Most of us know the requirement for one’s passport to be valid for six months beyond the outbound date of travel. Well, even the relatives of a well informed, widely travelled, hyper-organised writer can get caught out. A few weeks ago, my mother was all packed to leave the UK for her holiday to Australia. We hadn’t seen each other for a year, so she couldn’t wait to stay with us for a few weeks, and to trade the blustery British winter for the sun, sea, sand and seasonal gifts that Sydney so delightfully offers its visitors. We too were all packed, to fly from our home in Adelaide to meet mum in Sydney.
However, 48 hours before mum was about to depart from Heathrow, I went to check her in online through the Singapore Airlines website. Major panic struck, when online check-in was refused. My screen insisted that mum’s passport was as good as invalid. I immediately called Singapore Airlines to ask if I could check her in via telephone, but the reservations representative informed me that mum would not even be allowed to board the plane. Her passport had five months and three weeks remaining until its expiry (one week short of the required six). I was advised to contact the passport office in the UK, which I did, and after three hours on hold, was told that I’d need to contact the Consulate in Singapore (mum was stopping at Changi Airport for one night’s sleep-over to break the long journey). Getting through to the consulate, I was directed back to the airline, essentially, going round in circles.
While these many hours of phone calls were going on, and I’ll admit, I was in tears, begging for a voice, any voice at the end of the phone to help me work around this unforeseen problem, further heartbreak struck. My husband received a phone call from his parents with the shock news that his grandmother had suddenly passed away. Both of us were trying to communicate our disastrous news to each other over two phones. It was tears all round. And to add grief to grief, while my husband was dealing with his family on his mobile, I saw an email pop up from a cousin back in England, breaking the news that my uncle had died.
To cut a stress and grief-filled story short, we tried so hard, after telephone calls going on almost all through that night to both our families, the passport office, consulates and airlines, to sort out the urgent passport fiasco. But alas, the passport office could not issue an emergency passport – even for a price. Mum missed that flight two days later. It was a painful lesson learnt—both emotionally and financially.
But we plodded on. And Sydney skies shone bright for us. We saluted the sun during alfresco yoga sessions with Lululemon Athletica on the lawns of the MCA. We wandered around the sandy coves of Middle Harbour, and clambered over North Head and South Head, counting the golden orb weavers swaying on their webs like vertical trampolines (try walking through one by accident!). And we came nose-to-nose with dozens of eastern water dragons, and even spotted an echidna in the forested headland above Cabbage Tree Bay’s Shelly Beach. How about that for wildlife in the city!
Post tears, hair loss and newly-formed wrinkles, we quickly set about making those remaining days as happy and as positive as possible. An organic, free-range picnic on the cliff at Fairlight kick-started a blissful Christmas Day. I never tire of watching the ferries ply back and forth across Sydney’s inky harbour, to the sound of screeching cockatoos and warbling magpies.
Our family had another special Sydney celebration about to unfold. My sailing-loving cousin, Cormac, had also just arrived in Sydney from the UK with his wife and their two children. Cormac was about to join the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2015. Mum was super excited about this, and utterly terrified in equal measure.
On Christmas Day afternoon, we all met up for coffee and cognacs in the breezy lounge of Novotel Sydney Manly Pacific. And it was one of those reunions where you realise how strong the family bond can be. Even though my husband and I had not seen Cormac and clan since our wedding 14 years ago, Cormac and I had been close back in the late 1980s, so our cousinly love was still tangible. We reminisced in merriment, laughed like no one was listening, and regurgitated memories from our early 20s with stories that might even embarrass Borat. The afternoon ended with a photo shoot of us all gurning for gold.
Come Boxing Day, we were pumped. Cousin Cormac was farewelled as he embarked on one of the world’s most iconic race events. And mum, hub and I jumped onto Rhythmboat for a Harbour Cruise.
King Street Wharf was a-buzz as we left our mooring, where sexy girls wearing blonde beards sashayed their tanned hips in Santa bikinis (!) boarding other party boats while the more conservative blushed in a festive, seasonal red.
As we departed, a group of ladies celebrating a hen-night, dressed in white feathers (not sure if they were meant to be cockerels or cockatoos), were already well oiled around a table full of soon-empty wine glasses. Noticing my Irish mum’s accent, a lady asked if she could sing Dirty Old Town for her. Not really a fan of The Pogues, mum sang the Rose of Tralee, instead. A young boy asked my husband if he was Orlando Bloom. “Absolutely!” he replied (but it took some time for me to convince the poor lad that this was a slight untruth).
Post tummy-stuffing buffet, we joined a family on the dance floor writhing around to ‘Black Magic Woman’, expertly sung by the boat’s on-board entertainer. So good was he, I was almost looking for Santana himself.
Mum barked across the deck to all within ear’s reach: “That’s my nephew! THAT’S MY NEPHEW! CORMAC!”, upon spotting his yacht, Flying Fish. Aside from tracking cuz, the other charged moment came with a close shave between St Jude, Willyama and another two competitors. All four masterfully avoided an actual collision.
Disembarking, I was mildly disappointed that nobody asked me if I was Miranda Kerr.
Throat polyps in progress, the next day, mum, hub and I spent the day at Palm Beach, and headed to our favourite northern suburbs eatery: The Boathouse (love those rusting anchors floating on the coffees). And it was all going on in Pittwater, with the crew and actors shooting scenes for Home & Away. Well, if you can’t beat them…
It seemed that this Christmas was the time for bumping into stars, as the following day, after paddle-boarding at Watsons Bay, we spotted more famous faces. After lunching on giant prawns at Doyles on the Beach, we popped into the bar next-door for a cocktail at Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel. And who should we rub shoulders with, but Bob Oatley’s crew from Wild Oats XI. As we know, they unfortunately were forced to retire from the race due to a torn mainsail. But this amiable bunch were more than happy to allow mum a group photo (which she plans to proudly mount on the TV in a frame!).
After checking in, I put a free-range chicken into the oven, along with all the vegetable favourites one adds to a traditional roast, before unpacking our suitcases. Finally, we could breathe deeply, kick back, and recharge for a quiet New Year away from everyone and everything. It would be perfect. Or would it?
There was a knock at the door. It was the owners of the cottage.
After welcoming us in, and asking if we needed anything, they broke it to us:
“Please be prepared to evacuate as there’s a bushfire approaching us from Mosquito Hill. It’s moving slowly, but it has already burnt 300 hectares.”
Oh dear. What next, we thought. So we repacked our bags, and prepared to evacuate, with the chicken looking at me from the oven. The hours went by, with us glued to the news, monitoring the fire just 30km over the hill.
Well, the chicken got cooked. And eaten. And eventually, the CFS notified the owners of our property that the wind direction had changed. The fire hadn’t breached containment lines, and our marvellous fire fighters had got the better of the blaze.
As midnight struck, we wished each other a happy new year, but we did stop and ponder all that had happened during Christmas 2015. We thought about the loved ones we had lost just days ago, and appreciated our fortune to have each other in our arms tonight—in a cottage we almost didn’t get to sleep in.
It was time to put the tears to bed, as well as 2015. And to hope for a more peaceful and healthy 2016.