Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Grogblogging in Melbourne

I probably won't be in town for this, but for those who are:

Grogblogging, June 16, 6.30pm at the Lincoln Hotel, Carlton.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

South Coast Track - Day 4

Previous post: Day 3 South Coast Track | Next post: Day 5coming soon

Day 4, Sat Dec 31, 2005 (new years eve)
I awoke much like the previous day, unsure about my health having gone to bed feeling a little under the weather. I lay awake on my sleeping mat for ten minutes or so, waiting anxiously for any sign of nausea. Thankfully, all appeared to be in order. I was particularly concerned about my health on this day more than any before because all my acquired knowledge of the South coast track indicated that today was to be the hardest day's walking of the whole hike. On most statistics however, you would never know this. Both the Louisa creek camp site where we had camped that night, and our destination, Deadman's bay, were similarly elevated (at around sea level). In addition, the actual distance to Deadman's bay was listed as about 8km, which by usual standards, is quite tame (particularly when considering the previous day was a 17km walk). Of course, there was one other crucial fact to consider, and one that made all the difference - a 900m climb and descent, over the infamous Ironbound ranges.

Even our track notes were being uncharacteristically frank about the task at hand, giving it the grading of demanding. This was in stark contrast to previous days, for which the track notes deemed only to be easy, or at most, moderate. This sudden jump to demanding was slightly disconcerting given I had found nothing to date anything less than hard (albeit due to illness). Having also not eaten well in the days leading up to this, i was quite understandably unsure about my ability to take on the Ironbounds.

In looking back on this, I find it interesting how knowledge of impending hardship can lift one's ability and drive to achieve one's goal. The only thing worse than enduring this walk in ill-health would have been to stay put. With this in mind, I became increasingly anxious to get started as quickly as possible. My thoughts became motivational, telling myself that after today, it's all plain sailing - "you'll be nearly finished this stupid hike!" I would say to myself. Having been so sick so early on in the hike, it is a shame looking back on it, that my enthusiasm for the hike had dropped to such low levels that I was thinking so negatively. It was, however, this same desire to finish the hike that injected new life into me. I was quite prepared to sprint up the bloody thing if it meant getting home sooner.

I was first to emerge from my tent. I quickly made my way to the river to complete my usual morning ritual of dipping my head in water to tame my wild, just slept in hiking hair (which no one wants to see). I realised as I walked back from the river, that most occupants of the Louisa river camp site had already packed up and left. This made me nervous because I knew the day was going to be a long one, and clearly everyone else thought it was long enough to warrant leaving considerably earlier than we had.

When I arrived back to our site, we were evidently in no such rush to get started, given there were still no signs of anyone else joining me for breakfast. I began boiling water for my much needed morning coffee, and mixing the remainder of the water into my milk powder and muesli. "Another breakfast of champions", I thought. After a little bit of deliberate stomping around the camp site to ensure others knew I was already up, I was soon joined by all my fellow hikers. I was quick to point out to everyone that we were, in fact, the only people left at the camp site. This seemed to have the desired effect, for within 30 minutes everyone was packed up and ready to depart.

The walk began heading east, with a moderate ascent out of the Louisa creek ravine where the camp site was situated. Before too long, we emerged from the relatively dense forested area that hugs the Louisa river, and were almost immediately re-united with the now very familiar button grass fields we had spent much of previous day walking through. With the trees gone, and virtually no vegetation above waist height, we now had a strikingly clear view of the Ironbound ranges, and the path of our ascent. The track was entirely visible, partly because of the lack of trees on the north western side of the ranges, and partly because the climb was almost entirely marked by stairs that had been built to assist with the steep sections (which was most of it). After about thirty minutes of walking through the button grass, we finally reached the beginning of the climb.

I remember thinking how unusual it was to actually know exactly when a big climb such as this begins. Often these things are not so obvious, because the ascent usually begins gradually, and you normally cannot see so much of the track ahead of you due to trees and vegetation. As such, you are often never completely sure you've started the real climb, or just a small foothill climb. On this occasion, however, the "real" climb was made plainly obvious by the sight of a stair case ascending steeply up the first spur and beyond. It's always a bit disconcerting when you nearly strain your neck attempting to view the climb before you.

The looming sight of the Ironbounds, and my anxiety about completing this mammoth mountain pass, did serve to focus my mind on the task in quite a rarely experienced way. In many respects, it was similar feeling to when I was one month away from submitting my Masters thesis, with chapters still to be written. Perhaps it was the engineer within that was suddenly brought to the fore as I gazed at the mountains in front of me. During the approach, I had spent considerable time studying the Ironbounds, trying to understand the stages of the ascent. My aim being to break the task up into smaller sections, so that I could more rationally consider what had to be done in order to achieve this task. I identified three clear stages. The first was a relatively short but steep climb to what my map suggested was about a 250m elevation. After this, Stage 2, a long ridge with a gradual ascent to an unknown elevation. And finally, Stage 3, which appeared both on map and in reality to be the most difficult of the stages, climbing steeply to the top. When I looked at it like this, things didn't seem so bad. Unfortunately though, my decomposition of the climb into these smaller bight size chunks, failed to account for what I later labeled Stages 4, 5 and 6, which unfortunately were hidden from our vantage point at the bottom. Despite this miscalculation, my general strategy of breaking the task into stages did serve me well, particularly in the first hours of the climb. Perhaps almost too well as things turned out.

