66 shades of grey

66 shades of grey
66 shades of grey ... this pic of me was shot by Kim, of Kim Thomsen's Photography at Daly Waters in the Northern Territory. Kim just wandered over and asked whether it was OK to get some character shots.


The cross is in front of the church in Karumba and it seems TV antennas have a greater reach for the sky.


I went fishing out of Nhulunbuy on the Gulf of Carpentaria. We anchored in a bay about 10 hours from Nhulunbuy and went ashore. This poor fella had been snared in the locals' overnight net and then had a run-in with the resident 14-foot saltwater croc - named Nike by the local indigenous fellas - and came off second best.

the rock

the rock

oodnadatta track

oodnadatta track
What a tough place to live ... this is out on the Oodnadatta Track


My photo
G’day, I’m Michael and I have two fantastic grown-up kids. I’m a jeans and singlet/T-shirt, cowboy boot, tattoos sort of fella, who knows a bit about this and sometimes a lot about that. I'll have a crack at most things, although having a relationship? ... well that ship has sailed. I'm past my use-by date anyway, so I'm gonna make it all about me and surviving life as I know it ... or make it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How much of a good thing is a good thing?

Life in and out of Chateau Mick has been indulgent of late. Chateau Mick, incidentally, is the only place where I’m a household name, and then only because I sometimes talk to myself.
Since I’ve been back from the wilds of Vanuatu, it has been a case of settling back into work – although one job has been truncated because the magazine’s main market is still slowly emerging – which has meant many an afternoon of too much time on my hands and a subsequent increase in the amount of time I’ve spent with friends enjoying the fruit of the vine.
Lina’s wine bar has most often been the venue of choice … and French rose is usually the drink of choice, although there have been times when I’ve wandered into tempranillo territory.
Friday of last week was a fair indication of what was to come … I worked at Crikey in the morning and headed home for some domestics.
It was hot … so hot as I recall, although that’s not a certainty, my powers of recollection being what they are … and scrubbing the bathroom, the mopping the floors of the dining room and kitchen developed what can only be described as a decent thirst.
Given that it was four in the afternoon (I mostly try not to drink before four), it was too early to open a bottle of wine.
So what to drink?
Why a gin and tonic, that’s what.
And a bloody good one it was … OK, it was two. Two decent fingers (the thick part) of gin in a pint glass, a couple of slices of fresh lime, some ice cubes and topped up with tonic. I thought about a sprig or two of mint from the garden, but that would have been just too hard. It was a cracker way to put some pep into my stagger before a shower and a walk to Lina’s, where I caught up with heaps of friends.
Three hours there was always going to be enough before heading home, via Vintage Cellars to get a couple of good Yarra Valley chardy cleanskins to help with the disposal of the pizza I was going to order.
Suffice to say, I made inroads into the second bottle (OK, I’m not proud of that) before calling it a day.
I had another description for the dawning that followed. It was a hangover big enough to photograph. I don’t usually get too much in the way of hangovers, but this was a doozy.
After several cups of tea and a shower (that helped), I headed to the market to buy a few odds and ends to send to Vanuatu … i.e. soap, a vegetable peeler … and also a bottle of wine from Swords. Dave, the manager, conned me into having a taste … he didn’t have to try too hard. It was a Rocland Estate marsanne/viognier/roussanne blend that’s aged in French oak.
For the afternoon I’d planned nothing more than the couch, given that I was heading out for dinner that evening.
Usually, after shopping at the market, I have a beer and a smoke at Claypots before heading home. This time, I thought “no, not with this hangover”.
As I walked past the restaurant, I bumped into Renan, the owner. After the usual happy new year stuff, he said: “Can I get you a drink?”
“Sure, I’ll have a beer,” I said without even thinking. Mistake.
We sat and had a smoke and a chat about the new menu he’s planning (and he didn’t have a drink) and he suggested we have dinner in the next couple of weeks.
A done deal. He’s a good man.
I bade him farewell, stood up and whoosh. The beer had gone straight to my head. Had I just topped up after the big night before? Nah, it was just that I hadn’t had breakfast … that old “don’t drink on an empty stomach” thing, that’s it. It was.
The couch was indeed home for the next four hours before a shower and before putting on something other than a singlet for the first time in ages … it was a T-shirt but it did have sleeves … and making a beeline to Lina’s (and a few glasses of rose) to meet a friend before heading to South Yarra for dinner at Bistro Gitan to celebrate my mate, Ben the opera singer’s 40th birthday.
We had a good crowd in … Phoebe the pianist, Chris the cellist, various opera singers, a novelist among them … and it started well with some excellent French bubbles before the task of reading the menu.
My starter was a cracker. It was three smallish fillets of Petuna ocean trout a la plancha, spiced cucumber and melon, with fresh horseradish aioli. I opted for a bottle of 2010 Dappled pinot noir from the Yarra Valley. It was, from memory, $57 a bottle ($10 a glass) and a bloody fine thing.
And it was to be the thing again with a main of
(rare please) Hopkins River Pure Black Angus Beef with sauce churrasco and fries. It was a chargrilled porterhouse, cooked as ordered. I’d challenge the sauce churrasco as actually being a sauce. It was more a salsa of finely diced tomato with some vinegar-based dressing. The fries were not hot enough.
