Flying Docs and Festivals

Taking in the spirit of the Outback

After the adventures in the outback, it was great to have a few days in Alice Springs to have a look around the town before heading further north.

Staying at Neil’s home, my friend from Grimsby, it was easy to get around the town. Neil had to help friends at a music festival they had organised out in the McDonnell ranges for a few days, but before I went out there to meet him, I had the use of his mountain bike to explore the area.

Royal Flying Doctors base in Alice Springs

Thankfully, despite my record with all things bike-like, the wheels and pedals stayed on long enough for me to make it to the home of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the Alice, a service I only really knew of because of a slightly old programme I used to watch as a kid. I say watch, I remember turning it over a lot of the time.

Mock up of intensive care in the sky

The visitor centre is based in the town, the centre of Australia and hundreds of miles away from any other city – the exact reason why the flying doctors are needed in this country. Having now experienced how vast the outback is, and how frighteningly alone you can feel when stranded somewhere within it, I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone in the remote communities dotted all over the bush to have an accident or fall ill.

That’s where this service comes in, providing aircraft, doctors and medical boxes to those who need it. Covering an area of 7.1million square kilometres, the aircraft land on special runway strips dotted all over the back country, and in emergencies, can even land on the roads. It helps out more than 250,000 patients every year, including a number of tourists. It cost $12 to go into the centre, which is in the middle of being refurbished and, if I’m honest, wasn’t really worth the money. Instead, I thought of it as a donation for a brilliant service. As it says, the inland area contains many lonely graves of people from the days before the flying doctors, who would have lived had they received medical care quickly enough.

Aboriginals sheltering on the Todd River in Alice

I then set off in search of the telegraph station, the site of the first European settlement in the outback. I thought it would be on a hill somewhere, and instead found Anzac Hill, a lookout point where you can see across the city. It was a struggle to bike up the steep incline, but the view was worth it at the top.

Alice Springs from Anzac Hill

From there, you can see how the Alice sprawls out within a valley, the famous Stuart Highway running through it from left to right as it joins the north and south coasts of the continent.

Looking over the Alice towards the Gap

Its named after John Stuart, who led an expedition through Australia in 1861, and ten years later the settlement here started when a repeater station for the overland telegraph line which linked Adelaide, and indeed the country, with Darwin and the rest of the world.

The line opened up the centre of Australia for settlement, and that settlement was now a sprawling city, a place where the indigenous and European populations live side by side. There are undoubtedly divides between both, and its sad to say, but the many Aboriginals that I saw seemed to spend their days endlessly wandering around the streets or sitting under trees in the shade. There is a huge problem with high unemployment, crime and alcohol abuse among the Aboriginal people, and despite vast sums of money from the Australian government being put into projects to help, it doesn’t quite seem to be enough of the right sort of help.

Some people here argue that the indigenous population is not doing enough to help itself, and while there are many that work and earn a living, the general opinion from people I spoke to was that more support was needed. That being said, being shouted at by a group of them while wandering home one night was slightly unnerving, but I laughed it off and made my way past without any problems.

Alice Springs telegraph station

After taking some time to take in the view, I sped back down the hill and on to the telegraph station, some of the oldest houses in the area. Located by the Todd River, which is mostly a dry riverbed, it is next to a permanent waterhole – the Alice Spring.

Alice Spring – the water is visible top left

The settlement was optimistically named Alice Springs after the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd, from whom the Todd River takes its name. Strangely, the water sits around thanks to a base of granite that it can’t seep through, meaning that despite all the heat and dry conditions, there is always life-giving water here.

The point where the overland telegraph line entered the buildings

That’s why it was picked as a main repeater site for the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, the first communications link from the south of the continent, linking through to Java, Singapore and on to Europe. Teams of workers, led by Todd, took more than 30,000 wrought iron poles, insulators, batteries, wire and other equipment, shipped in from England, and linked the northern and southern coasts. The poles were placed 80 metres apart for the entire 3,200km link, and in some of the worst conditions, but it allowed the development of the nation.

Supermoon from Anzac Hill memorial site

As I was cycling back to Neil’s house, I noticed the moon appeared brighter and larger than normal. It turns out it was a so called ‘supermoon’, a phenomenon where it appears 30 per cent larger and brighter when the point it is closest to Earth coincides with a full moon. I took the opportunity to further practise with the manual settings on my camera, getting some fairly decent results considering it’s a simple compact job. A decent tripod would have helped matters further!

Supermoon over Alice Springs

My last day in Alice wasn’t actually spent in the city, but about an hour and a half away in the MacDonnell ranges, at a music festival called Wide Open Space. Its an annual outback festival, celebrating music, the arts and desert culture, and my friend Neil’s housemate was one of the organisers.

