Family Christmas

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

We are finally leaving Asia and heading to a new continent - Australasia.

We check in for our flight in Hong Kong Central Station, from where we will take the Airport Express train to the airport. A rather flustered man offers us two single airport express tickets at half price (HD$50 or GBP 4.00 each) as he can't use them before their expiry date. I accept cheerfully and get the staff to verify the tickets are OK. After buying them I still have a nagging feeling that they won't work when we get to the gate.

We hand over our plane tickets at the express check-in desk in the station, and the girl serving us tells me I don't have a valid Australian visa. We then twig that Rachel applied for my visa on my old passport, not on the new one I got in Beijing. After showing the girl the old (non-valid) passport she seems to think everything will be OK. I have visions of being refused entry to Australia.

After 'in town' check in, we meet up with Alan and Lisa Fung for a bite to eat in a nearby restaurant. It much nicer than the offerings at the airport, and the Italian food is pretty good for an Asian country. Lisa is looking well, but fatter than ever with her baby due in February. Alan seems to be slimmer - maybe the thought of fatherhood?

We jump on the airport express train with no problems and head out to the airport. All the Cathay Pacific flights seem to be leaving within 5 minutes of each other and there are seething crowds at the gate area. We are not looking forward to the overnight flight, which arrives at 0730am in Perth the next morning.

Once on board we try to get some sleep, but its impossible. The stewardesses attempt to feed us dinner at 2.00am and breakfast at 5.30am, there's a baby howling loudly two rows away, and the seats seem unbelievably cramped and don't recline in the back row.

We are both somewhat tired when we arrive in sunny Perth at 8.00am and join the long queue to get through immigration. I am too tired to worry about my visa being on an invalid passport. As we queue, guards in camp tight shorts and boots march up and down the lines with lively beagle dogs who sniff at every bag as they pass. Rather than savagely attack you, apparently they sit down next to your bag if you have drugs in there.

We are treated to our first 'no worries, mate' at the immigration desk as the official enjoys telling me at length that my visa situation is not uncommon. After collecting our bags, we have to go through the red customs channel because we are carrying some wooden items - bowls that we bought as presents in Vietnam. Australia is very careful about nasty diseases, pests, or parasites that might get brought in from overseas. The official has a quick look at the bowls and gives us the nod to wander through and then, just as we're about to escape officialdom, he asks us to put our bags through an X-ray machine. Bummer, I think, he's going to spot that dead chicken carcase that I picked up in Vietnam.

Actually, Austalia's strict controls has enabled it to fend off some nasty diseases that Europe suffered from - like BSE and Foot & Mouth. However most of the real damage to Austalia occurred a long time ago when people, livestock, and pests like rabbits changed the natural balance, and the look of the landscape.

Outside the airport its a brilliant cool blue day - low twenties in temperature, a nice breeze, and low humidity. Weather like this makes me breath in deeply and feel alive. Everything is clearly defined in the bright rays of sunshine. It really feels like we've arrived in a new continent.

Ed, Rachels brother-in-law, is there to meet us in his trusty Holden motor (actually a Toyota with a different badge on it). We cruise the freeways back to Ed and Fiona's place in the suburb of Leeming, where they have a tidy little house that is straight out of the 1970's, with its bright orange kitchen worktops, exposed brick in the living room, and open plan arrangement. Since we were last here two years ago for the wedding, Fiona has started to exert some influence on the decor and we see the old brown carpet is gone, AC is installed, and much of Ed's collection of paraphernalia from the 1980's and 1990's is missing.

We fall asleep on the sofas as we wait for Fiona, Rachel's mum, dad and Oma to return from town. After a couple of hours of bliss we hear them arrive noisily and say our hello's. Rachel feels very emotional to see her parents again after half a year and I feel at home after a big breakfast of bacon and eggs together.

