Sent: Wednesday, June 24, 2002 00:12 AM
So? Where were we? It's been a while hasn't it. But now, ensconced in Fiji, divested of the daily driving responsibilities that took up so much time in Australia and New Zealand, now I finally have time to type, so let's see how well the memory has borne up under the strain, or do I mean how good the notes are...
Let's go back to the beginning. It is Sunday 24th February 2002 and for us the days spent killing time in Bali are finally over.
He glares, he really glares at David, but to no avail, David is oblivious to the attempt he has just made to sever the Achilles tendon of a fellow passenger with his luggage trolley. David has only one intention, only one thing he needs to do, which is to re-enact a classic WWF wrestling match, here, in the packed Arrivals hall at Sydney International Airport, with his Australian boyfriend Wade as his unwitting opponent/co-star in the squared circle. David has a tendency toward storing up excitement and then unleashing it in prolonged bouts of whirling dervishness and sure enough much grappling follows. But, separated from his true love for 3 months since Wade moved back to Sydney from London perhaps the half-nelson in which he has Wade locked is understandable.
By a ridiculously unplanned coincidence our flight into Sydney from Bali arrives 40 minutes before David's flight from London. So we get to intrude on their smoochy, grappling reunion, to meet two old friends as soon as we arrive and to start our struggle to come to terms with being back in the first world, all at the same time. Sydney agrees with Wade to judge from his slender, tanned, visibly more relaxed exterior that has replaced his pallid London complexion.
It is Monday morning, so we get to settle into Wade's flatshare in Wooloomalloo for a few hours before the flat's owner, Cathy returns from work. We have REALLY landed on our feet. Wooloomalloo is within walking distance of the city centre, a formerly down at heel area next to the navy wharves comprising mainly of public housing, now with lofts and warehouse apartments making incursions at its' edges. We pull up alongside a long, low, pale green, two-storey apartment block and find our way past the small permanently shaded and consequently icy swimming pool to the flat, a spacious, plainly decorated two bedroom affair. Wade moved in only five weeks ago, so we are fortunate that Cathy has agreed that we can stay, with Mardi Gras on accommodation of every type is at a premium and a floor to sleep on represents a huge saving for us.
Shortly after lunch Helen and Alex arrive, two of our very best friends from home, former residents of Brighton, who set off travelling six months before us and who, consequently, we haven't seen for 12 months. Hugs, kisses and initial blurtings out of the way the six of us sit around in a slightly crazed state saying little but taking turns to blurt out 'I can't believe we're all here!' or variations thereof. Even though we have so much to talk about, stories to tell and questions to ask, it is fantastic to be sat in a room with four other people with whom every conversation does not have to start from the very beginning and progress via tons of background information about the who, what, where, when and why of who we are. We've met some old friends at last!
Early evening brings Cathy home to roost. We may as well get the whole Cathy story out of the way up front so as not to clutter up the other stories to follow. Cathy makes a fairly good fist of the introductions. We, for all the reasons I've already mentioned, are gushing in our upfront gratitude, we even get the thank-you present in at the first meeting. Cathy is early 30's, slim, with a pale complexion and a pinched mouth. Over the 9 days we stay she reveals herself painstakingly to us. The length of time she spends in the bathroom implies that she may actually work her way through the huge pile of hair care products stacked in the corner of the shower on a daily basis.
Tuesday night is Ceroc night. Ceroc is a frenchified, stylised sort of jive dancing, but may also be a place where rhythmic singles go to meet to judge from Cathy who met Todd, the current boyfriend, there and who brings Ian, the current dancing partner home with her. No, not for a shag, to watch and critique the video of the troop's last competitive performance.
"1...2...3... and look at how high her knee is there!"
"5...6...7... that flick is soooo late"
Wade, unable to control his giggles, takes to his bed, together with David, leaving just Cathy, Ian, Sausage, me and Mr Happy in the front room. It's 11pm and we sleep on the floor in the living room, so we have no means of escape. While the two of them are sat right in front of the TV Ian starts talking about his 'flexibility problems' and how sore his back is. Within seconds Cathy has Ian flat on the floor moaning softly as she kneads his back with Mr Happy, a wooden massage implement. Their move from in front of the TV to flat on the floor has placed them just out of our sight on the other side of the clothes drier which is thankfully fully laden. We don't know quite what to do with ourselves as they compare groin strains, in detail, and take it in turns to writhe and moan beneath Mr Happy in an hour long interlude that has about as much to do with massage as those pictures in Health and Efficiency had to do with table-tennis.
