Sit down, Shut up, Hang On!

These rather harsh words were uttered by The Brave Man* as we collected the tiniest hire car from Heraklion airport and joined the madness that is the Crete road system. The two children sardined into the backseat quickly realised that their usually mild-mannered father was definitely NOT joking and decided that in the interests of personal longevity they should do exactly as they were told.

The Crete Adventure had begun.

2003 was a year of momentous change – the year The Brave Man* decided it would be a good experience for us all to move to England for his 12-month teaching stint. While this probably deserves its own detailed blog post, it certainly was the year we ‘seized the day’ and gorged ourselves on European history and culture. Naturally, this was only possible with meticulous planning, plentiful cheap and cheerful budget airlines, and much scrimping and saving.

Chania.jpeg
Chania

I remember studying Crete in Ancient History at high school, and with a cheap package deal booked, a week in Crete was just the ticket (so to speak) to escape a gloomy British Spring. Maybe it’s an Australian thing but, even before leaving our home in Mudgee, we had decided to fill every waking moment of the year (much to the kids’ disgust at times) with different food, art, history, culture, history, monuments, galleries, history and, oh yes, a small amount of beach time.

In May 2003, Crete had the highest number of road fatalities per capita and per annum of any European country. We were not aware of this statistic as we joined the throng in our matchbox car, on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the vehicle – but it soon became self-evident. Clearly, this was way before the time of GPS systems, so navigating a road network with the locals overtaking on blind corners in the rain was not the most relaxing way to start a holiday.

Despite a few close calls and a potential divorce, we arrived at our accommodation undamaged and the kids immediately abandoned us for the pool. As is their way, they quickly made friends with other children poolside. Sadly, in our opinion anyway, one English boy spent the entire time at the pool as his father drank beer and played with his mobile phone. Every day we would be out exploring the island’s rich history while Diego (yes, not quite the English name we were expecting either) did not leave the grounds of the resort. What a loss – but each to his own.

Crete is a compact island just dripping with history – both ancient and modern. Our little buzz box hire car gave us the flexibility to dig deep into historic sights – and sites – such as Knossos, or to simply enjoy the rugged countryside and isolated beaches.

Knossos
The obligatory postcard.

Struggling to remember my Year 12 Ancient History, I was awe-struck as I stood in the grounds of Knossos. Knossos was the capital of Minoan Crete and its first palace was built around a mind-boggling 1900BC. That palace had a series of iterations over the centuries as it was repeatedly destroyed by earthquake and then rebuilt with increasing complexity and sophistication. The palace ruins, home of the legend of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, were uncovered in 1900 and we spent the best part of a day there – exploring the rooms, corridors and grounds. It was also well worth adding on the visit to the Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion, which houses many of the treasures excavated from the Palace.

Elafonissi
Elafonissi Beach…heaven.

In a short reprieve from all that history, we escaped to the Crete countryside and the beach at Elafonissi. This is the Crete you may see in all the tourist brochures – clear, azure water and long, white sandy beaches. Needless to say we visited historic sites on the way to and from the beach, including some Roman ruins high on a hilltop in the village of Polyrinia. The village provided some interesting history and spectacular views but was dominated by a few nervous moments. Driving blithely into the village we realised – too late – the narrowness of the streets. Lucky me, it was my turn to drive that day, and we all held our breath and sucked in our stomachs as we edged back down the hill with only millimetres between the car’s side mirrors and someone’s beautiful whitewashed home. My imagination was running wild as I pictured the explanation to the hire company that the car could not be returned as it was firmly wedged in a tiny side street of a tiny village in Western Crete!

Dinner Libyan sea
Dinner overlooking the Libyan Sea

A Crete adventure would not be complete without an intensive introduction to Greek food – olives, Greek salad, souvlaki and dolmades. The kids quickly learned that in restaurants, a strategically placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in Greek would be rewarded with free ice cream. No flies on them! At other times we self-catered and I became firm friends with a young Crete woman who was the check-out chick at the neighbourhood supermarket. She grew up in Melbourne and was desperate to chat and hear an Australian accent, regardless of the long, disgruntled queue growing behind me.

Preveli Monastery
Preveli Monastery

Australia has strong links with Crete outside of immigration, with Australians taking an active role in WWII on Crete. Preveli Monastery, on the southern edge of Crete and overlooking the Libyan Sea, was used an evacuation base for Allied soldiers to escape the advancing Germans. Not all history has a happy ending though and there is an extensive war cemetery at Souda Bay which contains the remains of far too many Australian soldiers who fell during the Battle of Crete.

It is safe to say that Australians are still held in high regard by the local people and we received a warm welcome wherever we went. Perhaps it was the Greek-speaking children in our party, our passion to learn or our willingness to absorb as much of Crete as we could in a short period of time that won them over, but efcharisto Crete for the beauty and insight into your country…and for delivering us safely back to the airport!!