My anxiety to get started on the climb reached its peak as we stood staring up the first set of stairs. Given this, I decided to lead the group up the first stage of the climb. I took one final swig from my drink bottle before taking the first step onto the Ironbounds, and so it began. Almost immediately, I slipped into what I refer to as machine mode. This is a highly desirable state to be in, particularly when making a big climb. Without any concious effort, each step follows the rythm of some imaginary sound of a banging drum - finding this rythm puts me instantly into a semi-meditative state. Having a stair case rather than a steeply inclined track does help this alot. Such luxuries were always welcome on days like this. In addition to helping with finding the zone, the stairs also provide some relief to you're calf muscles, which would normally be burning with pain when climbing up a slanted track - having said this, the strain obviously has to go somewhere, and it was most certainly my thighs that took the honors. Thankfully, my regular up hill cycling in the months leading up to the hike, appeared to serve me well. For ten minutes, I continued to plod along, and was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable I felt. It wasn't long, however, before the familiar burning sensation of lactic acid build up began to make itself known. In response, I slowed my step rate, which appeared to keep this in check, and so I continued up the first stage with only a couple of momentary pauses to take in the view.

After a further 20 minutes of climbing, I paused for a moment to look ahead, and then behind. With the track ahead flattning out considerably, I realised with great satisfaction, that Stage 1 was complete. What I also realised as I dropped my backpack to the ground, was that I still felt relatively fresh and energetic. Given all my anxiety leading up to this, I was clearly very pleased with things. I was almost enjoying myself, which was quite something else given I hadn't felt this way since the first couple of hours of the first day, after leaving Malalueca. While my spirits were up, I was also quick to keep this in check. I had only completed Stage 1 after all, and was barely more than 250 metres up. All previous hiking experience has told me to never celebrate until the task is done. This, I find, is quite important. There is nothing worse than letting yourself think you've finished, when in reality, you have much more to do. When hiking long distances, over many days, high spirits can quickly give way to fatigue, which can bring morale right back down. Setting yourself up for such a fall should always be avoided - but can be hard to avoid when you are also trying to keep yourself up beat and motivated. I find the best solution is to stop thinking, and just get on with it. With this in mind, I quickly stood up, took one final swig from my drink bottle, and threw my backpack over my shoulder once again. While not everyone was ready to leave, everyone seemed happy enough for me to continue walking, and so I did.

As I began walking, I quickly found my rythm again, but this time with considerably more speed. Knowing Stage 2 was not terribly hard walking, I decided to get it over with quickly, and get onto Stage 3, which was looming ever so closer, and looking ever increasingly like what in hiking circles is often referred to as "a bastard" of a climb! After 30 minutes of walking along the ridge, the track began to ascend steeply, as it scaled the perimeter of a rocky knoll. This was the last section of Stage 2, which brought the track up to a saddle, at which point the towering ascent of Stage 3 began.

Upon reaching the saddle, I again took off my backpack, and consumed a significantly greater amount of water than any time previously. Being at a much higher point than the rest of my group, I was able to spot each of them along the track behind me. Much to my surprise, I was a considerable distance ahead of Alec, who was clearly the next along the track. I must admit, being so far ahead, and still feeling reasonably fresh did make me feel quite proud of myself. Perhaps a little too proud as it turned out.

As I considered the next stage, and the distance between myself and the rest of the group, I was faced with a decision that would unfortunately haunt me for days to come. Do I keep walking? Or do I wait for the others? Ordinarily, I would wait. Well, actually, ordinarily I would not have to consider this question, because ordinarily, I am not the person waiting for others to catch up. While common sense would say I should wait and keep the group together, there was an overwhelming desire in me to keep walking and get this final stage over and done with. I thought about it for another minute or so. It will probably take Alec another ten minutes to reach me, and if I wait for everyone, another 20 minutes. Including break time, I will probably have to wait about 25-30 minutes before I get going again! While I could sit and enjoy the (quite spectacular) view), my desire to get going prevailed.

"I'll see them at the top!", I thought to myself.

When I made this decision, given what I could see, I figured I was about 30 minutes from the summit. This turned out to be a rather unfortunate error in judgment. As I embarked on Stage 3, it was immediately obvious that my predictions were true, it was indeed going to be a right royal bastard of a climb! I began ascending towards the rocky peaks that had been visible from the very moment we first laid eyes on the Ironbounds the previous day. Again, "machine mode" kicked in, albeit at a very low gear. Each step I made was slow and carefully placed. The steepness during most of this stage was at it's most extreme, and while there was no serious danger of falling any great distance if you slipped, you would certainly be in a fair bit of discomfort if you did happen to trip on the edge of the wooden framing of each step. Fatigue, perhaps for the first time, was beginning to effect me. Rather than ascending to the next step of the staircase with each stride, I opted instead to bring both feet to the same level, before taking on the next. As I put one foot forward, I placed both hands on my raised and bent knee, and pushed myself up to the next level. I repeated this for a considerable time, and despite the slow and steady nature of each step, I managed to advance up the hill relatively quickly due to the significant height gained in step I completed. Some steps were so big that it required both hands and feet to make it to the next level.

I periodically looked back to see where the others were. After a while, however, I lost sight of the track below due to various rocky outcrops and variations of the terrain I was climbing. I decided to keep climbing as I could see ahead, the track winding it's way around one of the large rocky outcrops at the top of the climb. Believing the summit was just behind this, I figured I should continue on to the top, and wait there. And so I carried on plodding my way up the mountain, in the same cautious but relentless fashion.

I soon reached the rocky peaks that for so long, had been my ultimate goal. As I approached them, my spirit began to lift as I realised I had almost finished the much dreaded final Stage 3, and would soon be gloriously placed at the top of the world, having conquered my nemisis, the Ironbound ranges. As the track went behind the rock, however, I was somewhat surprised to find the track continuing to climb, albeit at a far less graded inclination, beyond the rocky peaks. The track, in fact, appeared to extend a further 400 metres or so. I continued walking along, assuming it was only a matter of minutes before I would reach the top. As I walked however, it became more and more apparent that there was still some considerable work to be done. In fact, as I looked further on, I could see the track winding it's way up a number of hills. Clearly Stage 3 was not the grand finale I was hoping for. I looked behind me in the hope of seeing others from my group, but they were no where to be seen. I figured I was probably about 30 minutes ahead, and so decided to continue to the top, wherever that might be. It was another hour before I reached the highest point of the walk.

