Staying (dis)connected with Telstra

A man and power lines are reflected in a Telstra poster adorning a public telephone in Sydney, AustraliaScene – at my local Telstra shop.

Me: “I’m not sure what to do, I’ve smashed the screen of my iPhone, but I believe I have insurance…”

Them: “The best thing to do is to call Telstra, find out if you have Stay Connected and take it from there – if you have Stay Connected, you get two gigabytes of free data, and they will replace the phone.”

Me: “Really? That sounds simple…I was thinking of just getting the screen replaced in the shopping centre…”

Them: (Sternly.) “If you do that Madam, you will null and void your warranty and any problem you have with your phone will not be covered. Would you like to wait in the queue? Our waiting time is only four hours at the moment.”

Me: “Oh. No, I’ll go home and call Telstra.”

* * * * *

Them: “I already have your year of birth so please tell me the day and month or enter it on your telephone keypad…”

Me: “May 15.”

Them: “Is that…the 25th of October?”

Me: “No.”

Them: “Please tell me the day and month of your birth or enter it on your telephone keypad…”

Sometime later:

Them: “How may I direct your enquiry? Blah, blah, blah or blah, or other?”

Me: “Other…”

Them: “Sorry I didn’t quite catch that…”

Me: “Other!”

Them: “So that would be telephone sales?”

Me: (Sighs.) “Yes.”

Person answers.

Them: “So you’re interested in purchasing a new phone.”

Me: (Patiently.) “No. I dropped my iPhone and smashed the screen, and I believe I have insurance.   I was told at the Telstra shop that you provide a replacement phone, and that with Stay Connected I can back-up two gigabytes of data.”

Them: “I’m sorry, that’s not my department. But I’ll put you through immediately to Stay Connected. Is there anything further I can help you with?”

Me: (Politely.) “Thank you, but no thank you.”

Dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum…

Me: ”Oh hello! Yes, I’m ringing about my iPhone, I dropped it and smashed the screen and I was told…”

Them: “Yes, that’s right. All you have to do is download the Stay Connected app, then you follow the instructions and you can back-up all your data. When you get your new phone simply follow the prompts and ALL your data will be restored…”

Me: “Really? That’s fantastic! Thank you.”

Them: “Perhaps you would like to stay on the line and complete a short survey?”

Me: “Sure.” (Thinks – In your dreams.)

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A few days later, new phone arrives. Download Stay Connected App onto old phone (which is still working held together by sticky tape and Gladwrap). Instruction tells me I can’t download data, because I have too much on the phone. Start to delete. Keeps telling me I have too much. I get below ONE gigabyte, still tells me too much.

Them: “…I already have your year of birth so please tell me the day and month…”

_________________Readers fill in the blanks.

Them: “Hi there, I’m Cherie from Stay Connected. How can I be of service?”

Me: “Well, the thing is I smashed my iPhone….I’m trying to use the Stay Connected App. I was told it took two gigabytes of data and I’m way below now.”

Them: “Oh, well, I’m sorry but the App is down at the moment. It’s being redesigned, and in fact you have FIVE gigabytes of FREE data on it.” (Said in tones of great excitement.)

Me: (With just a touch of sarcasm.) “So I’ve just deleted most of the photos and videos on my phone to get it below the two gigabytes I thought I had, and in fact your App is not working, but if it was I would have five gigabytes, which means I’ve completely unnecessarily cleared my phone out?”

Them: “That is unfortunately the case. However, have you ever backed up your phone through iTunes?”

Me. “Yes, I have.”

Them: “Well, due to our App currently being redesigned, perhaps the best idea would be to back up your old phone to iTunes and then insert your new phone, and instead of clicking up setting up new phone, click restore phone…”

Me: “Good idea. I’ll do it that way. Thanks for your help.”

Them: “Thank you and perhaps you would like to stay on the line to complete a short survey?”

Me: “Fine.” Thinks – in your dreams.

Back up old phone to iTunes. All G, as they say. Insert new phone. Message. Your phone cannot be connected to iTunes because your iTunes needs updating. Hmmm. Update iTunes. Your update cannot be installed because your operating system needs updating. Hmmmm. Update operating system. Your operating system cannot be updated because you don’t have enough free space. (Also although they don’t say this, someone out there is going, PLUS your stupid MacBook is way too old, Loser, and you ain’t never going to have El Capitaine on that thing…and if you can’t afford a new laptop you don’t deserve to back up your phone anyway…)

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Them: “So I can direct your enquiry to the right place….”

Me: (Screaming) STAY CONNECTED STAY CONNECTED STAY CONNECTED.

Them: That would be, moving house?

Me: NO. You idiot. I am not effing moving house.

Them: “I’ll put you through now.”

(I’m pretty sure she said it in huffy tones – they probably have a huffy robot tone…)

One hour later.

Them: “What seems to be the problem?”

Me: (Sobbing quietly.) “I smashed my iPhone…”

Them: “I can hear you’re having some problems. Have you tried

downloading your data to the cloud – have you done that yet?”

Me: (Deep sigh.) “I tried once but it seemed to take a long time.”

Them: “The first time does take a while but I’m sure that will solve your problem, and it’s very easy, you just……………”

SIX hours later – you know the drill. “Welcome to Telstra. I already have…”

Me: (Finally talking to a person.) “Look, I’m having some troubles downloading my data to the cloud – it’s been six hours so far and it doesn’t seem to have finished yet…”

Them: “Let’s see if there’s a problem.” Goes away. Dum-de-dum-dum-de-dum.

Them: (In an accusatory voice.) “Your internet is working very slowly…”

Me: “Yes, that’s something I’ve been meaning to mention…the Telstra shop told me that I could get NBN where I live, I’m thinking it would be a good idea.”

