School holidays are upon us once again so we decided that we should not pass up an opportunity to explore some more of this marvelous country that we find ourselves in. We have made some amazingly kind and generous friends since we arrived here 10 months ago and one of them, Liza, insisted that we make use of her cabin in the woods on down on the south coast of New South Wales. She has been insisting that we go for some time and I have always been reluctant to accept her generosity but her offer was unrelenting so in the end we decided to say a grateful yes.
The cabin in located in North Durras, about 300 kilometres south of here, down the famous Pacific Highway. Australians say it takes about three hours to drive down there from Sydney. I am no great mathematician but by my reckoning that means you will be travelling at 100km/hour for three hours. I consider myself to have some significant experience driving on the Pacific Highway (albeit in the opposite direction on a previous Madventure to visit Aunty Barbara in Tweed Heads) and one thing I know for sure is it impossible to travel at 100km/hour on this road for more than a few kilometres before hitting a town and having to slow down to 40 to pass through. The journey was definitely going to take at least twice the recommended time.
Liza has warned us that the cabin was quite remote with no shops or services for miles so we would have to take everything we needed for our five day stay with us, even drinking water. Liza had waxed lyrical about the wild and natural state of North Durras but had recommended we take a few precautions before travelling.
“The kids usually get covered in ticks.”
(Ticks are small but incredibly tenacious crab-like creatures that like to jump off tree branches down the back of your shirt, bore each of their many legs into your skin so they cannot be removed with anything less than industrial strength tweezers, sucking blood and generally having a gay old time until you can’t stand the itching anymore and beg to be relieved of the pain with aforementioned industrial strength tweezers).
“I recommend you go to the vet and get some flea powder to douse them with before you set off, that usually works.”
“Are you sure flea powder is safe to use on kids?” I asked her with a little doubt.
“Oh yes,” she replied confidently, “I‘ve been using it on my kids for years at the recommendation of a friend who is a vet. Just don’t tell the vet, they aren’t allowed to sell it to you if you tell them it’s for the kids!”
I can see Mosman Veterinary Practice from our garden gate. Desperately wanting to spare the kids the “ordeal by ticks and tweezers” if at all possible, I went to the vet. I am not a “pet person”; I have never owned a pet and hence have never had occasion to visit a vet before. I do not speak the language of pets nor vets. I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
There was a bewildering array of flea and tick powders to choose from and Liza has warned me not to ask for help as the vet would ask me all kinds of questions about the animal I was proposing to treat and I would have to make up a story about my imaginary pet!
Liza had told me which brand to buy so I picked a box off the shelf and tried to look like a very confident dog owner as I got out my twenty dollar bill to proffer for payment.
“That’s $65.80,” said the vet’s assistant.
“Ah,” I mumbled, a little taken aback by the price. “I’ll just nip home and get some more cash.”
I was clearly a very convincing dog owner already.
I returned with a fist full of notes, purchased the flea powder and was about to leave when the questions began.
“Has your dog been treated by us before?”
“Let me have your details and I will put you in our database.”
“Err, no thank you.”
“It’s a free service to all our clients. We will send you our monthly newsletter.”
“Err, no thank you.”
“It’s full of useful tips on how to keep your dog healthy. About his immunisations, how to look after his teeth, keep his coat shiny and how to make sure he gets the right amount of food and exercise.”
“Err, no thank you.”
I backed out of the shop quickly lest I was tempted to book my imaginary dog in for a worming treatment and to get his claws clipped!
When I returned home, I quickly checked Liza’s email to make sure I had bought the correct brand.
My heart sank. The brand was correct but she had added a “PS” at the end.
“Make sure you get the stuff for cats, the stuff for dogs is a bit too strong.”
I returned to the vet.
“Erm, I seem to have bought the wrong thing. May I exchange it for this one instead, please?”
“Of course.” Then she looked at the two boxes on the counter with a slightly perplexed expression.
“This one is for cats.”
“So you don’t have a dog, you have a cat?”
“That’s right. My pet is not a dog, it’s a cat.” I tried to sound confident, after all which pet owner has not mistaken their dog for a cat before?
“Ok, the cat treatment is a little more expensive. That’s another $5.75 to pay please.”
Back the house for yet more cash and then finally home and ready to treat the kids.
As I am not really a completely reckless mother who wantonly doses her children up with medicine for cats, I decided to read the instructions carefully before applying it.
“Blah, blah, blah, part the fur on the back of the neck and apply two drops…… Caution: may cause hair loss at application site. If in doubt use the kitten strength first.”
I was straight back to the vet.
“Hi, it’s me again. I think I have made another mistake. May I make an exchange?”
I think the assistant had to work hard not to ask me if I had now realised my pet was in fact a horse.
“Yes of course.”
“I think I will just take the one for a kitten.”
“How big is your cat?”
“Please don’t ask me any questions. I’d just like to take this one. I promise I won’t come back.”
I backed out of the shop and raced home, about $70 lighter but optimistic that at least I had purchased the correct treatment.
