Outback Adventure – Part 2

Part 1 hopefully set the stage for what the Australian Outback is like, so now I’m gonna turn to what Catalina and I actually did over our 4.5 days there.

Jetstar flight JQ664 to Ayers Rock was scheduled for 9:20am, and we got to the airport at around quarter to – cutting it fine, but in a matter of minutes we’d checked in our luggage, shuffled through security and found ourselves in the brand-new Terminal 4 with 30 minutes or so still to go. So of course we did what anyone else does upon arriving at an airport in the morning: have breakfast at Macca’s.

Catalina had her first McMuffin ever that day – the first of several firsts on this trip, not all of them as benign as an egg & bacon roll unfortunately. We scoffed down our greasy deliciousness, scrunched up & disposed of the paper bag, and began strolling towards the gate, my McCoffee or whatever in hand. At one point I spotted our plane through a window so stopped to take a couple of photos – something to post on the ol’ IG/Fb while it taxis up to the runway, seconds before obeying the instructions to turn on Flight Mode…

We kept going and it was then that we happened to pass by a monitor listing all upcoming flights, and realised we’d fucked up royally:


I looked at Catalina, looked down at my ticket – yep, that says ‘Gate 49’ – and back up to the screen.


Boy did we run.

Coffee was erupting out of my McCup all over my hand but ain’t nobody got time for that when your plane’s about to shoot off into the sky without you – all because we decided to stop for some shitty McBreakfast.

Of course our gate was right at the far end of the terminal. People at other gates stared at us careening up the walkway as if we were being shot at – until we arrived at the uninhabited Gate 49, where two women in uniform awaited us, their faces securely locked to Bitch Mode as we came to a pathetic halt before them, panting and flustered, trying to look sorry and innocent and desperate at the same time.

“You can only board if they haven’t taken your luggage off yet,” one of them declared in a Pauline Hanson-esque monotone. “Wait here while we check.”

She did and praise the Lord, our stuff was still on board. We were handed our tickets with a stern reprimand and, feeling like told-off first-graders, released out onto the tarmac to power-walk to the plane and up the steps for a final walk of shame to our seats. At least we’d made it on board.

After another 15 minutes’ delay (nothing to do with us) the plane roared off into the clouds, and once it’d leveled out and the seatbelt sign switched off, we were informed we both had a $5 in-flight voucher to use – which was just as well since I’d already pressed the assistance button for some beer. Minutes later a couple of Pure Blondes were placed in front of us complete with cups of ice. I felt at ease again. Things were back on track.


Some 3 hours later – a mere smoko by Australian flight standards – we landed at Ayers Rock. It’s worth mentioning at this point that 3 or 4 years earlier I’d gone on a similar trip to Darwin, and still vividly remember stepping off the air-conditioned cabin into what literally felt like a blast furnace – the contrast so sudden and extreme it was like walking into something solid; a thick, invisible padded wall of roasting heat.

Alas, no such thing this time. Overcast grey sky and if anything, the temperature was actually cooler outside thanks to a mild breeze. It was like we’d never left Melbourne.

You can probably imagine that Ayers Rock regional airport isn’t exactly a bustling mini-city of PA announcements, upmarket duty-free goods and immaculately dressed multinational flight crews walking around like prim cyborgs. You just hop off the plane, walk a few metres to a sliding door, step through, and find yourself in a space that’s probably smaller than the inside of Flinders St station. There’s the one luggage carousel, there’s the toilets, here are some rental car counters, and there’s the exit. So naturally, we went to the toilet, picked up our luggage (first off the carousel – almost missing flights does have its perks), and picked up our rental car – a little Mitsubishi Something, ketchup-red to go with the desert soil.

A short drive later we pulled into Ayers Rock Resort, a big loop of road around which there’s a fancy hotel, serviced ‘Emu Walk’ apartments, a campground, a Shell servo, and a ‘town square’ with a few shops and eateries. And let me tell you now – if ever you wanted to emulate ‘Humans of New York’ and set up a ‘Bogans and Retirees of Aus’ Facebook page, Ayers Rock town square would be a rich fountain of content indeed.

We turned right into the campground and within minutes were standing inside a little reception building in front of a big, unsmiling, mumbling Indigenous guy who informed us we were on lawn 14 then gave us one of those “OK to drink alcohol” passes I mentioned. Catalina took the opportunity to ask him whether Uluru’s open for climbing today, and I think it’s safe to say that if he wasn’t exactly winning the Excellence in Customer Service Award to begin with – and he wasn’t – he certainly wasn’t interested in even acknowledging her presence after that. We hastily took our maps and alcohol pass and left.

Happily, lawn 14 was at the far edge of the campground and devoid of campers – we had the whole grassy patch to ourselves. Nearby was a surprisingly clean and functional toilet block/showers/laundry/mosquito sanctuary, and each lawn came with power sockets so you could charge your phone… Coz let’s face it, if you’re under 35 and you’re on holiday, if there’s no pics it didn’t happen.

We set up our tent (another first for Cata, who’d never so much as been in one) and finally it was time to do the fun stuff. It was time to see the Rock.


Uluru – or ‘Ayers Rock’ as it used to be more commonly known – is pretty much to Aboriginal culture what the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is to Christians. It’s a very old, very sacred site – which is why our Indigenous friend at reception did not take well to Catalina’s query, since although tourists are permitted to climb the Rock (bar certain conditions – strong winds, extreme heat etc), it’s simultaneously discouraged as a disrespectful act. At any rate, the climb was closed that day so after poring over the map we’d been given, we decided to be ambitious and do the full 10km ‘base walk’ around the perimetre – an undertaking estimated to take 3.5 hours, but which I figured we could do in one less.


The Rock itself is striking. Like most famous monuments – the Eiffel Tower, Mount Fuji – the first moment you see it with your own eyes you’re kind of caught by surprise, like “OMG there it is”, and it looks even grander than you’d imagined: larger than life, radiating an energy generated as much by its renown as by its sheer scale. Even against the dreary, colourless sky that afternoon, it was an impressive sight: this massive, brooding edifice the colour of dried blood standing guard over the surrounding desert… A silent, powerful sentinel of this ageless Dreamtime landscape.