 

May 2003

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

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Let’s do something different…

One day my mother announced that ‘this year we will do something different for our annual holidays’. ‘Yeah, Yeah’, the family scoffed. We didn’t believe it would be possible to break the family tradition of an annual pilgrimage to the Florida Car-O-Tel on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Imagine the shock and awe around the Formica dinner table when Mum announced she had booked us on a bus trip to Ayers Rock and Alice Springs via Coober Pedy in South Australia, calling into Mt Isa in the middle of Queensland on the way home. A round trip of around 6070km and not a beach in sight. Now that’s different!

Underground Church Coober Pedy
Mum & the Underground Church – Coober Pedy

As one we were all excited about our first big bus adventure and the fact that we were going to camp EVERY night. Little did we know that our excitement was seriously misplaced.

 

The departure day arrived and we were packed, organised and waiting impatiently on the forecourt of a large service station in Dubbo to be collected by the Trans Tours coach. We waited, and waited, and waited. An inauspicious start, which must have been a nightmare for my parents with two children just about jumping out their skin with excitement and yet we were going nowhere, fast!

Five hours later, the ‘coach’ chugged into the service station, revealing itself to be a BUS that had seen better days. ‘Engine trouble’ was the excuse and even then in the fog of excitement, we should have seen the writing on the wall.

As the tour was now way behind schedule, it was decided that Dubbo would be the overnight stop. Still running on adrenalin, we convinced our parents that we should camp for the night too rather than return home to the farm. Yes, it was the coldest night in living memory and I was dreaming of my very own warm bed waiting for me at home. Oh well, the price you pay for adventure.

Bus group
The hardy souls on a Trans Tours ‘coach’

The next day dawned bright and clear and we were soon on the road west, getting to know our fellow travellers. Poor Dad was one of only two men on board amongst a gaggle of divorced women, blue rinse set ladies and noisy children. He was kept busy though, as it seemed that every time the bus reached its destination, it would refuse to start again. The bus driver and Dad would gather up the tools and bury themselves in the engine. Dad must have been wondering whether he had even left the farm and what sort of ‘holiday’ this was going to be.

Domincan convent
The REAL Dominican Convent, Moss Vale. Source: http://www.spic.nsw.edu.au

By this stage of the trip, the concept of the ‘swear jar’ had been introduced. If you called the bus a ‘bus’ and not a ‘coach’, it was considered swearing and it was compulsory to put 20c in the swear jar. This bus was so far removed from a coach it wasn’t funny. Bench seats with aluminium hand rails (á la school bus), no air conditioning except for old sliding windows, and a hand-wound sign on the front of the bus that said Dominican Convent, Moss Vale’. Angels we were not, but as it was all new and exciting, you can overlook such details as a child.

Bus
Not quite convent material but neither was the bus!

We bounced our way out of NSW, trundled through South Australia and finally made it to the highlight of the trip – the centre of the Northern Territory. Ayers Rock, now called Uluru, did not disappoint and we were silenced by its majesty, by the sheer scale of it. Similarly, the Olgas were stunning and remain fixed in my memory – even after all these years.

 

The night before our departure from the campground, the bus (coach?) driver asked the group – ‘who would like to go to the Camel Cup in Alice Springs tomorrow?’ It was a resounding ‘YES’ from the group even after we learned that it would mean a 2.00 am departure to get there on time.

Of course, it rained overnight but that didn’t stop us dismantling our wet tents – well, our wet everything – and bundling onto the bus. At least the damn thing started this time. We all promptly went back to sleep and awoke to a brilliant blue sky day about 300 km south of Alice Springs.

The bus gave an almighty bump, swerved a little and we looked out the window to see a set of bus dual wheels bouncing high and disappearing into the Northern Territory scrub. There was a delayed reaction – ‘there goes a set of bus wheels…..pause…….they’re OUR bus wheels!’ And the bus wobbled, lurched to the left and came to a stop on its axle.

We kids thought this was all part of the excitement of touring by bus in the 1970s and tumbled off the bus to chase the wheels through the scrub. No doubt the adults could more rightly see that this was no laughing matter. This was 1977. No mobile phones and in the middle of nowhere.

We waited and waited and waved down the first car to appear on the horizon. The car had no choice but to stop, as we kids had made an immovable picket line across the road, including half of us laying down to form human speed humps. A message was duly relayed and we were collected about five hours later and transported to Alice Springs. Yes, we had well and truly missed the Camel Cup.

Camels
Camels at a camel farm – the closest we got to the races!

The rest of the so-called holiday was spent trying to make contact with Trans Tours, them promising a replacement bus and no vehicle materialising. Alice Springs is a nice place but not after 10 days straight.

The bus ‘adventure’ finally came to an end, with us bus-less but possessing an intimate knowledge of Alice Springs. We did get our first ever trip on an aeroplane back to Dubbo…and Trans Tours declared bankruptcy not long after!

From that time on, whenever Mum suggested we ‘do something different for our next holiday’, a knowing look from us all made her quickly change the subject and start work on her beach holiday packing list.

 

So long ago – 1977?? and apologies for the quality of the 1977 photography!