Them: “Let me see.” (Pause.) “Unfortunately you can’t get NBN where you live. Have you tried backing your phone up to iTunes?”

Me: (Frothing at the mouth.) “Sorry, I have to go, I have an emergency…”

Them: “Perhaps you’d have time to complete a short survey?”

Me: “Sure.” Thinks – In. Your. Dreams.

THE NEXT MORNING – phone STILL downloading to the cloud. But at 4.00 am I had a bright idea. I have a Mac Book Air belonging to the company for which I do some social media work, and I have my own user profile on it.

I download iTunes, log in, and back up my old phone to it. I plug in the new phone – and Yippee!!!! It works. Data restored.

It’s only taken 36 hours, and I’m – oh yes – SO connected.

Perhaps I’ll wait until tomorrow to talk to Telstra about the NBN.

Candida Baker’s latest book is Belinda the Ninja Ballerina published by Ford Street.  You can purchase the book here: fordstreetpublishing

 

 

 

It’s Belinda’s way or the Highway…

Belinda the Ninja FRONTlowresSo there we are, my partner and I, and we’re slogging up Whitsunday Peak on Whitsunday Island, and it’s hot and humid. My sandfly bites are driving me crazy, and mozzies the size of elephants are trying to carry me away. I’m wondering if my desire not to be the first one to say ‘let’s stop’, will beat my desire to get back to Dugong Beach as quickly as possible and plunge myself into the beautiful, clear, turquoise water.

I give in. “Greg,” I whinge. “Let’s go back.”

He stops almost mid-step. “Phew,” he says. “I thought you’d never say it.”

So we turn around and pick our way back down through the rainforest, and into the scrub, and back along the path to the beach, and as we do, I’m thinking about my (then) 13-year-old daughter Anna, and how much she loves to do dance. I’m swatting away the mozzies, and wiping the sweat from my brow, and I suddenly get this little dancing image in my mind. At least, it’s a little girl, but she’s not exactly dancing, she’s doing Ninja moves.

“Yee-hah!” she’s shouting, as she puts up a hand to stop an imaginary opponent, and I’m surprised though, that she’s dressed in a little pink tutu and ballet slippers – because even though I’ve only just made her acquaintance I’m absolutely sure she doesn’t want to be a ballerina, she wants to be a Ninja.

The Ninja Ballerina I think to myself, and suddenly a name pops into my head.   Belinda.

Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

I’m almost jumping up and down on the spot – I’d be doing Ninja moves at the brush turkeys if I was supple enough.

“I’ve got an idea for a children’s book,” I say. “I think I’ve got to write it now.

There’s a wonderful moment as a writer, when an idea comes to you – and just for a moment you see it there, already written, already published even, and it’s perfect, it’s just as you imagined it, it’s a success, everybody loves it…and then, reality hits.

To begin with, you actually have to get the words out of your head on to paper, or computer, and then you have to begin the arduous process of working on the words, and even worse, fight off the internal nay-sayers who are only too happy to tell you that your idea is no good, and why on earth do you think you can write a book. Those voices don’t even listen when you tell them you’ve written books before – “yeah, well,” they’ll say in derision, “just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean you can do it again.” When I teach creative writing I always tell people – when you write something, at some point or other you’re going to have to cross Mordor.

But as I sat on a wooden bench, under a palm tree, trying to get this cheeky curly-headed girl out of my head and into a story, the words flowed as swiftly as a river, and within an hour, she was written. There was only one problem – I wished desperately that I could draw – I so wanted Belinda to look as I imagined her, and not how someone else might imagine her. But I needn’t have worried, because for whatever magical reason it might be, Belinda’s birth into the world of books, has been as easy and blessed as the moment of creation.

Mitch Vane's first rough drawings for Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

Mitch Vane’s first rough drawings for Belinda the Ninja Ballerina.

Some people have already asked me the obvious question of whether I did ballet as a child, and I did – but let’s just say that I was not the most graceful child on the block. In fact I was pretty much permanently traumatized from the age of four when my father came to see me dance at my end of year kindergarten concert. We were doing a Little Miss Muffet sequence, and I was very proud of my pink tutu, tights and ballet shoes. I ran up to my parents after it was over, and my father looked at me solemnly.

“Well,” he said, “Stay as clumsy as that and you’ll never make a dancer.”   I sat down on my little pink bottom and burst into tears while my mother hugged me and not for the first or last time looked at my father reproachfully.

And there I was sitting under a palm tree on the other side of the world over 50 years later, and the idea of the Little Miss Muffet sequence came flooding back in – but this time, Belinda took control. No cute little costumes for her – no way, she wanted to be the Ninja spider. Graceful be damned – she was going to dance her way, or no way.

When Paul Collins, the publisher of Ford Street books in Melbourne, accepted Belinda I was delighted. I love what he does with children’s books – the care he takes, the fact that he’s stuck to his guns and still prints picture books in hardback, and when he mentioned to me that perhaps we should approach Mitch Vane to do the illustrations, I was over the moon. I know Mitch’s work well, although I’ve never met her, and sitting far away in Byron Bay, waiting for the first drawings to come in, I felt a combination of excitement and trepidation. How would Mitch see Belinda? After all, they’re not called ‘picture’ books for nothing – the words may have come first, but the pictures were essential. Would Mitch’s vision match mine, or would she see Belinda completely differently?

When the email arrived with the first roughs, I almost broke the keyboard in my excitement to open them – and WOW – there was Belinda. My Belinda. A cheeky curly-haired red-head, with a grin, and a Ninja costume, cart-wheeling her way through the pages of the book.

