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I'm catching the Cob and Co!

There was a time when my young life was one long endless Holiday, punctuated only by the blur of food, bedtime stories, and Mummy’s cuddles, as the little human sponge that I was, meandered through a joyful unawareness of anything else but discovery.

Few things were more exciting than running after a Monarch butterfly.
“Don’t touch their wings or they’ll die,” Dad would say. “See that powder? If you get it on your fingers, the butterfly won’t be able to fly anymore”.

It seemed to be true too. Every time I caught a butterfly, it didn’t fare well. But how were they able to escape a spider’s web? Why were butterflies dying when I played with them and not when they got stuck in some elaborately woven stickiness? It wasn’t because of the ‘powder’ I would later learn. The ‘powder’ isn’t powder at all. The ‘powder’ is tiny scales that cover the wing’s membranes like roof tiles protect a house. Removing a few of them doesn’t kill the butterfly. After all, butterflies flap their wings against all sorts of things, like plants, other butterflies they frolic with, and the wind - just by flying the 4426 kilometers that a Monarch butterfly can travel. The butterflies I caught couldn’t fly anymore because I usually tore off their legs, or shredded a whole wing, or crushed their soft squishy bodies in the clap of my hands, with all the force of my jubilant ‘toddlerism’.

The Monarch death toll was too much for Dad. One day he bought me a butterfly net. That was fun, but not as much as using my own hands. So with equal zeal, I moved onto lizards, grabbing them by the tail, only to be left staring at a bit of it still wriggling in my hand, as if the lizard was still attached.
“Would you like it if someone pulled your tail off?” Dad asked me once. I didn't have a tail, but I thought he probably meant my leg, and I felt terrible, until Dad explained this was a deliberate strategy on the part of the lizard who was trying to trick me into thinking I had caught it when in fact, it had escaped, was feeling no pain, and was probably crunching on a grasshopper somewhere.
Spiders were an endless source of fascination. The St Andrew's Cross Spider was my favourite because she wove a giant orb web, the middle of which was stamped with a bright silvery blue silk cross - as in, X Marks The Spot for moths, butterflies, beetles, cicadas, and bees, to be lured to, injected with poison, and devoured. And instead of spreading her legs out all over the place like other spiders do, she elegantly and most unspiderly like, holds them together in pairs, using the cross threads as sexy leg extensions, as if she wasn't a spider at all.
St Andrews Cross Spider
I’d be watching her wrap up her victim while still alive, when all of a sudden the whole web would start vibrating so fast that everything in it, including the cross, became a blur: like the entire web was about to detach and take off, or as if it was about to shoot projectiles of something at me. It scared my tiny self to death, just as it was supposed to, even though I wasn’t actually the target of this agitating warning system. A wasp usually was. Because wasps love St Andrews Cross Spiders too, and they would raid their webs and fly the spiders and their eggs sacks back to the wasp's clay potted nests, to feed them to their babies. One day Dad dissected a wasp’s nest above our front door to show me what was inside. Sure enough, there were a bunch of St Andrews Cross Spiders in there, all curled up, quite very dead.
I was sad for the spiders. Like them, I wasn’t keen on wasps, because they stung, and it hurt, and they were always hanging around the house. They were always hanging around the house because we had so many spiders. We had so many spiders because we had so many insects. And we had so many insects because we had so much nature around us, as well as all the fruit, vegetable and flowering plants Mum and Dad were cultivating, some of which they planted specifically to attract insects.
Leaf-curling Orb Spiders were also lots of fun. They roll themselves up in a leaf with just their skinny lanky egs sticking out; the same way you might roll yourself diagonally into your doona covers, should you ever do something so frivolous. In an effort to coax the Curler out of its leaf, I would stick my finger or a twig in the web, and wriggle it around, pretending to be a fly. But the Leaf-curler was no dummy. She knew the difference between my finger and a terrified fly about to be mummified.
“Don’t worry Petra, Orb spiders don’t bite”, Dad told me the first time I ran through a web, as I leaped about screaming, pulling at sticky strands, and half-digested and still alive and wriggling insects, as if a giant furry eight legged monster would spread across my face like Facehugger in Alien does, and suck my eyes out. That they were harmless, spent most of the day hiding and so weren’t even in their webs when I usually ran through them, tempered my panic somewhat whenever I was not watching where I was going, and fell into one.
Famous Aussie Facehugger Spider
Where there were orb webs there were white bellied Willie Wagtailshopping around the lawn, twitching their long fantails from side to side, chattering away like a plastic shaker full of rice, looking for insects. Much like I was doing. Even more exciting than catching a Monarch Butterfly or a lizard, was finding a neatly woven Willy Wagtail’s nest in your garden. Their nests are wrapped up in an orb spider’s web and they are cushioned on the inside with soft grass, hair and fur.
Our Willie Wagtail valentines lived permanently at 40 Koala Road Blaxland. Not just because there was an endless supply of spider webs, or because dog Moggy, and cat Blacky, provided a reliable source of nest insulation, but also because they mate for life, and always return to the same nest.
Willy Wagtail in her nest
“Don’t touch the nest or the little Willies won’t come back”, Dad would say.
Of course I’d climb the tree, cup the perfect nest in my hands and lift out their cream-coloured eggs, speckled grey and brown. Who wouldn’t at five years of age?  It was like Easter and Christmas and your Birthday all rolled into one, to find a Willy Wagtail nest with eggs in it.

