At the Bottom of the World.

Staying in Australia as the down under Winter begins its creep has proven fascinating. A cloudless 22C, bristling eucalyptus and the surfer’s ocean, all the shades of sunlit blue. A new sky, unique to the southern hemisphere, blue on blue. Admittedly, a jumper may be required for al fresco happy hours but repeated conversations with the innumerable friendly locals would have one believe it was positively freezing this time of year. A depressing moment, when night time equates to a rather mild English day of grey (a grey that one can miss intensely at the most unlikely of moments).

We are staying near Manly Beach, just north of Sydney. A western utopia. Weather aside, double-decker super-duper tube-trains to take you around the city, cheerful bus drivers, craft beers in every pub and cheaply exquisite wine. Automatics on the left, American sized homes and very beautiful people running along the beaches with their surfboards and half-on wetsuits. Everyone’s fit, stunning coastal walks rising up to sweeping panoramas and down into cute coves of soft sand and seagulls. The apples are bigger. And every retired couple seems to be an absolute whizz at the Waltz. Instead of freezing grannies at christmas, the winter softens temperatures just enough for dears to tip their toes and bathe in rays.

It is almost too much. The infuriating, enraging, mindblowingly annoying swell of antsy flies that attack your eyes, nose and ears all around Ayers Rock proving to be a welcome downside. Until they get into your mouth. Ayers Rock, or Uluru, and the National Park within which it sits, and has done for so many thousands of years, a neighbour to the Olgas. A colossus of sandstone, rusted to a deep red. The remains of an ancient mountain range, worn away into the sea before being compacted, crushed and then thrust back through the land’s crust. What can be seen is the tip of an iceberg. Or rather, an inselberg. The Aboriginal creation story, the history of the Anangu, an intriguing lesson in totems and shapeshifters and survival in the outback of central Australia. A long way from Sydney, a long way from anything.

Steep prices in the resort – the monopoly of a one and only. But sunrise at the rock was money well spent. Light seeping slowing across the landscape, deathly quiet, hues of orange and browned yellow. Just as Nic feels quite odd when anything reminds him of, making him acutely aware of, his tongue, that it’s there, wriggling around in his mouth with a mind of its own, it is really rather odd to remember that one is on the other side of the world to home, upsidedown or, as John Oliver’s new adverts for his Last Week Tonight keep reminding us, the bottom of the earth.

The familiarity is acute. Aside from ‘pint of…’ requiring a ‘we only do schooners’ retort, there are the Salvation Army stands, tourist-maintained historiana of Sydney Rocks and the flurry of worker bees on the fast ferry into financial hubs. The motivation to set up shop, understandable, very understandable. Alas, the lack of a spontaneous weekend on the continent would gripe. An unsettling feel to be so far away from everything, and in quite so big a place (US yet to come). Fiji only marginally further away than Ayers Rock.

The home comforts of staying with a family, the beaches, the wharf-side bars and seedy Kings Cross pubs (Soho) have made for a degree of relaxation that is somewhat tiring. The mayhem of Bangkok, madness of Hanoi, buzz of Chiang Mai seem so distant amid the suburban sprawl. An episode of Top Gear in Burma feels like the memory of another lifetime. Existential fury gives way to Lana del Ray on the sand with an underscore of lingering unemployment, beer before wine and you’ll feel like watching another episode of Seinfield, wine before beer and…

The episode of Friends when they go to London. Nic’s gone wild.


A Lesson in British History

Owing to the unanticipated nature of KTM’s booking system (Malaysian trains selling out weeks in advance of departure) six nights have been spent, languished, in Georgetown, a colonial relic drenched in decaying grandeur. Crumbled eighteenth century townhouses, British-wrought but European in style. Worn and empty shells that have been converted into guesthouses, bars and 7/11s. Our B&B proved cavernous, beautiful tiles and cracking floorboards as originally set and laid. Fans rumble around overhead, the warm air just the same as would have struck Francis Light in 1786 when he struck forth with his almighty flag.

Naturally, high rises, roads and a Wire-esque Dockland now surrounds the UNESCO protected Old Town but distinction only adds to the charm of idling through a warren of streets, each signposted in the Malay of telling originals.

Jln Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah – The Esplanade

Lebuh Gereja – Church Street

Dickens, Buckingham and King streets connect Chinatown to Little India to the Old Colonial District, home to a very complacently insignificant Fort Cornwallis.

A charming place. Sightseeing abounds, including Kek Lok Si Temple, but a genteel stroll between Parisian coffeehouse, gutter bar and Western restaurant, dodging hawkers, admiring the local Banksy and watching the lighthouse flash and flush is, as in any characterful town, rewarding enough. Instead of feeling like the parasitic tourist of old, queuing and sweating and snapping and orienteering, Georgetown allows one to become an honorary local. Small enough that a map is memorised by hour 23 and considerate enough that the barman comes to have the ‘large Skoll, two glasses’ ready before one’s sat down. The enjoyment of a jam-jar served OJ to the tune of jazz so mellow one’s hair stands on end in a slick cafe, ye olde maps lining the walls, followed by a beer in Ali Baba’s den of mish mash, the roadside an arcade of which San Marco would be proud.

It is the life of leisure, of the traveller, but a leisure that’s more basic, simple and less pumped than elsewhere. Amidst motorbike fumes and boiling rice, gutted pigs and thunderstorm puddles, a Nirvana lies still.


Back to Kuala Lumpur. Replacing the Chinatown of bygone blog posts is Bukit Bitang,  home of malls malls and more malls. Having seen the surrounding Asia it is easy to understand Malaysian insistence on comparison with UK/US rather than Vietnam or Thailand. Here are fat cats with salaries on par with Wall St, city slickers who look at you, a white trash backpacker scraping 80 sen for the monorail aware, so aware, that their world and mine, elite-salaried-boheme, are orbiting nose to nose and both too close to the sun. This is rich KL. Ralph Lauren’s lounge, Hugo’s the Boss and Victoria’s Secrets are all too well known across town.

It’s aggressive, subtle Savile would say crass. Logos seem bigger, bolder, more aware of the social statuses they confer and size most definitely matters. Bank balance. Wallet. Credit card limit. Georgetown and KL are polar opposites but we (Kate Brittain and Great Britain) have left our mark on both.

Nic’s uncle will be picking us up in Sydney at some God awful hour in just a few days. Asia: The Retrospective. I feel it coming on.