Jim and Lizzie

April 30, 2007

My first travel journal of any substance was an old hardback invoice notebook that I had lifted from one of the local farmers – from a pile of old stationery in one of his sheds. I must have assumed he had less need of it than I. It went with me to Stewart Island in 1976 when we spent a week or so walking what is a comparatively remote island. Located 25miles off the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand. (Google Earth 46°55’0.25″S 168° 5’33.75″E) One of those freakish, glorious places with dense fern jungles and what in warmer climes would be nothing less than rain forest. Creeks you can drink out of as you go. In fact I recall drinking from puddles in the track – we were high on a perpetual false crest, having hauled ourselves up a hillside by the mossy roots of tall hardwoods. It was hot, we were on high ground, there were no streams, we were not in the habit of carrying water (it is not the Australian bush after all) and we were exhausted. It did not take long before those clear puddles were very attractive. Ironically, having made the top of that ridge we descended shortly thereafter into Patersons Inlet, a creek mouth, and all the fresh water we could drink.

We staggered into Patersons Inlet on dusk, to a hut that was decrepit and falling down. Old tin and timber, with a loose chimney and fireplace. And no lighting, which in itself was no problem. We had spent the day walking a track on which there was no other person. Indeed, one of the attractions of this island is its isolation and its small hiking population. Sorry, “tramping population” to those of you from NZ. As the sun fell, that sense of isolation was heightened by the calls the Whitetail deer were making. The stags bellowed out in the bush somewhere over my right shoulder as I picked my way down the bush track and I was confirmed in our remote and wild wilderness.

That pleasant sensation was bent a little when we entered the dim, no dark, hut. We had plans to light a fire and get comfortable. To get our sleeping bags up on the (three) tiered bunk structure that lined one end of the hut. (We would get a dozen people in there with no problem). You can imagine our surprise when in the darkness two people sat up and peered at us from the top tier. Very hippie like and dishevelled. Camped together in their grungy sleeping bag. Looking over the edge like a couple of surprised but dozy possums. (Years later I thought of them when the British “Young Ones” was on TV. Neal had an uncanny likeness of demeanour to them). Jim and Lizzie. Probably playing doctors and nurses up there to their hearts content thinking they had this place to themselves and only the wild deer out there bellowing their heads off to worry about. Enjoying their wilderness until we crashed in. We crashed out again the next day and they were still up on the top beds looking down at us from out of the dimness, by now pinpricked by light filtering through the leaky roof. I wonder where they ended up.

My first journal entry, in green ink, titled “Jim and Lizzie” contained an account of Jim and Lizzie. And a cartoon sketch of their camp up near the roof. They did wander around a bit getting dinner and all that, but they were quick to repair to their little lair just as soon as they could. That journal hung around for years but I am not sure where it ended up. Probably just as well it is compost – I dread to think what I might have reflected on Jim and Lizzie. Probably something judgemental from an immature head and hand. In hindsight there are moments when I think back to the solitude of Patersons Inlet and think Jim and Lizzie had it right!

A Gunner in Vietnam – Killed By His Own Hand

April 27, 2007

Funny how random things can spark random thoughts. The picture of Spud standing in the rain in Martin Place sparked thoughts over the last couple of days about a good friend I used to serve with. He was an Airfield Defence Guard. For those of us serving in relative comfort in the Air Force he was one of those strange few who elected to live rough, cold and wet. A kind of Air Force infantry who were trained to do what their job title says – defend airfields. During the Vietnam War they did just that but also served as the door gunners in 9 Squadron helicopters. They also mixed it with the regular infantry and in the case of my friend he spent some time with a US Marine unit patrolling the jungles.He was one of those guys you share a barracks with who was always boisterous, loud, happy and on the go. A larrikin. Prankster. Knew all the perks. Knew all the senior officers and who to see if you needed half a sheep for a bar-b-que, your car fixed, or a free ride to Darwin for a few days in the sun at the tax-payers expense. He was nearly ten years older than the rest of us so we all tended to defer to him. Trusted with the keys to the troop’s bar, he would always be the one who closed it, long after the duty barman had gone home. Many a time I woke to hear him singing his drunken ditties as he ambled back to the barracks by himself.

