raised wooden deck outside of our room and was shrieking from the mud below. He wasn’t hurt much, just some scrapes, bruises and tears.

This sounds terrible, but my first instinct was actually to feel irritated at him. It was the third time that day that he had fallen or tripped over something and my eardrums were just about to give out. I just snapped at his wailing face, “Finn, stop it! I have had enough of you being clumsy!”. And then I realised I sounded just like my mum. I remember my mother yelling at me throughout my whole childhood for being uncoordinated, clumsy, awkward as well, and I felt really rotten for something that he hadn’t intended at all. Amazing thing, the conditioning we pass down through the generations if we’re not careful.

I took a deep breath and pulled him into the shower, still wailing away, and washed all the mud off. I heard Mark calling the front desk to cancel the fishing trip, and yelled from the shower to hold on. I asked Finn if he still wanted to go fishing. Finn inhaled sharply, looked at me with his big, brimming eyes and nodded. So I squirted some antiseptic on his cuts and off we went.

It was coming up to sunset and the light reflecting off the water everywhere was enchanting. We were lure fishing so we had to cast and reel in continuously. There’s something to be said for repetitive activities. In this modern world, automation has removed the need for us to actually use our hands to do anything over and over again, with the exception of typing.

I found the repeated casting and winding the reel, feeling the sensuous pull of the line against the heavy water, so meditative and peaceful. Losing yourself and your mind in it. Unwinding the frustration and anger of the day.

We didn’t catch anything. Not a single nibble, although the barramundi were jumping all around us, and there were plenty of crocs eyeing us smarmily from across the river banks. And that was okay. Finn is very zen in his approach to fishing. We’ve been out fishing about 9 times and only caught things a third of the time.

I think it’s really healthy for kids to learn about frustration just being a normal thing, just part and parcel of the fabric of life. It’s good to balance out that instant gratification culture we live in where any game you can think of can be downloaded from the app store in an instant and just about anything procured from a google search.

It was also great for me to have that time to think about my own pent-up anger and how most of it was created by my own expectations of how things ‘should’ be, feeling disconnected when my life doesn’t live up to my standards, instead of accepting it as it really is, scrapes, bumps, insect bites, quarrelling, tears, randomness and other ordinary things. Sometimes things just suck and that’s ok too, even if no one on Facebook is posting about it.

The quiet times in the afternoon were my favourite parts of the trip. Watching Dylan drawing outside the tent at sundown, her little cheeks flushed satin-pink from the day’s activities.

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Watching Finn play football (I refuse to call it “soccer” like the Aussies / Americans) in the fading light with the other kids, weaving around the massive termite mounds which are everywhere in Kakadu. It’s cute and touching, how easily kids form these transient friendships when they’re on holiday.

Full disclosure – the Irishman did arrange for us to go out in Darwin on a proper fishing boat the next week and we ended up catching 9 fish between us – golden snapper, salmon, batfish, flathead, cod… Finn was thrilled.

The best thing about Darwin was the magnificent agate red sunsets and the dinners we had on the deck at Hanuman, a casual Indian / Thai restaurant. Otherwise the town was curiously devoid of charm and people. It reminded me of the heartlands in Singapore, monotonous concrete slab buildings, bland urban sprawl, soulless malls.

As you may have gathered, it wasn’t the best holiday ever – I was too itchy from being bitten by insects and not sleeping well at night in the un-airconditioned tent, and the kids were really scrappy for most of the trip. I ended up yelling and losing my temper a lot more than I’m happy to admit. The Irishman was on business phone calls half the time, stomping about on 3 hour conference calls even when we were in the middle of nowhere, looking most incongruous talking about financing and balance sheets in the middle of the outback while the birds cackled in the background.  As in Dylan’s favourite book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, sometimes it’s just like that. Even in Australia.

So I was so happy to get home to the farmhouse this week. Even though it’s chilly here, my bed has got exquisite, soft linens on it and a heating pad underneath. The fresh brisk eucalyptus air is insect-free and I don’t wake up with kamikaze mosquitoes going ‘WheeeEEE!” in my ear. I’ve got a library of fascinating books to read and cookbooks to work through and an abundance of friends to have tea with. I love my adventures and all, but my favourite place in the world is always the ordinary miracle I call home.