On a clear day, the highest point of the walk is made obvious my the sudden panoramic view you are greeted with as you reach a rocky ledge which jets out to the North.. Looking Southward, you also see for the first time, the more heavily forested Southern side of the Ironbounds (in stark contrast to the barron Northern face), as it plummets towards the Southern Ocean 900m below. Also in viewm is the track as it starts a gradual descent towards the Southern face, clearly signaling that the highest point of the walk has indeed been reached. Needless to say, I was ecstatic, and indeed, very pleased with my efforts. The endorphin high quickly kicked in, and I took my back pack off, and began to explore the area for a place to sit and enjoy the view. I was very lucky, for I had the clearest of views one could hope for. The rain and clouds of the previous days appeared to have all vanished, giving me a picture perfect reward for 5 hours of climbing. The only disappointment was that I did not have the camera, and so could not take any photos. "That's ok", I thought, "Aff will be here soon".

I must admit, being on top of the world, all alone, was a very satisfying feeling. If I was to be totally honest, I would also admit that the desire to have this alone time on top of the highest point of the walk was a factor in my decision to push on without waiting for the others. Part of me knew it was wrong, but again, the overwhelming desire to complete this challenge took precedence over everything - a fact that I must say, I am not proud of when I look back on it.
Even at the time, as I sat and enjoyed the view while munching on a muesli bar, I became increasingly aware of my selfish act as time ticked on, and there was no sign of anyone. I estimate it was about 45 minutes before I caught sight of Claire and Aff in the distance, and even then, they were a good 15 minutes away.

I jumped to my feet, relieved to see them, having not done so for about three hours. As I waved to them, almost perfectly on cue, clouds quite rapidly began to gather at the peak. The Ironbounds are reknowned for the variability of the weather at the top, with plenty of warnings given to avoid the pass if the weather is bad. It appeared we were about to find out what they mean. It was quite a sight. Clouds, quite literally, rose from beneath us, and swept over the top of us. The 360 degree panorama I had enjoyed for the last hour, suddenly vanished in a thick layer of fog. This was not good.

When Aff and Clair reached me at the top, I had put on my rain coat and jacket. Still excited to see them, I went over to congratulate them on reaching the top. If I was hoping for jubilant hugs and kisses, and compliments on my all conquering efforts to reach the top so quickly, I was sadly, and quite naively mistaken. There was no such scene, but rather the tense feeling of discontent. My naivete to my wrong doing was probably best summed up when I greeted Aff and Claire with the phrase "you should have been here ten minutes ago, the view was amazing!". This was clearly not my finest hour.

It only took another ten minutes for Alec and James to make their way to the top. It was equally apparent, at least from Alec, that I was not the groups favourite hiker at this time. By this stage, the weather had well and truly set in, and the rain began to drizzle down. When I think back to it now, it was probably the weather that contributed as much to the ill feeling as my own selfishness in going it alone. I am quite sure that if everyone had seen the view I saw when I arrived, then things would have been quite different, and the satisfaction of having completed the biggest climb of the hike would have overidden any ill feeling (to some extent at least). It is important to point out, however, that very little was actually said to me regarding my decision to walk on. To a large extent, my interpretation of people's reactions came largely from my own feelings of guilt about my decision. In reality, I don't know whether Claire, Alec or James really cared that much at all. Aff certainly did, and with good reason. I had abandoned her, and she had found the climb extremely taxing. Given the relative comfort in which I had made the climb, I most certainly should have held myself back, and perhaps taken some extra load - at the very least offered some support. These things, of course, are apparent now, but were largely hidden from me at the time. When I think back to it, I can see why I did what I did, but can also see why what I did was wrong. It is important to remember that I began the day doubting I would even make it up the Ironbounds. My mind set from the start was entirely self-focused, but it was also with the belief that I had to be this way in order ensure I didn't hold the group back anymore than I already had. My mistake was that I should have realised after Stage 2, that I was not struggling anymore than anyone else, and so should have stopped being so self-focused. This whole event was a significant learning experience for me, and one I will not forget. I should also say that after an hour or so of the cold shoulder treatment from Aff, we patched things up. Any discontent held by others appeared to diminish quickly enough, and I soon found myself back in the conversation, albeit feeling rather humbled.

Due to the rain and wind, we were unable to eat lunch at the peak, and so continued walking along the track as it began gradually descending towards the densely forested southern face of the Ironbounds. As vegetation began to surrounding us, we found partial shelter from the rain on a section of the boarded track, and ate a very well deserved lunch of "mountain bread" and cheese. Having eaten food, morale in the group also seemed to improve. We quickly rose to our feet, ready for the descent to Deadman's bay. In our minds, the hardest bit was over, and it was all good from here on in. I cannot count the number of times I thought this, and how many times I was proven wrong.

Most people would argue that downhill, as a general rule, is easier than up hill. I used to think this - that this, until day 4 of the South Coast track hike. It might have taken us around 4 or 5 hours to climb the 900m to the top of the Ironbounds. Well, it took at least this long to descend back down to sea level. I don't think I will ever come across a more challenging, more relentlessly slow hiking track in all my life. The track down to Deadman's bay winds it way among a dense array of jungle like plants, and complicated networks of exposed tree roots. Between these tree roots, thick, varyingly coloured mud at least as deep as your ankles, but frequently deeper awaited each step. Every movement you made required not only the careful placement of your feet to ensure safe a footing, but both hands clinging onto tree trunks, rocks, vines, moss, possum crap, or whatever else happened to present itself at that instant in time when you felt the weight of your body edge ever increasingly down the steep slope of the mountain face. Unlike the Northern face, there was no view to be seen. You had no idea how far you had gone, nor did you have any idea how far you had to go. Also unlike the morning's uphill climb, I was no where near as comfortable with these conditions. Having had ankle, and knee troubles for many years, I was especially nervous about twisting an ankle or knee. The fact is, my anxiety was not miss-placed. I had at least five or six very close calls which only further exacebated my stress.

