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Sunday, 7 April 2013

Say ‘eh-oh’ to Dipsy – pt 7 - Australia

Oh, the relief – for you anyway. Our recollections  of our 1999 tour of the former colonies with an eighteen inch high teletubby backpack come to an end. I was hoping to finish this before or at least during our recent trip to the Cotswolds – see here, but another dose of CBA, and running out of time too put paid to that idea. Anyway, here goes:
 
Our digs whilst in Sydney was to be the Courthouse Hotel, in Taylor Square, but first we had to negotiate Australian Customs which took a little longer than it should have done. After we retrieved our bags  we proceeded through the customs hall and, being the only passengers around, attracted the attentions of a customs geezer who called us over. He went through all the bags as they do and seemed satisfied, if a little disappointed, until he came across Dipsy. Clearly he thought that two grown men carrying said teletubby required further investigation – and who can blame him? His suspicions were confirmed when he opened Dipsy’s backpack and discovered the two shell necklaces that had been presented to us in Fiji. It wasn’t that the necklaces were illegal, it’s just that we hadn’t told them about it. We got a short telling off then he took them away to consult with a colleague. He returned a short while later, issued another longer telling off, then returned the necklaces with a  warning of dire consequences should we do the same thing again! We thanked him and scuttled outside for a taxi.
 
Right, the Courthouse Hotel. Nine rooms on the third floor with shared facilities, this was to be the third time we stayed here and had become a home from home whilst in Sydney. Fairly priced and incredibly central to all that Oxford Street had to offer and - as it was a main thoroughfare through the city – had buses to everywhere too. It was also noisy and hot. If you opened the windows you got the roar of the traffic and if you closed them you melted. Having said all that I think we’d still stop there if and when we go back.
 
We had a week here I think, and the first night we went back to Circular Quay to wave goodbye to the QE2 as she resumed her round the world trip. The days were spent ferry hopping – there is no finer activity on a nice day in Sydney than exploring all the little inlets and coves. This time of course we had the teletubby with us – taking photo’s of course to prove we’d taken him out and about. Yet more questioning glances, this time from some parents who seemed to gather their kids a little closer when we appeared with the little green one. Can’t imagine why………
 
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After a week we were on the road again, in another hire car and heading south for about an hour and a half to the little village of Tomerong. Former licensees of the Courthouse Hotel – and now good friends – had retired and bought a place there and had invited us to come and stay. Typically Australian in a away, Paul was straight talking and liked the odd dig at us Poms when it came to sporting matters although always with a grin on his face. His wife Rhonda too had a hard edge – honed from years in the pub trade no doubt – but you could not find a kinder and friendlier person. The made a great couple, and we were to stay with them again two years later. Rhonda is now sadly no longer with us – suffering a massive brain haemorrhage some 12 or so years ago.
 
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Anyway, we had a great time down there, planning to stay only for a couple of days but ending up with four 4 or 5 I think. They took us out and about to the local sights including the lovely Jervis Bay just a few miles away and Paul took us fishing too, although that wasn’t very productive apart from meeting some wombats as dusk fell. We got our first glimpse of kangaroos in the wild too. It was a very pleasant and relaxing few days.
 
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Having travelled south out of Sydney, it was time to turn the other way (no change there then) and head north to Maroochydore, on the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane. A little matter of 600 or so miles away, there was a specific reason for going there. Our friends who we’d met on our very first visit to Oz had bought  bakery there. The chance to meet up again, and for Trev at least, the prospect of unlimited meat pies was the lure. We stopped roughly half way for the night and again in Brisbane before meeting up the following morning. We stayed at their place for a week (more free digs, bloody scroungers!) and had a great time catching up and swilling far too much VB.
 
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It was time to head west, with a flight from Brisbane over to Perth, so we overnighted again at the same motel before dumping the hire car and boarding a flight the following morning. The flight was something like three and a half hours – long enough, but if you wanted to do it by train it would take three and a half days. It’s not until you consider stuff like this that you realise how vast Australia is.
 
With another hire car procured we stayed again at the hot and noisy (but cheap) motel overlooking the freeway but only for a couple of nights as we were going to explore the southern corner, aiming roughly for Albany. I forget the exact order now, but we called in on the big trees in one of the national parks and a former whaling station near Albany. We visited the homestead of one Albert Facey – not particularly well known in  Britain but his autobiography - called ‘A Fortunate Life’ - is considered a classic of Aussie literature and with good reason. Paul, back in Tomerong had bought us a copy, knowing we would be travelling west and it is an incredible book, detailing Facey’s horrendous childhood - being separated from his parents, forced to work virtually as a child slave and receiving regular beatings, then being sent to fight in Gallipoli,  as well as a less traumatic, but no less interesting later life. The book was published in 1981, just nine months before Facey died aged 85. It is an amazing story and definitely worth a read.
 
