Saturday, March 31, 2012

Back in the garden at last

Last week I was in Melbourne. Although great to catch up with family and friends, experience cold weather again (not so nice really), and go to some groovy pubs and restaurants, I'm glad to be back home again. This weekend the temperatures have at last begun to dip consistently below 30 degrees making it nice weather at last for getting out into the garden. Yippee.
Despite the fact that I'm jetting off in less than 4 months for New Zealand, I'm still determined to grow my veges even if the house sitters end up with the bulk of the harvest. There really isn't anything like getting your hands dirty in the garden growing your own food.

My vege garden lies fallow over the summer months because it's just too hot for the plants to do much more than survive. Even with shade cloth, a summer that quite bizarrely had a real scarcity of hot blistering easterlies, and fairly regular watering, I managed to lose a few plants. Not everything carked it though, the Kaffir lime and Bay are thriving, the dragon fruit vines are climbing away, and I even got 3 papaya fruit this year. You'd think that figs would grow well in this mediterranean climate, but the poor soil here on the coast really makes it a battle. With considerable pampering, something you don't expect to have to do with a fig, mine's still alive. Not holding my breath on how many years till it fruits though…..

So now it's time to replenish and replace. Lots of organic matter - manure, compost, pea straw and shredded paper - and water can make my soil look half decent for a few months. Then the heat and desiccating winds of summer turn it into a wasteland. No it's not quite that bad, but gardening here is definitely only for the dedicated.

Today I've sown snow peas, spinach, eggplant, capsicum, tatsoi, oregano and tomatoes. I'm contemplating where to plant a new papaya tree, and have repotted some succulents into old work boots. I've half filled one of the large ceramic planters I bought on sale 2 years ago with old styrofoam packing chips so I don't need as much soil, and am thinking of putting a grape vine in it. Then I can train it on wires to get some much needed summer shade downstairs. And lastly, I've been doing some paving.
Aah the paving. What started along the north side of the house with some old bricks from a demolition site, has become an ongoing saga to build a winding garden path through the vege patch. It's a saga because I'm doing it entirely with reclaimed bricks and pavers, so am at the mercy of what I can get. I've asked on Freecycle a few times, and have been around the demo yards, but it's a tough gig. You'd think most people would have a few spare bricks lying around, but it just isn't that easy, perhaps I'm not trying hard enough. Time to put an ad on Facebook!

After a long day in the garden there's a real sense of achievement. Little green seedlings poking up through wet soil, a cluster of newly potted succulents, a new stretch of paving, and the trellis erected for the snow peas. All that's left is to sit down and watch Gardening Australia over a celebratory glass of wine. Cheers!!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A hacker's reply

Hazel here.

Yeah, the one and only! That's my photo on the side there, not hers. And she thinks it's her blog! Hrmph!!

She left the computer on and I've just had a look at what she's been saying about me. I knew there was something going on, you know these things when you're a dog, but they don't always tell you do they?

Like when she went away for six months a few years ago. I mean she gets this other girl, nice she was too, to come and stay, start being all nice to me, take me for walks along the beach, get into my good books you know? But I didn't come down in the last shower did I? I saw the bags being packed, I saw what was going on. So I decided I wasn't going to go for walks with this new girl, didn't matter if she put me on a lead, I wasn't letting mum out of my sight. No way!! So what does mum do? Tricks me doesn't she? Lets me come on a trip in the car: her, me and the new girl. There's even some bags in the car, so I think we're dropping off the nice girl at the airport. Mum goes with her to see her off.....

Yeah that's right, the new girl comes back and mum disappears out of my life. I was pissed off, big time. I mean I'm pretty smart, but she sure put one over me that time. And then mum doesn't come back, not like her usual holidays where sometimes she's away for a month or so, but for six whole months, nada! Now I'm a dog, so that's like three and a half years right?

