March

March strikes me as a celebratory month. Events include the wedding anniversary of my mum and stepdad, for instance, which tends to slip my mind without fail every year. Likewise, Mother’s Day, which may or may not happen at some point in certain countries. With similar vagueness, Easter might eventuate in March, but this is contingent on some advanced algebraic calculation based on a factor of the day when Jesus rose up to make pancakes on the moon or something. Elsewhere, at the start of the month in Wales, people get all excited about leeks on cheese on toast, drink Brains, and break out in hearty song about Saint Dafydd. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rest of Australia (and thus of course the world), the natives of its capital gather to commemorate the city’s founding by promptly and unapologetically fleeing to the coast. There is clearly much to celebrate.

Mar01The biggest cause for chirpiness however – specifically in the northern hemisphere – is the symbolic termination of winter. Sure, it may still rain curtains of icy drizzle from time to time, but it can do so safe in the knowledge that the worse is behind us. Evenings suddenly seem to stretch for longer; the sun, when it can be persuaded to appear, resonates a faint whiff of warmth; daffodils – that most blessed portent of a new season – glow as proudly as a Welshman once did at Cardiff Arms Park. Promise pervades the air.

There is a particular day in March – let’s say the 19th – in which seasonality gets a little carried away with itself. The temperature might reach something freakish like 18°C. The wind temporarily vanishes, leaving the rays of the sun untempered to shower upon beaming faces. A national mood change is palpable as families picnic in parks, people spill out of London pubs short-sleeved, and the first whimpers of charcoal smoke rise from over the neighbour’s fence, ruining the washing on the line that can finally dry properly for the first time since September.

There is ,of course, a wickedness to this day. It is as though a dose of paradise has been granted that will not appear again until at least May, if not July. The irresistible inclemency of an Atlantic front is never too far away and the return to what passes for normalcy leaves you wondering whether yesterday was a dream. Instead, the season builds more subtly, like a light’s dimmer switch being incrementally dialled up as opposed to the classical on and off again manner. But at least March represents a time when someone’s hand is on that dimmer switch, and anticipation about whether the bulb will eventually glow at sixty or a hundred watts is almost as overwhelming as a confused metaphor about electrical illumination.

I would struggle without seasonality. I may be in a minority, given the population growth of the Gold Coast and the increase in beachside Pilates taking place during southern Spanish winters. Here, a quite remarkable assortment of fossils can be spotted, bedecked in sun visors, creaking and contorting in slow motion like a troupe of jaded CP3Os, as if worn down from another hackneyed yet money-spinning outing. Leathery limbs reach tentatively to the skies, embracing the sun that seems forever warm and almost always present. The people here may never wear trousers, or coats, or enclosed shoes ever again. And while it may seem like some fanciful paradise to wake up to blue skies every day, to never feel cold, would it not also eventually feel remorsefully dull, remarkably uneventful, entirely, tediously predictable?

This, I believe, is one of the more common complaints from UK migrants to certain parts of Australia. I’ve seen it on those daytime TV shows – Get a Life Down Under, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Escape to the Country (Just Don’t Come by Boat or You Will End Up in a Concentration Camp on an Impoverished, Mosquito-Infested Island), etc, etc. To some of the locals, such comments just seem to reinforce a lovingly-embraced stereotype related to whinging. But I get it, even though I would try to make the most of endless days of fair weather myself. There is glumness in Britishness – fostered over millennia, permeated by the weather, resolute in the character – that cannot easily be discarded. It is not a bad thing, predominantly because we are skilled at making light of it (indeed, this is something to be celebrated). And, I think, it nurtures appreciation and satisfaction in the simplest of things, such as the emergence of a snowdrop from the earth in early spring [i].

I guess what I am saying, what I am typing, is that March can be so exhilarating in Britain because of what you have been through to get there. Yes, much like the proverbial rollercoaster or, more aptly, the Northern Line, dawdling through what seems an endless toxic darkness to finally emerge into the light and airy park-side setting of East Finchley. Spring and summer, or Woodside Park and High Barnet, lay ahead. And while these will often end up being more disappointing than hoped-for, in March the anticipation is still there, yet to be dashed by John Ketley.

