Sunday, 28 June 2009

Landing in Cairns

Thursday, 25 June

I landed in Cairns this morning; the flight from Sydney took three hours. It felt good taking off from the cold dawn tarmac, to watch the city submerge into playbox houses beneath me as we zoomed far away and into the cloudy altitudes where no-one and almost nothing exists, barring the promise of heaven in the form of mystical cotton-balls in the sky.

And where mortgages and property values hang as utterly meaningless and frankly absurd concepts..

As we descended into Cairns I noticed how different the landscape underneath me appeared. There were swirly rivulets and rivers that no doubt carry crocodiles and other tropical delights. On the ground I realised how majestic the area around Cairns is, the city being surrounded by mountains and tree-covered peaks. Sometimes these peaks were covered with clouds, though in this latitude they resembled heat-packs in the sky moreso than mere clouds. Cairns in the dead of winter is about the same as an average Sydney summer’s day. It’s warm to hot and muggy, but with a coolish breeze near the coast that renders the temperature to be mild at times. The nearby Atherton tablelands rise to over 3,000ft and they do cool down during the winter, particularly at nights.

I settled into my digs and did some nearby grocery shopping. I was expecting a string of hip cafes but instead there were the supermarkets, bottle shop, a few non-descript clothes and CD shops, and a few food outlets including Subway, all enclosed within your standard Aussie suburban mall really, no different to say, the mall in Glenorchy, Tasmania, situated down on the cold end of the country.

Later I took a walk around the groves surrounding this property where I’m staying. I don’t know why but tropical fauna isn’t as invigorating as temperate or cool-climate fauna. Perhaps the heat and humidity sever the refreshing effect of the foliage to some degree. Either way it’s great to see plants, trees and fauna grow so readily as they do in the tropics. This place is full of palm trees too, as is to be expected.

I decided today would be the day that I just hung around the town. I went for a long walk up and down the Cairns esplanade. Again, it’s not so different to the esplanade in Melbourne’s St Kilda, or Brighton Le Sands in Sydney for that matter. You really can’t help but notice that you’re in a vastly different place out here. There are mountains on either side of the esplanade that jut out from the heads in each horizon. You feel that enclosed zingy sense of being in the tropics. Most of all, and it’s almost a dissapointment, there’s no stirling bright blue beach in Cairns; what is all up and down the esplanade are mud flats. Mud flats, with a few attempts by trees to grow before they become flooded by heavy rains, and birds such as ibises nibbling on what they can gather from there. The mud flats aren’t ugly, but they ain’t pretty either. Tomorrow I’ll be going to the Great Barrier Reef where the water is expected to be a lot clearer!

I have tours booked for some of the days. Sunday and Tuesday I plan to be a bit more local – and this may include a bus trip to the beaches north of the city – and also visit the city markets, the botanic gardens and do some tropical rainforest walks. On Sunday too I plan to go to the markets in the morning, and in the evening attend an open mike night. At this stage however I’m content to relax and stay indoors a bit, particularly at night. I’m enjoying the feeling of sorting out my brain and my head and whatever feelings of dissatisfaction I’ve been dealing with at home.

The answer to my spiritual problems??? Get on with it. Do it. Unhappy about something? Take action. Leaving Sydney is pointless almost, and besides, the people I care for and love are all there. That’s why travel’s never been a huge imperative for me, even though I do make a good traveller and I enjoy it. I love being in new places and finding my way around them and experiencing the sights and smells and weather and feels of the new place. But there tends to be a form of ephemerality to travel. It’s like great music if you’re a musician. It can be loved, glorified and revelled in, but it can’t be sustained. Without fail there’s always “myself” to fall back on. That’s why, I realise, I need to deal with myself on a practical level. Sometimes this needs to be done within one’s own doorstep, within one’s own shoes, wherever they may or may not trod.

