New Zealand and Australia, December 2008 – January 2009

  1. Christchurch and Auckland
  2. Queensland
  3. Perth

My sabbatical year, approaching its end, goes out with a bang, with a six-week trip to the southern hemisphere.

I am a plenary speaker at two conferences: the 4th International Conference on Combinatorial Mathematics and Combinatorial Computing in Auckland, December 15–19; and Cheryl Praeger's 60th birthday conference (Groups, Combinatorics and Computation) in Perth, 5–16 January. In addition I will go to the 7th Australian and New Zealand Mathematics Convention in Christchurch, the week before the Auckland conference. Christchurch was the low point of my Forder tour in April, because of a bug I picked up; it will be nice to give it another chance, and I am hoping to see the Banks Peninsula on my free day there.

I will be on my own in New Zealand, but Rosemary will join me in Australia (she is currently visiting Chris Brien in Adelaide) and we will go to Perth where we are both giving big talks. She is also giving a short course in the second week (aimed primarily at students).

Auckland and Perth are both paying for my travel. Auckland cannot reimburse me for the cost, so they needed to buy the ticket. They made a splendid job of my rather complicated itinerary, and kept me up to date with subsequent changes, invoicing Perth for part of the cost. But on Wednesday, a bombshell came. Because of the occupation of Bangkok airport by demonstrators, Qantas has re-routed its flight via Singapore. As a result, it gets to Sydney two hours later, and I miss my connection to Christchurch. The next is more than eight hours later. So I have to spend a day in Sydney, and get to Christchurch very late (and have to talk the following day). So I am a bit apprehensive!

But already it feels as if my leave is winding down. I have been mostly in London for the last two months, seeing research students (and even undergraduates), and the last thing I did at work was to put up a notice on my door telling students when I will be back and when they can come to see me.

Christchurch and Auckland

5 December 2008

After breakfast I went for a walk. (It will be a while before I get any exercise now; the other reason is to get a bit of down time so that things I have forgotten to do will pop into my head.)

I walked my circuit around the Bow Back Rivers, about 13km. The promised bad weather hasn't arrived; it was windless, cool but not cold, with bright skylight on the horizon under light cloud. The London planes in Stepney Green and St Dunstan's Churchyard were leafless, their twigs and spherical seedballs silhouetted against the wintry sky; the lack of leaves drew the eye to the mottled and wrinkled skin of their trunks.

In St Dunstan's Churchyard, a gardener pissed against a wall, in full view of a woman walking round the churchyard. Once there was a time when gardeners didn't wear Day-Glo jackets . . .

Across Commercial Road, there was a poster advertising a new Kit-Kat bar by perpetuating the myth that all and only women eat lo-cal food. Into Limehouse Basin, the posh flats like giant cruise liners moored just beyond the gin palaces and canal barges in the marina. Onto the Limehouse Cut, where a near-derelict dirty grey concrete block in the worst post-war style faced a construction site, whose concrete skeleton seemed to mirror the colour of its neighbour. A cormorant flew low over the water, where other birds (mallards, Canada geese, black-headed gulls, coots, pigeons) fed in their different ways. A crowd of noisy gulls fought over a crust; when they dropped it, a coot sneaked in and grabbed it.

At Three Mills, the path meets Bow Creek. The tide was almost out; more birds (including a cormorant with wings hung out to dry) were on the mudflats, and an impressive flow of water came through the channel under House Mill. On the Greenway, I noticed that the anti-metric fascists have been busy here, defacing the pleasant green and yellow cast iron signs with ugly white plastic squares giving the distance in miles less accurately than it was in metres (to the nearest 1/4 mile rather than 10 metres). I do resent this. When I used to run along here, the metric distances were very useful for monitoring my progress.

The Olympic site is impressively busy on a weekday, with buses and excavators moving all over the place. Hester is worried that it won't be ready in time, but the base of the stadium is done and about a quarter of the girders supporting the seats are up. Workmen were removing an elder near the railway line. I don't grieve for the tree – elders are weeds – but I noted the green method of disposal; instead of throwing the branches into a bonfire they were feeding them through a machine turning them into fine mulch.

Round the Lea to the Hertford Union, otherwise known as Duckett's Cut. (Duckett was a Hertfordshire man, also known as Jackson; a friend of Captain Cook, who named Sydney Harbour after him, he changed his name to get an inheritance.) Two swans were moulting on the towpath. I went up into Victoria Park on the new cycle path past the Top of the Morning pub. It seems that Sustrans has managed to get part of the pub garden for the path; it is no longer necessary to go through the bar and buy a pint to placate the landlord.

As usual, the waterfowl on the lake expected to be fed; two Canada geese importuned me. When I used to run round the lake training for the marathon, I once saw a lady who had come in a taxi, which she had got to drive into the park so she could feed the birds from her seat. (This is getting very valedictory; I hope I am not getting a subconscious premonition that the plane is going to crash.)

Returning to the busy Mile End Road, I went to my office, to read my email one last time and do a couple of things connected with my talks. Maybe as well I did. An urgent reference request; one from Ben Martin asking me to chair a talk in Christchurch; two about the flight giving conflicting information about the connection in Sydney. I printed the paper version of my Christchurch talk, to have in my hand luggage, and put electronic copies of all my talks on the web as a last resort. (I will have three electronic copies with me: in the white toy, on an SD card, and on a memory stick.)

So I had lunch, tidied the house, and of course was finished far too early. Even with all this time, it is most unlikely that I will not have forgotten something.

Eventually, having recharged my soul with Bob Dylan songs, I was off. The Ealing train was pulling in as I reached the platform, but at Barons Court the train I wanted was pulling out as we pulled in, so I had to let three go by before the next train to Terminal 4 came. While I was waiting, two trains going in opposite directions both contained a lady with a very large bunch of red berries.

At the terminal, there was almost no queue, so I got straight to a check-in desk. I asked about the Sydney to Christchurch flight. The guy at the desk sent me to the service desk, to check if there was a seat on the morning flight; if so I would have to go to a booking desk to book it, he said. But in fact the service desk sorted it all out for me. By this time the queue was much longer; Qantas were in the process of taking over Kenyan Airways desks (the Kenyan flight was about to leave), obviously expecting a big crowd, and they sent us all round the houses. I got talking to the man in front of me, who was an Australian being taken to Oz and NZ as a 75th birthday present from his wife. He had been to Toowoomba, to play hockey, 50 years ago. It didn't take too long, and I was through security with more than two hours until the gate would even be announced.

6 December 2008

The flight boarded in good time. We were delayed a bit by other planes manoeuvring at the gate, but were underway pretty much on time. The plane was far from full, and I had a row of three seats to myself.

The choice of films was not outstanding, but there were a couple worth seeing. I watched "Man on Wire" with my dinner, and then managed to get an hour or two of intermittent sleep. By that time it was morning in Bangkok, so I woke up and looked out the window. We were passing some brightly lit place on the edge of water, I think the Azov Sea. Then it was dark again, with little to see, so I watched "Shine", an excellent film which I didn't manage to see first time round.

After that it was beginning to get light over the desert between Iran and Afghanistan, so I looked at that for a while. But the stewardess came round and told me to shut the blind. I am not with the majority of air travellers on this – I think that daylight should absolutely not be wasted, and we were coming into a region of extraordinary dry mountains, with a long straight river valley looking as if it had been pushed out by a giant bulldozer. This continued for a while but then the cloud built up and I shut the blind.

I listened to a CD by Powderfinger, a group in which the son of my erstwhile bandmate Graham Coghill plays: quite good but not the Beatles. But fortunately they did have the Beatles, and we had now reached the point where they put the cabin lights on, so I felt I could open the window and watch the view to the soundtrack of the Beatles remixed.

The Ganges plain was covered by translucent cloud, with fluffy tops poking up through the cloud layer and casting sinister shadows into the murk. But when we got to the delta, the sun reflected bronze in the ponds and ditches. The winding streams would light up like fast-burning fuses as we passed. Strangely, the big branches of the river didn't reflect the sun at all. Was it filth on the surface, or (more likely) wind ruffling the mirror?

Out to sea, and the clouds cleared and the quality of the reflection changed. I am always amazed by how much otherwise invisible detail is revealed by the sun reflecting off the sea: glossy and matt patches with sharp irregular lines dividing them; waves, ripples, and sparkles; and shadows of small clouds like huge irregular sunspots.

We crossed the coast of Burma at a point where there were many islands and river mouths. The land was rugged and covered with green. But over the mountains, we came to a country that could almost have been Australia: dry, not much vegetation cover, long straight dusty roads. A big river with many mudflats, meanders and oxbows, possibly the Irrawaddy. Then over its mouth and out to sea again, and when we crossed the coast it was cloudy until Bangkok.

We flew over the city, and out to sea, crossing back over the coast in a region of banana trees beside ponds, rice paddies, and blue-roofed houses. On the taxiway at the airport, I spotted three egrets in a pond. The pilot managed to stop in the wrong place, and we all had to sit down and put our belts back on while he reversed a short distance.

I suppose we were one of the first long-haul flights into Bangkok since the airport re-opened. There were not many planes and not many people at the airport. I had time to go to the loo, brush my teeth and wash my face, and have a few minutes' walk round the terminal before it was time to board again.

Our plane was much more crowded; both the seats beside me taken by pretty young girls. The one next to me is from San Francisco and had to stay an extra five days in Thailand waiting for the airport to reopen, which puts my troubles in the shade. We were away quite promptly. She sat down, asked the stewardess for a glass of water, took a pill, and was soon out for the entire flight.

From the ground, there were nice pink tinges to the clouds, but once we took off we were treated to a spectacular view of orange, with fainter blue, green, yellow and grey, gradually fading out.


7 December 2008

They were a bit slow serving dinner, and I had the dilemma of whether or not to wait. It was better that I did, since feeling sleepy after an airline meal and a bottle of wine is a conditioned reflex now. I got a good four hours' sleep before the lights came on again. At one point, Toowoomba briefly appeared on the flightpath screen.

Light came in over western New South Wales, but nothing was to be seen but a layer of clouds, occasional holes giving a view of another cloud layer. Sun touched the cloud tops just as we crossed the terminator on the flightpath map. As we turned for Sydney, there was briefly a glory round our shadow on the cloud layer, but soon we were in the clouds.

We emerged below the clouds to good views of the Blue Mountains, very bright green valleys below dark green hills. Soon the suburbs of Sydney began, at first scattered among the forest, later bits of forest scattered among the houses. A glimpse of the back end of the harbour, and we were down.

Sydney is really one of the most unpleasant international airports in the world, sad to say. I waited 50 minutes in the queue at the transfer desk, just less than the fast bag drop at Rome. But here there was not just a single reason for the slowness: staff didn't have codes for the airlines on whose planes they were checking people in (including Jetstar, a Qantas codeshare); the machine printing boarding passes didn't work; passengers were not on lists, or on lists under their first name rather than surname, which the staff had no power to change; the phone would ring, and one of the two girls would answer it, leaving the person they were dealing with to fume; you name it, it was going wrong. At a certain point a supervisor arrived and seeing the situation, started checking people in, but was no faster than the two staff already there. Meanwhile the queue was growing alarmingly. At a certain point I told the supervisor that I had been there for 35 minutes; she called me a liar. All this was happening in what looked like a derelict warehouse. When the people in front of me (on the same flight as I) arrived at the head of the queue they were told that they had to queue somewhere else; Qantas staff couldn't check us in for a Qantas flight. But when it was my turn, finally everything was actually working.

Then more fun; despite the "information" that the flight left from the same terminal, we had to make a long trek to a place where we could take a bus for an even longer trek to our check-in gate. We went up in a very dingy and sinister lift which served four floors, no indication of which one we wanted. Someone pressed 2; that was correct. This terminal was bright and new, and so crammed with shops that passengers wheeling luggage were unable to pass cleaning trolleys coming the other way.

After that the flight was something of an anticlimax. We took off on time; the plane wasn't crowded, and I was able to move to the window seat without disturbing anyone. We saw Bondi Beach and the Heads as we took off. After that it was cloud most of the way, dazzling white in the sunshine so that I could hardly look at it. But just as we reached the New Zealand coast, the clouds broke up, and we had good views of the Alps (with quite a lot of snow, strangely shaped bare slopes, turquoise lakes, and braided rivers) and the Canterbury Plain (a chequerboard of fields, with the hedges and windbreaks clearly visible – but also visible in the growing crops was the older pattern of stream meanders).

We landed 15 minutes early and I got through Immigration and Customs quite expeditiously, and found a bus to town. I didn't quite understand his New Zealand vowels when he gave me some confusing explanation about why he couldn't take me there; but it turned out that there was a bike race through the centre of town, and the streets were closed. But it was a fairly short walk (having to dodge the bikes crossing Cambridge and Oxford Terraces) and I got to the hotel, checked in, and had a very welcome shower. I noticed that my ankles were quite badly swollen – something that never usually happens – as a result of the travelling and too-tight socks. (I should have worn the free pair from Qantas.)

Afterwards, I went out into the bright day for a walk. On the way down I discovered that it is impossible to get from the lobby even to the first floor other than by lift; the stairs are really a fire escape and go out into the street.

I went to the Cathedral square, in the opposite direction to the bike race, and found that there was a procession of decorated floats and singing schoolgirls going past. (I discovered later that it was the Santa Parade.) So I couldn't cross over to a café I saw, and there was nothing comparable on my side except Starbucks, where I won't eat. I found the i-site (tourist information) and asked for walking maps, but virtually drew a blank; there is nothing like the maps Auckland produces, though there is more good walking here. I took what they had and went on my way.

Eventually I found a very nice Belgian restaurant with real Belgian beer (including Kriek). I went in and had a lamb shank (tasty, but not very big, and very expensive for a country with forty million sheep) and a couple of beers (reasonable, and very nice).

Then I walked out to the University, to see if anything was happening. The route, which takes about an hour each way, is by the river Avon and Hagley Park , and then on the road I remember from last time past Riccarton Bush. The river was sparkling in the sunshine and looking lovely. This is the nice part of Christchurch I missed last visit!

The most dramatic difference in vegetation from last time is the bottlebrush flowers. There were many English birds (sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes, mallards). I saw some Paradise ducks and was initially puzzled that they were in groups larger than two. It turned out to be parents with a brood of quite large offspring. I also heard a magpie carolling near the University.

River Avon

As I approached the Academy Court Motel, from a distance I saw a grey and slightly frail old mathematician and his wife come out of the motel. It soon resolved itself into Charles and Mary Leedham-Green. They knew (which I didn't) that registration was in the staff club, and of course I knew where that was. So we got there quite soon and got registered. There was also one free drink and very nice free finger food.

Many friends were there, both old (Don Taylor, Liz Billington, Cheryl Praeger, . . .) and new (Gaven Martin, Kevin Broughan, . . .). So I ended up staying until seven, though I found the standing quite tiring.

After the reception I didn't need more to eat, so walked back to town. By the time I had unpacked a few things and typed up my notes, it was 9pm, a respectable time to go to bed, I thought (though even then I was not desperately sleepy).

8 December 2008

I slept well. When I woke up at about 6, the sky outside was quite cloudy. I had a good breakfast (reading the forecast in the paper: heavy rain this afternoon), and set out to the University. The walk is in three stages, in increasing order of distance and decreasing pleasantness: a lovely stretch by the river, with native plants and sculpture (a rather risqué sculpture of two naked wrestlers, and a huge daffodil); a park rather spoiled by a road carrying rush-hour traffic; and then a very undistinguished suburban road crossing three major roads. But a different way into the university cuts off some of the last stretch.


I hadn't realised last time that Oxford and Cambridge Terraces go along either side of the river, until they reach the town, where the river turns away but the avenues go on like regular straight roads. I imagine them having punting races on the river with supporters of the two methods on either bank. I did meet the family of paradise ducks on Cambridge Terrace. Since I had tried and failed to get a picture of the male and female together in April, I thought I would take advantage of the closeness brought about by family duties.

I was in good time for the morning session, which included three talks on subjects I know little about but which informed and entertained me. The highlight was a talk by Tony Guttmann, speaking (somewhat to his own surprise) in the Geometry and Analysis section (the words Calabi–Yao occur in his title). The probability generating function for a random walk reaching a given site after a given number of steps is related to solutions of Calabi–Yao differential equations. Thomas Prellberg got a name check.

Then I tried to use the computers. What a surprise: I logged in to a computer in the terminal room, only to find that I couldn't use putty to connect to London (though I could look at web pages); I couldn't use the white toy either because, although they claim that there is a wireless network, it is locked and the white toy won't open it. After last visit, this is exactly what I expected, though I had some vain hope that they would have sorted something out for such a big conference.

There seems to be an inherent contradiction in the wi-fi instructions for unix. You need something called ienabler in order to connect, and you have to get it by using telnet, which you can't use without internet access . . . In any case the white toy doesn't have telnet.

While I was trying it out, Bruce Craven saw me using a white toy and sat down beside me. His is a different colour, and he has also noticed that other companies have started making them. He got a version with Windows, not out of any love for Bill Gates, but just because he thought it might be easier to connect.