The steak had a tad too much in the way of gristle and fat (yeah, I know fat is flavour) for my liking. A second bottle of Dappled pinot helped erase that memory.
Not, however, the memory of a bloody good night and the perfect lead-up to the following day’s lunch with a friend at Golden Fields.
Sleep came easy and it was long enough to refresh me for the day ahead.
Before heading to St Kilda for lunch, it was a quick trip to the market to buy meat, fruit and vegetables for the following night’s dinner at my house with my friend, Sue, one of the world’s best newspaper and magazine designers (OK, she’s the best). Sue had given me a Henschke red for Christmas, so it seemed a good thing to plan a barbie and put the red to good use.
It was 30-odd degrees when I reached Golden Fields, so it was a pleasant surprise to snaffle a table under a shady tree out the front.
My friend, David, was about 10 minutes away when my first beer arrived at the table.
It was good to catch up with him … he’s been in the States for about five weeks and it was his first day back at work the next day.
We had New England lobster roll; a hot buttered bun, cold-poached crayfish, watercress and Kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise), and followed up with pork dumplings with Shanghai chilli vinegar, crispy soft-shell mud crab with fried egg aioli, scuds and holy basil, and twice-cooked duck with steamed bread, vinegar and plum sauce.
We washed it down with a bottle of Von Buhl Pfalz Riesling at 54 bucks a throw. It was worth every cent.
One of the sights of the day was a group of four teenagers, each with a drink in hand, wandering down Fitzroy Street. The one girl in the group hand a bottle of red and a very long straw.
Also walking past was Felicity, a friend from The Age, and looking resplendent in a cowboy hat (her, not The Age).
Next thing, my friend Mim stopped (she was dressed in jogging shorts and singlet and had just done a lap of Albert Park Lake) and did the honourable thing and joined us for a glass of wine or two. She finally gave in and ordered a chicken salad and settled in despite the fact the she was having dinner with friends at Golden Fields that night.
We moved onto red … this time a bottle of 2010 Remondo ‘La Vendimia’ Garnacha/Tempranillo, a snip at 61 bucks a bottle. It was a very fine thing, but being such a hot day, something cold was becoming the order of the day as we got to the bottom of the red.
By this time, Ed, another friend, had joined the fray after spending the early part of the day at the tennis (why, Ed?).
What better thing to cool four thirsty souls than a jug of 5, 6, 7, 8s … a tasty thing made from Choya Umeshu plum elixir, Ketel One vodka, tonic water and Meyer lemon juice. At $63 a jug, it wasn’t cheap, but it was good. So too was the second jug, which turned out for all to be just about enough of a good thing and to call it a day. It had been a great lunch ... great friends, great food and great drinking.
There was, though, a sting in the tail. The hardest part of catching a tram home from St Kilda is that I have to walk past Lina’s … yeah, like that’s ever gonna happen.
I did have to stop there, not because I was thirsty (OK, a bit … those trams can be mighty hot places) but because I was having a farewell drink with my mate, Hanks, who was heading off later in the night (the flight left at 1.20am) to Cambodia where he is teaching/lecturing the local pollies in how to handle the media and communications among other things. Just as long as it’s not playing the ukulele (that’s another story).
A few with Hanks and I was away … probably in more ways than one. Thank God for the couple of leftover pizza slices to ward of the munchies at about eight o’clock before pulling the pin.
Dinner with Sue loomed. My preparation was impaired somewhat by a call to go to the office for a few hours in the afternoon, but she arrived on time, armed with a bunch of flowers for me.
In all the years I’ve known Sue, I reckon it was the second time that I’ve ever had dinner with her.
We had a good chin wag while I made a salad of mango, avocado and crispy bacon bits, all dressed with just lemon juice (sorry Sue, I didn’t realise you didn’t eat mango), a salad of cos, plum tomatoes, orange capsicum, cucumber, basil and pomegranate juice and seeds, dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and red wine vinegar, some wasabi mash and some barbecued eye fillet.
I tried my usual spot at the market to get fresh wasabi, but they have none until next weekend … and they’d sold all their fresh horseradish.
Sue wasn’t travelling too well (she has had tonsillitis for weeks) and was on antibiotics, so the red was put on hold and she drank water (wonder what that’s like). I made do with a bottle of chenin blanc from Swords (I started earlier while I was preparing food) before moving onto the Rocland Estate mentioned earlier. It’s a very French tasting wine … delicious really.
Soon, my last planned social engagement for the week was done.
The only socialising I did for the rest of the week was with Santa Carolina chardonnay (from Chile), Pepper Tree chardonnay, Swords chenin blanc and WTF shiraz.
That just leaves tomorrow (Friday) to get through. The afternoon will be taken up, no doubt, washing the cobweb-ridden ute in preparation for a weekend at Blairgowrie, which will involve at least 100 people at a party on Saturday night and, among other things, a Sunday shopping trip to a winery down there where they have a shite load of really good viognier at a bargain basement price.
Then that’s the first month gone almost. February is looking large … my calendar has eight days so far with crosses against them, including two weekends away to catch up with friends.
I’m goin’ on the record now … March is gonna be an alcohol-free month. Maybe.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Greywacke pinot gris ... what a great wine