For those who don’t know, the Dreamtime is the Aboriginal version of Genesis – a Creation myth of how the world came to be. The way it goes rings somewhat familiar: The world used be a featureless void, until a time – the Dreamtime – when giant, magical beings emerged and began wandering the land, and through their actions (playing, fighting, love-making etc) they transformed the world into a rich, vibrant environment teeming with animals, plants and landmarks – Uluru being a crowning example of the latter.

There seem to be varying accounts of how Uluru itself came to be. A series of signs near the car park tell a bizarre tale involving ‘Sleeping Lizard Women’ and pissed-off tribesmen who summon an evil dingo from mud, but its ending – that the earth rose in grief at the bloodshed between two warring tribes, forming Uluru – was quite poignant, and makes all the more sense once you explore the Rock and notice how it resembles scarred, petrified flesh in many places. According to another Dreamtime story, the grooves running up and down Uluru are the legacy of a struggle between two huge serpents wrestling on top of the monolith.


Of course, these grooves were actually created by rainwater, and there are black streaks all over the Rock that show where the water flows down during the wet season. The scientific explanation for this remarkable piece of geology is, naturally, less colourful than the myth, but still fascinating, as it reveals that the vast bulk of Uluru is actually underground. What we see looming over the desert is merely the tip of a vast sandstone iceberg… The fin of a colossal subterranean megalodon of which the Olgas is another component.


In his excellent Australian travelogue ‘In A Sunburned Country’, Bill Bryson quips that this “big red rock” would be a brilliant navigational marker should a spaceship ever need to land and wait for interstellar roadside assistance:

the obvious directions to rescuers would be: ‘Go to the third planet and fly around till you see the big red rock. You can’t miss it.’

I’d go one further and say that the Rock itself is so bizarre, so seemingly out of place in this otherwise flat, relatively featureless terrain, that you could almost imagine it as the façade for some sort of gigantic military facility – an Australian Area 51, with a secret opening somewhere that slides sideways to reveal a high-tech UFO hangar inside… Ripe fodder for a David Icke conspiracy theory if there ever was one.

But I digress.

We set off on the base walk and walked… and walked… and walked. The first third of the walk is actually some distance away from the Rock itself (possibly to hide that secret entrance) but happily, it gets closer and closer until you’re walking right up alongside it, able to appreciate its multifarious surface up close. It really is visually captivating – far from having the usual jagged/smooth rock texture you’ve seen on countless cliffs, it’s patterned with all sorts of random caves and curves and cuts, some of which you’d swear were indeed sculpted or inflicted by conscious entities rather than natural processes. Signs around the walk inform you of ‘sensitive sites’ – a particular part of the rock associated with a Dreamtime story – and they tend to coincide with a particularly striking feature in the rock wall, resembling the lips of a titanic sea creature or, dare I say it, a giant vagina.


Up close Uluru has such a variety of form and texture… At times resembling a soft cheese or a mousse that’s been scooped in parts with a spoon… Other times the rock wall is smooth and looms up high and straight like a stone tsunami… Some parts have bizarre markings resembling scars and orifices on some gigantic organic entity… Others contain curious collections of boulders as if they’ve actually gathered there to form still, silent communities of their own. Had he ever seen it, I’ve no doubt Salvador Dali would’ve been obsessed with this incredible landform and its multitude of faces, accentuated all the more at the sunset by black shadows and deep red luminescence.

That’s a caption for one of my Instagram videos, which I think sums it up nicely.

As we traversed the final part of the walk, our feet getting sore, the sun finally broke through the grey sheets that had been curtaining the sky all day and set its spotlight directly on our side of the rock. It was like a lava lamp being switched on – the rock, which by now had been looking rather dull and lifeless under the darkening sky, was suddenly brought to life, glowing hot-sauce red, its weird pockmarks and protrusions made all the more dramatic by the stark contrast of light and shadow…


Finally, we arrived back at the car, still patiently waiting for us in the parking lot, its compatriots long gone. We drove back to the campground tired but satisfied, had dinner at a box noodle place called Ayers Wok (geddit?), showered, and consummated our brand-new double air mattress in the cold but cosy confines of our portable home.

Day one was over… Three glorious more to go.



Eurotrip 2015 – Part 5


Currently sitting on a bus on the way from Wroclaw to Krakow. While the crimson-coloured PKP (Polish National Railways) trains of old had their charm, this bus is a reminder of how things have changed – zooming along an autobahn on cushy red leather seats, with free wifi, everything so clean it looks like it came off the factory line just this morning. Outside, blanketed in fog under a low grey sky, is the Polish landscape: utterly flat; the only landscape I’ve seen in Europe reminiscent of rural Victoria, with its similarly flat, relatively featureless fields stretching out to the horizon. This is unsurprising given that Poland comes from the word Polanie, meaning ‘people of the fields’… A fantastic piece of territory for farming; not so great for defending against invasions.

I guess I should go back to where I last finished, which, speaking of invasions, was Germany. We had just one more stop to go – Cologne – which I had high hopes for, as a big city with a famously impressive cathedral. Actually it was the most underwhelming destination of the entire cruise. The cathedral is undoubtedly impressive – Gothic on steroids – but the rest is pretty mediocre, like the crappiest parts of Melbourne’s CBD cobbled together. That’s all I gotta say about it really.

At around dawn the next day we got to Amsterdam, world capital of sex and weed. In this way Amsterdam’s very different to your typical European city: it’s gritty, grimy, chaotic, noisy, freakish. Grandiose structures from the glory days of the Dutch Empire are surrounded by American junk food chains, novelty shops selling shishas and sex toys, and of course the infamous ‘coffee houses’ which are far more about cannabis than caffeine. Through the windows you can see ’em packed to the rafters with backpackers, idly sitting around, staring back not so much at you as through you with pink glazed eyes… And as you pass the door you get a strong, sharp whiff of the herb responsible for their vacant expressions.

