What’s wrong with Newcastle? Part I.

This is the first, and maybe only, post in an occasional series about living in Newcastle, NSW -just north of Sydney on the map if you’re looking from outside Australia.

After several years of living in Newcastle and involvement in a number of aspects of Newcastle life I’ve decided to put some words down about what’s wrong with the place, and maybe some others about how it could be improved. If you want to agree, disagree, observe or comment otherwise, please do. That would be grand.

Transport

There is one phrase I hear – and say – fairly often: “Newcastle is easy to get around.” It’s true. No part of the main part of Newcastle city is more than about 25 minutes drive from any other. Newcastle has a negligible peak traffic time in the morning – maybe half an hour of real slowdown if you’re unlucky. Behind this comfortable fact are some other issues, however.

My favourite peeve currently is the trains. Not so much that the main train station has been closed down and the rail line covered over to accommodate – nothing. I’m not aware that any real plans have been made for what goes in that long vacant lot that now slides through the heart of the downtown; certainly nothing visible is happening. It’s not even that the somewhat vague plan for a light rail in town seems to have disappeared from view entirely, although public transport in the greater Newcastle/Lake Macquarie area is wretched. It’s really about the trains to Newcastle*

Many times I have heard, and sometimes said, something like: “Sydney’s only a train ride away.” Technically this is true. In fact, it’s at least five, yes five hours of train travel for a day out in the big city, maybe six or more depending on the train. So, you get on the train at least kind of early to make it to what you want to see before midday, see or do it, then back onto the train for another maybe three hours back home.

That is lot of travel time, if you want to see a show, go to a gallery, go for a meal, check out the zoo, or whatever. Then you say: “well, just stay the night” – but now we’re into a whole realm of other things, like hotel rooms, giving money to AirBnB for not much, meals, getting someone to mind the cats, etc, etc.

The last time I did this I began to think more than passingly about the fact that this train trip, between two big places, happens on nineteenth century hardware. A trip that might take anything from an hour to 45 minutes on even moderately modern ‘high speed’ rail in many countries is stretched out to at least 2 & 1 ⁄2 hours here. Commuting, which I have never done, must be a never-ending nightmare for those that have decided to do this. Even from halfway between Sydney and Newcastle on the Central Coast, the hours that are eaten from your life every week would be shocking – much more than a full working day taken, every week, from your existence.

I am aware that the poor state of almost all NSW train lines outside Sydney is legendary, with decades of neglect and mismanagement turning slow train rides into a cliche. I have in the past ridden the mail trains to the Victorian border, so slow that you could hang out a window and count the sleepers as they passed under the train. They have been this way for forty years at least, which is the span of my personal experience.

Whatever the reasons for this state of affairs, and I am sure there are more than a couple, it has the effect of holding Newcastle at arm’s length from Sydney, reputedly one of the most beautiful, vibrant and interesting cities in the developed world**.

But, you may say – drive your car. I guess. But it takes the same amount of time, parking fees are rapacious, and if you’re the driver the relaxation factor is not there.

Newcastle, in fact, is not close to Sydney at all.

The general thrust of these posts will be that Newcastle exists in a little bubble. Inside the bubble, the people of Newcastle tend to think they have the best of everything. There are however several factors that mean that there is an uncertain basis for this claim, one of them being that travel to Sydney is in fact such a pain in the arse that many people in Newcastle don’t actually go there more than once or twice a year. So Newcastle, while having all the potential in the world, is handicapped by a number of factors that keep it in the gilded prison of being a country town, one of them being that they have no realistic basis for comparison.

I feel it’s worth commenting on these, one reason being I’d love everyone in Newcastle to be as pissed off with the train to Sydney as I am.

 

*well, okay, to Broadmeadow – trains actually go not quite to Newcastle now.

** yes, yes, I know, Newcastle has good things too. I’ll get to them in another post.

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The play of light in the frozen north

DSC_0681

As the days pass here, each and every one brings a display of subtle light play, not just hour by hour but minute by minute. Just standing outside (or inside, if the weather happens to be “window weather” – great to look at but not so great to be out in) you can see continual changes in the light playing through clouds, passes in the mountains, or reflecting between mountains.

In an attempt to capture some of this, I have used an old time-lapse compact camera, usually out one of two windows, taking the changing light over a two or three hour time span. Although the quality is relatively low, it still catches the nature of the different lights we see here nearly every day.

The first video below was taken on one of the first few days that direct sunlight returned to Olafsfordur, after teasing us with snippets on the top floors of the buildings for a little while.

window 31-1-16 – 2 from Scott probst on Vimeo.

 

Some days earlier, with the wind from the east during a warm spell that brought melting snow and subsequent ice, I took this from my own window:

Olafsfjordur 10.1.16 – 1_1 from Scott probst on Vimeo.

