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There is a joke making the rounds about our beloved president at a power breakfast. With his inimitable ability to mangle language, he shocks the White House kitchen staff with his mispronunciation of the word “quiche.” It is merely French, after all.

My use of the word has nothing to do with either Bush or the previous occupant of the White House. It refers to the duration of our recent stay in Canberra in comparison to the actual amount of time it took to get there.

The point of the jaunt was an academic conference. When I suggested driving, I didn’t really consider the ramifications of my offer. For me, it was an excuse to see a bit of the nation’s capital and do a bit of cycling on my own bike. Canberra is a very cycle friendly city. It is, however, some 400 miles from Melbourne.

The Hume highway is four lanes wide with the exception of a long stretch of construction just before you reach Canberra.  What I hoped would be an eight hour drive stretched into nine.  The scenery varies little. We had covered the first half on our way to cycle the Murray to the Mountains rail trail.  The second half wasn’t much different.

When Australia’s separate colonies were federated in 1901, neither Sydney nor Melbourne could concede the national capital to the other, so an Australian Capital Territory was established. The creation of Canberra was the compromise. In 1908 a site was selected and a competition was held to lay out the city.  Astoundingly, Walter Burley Griffin, an American architect, beat 136 other entries to design the capital of Australia.

He was from Chicago, but his main influence was definitely Washington D.C. Even though the automobile age was in its infancy, it seems like the city was designed for cars.  Canberra is dominated by wide boulevards and sweeping vistas, dotted with low, grand, government buildings.  A river was dammed to create a large lake in the center of the city.

The one exception to the tasteful, sedate pattern of architecture is the National Museum of Australia.  Designed by the firm that created Federation Square in Melbourne, it is outrageous in both color and design.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

Canberra is now a city of some 305,000 Australians.  Like many capital cities, it seems to arouse the ire and contempt of the natives.  The new parliament house (which took eight years to build and topped out at over a billion dollars) was the winner of yet another design competition. It is built into a hillside and covered by grass.

Our home base was a grand, gracious 5 star Hyatt once known as The Hotel Canberra. It was established in 1924 as a Government-owned hostel. Three years later it became the Hotel Canberra.  For many years it was the only hotel in the A.C.T., and even after the opening of other hotels in the city, it remained the home of many politicians.

I’m afraid your faithful correspondent down under was a less than efficient tourist on this visit.  From our arrival on Friday evening until our departure on Sunday around 11 am, I saw only the hotel, the Museum of Australia, and about half of Lake Burley Griffin from the bike path.  Twice.

As is usually the case with hasty encounters, the visit was less than satisfying.  I’m looking forward to a return bout with the capital, its museums and the surrounding countryside.  I think I’ll fly next time.  Or cycle.  Stay tuned.

I have made a few blunders in this blog, but I never thought I would have reason to update a forty year-old obituary. I made reference to it in the post I wrote about my 100 km ride in the “Around the Bay in a Day” cycling event.

Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a dip in the turbulent waters down at the very end of the Mornington Peninsula the morning of December 17, 1967.  He swam out a few hundred yards, then disappeared.  He is presumed drowned, although his body has never been recovered.   Given the nature of the waters, which have taken down half a hundred ships, the absence of a body is not altogether surprising.

What is surprising is that the matter surfaced in our local paper yesterday.  This was apparently triggered by the release of four, highly confidential pages that were in Holt’s briefcase in his car at Cheviot Beach.

Doug Anthony, one of the prime minister’s former colleagues decided to reveal to the press that Holt was deeply depressed just two days prior to his disappearance.  He was distressed about intrigue and treachery in his own government’s ranks, particularly by his friend and treasurer, Billy McMahon.

In addition, the husband of Mr. Holt’s last mistress, a Portsea neighbour, was rumored to be going to divorce his wife and name the prime minister.

This morning, a rebuttal in the “Age” cites Mr. Holt’s press secretary claiming the PM never intended to commit suicide.  That he was, in fact, looking forward to the summer holidays.  ‘He was a resilient personality and, at the time of his death, he was in good spirits….’

Stay tuned.

The annual general meeting of the Victorian Sea Kayak Club gave us an excuse to get out of Melbourne and find out more about sea kayaking down under. We joined the Club in May, but had done nothing to pursue our interest aside from checking Ebay for second-hand kayaks. We knew no one, so it was with something approaching trepidation that we drove down the Mornington Peninsula at rush hour on a Friday afternoon.