Both me and Josh were here for the second time, and Josh hated it all over again from the outset. While I can’t say I loved it myself – and Amsterdam’s definitely a culture shock after several days of quaint, quiet little German townships – I was still interested enough to want to walk around and explore. With its endless waves of hobos, freaks and tourists flowing down the city’s main drag and in and out of its ghetto-ish laneways, it’s probably not a place I’d want to live in, but it’s a fascinating urban jungle to get lost for a while– especially in a hemp daze. Unfortunately we didn’t sample any as Josh wasn’t up for it, but I did treat myself to a cannabis ice-cream – basically a vanilla Choc Top infused with ganja – which disappointingly didn’t have much of an effect, if any.

It’s like the 70s never quite died in Amsterdam… Though really, I guess, it’s just a city that famously panders to the weed culture – not just in making cannabis readily available (though contrary to common belief, it’s not actually legal – just tolerated), but in all the associated paraphernalia of that lifestyle, from tie-dyed shirts to iron-on peace signs… Basically everything you’d pack for Rainbow Serpent. And if you’ve ever experienced the munchies after a few joints or cookies, you’d understand why the place is so totally inundated with junk food outlets – from ‘kabab’ (as it’s spelled in Europe) to pizza by the slice, and of course the city’s famous vlaamse frites – thick-cut chips served in a cone with a dollop of delicious yellow mayonnaise.

The next day, Saturday, was a hell of a day. We were up at 6:30am, bags hauled off the ship by 7, then breakfast and farewelling the various people Josh and I had befriended over our two weeks on board. Then it was off to Schiphol Airport by bus, then on to a plane to Frankfurt after a 45-minute delay, then on to another plane to Wroclaw (which I had to run for like a crazy person), then, finally, a drive home to the residential outskirts of the city. It wasn’t even 3 o’clock yet when I stepped through the Machalowskis’ gate and up to the front door, but this was not the time to retreat to a soft private place and crash. It was family reunion time, on for one and all – Uncle Jurek, Aunt Ewa, my cousins Kasia and Milena and their partners Adam and Michael. As luck would have it, Michael was celebrating his 40th in town that night so after some tomato soup, bigos and two shots of wodka, off we went – me still dressed in the stale flanny and jeans I’d been wearing for two days straight now, as my luggage was sitting somewhere back in Frankfurt thanks to a strike at Lufthansa.

There’s not a great deal to write about my two nights in Wroclaw: it was, like I said, one big long family reunion; a whole lot of sitting around and talking and eating and drinking. It was the typical Polish experience – conversations fueled by shots of ice-cold spirits and an endless procession of hearty meals, cakes and coffee. I reunited not only with relatives but met the next generation of my family – suddenly coming to terms with the fact I’m an uncle – as well as people I’d met on my trip 11 years ago… One of these being Jeremy, an old Brit who lives with his Polish wife (Michael’s mum) in Duszniki, a mountain town near Wroclaw, with whom Paul and I had spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve back in 2004-5.

KRAKOW / WARSZAWA – 22 November

“Krakow is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a medieval city full of young people. A wonderful, striking combination.” – Jonathan Carroll

Our two final destinations were Krakow and Warszawa – the former and current capitals of Poland. Where to begin? To be back in Krakow made my heart soar. It’s a beautiful city full of beautiful young women, as one of its many cultural treasures is the 800-year-old Jagellion University which attracts young people from all over Poland and the world. As a happy result, this immaculately preserved medieval city is also full of bars: reportedly the 800m x 800m market square in the centre of the Old Town has the highest density of bars in Europe. Yet it doesn’t seem that way at first glance; you have to explore a bit… Step curiously through an arched entry-way off the street and walk along until you come across an open wooden door, with the sound of conversation and laughter faintly emanating from below… Step through, down the staircase and suddenly you’re in a gorgeous old subterranean space, a centuries-old brick cellar that’s been converted into a funky bar.

Krakow is the site of what is probably Poland’s single most important monument: the Wawel, a collective term for the old royal castle and cathedral, set atop a hill near the heart of the city. Sadly we didn’t get to go inside – tickets had already sold out the day we went, even though we’d got there around midday – but we did walk around and take in everything from the outside, including the barracks that the Austrians built during Poland’s 19th-century partition, and where Hans Frank later stationed himself as Governor of Nazi-occupied Poland… The building adding to Wawel’s significance, in a way, as a reminder of Poland’s troubled history.

In Warszawa you get even more of a taste of this history, at least the tumultuous last 100 years. It’s a markedly different city to Krakow – the moment you step out into the open from the Metro, you’re immediately struck by this: Warszawa is a modern, bustling city. You emerge into a square full of people and noise and see a skyline of shimmering glass skyscrapers rather than Gothic spires or Baroque towers … Then you turn around and there it is, looming over you: the Palace of Culture and Science, a brooding, majestic building constructed, originally, as an expression of Communist power. The building is therefore as controversial as it is iconic of the city – it used to be derisively called the ‘Russian wedding cake’ – and in the 90s, I believe there was even debate about whether it should be torn down. But like the initially maligned Eiffel Tower, most Varsovians these days no longer see the Palace as a blight on the city’s skyline, and have embraced it as an emblematic landmark which adds to Warszawa’s unique historical tapestry. I took this picture on our way to the Palace because it summed up Warszawa for me (and innumerable shots like this can be taken from various parts of the city): the old, the new and the Soviet Realist, all co-existing in a city that’s still rebuilding.


(That’s a temporary Christmas installation in the foreground, by the way.)