Finally, only a day or two ago I captured the effect of the sunrise looking to the north from the same place:

Olafsjordur 7-2-16 – 1 from Scott probst on Vimeo.

 

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The Goose – a catch-up

Previously published on Medium on January 15, 2016

The goose seemed to be looking for something.

I had seen it earlier in the day, wandering across the main road with apparent unconcern about the cars making their way from both directions. Yes, the town was small and traffic was not an everyday concern, but still. It had only stopped making its beeline for the other side of the street, the seeming destination being the the area of the bank diagonally across from where it was, when the cars loomed with metres. It described a tight semicircle, stopped and stood on one foot briefly, and then flapped from the ground, still not in any particular hurry and flew off, barely at head height when it passed a couple of people standing in front of the music school

It seemed a bit odd even then.

At lunchtime I approached the same area, near but not next to the largely overfrozen pond occupied by a few different kinds of birds, and there is was again. It was, as best I could make out, taking roughly the same path as it had this morning. Again it trundled in very nearly a straight line towards the fountain next to the bank. I noticed it was craning its head to a fro over a narrow arc, as if searching for something that it was sure it had left there, and was certainly going to find again quite soon.

I stopped walking in order to watch, and find out what the large grey bird with the orange beak was up to. It was maybe about three quarters of the way across the road. Something about its determined stride made me want it to find whatever it was looking for. I saw that a couple of cars were slowly making way across the snow towards it. I became tense: would it notice them and fly off, or move off the road? Would it not notice them, and be hit by a car, even though they were probably not travelling fast enough to hurt it? Would it get to the other side and find what it was searching for?

The cars stopped.

The goose also stopped. It regarding the situation of the cars; there were also a number — a small number — of people visible, perhaps three. It slowly made its way back to the other side of the road, again in a semicircle. Twice, as it warily retreated, it stopped and stood for a few moments on one foot, the right foot. I got the impression this might have been because the left one was cold, but in fact each time it paused, it looked wistfully over its shoulder at what I perceived to be its destination. I very nearly called out for it to continue its original path, but then it dusted the snow with its wingtips and flew off at the same gradual incline.

One of the other onlookers was a young woman I had met before. I asked her if the goose always did that. She told me that yes it did, and “it shouldn’t even be here,” which I took to mean that at this time in winter it should have moved on with its grey and orange flock , in place in a ragged vee somewhere to the south. It occurred to me that this was indeed the only goose I had seen for at least several days, and I admitted to her that of the water birds, I had only seen ducks around lately. She didn’t know what it was looking for, either.

As I passed the bank and the fountain, I examined both for a hint of what the goose was seeking. I dreaded to see evidence of a dead mate, or some other animal attachment tragically cut short, but there was nothing. It just wanted to see. Or maybe the running water was the attraction, knowing somehow that the pond would soon be frozen completely, and not wanting to make the journey with the others. I say wanting, rather than able, as it could fly. I felt in that case I should warn the goose that the fountain, although it would keep running, would soon be encrusted with ice after the next windy day, as it had been for weeks until some oddly warm weather.

I moved on. Although I often watch birds for their grace, their playfulness, their beauty and their seeming freedom, I could not get this one’s uncanny focus out of my mind. The fact that it was known to the townsfolk. The fact that they stopped to let it carry on, or as it turned out, go back. That wistful glance back as it stood on its right foot.

I’ll look for it tomorrow.

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The goose – tense news.

Although my last post about the famous goose of Olafsjordur was lighthearted, today’s news is not so great. When I went out for a walk early this afternoon, I found the goose sitting, or really flopping on the footpath next to the main street.

As I walked up to it, the bird took a look at me and then put its beak in the feathers on its back, as if it was going to sleep, although it kept its eyes open. It seemed to me to be a deliberate gesture of helplessness. I looked carefully but could not see any sign that it had been hit by a car, such as stray feathers on the road, or blood on the goose. With the goose still keeping an eye on me, I gently lifted it on one side and the other to see if there was any sign of injury, but there was not.

Finally, lacking any other idea of what to do, I lifted the bird up and help it to me, noticing some ace accumulated in the tips of its wing feathers. A woman passing by told me it had been sitting there for some time today. I was out of ideas still, however I asked her what they ate and she said that they like bread. I thought at least I might go the supermarket, get a box for it to sit in, and try to feed it. I set off for the market and the guesthouse nearby that I am staying in.

As I walked up the street with the grey and brown bundle in my arms, I noticed a couple of women in front of the bank watching me and talking about the goose, or so it seemed. I crossed the street to them. I said that I had found the bird sitting helpless and it seemed to be sick, or starving. One of them began to feel the bird’s ribcage gently and drew back in shock. It was apparently extremely malnourished.

