My new novel! Confluence

I started writing this book on my honeymoon in Thailand, a rare occasion in which the days stretched forward with leisurely poolside hours to fill. 

There, an image of a little boy fishing with his dad arrived, unbidden, in my imagination. I started writing and couldn’t stop. 

Later that year, I often lost track of time and forgot to eat or drink whilst writing from our attic lodgings in Devon, England – enjoying the opportunity to mentally transport myself home to Australia’s balmy east coast while looking out my rain-speckled window.

I wrote the second draft on a solo stay in an airbnb cabin at the bottom of someone’s backyard in the Blue Mountains, five months pregnant.

That baby is now four years old and a big brother, and the manuscript has sat in the digital equivalent of my top drawer since then. 

I’ve had several readers who’ve kept me encouraged with their feedback, critiques and – to my delight – praise. Alas I haven’t had success taking the traditional publishing route, so I’ve decided to be brave (or vain, depending on your perspective!) and self-publish. It’s time to give this book wings and move onto my next creative project (stay tuned).

You can visit the official book page here.

Otherwise, continue below for a summary and more information on where to buy a copy.

There’s his boat. Upside down on the sand. Like something ancient, something returned to nature long ago.”

Liam is living an unhappy life in the city, having an affair with the married woman upstairs, haunted by the ghosts of his childhood.

When he discovers his mother is sick, Liam decides to return to his hometown where, 20 years earlier, his father went fishing and never came home.

But Liam’s not the first person in his family to have made that journey to the coast in search of the truth.

Moving between generations, Confluence is a contemporary mystery novel about time, memory, love and loss, through the lens of one family’s tragedy.

Confluence is available to purchase as an ebook from these retailers:

If you do download and read the book, please do leave your honest review on Goodreads – I’d love to hear what you think, and without the marketing or apparatus of a legacy publisher behind me, reviews and ratings really help us humble self-publishers!

One year Tassie anniversary

Looking back on our first year in Tasmania – 100 trees, 4 chickens, three months in a caravan and one new human later

The frenzied barking of caged dogs didn’t help our stress levels, as we milled around in the cold with the rest of the  untouchables on the vehicle deck of the Spirit of Tasmania, awaiting our instructions. Our three-year-old Owen was steadily losing patience, splashing in the oil-slicked-brine at our feet. 

Finally, over an hour after the Clean Passengers had boarded for their civilised dinners on this floating RSL, we were led by a harried, masked crew member onto our deck, segregated by red tape and hazard signs. 

We’d chosen the first day the Spirit was to start ferrying passengers (returned, or in our case new, residents only) from NSW and Victoria, to which the Tas border was otherwise  closed. That meant procedures were still a work in progress, and it showed – but we weren’t about to let it dampen our excitement of this new chapter.

We’d spent the previous weeks at our home in Gerringong, NSW, packing all of our belongings into a shipping container, then watched nervously as the front wheels of the truck levitated off our steep driveway from the weight of all our worldly possessions, before disappearing around the corner. 

We’d nervously submitted our border pass request – successful only on the second attempt – and then drove the 820km to Melbourne, before sailing overnight to Tasmania. 

On the boat, we weren’t allowed to leave our windowless bunk room, other than fresh air breaks on the smokers’ deck, and Owen took a long time to fall asleep in all the excitement of Sleeping On A Boat. But waking at dawn and spotting the hills of Devonport lifted our hearts. This was it! 

We set foot on Tassie soil as new residents on 27 October 2020. 

In the 12 months since then we’ve brought a new human into the world, planted almost 100 trees, built a chicken coop and a veggie garden, and lived in three different dwellings including a caravan. Now it feels like an apt time to refresh this old travel blog (remember travel?) and reflect on our first full year as new Tasmanians.

Why Tassie

It seems we have a habit of procreating and relocating. About six months after Owen was born, we moved three hours south of Sydney to the coastal town of Gerringong. We loved our life there, and got used to daily swims in the ocean, made friends and even had a little veggie patch and two chooks in our rental backyard.  

But we wanted to buy our own place, and Gerringong it turned out wasn’t much cheaper than Sydney. 

Then there was 2020’s summer of fires, with thick smoke from all directions and consecutive scorching days and stifling nights, in a rental in which the owner refused to install AC. We spent a small fortune on a portable air filter and worried about the impact of the smoke on our little boy’s developing lungs, and were haunted by the idea that summers like those are only predicted to become more frequent. 

For many years we’d talked about Tasmania as a milder climate to relocate to – and here was the reality of global warming playing out on our doorstep. Yes, Tassie will get fires too, but at least here we can afford to build a home that’s more resilient to them and other climate risks (more on that to come!). 

We were also drawn by the wilderness on our doorstep, the produce, proximity to Hobart, and the fact that we have some wonderful friends already putting down roots here and were doing a good job of selling the dream. It felt like a no-brainer.

The property and the house

We had first seen our block on a holiday to Tasmania back in January 2020, a significant moment in history we would later realise – but at the time had very little idea how the world was about to change.

By March, from lockdown in Gerringong, we exchanged contracts on 2500sqm of ex-bull paddock on the outskirts of Huonville, about 30 minutes drive south of Hobart.

Still on the mainland, we engaged an architect and started to plan out our house – two-storey, to minimise the footprint on the land and enable an airy double-height void and capture views down the valley. Our architect specialises in Passive House construction, which means, in a nutshell, extremely well-sealed and insulated buildings that are mechanically ventilated through a heat exchanger, meaning you barely have to heat or cool them.

The block is a big flat rectangle on a subdivided farm that belonged to the family of our neighbours on two sides. 

Spring

On arrival in Tasmania, we’d secured a very short lease to avoid hotel quarantine. And while nothing could make two weeks’ quarantine with a three-year-old easy, exactly, arriving at the beautiful little cottage, walls lined with books and surrounded by gardens in the sunny late spring weather helped. 

Our quarantine accommodation was a bit more luxurious than the caravan
We forgot to social distance from the neighbours during quarantine!

We had the rental for about a month, total – with plans to find a longer-term place in the two weeks after our quarantine, where we’d live while we built our passive house on the block. We’d been warned about a severe rental shortage in the area, and that’s what we found.

I was edging into my third trimester when we’d arrived, with our lease coming to an end, wondering what address to give the hospital as I tried to navigate a new state health system for the impending birth. 

We’ve never been ones to shy away from an adventure, but were we crazy to buy a caravan and live on the block without mains power or water, with a toddler (and soon a newborn) whilst working remotely full-time?

Yes, we were, and we were also a walking Grand Designs-esque cliche. 

In late November, the caravan arrived sight-unseen, towed by a 4WD from Launceston. Home sweet home.

I had dreams of renovating the caravan into something white painted and instagrammable, but time wasn’t on our side. Instead we put glow in the dark stars above Owen’s bunk bed and Paul unscrewed and refitted the dining table in the kitchenette to better accommodate my growing belly. We were gifted recycled floorboards to put under the awning by our good friends living in similar circumstances on their own property (I told you we were cliche), and I instructed Paul to redesign the caravan bed area, to make space for baby and me before January.