Warszawa was completely destroyed in World War 2 – systematically dynamited and flame-throwered to the ground by German forces in 1944, following the ill-fated Uprising to liberate the city – and when US forces inspected the rubble in 1945, they suggested the Poles move their capital back to Krakow. But this would have meant Hitler won, in a sense: the Nazis demolished the city on his orders so that it could no longer function as a ferocious, unrelenting bull-ant’s nest of Polish nationalism and defiance. And so the laborious task of postwar reconstruction began, under Soviet watch, without any of the monetary aid Germany and other European countries enjoyed from America… Domino-style mass housing; utilitarian office buildings; everything made of beige stone and grey concrete – colourless, devoid of the decoration that once defined this ‘Paris of eastern Europe’. For better or worse, these Communist-era buildings still form the bulk of Warszawa’s infrastructure, interspersed with the odd reminder of the city’s former beauty… And now, increasingly, shiny glass testaments to its status as the capital of one of Europe’s fastest-growing and most promising economies.

So anyway. There’s probably not much point in a day-by-day narrative of what we did – essentially it was sight-seeing, eating, drinking and acting like retards to amuse ourselves. Josh fell in love with pierogi so we ingested plenty of these hearty ravioli-style dumplings, at the expense of our waistline – perfect for the cold temperatures that had kicked in by this time. On our last night we went out with Piotr – a family friend of mine, a few years younger than us and a Warsaw local – which perfectly wrapped up our boozy bachelors’ tour of Europe.

(ALMOST) MELBOURNE – 22 November

That night and indeed our whole stay in Poland made me realise that while I’m Polish and love hearing the Polish language around me, and seeing the red-and-white flag everywhere and being in these places with their incredible history which I’ve read so much about… At the end of the day, I’m a foreigner in Poland. People pick up on my accent straightaway and sometimes even switch over to English, assuming (not incorrectly, I guess) that I’d be more comfortable conversing in that. I may have a name few can spell and even fewer can pronounce; I may have the hair and cheekbones of someone who’s clearly from the north of Europe; and several of my closest friends are Polish, our shared heritage an important catalyst for our friendship. But I’m Aussie before I am Polish; Australian English is my primary language; and the Australian way of life is the one I live – the only one I know, in fact, having lived my whole life in Melbourne bar a half-year in Poland when I was 5. And while I have friends from all backgrounds – Serbian to Swedish, Chinese to Peruvian – they are all, at the end of the day, Aussies too. And so it’s great to be coming back. Just a few minutes ago, Josh interrupted me to point out the Martian red landscape outside the plane window: that surefire sign we’re flying over ‘Straya, the great rust-coloured continent so very, very far from the ornate lamp-posts and cobbled squares of Krakow. And as deeply as I miss those things already, I’m also happy to be coming home.

EPILOGUE – 3 December

So it’s been over a week since we’ve got back, and I wanted to add this before publishing the above coz I feel reflecting back is perhaps what’s most important in a journal.

The final week, in Poland, definitely cranked up the emotion-meter: catching up with relatives, seeing nephews for the first time, seeing my grandma for possibly the last time, and then finishing off the trip with five nights in the two great cities of my ancestral homeland – the cultural treasure chest of Krakow and the hero city with myriad faces, Warszawa. I still recall the feeling of joy I got when I opened up the windows of our flat in Krakow, smelling the crisp icy air and looking out over Dietla (the main drag we were on) with its rows of oak trees, shedding the last of their yellow leaves onto the footpath and tram tracks below. I got the same feeling three days later, when we’d lugged our luggage up the stairs to the top floor of an apartment building on Warszawa’s Old Town Market Square, and looked out: over the square (at that point a construction zone as preparations were underway for the Christmas market) to the red-tiled roofs and fresco-painted facades of the Old Town; and beyond that, a series of lit-up skyscrapers and the ever-present Palace of Culture and Science. It seriously tripped me out to wake up at 5am on Monday and remember I’m now back in little ol’ Elsternwick on the eastern side of sunny, suburban Melbourne, half a planet and an entire reality away.

I feel, therefore I am.

It’s an artist’s take on Descarte’s famous statement, and it vaguely encapsulates what travel does to me. Because undoubtedly there was emotion, in fact as soon as I went for my first walk around Budapest I was almost moved to tears, swept up in the staggering beauty and history all around me. It felt almost surreal, like being sucked into a movie you love but haven’t seen in ages.

This was not a relaxing trip, by any means. It raised questions rather than answered them; put gaps and issues in my life that I’d swept under the carpet back to centre stage. Burned into my mind’s eye is my grandma’s face when she asked me, a mere minute into seeing me for the first time in 11 years… “Mateusz, when are you going to get married? Why haven’t you got a girl? It’s such a shame for you not to have a girl.”

We’ve heard it before, ol’ gran’ma telling you to eat more and hurry up and get married. It’s a cliche we like to chuckle at. But the way she said it to me, face scrunched up with worry and slight disapproval, was like the way you’d ask someone when they’re going to straighten the fuck out and give up heroin. She looked pained by the situation. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised maybe she’s got a point. Maybe our Australian culture of hooking up and going out and dating endlessly through your teens, 20s and well into your 30s is bullshit. Maybe our Tinder/Snapchat generation is heading for a middle age of hollowness and loneliness, having never committed ourselves to true love when we had the chance – playing the grasshopper when we should’ve started playing the ant, setting the foundations for a supportive family life. This is going down a totally different path – and there’s a reason why I’ve personally missed the marriage bus so far – but it’s the question this trip raised perhaps above all: Why aren’t I married? Why aren’t I taking that more seriously? As I sat beside my grandma – now a fragile shell of her former self, ravaged by old age and Parkinson’s – I realised the clock is always ticking, slowly but relentlessly… That life is passing all of us by, and it’s dangerous to forget this as you go about the same old shit back home day after day, week after week, very slowly progressing towards… Well, what? Not much at all, if you don’t bother to stop, examine your life and consciously set it on course for love, fulfillment and meaning.

