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It was time to get away from the city – and time to get a little off the beaten track: no more Mornington, Great Ocean Road, Yarra Valley or the Dandenongs.

90 Mile Beach, on Victoria’s south coast beyond Sale and towards Lake Entrance, seemed to fit the bill: hardly anyone had been there and there was little written about it online (what comments there were tended to be of the “It’s our secret, we don’t want lots of people coming” variety).

Bruce and Fran had a new tent to try out before the music festival season kicked off (yes, this is being written several months after the fact; see below) and Parks Victoria operated 20 free campsites on a stretch of the beach, itself a long (90 miles long apparently), straight strip (a spit perhaps?) lined with sand dunes, that encases an inland waterway.

Ninety Mile Beach

The township of Seaspray sits at one end with Paradise Beach marking the eastern end of the free camping area (although the beach continues some distance beyond there). Neither appear to have much going on, although being five days before Christmas, it probably wasn’t peak season. Still, peaceful serenity was the aim of the trip.

Unfortunately peaceful serenity was the last thing on Fran’s mind once the Hoonmobile began swinging through the free campsites. Perhaps it was the terrifying experience of stopping off in Traralgon for supplies – more fast food joints than brain cells and enough potential Biggest Loser winners to keep Channel Ten execs decked out in gold chains well into their retirement – that had her feeling all Wolf Creek. Or perhaps it was the fact that every campsite appeared to be populated entirely by Ute-driving men with mean-looking facial hair wearing lumberjack shirts, heavy boots and meaner glares.

“Can’t we just go and try the one at Paradise Beach?” she asked after the sixth of 20 had been searched, revealing the only pitch far enough from anyone else to be full of mosquitos and post-wipe tissue paper.

It was a fruitless request: Paradise was full to bursting with men of similar appearance, but this time they’d brought their trucks and what appeared to be armour-plated buses. Given the Australian surf fishing championships take place here every January they were all probably there to get in a little practice (either that or it was the Australian Bear Association’s pre-Chrimbo hugging convention). Still, the Hoonmobile was turned around and pointed back to Seaspray.

Fran’s courage pricked by the fact that none of the sites they’d visited earlier contained trucks, they returned to the earlier campsites with a fresh determination. This determination drove Bruce to believe the Hoonmobile had enough floor clearance to drive over a sawn off tree in the middle of the soft, sandy ground. He was wrong. Neither forward nor reverse would shift the car. It took Fran hopping into the driver’s seat and Bruce recalling his days as a prop forward to get it moving – even then with an unhealthy farting noise from the exhaust.

Eventually they settled, finding a quiet spot 100 yards from the sea’s edge and a short walk from the toilet. Tent erection in comparison to what went before was a breeze – aided by the opening of a Cooper’s Pale or two – and soon they were on the beach.

Talk about getting away from it: in the two days they were there, no more than a dozen people could be spotted within 10km in either direction on the beach – and no one ventured down there after dark (either the men were eating the day’s catch or hugging manfully), making every crash of the waves on the shore their own. Saturday’s weather was good enough for a spot of sunbathing, the water almost warm enough for a swim (well, a jump given the ferocity of the waves) and a smorgasbord of dazzling shells lined the water’s edge (and now a bathroom in Collingwood).

A well-stocked esky, a box of red as good as boxes of red can be, portable Ipod speakers and a pair of folding chairs made for comfortable star-gazing (and the glowing cocktail glasses from Wicked! made up for the torch dying). They even got deep, concluding something along the lines of:

“Even though the sun gives the Earth its energy, perhaps it’s actually there to keep us stupid, to keep us from being too ambitious. After all, it’s only when the light has disappeared from the sky that you get to see the sky as it really is and realise what is out there. The blue sky of the day is like a blanket hiding us from reality, like in The Truman Show.”

And so on…

They even saw a UFO on the second night. Both spotted a particularly bright flashing light that hadn’t been there the day before or indeed a few minutes earlier. It wasn’t moving like a satellite. Then, after a few seconds, it started moving rapidly away, heading diagonally eastwards and upwards until it disappeared.

“Did you see that too?” they asked each other, later recounting the moment excitedly to their neighbour, himself not averse to spaced-out nights on the beach, who rather mundanely pointed out that it wasn’t so much a UFO as an O: apparently satellites do move like that sometimes.