There were holes in the ground with a myriad of things living in them too, like bees and trapdoor spiders. When the trapdoor spider knows there's something rambling across her camouflaged trapdoor she leaps out of the ground to snatch it, then drags it back into her basement for a feast. Just as Willy Wagtails picked our plot of land for life, our Trapdoor Spiders lived at 40 Koala Road until their natural death too, which was for about twenty years. This was a good thing because spiders can eat between 440 million and 880 million tons of bugs a year. Imagine how many insects there would have been around our house without them!
Trapdoor Spider
“Don’t ever stick your finger in a hole in the ground”. Dad warned me once.
Naturally I stuck my finger in a hole in the front yard one day and was bitten. The pain was so intense, that while I am alive to tell the tale and have no idea what bit me, I didn’t do that again.
Spider enemy number one was the Red Back. If you got bitten by one of them, you could fall seriously ill.
“A little girl your age could even die”, Dad would say.
Red Back Spider
Red Backs do try to warn us to stay away. They wear a deep red zigzagging stripe along the top of their disproportionately fat bottom, as in “Danger! Do Not Approach!”  But then they go and hide in places where you can’t see them, and where you are likely to put your fingers: like under the armrests of garden chairs and tables, under the lids of garbage bins, and under outdoor toilet seats, all places that attract flies, which lay maggots, the Red Back's favourite meal. There's nothing much very nice about a Red Back's personality except it eats all those revolting writhing maggots: the females cannibalise their lovers after sex, Red Back children steal food from their mother who devours her own babies in return so as to teach them a permanent lesson. Not even other spiders like Red Backs because Red Backs eat them too. The Red Back isn't house-proud either. It’s as though she can’t be bothered putting a web together. The Red Back web looks like Christmas lights when you pull them out of the box after a year in storage. All tangled up and impossible to undo. Not even insects who truly believe that if they maintain a positive attitude and just put their mind to it, can escape the deceptive design of a Red Back Spider's web. 
Song: Slim Newton's Red Back on the Toilet Seat
Summer was full of exciting insect events: picking cicada shells off trees and marveling at how they got out of that perfectly intact carapace; finding opal coloured Christmas beetles in the lounge room with their barbs stuck in the shag pile carpet, or lying concussed on their backs on the cement veranda to where they fell, having knocked themselves out when they crashed into the incandescent lights that had drawn them in; watching ants of various shapes, sizes and colours file back and forth to some mysterious place in the ground, carting bits of food or body parts of insects they’d dismembered, thrusting my nose into all and every flower to find the most delicious fragrance, stumbling upon a giant stick insect or a smiley praying mantis and running them to my parents with a jubilant, “Look what I found!”. And generally just hanging around Mummy as things bubbled on the stove, and clothes flapped around drying on the Hills Hoist in a Blue Mountains breeze, waiting for Dad to come home and dig something up from the garden.

