We are led astray

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We’re lucky to be all still here. On Thursday, Hazel’s birthday, we found ourselves in Max Brenner, aka Chocolate By The Bald Man, at Sydney’s St Ives.

By the door were two vats with tubes leading out of them.

Hazel gazed enthralled through the glass tops at the viscous brown loveliness, twirled by mechanical paddles.

Above the vats, a sign proclaimed: “Look, Mum, Willy Wonka is alive.”

Fortunately the Oompa Loompas had the day off.

Everywhere you looked there were chocolatey goodies, chocolatey propaganda notices and equipment for the preparation and serving of… chocolate.

So what did we have but Belgian chocolate waffles with ice cream, chocolate sauce, strawberries and bananas.

And to drink we had chocolate mocha.

I asked one of the friendly chocolatiers if there were any branches of Max Brenner in Europe and she smilingly reassured me that there were none.

I could feel our life expectancy expand.

  • We started the day with a sunlit barbie breakfast at Joey’s before visiting one of Australia’s national parks and having affogato beside the $1m cruisers at Akuna Bay.

Hazel and I enjoyed ours, but our coffee-savvy Aussie hosts were unimpressed.

Then it was on to the panoramic vista of West Head, overlooking Barron Joey Head and Palm Beach.

“Rather an eagle than turkey be” is one of Hazel’s sayings.

So she was thrilled when we saw two eagles launch themselves from nearby trees and soar out over the ocean.

I took a picture, but I’ve seen dirt spots on my screen bigger than the birds.

Too quick to photograph was a 3ft iguana which thought the better of crossing the road in front of us and darted back into the bush.

We couldn’t pause to see if it would return because we had an appointment with chocolate.

The day was rounded off with a magnificent Thai feast at Beecroft.

Top photo: Hazel, Sheree and Joey quickly surrender to temptation at Max Brenner



Ev’rybody’s surfin’ bar us

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A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall was one of the songs the four of us sang philosophically as we drove in the direction of Sydney Harbour on Tuesday.

We were being stoical because the song wasn’t a prophetic metaphor. Rain was bouncing high off the motorway.

It was wise to be unconcerned because by the time we arrived at Nielsen Park, the storm had passed and we were able to take a walk in bright sunlight.

Boys on a school outing played football under the trees.

Swimmers swam lazily by… behind the protection of the shark nets. 

A sun-baked, straggly-bearded man gingerly made his way toward the sea and then took his dip… outside the netting. Fatalist.

The skies were busy with seaplanes and helicopters. There were yachts passing and, in the distance thank goodness, jet-skiers wove their wake patterns across the tide.

Behind them, skyscrapers clustered on the skyline and to their left the iconic Opera House challenged us yet again not to rub our eyes in disbelief.

We climbed to a viewpoint and did our tourist duty, snapping the sights and each other before returning to a shoreside eatery for lunch, Mediterranean-style this time. 

It tasted fresh-citrus and olive delicious, even though the couscous was soggy.

Allison, our hostess, guide and chauffeur, told us this was Nicole Kidman’s local. I swivelled in my chair and scanned the clientele, but there was no sign. Nicole mustn’t have heard we were coming.

After lunch we headed upwards and then down a hill to Bondi Beach to tick off another must-see.

An unmanned television camera was mounted on the lifeguards’ lookout tower. The only lifeguard visible at that time was lankily draped across a nearby buggy.

We took this lack of Bondi Rescue drama as an encouragement.

After plodding hundreds of yards across light, powdery sand, we braved the water, up to our ankles. 

It wasn’t as cold as at Ballygally, which will always be my measuring stick for such matters.

Scores of surfers appeared to share my appreciation of the water temp.

One bronzed specimen with a red headband attracted our attention with the way he bounced his board across the waves, always ending his run with a jump and turn.

There’s probably a surfer’s term for that, but, ignoramus that I am, I don’t know it. “Show-off” maybe.

Most of the others seemed content simply to ride their boards to the shore and fall off when they arrived.

It’s a great sport… for spectating. 

On our way back up the beach, I indulged in another Bondi sport, but discreetly. As the only male in our party, I had already been warned of the hot water that leering would land me in.

Then it was souvenir shop, postcard shop, cappuccino* and home.

What good tourists we are!

* Invented by Viennese monks in the 17th century and so named because its colour reminded them of Cappuchins’ robes. Travel broadens the mind.