The girl was really nice, she took me everywhere, spoilt me rotten, but she just wasn't mum. You really get attached to your humans after a while, I mean Naomi's been there for me ever since I left my real mum when I was 8 weeks old. We go back a long way. And boy have we had some awesome times: driving round Australia, camping in some choice places, chasing kangaroos and rabbits (and sometimes sheep but don't tell mum!), even didn't mind some of those little aeroplane rides out to play with the Aboriginal kids. But some of those dogs out on the communities - man they've got a tough life..

I thought something bad had happened to mum, and I wasn't going to see her again, so I got pretty sad for a while there, and then when mum came back it took me a few months to get used to things again. I still get a bit upset when strangers come to stay, just in case they're like that girl and they're going to do another swap with mum.

So I've been keeping my eyes and ears peeled, which is a hard job these days now that I'm going deaf, and since mum didn't know I could read and write I snuck on the blog, hacked into the Facebook page, and just generally did a bit of cyber spying on what she's up to. And I wasn't too happy with what I found either....

If she thinks she can just swan off again for six months and leave me, she's got another think coming!! And if she thinks I'm ready for the green dream - yeah us dogs all know about that, we do talk amongst ourselves you know. What do you reckon all that barking in the neighbourhood's about, how else do you think we can share the gossip if our humans lock us up behind gates and fences?? We're social animals for god's sake! And then I saw the exit clause: "not if she's hale and hearty" and I knew just what I've got to do...

Cuppla weeks ago we had a friend of mine stay. Her name's Tassie, and she's a bit older than me and oh my god she's slow. She couldn't get up even one of the stairs at home, so she had to stay downstairs. I didn't mind too much, but mum seems to think that if I get that bad then it's time to say goodbye. I can sort of see mum's point, coz it was a little lonely for Tassie down there, though I did go and sit with her a few times. But mostly she just slept, even more than I do!!!

So I thought I better show mum just how hale and hearty I am. I'm springing up and down those stairs, prancing along at the beach, really showing her there's lots of life left in this old dog thank you very much. OK, I did fall down the stairs the other day right in front of mum, but she was pretty good about it, and didn't laugh, and helped me up again, but mostly I'm on top of it.

I think it's working. Sure I don't mind if she goes off on another ski trip. She always comes back from them all happy and relaxed, and no way I'm going near a cold place again! My god, that year mum took me to Canberra? I'm from the Northern Territory for god's sake, I had to sleep under the doona with mum just to keep from freezing my tail off!!

Mum's starting to talk about a trip to Gnarloo when she gets back from skiing. I reckon that's an awesome idea. You've gotta go there to see this place, it's just gorgeous. There's these big cliffs looking over the sea, this great beach with a really nice lagoon that doesn't have those waves crashing in - I don't like waves much, even if mum does! So I can go swimming in this really nice warm water, and when mum goes up to the windsurfing spot I can hang out with the other people and eat their sandwiches. They always give me food when I go and sit quietly next to them and give them my special look. Like putty.....

So it's looking good, and yeah, I'm gonna prove mum wrong and by damn I'm going to make it to 16!! So what if I'm in a little pain, as long as I stay hale and hearty hey??

Monday, March 19, 2012

Skiing on the cheap

It's now this side of 4 months till I take six months off work on the trial retirement plan. Yeah, I'm a chicken not ready to take the ultimate plunge yet, but it's a good opportunity for me to see how I manage my finances over the short term.

The whole point of retiring early is to spend my work-free time doing things I enjoy doing, and some of these things are expensive hobbies, like skiing, and until a few years ago, scuba diving (combined with underwater video, ouch!!) I can't really see the point in stopping doing the things I enjoy just because I haven't got a fortnightly pay packet coming in, so the other option is to look at where savings can be made to pay for my not exactly cheap lifestyle.

If we look at skiing, there are some obvious costs, like ski lift tickets, transport, accommodation and food, plus airfare from home. Getting there from home and back costs the same whether you go for a week or for the season. Booking well ahead, finding cheap deals, being flexible with dates, and using frequent flyer points are all ways I've managed to keep this cost very manageable.  If transporting your own ski gear see if you can purchase extra baggage allowance before you turn up at the airport, weigh and re weigh your luggage and don't forget to read the small print!

