It’s funny how your memory gets sparked and where that memory will take you. Down rabbits holes of forgotten actions, people and secrets.
When I saw words Ob-la-Di-Ob-la-Da tattooed on the arm of a colleague, it made me fly back to 1969 when I was in Year 3, eight years old, blond and tiny. It took me back to the time when eighty students crowded around a TV borrowed from the local department store to watch the moon landing. It took me back to playing elastics and jacks. To skipping ropes and sour milk.
Those particular words from that jaunty little Beatles tune brought back a mix of fun, embarrassment and guilt
The Fun Bit.
My class was preparing to sing Ob-la-Di-Ob-la-Da for the weekly assembly. This was a BIG deal! We had been rehearsing with our hip and gorgeous teacher Mr Chinner for weeks and weeks. Our class, 3A, were doing a new song! A chart-topper! Not a choir of screeching descant recorders, but a grooooovy Beatles hit! It was a top-secret mission. We were not allowed to tell anyone! We were asked to bring a towel to wear around our shoulders like a Mexican poncho.
The Embarrassing bit.
Because I was small, I was scheduled to be in the front row. Because we were sworn to secrecy, I didn’t tell my mum why we needed the towel. Thinking it was for art clean-ups, and without a better explanation from me, she gave me a faded tatter of a towel. When Groovy Mr Chinner saw my faded rag, I got relegated to the back row. I couldn’t see over the tops of the bigger kids. My bubble was well and truly burst. I felt humiliated by my family’s lack of bright Mexican-like towels.
The Guilty Bit
In the same class, but in a different episode, I am simultaneously ashamed and amused to confess that I committed a fraudulent act. Our class had been chosen to go on an excursion to the Herald’s newspaper printing factory. Only 25 could go although our class had 43 students. In the spirit of fairness, Mr Chinner decided to pull the names out of a hat. As the names were called out, the lucky ones were clapping their little hands with glee. In the middle of all the excitement, the end of the day bell rang and the draw was not completed. It was declared that it would continue the next school day – Monday. I was heartbroken that my name had not yet been called out and even back then I realised the odds were not looking good.
When we returned after the weekend, Mr Chinner admitted he had forgotten to write down the names of the children who had been pulled out and no longer had the strips of paper. He asked us to raise our hands if we had been selected.
A few classmates put their hands up confidently. As I looked around at the remaining faces of my peers and saw them faltering. They either couldn’t remember or they didn’t seem too fussed about whether they went or not. I took my chance, I shot my hand in the air. Mr Chinner wrote my name on the list.
For the next few days, I expected to be challenged. For someone to remember that my name had never been called out and that I was a fraud, that I had lied. No one did. I went on the excursion and had a fabulous time. This is only the second time I have revealed this story! The first time was to the tattoo owner! (Sorry mum another thing you didn’t know!)
I guess Mr Chinner could still be out there. I have never forgotten him. He was young in 1969. Perhaps he’s out there, somewhere between 80-100 years old, thinking about his time as a teacher. I know he won’t remember me. There are too many children that pass through a teacher’s life. Even so, Mr Chinner, I apologize for my deceit.
As I look back on him and the lessons he taught us, I realize I don’t remember the specifics of one single scrap of the maths or spelling or grammar he may have taught us.
On Friday, I posted about my feeling of foreboding as we approached a weather day that would bring worst-case scenario conditions to the south coast of NSW. It was going to be hot, windy and with low humidity. I hoped that somehow, the (actually) reliable Bureau of Meteorology had got it wrong.
The temperature on the fire ground near where I am stationed varied from 34 to 44C. The prediction for wind speed and humidity were on course. Penrith near Sydney, would, by the end of the day, record the highest temperature in the WORLD clocking up 48.9C (120F)
The mood in the EMC started off tense but confident. Calls came in at a steady but manageable pace. The Comms team had time to make coffee or grab a comfort break without interrupting the necessary logging of team movements. At 11:30 the pace began to speed up. The 000 call Centre began diverting two or three messages at a time, then four.
By 12:30 we were not keeping up with the computer logging system and it was causing frustration when it “refreshed” at frequent and more inconvenient intervals. By 13:15 it was totally unmanageable. Thank goodness for pen and paper!
The EMC staff and volunteers hummed with a beam of activity focused on the goal of getting resources to the spot fires that were beginning to break out. The pattern of multiple calls for nearby locations broken suddenly by a call from a more distant area. Flying embers were doing their evil work. Flame heights were getting higher and higher. Twenty-metre sheets eclipsed by 40 to 50 m monsters.
Then the dreaded message
RED RED RED
Significant fire impacting Bendalong Road
Get the (water) bombers NOW!
Close the road!