Port Arthur

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Step into a green

Willow cascade and find

Limbs bound with metal

In this place even

Trees try to fly

Thought too

Becomes captive

Walls have ears?

These ones talk

Name all pains

Defensive jests

Choke in throat

Eyes stream

Blurring barriers

Leave! You’re

Free to do so

Go where

You please

But you’ll

Never escape

What you’ve

Learned here

We visited Port Arthur in Tasmania on Tuesday, January 7, 2012


Brief encounter

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Do I have words that can do justice to Australia’s Blue Mountains? Maybe, but it would be a waste of energy trotting them out when I can show you a picture.

At the viewpoint, the cameras, humble and elaborate, were on overtime as visitors captured both the scenery and each other in a moment of “Look where I am!” triumph.

Pressed into the outer corner, against the railing and in prime position, two women posed for a friend.

They were practised at this, angling their bodies to the side, heads thrown slightly back, hands on hips. Hold it! Lovely!

But they had nothing on the grey mini-dressed Japanese girl who followed them.

I don’t know if she was mocking the previous subjects or herself, but she gave it the full catwalk model schtick, sideways on, one arm imperiously twisted forward in a salute to the lens, mouth serious and eyes twinkling with suppressed merriment.

It was so unexpected and brilliantly done that I laughed out loud.

When this voguing star had moved on, Allison put Hazel and me in the hot spot and urged us to kiss.

We did so… and stopped when we heard her exclaim in frustration. Camera malfunction.

As we watched Allison poking at her iPhone screen, we became aware that someone had hurried up to us.

It was the Japanese girl. Smiling, wordlessly, she gestured for an encore.

We complied, her shutter clicked and off she went, like a butterfly collector with that elusive happy-ever-after moment warming her specimen jar.

Top: Mount Solitary. Below: The Three Sisters


The only way is up

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Mount Wellington acts as a reference point, wherever you are in Tasmania.

We headed straight for it after our visit to the market.

The snaking road up to Mount Wellington has signs for bad weather conditions, letting visitors how high they are likely to get.

At the foot we drove through the ever-plentiful stringy barks and gum trees and as we approached the top these thinned out until we reached what was called the petrified forest, an area of burnt trunks and branches which is now beginning to vanish under fresh growth.

Protecting vehicles and their occupants is five miles of thick steel cable which once drew trams along the streets of Melbourne.

The road was built in conditions of considerable hardship during the nineteen thirties as a work relief scheme.

As we went up we could seen organ pipe-like cliffs, which echo similar ones in the Giants Causeway back home. Rock climbers use them for practice, although they are not considered a difficult challenge.

Hazel and I were encouraged to close our eyes as we approached the summit to maximise the wow factor.

And “Wow” of course was exactly what we said when we got out of the car.

We looked down on the miniature Hobart which we had just left and had a panoramic view around the coast.

It was easy to spot where and to what extent the island had been developed, the rivers and bridges.

We had been very lucky with the weather, standing there in our tee shirts.

Often visitors have to wrap up against cold windy blasts and find themselves in the middle of soaking clouds which reduces the visibility to a matter of yards.

But not us. We weren’t exactly warm, but we kept moving about and walked to the other side of the summit.

To this side, we could see that the South Western portion of the island was wilderness, a wilderness that some foolish and inexpert souls still challenge and pay with their lives.

John told us that, preferably theoretically, one could travel in that direction and not encounter human civilisation until you reached South America.

There are television masts at the summit and signs warn that the levels of radio signals can interfere with car door opening blippers.

This didn’t stop us. And we all went home for tea, tired and satisfied!




Those girls are the reel deal

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Had neither time nor inclination to write much during our week in Tasmania, so here are a few random recollections.

A hilarious highlight of our visit was the Irish dancing display by Judith’s granddaughters Niamh and Ena.

The music was traditional (Altan), the costumes were more Bolshoi, but the seriousness of the performers could not be questioned.

They advanced down the room toward us, pointing their toes, bobbing up and down in approximate time to the music and frowning in concentration.

Then when they were in our midst, it turned more into a gymnastic display.

While Niamh carried on performing, three-year-old Ena appeared to lose interest and broke off to attack me with a toy sunflower. 

Rebuked by her mother, Penny, my assailant paused to study me and then gave her verdict: “You’ve got no hair!”

