It was the ultimate impulse buy. One minute, an email from Air Canada touches down in my computer with a blow-your-socks-off seat sale price to and from Australia. Next minute, I’m booking my flight.
And why not? From Edmonton to Sydney RETURN, the all-inclusive cost was only $1,080 CDN.
I also booked a domestic flight from Sydney to Adelaide, South Australia’s capital, on the airline reported to have the best safety record in the world … ‘Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service,’ better known as Qantas. That too was a seat sale; less than half the regular price, I reckon.
Note to Qantas: Did you catch the free plug? In return, I’d appreciate an extra packet of nibblies on my next flight Down Under. Thank you.
Leaving & Landing
On the afternoon of March 13th, 2017, I was at Edmonton International Airport, picking up some last-minute souvenirs … and with that all-important boarding pass in hand, ready to board a one-hour flight to Vancouver, the first leg of my 9,000-mile trip to Australia. For those who relate to metric: 14,500 clicks.
Sometime after midnight, I was with more than 300 passengers sardined on a modern, wide-bodied airliner. We were on our way to an airport I first visited in mid-April 1970: Sydney, home of the Opera House [then still under construction] and the Sydney Harbour Bridge [still undergoing maintenance, LOL].
A brief aside here, one of the many painters on that fabled bridge undertook a serious career change. Paul Hogan did quite well for himself as “Crocodile Dundee.” No, I never met the gentleman but I sure enjoyed the view from his old workplace.In April 1970 I was 20 years old and at times frightened to be in a strange country where people — not just a few, mind you, but everyone — drove on the wrong side of the road! They were as bad as the folk in England, Japan, South Africa …
The Aussies spoke weird too.
Gotta admit I was homesick at times. Halfway around the world, I was far away from friends and family and I missed them terribly.
Want to hear something really strange? I also missed the snow and the cold.
But you know how it is with us young folk, we’re smitten with adventure — and invincible to boot.
I spent nearly two years in Australia, working in three states: New South Wales, South Australia, and West Australia. Traveled to three others. I was now returning to the state where I’d spent most of my time, South Australia, billed in tourism brochures as the ‘food and wine centre’ of the country.
For those not familiar with the ‘Land Down Under,’ South Australia is in the ‘middle’ and at the ‘bottom.’
It was in South Australia where I sold advertisements for a radio station and a television station, both private. While in Australia, I did not work in broadcasting’s public sector, such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation [ABC].
It was a warm afternoon in late 2000 when three young men sat around a table outside the historical Austral Hotel in downtown Adelaide. A bartender arrived with three pints of beer. Nothing unusual, you say.
But it was.
You see, the blokes hadn’t ordered the drinks. The refreshing liquid was free, on the house … or in Aussie-speak, a ‘shout.’
Somebody had treated them to a beer, but who? The lads had no clue who that person was … or where they were. Were they two or three tables over? Inside the pub? Or across the street perhaps? Nope. None of the above.
In fact, I was very far away, as in on the other side of the world. Thanks to the Internet and a robotic video camera mounted outside an old office building just down the road, from my home computer in Edmonton, Alberta, I spotted the three men sitting around a table on the sidewalk. When the bartender told them the beer was a shout from the other side of the world, I took delight in seeing the men look around for the video camera that had secretly captured their image.
I asked the bartender at the Austral to put the bill on my Visa, and he did just that. I explained to him that I’d lived in Australia in the early 1970s — when I was a very young man — and that his people had treated me extremely well. Buying some strangers a cold beer on a warm day was my way of paying back.
It didn’t really matter if I knew the men or not. Perhaps it was better I didn’t know them because when I arrived in Australi, not a soul knew who I was.
Soon after, an article about the event appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser, by far the main newspaper in the state. Turns out, the beer-internet story had ‘legs.’ After the TV crews got involved and the story was picked up by the wires, it spread like wildfire across Australia, New Zealand, Alberta … and Heaven knows where else.
Here’s a part of the original story in the Advertiser …
So widely talked about was the incident that when thirsty Canadian tourists walked into a pub in Australia they were sometimes treated to a complimentary beer.
On this latest return visit, just hours after landing in Sydney, I boarded a Qantas flight to Adelaide. Half-asleep I was when I plunked myself down in my seat. Maybe 75 percent asleep. Ooops. Turns out, I was in the wrong seat, prompting a cute female passenger to announce, “You’re in my place!” I checked my boarding pass. “You’re right, lady,” I said. “I’ll move.”
“Stay where you are,” she said, “I’ll be the rose between the thorns!” She then sat down between myself and another passenger, a middle-aged man.