Alec, James and I all appear to hike in a similar way, particularly when faced with such adversity. Throughout the descent, all three of us were bunched reasonably close together (although I often fell behind because of my extra caution), but we rarely spoke. I am a reasonably quiet hiker in the best of conditions, but almost entirely shut up shop when dealing with harsh conditions such as this. Alec and James, who were both looking far more comfortable than I, appeared to also do the same. In contrast, Aff and Claire, who were some distance behind us, could be heard chattering away for hours. How people can have so much to say, when faced with so many potential ways to die, is beyond me. Eventually, as the hours of relentless clambering, slipping and sliding went on, everyone fell silent. When Aff and Claire first fell silent, I figured they had fallen significantly further behind, and so took the opportunity of a very much needed, toilet break. Given the lack of food I had eaten, this was actually my first toilet break in about 48 hours, and as such, it was going to stop at nothing. I, of course, wanted to get as far off the track as possible, but this was difficult given the dense forest, and so could only find a spot a couple of metres off the track. As I squatted down, and looked up the track, I suddenly caught sight of Claire as she came around the corner. "Stop!" I yelled, "you really don't wanna see this!" Thankfully, Claire instantly caught on, and turned the other way as I finished the job at hand. Despite the awkwardness of the moment, I felt considerably better afterwards, and thanked Claire for her patience, and alertness.

During our descent, the rain had well and truly set in, and despite wearing rain coats, we were all soaked through. Compounding this discomfort was the drop in temperature, which would quickly take hold when ever we paused for a break. It was clear as the hours passed, that everyone was close to their limit. Thankfully, however, just as I thought this to myself, we suddenly emerged from the heavy forest, and began walking along flat ground for a few hundred metres, before catching sight of the very familiar orange triangle, nailed to a wooden post, which signified the close proximity of a camp site. We had made it!

One could be forgiven for expecting us to suddenly drop our bags, and start randomly hugging strangers (of which there were many), but in truth, our spirits were not particularly lifted, despite the obvious relief we all felt. The rain, by this stage, had become increasingly heavy, and the light was almost completely gone. I estimate we arrived at the camp site at around 8.30pm, which is further testimony to the mammoth day this was.

Another factor in our lack of jubilation as we arrived, was the ridiculous overcrowdedness of the camp site. Due to the bad weather, a number of hikers going in the opposite direction to us, had decided not to attempt the Ironbounds climb. Apparently it had been raining at Deadman's bay all day, which just goes to show how variable and localised the weather can be in this part of the world. Another contributor, or should I say another 14 contributors to the overcrowdness of the camp site was a large guided hiking group, who had taken up a significant portion of the available space with their tarpaulin shelter and numerous tents. Of course, we have no more right that anyone else to the Tasmanian wilderness, but I do think the national parks should not allow such large groups to go all at once. It was incredibly anti-social, and for 5 drenched, travel weary hikers like us, it was not a welcoming sight.

After some walking around, all of us managed to find space for our tents, though unfortunately, we were unable to pitch our tents close together. Given the lack of shelter under which to cook, our cold, wet and tired bodies, and the unrelenting rain which was going no where fast, we were all forced into our tents for the remainder of the night. We managed to distribute the task of cooking a Thai green curry among our three tents, and I must say, after eating one of the most appreciated hiking meals in all my life, my spirits did lift. Of course, being snuggly wrapped up in my sleeping back with thermals on, probably also assisted with this. The only dampener on my morale at the time was the thought that this was new years eve, and I was stuck in a tent. This, however, became something of a joke among us, and in this light, Aff divvied up the rum and raisin chocolate (the only alcohol we had access to), and made a quick sprint to Alec and Claire's tent, and James' tent, to offer them a celebratory "drink".

As I drifted off to sleep (well and truly before midnight), I thought to myself, "well at least it's over - now it's all plain sailing".

As I said earlier, I lost count of how many times this thought was proved wrong.

... to be continued

Previous post: Day 3 South Coast Track | Next post: Day 5coming soon

Monday, May 22, 2006

Eurovision never disappoints

I must admit, I didn't actually watch that much of the Eurovision song contest finals last night. A hot date with Aff to see MI3 took precedence over Europe's night of nights. Unlike last year, I did not organise or attend a Eurovision party this year, and as I began watching last night's coverage, I realised that I am probably more of a social Eurovision participant than a Euro-trash devotee. There is no doubt the contest is best enjoyed with a big screen, a group of like-minded fans, and a decent drinking game. Despite having none of these things last night, I did manage to catch about 8 of the entries, but unfortunately did not see the winning Finland entry which from all reports, was quite something (pictured above).
What I did see certainly didn't disappoint however. From a Russian ballet dancer emerging from the bowels of a piano, to a German country and Western outfit, complete with neon cacti, it was clearly on for young and old (but mostly young!)
What I find fascinating about the contest, is the ambiguity in how seriously different European nations compete in the event. There is a fine tradition of piss-taking from some countries who enter, while for others you get that uneasy sense that what you are seeing is actually for real. Whatever the case, the visual experience alone is justification enough for watching the event - and if you can't stand the music, I suggest turning the sound down (it's still worth it!).

Given I didn't watch the whole thing, I can't really speak to the whole event. Thankfully, Rob did!.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Happy birthday maccamusings

In all the excitement of engagements, birthday surprises and the usual array of stuff that fills up my week, I forgot to mention my blog turned one year old on May 3rd!

