The Call of the Cape

Cape Town has always held a special place in my heart. It was the place where I first tasted independence, that somewhat scary but ultimately rewarding experience that comes when you have the freedom for self-discovery. As my university town, I grew up, figuratively anyway, in the shadow of Table Mountain. Having not been back for 15 years, I was determined to squeeze it in to our South Africa travel plans somehow, and it was well worth it. Although we only had three days there, we jammed it full of highlights, caught up with friends and family and indulged in both the nightlife and the spectacular natural beauty of the land.

We arrive at dusk. Cape Town is settling into its evening jewels as we make our descent. The omnipresent mountain, with its craggy sides and the flat top that gives it its name, is a darkening backdrop to this illuminated water-side city. In the western sky, the sun has set into the ocean, and the horizon is a smouldering palette of pinks, oranges and greys. It’s beautiful, even from on high.

Like many places in South Africa, Cape Town is a town of stark contrasts. There is natural beauty in abundance, a lively food scene and enough historical attractions to keep even the most ardent student of history happy but there is also poverty and desperation, and the traffic is horrendous. You can skim the surface here – enjoying the bars and beaches, wines and African crafts, and we mostly do. But, you can also scratch below the glittering façade and see what everyday life looks like for its varied population. Our social activist teen pushed us in that direction and by moving out of our comfort zone we gained a richer and more rounded experience of the town.

To start though, we visit the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, nestled at the eastern base of the Table Mountain. It is spring and the gardens burst with colour. Pretty streams and old baths, an ancient cycad forest and the tree canopy walkway occupy our time and attention. Various sculptures dot the landscape and the sound of laughing children on school excursions float in the air that feels fresh and full of optimism.

We are drawn, of course, to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a pivotal attraction point in Cape Town. We sit in the sunshine against the backdrop of Table Mountain, eating lunch and listening to live music – a four-man percussion and rhythm ensemble playing an upbeat tune on xylophones and drums. It feels uniquely African, and joyful. Here we explore the wonderful arts and crafts markets and shop up big to bring a piece of Africa home with us.

The Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Arts – Africa) grabs our attention and inspires more than a little awe. The building itself is spectacular –  a mesmorising architectural feat that transformed soaring old concrete grain towers into a space that is full of light and sound. Looking back, I have a sense of floating in the space.  The main exhibition is a showcase of William Kentridge, a prolific artist whose underlying political commentary is unsettling. (He did much of it during the apartheid years, calling out the absurdity and cruelty of this horrific political regime).

In stark contrast to all of this, we visit Imizamo Yethu – an “informal settlement” directly across the road from one of the richest suburbs in Cape Town – Hout Bay. Here, crammed into a small space on the side of the mountain, we pick our way through narrow muddy pathways that wind through what are primarily ramshackle tin shacks crowded together, like birds huddling in the wind. Our guide explains that people create their houses from whatever bits of materials are to hand, presumably putting them up wherever there is an available shard of space. Residents share inadequate sanitation supplies, and cold water taps provide hydration and washing opportunities. We are welcomed into homes that shine with care and hope despite the dire circumstances these poor people have been born into. The view from the township is one of space and luscious green grass, for across the road the horses of the rich stand in wide spacious paddocks, complete with stables that offer more comfort and luxury most people here have. No wonder people get cross.

My favourite part of this tour is a visit to the pre-school. The kids are exuberant and lively, with smiles that glow from lips to eyes. They demand our hands to play jumping games, and spontaneously deliver hugs and high fives. The number of children crammed into this small space would give Australian regulators nightmares, but there is no doubting the passion of the teachers and staff as they care for their high-spirited charges.

As in all communities, even one that is demonstrably poor, there are people who are doing better than others. The pub is thriving and the local internet café boasts a steady stream of business. Dogs roam the street and neighbours call out to each other. Some people are lucky enough to have traditional houses – made of bricks, with proper front doors (apparently the work of an Irish charity). The local church provides succour, handing out care packages from charities and showcasing some of the local arts and crafts. I spend big as a way to give back. At the end of the tour our guide thanks us for our bravery… they are words that floor me.