Having your own ski gear is cheaper in the long run, and not being a sucker for the latest gear helps too. Second hand gear is frequently for sale on the local noticeboards and I've even known people to hit up the local Wastebusters for a cheap pair of skis. As for fashions on the field, like who cares? I've now had that onesy for 15 years and word is they're coming back into fashion! Who would have thought???

You can, of course, do your own ski maintenance, but as someone who doesn't race, my skis only need to go into the shop for a once over a couple of times in the season. Hardly worth the time and effort of doing it myself.

Since food and shelter cost you money wherever you are, the main pointer here is to not go for the luxury holiday high season ski accommodation option, but to put up with the minor inconveniences of sharing a dorm for a few weeks at the local Backpacker hostel. And most importantly, Backpacker hostels come with kitchens, so you are not forced to eat out at overpriced restaurants.

Picking the right place makes the world of difference. My first trip to Wanaka (well not my first, but first since I started going regularly) I stayed at Base in the town centre, just near the local supermarket. Although clean and modern and super close to everything, it was the favoured hangout of the Kiwi Experience bus tours, had few longer stay residents, and was all about party party party. Helped out by the bar and nightclub on the premises! Needless to say, I didn't return there on my second visit. Instead I opted for Wanaka Bakpaka, which is situated overlooking the lake just a couple of hundred metres away. Those 200m make a world of difference in discouraging the riffraff who find it too far to walk from the bus stop, not to mention that the hostel owners actively discourage the bus tours, and have a zero tolerance attitude to mindless drunken behaviour. Not that the latter doesn't occur mind you!!

In the 2 years so far that I've stayed there, the vast majority of residents over the winter have been there for the snow sports, either for the season, or for shorter periods ranging from a weekend to a few weeks. Because it has a fantastic common room, sans TV, everyone gets to know each other, and some great friendships get made. And some pretty mindless drunken behaviour just occasionally makes it to video! Who will ever forget Nick licking that wooden pillar he was "pole dancing" against?

So, putting up with sharing a room with a few others, contemplating the murder of the occasional chainsaw snorer, and slumming it in a shared bathroom, cuts the costs enormously, and means that the money you could spend on a 2 week upmarket ski holiday can go a lot further. Last year I did posh up for a week with Marko in a self contained apartment, and I can tell you that the luxury of sleeping in my own queen bed for a week was not worth the added cost. It didn't help that I preferred the company of my hostel friends, that Marko's excessive drinking annoyed me, and that I had to hitch down the mountain a number of times despite us having a car. By the end of that week I was very happy to get back to my dorm room and some normalcy.

An alternative to the Backpackers, and cheaper again, is shared accommodation. This can be a bit hit and miss as far as quality of digs are concerned, and as a much older person than most of the seasonal crew at a ski resort I think I might cramp their style. Plus I prefer the flexibility of being able to come and go from the Backpackers.

One of the things time gives you, is the ability to stretch the cost. So a season ticket becomes a no-brainer, and getting in at the early bird price reduces the daily cost even further. Last year I managed 30 days on the slopes of Treble Cone making my daily lift ticket cost just over $36 NZD a day. Admittedly, some of those days I didn't spend doing much skiing (remember that little altercation with the snowboarder?) but I think anyone could agree I got good value for money. Another great deal that many people take advantage of is the Jucy car hire, which last year gave people free lift tickets to TC for each day of hiring. For one person, for 2 weeks, you could get up the mountain and onto the slopes for around $50NZD a day. And many of these kind people had room in their cars for me!

Initially I took the bus, but soon worked out that hitching up the mountain was not only easy to do, but it saved me a lot of money and I met some wonderful and interesting people. I also made friends with a few locals who were happy to have ski companions mid week and would pick me up on their way up the mountain. Sometimes I contributed to petrol, but mostly people refused, and I even collected a local admirer who I managed to fob off (admittedly by falling off a cliff, I would not recommend that to anyone!) by claiming injury. Oh, and encouraging Aussie friends to come over for a week or so....

