Sunday, June 15, 2014

Arachnophobia and Dead Marsupials: The Australia Diary 1

I had always imagined visiting Australia as part of a grand round-the-world tour by boat, entering Sydney Harbour on a magnificent steamer doing the Titanic “I’m flyyyyyyying” impersonation with the wife. I’ve been fascinated by the island continent since I was a little boy: tales of Uluru, dreamtime, kangaroos and wombats featured vividly in scenarios I dreamt up where I was an intrepid explorer with a faithful Great Dane by my side. This was possibly the result of reading too many Prince Valiant comics on Sunday afternoons on a full belly, falling asleep in the sun.


It was rather prosaic, then, that my first trip to Australia would be necessitated by the sad passing of my sister's husband. Together with my other, eldest sister (who lives in Durban) I rushed over. This is just was siblings do, of course. It was only as I settled back on the flight from Cape Town to Singapore that it hit me that the three of us would be together under the same roof for the first time in over two decades. I was not expecting to see anything of “Australia” except bits of suburban Sydney, as I had foreseen two weeks of helping around where I could and offering what support was possible.

In spite of this all, it turned out to be quite an adventure. I say this with the disclaimer that almost any travel is an adventure to me, even a day trip to  Johannesburg for  a conference. I like to imagine that I’m flying away from the Shire of Cape Town to Mordor for an important mission: and don’t tell me the Hillbrow Tower is not the All Seeing Eye of Sauron when set against one of those lurid orange highveld winter sunsets. Airport lounges, customs gates, luggage carousels... they brim with the energy of a moving life, an urgency spurring you on to see a different side of the planet.

The only significant east-west journey I had undertaken before was the venerable transatlantic run from London to New York just under a decade ago when I went to visit my cousin who delighted in living in a loft in Manhattan. It was was one of the most remarkable holidays of my life (and the cheapest, as the pound rose to 1 GBP to 2 USD and I essentially had no costs besides my airline ticket.) Arriving at the same time I had departed was a novelty. In the bright May sunshine of 2005, the Big Apple opened up to me in both a rush of charm and excitement. There was, as far as I could tell, no such thing as jet lag, just a whirling in my mind that shouted “ohmyGod... I’minthegreatestcityintheworld... NewYorkNewYorkyayyayayayayay!”

Traveling from Cape Town to Sydney was an entirely different beast. Kudos to Singapore Airlines, their route and service is certainly one of the more comfortable and convenient options. There is a mere 1 hour layover between Singapore Airport and the flight to Sydney. My problem was that I love flying and find it soothing, and completely underestimated the effect the sleeping tablet I had taken would have on me. Of the entire journey, I have a vague memory of jumping onto a skytrain to cross terminals at Singapore. In short I had no idea how I changed planes. It was only when we were four hours from Sydney that it occurred to me that nearly 20 hours of travelling had passed. It was a testament to the orderliness of airline regulations that I had not ended up on a flight to North Korea via Fiji.

G'day, mate!
Then the surreal experience of being picked up by my siblings on a strange continent thousands of miles away from home. I passed out in the back seat of my sister’s Passat and only woke up five hours later starfished on her couch with a very bad Justin Timberlake film playing on Fox. They say it takes you one day per time zone that you cross to recover, and given that my normal circadian rhythm is schizotypal at the best of times, I was promptly thrust into a frankly hallucinatory world. (I have been known to mistake pillows for giant marshmallows if I miss so much as an hour's worth of sleep.)

I had already entered Australia with some apprehension because I am an arachnophobe and Sydney is home to the most venomous spider on the planet, the Sydney funnel-web. This particular nasty also has the delightful habit of chomping down during an attack, flailing its legs about while continuing to bite its hapless victim. Of course, it’s typical of me to read up on my destinations beforehand to dream up worst-case scenario escape plans. I made sure I left for our honeymoon in the Seychelles ready to conquer a giant fruit-bat attack, said hello to Prague fully prepared to get abducted by die-hard Communist insurgents (instead I was rewarded by a thrilling half-hour of being locked in the loo on the train to Vienna) and was now ready to conquer Oz with the combined knowledge of all Animal Planet’s documentaries on the Antipodes. I was just irritated that I hadn't been able to buy funnel-web spider anti-venom ahead of the time on eBay.