We have had three kayaks in the course of our time together. The first was, in fact, a tandem sea kayak that we purchased somewhat rashly when we were about to launch our lives in the direction of the Philippines. We were ready to send a 20 foot container on its way from Nova Scotia when my wife asked the mover (one day before pickup) if an eighteen foot kayak would fit inside. Sure, he said.

We didn’t, in fact, have a kayak. But the mover knew someone in Halifax who sold sea kayaks and it just so happened that he had a tandem that would meet our needs. We didn’t realize at the time that the Philippines are entirely too hot for anything but sit-a-boards. The one, and only time we took it on the ocean was a complete fiasco. Mostly we used it on Lake Taal, a huge volcanic crater lake a couple hours south of Manila.

The other two kayaks were “creek” boats that we bought when we moved to Northern Florida. It didn’t take long for us to discover that kayaking the spring fed creeks and rivers with a naturalist was the best possible way to enjoy our time in Gainesville. Gators or not.

Maelstrom kayak

Sleek sea beasts of all shapes and sizes decorated the roof racks of cars, vans and trucks at Merrick’s Lodge, our home for the weekend. The Lodge is located on the eastern shore of the Peninsula, across from Phillip Island. It was constructed to meet the needs of church groups. Bunk beds and block bathrooms sent me back to my summer camp days.

But campfires have been replaced by computers. Friday evening began with Powerpoint presentations by members who had done a couple of notable paddles– a long solo trip south from Sydney to Cape Conran in Victoria, and a Bass Strait crossing from Victoria to Tasmania.

These are both daunting paddles, making me wonder if we had settled in among amateur “hikers”whose credentials rivaled that of Edmund Hillary. Despite my worries, we were reassured by Les and Helen Doyle, who did a recent paddling trip to a very remote area of Canada– Baffin Island. They adopted us and made us feel very welcome.

Saturday morning was glorious. There were half dozen group paddles scheduled. We signed up for one that seemed relatively easy, as we had rented a tandem for the weekend and it was not light. It took four hefty bodies to get it from the car down to the beach. Despite taking a drubbing for not having a line tethered to our paddles, we kept up with the pack and managed to make it back without falling too far behind.

The afternoon was devoted to the annual general meeting, followed in turn by the only catered meal of the entire weekend. Despite the less than luxurious facilities, there were no prohibitions on alcohol. We were in wine country, after all. So we kicked off our shoes and settled in for the evening. This time, there was a real slide show, by a climber, mountaineer and kayaker who had done some amazing adventures and taken fine photos.

Sunday morning was devoted to workshops covering everything from photography to fiberglass repair. We dropped in on one about kayak camping. How does one get everything you need for a week of kayak camping into a boat and out again? There are tricks involved, decisions to be made. Terry made it all seem simple, sharing his errors so we would not make the same ones.

In the afternoon, we said goodbye to our newfound friends and headed to an excellent local winery for lunch. Then we had a walk along the same beach we had paddled the day before. It was a long drive back. Sunday afternoon on the highway is not much better than Friday. But we had made connections, learned a little bit about the kayak community. Next time, perhaps, we’ll have boats and be able to roll them with aplomb.

If not, there will be a tale to tell.

A singular absence of reportage on the most significant social event of the year in this fair city could lead faithful readers to suppose that I was not actually in Melbourne the day of the “race that stops the nation”

I was, in fact, about twenty kilometers away with half dozen “cycle recyclers” tooling along on a country road leading back to our starting point, the town of Bulla. We were fighting hills and flies and the occasional rabid driver who seemed to think we had no right to be on his road on his day off.

The flies are particularly fierce this time of year. Aussie flies have evolved with virtually no Darwinian sense of self preservation. They do not fly away when you start swatting, simply renew the attack from a different angle. Kamikazes of the insect world. Perhaps the horses here run so fast simply to leave flies behind.

When we moved to Hong Kong it was quickly apparent that horse racing was a very big deal. The funding for the social safety net came entirely from funds generated by betting, but then the Chinese are big gamblers.

Down under, horse racing is huge, and the Melbourne Cup is the biggest race of all. According to my handy Australian encyclopedia, it was established in 1838. Several rival clubs threatened its survival in its infancy, but the formation of the Victoria Racing Club solidified the racing scene in Melbourne. The very first Cup under the new Club was run in 1861. There were 4,000 spectators. On Tuesday, there were 102, 411 at the track.