I’ve only been here for 10 hours, and it does feel like I’ve been here much longer yes, but the sense I have from being in the tropics is not an all too comfortable one. I feel much more settled and stable in the temperate zones. The feeling you get in the tropics is a sort of “pinched” vibe, where you sense that the headiness of the environment is trying to squeeze you out of there. The noticeably-angled palm trees lining the esplanade are their way of warning me to watch out for the elements here. The weather is volatile here in FNQ. I’m here during the quiet period but coming into October onward and the heavy rains and winds come lashing down. Hot, steamy, and stormy! Those mountains surrounding Cairns look like they’re in control and have authority to unleash whatever extremity they like on the local and visiting populace down at ground zero.

But for the meantime I have some tropical exploration to do! Cairns, and Far North Queensland!

Monday, 22 June 2009

shurrup Suit!!!

You know, sometimes I do have this fantasy of the world blowing up and our civilisation collapsing along with it, to see the whole structure and edifice coming down like fluff cards, bringing down volumes of dust and rubble that'll see the end of us all.

Many are predicting that this will happen one way or the other, and not before too long too.

I mean, I love life. I love nature, trees, walks in the park. I love the people I love, I love acoustic guitars made of beautiful wood, I love ukuleles, I love garden-fresh salads....

it's just that...I'm continually dismayed at civilisation's drawing card - money - and the power and sway it has on people, along with the bondage, burden, sacrifice and humiliation it inflicts upon the majority of the world's people and their lives, particularly us lot in the west.

How capricious is investment. Investing in property for fuck's sake, or the friggin' share market. The non-Westerners (and Easterners) had it right by living off and from the land. All this hype about where to put your money. It's incredulous, but if you've read Ancient History - ie, Greece & Rome particularly - you realise that nothing changes. Societies are built around greed and avarice that are essentially of no real value to the individual human being.

On the TV tonight: a major bank is caught having extravagant parties for its top performing lenders hosted at tropical Hamilton Island where $400000 was spent. Well this sort of thing has been happening since time began. You make shitloads of money and you treat yourself lavishly as the majority of the population are paying you in "interest"; interest that builds up in the scores and often hundreds of thousands of dollars over a 30-year period, merely for the privilege of owning your own home. For that money, in Sydney now, you can actually purchase a studio apartment with shared loo and spend your entire life paying it off! And then some.

I'm wary of real-estate agents & car-dealers, basically anyone who deals in big money. I don't like their drive and focus on something that is, well, lacking in any real soul. This includes professional investors. It's all about getting, getting getting. What about being thankful and grateful for what we've got, which is so much??? What about a bit more simplicity, and a lot more community, more connection that is true and not tied to stocks and money and mortgage rates.

We all have to make the effort and focus on it to make it work, to link the neurons as it were.

It's harder living in the big city than say, living in a hip town or community where these values are often nourished and given credence in people's habits and lifestyles.

Just look at it all. Structures. Western civilisation. Potentially dangerous climate change. Droughts. Resource/energy depletion. World gaps between the starving and the affluent.

May you live in interesting times.


Thursday, 18 June 2009

port arthur...

Port Arthur in Tasmania is an amazing place. A 90 minute drive out of Hobart, Port Arthur is blessed with a stunning natural harbour and lush green vista of rolling hills. It is also home to a penal colony that flourished in the 19
th century and today there is a historical site that is maintained by tourist dollars.

The tourist site is fabulous. The site is open from 8:30am in the morning up until about 9:30pm at night, when the last ghost tour ends. We got there in the early afternoon and stayed for the ghost tour in the evening under full moon.

There's an eerie vibe when walking through Port Arthur. It feels pregnant with the pain of anguish, yet there is a tranquility that calms this to some degree. You can almost hear the moans and screams of generations past as you wander through the remains of the penitentiary, the asylum, or the dark cells where some patients or convicts were locked away in total darkness for days on end.

