And so, to the Gong. We left Canberra at around 9.00am. It was a beautiful day. Our redoubtable crew left on a truck before dawn. I hadn't bought too much in Canberra yet still found it hard to close my suitcase. We were split into two station wagons. Our car held Nick (the driver), Andrew, Steven, Bruce and me. To get to the Gong you head out on Federal Highway which merges with the Hume not too far past a town called Collector. Before that, though we were struck by the sight of the apparently dry Lake George (I didn't actually know it was Lake George until I got back to Brisbane) and the Capital Wind Farm.
An hour or so into the trip we stopped at a roadhouse for a pee and a refill for the pee. It's at this point I lost one of my gloves, dangit.
Cat had mentioned a more scenic route to Wollongong via the Illawarra Highway which would take us through the Southern Highlands. We were in no hurry so we decided to take it. I'd been around the Berrima/Belanglo area before but had never been through the Highlands. It was well worth it. Around this point I played a single round of 'HEY COW!' The rules are simple. As you're driving along, you keep and eye out for a straggle of cows potentially within earshot. As you pass them, one person screams out 'HEY COW!!!' You get a point for each bovine that responds to the call. I didn't count them, but Andrew reckons I must have got six or seven out of a possible eight or nine cows. Satisfied with this, I retired from HEY COW! the undefeated champion of the world.
The Highlands were sweetly pretty, just what a real girly should be. Ahem, sorry. I took a few photos on the drive but, as you can see from the Lake George photo, car window shots don't turn out too well, especially on my crappy phone camera. Still and all, I managed to capture the pride of the Highlands, The Big Potato in Robertson. Or as I like to call it (and I'm sure I'm not the first)...
..the Big Poo. What's sad about this photo is not the poo itself, it's that of all the beautiful things to see on the Illawarra Highway...Moss Vale, Sutton Forest, Macquarie Pass, this was the only spot I asked Nick to slow down so I could get a photo.
No photos down Mac Pass. The escarpment road has claimed its share of people over the years, especially motorcyclists. Nick needed to concentrate. Having a dick tailgate him most of the way to Albion Park Rail didn't help. This video will give you an idea of what Mac Pass is like.
We checked into the Rydges around lunchtime. As we'd arrived in separate groups we had to check ourselves in. This was not a problem, save for the fact that previous check-ins at Rydges tended to be a headache for the poor soul charged with undertaking the task. It was a relief therefore, to be greeted with a bright, smiling face and no hassle. Our rooms were ready & our hosts were chirpy.
(Let's pause here for an anti-commercial break. The Rydges Wollongong offers a $10 buffet breakfast. Sounds pretty good, huh? It is, if you like your scrambled eggs cubed and drinking the worst coffee I have ever tasted. No possibly or probably...the WORST coffee. It tasted like it had already been consumed a few times. And now back to the show.)
Nick and I were together again, in a twin. Nick had had a hard time sleeping in Canberra due to my inability to settle easily after a show. Unfortunately the poor blighter would get no decent rest until Hobart.
Wollongong is a very nice town and the people are lovely, but it has the sadness of a city in decline. It's a coal and steel town whose best days seem to be behind it, or at least that's the sense you get from its inhabitants. The industry shed about half its workforce in the 1980s. The signs are evident during the day in the number of indigent people in the streets asking for money and smokes. At night the malaise is displayed by the city's youth. More of that later.
I let Cat know we'd arrived in five handsome and stylish pieces of manhood and we scouted around looking for somewhere to eat. Thanks to a friendly local, we ended up at Diggers, the local RSL. RSLs can be a bit of a lottery, food-wise. Sure, the meals are usually inexpensive and the lure of a slap-up roast dinner can be great, but there have been times when roast pork, veges and gravy has looked and tasted more like boiled roadkill, rocks and ditchwater. Not so at Diggers. The meals were well-priced, generous and tasty. Steve, Andrew and I had the roast beef, Brucie and Nick the lamb shanks, which they reported to be excellent. That's high praise from Bruce, who is quite the gustatorial expert (he eats out a lot).