The week Marko was there we frequently gave people lifts too, so it's karma. Who did I meet? Well there was the Irish family living in Kuala Lumpur,  Lachie and Ryan from The Daily Dump Snow Report, a local filmmaker called Chris, an American lass who drove like a demon, and Nick's mate from his ski instructor course. Then there was "Sven" and Sonia from my ski lessons, thanks guys.

I still like the bus though, mainly because it's fixed times, you can leave your gear safely in the bus all day, and the irrepressible Thierry and his silly helicopter comment cracks me up every time. And it's door to door, sometimes that walk in the morning to the hitching spot isn't so enjoyable.....

One of THE best things about NZ ski resorts is you can bring your own food and eat it in the resort restaurant. They even provide a hot water dispenser for you to fill up your noodle box, or cup of soup. This saves a mountain of money, just requires a little forward planning back at the ranch each morning.

Of course any holiday isn't a holiday without some fun and hijinks. But the key to looking at the low cost ski holiday is to keep the spending down to what you might do back home. So rather than going out every night, you just do it once a week - or in my case about once a month! Mind you, when I had friends in town I went out for dinner a bit more, but I mostly cooked at home. And with the best hostel kitchen in Wanaka, who wouldn't??

My big ticket expense each year are ski lessons, and not the cheap group lesson variety either. Last year I did a five day all day course, which was worth every cent, and despite my little bingles, I'm a much better skier now. By skimming on all the other luxuries and not upgrading my ski gear every year or two I figure I can keep this expense in the mix.

Of course, what most people do when spending a ski season in one place, is they get a part time job to support their snow sport obsession. I've thought about applying for the ski field doctor job, but seriously, I just want to ski. So I'll count my pennies instead.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Snapping triffids OMG!!!

Last week I headed down to Perth to attend a meeting and workshop, taking Hazel with me on a road trip down the wonderful Indian Ocean Drive, past towering sand dunes and little shack communities with their deep blue ocean backdrop. No way I'll ever bother with Brand Highway again, boring!!

We stayed with my good friend Naomi and the kids in Scarborough, but on Saturday I caught up with Eleanor (you may remember her from Fiji - "best dive trip EVAH!!") for a wander around the Sculptures by the Sea at Cottlesloe Beach. Eleanor and a friend are doing a photography project where they challenge each other to take photos and post them to a blog every 2 weeks, each taking turns at picking a theme. I just don't have the self discipline to do something like that, sigh....

I did, however, have my camera with me. Eleanor and I looked quite the thing snapping away with our SLRs, but sometimes you've just got to ham it up!

The installations really took advantage of the setting.

Red shoes heading up the hill like ants
Blocks made from blankets
 Banksias - these are made of copper wire and stones
And then there were the triffids
A bad knitting day?
Be scared, be very scared!

Balancing act



Ship mates

Then on Sunday we drove home.....

for more photos click here

Monday, March 5, 2012

Four years young

Apparently most blogs don't last more than six months. Something to do with the pressure to keep posting or some such palaver. Or that the reason for writing a blog changes and it no longer is all that important. I guess my blog could have gone that way, given that I started it primarily to keep family and friends informed of my travel tales, but soon realised it was far more than that.

I'm coming up for my four year blog anniversary, so it might be a good time to look at where I've been and where I'm going. I don't mean just literally, I mean all the touchy feely stuff too.

When I first started this blog I'd reached a pretty low point in my life, where I was burnt out from work and suffering from depression. I was fortunate to be able to take long service leave, as well as leave without pay, and take the time I needed to heal. I then also sought professional advice to try and protect myself from that level of burnout ever happening again.

One of the first thing I noticed about writing a blog is it's very personal. Unlike Americans who appear to have no qualms about hanging out their emotional laundry for all to see, us Aussies are made of truer grit and we just don't emote to strangers. Writing about how I felt on a blog, however, was easier than talking to someone I knew. Also I suspect it gave me time to gather my thoughts and come up with something coherent to say. It certainly was cathartic, and even now, I kind of like the fact that one can just say stuff one feels and let it loose on the webosphere. Is that a word?