The room became silent, people clustered around the comms station. The wheels ticked and the orders came
Get everything up!
People in their colourful tabards went about their duties calmly but quickly. No-one ran, no one panicked. They were trained for this. The police organised the road closures, the aviation ops team launched all available assets and fire crews were diverted from other positions. If the fire travelled too far from Bendalong Road, the township of Tabourie Lake would be no more.
Then a few minutes later
No other radio call can stop a room dead in its tracks as quickly as these words do.
A crew was about to be overrun by fire.
Shelter in place
Activate your fire plans
It was unclear exactly what “place” they were in. As tense seconds passed there was radio silence. Nothing. It was still. The crowd around the radio was leaning in, wishing they could squeeze themselves into the microphone and pull the trapped crew through the airwaves. We waited, hoping to hear something from that microphone. Seconds more ticked past.
The ops manager hailed the crew. Nothing. He hailed again.
A breath sucking pause later and the crew’s Captain responded.
All safe, the fire had passed.
The collective gasp and back-slapping continued for a split-second and then everyone returned to the duties of controlling a huge fire hunting down a town.
Support was dispatched to the crew and apart from a minor burn, there were no physical injuries. By the end of the day, two more firefighters and three civilians had been taken to hospital and two appliances damaged. But, by nightfall no homes had fallen, A few outbuildings here or there, but no-one’s house. (As far as I know)
The relentless heat of the day was squashed by the southerly. A southerly can be a blessing for those hoping to escape the heat of the day but an ill omen for firefighters. The gusty southerly winds that come with the cool front bring thunderstorms. In the microclimate that develops around a firestorm, these thunderstorms form pyrocumulonimbus clouds which rumble like a regular thunderstorm but suck up the embers and dump them down kilometres ahead of the main fire front but bring no rain.
The southerly did come and it did stir up the fire but my shift had ended so I don’t know what went on in the EMC. I don’t know what happened to the crews I had been tracking during the day. I hoped they had got home for a sleep. I hoped no more had been hurt.
I walked around town with my camera in the quiet, eerie dim light as the southerly pushed smoke into the town and turned it into a pool of orange dread. I wandered for a few hours breathing in the smoke, thinking I shouldn’t, but fascinated by those clouds.
I couldn’t sleep. I worried about the people whose fates I had not been able to follow. The ones who had gone to hospital and who were later (unbeknown to me) released to go home to their families. I worried about the team who had been bathed in fire. They might not be hurt but how would their dreams be tonight? Could they rest? Did they have someone to hold them and listen to their story?
As I logged on for my shift this morning, I learned that the two fire fronts north of Nowra had merged and that the southern fire near Tabourie was still active. Crews would need to be in two places at once again.
Today was my last day at the EMC. I’ll drive home tomorrow. The weather was much more benign today. Cool and windless. Overcast with real clouds and not just smoke, the humidity rising to 100%. The fire continued, but today it was not as ferocious. At least it was not hunting towns. It had other assets in sight. We had a full comms team and I probably didn’t need to be there. I’m glad I was. The easier pace allowed me to calm down and get things into a better perspective. Bad things happen in big fires. People do die and one person did yesterday in a fire not too far from “ours”. But today no-one died, a little bit of rain fell and the firefighters got to have a rest. The fire will burn for many more days and it will probably flare up to be another raging dragon unless significant rain falls. I will watch it from afar as others take my place to relieve the local crews who become more and more exhausted.
As I left the Centre, I had to wait as a stream of volunteers from Queensland’s Rural Fire Service unloaded from a bus. Their big boots dragging a little and their full kit bags wheeling along behind them. They were weary but energetic. They’ll get a good sleep tonight and will be ready to assist in the morning. I guess I am tired but that stream of yellow and green, brought a tear to my eye. They’re a long way from home but I bet like me, they felt privileged to be able to help.
If you have been following my blog, you will have worked out by now that I like to keep myself occupied. This past year has been a positive one. In a previous post, at the end of 2017, I listed my Year in Review. I now look back over 2019, and while the list is shorter the year was just as fulfilling. The shorter list is a direct consequence of my daughter’s return to Australia and the subsequent increases in grandma time. I now have less “free” time. That free time has been filled with many pleasant hours spent building trains, telling stories and going on adventures.
The activity that has fallen off the list has been sustained writing. I have not advanced in any of the long-form writing projects I started back in 2017. They are not yet abandoned but very much on the back burner. I have found that I can put in the mental energy to write short blog posts and microfiction, but the characters from my longer stories don’t have enough time to wake up and let me know where they are up to.
So what did I do?
Continued with this blog, adding 127 posts.
And all the associated research, writing and photography that goes into those 127 posts.
I entered six writing competitions and about seven photography competitions – still not a winner but participation is the goal.