As the days go by we come to realise that Cathy desperately wants to appear carefree and easygoing, but cannot contain her highly strung prissiness. Ok, visually we're a bit of a handful, short-cropped bleached hair, tattooed, but we do our best to be good house guests and find ourselves staying with someone who will not come out of her bedroom if we are all in the flat together.
After snippy comments on clothes drying and bin emptying the coup-de-grace comes on our last morning. Wade and David having flown off to Cairns the previous day Sausage and I spend our last night in Wade's bed and are alone in the flat when we drop off to sleep at 11.30pm. Cathy has left a message that she is staying at Todd's so we are expecting not to see her again. When we get up at 8am Cathy's bedroom door is closed, having been open when we went to bed. As we take turns showering I bump into Todd. It turns out that both of them have taken the morning off work AND decided to come over to Cathy's at some point in the night AND then to hide, once again, in Cathy's room with the door shut. Sausage and I quietly boil, both feeling that the only reason that Cathy and Todd are here is to ensure we don't steal the family silver (and let me tell you, if you saw what she had you'd know how unlikely THAT was). So we take to the highway without saying goodbye to the closed bedroom door. In all of this it is Wade I feel sorry for. Despite Cathy's strangeness we get to stay in a centrally located spacious flat, while Wade gets hotter under the collar with each successively stranger act that Cathy perpetrates. But all in all it has no effect whatsoever on our enjoyment of Sydney. As you read this Wade is sitting pretty in a new flatshare just around the corner from Cathy's in an apartment where Mr Happy is nowhere to be seen.
Sydney is large, cosmopolitan, has the requisite number of shiny glass office blocks and sprawls over rolling hills. The complicating factor is the sea. While the city centre is laid out on a grid beyond that anything goes as one elliptical bay gives way to another. We go up the AMP Tower and circumnavigate the viewing gallery where over 180 degrees of the view is filled with scallop shaped bays. In a pattern to be repeated in Wellington, New Zealand I find that as soon as we crest a hill, leave behind one bay and enter another I lose all sense of location and direction.
We have 6 days in Sydney before Mardi Gras, more than enough time to visit all the major sights. But the days drift by in a daze. We potter around buying things for the camper van, trying to resist the pressure to keep up with Alex who seems to have everything short of snow chains in his van.
The only attraction we go to is the Aquarium. I'm not a person who goes to the zoo, animals behind bars is a cause for sadness, so I wasn't so bothered about going, particularly as we had seen so much while diving and snorkeling in Thailand, Sipadan and Nusa Lembongan. But the setting and the message alleviates some of my concerns, and there are no bars, just very thick glass. It is also a chance to hear at length David Borg's special fishy voice, usually reserved for the contents of his small tank at home in Balham, but today deployed to a huge number of fish and mammals, most of whom looked at him with a level of comprehension that I can only describe as negligible. The big hits of the trip are the platypus (or is it platipii?). Small furry amphibian mammals who swim around turning dementedly this way and that looking for all the world like the bastard offspring of a love affair between a garden mole and a mentally ill penguin.
Cathy's flat is part of a development that used to be a hostel for visiting sailors and it is located no more than 300 metres from the main Australian Navy wharf serving Sydney. At the foot of the wharf stands Harry's Cafe De Wheels which has been selling pies on this site for over 50 years. Harry isn't there, but a nice lady sells us each a pie (one steak, one chicken and mushroom) topped with a dollop of mash which is then dented with a ladle to form a hollow for the gravy and finished off with a dollop of mushy peas. The pie is fantastic and the mash and gravy are scrummy to. We are to learn that the Aussies and Kiwis are far better at making pies than us Brits.
With a night out on Wednesday to hear Alan Thompson the week oozes away, each day the clock seeming to slow down just a little more. But Saturday eventually comes. In the morning we finally manage to catch up with Danny and Nick. We met this pair not long before we left home and Sausage had got on with Danny like a house on fire. Our first impressions, formed over a couple of meetings in noisy clubs, get adjusted over the next 24 hours. On first meeting Danny he appeared quietly introspective and Nick brashly confident, but Danny reveals that beneath his quiet exterior beats the heart of a very camp party animal while Nick's scaborous, vile, horrendously funny high speed wit proves to be a hysterical smokescreen for his considerable shyness. Sausage discovers in Nick another fully paid up member of the 'I LUUUUURVE food club' and she relates to me Nick's long account of the roast dinner we can expect when we make it up to Bedford to see them on our return to the UK.
