A big space full of nothing

By Vita Forest

View from Barangaroo

View from Barangaroo

“Smog is a mixture of smoke and fog,” Lucy informed me today as the train sped into the city through the smog.  They are doing a lot of back-burning around Sydney at the moment and the smoke was thick again.

We walked down to Barangaroo to meet our pals for a picnic, the smell of smoke in the air.  But over the course of the day, the air cleared, the sun shone, the sky was blue.  Another summer day at the end of autumn.

“Is this north?” Lucy asked, pointing forward.  When I answered in the affirmative, she observed, “So we are walking towards the Arctic circle.”

Which we were, I supposed.

We waited near The Cutaway.  Lucy saw something bright and yellow floating in the water and bounded down the sandstone blocks to see what it was.  When she reached the sometimes-submerged rock, she kept going, despite the green moss, despite the slipperiness, and so slid and fell.  She stood up gingerly and inspected her hands and her seat as she climbed up again.

“It was a lemon,” she announced as she watched the heel of her hand swell and purple into a bruise.  She’s a tough one.

We sat in the sun and waited for Sui-Sui and Alessandro, for Saskia and Rowdy the dog.  The phone pinged, updating us on their progress, closer and closer.  Sui-Sui and Alessandro arrived first, hauling treats in an esky.  It was their first trip to Barangaroo.  I advised them to check out The Cutaway while we waited on Saskia, and in they went.

“What’s so good about The Cutaway?” asked Lucy, “It’s just a big empty space full of nothing.”

“Like my life… ” she added,  “Just kidding!”  Brat.

They returned and the phone rang again, Saskia was around the coastline minding a shady picnic spot by the water.  We joined her and Rowdy, spreading out picnic rugs and food.

Our colourful lunch

Our colourful lunch

We lazed in the sun or shade and watched the boats streak past around the headland and caught up on news.  We ate quinoa salad, tuna and corn fritters, mandarins and grapes and my new favourite chocolate cake that Lucy and I had made yesterday.

Rowdy made friends with the steady parade of promenading pooches and their owners that passed by.  Lucy recovered from her fall and climbed trees, leaped on rocks and did cartwheels.  She took Rowdy for runs around the headland and up and down stairs.  In the process she earned a fourth piece of chocolate cake (it was very tasty).

We talked about books and movies, parents and friends with babies, markets, studies and future trips.  The cake got smaller and smaller.

That pretty salad

That pretty salad

“Look!” shouted Saskia pointing behind us, “A native mouse!”

“It’s a rat!” corrected Alessandro.  But we agreed it was still cute.

The thermoses were empty, the tea was drunk, the last slice of cake disappeared.  We rolled up the picnic rugs and said our goodbyes.

“Now we are walking towards Antarctica,” said Lucy.

And we were.



This week

By Vita Forest


This week I have been

    • Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante (a compelling but disturbing book).
    • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (the second of the Neopolitan novels).
  • MAKING glamorous costume jewellery for our dance group costumes out of bits and pieces of last year’s costumes.
  • EATING a picnic of veggies, flatbread and houmous by the water of Sydney Harbour.
  • WATCHING Season 5 of Game of Thrones (I know – I am behind).
  • RESTING after feeling a bit poorly.

Marble Treat

By Vita Forest

Cloud watching

Cloud watching

On Thursday, Darcy became the most popular kid in the class when he was able to correctly describe what a “long shot” was, thus earning the class their one-hundredth marble in the jar, and hence their first “marble treat” of the year.

Due to peanut allergies, dairy intolerances and a desire to encourage healthy eating habits, I don’t do food rewards.  Instead we do experiences, and one of the best of these was passed on to me by my friend and colleague Betty.  The whole class gets a little early-mark for lunch and takes lunchboxes, drink bottles and hats (and sometimes even picnic rugs) and ventures through a gate, into a lovely grassy park-like area, beneath some shady paperbark trees, for a private picnic.  This area is usually “out of bounds” as it is located behind the school hall (and therefore out of sight of teachers on playground duty), so stepping onto this hallowed grass is highly exciting for 5 – 7 year olds.

