Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Making zucchini interesting one ingredient at a time.

"The first zucchini I saw I killed it with a hoe," goes the famous quote, complete with superfluous pronoun.

Presumably the author gave up after his first kill, especially if he were to find Dave Barry's zucchini experience accurate: "You can't grow just one zucchini. Minutes after you plant a single seed, hundreds of zucchini will barge out of the ground and sprawl around the garden, menacing the other vegetables. At night, you will be able to hear the ground quake as more and more zucchinis erupt."

The point is that more boring a vegetable is, the more jokes are written about them. But nobody laughs at the following recipe.

Spiced zucchini stew with chick peas and olives.

Fry a large chopped onion in olive oil until soft.

Add two scored garlic cloves, a tablespoonful of grated orange zest, a teaspoonful of cummin and a half teaspoonful of dried crushed red pepper. Stir until well combined.

Now add about a half kilogram of diced white zucchini, two cans of diced tomatoes with their juice, a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas, and twenty pitted black olives. Salt to taste.

Simmer until the zucchini is tender. Add water if necessary.

Serve over peppered polenta: cook polenta, crack twenty black peppercorns in mortar and add them to the polenta along with salt to taste and grated parmesan cheese.

Garnish the stew with parsley, minced garlic and grated lemon zest.

You won't believe it's a zucchini.


Pick the difference, apart from $1.09.

A. Coles Tuna in Brine, 80c.

B. Dine Tuna Slices in a Light Jus $1.89.

Answer below.

A is normal canned tuna. B is cat food.


Baked pasta shells with three cheeses and spinach.

I usually make lasagna from scratch but of the frozen ones from supermarkets, the Aldi 2kg pack is very good value at $8.99 and looks and tastes like the real thing. The front of the pack proclaims that it 'serves ten', so I put it to the test.

I cut the cooked lasagne into sections and served them, and the children (age 11, 10 and 6) despatched these in minutes. Second serves disappeared likewise. Alex dropped out first, but she hadn't played two hours of football. It was a race to the finish for Thomas and William but William prevailed. The pack served three. Three children. But it was still excellent quality and good value: these children eat like horses. Or is the expression "I could eat a horse"? I can never remember.

Another variation on the baked pasta category is one I have made many times over the years and may have posted once or twice in this blog.

Baked giant pasta shells.

You can find the large ones at Italian delis (such as T-Deli in Sydney Rd, Mediterranean Wholesalers, Gervasi etc).

These shells grow to about two inches from bow to stern once you've cooked them, and you'll need a baking dish large enough to accommodate them. I made 24, boiling until just softening, then draining and running them through cold water to stop them softening any further.

I filled them flat with a mixture of 500g thawed frozen spinach, 500g fresh ricotta, 100g mozzarella, 50g parmesan, two eggs, a good dash of nutmeg and three smashed cloves of garlic.

Set them in the dish and pour in enough napoli sauce to reach almost to the tops of the loaded shells. It's easier to put the sauce in first once you know the plimsoll line of the shells. I baked the foil-topped dish (the lid broke years ago) for an hour on 180, but oven times vary.

Serves three.


The Blogger in the Office Next Door.

I once worked in an advertising agency in a soaring city building that also housed several hundred of the types of corporate accountants and lawyers that you never see, you just know they are there. They must all arrive at 6 a.m. and leave after eight in the evening, because they only people I ever saw in the lift were couriers, lunch delivery people and the lolly lady.

The building had a marble lobby that you entered through one of those rotating doors that always seem to be about to slice you in half, and the agency was on the 27th floor, away from the grime and the noise and the lunchtime joggers.

I had been working there for a few years as a kind of freelance to clean up the on-staff writers' bad writing and do the jobs they didn't want to tackle. Annual report for a national office supplies company? 64-page brochure promoting a self-managed super fund? Give it to the freelancer, they said. Lazy pricks. On the other hand, I spent long periods waiting around for the next job to come in. During the quieter moments, I wrote a blog entitled The Advertising Agency documenting some of the industry's more, er, 'interesting' idiosyncrasies. (No longer online - I'm turning it into a book.) My 'links' list included several weblogs about the industry from all parts of the world including London, New York, Chicago, Rio, Mumbai and Nairobi. One of them was a savagely cynical take on the industry written under the pseudonym of Wrightoff, a pun that had become a metaphor for the writer's career. We regularly commented on each other's posts and we were equally cynical. I didn't know which city Wrightoff was in. Being semi-intelligent human beings, we were usually careful to not divulge the identities of selves or agencies.