As I see it, the entire system of convicts sent to Australia was a thinly veiled disguise for slavery, for using uber-cheap labour to build this country. In America this work was done by Africans forced from their land. English industrialism during the 18th century produced a band of ultra-wealthy capitalists whilst most of the population, driven to the cities to work, became impoverished. These people were often forced to steal and so for stealing a loaf of bread you were sent to "New South Wales", or Van Dieman's Land as Tasmania was then known. All in all it was an ingenious albeit diabolical excuse for slavery, for cheap labour.

The ghost tour was brilliant with many delightful and eerie anecdotes told by our tour guide. That the place is haunted is beyond question, you only have to go into the underground operating room to almost sense the blood seeping from the walls...

The Broad Arrow cafe was probably the most chilling spot we visited in Port Arthur. This was the scene of a mad gunman's massacre that killed 35 people in April 1996. There is a memorial to the spot, and only the shell of the cafe remains. We walked into the centre of the
cafe's shell and we both felt this pressurised, claustrophobic sensation that made us want to walk back out in a hurry. Apparently there were T-shirts available prior to the massacre available that said "I survived Port Arthur", and these were discarded from sale after the tragic event in 1996.

And here we are. Visitors from all over Australia and the world, going on tours, seeing exhibitions, going on the harbour cruise, wearing all manner of cheap colourful clothing made by underpaid workers from all around the globe, carrying our mobile phones and checking our
gmails and facebooks, inspecting and learning about what happened on this beautiful port some 140-190 years ago. What on earth would the convicts have thought of all this? It would have been utterly inconceivable to them. Yet they would take heart that people would be coming and paying homage and respect to the hard and treacherous lives they had to endure and live through.

Tasmania is full of heartbreak. We went into the State Gallery in central Hobart to shelter from a severe rainstorm and found ourselves discovering the story of Aboriginal displacement and genocide during the 19th century. No full-blooded Aboriginies survived the "bounty hunt" of the 1840's. You can feel this soft blanket of sadness throughout the land, a land that is just stunning in its beauty yet languid in its soft velvet grief.

There was another bounty-hunt in the 1880's, that of the Thylacine aka Tasmanian Tiger. Footage of this magnificent creature from London & Hobart zoos is televised continously at this museum. The tiger resembles a canine/feline cross and it has stripes only towards its lower back. The thaylacine became extinct on the Australian mainland some 5,000 years ago and now she appears to be extinct indefinitely.

Our journey to Tasmania was a magnificent, eye-opening and educational experience and I just had the best time and a big part of me wishes that life stayed the way it was whilst in Tassie.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

the hare and the tortoise

Ever had the wish that when some prick does something mean to you on the road, that you'd drive past them and witness some imagined misfortune of theirs and you'll be able to stick your tongue out at them?? I've had that fantasy and I suppose everyone has. Well in Tasmania this actually came true.

We were leaving Port Arthur late, at about 9:30pm. The speed limit was 80 kilometres per hour although my instinct was to drive slower at 60ks. It was very dark and the roads were windy. All of a sudden Sarah and I witnessed a menagerie of animals by the side of the road upon which Sarah insisted with a shriek that I slow down to 40ks. I obliged almost begrudgingly, yet my irateness quickly turned to eager compliance as I realised that if I had been driving faster I would have easily knocked over one of these sweet creatures. For example, a small wallaby by the side of the road began hopping in front of the car as soon as it saw our headlights. If I was driving faster than 40ks, say, 60ks, I would have undoubtedly hit the sweet magnificent creature. It was like a nighttime wonderland out there. The forests were thickset and trees were firry and they glowed a luminous light green in the dark. It felt like Finland. And with the animals it felt like an enchanted nighttime wonderland out there. Sometimes it became very misty too.

We saw a native wombat, possums, perhaps Tasmanian Devils, wallabies and rabbits, and many of them too. The thing we did notice about driving in Tasmania is that there is an inordinate amount of roadkill. So we made a pact not to kill anyone or anything as we slowly made our way back to Hobart, on this road and forest that was bountiful with wondrous wildlife.

