Week 330 – chaos, cricket and classics

On Monday Maisie, Tommy and I tried out a new after-school singing club. As the school’s music room doubles as an after-care facility, we were all crammed awkwardly on stools in the art room. The facilitator was enthusiastic but slightly shambolic, and he explained that he was aiming for a campfire communal singing vibe. He wasn’t too adventurous with the repertoire, sticking to tunes that most people knew already (‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’, ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and a Bruno Mars track) but Maisie and Tommy enjoyed singing in a group and were quick to pick up the tunes by ear. It’s the type of activity I anticipated that we’d all enjoy at home, but my attempts always led to bitter disagreements and fights, so I gave up trying a long time ago!

On Tuesday evening Rowena and I went to see the Lebanese film ‘Capernaum’, written and directed by Nadine Labaki. Modern-day Beirut plays ‘Capernaum’ (the biblical town of chaos). A 12-year-old boy, used as slave labour by his destitute parents, flees when his 11-year-old sister is sold as a child bride. He is street-savvy and resourceful (and remarkably empathetic – how he retained this humanity in such terrible circumstances is a mystery) and finds temporary solace with a young Ethiopian refugee and her tiny son. But one day she disappears, and he is left to fend for himself and a toddler. It was a bleak and uncompromising film, but there were glimpses of humour and hope and astonishing resilience. I was worried that it could have been exploitative, but it wasn’t.

On Wednesday Tommy and I went for a cycle ride/run along the sea-front. It was a beautiful bright mild morning but there was a brisk wind blowing straight in off the sea, the tide was high and churning and chucking hard salty pellets of spray at us – it was very exciting – and we managed to successfully dodge them all! We stopped for a play at the new pirate ship, and ate a stodgy breakfast in a café with a well-maintained aquarium stocked with pink anemones and clownfish.

On Thursday I took a few hours off the chores/job searching, and popped into town to catch up on a few exhibitions. The first, held at the RMIT Design Hub, was a retrospective of the practice of New Zealand Jeweller Lisa Walker. She has spent the last 30 years exploring the question ‘what is jewellery?’, making pieces that are wearable/unwearable, precious/non-precious, skilfully/not-skilfully made etc.

It was a fun and surprising collection of stuff – necklaces were made out of old phones, skateboards, lego, driftwood, stuffed tights; of graphical assemblages of jade chips and crystals; there were also delicately rendered coppery clusters of shells and seedpods forming rings and brooches.

The main RMIT gallery was devoted to a rather obtuse high-concept show. Entitled ‘The model citizen’, the blurb talked of ‘two intersecting points: how modelling enables artists to reshape and remake the world; and how citizenship is itself crafted out of forms of selfhood and belonging that are represented to be ideal or exemplary’. Looking at the pieces, it seemed to focus on surveillance and digital profiles, with a bit of robotics and enviro-disaster thrown in. I enjoyed a reflective video piece taking the viewer on a historic walk through a pine plantation (tracing the deterioration of the land – from native forest, through mineral mining, through barren managed forestry), also a dancing robotic arm that was apparently generating patterns of colourful dots/electronic music using the ‘biological neural network of a mosquito’.

Heat-sensing cameras followed your every move round the gallery, and ‘#dataofthedead’ invited the viewer to consider their digital legacy (the starting point was the stated fact that Facebook ‘will shortly have more deceased than living users’).

For a dose of beauty and craft and history I returned to the NGV’s current exhibition of C18th Indian Paintings from the Rajput royal courts. These jewel-like images were created to glorify and mythologize the royalty – to celebrate sporting pursuits (tiger-hunting and horseback polo), grand receptions and festivals (processions of elephants, fireworks, dancing and music), religious piety (making puja, celebrating holy days) and divine connections (images weaving together exploits and characters both real and from the great Hindu epics). The distinctive style of the court painting at this time was a result of several traditions coming together – ‘a blend of formal Persian painting traditions with the colourful indigenous Indian Jain and Hindu painting styles’.

They are gorgeous things – each small canvas (? probably paper!) so intricately inscribed and bursting with glorious colours – figures (almost always in profile) are clothed in red, yellow, pink, orange embroidered and pleated silks and cottons, with opulent jewels and sheer starched muslin skirts, all set against complimentary toned backgrounds of peppermint greens and turquoises.

I particularly liked the noble chestnut horses leaping through almost abstract landscapes of vertical lines (trees) and squiggles (bushes), the wild swirls of coloured spice powders being scattered during the Holi festival, the trickling fountains of formal courtyard gardens and trees full of peacocks. The formal portraits were stunning too – every strand of beard or feather head-plume individually painted.

My final art show of the day was ‘The Theatre is Lying’ at ACCA. Five contemporary Australian artists had been commissioned by the new Macfarlane art fund, their brief to create large installation pieces which explored ‘truth and fiction, perception and abstraction, and the warping of time and space’. They were big room-sized pieces, but were rather underwhelming.

The first was a hall full of moveable reflective screens with spotlights playing over them, the second three were video works – one was a slightly interesting re-enactment of a disastrous practice raid run in the (un-forewarned) Melbourne Sheraton Hotel by the Australian Secret Intelligence Service in 1983 (so badly bungled that their powers were revoked until 2004 and the Bali bombings), another was a mash-up of fake news and drone footage, exploring the motives and view-point of the drone operator.

Maisie played her second basketball match on Friday afternoon, this time at a local private school (I enjoyed having a sticky-beak – it was all very tidy and organised and well-maintained as you’d expect!). Her team were the victors again! She’d better start losing soon, otherwise she’ll get too hung up on winning! On Saturday we all went out to buy Maisie her own basketball (and a little one for Tommy too). We then spent several hours in the playground shooting hoops (the kids were tireless – and not bad, even Tommy got a few in!). Tommy went to check up on the chickens and give them a weekend snack.

It was another beautiful late summer’s day and the air stayed warm even as the light faded. I took Maisie to the evening’s concert at the Sidney Myer Bowl. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the free summer MSO concerts, which continue to be funded by a bequest from the original instigator Sidney Myer (a Russian-born 1930s department store mogul and philanthropist).

The place was jam-packed (it’s good to know the concerts are as popular now as they ever were!), arriving picnickers were having to set themselves up in areas where they could neither hear nor see the musicians, but I managed to weave my way in through to the front of the crowd and found us a good spot. We caught the last piece in a brief set played by the Melbourne Youth Orchestra, a lively if thin rendition of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Capriccio Italian’. We then had to wait for an hour before the main concert began, but there was plenty of people-watching to be done, a generous amount of snacks and the novelty of a new gap in the teeth to explore (Maisie had lost one of her front teeth whilst eating her tea).

The programme was designed not to test anyone’s powers of concentration, it was all extracts and favourites. It was hard to get lost in the music, but the breaks and the variety suited Maisie well enough. Highlights for me were Fauré’s gorgeously bittersweet and all-too-brief Sicilienne from ‘Pelléas and Mélisande’, the soaring, if over-familiar, romantic melodies of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet suite’ (even Maisie recognised that one), and Iain Grandage’s stirring ‘Deep: A Silent Poem for Sir Douglas Mawson’ full of tingling Britten-flavoured brass harmonies and atmospheric textural flourishes (Mawson was an Antarctic explorer).

The evening’s host, a DJ from ABC Classics, introduced each piece, and kept on talking about chicken sandwiches and getting us to applaud ourselves. She also promised that we would be enjoying the concert ‘under the stars’. It got a bit cloudy, and Maisie kept asking ‘but where are the stars?’. Thankfully they appeared for the final encore, and she was satisfied!

