I’d been back in Omaha less than a day after spending a month in Australia and was still on Melbourne time when I woke from a type of tiredness that needed more than a good night’s sleep. The fridge had been emptied a month earlier of milk, eggs, butter, Greek yoghurt, cheeses, prosciutto, salami, bacon, and anything that could be used for a quick simple meal, so the first back in Omaha activity was a trip to the supermarket for basic fridge supplies. As I pushed the shopping trolley down aisle eight at Hy-Vee my lingering tiredness was jolted into energised alertness by Men at Work’s Down Under playing as background easy-listening music and I thought I was in the South Melbourne Coles on Clarendon Street, grabbing a few boxes of Arnott’s Sausage Sizzle and Meat Pie Shapes. As the last lines of the final chorus faded the unforgiving tiredness returned.
The tiredness I woke from was caused by a sleepless fourteen and a half hour non stop flight from Melbourne, Australia, to Los Angles International. As soon as the Qantas Airbus pushed back from it’s Tullamarine boarding gate the in-flight safety video started playing on the seat-back screen, and the cabin crew did their thing with the yellow life jacket. I nestled into my seat as QF95 accelerated down the runway and climbed into the blue morning sky. I nonchalantly began to check the box-set TV offerings on the in-flight entertainment system. It’s impossible to describe the excitement that swept over me when I saw season one and two of Big Little Lies. The opportunity of boredom had presented itself; I could review the first five episodes of season one, watch episodes six and seven, and then binge-watch season two. If only the flight time was longer than fourteen and a half hours.
A month earlier on a seventeen plus hour Dallas Fort Worth to Sydney flight, I was bowled over by Big Little Lies; which I discovered halfway through the flight. After only watching the first two episodes I deemed it binge-worthy. I’d just started episode six when a crew member after locking the wheels of their food trolley mouthed breakfast at me. I punched pause on the seatback touch screen, pointed at the leek and parsley frittata with pork sausage, potato and mushroom hash, and baked beans, and took off my headphones. Then time flew by. Cabin crew bustled through the aisles filling teacups, gathering breakfast trays, collecting recyclables, and handing out biro’s for travellers to complete their Australian incoming passenger card. And then came the announcement “in ten minutes we’ll be beginning our approach and descent into Sydney”. As I stepped from the arrival-departure gate I accepted the uncertainty that had become my world. I would forever ponder the intrigues woven into episodes six and seven of Big Little Lies.
During the next month, I became a sightseer in my own country. After several days of rekindling memories of Sydney, I enplaned for a five hour across Australia flight to Perth; during the five hours, I thought back to the last time I was in Western Australia. It was 1971 and I had stepped ashore from the S.S. Gallileo at the passenger terminal. I bid au revoir to Australia that afternoon in Fremantle. It was late afternoon when I deplaned in Perth and checked in at a Fremantle hotel. I set off to walk the downtown curving, classic, colonial-era streets, waterfront, and harbour; hoping to revive my forgotten memories of yesteryear. All I could remember about Fremantle and the last time standing on Australian soil was the sensation of walking on sea legs for the first time.
The first ship and crew to chart the Australian coast, and meet with Aboriginal people, was captained by the Dutch navigator, Willem Janszoon. The Dutch continued to explore and charter the unknown Southern Land and named its north and west coasts New Holland. A Dutch rescue party searching the west coast for survivors from a ship lost at sea landed on a large island some 3 miles off the mainland. They didn’t find any survivors but did see large marsupials which they thought were giant rats, and so they named the island “Rotte nest”: from the Dutch word Rottenest meaning “rat nest”. Today, the locals call it Rotto.
I took the twenty-five minute Fremantle to Rotto ferry trip for two reasons. One was to see a marsupial with beady eyes, a rat’s tail, that hops like a kangaroo and is about as big as a house cat, and is known as the “happiest animal in the world”. Quokkas are native to Australia, and Rotto supports around 10,000-12,000, which is the largest known living population. The Rottnest Express disgorges a steady stream of bikes and passengers when it docks at Main Jetty in Thomson Bay. Rotto’s small, main town at Thomson Bay is known as The Settlement. The Settlement has a collection of shops and restaurants, a few historical buildings built by aboriginal prisoners back when Rotto was a prison, a bus stop to catch a bus around the island, and quokkas either lurking around the shops hoping for some dropped food or looking for handouts of chips and sweets from tourists. The Settlement has an overabundance of signs warning not to feed and touch the quokkas, but some visitors find it hard to resist dropping a few bits of sausage roll pastry or scraps of a cheesymite scroll.