Its Christmas Eve and we are all invited to Chris's house (a relative of Ed's) to celebrate a traditional Polish Wiegilia celebration. Chris and his wife Kasha have built an enormous single storey house in a new development on the edge of Perth, and moved in just 6 months ago. Its amazing how much space there is compared to Hong Kong. You could fit Aunty Lilly's flat in 10 times over. Kasha cooks a beautiful banquet of traditional Polish vegetarian dishes, the daughters Ania and Ewe read the Christmas story from the Bible in Polish and English. At midnight we go to a packed out mass at the local church where the priest gives a polished performance. A local couple are invited to sit on the stage with their newborn baby to remind us of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.

On Christmas day we get up as late as possible, but by 10am its noisy in the kitchen as everyone is preparing for a big family barbeque. Oma has bought Ed and Fiona a leviathan with 4 burners from Barbeques Galore, the model imaginatively named a 'Downunder'.

Guests begin to arrive including Roman (who temptingly offers me his 250cc bike for the week), his son David, his mother, Ed's sister Helena and her family (husband Roger, and beautiful daughters Alicia and Dominique), Chris and his family, and Ed's mum and dad. In all there are 21 guests for the meal. Rachel's dad Dennis used to run a fish and chip shop in Brighton, so he takes control of the Barbeque and cooks solidly on it for about 3 hours.

The meal is a big success, and it feels strange for us to be in such an obviously wealthy country after spending a lot of time in the poorer countries of Asia.

In the evening we stop over at another beautiful house (belonging to Roger's sister Leane's family) complete with giant swimming pool, kids games room, and home entertainment room. Two adopted Korean boys, Adam and Elliot, have every imaginable toy including remote controlled robo-raptor and robo-sapiens which I find fascinating as they walk across the floor and carry out programmed tasks. Coming directly from Asia we feel strongly the contrast between Western living standards and the day-to-day realities of life in most of Asia.

Boxing Day is a lazy day, and late in the afternoon we manage to get out and take a little walk on a hill overlooking the city of Perth. There are seven of us staying at Ed and Fiona's house, so Ed has got his 1972 Ford Falcon Fairmont up and running after 7 idle years under a tarpaulin, to help ferry us around. The 4.9 litre V8 seems the ideal motor to cruise around Perth in, and the metallic brown paintwork seems to blend well with the red earth of the countryside. Today the engine is not very well though and we have to stop every 10km to clean out the fuel filter, and absence of one of the push-rods means we are running on only 7 cylinders. Ed is confident that he can sort it out before we go down south to Bunberry for the New Year.

In the evening we go to the cinema to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I am captivated for about 1/2 hour with the special effects and the novely of being in the cinema for the first time in eight months. Then I gradually fall asleep as the movie is fairly meaningless without having read the book. Oma hasn't been to the cinema since seeing Doctor Zhivago in 1965, and appears wide-eyed and somewhat stunned for the rest of the evening.

After the cinema we eat some Asian food at the cafe next door. Dominique tells us some tales of her backpacker travels in Europe. We met her in England the day before leaving for our trip and she has done some pretty amazing things for an 18-year old travelling solo. These include working in a posh boarding school in the home counties (she tells us that Andrew Lloyd Weber's daughter was a poor singer), falling off a cliff in Sicili, and travelling through Croatia and Czech Republic.

We take a daytrip to Rottnest island, so named because the first Dutch sailors thought the local marsupials, now known as quokkas, were rats (rott) living in huge nests.
After a mad dash rush to get out of the house in time, we are soon powering across the Indian Ocean to the tiny rocky outcrop. We buy pies in the only bakery on the island for lunch, but eat them immediately as they smell so delicious when warm. In the bakery there are so many tasty looking cakes that remind me of what its like inside a Scottish bakery. They ought to have a health warning outside.

We hire bikes for AUS$15 (about GBP6) each for the day to get around the island. Rachel's mum, dad, and oma instead opt for the guided bus tour. Fiona and Ed have their own new bikes that seem rather superior to our hired ones which have no suspension, gears, nor fluorescent paintwork. The sky is bright blue and its that delicious dry low twenties weather again. We cycle round the island stopping to take photos, a dip in the azure waters, and to snorkel around a small bay. At one point we stop beside a dried up salt lake fringed by red heather. Green tussocks of grass cover a small hill leading up to a white lighthouse tower. Seen with the backdrop of a perfect blue sky, the colours are stunning.

