Slight return.

January 15, 2010

Yes, it’s been a long time. I never did sign off when coming home. After a monstrous flight back I was so exhausted from the flight and travel that I basically fell asleep for a week and couldn’t bring myself to write the closing page. Weeks turned into months and it never got written. Now I’m on another road trip and I thought I’d tack it on to the blog.

The last day in the US deserves a nutshell, though most of the story is the flight. Didn’t get up to much new, just went out and wandered the streets of NY to say farewell to the grand city. Actually being able to sleep in a queen-size bed was a godsend. In the early afternoon I scoffed the last of my cheap street food, grabbed my sports-bag-cum-backpack, and wended my way out to JFK airport. The subway takes you out to an airport train that’s entirely automated – you can sit up the front and watch the train take you places. A bit weird. But I got the flight desk and had already booked for an exit-row seat for my rather lengthy legs. No trace in the system. Eh? Turns out Qantas had just instituted a policy saying that you can reserve exit row seats… if you pay $160 for them. How new was this policy? I was the first person to have to cough up the dough. I wasn’t in the mood for screaming and yelling – I’d even been pulled out of the queue to be individually attended to at a different counter before finding this out – so I just decided to not make a scene and cough up the money. It took a total of six staff and hour to process the payment. That’s not “it must have been an hour”, the grand colloquial hour that’s more like 17 minutes. That’s an hour of me being genial and polite, watching the clock, watching the next and the next person join in. At least the flight left on time, 7pm. So I’ve been up all day from the crack of dawn, and now starting the flight to LA and then to Melbourne in the evening.

The flight to LA was uneventful, bar for a chatty flight attendant who was a bit intrusive at first but I warmed to him. Landed at LA in the early hours of the morning and paid a “ha ha, you’re captive” $9 for a soggy salad roll. The plane we were to fly to Melbourne on was one of those cool new A380s, the grand new additions to the Qantas fleet. About to leave US soil, I was saying my mental formal goodbyes… when the pilot took us out of the queue at the runway as the #3 engine wouldn’t start. He went through a number of processes including rebooting the plane (now there’s a weird phrase) and if that didn’t work, he said we’d need a spare part that would only be available in Sydney (Australia, Qantas depot) or Toulouse (France, Airbus folks). It didn’t work. During all this I couldn’t recline my seat due to safety rules, and therefore couldn’t even doze. Those seats are not made for 6’6” fellas. Anyway, turns out there was a spare at LAX, engineers came out and installed it, and we were on our way three and a half hours later. 16 hours in the sky home made the total of me sitting in a not-quite-right size seat come in at around 25 hours – which of course started at my body clock time of 7pm. I arrived home, was greeted by my sterling housemates who presented me with a proper coke, and we then went to a driving range and played golf in an attempt to keep me awake until dusk. It sorta worked. I then slept for about a week.

It was worth it.

Since then I’ve been a mix of mostly unemployed and now slightly employed. Couple of days a week. Not great, but at least I can make the rent. But I did get the urge to go on another road trip.

And where was a decent drive away from my hometown Melbourne? Why, Broken Hill. In the middle of the NSW desert. It was just a destination, a good long drive away. Turns out it’s full of artists because of all the wild colours and grand views. There may be something to do there after all, though won’t be there for more than half a day. I just wanted to get some driving done and I’ve got a four-day round trip. Mum was missing me and wanted to come along so she’s been riding shotgun and continuously feeding me while I drive.

Sometimes you need balls to make a good window display

So today, my birthday, the 15th, I set out for Mildura, in the far northwestern corner of my state. The day started at 4am. It was supposed to start around 7:30, but my phone on the charger in the kitchen somehow re-enabled its alarms and set off an alarm set to wake me at 4am – not sure when I used this last, may have been my trip to the US. I have no idea why the alarms re-enabled, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. By the time Mum got up and we were set and ready to go, it’d just passed 9… and we still had fuel to fill, coffee to buy (yes, she’s an addict) and food to grab. We got onto the Calder freeway in Melbourne at 9:40, and this road would take us all the way.

Salt, salt everywhere and not a drop to drink

Much of the land was a dry summer yellow, all vestiges of green from the recent rain long gone. It reminded me of southern Colorado where I could have sworn I was driving at home if it weren’t for being on the wrong side of the road. We sailed through a number of stock standard Australian hamlets, tired and baked from the sun, stopping for small breaks and food here and there. It was a largely unsurprising trip. Well, until we hit a little place called Sea Lake. After the mocking of a far inland town called Sea Lake (it’s on a salt lake) we wandered into the newsagent for the ATM. In one nook of the place there were a couple of hundred oddly bell-shaped bottles with greenery that looked like terrariums. Not the normal thing you carry in a newsagent. Turns out that they were orchids, and orchids by the bucketload in tonnes of variety. Turns out that after newsagenting for 38 years, the proprietor has made a little hobby for himself in importing these sealed little bottles.

Water under the salt surface while collecting

On leaving Sea Lake we spied a little road to a viewing platform over the salt lake and decided a little side-trip was due. The viewing platform was a weird sheep-run that raised you all of a meter and a half to look out over the salt lake. In the distance there were tailings heaps visible from where salt is mined from the lake. Mum wanted some of the salt (pink salt), so we kept on down the road and went out on the salt pan to make it to the next jut of land where the tailings heap was…

The remnants of my car's sinking feeling just on entering the salt flat

… and we reversed back off the salt pan as the car began to sink. Probably not a good idea to get your car bogged on the pan. There’s a lot of water just under the surface, and a great way to find that moisture is to press a set of tires into it. We found another way around to the tailings heap as the salt pan near the start was quite black and dirty, then wandered to the salt pan with the weirdly crunchy salt beneath us. Mum made her collection of pink salt, we took a lot of photos, got mildly sunburnt, and wandered on.

Don't mess with Big Lizzie. Yes, those are the original wheels - they're meant to look like that.

The rest of the trip to Mildura was fairly mundane, with the exception of the ‘award-winning’ vanilla slices of Ouyen actually being rather nice. There was also a behemoth of a mechanical vehicle at Red Cliffs called Big Lizzie, but description won’t do her justice, you’ll need to see the photo, even if only to check out her wheels. She was supposed to haul wool on the other side of the river, but never crossed it, so ended up hauling grain on this side.

Mildura itself is a medium country town. Had decent grub at the ‘Worker’s club’ and cruised the streets a bit. We wandered on down to the ‘lock and weir’ and I learned something about locks and weirs. There is an island in the middle of the river. The lock is on one side and allows boats to raise or lower to the water level up/downstream. The weir is on the other side of the island and acts as overflow to ensure the water level never gets too high for the lock. Learn something new every day.

So the dark horse of the day was the little town known as Sea Lake. Surprised me, anyway. I don’t expect much for the next few days in terms of exciting adventures – this was always going to be a ‘point that way and drive’ expedition – but you never know what might crop up.

Oh… and Mildura has active fountains! Hooray for fountains…


†Remember that you can click on thumbnails for a bigger look at Big Lizzie

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