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Before returning to Perth we stopped at the ‘Dog Rock’ motel. The reason for the name isn’t immediately apparent until you take a closer look at the large rock in the entrance. Have a look at the photo below.
 
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We returned to Perth the following day, but only for one night – at least that was the plan. The next day we were to fly to Bali for a relaxing week at the end of our trip. This was not to be though. On checking in at the airport we discovered that my passport was six days short of the minimum requirement of six months validity. I would not be allowed in to Indonesia and would most likely be thrown in jail until a flight out could be organised. Thankfully we had not yet ditched the hire car so retrieved our luggage and headed back in to Perth. A visit to the Indonesian Embassy bore no fruit but at least they were polite, helpful and friendly, unlike the British Embassy which was next on the list. Having given up we called in to the Quantas office in town who very kindly rearranged our flights home for no extra charge. Wonder if that would happen today?
 
We stayed another week in Perth, this time at the other end of town. We went to see the Old Freemantle Gaol and had another trip across to Rottnest Island for a cycle round and to look at the little Quokkas. The week flew by and it didn’t seem long before we were back in the Airport again for the flight home. 
 
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So, what a trip! One of the best we have ever done, and whilst we are both loving our new adventures In Patsy, writing this has brought back so many happy memories of our time ‘down under’ that I ache to get back there. Seeing the photo’s with the blue skies and sunshine whilst we are in the midst of one of the coldest Februarys for years makes it even worse! Still, we are very fortunate to be able to have done the travelling we have.
Right, what’s next? Well, we’ve booked up for the Easter break – Somerset first, then Littlehampton – in Patsy of course and it’s only a few weeks away. So until then…….

Say ‘Eh-Oh’ to Dipsy pt 6 – The QE2

First destination was the cabin. Certainly pretty basic by today's standards and a little bit dated – remember QE2 was over 30 years old even then although she had had numerous refits – but the beds felt wonderful and the shower and bathroom looked modern and smart.

To say I was excited was an understatement. I wanted to get on and explore the rest of the ship, but first was the lifeboat drill. We donned our lifejackets and walked upstairs to our particular muster station – which just happened to be one of the bars. Sadly it was shut – a requirement when in port – so we sat listening to the announcements on the public address system advising us what to do in the event of the the ship sinking. Blimey I thought, I’ve not been on it an hour and it’s already doomed. Anyway, the announcing went on and on so Trev got out his cigarettes and lit up. Now, smoking was normally prohibited during this sort of thing, so there was a few disapproving glances in his direction. Suddenly a lady from behind us piped up, “Oh, thanks Christ” she shrieked, “I left mine downstairs, I couldn’t trouble you for one could I, I’m gasping?”. The lady’s name was Jenny, on board with her husband Errol and were cruising around to their home city of Melbourne. From that moment a great friendship was forged.

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With the drill over we deposited our lifejackets back in the cabin and went out on deck. I was running from side to side and from one deck to another like a kid with a new toy, it was wonderful.

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We were due to depart at 6:00pm and thousands had gathered at the quayside, such was the worldwide love of this ship. The Crystal Symphony was in dock too, looking smart, shiny and modern, but with all the character of a floating tower block. She was to leave just after us.

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About 5:30pm the tugs appeared to ease the QE2 away from her berth and in to the harbour. She may have been the fastest cruise ship ever built but, even with the addition of bow thrusters following a major engine refit in 1986, she still needed a little help manoeuvring. The tugs steered her out then turned her into the main waterway and we were away, waving goodbye to the gathered crowds as the sun began to set over Auckland harbour. Just wonderful. It still sends  a shiver down my spine thinking of it even now.

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Next up was dinner, so the suits were unpacked and left to hang out while we showered. All that travelling seemed to have taken it’s toll as mine seemed to have shrank a little particularly around the waist of the trousers.

Now, there are several grades of cabin on the QE2, and the grade you select decides in which restaurant you will dine in. Having bought the cheapest grade of course, we was in the Mauretania restaurant, the biggest. The further up the scale you go – and the more you pay – the smaller and more intimate the restaurants become. The ‘Grill’ class restaurants, reserved only for those with the most lavish suites, have frequently won awards as the top places to dine. In the world. Mind you, it’s guests will have paid anything up to 25 times what we did. Ouch.

We’d selected a table for two, and were shown to a table in the smoking side – yes they still allowed it in those days, and a waiter came along, introduced himself and presented the menus. About five courses were on offer – something I’d never seen before, but I think we both just stuck to three.

Our first meal on board was a wonderful experience. The food was divine and the service was nothing like I’d ever experienced. With bellies full, and the trouser waistband even tighter we adjourned to the bar – a British themed pub where you could get an actual pint – ok it was gassy, but we were in to lager in those days anyway rather than real ale so it didn’t matter.