It is an evening that seems to get clearer in my mind as the years go on. I came into the barracks one evening and he was on the floor in tears. When he saw it was me he got up and locked the door and swore me to silence. Then he dragged a military issue trunk out from under the bed, wrestled with the padlock for a while and then pulled out dozens of photo albums. He went immediately to one in particular and spread it and its loose photos out over the floor. It contained a series of fading colour shots of him standing on a jungle clearing with the head of a Vietnamese soldier in each hand. He was grasping them by their hair and holding them out from his body like a pair of gym weights. At his feet there were other severed heads. They had successfully out-ambushed an ambush and his grinning face betrayed the relief they felt. So too the US Marines standing around and watching.

He put those photos away (there were others as macabre) and through his tears told me he could not reconcile, even these nine or so years after the war, how it was that he had been able to “play God”. And he proceeded to recount how, from the door of the helicopters he was able to tap a few rounds behind a running target moving across a rice paddy, make him stop by tapping a few rounds in front him, steer him left or right with rounds on either side, and then cut him down with a long burst just as the runner got to the safety of the tree line. Over and over again. With no feeling, except that it was somehow a game and he had complete power. Now he raged against the abuse of that power and I gained some insight into why this friendly, outgoing, very loveable guy was the way he was: it was all a front. A cover-up. A first class act to deceive himself and those of us around him.

Nowadays we like to think we catch these men before they self destruct with these dreams and images rotting their minds. That we get through all that male, macho bullshit that we put up and expect our buddies to put up. That we catch them and encourage them to talk these things out. We didn’t catch Ian. Ten years later he shot himself dead, still plagued by his “I played God” demon. I hope his Mum, who he loved to bits and who was always rescuing his adult boy, never found those photos.

Thanks Spud for reminding me to remember one of your Vietnam Vet colleagues who didn’t make it. Even though he pretended to.

Spud Murphy’s ANZAC Day

April 26, 2007

I love this photo, taken by Steven Siewert, in the early morning rain which dumped on Sydney yesterday. Wednesday the 25th of April is ANZAC Day and war memorials all over the country, and in New Zealand, have crowds gather around to remember our war dead, and living. For a period through the late seventies and eighties there was a fear these gatherings would fade out as our veterans faded away. But the dawn services and the parade that follows has a strong following today, with the younger members of our community taking a strong and real interest in the events and celebrations.

Yesterday the usual parade in Sydney took place, as did the dawn memorial service in Martin Place where it rained solidly on all who had gathered there. I don’t know Spud Murphy but he found his way onto the front page of the paper this morning. The rain is bouncing of his pate, his medals and shoulders. His suit is soaked. But he stands there as if there is no rain at all. No cringe or uncomfortable slouch. Rather a stoic and focused standing to attention with a purposeful look on his face. Knowing that he is a veteran of the Vietnam War somehow made the picture all the more poignant. Perhaps remembering places and friends and faces and his part in our history. And perhaps the sluicing rain of a Vietnam wet season. Who knows?

Toilet Humour – Bangladesh

April 23, 2007

Bangladesh is the last place in which you want to be afflicted with giardia (this blog refers). Especially when the toilets are usually a hole in the ground. While recovering under some unknown medicine administered by my friend Zia, I kept within a short sprint of the hotel toilets, or at least something civil. I cared less if they were soundproof -that consideration had long fled after the bowels had dramatically erupted at the beginning of the trip. But I was worried about my flight out. A sudden attack of cramps, and the need to pass a stream of liquid the consistency of water came only with 3.6 nanoseconds notice. Not enough time to even undo a seatbelt. With a sigh of relief I managed the flight from Chittagong to Dakhar without mishap. It is about an hour. Then I was worried about the two hour wait to clear immigration. Again no mishap.