Appeal letter two in the mail

Appeal letter two in the mail

By that point they were home and about to discover that the damage to the exhaust was going to cost $350 to repair. They’ve just had a bill through from Vic Police to say they used a stretch of the Eastlink getting there, haven’t paid the toll and now owe a further $113. Some free camping trip.

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Fran has just had to cancel a long-planned trip to Hong Kong at the end of this month to visit her sister and baby nephew because Victoria is to swine flu what the Pope is to AIDS. Bruce has already had one moan about the Australian Government’s handling of the bug and the pissweak media scrutiny they’ve faced over it – here.

However, neither aspect seems to have improved. Given that Australia was among the later countries infiltrated by the pig sniffles, it boggles the mind to think it – not one of the developing nations – could be the reason the threat level is raised to pandemic.

This morning, on ABC, the issue was raised again with Victoria’s head of public health. Bruce expected the ABC’s questioning to be of a more thorough bent than that of the commercial television news but, alas, no. It went along the lines of:

Journo: “How seriously ill are the Victorians now in intensive care for swine flu?”

Head of Public Health: “I don’t know. All I know is that they are in intensive care.”

I DON’T KNOW! Shouldn’t you perhaps have asked, since you’re Head of Public Health. And shouldn’t you perhaps have been pressed on this?

Journo: “Why has the spread been so bad in Victoria?”

Head: “Well, because the symptoms can be so mild we think the first case may have come in from the States undetected and spread before we knew about it…..”

But weren’t you supposed to have tough regulations in place to spot any cases aided by the headstart of watching it spread to several other countries first? And shouldn’t you have been pressed on this? No, once again an official was allowed to get away with declaring ignorance of facts that they must surely have known.

A doctor friend in New Zealand who has an even younger child than Fran’s nephew sees no reason for Bruce to cancel his visit planned to coincide with Fran’s trip to Hong Kong.

“Swine flu is a lot of smoke, little fire,” he reasons.

So, these latest events highlight a few problems:

  1. The continuing incompetence of the Australian Government
  2. The continuing ineptitude of the Australian media
  3. The overreaction of the Hong Kong medical fraternity

Worst of all, however, it means Fran’s now coming to NZ with Bruce. A week’s freedom ruined…

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What with Victoria Park being closer to home and trains generally offering a quicker route into town (when they deign to turn up) Bruce has been somewhat neglecting the number 86 tram from Smith Street. For while trains might still offer moments of unexpected entertainment, there’s something about Melbourne’s trams that ensures a higher amusing overheard conversation / junkie / threat of violence / entertaining driver to trips taken ratio.

He was reminded of that today while passing along Bourke Street towards the Parliament building. Onto the seat across from him sidled a borderline clinically obese woman clutching a bag to her bosom. The grey hair pulled back tightly from her forehead was losing its battle to iron out the wrinkles and excess chins making a Blitzkrieg attack on either end of her face, but at least allowed Bruce to spot the sparkle of glee in her eyes.

Dammit! Series nine's rubbish!

Dammit! Series nine's rubbish!

The bag appeared to hold the key to her excitement and, sure enough, soon her mitts were inside. Her body tipped forward, the faded workplace identity card swinging from her neck nudging against the bag, so she could sneak a glance at her prize as it was retrieved. A smile spread across her face as she leant back; there it was: the complete series nine of Murder, She Wrote.

After carefully removing a strip of sticky tape (and folding it perfectly in half) her chubby fingers began clawing at the plastic wrap. As they did, her face became a study in concentration: jaw working overtime like a champion gurner OD’ing on MDMA crystal, tongue lapping at her lips like a dog anticipating Sunday dinner leftovers.

Sadly, the plastic proved a troublesome foe, although her cause was hampered by an apparent desire to remove it tidily (the late Angela Lansbury deserves to be treated with reverence, after all) and the DVD remained cocooned when the time came for her to alight. Still, it did mean she could go through the entire process again later in the day.

Other than reminding him of the joys to be had from riding the tram, it did leave Bruce pondering two questions:

  1. Isn’t Murder, She Wrote on all free-to-air channels in the Western world every day at 2.05pm anyway? Or is Columbo back in that slot these days?
  2. Had the poor wretch forgotten that the show entered a three-year slump after episode eight of series seven – ‘The Great Twain Robbery’ – only to recover midway through series ten (‘Love and Hate in Cabot Cove’)?

