*Fuzzy Photos & Unreliable Tasting notes
Above: Full of promise: an imported 1977 2-litre Toyota Celica, the pride and joy of our wives' uncle Merino. In those days, cars in Australia were either Holdens or staggeringly expensive imports like this li'l beauty.
Not very long after Carmela and I had returned from our sojourn in Europe and she had been restored to the bosom of her family in Durban, her mother and father and two younger siblings upped stakes and went to live in Australia. In Newcastle, NSW, to be precise.
In the gap between our return and her parents' departure, Carmela's sister, Elena, had married her long-term beau and friend of mine, Howard Frizelle (Howie). After many joint canoeing exploits with Howie and me being supported by the two sisters, Elena became pregnant and the couple decided that the last stages of maternity should take place under her parents' roof in Newcastle. The pressure was overwhelming on the Harrison contingent to make a simultaneous trip. Elena and Howie set off first and we were to follow.
But first we needed visas. Perhaps because her parents were already living there, Carmela's visa arrived before mine and we booked our tickets with confidence that permission for me to visit Oz would be along shortly. As was the case with visas in those days (maybe still is) one had to send off one's passport for the Aussie consulate to check you out and stamp it appropriately if you'd passed their criteria.
Well mine disappeared into a black hole. I don't know why it didn't arrive but it still hadn't with less than a week to go. Our travel agent was baffled but didn't seem able to produce any unequivocal evidence that I would have the requisite documentation to join my wife on our imminent flight to Sydney.
Then by some bizarre (in a good way with hindsight) twist of fate, we came upon an old but still extant passport of mine that we'd thought had been lost. I mentioned it to the travel agent, who encouraged me to have a go at a contingency plan. But the only way this would work would be if I could take the rediscovered passport to the Australian High Commission in Pretoria myself. We lived in Durban, 625 km away. The only feasible means of accomplishing this would be if we travelled to Pretoria on the morning of our flight from Johannesburg to Sydney, Johannesburg (Joburg) airport being 50 km from the Commission. The travel agent told us to be standing outside the High Commission when the doors opened.
The rest was a blur. We actually got to speak to the High Commissioner who was initially suspicious of me having two passports. Carmela must've gone on a charm offensive, being much better at it than me. Perhaps a little sob story, too.
The bottom line was we left the High Commission with a visa for me in hand and headed back to Joburg airport. And guess what, when we went to check in for our flight, the clerk asked us to stand to one side while a supervisor was called. Hearts in mouths we waited for the worst but the supervisor arrived wearing a big grin and my other passport, with visa, which had been couriered from Durban.
A fair few Castle Lagers were consumed in flight and I only really remember arriving in Newcastle to be greeted by Howie, who was dying for a backgammon opponent. After a few days of non-stop backgammon (and being consistently thrashed by Howie), and with Papa Ciro's consistent comments about cousins for Stephen Frizelle, who had popped on to this earth on the 13th of July 1978, Mama Aurora's simpatico brother, Merino von Thomann, who lived across the road, insisted that Howie and I really needed to see more of Australia than the Newcastle 'burbs. He also insisted on lending us his pride and joy, his bright red Toyota Celica coupé, and ordered us to get out of town for at least a week.
"Head North, up to the Barrier Reef," he suggested.
Above: lunch at the von Thomanns' prima della partenza ... (top, l-r) Merino von Thomann, Tony Toscano, Jenny von Thomann, Peter von Thomann , Howard Frizelle, Elena Frizelle, Carmela Harrison, Luisa Toscano, Aurora Toscano; (middle, l-r) Carmela, Luisa, Aurora, Ciro Toscano, Marianne von Thomann, Merino; (bottom, l-r) Luisa, Aurora, Ciro, Marianne, Merino, Tony.
We're off up the Bruce Highway
Our initial target had been Cairns but we soon curbed our enthusiasm when we realised that travelling long distance in Oz in the mid-70s was a slow process and further than we thought. We settled for Airlie Beach, thereby saving about 1,000 km on our round trip. Hey ho, as Saffas we were used to Durban to Cape Town return being 3,200 km but Oz was a different story ... the 4,000 km return journey between Newcastle and Airlie Beach on the Bruce Highway would do us just fine given our relatively short timescale. Australia was vast.
Especially given that 'highway' was a somewhat optimistic term when we discovered the first slatted wooden bridge on the Brucey. I recall that was at 10-mile creek.
There were a lot of gum trees lining this single-lane highway and more than a few kangaroos, too. The latter were a new hazard and we soon recognised why so many vehicles in that part of the world had 'roo bars'. In South Africa you could usually spot errant wildlife trundling towards you from a distance. With roos, one moment they'd be standing stoically on a roadside verge and seconds later, boi-oi-oing, and they'd be plonked in the middle of the road.
