In Newcastle, we stay with our friends Chris and Laura. Of all the people we know, these are the ones who shared the biggest part of our cycling trip 5 years ago- we saw Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China with them, lounged on a Thai island and unexpectedly ran across each other in the foamy streets of Vientiane when we thought we had already seen each other for the last time. Now we are all thoroughly domesticated, having produced 4 children between us in the space of 3 years. Of course, we talk baby farming, but not only. For 2 days we can have those lovely meandering conversations which happen around the obligations of the day. Sometimes we don’t say anything.
Maja and Janek fall in love with their son Hugo, and insist on going everywhere holding his hands, flanking him. They refer to him as HIM. Mummy, I want to hold hands with HIM. Hugo is not averse, as they race about the museum and leap into the fountain in one long glorious chain of 3 year old exuberance.
In Sydney, we are caught up in a social whirl. Our friend Kat organises a barbeque for us and I talk late into the night with old friends. I am so involved in this day-long conversation that when a mad, cyclonic storm blows up in the afternoon I don’t even notice it.
Some of what goes on this trip is mere maintenance, hoping to keep friendships going for another couple of years until we come again. I’ve spent too much time being sick to fulfil the whole ambitious plan of visits. So instead, sometimes there’s only a phone call, or a short, harried picnic, just to say, we love you, wait for us until next time.
Heading south from Stanthorpe, still feeling shaky. We stop at Guyra, in the throes of the lamb and potato festival, and are buying some sausages when a deluge begins. It rains so hard that the air becomes a wall of water. We decide there and then that camping is not a wise idea, and drive through more storms down to Ebor on the waterfall way and get a room in the motel. We compensate by going up to the national park to cook our dinner instead.
The waterfalls are racing, great volumes of water sliding off old lava. Everything is saturated, literally and figuratively; the grass is a poisonous green, tree trunks shine lurid orange, and the water disappears into a bright, impenetrable wall of vegetation. A magpie comes begging for food and the kids give it their leftover spaghetti. I have the best sleep of the trip so far.
The rain clears, finally, in the afternoon. In the evening we turn onto the Lakes WAy and start heading down to Booti-Booti, planning to camp. We drive through the blocky, estuarine sprawl of Tuncurry and Forster, which appear to be inhabited solely by bronzed schoolies and condo-owning pensioners. When we get to the campground at Booti-Booti, it turns out to be hosting a convention of teenage bogans, and we keep going.
After a night in the tent, we pull off the highway for breakfast in Buladelah. We cook in a rest area right on the river, noting the flood debris in the the trees at a level far above our heads. The sun glints off the water, and a flock of geese arrives. They clamber up the bank and start grazing as if they own the place.
We drive up to Queen Mary Falls for a walk. I feel unwell and have to stop and rest every five minutes on the way down, stop and vomit on the way up. Marcin has already taken a course of antibiotics after coughing up unspeakable things on arrival. By evening I am in the hospital in Stanthorpe with a chest infection. They call me sweetie and poke a great big stick up my nose to get a swab and ask me if I’ve been hanging around with any Ebola victims. I spend the night there, and they send me home the next day, still shaky but no longer delirious.
The kids are on farm time. They wake up at 5:30, Janek demanding a vegemite sandwich. They feed the old peckers (alpacas), collect the eggs, eat perfect corn from the garden. Why there’s not much peoples in Australia? asks Janek. Why the toilets are outside? In the evenings they fall asleep watching Bambi, dogs at their feet.
We go down to the Giraween National Park for a swim and a walk, stopping at the Ballandean Shop for a (now traditional) meat pie and a ginger beer. We have walked about 500 metres when Franki falls into a crevice in the rock, tears the skin off her big toe and bangs up her leg. She almost faints onto the granite but refuses to go to the hospital, having only just extracted me. We spend the afternoon sitting in a sandy wallow while the kids play in the water and the snapping turtles cruise the tannin-brown depths of the waterhole.
We arrive in Brisbane in the evening. It’s hot and humid. When we finally get through customs, Franki is waiting and when she offers to carry someone Janek jumps onto her back without hesitation.
She takes us to a hotel near the port. It is already dark, and after we have eaten we go to the playground, where there are woodchips on the ground instead of sand, and a shadecloth instead of trees.
On the way home we see a huge possum swaggering through the enveloping branches of a fig tree.
Marcin takes Janek out early one morning for a meat pie and chocolate milk. On the way they encounter an ibis. Look! calls Janek, delighted. It’s a funny stork!
We drive a winding road to Binna Burra, and mountain resort where we have booked a night. From the picture window we can see all the way down to the Gold Coast, jumbled on the horizon. We eat lambchops for dinner and the kids sleep from 2 in the afternoon until 7 the next morning (with a brief wakeup to eat at 11). In the morning we go into the rainforest, where my nascent twitcher’s eye is befuddled by all the greenery, and my nascent twitcher’s ear is distracted by chants of Carry me, carry me, carry me. We do see a bush turkey and a potaroo, and 2 hikers who have been so mauled by leeches that they look like they have escaped from Wolf Creek.
