Friday, 26 August 2016

Letting Leo In

My dad was a man of contradictions. I know, you could say that about literally every person who's ever lived. But this seems to be an attribute of his, which reflects his existential internal rift. I could always rely on him for the darkest sense of humour, for slaying sacred cows whenever possible. At the same time, he remained throughout his life a very serious man - considered, fearful of rash decisions, often to a point of constipated inaction, which frustrated the rest of the family. He was a devout Socialist his whole life, yet followed conservative social norms in the most dogmatic fashion. 

Probably due to his strict upbringing, he was both respectfully fearful of the wrath of authority, yet a rebel at heart. He would never question doctors, lawyers, teachers, people who have reached the top echelons of social hierarchy, and this blind subservient compliancy ultimately contributed to his demise, failing to press for second opinions on diagnosis, or dispute lackadaisical courses of treatment. Yet he dedicated his later life, after years as a metal shop mechanic, to union work - naively, perhaps, ignoring any trace of corruption or skewed ideals, proceeding with a focused conviction of the value of integrity and culpability of humanity for each other's wellbeing - acting as legal advisor in work tribunals. Thereby he had found a way to question authority in the most fundamental way, but one which worked for him: finding where the rules were misappropriated or manipulated and ensuring justice is served, protecting the little man from the malevolent Capitalist.

Remembering my dad as I was growing up is in one of two modes - with an almost permanent slight grin, one side of the mouth curving upwards underneath his occasional moustache and hefty nose, a twinkle in his eyes as he's just dispensed some satirical or cutting - but never hurtful - observation. The other mode was as a stern, dictatorial, stubborn and arbitrary figure, unmoved by pleas or reasoning. If dad said no, it was pointless to try and argue. His word was Law. A fun, boundary-basher on one hand, a stone wall the other.

Later on, as an adult, his third mode was revealed - the depressive. Of a generation where introspective self-awareness was considered an indulgent waste of time and 'philosophising', his ultimate derisive term for anything deeper than the practical, he was ill-equipped to handle his crippling depression and nihilism, which also played a part in his deterioration.

But remembering him as a whole, complex person, divided within himself, is for me best encapsulated in a particular moment towards his final days. I was helping my dedicated mum and sister look after him, as he was deteriorating towards the unavoidable cul-de-sac in the most horrific fashion. My mum was out one morning, and I had managed to convince him to eat something so he could take his bundle of medications - food had been one of his absolute joys in life, now all but completely gone with the progress of the illness - and at his request brought him a thin slice of pumpernickel bread, smeared with cream cheese and sprinkled with chopped onion. My dad had a proclivity for the simple foods of his Germanic childhood. He ate up, with some effort. But did not manage to keep it down. As I was cleaning up, dismissing his unnecessary embarrassed apologies, he looked up at me with that little smile of his and said: 'well at least it tasted good coming up too'.

Ol' metal shop fingers and me

A transit van pulled up across the road from me, and an American man in his 50s disembarked. I knew he was an American, because he had that slick yet slightly outdated small-town look only American men in their 50s manage to achieve - a golf shirt, Bermuda shorts, a white moustache, round framed glasses and a straw hat. Like he stepped out of a Stephen King novel. But not evil.

Strahan - first impression
He walked over cautiously, having been tasked with collecting me, and politely enquired whether I was the right person, but I knew that was Leo, the man from the letter of introduction I read at Susan's house a few days earlier. As premonitioned, Leo and I hit it off straight away. He wasted no time unfolding his ideology to me - all about self-sufficiency and anti-consumerism, intending to spend the rest of his life as a handyman / Wwoofer, living off trading his many craft skills, rather than participating in our capitalist society of pointless accumulation.

Leo had been a handyman his entire life and was indeed very handy, for the moment with a pair of pliers, busily plastering the cracked walls of our hosts' house, and in the planning stages of building a chicken run, weather conditions permitting. The hosts, Kathy and Gary, greeted me with warmth, promptly introducing me to the cat, Tashi, the three chooks and the two goats (on loan) and I was fed home baked scones with jam and yoghurt. My work here was to be mainly hardcore weeding, transplanting and yet more transplanting. It was great actually, I learned a fair bit about vegetable growing just from the few days I spent listening to Gary (also an American) talk about his carrots.

