The Bruce Diaries (or outback retching)

6/7 September 1999

Fuck flying. Or anyway, fuck the 36 hours of limbo living preceding the flight. As usual, I have left everything to the last nano-second with packing and goodbyes and pet kissing spilling over into the insane rush to make it to CT International on time. And to add to the insanity of a 5 am wake-up call, the previous night saw me burning the midnight cathode ray tube to finish a long overdue article. So let’s take stock – ahead lies an 18 hour flight to Sydney with stop-overs in Jhb and ICL;  after less than 3 hours’ sleep, there seems to be a short circuit just this side of my medulla oblongata;  I find myself in Business Class (thanks to Mike;  God, do I owe him!) on Air Malaysia and therefore with Zero Access to anything approximating a Bloody Mary. The closest thing to alcohol in my possession is a 50 ml bottle of 6% proof Echinaforce and that tastes like shit.

Thank the high altitude deities for Loo Nyuk Ling, the one of the soft lilting voice and liquid eyes, supplier of a multitude of fruit juices, mineral waters and fragrant, hot face towels. With her assistance I stepped back from the edge for long enough to savour some satay and go into rigour mortis with my headset turned to audio channel 19.  As it turned out, it was some country music station from Nashville and, by the time we were suspended above Madagascar, I was too edgy to tune out and face the real world.  Even now, back on the plane on the way to Sydney, all I can recall are scrambled recollections of off-key voice mumbling the Holden Waltz and extracting a modicum of taste from food masquerading as spicy and staring at Loo Nyuk’s pert little boobs as she applied cold compresses to my forehead. Maybe I was hallucinating and none of this really happened.

9 September 1999

Some time later – no real idea on how many days or hours or beers. All I do know is that we met up with a chap called Shove who has no neck and drinks accordingly. We pinballed between pubs in Rocks Village (when Sydney had its inauspicious beginnings in 18??), eventually ending up in a place called Jackson’s on George. Here the beer research started in all earnestness – I can remember the Caffrey’s Irish Ale; smooth and creamy, similar in taste to the more well-known Killkenny. Then followed a Tooley’s Old Dark Ale, smoky with a slightly bitter bite to it. By the time I got to the James Squire I realised the futility of trying to keep track myself and decided to hand matters over to the experts, or in this case, to Shove. I order three beers from the guv – a Three sheets, Trafalgar Pale Ale and a Quailis, all brewed on site by the landlord. Shove was not able to get one of the three beers right and I now realised that he was not only neckless, but legless too. Mike did better and got 3 out of 3 on the end round of tasting.

From here on things really started to deteriorate, with Shove leading us first to a pool bar where we got thoroughly trounced. Then off to Shove’s apartment and hopefully to eat, only to find the fridge solely occupied by three small potatoes and a carton of sour milk. In an effort to take our minds off this disastrous turn of events, Shove decides to walk us eight miles through the industrial inner city to the fish market that, at 5 am, has not opened yet. Why? Fuck knows; so I split back to our little hotel on Wynyard Street, another eight miles walk, to finally crash into bed around 6:30 am.

And so on to Katoomba. We head due west out of Sydney on their excellent rail network in the direction of the Blue Mountains. Not expecting too much of a generally flat continent (the highest peak in Australia is Mt Kosciusko at 2,228 metres), we head into Katoomba Town to hire bicycles and set off towards Blue Mountain National Park. Despite a few severe uphills we make it to the first viewpoint to appreciate the massive sand-stone ranges contouring away towards the horizon. With only two hours of riding time we head back to Katoomba with Mike spurting off ahead, occasionally flushing flocks of crimson rosella’s from the eucalypt forests.

Katoomba is also my first introduction to another Aussie delight – the Kangaroo Burger. We decided to dine at a small street café along Katoomba’s main drag before heading back to Sydney. And there it was on the menu – a Roo Burger. What can I say but yum yum, with a surreptitious glance at the voluptuous little waitress.

10 September 1999

By now we’ve been on trains, trams, buses, tubes and taxi’s and by the time we board the Qantas flight to Melbourne, I’m sat.  Maybe it’s just that, but I find the stewardesses unfriendly and the food crap. The airport pub where we wait for Bruce is shit too, but a couple of midday pots manage to take the edge off my mood.  Bruce picks us up in a capitalist frame of mind – clients to see and a decorative glass business to run.  From his shop we explore the Melbourne sights and vibe, getting a feel for the pulsating energy of Australia’s cultural capital.

