Australia - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 303 (113)

Flight to Townsville

Wednesday 5th January (2005)

With nearly four weeks since I wrote my last line of this journal, I had to sit here for a moment trying to work out how to get back into the swing of things again. Perhaps I should first point out that we were exceedingly fortunate to have left Thailand when we did. The supremely destructive tsunami that was triggered by one of the worse earthquakes to hit the region in living memory would most certainly have captured us along with so many others. Since arriving in Australia, all of the news we’ve been exposed to regarding the disaster has been provided to us via the Australian local TV networks and thus has very much been from an Australian perspective. Of the countries that have been the most affected, Thailand is right on Australia’s doorstep and is a very popular holiday destination for its inhabitants. Consequently, we’ve seen a lot in the news about how Thailand in particular has been affected. If what we’ve seen on the news is anything to go by, the whole situation is pretty grim to say the least. We spent much of our time in Thailand in Khao Lak on the South Western coast. Much of Khao Lak now no longer exists – including the hotel that we stayed in. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exchanging e-mails with the various people that we met and dived with whilst there and, thankfully, we’ve not yet heard of anyone being directly affected. It seems that most, if not all, of the people we met whilst there had already moved on as we have and were well out of harm's way when the wave of destruction hit. That is the one positive that I will take away from this catastrophe.

I temporarily stopped my daily journal entries pretty much immediately upon arrival here in Australia in order to enjoy as much time as possible with family. This entire trip has essentially been triggered with one main purpose in mind – to visit my cousin Ree-Ree and her family in Melbourne. Without that one original goal, this trip would never have gotten off the ground and we wouldn’t have spent the best part of the past two years leading up to this point. I call her Ree-Ree but her real name is Marie. Ree-Ree was all that I could manage at my tender age of about seven, which is when she came to live with us in England for a few years. After leaving us, she married, had a couple of kids and then moved back to Australia with Tony and the two boys (Tony is a martial arts master). She now has four grown up kids and it’s been something of a life’s ambition for me to get out here to see them all. So, that’s now another life’s to-do list item checked. If we keep going at this rate, this list will soon be empty.

In suspending my writing for the past few weeks, I’ve missed out on the ability to write down my first impressions of Australia. Arriving in a new country always brings with it a fresh wave of renewed writing vigour as I attempt to put down into words my first impressions of what we see around us. In addition to being thoroughly jetlagged from the journey from Bangkok to Sydney to Melbourne, what little attention span I had left when we arrived was directly pretty much entirely at throwing a huge hug around Ree-Ree and Tony at the airport. However, even though the fine details may have faded with time, I can recall that I came here to Australia with my head full of ideas and preconceptions about what to expect. Much the same as with all the other places we’ve visited, it hasn’t taken long to smash these preconceptions to pieces. For example: I’ve seen no aborigines, boomerangs or even kangaroos so far; people generally don’t greet me with ‘g’day sport’, nor have I heard people refer to either myself as ‘Bruce’ or Sandy as ‘Sheila’; nobody ‘throws shrimp on the bar-B’ and nobody wears hats with corks dangling from the rim – Shalina (Ree-Ree’s youngest child and only daughter) promised to disown me if I wore one of those hats. I do my best not to have favourites amongst my many nephews, nieces and cousins but I had to admit to have developed a bit of a soft spot for Shalina. Anyway, I’ve found Melbourne and the surrounding area to be very similar to both America and England in general – perhaps slightly closer to America if anything. The infrastructure, architecture, customs and general way of life here is very similar to Jacksonville, Florida, where we lived for seven of years just prior to travelling. I’d have to say that I quite like what I’ve seen of Australia so far. In fact, I’d even venture to speculate that we might want to come out here for a few years ourselves at some point in the future. Time will tell.