We were back late on Saturday night, and up early on Sunday for a last (well, we reckon every trip is the last now!) summery trip to the beach. The kids were playing with their boogie boards near the beach-side mooring spot for a family’s jet-ski – and Tommy was offered a ride on it (he very sensibly said no!!).

In the afternoon we went to the final of this year’s Big Bash Cricket tournament. The finalists were the two Melbourne sides – the Renegades and the Stars – the same teams that we had watched play a month ago! Tickets only went on sale for the match 24 hours beforehand, and in that time they sold 40,000 of them!

We were sitting on the bottom level, so we actually got a glimpse of the players faces (on the rare occasion that the ball was hit in our direction). Maisie got caught up in the excitement again, Tommy was wriggly but glad to have the responsibility of a banner to wave when his team scored a 4 or a 6.

Our team (the Stars) did well in the first half, keeping the run count slow and knocking the Renegades out in every way possible (we had wickets, lbw, catches, controversial running-outs), and they were doing well when they came to bat, but suddenly imploded around 12 overs in, and lost all their players in quick succession. The Renegade supporters (the home team) got louder and louder in their excitement! Neil made us stay until the middle of the last over, in case there were any late miracles (there weren’t!).

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Week 329 – Time and tunes

It was Tommy’s first (almost) full week of school, and time to sit down and think about my working future, lay foundations and make plans! I managed to fit in some interesting cultural stuff too. 
On Monday I made it to a day-time showing of one of this year’s Oscar contenders, ‘Can you ever forgive me?’, by US director Marielle Heller. Based on the autobiography of literary forger Lee Israel, it was a fascinating character study of a lonely, unsavory woman (played impeccably by Melissa McCarthy) charting her questionable career and unlikely alliance with a gay New York chancer on his uppers (Richard E Grant in delightful Withnail-mode).

On Tuesday night I went to a talk at the Melbourne University Design Hub. In town for a workshop, the revered British architect, Peter Cook (co-founder of the iconic 1960s conceptual architectural practice Archigram), gave a lecture about his career entitled ‘Dreams and Reality’. He was a lively and engaging speaker – at 82 years old, still intrigued by and curious about the world. Archigram were known for their outlandish ideas and master-plans – moveable and ‘plug-in’ cities, ‘high tech’-led buildings and space-age visions (but, Cook was quick to point out, as he displayed his colourful, often psychedelic drawings and plans, they often included practical details such as railings, toilets and water-tanks!). Cook has continued to experiment in his drawings (all still done by hand), but has also, in the last 30 years or so, realised a number of buildings with his CRAB design practice – including arts centres and studios, university faculties and housing. A recent commission was for a new architectural faculty at Bond University in Queensland [note – the picture below is not his – it’s the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, designed by Nonda Katsalidis!].

Cook was so full of ideas and enthusiasm that he struggled to cram them all into his hour-and-a-half lecture. Each bunch of slides was devoted to a concept – as captured in a drawing, and then, as often as not, as realised in one of his built projects (he was careful to reflect on how it had changed in translation). He liked buildings to ‘slither’, he was fascinated by towers (and how they might be covered with harvestable algae), by qualities of light, the possibilities of informal spaces (and how best to make them work), the ‘floating’ architecture of the 1930s constructivists, by hidden spaces and views through buildings, by quirks and kiosks, and by the dynamics/behaviours of people in the built environment (he pondered on these in his delightful, gently satirical cartoons).

Tommy had a day off school on Wednesday. We caught the tram into town and enjoyed a coffee overlooking the Yarra, before popping into the Immigration Museum (which Tommy hadn’t been to before). I was planning on showing him the big replica ship in the main exhibition hall – to explore the poky cabins inside and enjoy the glass case full of costumed rats – but that exhibition been ripped out and replaced with a group of neon-lit sheds celebrating ‘love’ in various forms.

It was disappointing, but we did find a few remnants of the old display (which Tommy did love), including a simple screen-based interactive showing the routes of passenger ships from the early 1800s to the present day (including the hellish modern-day journeys of refugees from central Asia). Tommy was also fascinated by a short film tracing 200 years of migration to Australia (and the wars, famines, earthquakes and floods which drove people to flee their home countries). After we had left the museum we went for a little ride on the heritage tram and ate our picnic listening to the Federation Bells. I’m really going to miss my days out with Tommy!

On Thursday the children and I went to see the current art show at the Town Hall. ‘Confined 10’ is an exhibition of artworks by Indigenous artists currently in or recently released from prisons in Victoria. The curators had gone for a salon style hang – a great effect, as it enveloped visitors in an exuberant rush of colour and bold graphics.

Works by novice artists were displayed alongside those with years of experience, symbolic dot paintings next to figurative representations of native ‘totem’ animals and landscapes. Many of the artists had provided descriptions of their pieces – there were tellings of the ancient traditional stories and more troubling contemporary ones. The children loved all the animals and tried to identify as many as they could – echidnas, magpies, honey-ants, rainbow serpents, sea-horses, dugongs etc.

On Thursday night I went to ACMI to catch a few hours of Christian Marclay’s video installation ‘The Clock’. Made in 2010, it is a remarkable 24-hour-long work, which stitches together thousands of scenes mined from (mainly American/European) film and TV footage, all of which show a time-piece of some description and/or a conversation referencing a specific time of the day. The scenes are presented in ‘real time’, so the whole piece acts as a clock, moving through a complete 24-hour-cycle. I watched it from 7.30pm till 10.30pm – as day was moving into night, scenes of family evening dinners, performances and parties, gradually gave way to something darker – there were a great number of noirs set in finely furnished parlours, dark street-lurkers, critical medical operations, tense situations in late-night newspaper offices and police stations.

There were famous scenes (Atticus saying goodnight to Scout in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, a classic Peter Sellers/Inspector Clouseau ‘synchronise watches’ sketch, various mad-cap time-twisting scenes from ‘Back to the Future’, a great Bond montage featuring several iterations of the gadget watch and a Roger Moore fight in a clocktower). The turning of the hour often marked a portentous event and was marked by a great cacophony of chimes. By 10pm, sleepers were turning in and the night-horrors were starting. I reluctantly dragged myself away at 10.30pm (I wonder if anyone managed an all-nighter!) as my eyes were definitely starting to glaze over! I’m hoping to make it to a day-time session at some point before the exhibition ends in March – I imagine it will showcase a completely different set of movie genres!

Maisie’s been trying out some new activities this week. She had her first ‘keyboard’ lesson (no pianos in schools these days!) which she enjoyed – she even deigned to sit down at the piano at home and play her first two-note tunes to us all (although when I gently suggested that she might find it easier if she curved her fingers and sat up straight, she had a big tantrum!). She also made her team sport debut – joining (on a trial period) the Year 2 girls basketball team ‘The Sparklers [Blue]’. Basketball appears to be the most popular team sport at primary school level here (in Victoria, anyway!) and it is all facilitated by parents (one reason I’ve done my best to stay away from it so far!). But her class team is currently short on players; a couple of nice mums twisted my arm on Monday and by the end of the week I had capitulated. Maisie attended one pre-school training session, and on Friday evening she played her first match!