The answer doesn’t necessarily in a new place – as tempted as I am to spend 6-12 months back in Krakow and see how that life goes. But absolutely, at least as a start, it demands a deep, fresh, charged, big-picture outlook… And that, I believe, is the real purpose of travel: to reset your mind and soul and put you back in tune with yourself and your destiny. In which case, I can happily say that this trip was a great success 🙂

Adventures in the Congo – Part 3

I’m writing this from the comfort of my living room, having been home for about a week. This is no longer Mateusz Buczko reporting live from the ground at Kinsevere, coordinates: bar. Although my intent was to wrap up my journal while still over there, a debilitating cold & cough meant I lost the willpower to do so… So here’s my belated, final dump of thoughts & impressions from this wild African safari.

An easy way to structure this might be to actually examine what made me sick – coz there were a number of factors, I think, that came together to tear down the walls of my immune system and keep me bedridden for days after arriving back in Melbourne. While my sickness is hardly the point, they serve as interesting stepping stones for one last literary tour of the Congo.

An obvious starting point is the weather. I landed in the country at the end of the wet season/beginning of the dry season, and I gotta say, for metereological schizophrenia, Congo aces Melbourne hands down. One moment things can be dead calm & still, then nek minnit – not rain, but a torrent of water bucketing down from the heavens, like standing over a waterfall. This colossal downpour doesn’t just pitter away like normal rain either – it vanishes in a flash, literally like a tap has been abruptly wound back. It’s incredibly sudden, and on several occasions I was caught out by what seemed like the second coming of the Great Flood, unable to see more than a couple of metres in front of me.

In drought-prone Oz we’ve been ingrained to appreciate rainfall – “it’s good for the farmers” and all that – but the mining sector hates it. Wet weather turns dirt roads into mud slides and pit bottoms into swamps, bogging down vehicles and making work doubly difficult. Several people remarked to me out of the blue that they’re happy the wet season’s nearly over… Not only do dry conditions suit mining activity much better, at the end of the day it also means less puddles which is where Public Enemy Number One – the mosquito – hangs out and spawns.

Sickness cause #2 would be the long, regimented days of mine life. A mine’s much like a prison in many ways – you wear standard-issue bright orange garb, eat meals at particular times of the day in a mess, wake up early and go to bed early, have to wear identification at all times, and at Kinsevere, you’re even surrounded by a barbed wire fence guarded by uniformed security. Out of these, it’s the waking up early that got me… Coz at a mine, ‘early’ doesn’t mean 7am, it means 5am, and that’s 7 days a week. There are no weekends here; shifts at Kinsevere are generally 6 weeks on, 3 weeks off, with occasional ‘fatigue days’ granted for when a miner’s had a big night and probably won’t pass breath testing the next morning.

If you’re not an early riser, it’s a brutal regime and it really puts the ‘severe’ in Kinsevere when you’re dropped in and put to work jetlagged after 20+ hours of flying and airports… The final iteration being a concrete Pac Man maze filled with wild-eyed machine gun-clutching ‘authorities’.

But wet weather, jetlag and early mornings aren’t all that uncommon, especially for work trips… What really did it, I think, was the training itself, the whole rationale for my being there.

This was probably something to mention way back in Part 1, but the purpose of my going-over to Kinsevere was to oversee the launch of, and train people in how to use, ‘Magnet’ – Magnet being MMG’s global intranet. For those familiar with this kind of stuff, it’s a SharePoint 2010-based thing split up into a number of mirrors – one mirror per mine site – and it’s a heavily customized, incredibly complex beast – part website, part applications portal, part document and multimedia repository, part collaboration workspace, part news channel… You get the idea.

Training people in how to use it, even the basics, isn’t easy. Training people who need to know how to create and manage content is considerably harder… And that’s still assuming they speak English, are well-versed in computers and possess, shall we say, Western sensibilities vis a vis training and professional development. This assumption is fatally wrong on all counts at Kinsevere.

The problem isn’t simply the language barrier. Most of the Congolese, in addition to their native Swahili and French, do have a reasonable command of English. But this means nothing if the desire to learn isn’t there, and that’s an issue I wasn’t expecting but which certainly made its presence felt – like the mosquito bite itch you wish would go away but it won’t, and you just gotta suck it up and deal with it.

There’s that joke, ‘If all else fails, read the instructions’. We’re all guilty. But at Kinsevere it’s beyond a joke – it’s an excruciatingly frustrating reality, with trainees refusing to refer to the step-by-step guides that I painstakingly put together for weeks prior to the trip. They’d simply sit there and click aimlessly at the screen or just stare at it blankly like a cat, a behaviour I found difficult to comprehend… But like so many things, it’s easy to forget the cultural divide that gives rise to such misunderstandings – in this case, the fact that most of these locals did not attend a First World school followed by six years of university, and do not understand in the way I do the value of referencing information or sharing it…. Which yes, made training them in a fairly user-unfriendly IT/communications platform – designed for storing and sharing information – one of the most challenging work experiences of my life to date.

The happy and bizarre upside though is the kids were completely the opposite.

On one of my last days at Kinsevere, a bunch of MMG volunteers including myself travelled into town to host a ‘day out’ for kids and teens from three local orphanages. I had no idea what to expect, but I know I was pleasantly surprised… Far from being an anarchic bunch of delinquents, these kids were well-dressed in bright clean clothes, with funky, carefully styled hairdos and gentle manners. They lined up diligently upon arrival and even when the call was made to commence the Easter egg hunt, and we waved our arms to get ’em to start scrambling, it was not at all the Pamplona Running of the Bulls that I expected… Just a calm, measured search of the grounds for whatever tinfoil-wrapped treats they could find.

This is of course a far cry from Aussie kids. I helped destroy several Pizza Huts and their immediate surroundings in my childhood, yet these kids didn’t so much as throw a cupcake or tip a Fanta onto their leftovers… Instead they instinctively broke their cupcakes into pieces which they then shared, and some tucked away their soft drink cans into their handbags for later consumption. It wasn’t what I expected and thinking about it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – food and drink are not things to be frivolously wasted in a place like the Congo.

The girls were particularly funny and full of character. Both Peter and I were asked to be husbands and on several occasions I was requested to take part in a “pich” (I eventually figured out they meant ‘pic’)… Most of which have been lost as whoever did the honours didn’t know how to operate my camera. But these young ladies were chirpy, sassy and in as good shape as anyone you’d see in Lubumbashi or, for that matter, Melbourne.