Summer

People associate Tassie with cold, but the summers can get hot, and with no shade on our block it could feel quite arid. The caravan was sometimes an oven by day and a fridge by night. We mastered the Zoom background filter for our corporate video meetings, to hide the garish caravan decor – there wasn’t much we could do about the background sounds of the plastic awning flapping in the wind, or the braying of the sheep we borrowed to help keep the grass down.

But the caravan also allowed us to make the most of Tassie’s long summer twilight, and I loved watching Owen play outside long after we’d eaten dinner while watching the sun set over the valley.

We spent our first Tassie Christmas in what was by then dubbed Caravanistan with Paul’s parents in a winnebago on the property, and it was like many of our summer days and nights on the block. Our much-missed Sydney family were happy faces waving over Zoom calls, our neighbour traipsed through the fence with a plastic bag full of plum-sized cherries, Owen played in his Bunnings splash pool, and we sat outside until the sun finally set at about 9pm. 

While I’ve missed our daily ocean swims from our mainland lives (sometimes viscerally), we’ve compensated as frequent visitors to Kingston beach, summer afternoons playing in the tannin Huon River water, and barely touched the surface of the aquamarine beaches to the far south, let alone the potential for holidays up Tassie’s famous east coast. 

The caravan was truly cemented in our family history when it was christened by my waters breaking at midnight, two weeks early on 30 December. An intense labour and five nights in hospital later (we watched Hobart’s New Year’s Eve fireworks from the birthing suite) the population of Caravanistan had finally increased by one.

The home midwife visits all took place in the caravan, which I would painstakingly tidy in the hope of avoiding a call to social services, but they all seemed happy enough. In fact, having Ebony’s first six weeks of life in that little bubble on wheels was ideal in many ways. I’ll always treasure memories like the sleepy mornings feeding her as the dawn light flooded the tiny space, Paul in the kitchen two feet away, the smell of coffee and steam billowing off the kettle, Owen’s sleepy face peeking through his ‘bedroom’ curtain before he’d unsteadily descend his bunk ladder and run outside to knock on his grandparents’ door a few metres away. 

But eventually, with our first Tassie winter on the horizon, a rental down the road finally came on the market and we pounced. We sold the caravan and watched it be towed away by its new owners. 

The patch of dead grass it left behind looked impossibly small for all the memories it had contained.

Autumn and winter

Autumn and winter followed in our rental townhouse, where we still live now. We’ve settled into life here as a family of four. 

Autumn was the orchards heavy with apples and shorter days. Winter was long mornings shrouded in thick fog, bright snow settling on the surrounding mountain ranges, gloves and coats and thick socks, coffees and croissants in front of woodfires. We were glad to be living now with heating and insulated walls. 

On the block, the grass has grown over the caravan patch, but Caravanistan hasn’t been completely deserted – at almost any one time since we’ve been here we’ve had either set of our parents living in the Winnebago on the block, which has been invaluable and obviously transformative to them too – both have since bought properties in the Huon Valley themselves!

Materials shortages and builder availability (or lack thereof) mean our build hasn’t started yet. A scheduled start date of late this year turned into early next year and now mid-way through next year. But we already have DA approval, and it will happen.

On weekdays, we drive past the Tassal salmon smoking factory and through an apple orchard, muddying the car on dirt roads to Owen’s daycare drop off. We work in our office jobs from home, and spend time with our fantastic circle of friends, who have been so open, welcoming and generous, most recent blow-ins themselves, empathetic to the experience of setting up a new life in a new state.

Weekends, especially rainy ones, we often drive into Hobart, enjoying exploring its alleys and family-friendly offerings – museums, rock climbing, swimming at the aquatic centre, ice creams at the Botanical Gardens. Otherwise, we’ve made a second home in Hobart’s tip shops, collecting recycled materials like bowerbirds, to incorporate into our eventual house – so far we’re storing a full set of Kauri pine doors from a Federation house, bathroom basins, a marble washstand for the vanity, an enormous Huon pine slab for a kitchen island, piles of recycled bricks for an interior brick wall, sandstone slabs, three art deco mirrors.

Loving the novelty of it, we’ve sought out snow when we could, hiked the Hartz Mountains twice – once in summer when we swam in the mountain lake, once when it was blanketed in snow.

And more than anything else, any chance we get, we’re back up at the block, building, weeding and planting, while Owen plays in the mud and Ebony sleeps in her pram or, more recently, crawls in the grass and attempts to eat the flowers.

We first broke dirt with an assortment of about 60 flowering natives planted down the western fence as a wind and visual screen. Then a small orchard of 15 fruit and nut trees, a large veggie garden enclosure, and now a chook house which has just welcomed 4 Plymouth rock hens with three blue Australops waiting for us to collect them soon. 

We’ve also waged war on capeweed (my mother in law gets all the kudos for that!), layed a gravel driveway, had three-phase power provided and plumbed in a portaloo!

Spring again

We’ve basically done our best to fill the void of not being able to build our house, and already the block is far from the sparse bull paddock we lived on last summer. The months of winter and spring rain have softened and darkened the soil, which writhes with earthworms when met with a shovel. 

Seedlings are popping up in the veggie beds, most of the natives are poking their heads above the plastic tree guards, and the fruit trees and berry patch are flowering and budding. I’m loving learning more about gardening and the prospect of creating a patch of something lush and green that can feed our family. I’m also anticipating much trial and error, as the selection of brown leaves, frost-burnt or slug-devoured seedlings already attest.

It’s been a big year – globally, of course, but in our little lives and corner of the world too. Impossible to fit it all into one post, but I plan on updating this blog more regularly than annually. So stay tuned for our Taswegian adventures as we build our house (eventually!) and explore our new island home.

Life Counter, a short story

I recently entered the following short story in the New Philosopher magazine writing competition for the ‘life’-themed issue. Alas I didn’t make the list of finalists (such is life!), however this morning the uncanny familiarity of a headline about Google AI “depicting life expectancy with 95% accuracy” prompted me to publish the story here.

The idea of a tool like this, I felt when writing the story, raised so many philosophical questions that I could barely touch upon within the 1500 word limit – and now (so soon!) those questions are a reality. It also seems so fitting of our time that my attempt at a sci fi concept had such a short lifespan, although that is why I didn’t bother setting this in the distant future.

Anyway, here it is – the first piece of fiction published on my blog. I hope you find it thought provoking.


Life Counter

by Gemma Chilton

access adult blur business

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I STILL REMEMBER THE day I met Jamie. I smelt him before I saw him. The aroma was instantly recognisable, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been exposed to it. In my busy mind’s eye, attempting to meditate in vain, it draped over me like a diaphanous grey cloak. My eyes snapped open and found the culprit – a man sitting a few metres away, leaning against the trunk of a giant fig tree shading us both. He was already looking back at me.

“Sorry,” he said, stubbing out the offending cigarette in the grass. “I don’t usually smoke, it’s been one of those days.”