Made and sold copies of a 2020 calendar
Perfected designs for tea cosies and doorstops
Completed 16 of the 60 things on my 60 for 60 list. (better get cracking on that one but see my post on the Year of Zero for an update on that)
Had a garage sale with friends
Renewed my first aid certification
A short online course on SEO.
Participated in a rescue competition with the NSW SES
I did three photography shoots for other people, including one with studio lighting. I think I can now start asking for money for this type of work.
I didn’t cry once!
And I still have a demanding full time “real” job
And I spent plenty of time with family.
Goals for 2020
I have set out my goals for 2020 already. They concentrate on my financial future so there will not be any travelling, paid for courses or big purchases. I will get my side hustle happening! (You are all my accountability partners!)
On the non-financial goal side of things I want to learn how to meditate correctly, complete at least 25 more of the modified 60 for 60 list, and reduce my impact on the world by wasting less and reusing more. I will continue to keep fit, look after my gut bugs, write, and take photos of what’s in front of me.
The big, overarching goal is to inspire some other old chooks like me to get out and have a go!
I am still not sure what made me look up at that particular moment. I guess something must have caught my eye. With more than 40 years driving experience under your seat belt, you remain alert even when you are admiring the broad, rugged landscapes of Harris Island.
But look up, I did. Just in time to see the large white SUV, which was the second car behind me, pull out onto the other side of the road to overtake. At the same moment, the car directly behind me also pulled out and accelerated rapidly.
“No! Mate! No!” I shouted at the silver car “Don’t!”
The small silver car slammed into the side of the larger, white car, and became airborne sailing over the top of the white car, rolling over and over again. It dropped into a gully next to the road. I didn’t see it hit the ground, but when I did see where it had come to rest, I could tell from the dug-up field, that it had skated on its roof across the rock-studded grass. The white car spun on its wheels and ended up facing the right way in the correct lane, front tyre punctured, passenger side caved in, airbags fully deployed
It all happened in a fraction of a second, but as people say, it seemed as if it was in slow motion. Every nanosecond etched on my mind.
I pulled over to the shoulder of the road and grabbed my phone from the charger. I opened the boot of the car and fished out my first kit. The one I had brought in case I sprained my ankle while hiking.
As I jabbed 999 on the phone’s keyboard, I thought to myself “I don’t have enough Bandaids for this accident. Those people are dead for sure.”
“Ambulance, Fire or Police?” the calm female voice said at the other end of the line.
“Ambulance and Police,” I said, already fumbling with my phone to put it on loudspeaker, so I could use the Emergency App to give my location.
“Which one first?”
“Ambulance, I would say. I have just witnessed a serious road crash. My location is XYZ”, and I gave my coordinates, reading from the screen.
I ran down the hill, the tiny first aid kit tucked under my arm.
I got to the white car first.
“Are you hurt? Any injuries?”
“No,” they both said, “We are OK, just a bit shaky.”
“Stay in the car,” I said, “I have called an ambulance.”
I turned to see a young man and woman crawling out of the silver car and watched incredulously, as they scrambled up the embankment.
“Come! Sit!” I said, sizing up their injuries. Scratched hands from the broken glass. A large graze on his temple. Cuts to her shins and shredded tights. Both had dilated pupils and were rambling on about what had happened.
“I just didn’t see him!” the young man said.
They were in shock.
I passed my assessment on to the calm lady who was still on the other end of the phone.
“I’ll send two ambulances,” she said. “it will be a while.”
I pulled out a gauze pad from my kit and told the girl to hold it on the largest cut on her shin. The blood flowing freely from the cut, making it look more gruesome than it was.
“Press hard with this,” I said, “what’s your name?”
“Where are you hurt, Joanna? Is it ok if I touch you to see if you have any injuries?
“My back and neck are really sore.”
“I imagine they are! Can you just stay really still for me?” I draped my one, silver blanket over her shaking body and asked her to breathe with me. “Nice deep breaths Joanna… Slow down, slow down… you’ll be Ok. The ambulance is on its way.”
By this stage, some other people had begun to pull up.
“Do you need help?”
“Yes, I do! Do you have a blanket?
The Dutchman nods.
“Get it, and wrap this fellow up. He needs to stay warm.”
“What’s your name, mate?” I asked the dazed man.
“You’ve got a bit of a bump on your head there John! Can I have a look at it?”
I took another piece of gauze from the meagre first aid kit and pressed it against his bleeding head.
“Can I help? another voice said from the crowd. “I am a navy medic.”
“Take over here, mate, you can do a better job than me!”
“No, you seem to have it under control.” He walked away and melted back into the crowd.