Next day Rachel and I head down to the GP's for an appointment. I have to get a Hepatitis A injection to take my resistance up to 10 years. Rachel is concerned that she and me have amoebas from exposure to bad food and water in Asia, and wants us to have a stool test done. We walk out having spent AUD$200 (GBP 80) faster than imaginable. Rachel is armed with some little brown sterile pots to collect the poo. I rapidly decide that my bowels are fine and Rachel can proceed with the tests herself.

In the evening we go out to a brewery to meet up with some of the extended family who are saying goodbye to Alicia who is heading back to Canberra. The place is called Little Creatures and is the first time I've seen a restaurant and bar inside a working brewery. Behind the bar there are huge stainless steel vessels covered in probes and sensors. The periphery of the building is wrapped in pipes and valves. From a viewing window above the urinals in the gents I look out to a bottling plant where people are busy cleaning down after a day's production. Some of the male customers find it too disconcerting and can't pee.

Next day we collect a hire car to go to York for the day because Ed's V8 is disappointingly still not reliable enough to cover the 250km round trip. Fiona spends about 2hrs on the phone because all the hire cars seem to be sold out over the holiday period. She tells me she has managed to find me a Ute, which is apparently short for Utility Vehicle, otherwise known to the rest of the world as a Pick Up. When we're down at the car hire place Fiona does some skilled sweet-talking and gets us a comfy 2.0 litre Hyundai Elantra instead.

York is one of those old towns that the early settlers built that has been polished and scrubbed to become a quaint tourist destination. We amble up the wide main street remarking on how 'British' many of the buildings seem, whilst swatting away the ever-persistent flies. We drive up to a little hillside overlooking the town and countryside and enjoy the views. We can see the silvered bark of thousands of Eucalyptus trees that intersperse the dry brown fields. We eat a delicious picnic in a shady spot before driving down to an old mill which has been converted to a furniture showroom. Most of the furniture on display inside is made from Jarra, the local hardwood. An over-enthusuastic sales woman keen to meet her December sales target tries to convince me that buying a table for AUD10,000 (about GBP4,000) is good value and I wouldn't have to pay much to ship it to the UK. Its Ed's birthday and on the way back he takes us on a detour to Northam to show us the house where he was born 52 years ago.

Next day Fiona and Ed are visiting some of their friends in Cottesloe, and lend us their sparkling bikes so we can meet them there and get some exercise. Heading towards the city, we have the wind on our backs and Rachel remarks that these bikes are really very good. We turn the corner to follow the Swan river west and the pace drops to less than 10km/h as the wind buffets us in the face. Rachel tries to get into the slipstream behind my bike and her front tyre clips my rear one almost sending her into the river. After inspecting the cut on her calf she is less enthusiastic, but pedals on bravely. We meet up with Ed, Fiona, and the rest of the posse 25km later at Don's beautiful house in Cottesloe. He has extended it tastefully and is building a swimming pool in the back garden. By strange coincidence, Don's mother-in-Law, Joy Callendar, used to live in Monreith, the village where my mum and dad are from. Don is a bit of a wildlife enthusiast and hands round a friendly skink that he collected somewhere in the desert.

We cycle down to Derek's house about 2km down the road in Cottesloe. It was built in the 1920's and has been beautifully restored to exceed its former glory. The bathroom has the original thunder box shining and gleaming as though it was less than 6 months old. Derek makes us a delicious glass of lemonade using lemons from the tree in the garden. Feeling refreshed, we are about to leave on the bikes because its getting dark, when he offers us the use of his spare Toyota Landcruiser. It turns out that he doesn't need it because he's off to visit family in South Africa soon. It seems too good an offer to refuse. He shows us round the 6 cylinder diesel and its various idiosyncrasies, and I feel very fortunate to have such an appropriate beast for motoring around Australia. Without the need to rush off in the bikes, we enjoy a relaxing jacuzzi in Derek's back garden, which eases the aches and pains of the bike ride.