Music in the outback

It was one of Neil’s friends, Emma, who gave me a lift out to the bush and to the dusty bowl that was home to stages, funky festival goers, bands and beer. Emma is a cross-media reporter for the ABC in Alice Springs, a very similar job to mine back home, and the journey soon passed as we swapped tales and stories from journalism on opposite sides of the globe. We were so engrossed in talk about each others jobs, that Emma briefly ended up missing a turn, much to our amusement.

Festival spirit

My mate Neil enjoying the festival

The long dusty roads led us to some incredible scenery, and there was a great atmosphere at the site. It was very much a small-scale Glastonbury, with a very friendly and relaxed feel about the place. There was an underlying beat from the stage, everyone was chilled out, and the sun was beating down through clouds of dust being kicked up by dozens of dancing feet in the main arena.

The festival and campsite – in a Wide Open Space

As the festival was ongoing, I decided to climb up to the top of one of the ridges overlooking the campsite.

A tricky climb!

I knew the sun would be setting shortly, and it was my last chance to see one of the stunning sunsets in the outback, where the sky passes through such a vivid rainbow of colours before darkness falls.

It was a tough hike, clambering up the deep red rocks which would often slip under your feet, and pulling myself up through a gulley. There were plenty of other festival-goers around with the same idea, and we were helping each other with the tough bits. At one point, someone from the top started shouting for us to bring up some wood. Most of us had our hands full making sure we didn’t have a painful fall to the bottom, and so politely laughed off the request.

View and campfire from the top

At the top, however, we could see why – a few people had set up camp, complete with a camp fire, right on the top of the mountain. And what a spectacular view they had – the ranges stretching as far as the eye could see, people dancing below, music still heard as clear as if you were down by the stage. The beauty of being in the middle of nowhere – in a wide open space, to steal the name of the festival – is the complete silence and isolation. Somehow it seems to help the acoustics.

Soon the sun began to sink from the sky, turning a deep yellow, then orange and red, casting a glow and the red centre desert and mountains around me. The flicker of the campfire to my right grew ever more noticeable as the 30 or so people that were alongside me found a rocky seat and watched the natural spectacle.

Spotted this shot as the sun went down.

Many sat in silence and watched, others meditated, others cheered and hugged friends. As the sun disappeared over distant mountains, it was one of those moments when you realise just how quickly it sets. With the last sliver of light gone, everyone turned around into the opposite direction, watched, and waited.

The moon rises over the ranges

Within minutes of the sun disappearing in the west, over in the east, a giant moon began to slowly rise above the mountains. It prompted cheers and wolf howls from many of those stood alongside me.

“It looks like a giant baby’s head,” shouted one bloke, clearly having had a few too many Coopers ales.

As the moon rose higher in the sky, another set of cheers came from a larger crowd of people stood on the top of a smaller hill near the stage, as it became visible from their vantage point. Then, 20 minutes later, another set of cheers from everyone else down on ground level. It was a great couple of hours, taking in the atmosphere, admiring the view and trying to savour the experience.

The next problem was how I’d left it far to late to return back to the ground, and like a few others, had the tricky task of making my way down a mountainside in darkness. Thankfully, the moon was bright and my iPhone torch app once again paid dividends, lighting the way just enough so I knew where to put my feet.

Darkness falls

I was going to stay the night at the festival, but with it winding down and the bar shut, Emma offered me a lift back to Alice Springs. I was also thinking of making the train I was booked on north to Darwin the following day when I said goodbye to Neil, knowing it might be the last time I see him for a while. There was no guarantee he could make it back in time before my train leaves, as he was helping his housemate with packing away everything the following day. But we had met up again, and that’s what mattered – a friendship rekindled, and one I know we’ll keep up. He’s hoping to be back home in the UK for a few weeks in the next year or so, and so I hereby keep my promise to him of dinner and a night out on me when he returns.

After a week of staying at his house, borrowing his car, getting it stranded and repaired in one of the most remote parts of the world, a cracking bacon bun and coffee when I returned and fantastic memories of the outback, it’s the least I could do. We’d had a great time catching up, and it was brilliant to find him so happy with his life in the Alice. I’m sure it won’t be another 12 or 13 years before we meet again, and who knows, maybe one day I’ll find myself in the red centre once again.

For now, its back on the rails north and to Darwin, courtesy of The Ghan.

*To see more on the Wide Open Space festival, visit the website at www.wideopenspace.net.au

Farewell, Cod Flop

I’m in mourning. I’ve lost an old, dear friend of mine.

It’s a friend I have known for ten years, a friend who has been everywhere with me, that has walked with me on every continent (apart from South America!). A friend that brought comfort and support, one that I could rely on and trust never to let me down. A friend I just could not bare to replace.