I went for lunch in the café in the Students Union, and then went to the room to test the gear. As usual the white toy worked flawlessly. Then I had a coffee with Kathy Horadam, at which she invited me to talk at a meeting in Galway the week before the BCC. Cheryl gave a lovely talk, in which she brought together the Kantor-type and algebraic group-type methods for estimating the proportions of elements of certain types in groups of Lie type.

Then it was my talk. I felt just a tiny bit flat, but managed to get through on time and generate quite some interest.

Later I went to the group actions session, mainly to hear Michael Giudici talk. During his talk, we noticed that there were five Oxford people sitting in a row: Cheryl, Liz, Don, Marston and me.

After the talks finished we trooped back to Staff House for a drink. There was light drizzle but the heavy rain had not come. The drinks were hosted by the NZIMA; someone suggested that it was their farewell party, since they have lost their government grant (a scandalous state of affairs). We each had a ticket for one drink, but while I was queueing up, Marston slipped me two spare tickets. Later, someone else tried to give me a spare ticket, and I explained that I had good connections and had got two from the boss!

Birgit Loch was there with a decent SLR camera, and at a certain point we decided that there should be an Oxford photo. As well as the five of us, there was Charles, Mike Atkinson (whom we couldn't find at the crucial moment), Peter Hall, and Jon Borwein. We swapped our dates in Oxford (Peter and Marston were both Brasenose men, but it turns out that Peter was there in the short interval I was in London; he was a contemporary of James Oxley), none later than 1980. Birgit asked, where are our successors? Someone suggested Michael, but of course he was my student in London.

Also, Rick Beatson asked me to chair a contributed session on Wednesday, in addition to Angelika Steger's plenary tomorrow. I agreed, although it wasn't the session I was most interested in; this comes of being interested in too many things. Also Rua Murray told me that there is a way to get to the University by going through Riccarton Bush, which cuts out quite a stretch of boring suburban road (if I can find the way!).

I deliberately let the free buses to the city go without me, but eventually set off with Don (who is staying at a hotel on the edge of Hagley Park that I walk past). We had a good talk, during which he had a phone call from Jill (who comes tomorrow). This may be the last phone call he gets; he forgot part of his charger and the battery is nearly dead. He tried a branch down town of the store where he got it, but it is such an old model that they don't stock chargers for it any more . . .

9 December 2008

In the paper today, reports of carnage among trampers in New Zealand, including an eminent botanist who probably had a heart attack crossing an icy stream, a Japanese guide caught in a snowstorm on Mt Cook, and a woman crushed on a trail by a falling boulder.

Also, I read that a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School have defined "happiness". Their four-part definition includes "describing yourself as happy", and they find that you are more likely to be happy if people aroud you are happy. They don't seem to realise that there is a much simpler explanation for this finding: the desire to conform!

Weather grey; the port hills are not visible this morning. More rain forecast but it should clear later.

I set out a bit late and had to hurry. (Thinking about Kathy Horadam's conference, I decided that I could talk about Fatma's and Josephine's work, and immediately started considering how to generalise it.) In Cambridge Terrace I met the family of paradise ducks standing on the path. They were so tame that they didn't move, even when I stopped right in the middle of the family group.

I decided to try to follow the directions for walking via Riccarton Bush that Rua Murray gave me. The basic rule he said was to keep zig-zagging, and he indicated that the first turn was to the left (which surprised me a bit). I was in two minds about taking it in case I got lost, but in fact it worked perfectly. The only thing he didn't say was when to stop zig-zagging, but this is at the point where you come to a long straight road which runs to a busy road (in fact the one past the University). So it all worked fine, and reduces considerably the boring part of the walk.

Paradise duck
Paradise duck

The first talk was the plenary by Jonathan Borwein, about convex functions. Again, it was a marvellous talk, full of enthusiasm and good stuff. I didn't expect to get anything interesting from it, but one of his examples was about functions of the k largest eigenvalues of a real symmetric matrix, which may very well have some applications in optimal designs.

After that, I went to two talks on algorithms, one dire and the other by Graham Farr quite good, and then ducked out of Gordon Royle's talk to go and hear Patricia Cretchley talking about the USQ business. She warned us that she might get emotional, but apart from controlled anger at the dean (who had been brought in because she had already abolished mathematics at Flinders) and the University administration (who were entirely underhand about the whole business) it was remarkably calm and factual.

After the talk there was a discussion. I was so dumbstruck that I couldn't say anything for a while, but right at the end I decided to chip in with my experience. We have been through lean times, and maths departments have folded, but now the situation is completely changed; if the same happens in Australia and maths becomes a popular subject, who will teach them if the maths departments have been demolished?

Afterwards, Birgit asked me to write up my comments for Maths Matters, and Patricia asked me to lunch, where we had a long talk about this and many other things.

From there it was straight to the afternoon plenary, where I was introducing Angelika Steger. She gave a lovely survey of the story of random planar graphs, which is only just over ten years old but already is full of rich and remarkable stuff, including the Flajolet–Sedgwick notion of a Boltzmann sampler.

No rest after that either, and a lot of skipping between sessions: a really interesting and well-presented talk by Beta Faller, a PhD student, about combinatorial problems arising in conservation ecology (real mathematical problems too, including greedoids, NP-completeness, etc), then Valentyn Godolets (not a very good talk, but interesting stuff about geometric dimension of Borel orbit equivalence relations, a combinatorial version of cohomological dimension), then Arun Ram (on a generalisation of skew tableaux working on any graph, giving representations of the Khovanov–Lauda alagebras), then again Jonathan Borwein (on experimental mathematics).

There was a late plenary, by Karen Parshall, a public lecture on the history of algebra. So time to eat beforehand. The usual cafés were shut but there was a small Indian place open, so we (Gordon, Michael and I) went and ate there, where we found Liz doing the same thing. Afterwards we all went to the Staff Club for a beer before the talk.

I found Karen Parshall's talk a little disappointing, as I often do talks on history of mathematics. It was read from a prepared script, some of which was put up on the visualiser; apart from a simple Euclidean diagram, the only visual aids were very grainy photos of algebraists. A couple of times she read it wrong, and didn't even notice until a couple of lines later. There was little that was new to me. The sub-theme was: why are high-school algebra (solving equations) and research algebra (axiomatics) both part of the same subject? I think my answer would have been a little different from hers.

After the talk, I walked back with Liz, who (it transpires) is also staying at the Ibis but not doing breakfast. We had a bit of a hiatus when the door to the building locked as we approached it, but the assembled intelligence of many mathematicians finally managed to get it open. It had stopped raining but the paths were quite wet; I found the way back through Riccarton Bush quite easily. We had a nice companionable walk. On the way, we saw a rifleman (a little bird with almost no tail), clinging to a stem of a plant, quite tame; we were standing right beside it when we noticed it.

10 December 2008

It's not raining this morning, and the slopes of the hills are visible, but the tops are swathed in cloud. The forecast says there will be sunny intervals this afternoon. It also currently says Saturday will be sunny. I might look for a map on Friday afternoon and see whether walking to Akaroa is at all feasible.

I left earlier. On Cambridge Terrace the female paradise duck was chasing a mallard away. I took a different route: at the end of Cambridge Terrace I continued on and turned into the Botanic Gardens, having a very pleasant walk on the other side of the river to the bridge near the tennis courts, then across the park.

When I got to Riccarton Bush, I had enough time to go round the bush. It was extraordinarily nice: drops of water from the recent rain sparkling in the light on the dark green leaves of the native trees (whose names I have forgotten); small brown birds (which I couldn't identify) flitting around on the forest floor; and the lovely sound of birdsong ringing in the air.

The first talk was by Greg Lawler on a recent breakthrough in statistical mechanics, connecting to conformal field theory. After the break I had to chair a session. I wasn't planning to go to any of the talks in the session, but I'm glad I did; they were all first-rate, and I learned something, not least from Christopher Tuffley, who was finding a cell decomposition of the space of unordered k-tuples over a given space. It took me back many years. At the end of my time at UQ, I did a little project I'd invented myself, about giving structure to the set of all k-tuples over a set with a given structure of arbitrary kind. The case of a metric space was exactly what he was doing!

After lunch, Vaughan Jones talked. Until he rolled the screens up to write on the boards, I hadn't realised that there were no less than ten whiteboards in that lecture room! He was as always linking disparate things; going from integrals to evaluate the expected trace of a word in a given number of large random Hermitian matrices, via von Neumann algebras, to non-commutative geometry; underlying it all was the combinatorics of non-crossing paths.

Then it was time for the excursion. I had agreed with Cheryl that we would go to walk on the Port Hills. On the way up I explained to her the current state of play on the synchronization problem. (She won't actually get to hear my talk in Auckland; she has to take her mother, who is not in very good state for travelling, from Brisbane to Perth next week.) The weather had cleared and turned beautiful; on the bus, a bottle of sunscreen was passed around.

The bus drove out of town and up a steep winding road, and stopped at a small car park at the Sign of the Kiwi. There was a lovely view over the inner end of Lyttleton harbour and the hills beyond, where I hope to walk on Saturday. Birgit (who was with us) started getting excited. Her hobby is geocaching, and the machine was telling her that there was a cache nearby. As we walked, we got further and further away from it.

We went through quite thick scrub, damp underfoot, almost like rain forest (so the talk was of leeches) on Mitchell's Track, and came back on the very different Cedric's Track, much drier, completely open (looking over the city), with sheep on the short grass.

Lyttleton harbour

We got back to the bus a bit early and went a little way up the Crater Rim Trail, which was the right direction for the geocache. So Cheryl and I joined in helping Birgit look for the cache; in fact I spotted it. We were back to the carpark in time to celebrate with large ice creams before returning.

Back on the bus, I decided to go back out to the University and have a drink with Cheryl in the Staff Club. George Willis, who had been sitting with us on the bus, came too. We swapped a lot of stories about bureaucrats, interview panels, visits to Iran, etc. After a couple of drinks we went to eat at the Tandoori Palace just down the road, then said our goodbyes and I walked back into town.

11 December 2008

The paradise soap opera continues. This morning, the male parrie was standing all by himself on the path, looking rather forlorn.

I walked through the Botanic Gardens again. Sprinklers played on the grass everywhere; in the rose garden, the roses were in bloom, filling the air with perfume; in a small patch of New Zealand bush, a fantail energetically and acrobatically chased insects.

The first lecture was by James Sneyd. Last time I saw him, his hair was blue; it is now ginger, unless it is a wig! As I expected from him, a wonderful, extrovert talk, enlivened by such slides as a picture of a mouse with a big arrow to a picture of a blender (or a breadknife, on a later slide).

After the break, I went to Vince Moulton's talk, a very nice exposition of trees versus networks in phylogenetics. It seems that in this area, things may be fairly simple; conventional evolution leads to trees (with perhaps just a little bit of noise); recombination, such as viruses practise, leads to definitely non-treelike tight spans. He has developed a statistical test of the null hypothesis that the data is explained by a tree, and can actually come up with p-values, which the biologists like (though based on a statistic for which he gave no theoretical justification and for which nothing is known about its distribution, so he has to bootstrap). He also told me some good news about Taoyang.

I ducked out of the next few talks and made another attempt to read my email. I drew a complete blank. I tried connecting to different computers, and tried telnet rather than ssh, all to no avail. With telnet, I was challenged for username and password to get through a firewall; a message said I had been accepted, but then the window disappeared and nothing followed. So I am virtually certain that the problem lies in Canterbury rather than London.

So instead I did some research for my planned Saturday walk. There is a good bus service to Lyttelton, and a ferry every hour to Diamond Harbour, but only one bus a day to Akaroa. So I either abandon Akaroa, or start there and walk back. Tentatively planning the latter, I have booked a seat on the morning shuttle to Akaroa, got times of buses and ferries (which go on quite late), and bought a reasonable map (1:175000) from the bookshop (at Ben Martin's suggestion).

I had arranged to meet Graham Farr for lunch. Not finding him, I got a sandwich and sat in a conspicuous place to eat it. Liz came along, and we arranged to go on the gondola tomorrow after the conference finishes. Then Graham came, and we discussed how to write up the chromatic roots paper without restricting Kerri Morgan's freedom of action. Graham had her data with him; it seemed from our quick look that she has no examples with Galois group of order 3 or 5. I have three examples for order 3, but none for 5.

Charles showed up and joined in, so the discussion went to more general things, such as whether there might be a connection between the Galois group of the chromatic polynomial and the automorphism group of the graph. I suspect there may be a negative correlation. We also considered other one-variable polynomials for the same treatment, or even the two-variable Tutte polynomial (where conceivably one might do some interesting algebraic geometry).

After lunch John Morgan told us about Perelman's proof of the Poincaré conjecture. He did a very good job of explaining exactly how he went beyond what Hamilton did.

I wasn't too busy in the afternoon since both the Aussies and the Kiwis had meetings. So I went for a walk round Ilam Gardens. The rhododendrons were mostly over, so the predominant colour was green. A flock of greenfinches fluttered in a lemonwood tree.

I changed for dinner, and met Marston coming out of his meeting. He had just proved a theorem, so after he had been to his motel to change, we went over to the Staff Club for a celebratory drink before the conference dinner.

The dinner was 7 for 7:30, but when we arrived soon after 7 everyone was already seated and about to begin the first course. We were invited to sit on the AustMS table, since they were a few people short. So we sat with Cheryl, Hyam Rubenstein and his wife, Peter Hall, Liz, and various others. It was a nice dinner though a bit slow (tables were called up one at a time to the buffet). There were a few speeches and prizes, but mostly we had a jolly time. Four of us at the Ibis left, not too late, to get a taxi back to town.

Back in my room, I decided to pay my money and read my email. There were the proofs of a paper, a day overdue already; a reference request; several refereeing requests; photos from Marie of Rob's graduation; and so on. I worked like crazy and was able to get through nearly a hundred emails by bedtime.

12 December 2008

In the morning I fetched the proofs of the paper and had a cursory look at them. They seemed to be OK so I simply approved them. I also looked at the photos of Rob.

It was grey and drizzly, though the forecast for tomorrow is better. I met the family of paradise ducks crossing Cambridge Terrace (the non-busy part). The parents gently but firmly ensured that the three children were lined up, and then marched cautiously across, mother in front, father behind.

I took a different route through the botanic gardens, leaving by a different bridge (which turns out to be the main entrance). The glory of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens is its very fine trees, both English (plane, horse chestnut, lime, beech) and other (eucalyptus, cedar, sequoia).

Botanic Gardens

Charles gave a splendid and absolutely characteristic talk about the matrix group recognition project, and ended it with a rant about the ranking of journals by bean-counters. His proposal is that we should submit papers to journals we respect which are not top-rated. This caused quite a lot of discussion.

After the break, Marston attempted to give a talk from his laptop with two big jobs running in the background; it didn't work, and after some fussing around he had to kill the jobs. Another speaker later was completely unable to get his Vista laptop to talk to the data projector. He has to borrow another laptop and started ten minutes late.

After lunch, Rob Akscyn wanted to show me his ideas about refining Mertens' product formula for primes to get rid of the unwanted constant factor, and about getting a probabilistic estimate for the number of representations of an even number as the sum of two primes. One of the interesting things about it was that he has a program which allows him to use the screen of his laptop like scribbling paper; he can draw (with straight line segments) and type, and move and recolour things arbitrarily, so that diagrams can be changed as the argument proceeds.

I walked back to the hotel, through the Botanic Gardens again, taking yet another route, past a very nice bunya tree, and out to Cambridge Terrace where the paradise ducks were resting on the grass, and a black cormorant sat on the riverbank. I arrived back about 3, to find a message from Liz to say that she had already left on the trip to the gondola. So I put my laundry on and did a bit of work while it cooked, and left her a message suggesting dinner when she got back. But she had bought a picnic to eat in her room; so I went out, had fish and chips and bought lunch for tomorrow, and worked until bedtime. Now I couldn't get an ssh connection, so I started some of the reading I have brought with me.

13 December 2008

The day dawned with broken cloud but no rain; the forecast is still promising some sunshine later, but the front page of the paper reports another party of climbers missing on Mt Cook.

By the time I had gone down into Cathedral Square to catch the Akaroa Shuttle, the clouds had completely cleared and it was a sparkling clear morning, with long shadows across the square. The shuttle arrived and I got on and bought a single ticket. We set off pretty much on time.

The Banks Peninsula formed as an island around ten million years ago with the eruption of three huge volcanoes. The sea broke down the crater walls of two of them and flooded the calderas, forming Lyttelton and Akaroa harbours. (Akaroa is Maori for "long harbour".) Apart from the sea inlets, both harbours are surrounded by high mountains rising to over 900 metres in places. The bus started out skirting round the Port Hills (which surround Lyttelton harbour), and then went up a valley and climbed the crater of the Akaroa hills, reaching a pass at about 550 metres and then descending to the harbour.