It’s interesting when you write a book, or a story, or essay, how other people see it – sometimes as a writer you may question their interpretation, sometimes they see something you didn’t even see when you were writing. Mitch spotted an element to the book that was entirely unconscious in the writing, and that was Belinda’s constant movement.

“Belinda’s character is never what you would call ‘quiet’ or ‘still’,” Mitch said to me when we were talking about the teacher’s notes for the book. “Throughout the story she never stops practicing her Ninja moves, and that’s why I felt the energetic squiggly pen and ink line and splashes of colour wash best reflected her personality – but I think what was most important for me was to portray Belinda’s determination and passion.”

It seemed that Mitch and Paul both connected with Belinda’s determined personality, and then throughout the publishing process there was also Dmetri Kakmi – Belinda’s editor – the contact point between us all – publisher, author and illustrator. He too loved Belinda, and carefully negotiated the minefield of dealing with ‘creatives’ to gather the various strands into the whole that has become the book that at this moment – after 14 books – has most perfectly realized that moment of creation.

I know how lucky I am as a writer to have had this experience, and as Belinda the Ninja Ballerina is launched into the world next week, I hope many young readers enjoy her message on the importance of standing up for yourself.


You can find out more about candida baker on candidabaker.com

Candida Baker also runs an online arts, culture and lifestyle magazine based in the Byron Bay region – www.verandahmagazine.com.au

For more information on Belinda the Ninja Ballerina go to: www.fordstreetpublishing.com

A force of nature

 

"Flooding water is unpredictable..." Photo:  Candida Baker

                “Flooding water is unpredictable…” Photo: Candida Baker

Deeper Water by Jessie Cole, Fourth Estate rrp $29.99 346pp

 

In literature, and in film, there are some classic plots almost guaranteed to grab the audience’s attention. The Stranger Comes to Town is one, Coming of Age is another and what in England we might call Something Nasty in the Woodshed (a reference to the wonderful novel Cold Comfort Farm) is another.

Like a practiced chess master, local Burringbar author Cole, who grew up in relative isolation on a country property, has used all these themes to create a novel that is as deep, chilling and sensuous as the title itself. Her first book, Darkness on the Edge of Town,(which also used the stranger in town device) was good, this one is not just better, it’s extraordinary.

It’s ten years ago this year since I moved to the Byron and during that time we’ve experienced nature at its best and worst. You don’t need to live in the country to appreciate Cole’s novel, but it’s certainly familiar territory – which she writes about with tender clarity – if you do happen to have suffered from the arbitary forces of nature. At the start of Cole’s novel, we’re introduced to the main character, a young woman, Mema, who, like Cole, has spent all her life living on the family property – she’s trying to get a cow who has started to calve away from the edge of the rapidly swelling creek, when a car is washed off the close-by bridge. Mema rescues the young man, Hamish, with a long branch, bringing herself close to disaster at the same time. When Hamish is finally safe, his 21st century life and all its accoutrements in the bottom of the creek, he takes one look at Mema, and says: “Fuck, you’re just a girl”.

Just a girl. Mema thinks how horrified her mother would be, and in the space of a remarkably short time we get the idea – Mema is a capable 22-year-old, who also happens to have a club foot; her potter mother has alienated all the surbanites in town with her ‘feminist’ ways, and because she’s had children to different men, all of whom have left her. Mema’s older sister already has a toddler, and a baby on her hip; Mema’s best friend, Anja, is as light and as unstable and dangerous as mercury, with a father who is a drunk, and possibly abusing her. Into all of this strolls Hamish, the city-slicker, an environmental consultant who is in the area to asses a proposal to turn sugar cane waste into power. And then there’s Billy, a somewhat brooding presence, who’s had the ‘hots’ for Mema for years.

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It’s a volatile mix, but no less volatile than Cole’s actual life, and if a writer is as good as their material, then sadly for Cole, she has been given first-class material in the suicide of her older sister when she was a teenager, which drove her psychiatrist father to madness, and also eventually to suicide. With two young children by the time she was 23, Cole was suffering depression when she first went to see a counsellor who encouraged her to write everything down as therapy, and in an ironic twist of fate, the life that had caused her such deep grief, has become a deep well of complex emotional material.

It’s almost inevitable that Mema, who has never taken much notice of men, should fall for Hamish, but Cole doesn’t take the easy route of giving Mema and Hamish a relationship, instead all of Mema’s longings are stirred into a melting-pot of desire and confusion which, in the end, allows her to notice Billy, and his devotion to her.

There is warm, rather than cold comfort in this novel, in the end, which is perhaps testament to Cole’s growth as a writer. Where her first book was chilling to the bone,Deep Water allows for, in amongst the tragedies, the sweeter things of life – that a local farmer who has been leaving flowers for Mema’s mother at her driveway, should finally be given permission to approach the prickly matriarch, that Hamish should warn Mema that the company he works for does not necessarily have the area’s best environmental interests at heart; that Billy and Mema, despite misunderstandings, begin to see themselves as a couple.

One of the most compelling aspects to this novel is the way Cole writes about landscape. In this book – and parts of it remind me of Peter Carey’s ability to make the landscape a character in itself, in both Bliss and Oscar and Lucinda – the landscape is a living, breathing entity. Mema’s connection to it is visceral, and in a sense it is the force of nature – the flood, her awakening to love in the woods around her house, a potentially lethal fire, her call to environmental action, that create a backbone, or trunk, for the novel. If Mema’s mother is the brooding matriarch of this big, scattered, somewhat chaotic family, then this country of the Northern Rivers is the matriarch of the entire novel, a Kali-esque presence that can switch from giver to destroyer of life in a few minutes, but whom, in her turn must be mothered and nurtured. It’s that unseen compelling Gaia presence that certainly keeps me here, where life is often extreme in surprising ways.