Oh dear. Would hate to be around when she realises her error.

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It’s been too easy to ask the question: “How many people currently have normal flu at the moment?” although the well-intentioned glibness of such a comment is tempered by an almost complete lack of knowledge of the N1H1 virus, so… shut up, Bruce.

Anyway, reports this morning that the number of swine flu cases in Australia is rising rapidly – more than 150 now when there was none not too long ago – brought to mind the first TV interview Bruce witnessed with a senior Government official a few weeks back when the virus had reached around 15 countries but not Australia. The identity of the interviewee has been forgotten but the gist of the interview has not. Essentially, it went:

Nicely made up, big-haired Channel 7 / 9 /10 interviewer*: “What are you doing to prevent swine flu entering Australia?”

Government official: “We have procedures in place to deal with this that have been worked on over the past few months.”

It went on for about five minutes but, essentially, that was it. Never once was he asked what those procedures were, who had drawn them up, what steps people could take as preventatives, whether certain sections of the population should be especially aware, when such “procedures” might be put into place and so on. No, there was a five minute merry-go-round that, like all merry-go-rounds, ultimately went nowhere and left the passenger begging for more.

Now, it’s probably harsh to criticise someone employed to smile nicely and have big hair for not acting like a journalist (at least the muppets doing the advertorials are given a script – this poor thing was up against a man with years of experience at deflecting awkward questions, who here deflected them before they even had the chance to get near her mindspace) but it left the distinct impression that really the Government wasn’t prepared, was hoping swine flu wouldn’t make it to Australia and would try and wing it if it did arrive.

Allowing people who admitted to feeling ill off a cruise liner to then wait in airports for flights and re-enter the wider public suggests they weren’t prepared, their hopes have been dashed and they’re not very good at winging it.

[* Is there a difference?]

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So, in their first 15 months Down Under Bruce and Fran have done their best to assimilate into Aussie culture:

  • stung by jelly fish (Fran)
  • bitten by a white tail (Bruce – does anyone know when or if the hairs start growing back on the affected patch?)
  • lived in a weatherboard cottage (next door to famous Aussie musicians and across the road from an Aussie cult)
  • become Pies fans (and recently received a formal apology from a man who was instrumental in that decision)
  • embarked on a road trip to Broken Hill
  • played Keno
  • met Nick Cave
  • obsessed over footy tipping (and, in Bruce’s case, got angry at the TV when results went the wrong way)
  • bought a massive bbq and cooked mountains of snags
  • used words like snags
  • eaten vanilla slice in Ouyen
  • said: “It’s good – we need the rain”, something no Pom would ever imagine saying
  • begun referring to themselves as Poms

and so it goes. They’ve also tried to hurry along their citizenship, not least by catching a mugger and rescuing young drunks collapsed in the road and returning them home.

Fran St Kilda pier

Awaiting Paul's arrival?

Tonight’s a biggy, though: Paul Kelly in concert. At the Palais in St Kilda, too, which should add an extra whoop of delight from the crowd when St Kilda To King’s Cross starts up. (Hopefully the venue will prove more suitable for this gig than it did for the Arctic Monkeys).

Fran was the first to fall for his iconic Aussie charms. And boy did she fall. One afternoon she started crying while walking along Smith Street just thinking about How To Make Gravy. That’s right: thinking about it… When Bruce surprised her with tickets for the show it was like watching a five-year-old susceptible to sugar rushes being force fed half a kilo of Redskins washed down with a gallon of Coke and a couple of sherbert fountains then let loose on a bouncy castle. When she later got hold of Songs From The South vol. 2 and realised he penned Every Fucking City – the tune she rewrote into an Ancient Mariner-type odyssey with her road sisters while travelling the States in pre-Bruce days – it’s a miracle she didn’t shift a couple of tectonic plates.

Bruce, on the other hand, has been pretty 50/50 about the guy: Leaps and Bounds yes, Bradman (which reminds him of his attempt aged 10 to write a stat-heavy biography of Ian Botham) no. However, he just heard If I Could Start Again for the first time while listening to the hits collection on repeat shuffle and reading this fantastic Robert Forster article and found his emotions stirred and his anticipation for tonight growing.