Looking for bugs in holes with Mum, 40 Koala Road, Blaxland
Everything under the timeless dome that encased the first five years of my life was indeed joyous and beautiful.
Then one day it all came to an abrupt end. It was time to go to School.
I cried. Mum cried. Mum cried because I cried. I cried because what school really meant, was the end of never ending early childhood holidays.
Suddenly your life is categorised. You were either at school, or not at school. If you were not at school you could only be at home, sick, pretending to be sick, or at the doctor’s. And sure enough the school would call home to find out where you were. When you weren’t at school for reasons other than illness, like wagging – which usually happened at High School - everyone knew it. We teens had a habit of dobbing ourselves in to our peers, who then told everyone else, including a teacher, and their parents, who would tell other parents, until the whole Lower Blue Mountains knew. And if we didn’t tell anyone, someone will have spotted you because by some innate sense of self-protection, or bravado, we made sure we were seen.
The only other time you weren’t at school was during “school holidays”. That’s when none of us were at school, all at the same time, like those days we used to have before we were sent to school. Only now we were conscious of time. There was a nominated number of days to rest and recreate. And the pressure was on to do something. For some kids at high school, this actually meant a trip away from home to somewhere else from where they would send you a postcard or a letter. For me, it mostly meant never going on holidays four times a year.
But it wasn’t always like that. We used to go on holidays when Dad was an English teacher and had almost as much time off school as we did. Once we went on a road trip to visit Dad’s sister, Aunty Laurel, her husband Clary, and my three cousins. They lived on many thousands of acres growing cotton in Goondiwindi, Queensland. Along the way we just pulled up on the side of the road and set up camp. Mum says the only reason we did that was because there was nowhere to stay that far out back. We had to camp on the side of the road. It wasn’t illegal to camp anywhere back then, except where it was illegal to camp, like, say, at Maralinga, where the British tested 12 atmospheric nuclear bombs on British and Australian servicemen and Aborigines, and spread 100 kilograms of plutonium, uranium, and beryllium all over the place, which along with 700 minor tests more, irreversibly and indefinitely contaminated the site with radiation. 

British testing nuclear bomb at Maralinga, Australia
And who'd want to camp there anyway...

Or Pine Gap, a joint defence facility partly run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. National Security Agency, and U.S. National Reconnaissance Office from where it intercepts information to feed into ECHELON, a no longer top secret global surveillance alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom. 

That place is on a real nice camping spot, where the night skies are so clear you can practically see TRAPPIST-1 from your back in your swag, without even using a telescope.

Pine Gap
Mum didn’t care where we went camping. She hated it. She felt claustrophobic in small tents, couldn’t sleep all night because the ground was too hard, she didn’t ‘know’ the other campers, and she was afraid of creepy crawlies making their way into her tent. Camping, says Mum, is for children, not for parents.
“Parents don’t have to like camping you know”.
Dad enjoyed a bivouac under the stars, but not the tent. Standing two meters tall, he was claustrophobic too. Camping reminded him of his threadbare childhood when he would hunt rabbit for dinner on the open plains of New England, in North West New South Wales. Dad was a man of the land. He could show you real camping, though he barely did. He preferred to read us the dictionary. At home.
We also had a caravan. We shared it with a chain smoker that worked with Dad. We took turns to go away with it. Mum hated caravanning too. It reminded her of her first year in Australia having to live in a caravan for a house.
Mum and her cousins Michael and John Young in Mum's Caravan in Moree 
“Why would I swap my perfectly big house for a tiny caravan too small for all of us to move around in?”
Mum didn’t like having to walk such long distances to toilet and shower either. And all those other women in the same shower room. It reminded her of Catholic boarding school. The flies and the mosquitoes drove her mad, as did the heat and humidity, the lack of privacy, having to hang her washing up with everyone else's washing, and just having to look at everyone else’s underwear on the clothes line; men's in particular. Although at least our caravan had its own stove. Caravanning, she said, is for children, not for parents.
Caravanning didn’t suit me”
Our caravan looked just like this
Mum didn’t like the places caravan parks were put either – on the beach. The burn of scorching hot sand stripping the soles right off her feet, and the wind blasting silicon particles up her nose, into her eyes, and all through her fine curly hair, and the harsh Australian sun toasting her snow-white body, was not her idea of fun and relaxation. The surf terrified her too. She was afraid of being dumped and drowned, or being under towed out to sea and served up to a shark for lunch. 