Banks peninsula

The first stretch was between the Port Hills and the Canterbury Plain. After a while, we saw Lake Ellesmere on our right, a large lake (New Zealand's fifth largest), separated from the sea by a long spit. It is said to be a haven for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, but we were too far away to identify any. After passing the end of the spit, we came to Lake Forsyth, a land-locked arm of the sea supporting a large colony of black swans. We drove up by the side of the lake, with good views of the swans, to Little River, once the railhead but now an arts and crafts town. Soon we began climbing the crater rim to Hill Top, where we got our first view of Akaroa Harbour (and the driver stopped for us to take photos). My path would take me within spitting distance of Hill Top; I was to learn that from a short distance along the Summit Road, it was possible to see the harbour heads and out to sea.

Akaroa harbour

We descended to the harbour; the road followed it round, going over headlands because they were too sheer for it to follow the water. Finally we arrived in Akaroa, where I got off at the first stop to reduce the road-walking part very slightly. I did go down to the water to take a look. Akaroa was settled by the French, but the British had sent a small garrison five days earlier just to make it clear to them that they were in a British colony; the streetnames and old buildings do reflect the Frence influence.

The first 10km or so of the walk involved retracing the road the bus had taken. Though it is a main highway to a popular tourist destination, it was fortunately not too busy, and the verge was just wide enough that I didn't have to dive into the bushes very often. There were good views of the harbour and surrounding hills. A female paradise duck called out beside a small pond.


The sun shone through broken clouds, though there were signs of more serious clouds on the horizon. Birds sang their melodious songs, and larks trilled overhead (this was a feature of the whole day). The roadside had a surprising amount of scarlet pimpernel, as well as sweet fennel.

After an hour and a half, with three substantial climbs, I had reached Duvauchelle, an old village named after an early settler. The serious climbing was about to start, and it was time for the sunscreen, so I stopped at an organic café in the old post office and had a chicken and brie sandwich and a cup of coffee. The tide was out and the view from the café was over mudflats stretching a long way out from the road.


Then the climbing began. The main road went up over yet another headland (connected by a thin strip of land to a near-island which was apparently the core of the volcano). At the top, the Pigeon Bay Road turned off, and soon my path turned off that, on a gravel road just called "Stock Route". It went steadily up until it met Summit Road, the scenic (but longer) route to Akaroa. This gravel road gave a panorama of the inside of the crater wall with a harrier hovering over it, and farmed deer running far below. From the top, I could see over the other side to Pigeon Bay, an inlet with lovely clear turquoise water. The road went along a ridge with views of Akaroa Harbour on one side and Pigeon Bay on the other. There was very little traffic.

Just before Hill Top, my path turned off up a mountain. It was signposted to Port Levy Saddle, and none of the places on my map were mentioned; but I felt pretty confident that it was right, and turned off the road.

The track climbed fairly steeply, in damp bush with a lot of big stones which required some serious scrambling in places. Every now and then the bush cleared and I had ever more spectacular views of Akaroa harbour. Finally, after a last effort, I reached a saddle on the ridge; the path took me along the ridge to the next peak (there were several rocky tops), and then I could see over the fence the orange marker posts descending. So I bade farewell to Akaroa, climbed the fence, and descended.

Bush track

For a long stretch, the path followed a ridge rising to several high mountains – Mt Sinclair (841), Mt Fitzgerald (826), and on beyond where I went, Mt Herbert (920) and Mt Bradley (855) – and none of these were scaled by such a steep path as the first un-named mountain; so there was not as much climbing as there might have been, but still it was quite hard going. But astonishingly beautiful. The slopes were quite open (as a result of the early timber-getting and clearances for sheep), giving stunning views to some of the many sea inlets biting deep into the peninsula, including Pigeon Bay, Port Levy, and Lake Forsyth.

Pigeon Bay

Occasional patches of native bush remained, with no really large trees, and sheep and cows. Larks sang overhead. Strange bushes, like folk deep in conversation, grew on the ridge top. The hills were decorated with bleached bones of the native trees that had been felled or grubbed out, and once a bleached skull of a sheep. At one point a hare ran ahead of me on the path, a bit like a small dog.


On one lovely stretch just after Mt Fitzgerald, I met three walkers coming the other way, the only ones I saw all day. They were walking to Pigeon Bay, and would turn downhill just before the un-named mountain near the Summit Road. They were slightly worried about whether I would get to Diamond Harbour in time to catch the ferry; I assured them that the last ferry was at ten past eleven, and they agreed that I should make that.

Past the signposted Port Levy Saddle, the path started climbing again, towards Mt Herbert. I had planned to climb this mountain and take a trail down from it to Diamond Harbour, but by this point my legs were getting quite tired on the uphill stretches, and I had to keep dosing myself with chocolate. Also there was an error in the map; according to the map, my proposed route followed the Monument Track for a short way, but in fact the two trails deviated right from the point they met, with the Summit Trail going quite steeply up, so I opted for the Monument Track. With hindsight, a lucky decision!

Just after the fork, I sat behind a boulder (a cool wind had got up by this time) to have some bread and cheese and a very juicy pear. I nearly left my glasses behind when I continued! But the path degenerated (the only stretch the whole day where it was in less than immaculate order) to a sheep track through the gorse (sometimes literally) and across a bog where a stream seeped out of the mountainside. Further down the stream, I could hear the repetitive melodic call of a bird.

The path improved again after the top of the hill, where I had the first sight of Lyttelton Harbour, with a giant cruise liner moored at the wharf.


Then, rounding a corner, I caught sight of the remarkable monument-shaped mountain after which this track is named. (From further along, it didn't have quite the same dramatic shape.)

The land was becoming more level, with farm buildings ahead; in absence of waymarking (which was very good on the Summit Trail but nonexistent on this one) I went through the farmyard. The track took me through a herd of cows with calves and a serious-looking bull, and out onto the road from Diamond Harbour to Port Levy at its highest point.


I started down the hill. I had seen "Lion's Head Rock" marked as a tourist attraction on the map, and soon I saw its unmistakable shape, mane, back and all. As I got closer and could see the detail, the illusion got weaker; but when I passed it and looked at the profile from the other side, it looked (in a rather different way) like a lion again, staring across the valley.

The road wound down the hill, with good views over the valley. The floor of the valley was dotted with kanuka (white tea tree) in flower, looking like a slightly paler version of an English park in hawthorn blossom time. Looking back, I could see a bank of clouds settled on the high path that I might have taken, and beginning to spill down the side of the mountain.

Lion's Head

At the bottom of the hill I came to Purau Bay, with a fleet of sailing boats at anchor. The road ran round the side of the bay to Diamond Harbour. I knew that it would be touch and go whether I would catch the 7:10 ferry or have an hour to wait for the next. But by making a lucky guess about a footpath, and running down the hill, I arrived on the wharf at about 7:05, and in a few minutes the fast Black Diamond boat could be seen flying across the water towards us, and the fishermen on the wharf reeled in their lines.

Purau bay

The ferry took us swiftly across to Lyttelton. The cruise ship had left – we could see its back end steaming out to sea – and there was a large container ship being loaded, and several smaller ships including one from the Ukraine. I got off the ferry and walked towards the town; as I was starting up the bridge, a bus arrived, so I retraced my steps and got on. It left almost immediately, and I was back in Christchurch well before 8 and still in bright daylight.

I was thirsty but not very hungry, so I went to a somewhat up-market pub. They asked me if I wanted to eat and then proceeded to tell me that I couldn't (even though plates of food were coming out). I will never know whether I was too scruffy or what. But I had a couple of beers and then went back to the hotel, where I ate the rest of my bread and cheese and went to bed.

14 December 2008

I had breakfast, packed, and checked out, leaving my big bag in the hotel. Then I set out for a last look at Canterbury.

I went first to the Art Gallery, where I spent a happy couple of hours. There was an exhibition by the Australian artist Fiona Hall which was particularly striking. To choose just one (my favourite) from her pieces: "When my boat comes in" consisted of many (maybe 50) pictures, each a very detailed leaf of a plant, painted on old banknotes; I thought first that the leaves were pressed. The commentary points out that each plant is associated with the country of the banknotes it is on, and each banknote features a ship or boat; so the whole gets an extra dimension, as commentary on the relationship between plants, international trade, annd colonialism. But you don't need to know that to appreciate the beautiful individual works, and the massed effect is very striking.

I went round the galleries of more traditional art. Nothing particularly famous, but this meant that one has to take the paintings with an open mind, and there were some quite notable resonances, in particular the Victorian attitude to sexuality in a couple of understated prints.

I crossed over the street and came to the Arts Centre. Occupying the old buildings of the Boys' and Girls' High Schools and the College, this is a collection of stalls (from serious art galleries to Christmas kitsch) stretching a block along the street. I went round some of the outdoor stalls but wasn't tempted to buy anything.

By then it was lunchtime, so I went to Coffee Corner (in the old Boys' High School, a building with a fine staircase) and had a chicken and mushroom wrap with salad and a ginger beer. Afterwards I walked on through the rest of the complex, and then across the street to the Botanic Gardens, where I gently perambulated with frequent spells to sit and enjoy. I saw a lancewood just changing from juvenile, with heavily armoured leaves lying flush to the straight trunk, to adult, with a more treelike shape beginning to form at the top.

Botanic Gardens

Finally, back along the river, where the huge daffodil in the park had mysteriously disappeared, and the paradise duck family were cropping the grass in Cambridge Terrace, to the hotel, where I picked up my bag (stopping briefly in the bookshop where I bought the biography of Donald Coxeter).

I took the "Five dollar bus" to the airport (actually seven dollars since, like a proper airline, it has a "fuel surcharge" – cheeky!). I was at the airport too early, so read for a while before checking in.

After check-in, it was all very straightforward. We left right on time; there were views of the northern Canterbury Plains crossed by braided rivers and interrupted by rugged hills, before we were above the clouds. A small hole in the clouds showed us rugged green land before we started descending, crossing the two mouths of a big river (presumably the Waikato) and black sand beaches before turning over the mud-flats of Manukau harbour and coming in to land.

Disembarking from the plane, I saw Nick Wormald and his wife, and we took a taxi together to the hotel. The Quadrant impresses me just as little as last time. At least they had a room for me this time, but they thought I was leaving on Friday rather than Saturday; it took many attempts before I could get my swipe card to work the lift; and the only power points in the room are by the sink, so using the computer would create a hazard for anyone else in the room.

I went out to look for any kind of registration or reception on the campus, and drew a complete blank. So I went back to my room to see if any of the pieces of paper I brought give any clues, and drew another blank. So I guess it is a case of starting early enough in the morning to do a more thorough random walk . . .

15 December 2008

I slept badly, and woke much stiffer than yesterday. I discovered that the shower door doesn't close properly. Another gripe about this hotel: no information! Eventually I found some details (e.g. checkout, how to make a phone call, how to get to the airport) in a section "Frequently asked questions" tucked in the back of the room service menu. I guess they are frequently asked because the information is not available. Nothing about mealtimes, laundry, etc.

From my window on the 15th floor, there is not much to see except other high-rise buildings round about; but there is a glimpse of the park, with the pohutukawa trees in flower.

I went down to breakfast at 7, to find cereal and fruit laid out, so I served myself. (In Christchurch I had the cooked breakfast, but here I won't be walking 12km a day, so continental is quite adequate.) Sasha Barvinok came to join me. We were able to put together some partial information. He could tell me that I am giving the first talk of the meeting, and I could tell him where the mathematics department is. We agreed to meet at 8:15 to go looking for the conference.

Jut before 8:15, Chris Rodger showed up. He said that you get to the conference by going past Government House and through the hole in the wall. There were a lot of mathematicians in the foyer looking somewhat bewildered, but at the end of the building we found a rudimentary registration desk just setting up. We also found the room for the talks, so I was able to sneak in and get my equipment working before the opening ceremony.

My talk went well except for two things. Firstly, with too much material, I went slightly over, and had to cut a bit – not too serious since I got into that pickle by spending more time on explanations. Second, in a couple of places I had made the inevitable mistake, and confused the various properties (synchronization, etc.) with their negatives. But since I had spent a lot of time on the explanations, not too much damage was done. In any case, as I was first, Cheryl did get to hear the talk after all.

Before the talk, Charles Little, Mike Steel and I (the judges of the student talks) had had time for a brief discussion, so that at least I knew where I had to be after the break. But during the fifteen-minute break, I also was asked to chair the first student session. It was a mixed bag: two phylogenetic people from Canterbury, a Japanese with poor English, and a very enthusiastic Australian whose favourite word was "awesome".

I had lunch with Michael Giudici, who told me both about his very recent promotion, and his nearly-complete work on classifying almost simple 3/2-transitive groups (which would give as a by-product the classification of the QI groups).

After lunch I tried to read my email, but couldn't; it seems that there were problems with the server (or possibly the Queen Mary computers), since I easily connected to the wireless network. Later it worked OK.

In the afternoon Cheryl gave another lovely talk, and then I had four more student talks, followed by some really nice stuff (a lovely theorem, but full of unexplained mysteries) from Ian Wanless, joint work with Nick Cavenagh. (Nick, by the way, has a job at Hamilton; Kevin Broughan had told me how pleased they are with their new appointment.) After that was the CMSA meeting. Ian had persuaded me to stay for it and act as scrutineer for the elections. Fortunately there were no contested elections, but there was an extra nomination from the floor for the committee.

Then quite a large group of us, mostly Queenslanders, went to the pub, the Old Playhouse, just down the hill. We found a long table big enough for the whole party (the huge pub was practically empty), with a huge lion chair at the end; the party proposed that I should sit in it, since I had opened the conference. I had some very decent beer (Speights Old Dark) and a steak and mushroom pie, before heading home. I saw Liz to her hotel and then got a bit lost in the maze near the University before finally getting to the Quadrant.

16 December 2008

Next morning I found Sasha at breakfast again, and over the meal gave him a little tutorial on Latin squares and finite geometry. I went out good and early and walked to the conference through Albert Park, where I renewed my acquaintance with the remarkable pohutukawa and Moreton Bay fig trees that grow there, and found a fairly good pohutakawa in flower (though others were by no means fully out yet). Then there was time to submit a reference to MathJobs before the lecture (a slightly tedious business involving copying the file to London, compiling the PDF, and fetching it back to check and upload it).


The first talk was by Mike Steel, a very good overview of a lot of the phylogenetic material I have heard last week and this. Then the next batch of student talks. I went off for lunch with Marston and Steve Wilson; we took it to the maths common room, and joined in the communal and slightly competitive crossword solving. Marston beat me but I was ahead of Steve (who was slightly annoyed by "self-raising flour", which is "self-rising flour" (a more logical name) in his language.

After lunch, I started on my email but was not very far down the pile before it was time for Chris Rodger's talk. I was very sleepy and nodded off a couple of times; I am not too fascinated by that stuff anyway. Then the final set of student talks, and a nice talk from Keisuke Shiromoto, who has found 22 disjoint copies of the Witt design (a world record, beating the previous 15). After this, the judges conferred to decide the winner. We got very quickly to the top three, and without too much sweat to the top two, but then had a lot of difficulty separating them.

When I came out, Michael, Thomas Britz, and Olli Pottonen were standing round, so we went down to the pub. A bit later Don Taylor joined us. We had a couple of pints and a meal, and then all dispersed to our hotels.

17 December 2008

At breakfast I found Sasha Barvinok and Doron Zeilberger sat together at a two-person table. I sat nearby and joined in the conversation.

I was at the University early enough to read my email and upload another reference before the talks began. We started with two plenary talks by Paul Seymour and Maria Chudnovsky, reporting different bits of their joint work: Paul on a weak form of Hadwiger for graphs with independence number 2, and Maria about packing seagulls into a graph (also motivated by Hadwiger-like things; a seagull is just a path of length 2).

At coffee time I met Judith Egan, who had written to me some time ago about the Encyclopaedia of Design Theory. We had two further talks, one another Hadwiger-inspired result, and one by a guy who has developed a graphics package for LaTeX. Once I would have been delighted by this, but now, since it uses PostScript, I fear that I won't even take the trouble to try it out.

The afternoon was for excursions, but I had decided to make my own excursion. I had read that Devonport and the North Shore beaches were nice, but it was probably a bad decision; too much road, not enough waymarking or accurate maps.

I walked down town and asked at the i-site for a map. They didn't have one, but told me that the i-site in Devonport might be able to help. So I got a ferry ticket and a sandwich, and was on my way (half an hour before the excursion to Waiheke left). At Devonport, I asked at the i-site; they loaded me up with maps for short walks around the town, but I found that they had a decent map, for which I was happy to pay five dollars.

I walked up the first volcano, Takarunga (Mt Victoria), along the shore, and over the shoulder of the second volcano, North Head, which brought me to the beach. From there on it was about one quarter path (on the beach, on a concrete path under the cliffs, or picking my way over hard sharp volcanic rubble) and three-quarters road, usually very busy road at that. After a while a path shown on the map didn't exist and another had been closed, so I gave up and walked back from Castor Bay past Lake Pupuke to Barry's Point and Akoranga.


Yesterday's paper had an article saying that the pohutukawa flowers were at their best now. I don't believe this; there were far more buds than flowers, and I found the red colour difficult to photograph, despite many attempts. But the flowers were much more dramatic here than in Auckland, and gave an exotic appearance to the beaches. There were also various other flowering trees, such as jacaranda, and other flowers such as morning glory past its best.