Cape Town itself, the city centre, is vibrant and full of life. Business is booming and the streets burst with people going about their business. But, lulled perhaps into a false sense of security, we nearly get mugged while standing outside the main train station looking somewhat confused and cashed up. Years ago, a taxi driver taking us to a similar place in Rosario, Argentina gave us a stern warning. “Cuidado, cuidado” he said, making a strange wavy movement with his hand. Watch out. Beware. Crooks about. So, it’s a lesson we know from old – in places with rampant income inequality, you need a bit of cuidado about you, especially at train stations. The intervening years of suburban complacency have clearly dulled our travel-senses. I ward off the “aggressive beggars” with the large painting I had purchased at Green Market Square earlier in the day.

The night life in Cape Town doesn’t disappoint. We bar and restaurant hop through the heart of the city which teams with life.  The Gin Bar – a light and airy space with a wide selection of gin-cocktails; The Commissary – an intimate, low lit restaurant above a graffiti covered stair well serving excellent food and great wine; The Shortmarket Club – somewhat more sophisticated and high end for dessert. Through it all we felt safe and sated.

To round off the trip, we hike up Table Mountain. Yes, you can take the cable car or walk up easier pathways that wind step-like around the back of the mountain. But in the company of a local, who may well be part dassie, we opt for a frontal assault. Despite dire warnings of steep rock climbing and difficult navigation, our friend shrugs. He runs up here, apparently, and perhaps he is telling the truth because on our 4-hour climb we pass people doing exactly that. Still, there were some hairy moments for a little soul like me who is a tiny bit afraid of heights. Chains had to be used and there was some tentative shuffling across a narrow ledge to reach the end. But we made it and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city so ripe with hope – if only more could be done to provide willing people with economic opportunity.

On the way home we stop at UCT – our old uni campus – and sit on Jamie stairs and reminisce about those long ago days of heady freedom, with just a few assignments, a part time job and exams to cope with. What a privilege it was to have attended this beautiful campus and what a gift it was to make life-long friends who still travel with us along this journey we call life.

The Lion and the Buck

It’s the eyes you notice – yellow intense slits that look right through you and pin you to the spot as surely as a butterfly laid out before a lepidopterist. Even though we are technically safe in our land rover, it’s an open plan version with no glass windows and only air separates us from the wild animals. A belief that the lion sees us as one with the land rover – an elephant sized, not very tasty rock-like-thing – contributes to this sense of security. But still, we are wary. If it had a mind to, the lion could kill us all without breaking a sweat.  Fortunately, he is more interested in lovemaking this fine spring day. The female of his affections lies not far away, and we infer a close intimacy between them, a sense of partnership and care.

We see a lot of the lion this trip. Two males, two females, and they are majestic. Lithesome and fluid in a way that only felines are.  Early one morning we come across one of the lionesses, lying alone under a tree. She is surrounded by several hyena. The hyena are considering an attack. Gathering in groups, calling to each other, casting sly glances in her direction, they skitter about the dry plains unsure as to the best course of action. The lioness feigns indifference, an epitome of stillness, but she is alert, keeping an eye on them and her escape route. For reasons known only to themselves, the hyenas give up the idea and move on, a rambling pack of rangy chattering carnivores, not as pretty or as powerful as a lion, but an essential part of the ecosystem. 

Into the scene wander some kudu, slowly munching on the available leaves in the parched landscape as they make their way to the water hole. The lioness is instantly alert, moving like water she pads across to a copse of trees, lowers herself below their eye line. Will they come this way? She lies in wait… and we too wait in breathless anticipation with her. The air is still. A vulture circles way up high.  In the end, something alerts the buck and they scramble away, snorting warnings to others in ear shot. The lioness shrugs, takes a long drink and ambles away, passing not a meter from us, with barely a backward glance.

Nature at work. It’s a privilege to witness it first hand, and we can imagine the dulcet tones of David Attenborough narrating our experience.