I must admit, when I first began blogging, I didn't really think I'd stick at it, but I am very glad I did. Thanks to everyone who cares enough to take time out of their lives, however infrequently, to read the rubbish I unashamedly post on this site. All I can promise for the future is much of the same (with perhaps some added effort to occassionally proof read what i post).

I also promise to finish the Tasmanian South Coast "Why am I still hiking?" report, which unfortuntately grew so large and initimidating, it scared me off finishing it :)

Surprise! Surprise! (part II)

Click here for part 1

The flight to Melbourne was uneventful, apart from a request by one girl to swap seats with me to allow her to sit with her friend. I was reluctant at first, but was convinced when they explained that they were participating in an "Amazing Race" style adventure that their employer (some Canberra-based real estate agency) had sent them on, along with all its employees. Apparently it was some sort of thankyou for a good year's work. Do you ever get the feeling you're in the wrong line of work ? The two girls apparently needed to sit together to discuss tactics, thus requiring Aff and I to split up. Given the flight to Melbourne is barely an hour, and the fact that I planned on nursing myself back to full strength after the previous night's festivities, I was happy enough to sit alone.

Within an hour of touching down in Melbourne, Aff and I were settled nicely at Aff's Mum's house in Carlton. According to Aff, we had about 2 hours before we should leave and go to dinner. I looked at the clock. It was 4pm, which meant dinner would be around 6pm. I asked Aff what time the comedy show was on.

"eight thirty I think", she replied.

"So the plan is to have an early 6pm dinner, then onto comedy show at eight thirty right?" I repeated back.

"yes" said Aff

"This is funny" I said, "This is the exact same plan as last night - and that ended up being a surprise party!".

I paused for a second.

"Wait a minute! ... No way! surely you couldn't have organised another surprise party for tonight!?", I asked, almost embarrassed at the thought of my arrogance to think myself worthy of such a thing.

"No way!", Aff quickly retorted. "Sorry to disappoint you Chris, but that would be too much".

"I didn't think you would have", I replied. "And thank god anyway - I don't think I'd cope with another one - I think I'd cry."

"No need to worry my Chris", said Aff reassuringly.

And with that, any thoughts of a second surprise party were instantly abandoned. I settled into the couch, and began reading the paper, excited about the mystery comedian we would be seeing that night.

Not long after this, Aff's Mum Mary began preparing for a night out with her friend Chris. They were apparently meeting at 5pm to go to the movies. After discussing how we would work the locking of the house with just one set of keys between all of us, Mary left with the parting words "Enjoy the comedy show - oh - and if my friend Chris calls, tell her I'm on my way". No one rang.

About 45 minutes later, Aff and I began walking down to Fitzroy for dinner. Aff had the plan to have dinner at a popular African restaurant on the southern end of Brunswick St, about a thirty minute walk from Mary's house. As we walked along, I began to notice Aff constantly falling behind.

"Why so slow?" I asked.

"My shoes are hurting!" Aff explained.

"One thing I will never understand is why women choose to wear shoes that are entirely impractical, and even worse, painful" I pontificated. "why don't you just wear comfortable shoes?"

"I like these shoes!" Aff retorted.

I left it at that, and we continued walking slowly through the quiet back streets of Fitzroy in slience. Eventually, Aff broke the silence with a question which, quite coincidentally, I had been contemplating myself as we walked along.

"Where do you think you'll have your 30th in Melbourne ?" Aff asked.

"I don't know - I really don't know" I replied in a somewhat agitated tone. The question had been bouncing around my head for weeks, and causing me no end of stress. I wanted it to be in a pub, but which pub was the question. One option - the "Standard Hotel" - was certainly a favourite of mine and a possibility.

Again, almost perfectly on cue, Aff said "What about the Standard? You like the Standard don't you?"

"Yeah, I do", I replied, "but the Standard can be quite crowded - and it can be hard to find a table - and I don't know how many people you can book dinner for. I am just not sure it's the best place for a largish gathering." I explained.

"Well why don't we drop in on the way to dinner now?" suggested Aff.

"Ok" I replied, "maybe we can have a drink as well ... if we have time."

And with that decision made, yet again, Aff's true plans for the night were put perfectly in motion, and yet again, I was none the wiser.

The Standard Hotel is a classic Melbourne pub. Off the main drag, on a back street of Fitzroy no where to be seen, it is one of those pub's you would never know about unless a local told you about it. With an open fire place, and long bar, it has a cozy, welcoming feel as you walk in.
As we entered through the front door, I instantly thought "yes, I think this is the pub I want for my 30th".

After thinking this, I turned to the right to face the main bar area, which resides in a seperate room from the small loby area you arrive in upon entering the pub. Almost instantly I caught sight of my good mate of mine, Bron, sitting at a table which I could only see a small portion of through the door. I turned to Aff and said "look, Bron's here!". Just as I said this, I caught sight of Mark, her partner. "and Mark I said! what a random sighting this is!". Then things got a little confusing, for sitting next to Mark was another friend of mine, Penny - but Penny, as far as I knew, had never met Mark or Bron before, so why is she at the pub with them. I walked into the room to say hello, and to get a full view of the rather large table (the largest in the pub).

Then the penny dropped.

The table was completely surrounded by my friends, about twenty of them - some I had not seen for years, while others I had seen only a week before. It was another surprise party, and for the second time in as many days, I had been had big time!

