On January 10th 2003 I was dancing on a podium in a nightclub, in the city of Melbourne, the state of Victoria, in the country of Australia. The tune that I was dancing to was the smash hit earworm of a song called ‘Asereje’ (or ‘The Ketchup Song’ for the anglophiles) by a trio of Spanish sisters, who formed a band called Las Ketchup. Needless to say their time in the spotlight was brief – but intense. This song was the biggest one-hit-wonder since ‘Macarena’. It had a moronic dance routine where you moved your hands, arms and hips in synchronicity with the tinny beat. I was in my twenties. I was on holidays, in the height of Australian summer with my friends from Ireland. We were in a gay club. Of course I knew the lyrics – not that there were many of those mind – and the routine. This was thrashy fun of the highest order. And I am not a snob – I have always had a deep appreciation for lowest common denominator high jinks.
I had been living in Amsterdam for a few years by this point. A friend from Ireland was living temporarily in Sydney – doing that Irish rite of passage – going Down Under on a one year working holiday visa. In European Union style another friend from Ireland, and I had co-ordinated a joint winter pilgrimage to check out this hot country in the southern hemisphere.
I flew home to Ireland for Christmas. On December 27th 2002, my friend and I convened in Dublin airport and went boldly forth, where hundreds of thousands of Irish had gone before. Aer Lingus to London Heathrow, onward to Sydney – via Singapore.
This was my first time in Australia.
Out friend was living in a backpackers’ flat close to Bondi Beach. Effectively it was a flophouse – the rent was paid by the week to facilitate the transient nature of the residents – all of whom were taking their rebellious year out, before slotting into the matrix. As is required of a good citizen. It was the height of summer, so the sleeping bag I had brought with me was unnecessary.
We spent a week in Sydney. My memories of the specifics are a touch hazy at this point. I remember spending New Year’s Eve, as 2002 turned into 2003, on Mrs Macquarie’s Point – a peninsula on Sydney Harbour. The New Year was welcomed with an all day outdoor party. Being young and poor, we arrived in the afternoon with provisions for a picnic, rammed into an esky (cool-box). The reason the food supplies were so tightly packed, was to hide the booze hidden beneath. As it was a public outdoor party, only alcohol purchased within the confines of the festival space was permitted. We sneaked ours in without any obstacle. By midnight I was drunk and sunburned.
I remember the vicious intensity of the heat in Sydney. Every time I went outdoors, I slathered my blue skin with factor 50, before I would even attempt to defrost. On one occasion I missed a patch – perhaps the size of a two euro coin – on my ankle. Within twelve hours this patch was a fiery, seeping blister. A faint scar remained on my ankle for several years to remind me of how important it is, to always wear sunscreen.
We took a bus journey to a seaside resort called Sandy Bay outside Sydney. This is the real life village where Australian soap opera ‘Home and Away’ is filmed. As we were deep and meaningful young men, interested in philosophy we absolutely had to visit. I remember my friend and I chatting to the two elderly ladies called Jean and Joan who ran the ice-cream stand. I wonder what they are up to these days.
We did the Sydney tourist trail – visiting the Opera House and Bridge – including the bridge climb where you get attached to a rail and traverse the bridge arch. The tour guide told me that asking about the number of fatalities from this climb was not an appropriate question while staring down through the railings at the traffic speeding by, one hundred metres below us. It might upset more sensitive people.
After Sydney we flew to Alice Springs for three days – the plan was to visit and perhaps climb Ayers Rock (or Uluru). We were staying in a dormitory in a youth hostel, which was mattresses on a floor. I remember dancing like a maniac to ‘Like a prayer’ by Madonna one evening in a roadhouse disco. As you do like. We travelled to Uluru by overnight bus. Living in Amsterdam I was used to short journeys – and on the map of Australia, Alice Springs and Uluru looked very close. Only seven hours in fact. We had a barbecued breakfast in front of the rock, watching the sun rise. The driver of the bus was from Alice, had never left Australia and had only been to Sydney once in his life. Weather conditions (and the fact that it is strongly discouraged as a mark of respect towards the indigenous population) prevented us climbing it. We visited the Aboriginal Cultural Centre close to the rock. My friend has a policy of judging places based on the condition of their toilet facilities. I am not sure if it still the case, but using this criterion, the centre was the best place he had ever visited. The facilities were cool, clean and made of tree branches.
After a few more days in Alice Springs (where we visited the School of the Air museum; the Flying Doctor’s Museum and the Reptile Centre) we made out way back to the city. Melbourne this time. The weather seemed a bit less extreme here – still sweltering by Irish or Dutch standards but more moderate. We did the Great Ocean Road bus tour taking in some rainforest and koala enclosures. Imagine my sadness when I learned that chlamydia is decimating the local koala bear population.
Maintaining our interest in high culture we visited the street where the soap opera ‘Neighbours’ is filmed. We held a minute’s silence to remember where Kylie first kissed Jason onscreen. We went to see the show Cabaret in some vast theatre -one of my first times seeing a Broadway style show.
And we went to a gay club. Where I danced to Asereje.
Two days later we returned to Sydney for the final stretch of our three week holiday.
I had a mobile phone of course but in 2003 there were no smartphones. As I had left my charger in Amsterdam, my phone hadn’t been used in weeks. Every few days we would call into an internet café to check our emails. After a pizza supper in a restaurant off Bondi Beach we called into such a café.
I logged on to my Hotmail account- I still have the same address. I opened the email from my sister telling me to call home immediately.
Rest in peace Daddy.