I think a lot about the order of things on this trip to the African bush. What luck to be born a lion, what poor luck to be born an Impala, to live in constant wariness of hungry passing carnivores. But, of course, neither the impala nor the lion has the capacity for self-reflection in this way. This is a uniquely human trait, a result of the evolution of awareness of self (which we share with some animals – the other primates, dolphins, elephants, some birds) combined with expressive language and episodic memory that gives flight to imagined alternative realities.  It is this that has led human animals to create gods, cities, Nikon cameras, pop-tarts and machine guns. And, more positively, being able to imagine someone else’s lot has led to the development of universal health care, the abolishment of slavery and a charter of human rights.

Is awareness a gift or a curse? The impala may be skittish but is probably content with its lot – not knowing any different. Not subject to ruminations or worry, which seems to be the downside of it all. Of course everything fights for its survival. Even as we watch on a night drive, a leopard fights off a hyena to protect its hard-fought-for prey. But conscious awareness, this seemingly rare capability, feels precious. More precious than humans grant it, most often blunt to its suggestive power and harnessing only what is required to blindly justify cognitive biases and the intuitions implanted by ignorant ancestors. The Buddha extols an Impala-esk mentality as a way towards inner peace. To practice acceptance in the face of life’s inevitable unfairness is the only way, apparently, to mitigate suffering. But I think there must be something in balancing the gift of awareness to shape a world where the luck is more evenly distributed, with accepting that we live in a world of self-interest, and that we can only do our bit.

There are other lessons to be found in this largely unspoilt landscape of eat or be eaten. Balance is another concept I reflect on during our travels. Balance is everywhere – central to life, its primary operating system. But despite our human desire to assign agency to everything there is no mind sitting behind the desk keeping tabs and tallying columns in this nature-driven accounting system. Life is just balance in action.  When things are out of balance, life flails. Too many elephants leads to overgrazing and too little food, which leads to starvation and death, which allows the food to regrow and elephants to recover.

I reflect to on compassion and cruelty. These also seem to be quite specific human traits, although perhaps not entirely. We fear the lion, but the lion won’t kill for pleasure, and the impala are safe from a frenzied attack by a narcissistic lion with a fragile ego. We ourselves are safe from that lion because there is abundant buck for the lion to chase, and he is not hungry nor sees us as food. It is humans who are the wild card, who can’t be trusted in matters of cruelty. Why is this so? It is depressing to think on it. Perhaps this is where it is best to take heed of the Buddha’s advice not to dwell in the mental landscape of things you cannot change. But it would seem to me that there is much we can learn from watching the animals, our distant brethren, out on the African savannah, if only we would apply our conscious awareness to do so.

Blue Suede Shoes, Baby

The streets of Parkes are wide, and largely empty when we arrive the day before the Elvis festival is due to kick off. At 6pm, as we wander down the main street, tinny-sounds of Elvis waft across the town. There is a haunting note to the music. If it was a story, it would have Stephen King all over it.

There are three pubs offering to quench our thirst after the long drive out from Sydney, and we err with our first choice which provided karaoke and wine in a champagne glass. However, we soon stumble into the action at The Cambridge Hotel. Our very first Elvis impersonator is up on the stage, and the crowd is pumped, rocking and rolling like they were there the first time round. Friends are gathered in matching Elvis paraphernalia and someone has even gone to the trouble of shaving ELVIS into his hair. It is hysterical, and enchanting, and we are soon joining in the antics on the dance floor. The Memphis Cowboys steal the show by not being impersonators at all, but rather excellently engaging musicians rocking out their own version of the songs. I suspect they must be on their way to the Tamworth Country Music festival next. We dance extravagantly, without any expertise nor embarrassment. It’s that sort of place.

By the time we’ve been in town for two days, we’ve seen all manner of Elvis impersonators. Young and old, fat and thin. We’ve experienced the buskers, the pub-players and the in-it-to-win-it professionals. What a strange life, I muse, living forever in the shadow of greatness. On the road, never quite yourself, never an original. Then again, perhaps it is no more strange an existence than doing market research for a living, and perhaps in that sense, it is more authentic because it comes from passion.