One day, I had finished writing a live-read commercial for a hardware store's Christmas opening hours, or a brochure for a bank's fixed-rate loan, or a press ad for a superannuation company run by ex-unionists who had set up an opt-out life insurance scheme to further fleece unwary members – whatever - and I had just checked in at my blog to see if anyone had commented that day.

Just then, the account executive who worked in the next cubicle came into my office, saw my blog masthead on the screen and said, "Oh - The Advertising Agency blog. I read that as well. In fact, its writer has linked to my own blog. Want to see it?" (He had no idea, of course, that The Advertising Agency was my blog. Why would I be reading my own blog?)

He took my mouse and clicked the cursor on a title in my sidebar.

The blog he had clicked on came up on the screen. It was Wrightoff.

"That's your blog?" I asked him, trying not to look shocked.

"Yes," he said, then asked conversationally, "Do you know who writes The Advertising Agency?"

I felt a prickly feeling crawl up my back. Knowing that I had satirised, if not actively offended, 90% of the people in the advertising industry in this city, I had about half a second to decide whether I should reveal my identity. It could be awkward: imagine the conversation at an industry Christmas party if, after a few drinks, someone introduced me by saying, "Did you know that this man writes The Advertising Agency blog?" I could be beaten up by twenty drunk account executives (the last four words being the mother of all oxymorons when it comes to Christmas parties).

"No idea," I said airily.


Falling down the well.

I once had the acquaintance of a group of Uniting Church types who used to get together to do 'Good Works'. (Normally I don't capitalise key words but these people were so upright, they resembled capital letters themselves as they strode into their church hall, once home of the long-gone choir, to discuss their next charitable expedition 'abroad'.)

Mostly they were upper middle class widows from Kew and East Hawthorn who could afford to travel but some were gentlemen, retired woolly academic types or timid pastors who hadn't quite made it as zeal-filled missionaries, but still liked the travel aspect. They all got on together like a house on fire, of course. At their monthly meetings the ladies discussed the agenda fiercely – which third world country should be the next destination - while the men silently made tea in the corner, and with slender pale hands put out not enough stale biscuits on a tray. Hopeless.

I used to drive one of the men to the airport from Camberwell so he could save on taxi fares. The trips were hardly pilgrimages. They stayed in hotels, although they did fly Qantas economy where they'd eat the pre-prepared Neil Perry fare rather than the first class chef and sommelier deal. However, once arrived, the travellers were careful to eat only the correct regional cuisine for the area visited as a kind of gastronomical correctness. On return to Australia they'd hold dinner parties and put around plates of punugulus as if they were Smiths crisps. "Oh, just one of the things we ate in India," they'd say airily, plonking down giant bowls of pindi chole and Kerala mutton.

At one of these dinner parties, an old dear - we'll call her Mrs Jellyby - sipped her glass of mineral water and told me about the well they had provided in some scummy village in a part of India. They had travelled overnight on two buses and a crowded train from the city into which they had flown. The well was communal, of course. "It takes a village to raise a bucket," explained the old dear gravely, which was either gag of the day or she was demented, or maybe both. The well would allow the women of the village to lower a bucket on a rope and drag up some filthy artesian water with which they could cook chick peas or rinse garments or whatever it was that Indian women did when they weren't burning cow dung in their huts to stop their babies dying of cold, or walking around with pots on their heads. Or was that the African expedition? The stories all ran into one after a while, like the tigers turning to butter in Little Black Sambo.