What there was of the beach was quite pleasant, with colourful shells (pink, yellow and brown) and views out to Rangitoto. The volcanic lava had at one point covered an ancient forest and fossilised it; there was what looked like a well bored down into the hard lava but was in fact where a huge kauri had stood when it was engulfed by the lava. I also saw what presumably had been a horizontal log, looking a bit like a cannon. The roads, on the other hand, had no sea view at all because of the expensive houses built on the shore and cliffs.

Fossil tree

I saw very little of Lake Pupuke; almost the entire shore is privately owned and has been built on without any gaps. There was one small park at the south end where there was an old pumping station, now a theatre. The lake was quite choppy, and black swans, greylag geese, and a few mallards surfed the chop. I heard what sounded like a tui gearing up to perform, but it never really got going.

One of the best bits was almost at the end: a path beside a large mangrove swamp at Barry's Point leading almost to the harbour. At the end of the path I found a bus stop and waited there for a while, but no bus came. So I looked at the map and found I was quite close to Akoranga station on the guided bus route. So I went there and had only a short wait for a bus.


In town, I went to the Waterfront Café and had battered orange roughy for old times' sake (it was very crowded), and then walked back to the hotel.

18 December 2008

The day was bright and warm, the campus lovely with trees, flowers, sun on the cream weatherboard of Old Government House and the white limestone of the Clock Tower, and resonant cries of birds. I arrived in good time to read my email before my talk, but discovered I'd forgotten the piece of paper with the password on it, and had to go back to my hotel room for it – the password was on the back of the programme, and today for the first time I have to make some decisions! (On Monday and Tuesday I was in the student talks and on Wednesday there was only one stream.)

On getting back there was still time to look at my email which included preliminary RAE scores from Dave. The full information is released at lunchtime today.

Doron Zeilberger gave a deliberately provocative talk, shouting at the top of his voice for an hour. He said that it is bad manners to use a laptop in a talk (with which I agree), and threatened to throw out people doing this (with which I disagree). He claimed that his theorem, in which the computer proves a counting formula by finding a recurrence relation which takes 234 pages to print out, is "deep" and more worthwhile than a proof from Erdős' "book", mistaking Erdős' criterion of elegance for shortness. (The Classification of Finite Simple Groups is a theorem not fitting his paradigm; I will ask him about this if I get a chance.) I am all for provocative talks but I don't feel compelled to agree with the opinions expressed!

Afterwards, I went to three talks in one room, and then went looking for the other, but failed to find it (not having been there so far during the meeting).

I went to the Relax Lounge for lunch, had a bacon and avocado sandwich and a passionfruit frappé, and sat in the sun eating it (as after my coast-to-coast walk in April). Then I went and stared a bit longer at the RAE results. We did fairly well, I suppose.

After lunch, Jan de Gier talked about a more general form of plane partitions where there is a hole. He comes from the physics community, and apologised in advance for the fact that much of what he said would not be familiar to us; then he proceeded to go rather fast, so that even I was lost (and I am closer to that stuff than many people in the audience).

Following the contributed talks I met up with Graham Farr and Kerri Morgan to talk about the chromatic roots paper. We were a bit rushed since we had just been informed that dinner was not 6 for 7 as we'd been told, but 6 for 6:30. I will send Kerri a short account of what more might be done on this problem, and she will start writing up the data on small graphs. Then I went back to the hotel, changed, and hurried down town for dinner.

Dinner was at the Harbour View, a moderately grand old restaurant upstairs in the Ferry Building on the wharf. I arrived just after six. In fact we needn't have worried; the restaurant was not at all fast. We were issued with three drink tickets when we arrived; I had finished one and started on a second before we sat down, so had to drink very slowly for the rest of the evening! Tasty food, though. I was surrounded by people with food allergies: dairy, eggs, alcohol, . . .

After people started moving around, I had a long chat with Graham, mostly about common acquaintances; he says that Jacinta is flourishing. Then I went back to the hotel. As I started towards the lift, I reached for my card, and discovered I didn't have it. I was pretty sure I had had it when I set out, so I walked back to the restaurant and asked, but they hadn't seen it. So back to the hotel, where after checking ID they issued me with a new card. It turned out that I had taken it out of my pocket in the bathroom (for some unknown reason) and left it beside the washbasin.

19 December 2008

The day dawned sparkling and clear, but by the time I had breakfasted and headed for the conference it had clouded over. The forecast is for rain tomorrow.

The first talk was an astonishing talk by Jesús De Loera. In a nutshell: many graph theoretic problems (such as existence of cliques or colourings of given size) are equivalent to the existence of solutions of certain polynomials over algebraically closed fields. Then Hilbert's Nullstellensatz gives a certificate for the non-exstence of such solutions. One can bound the degree of the certificate, and then search for its coefficients by linear algebra. This gives algorithms which may be competitive with commonly used algorithms. Moreover, he remarked in the last few minutes that the existence of symmetry cuts down the size of the matrices (I think, by a factor close to the reciprocal of the group order). It would be stunning if we could prove certain groups non-synchronizing by this method!

After coffee, we went straight to the second invited talk of the day, by Nick Wormald, on the chromatic number of random regular graphs, where for fixed degree they now know that it is almost surely one of at most two consecutive values.

Then we had two nice contributed talks, by Michael on quotients of geometries, and by Don on unitary reflection groups (which tied in well with the things Rob had been talking about in the Monday seminar). At the end of Don's talk we headed off to the Maths Department Christmas lunch, with lots of friends and acquaintances from my last visit, together with some serious discussions with the retiring dean. There was wine from the University vineyard on Waiheke, which we had passed on our walk there on the last trip.

The last invited talk by Sasha Barvinok was an eye-opener. There is a heuristic that in a random contingency table (matrix of non-negative integers with prescribed row and column sums) the row sums and column sums are approximately independent. This is true for sparse matrices, and also if the row and column sums are constant; but he showed that it is "false in all other cases", and that indeed the prescribed row sums and column sums are very strongly positively correlated. (The paradox is explained by the fact that this is rare if the row and column sums are not close to constant.) But, bizarrely, the same conclusion holds for zero-one matrices with prescribed row and column sums, but the events are strongly negatively correlated! Much mystery here.

Then some nice contributed talks, and the end of the conference. Marston had told me that there were strawberries and champagne in Old Government House, so after saying goodbye (or in many cases au revoir) to many people, I wandered over there. I found Marston, Eamonn, Charles, Mary, and Sasha. As we sat and talked, various people went and more people arrived, but after about an hour the end came and we all said our goodbyes and left.

I went back to the Engineering building in the hope of reading my email one more time, but it was locked. I am too tight-fisted to pay money to read it in my hotel room, so I decided that it will have to wait. I have plenty of work-related reading matter, so I went back to my room to work.


20 December 2008

I slept badly. At breakfast I found Sasha indulging in a cooked breakfast, which I have to say looked rather nice. Afterwards I went back to my room, worked for a while, then checked out. I walked along Princes Street past the fine wooden verandas of the old buildings there, through Albert Park one last time, down past the kauri tree, to the airport bus stop.

Old Auckland house

The bus came almost as soon as I arrived at the bus stop. The driver only charged me the backpackers' fare of 13 dollars; the adult fare is 15. The bus went along Mt Eden Road, through busy suburbs with trendy shops, under the big volcano, and then between two smaller volcanoes, one of which rose abruptly and dramatically from the suburbs. Then we turned on to an unfinished major road which went past the end of the Coast-to-Coast at Onehunga, then through featureless expanses of warehouses, to the airport. Journey time about 45 minutes.

The queue was short and check-in took only ten minutes or so. But there was bad news. The flight had been re-scheduled from 14:30 to 18:00, so I was faced with a long wait. I was given a fifteen dollar lunch voucher as recompense, and I discovered that there is no departure tax now (or perhaps it is included in the ticket price), so I had some NZ dollars left over for the souvenir shops.

At immigration, the man behind the desk was a bit reluctant to let me through since I was so early for my flight; since I had been through security, he had little choice in the end. We had a conversation about mathematics; he told me that he had failed his exam, and I said "That's because I wasn't teaching you!"

I got into the departure area, and went looking for a convenient place to sit and wait. Who should I find but Graham Farr who also had a long wait, but self-inflicted (perhaps) in his case: he arrived rather late for his flight and was delayed by a very long and slow-moving queue, so missed it and had to re-book on the next flight.

He told me about some very pretty geometry he and a colleague have done, which chimed well with the Coxeter biography. Normally, looking for an eigenvalue of a 2 × 2 matrix, you find a value of x such that A-xI is singular. He replaces xI by the standard 2 × 2 real matrix representing the complex number x+yi. The points (x,y) for which this is singular lie on a circle, called the eigencircle of the matrix. If the eigenvalues are real, they are the intersection of this circle with the real axis; the eigenvectors can be read off, and the angle between them is the angle subtended by the chord of the real axis at the circumference of the circle. There is much more too.

I spent my voucher on lunch, then we talked while other people from the conference came and went. Finally I went to a gift shop and bought manuka soap, volcanic mud heat rub, lanolin lip salve, and possum merino socks. As I came out, they were announcing that my flight was delayed a further forty minutes.

I noticed an interesting phrase used repeatedly by the airport announcer. As she gave details of the (many) delayed flights, she said that refreshment vouchers could be uplifted from certain desks. Then someone who left his mobile phone at security was told to return there to uplift it.

I sat on a bench and organised my New Zealand photos, wrote up my diary, and backed up the memory onto a USB stick. A very large man with an i-pod sat beside me and jiggled to the music. Fortunately his flight was soon called and he left me in peace.

Outside, clouds came over, and rain lashed the runways; then it cleared and afternoon sun shone through.

After it became clear that the new boarding time was not going to be met, a further 50 minutes delay appeared. Finally a gate was announced. (I was walking round with Sasha Barvinok and Doron Zeilberger killing time – their flight was delayed too, though not by anywhere near as much as mine – when finally the gate number came up on the screens.)

They were not prompt getting us on board, but finally we pushed back and taxied to the end of the runway, with a fine view of the westering sun shining through the clouds and straight down the runway, and started our take-off run. Then suddenly the pilot hit the brakes, and we turned off the runway. He announced to us that we should stay seated, and then told us that a fault indicator had come on and we would have to go back to the gate for the engineers to look at it. So we did. After a while he told us that it would take half an hour to fit a new component and test it.

In the event, it was over an hour before the engineers admitted defeat, and the captain came on to tell us that we would have to go on a different plane which would take 90 minutes to prepare. So they sent us back to the lounge with a measly 12 dollar voucher to wait for further announcements. Several passengers opted to leave the flight and take another tomorrow. I almost wished I could. This was probably the worst treatment I ever had from any airline anywhere. I have a hotel booked in Brisbane but there is no guarantee that any public transport will still be running when we get there. Nobody in the airport can give us any information about that. How much worse it must be for the several families with small children, and the mentally afflicted girl and her carer.

So I waited half an hour for the queues to diminish, then ate. (Twelve dollars doesn't go far at the airport; they gave me 15 for lunch when they thought the delay was much less.) Then I noticed that the screens had a gate number, and said that the flight had closed. I hoped it wasn't so, since there had been no announcement, but hurried down. There was somebody there who gave me an estimate of 25 minutes till boarding.

In twenty-five minutes, something began to happen, but the crew seemed only just to have noticed that the new plane, though again a 737, had fewer seats than the old, and passengers had to be rearranged. So it took well over half an hour to board us. In particular, my seat 9F didn't exist because of the over-wing exit, so I had to wait until last. They also had to bribe someone with 300 US dollars to fly the next day. After we were all aboard and they shut the doors, there was a further delay of about half an hour because something was wrong with the paperwork. Then it took a very long time for them to pull us back and for the pilot to taxi to the runway. Finally, five hours after the last attempt, I had the same view down the runway as before, and we successfully took off.

Meanwhile, people waiting for the flight in Brisbane were given no information by Qantas ground staff there. One person had got some earlier information from his sister waiting for the flight, so rumours began circulating; we had developed a fault halfway across the Tasman and turned back to Auckland; or we had developed a fault which they thought they had fixed, but rather than sending the plane up empty to test it they were using the passengers as guinea pigs; or we had been blown up by terrorists and the information was being suppressed. This was not helped when the one Qantas person they found simply referred them to the screens saying that what it said there must be right.

The flight itself was entirely uneventful. They served dinner at well past 1am Auckland time; I didn't want any, so just had some red wine, which I drank slowly, and dozed between sips. There were some stars outside the window but not very clear.

The comedy had to play out to the end. We landed in Brisbane and were soon at the gate. They promised us that there would be people to meet us; just after customs there would be ground staff to give out taxi vouchers or arrange overnight accommodation and re-book connecting flights. But the door didn't open, and eventually we were told to sit down again; one of the babies had been sick on the flight and we were not allowed off until a quarantine officer had come and done an inspection. So we waited a quarter of an hour (maybe; time had become a bit meaningless by then), no quarantine officer came; and eventually we were allowed to disembark.

Immigration and customs officers were magnificent. I doubt that they were enjoying an unexpected late shift, but they dealt with us with humour and the minimum of formalities. I came out the gate and there was Rosemary waiting for me. And suddenly everything was all right.

There was of course absolutely no sign of Qantas ground staff or taxi vouchers, though we did comb the airport for them. But there was one airport coach waiting for the plane. The driver had to wait until everyone was off the plane, so we stood around for another half hour, but somehow the delay didn't matter any more. Rosemary had been smart enough to go into town and check in earlier in the evening, since the hotel was locked when we arrived and nobody was about. But the card opened the door, and we went to our room and collapsed.

21 December 2008

After a slightly uneasy night (by the time I went to bed it was already the time I had been waking up in New Zealand), we got up, showered, and went downstairs. There was no problem getting an extra half hour before checkout time; then we had breakfast, and were able to go back up and pack in a leisurely fashion.

We checked out, went out, and heading for the Roma Street Parkland, made a rather roundabout walk, ending up at the bottom of the park below the old mill in Wickham Terrace. We sat there looking at the trees (some seemed to be New Zealand trees, possibly a kauri), butterflies, rainbow lorikeets and mickey birds in the treetops. Then we walked along towards the parkland. We found the gates firmly shut; damage from the severe storms had left this part of the parkland in a dangerous condition, but they were busy restoring it. So we carried on until we found a way in.

I had never been to the Parkland before, which had been railway land and completely inaccessible when I lived in Brisbane. I was really impressed with how well they had done it. There were many different habitats: ferns, palms, dry bush, waterlilies, Pacific island, etc. etc. There were treetop paths as well as paths along the gully. It was quite amazing how much they had squeezed into a small space. We saw quite a few lizards, butterflies, two ibis and a cormorant on the lake. Waterlilies, flame trees and frangipani were in flower, as were the banksias.

Roma Street Parkland

We ended up down on the lake again, and walked round it to the restaurant, a high-ceilinged barn-like building without walls so the breeze blew through, and decided to eat there. It was a lovely setting, and the food really good too (chicken and mango, or duck, spinach and pine nut); but it was the drinks we really needed, being quite dehydrated from a day spent on planes and in airports: we each had a smoothie and a Bundaberg ginger beer on ice.


We called Marie, and went back to the hotel to collect our bags, then headed for the transit centre in Roma Street. Marie had recommended Toowoomba Transit, and we found their sales desk very easily. A coach was about to leave, and they gave us a special offer on two tickets. There was no phone in sight so I couldn't give Marie an ETA, so we just jumped on the bus.

It was a remarkably smooth journey; and I have seldom seen the country looking as green as it was. You could see that the green grass had grown up through dry grass, as if brought on by recent rain; Marie says that not enough rain has fallen and more is needed. But we were in Toowoomba nearly ten minutes ahead of schedule. I phoned Marie from the bus station and we waited for her to come and pick us up. While we waited I saw two currawongs flying over.

Marie arrived soon and took us to her place. After coffee and cake, we felt strong enough to tackle the urgent job: laundry. We went down to the Wyalla Plaza and did a load of washing, then brought it back and hung it on Marie's line. On a warm day with a fair breeze, it would dry quickly.

We talked about the busy schedule Marie has arranged for the next two weeks: after the Christmas festivities, a trip south to Ballandean to see the Girraween National Park and do a winery tour, then a trip north to Gympie to see John and Jenny. Marie made us a very nice tea of pork steak, potatoes and homegrown vegetables, followed by pawpaw and ice cream, and then we settled down in front of the television to watch the very good movie "Joyeux Noel". By the time it finished it was bedtime.

22 December 2008

I slept soundly but woke early and listened to the horses walking past, getting their morning exercise. At six, a magpie came and sang outside the window for a while. I got up and showered, and took Aunt Marjorie's watercolour of Gowrie Mountain outside to make a photographic copy of it while the light was good. Then we had breakfast, and went to the shop for wrapping paper and stamps. We had coffee at the plaza while Rosemary put stamps on her postcards and put them in the box.