I'm a platypus and I'm okay...
The Land of Down Under is, of course, home to the most dangerous animals on the planet —snakes, jellyfish, Jason Donovan—Australia even has the only venomous mammal on Earth, of course. (I speak of the platypus, which was probably the result of the good Lord spilling His morning macchiato on His iPad, causing a short-circuit and uploading the wrong information to the AnimalWorks 3.1 server in downtown Elysium.) When the platypus was first discovered and a specimen sent back to Europe, zoologists dismissed it as a hoax a la Piltdown Man. I was now primed to be attacked by every known member of the Australian bestiary and even mistook the first tree fern I spotted as we drove out of Kingsford Smith for a triffid.

It was the day before the funeral. My sister made the wise decision to take us on a drive around the city instead of staying at home; the next day was going to be sad enough. This might sound flippant to you, but when I lost my father my friends made sure I spent as little time at home in the horrible pre-funeral gloom: they took me to the movies, stuffed E-number laden take-out into my face and played Pictionary with me. I don’t remember much of it, but I will always be eternally grateful for their company. When you are bereaved you enter a parallel universe and expect to be isolated from the world forever. While there is nothing one can do to reverse the loss, showing up and hanging around unobtrusively is one of the greatest things you can do for a person while they process their sorrow.

It turned out to be a beautiful day, and we ended up in a nature reserve north of the city with a spectacular view of the Pacific. We stared at the panorama in the soft early autumn sunshine and I felt our moods brighten. There is very little that being near the ocean cannot remedy. I was captivated by the lush foliage and remarked that for the first time, eucalyptus trees actually looked beautiful. In South Africa, they’re usually tragic sentinels in one-horse towns with only tumbleweeds and a rusting petrol station to keep them company.

As we got back in the car to drive home, my sister mentioned how weird it was that she kept noticing graveyards and funeral parlours around her since her husband had passed on. There was an awkward silence as I digested this, remembering how it rang true for me: it’s a common phenomenon, a type of hypervigilance perhaps, that sets in when one has been emotionally traumatised. I tried to change the subject, mentioning how I was looking forward to seeing some Australian wildlife.

He was just hopping along his way to Bondi...
At that very moment, we drove round a corner and saw... a dead wallaby, lying spread-eagled on the side of the road.

“Well, there’s your first glimpse,” said my sister quite pleasantly.

“Oh shame, poor thing,” said my other sister. “Just lying there. You’d think drivers wouldn’t race round the bend like this.”

“Mmm,” I said, trying to parse all this. I remember thinking, at least it was just a wallaby. Imagine hitting a kangaroo. Or an emu. Or some resurrected giant Australian pterodactyl that hadn’t been discovered yet but lurked around the outskirts of Sydney.

“What a weird creature,” my eldest sister continued. “I don’t understand marsupials. I wonder what else we’ll get to see.”

Presently, a second dead wallaby appeared around the next corner.

We stared aghast at the grisly little scene for a few seconds, and then all three of us burst out laughing. For a moment, a levity had come to a sombre time.

“I promise I’ll show you some living Australian wildlife soon,” I remember my sister saying.

I sniggered, and then felt another jet-lag induced daze come over me as the Passat descended the hills back to the city. I would wake up a few hours later in the couch (apparently big sisters are efficient at dragging comatose little brothers onto couches) this time staring at Cameron Diaz in a negligee.

I checked my fingers: yes, five on each hand, so I was not in a Looney Tunes cartoon.

I shuffled off to brush my teeth, hoping that a swarm of box jellyfish had not somehow entered the Sydney water supply to come barging out tentacles flaring through the taps. I had been a guest of the upside-down continent for just a day, and had not yet been bitten by funnel-web spider or eaten by a crocodile.

As I flossed, I felt sorry for the two dead wallabies, but thought, for three people at least, they had not died in vain.

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