I have lost a beloved Cod Flop.

MISSING: Last seen near Ayers Rock – the other one of these!

Now, most will read this and wonder what on earth I am gibbering on about. There are some who will roll their eyes and think ‘about time’. There are a few who will no doubt share a little bit of sadness with me at the passing of such a special friend. There are one or two who will read this with a knowing nod at my loss.

Those one or two will be the people I met at Camp America, in the Catskill Mountains of New York back in the summer of 2002, the likes of Steve Rose, Steve Reynolds, Lynne, Katrina, Peter, Mike and Chris, who, lovingly, christened me Cod Head thanks to my Grimsby roots.

I celebrated my 21st birthday at Camp Nashopa, and in July that year a few of them clubbed together to buy me something special for my landmark birthday. Aside from vast quantities of alcohol when I became a legal drinker for the second time in my life (its 21 in the States!) I was handed a present. They had splashed out on me, and handed over a pair of blue flip flops. All $1.50-worth of Walmart flip flops.

These, however, were not just any old flip flops. These had a picture on them – a picture of a fish.

Well, it was the skeleton of a fish to be precise, but it was a fish all the same. And from that day forward, we were all in agreement that they shall be named the Cod Flops.

And that was the start of a beautiful relationship, a relationship I am sure even some of those who helped buy me that beloved gift are unaware of, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m writing this!

Back then, I promised I would wear them for the summer, partly as they were a bit of a novelty joke gift, but partly because they were so incredibly comfortable. We went to the American countryside with the kids together, ran the go-cart activity together, had a special trip to New York City together. We even went as far as Boston and Atlantic City together, with my new friends not even as much as nipping my feet, let alone give me any blisters.

It was the start of something special, and I couldn’t just leave them behind. I packed them into my bag, and they came home with me, as something to show the parents of ‘what the lads got me for my birthday’ before being thrown away or forgotten about.

Except, it didn’t stop there.

With no other flip flops so comfy, I began to wear them at home. Then they were packed into my bag when I made a return trip to the States the following year, returning to the summer camp to see friends for a few days, and enabling my Cod Flops to feel at home for a while.

Cod flops in Spain, taken by my ex Leanne as a joke about my big feet

Then there were holidays – to Turkey, to a week with the lads in Greece, to Spain and the Canary Islands. We began to venture further afield, travelling to the Gulf with the Grimsby Telegraph and spending a week onboard HMS Grimsby as we sailed from Abu Dhabi in the UAE to Muscat in Oman in 2003.

With my cod flops in Sierra Leone, on a work trip with Comic Relief in 2007

We were together on my first trip to Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore a few years later. I changed jobs, and the Cod Flops continued with me to Africa, visiting Sierra Leone when I was sent to film the work of Comic Relief projects in the war-torn country, even coming with me and flying with the RAF to Cyprus when we filmed the Tornado fighter jets returning home from Iraq.

My Cod-Flops met people in my life, spending time with best friends and travel friends, a couple of ex-girlfriends who would roll their eyes as they see the tatty, ill-fitting footwear going on yet another journey. We had more holidays – to the Caribbean, to Egypt, to Prague and countless trips to Madrid to see best mate Dan and wife Denise. I learned to ski, and the cod-flops made their first adventures up mountains with me – just to wear around the hotel of course, but they went out in the snow from time to time too.

Cod flops protected my feet from the salty bottom of the Dead Sea in 2009

We were inseparable while I was away, and last year they made it to Thailand, Australia and Connecticut in America on my three-week trip around the world, a trip that helped me decide to make this very journey. They had circumnavigated the globe with me once, and with wear and tear beginning to take its toll, I had decided this would be their swansong, a chance to go out with a bang, a trip that I could show them the world and say ‘thankyou for being there’.

And I looked after them well – when all their flip flop friends were being washed ashore, abandoned or lost by their owners in a drunken haze at Thailand’s Full Moon parties, my trusty Cod Flops were still firmly held on my feet. When the little rubber toe holder pulled through from the bottom of the blue foam base on a walk in Cambodia, it wasn’t a snap, just a temporary, repairable blow-out, as always. They kept my feet dry and away from nasties on the dirty trans-Siberian train conveniences, and in the countless squat toilets across Asia.

But this trip did begin to take its toll on my weary friends. I began to feel sharp stones underfoot as the fish-painted base began to wear thin. In Thailand, a bit of broken glass stuck right through and cut the big toe on my right foot, leaving a half-inch gash in Coddy. The edges began to bend up and around my feet, and they still, even to this day, made my feet blue every time I wore them as some sort of paint or dye rubbed off. Yet I always forgave them.