“HANG ON!!” I thought, “Is there no one here better equipped than me to deal with this? Here I am on the other side of the world in a foreign country being a very bossy Australian telling Scottish people what to do?? Is there no-one?”
It would seem I was it.
The Uncle of the White Car Man (who I now knew was Alex) turned up at my side. They had called him straight after the crash.
“You need help,” he said. Not a question but a statement.
Thank god, another person willing to lead. “Can you stop the traffic up there. We don’t want to get run over ourselves.”
There was no verge, and we were sitting right on the road.
The traffic was calm and patient. A few people got out to look at what was happening and then returned to their cars. There were offers of food and water for the injured.
“No,” I said “You don’t know if they are going to need surgery. Let’s wait for the ambo’s”.
The quizzical looks reminded me that abbreviating a word and adding an O was a uniquely Australian practice.
We waited. I checked on the two in the SUV again. They were still shaky but definitely uninjured.
My phone rang.
“Harris Police here, can you tell me what has happened?”
“Road crash at (co-ordinates). No major injuries. The traffic is building up.”
All matter of fact, as if I do this every day.
“We’ll be there as soon as we can, but we are already dealing with another matter at the other end of the island.”
It seemed like an episode of Shetland. The majestic scenery was laid out before me. The rocky outcrops, the soaring birds, the inquisitive bystanders. The grey, scudding clouds.
More time elapsed. perhaps 30 minutes, and then the welcome wail of a siren. One ambulance had arrived.
“Ok,” the green-clad fellow said, “What’s going on here?”
“Traffic accident, four people involved the two in the white car are a bit shaky but otherwise appear to be OK. These two, John and Joanna, crawled out of that car (the ambo lets out a long low whistle) and up the hill. They have some superficial injuries (pointing to their legs and hands) but are both complaining of headache, backache and a sore neck. They have been conscious and lucid the whole time. Their breathing has steadied, and they seem to be able to move freely, but I have asked them to stay still. Joanna is the most distressed, but I am concerned about his contusion on John’s forehead.”
“Ah hah…” he said slowly as he put on his gloves.
Shit! No gloves! I forgot to put mine on!!
“How long ago?”
“About 40 minutes?
“Hmm ok. Can you just hold John’s head still while I have a look.”
I cradled John’s head in the way I had been shown in the advanced first aid course I had done.
The paramedic looked at me and said: “Hmmm you know what to do… are you a first responder?”
First responder? I smiled and as a million thoughts went through my head as to how an Australian holidaying in Scotland had taken charge of a traffic accident, was well, not a first responder per se, but certainly a well trained NSW SES volunteer. How do you describe what the NSW SES is? Tick tock tick tock …it all flicked through my mind, and I decided on
“Well, no, not exactly. I am a volunteer in the emergency services in Australia. I have had some advanced training in this sort of thing.”
That would do for the time being. Another ambulance crew turned up. The paramedics decided to treat John and Joanna as having potential spinal injuries, which meant very cautious handling. I helped them strap the two onto spinal boards, and lift them onto the ambulance.
As they departed, I looked at the long, long queues of traffic stretching back on both sides of the road. The white car was still in the middle of the lane, immobile, blocking the traffic. The once patient drivers beginning to get impatient as the ambulance vanished over the hill. To me, it seemed like another accident waiting to happen, as people began to pull out willy-nilly, trying to get past.
In rapid-fire, I said to the Uncle “Contra-flow traffic, ten cars each way. You let ten cars past and then stop them, and then I‘ll let ten go from my end. Do that until we finish. Hold up your hand like this (the stop signal) and raise your other hand to me when you are ready to change over,” I demonstrated a beckoning signal.
I went up the road and waved the first car on. It didn’t move. An older woman in the driver’s seat was slumped over the wheel.
“Oh my god,” I thought, “don’t tell me she’s had a heart attack while we’ve been waiting? And the ambulance has just left!”
I walked gingerly up to her car and tapped on the window. She woke up, startled. I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I had been holding.
“Move on please ma’am.”
For the next 15 minutes, we directed the traffic. I cursed the fact that I was dressed all in black and had no hi-vis, no glowing traffic wand. Not like in the training I had done.
The police rang again. They’d be there soon.
After 2 hours, they did finally arrive. The queues of traffic had gone, the ambulance had taken John and Joanna away. Alex (the driver of the white car) had calmed down, and his Aunty was now just plain angry that the police had taken so long to get there. The Uncle and I were congratulating each other on what a fantastic job we had done with the traffic. It seemed so peaceful.
The police officer began to get my details.
“Hang on a minute,” she said. “I just have to check on my colleague”. He was striding down the road, fishing something out of his pocket.
“It was his first day yesterday.” Eye roll “I just have to make sure he does not breathalyse them without me as a witness.”
She came back to me 20 minutes later and started to retake my statement.