Well, as some wise man whose name escapes me once wrote: “From little things, big things grow…”

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The world's largest paddlesteamer flotilla cruises on by

The world's largest paddlesteamer flotilla cruises on by

The British nature has a lot to answer for. As part of Mr and Mrs Bruce snr’s three-week whistlestop tour of Oz, they’d been booked onto a dinner cruise aboard the P.S. Emmylou, one of Echuca’s vintage paddlesteamers. Despite a price tag of $95 a head for three courses, Bruce and Fran headed there with expectations low.

Perhaps it’s the result of childhoods spent at lacklustre seaside resorts such as Margate (in Bruce’s case) and its former Bembom Brothers amusement park or Southend (in Fran’s) where, prior to the smoking ban, non-smokers could experience the effects of a 20-year, two packs-a-day habit merely by sitting down to play bingo for half an hour surrounded by monolithic grandmother-mother-and-baby teams in which the baby’s dummy must surely have been covered in nicorette patches. Or perhaps, as many Aussie friends will observe, it’s just the innate doubt of an English test batsman coming to the crease.

Either way, if the choice had been soup or pate followed by fish and chips, burger or vegie pasta for main and ice cream for dessert neither would have been surprised. Perhaps they’d all have to wear sailors’ hats (Fran was quite excited about this) and sing awful seas shanties too.

In the end there was pate – but that’s where the similarities ended. The deck of the Emmylou was set out as well as an old wooden paddlesteamer can be to represent a fine dining establishment – the only criticism being a slight squash to accommodate the Easter Sunday crowd – with a good selection of food and decent wine list. A bottle of bubbly was quaffed as the menu was perused – Japanese okanomi yoki pancakes, brochette of scallops with proscuitto, fennel and rocket, muscovy duck, ocean trout and a platter of ridiculously rich desserts to name just a few.

“Aaarrrrggghhhh! I think I might be having the best time of my life,” screeched an overexcited Fran on more than one occasion as the Emmylou floated past riverside bbqs and cabins lining the north shore of the Murray.

The Bruce family's Easter Sunday dinner drew quite a crowd

The Bruce family's Easter Sunday dinner drew quite a crowd

Then it was time for the main event. At the time of booking, Bruce had been unaware that Easter Sunday was one of two occasions in the year when Echuca’s entire fleet of commercial and privately-owned paddlesteamers gathered for a sail past of the town’s heritage port. So, dessert polished off and red wine still flowing the boat turned around and led a procession past thousands gathered on the quay. Many of the boats lit flares, others sounded their horns (rather confusingly they sound just like those on trains and the footy siren at the MCG), thousands of camera flashes flickered.

Once past the quay, a firework display lit up the sky and Bruce wondered if the folks of Echuca could do anything more to make his parents’ visit memorable.

The following day was accompanied by a chorus of kookaburras on a scale reminiscent of Hollywood’s greatest musical excesses of the 1920s and 30s and a trip even further back in time along Echuca’s historic walk: ducking into the escape tunnel underneath the Star Inn for an impromptu knees-up; posing for an utterly ridiculous Victorian family photo; marvelling at the various nutcases making a living with magic tricks and performing cockatoos – and the woman charging $9 for 100 grams of fudge.

“We should come back here every other weekend,” exclaimed Fran, still giddy from the previous night.

She’ll get her wish, although not quite that often, as at just 2 1/2 hours drive from Melbourne, it would be rude not to return. Proclaiming ownership of “The world’s largest flotilla of paddlesteamers” may be akin to having the world’s largest collection of foil tops from orange Calippo ice lollies made between 1994 and 1997 but Echuca remains a charming corner of Victoria. And it’s not Swan Hill.

"Oooh!" "Wow!"

"Oooh!" "Wow!"

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Like this, but dirtier

Like this, but dirtier

Sidling down the aisle past the morons who couldn’t understand: “Passengers in rows 16 to 31 embark through the back door” Bruce was overcome with a sense of foreboding. A ripe smell – the sort only emitted by a person who gave up on both personal hygiene and a balanced, healthy diet many years ago – wafted towards him.

At row 23 the smell was still getting stronger. His ticket was for seat 20A.

22 – worse still.

21 – bordering on unbearable.

20C – hello big guy.