The talk moved from how long I’d been in Australia … to a 2000 Advertiser story about buying beer over the Internet at a pub in Adelaide. The gentleman sitting to the woman’s left suddenly announced, “The Austral!!”
Well, I’ll be. I leaned forward, looked his way and asked, “How’d you know that?”
“I remember the story …”
You can file that one under ‘Small World.’
On a hot day in March 2017 — hey, hot to someone from Alberta because the temp was more than 30 degrees celsius — I returned to the Austral Hotel with an old friend. Once pub manager Rebecca Parker connected the dots about an ‘international event’ that had put her drinking hole on the map 17 years earlier, out came a complimentary jug of cold beer for us. Thank you, Rebecca. It was good to the very last drop.
We paid for our fish and chips but the buzz was on the house.
And it was a nice buzz in more ways than one.
Oh. I left behind at the pub a small memento — a souvenir shot glass with a stylized maple leaf flag on it … and, in the glass, some shiny new Canadian coins. “What are these?” asked the bartender. “Those are nickels,” I explained. “They’re worth all of 5-cents … and that little critter on the coin is the beaver, our national animal … sort of like your national animal, the kangaroo, except ours works while yours relaxes in the shade.
Hey, it’s true …
That Canadian shot glass is now on display at the Austral, on a glass counter just behind the bar. Look for it next time you drop into the old pub for a cold brew. Who knows? Your drink may be on the house. Stranger things have happened.
Kingsley and Joan
The main reason for my return trip to Australia was to visit old friends, perhaps some for the last time. Father Time, the bastard he is, was ringing doorbells and I thought I’d get Down Under before somebody answered.
It was Thursday morning, March 16th and Kingsley Bennett had no idea I was pulling up in his driveway of his sprawling home in Adelaide. I told Father Time to piss off and I rang the doorbell myself.
The door opened and there stood Kingsley. For a brief moment, he didn’t know what to say, and so he said nothing. My visit caught him completely by surprise.
I skipped the small talk. “Kingsley, old friend,” I said, “I’ve come to see you …” And I extended my hand.
There was no handshake, however, only a warm embrace. It was the first time Kingsley had hugged me.Back in 1970 and ’71, I boarded with Kingsley and his wife, Joan, when I worked at Radio 5AU in Port Augusta, at the top of the Spencer Gulf, a few hours’ drive north of Adelaide. The address was 11 Leslie Street. Funny how that sticks that after all those years.
I liked the couple and their two small girls, Judy and Elizabeth. Kingsley and Joan were real; country folk who stayed country even when they lived in the ‘Big Smoke.’
The years flew by until they morphed into decades, and the decades flew by too.
Kingsley and Joan remained in Australia, but I moved on … first to Africa, then up to Europe — where I worked for about a year — then back to Canada where I stayed and raised a family.
Even though we were continents apart, the Bennetts and I remained tight. I watched from afar their children grow up and become parents themselves.
In recent years, Kingsley has struggled with heart attacks and other health problems, including cancer. He died once. When he told me that, I remarked, “Really? Why weren’t you appointed to the Senate?”
Kingsley’s home was orderly and peaceful. His devotion to his faith [Christianity] was evident in the many religious plaques and ornaments. Religious music played softly in the background.
Kingsley’s voice was soft as well. He took pride in telling me about a church he started in South Australia and that many parishioners now attended the church.
Joan’s health took a turn for the worse when she got dementia and because of that, she must now live at a special care centre. But that’s not where she wants to be. Joan wants to be back home, sleeping in her own bed, working in the kitchen, tending to her garden and all that.
Joan is homesick too. As a result, she has gone awol a few times. That happens frequently to those battling Alzheimer’s Disease and other cognitive problems.
The sad thing is that Joan is only 69. Kingsley is just a few years older.
Kingsley visits Joan daily. At the end of one of his last visits, he overheard his wife query a staff member, “Who is that man?” Joan didn’t remember her own husband. Kingsley returns faithfully to see Joan because he remembers who she is.We were about to find out if Joan remembered me. We drove to the Craigmore Resthaven Nursing Home, a few miles away … and what do you know? There she was — sitting in a wheelchair — just outside the main door. The poor gal had lost her right leg due to an infection.
I walked over to Joan and said, “Remember me?” She looked up, winced [the sun was in her eyes], flashed a crooked smile and said, “I certainly do, Chris.”
I gave her a gentle hug. She then began to cry.
So much for memory loss.
Joan sobbed quietly for a few minutes, pausing now and then to wipe away the tears. That got me. I didn’t expect that. And so I did what most guys would do … I suddenly ‘excused myself’ and walked over to chat with some men doing masonry work on a new extension to the facility.