Just when I thought I'd seen everything, from the adjacent dining room came a flood of family. Mum, Dad, my sister's Shelley and Lindy and their partner's Ben and Jez. Suddenly Aff's Mum Mary appeared - she had no movie to see! and this friend by the name of Chris was apparently me! Aff's Dad, Edgar, his wife Olga and her son Alexi were also there, along with Aff's sister Casey. Even some extended family from Aff's side had made it along, including Aff's grandmother. I also noticed in the middle of a large table booked for our dinner, a huge birthday cake made by my Mum. This, however, was no ordinary cake! Mum, under instructions from Aff (a bold move I must say), had made a Thomas the Tank Engine cake. How the train cake made it all the way from The Basin to the pub without falling apart is beyond me.

Needless to say, the sight of everyone and the sudden rush of excitement was quite overwhelming., not to mention being the focus of everyone's attention so suddenly, and so publicly. I should say, however, that despite my prediction made earlier that day, thankfully, I did not cry.

As with the night before, I quickly set about saying hello to everyone, particularly those I hadn't seen in so long. It seemed, however, that every time I sat down to chat, someone else would tap me on the shoulder to say hi, or to ask me a question. While I have never participated in speed dating, I think I now have some sense of what it might be like with the number of short, less than satisfactory catch-up conversations I had in that first hour. More than anything, however, I was just riding the wave of the night, and was happy to move and chat with who ever I ended up sitting next to.

After an hour or so of mingling, Aff ushered everyone into the dining room for the only formal part of the evening. Despite this being a surprise party, I was well aware of what was to happen at this time, for this was something both Aff and I had planned to do when I did have my 30th in Melbourne.

While I have not mentioned it yet on this blog (for good reasons), Aff and I actually got engaged about four weeks ago! Yes, that's right blogosphere, Aff and I are gett'n hitched!
While friends in Canberra, and our families were told about the good news weeks ago, our Melbourne friends, many of whom we have known for quite a long time, were not told. Our plan was to announce this to as many Melbourne friends as possible, in person, all at once. My 30th seemed like the perfect time to do it, particularly given we had no plans to organise any formal sort of engagement party, but wanted to celebrate with everyone. It is for this reason that so many of Aff's family were there (not that they wouldn't have been welcome anyway!).

And so, with everyone gathered in the pub's dining room, Aff and I announced our engagement. One thing I have found so touching since Aff and I got engaged, is just how happy people react when they hear the news. Seeing such happy, in some cases just plain shocked and excited faces gives me such a thrill. After announcing it on the night, it also served to take much of the attention off me and my birthday, as most of the females swarmed around Aff to hear the story of how it happened. Of course, I wasn't left alone either, and had plenty of people coming up to say congratulations and hear the story. In truth, it was an absolute treat to have so many good friends come up and so genuinely congratulate us both, with genuine excitement.

As the night rolled on, some people left to attend other parties and social engagements, while the remainder of us settled in with countless jugs of Carlton's finest. This gave me the perfect opportunity to talk more with people, and catch up properly. I must admit, I was becoming increasingly tired as the night progressed - apparently I was not alone either, because many others in attendance, like me, had had rather large Friday night's as well. When Rob asked the inevitable question of "are we kicking on?", it was met with only minimal enthusiasm. In hindsight, I wish we had kicked on, but I remember at the time that this was just not going to happen. We did however, stay until stumps, when the pub kicked finally us out. Admittedly, this isn't quite that impressive an achievement at the Standard, given it closes at 11pm due its residential zoning.

And with that, so ended my two days of surprises. We stayed in Melbourne until Monday, which allowed Aff and I to also celebrate our good friend James' 30th on the Sunday, a surprise birthday lunch (but unfortunately he had already worked it out). On the Sunday night we also went to my parents' house for dinner, so by the end of the weekend, we were both absolutely spent .

So as you have probably gathered, this was quite a weekend to remember, and one that I will never forget. Let me take this opportunity to thank all those people who helped make my 30th, and Aff and my engagement, such a memorable occasion. Aff did an amazing job of organsing two surprise parties in as many days, and I have certainly been spoilt rotten! It truly was fantastic to see so many friends, both old and new, as well as family. I also got some fantastic presents, and a life's supply of red wine to keep the cellar stocked for years! I think it was the great Jeff Fenech (Australian boxing champion) who said it best in an interview after winning a hard fought bout:

To all my friends and family, "I love ya's all!"

Friday, May 12, 2006

Surprise! Surprise! (part I)

It has been quite a week to say the least, mostly due to a weekend of 30th birthday surprises - quite literally. The surprises came thick and fast as Aff, along with a number of accomplices, organised what appeared to be an endless supply of them, each giving way to the next.

So let's start from the start - Friday morning. The first surprise was as much a requirement of being a Belconnen resident as it was a surprise. Anyone who travels along Belconnen way regularly would be aware of the footbridge that for almost as many days as it doesn't, plays host to banners proclaiming various well wishes to specific people who may be driving underneath it. Most often the banners read happy birthday messages, and on Friday May 5th 2006, one lone banner hung from the hand rails reading "Happy 30th Chris!". Unlike most banners, Aff had not hung this directly over three lanes of road beneath, but instead, placed it over the bike track to the left, which also passes underneath the bridge. This was of course the best place for it if I was riding into uni. Unfortunately, however, for the first time in three weeks, I decided I would not ride into uni on this day, and so Aff was left to point out her surprise to me as we both sat in the car, and passed underneath the bridge. While not over the road itself, Aff had managed to write her birthday message in big bold blue letters, such that anyone could read it. It was quite a sight to see, and when I saw it, my first thought was "at last, my Canberra transition is complete!"