After lunch with Danny and Nick we return to Woolloomoolloo to a flat full of showering, ironing, depilating queens. Wade is distraught. His master plan for the day included a hairless chest courtesy of his new Epilady. It is a job that, once started, has to be finished, but the machine isn't really up to the job and the poor man has to go over his chest time and again while the skin gets redder and redder and the pain levels ratchet up. Mid afternoon sees him stretched out in the sun desperately trying to return his chest from red raw to cutely brown a feat he finally achieves.
Mid-afternoon Helen and Alex arrive and we nip out to hunter-gather some more milk crates. By 5pm, 4 hours before the Mardi Gras Parade will reach the point on the route at which we are planning to stand, we are all scrubbed, polished, dressed in our party frocks and just about popping with excitement as we finally leave the flat and set off up the street carrying our milk crates with us.
As we approach Oxford Street people are already stood two deep at the barriers, three hours before the parade will begin. We make our way up Flinders Street and as we get further from the start point of the parade the crowds start to thin out. By the time we reach the junction of Flinders Street and Moore Park Road we can park our crates on the pavement next to the barriers and reserve front row seats. The next 3 hours race by, friends of Helen and Alex arrive to join us and proceed to get very drunk, the marshalls work really hard to keep everyone amused, bouncing beach balls around with the kids, and an advance party of leather clad flag twirlers goes by as the light starts to fade. As 8pm passes the excitement builds. A mile away the Parade has set off.
We are stood 40m from a 90degree bend in the route so we can't see things coming from a long way off, but we hear the wave of noise and excitement rolling down the road long before the cause of the noise hoves into view.
The Parade is always opened by the Dykes on Bikes and by the time they reach us darkness has fallen. The headlights, horns and engine noise are what you feel first and then your eyes adjust and see past the headlights to the flag waving, smiling, screaming dykes. Combining the throb of the engines, the smiles of the women and the response of the crowd the atmosphere is fantastic.
For the next two hours the parade makes it's way past us. I had expected to see lavish floats in a Rio de Janeiro meets Notting Hill kind of way but with added 'style dahling'. But we get something very different instead. The floats are generally low key, a 20 feet tall Bob the Builder complete with pierced nipple and dungaree-wearing dancing entourage being the biggest and brightest.
Instead of lavish spectacle what makes a profound impression is the atmoshpere. Australia, as we come to appreciate over the next 3 months, is a place that accommodates a lot of bigotry beneath the umbrella of Ockker Mate'iness, bigotry towards the original locals, the Aborigines, towards gay people, towards the next wave of immigrants from Asia, towards just about anyone who isn't a bruising country white boy. And a sense of this often unconcealed bigotry is one of the fuels that powers the ferocious exuberance with which the huge cavalcade of Australia's queens and dykes wantonly celebrate their lives. The whole event has virtually no sign of rancour or political anger. Celebration is the name of the game, something for which the event is critisiced by some gay activists in a repeat of the arguments that reverberate around the political march and paying pop concert that is called Mardi Gras in London.
Every conceivable type of group passes by, many of which exist solely to march in Mardi Gras with their more, or less, coordinated dance routines, but many more special interest groups are represented from professions; medics, police, teachers and so on, parents, different religious persuasions, special needs groups and so on. And everyone, all the marchers, all the crowd seem electrified with the excitement of the occasion. Next to our wailing posse stands a dear little old lady, a typical granny who gets special attention all night long, lots of marchers from Jewish mothers to baton twirling leather queens stopping to hug and kiss her.
The S&M Bears are a complete hoot. Bears are guys who like guys who are big, the fatter and hairier the better, and these boys are dressed to kill (or at least to inflict pain) in leather and chains, carrying strange implements of perverse pleasure but exuding about as much threat as a kindergarten class at playtime as they frolic and gambol down the street. Two of them are kitted out as proper bears with fantastic make-up and fake snouts while another skips along with a huge smile on his face and his hairy, lily-white arse sticking out of his leather chaps while he twirls one of those revolving LED things that broadcasts a flickering image. Message one is 'Drink my Piss' and message two 'Eat my arse.' There are many more who take one step back than two steps forward.