It was cold. The wind had picked up, and I was busting to go to the toilet. While caught up in the middle of the emergency, I had stayed calm and in control. The only thing I could think of now was not wetting my pants in front of this police officer.
I told her I needed to go.
“Go down the road to the Youth Centre. It’s just around the bend here. Tell them the Police sent you. They’ll let you use their loo. Wait for us there.”
“Right yeah sure,” I thought. But sure enough I said the police had sent me, they let me use their loo and now more comfortable, I sat on the car bonnet and waited. Another 15 minutes later, the Police pulled up at the Youth Centre, and I gave them my statement.
It was now three and a half hours since I had looked in that rear-view mirror and I was finally on my way again. Cold, hungry and thirsty. However, my overwhelming emotion was pride! I had done good! I had stayed calm. I had been useful! I had used the training I had been given through the NSW State Emergency Service to render first aid and direct traffic. I might be a bossy Aussie, but who bloody cares! On this day, at that moment, I was the right person at the right time, and I helped people. Really, really helped them.
Punch the air, Old Chook! Today you were truly invincible and very visible!
The NSW SES is a volunteer organisation which has jurisdiction over storm and flood events in New South Wales, Australia. In some rural units, they also look after road crashes. I have been an SES member for nearly 5 years. I have been trained in many aspects of emergency management. You can read about the SES here. It’s a government-funded body and one of the things I really love about Australia. We look after each other!
Several weeks ago, I reported that I had very carelessly lost Iain, my wee travel companion. I surmised that I had perhaps left him on the rooftop of my car while I packed my things or that I had simply left him on the rocks at Salen Jetty.
While devastated by his loss, I found another travel companion, Iain mac Iain. His black watch kilt and shawl at odds with the Royal Stewart tartan of his “father”. But hey, you have to make do with what you have, and I had a very generous donation of black watch tweed from my Airbnb host in Lewis.
At the Kylie Concert
In the gardens of yet another castle!
Hoping to get lucky!
Iain mac Iain was a valiant replacement. Forever seeking out his father, befriending other seemingly lost or abandoned travel mascots, he made it home safely to Australia after spending the better part of a month in Scotland. He had some grand adventures and has appeared in many unknown facebook posts as he was included in other people’s family snaps.
I sought the help of the good people of Salen Jetty. I messaged the shop as soon as I realised he was missing. We stayed in contact and finally the day after I flew back into Australia an Iain- sighting was made on Facebook! True to his armoury loving-self he was found sitting on top of a canon! My Salen Jetty shop contacts were quick to claim on my behalf.
Now, three weeks after that first sighting he is here with me in Wollongong, Australia having a grand reunion with his dad! After an awkward handshake and a few minutes of small talk, it was man hugs all round!
Thanks to the power of the interwebs and the friendliness of a small community, we have been reunited! If you are ever in Salen Jetty, please drop in on these good folks, tell them you read the story of Iain and thank them on my behalf!
Thank you also to my friends who have joined in on Iain and Iain’s journeys, we’ve had some fun!
My muscular travel companion is lost somewhere after only a week of travel. We were having such fun too! I can’t be certain but I think I left him on the car roof at Salen Jetty. Perhaps, I just left him on the rocks staring out to sea. I did not realise until I got to the Glenfinnian Memorial and discovered he was not in his little carry pouch. I presumed he was on the front seat of the the car. A thorough search showed no signs of him. I messaged the owners of the shop at the jetty to no avail.
I was devastated. Close to tears. He may have only been a plastic action figure but he and I had made a connection. Well, the connection was really with my friends who had been commenting on his daily antics. That was the connection.
The connection with the travelling strangers who saw me taking the photos and joined in on the fun.
The connection was with the young hitch hiker I picked up near Bunessan on the Isle of Mull. When he got in the car and introduced himself as Iain, I had a hard job not choking on my laughter. I then of course had to explain why him being Iain was so funny.
I seriously thought about coming home. What was the purpose of my journey without Iain? He and I had been preparing for this trip for months. The rational side told me to get over myself.
The question of course is do I try and find a replacement? An Iain the second, son of Iain? The second Cheif of Clan Mangerton?
Will Iain return? If you know someone currently travelling in Scotland share this post and ask them to return my lost Iain of Mangerton. Please spread the word. Someone has him? Someone must be holding him for ransom?
Of course, he may have slipped through the stones we touched at Kilmartin? I half expect him to turn up on the front seat of the car at any moment.
PS: Please ask around your networks – someone in the world must have him? Last seen at Salen Jetty near KILCHOAN on Sunday 23 June 2019.