Time and many monthly meetings passed in the old Uniting Church hall, now a 'refugee centre'. One night, someone raised a motion that they adopt a new way of being kind to poor people. Maybe they had tired of standing around in an Indian field while watching an Indian guy operating a drill in the back of a Hindustan truck. An ingenious new system had been developed, said the member, whereby you made a credit card payment and donated a goat, a duck, a piglet, or an entire farm if you had deep pockets. You could even give a Hindustan truck. Whatever. It would still be cheaper than your airfare to India. This had two key benefits. One, you could attain the moral high ground without leaving your house; and two, you could give the card proclaiming what you had given to a friend in lieu of a Christmas or birthday gift. Or for no reason at all, other than to signal that you were a Charitable Person, in capitals again.


More time passed and it was clear that token gestures would never have the effect of sheer scale, the kind of scale only possible through serious industrial undertaking. India's Adani approached Australia to run a Queensland mine, with resulting infrastructure bringing employment to Australians while providing power for an India for which a million wells, goats or Hindustan trucks are never enough.


Blow me down if I didn't see the old Uniting Church types getting in on the act. Opposing the mine. No power for cowpat-burning Indians! The dementia had clearly advanced.


Come and work at the tax office and end up somewhere 'unexpected'.

Today I was invited to consider a 'communications' position at the fraud-ridden Australian Taxation Office. The job description - it's in the public domain, so there's no breach of confidentiality - is beyond parody:
At the ATO, you'll do work you can't do anywhere else.
Nowhere else could you hide $165 million in your top drawer.
Work that is meaningful, diverse and challenging. Work that makes a real difference to the lives of Australians, and that contributes to their economic and social wellbeing. Work that might take you somewhere unexpected.
... Build cutting edge systems that engage, and make it easier to do the right thing than it is to do the wrong.
That last sentence would have any other organisation ripping the ad down in seconds. And I don't mean the bad grammar.


A barrister, a football player and a bureaucrat walk into a bar. Who buys the first round?

Once, a long time ago, when the offence industry was yet to be funded by the Australian taxpayer, Lou Richards made Melbourne laugh.

Yesterday his Flinders Street journey ended at St Paul's Cathedral after long sojourns at the Herald Sun HSV7 building and the Phoenix Hotel. Patrick Carlyon tries to define Richards' appeal:
Part insecurity, part vanity, part truth, part mockery.
Mockery? Isn't mockery a crime now? Ron Joseph delivered some choice Richards scorn on the late clown's behalf at his funeral, including barbs such as "Rhodes scolar, my bum" for ex-AFL bureaucrat Mike Fitzpatrick, who hasn't cracked a smile since he lost a game for Carlton in 1981 when an umpire pinged him for wasting time. Carlyon continues:
It was always impossible to read Richards' deepest motivations for his lighthearted grandiosity, except that we knew Richards was always looking for a laugh.
Speaking of looking for a laugh, in the same newspaper, letter-writing barrister Geoffrey Steward, under the heading 'Our humourless malaise', mourns the death of humour:
Not a day passes when we do not hear about someone being offended ... The cause of this indulgent malaise is the diminishing possession of any sense of humour by so many.
One of the examples Steward cites was an ad for SportsBet featuring 1988 Olympic drug cheat Ben Johnson. That is, repeat, 1988. A twenty-nine year old incident. The infantile bureaucrat class was beside itself, aided and abetted by its social media security blanket. Drug cheats! Gambling! Whatever!

Stephen Brook, 'media writer': "This disgraceful ad for Sportsbet ... celebrates cheating in sport." No, it doesn't, Stephen, it celebrates being able to have a bet, which is legal. Federal sports minister and nanny state bully Greg Hunt: " ... utterly inappropriate ...". Acting ASADA chief executive Judy Lind said she "could not condone the message sent in the advertisement". You can hear the ice in these comments.

Nevertheless, humour still exists. In pockets. Last weekend, a sledge of Lions player Nick Robertson by Hawthorn's Isaac Smith had the umpire laughing (The Score, Scott Gullan, Herald Sun 18 May). Smith believes what is said on the field stays on the field, and is not a fan of a suggested 'code of conduct' for sledging.
"Give me a spell," he said. "Fair dinkum, I don't know what we're going to if we have a players' code of conduct on sledging. ... With sledging everyone has a moral compass and you know where you sit on that."


Rewrite that caption, editor. Editor?

