Oh my! Isn’t that wonderful?

Almost 12 years ago now 23Thorns and I were on our honeymoon at a beautiful hotel called Cybele Forest Lodge. Our room had its own swimming pool, the white bed sheets were crisp, the towelling robes were huge and fluffy. There must surely have been a scattering of rose petals on the bed, but I forget this detail. Dinner comprised about 7 courses of pretentiously named food which arrived artfully placed in the centre of big white dinner plates. The guest lounge had velvet sofas with huge brocade cushions on which to recline while enjoying high tea. Oil paintings in old gilt frames decorated the walls. It was luxurious and classy and romantic.

On our second day in the hotel, we organised for a picnic basket to be delivered to a waterfall that we would reach after a short hike. A car would sneak in, deliver our picnic with silver cutlery and lead-crystal champagne flutes and disappear before we reached the end of our walk. All of this wildly engineered romanticism rather paled into insignificance when, on hiking through an indigenous forest, we happened upon this little rock pool.

Aviary Photo_130198206890365738

A little heart-shaped rock pool filled with the first spring rain was infinitely more romantic than lead crystal.

“Oh my! Isn’t that just wonderful” I thought, as I snapped off this photo that now sits in our entrance hall. Of course, it’s just a little erosion in a smooth, old, African mountain, and my brain was doing what brains do. It was finding a pattern. It was making order. It was finding meaning.


I mostly ignore the practical and reasoned approach to life though and embrace the magical thinking. I’m all over the magical coincidence of our honeymoon-love set in stone, just like I am all over a series of magical coincidences that led me to New Zealand about two weeks ago.

I wrote two posts back about my great great grandmother, Ethel. Ethel, for reasons I cannot imagine, left her husband and four very young children in South Africa in the early 20th century to return to her birth-country, New Zealand. She started a new family and a new life. Her South African children were told she was dead. Her New Zealand child was never told anything at all. Through a series of extraordinary “Oh my! Isn’t that wonderful?” moments and one Skype conversation with my long-lost New Zealand family, I had a single ticket to Wellington. I was going to follow in Ethel’s footsteps by travelling from South Africa to New Zealand solo. I was leaving my delicious husband and two children behind for an adventure on the other side of the world. On my own. My ticket was return though and on a 747 and not a ship, but I was to be covering the same ground that my sweet Ethel had covered over 100 years ago.

Ethel 1

Ethel whose route I was retracing.

Ethel’s crossing would have taken almost two months, which is an awful lot of time to think about having abandoned your children. There would have been tears, big seas, seasickness, Sunday prayers, more seasickness, at least one visit to the ship’s surgeon, windy days in the roaring forties, dolphin barbeques, pelican shooting parties, walks on deck past the children receiving their lessons, incredible boredom. She would have cooked her own meals on board. Each passenger received a weekly ration from the quartermaster. Single travellers often pooled their rations to enjoy their meals together. The ships generally allowed passengers 500 kg of baggage although only a small case of clothes was allowed in the cabins. (You were only allowed into the hold once a week.) In this small case you would need to have set aside clothing for all sorts of weather. Ethel was travelling from the sweaty subtropics of Africa down through the roaring forties and sometimes (depending on the winds) as far south as 60 degrees, where icebergs would have been seen floating about. I doubt Ethel took advantage of her 500 kg baggage allowance though. When you’re running away you pack light.

Steam ship about to set sail from New Zealand to Durban in 1901. Ethel's ship did the opposite trip but would have looked similar.

Steam ship about to set sail from New Zealand to Durban in 1901. Ethel’s ship did the opposite trip but would have looked similar.

I, however, had only a 14-hour flight to contend with. Isn’t that wonderful? This 14-hour flight plus a 3-hour layover in Sydney was too impossibly long for me to contemplate though because, you see, I am a smoker. No seasickness for me but instead a gnawing-in-the-belly-rage-building nicotine withdrawal. And I knew from a previous visit to Sydney that the international departure area, that I would sit in for 3 hours before my flight to New Zealand, had no smoker’s den of iniquity. So, I did what any sensible smoker would do. I decided that what I needed to do was to apply for an Australian visa, at great cost, book myself into a snazzy hotel, at great cost, and smoke Australian cigarettes, at great cost, to my heart’s content for 3 nights. I did not admit on my visa application form that I was going to Australia to smoke. With Australia’s stringent anti-smoking laws, they would hardly have believed me if I had admitted to it anyhow. Luckily I have some wonderful friends in Sydney who I could visit as a smokescreen for my real reasons for being in Australia. I had a 30 kg baggage allowance. As I was not running away and as I have an obsession with clothes and shoes, I cannot pack light. The worry and the fuss over what I was going to pack completely overwhelmed any panic I might have felt about meeting and staying with a family of strangers. My other worry and another one that would not have been a problem for Ethel was Australian Border Security. Ethel did not have jet-propelled transport but she also didn’t have terrorists and Malaysian food-smugglers.