The temptation to over-indulge when the weather gets warmer is hard to shake … OK, nigh on impossible.
I just had a couple of weeks and a bit in Vanuatu and, given that it was warmer there than in Melbourne, I over-indulged in everything … strong drink, kava, food, sleep, the beach … you get the picture.
It was on the agenda back at home to pull it back a bit and get healthy, you know, cut back on the wine, eat lots of fruit and healthy meals, no more beer (reckon it would be impossible to have more, given what I got into when I was away), regular exercise, but bugger it.
This past week I’ve enjoyed French rosé, WTF shiraz, Oomoo sparkling shiraz, a Margaret River chenin blanc, Aussie rosé, a semillon-sauvignon blend, oh, and some bourbon and some tequila. Reckon I feel all the better for having cut back. . I also feel good for having discovered an absolute cracker of a wine.
I took a wander to my local wine shop (in Albert Park) and sought a recommendation (thanks Ange) for something good to go with the san choy bow that I was planning to cook. Enter Greywacke 2010 pinot gris, from Marlborough in New Zealand.
Greywacke (you’ve gotta love the name; it’s pronounced grey-wacky) is a reference to sandstone, and English geologists apparently reckoned greywacke was an "uncouth foreign term". Well, they would, wouldn’t they, given that London offers up names such as Back Passage, Mincing Lane, Mudchute, Percy Passage, Swallow Passage, Cock Hill, Cockbush Avenue and my favourite from Norfolk, Harlot’s Hole, but I digress.
Let me tell you, there’s bugger all uncouth about Greywacke pinot gris. It’s a robust 14% alcohol (not at all to its detriment) and, depending on whom you believe, it offers hints pears, figs, apricots, jasmine, nutmeg, white pepper, apple, two turtle doves and a partridge in a … (I smoke rollies, so the jury’s out when it comes to my palate.) I’d say it’s pleasantly fruity (yeah, I found some of the above), has plenty of body, feels good in the mouth (don’t they all?) and has a bit residual sugar that perfectly complemented the san choy bow (a recipe that I mahttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifde up as I went along).
I paid a premium of about 34 bucks for a bottle (OK, it was a welcome-home treat), but it varies from about $25 upwards if you can be bothered checking this interweb thing.
But I reckon I’d pay the $34 again because it is that good.
Oh, and if you’re keen to try my version of san choy bow, it’s in the recipes section below.
PS: I have been treating myself to freshly made fruit juice at home, thanks to the inspiration of Crikey’s juice boy and cinema fanatic, Luke Buckmaster, who makes a different juice daily, so all is not lost.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The ghost resort, the garden to end all gardens and the cobweb tip

The search for upmarket R&R on the drive from Pele was an exercise in sightseeing. There was the odd rain shower, which isn’t really a great thing when you’re on some of the side roads.
We headed to a restaurant for lunch (I can’t remember the name), a trip that involved some horrendous roads but the owners were having their first day off after the Christmas/New Year rush. Bugger.
The gang decided to show me the Blue Waters resort, which apparently is now closed after the owner struck several avenues of trouble.
What a sad sight it is … it’s set on a huge tract of land with beautiful water either side. All the infrastructure is there (well most of it) … cabins with air-conditioning, solar panels, furniture, but it’s like a ghost town … the day trippers and squatters notwithstanding.
What were once beautifully landscaped roads are now overgrown, with accompanying piles of rubbish (think old TV sets, broken furniture, et al) and the general feeling of decay everywhere. I had a look at a couple of websites later to see it in its former glory … it was a cracker. Word on the street is that it can be bought for a couple of million, but it would take at least that again to get it anywhere near its former glory.
It’s a sad story.
As we left the grounds, hunger was kicking in big time and we stopped at a resort (again I can’t remember the name, which is a good thing) on the road to Port Vila.
We settled into comfy cane chairs and ordered soft drinks for the kids and three G&Ts for the former kids and a jug of water. We also ordered a couple of bowls of fries to get us started and a round of cheeseburgers and a couple of ham, cheese and tomato toasties.
The chips manifested quickly (the potato peeler in the kitchen must have been broken because they were a motley collection) and they were quickly dispatched.
The burgers took their time. It must have been tough in the kitchen. Yeah, right. We were the only customers. The wait was eased by a round of brandy and dry for all (OK not the kids) and after almost half an hour, the excuses for burgers arrived. The bread rolls, not toasted or buttered, were cardboard-like stale, the patties were a dark colour that was sometimes interrupted by a film of yellow mucous-like stuff that masqueraded as cheese, there was no sauce and no salad of any type (although there were a few shreds of raw cabbage on the side to dress it up). They were a disaster and totally inedible and were duly sent back to the kitchen. On the way they passed the toasties (35 minutes to make two), which were the same standard of the burgers.
“They just don’t get it,” said Liam. “It’s no wonder that this place is not travelling well.” He got that right.
There was to be no resort stay for us tonight … home was the call, for some decent food, some wine and a comfy bed. It was a good choice on all counts.
We unpacked, opened a coldie, chilled for a while in the familiar surroundings, re-acquainted ourselves with the dogs, who were pleased to see us and made a beeline to the closest nakamal for a couple of kava shells and some chit chat with the locals.
It was a good end to the day.