The next big surprise of my weekend was to happen that night (Friday). Aff had told me very little, only that we had to be out the door by 5.45pm, and so we were. Aff began her plans by wining and dining me at cafe` Musica, a local restaurant not far from our house. Given we had a booking for 6pm, a rather early time, and that we were pretty much the only people in the place, I figured there was more to this night than just dinner. Aff began feeding me clues which eventually led me to believe we must be heading to some sort of comedy show afterwards. The cryptic clue "You will have fun... Nee", followed by a very artificial sounding "Ha Ha Ha!" did seem to make it pretty clear, much to my annoyance (Aff has a bit of a tradition of giving away surprises). After about two hours, we left the restaurant. It was at this point that Aff put on what can only be described (in hindsight) as an academy award winning performance. Playing the role of the panic stricken partner whose cunning plan was about to come undone because she had lost the tickets, Aff put on a performance that would certainly shame many a Hollywood "actor". As her panic increased, so to did the nervousness in her voice, and her ability to think rationally. It was quite a disturbing sight.

"We have to be at the theatre by 8.15pm", she cried, "I think I've left the tickets at home! There is no way we are going to make it".

"Yes we will!, let's go home and find them", I replied.

And with that simple decision, Aff's true plans for the night were put in motion, and I was none the wiser.

We pulled into the driveway. Aff, still looking distressed, requested that I come in and help her find the tickets. This appeared to make sense given Aff had narrowed the possible locations to two possible places - her backpack in our bedroom, or the spare room where she had been hiding them. Aff approached the front door with keys in hand, but appeared to be overcome with anxiety such that she could not insert the key into the door lock. With my own anxiety increasing with each passing second, I abruptly intervened, taking the keys from Aff with an exasperated sigh, before opening the door. It was at this point that things didn't seem quite right.

When I left the house two hours beforehand, I had turned the front entrance light on, as one does to provide light when you come back home, as well as to deter intruders. Having made the conscious decision to do this, it was immediately obvious to me when I opened the front door that the light was now off. Instantly the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention, as a sick nervousness took hold. I began turning towards Aff to point out this abnormality, when suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of thunderous cracking sounds from all around. While I would like to say that at this point, I dove over Aff in a vein attempt to spare her life from what at that instant in time, sounded like machine gun fire from a house intruder, it would be more accurate to say that I simply hit the deck, with my hands over my head, believing for a momentary second that my time was indeed up. Of course, it was not gun fire at all, but rather the ambiguous sound of party-poppers going off as thirty or so people let rip. Within the space of three seconds I moved from an emotion of shear terror, to absolute relief. Adding to the intensity of my fear was the fact that no one had actually turned a light on while all of this happened - this was apparently my job, which I immediately did once it was clear I was not going to die. The sight was something special. All I could do was sit on the closest chair I could find, and stare at the all the people that stood before me. I had been had big time, and I loved it!

It probably took me about an hour to calm down. I instantly went into meet and greet mode, saying hello and thanking everyone. I had conversations during that time, but in all honesty, I have no idea what I said. I was pretty freaked out. I don't necessarily cope with large crowds at the best of times, so to be thrust into such a situation did take a little getting used to. Mind you, when one is faced with the split second thought that they are being shot at, such issues with crowds do take a rather distant back seat. The truth is, I had an absolute ball, and quickly got started on the champagne, red wine and beer - always a winning combination.

I woke the next morning feeling, unsurprisingly, under the weather. Given I only got to sleep at 4.30am the previous night, I was quite impressed that despite my hung-over state, I managed to get myself out of bed by 9.30am. The reason for the early rise was that Aff and I had plans to go camping on the Saturday night, but first had to face the rather intimidating task of cleaning up the squalor left behind after the previous night's festivities.

"Where's the surprise clean up team?" I thought to myself.

As I walked out of the bedroom, I began my usual morning routine of walking aimlessly around the house, chasing the cat for no apparent reason, and standing for minutes at a time, waiting for my thoughts to catch up with the rest of me. When they finally joined me, I started discussing the surprise party with Aff, and how well I had been .. well ... Surprised. Aff quite proudly began to disclose pieces of the story leading up to the event, and how difficult it had been to keep it a secret. I mentioned to Aff that I was particularly impressed how she had managed to make me think I was going to a comedy show. She never explicitly told me this, she just led me to believe this was the case. It was at this point that Aff paused, got out of bed and picked up something from her bedside table. It was a piece of paper, rolled up and tied with a ribbon. It seems I wasn't completely wrong after all, for Aff had handed me air tickets to fly herself and I to Melbourne that night, to watch a comedy festival show.

My jaw hit the floor.

"Another surprise!" I cried, "this is too much! Way too much!".

Aff replied in the only appropriate way: "Shut up you fool! We're going and that's that!"

I was, of course, very excited but this excitement was soon overtaken by a sense of anxiety as I realised we were flying to Melbourne in less than three hours, but had a house that resembled a war zone. After a quick phone call to Mum and Dad, telling them I was going to be in town, Aff and I set about cleaning the house. Quite impressively, it took only an hour and a half to bring the house back to an acceptable level of tidiness, and with that done we were soon on our way to the airport for the next stage of my already very surprising 30th birthday.

Click here for part II

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Food for thought

It's funny how an incidental conversation with someone you barely know can change your perspective on things. I had such a conversation last night with a guy I play soccer with. We were both out the front of the RSISE building, waiting for others to show up for our weekly soccer game. He is a PhD student like me, working in a similar field, so we weren't short of research related topics of conversation to keep us occupied. It is inevitable, when two PhD students strike conversation, that the focus quickly fixates on the question of productivity, or of ones progress towards thesis submission. "How's your thesis going?" one asks. At best, the response would be "I think it's going ok", but is more likely to be "pretty shit!", or, "I'm really not sure". My response to this question was the latter, partly because it is true, and partly because I do not have the confidence to upgrade it to anything more positive. The question is somewhat analogous to asking how long a piece of string is.

Having gotten the PhD rituals out of the way, we then delved into the more philosophical topic of what constitutes a good days work. Without going into the depths of this somewhat convoluted thread of conversation, we both agreed that we were too focused on having to produce some sort of tangible "look what I did" product in order to feel good about our day's work. For many fields of work, this is probably an entirely reasonable gauge of productivity - but for research, this measure is a guaranteed way to beat yourself up on a daily basis.

