Category: Australia

Australian summer

A week ago we returned from a 4 day break in Port Macquarie, a town on the mid north coast of NSW which has been the location of many family holidays since my childhood. I’m looking at a few of the “snapshots” from that mini break and thinking about the joys and struggles of the Australian summer, things that I have known all my life, but which after 10 years living in the chilly north, have impacted me in a new way.

Nobby Beach last Sunday morning



We arrived on a Wednesday evening to find this lovely stretch of coastline oddly dim, with a pall of smoke hanging over the town, and the smell of fire pervading everything. We soon discovered that a bushfire was raging a few miles north, around Crescent Head, another popular holiday destination, of which we also have happy memories. The beach showed the tell tale signs: the first day we sat on black burnt leaves blown from the fires out to sea and then washed back onto the beach. But in a few days the tides magically cleaned the debris away, the sand washed clean by nature. The smoke and the smell cleared the second night after a fall of rain, although there were still smouldering remains visible to the north when we left town four days later. Bushfires are the bane of the Australian summer. They impact us all, but none more deeply than those who have lost homes or loved ones many of whom struggle with the trauma for years.

Looking north from Lake Cathie


The beach has been and is a source of endless fun and recreation for millions of Australians and tourists every summer. But it has its dangers, and deserves respect and caution. The day we arrived in Port we were greeted with the news of an 11 year old lost in the surf, caught in a rip, carried out to sea. He and his family had arrived in town that day and thought they would take a dip to cool off. But they chose an un-patrolled beach (no life savers) on an afternoon when the surf was rough and dangerous, and though the boy and his older brother were not out of their depth, the smaller lad was presumably knocked down by a wave, caught by the current, and disappeared. His frantic older brother tried to find and rescue him, to no avail. He raised the alarm and a search ensued, but he was gone, lost to the sea. The search continued for a week, but his body has not been found, claimed by the sea. A few days after the tragedy we were walking on the beach at Lake Cathie, a coastal village some miles south of Port, and a rescue helicopter flew over, low down, combing the coastline, searching to see if the currents had carried his body south. It was a chilling reminder, and like the smoke cast a shadow over our days away.

Isak crossing Lake Cathie beach


Ours is a hot land. In Sweden people never use the word hot to describe the weather. It is never more than “warm.” But our summers here are hot, there is no other way to describe them. We wear sandals or flip flops (“thongs” is the Australian term) to protect our feet from being burned by the road when we go the beach. We smother our skin with sunscreen whenever we go swimming and it is noticeable that the older we get the less of our bodies we expose to the sun, and that’s not just because we have lost our youthful beauty – though there is that! Responsible parents make sure their kids are not just smeared with sunscreen, but have long sleeved shirts and hats when they are in the water. By my age, our skin is showing the ravages of many Australian summers, and we cover up.

Forgot the hat


The Australian coastline is wild and beautiful, even in coastal cities like Sydney and Newcastle, where we live. It give us so much joy, and we have had, and continue to have, so many happy times there. Despite the sadness that tinged our mini-break, and the hazards that are part of every Australian summer, we loved our few days at Port Macquarie, walking the beaches, exploring the rocky headlands, surfing in the waves. Early last Sunday morning, before we packed up to head home, I walked down to Flynn’s Beach, just a few hundred metres from our Pacific Drive apartment. There was a camper van parked by the surf club building, clearly a rental vehicle, with its top up and the back door raised to reveal a little stove and fridge. The occupants had obviously spent the night there, sleeping to the endless music of waves breaking on the beach. I strolled past and realised by the conversation that the four young people eating their breakfast in the shade of the towering pines were European tourists, perhaps on their first trip to Australia. It made me happy to think that others from around the world can come here to enjoy the natural beauty of our seaside. I thought how wonderful it must be to experience all this for the first time. I silently wished them well on their journey north.