But as I waited in the departure lounge the urge hit me and I bolted for the men’s room, grabbing a passenger list from off an unattended counter. (I was guessing there would be no paper). There I was confronted by a single toilet stall with a ceramic bowl. The alternate “hole in the floor” squat was submerged under two inches of water (this is an INTERNATIONAL departure lounge for goodness sake!!) The western ceramic bowl option was not much better. The cubicle was also under under two inches of water. Literally. My shoes and socks were soaked. But the complicating factor was the position of the bowl – it straddled the stall. To sit in it as presented to you was to invite falling in. All of this seen, and options assessed in 2 nanoseconds, while hands fumble for the belt, random thoughts contemplating how to keep the suit dry given the flight we are about to board, while other brain function is trying to juggle briefcase and laptop case.

Finally perched facing the stall of the wall, trouser hems pulled up above the calves, rest of trousers caught at the knees. Laptop and briefcase perched on the knees as well. Water now soaking into your shoes. Of course, being a western toilet there was no hose. But nor as there any paper. As I had anticipated. Unfortunately I had dropped the passenger list in the puddle but printer paper is not absorbent anyway and tends to only smear things around. I sat there for a few minutes contemplating whether or not Thai Air would let me on the plane given the odour that was sure to rise off me. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had a newspaper in my briefcase. One from India, and Indian newspapers happen to be printed on the softest tissue on the planet. Sadly it covered the business activities of a business colleague in Hyderabad. He had kindly pressed the article on me and I was happy to accept it. Boy was I happy to accept it – now! I waited until my name was paged before carefully using the paper, reversing the juggling and balancing act and tip toeing out to the lounge in sodden shoes. Thai Air were fantastic – I insisted on a seat right next to the toilet and they did not argue. I fancy the wild glint in the eye did the trick but it may have been a stray odour after all.

KangarooValley Rain

April 22, 2007

The limestone escarpments drop like a blunt forehead from under a sharply cut fringe of tall timber and dense undergrowth to a gently sloping easement that runs out to the coast a couple of miles away and on which more grass grows than the dairy cows know what to do with. In this humid weather, with moist air being lifted off the ocean and driven up and over these heights the likelihood of rain is high. On this coastal fringe 100mm (4inches) or more can fall in an afternoon, but exhausting supply before getting twenty miles inland to the dams which feed this city. Yesterday was a spectacular and dramatic run up that escarpment, though the winding hairpin bends of Kangaroo Valley. As we ran in from the coast two curtains headed us off and draped themselves alongside. One was a dark gray backdrop of flat cloud which gave no sense of depth or movement. Just a dark premonition of heavy rain. In front of it was a roiling, boiling cloud as black as night, slipping up and off the escarpment, lashing the tree ferns, beating the ash, hammering the eucalypts into a rain of accompanying leaves and hinting at an uncommon fall of water. And so it was as we hit the mountain. The noise was deafening, and visibility was reduced to watching the taillights in front of us. A sobering effect, the unspoken thought being, ‘what if we break-down in this?” Such was the dramatic, drumming, hostile effect that all ipods were removed from the ears of my passengers as they gazed outside and wondered at the spectacle. Rivers of mud and stone were sluiced off the hills and driven across the road, hairpins became watercourses of bouncing, boiling, white water. Sticks and leaves boated past at speeds that easily outstripped us. We crept up through the pass into the darkness, the lightning and instantaneous crack of thunder giving the sense we were being slapped along from behind by this storm. Yet, the occasional glimpse out to the left revealed the unusual spectacle of a valley in sunshine and under a clear sky. We ran on, up and over the pass and down the other side. The storm followed and kept clawing at us, the occasional drop of rain keeping us alert to the possibility of another dousing until we finally outran it. I read in the mornings papers that the record low dam levels remain just that, with none of that torrential rain touching them.