Today, for example, I have produced not more than 3 lines of program code. Yesterday I wrote about a page worth of notes on two research papers, of which I spent two days prior reading. I'll admit, I am a slow reader, and do find it hard to concentrate for long periods of time - but these papers are not exactly page turners. They a bloody hard reads, and require a lot of mental energy to get through. It is true that some researchers in my field could probably read these papers in a quarter of the time that it takes me. There is a name for people like that - geniuses. For mere mortals like myself, such concentration and focus does not come easy - in fact, I would go as far as to say that it is almost entirely unnatural for me. So much of my energy is spent trying to grasp what are sometimes quite mathematically intense, abstract topics, that I barely have the stamina to then go and read another one, or attempt to extend upon some idea that was expressed in the paper. Clearly then, the one page of notes that I did manage to produce from this mental effort is worth more than the A4 sheet I wrote them on.

My point is that it is the thoughts and ideas that matter most, and good research ideas unfortunately do not come on a daily, or even a weekly basis. In fact, the average PhD thesis is unlikely to contain more than a few genuinely good (and novel) ideas. This is why the national average for PhD completions is only around 50% It's really not an easy thing to do.

So, if I assess my working day productivity on a measure of thinking time expended on my project, then I soon realise that I am not at all slacking off. In fact, if my scholarship allowed it, I think I would be up for a significant amount of overtime. How many times have I stared at my bedroom roof (and no, there is no mirror on the roof!), trying to get thoughts of my research out of my head, so I can get to sleep. How much time have I spent riding my bike, going over concepts related to my project (before being pulled back into reality by the sound of a horn from yet another angry, nut-case Canberran driver). Hell, I even walk down supermarket isles and can't help but think how my vision system is guiding my motor responses to keep me centred and out of harm's way as a slightly erratic shopping trolley approaches. There is no doubt that research is an all consuming activity, and is therefore a constant, niggling thought that is hard to escape from. For this reason, it is important as a researcher to recognise that time invested in thought is at least as important as time invested in writing about those thoughts, or producing other tangible outcomes.

I am well aware that my focus here is very much on the mathematical sciences, where experiments and data collection, at least in the traditional form, are not as common. I can picture a number of psychologists, geneticists, bio-chemists and alike, screaming loudly about how running experiments that rarely work the first time, writing questionaires that never get answered, and collating data is no push over either, and can eat up a huge chunck of time. I do not dispute this for one second. The simple truth remains, the productivity of a day's work for the average researcher is very difficult to quantify, but is rarely lacking - despite what the researcher may believe of them selves.

With this new perspective, I find myself significantly more content about my day's work, and am comforted in the knowledge that tomorrow's efforts will benefit in some way, from the thought's and potential ideas that may spawn from today. One day I will have a big, rather important looking thesis to hand in, and an even bigger, sillier looking hat to wear - those are the only tangible outcomes that really matter (along with a few publications on the way).

Instant Evil (or coffee rant part II)

Ok, so the flood gates have opened. As Aff mentioned in a comment posted on my previous post, it is something of a miracle that it has taken me this long to blog about the topic. While last post, I focused on the incompetence of some barristers to provide what I order, today I bring to attention the work place coffee machine. I am well aware that not all workplaces have one, and so any complaint about such a luxury item should be put in perspective - however, there comes a point when the coffee machine is so uselessly unable to provide good coffee, that you question whether it is of any worth whatsoever.

My research school (RSISE) used to have a good machine. Sure, it made a lot of noise, and constantly asked you to do things for it (such as fill it with water, add more coffee beans, fetch it the newspaper etc), but it made damn good coffee. After two years of heavy use, it finally broke down. It was sent away to be fixed, only to return 3 weeks later and provide a week's worth of coffee before breaking down again. After repeating this cycle a third time, the powers that be finally decided a new coffee machine was in order.

It is at this point that i think things went horribly wrong. I am not sure who was on the committee that convened to choose our new coffee machine, but I have a sneaking suspicion it consisted mainly of people who prefer an Earl Gray over a latte`. I say this because when the new machine arrived three weeks later, an email was sent around describing this fantastic new machine, that didn't quite tell the full story.

They must have thought they were onto a winner. The new machine was capable of making all your favourite varieties of coffee at the push of a button (unlike the previous one, which sometimes required some additional attention) - and best of all, this new machine was a lot easier to maintain because it had "very few moving parts". From an engineering perspective, they obviously believed they had made the perfect choice. What they failed to mention, however, was the fact that this miraculous reduction in moving parts was primarily the result of the complete removal of the humble coffee bean grinder! Instead, a large compartment inside the machine is set aside for the storage of:

- wait for it -

instant coffee!

Now, let me just say, I have no issue with people drinking instant coffee. I myself was brought up on Nescafe's finest, and understand it's convenience, and even people's preference for it over real coffee - but instant coffee drinkers, I ask you this - do you feel that making instant coffee is so time consuming and complicated that it requires a $1500 machine to make it for you ? Sure, this machine offers you some standard choices like cappucinos and flat whites, but again I ask - would you go up to one of those machines you find on train station platforms, or in service stations, and actually purchase one of these (because this is the same sort of machine) ?

To put this in real terms for me - in the days of the old coffee machine, I purchased about 4 coffees a week from the local cafe` (4x$3 = $12), even though I drink about 4 cups a day. With this new monstrosity in place, I now purchase around 12 coffees a week (12x $3) = $36. Of course, the middle ground (no pun intended) would be for me to bring my own coffee supplies into uni, which I do intend to do. This, however, does not rectify some bloody stupid, non-consultive decision making.

Now - time for another coffee I think - where's my wallet.