We were very alone out there. We had one car come up behind us and overtake us. After that were were alone for a long time. It was only until about, say, 10-15ks approaching the first satellite town outside of Hobart that we had another set of headlights encroach upon us. This driver, of a white Daihatsu Terios, was particularly aggressive. He tailgated us for a long time. Sarah was fuming at him while I kept my resolve and kept to my reasonable pace. Most people it seems don't have respect for animals on the road hence the inordinate amount of roadkill. Finally the guy highbeamed us and overtook us and sped away long into the distance. He was in a hurry obviously, and perhaps he felt like he could get away with it because we had a foreign number plate on our car or something.

Later on as we were approaching the town of Sorrell we came to a very long, single-lane (two-way) bridge. There are many long bridges and waterways near Hobart. Prior to embarking onto the bridge we had to drive through a roundabout. To my left on the roundabout was a service station. Just as I was about to enter the bridge I glanced over to my left at the service station and for a split second I spied a white Daihatsu Terios moving slowly inside the service station and driving out onto the roundabout. I shrieked with laughter. I knew instinctively, with only a minimal glance, that he was the aggressive driver from before. I couldn't believe we'd be in front of him again! Sarah remarked that it was like the hare and the tortoise. And sure as hell he tailgated us on that bridge, drew on his highbeam, overtook us and sped away.

At that moment I had this gut feeling that we hadn't seen the last of him, that there'd be a third strike after these two just passed.

Immediately a large Ford Territory overtook us too and sped ahead. We thought Tasmanian drivers must be crazy in their driving habits, what with the tailgating and the overtaking on the bridge and speeding, all illegal and subject to fines and loss of licence. Anyway as the Ford Territory was speeding toward the end of the bridge, suddenly, a flashing blue and red light appeared on its turret that swirled incessantly. Sarah and I broke into shouts of cheers and joy ~ that Ford was a unmarked police car!!! And so, we trundled up slowly to see the Daihatsu Terios being pulled over by the cop car just off the bridge, and the young Daihatsu spud muffin turn his head out the window in distress as the policeman walked over to him. He would have been booked for tailgating, overtaking on a bridge, and speeding. He may have lost his licence. Tough shit you aggressive little prick. Next time you behave yourself before you end up killing someone. You may have been responsible for some or all of the roadkill we saw all over Tasmania, and not that you would give a shit about that.

There you go, the hare and the tortoise in the modern day context. We made it back to Hobart without killing any sentient being, the hare and the tortoise included!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Allez vous-en

I'd only been away from Sydney a little less than two weeks. We've seen some lovely places, particularly throughout Tasmania, of which we visited the giant Huon Pines & eucalypts and the Port Arthur historical site. The hotel in Hobart was particularly fabulous as it encompassed a wide view of the charming city. Everywhere I went I wondered if "I could live here". Sarah & I had this discussion everywhere we went. With Melbourne we both decided, well, not really. Perhaps the city takes some getting used to. It's difficult to find your centre in Melbourne, it's sprawling and flat and I couldn't quite grasp my sense of place or direction while I was down there. When I was driving out to Box Hill for example I felt like my car was stationary whilst the scenery in front of me moved through me, like a 3-D film, hardly changing for 40 minutes. The nicest thing about Melbourne for me was driving into it at night. As we were encroaching the city we felt like we were in some North American city like Seattle. It's been my third visit to Melbourne. At no time have I ever considered the possibility of living there. The coffee, despite the usual heresay, was no better than anywhere else, although some of the architecture, both old and new, was most impressive. Perhaps I need to give the place more consideration, more time. Then again, there are many other places to see and visit.
We left Melbourne by boat and sailed to Tasmania. In the northern port of Davenport we embarked and began driving in the freezing mist and it felt like we were in Scotland all of a sudden. The tourist towns were lovely. Hobart is a charming city with a major river leading into a natural harbour, and a mountain of 3,500 ft overlooking the city. Mount Wellington is usually snowcapped during the winter months. We used Hobart as our base as we walked around the legendary Salamanca markets and Battery Point in the cold & rain, and then onto the forest walks and Port Arthur on consecutive days.On the way down to Hobart and back up to Davenport we stopped at the historic town of Ross where we visited the historic Female Factory.
Canberra was cold and grey during our first day there. In fact it was the coldest day in Canberra since 1966 with the temperature barely staying above freezing for the entire day. The skies cleared for the days after and the weather was fresh and invigorating despite the bitingly cold wind. Canberra is a difficult city to negotiate and you really have to know your way around to avoid getting lost, which I almost did boundless times. We visited the strip of galleries all around Lake Burley Griffin including the National Art Gallery. On our return we visited the Australian War Memorial and only to see a wonderful exhibition on the "A-Z of Animals during war". Many stories, photos and anectodes about the carrier pigeons, horses, donkeys, dogs & ship cats (and trench rats) during wartime. It was poignant and bittersweet. And that's how we were feeling anyway.