The vibe in the town is friendly, welcoming. Old cars line the street and all the shops are bedecked in Elvis mania. Whilst it is putting on a show, it feels very real. As though the townsfolk would do this for fun anyway, even if no-one came. But come they do, in their droves. Bussed in, trained in, driven in. The streets are soon buzzing with Elvis chops, Rockerbilly skirts and bejewelled polyester jump suits. The town-piped Elvis of the night before has been supplanted by buskers who crowd the pavement and croon out their own versions of Elvis’ most famous hits.

It’s a fun way to spend a couple of days, but I am soon sick of hearing Blue Suede Shoes over and over again. Following my own passion, we make a break for The Dish. It looms large on the horizon, visible for miles around. A resident astrophysicist is giving a talk that we are lucky to catch. She explains radio waves (which is a form of electro-magnetic energy, like visible light) – as a radio telescope is what the Dish is. She lights up when she talks about pulsars. They’ve located more than half of all known pulsars, gazillions of light years away, from this unassuming outpost of science in the middle of country NSW.

It is quiet here, away from our noisy society, and that’s important if you are a radio telescope. All around us, the landscape stretches flat to the edge of the horizon. Peaceful and serene. Green paddocks, blue skies, red earth and an ear to the Universe and the possibilities of tomorrow.

Ningaloo Reef Road Trip

Stuck in suburbia, it is easy to forget how vast and incredibly beautiful this marvellous land of ours is.  Caught up in nonsense of our own making, we lose sight of what really matters. While the news is full of sorrow and hate, of ideologically motivated distrust and ego driven politics, nature proceeds onwards, as it has done for millions of years, and, through utter happenstance, leaving spaces of spectacular beauty that we are able to enjoy and appreciate – should we so choose.

That’s why it’s good to get out and experience the true nature of life itself.  To feel the sand, ground down and pooped out by parrot fish, between your feet.  To watch the beady eyes of a stonefish, and remind yourself that the malevolence in his gaze is a story of your own making.  To dive into the cold embrace of a turquoise sea, brilliantly blue and teaming with life, and see a turtle emerge from a cleaning station.  Another reminder of how life is a synchronised evolution, a beautiful ballet of adaptation and balance played out over millennia.

This is what our trip up the coast of Western Australia was about.  An immersion in nature.

Travelling to the Ningaloo Reef from Perth is an exercise in patience.  In our camouflaged campervan, we motor through a round trip of 3000 kilometres, down endless stretches of road through an often monotonous landscape to find the gems strung out along this small portion of the Western Coast of Australia.

The highlights are endless.  It’s a trip that needed a month, rather than 12 days.   But there are several standouts that live in my memory and bring a smile to my face when I think back to them.

Coral Bay

This small beach town had no space for our campervan, so it was a day trip affair.  We overnighted at 14-mile beach beforehand, and returned to Canarvon the following day.  It’s a tip worth noting if you are heading there to camp.  You need to book months and months in advance in the school holiday season.  Despite the campsite busting at the seams, the reef is largely empty, and we feel like we have the place to ourselves.  The staggering colour of the sea is a thing of exquisite beauty.   Below the waters, coral bommies team with life.  We spend the day on the water with a passionate crew from Ningaloo Reef Dive.  The display of nature is spectacular, but what warmed my heart more than anything was watching the kids discover a joy for being beneath the sea.  Snorkelling like professionals rather than first timers in a coral garden teaming with fish and turtles and sharks.  And no, they didn’t freak out.  They swam closer for a better look.  (Clearly they don’t have my freak-out genes).  Our once in a lifetime experience was snorkelling with a Manta Ray.  A thing of magnificence and glory, gliding effortlessly below us along the white sandy floor of the ocean.

Shark Bay and Monkey Mia.