Breakfast loomed the next morning, with Dan in the kitchen doing her thing with one of the new kitchen knives that had been my Christmas present (they were suggested by Liam).
She was merrily slicing away. It was a first-hand lesson in just how sharp they were … a yell later we assembled in the kitchen to examine the tip of a finger sitting forlornly on the cutting board. A sympathetic Dr Liam set about the business of cleaning and bandaging the wound before taking over knife duties. In the tropics there’s no place for a she’ll be right approach to any sort of cut or scratch … infection is but a moment away. I know because a scratch on my arm from Bob the dog got nasty really quickly. Dr Liam soon was in need of Dr Dan … he had blood pissing down his hand after he, too, discovered how sharp the knives are.
Breakfast was good but.
Every afternoon at the house, an alarm sounded some time just before four o’clock.
It’s the “it’s kava time” alarm
A nice touch, that.


To say that Dan’s garden is a cracker is, well, a gross understatement. Apart from being beautiful to look at … really beautiful … it’s productive in the extreme.
Here’s a list (there’s probably some that she forgot to mention) that will give you a good idea of what productive means.
Coconut palms
Brazilian cherries
Custard apples (pink and green)
Jackfruit (huge bubblegum-like fruit)
Soursop (lemonade sponge)
Purple star apple
Dragon fruit
Breadfruit (like a starch soccerball … good for chips or pudding)
Black sapote (chocolate pudding fruit)
Pamplamous (grapefruit)
Nange nu, Namambrae nut, Narelle nut, Natapoa nut
Paw-paws (a favourite of Jeffrey, the pig)
Pepper vine (really sweet and peppery)
Tree peanuts
Island cabbage
Ceylon spinach
Bunya nut
Sugar cane
Sunblong fruit
Pineapples (every one picked gets eaten and the tops are replanted to do their thing again)
Naus tree (green apple)
Sweet potato
Ylang ylang tree (for oil)
Tomatoes (they were the tiniest but sweetest I’ve tasted)
Who needs to go to the market?


My last day in Vanuatu was a bit of relaxing and shopping … I hit the duty-free shops in search of Egoiste, my favourite Chanel product. It’s not available in Australia (Platinum Egoiste is but while it’s OK, it’s not my favourite). The job was done. I grabbed Egoiste and some Chanel Antaeus for a total of 160 bucks … in Oz it would have cost me somewhere nearer to 300. It was a good result.
We also stopped at the Kava Emporium to grab some takeaway (dried that is, to take home). I got enough to make 2 ½ litres, which equates to 50x100 ml shells, enough to give some mates and me a good workout. Given that the shop sells things other than kava, I also snaffled a couple of things that will be fun (and useful in the boudoir). Suffice to say, it’s called Mother Load.
A quick trawl of the craft market down by the beach (I got nothing although I did buy a shanghai there earlier in the stay) and there was nothing left to do, but buy some travellers and head home, via the bakery.
A relaxing afternoon involved a nap, some beers and plenty of general bonhomie. It was sad to be packing.
As a last treat, Liam took me to one of his favourite nakamals, which is near where he used to live across the road from La Lagon resort. It’s also not far from Elouk, where he lived when he first came here almost four years ago.
It rained on the way … the first serious rain for my entire stay. And I mean serious. We drove down a shitty dirt track and parked about 30 metres from the nakamal.
Soaked to the skin is the only way to describe the way I was. Even my undies were saturated, which made sitting a none-too-comfortable experience. But sit we did, shooting the breeze with Patto and Kelvin, among others, and solving some of the world’s problems.
A couple of shells and a few beers and it was time to defongerate. At least the rain had stopped.
We headed to Bon Marche to grab supplies for dinner (Liam was making spag bol). I grabbed a huge caterer’s size bottle of pickled onions for Dan … she has a real thing for them. We also had a hankering for a can each Jack Daniels and Coke travellers. It was a good decision, despite the $10 each price tag.
As we walked out of the supermarket, the light had changed dramatically to an almost golden sky. And there was the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen. We could see the start and the finish. Where’s ya camera when you need it? There was also a second rainbow, not as bright but beautiful just the same. It was a good sign. Perhaps there is a pot of gold here. I’m pondering a chance I have to rent Angelica’s furnished house in Bellevue for six months … it’s a great deal. We’ll see, but I really want to do it.
With dinner in progress (but not before I gave Liam a lesson in mincing meat with a very sharp knife), I got the last of the packing done. It’s such a shitty time.
Dinner was done, some last-minute drinks and chats before setting the alarm (I was supposed to be at the airport at 5am for a seven o’clock flight) and sleep.
It didn’t come easy for anything like a reasonable stretch … I kept waking and checking the time.
At 4.10, the gods did their things and the house shook for a few seconds. It was another earthquake. That was me done for any more sleep.
Liam and I hit the airport at 5.30, with time enough for a few smokes and some final farewells.
There was a good sort in the queue ahead of me. Cate Blanchett is her name. She has a house in Vanuatu and a brother who lives there. She flew in economy too.
I did my usual tearing up as I hugged Liam … it had been great to see him again and to meet the beautiful (in every way) Dan and the kids.
Immigration wasn’t the quickest … there was just one woman checking passports … but after I got through security, I noticed that there’s a smokers’ lounge. First time I’ve seen it despite being here four times.
It helped kill the last hour (and me, no doubt) before we finally left the ground and settled in for an airborne breakfast, which was better-than-average airline food, on the way to Sydney.
About an hour out of the harbour city, I took my glasses out of their case so I could have a read.
To say I was pissed off was an understatement … the right arm of the glasses just broke off. They were almost 500 bucks a pair, made of titanium or something and supposedly could be tied in knots and were unbreakable. Yeah, right.
Some duty-free black label Jack, some tequila and a ¼ kilo of tobacco and the last hurdle was the sniffer dogs, who thought nothing of my luggage. Not that there was anything in there to worry about, it’s just something that gets the heart racing a little quicker.
A quick smoke with a Scot, Peter, who was on the same flight, and I was in a cab and homeward bound.
It had been a great holiday … in every way …


