Monday, November 28, 2011

Experiencing Christmas

When I was a teenager, my father left home and his gifts became more expensive. The first year he gave me a suitcase with gifts inside.

Another year, he enrolled me in a scuba diving course, and he took the course right along with me. I still carry my diving card proudly.
It was issued in the days when computers took up an entire air-conditioned room and typing was still done on manual machines. I am surprised they even had plastic cards in those days. It must have been one of the first ever printed.

While I cannot remember a single gift that was inside that suitcase, I have always carried the experience of diving with me. That gift has lasted all these years and brought me much joy.

I spent most of my adult life as the stay-at-home mother of six children. I loved that time when my children were small, but travel and adventure could seem very far away when I spent my days washing clothes, faces, and dishes, or changing what seemed like hundreds of nappies.

Just knowing I had the qualification, made me feel I was still an adventurer at heart.

Almost thirty years later, my diving qualification has also been useful. Last year I was offered an opportunity to go diving at the beautiful Nelson Bay marine park in New South Wales, Australia.

The sea life was amazing and the coral seemed unspoiled and so beautiful in colour, shape and texture. I saw a huge blue groper with a droopy jaw, stingrays, baby sharks and a puffy orange boxfish. I admired purple and orange fixed coral and wavy, fronded, flower-like coral. It was magic.

The experience of diving was one of the best presents my father could have bought for me, and one that still has value today. When all the physical presents are gone, the experiences are still there, ready to be taken out and mulled over if I am ever grounded by age or illness.

As it comes up to Christmas, I have been thinking about what I can get my boys for Christmas. I want the gift to be memorable.

I would love to give them scuba diving courses but it would be too expensive this year. I will have to be more creative. I am thinking camping or maybe spending some nights on my friends moored yacht.

We are also going to put together baskets of goodies to leave anonymously at doors on Christmas Eve. It is one of my favourite traditions, and a fun experience for me and for my boys.

I hope your Christmas plans are coming along well. Experiences make lovely Christmas gifts. If you have any better ideas for Christmas experiences, please share them in the comments section. I would love to hear them.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Australia is not a bigger New Zealand (Part 3)

In keeping with my last post, I am following the theme of roads again, and my biggest gripe with Australian roads.

Toll Roads.

I can’t believe that there is a charge to use some of the major roads in Brisbane.

In Australia, there are tolls on the main roads to the airports in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. On the main route from my sons house to the Gold Coast and the theme parks there are three toll roads. That is about $18 return. Ouch.

I hear there are no toll roads in South Australia or Western Australia. I look forward to that.

I have not paid a toll charge in New Zealand since before 1984.

Until then, the Auckland Harbour Bridge had those little booths where you had to wait three cars behind the driver who couldn’t find his wallet. When it was finally your turn, you had to find cash to pay someone who spent all day sitting in what was no better than a tall chicken coop.

That was the last I knew of toll roads until I entered Australia and the modern age of “user pays”.

Here, there are no booths and no cash changes hands. It is all done electronically.

There are cameras to record your travels, huge flashing signs, huge threatening signs and all the administration, web site developers and debt collectors that the system needs to support itself. To make it more confusing there are different toll road operators between states and even within states. No wonder the toll costs are so high.
I don’t understand. How is it that private companies can build roads on public land and then charge us all to use them? Why doesn’t the government have money to pay for roads? Taxes are as high as they have ever been.

And there are no toll roads in New Zealand.


In researching the web for this blog I made a startling discovery. There is a small toll road near Tauranga and a brand new toll road north of Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. There is also another planned for 2016.

I am shocked. New Zealand is not Australia, but it seems to be following some of the same paths. Too bad.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Australia is not a bigger New Zealand (Part 2)

The Roads

I keep losing my sense of direction.

Having lived all my life where the ocean is to the west, I am having trouble remembering that when the ocean is on my right I am travelling north not south. The road system does not help.

Some of the major roads have exits that swirl like spaghetti across a wide area. Heading North? Take the turn off to the West, and then follow the ring road that curves around almost 360 degrees. It reminds me of the slot car sets my kids used to have and the one steep curve that always sent the scale model cars flying off the track. Hold on tight to your seatbelts people.

Going South? Turn left and follow the side street until you hit the motorway going in the other direction. Sorry we forgot to put up the new sign but you will work it out.

There are always road works to make it even more confusing. Half the cost of road works must be due to all the associated chaos that goes with it. It is common to see two police cars (flashing lights), ten trucks (rotating hazard lights) and several trucks with movie screen sized messages (in flashing lights of course) with two thousand orange cones and a dozen road signs.

In New Zealand, I can tell I am coming up to road works when I see the dust cloud made by two graders and a truck. Sometimes I miss it completely until I see a sign saying “End of Road works”.

Australia has much more land area so when the workers leave, the new road may not be in the same place as the old. This confuses my GPS. In one perfectly straight section of motorway, my GPS always pictures me driving through nearby fields and nags me to re-join the motorway at once.

The funniest thing was watching the screen as I drove over the new Gateway Bridge. The GPS had not yet heard about the bridge and had me driving into the clear blue of the river. It was lost for words.

My GPS has been a lifesaver but it gets annoying the third time it tells me I have to go straight through at the next roundabout and I find myself muttering “I know, I know, enough already.”
I have now set the language to Spanish. “En dos kil√≥metros, en el glorienda, vaya todo derecho” sounds much less annoying and may come in handy when I finally get to explore South America.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Australia is not a bigger New Zealand (Part 1)

I am back in New Zealand for an extended visit and it got me thinking about the surprising ways Australia is very different from New Zealand. I thought Australia was just a larger version of New Zealand. How wrong I was.