So as Friday lunchtime approached, we took our provisions and set forth in two lines beyond the gate and into “out of bounds”…

The kids sat beneath the trees and pulled out their sandwiches and sushi.  A gentle breeze wafted through the gathering and some kids looked up through the leaves to the sky beyond.

“Look at the clouds!  It looks like an ice-skate!”

“I think it’s a dragon breathing smoke!”

“No, it’s an elephant, it has a trunk…”

“I think it looks like an atomic bomb,”  The last from a very worldly seven year old.

“It’s changing!”

And it was.  We watched the cloud pictures blow about, the breeze obviously stronger up there than down here on Earth.

When eating was done, there were handstands and cartwheels from the girls (even a one-handed one from Desiree).  The boys started a game of Survivor Tip, dodging each other around the tree trunks.  There were smiles and shouts and laughing and squeals and everyone playing together.

Then the bell rang and it was time to go back and join the rest of the school again.

“I wish we could just stay out there,” someone said wistfully as we crossed back “in bounds”.  It was very tempting, for me too.

All it took was fifteen minutes, but what a refreshing little break we had.

Springtime in the Gardens

By Vita Forest

Hanami in Sydney?

Hanami in Sydney?

Yesterday we took cousin Pippi on a holiday excursion.  Her Mum was recovering from the removal of her wisdom teeth and Pippi needed to get OUT of the house.  Her cousins, Max and Lucy, decided a trip to the Sydney Botanical Gardens would fit the bill (despite the sock fiasco of a few weeks back).  Holding hands, we marched her up to the bus stop and jumped on a bus to the city.

“My Mum and Dad lived in Paris,” she announced to the whole bus.

“Err, don’t you mean London?” whispered Max, encouraging a lower volume.

“Yeah that is the country, Paris is the city,” she continued.

“I think you mean London in England,” said Max.

“OK,” she agreed happily, looking out the window.  Max became distracted by a teenage emo getting off the bus, carrying on her back a Tardis backpack.  He is quite the Whovian.

We arrived at the Gardens and walked down the hill to where we could see some colourful spring flowers.  It was like a mini Hanami festival with drifts of pink blossom lining the path.  The kids stood under a tree and a confetti of pink petals fell over them.  Apparently in Japan, the weather reports on TV record the progress of the buds of the blossom trees in Spring (a quarter open, half open etc). I must get to that country one day.

More spring flowers

More spring flowers

“I’m hungry,” announced Pippi, and it was getting on to lunchtime.  We walked through the gardens trying to find the perfect picnic spot.

“I want to see the water,” I said.

“I want sun,” said shivering Lucy (she had left her jacket behind and the wind was cold despite the sunshine).

“I want shade,” said Max who was wearing jeans and a jacket.

“I want lunch!” moaned Pippi.

We found a spot on the grass on the edge of the shade of a big fig tree. Trouble was, the shade kept creeping over us, and even Max was happy to move out into the sun.

We ate our lunch and watched large groups of lunchtime joggers running around the base of Farm Cove.  They all seemed to have the same route.  They jogged slowly along where it was flat, but when they came to the bottom of our hill, they would suddenly burst into a fit of running and sprint up the hill, each trying to reach the top first.

Max watched them critically while he chewed his bread roll.

“I’ve worked it out,” he said. “The one at the front steals their wallets and then has to make a get-away.  The rest of them chase the thief.”

Lucy and Max lined themselves up two hundred metres from the race track and joined in the next sprint.

“What’s jogging?” asked Pippi.

“Slow running,” I answered.

She stood up and tried it out, her fists pumping around and around in time with her shrugging shoulders.

“Like this?”


She even tried it backwards.

It was then that Max raced back and threw down MY wallet (he had taken imitation too far).  I must have become distracted by the whole jogging conversation.

Pippi did slow running (jogging) and fast running to scare off the ibises which crept closer and closer to look for food.  Us older three drank tea and watched yet more joggers run up that hill.

“I need the toilet!” Pippi screamed, sending us into a panic.

Lucy and I decided to take her, Max decided to stay lazing on the grass, minding the picnic.