A trip to SpecSavers to get the glasses fixed was first on the agenda the next day (Friday) … and I was told that it would take the best part of a week to get new frames (which were under warranty). It would make life tough, given that I was starting work on Monday and I basically read for a living.
I had to make do with wearing prescription sunnies in the office.
I got a call from Tammy at SpecSavers on Tuesday to say that my glasses were ready. “Oh, wait,” she said, “you’re not Michael O’Brien. Your glasses are not ready.”
To her eternal credit, she hit the phones and finally found some frames at one of their other outlets and I picked them up on Wednesday morning before work.
Hallelujah … I can see. Thanks Tammy.


Work at both places was a culture shock for me, although The Weekly Review was just a couple of afternoons, which made the transition from holiday mode a tad easier.
It helped to be on familiar territory … Lina’s wine bar was on the list. It was good to catch up again with friends and do a belated happy new year thing. The wine was good too.
Thursday and Friday afternoons off also helped. I caught up with my opera singing mate Ben at the local pub. Drinking rose at 2.30 in really the path to danger. And so it came to pass.
I’d decided earlier in the week to have a bit of a (personal) tidy up and booked the hairdresser for 2pm on Friday.
He’s never going to make his fortune out of me. I’ve been going to him since 1975, but this would be the first time I’d seen him in more than a year.
The beard went on Thursday night (my first shave for about six months). I got a call from Chris, the hairdresser at work on Friday morning pleading for me to come earlier. “I don’t usually work afternoons,” he said.
“I’ll bring wine and you’ll work in the afternoon,” I told him.
It was a done deal.
He always enjoys the prospect … or is that a challenge? … of carving a good six or eight inches off the top of my noggin (I don’t know how much that is in the new money).
“Oh, and I want you to leave a full-length plait at the back,” I told him.
“I don’t do plaits,” he said.
“Mate, I brought wine, which means you do plaits,” I said,
I now have a plait … and short hair.


Saturday morning was light-headed in more ways than one, but I was up at about 6.30 and by 9.30, I’d done three loads of washing, stripped the bed, done some tweeting, been to the shops to pick up a magazine or two, bought some wine to go with what I was cooking for dinner the next night, grabbed a coffee and bought a Tatts ticket.
I did the market thing to buy the ingredients for my take on san choy bow and to catch up with my favourite stallholders.
Job done and I did the honourable thing and stopped at Claypots for a beer and a smoke (it was after 12).
By 12.30 I was in the kitchen, slicing, dicing and getting the show on the road.
A phone call from someone near and dear came just as I’d finished the dish. She was popping in for a catch-up and a coffee.
I was sitting on the church pew on the front verandah when she arrived. It was great to see her. She headed straight to the kitchen, grabbed on spoon from the drawer, lifted the lid on the pot, and grabbed a scoop.
“Shit, that’s good,” she said, “you’re such a great cook. But it needs a squeeze of lime juice.”
Thanks, and she was right.
We sat in the backyard for a coffee and a chat … which led to a tip for all you single fellas out there. Do not get rid of the cobwebs on the outdoor furniture. After talking for about 45 minutes, it was time for her to go. As she walked into the kitchen, I noticed a heap of cobwebs on her backside.
“Hang on,” I said, “you’ve got cobwebs all over you.” I started brushing them away with my hand. “You just wanted to rub my arse,” she said. Right again.
I wandered to get a clothes brush given that my hand work was ineffective. “That feels good,” she said. Alas.
It was great to catch up … It has been far too long.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Time for some island hopping, some local food and a homemade corkscrew

Pele is a short boat trip (just seven clicks) north of Efate. It’s a pretty smooth boat trip, skirting the whitecaps that emerge from the reefs that seemingly surround the place.
It was about a 20-minute drive from Port Vila, notwithstanding a smoke break and a chance to grab another traveller from the Esky in the back of the ute, to get to the pick-up point at the jetty.
Greetings and happy new years out of the way, our man pointed the bright yellow tub out to sea. It was as flat as a shit carter’s hat (I’d love to have written “the sea was angry that day, my friends” as a tribute to George Costanza in the marine biologist episode of Seinfeld … alas) as we motored towards a neighbouring island, got up close and personal with it and then turned left and headed to the far side of Pele.
About 20 minutes later we arrived at the village that would be home for the night.
It was a beautiful beach, with plenty of kids splashing in the shallows, and a big smiley greeting from out host Michael. That was a bonus because I’m not usually good with names.
A couple of woman offered us flowers for our hair (it was like being in the sixties again although my flower of choice then was usually jasmine … this was hibiscus) and then was got the lay of the land (it was the only lay I managed for the entire trip).
Our digs consisted of a bungalow with a separate bedroom with bunks for the kids, another bedroom for Liam and Dan and a mattress on the kitchen floor for me, which turned out to be a bonus because it was apparently the coolest place (that’s temperature cool not Fonzie style) to sleep.
We moved the kitchen table and chairs outside into an area with a palm frond roof.
There were bowls of water with flowers floating about and soap for hand washing, a couple of small water tanks with a saucepan and a bucket for flushing the dunny, which equates to no running water, and the promise of a couple of kerosene lamps later to light our night.

