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Friday, March 16, 2018

To Cairns and back

I begin this post with a map showing our detour to the site of the drive-in movie theatre, Charters Towers, along the Flinders Highway, and then the rest of the way up the Bruce Hwy to Cairns.
As is our wont, we stopped and took pictures at several places along the way. One was the lookout opposite Hinchinbrook Island. The better views, though, are from Panjoo Lookout.
We’d had periodic rains all the way to Airlie Beach and beyond. Tully is reputed to be the wettest town in Australia. But after rain on the Sunshine Coast, we should have been prepared for sun in Tully. 
The wettest town in Australia is awarded an annual “gumboot,” but Tully was not content to just win every year. In its pride at getting more rain than anywhere else in the country, the town has built this Golden Gumboot.

There is a variety of houses of worship in Australia, even along the Bruce Highway. I spotted this Greek Orthodox Church in Home Hill: 

And then a Sikh temple further up the road.

Near the Sikh temple I noticed a strange juxtaposition of signs. Or maybe not so strange.

Finally, we made it to Cairns and a big “Queenslander” house which was our Airbnb. I am reluctant to plug a brand like Airbnb (or Uber, which everyone but us seems to use) lest I sound like the Economist. But I have to say this way of connecting hosts and guests has worked wonders for us. We’d never have been able to travel as we have without it, other than in Asia. Every place is a little bit different, ranging from a separate apartment where we never actually met the host, to new friends who went the extra mile (or more!) Our host in Cairns had some interesting decor including this framed poster on the wall. 

She was originally from Ottawa, and had attended the demonstration personally. It struck me in particular because of the reading I’ve done since we traveled to Vietnam. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, which I’d meant to read since it was published in 1988, further illuminated many of the places we visited and, frankly, how bankrupt and indefensible the South Vietnam regime was. The bombing of northern Laos went far beyond the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the fomenting of the Hmong people’s war by the C.I.A. led to perhaps a quarter of their tribe’s being killed. And Norodom Sihanouk’s switch to Nixon’s side led to a Cambodian civil war in which the extreme Cambodian communists went from obscurity to a potent force. While no one foresaw the horror that was to be the Khmer Rouge regime, it was just another strand in the tragedy that was Indochina in those decades. The longer we’ve been away from Vietnam, the more I appreciate having been there.

The last time we were in Cairns we did a once-in-a-lifetime cruise on the Great Barrier Reef. But we neglected the rainforest side, and so part of this visit was to make up for that. Our main purpose, though, was to see my cousin Maya—Jim and Liza’s daughter—and her fiancĂ©, Ryan. These two purposes coincided handily when Maya arranged our visit to the Kuranda railway, with a return trip on the Skyrail cable car.

The scenic railway winds through many tunnels up the Barron Gorge to the town of Kuranda. Some of its busiest years were during World War II, when it was used for transporting troops stationed on the Atherton Tablelands. The belief of the indigenous people is that in the dreamtime, Buda-dji the Carpet Snake carved out the Barron River and its creeks. I couldn’t help but remember the naga, river serpents, that we saw carved on temples in Thailand.

We were lucky in that it was not raining when we got to Kuranda. We were able to do a walk through the rainforest and along the Barron River.
It just started pouring as we arrived back in Kuranda, so we decided to have lunch. What did we spot but Saigon Pho! As absence from Vietnam has made the heart grow fonder, we could not resist some of this hearty beef noodle soup that built a nation. 

The rain mostly let up on our cable car ride back down over the rainforest canopy. We spotted crocodiles in the river below us! The boardwalks at a couple of stops were more peaceful.

The next day, Maya took us for a walk in Behana Gorge. The rain was falling hard when we left Cairns, but eased off in the woods. The creek was flowing so mightily that we had to find an area away from the waterfalls to bathe.
Did T. not bother with a swimsuit again?
Then we had a great dinner with Maya and Ryan down by the waterfront. This meant another opportunity to see the bats of Cairns. Thousands of them roost in the city during the day, then take off at dusk for their night habitat. It is something to see.

Our host wished us good luck on our drive back, that we wouldn’t have too much rain. We’d seen that there was flooding in western Queensland, far past Charters Towers, but I don’t think we took in that this was an unusual amount of rain even for the Wet. When we reached the Johnstone River, it was swollen and angry, and I was glad we were crossing it on an elevated bridge.