We stopped on this peninsular for three days and enjoyed every moment of it.  Learning about dolphins at the early morning Dolphin Feeding, and watching the smile on my son’s face as he was chosen to feed one of them was a standout experience.  But it was the peace of the place that really settled my soul.  From the beach, the water is clear enough to see through, and its almost impossible to tell where the water ends and the sky begins.  It was so still and flat and shallow, that the paddle board was put to good use by the kids, who headed far into the distance on concocted tales of adventure and discovery.  Along the way they found a turtle and saw dolphins, and it was only later that I realised they were lucky not to encounter a Lemon Shark.  It is called Shark Bay after all, and while they wouldn’t have been in danger from it, it would be a scary thing to have swim underneath you.  Visiting the very quaint Ocean Park Aquarium and learning about sharks and stonefish and the sobering reality that our inability to clean up after ourselves will render turtles extinct within 20 years was yet another highlight of the trip.

Kalbarri

The Kalbarri is closer to Perth, and bordering on the open ocean.  The wind whips off the dancing sea and although the sand is white and the sun is shining, we found it a bit too wintery for a dip in the sea.  However, the scenery in this part of the world is gorgeous in a completely different way.  In the Kalbarri National Park, red rock formations and deep gorges have been carved out of the landscape by the Murchison River.   Natures Window was crowded, but we headed further in and clambered down to the river itself through rocky crevices both wide and narrow.  A sunset walk along the cliffs from Grandstand Rock Gorge to Island Rock, not only gave us spectacular views of the rock formations out to sea, but also the chance to spot a parade of whales, water from their blowholes dotting the horizon.   At this time of the evening, as the sun dips towards the horizon, the whole world turns a warm and dusty orange.  With a glass of wine in hand, we watch as it sinks into the sea, the sky turn purple and day turn into night.

At this point we are approaching the end of our holiday.  We are relaxed and the sense of peace that comes from being away from it all is palpable.  We are in the company of people we love, soaking up the beauty and wonder of nature, formed and reformed tirelessly over billions and billions of years.  This moment will pass, like life itself, but resting in the moment, being in the moment, is peaceful.  I find great capacity for calmness in accepting that despite being a momentary blip in life’s inextricable story, we have the, perhaps unique, capacity to appreciate the world around us.  To enjoy it.  If only we make the time and the choice to do so.

Sharlene Zeederberg

Winter Wonderland, Kiruna, Sweden.

In the far north of Sweden lies a little town called Kiruna.  A small town it might be, but it is home to the biggest iron mine in the world, and, more importantly for us, the staging point for three days’ worth of arctic adventures.

As the plane descends, the heavy cloud cover gives way to a magical landscape beneath us.  An endless white canvas, criss-crossed with black forests of trees huddled together in the cold.

IMG_9012We land on a snowbound runway and taxi up to the small red wood building that serves as airport.  A cab takes us along snow bound roads to the town centre for lunch. The driver is not local, apparently.  He’s only been here for 40 years.  First stop, some lunch at a café, where the menu board is hard to decipher and even google translate struggles.  But, the young staff behind the counter happily switch to English, and go out of their way to provide allergy friendly food to my son.   He gets tacos, which seems a bit ironic.

In the settling dusk (around 2pm), as the world glows pink, we walk back to our lodgings, a delightful B&B not far from the town centre.   This town has a unique feel to us, different to anywhere we have visited before.  The roads are wide, the buildings a mix of soviet-flavoured symmetrical blocks and more traditional two story wooden houses.  Everything is expansively spaced apart, and there is snow everywhere, piled on everything, mounds of it swept up into mini-mountains at intersections.  Remnants of Christmas twinkle in star-shaped candles in uncurtained windows.  It’s a cultural thing, these exposed interiors of people’s homes, a throwback to a puritanism that demanded people be able to see inside your house as they liked.  Apparently this helped inhibit sinful desires, like having sex on the kitchen counter.  Doors are kept unlocked for the same reason.

You might wonder what there is to do in such a place, out on the edge of the arctic, where the temperature dips to -26 degrees?

IMG_9027Firstly, you go dog-sledding.  This was by far our most delightful experience, and I suspect choosing your provider wisely makes quite the difference. We opted for a drive-a-sled tour with Husky Voice.  Stephanie takes out a maximum of four people – which meant it was just our family on this trip – the sort of tour we much prefer.  The kids ride up front with Stephanie, taking turns to stand with her and drive the sled.  Mike and I drive behind on the second sled, attempting to obey the two-second rule, which applies as much to huskies on the run as trucks on highways.