“I don’t like sharks”
And who didn't like sharks.
But caravanning, camping, and the beach suited us kids. We just loved running all over the place, tripping over guy ropes, making new friends and inspecting their tents and caravans. The constant euphoria of fun and relaxation, the unending parade of happy holidaymakers coming and going, the Bang! Bang! Bang! of pegs being hammered into the ground, the soothing mantra of waves crashing on the beach, the wet salty air on our sunburnt salty skin. The panaché of shampoo in the bathroom and the potpourri of clothes washing in the laundry. Ice creams every day, hamburgers and fish and chips. Feeding the pelicans, wallabies, and possums, and watching monitor lizards steal off with our eggs in their mouths without breaking them. The rising tide lapping against mangroves, the crackle of crabs scurrying across mud flats and the little plopping bubbles they make as they sink into the mud. Digging for yabbies, throwing in hand lines at any time of the day, hunting for shells and anything swimming or hiding in rock pools. The morning fetor of leftover bait someone forgot to throw out, the mouthwatering aroma of flamed grilled steak, and the homely fragrance of a hardwood campfire on which we’d toast marshmallows on sticks until they dripped, or the stick caught alight. Sleeping bags on a hard ground, staying up late and gazing into the deep dark universe exploding with galactic light trying to spot shooting stars, telling fantastical tales of aliens and UFO’s, wishing the holiday to never end and pondering on all the stories we would tell our friends when we got back home as we finally fell asleep. What more could a child want?
One day our caravan disappeared. The emphysema that was eating Mr Chain Smoker, ate our caravan too. We had to sell it for his treatment. And that was the end of our camping and caravanning family holidays. But tents and camp-fires continued to thread through my childhood via school, with friends, during netball tournaments, and camping out the backyard.
Much of my future school holidays, until I was old and trusted enough to take a bus or a train to a holiday destination unchaperoned, would be spent waiting for post cards from other people's school holidays spent in exotic, far away sounding places like Bermagui, Umina, Noosa, Ulla Dulla, or Tweed, Byron, Burleigh and Nambucca Heads, all places on the beach where every normal Australian would set up caravan or tent for the near entirety of their summer holidays.
Or so I thought. There were actually as many kids as me making the best of it at the Nepean River, Springwood Pool, Penrith Pool, Blue Pool, Jellybean Pool and other people’s swimming pools, along with a whole lot more who didn’t have friends and family living at a beach destination, or who didn't have a holiday home there, or who’s parents couldn’t afford to to go away because Dad had to work. Mum never came swimming with us though because she didn’t like pools either. Just the thought of kids peeing in them……
”Ugh”, she shuddered, “Where there is a pool, there are kids peeing in them”.