I think the other reason I've continued to write is that I am literally alone where I live. Yes I have great local friends, but I also have all my family, and many friends, living more than 3000km away on the other side of the country. So it gives me a chance to keep them up to date, with pictures, on what I'm up to. I've never been a fan of Facebook as a primary communication device, especially for those close to me, or for anything personal either. My good friends aren't JUST Facebook friends, in fact many of them aren't even on it.

I love reading other people's travel blogs, but despair at how many seem to be written by professional travel bloggers. I suspect many of them start out just travelling, and then get convinced that making money writing "ten best" blog posts and pushing affiliate marketing is the way to go. Obviously there is money in it for a few of the high flyers, or they wouldn't do it, but I prefer to troll around for the bloggers who write about their travels, their personal take on a place, a situation, a culture etc. I am gradually culling my list of favourites, to those who actually travel, versus those who write about travel, or about hanging out with their travel blogging mates! Sure, horses for courses, each to his own, just I'm not a fan.

I realised I didn't want my blog to be just another travel blog, I wanted it to reflect me, and my life, which wasn't just about travel after all. I'm much more interesting than that! I have left a lot of my life out of this blog though, especially details about my work, which I find hard to communicate in a way that people could understand. Perhaps I need some distance before I can write about the First Australians who are my work colleagues, patients and friends.

So where have I been in the last four years? I've gone from depressed and burnt out, to travelling through SE Asia for 6 months, to returning to work part time, to taking on more responsibility for training the next generation of doctors and GPs. I've gone from active couch potato with too much flab, to someone who runs four times a week and listens to an iPod while she does it. I've grown my hair, lost a few kilos, and expect many family members wouldn't recognise me in a crowd. Having a picture of Hazel as my Facebook profile probably doesn't help either...

As for the future, I've decided to retire from doctoring before I turn 50, and to pursue a more creative path through photography and travel, and possibly even writing. I've also decided that my creative pursuits will not be for commercial gain, I intend to sort the income stream out before I give up the day job. I also don't intend to ever turn my blog into a place that advertises things, so if I post a link, you can be sure I'm not getting any money for it. Yeah I know,  as pure as driven snow....

My near future, however, feels somewhat overwhelming. I've got involved in a few committees, work related involving numerous trips to Perth and the eastern states, as well as trying to run a local Coastcare project and help organise our yearly Oxfam Walk Against Want. I am looking forward to July with relish, because then I'm taking 6 months off to recover. Aside from going skiing in NZ, I'm still not sure what I'll do with the time. At this point I don't care, not like I'm short of options or anything.

And finally there's Hazel, who features front and central in my life. She's now 2 months off her 14th birthday, well and truly on borrowed time, but remarkably healthy and happy for her advanced years. She's slow, she sleeps all day and rarely manages to be energetic beyond 15 min bursts of playfulness. Her teeth are wearing down fast, she has significant muscle wasting in her rear haunches, but she ain't complaining. Well that's not true, I get a right good talking to if I don't take her for her daily beach amble and paddle in the surf.

Soon my future won't include Hazel, which will be pretty weird, but something I am actually looking forward to. Not because of any feeling of missed opportunities, but because I feel that that period of my life is coming to an end and I'm looking forward to new experiences. It's the main reason I can't really make plans for my six months off, because I won't leave her again for an extended trip. I joke about euthanising her prior to jetting off to New Zealand, but to be truthful, I don't want my dog to suffer, and that may well be the right time for us to say goodbye. Not if she's still hale and hearty, but she is not the dog that she was last winter, and I really don't expect her to last more than the next few months. I'm not a vet, but I am seeing rapid decline and have to accept the inevitable.

So on that happy note let's move on. Let's drink a toast to four years of blogging, and to looking to the future. I didn't call this blog What's Next? for nothing!!