I stood to leave, hand held over my mouth protectively. “Can you even still buy those things?” I scoffed. “You lose a week just thinking about them.”

He laughed. “Everything in moderation, right?”

“Everything except that, surely.”

“Guess you’ve got me there,” he said and winked, which sent a little frisson through me. Then he added: “If there was ever a time for a smoke it’s when your mother’s died, surely.”

I stopped short. “Sorry,” I said, although I was no less perplexed. “How long had she known?”

“Three months. One day she refreshed and, well, she went to the doctor to confirm and there it was, cancer. Family history had already stunted her lifespan, but suddenly she wasn’t playing averages anymore.”

The smoke lingered and passers-by were giving us a wide berth. I should have been itching to get away – surely no one was worth the second-hand smoke – but instead I stayed, as if waiting for something.

I truly hoped the cigarette was an aberration as I accepted his offer for coffee.

Sitting across from him in a nearby cafe I was amazed to learn I was speaking to a rare breed – a Life Counter abstainer.

“What’s the point?” he said, turning his cup around in its saucer. I noticed his eyes were the same hue as the black coffee he’d eccentrically ordered. “It doesn’t use any information I couldn’t already access through my doctor, without this morbid countdown function built in.”

“But it prolongs lives!” I almost shouted across the table, catching my smoothie before I could knock it over with my gesticulating hand. “I’ve never been healthier!”

Healthy? Awareness of our mortality has been hard enough on our species without this advertising-backed oracle making it an all-out obsession,” he said. Then his voice changed slightly, became soft but strident, in a way with which I would eventually become familiar. “The fear of death is only an instance of thinking oneself wise when one is not,” he said.

I hesitated, trying to understand, then cottoned on. “Who said that?”

“Me,” he smiled, and there was that wink again. “Ok, Plato.”

“You smoke cigarettes, drink black coffee and quote Plato? Have I walked into a film noir?”

“You know reading adds years, right?” He teased.

“Unless you die of boredom!” I wish I could have winked back at him. What a thing to be flirting about!

“I like to read philosophy,” he went on. “Maybe if more people did, there’d be more like me.”

“What, abstainers? Or smokers?”

He laughed. “Probably both! But I told you, I don’t usually smoke.”

“So, what then, you’re saying we’re silly to do what we can to delay death?”

“I just think we need to… think more before we let a date generated by an algorithm no one really understands rule our lives.”

“But we’ve always known we’re going to die. That’s always been a part of life. Now we have more… information.”

“Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.”

“Plato again?”

“A guy called Wittgenstein. He basically said because we don’t experience death we shouldn’t worry about it so much. He also said we already have access to eternity, in a sense, by living in the present. I like that idea. It’s not that we can live forever, but we can try and live without the intrusion of time. Tell me this, how much have you even spent on updated deathdays?”

“It’s 99 cents a Count, hardly a big expense for information like that.”

“So, how much? How often do you refresh?”

I suddenly felt like I was being accused. So what if I’d spent money? What would he have paid for more time with his mother? But of course I couldn’t say that, so I told him the truth.

“Everyday, before bed.”

He groaned. Inexplicably embarrassed, I rushed to add, “I’m not the only one! It’s recommended in the app!”

“Of course it is. A dollar a day? Since the app was launched? That’s almost a thousand dollars. Spent billions of times over! And how much have you spent on potions supposed to buy more time? Advertised to you through Life Counter directly?”

“But I’ve gained four years already! How can you put a price on that?”

“More time to tag onto the end of a life in which the last thing you think about every night is your own impending death. That’s not wellbeing. Do they factor that into their stupid algorithm?”

“‘Stupid algorithm?’ That last bit’s Plato again, right?” I was trying to lighten the tone but also cover my growing unease. Because he was right – I couldn’t remember the last time I’d fallen asleep thinking about anything else. And if the date had changed for the worse sleep could elude me for hours.

“You sound as obsessed as the rest of us,” I said, deflecting again. “How many hours have you spent reading what your philosophers have said about death? Long before Life Counter was even a reality.”

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “Sorry – Wittgenstein again. So maybe he should have said ‘by means of algorithms’, but the ideas of people like him are hardly irrelevant – you said it yourself we’ve always known we’ll die. But ok, Life Counter is here and we can’t undo it. The apple has been offered and I refuse to bite. We give too much power to that app. It might buy time, but you pay for it not only with money, but with any possibility of discovering eternity can in fact exist in an hour.”

“William Blake,” I said a little too eagerly, then: “Do all your thoughts come from the minds of others, or do you have some original ideas too?”

“Now there’s an excellent question,” he said, and laughed.

“I suppose I can’t accuse an Abstainer of not being original.”

Outside on the street we bumped phones and Jamie made me promise that for one night only, I wouldn’t refresh the Count.

In bed, I put my phone in a drawer, and lay there thinking about the things he’d said. They were just romantic ideas. None had the same power over me as the terrifying finality of death.

When I drifted off I was still thinking of him and what I’d say when we met again. I slept a few hours but woke in the middle of the night.

I pulled my phone from the drawer and held it in my palm, persistently flashing with a reminder from Life Counter. I was surprised to find my hand shaking. This was the first time I’d resisted, so I’d never realised just how much I’d come to rely on this daily ritual.

I found Jamie’s contact and sent him a message.

“This is hard.”

He replied almost immediately. “Have you done it yet?”

“No, I’m messaging you instead. Tell me something comforting. Will I live forever?”

“How about just living right now?”

My blue-lit face smiled at the screen. He sent another message before I could reply. “Meet me for sunrise, in two hours, at the beach,” and he pinged me a location.

When I made it to the beach I found Jamie perched on a bench, silhouetted by the fiery sky. I arrived at his side and we exchanged smiles but said nothing.

Eventually, the glowing lip of the sun peeked out from the horizon and Jamie broke the silence. “Here she comes,” he said, then added: “The first day of the rest of my life without mum.” My heart sank, disappointed – this wasn’t exactly the romance I was expecting – but then guilty. I’d forgotten what he was going through, too wrapped up in my own demons and these dizzy feeling I had around him.

“Well, it’s also the first day since you’ve known me,” I blurted before I could stop myself. He turned, his expression amused.

“God, sorry,” I said, mortified. “Bad timing.”

But he smiled. “No, you’re right. This is the first day of the rest of my life. That’s something, isn’t it? That’s enough.”

“I like that idea,” I said, and looked back out towards the sun, already a complete orb hovering above the horizon. “Yes. That’s enough.”

THE END

Our last week on Christmas Island!

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In between packing nappies, wet wipes and extra bug spray and sunscreen for a baby, I keep forgetting to pack our camera so that he can one day look back and know he was actually here on Christmas Island!

For example, I would have loved to have shown Owen pictures one day of himself at seven months old, strapped to his dad’s back, sloshing down one of the Christmas Island ‘dales’ – under sporadic rain and morning light filtered through the rainforest canopy, past robber crabs not much smaller than him, clinging on while Paul scrambles over fallen tree trunks and limestone outcrops; to have a photo of Paul sliding down a wall of tangled tree roots next to a small waterfall… That was yesterday morning, on our walk to Anderson’s Dale, which finished abruptly at the coast, at a towering, narrow gorge that peeks out at the big blue Indian Ocean.