For me a pre-requisite for a novel is that it should transport you to another time and place, and allow you to connect to its characters. I walked around for days imagining myself in the world of Deeper Water and I can’t think of higher praise than that.

This post first appeared in my new publishing venture Verandah Magazine…if you’re interested to read more go to: verandahmagazine.com.au 

Canberra in the cold is cool

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It’s not an obvious thing to do, leave the winter sunshine of Byron Bay for a holiday in chilly Canberra, but we discovered a winter wonderland, a city full of surprises – and a lot of hot chocolate…

There we are whizzing around Lake Burley Griffin on our Segways at exactly 12 kmh, and I swear the wind chill factor is making it several degrees minus nothing.  I’m rugged up to the nines but I’m still cold – but I’m having such fun I don’t care.

A Segway for those that haven’t tried one yet, is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle.  The name Segway is derived from the word ‘segue’, meaning smooth transition.  I couldn’t exactly say that the first five minutes were smooth, as our group which included myself, my daughter and her friend, did our initial practice around the trees near the hire kiosk, but once you get the hang of it, smooth is exactly what it is.  It works on your body weight, and rather than conventional steering, all you have to is lean on the handle and it turns – with a remarkable zero-point turning capacity.  (You can contact them on: www.segglideride.com.au)

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Having mastered the balancing art, we’re off, up beside the lake, along the paths that pass Questacon, around the ornamental gardens below old Parliament House, and pretty soon we’re all wishing it could go twice the speed.  Our half-hour passed in a flash of smooth transitions, and the next burning – or freezing – question was where to go to warm up.

A friend had told me about Lonsdale Street Roasters www.lonsdalestreetroasters.com  – one of the numerous funky cafes that have sprung up in Canberra in the past few years, and so we made our way there and soon had our hands wrapped around a piping hot chocolate.

Canberra in the cold is a wonderful destination, full of a perfect combination of activity, education and indulgence.  As well as our Segway experience there was ice-skating in the middle of the city, trampolining at Flipout, and of course, the highlight for all of us, tobogganing in the snow at Corin Forest.  Last time we were there we spent an entire day at Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, a sensory-filled hands-on experience if ever there was one – this time our chosen experience was the War Memorial, which was both enlightening and inspirational.  As we moved through the sections in this extraordinarily elegant building, each of them dedicated to Australia’s involvement in different wars, my daughter, her friend and I were all moved beyond measure by the bloody and brave history laid out before us.  For me, to have paid a visit this year, the 100-year anniversary of the start of the First World War, was particularly poignant.

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As for indulgence, that was an easy call.  A long time fan of the Max Brenner (Chocolate by the Bald Man) shops, I’d heard of the San Churro chocolate shops but never been to one – and on a chilly Canberra morning what better way to start the day than with a hefty overdose of chocolate?  The San Churro stores are an Australian success story – the first store opened in Fitzroy, Melbourne in 2006, and they now have 38 stores operating around Australia. We headed to Woden www.sanchurro.com/store-locations/store/40/woden with a group of five kids and two adults, and when the beautiful plates of fruit, churros, meringues and hot melted chocolate arrived it was love at first bite – the kids almost dove into their chocolate pots in their eagerness to start.  I was an immediate fan of the funky mix of paintings, takeaway offerings such as dark-chocolate coated cherries and spicy Aztec hot chocolate and the beautifully delicate meringues.  Named after the monk who, legend has it, made it his life’s mission to take hot chocolate to the Spanish people – San Curro has certainly been embraced by the Australian people, of all ages.

It was no doubt a good idea that an entire day separated our chocolate breakfast and our trampolining experience (for those that wanted to trampoline anyway, which didn’t include me!)  Flip Out www.flipout.net.au/hume.php is no small endeavor – it’s an entire warehouse filled with trampolines, with three distinct areas, one where smaller kids can bounce without fear of being trampled by a horde or rampaging teenagers; two runway trampolines where you can bounce yourself straight into a pit of foam tubes, and the largest of the sets where it’s a free for all on a massive collection of trampolines which also go up the sides of the walls.  It’s a perfect way to exercise kids in bad weather, that’s for sure, and it’s been so successful that booking is essential.

We’d saved our snow experience up until the last day when the weather was supposed to be at its best, and we were glad we did because it was a perfect day – cold, crisp and sunny.  The previous days cold snap meant there was snow in Corin Forestwww.corin.com.au which has a designated snow area, toboganning and when it’s not wet a 1.2km Alpine sled ride.  It’s not super-cheap at $15 entry fee into the snow area and $5 for a toboggan but it’s much easier than a five-hour round trip to Thredbo or Perisher, and much less extreme if you just want to tick the ‘We Saw Snow’ box on your outing sheet.  Only 40 minutes from the city, it’s a beautiful drive up through the hills and into the forest, where everything was glistening with white, and more than enough (just on the very of melting snow patches) to make the obligatory snowman once we’d spent several hours sliding on the toboggans – followed by the by now (you guessed it) obligatory hot chocolate at the café, which came complete with roaring fire and a beautiful wide verandah.  Once we’d left the actual park, we found a track not far away which took us into the woods where the kids made snowballs, had snow fights and were determined to complete Frosty, even though he was not the largest snowman I’ve ever seen.