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

Taking pictures in the dark

You remember how I said in my last post that we were one of the lucky ones who only had a few hours of the power outage last week? Well karma’s a bitch. The very next day after I wrote that post, we were treated to our very own blackout for 48 hours, being one of the only 38 households in our district to be affected by the falling pines trees on our road.

Luckily the candles were just where we left them, and this time I had the Irishman in the house, who made himself quite useful chopping wood, lighting fires, boiling water and transferring it gradually into Finn’s tropical fish tank every hour to warm the poor buggers up.

I took some photos as well but the F1.2 lens that I have on my camera is so ridiculously good that all the photos look 10 times brighter than the reality. It was nearly pitch black in the house once we finished roasting the chicken in the fireplace, as Finn calls it, “caveman style”.

We all ended up in the living room huddled around the fire again, the kids telling jokes in the dark and occasionally glancing at the waning battery bars of their digital devices. You know what is really great in the dark? The sound of the grand piano echoing in the gloom.

This week I’m playing Hans Zimmer’s Time – the magnificent theme from the movie Inception.

I went everywhere with my trusty brass oil ship lamp, the most reliable, beautiful thing.

The next day we bought this monster of a generator which makes a terrific racket when on, it honestly sounds just like a jumbo jet taking off right outside your window, but apparently it is powerful enough to run the whole house. I’m getting an electrician to hook it up permanently next to the mains so that the next time the power trips we can just flip the switch. Very zombie apocalypse. But even though it’s nice to sit around the fire and tell stories, it’s not so pleasant to have a fridge full of rotting cheeses and a chest freezer of putrefying homemade chicken stock and slowly melting racks of our farmed lambs. Nothing more depressing than hearing that drip drip sound of your food melting away in the dark.

Look at that monstrosity! That completes the picture now. We have our septic waste treatment tank, dam, 100,000 litre water tanks x 4, LPG gas bullet and generator. If the zombies come, you’ll want to be on our team. BRAINS!

When the lights go out

Yesterday, ferocious winds of 130 kilometres gusted across the Peninsula. I drove home, feeling the car buffeted left and right by the waves of wind. It was like steering a ship. Power lines were down, the traffic lights were out and brave traffic police directed traffic in the lashing rain while cars flashed their hazards at each other to indicate fallen trees ahead.

A huge gum tree fell on the road outside our house but I managed to drive around it. Thank goodness for our reliable Toyota Prado which has had plenty of practice trampling through the thick bush surrounding our house to get out on the main road when the driveway has been blocked.

All day my phone beeped with messages from neighbours comparing notes on who had power and who didn’t. 76 year old Lilian called to ask if I had blown away in the wind. I thought it was funny that she was checking in on me. Then I called her back to ask if she needed to come over to ours for a sleepover. The water pump wasn’t working. I called the Irishman, who was in Darwin on business, probably sipping a pina colada, and he helpfully suggested that I “suck on a tube and siphon the water tank.”. I told him he could suck on his own fecking tube.

The dogs had drank the last of the San Pelligrino and were farting copiously from the sparkling bubbles. I ran to the grocery store and bought their last 6 bottles of mineral water and San Pellegrino.

We were one of the lucky ones, the electricity came back on at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, thus preventing Finn’s tropical fish tank from turning into sushi soup.

The first thing you do after your power comes back on is to fill up the bathtub with water so if it goes off again, you’ll have somewhere to do the dishes and wash things.

The second thing you do is to scream with horror when you see the disgusting kombucha tea like liquid pouring into your tub and realise that this is what you’ve got to drink for the next few months.

The next day, I dropped the kids at school which was still in black out mode. Teachers wrapped in beanies and layers of woollens stoked the wood stoves in the classrooms and the gleeful kids told stories about how they had to have a sleepover at their aunt’s house the night before, or how they had to read by candlelight or how they toasted their sandwiches in the fireplace. Half the families I spoke to said that their power was still down.

Finn and Dylan were thrilled, it was quite an adventure to see their school transformed into a shadowy cozy place and the teachers running around saying things like “The printer’s not working!” and “We’ll have to cancel cooking today!”.
As I walked out, I saw Finn sitting on the floor in the dark, captivated by the stories his classmates were telling about the various adventures they had in the dark. And then a teacher from next door burst into their class room with a scary face on and yelled “It’s a spooky day at school and all the teachers are wearing black and sneaking around so the kids can’t see them… Woooo!!!” and the kids fell about the floor in hysterics.