However, as I forgot the camera he’ll have to make do with our stories instead to remind him – and no doubt those crabs and rocks and scrambles will become a little bigger and more treacherous with each telling…

We finally snorkelled Flying Fish Cove!

We’ve now reached the last week of our time here, and this morning we achieved something of a milestone for the trip – the swell finally calmed down enough for us to snorkel Flying Fish Cove. Owen stayed home with his new good mate Jess, and we set out at 6am, swimming from the boat ramp out to the immense ‘drop off’ at the edge of the reef. The diversity of fish, water clarity and colourful coral was beautiful – we swam until our fingers were wrinkled and we actually started to get a little cold which is pretty rare in this environment. Paul spotted a giant trevally and a lion fish, I got to see schools of tiny ‘Nemo’ clownfish in the corals, plus a bizarre looking pipefish and several beautiful technicolour parrot fish – plus countless other species that I’m afraid I couldn’t name.

By now, I feel like we’ve established a pleasant routine here – often swimming or exploring in the early mornings (sometimes Paul and I take turns having quiet mornings at home with Owen depending on the activity). This is followed by a day on the site for Paul helping to build Swell Lodge and me at home with Owen (we’ve also swapped on two occasions), and then either a swim or activity in the afternoon, or maybe just drinks and snacks down by the water as the Sun sets.

One of the highlights has definitely been the strong sense of community on the island, so it’s easy to see how Chris and Jess will be able to make a life here for the foreseeable future while they build and run Swell Lodge.

For example, tonight I’ll be participating in our third weekly ‘Hash House Harriers’ run, which happens at 4.30pm every Thursday – usually a roughly 5km run (or walk) with a drink stop that includes beers, and finishing with a BBQ, along with some obscure rituals that feel like a cross between maybe the Masons and college ‘hazing’ initiation ceremonies.

Another regular outing has been the Island’s outdoor cinema on a Saturday (and sometimes Wednesday) evening, which usually involves pulling on your rain jacket at some point as a rain shower passes over, and on Australia Day we went along to a community sausage sizzle – the upshot of all this (plus getting to meet Chris and Jess’s lovely circle of friends) is that already we’re waving hello to familiar faces when we walk down the street or at the local pub.

Tomorrow is our last day for exploring and the conditions will inform how we spend it – there’s another underground freshwater pool we’ve been meaning to visit, or we may hike to a new beach or an existing favourite (Dolly Beach is on my list as a highlight – and another place I failed to pack the camera for!).

In the meantime, here’s a few pics from when we did actually remember to take a camera!

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Snorkelling at Flying Fish Cove.

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Fellow volunteer Hamish bravely demonstrating the true scale of the robber crabs.

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Sundowners on the deck with Owen.

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Paul went on a caving adventure while I stayed home with Owen. At least I got to see the photos!

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Robber crab chowing down on a coconut.

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Ethel beach with my human cargo.

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Luckily, Owen seems to enjoy hanging out in his backpack carrier!

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Holding hands with dad ❤

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The work site where Swell Lodge is being built.

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Grotto swim at high tide!

Christmas Island 2: The blues

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The big robber crabs are a favourite site in the rainforest.

The Land Cruiser trundled down the steep bumpy track through dark rainforest. Outside, tropical rain fell hard on the roof and our baby Owen slept soundly in his car seat next to me while I swotted away the ever-present mosquitoes.

As I anticipated the evening ahead, I also wrestled with whether the decision to take him along this evening was bad parenting or… was it that awesome free-range parenting you read about in Scandinavia, but with more humidity…?

Soon we’d park and step out into the rain, hike down to a beach to watch a relatively rare natural event – something that only happens once a year on the island, and may well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to witness. I didn’t want to miss out, so I continued swotting those mozzies.

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We hiked down to Greta Beach to watch blue crabs spawning

Christmas Island is famous for its 5 million or so red crabs, hence it being such an amazing spectacle when they migrate out of the forest to spawn. However the less populous blue crabs also do their thing every year, and lucky for us the stars had aligned (well, the Moon more specifically, I believe) and the island’s crab experts had predicted tonight would be the night to witness blue crabs spawning.

We stepped out of the 4WD into the forest, under the dense canopy of which we were somewhat sheltered from the rain.

Head torches lit, Owen strapped to my front, we hiked along the trail to Greta Beach. After the short walk, we could sense we were reaching the coast as the canopy opened up and our surroundings lightened from night to dusk.

The last part of the track was a steep metal staircase down to the beach, where a few locals, national parks crew and scientists had already gathered to witness the spawning. Hundreds of blue crabs descended the limestone cliffs that tower behind the small beach towards the rising tide, where they’d wait for the water to wash over them and do a funny little dance to release their parcel of eggs, and hopefully make it back to shore to crawl back into the forest…

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Gathered to witness the blue crab spawning on Greta Beach.

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We’ve now been on Christmas Island for over a week, and every day I’ve been putting off uploading my next travel blog as we see and do new things that I want to include! Chris and Jess are famous for the busy schedules they keep (if you’ve ever received one of their Christmas cards you’ll know) so our days are full; and that’s in between the demands of a seven-month-old!

Some highlights so far have included swimming in the Grotto – an amazing cave and freshwater pool, easily one of the most stunning swimming spots I’ve experienced.

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The Grotto swimming hole

We’ve snorkelled and swam at Ethel Beach – and Paul has already spotted a whale shark there on a spearfishing outing. The water temperature (about 28C) and clarity makes for gorgeous swimming conditions – on our morning swims tiny blue sea sapphires sparkle beneath us, like swimming above a starry night. We swim at the edge of the ‘drop off’, where the water drops off a coral shelf and disappears into blue darkness.

We’ve visited the ‘blowholes’ lookout on the coast, at the end of another walk through rainforest. The honeycombed limestone structure of the island is perfect for blowholes and they make me wonder if they’re linked to dragon mythology – as that’s what I think of when I hear the low rumble and see the puff of ‘smoke’ (sea mist) bursting out of the rocks.

Yesterday Paul and I swapped roles; he spent the day with Owen at home and I went onto the work site for a working bee clearing the second lodge site – clearing rainforest and dragging out Pandanus and other vegetation in the middle of the jungle is as gruelling as it sounds, but it was also surprisingly fun and oddly cathartic.

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Working bee clearing the second site for Swell Lodge in the national park. (Photo: Chris Bray/@SwellLodge)

We finished the day at a nearby rock pool on the coast that filled with the swell like a spa.

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Paul and Owen joined us for our swim after a day on the Swell Lodge work site yesterday.

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We now have two days to rest and/or explore – the swell is still big on our side of the island, so we haven’t swam at Flying Fish Cove yet. A trip Dollys Beach is on the cards for this afternoon; ranked one of the top 10 best beaches in Australia last year.

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Regular afternoon drink spot.