Gowrie Mountain

We had lunch of ham and avocado salad, and then set out to see tha Baz Luhrmann film "Australia". Marie drove to Newtown shopping centre to pick up her mail from her post office box (including a Christmas card from James and Debbie). Then we walked down town; parking so soon before Christmas would have been a bit of a nightmare. We went through Laurel Bank Park which had several nice features we didn't stop to see; there were a couple of currawongs on the grass. Then past the huge Grand Central shopping centre and along Margaret Street to the cinema.

An interesting film. A touching story, extremely well acted, but the whole thing was rather over the top, with too much in the way of special effects (big explosions, stampeding herds of cattle) and too little respect for historical detail (stockmen galloping their horses full tilt everywhere, the Japanese landing a large group on an island with nothing but a mission). Some spectacular Kimberleys scenery. Well worth seeing.

On the way back we spent quite some time in the scented garden at Laurel Bank Park, and a shorter time in the rose garden, saw a magpie and an unidentified brown and yellow bird, and then stopped for a drink at the shopping centre before driving home.

I got quite a shock when the television news had an item about a plane somewhere in the USA where the pilot had aborted takeoff, got into a skid, and burst into flames. Fortunately all the passengers got out alive. But we were probably only a few seconds away from something like that.

After dinner (4-ingredient chili con carne, and pawpaw and ice cream) we drove over to Queen's Park to see the Christmas light display, a fundraiser for charity and very popular. I like light on foliage, and there was some of that, but for the most part it was representational figures made out of tubing with lights in it, which didn't do much for me. But before setting out, and while there, we could see Venus, stunningly bright in the western sky.

23 December 2008

A fairly leisurely start in the morning. First we went round to the people at Marie's ISP. She had phoned them up and discovered that her ADSL line had been approved; she had to take her new Mac book round there to have it programmed to use the wi-fi modem she was buying. I went along so there was a second brain to remember the information. They promised to have it ready by 5 o'clock.

Then out to Biddeston to pick up Helen. The country was much greener than usual, though nothing like as green as below the Range. There was a large amount of purple verbena in evidence, covering the hillsides in a purple haze. Marie says that it doesn't harm the stock (who don't eat it) but it chokes out the grass and leaves them nothing to eat.

We collected Helen and headed in to Oakey in Helen's 4x4. After passing the police station (a bit different from when I got my driving licence in 1964), we parked in the street (a more complicated manoeuvre than I had to do in my test), and went to lunch in the RSL club. It was a large and un-fancy dining room, but the food was cheap and good; we all had to sign in as visitors in order to buy a bottle of wine. I had barramundi with salad and chips for less than twenty dollars.

Helen and Tai

Then we drove out to the nursing home where Betty is. Last time I had visited Betty, I had been warned that she was in bad shape, but she was actually better than I feared. This time, sadly, she was barely aware that she had visitors and showed no sign of recognition even of her sister.

Helen claimed that she had been notified that she'd won a bottle in a raffle. But they insisted that there hadn't been a raffle since September, in which she had won a bottle. Perhaps Helen just got muddled, though she insisted not.

We set off back for Helen's place. Marie took the Crosshill road as Rosemary and I were going to walk part of the way. We got out near the school and set off, up the road and along the bush track. Magpies and galahs called from the trees, and at one point Rosemary saw a kangaroo get up and leap into the scrub. As well as the purple verbena, there were several other kinds of wildflower including bluebells, and some tall kangaroo grass and paspalum. We saw a bird of prey, too big for a kestrel and with a square tail. No sign of any snakes, fortunately!

After a while we rejoined the road, and saw Marie riding her Arab mare Faith out to meet us. We came over the top of the ridge and saw the views of my childhood, from Gowrie Mountain to the Sugarloaves in one direction, and right to the Bunya mountains in another. We were looking over what had been Aughamore in my grandparents' day.

Before too long, Rosemary stopped, and it was clear that she had mild heatstroke. So we stayed in the shade of a tree while Marie rode the remaining kilometre or two to Helen's place. Fairly soon Helen showed up in the 4x4, with her dog Tai playing the role of a St Bernard, and we piled in gratefully.


Helen made tea and put out Christmas cake and ginger biscuits. Rosemary was understandably a bit subdued, and Marie was anxious to get underway to pick up her computer and new modem, so we didn't linger over tea. But we will see Helen again on Christmas day.

Marie rally-drove back into town and round to the ICR shop. We arrived about five or ten minutes after closing time, but Paul was still there; he gave us the computer and the modem as well as instructions how to connect it all up, and said he would be available by phone if there were any problems.

So we hurried home to try it out. I plugged in the modem, Marie started the computer, and when she asked what to do next I suggested trying to load a web page. It came at a speed far beyond what Marie had been used to with her dial-up connection. So far so good. But when we tried out email, something was clearly amiss. I suspected a problem with the mail servers, so Marie got on the phone to Paul. By the end of the evening, email was working flawlessly too, and Marie was a happy bunny. I tried it out on the white toy (Paul had given us the encryption method and passphrase, even though Marie doesn't need it since it is programmed in to her machine), and found that working pretty satisfactorily too. Things sometimes didn't work, but normally a second try was enough to fix the problem.

We had the remaining chili con carne on toast for tea, and then went back to our computers for the evening, as well as putting Rosemary's camera battery on to charge. I found another urgent job waiting for me, but did manage to download a CV for a postdoctoral candidate, which I can hopefully process before Perth.

24 December 2008

Not too much to do today. We went rounnd to Wyalla Plaza in the morning to do one more load of washing, since there will probably be no opportunity for a while. Then we went over to Wilsonton shopping centre for supplies for lunch tomorrow: a chicken, a bottle of wine, and a packet of bon-bons (which the English call crackers). While there, I tried to get some money out of a machine, since the guesthouse at Ballandean only accepts cash(!); the machine refused to give me any. Fortunately Rosemary got some, so we will be OK. But Marie doesn't like being beaten by a machine, and insisted that I try all the machines in the premises. All gave the same answer. I expect that one of two things has happened: either my bank has decided that the 500 dollars I withdrew in Brisbane on Sunday puts me over my weekly limit (which is absurd), or they have finally decided that someone has stolen my card and fled to Australia and New Zealand and is trying to get a couple of hundred dollars cash from a machine in Toowoomba, and have blocked the card (which would be extremely trying).

We came back and lunched on ham salad again.

In the afternoon, we first went down town to the Art Gallery, in Ruthven Street near the Herries Street intersection. It had several interesting exhibitions: work by a dozen weavers, who had each put up brief (and extremely contrasting) statements on the exhibition poster; 19th century English landscape painting from the permanent collection; art from the Ramsay hayshed, some of it quite remarkably accomplished – in particular, Tom Sharman, the owner of the shed, could do water in an unassuming but extremely good way, which could only be appreciated by shutting out the rest of the picture and the surroundings); and pictures by old bird illustrators.

As we came out of the gallery, there were a few large spots of rain. Marie wanted me to go down the street to try the ATM machines at the big banks, but I refused.

After that, and after a long wait to turn out into the Ruthven Street traffic, we went out to the Ju Raku En (long life and happiness garden), the Japanese garden at USQ. It seems that, despite their public commitment to this wonderful community asset, the University has sacked the person responsible for the garden. And it showed; it was quite a bit less kempt than it had been last time I was there.

Ju Raku En

One extrardinary change was that many of the taller trees were full of flying foxes, hanging side by side and squabbling noisily, sometimes just hanging by their feet and punching each other with their hands, sometimes climbing up and down to get a better attack. There were also very many currawongs, and not a lot of other wildlife apart from waterbirds (a cormorant on the island, and quite a few wood ducks).

Then we came home. Rosemary and I had wrapped presents in the morning, and she had realised that we had nothing for Jenny, so we went back to the chemist in Wyalla Plaza for the sort of last-minute Christmas shopping we had spent the day deprecating. After some indecision we chose some soap and body lotion. While queueing up to pay for it, Rosemary noticed people getting prescriptions, and remembered that Helen had asked us to get her prescription for her, and we had done nothing about it.

So she hurried back while I bought the soap and stuff. When I got back, Marie was just setting off in the car, so I jumped in beside her. When we got there, Marie went to the doctor's surgery and I went to the chemist across the road to see if they were still dispensing. The chemist told me that the doctor's surgery had been closed all day, which Marie was just finding out, and then proposed the sort of solution which would not be possible in most places.

I called Marie across the road. She gave the chemist Helen's number, and she rang to check what the prescription was actually for. After she got off the phone (Helen wanted to talk about the approaching storm and various other things), she came out and agreed to give us the sleeping pills and take the money for the dispensing and the doctor's prescription charge (promising to get the prescription when the surgery re-opens). Finally, as if we had done her a favour rather than the other way round, she gave us two calendars, wished us a happy Christmas, and sent us off.

By this time, it had started to rain, and when we got home, there was serious rain for a couple of minutes. The main storm went round to the south, and then the east, and there was a nice rainbow in the sky. But though smaller storms threatened, the rain seemed to be over.

For tea, Marie made us tandoori lamb chops from her new recipe books. Tasty but the texture was wrong, since they were cooked in a pan rather than baked in an oven. Vegetables good though. Then Marie opened a tin of pineapples, but had none herself, so I had to eat more than I wanted. Perhaps that explained what happened next day.

After tea we listened to the tail end of a concert where a very good singing group sang "The twelve days of Christmas", interpolating an appropriate song between verses, for example "100 pipers" after "nine pipers piping". Then we opened our presents and sat for a while before going to bed. Early start tomorrow!

25 December 2008

We were up at 6:30, and on the road about ten minutes after the proposed time of 7:30. Marie was singing a duet with Sue Batzloff and hadn't rehearsed it, and clearly wouldn't have time to rehearse before the 8 o'clock service.

The current incumbent at Oakey is an old priest in his eighties who lives in Tenterfield and comes for four days a week; according to Marie he does more in four days than his full-time predecessors might do in a week. Apparently he broke his neck at some point and is partially disabled, and a little difficult to understand. He preached a strange sermon in which the Jews were clearly blamed for handing Jesus over to the Romans, and then we had a long bit about how parthenogenesis is impossible in higher organisms, followed by a sort of throwaway line "but it doesn't really matter". In my view both Occam's razor and the correct translation of Isaiah suggest that it's much more likely that Mary wasn't a virgin, but what would I know?

Helen sat, as usual, in the pew under Claude's window, with TieTie tied up to the leg of the pew and behaving himself very well; we sat beside her and Marie came after her duet (which was not bad at all for something completely unrehearsed, though not terribly precise).

After the service we had a nice chat with David and Sue Batzloff and various others. Helen and Marie drove off in their cars, and Rosemary and I set off to walk the 4 kilometres to Helen's place. Margaret stopped to offer us a lift, and a bit further on, a man in a house near Mrs Luck's old place came out to offer to drive us; we explained that we were really doing it for pleasure. We saw many galahs but no fringed violets.


It was too early for lunch when we arrived, so we had a cold beer and sat and chatted for a while until lunchtime. Cold chicken, cold ham, potatoes, peas, corn, and asparagus (Helen forgot to put out the tomatoes and cucumber) and a nice white wine. Then Helen's delicious Christmas pudding with silver threepences and sixpences in it. I had two helpings (perhaps a little too much) and got one of each.

After lunch we were all a bit subdued and took naps, but I was really feeling a bit dodgy, and had to keep dashing to the loo and to the kitchen for water. Finally at tea, just after Sal turned up and had a coffee but refused food, I threw up, and then felt a bit better.

After tea, we came home. I had only dry toast and ginger cordial for tea, and took a shower, and then felt somewhat better. I should be fine tomorrow; I'd better be the next day (last chance this year for a decent walk). We did an Araucaria crossword and looked up timetables for getting to Gympie on Monday.

It won't be an easy trip; there are no Greyhound buses from Brisbane to Gympie, and Polley's doesn't seem to run buses any more, just tours to Tasmania, Norfolk Island and such places; and there is one train a day, leaving at 5:40pm and due in at 8:33pm, but there is track work so the train is replaced by a bus from Petrie and may be half an hour late. John and Jenny didn't call, and didn't answer when we called them; we are hoping that this is not bad news.

26 December 2008

They rang on Boxing Day morning. Christmas day had been rather disrupted by their losing a cow and a calf; the calf had been found but the cow was still on the other side of the river.

After breakfast we packed our things into two sets of luggage, one for the trip to the Granite Belt and one to be picked up on Monday on our way to the bus station. Then we set off and pottered south.

Apart from pulling in to look at the Bull's Head Inn at Drayton, the first stop was Steele Rudd's father's selection, with reconstructed slab house and small shed with one milking bail. The walls of the house were not even papered with newspaper; the wind would have whistled through. There was a feed trough for the cows in the front of the milking bail, made out of a split tree trunk. They also had some old farm machinery (a plough and a scuffler).

Steele Rudd selection

Then, for a contrast, we went to look at two squatters' places, Talgai and Glengallan. The first of these is now a private hotel, and is some distance from the road behind a locked gate. The second has been restored from its ruinous condition; we drove up to the house, but it was only open at weekends, so we could only get an impression. The contrast between squatters and selectors could hardly have been more vividly made. I thought later, how different Queensland from Scotland in this respect!

We stopped for lunch in a huge service station just before Warwick, and had quite a decent meal, not too expensive. Then we continued on south. The land grew higher and more rugged as we went; almost all signs of cultivation disappeared until the Granite Belt began. We took the old road, past several wineries, fruit stalls and antique shops.

We stopped in Sutton's cidery and fruit shop where we tasted cider and several kinds of fruit liqueur, had coffee, and read some hilarious signs on the wall (the comparison between cars and computers; mathematics teaching; Qantas pilots' "gripe sheets" and engineers' replies). We bought some cider and some apple butter for John and Jenny.

Next stop was Crystal Ridge lavender farm, with a garden of lavender and rosemary and a souvenir shop. The main attraction here was the menagerie, with two donkeys, a Nubian goat, three tiny ponies, two alpacas, and some chooks and ducks including one chook (a silky) which looked more like a fluffy sheep. They use the alpacas to guard flocks of sheep from dogs and foxes; we saw a big red alpaca on guard duty on the way out.

In Stanthorpe we stopped at the tourist information centre (a nice little building on the landscaped bank of Quart Pot Creek). I managed to get a decent map of the national parks, 1:37000, with the walking tracks marked and described. We have tentatively decided to try the Mt Norman circuit tomorrow.

That done, we finally drove out of town on the Wallangarra road, found Severnlea and the turnoff, and successfully navigated to the Jireh guest house, where we put our bags in our rooms and chatted to the landlady, Margaret Taylor, a very nice and enthusiastic woman who has run the B&B alone since her husband died. (His model train layout is still upstairs.) While we talked, a heavy storm burst, and the rain came pouring down, twenty millimetres in maybe half an hour.

We had hoped to go for a walk before tea (and even offered to walk the dog), but because of the storm were rather late starting. When we finally got out, the rain had brought out the smells of vegetation, and had encouraged a very fine frog chorus to start up. While we walked round the block, we were treated to some very impressive lightning flashes from the departing storm, now on the hills across the valley.

We got back, watched the news and weather, and went out to eat. As we left, the light on the back porch spendidly illuminated a grape vine with drops of water from the rain. We drove into Stanthorpe, where the first eating place we came to was the Chinese restaurant. We went in there and had a more than adequate dinner, with fresh local ingredients and no MSG.


On the way home, we were treated to an extraordinary display of lightning; and after we arrived, the rain started again and came down quite heavily until after bedtime.

27 December 2008

It dawned cloudy but with no rain. After breakfast we hit the road south. The plan was to buy lunch in the general store in Ballandean (which had been recommended to us). Marie decided to get some fruit, but her favourite fruit stall was closed.

The Ballandean store was a bit of a dead loss. We saw a "mini market" at the service station, but drove through the town and back, not really believing that could be it. Finally I went to the tourist information centre, in the old railway station. It was closed, but there was a map on the wall, which showed four things in order along the main road, the school, store, hall, and post office, so there was no doubt about it.

They had no sandwiches, but offered us pies or sausage rolls. They had very little else either. Some rather unpleaant looking bread rolls; some drinks (including water) in the fridge, but no cheese, ham, or anything else; some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Finally we bought some fruit cake, apples, and a bottle of water.

We went on and took the turn for the Girraween National Park, and drove up the road past Heavenly Chocolate, where we agreed to go if the rain stopped us walking. Soon we came to the beginning of the national park. So much for the stern warnings suggesting the rangers would check your gear before letting you out: the ranger station was closed. There was a toilet block behind it, also closed, with a sign telling you to go to the "new facilities" without saying where they are. We found them next to the main car park.

Finally we gathered our things and were off. Our path took us through the campsite, where a lot of very tame kangaroos were resting on the grass, and climbed steadily up to the foot of Castle Rock, where our ways parted. Marie took the right-hand track (less than 2km) to the Turtle and Sphinx, and went part way up Castle Rock on the way back. Rosemary and I took the other track to Mt Norman.