Our snow day was our last day in Canberra and we were sad to go, but we had a date with some friends in their house at Robertson in the Southern Highlands on the way back, where we had a Christmas in July experience at the Fountaindale Grand Manor House, full of Christmas kitsch, nativity scenes and Devonshire teas, with plastic Christmas trees scattered through the spacious grounds and the occasional screeching sound of a peacock.  (It was at my friend’s house that I discovered the joy of our Holden Malibu’s camera when I was reversing up their normally hard-to-negotiate driveway, and discovered how easy it was.)

At Robertson it was a balmy three degrees as we started our journey back home, shedding layers as we went, but as we headed back towards Byron Bay and a more temperate winter climate, I have to admit to a twinge of sadness that we were leaving behind the crisp cool winter weather, our daily hot chocolates and, of course, the snow.

The car for our Canberra trip was provided by (www.redspot.com.au).

 

The Horse Rescuer

Amanda Vella has one mission in life - to rescue as many horses as possible

Amanda Vella has one mission in life – to rescue as many horses as possible

SAHA’s mission: To provide as many neglected, unwanted, slaughter bound horses with a second chance at life and love.

  When Amanda Vella, the founder of the charity Save a Horse Australia, got engaged last Christmas, she put in on Facebook, definitely the modern way to communicate important events in our lives.  But for Vella the announcement wasn’t made to a few dozen, or even a few hundred, or even a few thousand people.  It was made to an astonishing 20,000 people who follow Vella, her steadfast band of volunteers and the stories of the horses she rescues on a daily basis from her home at Beaudesert.

But despite the overwhelming support and congratulations from those who support her and her organization, there are only a few who know the full story behind the engagement and fewer still who know Vella’s personal story of love lost and love gained.

Vella grew up in the small country town of Narrandera (population 3,871), on the banks of the Murrumbidgee in the Riverina district of southern New South Wales.  “I always loved horses,” she says.  “I was just born with a love for them.  I borrowed a neighbour’s pony, and I got my own pony when I was 11. I was in Pony Club for a while, but I got kicked out for being naughty – I was a bit of a rebel.”

But the rebellious streak was not surprising.  Vella lost her mother to cancer when she was seven, and her father, who didn’t cope well with her mother’s death, committed suicide when she was 13.  Vella, caught in a maelstrom of loss and grief, turned to horses even more. At 14, she rescued her first horse, Gypsy.

“I paid $75 for her from the horse sales,” she says. “I had her with me in Narrandera for three months, and I adored her.  But I knew I had to get away from home, and when I was 14 I made the decision to move to the Gold Coast to sort my life out.” For Vella, who has older and younger half-brothers and sisters, but was the only child to her parent’s marriage, the Gold Coast was one of the few places she knew that had happy memories. “I’d been taken there on a holiday by a family friend,” she says. “When things got difficult with my family I was living with my grandmother, who was not able to keep me permanently, so it was a question of going into care or leaving Nerrandera.”

Vella chose to leave, selling her childhood pony, Sandy to raise her bus fare, and for almost a year, lived, as she puts it “rough”, until with help from the Miami school principal, Jim Baker, she got an orphan allowance from Centrelink, and Austudy to go to school. “Mr Baker actually became my legal guardian at the time because I couldn’t even go to school unless I had a legal guardian because I was under 16,” she says.  “I rented a caravan near my high school, Miami High, and I worked part-time – at Bernie’s Burgers, Sizzler and Toys R Us.” (She tells me this almost casually, as if it’s an everyday occurrence for 14-year-olds to move thousands of kilometres away from home, live in a caravan, study and work three jobs.)

It took Vella some months to feel secure enough to send for Gypsy, who was being looked after by a friend in Narrandera. When Gypsy arrived Vella was overjoyed – until disaster struck again.  “I’d only had her up here for a few months when she was stolen from the property where she was agisted a 30-minute drive away from where I was then living.” she says.  “I was completely devastated, at that time Gypsy was my life – I looked everywhere and advertised for her return, but nothing.  I never found her, and I worried about what had happened for years, until only fairly recently I finally managed to trace her to a lady who had got her from the RSPCA so obviously the thieves couldn’t or didn’t keep her. This lady owned her for years until she was put to sleep – and I only missed her by a few months, but at least I knew she had been well looked after.”

Top:  Trixie not long after she arrived at the sanctuary, and bottom, a few months later

Top: Trixie not long after she arrived at the sanctuary, and bottom, a few months later

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Vella, still traumatized from her emotional roller-coaster ride, had given up on horses at this point, but far from being deterred by Gypsy’s disappearance, Vella rescued her second horse, an emaciated bay Thoroughbred called Buddy she heard about from a friend.  “My friend called me and told me about someone he knew who had a really skinny horse, so we rang him, and he told us to come and get him.  He was in North Brisbane when we collected him, and after he’d recovered his weight we adopted him out to a lovely lady in the Lockyer Valley.” For Vella her trials have simply reinforced that this is her calling.  “I’ve heard people say that they’ve been brought to earth to do a particular job,” she explains, “and that’s how it is for me. I was born to do this. I know that, and I’ve always known it.”

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and watching Vella at work – organising to pick up a surrender case, speaking with the local RSPCA, confirming the care requirements of a particular horse, and telling me she’s had to make the heart-rending decision to euthanaze a horse that isn’t going to make it, I wonder whether she feels that the loss of her parents – and of Gypsy – actually in some way prepared her for the life she leads now, a life in which she witnesses again and again the best and the worst of human behaviour and where she has to handle the prospect of a horse’s death on an almost daily basis.

“I think it definitely gave me an ability to cope,” she says.  “Not that the decisions I have to make are easy, but at the same time what I do feels urgent and necessary and so I just get on with it.”  (In a sad postscript to her Buddy story, his adopted family had him for many years until he and three other horses were drowned in the massive 2010/11 Queensland floods when the waters swept through the Lockyer Valley.)