Maria hits the surf

Resurrecting the blog

I sit at home staring across Lake Macquarie; sails in the distance off Coal Point bend to the breeze. Billowing clouds soften a pale blue sky; far away on the southern horizon the colours blend into soft blue grey. Spinnakers in blue and red and black colour the expanse between Toronto on the western shore and Valentine to the east.

It is a year and a week since we walked off our flight from Sweden, one year since we came “home.” After a few months of wandering and wondering we found ourselves a house to rent on the shores of this lovely lake, an expanse of water that covers an area larger than Sydney Harbour. I found a job in a little lakeside community with the unlikely name of Toronto. Just recently Maria too started working in a suburb called Charlestown, between here and central Newcastle.

There are worse places to spend your days. My office at work has huge windows with sweeping views across the water. On Wednesday afternoons there is always a friendly race of grey sailed yachts tacking back and forth across the lake. It is beautiful when I arrive in the mornings while the day is young and fresh. It is even more stunning when the evening sun infuses with life the colours of lake and shore. A few times during the winter months I have witnessed a full moon rising over the lake in the darkness before I have left for home in the evening. Then the lake becomes a magical place.

But for all its wonder, our hearts have not come home. Newcastle is new to us, as is Lake Macquarie, and despite all the beautiful sights around us, we have spent a year struggling to find our feet in a society that feels extremely foreign, and often rather ugly, even for me, the most Australian among us. Missionaries returning home after years abroad often speak of the pain of re-entry, but such pain can await any expatriate returning to his or her land of origin. It can happen to anyone coming “home.” It has happened to us.

We are still in transition. We don’t fit here, not yet, and we wonder sometimes if we ever will. Some days are better than others, but after a year, we still long for our other home, in the cold north. We miss our friends, our town, our jobs, our church… we miss so much. Now as Spring comes to Australia, we find ourselves longing for the colours and chill of autumn in Scandinavia.

I have found it hard to write a blog during the year that is now past. It is hard to write of pain when the decision to come back was ours alone, and we think we should be feeling excitement and joy. We feel vaguely like failures.

Few understand. This sunny southland seems like a promised land to many of our Swedish friends, especially when the Nordic winter seems to drag on and on, the icy winds unwilling to release their grip. We have been there for many winters now and we know well the tedium of the seemingly endless cold. I have longed for Australia many times. So what are we complaining about? Surely we should be just basking in the warmth of the sunny south, not whinging.

For our new friends our complaints and grumbling are not welcome either. If we find things so irritating, why did we come? It is easier to stay silent. It is hard to embrace a city that so many of them think is perfect so many ways. So we can’t gush about how happy we are, because that would be dishonest, but at the same time we can’t whine about our pain and struggle, because people don’t know how to cope with that. So we live in our own little bubble, disconnected in many ways from both the world we left, and the world we have come to.

But I think now that the time has come for me to begin writing again. I like writing. I used to write stuff before the internet, but now I can share my thoughts with anyone who stumbles on this site. It will no doubt be sporadic, but if time for writing eludes me I will post a picture. I named this blog “snapshots and ramblings” after all, so maybe snaps will have to suffice sometimes.

When I write I want to try to be honest, but not too negative. I was talking to Madelene, a Swedish friend and colleague, a week or so back, and she challenged me to think of the good things, the things we can be thankful for. It is not a bad habit to get into, to look for the good, and be thankful. I needed to be reminded.

Perhaps I can begin with some pictures from around here. There is much to lift the spirits as I gaze out from our home, and when I sit in my office doing my job.

Marmong Point and marina, from the hills behind our home.


Looking south across Lake Macquarie, from Speers Point.

Responding to Ebola

AUSTRALIA has agreed to support a 240-strong medical team to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa after striking a deal on medical evacuations. The assistance will take the form of funding for a 100-bed field hospital in Sierra Leone, staffed by up to 240 volunteer health workers, including an unknown number of Australians. Prime Minister Tony Abbott today announced a $20 million commitment to the mission, which will be managed at “arm’s length” through a private operator, Aspen Medical. Mr Abbott said it was anticipated that Canberra-based Aspen would have some staff on the ground in Sierra Leone within days. The British-built Ebola treatment centre would have 240 staff, he said. “Most will be locally engaged, and it is likely some of them will be Australian.” Aspen Medical’s website was already advertising for medical personnel this afternoon.