Our path gently descended through some very pleasant forest. Although spring is well past, there were surprisingly many wildflowers, including more fringed violets than I have ever seen in one place; various other purple, pink, yellow or blue flowers, from tiny to quite large; a considerable variety of fungi, from small white ones to one huge orange and yellow beast; and several species of wattle in flower, some quite large trees and visible from a long way away. There were also gum trees in flower, and bushes with red berries; a lily-like plant had bright purple berries.

Fringed violet

We crossed a stream and went across a fairly level tongue of land, slightly more open, offering vistas of rocky valley walls on both sides. Then we crossed another stream and the serious climbing began. Up the side of a ridge, zig-zag across the ridge face and behind a huge boulder, then across the first of very many granite pavements at varying slopes, some quite steep. Near the start it was a bit tricky since the pavement was convex and the steepest bit was at the start. The open pavement gave vistas across the eucalyptus forest back to Castle Rock and to the ridge on the other side of the valley.


Finally we came down from a pavement to a track which led under huge rocks, across the main ridge, and to the viewpoint for the Eye of the Needle under the huge rocks forming the summit of the mountain. (This is not really a hole in the rock, despite appearances, but two rocks one in front of the other.) We stopped for lunch there. Sad to say, by this point my camera battery was low, and I was only taking absolutely essential photos (and I'd left my charger in Toowoomba, along with my compass, my torch, and the belt for my long trousers!).

The climb to the top of Mt Norman is only for serious climbers. We went round the edge of the rocky dome, through rock arches and cuttings, past two girls taking photographs, and out onto the descending pavements. These were more scary in appearance than those on the way up, since they formed a huge continuous sweep; but they were not as steep, and were indeed concave, so the walking got easier as we went down, ending up as a stroll in the park. Some quite substantial streams ran down the sloping granite.

At the bottom we came into forest and were at once in a completely different world, with once again flowers, wattle, and green leaves. The track followed a stream with Mt Norman dramatically visible on the other side. Some of the limestone pavements had colours giving the impression of huge aboriginal paintings.

As we walked through the forest, we heard distant thunder. We heard kookaburras laughing at these silly people about to get wet, and what was probably a lyrebird imitating the sound of a siren or alarm.

Arriving at Underground Creek, we found the steep rocks and potholes on the creek impossible to pass. Normally I would have read the instructions once again, but just then the rain started, and came down in absolute torrents, so that the rocks became positively dangerous. I had a quick glance at the map and decided to abandon the attempt to continue down the stream, and take instead a slightly longer path going round the mountain.

When we got to the creek crossing, the water was flowing fast, but we managed to cross, and continued up the track, now itself quite a considerable torrent. At last the rain eased off, and we passed some lovely wattle and more striking fungi. We came to the locked gate onto the road, and managed to negotiate the barbed wire fence. Some large birds flew up and alighted in a tall tree. I thought they were too big to be galahs; I am almost sure they were black cockatoos. Another couple of kilometres brought us to Doctor Roberts' car park, where we had hoped to come out after walking down the creek.

There was a small white Toyota in the car park, and investigation showed that it had Marie in it. She'd come looking for us, but expected us to come the other way. We gratefully piled in, and were spared the most boring part of the walk, the 4 kilometres back along the road.

Despite the soaking, it was altogether a thoroughly delightful walk; the combination of amazing granite formations (including highly improbable balancing rocks) and delightful wildflowers made for real enjoyment. However, there was no longer any question of going to Chocolate Heaven; our priority was to go back to the B&B and have a hot shower. Marie insisted that fruit cake was not adequate lunch, and called in at the service station at Glen Aplin (which was actually much better than the Ballandean store), while Rosemary and I ate cake and drank water and failed to get far with our bad Ballandean apples.

Then we headed back to Jireh, where hot showers, cups of tea, and superior fruit cake awaited us.

We went into Stanthorpe and dined in O'Mara's Hotel. Tolerably good except for a curious incident. The dessert menu said we could choose cream or ice cream with our dessert. The woman taking the order insisted that what it really meant is that you couldn't have cream or ice cream with your dessert. Oh well, this is an Irish pub, I thought, and ordered anyway. Both the tart and the cheesecake came with ice cream! (Marie had ice cream with fruit coulis so avoided the problem.)

After dinner we walked up the main street. Marie wanted to post a letter but there was no Sunday collection. I tried to get cash from the machine; still no luck. If it is not working in a day or two I will have to try to contact the bank to find out what is going on.

28 December 2008

It was drizzling when we finished breakfast. Margaret let us put our wet clothes in the dryer, but it didn't have very much effect. So we draped them round the room while we went out on the winery tour.

First we went to Granite Ridge winery, near Ballandean. We were the second last people to be picked up; the last couple were staying at the winery. There were ten of us on the tour, including two young British postdocs from the University of Queensland and a rigger on Sydney Harbour Bridge.

We had a tasting at Granite Ridge as well. They were a small winery and very friendly and forthcoming. They had a good unwooded Chardonnay and a Cabernet and Cabernet/Merlot; one of the more interesting things was a Merlot – Petit Verdot – Tempranillo blend. There was quite a bit of adventurous blending going on around the district. They explained everything clearly and provided a spittoon and plenty of water.

I tried out my camera to see if it was still working after the wetting it had got yesterday. I was dismayed to find the image defaced by a huge watermark. This and the very low battery discouraged me from taking photos for the rest of the day.

We went on to Ballandean Estate, a large and old-established concern which supplements its winemaking with events such as Opera in the Vineyard, which Marie has been to. I thought they suffered by comparison with Granite Ridge: they gave us no explanation, no water or spittoon, and the man serving was somewhat offhand; and, more important, I thought the wines less good despite their reputation.

The third vineyard on the same road, almost opposite the Ballandean Estate, was Golden Grove. They had adventured with several new grape varieties, Barbera, Tempranillo and Durif; the first two were not so hot but the Durif could stand up to a Shiraz in my opinion. They also had a blend of the three which was definitely more than the sum of its parts.

Then to the other side of the New England Highway for the highlight of the day, Aventine Wines. It was run by a fairly young couple without any help; they had bought the property for a weekend bolthole, but a friend, a wine critic, had told them that with such a well-drained north-facing slope they just had to plant vines; so they did, and soon they were hooked. Their wines were definitely among the best we tasted all day. A Cabernet Sauvignon and a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon – Muscat blend were both excellent, as was their unwooded Chardonnay – Semillon. The real surprise was a delicious sparkling white Cabernet, with the texture and taste of good champagne. And alone among the vineyards we visited, they provided bread and their own extra virgin olive oil. They said they didn't go in for shows or any of that guff, and they are not well known, but more power to them! They were lovely people, as well.

Then back along the highway to Mason Wines, our lunch stop. They had some interesting combinations as well, a Chardonnay – Verdelho "verandah wine" and a Shiraz Viognier (only a dash of the white Viognier grape, but I thought its aroma overpowered the Shiraz). Then out to the verandah where our lunch table awaited.

We had been asked to order lunch at the start of the day. Rosemary and I had both ordered lamb shank, but that turned out to be unavailable, so I had changed my order to beef hot pot. It was very tasty, under a light pastry crust, and (being a pie) was served with mashed potato and mushy peas. The main course was preceded with a very nice antipasto plate of sausage, cheese, gherkins, apple, and crackers. No surprise, none of us felt the need of wine with our lunch!

First stop after lunch was Rumbalara Estate. This was a bit different; their vines had been burnt out a few years ago, so all the wines on offer were very young, and many of the vines were not yet in production. The South African owners have set their faces against oaking their wines, and indeed they were softer and more fruity than most wines we had tasted during the day. Most of them were named after African animals. Highlights included a sweetish white made from the Waltham Cross grape; a Shiraz – Cabernet – Merlot blend; a sparkling rosé made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; and a good white port made from Verdelho grapes. I also tried their chocolate and coconut flavoured cream liqueur.

That was almost the end of the vineyards for the day, to our relief. The next stop was the Jam Works, in an old school building with a notice on the door saying "Young girls wanted for pickling". As well as jams they did have some pickles, all a bit sweet for my taste.

From there to Mt Stirling Olives. We tasted four kinds of olives; the plain ones (Kalamata the best of these) were very good, I don't think additives improved them. They also had some tapenades and things to taste with bread and olive oil. The best was a remarkable concoction called Dukkah, which was crumbed and lightly toasted cashew nuts, incredibly tasty with almost a sesame edge to it, for which I could think of many culinary uses.

They also had a fudge shop, but that I didn't need.

By popular request we went to the Granite Belt Dairies, a fairly new cheesemaker some distance north and west. They make about ten very varied types of cheeses from the milk of their own herd of Jersey cows (looking very sleek on the lush feed after the rain). Sad to say, another coach arrived just after ours, so I didn't get a chance of a second go at the cheese; but even what they called "mild" cheese was very tasty indeed.

Our last stop, Castle Glen, was just down the road from the dairy. This place, built in the shape of a mock castle, was not designed to appeal to me; they specialise in liqueurs, of which they have hundreds of different types. I had no idea where to begin so didn't even start. We went out and had a chance (for the first time all day) to look at the grapes. Of course at this time of year they were very small; but they seemed not to be doing at all well, as most bunches had already shed many of their grapes.

So finally it was the end, and the driver dropped us off in the same order as the pickup, getting to Jireh by a back road from Castle Glen. The next guests had arrived, with a big black dog, and were unpacking. Margaret made us a cup of tea, and we chatted. It turns out that not only is Margaret the first cousin once removed of Kit Zimmerle in Biddeston, but her husband Ken Taylor did mathematics and physics in the same year as me at the University of Queensland (though my memory lets me down here, I can't place him).

The weather had been getting better all day, and by sunset we were treated to an absolutely remarkable display. White clouds were coloured peachy yellow, while black clouds were tipped with brilliant fiery orange; the shapes of the clouds were really remarkable as well.

We decided we needed something light to eat so set off for the Glen Aplin roadhouse. It had sandwiches on the menu, but was clean out of bread. I decided to take the bird in hand, and bought a pie, and Rosemary a fruit bar; but Marie was determined on someting with salad in it, so we continued to the Ballandean Tavern. It was very busy, and we had a bit of trouble finding space in the car park. Marie ordered a chicken breast salad; Rosemary and I, having eaten, just had ginger beer. Marie's salad took a long time coming, but when it came it was huge and delicious.

As the clouds had almost cleared, when we got back to Jireh we walked down the track away from the house lights to look at the stars. There was an incredible display. As Rosemary said, in Britain you see just the few stars making up the shape of Orion, and don't realise what a rich collection of stars you are not seeing in that constellation. There were two patches of light that we tentatively identified as the Magellanic Clouds, and a small cluster that was probably the Pleiades. Venus was hugely bright in the west, with a distinct corona caused by a passing cloud, while Sirius was the brightest (but by no means dominant) star in the east.

When we went in, the possibility struck me that the problem with my camera might be just the viewing screen; so I transferred yesterday's and today's pictures to the white toy, and was delighted to find that this possibility was correct. Some of the Girraween photos have turned out well.

29 December 2008

In the morning we had breakfast with the new guests (who were only staying one night then heading back to Brisbane). It was a congenial conversation: his brother had gone back to university to finish his maths degree at age 40. Margaret showed me her and Ken's wedding photo. The face in the photo seemed strangely familiar but I can't say I have retrieved anything from my memory yet.

We set off and drove to Stanthorpe and up Mt Marlay, where there was a splendid view of the town and the surrounding countryside and mountains. It was a super day for views: the air clear, the sun shining but clouds casting shadows on the distant hills. A small bottle tree was growing in a depression in the granite slab right in front of the viewpoint, and there were bright blue and yellow flowers.


We drove to the maze, but it charged 14 dollars admission and we knew that we wouldn't be there long enough to get our money's worth, so we went instead to a pottery just round the corner, which has only been in business since May and has some lovely stuff. We bought two eggcups which could easily double as spirit glasses.

We stopped at Vincenzo's, where Marie bought some fruit; but they didn't have any sandwiches, so we hit the road and drove to Warwick where we stopped at the same service station as on the way down, and collected three packs of sandwiches (chicken and ham with nice fresh salad). On the way up to Toowoomba we were following a big truck which claimed to be loaded with shredded lettuce; remarkably, it turned off towards Cambooya.

Back in Toowoomba, we arrived at Marie's house, where she discovered that there had only been 9mm of rain. We ate our sandwiches, had a cup of tea, and ate mangoes in the garden, while I put half an hour's charge into my camera battery. Then we picked up our bags and Marie drove us to the Toowoomba Transit stop down town.

The trip to Brisbane was quick and pleasant, the country looking if anything even greener than when we arrived, and much greener than the Downs (unusually green though it was). It was the stopping bus, but only made two stops, neither on the timetable: one at the Murphy's Creek road, and one in Indooroopilly (after which we drove in along Coronation Drive, for a nice change).

At Roma Street we bought tickets and confirmed the time and platform for the Gympie train. Then we had a longish wait (partly because the bus had been so quick). I found a 7/11 and bought sandwiches, juice and muesli bars for our tea, and tried my card in two more machines without success. (This is a bit worrying; I will have to try to contact the bank next time I have email access.) Rosemary wrote a postcard and went off to post it. Then we went off to get the train.

It came in and announced that, despite the notices about trackwork, it was actually going to Gympie North. We found four seats and occupied them (the train wasn't busy) and opened the blind on our window and the one opposite. Then we ate our tea as the train trundled off. It stopped at all stations to Bowen Hills and then ran non-stop to Caboolture; I reckoned that if it didn't stop at Petrie we would be safe. After that it stopped everywhere.

The daylight was fading by the time we left Caboolture, but we managed to get a few glimpses of some of the Glasshouse Mountains as we passed, stark and dramatic against the sky. Then it really was dark for the rest of the trip, and nothing showed our progress except the stations we stopped at, almost all with short platforms so that passengers had to go right to the front. Between Caboolture and Glasshouse Mountains they were building a new bit of track, straighter than the old one; I suppose they will abandon the old one since they have reconstructed the stations so that they only have platforms on the new track.

Finally we got to Gympie and piled off, and there was Jenny to meet us with a shiny new car they have rented for our visit. We loaded up and set off for Lagoon Pocket. Driving along the street, we spotted Craig who works for a liquor store and was just taking the signs in. We stopped for a few words, arranging to see him tomorrow.

John and Megan were at home when we arrived. We had a cup of tea and sat around talking for a while until bedtime (later than recently, but we had been travelling since breakfast).

30 December 2008

I slept very soundly. The morning milking was already done when I dragged myself up just before 8. I looked out on a beautifully clear sunny day; the temperature is predicted to reach 37. We breakfasted on cereal and fruit. Today we go to Kingaroy to see Gillian, Jason and their kids (Bailey, whom I met when he was a baby, and the new baby Cooper, now three months old). Megan will stay with them for a while.

Lagoon Pocket

Jenny and Megan went in the ute, and the rest of us in the air-conditioned hire car, stopping in town to pick up Craig. It was a beautiful journey over, the country greener than usual, and little sign until right at the end of the purple verbena plaguing the Downs. (John says it had been bad here until recently but has just disappeared.) We traded jokes and horror stories about bureaucracy most of the way. (He has a much bigger fund of both than I do.)

When we arrived, Jason was at work and couldn't get back for lunch. John and Jenny had brought the steaks and salad for a barbecue. But the on-off switch on the gas-fired barbecue was broken, so John had to cook the steaks on the rather small grill, and made a fine job of it. Very good steak too, much better than the rather gristly piece I had at the Irish pub in Stanthorpe. Very fine accompaniments: mixed salad with tomato and basil dressing, fresh avocado, tinned asparagus, beetroot. I had a Bundaberg Peachie to drink, a new one on me but very pleasant. Meanwhile, Craig painted Bailey's face in a passable imitation of a storm trooper, and Cooper mostly just slept, while the rest of us ate and talked.

John and Cooper

No time to linger since the cows have to be milked. We left Kingaroy by a different road, past the small country school at Crawford where Bailey will start next year, and then back to the highway. On the way back, John wanted to take us to the very good information centre in Wondai with displays about the timber industry; but it had closed at 4, and we missed it. We walked around the town a little way and then set off again. We went back a different way, through Widgee, starting off along one of the prettiest valleys I have seen.

Arrived back, John and Jenny swung into action, and Rosemary and I decided to walk down to the river. The dogs Tess (the old collie) and Gemma (the blue cattledog), who had declined going to round up the cows on the grounds that it was work, decided to come with us. We hurried to get away before we would meet the cows coming up the lane. As we set out, one of the most magnificent sunsets I have seen for a long time was beginning to develop; so of course we had to keep stopping to take photographs.

We went down the lane, avoiding the way the cows were coming, and down the next-door neighbours' track to the river, where the dogs went in for a swim (it was excessively humid, and they were panting rapidly by this time). As we came up, the colours were even more magnificent, and it was impossible to resist photographing trees sillhouetted against a pale blue sky and brilliant orange cloud. In other directions were purples, pinks and greys.


I don't know exactly what will happen to this stretch of river if the universally hated Traveston Crossing Dam is actually built, but I do not think it will be improved.