Before we begin, Stephanie suits us up in her utterly delightful wooden cabin, bedecked with fairy lights, heater roaring.  Thick overalls, even thicker boots, balaclavas, fur lined hats and gloves get added to the top of our existing ski gear.   This is despite her assurance that at -8 degrees, it is a warm day.  We look like blue marshmallows, warm and fat.

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The dogs and sleighs wait for us in the forest, a winter wonderland of snow drifts and Spruces, branches drooping heavily beneath the weight of the snow that continues to fall.   It takes a while to harness all the dogs correctly, there are a fair number of them, and they bark and yip incessantly with excitement.   The womb like silence comes as somewhat of a surprise once we set off.  The dogs cease their cacophony of howls as one, intent on their task and all we can hear as we glide through the forest is the slushing of the sleds and a rhythmic panting from the dogs.

There is something magical about this monochromatic, ethereal landscape of muted sound and diffused light, like we’ve stepped through the back of the cupboard and into the land of Narnia.   We travel through the forest on recently cleared trails, the snow thick on either side.  Near a lake, frozen, we pause to watch a distant reindeer, eyeing us cautiously.  We plough through deeper drifts that require us to help out our furry friends with a scooting push.  Towards the end of our run, we fly across the ice-bound river and come to a rest at Stephanie’s river hut – a clever invention pulled out onto the snow each winter, and returned home for the few months of summer when the river runs.  While she lights the fire and cooks some delicious sausages we commune with nature, play with the dogs, throw snowballs and wallow in the snow up to our knees.

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The dogs are magnificent beasts, gorgeously attired in their fur coats, intelligent, affectionate and patient.  They are the masters of this domain, and happily share it with us in return for pats and cuddles.  When we finish lunch, the sky is softly bruised with the mauve tinge of returning twilight.  This stark landscape feels the epitome of majestic beauty.

 

Next up, the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi.  Despite being an utterly touristy (and breathtakingly expensive) thing to do, it too is a magically different experience.  The hotel itself is fascinating, with its “snice” (snow and ice) walls, towering ice-blocks and ice-chandelier, but the real magic lies in the artist-rooms.  It is a little like exploring a very cold art gallery.  In several of the rooms, artists have spent two weeks carving fantastical creations out of ice – from astronauts to an ice-queen, a bar of drunken block men to a bed in the arms of King Kong.   You can pay to sleep in the ice-hotel, but I can’t imagine how one would get any sleep at -5 degrees on a bed of ice.  The visit was enough for us, rounded off with a drink in the ice-bar.  Champagne ice-glass, with bubbles?  Don’t mind if I do.

Just down the road from the Ice Hotel, we visit the Sami Museum Sami are the indigenous peoples of this region, and this outdoor museum provides detailed information on the traditional Sami way of life.  In the dark, we tromp through the snow peering into various tents which have different functions depending on the time of the year.  I start to appreciate the value of reindeer skins, which are waterproof and warm as toast.  We learn about the reindeer rhythm to which Sami life adheres.  All the reindeer in the arctic belong to the Sami people, and life revolves around the reindeer and their breeding cycle.  They keep some reindeer in an enclosure, so we get a close up view of these comic looking animals who can sniff out food at a hundred paces and aren’t afraid to come and take it from you.

Next door, free to enter, is the Jukkasjärvi Church.  I love churches (although only when empty of preachers), and this one is storybook gorgeous.   The red, almost barnlike structure is simple yet striking against the whiteness of the snow.   Apparently it is the oldest church in Swedish Lapland.  The Sami religion, through the usual application of threat and coercion, is now mostly Christian.  Gone are the drums and ancestral rituals that were once used to commune with the dead, but a sense of that wild spirit communing with nature still resonates in the pictures on the walls.  No realistic European depictions of devotion, these are vibrant explosions of colour, cartoon-like.  They remind me of similar paintings in Cusco, Peru.