If you haven’t seen the TV series, Border Security, it shows po-faced customs agents protecting Australia’s borders from narcotic, biological and criminal invasion. They are a problem for me because I have problems with authority. Not the I’m-always-in-trouble-with-The-Man problem, the I’m-a-goody-two-shoes-and-hate-being-in-trouble problem. This problem leads me to over-declare. I tick all the little boxes and then hand over my gel eyeliner as an incendiary device. I declare I’ve been on a farm when actually I just collected my son from his “farm” nursery school which has a guinea pig and some bunnies. I declare food and then hand over the snack I received on the flight. I know I am neither a drug-smuggler nor a threat to Australia’s environment or people. I know it’s moronic but I can’t control it. The customs agents get annoyed with me, to say nothing of my lovely husband, who had this time given me strict instructions not be an idiot. I followed orders. I cleared customs with my giant suitcase, my sizeable carry-on bag, my bottle of duty-free French champagne and my huge overcoat that I didn’t need in Australia.


I needed a porter

Thus laden I was about to leave the Border Security danger zone when, perhaps distracted by a sniffer dog – would he stop to sniff where my dog had piddled on my suitcase? – I fell over my feet. In arm-wheeling slow motion, I came crashing down onto my hands and knees. People stared as my many possessions went flying. The sniffer dog startled. Border Security regretted letting me slip through their fingers. And in all this commotion and the seemingly endless time it took me to stand up and gather myself about myself with dignity and grace, all I could think was “Oh my! Isn’t that wonderful?” I had landed in Sydney for cigarettes and by doing so had avoided making a terribly dramatic entrance into New Zealand and in front of my new, unknown family by making it in Australia instead. I had used up my clumsy quota for the whole trip before I had even met the family.

And best of all, the bottle of French champagne had remained intact. The Universe was conspiring with me to make sure the trip would hold much to celebrate. It did. And that is no small thing. The family that Ethel left in South Africa was so broken. They died like flies under a weight of suffering. One generation broke the next, and it the one after. I am the last Farrow. The end of the line but I am not broken. I am intact, if red-flagged by Australian customs. And it was with bubbly heart that I spent my 3 nights in crisp white sheets and huge, fluffy robe in Sydney before I retraced Ethel’s final steps to New Zealand.

19 thoughts on “Oh my! Isn’t that wonderful?

  1. Oh my! That is wonderful!

    I’m so looking forward to hearing about the rest of your journey… I’m thoroughly entertained and you haven’t even left baggage claim in Sydney. I’m sorry, but I laughed out loud at you tripping over your feet.

    When I used to fly in and out of Australia, I would get so nervous when that beagle would come sniffing around. Drug dogs never bothered me because I was positive I didn’t have drugs, but who knew what piece of food I might have forgotten about in my bag?

    • I laughed out loud too. I caught a taxi to the hotel and literally laughed all the way. The driver must also have questioned how customs had let me into the country. He must have thought I was completely barking!

      I never knew the beagle was the food dog. I’ll be better prepared next time. It was a black lab in front of whom I crashed.

    • Tam, I’m going to be dining out on my adventure for weeks! I was in an earthquake. An earthquake! That’ll have to be a post all on its own. As will my 800m walk through Sydney which turned into a 6km run to catch the ferry.

  2. You could have saved a fortune a d bought an electronic cigarette. You can smoke them anywhere and they really are very good. As for the customs and falling over, are we related? I seem to be genetically programmed to feel like I’ve done so etching wrong even when I haven’t and thus look incredibly suspicious. Not only that I am a master at falling over, usually in the most public and dramatic of manners. If you have relatives in England I’d guess we share some genes somewhere in there.

    • I do have the English relatives! Nice to meet you, cousin. And yes, I don’t know why, when I am so completely innocent of anything the customs guys would find me guilty of, I turn into a hot, sweaty mess either.

    • I am! I am! I just took too long to get to the point yesterday. That and I seem to have forgotten how to write while away. The post took about twice as long as normal to churn out and it was hard work!