Even this excitement on the lower section of the journey became monotonous after a while and we resorted to the travelling equivalent backgammon, viz. the 'word game'. One of us would start with a letter and the other would have to follow with another. There were only two rules. There had to be a legitimate word at the end of it and the player landing on a letter that completed a word would lose. We got quite crafty and good at it after 4,000 kms. I forgot who won by the end of the trip but it might just have been me, equalising the scoreboard that started with my trouncing by Howie at backgammon.
And we had music in the car. Two albums: Kate Bush's debut album The Kick Inside, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer on cassette tapes. The EL&P was a double album, Works volumes 1&2, and erred on the serious side. With that and the Word Game we nurtured our intellectual acumen. We never quite mastered a falsetto duet of Wuthering Heights.
We crept into Queensland as the day was dying and got a glimpse of Burleigh Head before entering Gold Coast, which wasn't too Gold back in the mid 70s. Pitched our tent quite close to the sea and grabbed some Brisbane Bitter and pub grub from a down-at-heel establishment on the 'strip'.
Queensland and glimpses of the Great Barrier Reef
Early the next day we crept past Brisbane with a lightening sunrise and headed towards Noosa Heads, partly a pilgrimage in the steps of Midget Farrelly. We'd seen the movie Endless Summer in which Midge had discovered our own magnificent tubes at Cape St Francis and had been a smidgeon rude about our surfing attire in Durban. If I remember correctly, he made snidey remarks about jock-straps or something similar.
After a brief pause to absorb what was a becalmed Noosa we pushed on towards Yeppoon. This was to be our jumping off point for Great Keppel island the following morning. It turned out that Yeppoon was also a home of fair dinkum 70s Aussies. I'm not sure if women were allowed in the bars in Queensland then, but I don't recall anything but unreconstructed blokes in the huge temple to lager we entered after parking the Celica and pitching our tent. The back wall behind the bar was expansive and occupied entirely by massive fridges to keep the amber 'nectar' cold.
These were disgorging bottles of stuff like Brisbane Bitter to satisfy the collective thirst of the cobbers extracting the maximum drinking out of the extraordinarily short opening hours in force in Queensland at the time.
So there's a bit of a health warning here ... we are talking about more than 45 years ago when we were reliably informed by a Mate we met on our travels that Aussie blokes had a priority list that went something like this: 1. Car (almost invariably some sort of Holden), 2. Boat (from which to fish), 3. Ute (to tow said boat), 4. Beer (almost exclusively lager no matter what it said on the label), 5. Barbies (we Saffas called them braais), 6. Cricket, 7. Some weird game called 'Australian rules football', which was an antipodean approximation of rugby, 8. Actual rugby, 9. going to the beach, 10. Sheilas (more specifically their wives or girlfriends).
So there was certain reflected irony when we were downing our second pint in this Sheila-free Queensland drinking establishment as the following scenario played out.
There was a sizeable group of Mates drinking in the middle of the room and we could see them eyeing us. Eventually one of them approached and invited us to join them. We accepted, delighted to experience a bit of Oz drinking culture. Handshakes all round before we resumed drinking and our host turned to us conspiratorially and said sotto voce:
"If you see two blokes on their own in a bar, they're either 'queer' or they're lonely. We agreed you were lonely so we invited you over."
Before we had an opportunity to digest this information there was a loud announcement. They were about to raffle a sheep, a sort of tombola. A live woolly Ovis. Howie, always one for a flutter insisted that we had a punt. Numbers on plastic cubes were loaded into a barrel constructed from wire mesh, the handle was turned and a die was retrieved. We only went and won the sheep. It was immediately donated to the group of Mates who protested weakly that we could have it butchered to cart off with us in the Celica. That wasn't going to happen but we didn't have to pay for a beer for the remaining hour of opening time.
The next morning we were setting off for the real deal. A fair dinkum island protected by the Great Barrier Reef. We found the camp site and pitched our tent amongst soughing Casuarina trees and overlooking a spotless beach. The peace was only interrupted at meal times when the local possums attempted to share our grub - rather rudely and aggressively we decided.
Above: Evening on the beach outside our tent on Great Keppel, looking out at Middle Island while Howie scans the shoreline for crustaceans.
It became clear, during walks around the island, how incredibly unspoiled and litter-free Australian beaches were. During our few days on Great Keppel we only came across one item. Yes, it was an empty can of Brisbane Bitter lying on an otherwise pristine beach. Probably floated there after being discarded from a boat by an irreverent Saffa.
