Last week, I took a day trip up into the Adelaide Hills for work. I was there observing a training session being run by one of my colleagues. I left home early, hitting the road by 7.30ish. It was brisk; not exactly cold for a winter’s morning, but certainly not warm.
As I drove up the freeway, the sun peeked bright and gold over eucalyptus-covered hills, and fog draped its wispy fingers low over scrub and housing estates. I followed the road through the tiny towns of Littlehampton and Nairne, and – managing to get only slightly lost along the way, after taking a right hand turn when I should have gone straight – ended up at Brukunga, where the training venue was located.
I easily found a car park, and squeezed my Barina in between two government plated 4-wheel drives. I got out of the car, and felt the immediate drop in temperature. The air was cold and damp, and smelled of rain and eucalypts and rotting wood. I heard magpies warbling in the distance. Gem coloured parrots swooped low between bent, writhing gums, squawking as they flew past me, outraged, I supposed, that I dare invade their territory.
I felt a tug of recognition, familiarity and nostalgia as I walked to up to the training room. This feeling warmed me, despite the coolness of the air. I grew up in the country, and while I’ve lived in Adelaide for thirty years, whenever I visit even slightly rural areas, I am immediately transported back to my childhood. The minty-peppery-lemony smell of eucalypts; winding, gravelly roads with narrow shoulders and floral tributes marking fatal car crashes; creeks, with grey-brown water rushing over pinky-white rocks; sheep, cows and horses grazing emerald paddocks; pale grey skies threatening rain – all these things remind me of the happy bits of my formative years. And, yes, there were happy bits in amongst the just plain awful.
Camping and road trips
My mother’s third husband, a man she met at the school she worked as a teacher’s aide, had a penchant for camping and road trips. Not long after he married my mother – I would have been around 13 – he packed us all up in his black VW combi and drove us all around country Victoria. It was during the May school holidays, and bitterly cold.
We drove up through Horsham, the Grampians and Ballarat, stopping at the Sovereign Hill and panning, without luck, for gold before driving onto Melbourne, where we stayed for a few days. Then it was onto the snow fields via Bright and Healesville, where we visited the Sanctuary, before taking the Great Ocean Road home via Warrnambool and Port Fairy.
It was 35 years ago, and I still remember the smokey smell of campfire permeating my clothes and clinging to my hair. I remember my breath steaming out of my mouth in the frost-bitten morning, fingers wrapped snug in my cream woollen mittens – hand-knitted by me in an Aran pattern – around a hot cup of tea. I remember eating hot damper, smeared with melting butter and dollops of homemade plum jam, juggling it between my hands like it was a red-hot coal. I remember being heart-broken at leaving the object of an unrequited crush – Phillip Cooper – back in Mt Gambier, where I was sure my prolonged absence would be the cause of other girls snuggling up close to him, breathing in the salty-herby smell of his long, blonde, wavy hair. Even then I had an overactive imagination when it came to boys.
While I never did manage to entice Phillip Cooper into noticing me, I have never forgotten the marvelous magic of a camping road trip. In fact, camping road trips were a significant part of my life from my teens right into my early thirties. Even now, as I travel internationally, my trips invariably involve some sort of land transport, rail being a current favourite after my recent three-week sojourn in Japan.
Sunday drives and Chickenland ice creams
Sunday was the day we went for an outing as a family, such that it was. We attended church in the morning, visited my grandparents afterwards, often staying for lunch, and then my mother would drive my two sisters and me to the Lakes. The Lakes comprised the Blue Lake, the Valley Lake and the Leg of Mutton Lake, all remnants of an ancient volcanic system, now extinct, with the Valley Lake having been turned into a recreational area and tourist draw card for water sports.
For me and my sisters, a drive to the Lakes meant running breathlessly between, and climbing on, the wonderful pine play equipment installed there: I distinctly remember a boat and a fort, where we pretended to be pirates and cowboys and damsels in distress. There was other fixtures – swings and a sandpit, I think – but the recollection is fuzzy and blurry, like someone has pulled a thick, woollen blanket up over that part of my memory, and firmly tucked it in.
There was a wildlife park adjacent to the play area in which emus and kangaroos safely resided behind a high, wire fence, languishing hidden among the eucalypts, wattles and bracken. We walked the squarish perimeter each time we went to the Lakes, breathing in the moist, mushroomy air, stopping every now and then to pick up double emu feathers to be repurposed for bookmarks, spot kangaroos with their joeys and catch glimpses of brightly coloured native birds racing each other through the scrubby air space.