We also visited Kiruna Church, which is a spectacular building, beautiful, red and angular, apparently designed with a traditional Sami tent in mind.  It is a series of triangular shapes that converge into a central soaring apex, creating space and light inside.  There is an impressive organ, an abundance of dark wood and the smell of pine forests in the early morning.  We have it to ourselves, this calm and peaceful space, and end up in a deep and meaningful conversation with our children, about life and why people buy into beliefs that make no moral or logical sense.  A peaceful way to pass half an hour before heading out to dinner.

On the advice of Lynn, who runs the B&B we are lucky enough to stay in, we hire a car and spend a day driving along the frozen river towards Nikkaluokta in search of wildlife.  What a luck to encounter three clippity-cloppity reindeers trotting down the road on their multi-jointed legs.  They look just like Disney has sold them to us, and all that is missing is the red nose.

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We find a bridge across the only part of the river that doesn’t freeze over, and step outside the car to take a photo.  A quick photo.  Very quick.  Somehow, here were the water still runs, it is colder than further down the river.  I take my gloves off to take a photo of the distant mountains, and in moments cannot feel my fingers.   Back to the car post-haste, heater blasting.  It is easy to imagine dying from hypothermia.

Of course, the main reason we came up with the mad-cap idea of visiting this part of the world was the allure of the Aroura Borealis.  Although it is a low point in the solar cycle, and it was cloudy for two of the three nights, as luck would have it, on the night I booked us in for a snow-mobile adventure, the sky cleared.  We were lucky enough to get a glimmer of the aurora.  Just a shadow of its marvellous self, but enough to say we have seen it and we want more.  It is the only redeeming feature of the snow-mobile trip, which was our least favourite thing we did.  We did it as part of a tour with about 16 other people, the drive was slow and stop-start and it was utterly freezing.  To drive along with your nose peeking out of your balaclava at -26 degrees isn’t fun, and we all ended up with bright-red frost-nipped noses at the end of it.  Still, we saw the green glow in the sky, and for that it was worth it.

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Snowy lessons in Christmas.

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Christmas Day dawns quite unceremoniously in Cervinia, nestled in the outstretched arms of the Italian Alps.  While this quaint ski-town is bedecked with sparking white lights, and the odd decorative reindeer, the shops will be open today and people shall go about their business with, apparently, scant regard to the occasion.

This was the first year the kids have openly acknowledged us as Santa 1 and Santa 2.  But, they still wanted stockings (which we told them they weren’t getting for reasons of logistics) and a sense of seasonal specialness. The kids went to bed last night with a little less wide-eyed wonder, remarking that it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Happier this morning, waking up to the surprise of secretly packed stockings at the end of their beds.

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It is a lesson about the value of rituals, and the feelings of well-being they give us.  Rituals matter far more than beliefs in creating a sense of place and a sense of belonging.  In my pursuit of intellectual honesty, it is perhaps worth remembering that.

Still, here we are in this beautiful place, doing beautiful things.  The scenery is spectacular.  The village is covered in snow, which made arriving in our heavy cars without snow chains a somewhat farcical event.  The kids are caught in wonder, and immediately launch into snowball fights and snow cave making.  The food is, as one would expect, simply gorgeous.  We eat “typical products” (like cheese and smoked meats) by the bucketful.  For dinner one night we try a fondue specialist.  Yes, even with the dairy allergic son.  He gets to cook his own steak on a sizzler, declares this his favourite restaurant.  Excellent it was too.

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To get to the ski-fields, we have to take a gondola up out of the village, over the first range of peaks and onto the mountain itself, where sunlight dances off the freshly ploughed, brilliantly white snow.  Above us, the backside of the Matterhorn, Toblerone triangular all the same, rises into the bluest of skies, and just across the saddle of sharp peaks criss-crossed with ski lifts lies Switzerland.  All across the horizon, a sea of mountain peaks shimmer in the haze.  It is unbelievably picturesque.

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I am most definitely a beginner skier, and it is only on day three when I finally get the hang of it enough that a glimmer of pleasure overtakes the abject terror.  This is, of course, the moment I take a spectacularly inelegant tumble off a ski lift and twist my knee in a direction it definitely wasn’t designed for.  And that’s me, done for the moment, three days into a ten-day holiday in the snow.  So much for improving my rather shaky skills.  On the upside, I got attended to by the Italian Red Cross, and got a ride on a skidoo down the mountain – siren going all the way.