And what would a Settlement be if it didn’t have the largest bike hire facility in the Southern Hemisphere? The Rottnest Island Pedal & Flipper has over 1,650 bikes for hire; there’s standard mountain bikes, comfortable hybrid bikes, electric bikes, bikes with baby seats and child trailers, and bikes for the little ones. Three thousand visitors a week hire a bike to cycle the 22 kilometres around the island.
I was overwhelmed at The Settlement by the gridlock of bike riding, and bike pushing tourists, and the throngs of kneeling, squatting and crouching, selfie stick wielding visitors trying for their quokka selfie. If it wasn’t for Roger Federer, Margot Robbie, Chris Hemsworth, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Hugh Jackman, and others posting their quokka selfies online we’d all be heading off to Rotto to rent a Heritage Bungalow, and to lose ourselves in holiday activities such as laybacks and bombs off a jetty, playing beach cricket with an esky for a wicket, washing sand out of our togs, playing lawn bowls, jumping on trampolines, watching ferries coming and going, and frolicking in a water park. Rotto has close to 500,000 ferry visitors a day and the number is growing, and I was like most Rotto day-trippers; only on the island to see the quokkas. But I wanted to see more than just the quokkas in The Settlement so I strolled down the prescribed pathways outside of the The Settlement. It didn’t take long to feel alone and to have quiet time with the quokkas. Even though I didn’t have any sausage roll pastry or scraps of a cheesymite scroll I had no problems taking quokka selfies.
The second reason I took the Rottnest Express to Rotto was to experience sea legs once again. As I queued up at Victoria Quay’s B Shed I repeated the mantra choppy waters with a swell, pitch the ferry good and well. I was one of the last on board, and the only unoccupied seats were just above the waterline. I had an immediate feeling of déjà vu. The small cramped cabin on the S.S. Galileo, which became my home for seven weeks, was on a lower deck and below the waterline. Unfortunately, the trip to Rotto was quite smooth. I kept watching the horizon through the side window to see if the ferry was pitching, rolling, and swaying. I thought back to the time on the S.S. Galileo when I stopped feeling the movement of the ocean. It was at the same time when most passengers were no longer vomiting anywhere and everywhere or using the handrails to walk steadily. When the S.S Galileo left Durban and journeyed up the African coast to the Canary Islands I passed the time playing table tennis on the open deck. Some days, I’d only see the sky when serving and when returning the ball, I’d look into a wall of the ocean. And I’d watch the ball as it moved in the air from one side of the table to the other. I turned away from watching the horizon through the ferry’s side window and started to watch the muted What To Do On Rotto video playing on a loop, on the ferry’s big-screen TV.
The Fremantle Doctor is a strong daily sea breeze that arrives every afternoon. It caused the return Rottnest Express to Fremantle trip to be somewhat choppy, and you could feel the sway and roll when the ferry road the waves and crashed into the troughs. I thought to myself; hello, sea legs. And then without thinking I found myself crawling around looking under the seats for table tennis balls. As I disembarked onto the solid ground I took a few gingerly steps, only to be overcome with disappointment. I had land legs. The ground wasn’t moving, and I wasn’t swaying, rocking, and bobbing. When I was testing to see if I had sea legs I distracted myself by looking around the harbour. In the near distance was the Fremantle Passenger Terminal. I stared without blinking and thought I recognised the building.
I stood, staring, waiting for the appropriate nerve cells in the brain to connect so I would remember walking down the S.S. Galileo’s gangway and into the Fremantle Passenger Terminal. You’d think you’d remember an iconic 1960’s steel and concrete, post-war design building. It was the largest passenger terminal in Australia for its time. The nerve cells connected, but the memories of disembarking and walking through the passenger hall, seeing the gift and souvenir shops, riding Western Australia’s largest escalators, and checking out the pies and sausage rolls in the snack bar were lost to 1971. I remembered walking down the wharf on sea legs, finding the nearest pub, and spending a long afternoon in Fremantle drinking an abundance of what I thought would be the last of Australian beer.
I’ve been thinking about setting up a Quokka Sanctuary in the backyard ever since quokkas have become the go-to of marsupials. They’re rare and mostly found only on Rottnest Island in Western Australia so that makes it difficult for most people to take quokka selfie. It shouldn’t take much to get a few potted gum trees, and a bunch of soft toy quokkas, to scatter around the backyard. I think twenty dollars to visit the sanctuary is a fair price. And you could take all the quokka selfies you want.