There is major money involved. The industry employs some 30,000 people and the prize money hovers around 150 million. There are five hundred clubs and 423 different venues. Our little cycling group stopped for lunch at the Coach and Horses Inn in the rural town of Clarkefield, middle of nowhere.

The Cup is just one of a series of races that form the Spring Carnival, which is as much about fashion and alcohol as jockeys and horses. The newspaper is plastered with photos of glamorous girls with fabulous outfits (and spectacular hats), and vivid descriptions of outrageously ostentatious marquees where the rich and famous indulge in champagne and catered delicacies.

Aside from Phar Lap, the most famous horse in Melbourne Cup lore is Makybe Diva, a nine year-old mare who entered the Australian horse racing record books by being the first racehorse to win three consecutive Melbourne Cup races (2003, 2004, 2005). Makybe Diva was born in England. When she failed to attract a bid at auction, Tony Santic, a tuna fisherman from South Australia, bought her and shipped her home to Australia.

Stuck for a name, Santic passed on the problem to five female employees in his fishing business. Not finding inspiration from the bloodlines, the women settled on using the first two letters of their given names in naming the filly. Maureen Dellar, Kylie Bascomb, Belinda Grocke, Dianne Tonkin and Vanessa Parthenis are now part of Australian racing history.

Just in case you were wondering, Super Efficient came from nowhere on Tuesday to win by half a length. The odds against him were twenty to one. He is the first since Phar Lap to win the Derby then come back and win the Cup.

Lloyd Williams, his billionaire owner, went to his casino to celebrate with 200 of his closest friends. Our motley cycling group pulled into Bulla with considerably less fanfare and virtually no spectators. We toyed with the idea of attempting to find a barrista in town, but decided against it. I drove home, had a shower and soaped down my forelock.

It was a good day.

As the tattered British empire hobbled down the dark alleys of 1941, Australian troops were committed to protecting the motherland, not the home country. Churchill actually suggested that Prime Minister Menzies join his War Cabinet.

Menzies compatriots back in Australia were less than pleased with his willingness to kowtow to Churchill and he was forced to step down. In October, 1941, John Curtin took up the reins of power in Canberra. Within two months, Australia was at war with Japan.

Pearl Harbor shattered the illusion of invulnerability embedded in the psyche of Americans and Australians. The oceans were no longer big enough to keep the enemy at bay. Aircraft carriers, long-range bombers and submarines had changed the nature of war. As the Japanese carriers steamed out to attack the naval base in Hawaii, the Japanese army island moved south, toward Australia.

When Australians woke to the news of Pearl Harbor, its 120,000 seasoned soldiers were scattered around the world. Within five days, 114,000 conscripts were called up to begin training. Ironically, Prime Minister Curtin had attracted the attention of the Labor Party through his newspaper attacks on conscription.

By Christmas Day, the Japanese forces had landed in Sarawak and overran Hong Kong. Prime Minister Curtin turned to the Americans for help, writing in the Melbourne Herald that “The Australian Government… regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say….” This was tantamount to treason in the eyes of the British. Despite his plea, Curtin’s hands were tied. He had no say over the disposition of the Australian army.

On January 4, 1942, the Japanese bombed Rabaul, the main town in New Guinea, an Australian territory. Six weeks later, “fortress” Singapore, the last bastion of the British empire in Asia, fell to the Japanese juggernaut. Four days later, 200 Japanese planes attacked Darwin, sinking half a dozen ships, destroying the airport and razing the city.

Australians panicked and fled. On May 31, three midget submarines came into Sydney Harbour. One became entangled in the boom laid across the harbor; one was hit by a depth charge after sinking a former Sydney ferry. The third disappeared.

In early March, the Japanese moved to take the New Guinea mainland. Port Moresby was the ultimate target, a short jaunt from mainland Australia. They were opposed by four plantoons of New Guinea Volunteer Rifles and the hastily trained 53rd battalion, to be reinforced by the 39th.

The track itself was enemy enough, snaking through thick jungle up and down a rugged mountain range between the coasts of PNG. The troops wrestled with inadequate training, heavy clothing, malaria, leeches, torrential rain, mud, little food, low morale, desertion by the natives and exhaustion. Many of them were eighteen years old.

Despite it all, they fought on. Gradually, with the help of a small contingent of Americans, the Australians, contemptuously termed “chocolate soldiers,” began to turn the tide. When the 39th battalion was relieved in September, its 1500 troops had fallen to 185.