It was held in a vast sports hall at the Melbourne Aquatic and Sports Centre (MSAC). There were 8 games concurrently in progress, 96 pairs of trainers squeaking across the wooden floor, lots of shouting, cheering and clapping and the constant shrilling of referee whistles – it was all very chaotic and confusing and none of the girls were too sure of the rules (the patient referees did a lot of coaching along the way!). But they all had fun, running around a lot, sweating profusely and occasionally getting the ball in the hoop. Maisie managed to get possession of the ball a couple of times, bouncing it up the court, and passing it to her team-mates (one of whom was a very accurate gaol-shooter), and after a frantic 45 minutes (two 20-minute halves with a 5 minute break), her team had somehow won 6:5!

We got back home at 7pm, and I dashed out to the Sidney Myer Bowl to catch the first of the MSO’s three free summer concerts. The programme was mainly Gershwin – an efficient rendition of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (the soloist, Daniel Le, came into his own in his solo encore of Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm), and a slightly more spirited ‘American in Paris’. There was also an intriguing new commission (entitled ‘Fantaskatto’) by local composer Joe Chindamo, who had devised a piece for orchestra and scat singer (written especially for his daughter, Olivia, who is a talented jazz singer). The orchestral textures were pleasant enough, if derivative, but worked well as a backdrop for Olivia Chindamo’s impeccably timed and tuned scat improvisations.

On Sunday it was the St Kilda Festival. It acts as a place-marker for me – we’ve been every year since we arrived here (save one) and I have distinctive memories of each occasion. This was the first pram-free one, the first time we were blessed with consistently mild and sunny weather, and we weren’t obliged to get up early to see the pre-school entertainers!

We started off watching the skateboarders (practicing some impressive stunts in a large temporary bowl) and the finals of the beach volleyball. The female volley-ball competitors were amazing – sustaining some extended rallies, running, leaping, and diving a number of times during each point. No wonder they have athletic bodies to die for! Maisie was very engaged – she takes after Neil in her love of watching team sports! Tommy decided to settle down for a nap on the boardwalk in the sunshine.

Next we headed to the world music stage, to catch a set by Balkan gypsy-folk trio ‘Vardos’. With a three-woman line-up (violin, accordion and double bass) they were authentically fierce and anarchic, singing songs of tragic love and troublesome rabbits, whilst playing at break-neck speed. It used to be easy to find amazing East European bands in London, but I haven’t really seen any here – Vardos certainly brought to mind some wonderful past gigs!

The traffic-free streets were filling with revellers by the early afternoon (the good weathers brought record numbers of visitors!). Tommy enjoyed walking on the tram tracks, and bumped into a giant wheeled crayfish! We also spotted the cheeky Seagulls on the hunt for some chips to steal (always a favourite!).

There were stilt-walking butterflies casting dramatic shadows on the sunny ground, and a large blue silk inflatable whale, with a zip for a mouth (willing children could be swallowed up and play inside the glowing blue den – it was hard to get ours out of there!).

Maisie found the St Kilda football supporters tent (see picture) and the library stall, where she and Tommy decorated cotton ‘library book’ bags (Maisie’s – planets, Tommy’s – a large vehicle).

We watched a few young circus students perform their routines on suspended hoop, silks and pole.

Our last band of the day was ‘Haiku Hands’, the energetic band of Sydney-siders with their rousing repertoire of girl-power chants, who we had enjoyed in December at the Pleasure Garden festival.

They had a dedicated following of nerdy-cool 20-somethings who joyously bounced around us and we did our best to stop Maisie and Tommy getting stepped on! Happily the kids weren’t too phased by being in the mosh-pit. Maisie knew all the words (which are quite sweary!) and was gleefully singing along.

Week 328 – Tommy starts school!

The week started with the Australia Day Bank Holiday. The weather was good and we set off on a bike ride down to the beach, but the paths were congested, Maisie had to make a swift stop, and Tommy, close behind, collided into her, falling off and bashing his forehead, knees and elbows. He was bloody and bruised, but despite screaming super-loudly, he had plenty of energy and appetite so we didn’t need to go to the doctor. I did, however, plan a few days of low-risk activities to make sure he was fully recovered in time for his first day of school the following Friday!

On Tuesday I took Tommy, Maisie for a ride on the tourist City Circle tram. Despite the tram being the kids’ main mode of public transport, bouncing along on the leather seats of the wood-panelled old tram was a novelty (and fun for me too!) and they enjoyed the snippets of local history which were broadcast during the ride. We hopped off at Docklands for a play in our second favourite container-port-side adventure playground. The kids spent most of their time creating a complex river system in the sand (I was tasked with endlessly pumping the water to keep the river flowing).

On Wednesday we got organised for school, deciding on packed lunch menus, learning to tie shoelaces (an ongoing project – for both of them!). It was stormy in the afternoon, the clouds flickered with silent lightning. The occasional bolt earthed and the sudden cracks of thunder unnerved the children (there was very little rain).

When Neil returned I went out for a walk in it, the air was hot and humid, the colours of the coastal foliage – yellows, greens, rusty orange – hummed. There were few people out, just a few storm-chasers hefting huge cameras to the top of Ormond Point. It was a good spot to be – the city towers shining against a platinum sky, rods of lightning streaking down between them.

As the storm retreated, the colours glowed ever more vibrantly. The air was so clear that it brought the fringes of Melbourne closer – I could see the detail of sun-blasted fields and dark patches of gum-forest on the hills that skirt the city – something I’ve never seen before! The cloud-obscured sun sent a pyramid of golden beams into a sea leaden on the horizon but the ghostliest grey nearer the shore, the green of the seaweed popping against the muted waters.

We celebrated the last day of the holidays with a trip to ScienceWorks. It was refreshingly quiet, as most children had just started back at school. New for summer was a ‘moon experience’. At the centre of a large dark gallery was a giant inflatable moon encircled by couches.

Visitors were invited to lie back and contemplate the mystery and immensity of it, while hidden speakers broadcast fun lunar facts. Maisie was entranced, and kept popping back in throughout the day!

There were many must-do activities on the agenda including the traffic-directing game, the ‘design a future car’ interactive, the endlessly mesmerizing ‘snow-storm’ (a tank filled with flakes of polystyrene and several directable electronic fans), the wheelchair-race, and various tests of reflexes and strength (Maisie was very good at the tug-of-war!). Of all the ‘selfie-themed’ activities, the most fun was a kaleidoscope (see picture above).

The children were up early on Friday morning, both very excited to be going to school. Suddenly they were focussed and co-operative (traits that had been lacking for the entirety of the holidays) – it was quite remarkable! Tommy was quiet when I walked him into his classroom, he told me that he was ‘just a bit nervous’ but we managed to part without tears! At the end of the day he couldn’t stop talking – particularly about the school chickens (his class is tasked with looking after them!).

It felt quite odd to suddenly be child-free on a Friday morning! I went to the cinema (the Elsternwick Classic opens with a full programme of screenings at 10am every day!), to see an adaptation of the stirring Young Adult novel ‘The Hate U Give’, by American director George Tillman Jr. The story is about Starr, a young African-American girl who lives two very different lives. Her home is in a rough drug-gang-controlled neighbourhood, but her hard-working (and loving) parents do their best to improve her life chances by driving her every day to the monied end of town to attend a college full of privileged white kids. She is adept at quietly fitting in with everyone, but when she witnesses the murder of a black friend by a white policeman – and the police try to hush it up – she has to take a stand, and it is the most terrifying and dangerous thing that she is ever to do. It was a great movie – serious, intelligent and inspiring – more mainstream movies like this please!