[When I worked in Australia I went by ‘Chris Byron’ — an old radio handle, a nice way of saying a fake name we used when doing on-air work. It’s not that on-air ‘personalities’ are important but for some reason, we did that. As a result, old friends in Aussieland still know me as Chris.
Joan wanted out of the hot sun and so we went inside, straight to her private room. “Chris,” she said, rolling up her pant leg, “look.” Sure enough. Her leg had been amputated above the knee. There were two huge scars, the stitch marks still visible.
“They didn’t catch the infection in time …”
“Joan, Joan,” I said, in my best reassuring voice, “your leg wasn’t infected.” “Oh?” she said. “They just told you that,” I said. “The real reason they cut off your leg was to keep you from escaping.” “Don’t worry,” I continued in a fake cheerful tone, “it’s standard procedure! … happens all the time!”
Joan glanced at a laughing Kingsley, then in my direction with a grin that indicated that, well, she knew I was pulling her leg.
“You haven’t changed, Chris.”
It was a short visit, but a meaningful one. I got to tell Joan and Kingsley I hadn’t forgotten their kindness, I had many fond memories of them — and that I’d be praying for them.
Kingsley and Joan, as I indicated, are religious. I am not, however. [I like to tell people I’m an atheist, thank God.]
Kingsley and I returned to his home where we said our goodbyes, but again no handshakes, just another heartfelt embrace.
A cool little thing I noticed about Kingsley: he waved at every driver he came across in his suburb. I said, “You know all these people?” “No, I don’t,” he replied, quickly glancing my way. You can take the boy from the country but not old-fashioned courtesy from the boy. Or something like that.
Even his name has impact: Ken Madigan.
I did business with Ken Madigan a long time ago. We’re talking early 1970s here, at a time when the war in Vietnam was full throttle and Pierre Trudeau was Canadian Prime Minister. [His son is now running the country.]
Ken ran a cool sporting goods store on Ellen Street, the main drag in Port Pirie, two hours’ drive north of Adelaide.
The population of ‘Pirie’ at the time was about 18,000. It’s less than that now.
I looked forward to visiting Ken’s well-stocked shop. The store had a nice energy, and I’m not talking about the electricity that powered those large ceiling fans that whirred non-stop.
Ken Madigan was a ‘fair dinkum’ Aussie, about 20 years older than me. He was a look-you-in-the-eye, stand-up kind of guy who spoke his mind, kept his word and paid his bills.
Of all the people I met in my time Down Under — and I’m talking hundreds here — Ken would be in the top three in terms of class and deserving of respect. The man stood tall.
I liked him. And I never forgot him.
Over the years — hold on, make that decades — I often thought about Mr. Madigan, the businessman who ran that cool store downtown … who later became Mayor of Port Pirie.
After 46 years we finally met again, and it was a big deal for us. The get-together took place on a sweltering hot afternoon at Ken’s home in Port Pirie on Saturday, 18th March 2017.
A lot of water had passed under that proverbial bridge. We’d become two old-timers; I was 67 and he was 86. Ken wanted to know if I’d retired. “Retired?” I said. “I plan to work until noon on the day of my funeral.” I was pleased to see Ken hadn’t fully retired either. Perhaps that’s why the man doesn’t look his age.
Unlike some folk in the Spencer Gulf region, Ken and his pretty wife Margaret hadn’t fled to the cooler confines and conveniences of Adelaide. They stayed put. Ken and Margaret were born and raised in Port Pirie, it’s where they worked and raised a family … and it’s where they’ll check out.
A walkabout in their single-story home was like a tour through a personal museum … nicknacks here, framed photos there, mementos here … and sweet memories everywhere. Every memento had a backstory, and Ken and Margaret were more than happy to share what that was.
I learned more about Port Pirie in an hour with the Madigans than I had in the 18 months I lived in the Spencer Gulf. Isn’t that always the case?
Ken’s memory was excellent. I only wish mine was as sharp. At least I’m not at the stage where I’m repeating myself.
At least I’m not repeating myself.
One special memory of Ken Madigan from my time with him years ago was that he had excellent communication skills. He was a great storyteller with a thirst for information, preferring facts over rumours and speculation. He would’ve made a great reporter. He might have starved to death, mind you, but that’s another story.
In spite of his age, Ken Madigan still had a lot of fight left in him — not just for his family but for his family at large, the citizens of Port Pirie. No wonder he has been honoured by the Queen.
Recently Ken went to the wall to help save an old grandstand in the centre of town, an ‘eyesore’ the developers wanted to bulldoze. But the former Mayor kickstarted a letter-writing campaign to save the wooden-concrete structure, built in the 1920s to honour the young men of Port Pirie killed during World War One.