Arriving back, we skirted the milking bails past the bulls' paddock, and came back in the front, dripping with sweat. But cold water and the ceiling fan improved things greatly. We made a supper out of very tasty ham hacked from the bone in the fridge, and nibbles of various sorts.

31 December 2008

The plan for today had been lunch in the pub at Imbil; but, because of bad reports about this pub, we had switched to Kenilworth instead, where the portions were reputed to be huge.

We set off a back way to the Mary Valley highway. Almost at once was a sign showing where the dam wall will be, followed by many signs showing the water level once it is built. I have to say it seems an absurd site for a dam. The valley is flat and wide here; the dam wall will be huge, and the water will cover a vast area of rich agricultural land to a depth of only one or two metres. So there will be huge evaporation, and huge growth of waterweed in the sun-warmed water. Also, John says that the ground is very porous, so there will be huge loss through leakage as well. It is quite impossible to believe that the dam engineers don't realise this, which makes one quite sure that there is a hidden agenda: are the farmers and townspeople being removed for some other purpose, under cover of building a dam which will never be built?

Kenilworth is a pretty town, with a very large pub painted in heritage colours in the main street. We ordered our dinner – three of us went for red salmon, Jenny the odd one out with a steak – and sat on a table on the verandah. While we were getting the food, a smoker came and, somewhat aggressively, moved us on, quoting some unbelievable rule that you can't eat in the smoking area. So we moved under the roof to a place where there was a bit of through draught (it was another very hot day) and had an enjoyable meal. We finished with pudding (caramel mud cake).

Then we walked down the street, through the park, to the cheese factory. The locals took over the factory from Kraft who were going to close it down; it is a working factory, and you can look in through the window (though not much was happening except cleaning up at this time of day). They had cheese to taste outside; I didn't try the flavoured cheeses, but the vintage mature cheese was very good.

We went to the Tourist Information Centre and got information about walks, about the Mary Valley Rattler (the tourist train, which will also disappear if the dam is built), and some Stop the Dam postcards.

After this, we drove through Imbil and up the narrow road to the Borumba Dam (where the water in the Mary that John uses for irrigation comes from). This dam was much more sensibly located, in a deep valley between steep hills where a short wall can hold back a big volume of water with a small surface area.

As we approached the parking spot above the dam wall, a very tame wallaby was sitting beside the road, ad didn't bother to budge as we drove past. Indeed on the way back, there was a family there (father, mother, and joey in pouch), who sat unconcerned despite the fact that a man had stopped his car and got out just beyond them, and allowed me to take their picture without even stirring from the car. Apart from a bit of red-eye, a real poster shot. Another wallaby lurked further down the road.

Wallaby family

We drove back to Imbil and attempted to go to the tourist information centre; but, as in Wondai, it had closed at 4 and we were too late. So we went back a different way, through Kandanga and Amamoor. Just past Amamoor, following the road to Dagun, we went straight ahead where we should have turned. The road got gradually worse, narrower, more rutted, and steeper, and eventually we had to admit defeat and turn back. But the right road was easy to find. And so back past Dagun station, where some of the steam train excursions go for the market, and back home.

Rosemary and I set off for a walk. By contrast to yesterday, the sky was almost completely cloudless. We walked down the track to the lagoon, stopping to talk to old George as we passed his house.

The lagoon has quite a lot of water in it; in the top end, it was covered with some kind of scummy growth, but further down the water was clear and enticing. There are some magnificent gum trees on the bank of the lagoon, and in the light of setting sun they were looking at their best. We passed a Hereford cow and calf down there; she was a bit worried by our intrusion but didn't threaten us. We saw quite a few waterbirds including a heron and many ducks.


We decided to walk down to the river; to get to the lagoon we had turned off the track whose continuation took us to where we were yesterday. As we came out to the grass, we saw what we took to be rabbits. There were several of them, and on closer inspection they turned out to be hares. Also, as we passed some cultivation, the setting sun cast our shadows on the ploughed earth, and I noticed a very clear heiligenschein about my head. I called out to Rosemary to look at the shadow of her own head, and she saw it too.

The river was very calm and peaceful; water boatmen skated about on the surface, and occasionally something jumped for an insect, though we never managed to see what it was. As we turned for home, the sun had just set, and we watched the twilight wedge rise in the eastern sky. In the west, there was a sliver of new moon, and as darkness fell we could see the old moon in its arms, and also Venus above forming one half of last month's "smile in the sky" (not visible from London because of cloud). Jupiter has now moved away, but we had a very good view of the "wink in the sky".

We went back to the house and sat on the verandah, watching the light fade and the stars come out. After a while, we went round the front and stood in the road. The display of stars was as good as at Stanthorpe a few nights ago. In addition, a firefly flickered on and off in the fence. We stood entranced for a while, but eventually the biting insects drove us inside and we had a bite to eat.

When John and Jenny came in from milking, we decided that even if we were not going to stay up for the new year, we should mark the occasion. So we opened a bottle of lavender liqueur from a lavender farm near Kingaroy, and had melon and ice cream with mango sauce, and drank to the new year, crawling off to bed at about 11:15.

1 January 2009

We woke, showered, breakfasted and did the dishes. When John and Jenny came back for breakfast, they kept trying to phone Rob and Shaz, getting no response. In the meantime, I managed to book bus tickets for tomorrow. There were two possible buses, one late morning coming from Hervey Bay and going via Noosa and Maroochydore, the other coming from Cairns and going down the main road. The idea of a bus from Cairns seemed to me to be a bit risky, so I booked us on the other one. Then I transferred some of our photos onto John's and Jenny's computer.

We packed the esky with steaks from the freezer, the makings of salad, and cold drinks, and loaded it into the car. Before we drove off, we went down the road a bit looking for the mopokes. There they were, sitting in two forks on opposite sides of a small wattle tree by the side of the road. Not easy to photograph because of the camouflage and the surrounding leaves!

We hit the road and set off for Eumundi, going onto the Bruce Highway via Traveston Crossing. On the main road, there were many more signs put up by the dam protesters, some of them giving the impression that they suspect that it is a land grab rather than a serious proposal to build a dam.

John missed the turn-off to Eumundi, and we ended up driving down to Yandina, filling up the car at a BP service station in the town, and then heading back up the highway. Eventually we were there, and found the right road with only a little difficulty. It is a lovely house, on a steep slope but high enough to catch any breeze that comes by; open, so that the coolness can penetrate right in, and really beautifully decorated. Strangely, there is a quarter-built house next door, with lots of natural timber just left out in the rain to rot; it seems that the owner has lost interest, or got cold feet, or something.

Rob's and Shaz's house

We sat on the verandah with John and Rob while Jenny and Shaz made the lunch. Eventually they decided that the steaks were too solidly frozen to cook, so we had ham instead. But the salad was the main thing. We all got on like a house on fire. All too soon Shaz had to get dressed and go out to work, and we had to set off again.

Back down the highway to Yandina, this time on purpose, for a stop at the ginger factory, a place which you just can't miss if you are anywhere in the vicinity! I decided to look for lightweight Christmas presents, and got a couple of wombats for Logan and Lex and various other things. We sat and had cold drinks in the outdoor covered seating area, with all kinds of trees, ferns and flowers all around us, before getting back in the car and heading back up the highway to where the milking waited.

Ginger factory

Back home, we went for a walk while John and Jenny got to work as usual. There were storms on the way; one was clearly going round to the north of us, but the other looked like it might have been heading our way. So we decided just to walk up Lagoon Pocket Road a little way and back. We went as far as the railway bridge. One mopoke was still in the tree; the cormorant was in his usual place on the tree above the pond as we went out, though he had gone when we came back; a moorhen and chick swam on the pond; some bird screeched from one of the beautiful eucalyptus trees we passed. The rain was just beginning to spatter as we got back, but nothing came of it.

After milking was finished, John cooked the steaks we'd brought back from Eumundi and we had them with salad – delicious with ginger beer spiders! We talked till quite late and then went to bed.

2 January 2009

Up, breakfasted, showered and packed, when a neighbour came round with the first of the season's pawpaws. We had it with thick Cooloola Jersey cream; it was a really good one! By about half past ten we were ready to leave to catch the 11:10 bus.

At 11:05 a bus came in; it wasn't ours, and the driver was surprised that we had booked on the later one. I can't remember why I did, but there was what seemed like a good reason. But ours came in very soon afterwards, and we got on and waved goodbye to John and Jenny. What a super holiday!

The bus, of course, got onto the highway and almost immediately stopped for the lunch stop at Matilda, and waited there for three quarters of an hour. It took quite a long time to get back on the road: the highway is a busy two-lane road and traffic from the service area joins it at a T-junction with a stop sign. It seems that they are doing nothing to this road until the question of the dam is resolved. Finally we were rolling.

The bus went via Noosa and Maroochydore. We were caught in very heavy traffic in Noosa, perhaps partly caused by the fact that there was a pop festival starting tomorrow. We went on the coast road to Coolum, round the back of the mountain, and across the new bridge over the Maroochy River. Then into Maroochydore and along past Alexandra Headland where we had seaside holidays many years ago (when it looked very different!). We turned back off and regained the highway. Apart from delays caused by roadworks at Caboolture, the rest of the trip was uneventful, and we arrived at the Transit Centre in Brisbane half an hour late.

Of course, they show films on Greyhounds. When we got on, a rather silly rom-com was most of the way through, and I managed to ignore it satisfactorily. After Noosa, they showed the film "K-Pax" about an alien from a thousand light years away who lands in a psychiatric institution; he manages to cure the doctor and the patients but not to persuade the doctor that he is what he claims to be. All rather unbelievable, especially the explicit message that because the universe repeats its state infinitely often we have to get it right this time since we will be compelled to repeat our mistakes. (Surely we are repeating them now?)

I changed some pounds into dollars in the Transit Centre, assuming that I won't be able to knock sense into the bank for a while. Then we went to the hotel, checked in, paid (since we leave before the desk opens), ordered boxed breakfasts, and dumped our bags. We tried to book the Coachtrans bus to the airport, but the hotel seemed unable to do this for us. So we went back to the Transit Centre, compared the bus and the airtrain, and made a booking on the bus leaving at 5:25.

Then we jumped on a train to Dutton Park, walked across the new bridge, through the University, and by the river to Toowong. The bridge is very regimented: pedestrians on one side, cyclists on the other, and even the pedestrians segregated into two directions by arrows, while buses only are allowed on the roadway, to a bus circle serving the University. There were very good views of the mangroves from the deck of the bridge.

We walked up the hill by the lakes and past the Students Union, and round the drive down to the No 1 oval and the boatshed. Then we took the back roads near the river to Toowong, past the old West End ferry and the new City Cat dock at Guyatt Park. Many flame trees here impressively in flower. We passed the motel where we had stayed briefly some time ago, then up the hill and over the bridge to Toowong station.

Schonell Bridge

We took a train to Central, and strolled down Edward Street, stopping in a bar for a well-earned beer. Then we turned up the Queen Street Mall. The Pig 'n' Whistle, one of the 24-hour cafés, was advertising tandoori chicken and mango salad with cashew nuts, which we couldn't resist. They also had Cooper's Pale Ale. We had a very nice dinner, and finished it off with passionfruit tart, with cream and ice cream.

Then back to the hotel, to pack and set the alarm for very early.


3 January 2009

I was awake at 4:15 but asleep again when the alarm went off. We woke and dressed, and were at the bus stop fifteen minutes early. The bus was pretty much on time, and got us to the airport shortly after 6.

The booking number wasn't recognised by the automatic check-in machine, but Rosemary was smart enough to find that the machine would recognise her name. Check-in done, we took only a quarter of an hour for the bag drop and security screening. (Rosemary had to take her boots off, rather to her annoyance, whereas mine were OK.) They made no objection to our breakfast boxes, so we sat at the departure gate and had breakfast number 1. I went and got coffee from a coffee shop near the gate. The man behind me in the queue had a little boy called Cooper.

Boarding and departure were uneventful. The clouds over Brisbane had cleared by the time we were over the Great Dividing Range and breakfast number 2 had been handed out. Rosemary, in the window seat, had good views of the Darling drainage, the South Australian saltpans, and the Great Australian Bight (we crossed the coast at Streaky Bay, with stunningly clear views), while I listened to music. After a while we crossed back over the coast, with parallel lines of clouds; then I didn't see much more until we landed.

We came down the stairs, and there was Sayeed Hassan Alavi waiting for us. He was an ideal guide, polite, informative, and a very safe driver. We got our bags and headed outside. It was almost as hot as Brisbane, but a dry bright heat, and the landscape looked completely different as we drove to St George's College. The Swan River sparkled blue as we crossed it and then drove along its bank, and the trunks of the gums were very white against the blue sky. Yachts danced over the surface of the water.

Swan River

We unpacked and decided to go for a walk. We crossed the road and walked along the shared pedestrian and cycle track along the bank of the river back towards town. A gull sat on the wooden walkway to the old boathouse; two black cormorants dried their wings, while a pied cormorant sat on top of a post, and a statue adorned in sparkling Christmas decorations stood in the water. A small bird, probably a dotterel, ran along the river's edge.

We came to the old Swan Brewery, now a very fancy restaurant, and went in for a beer, though we didn't feel posh enough to eat there. So we carried on to the Narrows, intending to take the bridge and path up Mt Eliza. But the path was closed because of rockfalls, so we had to carry on around the bottom. We came to the stairs of the Kokoda Trail, commemorating the famous battle in the Second World War in which Australian soldiers turned back the Japanese just 40 kilometres from Port Moresby.

As we walked up the trail, several groups of half-a-dozen black cockatoos, making a terrible din, flew in from over the river. Some of them settled in the tops of the trees above our heads.

At the top, we walked along past the war memorials with their fine views over the tall buildings of the city, their red and pink flowering gums, and the spectacular avenue of lemon gums. The posh restaurant here was closed, but we had a good lunch in the Botanical Café: chicken in some very interesting tomato mush, and a steak sandwich. In the trees, some crows called to us in very un-crowlike, almost human voices; we decided later they were Australian ravens.

Then we walked along the fairly new Walkway. This goes over a deep gully on a new bridge at treetop level and gives fine views. We carried on through the Botanic Gardens, which would certainly repay more visits. They had several Boab trees from the Kimberley, one a giant which had been moved to make way for a new bridge, and carried to Perth in an epic trip lasting five days to be replanted.

We carried on out into the regular parkland, where there was also much of interest (some banksia flowers, only just out, and others almost out; a white honeycomb hanging from a tree; and a yellow fluffy duck sitting in a fork of another tree) as well as many grass trees with long spikes, and more fine gums and she-oaks.


Finally we came down the steps on the Crawley Path and back to College.

After a shower, we went out looking for something light to eat. At the gate we met Rob Wilson, who pointed us in the right direction. Then we met Don and Jill at a corner, and saw Robert on the other side. Don and Jill went on, but Robert came to eat with us and exchange airline disaster stories. We found a somewhat disorganised but friendly Italian restaurant. Charles and Mary were there with several other people including Alice. We had a rather slow meal and eventually walked home (passing several more mathematicians including Leonard) and went to bed.

4 January 2009

In the morning we were tired and breathless from the effects of the air conditioning. We went to breakfast and sat with Leonard and Reinhart and a Finnish girl whose name I didn't catch; later Steve Linton came to join us.

After breakfast we went out to find our way round the university, collect bus timetables, and buy some washing powder. This we accomplished successfully. The University campus is a beautiful shady place with many mature trees, and is not as cluttered or of such mixed style as the University of Queensland. It is in Iberian style, with stone arches, courtyards, and red tiled roofs. We found our way to the Mathematics department, and to the stand with bus timetables in the Students' Guild. Then we walked past a place where Rosemary once lived, and found the shopping centre, with a small supermarket which had what we needed. Not much else was open and we couldn't get any real coffee. (The college only provides nescafé.)

We walked back to the shore at Pelican Point and sat on a seat for a while. I paddled in the sea; my ankle was playing up a bit and I thought it might help (it did). Then we walked out along the point, where we saw a bird (which was probably a wattlebird) in a tree, allowing us to get quite close. We headed back along the Matilda Bay path, where many people were picnicking.

Back at the flat we put the laundry on, and Rosemary worked for a while; I felt even worse and lay down on the sofa and fell asleep. When I woke, I was much better; we had lunch (sushi and ginger beer) and then reversed roles; I checked my talk while Rosemary slept on the sofa.

Then we went out for a short walk in King's Park. We tried but failed to find an exit at the back of the college; but there was a small strip of parkland next door which took us up. We followed a path, with some deviation, to the Synergy Parkland, where we stopped for a drink in the Zamia café. Approaching, we read the sad story of the gum trees from eastern Australia, planted as memorials to servicemen killed in wars, which are now out-competing the native trees and are having to be removed and replaced. Then we walked around the picnic spot and children's playground (with many dinosaurs and prehistoric birds) and found our way to the Broadwalk Vista.

We walked along the Broadwalk, passing two galahs and several magpies, one mourning its dead mate, until we came to the DNA tower. We climbed its 101 steps to the top, from where we could see over the forest canopy to various landmarks, most spectacularly the Indian Ocean shining in the west. Then we descended and took a different way back to the College, passing many flowering banksias, grass trees (some with bent or broken spikes), and various other native vegetation. Finally we went along Park Lane to our starting point, down through the small park, and up into the College.