Jellybean Pool - because its shaped like a Jellybean
"Can we have a pool please? " I begged and harassed Dad one summer until he finally hand dug one out of the backyard. It was about five meters by three meters and had a shallow end and a deep end. When the cement finally dried, Dad put the hose in. As I sat on the pools edge, my excitement swelling in sync with the rising water, I noticed something was wrong.
“Why isn’t’ it blue Dad? I can’t see the bottom" 
Having used cement, the pool was dark slate-grey, like the eel filled canals in Enkhuizen. Our backyard pool, that Dad had laboured over for so long and that I just couldn't wait to leap into, now looked as inviting as Loch Ness. I was sure something had already managed to creep in there and make it home. How would we know for sure? You couldn’t see an inch down. The other problem was, it wasn’t oxygenated or chlorinated. And since Dad hadn’t mastered the then non-existent skill of cement polishing, going for swim was like having a total skin exfoliation. But we hesitated in there anyway for a few weeks, and it was fun, until it began to smell like a storm water drain on a low tide mangrove in mid-summer.
When the water finally turned into primordial slime, Dad filled the pool back up again, entombed whatever was living there with a cement slab, and built a pergola over the top for Sunday BBQ’s. Mum didn’t like that much either.
“Too many flies and mosquitos”.
So the pergola became Dad’s gardening shed. Then one day Oma arrived from Holland, and with my enthusiastic hands in tow, promptly set about clearing it out so we could eat in there again. Coming from a cloudy rainy country averaging a shivering 17 degrees celcius most of the time, Oma happily put up with flies and mosquitoes to enjoy an Aussie barbecue on a perfect Blue Mountain's summer afternoon.
The pergola over the cement slab that used to be our swimming pool
One Christmas, Dad presented us with a Clark Rubber above ground swimming pool.
“Even better than a beach in your own backyard!” the Clark advertisement invited all Australians, until almost every Aussie backyard had to have one.
It had an aluminum frame and blue plastic lining. When Dad put it up, and filled it up, you could see to the bottom. And the plastic lining didn’t rip your skin off. It came with a chlorination system: so it smelt like a real swimming pool too.
Swinging from the Hills Hoist
Dad put the pool in the best possible place for maximum fun: just left of the Hills Hoist, that fabulous Australian clothes line found in almost every Aussie garden since the 1950’s. Inspired by the efficiency of nature, it is designed like an orb spider web. The Hills Hoist was practically made of titanium then, so kids being kids, we climbed onto the red brick fence that terraced Dad's vegetable plot, leapt onto the corner of the Hills Hoist, and swung ourselves into the pool. Only the pool wasn’t made of titanium, and soon enough I crashed into the pool wall and came whooshing out with the water onto the grass. That was great fun too, although Dad didn’t think so.
“I won’t put the pool back up this summer if you do that again”.
Just whose job it was to keep the pool pristine was probably why it began to look not much different to our old cement pool. Our gum trees shed their nuts and leaves in it, and all sorts of things turned up to refresh themselves daily – beetles, snakes, mosquitoes, frogs, birds, and a panoply of wriggling and swimming things already dead or drowning, or intending to just live there and make babies. A type of creek bed could be seen building up on the bottom as nature made its way down there.
Then one day, after a big storm, one of the Blue Gums that didn’t burn down in the 1968 bush-fire, toppled over and fell on it, and on our house. The insurance company refused to pay. They didn’t consider our swimming pool either house or content. So that was the end of our Clark’s above ground swimming pool, and any other backyard pool. Although we did get a Slip N Slide the following Christmas: a long piece of PVC plastic you run the garden hose on, then slide on your tummy down. It took some painful trial and error to not over shoot the end and fall face first into a bindy patch.
Slip and Slide
Hardly anyone came to the Blue Mountains for a holiday. Who goes to mountains for holidays? I used to wonder. In winter it’s too cold, wet, and windy to do anything. In summer it’s too hot, with only municipal pools and nature’s waterholes to cool down in. If you were like my Mum, who did once enjoy a calm river – until she discovered a dead cow rotting around a bend in the Gwydir she’d been splashing in - swimming in rivers and fresh waterholes with all those dead animals, leaches, ticks, spiders, and snakes, was not for you. But plenty of relatives and friends trekked from faraway places to visit us and I supposed that they were on a type of holiday – a visiting friends and family holiday, like when we visited Aunty Laurel. They camped on the way up, and their kids loved swimming in bush water holes with us.  
Mum 2nd right, won't even put her feet in Gwydir after finding a dead cow in it.
In fact, our beautiful Blue Mountains was a hugely popular holiday destination once, when one day a week was all people were allowed to take off work, unless you were willing to take leave without pay, and could afford not having a job to return to.
Going away for ONE DAY was actually once considered a ‘holiday’!
To the mid-19th century, Australians were worked seven days a week and up to twelve hours a day. There was no law stopping this type of slave labour and no other way to access money. Unless you were like whom I am told, is some distant, yet to be verified, relative of mine, Captain Thunderbolt - gentleman bushranger. He just took things he needed, cattle mostly, in a nice courteous sort of way, with a “please", a smile, and a tip of the hat, before thundering off into the horizon like Zoro, except in a cloud of red outback dust, and on someone else’s horse.
Video Trailer: Captain Thunderbolt
Most people didn’t want to steal to for a living. They wanted to work and and do their bit to build our great nation. But they also wanted regular respite. On April 2, 1856, exhausted, and determined to get time out, stonemasons and building labourers on building sites around Melbourne marched to Parliament House, successfully demanding eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest. 
Eight-hour day procession in Melbourne (1914) when Eight-hour Day became a public holiday in 1879
These Australians were the first organised workers in the world to achieve an eight-hour day with no loss of pay. Soon all Australians had one day off a week, and the rest of the developed world  would follow suit. 
It would take another 58 years, in 1914, before we would get Saturday afternoon off. 

With Saturday afternoon off,  the ‘holiday’ could now be ONE AND A HALF DAYS long!

Sheesh. Generous.

This meant you could now stay somewhere other than in your own home on a Saturday night - if you weren't playing or watching an organised sport, the other thing many people did w

This post first appeared on Diary Of An Australian Woman, please read the originial post: here

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I'm catching the Cob and Co!


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