Caption to photograph (Herald Sun, 17 May) of new AFL umpire:
AFL football operations manager Simon Lethlean unveils new league umpire Eleni Glouftsis yesterday.


Days Eight to Ten.

I had been dreaming about being chased by a large mosquito that kept going around my head getting louder and louder. Then I woke and the mosquito noise was a power boat doing laps of the lake.

I had drifted off in a deck chair on the grassy bank of a large lake. Now it was late morning and the sun was warm and there was a light breeze. The newspaper I had dropped had blown across the grass and one piece of broadsheet was actually in the lake. Now the boat was on the far side of the water, and trailing the boat was a large round inflatable dinghy to which two small figures were clinging. The driver of the boat seemed to be flicking the steering wheel, so that the dinghy was being drawn back and forth across the corrugated wake of the boat. The two figures were hanging on like cats on the roof of a moving car. The boat came back around clockwise and as it turned, one figure loosened his grip, apparently intentionally; and the g-forces pushed him over the other figure and the dinghy moved under the weight and overturned and the two figures were thrown off and did a kind of gymnastic commando roll in slow motion and smacked the water. The boat did a lazy arc back to the two figures who were hauling the dinghy over itself to right it, and they pulled themselves out of the water and on board the dinghy, and the boat roared off again. The figures were William and Thomas.

They went around about twenty times. Then the boat idled in to shore and flicked the dinghy around in one lazy arc and the boys collapsed onto the shore, almost unable to walk, dizzied by the ride and the wake and the falls.

The rest of the time they raced go-karts around the dusty pathways of the park between the cabins. The park stretched around the lake from 5.25 to about quarter to eight on a clock. The lake looks large but its perimeter allows a slow run or a fast walk well under an hour. They print scenic run of the month in Runner's World but nothing has ever beaten the scenery around Lake Boort.


Cabin No. 7 was at the end of a row, looking out over the lake. On the first night the sun had turned the lake and the sky orange as it went down and the orange flooded the cabin. The cabin had a covered platform like a low balcony out the front and we sat in the orange glow and ate dinner that I had cooked on sparkling utensils on a stove that was out of a 1970s kitchen cleaner commercial. It was so clean you could practically hear the jingle. The whole place was so spotless you wanted to hose the children down outside before letting them in, if at all.


Sometimes you lose at travel lotto, and sometimes you win. I had passed through Boort (which means "Smoke on the Hill" or "Smoke on the Water" depending who you ask) some years ago and seemed to remember a resort by a lake, so we pushed on through Hopetoun and Woomelang, which sounded like one of those 1960s girl band songs, then onto the main highway before Wycheproof and off again and directly east on a B road to Boort.


There was a sign on the manager's office: Under New Management. I had walked in and asked the usual question and yes, there had been several cabins available and the manageress had given me the keys to cabin 7. "You might see a mouse," she had said, "We've set traps. It's because of the harvest." I said that's OK, I'm not worried about mice, but I'll watch out for the snakes. They always come after the rodents. A man came into the office, obviously her husband. She told me they had been running the place for only three weeks and hoped the cabin would be OK.


The husband was the pilot of the boat, and had taken his own son and his friends around the lake and then my boys. Then Alexandra had a ride and he went only a bit slower. The system was simple. If you wanted to go faster, you raised a thumb: and if was too fast, you turned the thumb down. I was the spotter in the boat on the second round. A brilliant plan; it worked beautifully until you realised that the thumb sign required one hand to be removed from the restraint rope on the dinghy. Ker-splash. Another rescue.


We stayed three days.


Destination summary: Smoke on the water, fire in the sky. Boort is a small wheat belt town that no-one has ever heard about unless they have been there. Let's keep it that way.

Accommodation summary: Every child in Australia should spend a week at the Boort caravan park. Leave their devices at home; or even better, bring them along and throw them in the lake for good.

Phrase of the day: Jump in the lake.


Ridiculous conceit: writer starts book with longest sentence in history.

Three short sentences begin The History of Rock'n'Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus. The fourth sentence begins:
That basically familiar way can be summed up by scrolling through the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, letting the names compose the history of the music ...
That sentence starts on page three and marches on relentlessly to page eight.