As we were finishing up, a clutch of mature-aged ladies gingerly approached our table trying to attract Andrew's eye. It took me a second to work out what they wanted, but Andrew's been in the Australian public's eye for so long he must half-expect it. He's one of the most gracious men I've ever met. He not only signs autographs for people on a regular basis, he's happy to chat and if their connection to him is through his many years on Play School, he'll spend extra time drawing a little picture of Big Ted or Jemima. I should've asked if he draws a picture of the Ambush if they're Patrol Boat fans or a plane for Flying Doctors.
One evening, the company met at 'Club N' i.e. Nick's and my room. We enjoyed a wee drinkie and Dash introduced us to game called Lunchbox, the rules of which I may share at a future time. Two things came from that evening: 1) a little extra for the cleaning staff the next day and 2) a salient lesson in actors' anality when it comes to game rules.
The Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IPAC) is a smaller venue than the Canberra Playhouse and we played in the smaller of its two theatres, the 200-seat Gordon. This led to some major issues with staging. Changes were necessary. The fortepiano, which is normally placed smack bang in the centre of the stage from the start, had to be moved. The Gordon stage is so shallow that, if we'd left it in its original position, the piano's arse would have stuck out through the closed tab curtain. Added to this were some issues with limited wing space and a paucity of lights, which made the whole Gong tech experience a little fraught, to say the least. No-one wants to be in a position where adjustments have to be made, but they were done out of practical necessity. 'Needs must when the devil drives.' Thanks to our wonderful team of creatives/crew, Cat, Shaun, Emma & Matt we pushed through and delivered two solid shows to small but appreciative Wollongong audiences.
The second night in Wollongong was my worst show of the tour. My knee was quite sore and I was preoccupied with it, more concerned with safely moving around the stage and not falling over than hitting the right notes as the foppish Orsini-Rosenberg. A scalpel beckons, I fear.
That afternoon we went for a drive. Two cars loaded with beach and belly-hungry theatre types drove north to Towradgi, where we had been told there was a vast selection of beachside cafes and eaty-joints. It took us twenty minutes to find that we were terrible navigators or the whole Towradgi thing was a myth. On the way back to Wollongong we made up all sorts of rude names around Towradgi, not out of bitterness really, more out of hunger and boredom.
Redemption and full bellies came quickly in the shape of the Harbourfront Restaurant, a restaurant, as its name suggests...on the harbour front. If the staff wasn't prepared for an unreserved table for 12 in the middle of the Saturday lunch rush, it didn't show. Within a minute or two we were seated. Saucer-eyed, as we scanned the menu. With a harbour full of fishing boats and trawlers sitting just outside the gleaming windows, it was clear that saddle of mutton was not the catch of the day. It's a spoiled and happy meal indeed when you ask a waitress where the fish is from and she points to a boat 50 metres from where you're sat. Mirror Dory. Yum.
Sated, we all went our separate ways, some to wander the beaches, some to theatre for work and I to Woolies to buy shoe polish and hunt down an Internet cafe.
After the final Wollongong show I hightailed it back to the hotel as fast as my creaky legs could carry me. Earlier in the evening I'd written a group check-in fax to Qantas. The group booking procedure had been a bit of an oddity the whole tour. The day before we left Brisbane I went online to check some of us in. It makes such a big difference to the amount of time you may spend waiting in line. Unable to do it, I rang Qantas and asked why I wasn't being given the option. The guy said 'Y'just can't.' Riiight. 'But why?' 'Dunno, some bookings y'just can't.' Gee thanks.
When we got to the airport the next day the woman at the check-in desk was a lot more friendly and helpful (it probably didn't hurt that she recognised Andrew and he, as ever, obligingly signed an autograph - and drew a Big Ted, I think). She told me that Qantas only allows online group check-ins up to nine people. We were 13. Again, she didn't know why the max was nine, but I'd stopped caring. She was so efficient and friendly it didn't matter anymore. Plus she gave me the number of a group check-in line which offers the same early check-in facility, but via fax confirmation.