11 September 1999 – Going Bush

Weekend breaks, but Bruce still smelly.  We head off to Lake Eildon in his Landcruiser Wagon with Tracey and his 14 month old Genghis Khan in attendance.  Eucalyptus trees become eucalyptus stands become eucalyptus forests.  For all too short moments we break into picturesque green valleys full of barrel-bellied sheep, only to be swallowed up by more eucalyptus. Once you’re able to see that these are indigenous here as opposed to aliens back home, they transcend the barrier from dull plantation to strange and convoluted forest.  I spot a rabbit but no one seems impressed.  At around 5pm we stop in Jamieson for provisions and stumble into the local bar by accident.  Great place, with stags, razorbacks and mountain sheep mounted above the counter.  We decide that this is definitely a place to return to before continuing to Lake Eildon with a slab of Melbourne Bitter (or Reds) and enough meat to fire up a Barbie.  Consensus on the Reds are that they are better then Melbourne Bitter and therefore excellent.  The final nail in the coffin is when Bruce brings out the Australian Remy.  It is definitely not Martin, probably closer to Martin’s piss.

12 September 1999

I start the day with an early morning run down past Lake Eildon to get most of the poison out of my system before we all pile back into the wagon.

First up is Mount Stirling, a mountain (maybe a hill) in the vicinity of the town of Mansfield. Spotted a variety of Aussie wildlife, including cocky’s, a wombat and some wallabies below the snowline. As we approached the summit, we started crunching through snow and a grand panorama opened up before us. To our right was Mt Buller, abristle with ski stations and chalets, while the Great Dividing ranges stretched away towards Mt Feathercap(?) in the distance. SA vs Australia hostilities surfaced briefly during a snowball fight when Bruce mentioned the World Cup Cricket.

And then it came to beer time.  First top was the Merryjig Pub en route to Mansfield. Very much a farming pub, filled with photos of the local Purcell family doing wild and wonderful things like winning sheep shearing competitions and riding big-horned bulls at rodeos.  This is also the area where the movie “The Man from Showy River” was filmed, and monochrome photos of various scenes lined the halls.

Much more impressive to me was the Kevington Hotel, a tin-roofed little establishment situated near the end of the tarmac road along the Aire River. Josh, sporting a hairstyle locally known as the Australasian fantail (similar to some of the brushcut with pigtail combinations you find in SA’s low IQ suburbs) and his wife Tracey were very much in charge here. Despite the fact that most of the locals looked like survivors from the Manson massacres, they were friendly as hell. I was looking at the photo pinboard depicting scenes of debauchery that would make a Potchefstroom mortuary assistant blanch. Revellers were ramping their trail bikes into the river, big fat mamas were having beer belly competitions and a stripper was doing extremely exciting things with her lttle red tanga panties.  “As you can see mate”, muttered Josh into his beer, “just another regular family pub.”  (The Kev Hilton, as it is affectionately known, dates back to 1872 and boasts the oldest pub and board licence in Australia).  We head back to to Jamieson where we ate and played pool in a state approaching inebriation.

13 September 1999

Bussing again – this time down the scenic Coreat Ocean Road. Book into the Iluka Hotel (AUD 45) and then on to Buff’s Bistro for an excellent meal.

14 September 1999

After a 2 hour search we eventually locate a MTB hire place at the Waratah Van Park.  (Aussies bloody shorten everything – caravan to van, afternoon to arvo, garbage collector to garbo, and so on.  Except for that, there is very little as far as culture shock goes.)  Back to the van park.  We get our bikes and head off in the direction of Otway National Park, Mike missioning ahead as if on some bloody extreme adventure outing.  About 9 km outside town we hit the park boundary and turned south along the Elliot River in the direction of Blanket Bay.  By now the soft marshy mud sucking away at the knobblies is beginning to take its toll, but luckily the incredible scenery is forcing many compulsory photo stops.  We flush a wallaby on one of the tracks and pedal furiously to keep up with it, but it effortlessly powers away into the lush greenery.  Swarms of crimson rozellas flash against the canopy in azure and fire engine red, following the raucous echoes of their squawks into the undergrowth. Kangaroos join in the exuberance of the day, flashing in between the verdant forests cacophony of greens.

After about 3 hours of hard slog we finally break into sunlight on the ridge overlooking Blanket Bay.  We leave the bikes (locked up like only paranoid South Africans do) and follow the steep, winding track down to the beach.  It is a gem – deserted beaches fading away along the shoreline and a clear sea slowly ebbing and flowing in the late afternoon sun. After replenishing our water supplies and eating our meagre dry rations, we soldier on to make the Bimbi Van Park before nightfall.  By now we’ve been in the saddle for around 4½ hours and I’m really hitting the wall, so it is with great relief that we reach the turn-off around 6 pm.  The rain forest bestows an unexpected bonus on us when I notice fresh droppings in the road and look up to see a reclusive koala feeding in the tree above us. It is a mother and quite soon a mischievous little one peers out from her pouch.