I don’t remember what I was dreaming about, but I was in one of those stages of sleep where my mind was buzzing, and even though I was sure I was awake, in reality, I was still unconscious. One of my dream-characters reminded me that this month marked the 10th anniversary of me leaving the marital home. Me walking out and into my own little bedsit, so we could “have some space to think things through”.
I took an independent step. I was proactive.
Another dream-character piped up with the idea that it must be getting close to 10 years since I raised my voice in anger. Ten years since I have screamed with murderous rage and ill intent… At anyone.
I am not saying I haven’t been angry or upset since that time – of course, I have, but since then I have never been in a frame of mind that was so filled with venom and hate.
So much has happened in those ten years. So many good things! I still lament the 10 years I wasted before that, in trying to stitch together something that was shredded and beyond repair. Why did we do that to ourselves? It’s not only me who wasted time. It wasn’t just me who lost good years in the technical “prime” of our lives.
That is all inconsequential now. Now is what counts, and where my head is NOW. If you have been reading this blog, you will know I have been rejoicing in the discovery of a new found creativity that has been hidden below the surface. It took a while for it to bubble to the top and make its way through the cracks, but it’s here – NOW.
I am happier although I am still restless. Something else is out there waiting to be discovered. And before all my friends get excited, it’s not another partner!
One thing I have learned is that I don’t need to be in a partnership. I have good friends, a loving family and an intentionally busy life filled with interesting pursuits and being coupled won’t add to this. Not NOW.
If you are in a broken relationship, it probably won’t get better. Leave! Don’t stay for the children’s sake. The kids will do better in a settled home. They don’t need to feel or hear the hate that seethes out of your skin. If there is violence, they don’t need that either.
Don’t waste 10 years. Don’t waste five!
Take the plunge.
It might be cold when you first get in, but you’ll warm up!
I don’t miss much about my marriage, but the one thing I really do miss is singing! My ex was a musician. He played guitar and drums. While never achieving any fame and spending way more than he ever earned, it was a very satisfying hobby for him and by default, for me as well. Sitting around the kitchen or on the lounge after work and on weekends he would play his Maton acoustic and sing. Most times I would join in with him. I am no virtuoso, but I could hold a tune and used to really enjoy these times.
I guess if we were singing, we weren’t fighting!
The repertoire was fairly broad but consisted of mostly “middle of the road” rock and folk music. There was plenty of Paul Kelly, Cold Chisel, Dire Straits as well as Bob Dylan (which incidentally I didn’t join in on).
I especially enjoyed the family singalongs with his brothers and sisters. These were always happy nights that went into the wee hours.
Since I have been on my own, my opportunity to sing ad hoc has completely vanished, and now when I try and sing along in the car or in my kitchen, my voice is weak and becomes hoarse very quickly. I begin to splutter and cough. I guess it’s like anything, it takes practise and training. My “singing” muscles are no longer in good condition. Sadly, I can’t remember the last time I actually sang with other people!
Somewhere between me being 45 and nearly 60, Wollongong’s nightlife has been through a metamorphosis. At one time, Wollongong had a reputation for being violent. Rolling brawls spilled out of places like the Glasshouse onto the streets and kept people like me at home. We didn’t feel comfortable sharing noisy venues with barely-clad chicky babes and young men whose sole goal was to get “maggoted”. My friends and I stayed at home and had civilised dinner parties, sometimes venturing out to the popular Little Prince* only to be disappointed because we couldn’t find a seat.
(*I’ll review the Littel Prince in another post)
More recently and I’m reticent to use the word “suddenly” because I’m sure it has not been sudden, there has been a torrent of small bars setting up shop. These places have style, the music is quieter, the seats more comfortable and the lighting more subdued.
It’s not so much a case of Wollongong changing from an ugly caterpillar into a butterfly, because some those rowdier places are still open for business. Rather, new classier blood has moved into the neighbourhood offering more choice to a broader range of patrons. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice at the moment!
My friends and I are not looking for somewhere to “hook up” or meet a date. We want a place where we can feel comfortable alone or with a group of friends for a chat. We enjoy good food and are fussy in our choice of drinks. We want background music that stays in the background and excellent amenities in terms of toilets, glassware and seating.
So which small bars are a good match for Old Chooks?
In the interests of research, I decided to hit the streets and review the boutique and small bar scene, systematically and scientifically. Armed with an online survey, I enlisted the help of some dedicated Old Chooks (Diane and Karen) to critically evaluate what was on offer.
So far, we have checked out six small bars over two nights in Febraury and March 2019. We will bravely venture out again to check out more bars in the coming months. Tough work but someone has to do it!