On Saturday we continued the holiday vibe with a morning trip to the beach. The kids found a deep pre-dug hole in the sand, which they claimed and happily played in for a couple of hours. Neil and I enjoyed a chance to sit, almost undisturbed, in the sunshine!

In the afternoon Maisie and I went to Stacey’s 40th birthday party (my friends are so young!) at the St Kilda Lawn Bowling Club. There was a children’s entertainer for the kids, a sophisticated barbecue (duck pancakes) and club members on hand to patiently teach us the rudiments of lawn bowling (I was hopeless, Maisie was better!) so it was fun for everyone.

Week 327 – a feast of tennis

It’s been an amazing week – with tickets for two quarter-final sessions, and the women’s final, I’ve been fully caught up in all the excitement of the last days of the Australian Open. Major seeds were falling by the wayside, toppled by remarkably focused and inspired youngsters.

We kept the kids happy in the continuing heat with plenty of water-play, and shopping trips to buy school uniform and lunchboxes. Our Thursday beach morning with Moko and Liam was particularly idyllic, the St Kilda sea translucent and shimmering in the palest shades of blue and gold.

Tuesday was my first tennis day. The line-up didn’t look so promising – starting with a men’s ‘Legends’ doubles match, followed by two quarter-finals featuring low (or un)seeded players I’d never heard of. But it turned out to be fun, thrilling, and nail-bitingly gripping – and possibly one of least predictable days of live tennis I’ve enjoyed!

The ‘Legends’ were 62-year-old French joker and remarkable trick-shot player, Mansour Bahrami paired with Aussie Mark Philippoussis, versus the South African Wayne Ferreira and Croatian Goran Ivanisevic (who I was a big fan of back in the day, when he was a gawkily tall and earnest youngster). The match, played using the ‘Fast 4’ rules (first to 4 games wins each set, no tie-breaks, just a ‘deciding point’), was played for laughs. Ivanisevic and Bahrami were the funny men, trying to out-do each other with their ridiculous pranks and banter.

Bahrami would ‘hobble’ round the court then execute a lightning fast back-hand return facing entirely the wrong way, he occasionally sneaked in a second ball halfway through a rally, and was given to hitting the ball high in the air and catching it in his shorts pocket. Ivanisevic spent one rally sitting on the net, leaped over it several times (all the players then swapped places without missing a shot). At one point Ivanisevic invited a linesman to serve in his place, and Philipoussis got a ball-girl on to return the shot. It was silly, but skilled and clever too – a great exhibition of other, less serious, ways of playing tennis!

The next match was deadly serious – it was a 3 hour, 15-minute epic battle! Solid Spanish player Roberto Bautista Agut faced the inspired but inconsistent young Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas (who had beaten Roger Federer in his previous match, and was, at 20 years old, one of the youngest players in the tournament). Bautista dominated the first set, but a brief burst of his opponent’s brilliance turned it around at the last moment, Tsitsipas winning 7-5. The Greek’s concentration waned in the second set – he tried out all sorts of audacious shots but they weren’t working out for him – and Bautista caught up, winning 6-4.

Bautista started strong in the third set, Tsitsipas missing as many shots as he successfully put away. He was given a couple of ‘time violation’ warnings (and even a ‘coaching’ warning) by the umpire, and these seemed to help refocus him – he clawed his way back (from 4-2) to win the third set, and kept up a tense and close battle in the 4th set, which he eventually won 7-6, collapsing to the floor in disbelief after winning his final point. He was charming in the post-match on-court interview, in answer to the question about how he was feeling, he said ‘It doesn’t feel real. My team asked me what my goals were this year and I said to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam. I thought I was crazy answering this. But it is real and it just happened!’.

I popped out of the arena for a few minutes of fresh air, and by the time I was heading back in the women’s quarter final (Russian player Ana Pavlyuchenkova versus American Danielle Collins) was already in full swing. I had to wait to enter till the first break (3 games in) – and their first two games lasted 22 minutes (10 deuces in the second, every point fought as if it were their last – I’ve rarely seen such fierce determination from both players so early on in a match).

It was a thriller. Pavlyuchenkova was the more composed player, and while Collins roared and screeched her way through the first set, the Russian won it quietly and convincingly, 6-2. But Collins was not done yet – she was on fire in the second set, powering her way up to a 5-2 lead. But she couldn’t win the set in that game or the next or the next – it was only when things were level at 5-5, that the American found the inspiration to win the next two games. So then, almost 2 hours into the match, we were into the deciding set.

Collins hadn’t lost momentum (or her highly developed knack for gamesmanship – she took the opportunity to slope casually over to the bench, mid-game, to change her racket 3 times, always at her shakiest moments!), and had quickly reached a 5-0 lead, but Pavlyuchenkova fought on, winning the next game (and almost the next) before Collins finally put the match to bed at 6-1. It was an emotionally exhausting two hours!

My next round of quarter-finals took place the following evening. It was a cool, balmy night, the sky glowing indigo, and I had a great seat at the TV-end of the Rod Laver Arena. The full crowd was excitedly anticipating the forthcoming clash between the world number one, Novak Djokovic, and the talented and dogged Japanese battler, Kei Nishikori. Djokovic started proceedings with his usual flinty focus, and Nishikori seemed to crumble. After a swift and deadly first set win for Djokovic (6-1), Nishikori spent his break-time lying on the floor being tended to by a physio. He went back onto court for the second set, but he was hardly moving, looking numbly on as Djokovic’s bullets fizzed past him. At 4-1 (Djokovic) the Japanese player gave up and retired from the game. Djokovic was gracious in the post-match interview, but clearly thrilled to be getting a night off!

The following match was a women’s doubles semi-final. It was an odd one – the crowd were cheering for Aussie/Chinese duo Sam Stosur and Shuai Zhang, but the pair were all over the place, bumping into each other, running for same balls (I’ve never seen such a lack of communication/co-ordination in a doubles match). By the time it looked like they were about to lose the first set, I was thoroughly bored, so I left – but later learnt that they had won that set and the match – a pretty astonishing turnaround!

Thursday 24 Jan marked 10 years since Neil and I got married! We kept our celebrations low-key with a bottle of bubbly and a happy reminisce whilst flicking through all the photos of our wonderful wedding day, with the children prodding at the computer (and occasionally asking ‘interested’ questions!). When the kids were finally in bed at 9.30pm (as is their wont, currently) we both went to sleep!

On Friday the Melbourne temperature gauge hit a high of 43 degrees. We went out early, while it was still only in the low 30s(!), and had a play at the childrens’ favourite adventure playground, the Booran Reserve. It’s usually incredibly crowded, but (unsurprisingly on this particular day I guess) they had it to themselves, and they were thrilled. The only busy bit was the water-jets, which they enjoyed splashing around in for ages. We retreated into our darkened house in the afternoon, and got out the board games.

Saturday was my final day of tennis. The women’s final wasn’t scheduled till the evening, but I made the most of an adult day (thank you Neil!) by heading over to Melbourne Park in the early afternoon. As the day matches in the Rod Laver Arena weren’t full, those attending were encouraged to sit near the front – a chance to feel part of the action.

First up was the men’s quad wheelchair final, pitting local young star Dylan Alcott against American veteran David Wagner. They have played together many times before (I saw them play each other last year), but it was still an entertaining match, reaching a tense tie-break in the second (and final) set. Alcott was astonishing, so nimble about the court, chasing after every ball. They had very different styles of play – Wagner conserving energy but placing his shots accurately and inaccessibly, Alcott powering his balls past his opponent (who was particularly skilled at the net) with the aim of getting them as close to the baseline as he could. Alcott won in two sets and invited everyone to join him for a beer afterwards! He also announced, excitingly, that the match had been broadcast across the whole of Australia for the first time.