Nevertheless, the orphan day out and the DRC trip in general brought home that old adage that’s so easy to forget – Be grateful for what you have. It’s yawn-inducing to read or hear but when you go overseas to a place like the Congo, boy do you remember and recognise its truth. Being a First Worlder isn’t all fun and games either, as we all know – commuting to work and sitting in an office all day isn’t most people’s cup of tea either, but at the end of the day, when you’ve done your sitting and you’ve caught that crowded Metro carriage back to suburbia, you’ve got your own nice neat home with nice neat stuff and plenty of food and clean water and heaters and soft beds and Medicare and the option to go to a restaurant or a movie or the beach or pretty much whatever the hell you feel like. Right? Spare a thought for how awesome that is coz speaking for myself, right now, as I’m finally getting over my sickness and can feel my energy returning, I could pretty much make myself high just reflecting on how lucky I am to be in this world-class city with all this stuff and all these opportunities just waiting for me, without ever having to worry about whether the essentials will still be there for me tomorrow.

So yep – it was an adventure. It was a lesson. It was a workout. Like all travel, well worth doing and an excellent reset button for one’s perspective on the world at large…. as well as appreciation of the precious little world you get to call your own.

A Very Big Day Out

I’ve realized that over the entire time I’ve had this blog, I’ve never really done the typical blog thing and just written about a day or experience in my life. Even my entry on The Prodigy, the night I went to see World’s On Fire, was kind of essay-ish in detailing my man-crush on the musical demigod and epitome of All That Is Cool, Liam Howlett. So I thought I’d write something refreshingly random and stupid and hopefully amusing, in keeping with what your everyday blog is about. I also hope no future employer finds this but if you do, future employer, rest assured those days are behind me. Ish.

So it’s January 2009 and The Prodigy, my all-time favourite band, are headlining Big Day Out. I’ve never seen Prodge live or even gone to a major music festival, but someone I know – let’s call her Tanya – convinced me to go along with her and some dudes she knew. So I did.

We agreed to kick off at Tanya’s house, have some late-morning predrinks in the backyard to chill out and get in the mood. So I rock up with a 4-pack of Smirnoff somethings, having not eaten any breakfast if my memory serves correctly, which isn’t a problem since in the kitchen near the back door is a massive tray of cookies to which people are periodically helping themselves. Except these are hash cookies. So full of hash they’re fucking green.

Now, I’d never had a hash cookie before. Like any teenager, I’d ripped a bong and puffed a joint – in fact I’m being pretty misleading in making those experiences sound singular. But generally I don’t do weed if for no other reason than 9 times out of 10 it does very little for me. Only two exceptions come to mind – the first, a predominantly Christian house party at which a few of us strategically retreated to a car, turned it into a Bill & Ted’s-style gas chamber and I lost all feeling in my feet, so that I tripped over while stepping out of the car – since I could no longer feel the ground – and spent the next couple of hours walking around like an astronaut, trying to convince the Christians that I’d just played soccer a bit too vigorously that morning. To the point that it made my eyes turn pink, yes.

The other time was… well, I can’t even remember where I smoked the stuff but we ended up at Southland Macca’s, as you do, and I got the giggles so bad I couldn’t look at anyone in a McDonald’s uniform and not see a clown. Since I’d been bitten by the munchy bug though, I lined up in the queue and kept my eyes fixed on the impossibly perfect burgers on the overhead menus, hoping the giggles will have dissipated by the time it’s my turn to order. When I got to the front though, and saw a chick forced to wear a stupid brown hat and a stupid brown shirt with a stupid little name tag pointlessly telling the world her name – well, I couldn’t handle it. I literally burst out laughing – a genuine LMAO – and ran straight for the door and out into the carpark where I let it all out til my sides hurt, like a fucking lunatic. Eventually I got my breath back, calmed myself down and re-joined the queue. A few faces I’d previously lined up with were now seated with their fries and Coke, eyeing me warily as again, I stared as if hypnotized at the impeccable photogenic burgers above the counter, trying hard to Think Serious. Finally it was my turn to step up and interact with another girl in a ridiculous uniform she had to wear just to confirm whether some deadshit wanted fries with that – and again, my brain just couldn’t process the surreality of it. Unable to even form my first sentence, which I’d been mentally rehearsing for at least five minutes, I bolted out the door and ROCLed (Rolled On The Carpark Laughing). I didn’t dare go back a third time in case someone called the cops or a padded white van.

But like I said: these were exceptions. I didn’t get high and stupid off weed as a general rule, and don’t like smoking full stop. As I’ve said to friends before, I’m the opposite of your everyday smoker. Most smokers seem to hate themselves for being “smokers” with all of its social stigma – helpless modern-day lepers forced to bear the cold and wind and hostile glances from menstrual asthmatics  just to get their hourly puff of death stick – but they love the reassuring warm tingle of smoke as it pours down their throat, fills their lungs and enters their bloodstream. Me, I’d love to be a smoker – standing outside like James Dean, wrapped in a thick black coat with the collar up like some Nordic detective from a film noir movie – but I hate the taste it leaves in your mouth, hate the smell it leaves on your clothes, and hate the abrasiveness as it scrapes down your protesting, moist pink respiratory cavity like the hot fine dust out of a vacuum cleaner bag. I digress, but I think my point is made. I don’t smoke and, as a result – since it’s usually ingested that way – I’ve rarely consumed weed.

So I’m sitting in Tanya’s backyard, twist the cap off my first Smirnoff and have a hash cookie with it. Not bad. I don’t need to inhale it, and it tastes exactly like you’d expect: the sweetness of cookie cut through by the herbal tang of hash – a bit odd, but it makes a nice contrast to my lemony overly-sweet beverage. I have another bottle, and another cookie. After maybe an hour and a half, I’m done and I’m bored – there’s just Tanya and 3 or 4 stoner dudes sitting around on plastic chairs, talking in their stoner voices about stoner stuff that doesn’t interest me or, for that matter, even make any sense. It’s only about 11am at this point so I decide to quickly head back home, seeing as its on the way to Flemington, and tell Tanya I’ll meet her & the bongheads at the Showgrounds. No worries.