I must say we approached our task with enthusiasm, and frankly, I think we got a little overexcited. It was funny how having a purpose changed the dynamics of a night out, transforming it from a simple social get-together to a serious mission. It also meant we were more observant than we would have been otherwise. The methodology is simple. We each pick a bar, then work out the most efficient walking route between them. Once at the bar, we carefully check the food and drinks menu and the toilets. These are the deal breakers in our view! We try to engage the bar staff in conversation without giving our game away. We order a drink each and some food to share and then after an hour or so move onto the next bar.
Three bars, three drinks, three snacks.
In that hour, we are busy on our phones filling in the survey and discussing the lighting, the ambience, the crowd and the facilities. The survey is comprehensive, and each question is given a score. The scores are then added up to provide an overall rating. There are a few inherent biases in the method. The first bar on the list is reviewed early in the night, and it may not have yet reached its peak ambience. Another factor is that the third bar is considered after 2 drinks. Hopefully, we are not such cheap drunks that our focus is too frayed!
121 Keira Street, Wollongong
Juniper was our first review, and we started there at about 7:30 PM. There were plenty of available tables. The crowd was made up of three male/female couples and a group of eight 30-40-year-old females. Four men walked in, looked around and walked out. Perhaps it was a bit girly for their taste? The concrete walls were sponged with pastel tones, and there was no other decoration. The wooden tables were garnished with small candles and a bit of greenery in a recycled jar. The concrete floor and walls created a noisy vibe, and the music was too loud for easy conversation. There was a definite need for some soft surfaces to act as noise dampeners. The bar itself had a charming backlit display which was very interesting.
Juniper, as the name suggests, is a gin bar. There was an extensive selection of gin but little else besides. The printed menu was very informative and gave good descriptions of the gin varietals. They offered gin-based cocktails as well as straight nips and various tonic mixers. The drinks ranged in price from $11 – $19. The food menu was minimal (a choice a three) and there was no vegetarian option. We chose the drinks plate: a platter of cheese and meats with very crunchy toasted bread ~ $25. The two wait staff were friendly.
BEST: Excellent subdued lighting. The bar was nicely lit and looked very pretty.
WORST: Noise levels and food choices.
88 Kembla Street, Wollongong (behind the Creamies gelato shop)
I felt like a secret agent entering the Black Cockatoo with its hidden entry off an ice cream parlour. I wish you needed to give a secret handshake! Once inside the dark interior was reminiscent of an American bar. Booths lined the walls with a few standing tables as well as seats at the bar. It’s a small venue with a capacity for around 30. A large painted mural of a cockatoo and a few band posters were the only decorations. Still, it had a nice ambience tending to retro. Two 20-something men were serving. They were very casually dressed in long shorts and t-shirts. The food menu was again minimal and this time consisted of packet chips, sausage rolls and cheese and spinach pies. Don’t come here looking for a meal! The drinks menu was small and limited to canned beers, a few imported draft beers and a small selection of wine. Drink prices were reasonable, ranging from $6 up to $15.
When we arrived at 8:30, we were the only ones there for a few minutes, and the boys were happy to chat while not being obtrusive. With a very late licence, this would be the place for a late night meet-up, not an Old Chooks night out. There was one toilet which had no hand towels although it was tidy in other respects. The music was great, probably meant to be retro but it was all our era!
BEST: The secret agent feel and the music.
WORST: Food. Although, to be honest, if you were here late at night, a sausage roll might be perfect!
Births and Deaths.
2/74 Kembla St, Wollongong
Births and Deaths has had a fair bit of cash thrown at it. The black walls frame the $6000 -worth of Italian tiles that back the bar. There is one long re-manufactured stone table in the middle of the room which would comfortably seat 30 and cafe style seating around outside of the room as well as a few stools at the bar. The bar was half full, with an interesting mix of people. B&D offered table service, a nice touch. We chatted at length to one of the owners, Jared. He explained his philosophy which focused on sustainability. He said they reused as much as possible. The straws were metal, the coasters, washable fabric. The kitchen ran on the concept of minimising waste with the beetroot and pumpkin scraps leftover from the tasting plates used to make syrup for drinks. According to Jared of Births and Deaths, my friends and I are part of the targeted demographic boutique bars in Wollongong are looking for. Cashed up and older. Young folk, you see “pre-drink” and are stingy about buying food. Old Chooks like us, on the other hand, go out early, buy more expensive drinks and order lots of food. He is also part owner of the Howling Wolf and works in partnership with Cavaeu (a hatted restaurant nearby). He was very accommodating and chatty and talked to us about his plans and the issues of getting a licence and permission to operate.
B&D is also a gin bar but has a broader selection of wine and beers than Juniper. The food was unique, and while not vegetarian, was mostly plant-based. We tried a pumpkin plate which included morsels of pumpkin cooked a few different ways as well as some cheese and tomato toasties.
BEST: The food and the staff.