We didn’t realize until later that flooding of the Johnstone closed the Bruce Highway within hours of our crossing! Tully was looking much more like Australia’s wettest town—the road there was already starting to flood, and there was a police officer there to make sure none of us got stuck driving through.

After about three hours of torrential rain, things eased up considerably, and we made it over the Burdekin River that divides Ayr from Home Hill. I had wanted to stop in Home Hill to take some pictures, including of this post office, which looks like it used to be the railroad station.
We also got some lunch from Dee & Vee’s, the cafe in town. I am not sure whether it was Dee or Vee I spoke to, but she asked me, “Which way are you going?” I indicated south, and she nodded. “’Cause it’s raining that way,” she said, pointing north. You don’t say!

So it was a long day’s drive to Mackay. Our Airbnb there was one of those just a room in someone’s home. In fact, when we asked our host where we could eat nearby, she offered to go with us to the “hotel.” These feature in seemingly every Australian town and offer drinks, pub meals, and of course, the “pokies.” Tonight’s special was rissoles with chips and veggies. I had never heard of, never mind had, rissoles, which are a type of large meatball with sauce, but I’ve been in Australia long enough to know $8 is a really good deal.
We didn't eat at this one, but it was similar.
The next day we were on towards Bundaberg. Once again we found ourselves on a long stretch of road without fuel, so we thought we’d better fill up the first chance we had. Around Marlborough, we pulled off the highway and saw a sign: Garage to the left, Puma to the right.

T. pulled off to the left. In Britain, a “garage” (stressing the first syllable) sells fuel. But when we got to this garage, it was clearly the other thing—a place that fixes cars. Fortunately I am bilingual and knew this meaning. Puma is a service station or “servo.” I assured T. that if we went right, we would be able to buy gas. 
Not bad for a gas station!
On our last leg back to the Gold Coast, we stopped at a roadside rest area for lunch. We expected the usual fast food chains but luckily, it was a Saturday. This is the one day a week that a Brisbane restaurant called Texas Smokin’ Gun brings its slow-cooked barbecue and sells it until it’s gone! 

We got back to our “home” on the Gold Coast—Kim and Garry’s. We were just in time for the year’s pro surfing competition to kick off. 
With Kim and Jo at the opening of the Quiky Pro
We saw Lakey Peterson of the U.S.A.—a semifinalist when I last looked—got the highest score of the tournament thus far, women’s or men’s. Later, I watched as Joel got two of the best “tubes” of the tournament: when the surfer rides through the barrel of the wave and, to our cheers, out the other side. He got more than 8 and 9 points for those two.
Joel (with surfboard!) emerges from Round 2
In Australia as elsewhere, a phenomenon happens to us socially. Because we are both women, we are included when groups of “the girls” are doing something. This is fun, but also unusual, because unlike the other women in the group we are a couple. Before I met T. I didn’t have this experience; my groups of friends tend to be mixed. I have fun either way, but it’s always good when I get back to “normal” and have a guy to talk to as well.
Thank God for Garry! Watching the surfing
Before we left the twin towns of Tweed Heads, New South Wales, and Coolangatta, Queensland, I checked out this monument on the state line.

I learned that in the days of slavery many South Sea Islanders were “blackbirded,” i.e., stolen, and forced to work in the sugar cane industry in Queensland. The law said that if they made it three miles over the border to N.S.W., where things were different, they could be free. As a result, a large number of industrious South Sea Islanders were welcome to work on the Tweed.

It’s an interesting bit of history, and a beautiful part of the world. We miss “our home in Queensland,” or rather New South Wales, already!
Sunrise, Tweed Heads

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The best and worst: Queensland south to north

In my last post, I mentioned that the state of Queensland does not accept Daylight Saving Time and so is an hour behind. In fact, Queensland is more than an hour behind. This is not meant in a disparaging way. It’s the same as when I say of Australia that it reminds me of the America I grew up in, rather than twenty-first-century America. There are ways in which it’s nice to go back in time.

