Thursday, 20 December 2012

I Come From A Land Down Under

'We will be in Victoria Park slacklining'

I received this text whilst on a train from Newcastle that went through Cardiff and not far from Swansea. New South Wales has hundreds of place names named after the spots that white settlers called home. It was a James Edwards - whoever he was - who suggested the name Cardiff for the coal mining town north of Sydney.

I read the text again. At first I thought Borja meant 'slacking' as in being lazy, then 'Slacklining' - I thought of the film 'Flatliners' where American teenagers experiment on the edges of death. Unlikely in a park. The Internet of course came to the rescue. Slacklining involves suspending a flat rope between two trees, about a foot off the ground and walking along it.

I turned up and gave it a go and enjoyed the supportive atmosphere. As a teacher it is so important to be a student every so often to remind you of the conditions you need to learn. Total failure has to be expected and any improvement acknowledged. I found I got better in just two attempts. Borja and Natalie are from Spain and Ecuador respectively and were my hosts for my first night in Sydney. They live in the suburb of Gleeb along Sydney's long and curvy water front.

Sydney marks the end of my first section of solo cycling. I felt apprehensive of cycling alone. Not so much the risk of getting a puncture and not being able to get the tyre back, more the solitude. As well as having to explain the sticker saying 'Two Teachers etc' and what had happened to the other teacher. James, for those who are new to the adventure, had to go home as his mum has fallen ill. Lots of love to him and his family.

Two days ago I was cycling in the heat of the day along a dirt road that meant I could avoid the highway. The Pacific Highway has a very narrow shoulder in parts and colossal lorries that suck you in. Scary. Family friends Meurig and Mary Lou drove this highway in the 1980s when part of the highway was dirt road. Australia has developed a lot in the last 20 years. Despite being only the 52nd largest in terms of population, it is the 6th biggest in area, has the 12th biggest economy and the 5th biggest GDP per capita in the world. This is a rich country.

The song Down Under was playing on my phone. 'Doo doo doo do do do do.. I come from a Land Down Under, where women go and men chunder'. I had a moment when it struck me how glad I am to be doing this - solo - a life time opportunity. Listening to cheesy 80s hits, deafened by cicada and marvelling at the classic Australian colours - blue sky and red dirt.

I began my first solo cycling adventure in Brisbane, a former penal colony and it seems appropriate then that I ended it in another - Port Macquarie. Both were established to be harsher prisons where convicts were sent to be isolated from others. In operation for 10 years from 1821, Port Macquarie was run by Francis Allman. It was a harsh regime. So harsh in fact that if a man was found in possession of a piece of paper, the punishment dolled out was 100 lashes. Any attempt to communicate with others, which having paper would suggest was intended, would undermine the isolation that was the main part of the punishment.

This put my so called solitude in perspective. Solitude is not solitude when you have messages from friends and family at the end of every day.

Many Australians can trace their ancestry back to these original prisoners. In 18th century Britain there were were 221 crimes which carried the death penalty, most of these were crimes against property. In the 1800s more people opposed the death penalty on moral grounds and transportation was favoured. First to America until the War of Independence and then Australia.

At the start of the cycling adventure in Brisbane, I stayed with a friend Gerard who I used to swim with at Cally Masters swim club in London. He has now moved back to his home town. His great grandfather he has discovered was sent to Australia for horse theft from Scotland.

Gerard and Renee live in a suburb of Brisbane,Yeronga. This became my home for four nights and Gerard and Renee planned a fun packed weekend of jazz on the banks of the river, gingerbread making and swims in three different swim spots. One of these spots was in Gerard's local 50 metre outdoor pool. The coach for his Saturday morning session had just left and moved to London. Coincidentally my club is also looking for a new coach. I found a contact number and got in touch. Now that would be a turn up if our new Islington coach ends up being tracked down in Brisbane. What a small swimming world.

I had my hair cut (and coloured) in Yeronga by a girl who had not long finished school. She had gone to a youth school as she had not got on with public school. She was wise beyond her years. She said she enjoyed hairdressing because of the people she met and how that opened her eyes. She had just started doing things on her own - like going to festivals. She said to me 'it's good to get to used to being on your own. Ultimately we are born alone and die alone - we might as well get use to it.' Inspiring words at just the right time.

I headed out of the city on the train to the end of the Gold Coast line which dropped me 10 miles from the surfy, seaside spot of Coolangatta on the southerly end of the Gold Coast. The towns along the north coast - north of Sydney - are all about the beach. I cycled around 45 miles a day from Coolangatta, Byron Bay, Evans Head, Yamba, Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Kempsey, Port Maquarie and finally got a lift down the highway to Newcastle. In hostels I have met so many young people, a lot of Germans, but also people from Holland, Austria, France, Britain, Sweden, Canada and Ireland who are backpacking around the country. As friendly and fun as many of these folks are I was getting frustrated that I was not making connections with the real Australia.

So I was delighted when I arrived at the hostel I booked in Evans Head. A tiny two roomed surf shack run by fire volunteer John, living up to many Australian stereotypes. Tim was one of two guys renting his upstairs room. They were about to have a barbecue to celebrate the end of their project working in indigenous communities. Quicker than you could say gate crasher I was down the local supermarket buying frankfurters and the bottle shop to buy a bottle. Australian super markets don't sell booze. Had a great night around the fire learning about the project and more about the area.

The team, including local people and led by Jeff go to the homes of people in indigenous communities and assess whether they have adequate water supply, electricity and basic living standards. As a result of the survey a team then go back to fix things. Part of the philosophy of the project is that as a result of the visit something must be fixed, be it a broken tap or a loose floorboard. This follows the philosophy of New Zealand born, Australian eye doctor and philanthropist Fred Hollows. He said:

'I believe the basic attribute of mankind is to look after one another'.