Gary and Kathy were specialist trekking guides in Nepal, and when not tending to the house or garden, were busy organising the next expedition to the Himalayas. They were full of anecdotes from their adventures: from scrotum dwelling ticks, to men-hating lesbian trekkers challenging a fellow trekker - a policeman - to a fight, and to drunken monks on donkeys making "fuck" gestures at a puzzled and bemused Gary and Kathy. They never did find out what that was about.

Being travel guides also meant that Kathy and Gary were generously encouraging that Leo and I see the local sights. One night, Kathy drove us all to see Short Tail Shearwaters, AKA mutton birds - the only source of food for the original settlers, still today scoffed with 
Nesting Mutton Birds
pleasure by old-timers, a practice not favoured by a wildlife champion such as Kathy. The bird were flying in from a few weeks spent over the ocean, so they can relieve their nesting partners from their shifts, the nests based in holes in the dunes. Here they would spend the night together, then allow the nesting partner to fly off for their turn of ocean feeding. We weren't allowed to shine any direct strong lights at them, so Kathy used green cellophane wrapped around a torch to dim it, and we stood on the shore, the smell of the ocean heavy, the stars high above us, watching low flying birds screeching all around like demented bats, causing sand to blow into our already squinty eyes. Then Gary got out the single malt and all was well.

Flocking Short Tail Shearwaters, AKA mutton birds
I had a little walk into town the next day and discovered sadly that its entire population was employed in some form of the tourist industry, a reality which was true for most small towns in the Southern hemisphere, I was to discover. Local industries have all but shrivelled dead. One woman here even turned her back garden into a native-rainforest mini museum - with entry fee of course, irritating her neighbours with the overgrown trees obscuring the sun and blocking the gutters, making it worse by tackily naming it The Magic Cottage. However, the town's main tourist attractions were the Gordon-Franklin river cruise, taking you through the untouched vast rainforests, the steam train journey previously mentioned - going to Queenstown and back, and a couple of sea-plane or helicopter rides. There was also a daily showing of The Ship That Never Was, a humorous audience participation play, depicting the story of the last ship built at Sarah Island, which was about to sail for the new prison at Port Arthur, and of the convicts who mutinied and hijacked it, escaping to Chile. Down by the Tourist Info Centre, every day at 5.30. Tickets at the door.

Over the next few days, Leo and I became exploration companions, with a shared passion for making the most of our free time visiting as many beauty spots. We had his trusty van, which was fortunate, as most attractions in the area were definitely a driving distance away.

Macquarie Heads

On a day off we drove to Macquarie Heads, a part of the coast with a view of Hell's Gates and a decent picnic spot to boot. It also is the start of a beach with some of the largest sand dunes and therefor THE hotspot for quad biking - both legal and illicit, as well as a reluctant graveyard for crashed vehicles. Ocean Beach, as this is known, stretches north 30k, all to way to Trial Harbour . Leo and I braved the giant dune greeting us by the parking area, getting extremely out of breath up the steep wall of sand, but it was worth it - the vast beach was spectacular, and we even managed to avoid getting run over by any of the zooming quadders and bikers.

View of Hell's Gates
Henty Dunes - white and green meeting
We then drove further down, to Henty Dunes - immense forests on one side, the crashing waves of the ocean on the other, endless white sand dunes in between. We got caught up in the emotion of the moment, melodramatically contemplating deliberately getting lost, wobbling our way towards the ocean, our feet sinking in the soft sand as we go, but the prevailing presence of noisy quad bikes allowed us to follow their tracks back to the parking area.

We then headed back to Strahan, and braved the unmissable-only-play-in-town, The Ship That Never Was - surprisingly not entirely torturous and quite fun, especially as you're given a spray bottle to go mad with during a certain bit in the show, getting all the other tourists in the audience wet in their nylon shirts.

Tourist spraying - it's a sport
We ended the day having dinner at a lovely fish shop. Ironically, the local fish were all exported, so the ones we enjoyed were brought in from Hobart - and here we were, sitting by the harbour, fishing boats everywhere.

Leo was shaping up to be a real boost to my enthusiasm for experiencing every moment to the full and becoming a yea-sayer. Even to naff, cheesy, touristy theatre productions, shelling my armour of cynicism, at least for the duration. His fervour was contagious, and he wanted to share it all with me. We reasoned that as lone Wwoofers, who don't normally get a chance to partner up as joyfully as we clearly have, we should take advantage of this unexpected duality and take the lavish - at least for us destitute types - Gordon-Franklin river cruise. And with that, the very next morning we wolfed down our quinoa porridge and jetted down to the harbour again, to catch our boat.

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