Bruce threw his book onto the seat two down and perused his company for the hour’s flight to Adelaide: unkempt black hair; spotted yellow and brown teeth protruding from his mouth at all angles except those that God intended; an excuse for a beard that may have been acceptable for a 14-year-old Goth trying to look mature (long, but sparse); brown stained skin around his eyes; a black t-shirt stating: “I THINK YOU MAY HAVE MISTAKEN ME FOR SOMEONE WHO GIVES A SHIT”; mud ground into his hands and elbows.

Oh, and the stench. The stench.

Bruce took up his seat and prepared to bury himself in his book.

“You alright there?” said the man and launched into conversation.

Turns out he was terrified of flying and needed to talk to distract his mind. What’s more, he was also an alcoholic, nocturnal, internet freak who’d graduated from years of War Hammer in his youth (as his fading tattoo proved) to spending the night on internet chat rooms abusing people under the moniker “Angry Bastard”.

In the 20 minutes that passed before takeoff, Angry must have asked the stewardesses half a dozen times for Jim Beam. He also successfully persuaded Bruce to join him in a early evening beverage, despite Bruce’s awareness that a boozy night already lay ahead. Rarely can a flight crew have hated someone so much before leaving the ground.

Still, turns out old Angry, despite the frequent burping, threats to “leave GT marks in his pants” as the A320 lifted off and putrid stench, was  rather amusing company, certainly the best Bruce had enjoyed inflight in a while. (Although quite whether anyone else in Bruce’s position would have been so accepting is another matter…)

He lived in a “dark box” in Warbuton, only leaving the house to buy more bourbon and coke – or occasionally to go and shoot things (anything that moved) with his friends. He was a self-confessed “anti-social bastard” (despite evidence to the contrary) who hadn’t flown since 1997 or left Victoria (and possibly Warburton itself) since 2000. He succeeded, with Bruce’s help, in getting two cans of Jim Beam for the hour-long flight against the stewardesses’ better wishes and also revealed that his favourite tipple was Old Crow bourbon – only distilled for three years, but mixed with better Coke than other varieties – thereby unwittingly unveiling to Bruce the origins of the fantastic Old Crow Medicine Band from the previous weekend’s Golden Plains.

His reason for being on the plane was the highlight, however. One of the women he regularly chatted to online was celebrating her 38th birthday (to avoid anyone bringing attention to her subsequent 40th) in a town two hours from Adelaide that he couldn’t remember the name of and had decided – less than 24 hours earlier – to invite Angry along. She’d called him to say they’d bought him a flight – one-way! – and that he could stay for five days either side of the nine keg-plus-karaoke party on the Saturday night.

“Look, I’ve got the details here,” he said, pulling a piece of card from his pocket and, by drawing attention to his hands once more, alerting Bruce to the fact that he was going to meet these people for the first time with mud ground into his hands and elbows. “She told me to grab a piece of paper to get the flight details and this was all I could find.”

In his hand was the torn off front of a Home Brands value pack of Barbecue Snax.

“See – flight details here. Password – FRONTBUM. Pet’s name – HELLCUNT. And her phone number.”

“So,” asked Bruce. “What’s this woman like? Have you ever seen her on a webcam or anything.”

Angry turned. His eyes lit up and bore into Bruce…

“Scary!” he said, before tittering with glee. “She’s got big purple bits of hair coming up from the top of her head.”

“Why are you heading over there anyway?” asked Bruce.

“She said her and her mates had decided I sounded like a mad cunt so wanted me to come along.”

Sure enough, Beams demolished, as they walked into the arrivals hall at Adelaide Airport, Angry heard another of his nicknames ring out and there was a purple-haired woman (looking older than her declared 38) waiting for him.

Farewells said, Bruce watched as they left the airport locked in conversation, wondering if his new acquaintance’s body was likely to turn up in a landfill in the not-too-distant future.

***

Simultaneously, a friend of Bruce’s was travelling on another Melbourne – Adelaide flight and was sat next to a man who spent the entire flight tearing up photos of his family into little pieces and dropping them into a tube of fluorescent water he was carrying.

Occasionally, he would turn to her and say: “They’re talking about me. Can you hear them? Can you hear them?”

So, should anyone fancy a new, slightly surreal – possibly terrifying – experience, hop on a flight to Adelaide.

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