Next day I go to the dentist because in Vietnam I had a couple of fillings fall out which causes me some pain. I visited the dentist in England before I left and she told me that I needed six or seven done on my return. I meet Sara, the friendly and enthusiastic Ozzy dentist, and I tell her my story. She has a poke around in my mouth and tells me that I actually need 11 fillings. I ask her how much and I feel a lot more pain as she quotes me AUD$1400 (about GBP600) for the work. So much for dentistry being cheaper in Australia. I tell her we have to prioritise just the serious ones and she estimates that AUD$800 will be required. She sets to work immediately on the right hand side and chats away while I recline open jawed. After the fillings are put in (she does one for free) she gives me a jaw massage which is a first for me. We set another appointment date and I head off in a surprisingly good mood.

That afternoon we drive the Landcruiser down to Bunbury where we are staying with Ed's parents Stan and Natalia. Stan built their house in the 1950's, and little of the style seems to have changed in the house since then. Natalia has recently had a stroke and doesn't look too well, so Rachel's mum and dad do most of the cooking and preparation for dinner. After a delicous feast we drive down to the beach and watch the last sunset of 2005. As the sun is slowly going down, we see lots of dolphins swimming in the surf, and a lone fisherman is silhouetted in the reddened sky.

On New Years day we have arranged to go diving (since we are now qualified) at Busselton Jetty, a few kilometres south of Bunbury. Fiona and Ed have all their own kit, and a friend of theirs, Peter Buzzacot, has kindly given Rachel and I all the bits we need. After much ado organising the kit, we pile it into the Landcruiser and head down to Busselton. At the car park we unload it into trolleys and start the long 2.2 kilometre walk out on to the jetty. Unfortunately I discover that my BCD (Bouyancy Control Device) is broken so I agree to go snorkelling with Rachel's dad Dennis instead.

The water is cold and I am glad that I have a 5mm thick wetsuit on. Dennis and I snorkel around the old broken pylons of the jetty and we see lots of fish and sealife. The highlight is a huge shoal of yellow tails, which are so closely packed that they look like a giant sea snake winding its way through the pylons. We swim back slowly to the steps and Dennis looks very tired and cold after only half an hour in the water. We see Rachel, Fiona, and Ed scuba diving below us, but we pass unseen above them.

At the end of the jetty there is an underwater observatory where Rachel's mum and oma have had a look at the sea life. Its a lot quieter now that the little train that used to chug along the jetty was condemned for being unsafe.

After Busselton, we drive to Dunsborough, where we go into Ed's favourite bakery for pies and cakes. Its amazing how in a hot country like Australia people still love British favourites like steak pies and cream cakes. Down at Dunsborough beach the shallow water is warm and inviting and we have a quick paddle before heading back to Bunbury. At Bunury I mistakenly agree to rinse and dry the diving gear while the others head off to church. The amount of kit needed to go diving is way too much and it takes me over an hour just to rinse the stuff and hang it on the line.

In the evening Ed shows us some photos he took whilst diving. There are some excellent shots of Rachel posing next to giant shoals of yellow tails.

We head down to Augusta the next day, which is right down in the extreme south west of Australia. En route we stop at a cave known as Lake Cave, supposedly the most beautiful cave in the whole of Australia. Our guide succumbs to casting silhouettes of the limestone formations with his torch and naming them 'two people on a bench with a rabbit', and 'reindeer'. The naming game is desperately boring but the kids in the tour group seem to like it. There are some striking stalagmites and stactites to see and the artificial lights bring them to life. The cave itself is not so big and for AUS$18 (GBP 7.00), the entrance fee is outrageously expensive.

We drive down to Cape Leeuwin in the extreme south west, where the wind is blowing briskly across the low tussocky grass and the waves pound on to the rocky shore. Here the Southern and Indian Oceans meet and the place has a real end-of-the-world feel to it. I comment to Rachel that it feels just like an antipodean Mull-of-Galloway (Scotlands most southerly lighthouse).