Australia is in many ways a different proposition. The sheer size and variability in the weather means that March could herald heatwaves, cyclones, snowfalls, floods, dust storms, mist patches, and cascades of quokkas and numbats. In small pockets – such as the south east corner with which I am most familiar – there is a parallel cooling and drawing in of nights, and the first vestiges of a prolonged autumn appear. Though there may be some sombreness that summer is on the wane, there is little of the dread associated with a forthcoming northern winter. Partly that’s a result of days that can still exceed thirty degrees but mostly milder, more amiable conditions as a whole. This is the start of a golden period, when pleasant, blue-sky days and refreshing nights stack up one after the other and seem to stretch on into May.

Of course, I write this safe in the knowledge (or 97% confident) that climate change could totally wreck everything I am going on about. Stormy Marches and hot Marches and cyclonic Marches or even snowy Marches could become the new norm. Do I have evidence for this? Well, no, but that doesn’t stop climate sceptics receiving a sycophantic front page diatribe in certain national media, so no harm in including a few words on an obscure blog. While we may (only part) jokingly embrace climate change if it means we can wear union jack shorts in Southend in March, it would be a shame to lose that which is special about the seasonality it offers. Otherwise we’ll just be as bad as the Gold Coast.

I can accept hot days in early March, but it was nearing month’s end in 2013 when myself and a friend decided to persevere with the preparation of bangers and mash during a 38 degree northerly on the southern extremity of the Australian mainland. It is probably one of the biggest collective regrets we have from a three month trip across Australia. Just what were we thinking?! I guess in the joy of food planning and supermarket shopping a few days in advance we didn’t anticipate such furnace-like conditions. Plus we had packed a potato masher as something of a luxury item, so were eager to use it on any possible occasion.

Mar02

The setting was Tidal River, a sprawling campground complex within Wilsons Promontory National Park. It’s popular with Melburnians and wombats, both of whom were in profusion. The wombats were engaged in a faux cultural conversation about the ethics of rainforest regurgitated coffee beans, while the Melburnians contentedly chomped away on the grass and shitted square bricks. The day had passed with the sight and smell of smoke from the lower Strzelecki Ranges, and a coming-close-to-mild-dehydration tramp up to Vereker Outlook. Relief of a kind came from the beautiful white bays and clear waters of the coastline, though even here the brilliance of the sand glared with a resonant heat. General fatigue was high, and the struggle to boil potatoes on a portable gas stove in a strong northerly beside the sea was only made more pleasurable by the numerous flies clearly determined to explore the nasal cavity. This was not quite the idyllic March that I had come to know and love.

Mar03Needless to say, a week later I was freezing my butt off in another Victorian national park, desperately lighting a pile of twigs to ward off the chance of hypothermia. In the golden goldfields around Castlemaine and Bendigo, Creswick and Ballarat, the effect of March was bearing fruit. Planted to gentrify the antiquated avenues and make Englanders feel partly at home, the oaks and elms, beech and poplars, were busy transitioning into autumn shades. The spa town of Daylesford was made for this time of year, its lake happily reflective and the Victorian Victorian streets lined with large-leaved trees that seem to be excited by the end of summer. A refuge for Masterchef cast-offs, there was no doubting that the pork roasted to succulence in a charming old pub was several hundred times better, and a thousand more fitting, than the bangers and mash of past.

Thus, climate change pending, there is much to celebrate about March whether north or south. I am pleased to say that as I write this in Canberra, the sun is shining, it is a predictable 25 degrees and the forecast is set fair. Spring may be yet to truly spring in the UK, but there is an inevitability that it will come. Soon. Two weeks and there may be a freak warm day coming up, so stock up on charcoal before the supermarkets sell out, and beware of white van man with his top inexplicably off. Above all, cherish this most pivotal of months which signifies the start of something new. Love the seasons, and all the incremental change that they deliver. Otherwise, head to the Gold Coast or Lanzarote and dwell in temperate predictability, never to wear long pants ever, ever again.


[i] In making a sweeping generalisation about national character I should caveat: there will still inevitably be a handful of tiresome, grouchy narks who hate the sound of children’s laughter and lament the daffodils emerging on the median strip because they might provide a place for immigrant burglars to hide and spread Ebola. The good thing is everyone else will take the piss out of them. Apart from desperate politicians who seem to focus endlessly on wooing their vote.