“That’s because it’s all fallen down onto my chin,” I told her.

My respite was brief. Ena brushed my beard experimentally with her fingertips before resuming the sunflower assault.

The beard came in handy in cutting down on the comparison time when my also facially hirsute brother, John, was introducing me to people.

They tended to glance this way and that and then nod.

On our first day, we went to the Salamanca Market down by the Hobart dock house.

Trees dappled the sunlight on the stalls, there were enticing aromas and buskers serenaded on fiddle, pipes and accordion.

Wares on sale ranged from the cheap and cheerful to some quite expensive craftwork. 

We had not long since had breakfast, but the foodstuffs on display, particularly the fruit and veg, were not to be ignored.

Then Hazel made a beeline toward a jewellery stall and I made a wiggly line toward a bee stall. 

Well, it was a honey stall whose owner had a perspex-sided beehive on display.

He was earnestly explaining to a customer the caution required in transplanting a queen bee. I felt my eyelids grow heavy as he droned on and moved away.

In truth I had become more interested in the shoppers and blatantly enjoyed some people watching.

Coming from somewhere where the inhabitants are still predominantly European, it was a novelty to encounter the racial diversity of the crowd, which was made up of locals and tourists.

There were lots of beautiful people about… and I’m not talking about the unmistakable cruise liner visitors.

Just people of all shapes, sizes, ages, genders and skin tones. I loved seeing them all moving in and out of sight as they went about their business.

Brother John also led us to some upmarket art shops in the cool old buildings alongside the market. These contained many exquisite items, priced for the cruise liner customer.

There were paintings with lots of zeroes in the price tags. Yes, we’ll take two…

But we weren’t charged to look and we enjoyed peering through a wood-sculpted kaleidoscope. 

Next to it were gorgeous boxes made from Huon Pine, with its distinctive knotty eyes, and Tasmanian Blackwood.

These boxes are made by supremely talented craftspeople, sometimes at considerable risk, John pointed out.

Tasmanian Blackwood dust causes cancer of the sinus, so this wood is banned in school woodwork classes.

We ended our visit with a snack in a down to earth little cafe, The Rendezvous, which we selected in memory of a long-gone establishment back home in Larne.

Then we headed for the mountains.


Hat and cane

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Places often become inextricably linked with the entertainment enjoyed there.

When we were in Cancun for our daughter’s wedding, it was Michael Jackson… not that he was there in person.

But wherever we went, the opening bars of Billie Jean would herald the appearance of a fedora’d imitator, legs thrashing and arms flailing.

Strangely enough, here in Tasmania we appear to have gone further backwards in time.

Charlie Chaplin’s the man.

When we arrived on Friday and John was driving us up to Fern Tree, he pulled into a filling station.

“I filled up on the way down,” he said, “but I’d like you to meet this guy.”

A customer accompanied by a small child was at the door of the office behind the pumps. And when proprietor Neville Rodman came out, it wasn’t with anything as mundane as a receipt or an oily rag.

He was walking a Charlie Chaplin puppet toward them. Entertaining customers’ children is all part of the service at this station.

With adults, John told us, Neville will pass the time of day discussing philosophy and literature.

On June 16 every year he flies a flag to mark Bloomsday, the celebration of the date on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set.

This befits a man who plainly enjoys wordplay. To the left of the office there is a garage door, labelled in huge black capitals “PROCRASTITORIUM”.

Neville, it appears, is a man for long-term projects.

A smaller sign nearby proclaims: “Cheerful whistling permitted.”

There is also a hazard sign warning against political correctness.

So that was our first stop on arriving in Tasmania and the first appearance of Charlie Chaplin.

Then yesterday, Monday, we went to Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, which I intend to describe in more detail later (probably under an Adult Content warning).

And there was Charlie Chaplin again. This time Hazel encountered him, unexpectedly projected on the floor in front of a toilet bowl.

She was luckier than John, who found a pair of binoculars on a lanyard in his cubicle. Whatever could they have been for?

On our return to Fern Tree, appetite whetted, we watched a video of Modern Times, the Chaplin film the museum had been showing to those who went to the toilet… And also on the wall beside a nearby bar.

There seems no escaping the Little Tramp on this leg of our Australian sojourn, which we will surely remember for a lot of joyful laughter.



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