Next up was the Junior Boys Singles Final. 16-year-old number 1 seed Italian Lorenzo Musetti against 17-year-old number 13 seed Emilio Nava. The juniors have slightly different rules than the adults – they play the best of 3 (full) sets, and are allowed coaching during the game (this bamboozled many of the audience who couldn’t understand why the umpire was not calling Musetti out for consulting his coach in every break – and it led to him being less favoured by the more vocal members of the crowd!). The boys were powerful players with big serves (just as fast as their adult counterparts!). They each won a set, and matched each other point-for-point in the closing set, reaching the new ‘final set tie-break’ after two hard-fought hours. Musetti always had the slight edge, and it was he who was the first to reach the required 10 points to win the set and the match.

The afternoon had flown by, and there was very little time before the two women finalists were due to arrive on court. Everyone had to vacate the arena while it was swiftly set-up for the evening’s play. But soon the crowds were streaming in, surprised to spot Djokovic taking part in a jolly warm-up with sparring partner Raonic. It was odd to see Djokovic looking so relaxed – he was smily and fun – doing trick shots and bouncing the ball off his head! As the roof stealthily closed overhead, the lights darkened and a disappointing light-and-music show heralded the important business of the evening.

Competing to win the championship were the Czech (no. 8 seed) Petra Kvitová and Japanese (no. 4 seed) Naomi Osaka. Kvitová had been a Wimbledon winner in 2011 and 2014. In 2017 she was the victim of knife-attack in her home (tendons and nerves in her left hand were injured – she thought she might never play again) but, amazingly she recovered in 6 months, and has since climbed back up the ranks again. Osaka is only 21 years old, and came out of nowhere to win the US Open (against Serena Williams) last year. Unusually Kvitová and Osaka had never played each other before (a shocked winning Osaka in her stumbling post-match interview had her most heartfelt words for Kvitová, ‘I wouldn’t have wanted this to be our first match, but huge congratulations to you and your team’).

Both players were utterly focused from the get-go, the match turned on a sixpence, both players brilliant with only momentary lapses in concentration. Their personas on court were very different – Osaka gave nothing away, scowling most of the time, Kvitová, with her huge expressive eyes, expressed the joy and pain of every point. Neither player broke in the first set, but Osaka edged ahead in the tie-break, and steamed into the start of the next set, only to falter when she had three match points. Kvitová was quick to take advantage of this, and, with a 6-4 second set win, took the match into the deciding set.

The arc of the final set mirrored the second – again anxiety threatened to destabilise Osaka when she was close to winning, but this time she conquered it in time (6-4), while Kvitová seemed broken by a couple of late line-calls awarded against her (see picture). The crowd, who were an equal split of Kvitová/Osaka supporters were passionately calling out to the players – even tiny kids (amazing that they had the stamina to last the 2 hour 27 minute match).

When Osaka won, she crouched down and curled up in a ball, hiding herself under a towel for as long as she could until she had to face the cameras. Later she said that she had ‘forgotten to smile’ – as there was too much to take in! It really had been a thrilling match – certainly my favourite women’s final to date!

Still feeling the post-match buzz on my way home at 11.30pm, I joined Natasha (just returned from 6 weeks with kids and family in the UK and feeling the need to let loose!) and a few friends at a Windsor pub for a drink. We ended up in a lock-in, drinking with the staff till 2.30am – a fun night was had by all!

The kids and I spent Sunday morning in the park, they were keen to try their hand at making another ‘cubby’ out of tree branches. I must say that they did very well (see picture), even finding some twine to tie branches together so it didn’t collapse (and it was still standing 3 days later!).

In the afternoon I went to see ‘Brimstone and Glory’, a fascinating and terrifying documentary about an annual pyrotechnics festival held in the small Mexican town of Tulpatec. The fireworks are made by the villagers by hand, dangerous powders ground with pestle and mortar, perilously tall launching towers constructed of hand-tied bamboo poles. Great effigies of bulls loaded with firecrackers are raced round the town in the middle of huge crowds. So many locals had lost a digit, a limb, an eye, a life. But the spectacle was awe-inspiring and magical – you could see why people were drawn to it.

Week 326 – five, ten, fifteen, twenty…

See if you can spot the significance of the above list of numbers in this week’s blog! It’s been a week full of sport. On Monday Neil bravely wrangled all four kids for ten hours while Becky and I went to the first day of this year’s Australian Open Tennis Championships.

We had tickets for the Rod Laver Arena so we were treated to some big names, if not so competitive matches. First up was enthusiastic young Brit Heather Dart against veteran Maria Sharapova. The latter dominated the match, but Dart was fast and competitive, and beamed all the way through. It was a fun match – much more enjoyable than the 6:0, 6:0 score might imply.

Next up was Raphael Nadal versus Aussie player James Duckworth. Rapha was relaxed playing a qualifier, he hardly fiddled with his shorts at all, although he did require the towel between every point, and lined his bottles up just so beside his bench.

Duckworth was an aggressive player, often challenging Nadal’s serve. He fought for every point and covered the court well, but the Spaniard always had the edge, particularly when it came to the crucial points, and won without too much trouble – 6:1, 7:6, 6:3.

Our last big name match of the day pitted this year’s no. 2 seed, Angelique Kerber, against the dramatically tattooed Slovenian player Polona Hercog. Hercog was fierce, and Kerber seemed annoyed, but she got the job done, consistently playing better tennis than her opponent over the the game’s 2 sets (6:2, 6:2).

We went for a wander around the outside courts, all buzzing with less starry but harder-fought round 1 battles. We caught the start of a match between young Aussie wildcard Jordan Thompson, and more experienced Spanish player Feliciano Lopez. Lopez looked the part, with flowing dark locks, Nadal-style bandanna and immaculate whites, Thompson looked like a tradie, rumpled black shorts and green t-shirt, and a terrible attempt at a moustache. But he could play!

He surprised the Spaniard out of the first set, winning it 6:1. It became more of an even contest in the second set, but Thompson won that on a tie-break, too. As it was an outside court (always more informal), and late in the day, there were plenty of well-oiled Aussie fans banging and stamping and trading chants across the court between almost every point. It made for a fun, if slightly unruly atmosphere! We couldn’t stay till the end as we had to save Neil from the children, but we learnt that Thompson finished things off in a third convincing set (6:3).

Tuesday was Becky and the cousins’ last day in Melbourne, and Maisie was keen to take everyone ten-pin bowling (as an extremely belated birthday treat!). It was an unexpectedly enjoyable outing.

The children took their bowling seriously (Maisie and 4-year-old John got strikes on their first throw, and were the eventual winners of our two rounds!).

We bought into a holiday deal, including chip-based meals and tokens for the arcade games too, so Becky and I didn’t need to facilitate anything – the kids were constantly engaged, and pretty contained (the staff were friendly, and the place was quiet too – so a win on all counts!). We had arrived mid-morning, and before, we knew it, it was late afternoon!

The day’s excitement continued with an early evening birthday meal for Tommy (who had decided he didn’t want a birthday party, but did want to go to a restaurant with his cousins). So we started his 5-year-old celebrations 5 days early with pizzas and gelato at our local Italian, Figo.

The cousins enjoyed a final play (goblins and ‘Dr Dog’) in the park on Wednesday morning, before Becky, Sarah and John flew home to Queensland. We’ll all miss them – it’s been a lovely week!