I’ve never traveled Route (“root”) 66 in the U.S.A., but that’s what the Bruce Highway reminds me of. Except that whereas Route 66 is a nostalgia trip, long since bypassed by the interstate highway system, the Bruce Highway is the main road up the Pacific coast of Queensland. The main road, but north of Brisbane it’s a two-lane. Many times there was no other car in sight.
T. nicknamed our rental car “the yellow peril.” It was not at all perilous, but the color was that of the plastic “cheese product” that is sometimes called American cheese. There was no way we were going to lose track of this car in a parking lot. It took us all the way from the Gold Coast, on the border between New South Wales and Queensland, up to Cairns and back.

It was a fun trip. I thought so, even though for significant portions of it we were pounded by torrential rains. You see the further north you get in Australia, the more tropical it is, meaning there are only two seasons: the dry and the rainy season. Or, with the Australian penchant for abbreviating absolutely everything: the Dry and the Wet.
The "Sunshine Coast"!

We are here in the Wet. But this did not mar my enjoyment of the going back in time that is traveling in Queensland. I’m not just talking about Woolworth’s stores, frozen Cokes, and the other things that remind me of growing up in twentieth-century America. I mean sugar cane fields and little towns that were once served by the railroad, where a hamburger doesn’t mean McDonald’s (“Macca’s” in Australian) but a homemade thing. Complete with grated carrot and, this being Australia, beets. 

What we didn’t realize at first was that our little yellow peril had a very little gas tank. Luckily, our ever-helpful hosts Kim and Garry had lent us their road atlas (we don’t have data on the road), so I could see what places were coming up where fuel would be available. Or rather, place. The only stop for 196 km between Marlborough and Sarina going north is St. Lawrence, and that is 7 km off the highway. We had to pay it a visit.

St. Lawrence is named after the St. Lawrence Seaway in North America, but we didn’t know that at the time. We just knew we needed fuel and they had some. Here it is.

Yes, it’s a single gas pump on the sidewalk in front of the general store. Lots of these little towns have a general store. There were a couple guys in a pickup truck (“ute”) when we got there, but when they saw there was another customer, they waved to us and drove off. The passenger had a cowboy hat and a bottle of beer. I didn’t see the driver.

The general store just looked like someone’s house, and it probably is. The woman was selling pies (savory, in the Australian way) and I wished we needed food as well as fuel, because it would have been worth trying. Probably better than the beet burger, too.

Our destination was Airlie Beach. We spent a day in Airlie Beach four years ago followed by a day trip to the nearby Whitsunday Islands. We loved Whitehaven Beach in particular, but I said at the time how nice it would be to come back and spend a week just hanging around Airlie Beach. So we did.

First we had to get there, and that was a two-day trip. There is nothing like crossing Australia overland to make you realize how huge it is. We spent more time in Queensland than any other state on our first trip here, and the same thing seems likely to happen this time.

Australians love to put "big" fiberglass things on the side of the highway.
Since Europe and South Africa we hadn’t had occasion to use Airbnb, but it comes into its own in rich countries. Every place and every host is a little bit different. We didn’t meet our host for the overnight stop in Gladstone (“Gladston”) at all, but the place was great. The New Zealand guy who let us in is staying there for a month.

So it’s a long way to Airlie Beach, and the thing is, it’s not really a beach. The town has grown up around the marina, but you can’t swim in the sea, because from November to March it’s full of marine stingers (jellyfish). They can be highly toxic. Just another of the many deadly creatures that call Australia home. What Airlie Beach and other towns in tropical northern Queensland have are safe swimming areas—either enclosed by stinger-resistant nets, or separate from the sea entirely. Thus, the Airlie Beach Lagoon.
This is what I remembered from four years ago. It’s an absolutely enormous swimming pool, “self chlorinated.” I don’t know exactly what that means but in Australia, it seems the thing with pools is to use salt water. Not as salty as the sea, but no box jellyfish, either.

I was looking forward to spending more time in the Airlie Beach Lagoon and in our Airbnb flat, just making ourselves at home. It was just as well that the lagoon was only a short walk away, because we had to go there in between the rains. Some of the time we were in the flat, it just hammered down for hours or all night, as if it were never going to stop. Luckily the TV was working at the time, and the Winter Olympics were on.