The writing is transcendentally dense; but highly readable if you switch off your information processing brain and turn on your stream of consciousness. Marcus admitted the book's concept was a ridiculous conceit, adding that 'trying to ascribe the entire history of a form containing hundreds of thousands of exemplars into ten is fundamentally absurd'. Tongue-in-cheek, he suggested in an interview that a contest be held to see what ten songs readers would choose (instead of his own selections), the prize being a copy of his book 'for the winner to tear up'. Eureka! A self-deprecating intellectual!

One Amazon-reviewing reader who had bought the Kindle version declared it: '... the worst book I have ever attempted to read. I deeply regret purchasing it.'


The History of Rock'n'Roll in Ten Songs by Greil Marcus
Yale, 2014

Summary: Buy the hard copy; this kind of writing doesn't work on screens. Don't ask me why, it just doesn't.


Day Seven.

Late Sunday afternoon. The town rose in slow motion out of the flat, endless wheat fields of the Wimmera, like a long tracking shot in a Terence Malick movie. A couple of grand-looking buildings came into view, boom era hotels wearing ostentatious iron lacework like a couple of ageing society dames. It's not until you get closer that you see the shuttered window, the gap in the wrought iron, the yellowing mail gathering in a dusty doorway. Nhill looks closed for business.

In the forecourt of a lonely silo next to the rail line a gaudy coffee caravan was touting for business, bizarrely contrasting the swapping fortunes of country and city commerce.

A Brunswick-style hipster coffee caravan in a place like this? It looked like an escaped animal from the zoo. Then it struck me. That crackly football broadcast on the radio in the middle of nowhere yesterday had been the Adelaide game – playing in Melbourne. Many of the Croweater fans make the journey by road, and Nhill is the halfway point. Accommodation suddenly looked scarce.


I saw the sign on the door as I walked into the manager's cabin in the caravan park. I hadn't noticed it until I pushed it open. It read No Vacancy. I stopped in the half-open door. A man was sitting behind a counter next to a small window.

"You just answered my question," I said to him.

"Hang on," he replied, and ran his hand down a list. "You could have cabin four. I'll do it for ninety." I paid up front. I wondered, why the discount?


The gaffer tape on the door of cabin four should have been a warning. The key stuck at first, but I managed to wrench the door open. It wasn't tracking properly. I walked into the smell of a month's worth of stale cigarettes smoked without any open windows. Had it been any earlier or had I not already paid, I should have moved on, but the task of negotiating an immediate refund this late in the day on the basis of cigarette smoke seemed too hard. So I opened all the windows instead. That got the smell out of the air but not out of the sheets or the blankets or the curtains of cabin four. I boiled the kettle to wash the dishes I would be using for dinner.


There was still an hour or two of daylight. We went our for some fresh air. We walked through the town, past the closed hotel. Further along were houses, some federation-style still well kept, others starting to look rundown, some actually vandalised if not abandoned. I noticed a couple of dishevelled characters who had not bothered to put on their Sunday best.

Back in the middle of town – literally at the parting of five ways – was a metal and glass extravaganza of a building, a postmodern marvel sparing no expense and looking like it embraced every sustainability refrain in the songbook. It probably even sucked the sun out of the wheat fields. It was the shire office. In that environment, it looked a like a space ship that had plonked itself in an alien zombie landscape of a B-grade 1950s sci-fi movie. A couple of the shady characters from the rundown end of town walked past, playing bit parts without realising it.


Back in cabin four, I boiled some pasta and cooked up a sauce, using the two of three burners that worked, and looked for a colander to drain the pasta. Nope. Not even a lid. I used a dinner plate held against the upturned pot and tried not to burn myself on the steam.


You can deal with gaffer tape and cigarette smoke and a stove with one burner not working. But then it was time for the children to go to bed. Right above the left upper bunk, growing downwards from the ceiling, was a thing. The thing was a bulbous growth, a mass of fungus, a mould about nine inches across and hanging down like a convex art deco light fitting. I hadn't noticed it earlier. You would have your face in it if you sat bolt upright in your sleep. It was green and hairy and it was directly above the pillow, where it might fall on you at three in the morning. We put the children in the other bunks; and we got out quick next morning.