I did, however, almost buy a new pair of flip-flops in Thailand, as the Havianas were just £2 a pair in Bangkok. I told myself that if I had to retire the Cod Flops early, I would write a post about them, to give them a send off and let the world know how much they meant to me, and how much I would miss them. An obituary like no other.

But their time wasn’t up – as long as I could walk in them, they would be my companions. They would make it to the end of my journey, and I would take them home, back to Grimsby and Hull, where they would have eternal rest in a wardrobe or a loft, a treasured momento of times past rather than being thrown out and forgotten.

And so, in our latest adventure together, we set off for Uluru, Ayers Rock, one of the most famous sights in the world. A walk around in the Red Centre of Australia, the sacred deep red sands being a first for me and my Cod Flops. I set off from Alice Springs, trying to drive my friend Neil’s 4×4 in them. It wasn’t working, so I swapped them for my North Face walkers and threw them into the back of the car.

And that, my friends, was the last time I ever wore my Cod Flops.

Arriving back into Alice at 1am, it was dark and cool. I unpacked the car as best as I could, and grabbed my Cod Flops. Except, there was only one- my right one. I looked under the seats, in the back, around the front. Nothing. The other one must be in my bag. I’ll have a better look in the morning.

Morning came. Everything came out of the car. Still no left Cod Flop. I searched my bag, frantically looking through every compartment. I even checked my cool bag. I texted my friends to see if it had been put in their bag by mistake. Nothing.

I removed the back seat from Neil’s car once again, to check my lost friend hadn’t somehow been wedged underneath. It hadn’t.

The Cod Flop has gone. Lost. Misplaced. Run away. Departed.

I was struck by a strange mild panic over an inanimate object. I feel like I have betrayed them, telling myself how I should have looked after them better on the journey. How I should have placed them nicely in my bag, rather than slinging them over my shoulder into a rear passenger footwell. It was my fault. All my fault.

I thought of how Tom Hanks must have felt when he saw his beloved Wilson, his volleyball friend, drifting away from him in Castaway. Friends for so long, a part of his life, yet a relationship that when he lost him from his raft and drifted away on the tide, resulted in tears and that famous cry of Wiiiiilllllllllssssoooooooooonnnn.

And they were only together for four years.

Wilson.

Ten years together, bought for me by good mates in great times gone by. We’ve shared laughs, been out for beers, met a few girls, stubbed toes and hit a few rocks during our relationship, but we’ve seen the world and walked thousands of miles together. But now our time, and our journey together, has come to an end.

My left Cod Flop must have known the end was night. It wasn’t bothered about New Zealand or Fiji, or returning back to the streets of Hull. It didn’t care for the accolade of travelling all the way around the world. Pah – it had already done that last year.

No, for my left Cod Flop, the red centre of Australia, the middle of one of the most vast, inhospitable desert areas on Earth, home to the majestic Uluru and Olgas, and just about as far away as you can get from Grimsby or their birthplace in New York, was the place where my long-term close friend decided to continue its adventure.

Holding cod flops in Lanzarote, 2009

It’s the place that Coddy decided was so stunningly beautiful, it wanted to stay. A place where it hopped from the car to see out its days, its travels never ending, and living for eternity in a place so far away from my home, but a place that will now forever be its. A place where I can think back to in a few months time, while I’m out at the crack of dawn filming on Grimsby Fish Market, safe in the knowledge that Cod Flop is still out there, in the middle of Australia, still having the journey of a lifetime. A place that I was just the middleman, the person chosen to deliver Coddy to its final destination, where it will see incredible sunsets and sunrises, watch as the deep red sands blow across the plains, and wave to countless thousands of people like me, from all over the world, driving by to look at one of the planet’s greatest sights.

I don’t know where my left Cod Flop fell out of the car in the outback, but it must have been somewhere near Ayers Rock when we stopped. While I am sad it has gone, and that I won’t ever have the pair of them to look at or wear ever again, in a way its only brought more romance to the tail of its remaining flippy.

I will keep my right Cod Flop, and take it onward and home with me, every day and every mile getting further and further from them being the pair of friends I have grown to love. I promise to look after it, to treasure it, and for it to have a special place in my house when I return. A place where I can see it, look at it and feel it, every gouge and mark, bend and scrape being part of the story together, and every time I will remember the good times we shared around the globe.

One of my last photos with cod flops, on the Great Ocean Road, February 2012

Who would have known that a pair of cheap flip flops, bought as a joke for a 21st birthday years back, would have such an amazing story of travel and adventure behind them. And for that reason, it’s quite fitting that it chose such an incredible part of the world to leave me, a place I may never visit again, but somewhere that I will always look at on a map and remember the special part of me that remains there.

Walk in Peace, Cod Flops. My feet will miss you. I will miss you. You’ll Never Walk Alone.