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Paul at the work site with a huge robber crab. (Photo: Chris Bray)

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The blowholes look out.

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The blowholes lookout.

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Carpets of baby red crabs closed the roads to the protected side of the island for a few days.

Christmas Island: first impressions

“Don’t they have to see the landing strip to land? Those clouds are very low,” my husband, Paul, unhelpfully commented from the seat next to me.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” a woman intoned from a few rows behind us.

On my lap, Owen gurgled and cooed, happily oblivious in his infant’s seatbelt strapped to my own. I clasped my arms around his waist and took deep breaths, while our Virgin passenger jet wafted side to side in the wind as it stepped towards the seemingly invisible runway.

On the ground our friends and hosts for the three weeks ahead, Jess and Chris Bray, were at home and unprepared for our arrival, certain the weather would prevent our plane from landing. It’s not uncommon for planes to be turned around – and for the previous few days they’d been hit by the outer edges of Tropical Cycle Joyce, which was battering the north-west coast of Western Australia almost 2000km away.

But land our pilot did, and the passengers exhaled a collective sigh of relief before we disembarked into the grey, humid tropical air of our destination.

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Our home (and view) for the next three weeks.

Welcome to Christmas Island, a 135sq.km island of jagged limestone rock and mature rainforest in the Indian Ocean – technically an Australian territory, but closer to Indonesia by a long shot. The island is famous for the red crabs that carpet the streets during migration season, and infamous for its immigration detention centre. Settled in 1888, its approximately 1800-strong population is multicultural, made up of Chinese, Malaysian and Western residents, home to a Buddhist temple and Islamic mosque. The island’s main industry for most of its history has being phosphate mining, supported by tourism – an aspect which Chris and Jess hope to help grow. (I’ve embedded a video at the bottom of this post with more about their exciting project.)

Paul and I, with our seven-month-old son Owen, will be spending the next three weeks on this remote, tropical wilderness while Paul pitches in a helping hand for our friends’ ambitious project building a luxury ecolodge in the island’s national park – while I take my current day job of changing nappies, breastfeeding and facilitating naps to somewhere new and exotic, hopefully interspersed with some world-class snorkelling, rainforest walks, and wildlife spotting.

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Checking out the uncharacteristic swell at Flying Fish Cove.

Snorkelling and swimming are on hold for the first few days, however. On our way from the airport we pulled into Flying Fish Cove – usually idyllic and calm, we watched enormous waves pound the coral beach and crash against the infrastructure of the island’s phosphate mine. It was apparently the biggest swell the island had seen in years.

Insect-sized baby red crabs crawled over our sandals and palm fronds and coconuts littered the roads. We drove through the township (called Settlement), past ramshackle houses, shops and apartment blocks, paint flaking off in sheets and metal rusting from the constant salty air. The town’s prized open air cinema was cancelled as the screen had torn in the wind. We arrived at our friends’ house (actually their friends’ – they’re house sitting), which is one of several 1940s weatherboard Queenslander-style homes lining the island’s north, with servants’ quarters from the colonial days, lofty ceilings and perpetually open windows and spinning ceiling fans. From the front deck we watched and listened to waves explode against the cliffs and seabirds ride the winds.

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Paul, Owen and one of Christmas Island’s iconic red crabs.

Paul and Chris wasted no time heading out to check the site – Paul saw his first robber (or coconut) crab, enormous, forest-dwelling land crabs which can weigh up to 4kg (making them the world’s largest land invertebrate) and can climb trees. I stayed home and gave our tired little traveller a cool bath and managed to get him to sleep in his travel cot under the whirring fan. The boys eventually made it back, a little later than expected as they walked roads closed by carpets of baby crabs and the odd fallen tree, and we settled onto the deck for obligatory gins and tonic.

I’m writing this now back at the house, having breakfasted on egg roti and sweet coffee in the island’s Malaysian quarter (a weekend ritual of Chris and Jess that I’m excited to adopt while we’re here), while the others strategise the weeks ahead building Swell Lodge.

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Buying egg rotis for breakfast in Kampong, the island’s Malaysian enclave.

 

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Post storm harvest: papaya, mangoes, avocados and bananas

It’s been a long while since my last travel blog – there’s been a pregnancy and an infancy in between, and now a little boy who’s starting to look more and more like a toddler.

But now, the slow pace, humid air, and the vantage point offered in the ocean-facing deck here has alighted the spark for getting back into writing and it feels good.

Pyrenees adventure

Hiking and exploring the Pyrenees mountain range at the border of France and Spain

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Part 1: Loose lips at Goat Alley

“If this thing falls, it´ll f***ing kill you!”

Paul was clinging to a reportedly loose boulder, wedged between two perpendicular rock walls a couple of hours into our hike towards Pic de la Dona Morta (Catalan for ‘Mountain of the Dead Lady’). I looked up at him nervously, wondering whether he was overreacting or I was about to live up to the mountain’s name. To our right the mountainside gave way to immense scenery overlooking the Pyrenees that form the border between France and Spain.

Earlier that morning, we’d awoken in the morning dark in our host’s mountain hut, a charming old water mill, for our first day of the first half of our trip to the continent that would mark the end of our year-and-a-bit in England. The skies were grey and thunder rumbled in the distance – we’d asked our host, guide, translator and good friend Chris Ward for adventure and that´s what we were getting!

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Waiting out the rain

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“What exactly do you have planned for us, Chris?”

On this day on the mountain, our eclectic group consisted of Chris; his good friend Philippe (aka ‘Vallespir Migou’); Philippe’s friend and retired member of the Slovakian special services Valentin; my husband Paul; Django (who loves mountains but hates the snapping sound of individual yoghurt pots being separated and is also a Border Collie); and moi.

When we’d pulled up at the start of the hike, the heavens opened, so the six of us (including Django) sheltered in the back of the van counting the seconds between lightning and thunder and waiting for the skies to clear. When they did (for the time being at least) Django leaped ahead barking enthusiastically and we hoofed behind him, the peaks in the distance revealing themselves intermittently as the cloud cover shifted.

The weather was mostly fine, until at one point the heavens again unleashed a downpour of rain and hail and the track at our feet became a running stream. Our broken French-English conversations were halted when Philippe, in the drama of the moment, ran ahead belting out the Catalan anthem in the rain, as you do.

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If the weather hadn´t cleared so completely after that, we probably wouldn´t have tackled ´The Chimney´ – also known as Goat Alley – which forms a small part of a local mountain race that Philippe organises. I mentioned hesitantly that I was a little scared of heights when I heard the word ´Chimney’, but apparently people aged up to their 60s have completed the mountain race, so we continued on under refreshed blue skies.

It was the first part of this small section of rock scrambling that Paul encountered his loose boulder. Those of us still on the track below him moved aside as he climbed over it, then Valentin followed him up and confirmed that yes it was loose and directed me up a different route which I gratefully took. Finally, Chris made his way to the precarious boulder and with scary ease pulled it free from the rock wall and sent it hurtling down the empty mountain side as we listened in silence to it thumping against the earth and cracking tree trunks on its descent.