There wasn’t much left to do but put our chairs under a pandanus tree and relax with a beer while the kids splashed about in the shallows, albeit with a warning to wear shoes because there were a lot of stonefish about.
To the right of us was an outrigger (still in use) one the beach and a little closer, a bloke sleeping on a palm frond mat on a bamboo platform he had built into the tree. Chooks wandered here and there looking for tucker. Not a bad way to spend a day, all to the sounds of church singing somewhere in the village.
The first interruption was women from the village arriving with our lunch (that was part of the deal). We tucked in to thick slabs of tuna with onion sauce, rice, a salad of sweet potato, beetroot and something else I’ve forgotten, and lap-lap, which is a traditional Vanuatu dish. (We had five village dogs visit during lunch, three of which (I swear) looked just like dingoes.)
Lap-lap is made from grated vegetables such as manioc, taro or yam, which are soaked in coconut milk to form a paste. On special occasions (although no meat for us), pork, beef, chicken, fish or even flying fox may be added, or the paste may be sweetened with a few bananas (ours was).
The mixture is wrapped in banana leaves, tied with vine to form a parcel, and placed into a traditional uma, which is created by digging a hole in the ground and filling it with red-hot rocks. The parcel or food is placed in the centre, covered with more hot rocks and the whole thing covered over with dirt and leaves.
After about three hours, you get your rocks off (that’s my joke) and the lap-lap is ready. It’s best served hot and eaten straight away.
After lunch the only thing left to do was move the chairs back to the shade of the pandanus, sit down, lift the lid on a cold one (OK it was a few) and chill while watching Liam and the kids snorkelling in the shallows. (Dunno where he gets his energy from … it’s obviously not in my genes.) OK, there was some walking on the beach, twice in fact, the second time to collect driftwood for a fire on the beach for when it got dark (which is early in these parts … think 6.30 or thereabouts).
It’s amazing how time flies when you’re doing bugger all.
All of a sudden it was kava time. Then Michael arrived with the sad news. “Sorry, there will be no kava today. The man who makes it is not back until tomorrow.” Yeah, right. Sorry, Michael, but that’s bullshit. Kava is a way of life in Vanuatu … there’s no way you don’t have kava. But it was our first kava-free night for my whole time in Vanuatu.
Next thing, the women (armed with the promised kero lamps) were back with dinner, this time chicken stew, rice, banana lap-lap and yams. And what better to have with it than a bottle of Château Belles Eaux Fûts de Chêne, a tasty red we’d grabbed the night before at the supermarket and a snip at about 12 bucks. It was a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan.
Then the following conversation happened. “Did anyone bring a corkscrew?” “No, nah, nup.” “Shit, I’ll have to push in the cork.”
I always travel with a Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew, but not this time. I did, however, have my Swiss Army mega tool, with pliers, screwdrivers, blades, hacksaw, wood saw and a partridge in a pear tree.

“I’ll make a corkscrew,” said Liam, who then took a round thing off his keys and proceeded to, well, make a corkscrew. A bloody good corkscrew it was too. Its one shortcoming was that it shredded the cork. Nought to do but to push it in carefully and slowly. Yeah, right. He may have been impatient for the fruit of the vine and pushed a little too quickly. As a result, the first wine into his being was via his eyes, a stinging and none too pleasant experience.
Eventually we enjoyed the dinner and wine, despite the fact that lots of flies and more than a few mozzies got up close and personal and this time just two village dogs visited.
Sleep came pretty easily (we gave the beach fire a miss), courtesy of the waves hammering the beach, but lasted until just after 1am when one of the kids decided she’d rather be with mum.
No matter, it was a chance to ease out some of the excesses of the day … peeing on the beach is very liberating … before settling back into zed territory, which for me was interrupted by a small lizard tickling my feet. Ah, the joys of sleeping on the floor.
The village came to life at 5.15 just as we were snoozing.
And it came to life with a bang … OK, a six-or-so-year-old boy playing badly what may have been Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells with a piece of metal pipe belting an old gas bottle. There were lots of other kids whooping and yelling. Jesus wept, no one slept.
Liam, who speaks and understands a fair bit of Bislama, conveyed the message that perhaps the kid could keep the Tubular Bells to a dull roar.
For me, sleep or bed just wasn’t an option, so I did something I haven’t done in years. I got up at about 5.40. Jesus was still reaching for the tissues.
What followed was an amazingly pleasant experience. I rolled a smoke and just watched the village unfold into life as the sun eased its way upwards.

Women in brightly coloured dresses, carrying babies and woven mats, wandered around looking for shady spots into which they could sit their pickaninnies.