12 Months Australia Europe

Zzz…

…and so to bed, a closure of sorts on this long-winded journey that started off so awesome and finishes in a cocoon of fluffy pillows and cosy doonas. Among all the wonderful things seen, the delights tasted, the rants aired, it is sleep that has allowed them to happen, recharging the body and mind just enough to ensure that things can keep on keeping on. Sleep is, well, awesome, and as friends and family surround themselves with young ones, the perplexing question on everyone’s lips is just why wouldn’t you want to go to bed and sleep solidly for eight hours, pesky child?!

Sleep deprivation is, alas, a feature of the lives of many people I know, from eternally exhausted parents to work-bothered stress heads. Occasionally it pops up in my life, but usually as a result of my own endeavours, like sitting cramped on a plane for 24 hours and moving forward in time 11 hours and then stupidly expecting to sleep like a baby that actually sleeps [1]

Z_wilsprom

Or deciding to stay in a hostel room in a tiny place somewhere in Victoria and finding that the other bunks are occupied by three rather large Germans who have had a hearty dose of ale and chunks of pork and like to sleep on their back. Still, it was a beautiful early dawn ride to Wilsons Prom that morning when no-one else was yet up.

Luckily I am apt to overcome sleep deprivation and early starts with the most blessed event that can befall anyone: the afternoon nap. I think I first fell in love with afternoon naps when it happened to me as a teenager, taking me unawares as I struggled to read a boring book on a grey day in a comfy armchair. Initially it was a bit of a shock to find that I had unintentionally nodded off and drooled a little. But the feeling of contentment and rejuvenation that ebbed into my body earmarked the afternoon nap as something to occasionally strive for.

In 2013 I had a fair few afternoon naps, along with a fair few restless nights and early starts. This was primarily my own doing, attributed to the fact that I ended up staying in 121 different locations across the globe [2]. Such restlessness can induce restlessness…that feeling of being slightly unsettled going to sleep in an unfamiliar spot. Given many of the sleeps were also conducted in a canvas coffin in the middle of nowhere, prone to every possum rustle and pounding wave of the ocean and occasional snoring fit from elsewhere, solid sleep was not always high on the agenda. But then I discovered the calming properties of earplugs and got over it and probably made a bit or noise myself, mouth agape catching flies.

Still, the early starts were common as there is only so much an earplug can do against the cacophonous cackling of a choir of Kookaburras. The compensation from the termination of sleep was the sparkle of being alive and watching the natural world wake up from its shadowy slumber. Like down amongst the spotted gums of Croajingalong National Park, fringing the silver glass of an inlet as it is kissed by the laser red sun of dawn and enlivened by the rousing chimes of bellbirds. Awake is the new sleep.

Z_croaj

A few more sleeps from this spot and I happened to be in Wilsons Prom again, this time without a hostel room of Germans, but struggling to sleep nonetheless. The day had been baking hot, an arid northerly wind blowing dust and flies and smoke and hairdryer vapours to the southern extremities of mainland Australia. Too hot to sleep until – finally in the small hours – the promised cool change, bringing a pitter-patter of rain which turns to a noisy deluge amplified on canvas. Fortunately the next sleep was Melbourne and a roof and a bed and appreciation of a roof and a bed which is so often taken for granted by us first world problem seekers.

There were a few other hot nights but many more cold ones, often surprising in their unpredictability. I expect somewhere called the Grampians to be a wee bit chilly, though in March I never expected it would be cold enough to cause me to hover over a few smouldering twigs, infiltrating smokiness into my hair and stubble and fleece and beanie, awaiting the first warmth from the sun to finally emerge from between the trees. Ironically, later that day it would swelter so much as to cause sweaty backs on a climb to one of the many spectacular overlooks, provoke comfort in a lukewarm home-made shower, and create extreme fondness for a double scooped ice cream back down in Halls Gap.

In this flim-flam wiff-waff Perryinthian volatility of hot and cold, it is perhaps not so much of a surprise that one of the best swag sleeps in the past year was conducted at a very agreeable and comfortable temperature. This in itself was not at all predictable given previous chilly nights despite (or maybe because of) being in the dry, arid South Australian outback. Perhaps it was the shelter of the Cypress pines and their earthy fragrance, or perhaps just the ease of getting to sleep after many miles of quite exemplary walking, but Aroona Valley in the Flinders Ranges provided a chance to not really sleep much like a baby. And with solid sleep, an early start is no problem to appreciate the grandeur of the emerging landscape as the day is welcomed.