Back on the farm, I did a walkabout. Pooky the peacock seems to have had quite a few tail feathers broken off in the storm, but he was in good spirits and ate his oatmeal and the kids breakfast scraps gratefully. The ducks and chickens were fine, enjoying the muddy puddles in the orchard.

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Our courtyard garden is very sheltered so it was situation normal there. Some yellow daffodils had sprung up and were nodding cheerfully in the wind.

The forest was a different story. A few trees had come crashing down in the North East corner of our bushland, bringing down a large section of fence separating us from our neighbours property.

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The sheep were encrusted in bits of bark, twigs and brambles and glared at me accusingly, stomping their cloven front hooves when I threw them a fresh new biscuit of hay. The wind had blown the top off the pail storing the alpacas vitamin, grain and molasses mix and I gave them the sodden contents of the bucket as a special treat.

It’s funny but I quite enjoyed our little lock down yesterday. Whenever there’s a storm, our community pulls together and we feel that much more connected to each other, making sure that every one is ok, no one gets left alone in the dark. I read C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to the little ones at night and we wondered about passages to magical lands.

Sometimes when the lights go out, we go in, and there is magic waiting.

All there is

Today I had a beautiful pink cashmere turtleneck jumper on. So of course it would be the day we needed to move the alpaca shed into the front paddock. Mandate and Blackadder watched with amusement and made derisive alpaca jokes as Sean, Mark and myself hoisted the canvas shed up the hill and bumped into multiple low hanging tree branches along the way. Glamorous Pink Turtleneck is now covered in mud, eucalyptus bark and the curious little spiky burrs that the kids call “Bidgy Widgys”.

Some of my country friends suggested that I wear “gardening clothes” around the house, but I find that idea a bit… blergh. Life is short. Wear the fancy stuff!

My mum tells me that when I was little, she tried to stop me from wearing my party dresses every day but I told her sagely that I was maximising their value, given that I’d grow out of them soon enough. Who could argue with that logic?

It reminds me of this story about Nora Ephron – apparently a reporter asked her if it was really true that she used her silverware everyday, and she arched an eyebrow and said “Every day is all there is.”

Winter 1

The winter sun is an elusive thing, but when it comes out, it’s so dramatic and beautiful with its low slanting beams. Our mudbrick house has a vine covered trellis running down the perimeter of its three wings .

During the Summer, the vines are full of lush palm sized leaves, the sun is high and the trellis provides a rich, dappled shade to the verandah.

During autumn, the trellis turns a stunning beautiful flame red. And then in winter, the leaves all drop off, exposing the stark twisted vines, and letting the sun beams flood through the french doors and the sunlights in the roof, drenching the house golden.

Winter 2

The birds are getting desperate for food now and the beautiful Rosellas, Cockatoos and Galahs forage around our lawn endlessly. Sometimes you might see a heron fishing near the dam or a pair of kookaburras sitting high up in one of the tall trees at the edge of the forest.

I’m not a very arts & crafty type of person, so we have other indoor pursuits like cooking (today I am testing a Ramen-crusted Buttermilk Chicken recipe ahead of my cooking class at the kids school tomorrow), reading lots of Roald Dahl classics (Finn is addicted to the BFG now) , playing “Hotel” (a game which involves pretending the house is a hotel, checking the guests into each room and bringing them milk and cookies for room service. A very useful way of making use of all those random hotel keycards we’ve accumulated!).

I must also admit that we’re running up quite a lot of iPad time as we are an internet and social media loving family. The iPads and Nintendos are getting a bit out of hand though so I shall have to get the scrabble board out this week. Btw, Dylan and I are addicted to that Iggy Azalea video “Fancy”, Dylan struts around the house singing to herself random Iggy-isms “Whodat whodat. I-G-G-Y… Dodat do dat…. You already know… From L.A. to To-ki-O!”

The kids still love walking in the bush, their gumboots cracking the dead gnarled branches that line the forest floor. There’s always something to do – a bit of rusty old chain that needs to be removed from a paddock, a patch of deadly nightshade that needs to be ripped out, a sheep that needs to be wrestled down so that it can have the brambles picked out of its wool.