An old woman in a bright blue dress was bent at right angles and sweeping the path outside her house. I’m not sure that the sweeping wasn’t detrimental to her brightly coloured washing that was hanging on a cord and providing a bright contrast to the mostly rusted galvanised iron that was the side of her house.
Chooks and dogs mixed freely, oblivious to each other’s company, in search of anything that would pass muster for breakfast.
A pleasant breeze found its way through gaps in the palm frond wall that was all separating me from the already hot sun as I watched men wander around looking for a comfortable spot that was probably going to be their home for the better part of the day.
Kids played by throwing stones or sticks, and then picked them up and threw them again.
Life is pretty simple and really enjoyable, given the laughter from the kids.
Not so for me, however. My most arduous task was to separate the cigarette papers (OK it was a problem last night too), which had become one thanks to the excessive humidity.
Just after seven o’clock, one of the men from the village wandered over and asked if we were ready for breakfast. A bit early, I told him. “Everyone else is still trying to sleep.” No matter, he said, I’ll come back later.
I finally managed to split some papers and get a gasper rolled. It was coming up for 7.30 and I thought that I may as well get a start with breakfast.
A cold stubby of Tusker was the preferred choice. A good choice it was, too. It was refreshing and anyway, it was at least 11 o’clock somewhere in the world.
It was great company as I watched tiny hermit crabs wander around the crushed coral patch that surrounded our blue welcome mat. Skinks,too, darted hither and tither looking for something other than hermit crabs that may be fair game.
My idyllic watching was interrupted by Dan’s mock horror at me having a beer. “You’re kidding, aren’t you,” she said.
Pretty soon the rest of the troops were up and about to face the day. I reckon they’d missed almost the best part of it.
Breakfast arrived and it was worth the wait. Toast cooked on a griddle, fried slabs of plantain, chunks of freshly picked pawpaw and a cup of tea. It doesn’t get a lot better.
A chin wag, a smoke or two, a splash in the water later, it was time to pack our grip, organise Michael to get us a boat (11 o’clock was the appointed time and it arrived exactly at 11) and head home.
Settling the bill was the easy part. It was 30 bucks a head for the adults and 15 for the kids … and it was a boon for the village. The rule of thumb here is to multiply the dollar amount by 10, which means they got the equivalent of 1200 bucks.
On the way back, our boat dropped another family at the neighbouring island … their farewells and smiles were genuinely beautiful … and the next thing we were at the jetty again.
We loaded the back of the ute with our goodies. Liam and I say on a rusty 44-gallon drum for one last smoke before we hit the road. He sat there with his arm around my shoulder. For me it was a beautiful moment that I didn’t want to end.
But end it did and we headed off around the island with the plan to find a resort for the night for some upmarket R&R.


Air Vanuatu is a full-service airline. My previous trips on the carrier involved airline food that was actually good and decent wines.
It was interesting to note on the way over that during the meal service the plastic bag that housed the bread rolls was in fact a recycled party ice bag.
And the milk served with breakfast on the flight home was Coles home brand long-life milk.


Given that there was a $31 million Tatts draw on New Year’s eve, we did the right thing and tried to buy a ticket online.
I registered to be a Tatts member, but had a bullshit time trying to buy a ticket. I know that I’m a Luddite but I reckon the Tatts site is a bitch to negotiate. I gave up.
Dan then decided to register and have a crack. She had no problems getting them to take her money, but she used her mum’s NSW address …
It seems that Tatts rules dictate that people in NSW cannot buy a Tatts ticket online.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Tusker in hand on the road of life