The war in Papua New Guinea would rage on into the new year, but Kokoda became a battle cry that strengthened the resolve of the Australian people in the dark days of WW II.

A fine feature film of the same name, based on actual events inspired this post. It was released in 2006 and is available on DVD.

My son’s very first word was “light.” I’ll be the first to admit I thought that was very, very cool. You can’t beat Genesis for first words. If it’s good enough for God, it is good enough for first born sons. Then he went on to say “mama” and I lost interest.
Ever since our move down under our lights have been going off with alarming regularity. Another one bit the dust yesterday afternoon. At first, it seemed to be all about dimmer switches. The previous tenants left us two standing lamps in the master bedroom, and both had foot-operated dimmer switches. They functioned perfectly for a month or two. Then, one by one, the dimmers went.

Fool that I am, I went to Bunnings (a hardware superstore) to buy replacements. No such animal seemed to exist for the do-it-yourself masochists down under. What was I thinking, anyway? This is a 220 volt country. The current here can kill you.

When we moved in, I engaged the services of a home handyman to hang our pictures so we wouldn’t have to re-plaster and repaint the house when we moved out. When he discovered that I had brought along a couple of standing lamps, he suggested I simply twist the flat prongs on the plugs to fit the flat, angled slots in Australian outlets, then change the bulbs to accommodate the current. I tried it and it actually worked.

Fortunately, he noticed a gap between the wall and the plug of the one lamp I had modified. The twist in the flat prongs didn’t allow the plug to fit flush against the wall. He proceeded to tell me about a cleaning lady (possibly a suburban myth but instructive nonetheless.) Her vigorous dusting caused a venetian blind to fall and come into contact with an imperfectly modified plug. ZAP! Her cleaning days were over. You don’t mess with 220.

There are halogen pot lights throughout the flat. At first, I thought I needed to change the bulbs when they went out. But new bulbs didn’t do the trick. Finally, a friendly electrician told me that when they overheat a protective circuit shuts them down before they can get a good fire going. Now I don’t get out the ladder until they’ve been off a few days.

I finally ordered dimmer switches from a lighting store. When they brought me to tears and I had stabbed myself with a screwdriver a few times, I asked the store manager if he could get them wired up. He called two weeks later to tell me that the new switches worked, but they made an objectionable hum, something like a 747 on steroids. I’ll settle for simple on/off switches then. It has been three weeks now, but I’m still hopeful.

Moving from a 110 country to a 220 country meant that we would, of necessity, be replacing all of our kitchen appliances. I knew that. What I didn’t know was that some of them would be so difficult to duplicate– a drip coffee maker, a waffle iron, a yogurt maker.

Drip coffee makers are the poor relation in the appliance family here. Since Australia was apparently founded before Starbucks, Italians have defined coffee in Australia. The only inexpensive coffee makers are bodums. Then, one leaps into the stratosphere of Italian steam machines. They are spectacular. One could be forgiven for buying one for the knobs and whistles, but expresso first thing in the morning? It’s a little like driving a Ferrari to the supermarket.

I was shocked to discover some years back that many people do not regard waffle irons as a kitchen necessity. A friend and neighbor in Nova Scotia did not possess a single one. I had at least three, maybe five. I was overstocked at any rate, thanks to days in the B&B business.   I insisted that she tuck one under her arm and try out a recipe for buttermilk waffles. Or better yet, yeast-raised waffles that leave a tang on the tongue.

In Australia, you could fill a shelf in your kitchen with sandwich presses and still not exhaust the variety available. I finally discovered a choice of exactly two waffle makers. One was tiny, looking like it was designed for a girl with a Japanese ninja turtle.

The other had a thousand watts of power with a temperature dial (for light to dark) but no timer. The pocket for the batter is shallow but quite large. Unlike North American models, there are no deep metal creases on the inside like a mountain range turned inside out. What it seems to have been designed for is to bake a pancake with ridges.

I immediately whipped up my my best buttermilk recipe, separating the eggs and whipping the whites, folding them in. After all the work, it was an absolute dud. I’ve been reduced to trying the recipes that came with the instructions. Sooner or later I’ll stumble across the right mix. My bottle of Queen, Australian-owned, pure Canadian maple syrup is at the ready. Pancakes be damned. It’s waffles I want.

Flickr Photos


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November 2007
November 2007