We decide to drive back to Bunbury on some dirt roads to test out the Landcruiser. Rachel looks at me all concerned when I point out on the map the route that I want to take. After some gentle persuasion, she and Dennis agree to come along to give it a try. We borrow Fiona's sat nav system for good measure, just in case we get lost in the wilds of the Australian bush. The road turns out to be narrow and rough at first, and we have to drive really slowly at about 10-20km/h. The bush seems to enclose us and the trees are close enough to touch from the car window. We see parrots flitting around and the occasional bright orange Australian Christmas tree adds a splash of colour. Soon we are in much more dense woodland where the Eucalypts seem to have multi-coloured trunks and branches from the variously aged peeling bark. The first kangaroo of the evening bounds wildly in front of the car making us feel like we're on safari. The road seems to improve as we go on, and we splash through a couple of shady rivers where there are cleared areas for parking and picnicking. There doesn't seem to be anyone else using these roads though. After an hour or so we stop for a break and enjoy the smells and sounds from the bush all around. It really feels like a we're in outback Australia now.

After a couple of hours on dirt roads we re-emerge on to the highway and blast back to Bunbury in time for tea (dinner in Australia - which turns out to be a barbeque). That night, Helena's family is also stopping over, so its a bit cramped in the house with 12 people sleeping over. We put out mattress at the foot of Rachel's mum and dad's bed, but at 2 o'clock in the morning I can stand Dennis's snoring no more so I find a place in the utility room beside the toilet to sleep.

Next day we are diving again, and Peter has fixed my kit so that I can go underwater this time. Feeling a little tired because of the lack of sleep the previous night, we head over to the rendezvous point at the dive centre round the corner from Ed's parents house, and pay AUD$79 (about GBP30) each for the dive. The weather has turned grey and rainy - the first time we have seen anything other than perfect blue sky and puffy clouds in Western Australia.

We follow the boat skipper who is towing the boat down to the harbour. We get changed into our wet suits and jump on board the small craft which has twin 130hp outboards. After chugging out of the harbour, the skipper opens it up and we scud across the waves to some unknown destination on the grey horizon.

We put on the last of the gear and dive into the blue abyss below. I immediately spot the wreck which we have come to look at. The Lena is a 55 metre Russian fishing vessel that was impounded by Australian customs, and eventually was scuttled offshore as a diving attraction. As I'm trying to decend I realise that something is wrong, and I signal to Rachel to take a look at my tank. It turns out that it has fallen out of its strap and is dangling uncontrollably. Rachel can't manage to fix it, so we swim back to the boat on the surface and the skipper sorts it out. Then we decend slowly to the wreck and take a look around. There are lots of little fish inside the boat. In the dim blue green light I can see a huge shoal silhouetted by an opening on the other side of the boat. We find the ships toilet and see a large fish with two protruding teeth guarding it. The fish doesn't move even when we get very close. Down at the rear of the boat the propeller is surrounded by a school of strange box-shaped fish that slowly move away as we approach. We spot one of the other girls in the dive group, who skin dives 17m without air down to the bottom of the wreck and pauses before heading back to the surface.

After about 40 minutes of poking around we head up to the surface and struggle back on the dive boat. The captain offers us another dive but we decide against it as we've seen most of what there is to see. We take the kit back to Ed's parents place and rinse it all off again. I can't help but think that diving is more trouble than its worth.

After diving we enjoy a big lunch before getting packed up to head back to Perth. Before going, we visit the grave of Fiona and Ed's daughter, Kristina, who died just a few days after she was born in July. She has a simple little headstone on a hilly part of the graveyard overlooking Bunbury. A couple of flowers planted by Rachel's mum seem to be thriving in the sandy soil.

On the drive back to Perth we finally have to stop for fuel in the Landcruiser. Fortunately Fiona has searched for the cheapest fuel in the area and has a 4c per litre voucher for us because the car has 180 litre tank (3 times the size of most cars). In the end we pump in AUD$180 (GBP 80) worth of fuel. Its just us well fuel is a lot cheaper in Oz.