My mother, from what I can work out, spent this time reading in the car, enjoying the meagre warmth of the pale, watery sun, and monitoring us from afar. Maybe it was the only peace she could stake out for herself in a life brimming with drama and misery, albeit self-inflicted. She would call us in when the shadows stretched long and dark, and the sun dipped below the crater rim and she’d drive us – exhausted from our play – to Chickenland for an ice cream. Chickenland, clearly, was a shop that sold roast chicken and roast chicken accompaniments like chips, roast potatoes, potato salad and coleslaw. While Chickenland chicken was always excellent – moist and juicy, with just the right amount of crispness for the salty skin – it’s the ice cream I remember it for.
The ice cream was housed in large silver tins in a refrigerated display area on the other side of the cash register. Our faces and hands, ruddy from the cold, would press eagerly up to the glass anticipating the deliciousness of our choices. We each had our favourites – mine was the rum and raisin and the toffee – and I would always order a double. The rum and raisin, which looked like it should have tasted of coffee, was rich with a lush, bitter-sweet rummy flavour, peppered with fat juicy raisins, drunk on the liquor. The toffee ice cream was ecru in colour, resplendent with buttery toffee bits that were crunchy-soft that stuck stubbornly to my teeth. Occasionally, I’d deviate from my course and go with the licorice or the coffee, both delicious, creamy, flavoursome alternatives, but I always returned to the rum and raisin and the toffee, just like a prodigal daughter returning home.
Ice cream is still something I treat myself with, and I always have a ready supply in the freezer, mainly of the Magnum Ego mini variety. I went through a stint of making my own ice cream in an effort to recapture the toffee Chickenland version, and while it was tasty, it wasn’t the same. But there is something about a battered and beaten Violet Crumble bar folded into a tub of full fat cream, whipped with sugar and vanilla and then frozen, that is pure decadence, irrespective of its inability to recapture childhood memories. I will admit that I ate ice cream – gelato, in fact – all over Italy when I was there in 2012. This particular fact – that, and the pasta and vino – probably goes a long way to explaining the significant kilowattage I came home with and have only just managed to shed!
Every Friday after school, my mother took my sisters and me to the local library, where we’d bring back the books we’d read that week, and would borrow a stack of new ones. I was a bookworm as a kid: I loved reading and would devour just about anything printed that crossed my path. I remember the library was a bright, light building showcasing shelves of hardcovers and twirling stands of paperbacks, all beckoning to be read, and radiating around a central desk. I was always drawn to the cover of a book when choosing my next literary adventure, and would read a bit of the first chapter as well as the blurb on the back, before making the life or death decision as to whether it should leave its shelf or rack and proceed to be borrowed. I loved everything about library books: the musty-spicy smell of the pages, thinning and dog-eared with use; the hard covers wrapped in plastic, sticky and pockmarked; the soft covers faded with colours bleeding, and corners frayed and peeling. I loved the return stamp that librarian – all of whom I thought defied conventional thought and were incredibly glamourous – inked decidedly onto the slip into the back of each of my borrowed books. I loved gathering up my pile of books, and eventually stacking them next to my bed in the order they were to be read.
Reading is a habit that still continues today, and while I’m still a member of my local library, I admit that I very rarely step inside one now. My book consumption is, to a great extent, dictated by what’s free on Amazon (you should see how many ebooks I have collected on my Asus tablet!); what ebooks people have bestowed upon me (for reading on my tablet, and stored on my hard drive for ready access and later use); what the current books are for the book club I’m in (I read Life of Pi, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Kite Runner through various book club memberships); what other people are reading and recommend (The Book Thief, the Millenium series, In Cold Blood, for example); what TV or movies I’ve enjoyed that are based on books (One Day and Game Of Thrones for example); what was being read by Oprah and her book club (I fell in love with Anita Shreve’s writing because of The Pilot’s Wife, and I added a whole lot of non-fiction to my To Read list); and classics I should read or reread (Leo Tolstoy, Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, George Orwell, William Golding etc.).
I took my daughter to our local library when she was young, and it pains me that while she is literate, she is not a reader. And this despite the fact that I read to her from when she was a baby, and listened to her read when she was in primary school. She must never have found that one book that hooked her in because of a heart-stopping plot, that made her fall in love with a character, or that just made her savour the compelling beauty and savagery of words.
For the record, some of my favourite books from my childhood and early teens are:
Where The Wild Things Are
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Magic Faraway Tree
The Island of The Blue Dolphins
A Wrinkle in Time
Grimms’ Fairy Tales
Children of The New Forest
On The Outside Looking In
Chariots of the Gods?
I have decided to make this part of an occasional series where I recall my childhood and teen years spent in Mt Gambier. This is all part of a concerted effort to balance out what was a rather toxic family life, which I also write about. Part 2 has been written and scheduled.