I dropped Sarah off in the evening of our return and scurried off during the most vicous rainstorm that was raging inside my car. I didn't wish to go home so I drove to Newtown, and with the storm abating I walked into a pub and gatecrashed a singer-songwriter night. Had a small bite to eat and a beer, and had a sing. I was walking through King Street Newtown in a bit of a haze though I loved the sights, the smells, the energy, everything. I was glad to be home on my turf. And yesterday I went out a bit and felt the same way. I don't know why but I am particularly Sydney-centric. I could live out of here easily but when I am here it's always such a buzz. I may go away again within the next three weeks but for the moment I'm very glad to be back home.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Maton Factory tour

On the Thursday morning of 4 June, while passing through Melbourne, I had a chance to take a little excursion out to the Maton Factory in the eastern suburb of Box Hill and attend one of their fortnightly tours. While Maton build both quality acoustic and electric guitars, it’s their acoustic guitars that they are mainly known for. The tours last for 90 minutes though unfortunately I was half-an-hour late to my tour, my lateness being due to my inability to recognise the distance from Fitzroy to Box Hill on the map. I thought it might only take me five minutes to get there, instead it was a 40 minute drive! The eastern suburbs of Melbourne are a little reminiscent of Sydney’s north shore although the streets seem to be gridded in squares and it’s all relatively flat.

I hadn’t missed much of the tour. I found out subsequently that the first 30 minutes consisted of a tour of the de-humidifier room and the loading in of the woods. I appeared at the point in the tour where we were shown into Andy Allen’s custom shop. Andy Allen is the chief luthier at Maton and he builds superb quality custom guitars according to customers’ exact specifications. Many music shops carry Andy’s custom guitars, such as Billy Hydes in Camperdown who stock the “Sands of Time” guitar made of some very rare and exotic woods. These guitars are usually priced upward of $7,000 and tend to settle around that price range. These are the kind of guitars that you buy with spare change from an inheritance, or, if you are very keen to own something incredible, a lifetime’s treasure.

Andy is incredibly likable. He’s a real salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, naturally intelligent without any vestiges of unnecessary intellectualism. You can gauge by looking at this big guy that he loves his craft, and he loves wood (I mean, he looks like a tree!!). He’s met many musical legends over the course of his work and gave the example of Jimmy Page calling him up whenever he’s in town. He’s also made a guitar for Bob Taylor, head of Taylor guitars in America. Andy name-dropped ‘You really got me’ (Kinks) and ‘Midnight Rambler’ (Rolling Stones) as two examples of Matons being used in the recording of these songs. George Harrison used one around 1964. “People been using Matons since Jesus was born” says Andy with a cherubic innocence that is most endearing. He’s a great fellow.