We walked, walked and talked, skipped and hopped.  Lucy did cartwheels (a large variety of them).
“I can’t do that but I can do a somersault,” said Pippi, the call of nature no longer seeming so urgent.  Lucy reminded me I had actually taught her to do cartwheels… back in the day.

We stopped by to look at some little brown ducklings and their parents gingerly walking down a plank into a pond.


“So cute!”

And found some seeds from a nearby tree that spun in spirals when you tossed them into the air “like a helicopter.”

We made it to the toilet in time… Pippi laughed in delight at the rush of air from the hand dryers.

We travelled back to where Max lay on the hill, slyly playing on his phone while thinking we were not in sight.  We decided to scare him and crept forwards up the hill.  Trouble was, Pippi cannot giggle quietly, so our cover was sprung.  She dived on top of Max anyway.

We packed up and found another lawn that was good for Tip and Hide and Seek.  Shoes off games.  Pippi had to count to ten but went up to twenty instead.


Coming ready or not!

“When are we going home?” she asked.

“We’re not,” I answered.  “We are going to sleep here.  Where will we stay?  In the tree?”

Pippi thought for a moment.

“In the toilet.”

This sent us into gales of laughter.

“I need to do a Number Two!” she screeched suddenly and the games were over.  Shoes were shoved on and we went on another expedition to find another toilet.



A Goldilocks kind of Adventure.

By Vita Forest

Paddington Reservoir Gardens

Paddington Reservoir Gardens

On Sunday, the kids and I opal-carded it around town.  ($2.50 all day travel.  Bargain).  We caught two trains and four buses.  Our mission was to find a good place to stop for lunch and we were a bit Goldilocks about it.  First we went to the Paddington Reservoir Gardens, but Max didn’t want to eat there (the grass area was “too small”).  Then we went back to the city and got off the bus at Hyde Park.  But there was some kind of loud thudding outdoor concert going on, and I thought it was “too noisy.”  Lucy also tried out a few cartwheels on the grass and pronounced it “too hard.”  So after another short bus ride, we went into the Sydney Botanical Gardens, one of my most favourite places of all.  The grass was soft, there was plenty of it, there were nice things to look at and it was not too noisy.  We all declared it “just right” and sat down to eat our picnic.

We sat just outside the fence that encloses Government House.  Our backs against the stone, sitting on the “just right” grass watching the world go by – the ferries dancing on the harbour, the people strolling by under their sunhats, the myna birds darting for scraps.  We took off our shoes and wriggled our toes, as we ate our food and sipped our tea (Earl Grey and Rooibus with milk poured from a tiny jar I keep for just this kind of outing).  Max tried to fit through the bars in the fence around Government House.  Although he could fit his legs and arms through, his head and hips were “too wide”.

Everything was lovely.

The view from the Sydney Botanical Gardens

The view from the Sydney Botanical Gardens

And then it was not.

Max and Lucy began to bicker and then there was some pushing.  Then there was some shoving.  Words were thrown.  Then socks.  One sock sailed over the fence and into the garden of Government House.  The sock belonged to Max.  He tried to fit through the fence again.  But as before, his head and hips were “too wide” and his legs and arms were “too short” to reach the sock.  Muttering in an annoyed kind of fashion, I said – there was simply nothing for it, we would have to walk ALL the way around the fence, past the fig trees, past Fiona Hall’s Folly for Mrs Macquarie, past the stand of bamboo, past the sculpture-that-everyone-wants-to-climb-on-but-you-are-not-supposed-to, up the lawn and into the gate of Government House.

With much huffing and puffing, we followed said-route and arrived in the gardens of Government House.

It wasn’t half bad – there was a tinkling fountain, there was the softest of soft grass, there were luminous titian clivias in the depths of the shade beneath the fig trees.  (The gravel was uncomfortable under Max’s bare feet, but that is what happens when you lose a sock…)

Government House through the bars of the fence.

Government House through the bars of the fence.

“You get the sock!” I ordered the siblings and went to look at the herbaceous borders.  There were some quite lovely plantings all in mauve and violet…  Lucy declared that she would pay $5 to whoever retrieved the sock, but then changed her mind once Max grabbed it.