Many of those lads died at Gallipoli, that infamous hellhole in modern day Turkey.If the old grandstand could talk, it would tell stories of returning soldiers from World War Two, marching with medals glistening in the sun and with stern faces that hid nightmarish memories of horrible times in lands far away.
It was Croesus, King of Lydia [died in 547 bc] who said, “In peace, sons bury their father. In war, fathers bury their sons.”The building was made without any government handouts. The people of Port Pirie raised every pound and pounded every nail. Different era, I guess.
Ken’s fight was to save the building and all the memories that went with it. If there’s an ‘Other Side’ [I happen to believe in that stuff], you gotta know that many Aussie diggers were giving Mr. Madigan a huge thumbs up when he won his battle.
The soldiers and Ken Madigan are on the same team but the fights were different, weapons different … and the time was different. But struggles just the same.
Thanks to the Internet, Ken and I did some quick background checks on each other. He was pleased I’d traveled and become a journalist, the same career that two of his sons would get into. I was delighted Ken had been Mayor. Hardly a surprise, given his love for the community and his commitment to improve life for all.
Ken has always been a visionary, and that’ll never change. He sees the Big Picture when others can’t or don’t want to see it.
What I found interesting was that a few years after I left the Spencer Gulf, mid-70s I reckon, Ken Madigan’s sporting goods store was robbed at gunpoint. Unarmed, Ken took off after the culprit; police nabbed him shortly after. When the con broke out of jail, he returned to the scene of his crime. Not once — but twice. And like a scene from a Clint Eastwood movie, Ken Madigan walked back into his store where his old foe was holed up. He convinced the man that he should serve his time, get out … and contribute to society. And so the fugitive surrendered peacefully,
The straight-shooter that day wasn’t a police marksman but the fair dinkum Aussie who ran a sporting goods store and later, the town itself.
That prisoner is now out — legally this time — and he and the man who turned his life around have become good mates.
And that, folks, is why Ken Madigan will never be forgotten.
How about a great toe-tapping song to get the blood pumping? Here’s ‘South Australia’ by The Pogues … a Celtic punk-rock band based in London, England.
For a dollar, you can download the song from iTunes. That’s where I found it.
And don’t stop reading because the music is playing … just scroll down …
It was a hot Sunday when we climbed Devil’s Peak, near the sleepy town of Quorn in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia.
It was less a hike up a mountain and more a hike into the past. When I was 21 and 22, Devil’s Peak became my Sugarloaf Mountain [of Campbellton, New Brunswick fame]. I often climbed it, usually by myself [though my daughter Heidi and I made it up in 1992].
The Sugarloaf and Devil’s Peak are about the same height.
On the latest venture up Devil’s Peak, on March 19th, 2017, I was joined by a good friend from Adelaide. I enjoyed the challenge of climbing it, in spite of being 67.
We were out of breath when we reached the summit … and pardon the pun — it’s been a long day — but the view was breathtaking.
My goodness, it was 36 or 37 degrees in the shade that day. And there was no shade.What a view! Wow! Courtesy of the DJI Phantom 4 Pro quadcopter, here’s what I mean by breathtaking … click on these images and they’ll fill your screen.
The area is home to a lot of unique wildlife including kangaroos and unfortunately large, poisonous snakes. The ‘roos I like. The snakes I never cared for. They’re more dangerous than New York investment bankers.
So where does one go after an exhausting trip up Devil’s Peak with temperatures straight out of hell itself? Where does one go when the sport drinks no longer get the job done? To a pub!! And the nearest were in Quorn, a few miles away.
Here’s the one we went to: the Criterion …
When we staggered into the beautifully air-conditioned pub, bartender/owner Ian Goldsworthy, remarked, “You two look like you could use a drink!” No shit, I thought to myself. “Two beers please,” I announced. “What kind?” “Don’t matter. As long as they’re cold.”
The ‘West End’ brew went down right away … and within seconds, we felt alive again. It’s my hope that whoever invented cold beer has been canonized, that’s all I can say.
Ian asked where we’d been. I wasn’t sure if he’d believe us, but I told him anyway. “Devil’s Peak!” He turned around and remarked, “On a day like today!?” all the while pouring his Canadian visitor a second cold brew. “Yup. Didn’t have much choice … the sky was clear, I really don’t have a lot of time here — and Devil’s Peak was on my bucket list.”
“But now that I’ve climbed it — in 100-degree weather, ” I shared, “I’m never going up there again. “No way!” I vowed. “Now it’s on my f— it list.”