Despite her long-term ambition to own a horse-rescue centre, even as a teenager Vella was canny enough to know that it would take money, and working her way school and university, she became a business development manager, earning enough to self-fund her horse rescue habit through her salary.  “I started my charity the opposite way to most people,” she says.  “I had 15 horses in care, and I was still working full time and self-funding all the horses. I finally decided to register the charity in 2009, and self-funded that for a long time as well. But then it gradually started to take off.  I started up a Facebook page, and that just went crazy, and now a lot of our pledges for support come through Facebook, and last year I was able to start working full-time for SAHA.” Examples of goodwill towards Vella and her charity include a woman recently donating $10,000 to pay for an urgent operation needed for a rescue horse, vets donating their time whenever possible, and thousands of people donating money on a daily basis. “Everything helps,” says Vella. “Even five dollars makes a difference, and I am thankful for every dollar people give us.”  (At the time of writing SAHA has 47 horses in care, and Vella says over 700 horses have been through the centre, although sadly not all of them make it, and even during the course of this article several horses had to be euthanized for various health complications.)

It takes a lot of people to run a rescue operation based around our largest domestic animal, and Vella now has around 35 people working with her – volunteers, committee members, foster carers and adoptive homes as well as an additional army of horse vets, dentists and farriers. What’s more, this is no glamorous get a gorgeous horse for free outfit – as Vella wryly puts it – “we’re not talking Olympic champions here.”  Even running a charity, and with the massive amount of supporters she has, she’s found that, as she says: “Most people want something for nothing. And the horses we get are mainly old, or younger ones with particular problems, or horses that have been almost starved to death.  Re-housing them is very difficult, and often we have to keep the very old ones ourselves. With the younger ones, once they have been rehabilitated, they are trained, and then fostered out before they are offered on lifetime adoption contracts.”  (As well as the numerous amount of foster carers on personal properties, SAHA has two permanently leased properties – one of 20 acres in Beaudesert, and a 12-acre-property at Wongawallan in the Gold Coast hinterland.)

Because of the extraordinary numbers of horses that end up at knackeries – close to 40,000 per year according to Vella, she has had to narrow the focus of SAHA to something achievable.  “It’s hard to actually quantify the exact number or horses that are killed every year,” she says, “because no government body keeps an exact account, but we know there are two official production plants that kill 700 horses a week each in order export the meat overseas for human consumption – one in Caboolture and one in South Australia, and there are 33 licensed knackeries in Australia, so even guesswork makes it a huge number of horses that are killed every week.”  The charity’s decision was to bid against the ‘doggers’ as they are called, at the sales, and therefore save lives.  “Once the slaughter men have bought them they are not allowed to sell them on, so we try to outbid them once we’ve decided which ones to try for,” she explains.  And that, in itself, is a heart-breaking process.  “We have to ignore the ones that we know cannot be helped, and that we would have to euthanaze straight away,” she says.  “But other than that we don’t discriminate at all.  Fortunately at many of the smaller sales, the younger horses in good condition – young ex-racehorses for instance – are often bought by people looking for a horse, which leaves us free to bid for those horses that need a second chance, but sometimes we will buy a young healthy horse to stop if from being slaughtered.”

There are a few things that make Vella angry and one is the idea that saving broken-down or old or sick horses is not valid. “Sometimes we get comments on Facebook about it, as we also do about the people who have let the horses get in this condition, and also about the guys that run the ‘kill’ lists and buy horses on a kill quota from the abbatoir,” she says.  “I am absolutely firm on the fact that every horse deserves a chance at life no matter what their condition, and those of us that run the charity make the choices for good reasons about which horses to save. There’s no point in making accusations about people – stuff happens, people get in bad situations, or they simply don’t know, and the kill guys are just doing their job.” It’s a credo that she takes into her social media, frequently stopping negative lines of comment with a firm hand.

The day I visit the sanctuary I meet one of the stars of SAHA’s recent rescues.  The completely adorable Trixie – a small (13hh) grey pony who arrived, having been bought by SAHA at Grafton sale for $100 so emaciated she was basically a terrified bag of bones.  When horses are this sick they have to be introduced to food extremely slowly, and little Trixie was touch and go for a while.  Because she was in such poor condition, she contracted a chest infection that required massive antibiotics, and just as all of her growing legion of FB fans were breathing a sigh of relief, she was affected by a paralysis tick, and again, being so small and thin it was a life-threatening situation.  For three days she was kept in a stable with mattresses on the floor, and around the walls, so the 24-hour-volunteer roster could turn her every few hours. When she finally got up and walked and started eating again, there was an almost palpable sigh of relief from her thousands of followers.   A few months later, she’s well, happy, putting on weight, and has learned to trust the human race again.  With her little pink outfits (even a pink playball in her stable), she walks herself into her stable at night, and tucks herself up for the night. “Worth saving?” says Amanda. “You bet – and if she continues to improve there’s a good chance she’ll find a forever home.”

Trixie - one of the SAHA stars

Trixie – one of the SAHA stars

With all of this going on you would hardly think Vella would have time to look for romance, but it found her in the strangest way possible.  “When I was at high school in Narrandera I had a boyfriend, Mark, (Davies) but we were young, and when I moved up to the Gold Coast we lost touch,” she says. “Then for Christmas 2012 I went home to see the family, and I met Mark again, and basically we just reconnected. What was so strange was that he was living and working in the Gold Coast too – we’d been living near each other for years, and had no idea, and then we met up at home again.” The romance quickly became serious, and Davies, who works in a quarry at Beaudesert has thrown himself into the SAHA work, helping Vella out at the weekends and whenever he has time.