He sat down near the wisteria to put on his shoes and then discovered…

He had lost the other sock!

Looking up at the sky through Fiona Hall's Folly for Mrs Macquarie.

Looking up at the sky through Fiona Hall’s Folly for Mrs Macquarie.

So we retraced our steps, past the fountain, past the clivias, under the fig trees, over the gravel, out the gate, along the path and over to Fiona Hall’s Folly for Mrs Macquarie.  Where he found his other missing sock, waiting for him on the grass.

That soft green grass.

And there ends the case of the mysterious missing sock.


Saskia and the rain

By Vita Forest

Things we saw in the rain

Things we saw in the rain

“There is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing.” Old Scandinavian saying.

I used to live with a cyclist who followed weather updates quite religiously.  He would check the weather app at regular intervals to see whether the storm clouds were indeed moving in, or if he should set his alarm for the 5am bike ride.  For some people (and maybe some activities) a spot of rain is a deal breaker.  Saskia is not one of those people.

Saskia is one of the few people I know who does not change her plans if it’s raining.  I like this attitude.  Here are some of the things we would have missed out on if we hadn’t stepped out in the rain:

  • striding over the Sydney Harbour Bridge at night, clad in our raincoats, with the lights of the city casting streaky reflections on the footpath.  We stepped through the deserted streets of The Rocks, stopping for a cuppa in a warm cafe on George Street before doing it all again in reverse.
  • walking from Minnamurra to Bombo along a section of the Kiama Coastal Walk while storm clouds boiled above us.  If we had been put off by the forecast, we wouldn’t have seen the flock of galahs that wheeled through the sky, changing from pink to grey as they circled overhead.  I wouldn’t have collected the handful of smooth rounded rocks that sit so nicely in the palm of your hand and that now parade in a line across the back of my bathroom sink.  We wouldn’t have happened upon the surreal basalt landscape of Bombo headland, or climbed the rock pillars lining the sea wall or sat on the edge of the rocks with the sea smashing in.
  • exploring Minnamurra rainforest from under the shelter of umbrellas through a drizzly rain that drifted through the light fog in the canopy.  Raindrops fell percussively on leathery fig leaves and sped down vines speckled with fungi, before finally hitting the ground.  We stopped and watched a lyre bird as it worked on a nest, scrambling up and down the slope to find just the right twigs for the job.  Actually, I think rainforests look their best in this weather, the light is soft, the leaves glow greenly and everything is glistening.  You just need to watch out for leeches…
  • having a birthday picnic at Balmoral beach, sitting cross-legged on the end of the wooden jetty at Balmoral Baths beneath a big golf umbrella.  The rain kept the crowds away from our viewing platform over the bay, the boats gently clinking in the breeze as we sipped our tea poured from a thermos and ate lemon cake.

So next time it rains, I’d really advise you to be like Saskia and put on a good raincoat and go out in the weather.  You never know what you might discover.

Paul’s Big idea

By Vita Forest


Looking north.

This weekend a brand new park has opened in Sydney. Right on the water. Right in the middle of the city, between the Harbour Bridge and Darling Harbour. It is land that had been used for maritime ventures for a hundred years, but has now been returned to the public after much debate, compromise and controversy. It is part of former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s grand vision for Sydney Harbour. (Remember when we had a Prime Minister who had grand visions?….)  Keating insisted that rather than referencing recent history, the focus should be on a return to what the land looked like before the invasion of the Europeans. He wanted the impression of a “naturalistic” headland as would have been seen and used by the Indigenous people of the Eora Nation.

So today, on its opening weekend, my sister and I jumped on a ferry and went to check it out.  It was glorious summer weather even though it is officially still winter.  (Sometimes we get lucky).

The headland rises to a large open grassed area (aptly called Stargazer Lawn) and is terraced by meandering garden beds containing hardy indigenous plants including gum trees, grevilleas and banksias.  As the terraces curve around towards Darling Harbour, the vegetation changes to rainforest plants – tree ferns, palms and Lilly Pillies.