For the last part of the trip we make the mistake of using the Sat Nav on the 'shortest' rather than the 'fastest' setting which takes us on a wild goose chase through the dirt tracks south of Perth in the dark. The lights are not working that strongly and main beam plunges us into complete darkness. Nonetheless, we arrive back safely in Perth.

Next morning we say bye to Oma who is heading back to Tasmania. We look forward to seeing her in a couple of days when we will head over that way. I then head off for the second instalment of dental treatment, which seems to go smoothly. I get another jaw massage after 3 further fillings, but after Rachel arrives to meet me, the dentist refuses to offer the jaw massage service again.

In the afternoon we go sailing with Fiona and Ed in the Swan River Estuary in the centre of Perth. We hire two sail boats for AUD$28 (about GBP12) per hour from a white-bearded sailor-looking chap. The little twin-hulled surf cats have a single sail and a wide net is stretched tightly between the hulls to sit on. Its not that windy but we manage to pick up a good turn of speed. The backdrop of the Perth city skyline and cobalt blue sky above makes it a very pleasant hour indeed. Ed lets me drive his V8 back home, and I enjoy cruising down the freeway at 80km/hr with the engine burbling noisily. We stop at a service station to pump up the tyres and I get the gearbox stuck in 4th. Nonetheless I still manage to drive home easily - engines this big don't really need gears at all.

On our last evening in Western Australia we go fishing for crabs in Mandurah, one hour away from Perth by car. We meet our crabbing guru friend, Bob, a colleague of Ed's who is taking us to a good spot on the estuary. We arrive just as the light is dying and the sky takes on a bright orange glow. We walk along the estuary a bit and then we wade out into the warm shallow water, armed with torches, a bucket, and scoops. The scoops are just a course wire basket on the end of a broom handle which are used to catch any crabs we see in the water. Soon there's a loud metallic clatter as the first crab of the evening crashes around in Bob's scoop and is skilfully dumped into the bucket. Bob tells us that the crabs have to be a minimum dimension and produces a homemade gauge to measure the widest point on the crab's blue and purple body. Unfortunately the first crab is too small, a story which repeats itself many times that evening, so it has to be dumped back in the water. Wading around in an estuary in the dark might not sound like much fun but Rachel and I enjoy the challenge of spotting the crabs in the murky water and outwitting them. As we move around, we see a couple of fat pelicans swimming by not too far off. Soon the first planets start to appear in the night sky, and a small flock of ibis sweep overhead. We can hear the faint sound of oyster catchers by the shore, and Rachel's mum points excitedly to a pod of dolphins making their way up the channel. We can hear the snort of their breath as they surface from the fiery waters, which have taken on the colour of the sun's dying rays. In all, that evening, Rachel and I manage a pretty dismal two crabs, but once everyone's are added together (and especially Bob's) we have enough for a small feast. Back in Perth Rachel's mum and dad clean and cook the crabs under Bob's watchful eye and we tuck in to a memorable midnight feast.

Rachel and I are up to 2.30am packing our stuff for the flight to Tasmania the next morning. We struggle out of bed in the morning and say our goodbyes to Rachel's mum and dad. Fiona and Ed drive us to the airport. Fiona is especially sad to say good bye to Rachel because she doesn't know when she will see her sister again, and there are tears as we walk through the gate to the plane.

And so we come to the end of our time in Perth - our third visit here. Can we see ourselves living in Western Australia? Not sure really, but after travelling through Asia it feels somewhat disappointingly like England away from home. The last few times we came it all felt so different and exotic, but these feelings of first love have faded. Plus points are the good weather (which was exceptional this year because we had unusually low summer temperatures), countryside, seaside, friendly people. Negative points are the isolation from the rest of the world, its expensive, it lacks the cultural diversity of Europe, and there are limited job options for me. So on balance - I don't think so, but Rachel is more in favour of it than me!
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