It was a good day all around. I was sick, so I had the day off school (I suppose I was actually sick, as five is a bit young to be faking), which was good, and I remember being very pleased with my present, which was one of those brown cardboard-type school cases. If that doesn’t speak of a poor but happy childhood, I don’t know what does.
Not only was I happy to be home, sick and in possession of a cheap bag, but Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Very memorable, all round.
My 40th birthday was a good one, too. My first book, FAR HORIZON, had just come out and I spent the day with friends from Australia and Africa on board a houseboat on Lake Kariba. Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much about it because we started drinking beer at 6am, and finished some time around 2am the following morning.
My 45th, however, is another birthday that will stay with me forever.
I wasn’t exactly sleepless the night before, eagerly anticipating a horde of presents or a big surprise. That doesn’t happen in your 40s. The alarm went off at 6.45am and Mrs Blog, who, unlike me, has a normal job, reached over and turned it off.
“Happy Birthday,” she said.
I’d actually forgotten. “Oh.”
“Do you want your present now?”
Now I was awake, if you catch my drift. “Yes, ma’am!”
Instead, she reached down beside the bed and pulled out one of those girly little gift bags. It was a depressingly small present and, when she passed it to me, depressingly light.
I’m a hard person to buy presents for. Other than a sports car (with someone else paying the on-road costs), lifetime business class travel, and a private game reserve in Africa, there’s nothing much in life I really want. People usually end up giving me books, which I like. Mother Blog gave me Bill Bryson’s excellent Dictionary for Writers and Editors. I’m that hard to buy for. People don’t even bother with ties, socks and underpants – they go straight for the dictionary.
“Be careful opening it,” Mrs Blog said.
Inside the girly bag was a card, with two dogs in a sports car striking a Thelma and Louise pose, and small feather-light package. Even a handkerchief would weigh more, I thought. When I carefully opened it, it contained a piece of paper.
“What does it say?” I asked Mrs Blog. My reading glasses were wherever I had mislaid them last.
I could see at the top of the page a fuzzy logo that looked like the Sydney Opera House. Maybe, I thought briefly, we were going to the Opera. A bit gay, I thought, but no more so than watching Australia’s Next Top Model. I saw an opera once, Madam Butterfly, which I liked. It was a bit like Miss Saigon.
Mrs Blog read from the paper, without the aid of spectacles. Young wives are good. “Sydney Seaplanes… boarding time, 11.15am, departing Rose Bay, 11.30am, for Cottage Point and a three-course lunch at the Cottage Point Inn.”
“OMG. WTF,” I said.
This is something that we (and, I suspect most couples in Sydney) have dreamed of doing for years. Sydney Seaplanes operates a small fleet (squadron?) of smart looking little red and white aircraft that do joyflights over the harbour and take lucky/rich people off to lunch at exotic locations.
Mrs Blog had taken the day off work. We took a taxi to Rose Bay, the ancestral home of the seaplane and flying boat in Sydney. When I was boy (back when men used to land on the moon), twin engine Catalina and four-engine Sunderland flying boats still flew in and out of Rose Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
The flying boats once took people to England, via about four hundred stops, but in their latter years serviced less exotic places such as Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island.
Geoff with a G showed us to our aircraft, which was also Canadian, and called a Beaver. It seemed you had to be Canadian to work for this company, and if you weren’t called Geoff or Jeff then you had to be named after a hardworking Canadian mammal.
It was a tight fit, sliding into the beaver, but once inside I felt like it was where I belonged.
“The Beaver,” Geoff informed us, as he started the engine and we drifted away from the wharf, “was built in 1961. She’s like a fine old sports car that’s been lovingly restored – quite a few times.” It was nice knowing I wasn’t the oldest thing on board. Sort of.
With yachts and cruisers and kayaks all around us the patch of water that served as the runway looked impossibly short, yet Geoff had his little aeroplane off the water quicker than you could say Molsons, or eh, or whatever it is Canadians say.
The weather, I should add, was unseasonably perfect. Sun shining, zero cloud, and about 22 degrees. As the birthday boy I was allowed to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. I looked back and Mrs Blog was grinning from ear to ear. She loves little aeroplanes.
I tried not to smile or laugh every time Geoff said something like, “…this is the Beaver, tracking past Manly,” or something like that. I was desperately hoping he’d say, “the Beaver has landed”, or, better yet, “the Beaver is wet,” when we touched down. (Mother Blog’s birthday card to me read, ‘you are only young once, but you can be immature indefinitely’).
Geoff with a G told us he’d seen some whales playing off Palm Beach on his earlier flight that morning (perhaps while he was taking some movie stars to breakfast or Nicole Kidman's children to pilates or whatever it is rich people do). Sure enough, as he brought the Beaver down a bit and banked slowly over Barrenjoey lighthouse, there were two humpback whales frolicking in the shallows, no more than a hundred metres from the golden strip of shoreline. Could this day get any better?
I’d heard of the Cottage Point Inn, but never been there before. Cottage Point is on the Hawkesbury River, in a national park north of Sydney. It’s the sort of place you pull into in your luxury motor cruiser, or your sea plane. I later found out it has a couple of rooms, too, just in case your propeller falls off, or your pilot gets taken by a shark, or something like that.
We landed bang on midday and Geoff shushed up to the wharf like he did this every day, which he probably does. We were met and shown to the best table on the deck, overlooking the sparkling river. The waitress offered to move the potted tree (it was on rollers) to give us some shade, but not having seen the sun for so long during the cold, wet Sydney winter, we were content to soak up some much-needed rays.
The food and service were superb. I had sardines wrapped in Pancetta for entrée, snapper for main, and a banana pie for desert. Mrs Blog had the scallops, Jewfish, and cheese platter.
A few idle rich people drifted in and out over the three hours we sat eating, drinking and chatting in the sun, though none of them had their own plane.
Sometimes I wish I was back in Africa, and sometimes I am reminded that there is no place in the world like Sydney. This is what’s good about my life – that and Mrs Blog.
Check out Sydney Seaplanes for yourself. Their packages aren’t cheap, but when I think that I had whales, sunshine, good food, good wine, a millionaire’s view of my home town, and the Beaver all in one day – that’s priceless.