Destination summary: In Nhill the shire officers seem to be doing alright for themselves.

Accommodation summary: Avoid cabin four at the Nhill caravan park. Cabins 1-3 and 5-10 might be palatial.

Phrase of the day: Nhill desperandum.


Day Six.

Even out here, several hundred miles from a state capital, the major highways pulse twenty-four hours. The big trucks go overnight and the ones that run by day stalk the campervanning grey nomads who check the speed limit then halve it. You may as well save your money and drive up and down the Maroondah Highway all day and then sleep in your own bed. I turned off the Sturt Highway just out of Paringa and pointed the car south towards Pinnaroo, which sounds like a party game involving native fauna.


I was spellbound by the landscape but alert to the dangers. A kind of hypnotic vigilance. Or entranced caution. I don’t know. You have to relax but expect a kangaroo through the windscreen any second. It almost happened to me once. I was driving towards Melbourne at six in the morning about ten years ago on the Northern Highway just before Heathcote. A large eastern grey came out of the scrub just as a ute was overtaking my car. We were abreast, me on the left at 100, the ute on my right at about 130. The kangaroo shot out. I hit the brake. The ute swerved left, into my space, and the kangaroo overshot us both by inches and disappeared into the bush on the other side. Mornings are worst but you have to be vigilant all day.


This was early afternoon, on a Saturday. The radio was trying to drag an AFL football broadcast out of the white noise of some distant country station on relay from 3AW. We were in the middle of a piece of real estate called the Ngarkat Conservation Park which incorporates the Mount Shaugh, Mount Rescue and Scorpion Springs Conservation Parks; and lies alongside the Big Desert Wilderness Park, which in turn adjoins the Wyperfeld National Park to its east and has the Murray-Sunset National Park to its north.

So there's nothing to look at, according to some. Nothing but several million beautiful untouched square acres in which to admire the wonder of nature, and die from thirst when you get lost.

You comprehend the vastness of this place when you drive for hours and the children think you're going past the same tree or shrub over and over again. But this is a just postage stamp compared to the real inland - the Simpson Desert or the 'Little' Sandy Desert.

After a few hours of pristine, primeval, flat, majestic, unspoiled scenery that hadn't changed for millions of years, small localities and towns started to appear. The first was just a silo with a name, the next was a general store with a name, the following had a hotel next to the general store, and finally, one with a football ground. Civilisation! The oval was circled by cars like cattle at a dam in a heat wave and the game had just finished, the scoreboard showing Kybybolite 12.17.89, visitors 11.21.87.

Destination summary: Naracoorte is home to the World Heritage-listed fossil caves into which prehistoric animals fell, their bones collecting across millions of years and several ice ages, the cave acting as a kind of primeval Westinghouse deep freeze.

Accommodation summary: William McIntosh Motor Lodge. A Scottish-themed hotel in the outback? Our room looked through a floor to ceiling window onto a lawn sweeping away to a forest. You can sit outside this with a Scotch and imagine you're in the Highlands. Four stars.

Phrase of the day: Watch your step.


Day Five.

I sat on the edge of the Murray River just after sundown as a nearly full moon came up. The water looked still at first glance, but through the growing darkness I could see the current rippling in the soft copper moonlight. It would carry you a mile in a few minutes. Once, in 1830, they rowed a whaleboat up the river against the tide; 'they' being explorer Sturt and his crew. The party had reached the so-called mouth of the river that ended in a lake. Sturt climbed a ridge at the end of it and saw surf breaking in the far distance beyond a mile of sandbanked channel. They were landlocked. So they rowed the whaleboat a thousand kilometres back up the Murray at the height of summer. It was either that or walk. I went back inside the cabin and picked up the day's newspaper and tried to read a story about gender diversity in the workplace.


Next morning we took the road north. The other road crossed the river by ferry and followed the Murray on its south side. We would go north and rejoin the river upstream later. What Sturt would have given for a car. Earlier we'd gone into an information centre doubling as a post office/newsagent/general store/museum, I can't remember which, where a volunteer lady wearing an large and faintly ridiculous red bow (among other things) was declaring to an old couple who couldn't decide for themselves, "Oh, you don't want to go that way, there's nothing to see except paddocks."