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We made it to the top of that!

Next up was the aforementioned Chimney/Goat Alley, another short climb/scramble before we reached the top. Philippe climbed ahead with dog-slash-mountain goat Django. As I followed them up – making nervous noises that can´t have required translation – Chris mentioned something along the lines of ‘I hope you don´t mind all the goat poo’ (hence the name Goat Alley) and I remember thinking I´d happily eat goat poo as long as I could get to the top of this bit and not look down. Of course, fairly easily (in hindsight!) we greeted the top with smiles and whoops and took a few snaps before the easy, steady descent through sheltered forest (formerly terraced farmland) down the other side.

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Life’s all about contrasts and it was almost surreal when, that same afternoon, I found myself lowering my tired legs into the famed thermal baths (which date back to Roman times) back in the village of Amelie les Bains, which attracts thousands of French people every year who arrive on doctor´s orders for (government-subsidised) treatment of their arthritis and respiratory illnesses.

Washed of all goat poo, we drifted our way around a hot pool with various kinds of jets to massage different joints, then it was on into the steam room and finally the mud bath – all followed by a muscat tasting session in the local wine shop and an introduction to the Catalan specialty cake, ´rusquilles´.

Yep, our trip was off to a good start.

Part 2: Castles in the sky

The next morning the weather was much clearer and this time we were joined in the (fully-loaded-and-then-some) 4WD by our French hostess Marion and Django´s brother Pep – two dogs with a serious case of sibling rivalry.

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This was a pleasant (and steep!) hike that started at a disused iron ore mine and continued onto wide, low grasslands populated with sheep and horses, then a steeper climb up the rocky mountain side in a steady hike that gave us time to practice our burgeoning pigeon-French with our friends.

This time the weather was clear and we enjoyed uninterrupted views over the Pyrenees and ahead to Canigou (2786m), a mountain of spiritual and national significance to the Catalan people. We stopped at an area called Pic De Gallinas and, in true French style, lunched on bread, cheese, salami and chocolate.

I then watched on from a safe distance as our mad French friends (that includes Chris) showed off their tricks on the mountain ledge, before we made the long descent back down into the valley, followed by a scenic drive home via the Tour de Batere, a military signal tower built in the 14th century,

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It was time to rest the Aussies´ legs (I´m sure our hosts could´ve kept going!) so that night we refuelled in the local cafe on salmonella and toxoplasmosis. Wait, sorry I mean steak tartare served with a raw egg in its shell. (It was tasty and of course I was fine! Although according to the internet toxoplasmosis is asymptomatic in adults barring potential reduced IQ, so watch this space…)

We spent the next day visiting two ruined 12th century fortresses/castles built high up in the mountains – Queribus and Peyrepertuse. Both were fascinating and eerie, particularly as the fog closed in, so I´ll let the photos do the talking here…

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Part 3: Homes away from home

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In case you thought this trip was all mountain climbing and Russian roulette dining, let me transport you to Chez Toinette – the home of Chris´s other French ´family´, a charming cafe looking out over the town square where daily fresh produce markets are held, and where we were welcomed from the first day we arrived with open arms by the owners Michelle and Pierre, even given the language barrier.

On the evening we arrived we drank muscat and ate fresh local anchovies, stuffed peppers and cheese and watched on while Pierre slated Chris for England´s recent Rugby World Cup loss to Wales. (This was done in French, but no translation was required.) On another evening, we drank too much sangria while a musician entertained dancing locals with some songs I´d never heard but haven´t been able to get out of my head since (like this and this). He also belted out a few English songs, and rather endearingly managed to step all over Elvis´s Blue Suede Shoes (¨Well itsannah fowanunny, anu fowannu, athee agennanney no GO CAT GO!¨).

We also spent two mornings at this cafe crashing Chris´s normal routine of breakfasting with his vivacious ´extended French family´ on coffee and criossants (and second-hand smoke) – loving everything about the company and location so much that I had to stop myself from joining in the bouts of laughter when someone made a joke, realising sometimes too late that I didn´t actually understand what had been said…

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Part 4: Holiday in a holiday

Thanks to Chris and his friends in Amelie les Bain, our well-planned Pyrenees adventure included a couple of nights at Philippe´s family´s holiday house in the heart of the Pyrenees. It was a couple of hours drive away, so we took the scenic route via some fascinating Catalonian villages and local sites, including crossing the border into Spain where we had lunch of potato tortilla and wild boar stew at a sleepy Spanish Catalonian town called Queralbs and stopped off to stock up for dinner at a locally famous charceturie.

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​Another dramatic storm hit as we made it to the collection of lakeside homes that included our accommodation for the next couple of nights (the exact location of which Chris was almost, definitely, sort of, absolutely ​certain – right Chris?!).

As we darted inside to escape the rain, I instantly knew I was in the kind of holiday house that the best childhood memories are made of – packed to the exposed rafters with memories, stacks of well-used board games and, in this case, stunning views over Lac de Matmale and the twinkly lights of a sleepy, off-season ski village across the water.

Cue cracking open a few beers, starting up a game of cards, snacking on cheese, pate and Fideuà (Catalonian paella made with pasta) ahead of our next adventure the following day.

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Part 5: Puig Carlit (well, almost!)

We awoke to clear skies for another early start with coffee and croissants and a short drive to the start of the day´s hike – made longer stuck behind some very chilled out cows along the way.

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The scale and drama of the scenery here was almost beyond words – perhaps a combination of what I imagine Yosemite and Switzerland might look like? (Having seen neither!). Distant, jagged peaks, huge stands of coniferous trees and brilliant blue mountain lakes that sparkled under the bright day, including Étang du Lanoux, the biggest lake in the Pyrenees.

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On this truly stunning hike, things only started to move a tad outside my comfort zone as we neared the summit of Carlit and the path started to climb until it became rockier and rockier and, as it was the cusp of seasons, a bit icy, with some surface snow. And so, I´m not ashamed to admit (although Chris did give us permission to lie!) that I didn´t quite make it to the summit – we were literally only about 50 metres away, but I´m no mountain goat and it was more of a climb than a walk and the rocks were slippery AND it was a long enough fall down! Paul stayed behind with me through sheer chivalry, naturally, and we left Chris to reach the frozen cross at the summit, while we found somewhere to wait for him and to have lunch – baguette, ham and Camembert, naturally.

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That night I miscalculated and cooked enough beef and veg stew to feed an army, while Paul disturbed all the village dogs with the noises he made whilst wading into the ice-cold lake to soothe his dodgy knee. Said dodgy knee would also mean that Puig Carlit would be our last big hike of the trip – there was only one other we had planned to take, but this was replaced with a day eating pizza and looking at local art in another village called Ceret, which is about as good as Plan Bs get.

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After a couple more days of sight seeing (an abandoned military fort, a hill top monestry, the Devil´s bridge that maims not kills and so on…) we spent our last night back in the lovely old water mill house, where we (inadequately!) returned the incredible hospitality we´d received by cooking dinner. Chris also helped us translate a short thank you speech which I read out in French and which everyone in the room except Paul and me seemed to understand, which was a good sign.