Z_flinders

Beyond the swag there have been air mattresses and sofas and fold up beds to enjoy, plus the occasional real bed. I’ve had a close on-off relationship with a certain air mattress for some time now, though this year saw us part company. A little part of me was a bit forlorn when I was kindly provided with my own room and own bed, complete with funky pictures of digger trucks and awesome earthmoving machines. Yet I can still sleep soundly despite stealing the bedroom of a two year old, for I always sleep soundly here. It may come thanks to the wine and fulfilling Mexican food, the equal liveliness and weariness of family life, the penchant for odd movies and cruising around Liberty City late at night. Or the grim up north Lancashire exterior quelled by the warming welcome inside.

Z_devonAnd once more it comes back to that old chestnut roasting on an open fire of comfort and familiarity. Spending such sustained time on a fold up bed in Plymouth that my back no longer hurts. Reconnecting with my eternal homeland, nodding off to the sound of drunken crazies arguing over some munter down the street eating a kebab. Waking to the sound of seagulls and the incessant irritating loop of Bruno Mars and Olly Murs on Heart [3]. Hearing the distant trundle of the railway as it fights its way through millions of leaves and brambles; a trundle that gently lulls you to sleep again later following a majestic day walking the Cornish coast. This is quite possibly the most contented nap there is.

Finally, after all this sleeping around, I again find myself in my own bed, the one I bought at Harvey Norman in Fyshwick seven years ago, before I knew any better [4]. I remember having to catch a bus that dropped me off somewhere between a petrol station and porn shop, walking through some overgrown brown grass dotted with rubble and fast food trash. Making it to the store I then waited ages for any of the dubious sales staff to take any interest in me. I’m sure I purchased the fairly cheap mattress, thinking I was only going to be in Australia for a year. But it endures and it is mine and, as everyone always inevitably says after a bout of travel, ooh it’s always nice to be back in your own bed!

Back on that day, while waiting near the porn store for the hourly bus back to somewhere close to where I was staying, I killed some time by wandering into the p…p….petrol station. I p…p….purchased a map of New South Wales to kill some boredom. This was back in the dark old days of 2006, when maps were unfathomably large and fold out-y. But it was splendid to open it out and start looking at the roads and contours and the places by the sea that were still just names then. And it was daunting to see just how large the place was, where a two hour drive was a couple of fingers width on paper.

When the bed was delivered and assembled it not only became a place of sleep but one in which the mind would formulate plans and trips, making lists in my head and sometimes struggling to nod off with the breathless excitement of it all. I’d try to count sheep, read something dull, do a Sudoku. And then I decided, probably an unwise tactic, to list things off in my head in an A to Z fashion. Like places I have been in the USA, capital cities of the world, or legumes of the Central Asian plateau or some such. Sometimes I would drift off by Crystal River, other times I’d be wide-eyed in Zagreb. But it’s something that has endured for quite a while, until now.

So it would seem, with this particular alphabet closed, I truly can rest easy. Catch a few awesome ZZZs as a chapter closes. That is until I start to toy with the next idea and several others fall open. For now though, read this and sleep.


[1] What a misguided phrase. To sleep like a baby must mean spells of doziness for an hour with six interruptions during the night to eat, and a couple of nappy changes because you have pooped all over the place.

[2] I should point out, not 121 different beds, for many of these sleeps were carried out in a swag that just happened to find itself in a different part of Australia each night.

[3] Seriously, just buy her some frigging flowers and shut the hell up

[4] I quickly decided to deliberately avoid Harvey Norman, mainly because of its very tacky, cheap and incredibly shouty adverts in which they proclaim to be the bedding specialist, or plasma screen specialist or coffee specialist, offering interest free credit until 2023

Links

Croajingalong National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/croajingolong-national-park

Wilsons Promontory National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/wilsons-promontory-national-park

Grampians National Park: http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/grampians-national-park

Flinders Ranges National Park:

http://www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/Flinders_Ranges_and_Outback/Flinders_Ranges_National_Park

They haven’t got much better (or advanced): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3ky9cFQbbM

Back in the bed buying days: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2006/08/artistic-bedroom-furniture-ironing.html

Something else to send you to sleep: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/

A to Z Australia Great Britain Society & Culture