Today, Christmas Day, we are having lunch at a restaurant that is only accessible if I ski in.  It is going to be interesting.  Let’s hope the over-priced knee brace works, and I haven’t forgotten how to turn.  Snow ploughing down the mountain is going to be a painful endeavour to say the least.

Even without skiing, we are here with friends who are almost family, catching up on years of distance, sharing old memories and making new ones.  The kids form vibrant friendships, with giggles that overtake restaurants and dare my kids down slopes bigger and faster than they could have imagined possible.  And to me, this is what the spirit of Christmas is really all about – making time in our busy lives for family, friends and the small rituals that anchor us in our worlds.

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Merry Christmas, everyone.

Going Bush… camping.

I am not a huge fan of camping.  It’s one of those things I like the idea of, rather than the actual, somewhat uncomfortable, practicalities of it all.   So, it came as a huge surprise to me just how much I enjoyed our recent bush camping adventure.  And by bush camping I am talking a shared porta-loo and no showers.  Sounds yuck, right?  Except, it was excellent.

It probably helped that the weather turned up and did the right thing – beautiful sunny days, crisp mornings and huddle-round-the-fire evenings.  In what might have been a first for me, it did not rain.  Not one little drop.  Nary a fluffy cloud marred the strip of blue sky we could see from the depths of our valley.  I suspect this made a massive difference to my opinion on this weekend, as none of the things I like about camping involve being cramped together, vaguely damp, in a shelter you can barely stand up in, playing endless card games with tetchy kids.

And although significant investments in the camping stash – good mattresses, a party-sized gazebo, tables and chairs – were positive improvements, it was the location that tipped the scales from “meh” to “wow” in the camping rating stakes.

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A river runs through it

We visited Wollondilly River Station over Easter.  This unspoilt slice of nature, just a few hours south of Sydney (depending on the traffic) is reached via a somewhat jolting and slightly alarming 45-minute crawl down a bumpy, narrow, unsealed road that winds its way, somewhat precariously, down the mountain side and into a lush, river-runs-though-it, valley.

Although a popular destination, campers are spread out so that you feel, largely, you have a little slice of Australian heaven to yourselves.   By the time the tent was up, the evening fire prepped and the first Gin & Tonics poured, the stress of urban living had floated mysteriously away.

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Camping

Here, the kids were able to run free, inventing battles and adventures, as they conquered new territory and laid claim to never-before set upon islands.   They canoed and swam, built forts and raced around on bikes without parental consent or involvement.  They tested themselves against the elements, and fizzed about fired up by their imaginations.   And all I needed to do, whilst dozing in the hammock, was cast a periodic lazy eye in their general direction to make sure they haven’t abandoned anyone along the way.

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In search of adventure

Our campsite, nestled under trees, fronted a shallow river and gave us a beautiful view of morning mists hovering across mirror-still water.  In the afternoon, we were captivated by swooping swirls of red-tailed black cockatoos.

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Campfires are encouraged at this campsite, and wood provided.  We had the campfire going early morning to stave off the cold and from mid-afternoon to huddle around and cook dinner on.  There is a rule in our house of Scouts, and it is this – a camp, is not a camp, without a fire.   For the kids making fires is an absolute highlight, and while we didn’t quite get as far as putting the billy on to boil, there were marshmallows melted on sticks collected during earlier adventures, and plans to make damper (even if they didn’t quite eventuate).    On the downside, everything smells of smoke, but sitting around a fire, with a glass of wine and a hearty meal, talking with old friends is what special memories are made of.

It turns out that bush camping, despite the potential horrors associated with unsophisticated ablutions, is where the joy of camping lies.  Because here, in these sorts of places, it feels like you really are communing with nature.  Out of commercially run campsites, with their individually marked sites, shops and free WIFI, you literally unplug and drop out, and it is a gorgeous feeling, and one we plan on repeating soon!