We returned to the cabin sometime after 11pm but only to get changed. I slipped into my leather jeans and the new black shirt procured in Taupo and we went back to bar for a quick pint before heading to the back of the ship and the ‘Yacht Club’ – for some more late tastings. It was ostensibly a night club with music and a dance floor, but given the average age, at least on this leg of the cruise, it was almost empty.

Breakfast the next morning, although delicious, was a bit of an effort  thanks in no small part to the over enthusiastic ingestation the previous evening, but we did feel a bit better after it. The rest of the day was by necessity, pretty lazy.  The motion of the ship took a little getting used to, even though the Tasman Sea was in a benevolent mood and giving us a calm crossing.

That evening it was the Captains Cocktail Party – basically, new arrivals get to shake the drivers hand and bury their snouts in free fizz – which we did. It was hosted in the Queens Room – how appropriate – and it was as we stood by a bust of her Maj that we met up with Errol & Jenny again. We had a good old chin wag and took advantage of Cunard’s largesse with the fizz before heading off rather giddily to our respective dining rooms. We met up again after dinner, and having told them the story of Dipsy, retrieved him from the cabin whilst taking the opportunity to get changed again and took him back upstairs to say ‘eh-oh’. Dipsy sat on the bar whilst we regaled Errol & Jenny with tales of our journey so far as the barman looked on, slightly bemused. No wonder, I bet he hadn’t had a Teletubby sitting on his bar before. Or since.

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At  sometime during the early hours a daily programme is pushed under your door. It lists the days highlights, entertainment, cocktail of the day and so on. It also tells you the evenings dress code. The QE2 was always one of the more formal of the ships and ‘Informal’ meant a jacket and tie for men at the very least. Thankfully, no one took this too literally and had the common sense to put on some trousers too! ‘Formal’ meant a dark suit or tuxedo. The dress code was always ‘in force’ from 6pm. Anyway, on our 3rd day, there was a note below the days dress code: “Guests are reminded that the dress code is in force throughout the ENTIRE evening. Please no not embarrass other guests by dressing inappropriately”. It may NOT have been me parading about in my leather jeans causing a stir but it was one hell of of a coincidence. Being QE2 of course no-one said anything directly.

The rest of the day was pretty lazy again, the most strenuous activity being a lunchtime sojourn to the bar. We were getting used to the motion of the ship by now and it seemed perfectly normal to sway giddily from one side to the other when walking around. It always seem more pronounced later at night though. Funny that.

The QE2 was due in at Sydney very early the following morning so we thought it would be fun to stay up all night to get the first glimpse of North & South head as we approached. With dinner consumed, we ignored the mutterings in the daily programme and went back to get changed again before heading to the yacht club at the back for some more late tastings. It was quiet again and we sat away in some corner, while Trev ‘rested his eyes’. Clearly the leather was causing a stir of a different kind as the entertainments manager came over, starting chatting and invited my back to his cabin with the lure of some champagne. Obviously he knew a old soak when he saw one. I noted the slightest of smirks from Trev out of the corner of my eye as I politely declined.

It was about 3am I think when they shut the yacht club and we went for a wander around the ship. I left Trev to study his eyelids again and went to the viewing platform at the bow. It was pitch black and there was no-one else to be seen as the massive bow crashed in to the waves and the ship ploughed on relentlessly. It was magical.

With all the beverage outlets now closed, we returned to the cabin to order some coffee in the hope that the caffeine might perk us up a bit. It did, but only after nodding off for an hour or so. We went back on deck and joined the crowd at the front all waiting to catch the first glimpse of Sydney and her beautiful harbour.

It was pretty chilly at that hour as the light started to break and the rain was making itself known too, but soon North & South head became visible  and ever so gradually the outline of the famous harbour bridge began to appear.

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As we moved closer, now at a snails pace, all the old familiar sights began to appear through the gloom, Rose Bay and Watsons Bay to the left and Manly and Cremorne Point to the right. The fins of the Opera house were now clearly visible and even with the cloud and drizzle it all still looked wonderful. This was our fourth visit to Sydney and if you read my blog on our first trip Down Under you will know how much we love the place. I must confess to getting a little misty eyed as we approached Circular Quay, guided in by the tugs.

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Another fairly lazy day followed. Packing and generally getting ready for our departure though we did take the opportunity to have a tour of the bridge. Our last dinner on the QE2 that night felt a bit like the last supper must have done. Fortunately we were able to catch up with Errol & Jenny again for breakfast the following morning, then said some very reluctant good byes as the P.A called yet again for all departing passengers to make their way to the gang plank.

As we descended the gangplank we reflected on our 3 days on board and agreed that it had been the most wonderful experience, quite unlike anything we’d ever done before. I turned and glanced at the ‘Welcome Home’ sign and thought again what a nice touch it was.

Look out for pt 7 when we travel the width of Australia,  meet up with friends and bring an and to a wonderful tour.