The Mardi Gras Parade organisers see equal access to the Parade as an important right and this leads to a motley menagerie of one person bands, people who can't find a comfortable home in any of the hundreds of special interest groups. Each of these frankly slightly strange individuals tend to betray, through the weirdness of their costumes and the slightly demonic look in their eyes exactly how they have come to be marching alone.
But for every scary loner there are hundreds of shouting, dancing, prancing, laughing poofs and lezzers of every conceivable size, shape and colour. Sausage and I each, at different times, find ourselves with tears of happiness gently plopping onto our cheeks.
In the aftermath the old hands tell us that this year is not a patch on the good old days, the activists tells us that what is needed is more anger, a stronger message, but frankly my dear I just don't give a damn. 2002 is the year that we got to be a part of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and the happy memories will take a very long time to fade.
The day after the parade we meet Danny, Nick and Alan Thompson for lunch at Darling Harbour, a plush collection of waterside restaurants and home to THE LARGEST IMAX IN THE WORLD. We are to get used to such claims in this country where size really does seem to matter. In all we spend 10 days in Sydney before we climb into the campervan and set off South down the East coast, but we hardly scratch the surface of the place.
10 weeks and 16,000km later we are back. Wade has escaped mad Cathy's clutches but is staying on a friends floor at this time (wise move!!) so we make use of the confidence you gain when your budget is plummeting towards the redline and wangle an invitation to stay out of someone we've never met. Karen used to work at the same company as Sausage in London, but left before Sarah started and now lives in Sydney with Sonic her Australian/Croatian husband. We land on our feet, big time. Karen is lovely and a fantastic hostess, producing tea and banana muffins on arrival and not looking too embarrassed at our unbridled excitement at sleeping in something other than the campervan. Sonic (real name Antony: Fancy having a partner with a bizarre nickname like Sonic?!) is large and slavic with a resonant deep voice and a wicked sense of humour as dry as a desert.
On the morning after our return we drive out to Chapel Point which turns out to be a distant satellite of Sydney rather than a suburb and say goodbye to the campervan. A bus ride takes us to Manly from where we can catch the ferry back to Sydney.
The journey on Manly ferry in Sydney is as necessary a ride for a tourist as the Staten Island Ferry in New York. The hills and bays make sense much more easily from the distant, flat perspective of Sydney Harbour and the historic watchtowers and naval academies mix with expensive real estate in a succession of small inlets.
Ten we round a headland and both of Sydney's iconic images are slowly revealed. You notice the bridge first, not unique in design by any means, but in a position above Circular Quay that provides a stunning backdrop to what Sydney has to offer. As we draw closer so the Sydney Opera House grows before us. The impact of that oh-so-familiar roofline, like three parrots' beaks stacked on top of each other, is strangely diminished as we sail closer. Unlike the Taj Mahal where comprehension of the actual size of the place multiplied exponentially the shock of its' beauty the Opera House turns out to be a strangely, beautifully shaped, but normal sized theatre complex, Just at the point at which I expect the real wow factor to kick in I realise that maximum impact has already been reached and the law of diminishing returns starts to apply. I had read that the Opera House was covered in ceramic tiles, but until you walk right up to it it is hard to appreciate that these things look just like ivory coloured rather worn old bathroom tiles you might find in your Granny's bathroom. From the Opera House we walk into the Botanical Gardens, well kept, but also well used, in a way that seems some how different from Londons scraggy, litter strewn parks.
On our final day in Sydney we watch Star Wars in a packed cinema at 11.30am on a Saturday morning and laugh at Ewan MacGregor's attempt to sound like a young Alec Guinness and Nathlie Portman's failed attempt to fill the shoes of Carrie Fisher. Australia finishes where it started, at Sydney Airport where a brusquely officious security guard spots the camping cutlery set in my hand luggage and thus saves the crew and passengers from being hijacked to god knows where by an ageing skinhead armed with a blunt knife and a bent fork.
I would love to go back to Sydney, to see more of it and to be a part of Mardi Gras again. But I am almost certain that to try and combine the two will see a repeat of this visit where the excitement of Mardi Gras obliterated many other things that the city has to offer.
Big Kiss The Travelling