Then it was time for one last coffee at Chez Toinette before our next stop: the city lights of Barcelona, where, if it weren´t for the red and yellow Catalonian flags dangling from every balcony, the sleepy charming villages of French Catalonia just on the other side of the Pyrenees would have seemed a million miles away.

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Exploring Exmoor

Sometimes you simply have to drop everything and head for the wilderness – even if just for overnight. Nowadays the buzzword for it is ‘microadventure’; whatever you want to call it, it’s often just the escape needed to reinvigorate the soul and whet your appetite for the next big adventure.

Camping Exmoor National Park Gemma Chilton

Saturday night lodgings

It all started with an email to Paul in the middle of the work day on Thursday. The week had already been wonderfully abbreviated, thanks to a visit on Tuesday from our friends Caitlin and Tim from the USA (who reminded us that we should still be tourists in our own town while we can – and that there’s still so much to see and enjoy). Our tent has also recently been repaired after we killed it in Iceland, and so the one-liner email I sent Paul read: “How does whiskey and cards under the stars in Exmoor National Park sound this weekend?” I really didn’t have to twist his arm.

So, on Saturday morning we packed our bags and drove an hour to Lynton, where we forked out £15 for a good topographical map of the adjacent national park, then set off on foot out of the village of Malmsmead, loaded up with camping gear and food (and of course a deck of cards and a flask of whiskey), with a rough idea of where we wanted to explore and eventually sleep the night (Doone Country sounded pretty apt).

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Unfortunately for Paul, I have an almost uncontrollable urge to make Game of Thrones references when exploring the moorlands and the English countryside. The surroundings are such that I keep waiting for Arya Stark and the Hound to round the next corner on horseback.

We made our way past ancient stone walls, gnarly old oak and ash trees, hopped over bubbling streams and climbed rolling green hills until we made it to the open expanse of moorland. Another inspiration for the trip had been Exmoor’s designation as a ‘Dark Sky Reserve’, with minimal light pollution and therefore offering excellent star-gazing potential. As we trudged across the endless heath and grasslands, it was easy to imagine how dark it would get come nightfall.

Eventually we made it to a back road that cuts through the national park, where we were surprised to find about a dozen four-wheel drives and horse trailers and distinctly dressed locals – all of which added up to suggest we’d stumbled across the makings of a fox hunt, as Paul pointed out. Indeed, as we found the next part of our hike back onto the moors, we did see one pretty agitated and flighty looking fox dart across the track and away, in between the disinterested cows chewing their cuds. (The look the cows gave us said, “We won’t tell them he went this way if you don’t.”)

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More local wildlife

Fierce local wildlife

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The aim of the game, of course, was finding the perfect campsite, and on this front I must say we did pretty well. We were heading towards a more protected valley, and as we crested yet another hill, paradise revealed itself below. A wide, clear freshwater stream, hillsides carpeted with purple heath and golden grasses that shimmered in the breeze, twisted, lichen-covered trees with short green grass around their base, perfect for pitching the tent.

The last time we camped was in the back yard of an old pub when we first arrived in England with nowhere else to stay. Before that, about a year ago now, we spent 35 nights straight in this tent, and so clipping the poles into place again felt a bit like a home-coming.

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And then what we really came for…

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Alas, as the sun set, Doone Country lived up to its name (sorry history buffs and Lorna Doone fans) and appeared to pull a big, soft looking doona of clouds across the sky above us, so star gazing would have to wait until next time. (I always like an excuse to return, anyway).

The cloud hung around the next morning for our hike back, and if anything it made the scenery even more otherworldly; the brilliant greens even richer. This landscape truly is the stuff of fantasy (or even video games, it occurred to me; if this isn’t Game of Thrones country, it could easily be Zelda, and I could almost hear the sound track change with the rising sun of a new day.)

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After all that, we enjoyed a well-earned treat in Lynmouth, and we finally managed to get an action shot of our much-loved Land Rover. We were home in time to spend Sunday afternoon writing this up, now it’s back to work on Monday.

Long live the microadventure!

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Lunch in France? Oui

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“Shall we have lunch in France today, darling?”

It’s the type of phrase we antipodeans fantasise is entirely commonplace here in Old Blighty. And while I do realise that such country-hopping isn’t exactly practical or economical – even when the distance to cover is less than that from Sydney to Bathurst – it is certainly possible. At least so I discovered on a recent assignment for my current employer, which had my husband Paul and me taking an overnight ferry from Plymouth (in Devon, UK) for a pre-booked three course lunch the next day in Roscoff, a small seaside village in Brittany, in northwest France.

The only catch, I should add, is the experience might be less of the envisioned jetsetting glamour and more running around in a tiny, rocking cabin in your underwear at an ungodly hour hoping that that disgruntled French crew member won’t pop his head through the apparently-not-locked door again and tell you to please ‘urry up!

Anyway, to go back to the beginning, I want to point out that I’m rather getting the hang of this job – that is, visiting stately manor house hotels and restaurants most months to write up small content marketing pieces for Food, a free magazine that promotes food and tourism in the South West of England. When it comes to food, a country backwater the South West is not; rather it is home to renowned chefs such as Rick Stein, Nathan Outlaw and Michael Caines. In other words, my tastes have become rather elevated lately, perhaps unusually so for half of a modest single-income couple of expats renting the loft space in the home of Bideford’s answer to Uncle Fester.

This background leads me to an explanation for my lack of preparation on this recent trip to France. You see, I’m more accustomed to these work trip involving hotel stays that come with bottles of complementary champagne than glorified domestic flights. I mean, did I really need to read the fine print about disembarkation and set my watch to French time, or would a pipe-smoking tweed-clad hotelier not arrive at my door with a coffee and the paper to inform me that “yes of course the passengers will wait for you to wake at your own pace, for the French are a patient, tolerant people, particularly when it comes to non-French-speaking, disorganised tourists who failed to read the clearly-stated-in-English fine print”.

And then I woke up.

Of course, the boat trip was lovely. We didn’t get seasick and its onboard restaurant was more than pleasant and involved mountains of fresh langoustine. But even without that, the trip was well and truly worth it. Oh dear sweet French mother of God was it worth it. I would have almost swam the English channel had I known the lunch that awaited us the next day.

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Transport those harried boat passengers a few hours ahead, and you’ll find us sitting in the dining room of L’Ecume des Jours (which according to Google Translate could mean the ‘scum of days’, but is more likely the ‘seafoam of days’ and is in fact named after a classic 1947 French novel written by Boris Vian). This is the restaurant on the waterfront at Roscoff, in a tiny, ancient looking building, with sandstone-walled interiors and polished timber floorboards, all clean lines and nautical chic meets French colonial oil paintings and really heavy cutlery. The interior was muted, perhaps a little too much so – you could hear the clink of cutlery and the conversation levels lowered to match, until you had to be brave to be the first one to break the silence. However, eventually the room warmed up and it felt a little like we’d been invited to our super cool French friend’s seaside house for lunch on a rainy Sunday. Hey, that could happen.