That night I went to see ‘Eighth Grade’, a new movie by American You-tube star/comedian Bo Burnham. It was a perceptive and sensitive portrait of a painfully shy thirteen-year-old, surviving her last week of middle school, with the added horrors of social media. As she is spurned, in real life and online, by the cool school mean-girls, she tries to redress this by publishing her own earnest self-betterment videos, but her litany of positive aphorisms is hollow, and her kind dad struggles to reach her. The lead performance, by young actress (and you-tuber) Elsie Fisher, was heart-breakingly real.

On Friday we arranged to meet up with Sam, Nate and Izzie at the Children’s Garden for a play in the water-jets. We were optimistic about the weather – showers had been forecast, but so often they only turn out to be a few sporadic drops. Not so that day – the rain was extended and heavy, and occasionally thunderous. But we stayed out anyway. The children didn’t even notice, they were so busy splashing wildly in the fountains, while Sam and I got very damp huddled under a small bottle tree (lots of branches, but very narrow leaves!).

After a spot of tadpole-fishing, we dried off under the garden’s wooden school’s shelter (where the kids stacked themselves up in the shelving unit!), picnicking with other gung-ho parents and children who weren’t to be put off by the inclement weather.

On a lawn in the main part of the gardens (in the shelter of some fairly substantial trees luckily – as it was still raining!), there was a big children’s nature-art play area. There were huge piles of bamboo and tree cuttings for making cubbies with; a creature-making activity involving clay, leaves, cones and seed-pods; fabric and crayons to make your own bark/leaf rubbing, and a mud kitchen. It was imaginatively put together, and well-staffed by cheerful volunteers, and all the children, despite being soaked, had a wonderful play, it was hard to persuade them to leave (especially the mud kitchen!).

We kept Saturday low-key as we had ambitious plans for the evening – we had decided to take the children to their first men’s “Big Bash” T20 cricket match at the Docklands Stadium. Play started at 6.45pm and didn’t finish till after 10pm. The kids were full of anticipation, about the game and about being out late. They were over-awed by the large crowds of gathering fans (40,000 in all) streaming into the stadium, and asked lots of questions about what was going on in the match. It was a good game – a contest between the two main city teams (the Stars – who we follow – and the Renegades) – and a number of international cricket team players ensured the quality of play was high.

The Renegades were first to bat, they hit plenty of sixes, but they were also caught/bowled out in quick succession. It seemed that the Stars would have no problem equalling them in the second half. But it turned out not to be so easy, they limped along, struggling to score 6 runs each over. It was only in the final two overs, when man of the match Dwayne Bravo (who had caught several players out in the first half) took the bat, that the ball started sailing over the boundaries, scoring the Stars the runs they needed to win the match.

For much of the evening it was very hard to tell what was going on as we had the setting sun blazing in our eyes (apparently when they built the stadium they oriented it all wrong!). Sunset-watching was a thrill for Tommy though as he was couldn’t wait to be out in the dark (a rare occurrence for him)! He was also chuffed by a possum sighting on the way home – we watched one walk precariously along one of the electrical wires (and luckily not get fried!)

On Sunday it was Tommy’s 5th birthday! He opened all his presents after breakfast (books, clothes, transport-related items and a radio) and we all went to the bakery to choose a birthday cake (Tommy didn’t want us to make him one – he doesn’t have much faith in our baking skills!). He selected a triple-chocolate brownie! After that, I got a picnic together and Tommy, Maisie and Neil cycled the 8km coastal cycle path to Maritime Cove and I made my separate way there (luckily by car!). I cadged a lift with Ante, who brought Sebastian and Adrian along too.

The boys (and Row, who was at home studying for an exam, sadly) had baked Tommy a delicious banana cake – with Tommy’s favourite colour blue icing. The kids ran off the sugar in their maritime-themed playground – Maisie happily joining in all the fighting/sand/stone-throwing games (what a lovely girl she is!). It was all a bit much for Tommy, who went off to pump water and make sand channels on his own!

We were all exhausted by the evening – even after our second round of cakes!

The kids made it to bed pretty early and I went to ACMI to watch American film-maker Crystal Moselle’s latest effort ‘Skate Kitchen’. It was a fictionalised account of a real-life female New York skate-boarding crew, the (astonishing) skaters playing loose versions of themselves. While the scenes of the girls on wheels, owning the Manhattan/Brooklyn streets, were vital and thrilling, the ‘story’, of a lonely 18-year-old finding herself and learning how not to play with boys, was hackneyed, offering little insight (perhaps the film suffered being seen so close to the wonderful ‘Eighth Grade’).

Week 325 – cousins in the city

It has been a hot week, and one almost 100% devoted to kid-centred fun. On Monday we caught up with Myomi, Jack and Christopher at the beach, after their annual family Christmas pilgrimage to Brisbane. There was lots of splashing and tunnelling and seaweed throwing. Tommy created a little ‘underwater garden’ of seaweed and shells in his bucket.

Tommy, Maisie and I headed over to the Veg Out Gardens to eat our picnic lunch, where the children played schools in the Fairy Garden, and continued their sand games in the wisteria-shaded sand-pit – they really cannot get enough of sand!

On an overcast Tuesday the kids and I did a 10km cycle (them)/run (me) along the coastal promenade – catching sight of the Brighton beach-huts before we turned back. A couple of pit-stops (a playground for them, a cafe for me) eased the return journey! It was a fun outing – and good exercise for us all, we may attempt it again these holidays!

On Wednesday morning, Aunty Becky and cousins Sarah and John arrived in Melbourne for a week’s holiday. They had rented an apartment just round the corner, with a big TV, so our kids were constantly clamouring to visit (Sarah and John were more excited about coming over to play with their cousins’ toys!).

In the afternoon Maisie and Tommy introduced Sarah and John to the delights of the park, John and Tommy launched into their first involved ‘traffic’ game, and Maisie taught Sarah to make loom-bands bracelets (we were all well-furnished with these by the end of the week).

On Thursday we caught the tram (a novelty for the Queensland kids – Tommy was happy to share his transport enthusiasms with John, who was very appreciative!) to the NGV. The gallery’s summer children’s programme was in full swing, and the place was heaving with the usual middle-class suspects (of which we are fully-paid members!), but there was plenty to do and lots of friendly volunteers, keeping it all just the right side of chaos. Sarah, John and Maisie excitedly joined in a kids’ disco in the garden, while Tommy chose to do some crafting, making paper collage clothes for dogs and Escher-inspired paper pyramids.

There was also a dog-themed questionnaire, which took the children off exploring the galleries of C16th-C18th art. We were surprised how engaged they all were by it, even John and Tommy. We completed the trail and answered all the questions, and they were still keen enough to pop up to the William Wegman exhibition (see blog week 323!) to see his quirky dog photos.

I’d booked the children in to a free circus workshop at the MPavilion in the afternoon. Three patient trainers marshalled a random mass of kids, aged from 3 to 15, in a series of activities introducing the foundations of circus skills – simple juggling ball manipulations, trust games and group balances, with turns on the tight-rope (Maisie managed a few unassisted steps!) and a chance to stand on an adult’s shoulders (Sarah was first up – but Maisie didn’t volunteer for this one).

Sarah and Maisie concentrated very hard for the full 2 hours, but John and Tommy were a bit overwhelmed and dropped in and out.