Taxi Story – The Iraqi

April 19, 2007

The conversation started out in a humourous way, something like this: “Good morning where would you like to go?” “I have no idea.” He laughs. “Actually I need to get to the new Westpac (bank) HQ, do you know where that is?” “Yes. Actually I had a passenger once who asked me to take him home but he had no idea where home was. We drove and drove until he recognised places. I eventually got him home but it was a big fare. You meet some strange people in cabs. But not all cabbies are the same you know. Not every one would go to the trouble of helping someone like that. And not every cabbie has a sense of humour – they would kick him out. Mind you, often people get in and try and be funny with us about where we are to take them.”
That of course prompted me to tell him about some of the cabbies I meet. I told him about the Kurd. He laughed and said “I am an Iraqi. But I came here 25 years ago.I am a draftsman. I started out here in Sydney as a cabbie, only until I could get a drafting job.But I was able to turn this into a career.I love it. I came here because I am a Christian, not a Moslem. With only 2% of the population in Iraq Christian it was hard to make a living. But making a living here in the cabs can be up and down. You have to stick with it to do well. Mind you, never trust a cabbie when he tells you how much he earns. If he earns $100 he will say he has earned $70. If he has earned $20 he will tell you he has earned $100. It is a very competitive business and no one will tell you, or the tax office exactly what they earn. But especially we don’t want to tell each other. The competition becomes worse when some days you can pay your bills, other days you have to wait to pay your bills, and even some days you have to pay to be a cabbie! But I do well and feed my family and love what I do. I am very glad I never went and found a drafting job, I would have to shave every day and wear a suit. Phew.” (and proceeds to scratch a five o’clock salt and pepper shadow that has not been shaved for three or four days).

Sydney View

April 17, 2007

Sometimes you are just in the right place at the right time with the camera (most times you are not) and in this case I was also in the right seat. We had just taken off from Sydney and then turned right with an angle of bank that allowed a couple of nice shots up Sydney Harbour. The background to the Harvey World Travel banner inserted above is taken from this image. A lot of my travel (and hence many of the anecdotes in this blog) is organised by the team there so to acknowledge the fact I thought some (unsponsored) recognition was in order. It is supposed to be a travel blog – in part – after all. They are one of those travel agencies that most aspire to be and have done a sterling job getting us around the globe with no fuss – even fixing up seating and accommodation in the wee hours of the morning.

Taxi Story – the Serb

April 17, 2007

That tattoo? That! I think I made a mistake with that. No, it is not the Great Wall of China. When I hold it out you can see it is a castle (on his inner forearm). It is an old crumbling castle near where I was born. I was born in Serbia, can’t you tell from my accent? No, probably not, we all sound the same from that part of the world. Even after eleven years here and being a “dinky di” Aussie. OK, maybe I am not yet a “dinky di” Aussie (laughs) but I want my two children to be. I want them to grow up in a place where there is no hate, where neighbours can be neighbours. The trouble with where I was born is that there is more than 400 years of hate and it is hard to live with love in a place that is so infested with hate. So I came here.

I had a girl in my cab recently who admired the colours of my tattoo. She liked all the green shrubbery around the castle walls. It is still fresh and bright since I have only had it for a year. On the soft skin of my arm it was painful to have done. But this girl pulled up her dress and showed me a beautiful angel (pronounced “anne-gel”) tattooed up the side of her body from her hips, up over her waist onto her ribs. But it was half finished because she was skinny and the tattoo was too painful to complete on her ribs. You see some strange things in the cabs. But this an-gel was beautiful, even if it was not finished. But I am still not sure if my castle tattoo was a mistake. At least it was not as painful as if I had had it tattooed on my ribs. (Shakes his head as he remembers, or imagines).

A Spitfire Out My Window: Vale Bobby Gibbes

April 16, 2007

Last week when it was raining I enjoyed the soft warble of a magpie wallowing in a warm shower. On most days the rainbow lorikeets keep up their colourful chatter outside the window. For a busy Sydney suburb the bird life is quite active. But today the bird in the sky that caught my ear and eye was a Spitfire. Not once (I missed the initial pass but there was no mistaking the sound of an unmuffled V12 growling past), or twice but thrice. In fact an indulgent four flights since he slipped past over a couple of hours earlier, heading north on idle. This fly-past had a bit more soup to it. And he hung around the suburb for a few minutes before disappearing West. In this photo he was coming back for his second pass over our neighbour’s building. Its moments like these you wish you had a real camera! But there is no mistaking its wing form.