Julie Lambert, Medical Observer, 5 November 2014

After my last blog, it was encouraging to read this article recently in the medical press. It was published 10 days ago and how far the process has come since then I don’t know, but it responds to an urgent need, and it looks as though Aspen Medical is not wasting time. I worked for Aspen briefly some years ago, in Australia. Since Aspen provides medical services to the Australian Armed Forces, the company was my employer when I did a four week locum job at the Cairns naval base in tropical North Queensland. My brief contact with the organisation was positive. It is encouraging to see that they are willing use their expertise and experience with medicine in remote locations to coordinate the deployment of volunteers as well as their own staff. They are certainly the right people for the job in Sierra Leone from an Australian perspective and will hopefully be able to provide a quality service to the people of West Africa at the same time as keeping their own people as safe and secure as possible. Maintaining the health of people (usually military) in remote locations is their specialty.

It is heartbreaking to read the reports of the Ebola epidemic coming out of Sierra Leone and West Africa. Our time with Mercy Ships back in 2001-2003 gave us some insight into just how much suffering has afflicted the people of that part of the world, and though our contact was fairly superficial we still feel some kind of connection to West Africa. When we arrived in Freetown at the end of 2001 on board the Anastasis the country was coming out of a decade of civil war. The war ravaged city bore the marks of a suffering people. UN vehicles were a common sight, the sound of helicopters overhead frequently broke through the buzz of the city streets. We were moored alongside a British ship, a fleet auxiliary vessel that served as a dormitory for British soldiers. Despite all this and the fact that most of our work was on board our hospital ship, we had frequent opportunities to disembark during our 3-month stay, and get to know the city and its beautiful surroundings, not least some of the wonderful beaches.

Now, after only a decade of relative peace, Sierra Leone is once again plunged into chaotic upheaval, but this time the enemy is not armed conflict but infectious disease. Sadly, Mercy Ships has neither the experience or the expertise required to respond to this kind of medical emergency, and has been forced to revise its planned outreach this year to Guinea, sailing instead to Madagascar. Other organisations have thankfully made a huge impact, notably Medicins sans Frontiéres which has, as usual, provided an astounding contribution, though they too have been quickly swamped by the need. It is encouraging to see governments around the world responding at last, even if slowly.

Meanwhile, the local health services are doing their best in an overwhelming situation. One inspiring example for me has been Dr Sandra Lako, another ex-Mercy Ships doctor, who has made Sierra Leone her home, working now as a medical coordinator for the Welbodi Partnership. Freetown is perhaps not the epicentre of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone but even there cases turn up regularly, and fear runs rife in the community, as Sandra’s blog bears witness to.

It is hard to know how to respond for those of us who for one reason or another can’t go to Africa to help in the response to this crisis. We can give our money, we can be interested by reading the updates that appear in the press, we can raise awareness by simply talking about the issue in our workplaces and homes, and we can pray. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea… they are all places of great beauty and wonderful people, but just now places of fear and suffering. How can we help?

Our view of Freetown at sunset, 2002
Our view of Freetown at sunset, 2002

Australia and Ebola

I read the following statement in an article in an Australian medical newspaper (Medical Observer) this morning:

THE US and Britain have made specific appeals for Australia to send personnel to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, despite the government’s insistence that it won’t send Australians into harm’s way.

That expression, “into harms way,” got me thinking. There is no doubt that the countries of West Africa that have been smitten with this epidemic are dangerous places to go. There is no guarantee of coming home alive. I am reminded of the missionaries of the nineteenth century who packed their belongings in a wooden box that could double as a coffin. Few expected to come home alive, and few did. The missionary call to Africa was a call for life, and in many cases a call to death. West Africa has never been an easy place to be.