  3. It has taken me some time to stop laughing about the ‘shaped like an idiot’ to comment properly (I want to put that one up on the wall). I have been very much looking forward to seeing the post about your trip into the wild unknown (and I ‘m pleased you are making it more than one).

    Ah yes, the huge expense of smokes in Australia. I see people at the checkout who don’t look like they have had a square meal for a week but are buying a carton of smokes. Almost a mortgage payment, up in smoke!

    Very pleased to hear you made it through customs without getting pulled aside, although I admit I was looking forward to seeing you on telly at some time in the future. 😀
    I have a similar problem with authority, I expect to be pulled aside at all times because I look guilty even though I have absolutely no reason to.

    Just as well you were flying rather than going by sea. Imagine if you were trying to cook dinner aboard a heaving ship….. I expect your shipmates would only share their rations with you once or twice before they started cooking on their own, sick of scraping the remnants of dinner off the bulkhead after an unexpected spill sent it flying. 😉

    More, more!

    • I also loved it. A friend posted it on her Facebook wall and it is the reason that I went off on a complete tangent about honeymoons etc and found myself having written 1400 words before even having left the airport. It is the reason that my antipodean adventure is now a mini series!

      As for me on TV, you might catch me careening about in a blooper reel.

  4. I really want to know more about Ethel. I’m sorry for her broken family – speaking as one who has left children here and there around the world at various times and for various reasons – but I kind of admire her guts. What was the guy like – the first husband? Was she running from him, or towards someone else (or neither)? Please tell more!! (We have great grandies in NZ – wonder if it was one of them?)

  5. I wonder if homesickness and missing her family figured predominately in Ethel’s desire to abandon her new family in Africa and bugger off back to New Zealand? Moving to Africa was obviously a small insight into how adventurous a spirit Ethel was in the first place…she could have just headed over a hop-skip-and a jump to Australia and “gone bush” for a fix of dry and desolate but she chose to go to Africa of all places…definately a brave spirit or one desperately in love…sometimes the need for “place” overrides anything else. We don’t know how Ethel felt in Africa, and we don’t know how she lived or what her relationship was like. All we know is that she went back to New Zealand, another most brave (albeit incomprehensible one to we mums) move at the time. We, too, are goodie goodies. We had a few packets of hot chocolate drink in our luggage and when the declarations form came around I ticked “yes to milk products”…milk products being one of the red flag items in our border protection policy, so we arrived back from a 6 week trip to the U.K. knackered to our bones after a long haul flight via Air France (NEVER AGAIN!) at 2am to have to stand in a line a mile long of Asian tourists loaded to the back gills with strange and exotic foods. After 30 minutes slowly advancing in the pack we got to the front of the line (we were the lucky ones who got off the plane in the first rush 😉 ) and the customs man looked at me with incredulity as I showed him my 3 packets of hot chocolate…he looked at the xray of Steve’s suitcase with the dismantled guitar that he bought in the U.K.to avoid the heavy import taxes that we have to pay here and after looking at the HUGE line that was behind us, he told us to “just bugger off alright?”…
    Again, we can only think that you have brought your family full circle. You did what Ethel did, but in reverse and with entirely healing results. Perchance your journey has given your family back its shape. Glad you are back, Mr23 Thorns was strange and slightly wild and disturbing without you ;).

    • I’m sure the homesickness did play a part. The steamy humidity of Durban alone, after coming from temperate (I’m being kind here by calling it “temperate” instead of freezing) South Island, must have been a massive culture shock.

      You cannot believe how much Mr23 achieved while I was away. I think the wild and disturbing was probably as a result of physical exhaustion and not a pining for his lovely wife, his whimsy and his heart! He tiled 35 m2 of porch, made a 3m table and 4 benches to match, bought chairs and moved the lounge around (including the 20 tons of books and bookshelves) single-handedly. I’m planning a trip to France now in the hopes that when I come back the bathroom renovation, that has been 4 years in the making will finally be completed 🙂

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  8. Oh my, I dislike passing through customs too. I always feel I’m doing something VERY wrong and deserve to spend the rest of my life in prison. The feeling that someone else is probably also thinking that makes me nervous. I even feel this during baggage checks on domestic flights – what if they find something I never put inside? LOL!

    • Yes! It must be a very strange job, being a customs agent. Everybody all sweaty and nervous and avoiding eye contact or making too much eye contact as an I’m-really-not-nervous-I’ve-nothing-to-hide strategy. A bit like being a dentist, perhaps. You’re doing real good but nobody NOBODY likes you. No wonder they’re so surly.

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