Having navigated our way through that awkward part of the meal where I try to maintain a thin veneer of class to suit the surrounds, whilst also trying to ascertain just what has been agreed to be included in advance, we could commence onto the good part… (#foodporn)

To start, an aperitif of champagne was served with an amuse bouche of white asparagus mousse and tuna tartare with seaweed. We shared two starters – one, a platter of ten natural oysters served with red wine vinaigrette and a surprisingly perfect parsley sorbet, and the other a plate of crab in a sauce of local artichokes and piquillos peppers, with crispy rice and seaweed. For mains we both ordered roast monkfish with sweet potato and cumin, white asparagus (it’s in season), and lobster juice. Literally a little tub of lobster goodness. For dessert I had a mango concoction that involved some sort of basil cake base, basil cream, mango ice cream, fresh mango and a crisp toffee shard and fresh basil garnish (basil in desserts is a trend that I’m totally on board with). Paul had a dark chocolate ball with an orange ice cream centre.

It was the type of food you close your eyes to savour, and perhaps release a single tear of joy in doing so.

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(Yes I photographed every course.)

After lunch we ventured onto the right hand side of the road and drove a little further afield for a walk on the beach, before boarding the ferry again in the afternoon, scheduled to return to Plymouth at 9:30pm. We had another ensuite cabin booked, which meant a well earned siesta on the way home (oh wait, that’s Spanish. Ok, food coma.)

And in the name transparency, you can now mentally transport those wined and dined travellers to around 10pm that night, and you’ll find them sitting in rusty old Land Rover Discovery in a back street of Plymouth, downing a quick KFC Zinger burger before checking into our AirBnB accommodation… Like magic, back to the real world. Voila!

Post script: This post is dedicated to my niece Margaret Janice Wotherspoon Black who was busy arriving in the world far away in Australia while all this silliness was going on. Welcome Maggie! xxxx

Easter weekend in Romania

A long weekend in Romania left me pondering the nature of time and history, and our place in it.

Damaged  old photo of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on the wall of the revolution museum in Timisoara.

I should start by saying that I’m fully aware a long weekend in any country could barely provide a rough sketch – let alone a full picture – of a nation’s culture, history, environment and people. And yet the feeling I took away from five days in Romania was a glimpse not only of that country’s history, but of the nature of history and of the transience of time itself.

That might sound over the top, but what’s the point of travel if not to build on your ideas about the world, and to shift the foundations beneath your feet just a bit?

We started our Easter long weekend sojourn with Paul’s family in the city of Timișoara in western Romania – one of Romania’s largest cities, and the place where the revolution started on 16 December 1989 (it finished with the execution of Ceausescu and his wife a little over a week later, after 42 years of communist rule).

A piece of the Berlin Wall outside a museum of the Romanian revolution in Timisoara

In Timișoara, we visited a museum of the revolution in an old building, which showcases a piece of the Berlin wall at its entrance. One of the first things that caught my attention entering the building was the concrete staircase, eroded and polished from a century of use – including, among other things, as a military barracks before becoming a museum. (When we asked a staff member about the building’s history, he said drolly that its function might yet change again if the situation in Ukraine accelerates.)

We sat quietly through a documentary about the revolution, in a room wallpapered with posters and propaganda from the communist era – throughout which I couldn’t help imagine the stairs outside trodden with 1940s soldiers’ boots, then the adrenaline-fuelled feet of panicked or angry (or both) civilians from that infamous week in 1989, and now replaced with made-in-China sneakers of a lone group of Australian tourists on a quiet, unseasonably cold spring day in 2015.

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Before the museum, we’d visited Timișoara’s orthodox cathedral with its magnificent gilded chandeliers that look more like floating castles.

However it was only after watching the revolution documentary that I learned of the cathedral’s role as the site of the beginning of the revolution, as well as a place where people sheltered during the fighting, and outside of which thousands eventually knelt and lit candles for the dead. And so, only in hindsight could I wonder what memories or faces must have been in the minds of the people who gathered there during our visit.

Chandeliers like floating castles in the Timisoara Orthodox Cathedral

LIghting candles in the Timisoara Orthodox Cathedral

Later on, we visited Roman ruins in Sarmizegetusa (we were tested on pronunciation by our patient guide, generous host and brother-in-law, Radu). By now I’ve visited several sites of Roman ruins around Europe, and yet these crumbling ornate stone structures with ancient Latin insignia of a long-lost civilisation buried beneath our feet never lose their power.

Roman ruins in Sarmizegetusa, Romania

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However, if the sight of those ruins emerging out of the grassy hills might have given me the impression that history is anything but continuous, I only needed to visit our next stop – a small medieval Catholic church, built perhaps a thousand years after the Romans, using pilfered pylons and stonework from the same ruins we’d just wandered through.

This centuries-old church was not only built with the materials of an even more ancient history, it also held evidence of its future. Rather creepily (no matter your religious or cultural affiliation) the eyes of all of the wall art – mostly murals of various saints and Jesus and Mary – had been scratched out of the stone in some sort of historic persecution of Catholics. Later my sister-in-law Angie also spotted a scratching in the wall (a kind of ‘X was here’) from the late 1800s – made when the church was already ancient, and yet old enough itself to join the ranks of historic interest, which is a fascinating idea in itself.

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We would spend the next couple of days in the countryside with Radu’s kind and generous family, managing through translation and body language to communicate fairly comfortably, and to laugh a lot. The home-made ţuică (a knock-your-socks-off home distilled spirit made from apples) no doubt helped to that end.

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To add more context to my meandering thoughts on the nature of time and history, we visited a local breeding program that is trying to save the critically endangered European bison.

These beasts roamed the wilderness throughout Europe long before we came along with our cathedrals and revolutions and travel blogs, but have since (along with much of their habitat) been pushed to the brink of extinction. Scientists and conservationists have had some success in growing their numbers in recent years and hope to reintroduce a population into the wild in Romania, but the species remains rarer than the Black Rhino.

European bison breeding program

Another day, despite the unexpected spring snow, we managed to steal a couple of hours wandering through a beautiful beech forest in the southern Carpathian Mountains – where grumbling water pipes and airplane engines had us baulking at bear-shadows.

The bison experience and the rare opportunity to spend time in real wilderness on the European continent was a good reminder that history does not belong to humans – like the Romans, and the person who scratched their name into the wall of that Catholic church 100 years ago and the communist dictators of the twentieth century – we are all only passing through.

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Before our flight back to London, we toured the centuries-old Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, where we competed with hordes of young smartphone-wielding, brightly dressed school children as we wandered the halls beneath soaring stone ceilings, read stories of torture chambers and bloody battles – and gazed out through crumbling stone windows onto crumbling communist structures and out to the snow-covered Carpathians in the distance.

We joked about scratching our very un-Romanian names onto the wall to confuse some future historian, but settled with being observers this time – although no less a part of the story of Romania’s history now, even if just a footnote.

Corvin Castle in Hunedoara

 

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