As I was writing the fax, the girl at reception, Kellie, asked what the company was doing after the show. I said we'd probably try for a drink at the hotel bar. We'd wanted to have a drink there the previous night but it was closed for a private function. I found out that we were lucky the bar had been off-limits: the private function was to celebrate a few jail releases. Police were called etc. But on this particular night there was nothing more threatening than a 21st, and they'd kindly left the bar open to the public. Kellie asked if she could join us. I said we'd be delighted. Nothing like speaking for the group without permission. Oh, and I'd bought a Vietnamese takeaway for dinner that I was planning to eat after the show and needed to smooth the path towards a microwave. Our room didn't have one.
I took the Crown Street route back to the hotel. The walk is a bit more surefooted, I needed cigarettes...and Burelli Street comes off as a bit dingy and off-putting at that time of night. On my way up the mall, I saw literally dozens of kids, some no older than 11 or 12, smashed out of their skulls on alcohol and accelerants. They weren't really causing any trouble. Too shambolic and wasted. About the only rebellion they appeared capable of was stomach-borne. The older ones were a little more scary.
It's not the first time I've walked angry amphetamine and alcohol-soaked streets. There were times I was full of piss and speed too, but I've never felt the same kind of unease as I did that night in Wollongong. Perhaps it was the unfamiliarity of the city or maybe it was because I felt incapable of running if I had to, but there was a vague yet definite malevolence in the air, a feeling of something bad about to happen. I was so discomfited by it I slipped my open Leatherman into my coat pocket and hobbled back to the hotel as quickly as I could.
Safely inside, I briefly met a few people who'd seen the show then met with m'colleagues in the bar. The 21st was still in full swing. The partiers were pretty much oblivious to our presence, so a few of us signed the birthday card. We had a competuition to see who could write the funniest message. Bruce won, but for the life of me I can't remember what he wrote. Hopefully Nick will read this and add a comment reminding me.
When I went up to the street for a cigarette, Kellie came out and told me to watch out for eggs being thrown from the apartments across the street. Apparently they don't like smokers. I had drunken conversations with a few people including a middle-aged woman who, on exiting the bar, made a point of coming over and telling me how much she'd always liked me and one young guy who spoke of the ease of acquiring cheap drugs are in the Gong. When I asked him what the locals preferred he said 'E's & speed.' No surprises there. I saw him later outside the hotel lobby and we chatted for a few minutes about the number of people he knows who have either taken out AVO's or have AVO's out against them. Jokingly I said, 'You make it sound like there are so many AVO's that no-one in this town should be allowed to go near anyone else.' He replied, 'They fuckin' shouldn't, eh. Fuckin' sucks.'
I took care of my room charges that night before retiring, thinking that I'd been a bit over the top in my fear. Yes, there was an uneasy 'atmosphere' in Wollongong late at night but I saw no fights, heard no screams and witnessed no wilful destruction of property. The 'wildest' thing that occurred that night (outside of some drunken admissions by near strangers) was a guy peeing on the street outside my window. When I woke the next morning however, there was evidence of pent up anger unleashed. The areas outside the hotel bar and lobby had been egged and a few large panes of hotel walkway glass had had the shit kicked out of them. Thankfully this was not my last memory of Wollongong, a city I liked very much and would happily visit again.
Finally checked out and bundled into cars, we swept out of town. I'd hooked a 'Mighty Dragons' flag to the car window. It came with Saturday's copy of the Illawarra Mercury. I don't follow the league anymore but as a kid and young adult the Dragons were my favourite Sydney team (for anyone interested, my local league team was Redcliffe, of course). Back then they were the St. George Dragons but a merger with the Illawarra Steelers means they are now beloved by Wollongong and Gongers show it at every opportunity.
We were only a few blocks away from the hotel when the thrum from the whipping flag was driving us loopy, so I tried to take it down when we pulled up at the lights, coiuncidentally outside WIN Stadium, second home of the Dragons. It fell to the street and Steven reached out of the car to pick it up. Across from the stadium a crowd of people were having a late breakfast (or hopefully, an early lunch) at the brand new 'Chicko's' fast food place. They were looking at Steve curiously. As he scooped the flag from the road, the lights turned green and Steven waved the flag vigorously and called to the gawkers in passionate voice 'Up the Mighty Dragons!' The crowd responded with smiles and laughter, as did the occupants of our car. That was my last memory of Wollongong...and possibly my favourite.