We had a recommendation for a day out in Bowen, just up the Bruce Highway. It seemed like a good idea because Bowen claims to have the best climate in Australia. It did not disappoint. It was sunny all day in Bowen, and did we feel the heat! Besides the beaches (where you shouldn’t swim at this time of year), Bowen’s main attraction is the Summergarden Theatre, a movie theatre dating from the 1940s. It still shows movies, but sadly not the day we visited.

Bowen also boasts the “Bowenwood” sign, an imitation of the Hollywood sign, for reasons I don’t understand. And a spot called the Bowen Arrow.

Not wanting to miss any of the good weather we did get back in Airlie Beach, we set out one morning to hike to Swamp Bay. Given the name, and the tropics, we took our rain gear and wore boots. It was raining when we set out but by the time we got into the woods, there were only clouds.
Swamp Bay
Another place we stopped on our road trip four years ago was Townsville. It sounds like a repetition, but it’s named for someone called Robert Towns. We got there on a Saturday and T. looked up things to do that were cheap or free (we do this a lot). What we found was not actually in Townsville, or anywhere near Townsville; but Australians must think nothing of driving more than an hour down the highway. More than an hour and a half, if it’s us on our way back at night, and we don’t want to hit any animals.

I’ve noticed this about Australia: they love superlatives. We’ve seen "Australia’s best climate," “best pecan pie,” “tastiest chicken.”  Let’s be honest—how would we know? In the case of Charters Towers, it could very well be "Australia’s most authentic country town." It doesn’t look like much today, but in gold rush times it had a stock exchange open twenty-four hours a day.

We stopped in the pub and that was an experience. All the guys were in there betting on horse and, yes, greyhound races that were being broadcast on television. We thought there were only a few women there, but it turned out the rest were in the beer garden out back. You can see from the pub sign that they’ve got their priorities here.

We got there early!
But we weren’t in Charters Towers to gawk at the locals. We were there for the drive-in movie theatre, which charges A$8.50 for a double feature and has been in continual operation since 1966. They have Australia’s worst hot dogs (trust me on this one), but everything else about the place is fantastic, from the period music and ads playing before the show, to the speakers you can still take and hang on your car window. Plus if the film gets too weird, which happens, you can always look up at the stars. The moon rose so big and bright on the horizon that we almost didn’t know what it was at first.

So, we had a late night, especially for us. As a result, I was awakened by church bells, which is a little late for me on a Sunday morning. I got out in time for the market and noticed there were several churches within a block of where we were staying. Not sure whose bells I heard, but St. Andrew’s Presbyterian had a 5:30 P.M. service, so there was no excuse for missing that.

St. Andrew’s was a friendly church. It had a very different vibe from the one we visited in Footscray, but it had grape juice, so that at least was familiar from my growing up. In some ways (all the elders were men) it seemed like going back in time; in others (contemporary songs projected on a screen) it did not. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a minister get up and preach in shorts before.
In between the market and church, we did manage to walk down the esplanade to one of the stinger enclosures where one can swim. Townsville’s esplanade is really beautiful, and we had good (hot!) weather that day. I needed the swim, too, because earlier I had walked up the “Goat Track” to Castle Hill (above). There is no castle on the hill overlooking Townsville, but it’s still a nice view.

I can’t leave Townsville without mentioning the Sunday dinner we had, after all the hiking and swimming and evening church. I had seen that there was a deal on Sundays, A$14.90 for a steak dinner. When we went down to have a look at it we discovered that the restaurant was actually part of the Cowboys League Club, a club for fans of the North Queensland rugby league team. So, only members were eligible for this dinner deal.

Like all Townsvillians I met, the security woman at the Cowboys League Club was exceptionally friendly. She said we could buy a membership for only A$2, and only one of us had to buy one. I could then sign T. in as a guest!

If you’re ever in Townsville, join this club. It is the best deal in town, if not in Australia. All you need is I.D. We got a lovely dinner, including a big soup and salad bar, and even the drinks were discounted with my membership card. For the rest of our road trip, whenever I saw a billboard for the North Queensland Cowboys, I thought, “That’s my team!”

What a friendly place—and huge. These clubs are everywhere in Australia. Food and drinks are subsidized, by the gambling I suppose. I am not sure what the Presbyterians would make of it, but we had a great time. It is the place to eat in downtown Townsville.