It turned out that of all people I might have bumped into, one of these women was the best one in Olafsjordur to find. She kept ducks and would be able to take care of the goose, to see if it could be brought back from what seemed to be the literal brink of death. I was happy to hand it over to her, having as I did only a single room to live in and no real way to take care of it for more than a few hours. As I passed it to her, it reached out and nibbled gently at my jacket where it had been resting, somehow, I thought at the time, a gesture of comfort.

She departed, goose in arms, to her car and home. I was relieved that it would taken care of, but a little distraught at the idea it may well die anyway. It was plainly well past normal endurance for any animal.

I happened to go into the local junior college, and mentioned the goose to Úlfar, who told me that if I had saved the goose I would be a local hero, as the people living here felt strongly attached to the bird. I asked what they ate; bread and salad greens was the diet of choice, apparently, the latter being better for them. Later I realised this was probably the problem – there had been a good deal of snow and wind lately, and the goose wold have had great trouble grazing on grass.

Some hour or so later, as I walked back past the place where to goose had lain waiting to be saved, I was explaining to a friend what had happened when the same woman who had taken the distressed bird from me walked past. It turned out that she and my friend knew each other, and the goose’s potential saviour was known as the ‘bird lady’ locally; she said – I think jokingly – that in the local phone book she was in fact listed under that title – ‘bird lady.’

News was at best equivocal. Our goose friend was at her home, warm and swaddled in towels, but had shown no immediate impulse to eat or drink. She was not sure if it would live out the night. I was quite downcast at the prospect it might die, but happy that at least it would be looked after, whatever happened.

I found out some more about the goose’s life, and at last solved the mystery of its refusal to migrate with the other geese that had been here earlier in the winter. It had, in fact, been raised by ducks in the local pond, across the road fro where I had found it that day. It clearly thought it was a duck, to the degree that when some other geese had shown up, it had shied away from them, afraid of the strange new birds that had invaded the pond. And, as I had already seen, it stayed with the ducks from then on.

I’m not sure if I will find out how the goose gets on; sadly I feel the bird lady is probably right, given her experience with these things, but I am hoping that it will recover and return to its duck family.DSC_0020

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A little rave about ravens

I’ve seen ravens in other places, and we have them in Australia [where they are all but identical to the crows], but never had the chance to interact with them as I can in Olafsfjordur.

They can be seen often tagging each other in the air or as one sits somewhere, or playing as they glide around. The one pictured above was tumbling upside down, something I’ve seen them do quite often, seemingly just because they want to.

The range of sounds they make is remarkable. They have a normal call, squawking exclamation marks, but also make a range of sounds that seem like they are made by some kind of wooden wind chime. These can come singly or in rattling bursts. No doubt there is some reason for the different calls, but they are remarkable.

They seem to display a sense of humour regarding photography also. Numerous times I have been waiting somewhere to take a clear shot of them gliding or playing, only to eventually stop and move on as they remained just out of useful range, only to find one or two of them gliding up behind me only to disappear again in a blink, usually with a cheeky squawk as they go.

 

First published on my art website.

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New Year’s Eve in Akureyri, Iceland.

Just before New Year I was in London for a few days, and went to a few galleries such as the National Portrait Gallery (Giacometti) and the National Gallery (Goya) and also to Hampton Court Palace, which besides everything else has its own very interesting Gallery, the Cumberland.

Hampton Court Palace, River Thames in foreground

Some travel disruption in the form of a cancelled flight from Reykavik to Akureryi and then missing the bus that would have taken me home to Olafsfjordur meant spending NYE in Akureyri. Virtually any public holiday in Iceland means lots of fireworks… and this was the big one. The town centre featured displays by any family that cared to turn up. Then after these had more or less died down at 1am, the bars opened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Akureyri town centre, NYE 2015

 

 

 

My day in Reykavik was a bit blustery and cold, but still fine for walking around town and spending a bit of time at the lake there, next to which is the local government office, which seems to gorw out of the lake itself. There were lots of waterbirds there too.

The back of the building evokes the old turf houses of Iceland:

Last night is was the end of the Christmas period here, allowing another chance for fireworks and probably the biggest bonfire I’ve ever seen, about the size of a small house.

As if this wasn’t enough, there was a man standing by to periodically throw buckets of petrol on it.

It has generally been snowy and white here –

Olafsfjordur by night from Scott probst on Vimeo.

But a couple of times, including last night, we have had some rain, which washes away the snow and then freezes. The last time this happened a lot of the town looked like this – glassy ice everywhere which was quite a challenge to walk on.

Some nice smooth ice to walk on on Olafsfjhordur

Of course, I would be lying if I didn’t mention we have been out looking for the aurora a lot. It is a bit unpredictable – the aurora itself and then cloud cover, as well as the time of night it might be there. After some attempts though I did get some decent pictures. Sometimes though it’s just better to stand and watch.

 

First published at:

http://www.scottprobstartist.com/blogs/iceland-times/84362947-new-years-in-akureyri

 

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From the past

  

Nepal, 2005

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