OFF TO THE LAND OF OZ
by way of Fiji, Tahiti and New Zealand (from my memoir)
Everyone needs at least one long, never-to-be-forgotten trip in their lifetime. Travel is good for the spirit, good for the mind, good for the makers of cameras and scrapbooks, and good for stories with which to bore friends and family for years to come.
I was delighted when my husband Lynn took an early retirement and we were able to spend time exploring our own beautiful country. When we happened to sell a piece of property, we agreed it was time for us to make our dream trip.
A quick visit to a travel agent, a secure place to leave our R.V. and we were off to the Los Angeles airport and the South Seas, carrying one small bag and a light carry-on apiece. We left in December of 1985 and returned in the spring of 1986 after enjoying the summer months in the Southern Hemisphere.
Our first stop was Nadi, Fiji. After a couple of days of decompression that included balmy patio breakfasts with homemade raspberry jam and our fill of fresh, fragrant tropical fruits, I knew we had come to the right place.
I’ve always thought different countries have their own ambient auras, the sun, the humidity, the terrain all contributing to a distinct atmosphere. Fiji’s skies were dreamy, the tropical sun mellowed by the nearby ocean, the jungles and the softly humid air. Colors and smells were mellow, too, flowers bright but never gaudy and the greens restful.
From Nadi we flew on to Suva, the capital city, a mixture of quaint and modern. We spent 6 days there, Lynn wandering around with a bemused look on his face as he rediscovered sites he’d first visited some 40 years before with the U.S. Navy during World War ll. The light cruisers he served on put in to port there periodically at that time for supplies and upkeep.
The Fijian people, once feared and reviled as cannibals, turned out to be extremely pleasant Melanesians, quiet, polite and gracious. Just about half of the locals were of Indian origin, mostly Hindu. Fiji’s past had been a colorful mixture of whaling ships and missionaries, and our hotel looked out on a small wooden church that would have been at home anywhere in New England.
One morning I braved a walk through the dense, shadowy jungle, inhaling the rich, heavy, dark green smells, lured on by signs offering “Black Pearls for sale.” I was a little nervous, thinking of both ferocious animals and cannibals, wondering if either species still existed. I rounded one last turn and came upon a typical tropical grass shack with a pleasant Fijian lady who greeted me with a breezy American “Hi!” She had just moved home to escape the rat race after many years in Los Angeles. Her black pearls were beautiful, even though overpriced, and I admired them as we chatted, assuring her I’d try to bring my husband back later.
We enjoyed one last proper English tea that afternoon. Imagine if you will, having a civilized tea with dainty sandwiches, tiny pastries and all, while gazing out on the peaceful blue Pacific with the jungle for a backdrop. Early the next morning, a Saturday, we were back on a plane, heading for Oz.
Australian people refer to themselves as Aussies or, with their accents, Ozzies, and their homeland as Oz. As Qantas Air bore us west, we had our first acquaintance with those proud, outspoken people. They are extremely independent, possibly a trait handed down from their renegade ancestors . Labor unions are a huge presence in Australia and there is always a strike or two going on somewhere. Strikes are referred to as Industrial Actions and we soon learned that the Sydney Herald publishes a list of current Industrial Actions on its front page every morning.
That day’s list included a strike by airline employees so we were forced to land in Auckland, N.Z. where we spent the day lounging around a hotel, enjoying 2 bountiful buffets laden with fresh seafood and tropical fruits of bright oranges, yellows and reds, before finally reboarding our plane. We landed in Sydney at 2 a.m., and were met by a sleepy skeleton crew of airline employees who informed us that no one ever worked on weekends in Oz if they could possibly get out of it.
Most of the passengers had hotel reservations and only one shuttle bus was in operation. Our plan was to travel on the cheap and stay over in hostels so we had no reservation anywhere, a scary thought at that hour of the morning. The only person on duty lined us up with a hostel. We finally got on board the shuttle for its last run and were dropped off at the hostel in King’s Cross, a busy part of the city. It was staffed by a drowsy old gent who got our names and pointed us toward a room.
One night in the hostel and Lynn disappeared the next morning while I finished a hasty shower in the community shower room. He had located a fully furnished luxury apartment just across the street, ready to rent by the week and he grabbed it. That was the end of our plan to stay on the cheap. They aren’t called “youth hostels” for nothing. At 56 and 60 years of age, we didn’t quite fit in any more.
Australian sun is brilliant and unending, the humidity is low and the prevailing smell to me was rocky. The entire continent seems to glitter and crackle with life.
Sydney is a bright, sparkling cosmopolitan city with wonderful ethnic restaurants. Other than those, Australian food is mostly distinguished by piles of chips, known to us as french fries, on every plate, at every meal of every day, along with big fat, bland sausages , called bangers, or meat pies, with sometimes delicious lamb. Beer is a way of life, although Ozzie wine is gaining a well deserved reputation.
Sydney harbor has to be one of the loveliest harbors I’ve ever seen, dwarfing its 2 main attractions, Sydney Bay Bridge and of course the famed Opera House. We took a ferry out to the Atlantic 0cean through the harbor, winding among the many islands and spits. Aussies love their bridge, comparing it to our San Francisco Bay Bridge. I failed to see its charm, thinking more in terms of a beginner’s Erector Set, solid enough that it will never fall down..
The beautiful Opera House, though disappointingly small, is lovely, soaring out to the harbor and the skies as though it can barely contain the music it was built for. It was built by an American architect who won the privilege in an international competition. Construction was well along before it was discovered that no restrooms had been planned. Hasty revisions took care of that problem right away.
Touring around the country was amazingly efficient and comfortable. Greyhound buses went everywhere, their agents acted as travel agents and their drivers as tour directors, with commentary along the way.
Finally tearing ourselves away from Sydney, our next stop was Canberra, the national capitol. Interestingly enough, the entire city had also been designed, as was the Opera House, by an American architect after another international contest. This time the results were mixed. Canberra is another clean bright city, quite small. but the uniformity is a bit off-putting.
Too much of a same-ness takes away a lot of charm. An occasional Victorian structure, or even a gritty industrial area tucked away somewhere would add to the interest. One expected to see the Stepford wives coming out of identical front doors of identical houses at 10:00 o’clock every morning, heading for the beauty shops and a daily touch-up to their beehive dos.
Our bus took us through wine country on the next leg of our journey, picturesque as wine growing areas always are. Traveling through the many small towns, we would always spot at least one tennis court filled with energetic players at their favorite sport. Tennis is played everywhere by all ages. I got a kick out of the elderly matrons in their modest dresses having a late day game.
Melbourne turned out to be my favorite city, old enough by Australian terms to have a certain quaint charm, full of British touches, yet modern in every way. Captain Cook’s Cottage was a perfect example, restored for the tourists, and a reminder to the locals of their past. Like almost all major cities in Oz., Melbourne is situated near the ocean and the many yacht basins are crowded with masts. I got the impression that if the Aussies aren’t sailing they’re playing tennis.
Our daughter and son-in-law lived at one time in Castlemaine, a small city just north of Melbourne. Howard served as headmaster at a boy’s school and Mimi taught and served as the librarian. They enjoyed and treasured the two years they spent there.