WORST: The toilet while not unisex, was not very private and it was easy to “disturb” the privacy of other patrons.
69 Crown St, Wollongong
The Night Parrot was our first stop on the second research night. The technical hitches we had with the online survey (Diane’s phone going flat and Karen using the wrong form) had been solved, so we were ready to go! A fourth researcher, Tanya, joined us. There were five other groups of people and seating was not a problem. The other patrons were well dressed and included a few couples. The decor was dark and classy with one wall lined with highly varnished wood panels. The remaining walls and ceiling were painted black and gave the place a cave-like feel. The Night Parrot is a wine bar and features a walk-in wine cabinet which takes up one of the on-street windows. The busy kitchen was visible from the bar and added significantly to the atmosphere with steam wafting up from the stoves. There was seating at the bar as well as open tables and three padded “booths” which seated three comfortably with the fourth at the other side of the table. There was table service, and it took a little longer than expected to give our orders. I had decided to do Feb-Fast and was not drinking alcohol, and while the others were quickly served their wine, I had to ask a second time for my soda water. The volume of the music created a pleasant, unobtrusive feel and allowed for easy conversation. The lighting was on the dark side. This along with the dark walls, gave it a cozy atmosphere. The bar area was brightly lit. The one toilet cubicle was unisex. It was large and spacious with plenty of extra rolls of paper, gentle soap and a blower dryer. The decor was eclectic with a large suspended branch acting as a chandelier.
A small selection of food was on offer. I had the dumplings which were tasty and good value at four pieces for $14. The wine selection was a mix of local and imported wines and over a wide price range. Both Diane and Tanya ($22) were pleased with their grenaches, one local ($14) one imported ($22).
BEST: The decor and the wine selection;
WORST: We thought that with the way the seating was arranged, it would be tough to feel comfortable as a solo visitor.
68 Crown St, Wollongong
Moominn is a quirky, warm, cozy place. It reminded me of someone’s Grandma’s lounge room. There is a mixture of seating from a few lounge chairs around a fireplace to kitchen tables with old lino chairs. Some seating at the bar is also available. There are all sorts of bits and pieces hanging from the ceiling. Baskets, flowers, light fittings, bottles, umbrellas etc. The walls are entirely covered with mismatched pictures which scream out OP SHOP find. A large blackboard shows the specials as well as a few witty quotes. They had flavoursome zero alcohol beer, and I would have had another if we were staying longer.
The others all had the same red wine and seemed satisfied with their choice. The drinks were served in very simple, practical glasses. The barkeeper was friendly and offered advice on what beer they had when I asked for no alcohol. The food was OK. I found it a bit oily although the others enjoyed the mix of deep fried mushrooms, cauliflower and cheese bites. A second plate with bread and meatballs was very garlicky. The two dishes were $50 in total. They were small servings, and this seemed expensive to me. The single well-lit toilet is out back through the kitchen. Quaint sayings are painted on the walls, and the jumbled, over-decorated theme continues here.
The music, while pleasant, was too loud. There was a good crowd of around 20 in attendance, We originally sat at the bar and swooped on a table when it was vacated. The partons were a very mixed group with a good spattering of older people. It would be easy to visit Mooninn as a solo traveller with the lounge chairs near the fire being cozy and private.
BEST: Quirky fun feel
WORST: Noise levels
2/88 Kembla St, Wollongong
The Throsby is one of the more established small bars in Wollongong and has been open for several years. I had been there before. The waitress seemed to be annoyed when we walked in, and her face showed it. It looked like we had crashed a private party. It was only 10:10 PM. The first thing she said was the kitchen has closed. Most of the tables were empty, and there were two other groups. A group of four young men at the table nearest the door and a group of six young people at the bar.
The decor is muted and sophisticated. You could describe it as Scandi with blond timber and fine lines. A petite arrangement of flowers/leaves was on each table. The light fittings were chic woven timber. Their glassware was elegant, and I had a tasty pink grapefruit-soda water mix. The music was bland but at a reasonable volume. The one toilet was a bit messy and smelly. It might have been OK at the beginning of the night but needed a clean at this time.
Karen and Tanya both commented that the wine was a bit acidic. We could not comment on the food as we did not see a menu. Although the vibe was quite pleasant, we did not interact with the wait staff at all beyond ordering our drinks. We did not score the Throsby well, and we perhaps were over critical because of our less than enthusiastic greeting.
BEST: decor and glassware:
WORST: Reception on arrival. If you’re not open for business, close the door!
And the winner (so far) is…
The graph below shows our overall scores for the six bars visited to date. Births and Deaths has come out as a clear winner for many reasons. Jared was a star. Friendly, knowledgeable and willing to spend time chatting with us telling us about his philosophy. This made all the difference.