We’ve had an absolute blast over the past few weeks interacting with and getting to know the whole family here. Christmas is always a special time of year but it’s been particularly nice for us to spend this time in the company of family. Indeed, we’ve felt very much at home and part of the family itself. Darren, the eldest, boy follows in his father’s footsteps as a martial arts master. He’s also a Shiatsu massage therapist and instructor and is extremely talented for a twenty-five year old. Much of Darren’s time is spent managing Darren and his busy lifestyle. It’s nothing that a good dose of organisational skills wouldn’t fix but we love him the way he is anyway. He is much like myself in many respects and the two of us have spent a lot of quality time together. We seem to think alike too. Next down the list is Ian, whom we get to see every now and then when he pops his smiling head through the door. He lives in a brick building behind the house along with Jason, the youngest son. We’ve seen slightly more of Jason that Ian but I would have like to have spent more time with both of them. Jason is in the process of moving into lodgings with a friend and Ian has his eye on knocking down the dividing wall between their two rooms in the shed building. Jason has moved out before and has returned so it will be interesting to see what happens when the dividing wall finally comes down and the point of no return is reached. Shalina is the youngest and is Australia’s premier baton twirler, regularly winning national competitions and even performing for her country abroad on a near yearly basis. She is absolutely adorable and very much reminds me of my youngest sister Annie. Shalina’s sometimes naïve perception of the world around her is endearing and I dare anyone to fail to crack up laughing at some of the things she blurts out. As with Darren, we’ve spent a lot of time with Shalina over the past few weeks and I’m not quite sure whether I should place her in the sister or niece category as far as my relationship with her is concerned. Prior to arriving here in Australia and, more specifically, at the Ball residence, I would have considered myself a non-drinker. Tony has cured me of this. He’s not really a big drinker himself but it does have to be said that we’ve had more than the occasional night of excess alcohol consumption over the past few weeks. Tony and I have gotten on like a house on fire and I love his sense of humour. Having someone like myself around to listen to him talk about his wife and kids, along with their trials and tribulations, has not only given him an avenue to let off some steam from time to time but it has also helped me understand the whole family. After due consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Ball family are ‘normal’. The nice thing about moving in for several weeks, as we have done, is that you eventually break through that outer venire that relatives inevitably put on for the benefit of other visiting relatives. After a while, you notice all the little imperfections that make a family what it is. They have their ups and downs just like anyone else and it’s been a privilege to be a part of it all.

So, here we are again. We boarded a flight from Melbourne to Sydney this morning and are now flying from Sydney to Townsville in Queensland. Essentially, we’ve started travelling once again. Yippee! We have about five weeks of travelling around Australia now ahead of us. We will be greeted in Townsville by Kim, one of Ree-Ree’s brothers and we expect to spend one night there before we collect a rental car and head South towards Airlie Beach, where we will start a three-week period of exploration of the coast from there up to Cairns. We’re expecting to do quite a bit of diving up and down the coast and may yet kick all of this off with a diving live-aboard in and around the Whitsunday islands and the Great Barrier Reef. As usual, we have no clue where we will be staying as we move up the coast. We only have a rough notion of wanting to dive the Great Barrier Reef, but I dare say we will figure it out as we go – as we always do.

Sandy was quite worried about the amount of time that we allowed ourselves to get to the airport this morning. As it happened, we made it in time to catch our flight – just. The first leg of today’s trip took us from Melbourne to Sydney in about an hour and I reassured Sandy that there would be plenty of time to grab a bite to eat in Sydney before the connecting flight into Townsville. Oops! We managed to make it through the check-in and security procedures and all the way to the departure gate just in time to see the last passenger getting on-board. With nothing more than airline food and a rather piercing look from sandy during the entire three and a half hour journey to look forward to, I’d have to spend my time writing on the laptop whilst looking sweet and innocent. It’s okay, I’m getting good at it now.

Even though we’d not seen each other before, other than in photographs, Ree-Ree’s brother, Kim, found us at the airport and whisked us away for a first-rate grand tour of Townsville and surround. Townsville is a very hot and extremely humid place but with the excitement of meeting a new family member, none of this mattered. During the afternoon, we stopped in at the car rental office to collect our prearranged sub-compact run-around. The last time we rented a car whilst travelling was back in South Africa. As was the case there, this country is so vast that a rental car is practically essential. We picked up what ultimately turned out to be a very nice five door automatic with just seventeen hundred kilometres on the clock. This cost me just AU$38 (€23) per day for the nineteen days that we will be spending here up and down the Queensland coast.

Kim and Judy are every bit as warm and welcoming as Tony & Marie. We enjoyed a wonderful evening at their place and even partook in a dip in their pool before polishing off a superb BBQ dinner. They have a very large home with lots of land and even a few cows. I think I’m now quite envious of their quality of life.