Winter 5

Sometimes there seems to be no trajectory to our Winter days, just an ebb and flow of normality. I used to get depressed every time Winter rolled around in Australia.

No big social events, picnics, hanging out at the beach, impromptu barbecues, long outdoor dinners, but now I can really appreciate the quiet.

Hanging out with our family, being grateful for a perfectly ordinary day, appreciating the simple fact that our house is filled with love and light. Nora was right, every day is all there is, and it is enough.

 

Winter 10

The Great Chestnut Conspiracy

This is a public service announcement. It’s chestnut season and the markets are full of those tempting shiny little brown cuties.

Now if you do what I did and google “how to roast chestnuts”, every single webpage will tell you to use a “small sharp serrated knife” and “carefully cut an X incision on the rounded side of the chestnut.” to prevent the little suckers from exploding in the heat.

This is utter bollocks! After 15 minutes of ungainly and dangerous sawing, I assure you that using a sharp serrated knife to make said incision will actually result in a one-way ticket to the ER and you never ever being able to listen to that bloody “chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” song again without cussing like Azealia Banks on crack.

Instead, get out a big cleaver, like a Chinese chopper if you have one of those. Carefully put the chestnuts flat side down on a chopping board and fold your non-dominant arm behind your back so that you don’t chop it off. Now give each chestnut baby a judicious thwack with the sharp edge of the cleaver. I say judicious so you don’t end up splitting the whole chestnut apart. Don’t channel Hitchcock’s Psycho or you’ll end up with a pulverised mess.

Now put the whole bunch of split chestnuts either a cast iron skillet on the hot coals of your fireplace for 20 mins or so or roast in your oven at 200 degrees C.

Mmm, there’s nothing like the smell of those roasting chestnuts. Peel them while they’re hot with your unmaimed hands complete with opposable thumbs and enjoy!

The rhythm of Winter

A chilly wind blew away the last of the golden Autumn sunshine this week and it’s well and truly Winter now. Being a Singapore girl, I relish the change of seasons. It’s still subliminally exotic to me after a lifetime of monotonous 30 degree C tropical humidity. My first proper overseas trip was to Perth when I was 9 and as the airport doors opened and blasted us with freakishly cold air, my brother and I screamed and ran about wild-eyed with joy. I don’t even think it was winter! What wusses we were.

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s Winter – the time of the year when we turn our attention inwards to heal, replenish and prepare for another cycle of growth.

Winter means that it’s time to fill the fire baskets with kindling and wood. To collect the last pine cones from the forest to use as fire starters. Bring out the fur lined Sorel boots. Swap the jasmine candles in the living room for the wood and incense ones that smell like an ancient church in Europe. Worm the sheep and trim the alpacas hooves. Rake, mulch and prune in the garden. And the list goes on.

While I was doing these things, it occurred to me that I love the rituals and rhythms our family has built over the last few years on the farm.

Our gratitude ritual at dinner. Taking turns talking about our “high-lights and low-lights” of the day. Foraging for pine mushrooms in our secret forest spots. Filling jars with homemade spicy kimchi, so full of good probiotics. Taco night (though the kids are now campaigning for Chinese DIY Hot Pot night now).

I even cherish the silly little things that have become stone-set family tradition like yelling “Not McDonalds AGAIN!” whenever we pass by any branch of the Golden Arches (a ritual which originated from a trip to the Grampians when Daddy took the wrong turn on the highway and got lost which resulted in us doing many many circles around McDonalds)

And Dylan and Finn’s favourite – when they get cranky on long car trips, we bust out a round of “Dada’s Underpants” – a game which involves answering all questions directed at you with the response “Dada’s Underpants”. Any smiling or laughing gets you instantly disqualified. E.g. “What’s your favourite breakfast in the morning Dylan?” “Dada’s Underpants!”. Dylan is such a zen master at this game that she didn’t break form at a pit stop and when a Bunnings employee asked her how she was, she replied “Dada’s Underpants” with a polite nod.

Rituals, routines, rhythms are all part of the fabric of building a family. They are the things that make our kids feel safe and also part of something bigger than themselves. We quarrel less and feel more like a team when we built a common language. With any luck they will be passing some of these down to their own children in time to come and I will be hearing Dada’s Underpants for decades to come.

What are your family rituals? I’d love to know. Wishing you a peaceful and healing winter.