It was a year later to the day that Davies proposed, and a delighted Vella accepted.  Their long-term ambition is to move further out of the Gold Coast to Beaudesert or to the Lockyer Valley in order to open a horse sanctuary on their own property.  Just to contemplate what this young woman has done with her life in the past 20 years is to know that there is absolutely no doubt she will succeed – and in the process she is not only, as she says, “making horses better and giving them a second-chance,” she is giving many of us who are horse lovers a chance to be better people.

SAHA

Cool, becalmed and collected

Whitsundays1

So there we are, sitting in the middle of the ocean, and not a breath of wind in sight.

We’ve come up to the beautiful Whitsundays for a week’s sailing, and even I, as a non-sailor, know that wind is kind of essential to make the boat move.  Not only that but due to the other half having never experienced the Whitsundays without wind, he hasn’t bought quite enough petrol with him, so we’re not sure if we’ve got enough to get back to Whitsunday Island where we’re camping for four nights.  It’s all a little bit hairy, if you get my drift, which is certainly what we were doing – drifting.  Not only that, but something’s gone wrong with the motor and it’s not working.

Surely there must be wind somewhere, we beseech the sky, which taunts us with some tiny little gusts from every direction at once.

Finally, the motor decides to splutter into life, and having had to give up on our attempt to get to a snorkelling spot, we opt for lunch in one of the many beautiful coves that dot the edges of these tropical paradise islands.  We drop anchor in May Bay among the million-dollar motor-boats and try to look as if at least, because we’ve got sails, we’re superior.  Which would be all well and good if the sails were actually working of course.  We dive into the deep, clear blue water, and consume a delicious picnic lunch on deck.  It’s enough to restore our optimism entirely, and even better, the wind picks up, so I’m told we’re going to sail out of there triumphantly.

Unfortunately the only large gust of wind of the day arrives at the very moment we discover the anchor is stuck deep down below – probably snagged on some coral – and we’re heading at high speed for one of those above expensive motor boats, and I have NO idea what I’m doing. Disaster is averted by a millimetre, the anchor finally obliges, and we sail for all of 500 metres before the wind disappears.

Apparently, this is what sailing is all about – hours of boredom, minutes of adrenalin and moments of panic and pandemonium.  We motor slowly back to our temporary home on Dugong beach, with our sails between our legs, and wonder exactly how we’ll manage to do the snorkelling trip we’ve planned to Blue Pearl Bay the next day, and get our selves back all the way to Shute Harbour in Airlie Beach the day after if we have no wind and not enough fuel.

But in a way, all of these adventures are part of what we wanted – a down-to-earth (or sea) real-life as far away from the madding crowds style holiday as possible.  Dugong Beach on Whitsunday Island has only eight camping spots, metres from the edge of the beach, fringed with shade, and walks to Sawmill Beach, or if you’re feeling fit, to the top of Whitsunday Peak.  It’s picturesque and peaceful.  Shortly after we arrived we were the only two people on the island, with only the resident Curlews and goannas for company.  We took our chairs down to the sand and watched the lazy resident turtle bob across the bay, and felt we were very privileged indeed.

Now, though, we’re lucky in a different way – experiencing the kind of friendly helping hand that I’ve found is often extended on holidays, and I hope I’ve offered in the past myself.  We meet a couple, Liz and Paul McCarthur, who both work on Hamilton Island, and are taking a few days out camping on Dugong.  They offer to take us snorkelling in their motor-powered runabout, and we accept their offer gratefully.

Whitsundays2

If yachts need wind, motorboats most certainly don’t and skimming across the flat ocean the next morning is a treat in itself before we even arrive at the aptly-named Blue Pearl Bay.  On the way, we pass Hook Island and Hayman Island, and when we arrive at the Bay one of the lovely things about it is that there is every kind of boat there – from massive old clippers redone as charter boats, private yachts and motorboats and smaller charter boats.  There’s even a custom-designed drop-people-straight-on-the-beach from Hayman Island boat, a long thin flat-bottomed affair with three genteel steps forrard (that’s a nautical term just so you know I was paying attention) so people can simply walk down onto the coral beach, and straight into the water.

And what water it is.  This is not my first snorkelling experience on the reef, but it certainly was the best so far.  As soon as we slid into the water, we were surrounded by fishes of all shapes, sizes and colours – angel fish, butterfly fish, the exquisitely coloured parrot fish, to name but a few, and the highlight of this particular bay, the incredibly friendly, curious and massive Murray Wrasse, with his or her smaller friend, who followed snorkelers about in an almost dog-like fashion.  Murray Wrasse can live to the ripe old age of 30, and can grow up to two metres long, but are unfortunately still on the endangered list because of their reputation as a fine fish to eat.

wally

One of the most extraordinary things about snorkelling is not only the invisible presence of this brightly coloured underwater world below the surface of the sea, but the blissful silence.  I drifted through the water, schools of fish twisting and turning around me, and felt completely at peace.

Back at Dugong we watch the sun turn the sea a golden orange; in the morning we wake to the turquoise still waters of our little beach.  I manage to cook some strangely imaginative meals over our one gas burner, we marvel at our nocturnal visitor – the cheeky bush rat, the shy potoroo and the tiny marsupial mouse are all visitors to our campsite, while no night would be complete without the mournful wailing of the Curlews.  Every morning I wake up to the sight of the beautiful hoop pines that cover this and all the 74 islands that make the Whitsunday group, and thank god they have not been completely deforested.  As the days go by, we become increasingly grateful that we have a tiny luxury in the form of the shower tent for our solar powered shower bought just before we left.