I get in my car and drive back to my flat. It’s once I’m back in the cool, curtain-darkened ambience of my abode that I realize I’m starting to feel a bit under the weather – tired, but not in your regular sleepy way – in a bit of a sick way, weak and dizzy, unsure of yourself. I put it down to having alcopops in the sun less than an hour after waking up, and climb into bed to doze for maybe half an hour.

Midday arrives and I know I have to make a move, but feel like I’ve gorged on a bowl of sleeping pills. I scull a Red Bull – there’s always a trusty titanium can of that shit somewhere in my fridge – then hop in my car and drive to Windsor station. It’s only about a 10-minute walk but I can’t be bothered walking in this state, which I still blame – for now – on alcohol and the sun. I’ll be right by the time we get there, I reason – the Red Bull will have cut through the vodka, I’ve put my sunnies on, and the gluggy aftermath of a 20-minute nap will have been thawed by the hustle & bustle of Chapel St. My head’s starting to spin though and by the time I park my car, step out and amble towards the platform, a realization dawns upon me. I’m fucked.

The problem was, this was the first stage of the day where I was out in public, rather than a private backyard or the confines of my car or flat. So I noticed – abruptly, as the effect of the green cookies escalated in a J-curve – that I was actually paranoid as hell. Standing on the platform with at least a dozen other people around me, I couldn’t contain myself after a few minutes and power-walked – trying to look natural, but probably looking like I’d just shat myself with explosive diarrohea – back to my car where I locked myself in. “Mateusz,” I told myself, “you’re being a freak. Snap out of it. The train’ll be here soon.” I psyched myself up to step out of the car again and walk back to the platform – this time with an exaggerated calmness and slowness, like I’d had something very large and uncomfortable inserted into my rectum. You’re just standing on a fucking train station like you have a million times before, I told myself. No-one’s even looking at you. Again though, the spooked-out ganja fairy on my shoulder convinced me to hurry back to the car. I knew from the announcement that the train was only a minute or two away now, and had no idea what I’d do if I missed it. Realizing it was now or never, I stepped out of my car and walked briskly down to the platform for the third time. Anyone paying attention to the CCTV cameras that day must’ve thought I was one of those insane public transport types – or on quality narcotics, I guess, in which case they’d be spot on. My one redeemer was that I had my sunnies on, and somehow those tinted eye-shields made me feel at least a little bit protected from the suddenly very hostile, unstable outside world. The train slid in and I stepped on. There was no going back. I was now locked into a fast-moving, cramped steel tube full of young people in loud clothes jabbering in loud voices. And I came upon a second realization: I’d made a very bad move.

In retrospect it was amazing I lasted as long I did. I got all the way to Melbourne Central, which was still short of my intended stop but about 5 stations (I think) from Windsor. When I got on board, the seats were all taken (not that I would’ve sat next to anyone probably) and so I found myself standing by the door opposite the worst possible person, someone who even dead sober would’ve made you look twice. He was wearing very tight jeans almost definitely not intended for men, some kind of ultra-shiny black boots, and a ridiculous little vest over his baby-smooth, otherwise naked chest. The whole time he stood there in a stupid pose that reminded of the box art on the original Sonic the Hedgehog, thumbing away at his phone like the security of the country over the next few hours depended on him getting these texts out. Again, even sober you’d be drawn to a character like that – with a head full of drugs, it was like being faced with a fucking gigantic walking banana or something. I had to get out.

I remember being extremely thirsty by this point – unsurprising considering it was hot and I was no doubt dehydrated from my alcohol + hash cookie happy meal – so having escaped the train at Melbourne Central, I wandered into Coles to get a bottle of springwater. By the time I was in its shiny, numbered bowels though, the drug suddenly peaked like a massive wave, crashing over and submerging the last vestiges of my mind that hadn’t yet succumbed to its powerful reality distortion filter. I literally forgot where I was or what the fuck I was even doing here.

So picture this: you find yourself, all of a sudden, in what appears to be a humongous space lit by oppressively bright white lights like you’re under interrogation from God. Along the two walls either side of you, stretching as far as the eye can see, are cans and bottles and packets and jars and tins of food – hundreds of them, for no discernable reason at all. Why all this food? What’s with all these fucking baked beans? Who needs all this powdered milk, I screamed silently to myself, and what sort of deranged psychopath has taken it upon himself to sort all this shit by size and brand and colour?? Even under my sunglasses everything seemed way too bright, like when you’re badly hungover, and all I know is I have to get out to that other area I was in before, where it’s comfortably dark and relatively quiet. But I feel literally like a rat in a maze, and have no idea how to leave. The usually-so-familiar aisles of Coles have become a bizarre labyrinth from which there’s no apparent escape – no landmarks in this environment; just rows of red-labelled tins and bottles full of black liquid and bright orange packets with shit like a grinning Negro and ‘Uncle Benny’s Egg Fried Rice’ written on them… a demented Andy Warhol-themed maze surrounded by a vast outer wall of refrigeration. Jesus, how the fuck do you get out of here? And how come everyone else’s so calm when we’re so obviously trapped?? I still faintly remember passing a woman with a pram and being tempted to ask her if there’s an exit. Not where is the exit. Is there one. Thankfully I didn’t want to interact with anyone any more than I wanted to spend the rest of my days with Uncle Benny and the Coco Pop monkey for company.