This blog post is about some of the differences.

The Wild Life

After two years I never saw a koala in the wild and the only echidna I saw was road kill; but I glimpsed wallabies and kangaroos in their natural element. I saw marvellous Water Dragons ( a very cool looking lizard with bouncy legs and a frill on top), a family of kookaburras, some shy platypuses and whole family of frogs bouncing in the light of my headlights. I went to cairns and saw a crocodile farm and watched a Cassowary cross the road. One day I hope to see the local four foot long Goana and the chunky wombats. I have never seen any of these in New Zealand

The Birds

The birds in Australia are bigger and brasher than their NZ counterparts and come in all the colourful hues I have only seen in NZ cages. They are large and noisy and a whole flock settles in the neighbours garden in the early morning calling each other in raucous and shrill tones. One week I saw about a twenty cockatoos and Galahs feasting on berries in just one tree. I also love the long curved beak Ibis I watched fossicking in amongst the people eating at the Southbank market in Brisbane city.

The Insect Life

Just like the birds, the insects are bigger and bolder. I have been up close and personal with large furry Huntsman Spiders in the house and they can run pretty fast when you are chasing them with a broom. They also make a big mess when you splat them. Mosquitos are familiar but the flies are particularly annoying. In NZ a fly will give up when you swat at it but not in Australia. It just flies off lazily and chooses a new spot to land its little legs on your face. Yuk.

The Bugs

No one told me about the leeches. Twice I went bush walking and had the little black jelly like bloodsuckers crawl up my shoe onto my ankle. They inject anaesthetic and anticoagulant, and then sit there sucking the blood and drop off when they are full. I noticed the first one early but the second left me with a big bloody mark on my sock. At least I never had a tick move in. Those things leave an itchy raised red rash.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Happiness is – A Sense of Adventure

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, they often respond with “I would love to do that.”

I am a house sitter. I live in lovely homes all over Brisbane and the Gold Coast. I pay no rent and my phone and internet use is free. It all seems too good to be true and when I first heard of it, I thought so too.

“I couldn’t do that.” I thought and put it aside.

Years later I found out that I can do that, and it is every bit as good as I thought it would be. I move to a different area every month or so and explore everything. It is like being on permanent holiday.

I have free accommodation and the home owners have the security of knowing that their cats, dogs, fish, chickens or even miniature ponies are being fed and cared for in the familiar setting of their own home.

I love it so much I have written a book about it called “Housesitting in Australia – Big Adventures on a Tiny Budget”, due for publication early next year. Isn’t it amazing how life works?

Is there anything you want to do and have not done?

Sometimes we put off things we want to do thinking we have to do it tough. No pain no gain is an out-dated notion. There are people all over the world that do what they love and they are happy.

People make money painting pictures and others by scuba diving. Some make handbags, or walk dogs, or write blogs, or teach pre-schoolers or farm ducks or milk snakes. Why not you?

The other day I met people working with porpoises and turtles and a married couple that make and sell Dutch clogs.

What is there in your life that you would love to do but are not doing?

Maybe you can’t do it now but you can read a book about it, or take a class or search the internet for information. You could join a club or attend meetings of those in your chosen field. If you know someone doing what you would like to do, invite them to have lunch with you.

No matter what your situation, you can take a little time each day to do something out of your usual routine, something bold and adventurous and interesting.

Sometimes people ask me how I got into house sitting and express an interest. Very few ask for details and then give it a go. Get the information you need and get ready to expand your world. Wouldn’t it be fun to be more spontaneous, more adventurous and more real? Take the first step and the rest is easy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tweed Heads Breakwater

I am in awe of the powerful beauty of this area.
A long finger of land juts out into the ocean from the southern side of Tweed Heads. It is a 5 metre wide track bordered on both sides by massive rocks that hold back the ocean. On one side the waves are huge churning froths of spray leading into the rippling river mouth. On the other the slightly less angry waves roll powerfully into shore while a hardy group of surfers sit waiting for the perfect wave to propel them into the each. It is a holiday Monday. Not much between a ride on a wave and a pummeling on the rocks. A sign says rocks and a wreck make the area unsafe.
It is surreal standing out to sea and looking into shore as if I was a god of the sea. Something on the seabed curls the water into white foam that thunders onto the rocks and sends showers of spray high into the air. I feel I should be Mickey mouse waving my wand as the sea churns and froths into lacy patterns on the icy looking water beneath. I take photos none of which will convey the majesty of this place. Sight. Sound. Feel of wind and even a taste of salt on my skin.
The picture just does not do it justice.
I am the only person in sight who is on their own and I don’t mind. I miss Phil who is working but in his absence I am happily exploring solo. It is only thanks to him that I am even here at all. I have his car and he has paid for the petrol so l can go exploring while he works 12 hours a day for 18 days in a row. While he is working out complicated database problems I am listening to the powerful sound of the surf crashing against the rocks below and watching two young boys haul in two small silvery fish. I am so lucky and I struggle to enjoy it without feeling a little guilty about the discrepancy in our roles. I relax and try to fill in the time while knowing he can’t relax for 5 more hours. When does finish work he will have only just enough time to eat, shower and exercise before it is bedtime.
How lucky am I?