She was right. There was nothing, if you like Big Pineapples. Level farmland dirt-brown after the harvest stretched away from the river flats on both sides of an arrow-straight highway. We passed an occasional Federation farmhouse; perhaps one every ten or twenty or fifty kilometres. These were neatly fenced as if to keep out the emptiness. Inside the neat fences were trees, shrubs, lush lawns, clotheslines partly visible in the backyard, and scattered toys. These interruptions of green looked like they had been lifted block-whole from a street in Camberwell and transplanted on the moon. The morning wore on. We passed some abandoned, ghostly houses whose residents had long gone, the buildings left to fall into disrepair. But the belladonna lilies and the freesias keep coming up decades later where the garden beds once were. You drive past and wonder who planted them and whether they knew the bulbs would outlive them and the house, and then the whole vision disappears into the distance.

It is so quiet out here out here that you occasionally get the finger from a passing local farmer. Not the rude finger of the city, but a forefinger raised from his steering wheel in greeting. We had left the plain behind, and now the road curved gently as it climbed budding hills that seem to part like curtains to reveal long vistas. A purple haze on the horizon looked like low cloud, grew larger, came closer, and turned into a row of hills that soon became a low mountain range, still purple. Take a photo and you've got a Namatjira painting. When I was growing up we had one on the lounge room wall, soft mauve watercolour mountains and not a dot in sight. The hoi polloi working classes had Namatjira prints on their poky walls, while the literati scattered their houses with Nolans and Boyds. I used to wonder why mum took the Namatjira off the wall and hid it when her rich friends from Kew came over.


Then the purple mountains receded and we dropped slowly down into irrigation territory again, having returned to the river via a triangular journey into the vastness of rural South Australia. Now there were trees everywhere, not gums any more but deciduous trees with medium size trunks and pretty canopies, all ordered into a thousand orchards. That's a thousand orchards, not a thousand trees. There must have been literally millions of them: almond trees.


Destination summary: Renmark processed 85,000 tonnes of almonds last year, a figure expected to rise to 135,000 tonnes within eight years, with 9000 new products on supermarket shelves worldwide having almonds as an ingredient. (Source: Almondco)

Accommodation summary: Paringa caravan park, full of noisy European backpackers in for the picking season.

Day Five in a phrase: Warning, contains nuts.


Day Four.

It was raining, so I was heading north away from the coast and into some warmer weather. Before leaving town, I stopped at the main street cafe where the owner of the house worked to drop off the two-day tariff. You can just leave it on the kitchen table, she had told me, but I preferred to hand it over in person, being from a crime-ridden major city. Seems they don't have house break-ins down this way. But I had put the keys back under the terracotta pot. Same thinking: in Melbourne they don't look for the keys, they just break down the door.

I drove around the coast to Kingston then struck north along Rowney Rd for 50 or maybe 60 lonely kilometres, through mixed grazing country and pine plantations that stretched away down south as far as Mt Gambier. We hit the Riddoch Highway, and traffic again, and passed through Keith, a small settlement minding its own business. Then Tailem Bend, a town that sits on top of red cliffs along the Murray River, its main street and the road through an eastern tangent to an almost perfectly round bend in the river.

Then Murray Bridge, self-explanatory. It was close to stopping time, judged daily by the state of the rear occupants of the car, an 11-, 10-, and six-year-old. I drove another half hour or so to Mannum, an old seaport and shipbuilding centre from the paddle steamer days, and found a caravan park.

Cabin 13 was literally seven steps from the Murray River. None of us sleepwalks. The river crossing service operates around the clock and the night was punctuated by the metallic clunking rasp of the ferry docking. Late in the evening a paddle steamer churned up the river, lit up like a circus, its below-deck engine making a thudding echo across the water.

Destination summary: Mannum boasts the last steam-powered, woodfired, side paddle steamer in the world. Who was I to argue?

Accommodation summary: On the Murray - literally. Four stars.