We also got to go out on a flat bottomed launch - quite a large one - to traverse the astonishing beauty of the reef itself. It says something about this then still-callow 27-year-old that the most memorable aspect of that boat journey occurred while returning from the reef. As a fun activity in the calm seas the crew opened out a large boom from the boat's starboard gunwale. Trailing from the boom at a 45-dgree angle was a huge net. We were encouraged to lower ourselves into the water from the sturdy rope matrix. First off was an enthusiastic young woman in a bikini who gingerly descended feet first into the briny. Only thing was, the moment her lower half hit the water the boat's forward motion saw to it that our unfortunate damsel's bikini bottom lost its grip and disappeared rapidly into our wake. Almost instantaneously the boat developed a list to starboard as the several-score occupants darted over to get a better view as our heroine's friends restored her modesty with a towel and got her aboard. The crew abandoned that malarkey and we returned across peaceful waters to port.
I'd love to explore northern Queensland properly one day, both the coast and the inland bits. On our road trip Howie and I had to hit Airlie Beach full on, catch up on a bit of sleep and start our return journey. Airlie Beach overlooks the spectacular archipelago containing, inter alia, the Whitsundays and many other smaller groups of islands.
But we arrived in the evening and had to leave the next morning so we gravitated towards the town's amusement arcade ... something a bit like those found in Blackpool or, in the 70s, at Durban's North Beach. The difference between Airlie Beach's amusement arcade and Durban's was the former's legitimate access to beer. It also had toad racing.
Howie's eyes lit up. We could bet on toad racing. We investigated further and found that this 'sport' consisted of a set of concentric circles painted on the floor with the outer having a diameter of maybe four feet. And there was a bucket of toads painted in various colours. Punters needed to choose a toad and give it a name. The name, colour and entry fee were then handed over to a fairly dodgy looking compère who waited until all toads were spoken for before upending the bucket in the centre circle. The winner would be the first toad to cross the outer ring. The toads took their time, occasionally even hopping back towards the middle.
H and I refused to tell each other what we had named our toads. It turns out 'Howard" never got a mention in the commentary but "Mark" briefly looked like being an earner for Howie but it was not to be.
While we were drowning our losses at a bar, this young Aussie Sheila sidled up to me and blurted, looking pleased with herself:
"I've been listening to your accent and I know where you're from ..."
"... oh yeah, where would that be, then?" I countered.
"Melbourne!" she grinned.
"Not bad," I quipped annoyingly and, in retrospect, incredibly rudely, "only about 10,000 km out: Durban."
She looked a bit nonplussed and wandered off.
Merino's pride and joy ... oops!
Now we had to retrace our steps back to Newcastle as quickly as possible. I think we did it in two days but can't remember where we stopped. I do remember noticing a lot of road trains: vast pantechnicons towing trailers similar in size to the articulated beast itself, including a 'horse' with an impossibly long bonnet bedecked with stadium-quality lighting and monster roo-bar.
Above: something like this. Scary beast n'est-ce pas?
At the time the speed limit on the Bruce Highway was 55mph if I recall correctly. Our little Celica was as yet unscathed as we drifted into our last night on the road. I was driving carefully when I spotted what seemed like an alien invader in the rearview mirror. It was approaching us fast and, from about 25 metres back started flashing its blistering lights. I'm not sure what I was supposed to do other than veer off the road (which I would have done if there'd been a place to do so!). The leviathan kept getting closer and started blaring its horn. WTF! This was unique but there was bugger all I could do. And then the beast pulled out and overtook us. As it swept past it kicked up a stone, cracking our windscreen.
We were shaken and powerless.
Dear Merino (fondly known as Mike) was brilliant about it, bless him.
Nog 'n piep
No sooner were we back in Newcastle than H announced that he would like to take part in a canoe race on the Hunter River. A two day event if my memory serves me correctly. I can't remember where Howie got the Kayak or what car we used to get there (answers on a postcard a.k.a. the comment section of this blog if you know) but get there we did.
Above: Not sure if my friend was looking pensive, apprehensive or excited - he could be a little inscrutable at times.
The Hunter River ploughs its own valley to enter the sea at Newcastle. The valley was one of the first Australian wine regions and today has been producing for around 200 years. Best known for its Sémillon, the region now produces from a string of other varietes including Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Verdelho.
But that's by the way. We travelled up river for perhaps 150 km armed with our trusty tent and a few basic ready-meals. Pot Noodles spring to mind. We pitched the tent in a designated campsite already heaving with other paddlers and their families, every one of whom had substantial temporary abodes and piles of food. As soon as we started spooning our noodles outside our tent, children started arriving with plates of hearty grub. It seems their parents judged us to be hungry and lonely.
That's what I loved about Australia. The generosity and willingness to share.
As it goes, we finished our last evening in a pub nearby. It was our last opportunity (well mine at least as I was heading back to Castle-country imminently) to drink cold Aussie lager. H finished his canoe race adding another badge to his growing list (there're already a few on his track top above).
This one's for Merino (who died far too young), Ciro and Aurora. If there is a happy place to move on to, I hope they're in it and together.
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