Seriously. Australia’s tastiest chicken was closed.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Gold Coast

Australians, T. said, have it all figured out. I know what she means. You can’t go far in this country without a national park or a picnic area, and even the smallest town has public toilets conveniently located for visitors. Readers of this blog know that loos are a theme, but the more countries one visits, the more one appreciates cleanliness, supplies, and convenience. Nowhere can these be taken for granted more than Australia.

Not only that, but there are free swimming beaches (free!) and usually barbecues, too. By which I mean grills that are free for anyone to use, and they, too, are kept clean. How does this work? How are things made available freely, as if we were adults, and then not trashed for the next person?
About ten years ago I was on a wine tour in the Niagara region of Ontario. It was a cold day and there was snow on the ground. Two of my friends on the tour were a couple from South Australia, and I was interested in hearing about their part of the world, as that same day, I’d gotten an e-mail from T. who was traveling in Australia. We only knew each other online but she sent me a sunburnt picture of herself at the easternmost point of the Australian continent.
Who knew that we would end up here together, in Byron Bay? It’s a cool place to hang out. The beach is especially beautiful, because there are rules against developers building there, unless a house already exists. Most of the houses were built by hippies, and they (or at least their vibe) are still here. In a Mexican cantina where we had lunch, there was nonstop ’60s music playing.
Byron Bay from the lighthouse
I mentioned our friends Kim and Garry in the last post. Through their kindness we had a home in New South Wales. I say New South Wales because technically, they live on the N.S.W. side of the state line on the Gold Coast, and the places we went on day trips are also in N.S.W. Even though we look right across the street at Queensland from their balcony, it is in a different time zone.

The state of Queensland, like Arizona, has never accepted Daylight Savings Time, and so for the summer half of the year everyone in this area has to check about every appointment: “Queensland time or New South Wales?” There’s even a handy reminder at an art gallery we visited. 

Margaret Olley was a successful Australian artist who was still working into her eighties (she died in 2011). The home and studio in which she worked are recreated at the Margaret Olley Art Centre. There are other treasures at the gallery—it’s free too—but the best are the views out the back.

The Gold Coast has some quirky wildlife. Bush turkeys roam the roads and make no effort to cross quickly, yet I never saw a turkey run over. There is also an occasional water bird, an ibis I think. 

But the real draw here is the surf and the sea. For four days in a row, the waves were so big that the designated swimming areas were closed; only surfers had the sea to themselves. Well, almost. The waves being too high for us to swim even in the natural lagoon, we were standing on the beach watching the surfers, when up popped a dolphin! Then two more after it, then the same dolphins surfacing and diving along the waves, just like the surfers with them. It was a totally unexpected and beautiful moment. You could tell me “This is a bay where dolphins come” or “We just saw some dolphins,” and I could stand there the rest of the day and not see any. Spontaneously seeing these creatures was amazing. They were the most graceful beings in the water.

Some human beings, of course, come closer than others. We saw on the local news that Joel Parkinson was among those surfing in the exceptionally fine conditions. 
The sets of waves sweeping in from Kirra Hill, Coolangatta (on the Queensland side)
The Parkinsons were just some of the great people we got to spend time with, as Kim and Garry kept introducing us to more friends. There seem to be no strangers in an Australian town. You just go along to the Surf Lifesaving Club and meet your mates. If they’re not there, they’re probably swapping tales around their pool. We met some great people on our visit whom we are blessed to know.

And some great dogs. I could write a whole other post about everyone who’s had dogs on this trip (along with cats and the occasional third-party creature). Just in Australia we’ve met or re-met Holly and Hunter the Weimaraners, Willow the Great Dane, Monty the greyhound, and Myra’s Jasper. At the aforementioned pool where we were hearing life-changing stories from our friend of friends Karen, her partner Jason couldn’t get the dog to go on a walk with him. She’s bred to keep track of sheep and as long as we were in the pool, we were her sheep and she had to keep running around it!

As if all this socializing wasn’t enough, Garry and Kim also took us out for a day’s drive inland through some of the towns of New South Wales. As soon as you leave the coast, a whole different country opens up. The rivers and hills are gorgeous, and every town seems to have a “School of Art” in a building dated around the turn of the last century. We stopped in Uki,
Hula hoops for sale, Sunday market

Where Mardi Gras means something a little bit different

and Bangalow.