The boys perked up when it came to playing with the circus equipment. Tommy loved the plate spinning (and John collected up all the sticks and plates to make a ‘drum kit’!). Maisie continued practising hand-stands (her holiday project – she is getting good at it now!) and she and Sarah honed their hula-hooping techniques.

Also in the pavilion was a small stand of wired-up plants which played calming synth sounds when you stroked their leaves.

Neil joined us on Friday afternoon for a family trip to Elwood Beach. It was hot but comfortably breezy, and the wind whipped up a few wavelets, enough for the kids to enjoy boogie-boarding on. Tommy (who can’t swim) was valiantly trying to keep up with Sarah (who is a strong swimmer) in the water – it was hard to drag him out even when he was exhausted and struggling. It was a relief when they were all back on dry land making knobbly sand-castles.

Becky and I went out for tea at Claypots, and enjoyed a tasty crispy snapper and a fine bottle of Grampians Reisling in the restaurant’s pretty ivy-shaded gravel garden. We grabbed a cheeky cocktail at the Village Belle too – mine was a refreshing vanilla-infused margarita!

On Saturday we took the cousins (and Neil, for the first time!) to Melbourne Zoo. Tommy was our tour-guide, as he knows it almost as well as I do! Sarah was keen to see the reptiles – the tortoises (from tiny to giant) had them all enthralled, as did the fat green tree-frogs and somnambulant pythons.

Highlighting the zoo’s campaign to save the tiny native ‘Corroborree frog’, there were masks (which the girls wore all day!) a frog-themed disco-room, and a giant inflated animatronic frog, which the kids dashed up to, to give him a ‘high 4’!

John was keen to see the big animals – he was entranced by the giraffes and the zoo’s healthy herd of elephants, which were attempting to cool down by dousing themselves in big puffs of brown dirt.

The whole tribe of lemurs was hiding in a big leafy bush, peering out through glowing green chinks, and the gibbons, orang-utans and spider monkeys were restless, waking from afternoon naps to show off their extraordinarily long arms and muscular tails, swinging on ropes and mesh fences.

We popped in to see the lions before we left, and I managed to snap two of the males greeting each other as they bounded up to their high-stilted perch to survey their territory.

Becky and I went for a run together on Sunday morning. Also joining us were a couple of thousand tri-athletes – serious contenders emerging from the St Kilda waves in their skin-tight lycra, bombing up and down the Esplanade on state-of-the-art spokeless-wheeled bikes.

Neil and Tommy enjoyed a quiet day in, and the rest of us travelled into town to buy Tommy birthday presents, browse boutiques and shoe-shops, and eat in mall food-courts – the type of thing that Becky and the kids rarely get to do up in the Whitsundays. Sarah and Maisie were surprisingly good (they spent most of the time in a huddle together gossiping) considering that we didn’t buy them anything!

Week 324 – A Grampians safari

Our New Year’s Eve was quiet, conserving energy in readiness for the road-trip later in the week. Up doing computer admin at 10.30pm that night (as usual!), I decided to jump on a train into town to catch the fireworks – this year the organisers promised a ‘river of fire’.

Emerging from Flinders Street station it was like being at the Notting Hill Carnival – a sea of heads in all directions. It was a challenge to wade through but it thinned after a few hundred yards, and I easily made it to my chosen riverside spot (also busy, but sober and full of families).

It was the pole position – we had a 360° view of the many launching sites – the tops of the towers lining the river, and the spectacular mortars being let off from four city parks. There was so much going on it was hard to know where to look.

I’m not sure much could be said of the display in terms of artistry but there were certainly a lot of explosions, and sparks of every colour imaginable, in every combination imaginable (the pinks and purples, and blends of tawny orange, sulphurous gold and red were lovely, as were rainbow-hued roman candles and diadems of blue with violet centres).

On a grey Wednesday we picked up a rather well-used hire-car and drove west out of the city to the Grampian Hills. We drove into the sunshine (and heat – it got more intense the further inland we travelled), through farmland – cows, sheep, stunted corn, hay-bales, and the occasional llama.

The kids were excited, and surprisingly well-behaved in the car. Tommy called out every road sign and Maisie was happy as long as there was music playing. In the early afternoon we arrived in Hall’s Gap, a tiny country town sheltered in a narrow valley between two craggy ridges.

Our home for the next three nights was a dowdy, but functional, little cabin at the back of a friendly motel situated in 12 grassy acres full of wildlife. The cockatoos swooped down to greet us, click-clacking along the tin roof, trying to sidle their way in through the screen door when they scented food. Once we’d settled in (the kids were thrilled to be in bunk-beds, each with its own little window), we headed out to get the lie of the land.

We drove up the side of the valley to the nearby Boroka Look-out, a little way along the escarpment. The shadows were lengthening and it was pleasantly cool in the late afternoon. The eucalypt forest opened out to reveal a wide panorama of pale agrarian plains, dotted with small blue reservoirs, and swathes of dark woodland.

Fortified by the vast view we wound our way down the hillside, along a pretty (and thankfully traffic-free) shady single-track road, stopping at another beauty point, ’Silverband Falls’. A gravel path took us into a quiet dusky woodland, distant birdcalls echoing, darting fairy-wrens and insects sparkling in the diffuse golden light.

Maisie spotted several tiny lizards (the skink in the photo was so content on his warm perch that he didn’t mind my being only inches away!), king parrots and rosellas, and a beautiful black-tailed swamp wallaby.

The kids wanted to explore all the ‘cubbies’ (hollow tree stumps) too, until I warned them they might also shelter spiders, bull ants and snakes!

The trail led us to a sheer black volcanic rock wall, down which a single strand of silver water descended ten metres or so and disappeared into a pile of boulders (and never emerged). Tommy was able to climb under all the bridges, pretending to be the troll, while Maisie trip-trapped over as a Billy Goat Gruff.

The narrow road took us to the head of the valley, which is a reservoir. The water, dotted with ghostly tree-trunks, glowed becomingly in the low rays of the sun, people were picnicking and a couple were about to launch a kayak for a bit of trout-fishing.

It was surprisingly pleasant as reservoirs go (I generally find them very bleak places!).

Back at our cabin, the kangaroos were emerging from the evening shadows, a mob of them quietly grazed on the ragged lawns beyond our deck. One rather uncomfortable-looking female had the limbs of a large joey dangling from her pouch.

A crackle (yes – it’s the collective term!) of cockatoos shrieked overhead, and more muted parrots darted from tree to tree. When it finally got dark (the light lingered long, silhouetting the bumpy crags above us) the sky was full of stars. We collapsed into bed at this point as the over-excited kids were still bouncing around their bunkbeds!

Everyone was awake early (if not bright) the next morning – the cockatoos clattering and squawking on the our metal roof didn’t help! We went for a nature stroll in our pyjamas and came across plenty of kangaroos as well as several languid emus. They seemed relaxed enough but I didn’t choose to get too close!

We drove up into the hills, to the start of a trail leading to ‘The Pinnacle’, one of the area’s most visited spots. The path took us along the rolling crest of the ridge, through dusty patches of low scrubby bush, and clambering up rocky crags and deeply fissured pavements.

We glimpsed the reservoir below, glassy and reflective in the still morning air.

The children, particularly Tommy (‘I’m so tired’ was his constant refrain), weren’t too pleased at having to walk so far (just over 2km each way), but as the route grew steeper (and lesser walkers were falling by the wayside) they came into their own, bounding up the rocks!

The summit of the Pinnacle was busy, hot people were snacking, posing with selfie-sticks, and queuing to ascend to the highest point, a narrow rocky spit enclosed by railings.