We are back in Poland after a month in Australia. There is something soothing about the rain and the grey air, and the spareness of wintertime. I will post a bit about Australia over the next few weeks.
I forgot to publish this post in May and just found it in my archives. In a bid to regain some credibility after so much slacking, I’m publishing it now.
After starting the day with a weary sense of generalised despair, and plodding off to work in a very negative state of mind, whining to myself about how I didn’t want to, and how I just really needed a nap, I was uplifted first of all by a not-disastrous class ( I don’t require too much in this respect) and secondly, by the boys who work in the courtyard underneath the building where I work, who came up to talk to me all star-struck by the beauty and usefulness of my bike, which they alone in all of Warsaw recognised (If anyone steals it, it will be us, they said. Nobody else realises.).
Instead of being annoyed that they were bothering me as I tried to go home late in the evening, I found myself simpering away as I told them what this bike (and me on its sturdy steel back) had done. I didn’t believe it myself. I felt like I had just been introduced to somebody who had done something amazing, but no- it was me! I rode home feeling smug in the twilight on my bike which had taken me over the Kizil-art Pass into Tajikistan and through the Japanese Alps and other places too wonderful and distant to list here.
Looking back at our photos from Australia, all I see is the kids. There’s only two of them, and they’re only small, but they cover a whole country, a whole continent. There they are: loving dogs, hating sand, patting a wallaby, being indulged by various friends and relatives. The whole landscape in which they do these things is absent, or faded to distant backdrop.
I don’t know when this part of parenting ends, this tight focus that makes the rest of the universe disappear. Quite frankly it doesn’t seem like it will be any time soon. For a taste of what the south coast of NSW actually looks like, may I direct you here. If you want to see a small taste of what we saw, read on.
24 December, 2003, Dongola, Northern Sudan.
I am sitting outside Lord’s Hotel in this dusty town, which nevertheless looks like a metropolis to me with its gold shops and its tarmac after a week of riding along the Nile. The hotel is a one-story, concrete building, one of two hotels which have sprung up to catch the nascent tourist trade after the recent opening of Sudan’s northern land border. I am nursing a stomach bug I have picked up from ill-advised drinking of riverwater, feeling wan and wondering if I will ever have the urge to eat again. It’s evening, and there is a buzz of tea drinking and conversation at the tables standing on the street outside the hotel. I am reading, or writing something, keeping an eye out for other whiteys, since I have been on the road for a bit over a week and I know that the boat from Aswan to Wadi Halfa came in 2 days ago.
And here they come- 4 of them, carrying a gigantic bottle of Cola to drink their Christmas Eve toasts. Two Czechs, Marcin’s friend Anka, and Marcin himself. He is wearing a pale blue scarf and a pair of glasses with thick black rims, and sending an sms from an ancient Nokia. I will carry a deep affection for all these items (scarf, glasses, phone) long after they have gone out of circulation.
This story is one which I never tire of telling myself, and it never fails to give me a frisson. Over the next decade, I will meet this man again, fall in love with him, live with him in 2 countries and travel with him in countless others. I will learn to speak to him in his own language and have the hilarious pleasure of hearing him use Australian idioms. He will be the father of my children. This moment, this harmless Christmas Eve sighting of a bespectacled European going about his business, is simultaneously so casual and so momentous that it fascinates me. It carries the ungerminated seed of my whole future as an adult, with a husband and a family, and I don’t know it.
Having babies and deciding never to leave home again has not dimmed my interest in reading about other people’s travel experiences. It’s a counterpoint to my own ironclad routine, to the tyranny of naptimes and feeding times. In the last few months I have devoured Ed Stafford’s book about walking the length of the Amazon and a book by Wolf Kielich about Victorian women travellers.
I don’t feel any longing for my footloose days, or envy them their journeys. In fact, I don’t see a huge difference between what I do and what they do. They get up in the morning and do the same thing , over and over ( swim through the swamps, assuage the suffering of the lepers, give out bibles to Russian prisoners, save West African twins from being murdered as the devil’s spawn, etc). There are better days and worse days. They get sick, lose faith, can’t go on (but do). They are held on their course by religion, by sheer stubbornness, by the desire for fame and fortune, by an inability to conceive of other options.
When I was broadcasting the news of Maja and Janek’s birth far and wide, a friend wrote to me that I was starting a different kind of journey. I didn’t like the metaphor much- it sounded a bit glib, a bit high falutin. Now I have different reasons for thinking it doesn’t fit. Journeys end. You depart, you travel, you arrive. But this, ladies and gentlemen, never ends. I still can’t quite get my head around it.