I decided to test it on myself first. If, after one application, I could resist a saucer of milk and control all urges to chase balls of wool around the room, then I figured it would be safe to try on the children.
When we awoke the next day, nobody seemed to have lost a significant amount of hair nor was sharpening their claws on the chair leg so I decided it was safe to start packing and go on our trip.
[I would like to add an aside here in case anyone is thinking perhaps they should be calling the RSPCC or children’s services that the children suffered no obvious side effects and have been incidentally free of nits for the first time in years so I can highly recommend a cat flea treatment and an effective deterrent for head lice!]
The following day the kids and I spent all day packing the car with enough food and water for five days, sleeping bags, pillows and the bare minimum of clothes (the car was already full by the time we were ready to put the clothes in). We set off, very excitedly, to collect Rich from work.
It was the day before Anzac Day (the anniversary of the landing of troops from Australia and New Zealand on the Gallipoli Peninsula) which is a national holiday in Australia and of course, traffic getting out of Sydney was gridlocked. As we are still trying to live as simple and technology free life as possible, ours are possibly the only children in Australia (certainly the only ones in Mosman!) who don’t have a DS or some other gadget to while away the hours on a long drive. The journey, as predicted, took twice the suggested three hours so we played an awful lot of “I spy.”
Liza had drawn us a detailed map, but the cabin was on a small campsite in the middle of nowhere so at midnight, after a very tiring six hour drive, it wasn’t very easy to find. Finally, when we had given up all hope of locating our temporary home and were preparing ourselves for a night of “car camping” it loomed large in front of us. Hurray!
My friend Liza is always immaculately dressed and extremely well groomed. Her home in Sydney is large and luxurious and she is what I kindly describe as my “Christian Dior” friend. She does not strike you as the kind of person who would fare well in an episode of “Survivor” so, despite her prior warnings, I still had high expectations of the cabin. Upon entering, we had to lower our expectations considerably. It was basic to say the least!
After much rummaging in the dark we finally located the power switch and were at least able to put a light on, pull out the camp beds, unroll the sleeping bags, walk the quarter of mile up the road the toilet and settle in for our first night.
For autumn, the weather was glorious and the cabin was located between a wood, a lake and the beach – perfect. Kangaroos hopped all around us, and were tame enough for the children to stroke. The trees were full of the most colourful parrots and lorikeets. It was a lovely feeling to be so close to nature. The problem with Australian nature is that sadly, much of it is not so friendly! Despite the flea powder, Matthew and Ben were both bitten by ticks (Ben on his back but Matthew in his groin which resulted in a very interesting time and many tears with the industrial strength tweezers!). It was impossible to walk in the woods without finding a leech clinging on to an arm or a leg. On a picnic by the lake, a fearless kookaburra came and took a cheese and ham roll out of Zach’s hand as he was about to take his first bite. He was not particularly bothered by the bird but was very upset when he learned there were no more sandwiches left!
Another friend of Liza’s, Katie, was staying in her cabin nearby and she came to visit us all in a panic one afternoon, saying that her eleven year old daughter, Grace, has just stepped over a baby brown snake whilst walking on the path by the lake.
[Australian’s have a canny knack of naming things in a very literal way, and in this way the brown snake is a perfect moniker (it is a snake which is brown) but its name does belie the fact that is it one of the most deadly snakes in the world (it’s about number 3 on Australia’s list of most venomous snakes and a “nip” from a baby brown snake would result in certain death if the anti-venom were not administered within about 15 minutes.]
Katie warned us to watch where we were putting our feet, not to let the kids walk by the lake in Crocs or flip flops and not to pick up sticks as they could easily be snakes “playing dead.”
Whilst Katie was having a medicinal glass of wine with us to help her calm down after almost losing a daughter, standing in the kitchen area of our cabin she let out a squeal.
“A mouse just ran under the fridge!” she exclaimed.
The children were very excited and started looking behind and under the fridge. Nobody else had seen or heard anything. Perhaps Katie had just imagined it?
“It’s really unusual to see them here,” she continued. “There is a large red-bellied black snake that lives under the cabins and he usually eats all the mice.” (Red-bellied black snakes are one down from brown snakes on the “Australia’s most venomous” list. I was starting to feel like we were featuring in an episode of Steve Backshall’s “Deadly Sixty”!)Should we be afraid?” I asked nervously.
“Oh no,” she replied. “He’s been here for years. He’s pretty friendly.”
There aren’t many people who would use the words “red-bellied black snake” and “friendly” in the same sentence. At best you could hope that a snake that is well-fed on mice is “disinterested” in humans as a snack but I think it would stretch any one’s imagination to refer to them as “friendly.” They have no fur to stroke, they will not nuzzle against your leg in an affectionate way and they take very little interest if you throw a stick for them to fetch. At best they might slither on by and not take too much notice of you, at worst they can kill you almost instantaneously, pretty much by just giving you a dirty look.