Sometimes friends miss each other by days or weeks. We heard from our traveling friends the Lawsons when they were passing through London; unfortunately we were already in Vienna. Then we tried to catch them in Melbourne, but they were on their way to southeast Asia—which we’d just left! Other times we are more fortunate. Kim and Ibon, who split their time between Spain and Australia, met up with us in Sydney, but they were also on the Gold Coast at the same time as we were. More fun with Kailani!
Exercises for our backs, just like Daddys'
Our host Kim was even kind enough to lend us a car while we were in town. This is how we got to Byron Bay and an even more interesting place called King’s Head down the road. There’s a trail in the woods and we walked down to the beach from there. There are no signs or anything, but as we arrived we confirmed that the beach was being treated as clothing optional. 

Well, why not indeed? I have to say it was very refreshing. Given the heat wave, T. said she’d be happy to come back every day just for the pleasure of skinny dipping. Needless to say there are no pictures, so here’s one from the inside of a record jacket, Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses, instead.

We don’t really do bucket lists, but even if I did who needs ziplining? Skinny dipping is free.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Two dozen countries and a dozen friends

When we first left on this world journey and people asked us what we would miss most about traveling, I said T. would most miss the washing machine. I was wrong. Laundry has been a breeze everywhere. What we've most missed is the obvious—people we know.

We started in England and if you count that, which I do, we’re now in our twenty-fourth country. In many of those countries we’ve met lovely people and made new friends, but didn’t know a soul when we got there. This was true for a long stretch of Europe and then almost all of our travels in Africa and Asia. 

This is not normal, and it makes me appreciate the folks we do know even more. Especially now that we’re in Australia and have spent most of our visit so far in the homes of family and friends. Here's a shout out to those we've visited, starting in country...
#1. England
Before we left, we stopped in Derbyshire to catch Uncle Eddie and some of T's cousins. Tony momentarily stopped dancing for this picture.

2. Wales
We stayed with T's sister and brother-in-law in the principality of Wales. They were kind enough to fly out to Mauritius and meet us later (see #15).

3. Ireland
It is impossible to overstate the welcome of T's cousin Bernie in Donegal!

4. France
5. Spain

Our friends Kim and Ibon (and their daughter Kailani) made us very welcome at their bar in the Basque Country. They were too busy working to have their picture taken, though--so we caught up with them again here in Sydney!

6. Italy
T's cousins Fiona and Gianmarco have already made this blog for cooking one of my top 10 food experiences. Here they all are with Sebastian in Genoa.

7. Slovenia
8. Austria
9. Hungary
10. Czech Republic
11. Germany... I told you we went months without knowing anybody!
12. Holland
13. Tanzania
14. South Africa
15. Mauritius
Caz and Paul made my top 10 experiences too. Swimming with dolphins when they visited us from Britain.

16. Thailand
17. Laos
18. Myanmar
19. Vietnam
20. Hong Kong
Thank God for Watty, whom we've now hung out with on three continents. We didn't have a single friend in southeast Asia, but a hop to the northeast brought us the best local host, the best sights--oh, and the best Chinese food.

21. Cambodia
22. Malaysia
23. Singapore
24. Australia

Finally, the comforts of home! We've been here before and know people everywhere. We stayed with T's sister Gez and Dave, Jake, and Georgia near Melbourne.

Just before becoming dual citizens!
I first met Johanna, an Adelaide native, when we worked together in London. This time, she (and Joe) showed us the best of Melbourne.
T's brother Steve, Sue, Bryony (and Alex, Myra, James and Cassie) made us at home near Hobart.
Catching up with Flick, last seen at our place in London!
It's only fair that I have a few relatives here too. We were glad to visit cousins Jim and Liza in Sydney again.
Jim and Liza made us welcome on our first visit four years ago.
And what can I say about Kim and Garry? We met them the last time we were here, through T's friend Jo, but didn't know them well when they came over to Ireland and Britain the next year. After a week in our house, we were best mates. Good thing because we are wearing out their welcome this time!
Garry and Kim in a slightly colder northern February
No visit to Queensland, of course, would be complete without catching up with Jo and her son, the surfer Joel Parkinson. What a lovely family. Seeing the former world champion on a poster in Singapore just made us look forward to our visit more.
Joel in the Billabong store
We'll have to get an updated picture on our return to the Gold Coast.