I’d had the foresight to make a bargain – five days sailing and island living in return for two nights luxury.  Clever me.  By the time we sail (with a little helpful motor power of course since there is still hardly any wind) into Shute Harbour I’m more than ready for a little luxury.

Whitsundays6

I’ve chosen Peppers in Airlie Beach as our destination, and the resort is perfect.  A large one-bedroom apartment with a huge deck overlooking the new Port Harbour complex, and with a huge spa bath, is exactly what is needed for restoration. The restaurant serves delicious tropical meals, and it is right next to the wet-edge pool – easy to go from eating to swimming and back to sleeping.  It’s also a perfect antidote to the 75 (I counted) sandfly bites I unfortunately collected.  Warning:  take the strongest mosquito repellent that exists and wear it permanently. Ahhh, tropical island holidays!

Airlie Beach is a perfect holiday town. The European-style restaurants and cafes along the tree-lined boulevard next to the park are beach are full, the child-safe lagoon offers relief for families and children on holidays, and there’s plenty of shopping in the main street.

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What the Whitsundays offer is the best of all worlds – a holiday everybody can enjoy on any budget. For me the mix of adventure and luxury was perfect.

Photographs:  Candida Baker (apart from Murray Wrasse)

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

To get to Airlie Beach fly Virgin or Jetstar to Proserpine. There are regular shuttle buses to Airlie, which is about 40 minutes away, or hire a car from Proserpine.

SAILING THERE

At Airlie, Shute Harbour has plenty of charter boats on offer. For most of the boats no boat licence is required, and some companies, such as Bare Boat Charters, offer shorter charters of three, four or five nights, see airliebeach.com/bareboatcharters/welcome.html. You can hire anything from a small yacht to a sailing or powered catamaran, a motor-boat, a luxury crewed power cruiser, or a crewed sailing ship. According to charteryachtsaustralia.com.au/, the cheapest charter is around $440 a night for a yacht that will carry a maximum of four up to around $1800 a night for a sailing catamaran which takes up to 10 people; the sky’s the limit on the luxury crewed boats. Charter companies offer boat tuition and help is just a radio call away.

CAMPING THERE

Many of the Whitsunday Islands offer camping. See nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/.

MORE INFORMATION tourismwhitsundays.com.au

From Paris to Paradise

Sarah Turnbull’s journey along the rocky road of hope…

This review first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 6, 2013

Sarah Turnbull

Author Sarah Turnbull.  Photo Andrew Goldie

It’s a hard thing in life to know when to let go of a dream and when to fight for it. In Sarah Turnbull’s first memoir, Almost French, we followed her journey as she bravely let go of her Australian life to move to Paris to be with Frederic, the man with whom she’d fallen in love.

After many trials and tribulations, all seemed to be well that ended well, and this is where we once more plunge into Turnbull’s story at the start of All Good Things.

Turnbull proves once again what an accomplished, versatile and humane writer she has become.

The couple are renovating their apartment; Frederic is working as a lawyer and Turnbull is researching a novel; they have their terrier, Maddie; and their life is full, to the outside eye at least. The only thing missing is a baby and, although for the reader there is no reason to suppose that a little one won’t make its presence felt there is a slightly wistful air almost immediately, as Turnbull describes her visits to her local church where she lights candles for her cause.

When Frederic is suddenly offered a job with his firm in Tahiti, their first thought is to refuse it. After all, they reason, why would they leave their perfect city life? And why, too, would they leave the place with the technology to help them make babies?

Because, as it transpires, after discovering that Turnbull is in the throes of early menopause, Frederic and Sarah have taken the IVF route several times with no success and a lot of heartbreak. Quite soon it becomes evident that the Holy Grail of this book is their quest to have a baby, and Turnbull writes with searing honesty about the hormonal swings, the debilitating effect of IVF on her body, the moments of optimism, and the crash when yet again it doesn’t work.

Gradually, the idea of Tahiti takes hold. After all, Turnbull reasons, what could be so bad about a place that inspired Gauguin and Matisse?

They settle on Mo’orea – a ferry ride to Pape’ete where Frederic will be working, and not as busy or as populated. So that is where Sarah, Frederic and Maddie find themselves in a cottage by a lagoon, in a landscape full of vivid colours, with friends and an entire new culture and way of life to absorb. They both decide that it’s time to close the book on the baby quest.

Except that Turnbull, despite her glorious surroundings, finds herself sinking into a depression, unable to write, and becoming more and more withdrawn. When she finds a sympathetic psychiatrist, she dwells on the subject of her infertility so much that in the end he points out to her that she is not moving on; she is, he says, not even going backwards. ”It’s not a crime to hope, you know,” he tells her.

The story of their last, successful try and the subsequent birth of their son, Oliver, is interspersed with wonderful descriptions of learning to dive (not very well); travelling to atolls and the tiny islands that surround the mainland; their introduction to the darker side of island life – thieves that have no fear of invading a house at any time of the day or night – and the ongoing, often amusing account of a marriage between two people from very different cultures. A small example from early in the book: guests arrive both five minutes early and 90 minutes late for a dinner party in Paris. Turnbull can’t believe people would turn up so late, while Frederic thinks it’s the height of rudeness to arrive early. Vive la difference.

”All good things come to those who wait” goes the expression, and in Turnbull’s case there is a happy ending – a lively, healthy son and a new start again in Sydney for the family. In All Good Things, Turnbull proves once again what an accomplished, versatile and humane writer she has become.

All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull.

ALL GOOD THINGS

Sarah Turnbull

HarperCollins, 325pp, $29.99

Download the ebook here.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/from-paris-to-paradise-along-the-rocky-road-of-hope-20130704-2pct3.html#ixzz2YPVnlZkY