Eventually I stumble across the checkout area, with the dim-lit world of Melbourne Central beyond, and immediately realize there’s a ritual to be followed. Bolting out, hand covering eyes even though you’re wearing fucking sunglasses, is not the protocol and may not end well. So I stand in a line with a bunch of other customers, trying to stay cool and not attract any attention. In my hand I have a bottle of water, my primal thirst having asserted itself somehow in my search for the way out. Watching the other people, I remember you have to go up to the counter, hand over money for what’s in your hand, wait for change and smile. For some reason the smiling seems like the most important part: I keep telling myself to look friendly, at ease, because I know I’m anything but – and who knows what the consequences might be if you’re not these things. I step up and to my relief, the Asian checkout chick doesn’t seem too perturbed by me – either that, or she’s doing very well at masking any discomfort at this nervous idiot wearing pitch-black shades indoors. Money exchange over, I rush out with my bottle and fistful of change.

I have no recollection of anything between that point and Big Day Out. At all. By some absolute miracle that must’ve involved getting in touch with and getting instructions from Tanya, I manage to catch another train, not freak out or kill anyone and arrive at the Showgrounds, teeming with more people than I’d ever seen firsthand, with Tanya and the Hampton Stoners Club at the gate – by arrangement or coincidence, I can’t remember.

The drug then shifted gears in a way I find difficult to explain. On one level I was still pretty paranoid – not so much in a scared way anymore, but just unwilling to engage with anyone unfamiliar. At the same time, I felt extremely restless – the desire to lock myself in a safe, silent place had disappeared, and the positive, lively festival atmosphere had altered my attitude so that while it was still definitely abnormal and anti-social, I was happy, even eager to be a part of this vibe, albeit anonymously and on my own terms – like a kid who’s warming to his first day at kindergarten, but still far from ready to socialize and play carefree with the others. With everything appearing extremely intense – that super-heightened awareness of every single moment and its possible opportunities that only a drug can instil – my normally limited attention span had been decimated to zero, and I physically couldn’t handle the slow, inane conversation of Tanya’s group that even after a couple of chick drinks that morning had become painful. With an uncertain look, like she was letting a teenage koala out into the wild for the first time, Tanya let me go and I lost myself in the throng, a lone buoy adrift in a sea of humans.

The worst was over, but my memory again becomes hazy. I remember dancing with a group of girls at one point that, in retrospect, were clearly underage. At another point I wandered over to a distant area where a Pendulum-style drum-&-bass band were performing (hell, maybe it WAS Pendulum, I wouldn’t know). I stood behind a pack of typical festival dudes: all baseball caps, peeling tanned skin and wifebeaters, one of them a particularly boisterous wanker who’d nod and make dumb-arse hand gestures every time the beat kicked in. He noticed me standing quite close, staring at the stage, and whispered something that could only have been uncomplimentary to his friend, who turned around but as soon as he saw me, looked wary, turned back to his mate and brushed off whatever suggestion or observation he may have made. In retrospect I can probably see why I caught their attention, standing there in my plain black T-shirt and sunglasses, dead silent, dead still, by myself, gazing at the stage like I was monitoring rather than appreciating the band. Even Finnish gunmen show more expression than that, and possibly Finnish gunmen is precisely what flashed through the friend’s mine when he turned around and looked at me.

Shortly afterwards I passed out on a patch of grass for a while, feeling sick again – the weed, booze, chilled water and absence of any proper nutrition was taking its toll on my stomach. I desperately wanted to see The Prodigy and if nothing else, not waste my $100+ ticket, but whereas before I’d just been mentally wrecked, I was now starting to feel physically wrecked. Without even notifying Tanya, I walked slowly all the way back to the Showground gates and up to the train platform, the last frontier before the Point of No Return, where I asked a security guy if I could get a passout. No. Fuck.

In the end I didn’t leave, even though my knees had now decided to stop functioning. At some point I found Tanya and sat with them on the grass near the food stalls. I ate a shitty baked potato washed down with 3 or 4 gin-and-tonic cans, whose cheap, bitter flavour I found comforting and even head-clearing. A couple of attractive blonde chicks some way away waved to me and motioned for me to join them. Again – and I know all male readers will want to slap me for this, coz I sure as hell do – I just stared out at them blankly through my sunglasses, til they ceased and no doubt said to each other “Right, he’s some kinda freak.” I was grounded enough by then to know I was probably being a bit weird, but far from straight enough to regret it or care. Interaction with strangers – even blonde hotties – was still very much unwelcome. I had no qualms with grinding flesh in the midst of a pounding trance crowd, but anonymity was all-important. I didn’t want to talk or identify myself in any way. I was happy to enjoy the throng, be swept up in the collective worship of music’s abstract, wordless energy, but I wasn’t ready for individuals and chit-chat. So I sat there and sipped silently like a robot, like a human version of those novelty Coke cans that only come to life when you play music to it, my zanged-out brain now nearing the city limits of normality, but still with a good hour or two to go.

Anyway. Sure enough, I more or less returned to normal around sunset (8pm), with just a pleasant buzz remaining to keep me going for The Prodigy at 9pm. In a nutshell, it was amazing – one of the best nights of my life. Even though I was now without friends – Tanya and her buddies were seeing the festival’s other main act, Eric Clapton or someone at the opposite end of the Showgrounds – I had an awesome time, dancing like my life depended on it not far from the stage, to the earth-shattering boom of Voodoo People, Their Law and all those classics, played loud enough to give you bowel movements. When Take Me To The Hospital came on early in the set – the first time I’d ever heard its rave-anthem chords and rastafarian chipmunk vocals – it blew my mind and I felt like I’d taken a whole new drug – like 10 Jager bombs, Asterix’s potion and that green ‘ooze’ shit from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all in one. I vividly remember one moment in particular, between songs, as Maxim was doing his thing and yelling at the crowd, calling us his “warriors”, and ahead of me in the summer heat and blaze of lights an Australian flag was waving (it was Australia Day that day), and I offered a cute girl I’d been dancing next to my bottle of water, which she accepted with a big smile – that moment I felt in love with life in a way not even the finest MDMA could achieve. At the end of it all, elated, drenched in sweat and feeling like the Energizer battery after an electronic gadget orgy – whatever that may mean – I caught the train home, drove my car back to my flat from where I’d bravely parted it with earlier that day, and crashed onto my bed for a very, very deep sleep.