We crash in an old trailer trash van, lights out by 8 pm, solidly for 10 hours.

15 September 1999

Wake up high on life in the Antipodes and do the hour and a half hike to Rainbow Falls. It is another spectacular spring day, the only discordant note being a big black snake slithering into the scrub as we approach.  The Falls are not that spectacular but the cliffs and sea views are well worthwhile.

Back at Bimbi, we pack up for the return to Appollo Bay. The +- 40 km, most of it on tar, is easy, but Mike pushes ahead on the uphills and we work up a good sweat. We turn into the A B Airfield on impulse and negotiate a deal with them that we just cannot refuse – a flip in a small Cessna to go and check out the famous Twelve Apostles. Still sweating from our ride, we take off to follow the winding coastline west towards the Nullabor Plain. Below us the shadow plane skips across a countryside of forests and plantations merging with dairy pastures and picturesque country villages. The apostles, massive sandstone pillars rising from the crashing surf, are one of Australia’s most famous attractions and it is easy to see why.

And so back to A.B. where we meet Kevin, a touring cyclist who had just cycled across the Western Desert, more than 4,300 km. We give him a bed in our cabin for the night, swapping many an interesting story.

16 September 1999

5 am start to get back to Melbourne for a day of exploring the city.  We joyride the City Circle tram for a bit of a different view of the inner city, admiring the contrasting blend of the historic and modern architecture before going on a wild goose chase.  Or, should I say, a wild kangaroo chase. I’ve planned a Barbie with Bruce and the boys and we’re going to have some joey.

As usual, the party degenerated to a point where everyone is just talking for practise.  I go to bed with Betty the Bull terrier who bravely fights off my advance.

17 September 1999

The taste in my mouth when I wake up is a dead give-away. It think I might have kissed the dog during the height of revelry last night. Not even the Triple S Treatment (Shave, Shower and Shit) does me any good. A scant consolation is that Bruce looks as if he has had a run-in with over zealous Iranian custom officials.  Banter on the way to the airport is limited to the odd muttered obscenity.

We leave the Great Island behind us as we zip across time zones towards Malaysia, arriving around 11 pm local time.  A mediocre music quartet and a run-in with an amorous and very lovely Polish girl sees us to bed around 2 am.

18 September 1999

A full day in Malaysia is bound to include some shopping.  In fact, I think it might be a national pastime here, with shopping mall upon towering shopping mall standing shoulder to shoulder on the muggy streets.  Temperature hovers around 30˚C, but the humidity, which makes Durban feel like a breeze, is the real killer.  The malls in Kuala Lumpur would make most bargain hungers gibber with excitement, with electronics and clothing being especially cheap.  Best buys include real Levi’s at R200 and knock-offs at R30; cameras at up to 40% cheaper than in SA; designer shirts of excellent quality at around R50; knock-off Tag Hauer watches at R25 and as much sushi as you can eat for R20. The Malaysia-Ringgit converts to approximately R1.50, making Malaysia an excellent destination for South Africans.

In a country which gained independence from Britain as little as 42 years ago, Malaysia has an extremely rich and varied cultural heritage.  The population is a mix of Muslim, Indian and Chinese and exhibits a fusion of ideologies, cultures, religions and tastes. Ancient Mandarin-inspired architecture vies for a place under a pregnant sky with kramatts, turrets and gothic domes. Restaurants run the gamut from open-fire tandoori through to Cantonese noodle houses and vendors selling satay kebabs in the true Malay tradition. Mike and I test them all until we are so stuffed that we can hardly say Nasi Lemak.

Over all of this preside two Kuala Lumpur institutions.  Check out the skyline from anywhere in Kuala Lumpur and you are bound to see KL Tower and the Petronas building looming against the underbelly of the clouds.  We walk to the modern and hugely impressive Petronas Twin Towers and stand in awe of this tallest building in the world.  At 452 metres high, it’s construction took three years to complete and more than 65,000 square metres of stainless steel were utilised. It now houses the international petroleum giant Petronas and various other corporate conglomerates.

Around 5 pm we venture to KL’s Chinatown precinct, where a massive central market lumbers to life every day around nightfall.  The sounds of cymbals lead us into a Hindu temple where we witness a religious ceremony resplendent with chanting priests, burning incense and much kissing of small jungle book elephants.

Outside the flow of people has intensified into a veritable river of humanity and we give ourselves over to it, slurred along past fake Rolexes, pirated CDs, flower sellers and nasi goring barrows. We are finally spat out close to our hotel, heads spinning with the immensity of our Malaysian experience.