Yet for millions of people it is home. Their home has become a place of fear and death. The epidemic that is raging there threatens to destroy the peace. People are frightened and desperate. But they have few resources to respond. It is easy to look down on the local people of Liberia and Sierra Leone as uneducated and ignorant. But they are just like many of us. One of my doctor friends told me the other day of a patient of his who would not go to the USA on holidays because there was Ebola in America! And we live in the highly educated and enlightened country of Sweden. If even people here can be so controlled by fear is it any wonder that Africans who are facing this threat daily can easily be overcome by their anxiety and begin to act irrationally.

“Into harms way” reminded me of a favourite film of mine, Behind Enemy Lines (see the trailer here). There is a wonderful scene on the deck of an aircraft carrier when a US general uses the same expression. He is giving a pep talk to a team he is sending into war torn Yugoslavia to rescue a pilate forced to eject from his fighter plane, behind enemy lines. It is a rousing speech, when he challenges the soldiers to be ready to sacrifice their own safety, even their own lives, to rescue a friend and comrade. (“Gentlemen, I intend to put you in harms’ way. Any man who doesn’t wish to join this mission, step away now!”)

This military connection made me think of the Australian government’s willingness to send soldiers to fight in distant wars, the most recent being the struggle against ISIS. Why is the government so ready to send weapons and military aid to fight against the evil of ISIS which is conceivably a much harder battle to win than the battle against Ebola? But content to wait for the Ebola threat to reach our shores before we act?

There are people willing to go, Australians as well as many others. But they fear for their safety. They need to go knowing they have the support of the Australian people and the Australian government, knowing that they won’t be abandoned.

Today I signed a petition calling on the Australian government to commit money and medical resources to the battle against Ebola. Maybe that is odd for me, since I live in Sweden. Sweden has committed lots of money, more than Australia if I understand correctly. The subject is discussed daily in the medical and general press here. Volunteers are not exactly pouring out of the woodwork, but they are coming, and they are celebrated as heroes, as they should be. But I am Australian and proud of that fact, even if I live on the other side of the world right now. I don’t want people to think that my country, with far more resources than Sweden, is sitting on its hands. I want to see us as Australians responding to this threat with the same commitment and enthusiasm that we have committed to so many other worthy causes over the years. Why should we wait for Ebola to come to the Asia Pacific? There is a battle to be won now, a pre-emptive strike that we need to launch.

You can sign the same petition on the Get Up website here.

In Sweden remembering ANZAC

Date: 25 April 2014 05:47
Location: Örebro, Sweden
Weather: -2° Mostly Sunny

The sun is just creeping over the horizon here in the far north; another glorious Spring day of blue skies and birdsong breaks forth. In Turkey, barely four hours away by plane, its an hour later, 6.45 am, and the sun has already risen there too. I think of the thousands of my countrymen (and women) who are gathered at Gallipoli this morning for the dawn service, commemorating the men who fought and died there in 1915 during the ill-fated ANZAC campaign. The 25th April is indelibly etched into my consciousness, as it is for all Australians, as a day to remember those young men who sailed off to a distant war, a war which was so vitally important to that whole generation of Australians though it feels odd to us in our day, a war which dragged the world from idealism and naivety into the modern age, a war that ended so many young lives full of promise, and changed others forever.

I just read a blog by an Australian family history enthusiast (cassmob). It is entitled entitled “Two brothers go to war”  and tells the story of Les and Fred Fisher (sons of Martin Fischer), who were cousins of my great grandfather, Charles Holdorf (son of Caroline Fischer), who also served with the Australian Army in the Great War. Living, as I do now, closer to Germany than Australia, I have found myself wondering lately about other, at present unknown, relatives who were likely serving in the same war but on the other side, since the Holdorfs and the Fishers came from German stock, immigrants to Australia in the 1850s.

1915 seems a long time in the past, and the blood soaked beaches of Gallipoli seem a long way away from our peaceful home in Scandinavia. The Spring this year is beautiful. Yesterday when I woke I walked into our sun drenched dining room for breakfast and thought to myself, days like this make me glad to be alive.