Katie then cautioned us about swimming in the ocean too. She reminded us of how other friends of ours, Finola and her eleven year old daughter Sophie, had almost drowned in the ocean here the previous summer when they got caught in a rip current. They had just moved to Australia from Ireland and had not taken the warnings of dangerous currents very seriously (no such thing in Ireland). Oblivious to the dangers, they had been swimming in a “No Swimming beach”. Fortunately, they had been rescued by a man walking his dog who had seen they were clearly in difficulty and in fact, mortal danger, and who had risked his own life to save them.
“Don’t swim anywhere at dawn or dusk either. That’s when the sharks come in to feed,” added Katie, clearly quite enjoying her role as prophet of doom.
“It really is quite amazing that Australian children make it into adulthood,” I thought to myself.
A few hours later, I tried not to think about snakes, mice, rips, sharks and killer kookaburras as we headed about an hour down the coast to Bateman’s Bay to get fish and chips as a treat for Matthew, Ben and Zach who celebrated their ninth and fifth birthdays respectively whilst we were away.
By the time we returned from our fried feast, it was bedtime and pitch black. Images of snakes and mice came flooding back. I decided nobody was getting up in the night to walk the 400 yards to the loo; it would be buckets for all!
As I pulled out the camp bed, I saw a pair of small, beady eyes staring back at me; the elusive mouse from earlier was sitting on a pile of leaves under the bed, chewing on a nut.
“Richard, the mouse is under the bed.”
Rich looked up lazily from the book he was reading to the children.
“Do you want me to do something?”
“Did you have anything in mind?”
“Not really. Maybe something with a brush?”
He tried, ineffectively, to stifle a yawn.
“I don’t want you to give it a new hairstyle, I want you to get it out of the cabin!” I said, exasperatedly.
“I meant the sweeping brush, not a hairbrush you duffer!” said Rich, clearly getting a bit impatient.
It was only a tiny field mouse. I thought about the fate that might await him outside – a midnight snack for “Old Burt” (as the kids had named the “friendly” killer snake that lived under our cabin).
“No no, on second thoughts there’s plenty of room for all of us. Forget the brush, the mouse can stay.”
There was not much sleep for me that night as the mouse happily scampered around and found some plastic bags to rustle in. I am not afraid of mice and felt like Durras’ very own St Francis as I was providing lodging for him and not sending him out into the night and certain death at jaws of Old Burt. I did not, however, relish the prospect of the tiny creature gaining in confidence and outstaying his welcome by climbing up the leg of the camp bed and snuggling in my sleeping bag so I slept with one eye open!
The next day was Saturday, our final day at the cabin. We had survived our five day mini-break in Durras and were driving half an hour up the coast to stay with other friends, Kate and James, at their beach house in Mollymook.
We had told Katie the previous evening that we were heading to Mollymook on Saturday.
“Ah Mollymook, you’ll love it there. Much more civilised than here. There aren’t any rips or snakes.” She said this with a perfectly straight face, without a trace of irony.
“What about sharks?” I asked in a quiet voice.
“Oh yes, of course, there are sharks everywhere.”
Katie was right. We did love Mollymook. The weather was still glorious (26 degrees with clear blue skies) and the beach was quite perfect. White sand and warm shallow water, with just enough surf to make body boarding great fun but not enough to make you think your life might be in danger by smashing you against the rocks or dragging you off to Tasmania.
Kate and James are equally mad parents who have four gorgeous boys aged between five and ten. On Sunday morning they needed sometime to pack up the house so Rich and I volunteered to take all eight children to the beach. Seven boys and Katie! The children all great friends (we know the family through school) and to watch them all at play was like something out of “Swallows and Amazons”. They surfed, made sandcastles, played cricket and Frisbee and dug for clams. We were gone for five hours with only one bar of chocolate and a packet of Anzac biscuits to sustain us, before Kate finally came looking for us to see if we were all okay and wanted any lunch. The time had flown by and it had been an absolute pleasure to watch the children all playing so beautifully together. With no rules, no formal games, just the great outdoors, a few spades, one bucket and four surfboards between them they took turns, made up games and made Rich and I both feel like we might actually have mastered the art of parenting. As one dear friend from England always used to say;
“If kids get crabby, treat them like crabs and put them in water!”
It really works; kids do not fall out with each other when they are playing at the beach. It was a marvellous morning.
One local lady came up to me to congratulate me on the beautiful behaviour and team work that my eight children were demonstrating. I was tempted to accept the complement but I did confess that only half the team was mine and the rest was borrowed but if I could guarantee that they would all always behave like they had done that day, I would happily take on all eight!
All too quickly our day at the beach and our short stay with our dear friends in Mollymook was over and it was time to hit the Pacific Highway and head back to Sydney once more.
Whilst I wasn’t sorry to be leaving behind the scary Australian wildlife, in truth I did feel much safer in our cabin in the woods than I do in Sydney. I definitely feel I am much less likely to be bitten by a snake or eaten by a shark than to be knocked off my bike and squashed by the urban menace that is the mad drivers of Mosman in their Range Rovers and X5s!