The floor of the Maton factory was incredible. It was huge, and full of workers designated to particular tasks related to the process of building the guitar. These guitars are definitely hand-made, and I was there to witness the entire process. Our tour guide was Sue (May?), the daughter of Bill May who founded Maton guitars in 1946, interestingly being the year that Fender was born. Sue sometimes didn’t quite know all her specs when demonstrating the materials. On a couple of instances I corrected her although after that I decided to just bite my tongue...this topic is the one thing in life I hold in my memory to exact specifications!

On the racks there were many of the shapes and models of acoustic guitar I recognised, despite their being half-finished. The entry-level models held the lion’s share of space although I spied out some of the upper-level models on the racks, including the Messiah and the Tommy Emmanuel Series. One guy was working on my favourite model, the EST65C, which is the thinline instrument made of solid American Rock Maple. I even spied about three of them on the processing rack. Rock Maple is a lovely wood and the sound is shimmery and exquisite. These guitars had yet to be glossed.

I never got a chance to utter the “C” word, or to ask about the “C” word, in fact it should be the “double C” word. That is Cole Clark. What does Maton think of Cole Clark guitars, and of Brad Clark. Do they cut into Maton’s business unfairly?? I surmise that Maton are competing with Cole Clark by upholding their quality control and by striving to make as good a quality guitar as ever.

The main point to relay is that all Maton guitars are meticulously crafted, including the entry model, the M225. This guitar has a solid Spruce top and a 3-ply laminate Queensland Maple back and sides. When you buy Maton – and this is equally true for other makers including Cole Clark – you are buying quality. Maton’s two entry-level models, the 225 and 325, use laminate back and sides, yet this is a 3-ply laminate which in some countries is regarded as “solid”. The difference being is that 3-ply has a strip of solid wood as its centrepiece with the inner and outer piece being a peeled strip of either Queensland Maple (225) or Queensland Walnut (325). To my ears, while a 3-ply or general laminate back & sides acoustic guitar doesn’t usually carry the drama and resonance of an all-solid guitar, the tone of the 3-ply or laminate is often more focused and pleasing, particularly if the instrument has a good solid top on it.

I liked watching the spray-person in action spraying the guitars in an enclosed room. I was watching him through a window. He was wearing a face mask during the spraying process. We were shown the repair room, and then onto the boardroom to view some of a video on the making of Maton guitars. The wall to the right of the entrance carried a wide-range of standard & custom lines. These guitars are not for sale but instead, are available for visitors to play to accustom themselves to the sound they’re after, away from the noise and distractions of a shop environment.

All up it was a wonderful experience to be able to witness first-hand the building of quality acoustic guitars by dedicated and skilled staff. These guitars are handmade and exude warmth and soul and naturally, a totally Australian aesthetic. One day I do hope to visit the Cole Clark factory too, but only when I’m next in Melbourne, and only if Cole Clark start conducting tours to their factory.

Wall of guitars. Notice the acoustic dreadnought made with a maple fingerboard and bridge. It sounded lush just with me running my fingers through it!

Finishing and stringing a custom EM225C made with Australian Bunya Pine top, a herringbone inner banding, and an AP5 pickup.

Sue shows us the TE1 (Tommy Emmanuel series), made of solid Indian Rosewood back and sides.

Spray room.

The EST65C in production. Thinline Rock Maple back and sides. Notice how smooth it is? The finished product is glossy.

A rack of rock maple thinlines (4 on the right), in process.

Baker's dozen (and counting..)

Sides. A bit like pickled eels.

In production. Looks like 325s to the left (Qld Walnut), and 225s to the right (Qld Maple).

A top, insider's view. Solid spruce.

The building of a guitar requires many hands.

Chicken necks. I notice there are a few mahogany necks here (the darker necks). These must be for customised optioned orders as Maton don't use mahogany on any of their standard lines.

Andy demonstrates dovetailing and fitment.

Andy Allen, caretaker of the Custom Shop.

Paul Hewson shooting star

i'm in the sunshine A mate of mine produces a monthly songwriter newsletter which goes out to a hundred or so mainly Sydney-based...