As well as working in Nepal and other developing countries preventing blindness and eye disease he was very concerned about the difference in Aborigines' life expectancy - 20 years less than white Australians. A truly shocking statistic. This project, funded by the New South Wales government has a 40% success rate in reducing the spread of contagious diseases. A practical way of making a difference.

Now with the meeting real Australians bug perhaps I was more receptive to meeting Greg who I met on the ferry across the Clarence River at Lawrence. He told me that Lawrence was once the biggest town on the coast and the centre of the cedar logging industry. He went home to get a history book about the area then caught up with me. He also told me that the bull sharks come up the river to breed so I decided not to add this to my swim spots. We had our lunch together, he had a pie - they love their pies here - and I had sweaty cheese sarnies and he told me about how there was a problem with 'too many cultures' in Australia. A euphemism I am sure. I described the melting pot that is London with pride.

Later that same day I stopped for the night at Grafton at a pub with rooms. It was a Friday and weekend drinkers were beginning to gather. I got out of my Lycra and went to have a shandy with the locals. Bill Bishop invited me to join him and his friends. This became my spot for the evening. Bill and another local Sandra really looked after me and before long Bill had insisted that I stay with his friend Marty, another publican in Coffs Harbour. He had also offered to pick me up to drive me to Newcastle a few days later so I could be in Sydney to meet my parents when they arrive for Christmas. He did just that. Thanks Bill. The chain of helping hands continued. Sandra has phoned me every day since to check on my progress.

Billy's mate Marty looked after me in Coff's Harbour. Another surfy town Marty picked me up at 8 in the morning for a tour around the area on the back of his Harley Davidson. What a way to see a place and the bike made light of the hills. We stopped at a look out high in the banana plantations. Bananas are still exported from this area and are said to have a great flavour. We then went for a swim in the harbour around the pier.

I thought before I came to Australia that I wouldn't be able to swim much because of the sharks and crocodiles. In fact crocodiles are found in the more tropical north and the likelihood of being eaten by a shark is very small. Sandra used to live in Byron Bay. When she went into hospital to give birth to her daughter in 1982 it was the same time as a fatal shark attack of a surfer. Everyone in the hospitall was talking about the horrific incident. Now the memory of that attack has faded and Byron is awash with wannabe surfers. There were only three shark attacks in New South Wales in 2011, though 15 in 2008. Each year sharks kill far fewer than the number who die from bee stings, dog bites or lightning in the world. There are more attacks in the US than in Australia but more fatal attacks in Australia. None the less, just to be safe, I have avoided swimming at dawn and dusk or on my own.

Last week the results of the 2010 census of the UK were published. It included some interesting changes about Britain. London is made up of 45% of people who describe themselves as white British whereas the rest of the country is 80%. Some commentators in Britain have expressed concern that London no longer represents the rest of Britain. Has it ever? I considered the irony of this whilst in a country colonised by the Brits. Australia only became Australia in 1901. Aborigines now make up 2.3% of the Australian population the number is roughly the same as when the British arrived. Anthropologists think Aborigines were in Australia at least 40,000 or more years ago. Compare that with the arrival of Maori people in New Zealand in 1000. There are hundreds of different groups within that with over 150 different languages most of which are in danger of dying out.

When Australia first federated in 1901 the new government was keen to maintain the British character of the colony. Despite the British government's reluctance, Jo Chamberlain, the then colonial secretary agreed to these laws saying in 1897:

"We quite sympathise with the determination...of these colonies...that there should not be an influx of people alien in civilisation, alien in religion, alien in customs, whose influx..would seriously interfere with the legitimate rights of the existing labouring population."

He might well have been talking about the arrival of the British in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Autralian Labor Party agreed to support the new government only if the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was passed. The government avoided out and out racism and instead hid behind a language test as a way of excluding particularly Japanese, Chinese and Pacific migrants. The 1920s saw an increased attempt to maintain the white character of Australia. Australian Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce said in 1925:

"We intend to keep this country white and not allow its peoples to be faced with the problems that at present are practically insoluble in many parts of the world."

That was before the very white Adolf Hitler caused a number of problems all over the world.

The most recent immigration issue in Australia is to do with asylum seekers. Under the previous government the Labor Party was against having overseas detention centres. Julia Gillard, who is from Barry in the original South Wales is in negotiation to open a new centre in Malaysia. There are 4500 people seeking asylum detained in camps in mainland Australia and a further 1500 on Christmas island. New Zealanders on the other hand can easily immigrate to Australia and account for 20% of Australian immigration. Brits account for 8%, China 11% and India 8%.

There are no easy answers to righting the wrongs of the past. The more you learn about society the more complex the issues often can seem. However seeking the simple ways to enable people to see that human beings really are the same even though it is our differences that help us make connections.

As I was writing this I blog a fellow cyclist spotted my bike outside a cafe on Broadway in Sydney. Paul and his partner Joseph are leaving for Cambodia tomorrow for a cycling tour. Paul gave me tips for cycling in Thailand and our paths may cross when I head there in January.

Now though it is time for a summer Christmas with the folks in Sydney and New Year in Melbourne. So the legs get a rest though I am keen to seek out as many swimming spots as possible. Next on the cycling plan is the Great Ocean Road.

As for understanding Australia, or indeed the world, I know I have only just begun. And perhaps Australia is just as well summed up in another line from the same song:

'He just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich.'

Happy Christmas and a big thank you to everyone who has taken an interest in my journey and photos this year. Your support has encouraged me to keep writing and pedalling.