The view was pretty across the flat lands and the along the roiling ridge, surges of pink-grey rock thrusting into the sky.

On the way down I enjoyed the rusty lichen and the brilliant yokey yellow desiccated blooms of ‘everlasting’ flowers.

Weathered rocks looked like piles of pancakes (or cowpats)! Some layers had so much air between them that it appeared there was little stopping them sliding apart.

Eagle-eyed Maisie spotted a well-camouflaged Jacky Lizard lingering for a moment on the rarely quiet pathway.

As the heat was intensifying, we decided on (what was advertised as!) a pleasant river stroll in the afternoon. But the hot air was trapped in the arid gorge, and everyone was already struggling as we hid in a picnic shelter munching sandwiches. We walked anyway – to the kids disgust, but they kept on going despite the epic tantrums!

Fish Falls was a lovely spot – a healthy stream of white water roaring down several craggy layers and ending in a deep pool which brave people were diving into from great heights. Maisie looked on longingly but obediently stayed paddling in the shallows. Tommy was too disgruntled to join her, but there was enough human activity to keep him engaged and he soon calmed down.

The walk back was easier, although Maisie moved at a snail’s pace, giving me plenty of time to enjoy the wildflowers (tiny white and purple blooms, with the exception of joyful clouds of ‘yellow buttons’) and white butterflies.

We cooled the kids down with ice-creams and returned to the cabin for a leisurely late afternoon. I enjoyed a quiet moment with a resting family of kangaroos, and a very tenacious and quizzical cockatoo (after my snacks) and the kids happily played in the complex’s tiny children’s playground. Neil did some footie coaching – Maisie is getting better at kicking (see picture).

The following day (Friday) we were promised temperatures peaking at 43 degrees! The morning dawned cool but by 8.30am you could feel it ramping up.

We popped into the nearby cultural centre, and learned about the six seasons recognised by the local aboriginal peoples. December/January is butterfly season.

A path from the centre led us through cool woodland along lazy Fyan’s Creek. The dappled shadow of large eucalypts nurtured a carpet of lush growth – grass and ferns and tiny tender-petalled flowers.

And the air was full of butterflies (brown/orange – they never stopped long enough for me to identify them!) – I’ve rarely seen so many. There was also a mob of emus grazing – a magnificent sight, it felt like we were on safari!

Neil surprised a shingleback lizard (he jumped back quickly – thinking it was a snake), an amazing creature with thick black pinecone-like scales, and a stumpy tail that looked like a second head (the intention is to confuse predators). When it slunk into the long grass it appeared to be reversing but the end we could see was its tail!

We’d read that there were various aboriginal rock-art sites in the Grampians, all of which were remote (the fragile paintings hadn’t survived in more frequented spots). With the air-conditioning on full, we drove 50km beyond the hills (following the line of the most northerly spur) along a long straight road through a dusty sun-baked land of scraggly small-holdings. 5 kilometres before our destination the tarmac gave out, and we bumped and vibrated very slowly over a horribly ridged rocky track. We really weren’t sure the car would make it but we’d come so far we didn’t want to give up and turn back!

It was 44° when we emerged from the car into an empty car-park and a desert landscape. The flora was quite different – low thin-leaved scrub, charred sticks of gum-trees, and the occasional spiky green pompom of a grass tree. But there were so many flowers – tiny and white – there must have been recent rain.

We didn’t have to walk far to the rocky overhang where the paintings were – red ochre hand-prints made by children, and a few representations of bird and lizard foot-prints. We were glad to have seen them but Maisie and Tommy were too hot and bothered to show much interest!

The tiny cave provided a respite from the heat though (as it has through the millennia), cool enough for a quick picnic before braving the alarmingly bumpy road again!

Happily we made it back to the main road without mishap, and stopped to take in our last stunning vista at the Reeds Look-out, a vast, green apparently untouched tree-covered basin, greying with distance into a jagged blue line of humps on the far horizon. Clouds suddenly amassed, as if from nowhere, but the heat hung on.

We drove on to Lake Bellfield (the reservoir) and walked along the dam wall. The wind was like a hairdryer. Squally gusts made sudden dark swirls in the water and threatened to remove our hats. The kids enjoyed throwing pebbles for a little while, but the 750m walk each way felt pretty relentless! The view down the glowing green valley was pretty though (the town beneath the trees was almost invisible!).

On our return to the cabin, it was still hot enough for the children to enjoy a dip in the unheated motel pool before another nature safari and some running around fighting with sticks. They loved the freedom of just being able to go out and play!

In the early evening the cool air swept in, and the heat-docile kangaroos got feisty. A couple of youngsters started sparring just outside our windows – it was play-fighting, fortunately not too vicious!

Happily (for us holidayers) a violet sunset didn’t herald rain, only a dull grey morning. The kids were very sad to leave – Tommy decided he wanted to live in Hall’s Gap all the time!

We decided to stop at a few wineries on our way home. The first two were closed, but an hour or so down the road, under an increasingly warm blue sky, we had more success.

We stopped at Mountainside Wines, a small family operation producing Viognier, Shiraz and Nebbiolo. The sommelier had 6 wines for us to taste – the Nebbiolos were my favourite, bringing back memories of Italian wines I’d enjoyed with Michaela in Alba. It was fascinating to taste different vintages of the same wine, side-by-side, the flavours were startlingly different.

Our second stop, nearby, was at Mount Langi Ghiran vineyard. It had Californian feel to it (well it looked like a scene from ‘Sideways’!), rolling, neatly tended slopes of brilliant pale green vines, misty hills on the horizon, and a glossy glass-walled tasting room and function area. Polo-shirted yuppies were picking up picnic hampers to enjoy on the lawns.

I tasted a so-so Riesling and a pleasant Rosé. Other visitors were raving about the winery’s Shiraz, so I gave that a go too (although I am not usually a fan, they are usually so harsh). It was an impressive wine – smooth and complex, and I had to buy some! We ate our picnic enjoying the pretty view too, and then set off on the last leg home.

On Sunday Rowena and I went to Bendigo (an enjoyably relaxed 2 hour train ride catching up on all the Christmas news) to see a small exhibition of Frida Kahlo’s photos. The artist (and her husband Diego Rivera) were avid photograph collectors – there were the well-preserved family archives; art-photos and snaps by their international coterie of eminent artist friends and dissidents; ethnographic and archaeological records (many of which were used by Kahlo as source material); propaganda images documenting socialist movements around the world, and others capturing modern industry and technology.

The photos revealed the couple’s incredibly global, culturally-informed outlook, and revealed Frida’s great joy and passion for life, despite her constant pain (there were images of her in traction, bed-ridden, but still painting). It was fascinating. One thing I hadn’t known before was how much her father had inspired Frida’s art. He was a talented photographer and documented his life in hundreds of tightly managed self-portraits.

We met up with Rowena’s cousin Kirby for lunch, at another of Bendigo’s many chi-chi old bank conversions near the gallery. We went for the tasting menu, which was delicious, better than I was expecting. The flavours of the six dishes were all quite distinct. Strips of air-dried ham with a sweet quince puree and roasted macadamia nuts were great, as were some cinnamon-spiced chunks of pork belly with vinegary Chinese leaves, and tender, lightly-battered calamari with marinated fennel. We ordered the matched local wines too, which were very good, and generously poured. Sadly, once we’d eaten it was time to head home, as Row had evening plans in Melbourne. But I reckon we’ll be back in Bendigo again before too long!