Turns out it was an overflight to commemorate one of Australia’s war time aviation “greats”, Wing Commander Robert Henry Maxwell “Bobby” Gibbes DSO, DFC and Bar, OAM, born in Young, New South Wales, on 6 May 1916. He passed away on the 12 April. The following notes summarise a more comprehensive tribute found at the Temora Aviation Museum website. With war looming in Europe Bobby reported to No.4 Elementary Flying Training School RAAF at Mascot on 5 February 1940 as an Air Cadet and eventually posted to 23 Squadron at Archerfield, Queensland which was equipped with Wirraways and Hudson bombers. Here he honed his skills and was assessed as an “Above average fighter and fighter bomber pilot”.

He was posted to Williamtown, NSW to become Adjutant of the newly created 450 Squadron with the rank of Flying Officer. After an intense period establishing the units command and support structure it embarked for Egypt where it arrived in May 1941. Three days later Gibbes was posted to 3 Squadron RAAF at Lydda. Gibbes participated in the squadron’s opening engagement of the Syrian campaign in an attack against the Vichy French Air Force Base at Rayak. He rose to command 3 Squadron and finished his North Africa tour with 10 1/4 aircraft destroyed in air to air combat, 5 probably destroyed, 16 damaged and 2 destroyed on the ground. With the North African campaign over he returned to Australia where he was posted to 2 Operational Training Unit in January 1944. A quick operational mission to New Britain with 77 Squadron was followed by the busy and sometimes hair-raising task of operational training on P-40s, Spitfires, Boomerangs and Wirraways.

As a final tribute to Bobby’s service to the RAAF, to Australia and to aviation, the Temora Aviation Museum undertook a rare fly-past over his service at St Thomas’ Anglican Church at North Sydney. This was a rare event for the Museum as its aircraft are not flown over built up areas. However, in this one-off instance the Spitfire provided a final tribute to this great Australian who continually risked his life in the skies over North Africa and the Pacific.

And here is a nice touch – the museum happens to have a flying Spitfire MkVIII painted up in the colours of Bobby’s war time Spitfire. Here it is. It was nice to be part of the farewell, even if only from the balcony of our office. Vale Bobby Gibbes.

Graft in Zimbabwe

April 16, 2007

Visas tell their own story. I love the Stalinist overtones in the art that remain in the Vietnam visa. Those from the Middle East reflect their fascination with “bling” – they love foils in their documents. But this visa from Zimbabwe has its own little story. As you may know this country, once the bread basket of Africa, is now the basket case of Africa. Sadly so, despite incredible resources and a sound infrastructure on gaining its independence. Even when I was there in 2001 I met with bankers and businessmen still buoyant about what was possible with their country as they funded new development in Harare. Mind you, in one quiet moment one local banker scratched his head and wondered how it was that foreign investment was pouring into Botswana (next door) and not into his country. We all knew the answer to that, but there are moments when diplomacy has to rule a conversation.

I flew into Harare, easing in over a remarkable bouldered granite landscape which looked not dissimilar to some parts of Australia, and arrived at a modest airport, though recently renovated, so everyone was very proud of it. It is about as exciting as Canberra Airport – O’Hare it is not. Three of us made the mistake of wearing ties and carrying laptops. We were each escorted into our own rooms and left alone for a few minutes. I started to expect the worst. After a while I was introduced to a guard, who was more congenial than I was expecting. But with my defences up I missed his oblique references to payment. It took a good five minutes before I realised he wanted USD100 for a visa. I rarely carry cash but I happened to have USD250 in my wallet. I tried to hang onto it for maybe another five minutes before realising that I could be here for a long time. We were the last flight, and I could see through a crack in the window set high in the door that the airport was now empty of passengers, and that staff were packing up to go home. The guard assured me he was there for the night. Said with a smile of course.

I coughed up the USD100 and he vanished. Resigned to being shafted in Zimbabwe and not doing the business I came for I was surprised to see him shuffle back into the room with a book of visa stamps. He duly issued the one you see here. As I left my cell, sorry, his office I was accosted by another guard and dragged into a second cell. I really thought it was on this time, but here sat a rather abashed fellow traveller from Europe who had absolutely no cash on him. And these ratbags would not take credit cards! Another USD100 later and the pair of us walked though an immigration barrier with no officers in attendance – the chaps I had paid had stamped the visas as well is issue them! A one stop graft shop. In the foyer of an international airport. Well, one that pretends to be one anyway.

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