Sitting at the end of the bar, patron Toby Bury — another fair dinkum Aussie who was taking everything in — laughed out loud. Hey, it was funny.
No story about my return to South Australia would be complete without a write-up on Radio 5AU in Port Augusta.
I first walked in our main studio in June 1970 for a live interview on a young Canadian’s impression of the town and Australia.
I had just become the station’s first ad salesperson — something new for me. Previous to that I’d either been a disc jockey or a sports reporter.
I voiced a number of commercials while at AU and because of the strange accent, the spots stood out. Most of our listeners thought the voice belonged to an American. People would ask where I was from. “New Brunswick,” I said. “Aha,” they said, “New Jersey! …”
In my view, the standard of broadcasting in Australia was better than that in Canada. The Aussies also made better movies, had kick-ass pop groups and their athletes performed extremely well at the Olympics. It’s just my personal theory, but I think this had to do with Australia being isolated which helped make its people more independent … which in turn led to increased confidence and a ‘can-do’ attitude.
In March 2017, my old radio station was not only AM but FM as well … and of course, the staff was different, the old turntables and tape machines were long gone [replaced by digital gadgets] … but the building layout was pretty well as it was in ‘days gone by.’
About 17,000 days actually.
The number of staff had also been reduced, although that was hardly a surprise. It’s like that around the world.
Celestial Parrington, AU’s bubbly receptionist, brought out a cardboard box of station memorabilia — a treasure box, it was — and my gosh, there they were, old black and white photos of our on-air staff in 1970 … even our old mobile van which made so many public appearances at fairs and store openings.
Celestial wanted to know what became of our old Bedford van, but I had no idea. Perhaps it’s now being used to sell Aussie pies, who knows?
I mentioned to station manager Gary Kernahan that I had a quadcopter … and would he mind terribly if I put it up outside? “Go for it,” was his response [or something like that] and before you could say ‘Voice of the Spencer Gulf’ the drone was hovering in the parking lot, moving further and further away, over the city, to get some great shots of the community we affectionately know as the ‘Port.’
One thing the Australian homes have today they didn’t have about 50 years ago — well, make that two or three things — colour television, central air conditioning … and solar panels.
I’ll end with this ditty: Less than a week later, I was back at that huge airport in Sydney and in a long line-up to get my boarding pass when — out of the blue — someone gently tapped me on my right shoulder. I turned. “How are things in EDMONTON?” asked a man in his late 20s or so. I responded, “Fine,” all the while trying to place him. Former student? Reporter? Prisoner?
“Are you in Australia doing a crime story?” he asked. I replied that I was visiting old friends.
“And you?” “I’m here on holidays with my wife and child,” he said. He then introduced me to his pretty wife and daughter.
That was Sean Duncan, a lawyer based in Calgary, Alberta.
One more thing. I don’t know the type of planes I flew on — like some of my friends, I’m just not into planes — but the three planes I flew from Australia to Edmonton sure got me home in a hurry. I left Adelaide at 6 in the morning and was back in Edmonton around 1 in the afternoon. Same day!
Time Moves On …
Know what’s cool about these two photographs? The picture on the left was taken in 1970; June and I were returning from a trip to Adelaide … and the photo on the right is of June’s son Michael, his Vietnamese-born wife Lan and their son, Liam … taken in 2017 in Adelaide.
Michael and his wife rushed over when they heard I was in town. It showed that I’ll always have a connection with Australia … for as long as I live.
I’d met Michael before, initially as a youngster keen to play with his electric Canadian railway set, then as a young man living independently … and now as a family man.
That Aussie circle will never end. All good stuff.
A special thank you to Pam Flann-Chiasson, a native of Campbellton, New Brunswick, now living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. This was her story idea. I owe the gal a beer. Maybe a case of beer — because Maritimers, much like the Aussies they are, don’t like to drink alone.
… thanks to Colourbox for the cool cover photo [stylized map of Australia]
… and a thumbs up to the police officer who allowed us to climb Devil’s Peak even though it was “off season” [due to risk of fire]. Common sense prevailed.
The Good Old Days …
Weren’t always the best.
In 1970 I paid $1,000 to fly from Fort St. John, British Columbia to Sydney, Australia. Mind you, that was one-way — and included a special stand-by youth fare of $100 to fly from Vancouver to Honolulu.
Flew Canadian Pacific and BOAC; neither airline is around anymore.
$1,000 in 1970 dollars is $6,400 in 2017 dollars. So. $6,400 to travel one way in 1970; 47 years later, $1080 return trip.
And in the good old days, one had to tolerate cigarette and cigar smoke on the plane.