The hill-top lawns give new vistas out over the harbour, down over Balmain and the Parramatta River, and sweeping around towards North Sydney. It is quite magic. You look across to Goat Island, or Me-Mel as it was known traditionally. Me-Mel was the home of both Barangaroo, and her husband Bennelong. You can imagine her paddling across the water to the island in her canoe.

The shoreline undulates around the headland like a meandering amphitheatre from which you can look out over the water. This was my favourite part. It is built using thousands of huge blocks of sandstone arranged to step down right into the water, like a giant cubist sculpture. At this point, we left the path and scrambled over the rocks, it reminded me of being at the beach exploring rock pools. The massive sandstone bricks were deliberately arranged with their topmost surfaces left rough, uneven and sometimes pitted with oyster shells.

Sandstone blocks at Marrinawi Cove.

We explored the paths and ended up in a small patch of shade overlooking Marrinawi Cove, where they just happened to be interviewing some of the creators of the park. We learned that the sandstone was dug out of the site itself (from what is now a car park). Each block was labelled and allocated to a very particular spot in the park, so the wide range of colours in the sandstone would be spread over the whole area to give a “natural” look. We heard how this “naturalistic” headland was really achieved through a great deal of planning and engineering and deliberation. Apparently, a large part of the hill on which we were sitting had been built up on a kind of giant bridge buried under the earth. As well as the car park, the headland hides an underground water system which is used to recycle water over the entire site. In the future when the plants are more established, this water will be available for other uses too.

People picnicked, strolled, rode bikes and walked dogs through the park. They sat contemplating the harbour from their seats of sandstone slabs. I look forward to visiting again.

Winter picnic

By Vita Forest


Today we had a winter picnic.

The place: Wendy Whiteley’s garden, Lavender Bay.

The Participants: Sui Sui and Allesandro, Saskia and Laura, Lucy and I.

And Rowdy the 5th (dog explorer).

The food: Baba ganoush, cauliflower and hummus dips with breads and vegies

Mini quiches with bacon and parmesan, caramelised onion and cherry tomatoes, pumpkin and fetta.

A crisp crunchy salad with celery and apple.

Homemade cupcakes with raspberry icing and Florentines.

Tea applied generously from two thermoses.

Though the forecast insisted on rain, the winter sun shone brightly, warming our backs as we lounged on the picnic rugs. Rowdy explored the circle allowed by his lead attached to a metal stake driven into the ground. We sat above the garden on a flat stretch of lawn, watching the boats drift by below, and hearing the occasional screams from Luna Park.

We talked books, travel and movies. Laura and Lucy cartwheeled around us. Rowdy barked at dogs moseying by, until an unleashed poodle caused so much excitement, he tore his stake from the ground and raced after it. The girls chased Rowdy up and down the grass, as the poodle’s owner tried unsuccessfully to retrieve a foil cupcake case it had swiped.

Sui Sui made tea, adding milk from a small china jug wrapped in cling wrap that had travelled there inside a lunch box. Laura did a handstand against her Mum’s back, then she and Lucy did them either side of the thick rough trunk of a palm tree.

We swapped and returned books. Bibliophiles all. We planned future reading, we rated recent movies, we laughed. We packed up the picnic and descended into the garden, exploring the narrow paths winding back and forth along the terraces on the hill, holding onto curving balustrades made from fallen branches and climbing steep steps of stone.   We crushed spears of lavender between our fingers. We ran our hands over smooth tree trunks, and a polished granite bust that Laura thought might be useful for practising kissing.

The girls wanted a game of Hide and seek. We chatted for a count of fifty then set off along the paths. Laura was discovered but where was Lucy? We called and called, crisscrossing up and down. I imagined her laughing at us, stealthily sneaking along behind the squawking adults.

“Lucy! Lucy!”

Eventually she was found on the far edge of the garden, having discovered a vegetable plot, containing some plants with usefully large leaves. As we left the garden, Saskia looked up and saw the creator on her balcony.

“Thank you Wendy!” she called.

Wendy waved back.

We walked through the tunnel to the bay. Rowdy raced up and down, the girls disappeared up a fig tree. We stood by the water and talked jazz and road trips and Allesandro’s special diner in Bowral.

Next time, we think we’ll bring some wine.