With the sky as blue as it ever could get, the other day Liam and I headed for a trip around Efate, the main island.
The road last time I made the trip was unbelievably bad … we’re talkin’ almost unmanageable. This time it was sealed the whole way around.
The Americans, God bless their cotton socks, brought in huge teams of workers and equipment and finished it last year. Reckon it must be some sort of deal the Yanks had to make good after its forces spent a lot of time here during the Second World War (there’s still evidence of its presence dotted here and there).
We did the trip in a one-tonne truck (believe me, it has plenty of grunt) armed with plenty of cigarettes and about a dozen Tuskers in the Esky. Beer on a road trip here is akin to the ’60s at home … it’s just a way of life here and given that no one goes too hard on the accelerator, it’s kinda OK.
We stopped whenever something looked OK. The beach at Eton was first. A more beautiful place is hard to imagine, with its rocky outcrops, bluer than blue water, white sands and plenty of locals swimming. You can even throw into the mix a few tourists.
We watched for about 20 minutes as a local, armed with a snorkel and a sizeable net, was hell bent in getting something for lunch. I haven’t yet seen anyone fishing with a rod. There’s a Ni-Van fella who fishes in the lagoon at Erakor (the island near La Lagon resort at the end of Port Vila) and he literally uses a lasso to catch barracuda. He stands in crystal clear, waist-deep water with just a line into which he has put three loops. He just waits for a fish to mosey through the loop and then yanks it. He gets a few too.
Back on the bitumen (the locals have renamed I the road of life) we cruised past countless village from which everyone waves, kids swimming in rivers, roadside markets, coconut plantations, you name it.
It was a sensational trip, made all the better for stopping at Havana Harbour, which was a big US base during the war. Beside the road are three bamboo and palm frond huts, one of which houses a huge, ramshackle collection of all things US military, including one of the world’s biggest (and the Pacific’s biggest) collections of old Coke bottles.
Ernest, the bloke who does the collecting, is amazingly knowledgeable when it comes to Coke bottles. His collection is mainly old bottle, onto which is embossed the origin of the bottle and the date … i.e. California, 1944. Ernest explained that Coke has resumed the practice because of his collection.
“I had a visit from the US ambassador a while ago and he told me that I am a US national treasure. Me and my family are legally allowed to fly the US flag until we are all gone,” he told us.
He’s obviously very well read and to listen to his spiel is an absolute joy. He talks fondly, almost family-like, about every piece of stuff he has. The busload of tourists there at the time we were there turned out to be a disappointment. No so much as a few coins in Ernest’s donation box.
We were about 30-odd kilometres from Port Vila, or K, according to the markers on the road. There is no letter C in Bislama, so it’s K for capital. We stopped at a village shop to get a few more Tuskers for the last leg and we met up with an ex-pat (Liam knew him), who has lived in Vanuatu for 17 years.
Talk turned to Dick Eade, an ex-pat who was shot dead a few days ago. He was the first ex-pat murder (it was front page news) and it rocked the local ex-pat community, not least because he was a really decent fella. Apparently he did volunteer work to enable locals to find work on Oz and New Zealand as fruit pickers and the like. The jobs enabled them to make and save enough money to come back and buy a house and generally set themselves up.
Seems Dick was subdividing some of his land and went to have a chat with some squatters who had taken up residence. They shot him.
We moved on, armed with a few coldies, bound for out last stop … a nakamal called Last Flight, so named because it’s close to the airport.
Liam and I were chatting about the merits of the place. “It’s kind of a down and dirty sort of a place,” he said, to which I countered “a bit like the Espy (Esplanade Hotel) of nakamals,” I said. “You got it in one.”
There was a fair crowd in … a mixture of locals, ex-pats and tourists … and the kava was OK.
New Year’s eve was meant to be the start of our island hopping adventure. We were planning to spend a couple of nights on Pele on the eastern side of the island. The swimming is better on the western side, but all the bungalows were booked out, so we settled for the eastern side.
Given that the girls, Tahlia and Em, had gone for a sleepover at some friends’ house in Eluk (it’s a hillside part of town overlooking the lagoon and Erakor), we started the day slowly. A smoke, a cup of tea and lots of umming and ahhing before we decided the day should begin with breakfast and maybe a swim at Chantilly’s. Patto, who was back working, did what any reasonable person would do … he joined us for an early-morning(ish) bloody Mary, which helped us all in putting the day back onto An even keel.
Breakfast had all the usual suspects … eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomato, hash brown, toast … washed down with what was a really Tobasco-heavy bloody Mary … and then another.
Getting out to Pele on the day was looking far less likely, given that we had shopping and banking to do before picking up the girls, so the call was made to tell the guy at the village we’d be staying at that we’d arrive on New Year’s Day.
One of the shopping tasks involved picking up some batteries to fire up the Taser that belonged to Dan’s neighbour. She has kept one ever since she got terrorised by some escaped prisoners (quite a regular thing I these parts). The Neighbourhood Watch equivalent, including a small Chinese guy dressed in pyjamas and armed with a huge bush knife put paid to any real nastiness.
The neighbour explained to the police that she should probably keep a gun at the house and they agreed and issued her with a licence on the spot and offered to lend her a gun until she had the chance to buy one.
After picking up the girls (that involved beers), we headed back to Bellevue for some chill time before hitting the nakamal for some kava after which there’d be a quiet New Year’s Eve at home with some takeaway.
Liam and I went into town to the Bon Marche, which I right alongside the fantastic fruit’n’veg market. It was an amazing atmosphere with people scurrying here and there to get their last-minute goodies. Ours, by the way, involved a couple of cases of Tusker for the trip and some fireworks (from a Chinese shop).
My first pizza here (pasta for the kids) and it wasn’t anything to write home about but it went OK (that doesn’t sound right cos I am writing home about it).
We let off the fireworks at about 10 o’clock (the girls had to be in bed because a big day was planned … with an early start) and in the end, the whole house was in bed by about 10.30.
Seen one New Year’s Eve, seen ’em all. (That’s enough for today. As I write, I’m enjoying some Pastis on ice, checking the cricket scores and am ready for a nap.)


The other night at the local nakamal (Kath’s and Abel’s … there are two on the Bellevue Road) not only kava was on the menu.
Some of the locals made a trip to a really deep ravine in the Bellevue valley where there are decent sized freshwater prawns. We arrived just as they came out of the pot.
Good thing, that.
From memory they were about 90 cents each and well worth the price of admission. The snags were pretty much on the money too and with a couple of shells of kava it was the ideal precursor for a dinner washed down with a few Tuskers.
Not on the menu, however, were the mini bananas in the nakamal garden. There were plenty of bunches of bananas, each about the size of a decent index finger. Apparently that’s as big as they get. Dunno whether they’re edible.


There’s a stainless steel bowl in the kitchen and everything that is left after preparing food … i.e. egg shells, veg scraps, fat from meat, OK anything … is bound for Jeffrey’s sty.
Even, after I’d been putting them in the bin, teabags.
Dan explained that, according to the locals, most of whom keep pigs, teabags help to make the beasts tame.
Which perhaps explains my tame demeanour, given that I have so much tea in my life.