Banksia man

We showered and changed and headed back to the University for the reception. Many many old friends were there, and we stayed talking for quite a long time. Eventually people were leaving, so we left too and found our way back. The setting sun was painting the tops of the trees around the campus and all looked absolutely splendid.

5 January 2009

In the middle of the night, Mike Newman turned up and came into our room by mistake. I was sound asleep and woke with quite a shock.

After breakfast we headed for the University Club for the start of the conference. At least real coffee was provided; the College gives us three different (and almost indistinguishable) sorts of brown powder.

The Vice-Chancellor opened the conference with some impressive words: speaking as a biologist, he lamented the lack of numeracy among his young colleagues and students their contemporaries as one of the biggest problems facing the country. I expected that the JAMS volume would be presented to Cheryl, but nothing happened; perhaps it wasn't ready in time.

Peter Neumann was the first speaker. In a very Peterish talk, he took us down many diversions and byways, historical and otherwise, though not always completely accurate, about who had done what. He also showed the "Cheryl's birthday" Theorem of the Day, which was of course a nice warmup to my talk. But he ended up going quite a bit over time, so I started five minutes late.

There were no computers available so I had to use the white toy. It connected without any problem, but the resolution wasn't quite up to displaying the PDF of the Sims Conjecture page. However, I did manage a collective recitation of the Sims Conjecture higgledy-piggledy. (Incidentally, Charles Sims is not going to make it to the conference.) Apart from that I did everything as planned and finished more or less on time.

Lunch was provided, and we sat in a rather grand room in the University Club to eat it. After lunch, there didn't seem a lot of time before we started again, and had lectures by Tim, Rosemary and Kathy. Tim gave a clear overview of generalised quadrangles and discussed the proof of his recent theorem on elation GQs. Rosemary gave her version of what I will talk about in St Andrews. Kathy's was nice, but she spent a long time explaining without actually giving us precise definitions, and as a result went over time and didn't finish.

After the lectures, Michael directed us to the pub in the shopping centre on Broadway. We went there and had a couple of well-earned pints and I ate a good steak sandwich, then home. The evening sun was still shining on the tower and the tops of the trees as we walked back, and a flight of white cockatoos flew over.

University of WA

6 January 2009

In the morning there was a wattlebird in the Norfolk pine on the front lawn of the college. We had three nice talks from Martin, Jan and Bill. Bill was talking about short presentations of classical groups, but wisely (I think) concentrated on symmetric groups. It is quite astonishing stuff.

At lunchtime I connected without difficulty to the wireless network, and made a first pass through my email. I found that a report was overdue, but if I sent it, it would arrive before opening of offices the next morning.

After lunch the first two sessions of parallel sessions. By paying only intermittent attention, I wrote the report and sent it off. After the tea break I had agreed to chair a session. There were three speakers. The first showed up just before his talk was due to start, wrote on the board, and finished in good time. The second took the five minutes gap getting the Vista laptop to talk to the data projector, and started and finished on time. The third completely failed the technological exercise, and had to borrow the second speaker's laptop, starting more than five minutes late as a result. Bill Gates has a lot to answer for!

Today the university was open, so we could have a drink in the University Club bar. We consumed several bottles of wine before they closed, at which point we went back to the pub on Broadway to eat.

On the way home, we walked through the university grounds. A heron of some kind flew down and landed by the side of the pond; several ducks were sitting on the other side of the pond.

On the College lawn, we stopped to look at the southern sky. Low down, and not very bright against the city lights, were the Southern Cross and the Pointers. Being a bit further south makes all the difference!

7 January 2009

Three talks on computational matrix group theory this morning. I read my email (which contained an acknowledgment of my report and also some disturbing news) during Ákos' talk, though it was so clear and interesting that I kept getting distracted and listening. Charles gave a completely different talk from the one in Auckland; he does a very good job of focussing on some small but important and surprising details. (Why does finding an arbitrary power of a matrix over a finite field take only a constant times as matrix multiplication?) Then Eamonn gave a nice overviw of their methods for classical groups, which are very geometric and quite different for even and odd characteristic.

As we filed out of the lecture room at 12, we collected our packed lunches for the expedition; but as the boat didn't leave until 2, there seemed no good reason not to eat it right away, which I did. Rosemary and I got on the first bus (it shuttled us into town in two bites), and got a coffee from the café next to the wharf. We sat talking to Peter while drinking them, and looking at the fountains and the bell tower, containing a peal of bells from St Martin in the Fields in London. (According to John, these bells were rung when Captain Cook set sail on his voyage of discovery.) Finally it was time to board, and we were underway.

The water round the boat was swarming with jellyfish, some quite large, having a parasol-like structure connected to a sponge-like structure with tentacles dangling from it. I would not like to tangle with one of them! The wash from the boat's engines gently propelled them away, but as we sailed, we passed many more.

It was a glorious day, sun sparkling on the blue river, houses, trees and tall buildings shining brightly, as we sailed down to Fremantle. At one point a pelican flew past, and then we saw another floating near the side of the river. The commentary, however, was not in the least about the wildlife, but almost entirely about which particular rich person owned which particular house that we could see from the boat. I was not at all interested. I was asked many times to have my photograph taken with this or that conference participant.

Finally we got to Fremantle port, which was not very busy, though one huge container ship was loading up. We sailed down to the mouth of the river and looked out to the open sea but didn't actually go out; we turned around and headed back. As we left the port, we were treated to the spectacle of dolphins jumping among the sun-sparkles on the water we had left behind.

Fremantle port

Back the way we came to JoJo's restaurant, the end of the cruise and our afternoon tea stop. A pelican was waiting for us beside the walkway to the restaurant, and a whole line of cormorants of several types (large and small, black and pied) sat on posts just outside the windows.

We were offered either juice or coffee; the juice was refilled but the coffee was not, except for some brave souls who asked for more. Some tiny cakes came round a few times. Then the staff started clearing away, and it was clear that our time was up.


So we left and walked back to College, stopping at the supermarket on the way for some very nice salmon and salad rolls for tea (not feeling like eating out again).

Back in the apartment, I worked for a while, writing up my new insight on the relation between graphs and transformation monoids. After a while, Bill and Phyllis Kantor came (as they had warned us) to occupy the apartment that had been reserved for Charles Sims. Bill came down and sat in the common area and we had a long talk. We were very much on the same wavelength, even to completing one another's sentences. For example, he described how, when he was in Ann Arbor, Jack McLaughlin had given him Perin's paper; he had brought it with him when he visited Oxford, and . . . "we made hay with it" I said, taking the words out of his mouth.

8 January 2009

Three very different talks this morning. Brendan McKay on fullerenes and related matters (he has a method for generation and isomorph rejection which may be better than the current best); Marcel Herzog on a general result on permutation groups whose only applications seem to be known results; and an extraordinary lecture by Sasha Ivanov on 2-generator subalgebras of the Griess algebra.

After lunch I finished programming Marie's web pages, but the Queen Mary computers were playing up so I couldn't upload and test it. I also wrote some notes for the CSG meeting after I get home – I decided to talk on "Graphs and finite transformation monoids", in homage to Charles Sims' famous paper – but of course couldn't upload that either.

After the afternoon session (the highlights of which were talks by Rob Wilson and Don Taylor, with surprisingly many points of contact), we walked home, showered, and changed for dinner. The dinner was a remarkable affair. The food was delicious, the service desperately slow. We had been bidden to the "top table", with Cheryl and John, the VC and his wife, Peter, Jan, Ruth and Martin. Throughout the meal a fine sequence of photographs of Cheryl was projected onto a screen. After the main course and before desert came the speeches; very good and moving speeches showing the esteem in which we all hold her. She made a fairly short reply. A thoroughly lovely occasion; but the catering staff will have had a late night.

Cheryl at dinner

Walking home, the Southern Cross and Pointers were more clearly visible (it was then midnight, and they were higher in the sky, and a bit separated from the city lights). Indeed, from the College lawn, all five stars in the Cross could be seen.

9 January 2009

The last two plenary talks of the conference were by Marston Conder (an account of his many and striking new results on regular maps) and Cai Heng Li (on factorisations of groups).

At lunchtime, as arranged, we had a "project meeting" with Philippe Cara and Dimitri Leemans (who are building a database of flag-transitive geometries) and John Bamberg (who is writing a finite geometry GAP package). It was a productive meeting, and we tentatively agreed to take it further and try to get a small amount of research money to get it going. Then Dimitri gave us a demo of his database as it exists so far. Impressive, but not well designed for automatic or bulk use. But it is early days yet. Certainly each side can learn from the other.

Then I made another attempt to connect to London, and found that indeed mrcpc04 was working. So I spent most of the afternoon working rather than going to talks. I sent Marie her new web pages; I put a link to the Save the Mary River website on my page; I compiled my notes for the next CSG meeting; I downloaded Gordon's problem for the problem session on Monday; I read Bill's email about a larger room for the Number Theory class, and altered the web page accordingly.

We went home and got changed for the party at Cheryl's and John's lovely and extensive house. A slight glitch getting there: I turned up one road too soon, and everybody followed me and ended up walking further than they needed to.

It was a very good way of marking the end of the conference. We arrived to find dips and delicious cheeses. Then the pizza started arriving. I took around two pizzas and had no trouble getting rid of them all. Some of them were unusually spicy; one with jalapeño peppers, and one which was advertised as "Tunisian chicken" and had red peppers. Both were delicious, I thought, though they were too hot for some people.

I also managed to garner a couple more problems from the problem session: one from Jan Saxl, who won't be there; one from George Willis, who might be.

10 January 2009

We had planned a trip to Neerabup National Park. Leonard was up for it, as were Bill and Phyllis, until sad to say Phyllis twisted her ankle at the party and they had to cry off. So three of us went down to catch the bus after breakfast in the morning. The bus came a few minutes after we arrived at the stop. The driver suggested that our cheapest option would be to get two family tickets. These tickets allow unlimited travel for two adults and up to five children in Perth and quite a wide surrounding area, and were much cheaper than individual fares, even for Leonard who had one all to himself.

The bus took us to Wellington Street bus station, next to the train station; but it was quite a walk from the bus to the underground platform where the Clarkson train would stop. I wasn't too worried since there was a train every fifteen minutes. In the event, we got one with three minutes to spare.

The line soon came to the surface, and ran between the two carriageways of the expressway for most of the journey to Clarkson, taking about half an hour. We were in for a shock when we arrived. It appears to be an entirely new suburb, having sprung up from the sand dunes like a mushroom. Quite a bit of it (houses, schools, etc.) is still under construction. The national park is on the other side of the railway line; but there is absolutely no way across!

I grabbed a bus timetable, which had a better map than our existing one. It showed one bus running to a road called Hester Avenue which then crossed the park. There was only one bus an hour, but one was almost due, so we took it. Our family passes worked on this bus as well, and the driver put us off very near the wide and busy Hester Avenue.

A footpath beside the road took us across the railway line and past a turning into a quarry. At first the park was fenced off from the road, but eventually the fence ended, and we followed a sandy track parallel to the road. After a while we struck a track heading straight into the bush, and took it.

It was quite spooky. All day we had this quite large national park entirely to ourselves; we never saw another soul in the park. Apart from one waymarked trail, there were no signs of any kind. The trail, waymarked with orange arrows bearing a grass tree logo, turned out to be the Yaberoo Budjara Walk Trail. It was not confined to the park; we first met it at a five-way intersection, and then it crossed a road and disappeared into the distance at our furthest point.

Leonard at Neerabup

It was an astonishing park. The soil was everywhere very sandy (and the track was quite hard walking, especially for Leonard who had sandals and no socks; the sand was burning hot). In most places there was mixed vegetation dominated by banksia trees in flower, but we came to a very extensive forest of grass trees, and also a patch of eucalyptus forest.

Despite the fact that it was summer, we were treated to a wide array of wildflowers. As well as the banksias, there was a tree with brilliant orange flowers, and the occasional red-flowering gum. (Cheryl told us later that the orange-flowering tree is the West Australian "Chrstmas tree"; it is parasitic on other trees, is eaten by horses, and is currently endangered.) Lower down we had a bush with red tufts of flowers; a plant covered with star-shaped yellow flowers; some pigface in flower; paper daisies; fringed violets, deeper in colour than the Queensland ones; and quite a few others.

Christmas tree

At one point we started a group of three red kangaroos (two big ones and one youngster). Further on we met with two more kangaroos individually. The trail was criss-crossed with kangaroo tracks.

The path veered westward for a while, and seemed to be approaching an even newer suburb where the builders were still at work. Before we realised how new it was, we had entertained hopes of cold drinks there. But there was no way in, and the path headed back eastwards and eventually came to a road. Now I knew where I was, and we walked up to the crossroads, and started back along Wannaroo Road.

At this point we came upon huge numbers of small and very white snails, on the road signs, the grass trees, and every suitable surface.

Soon we came to a service station which did have cold drinks (and a couple of filled rolls), so we went in. The young guy behind the till was gobsmacked when we said we had walked from Clarkson. He tried to show us on our map where we were, putting us much further out than I had thought, but I was pretty sure that he was wrong, since we would have had to cross another road to get that far. We ate lunch and consumed lots of cold drink before setting off again.


We started off on what was probably the old road beside the main highway. We kept finding melons by the side of the road, and thought that people must have been throwing them away; but it turned out that they were growing there, and when the vines died back the melons were left to rot.

The map showed a lake to the east, so when we found an entrance to the park on that side, we went in. (We had to climb the gate, since it was padlocked and the pedestrian entrance wired up; but a sign admonished us to observe and conserve, which encouraged us to go in.) A turn-off led us down a hill through fairly dense bush to the lake. Sad to say, there was no chance of a swim, since the shore had dense reed beds all the way along our side.

At the end, we climbed up the hill, and found our way back to the road. All along this stretch we could hear amplified music; I guessed that it was a band whose parents or neighbours would not allow them to practise at home. The road brought us to a "drive-in tavern" which didn't look at all inviting, so we kept on. After a while we saw a track in the park on the west side, so we crossed the road and found a way in.

After some distance, a wide track went off at right angles to the edge of the park. We took it, finding many fine examples of kangaroo tracks crossing it. Eventually we came to a five-way junction, which we recognised, and soon were back to Hester Avenue and then to the bus stop, with less than a quarter of an hour to wait for the bus.

The bus took us to the station, where we made a convenient connection with the train, which sped us back to Perth, arriving before six. We left the station looking for a cold beer. We found one pub, but the noise level (mainly conversation) was completely intolerable, and bouncers much in evidence. The next pub was even worse; bouncers were stamping people's hands as they entered (and it had the nerve to call itself a "traditional Britih pub"!). So we walked down to the river to try the café at the wharf.

The only oddities here were that we were only allowed to drink on the deck looking out over the river, and there was a noisy wedding reception going on above (which did eventually stop). But they had good food (Thai salad for me) and nice cold beer (Little Creatures), so we stayed there for a while and watched the evening fall over the river.

Eventually we set off to find a bus. But, after walking under the Narrows Bridge, we discovered that there are no bus stops on Mounts Bay Road, so we ended up walking all the way back to the College, arriving at 9:30.


11 January 2009

Tim had recommended catching a bus at 8:00 to get to Fremantle in time for the Rottnest ferry. But I found I had assembled the necessary maps and timetables, and although thre was no "straight" bus, we could catch the circular bus at the stop just beyond Winthrop Avenue at 8:41, getting to Fremantle at 9:10, hopefully in enough time to buy tickets for the 9:30 ferry. So we were able to have breakfast in a reasonably relaxed fashion before setting off. Just as I was leaving breakfast I saw the young people piling into a taxi, presumably for the same destination.

It all worked fine. The bus, like all Perth public transport we've taken, was right on time, and the queue at Shed C was quite short. Leonard needed to get the 4:30 boat back, as he was having dinner with Eamonn and Alastair; so we decided to come back with him, and got one ticket for three adults. Soon we were aboard and on our way.

The sea was dead calm. We passed a lot of huge container ships, presumably waiting to enter the port, on the way out. After half an hour, we were tying up at the jetty on Rottnest Island. At Thomson Bay, the only settlement on the island, there was a general store and a coffee shop, so we bought lunch and then began the day properly with real coffee.

We aimed for the beach, via the recommended quokka-viewing spot. We found many traces of quokkas (tracks and scat) but never an actual animal. The route brought us up against a wire fence separating us from the beach, which we had to detour around, past one of the Rottnest lakes.

We came down to Geordie Bay, so full of yachts that there was no serious possibility of swimming. So we went on to the next bay, which was Little Parakeet Bay. It was really quite small and quite crowded, but the water was so inviting that we set up camp and went swimming in relays, leaving someone to watch the kit. (Probably not necessary since the woman next to us, a very good-natured person, offered to guard it for us.) The water was so very nice, for my slightly dodgy ankle as much as anything (the emu oil had gone missing at some point).

Little Parakeet Bay

Anyway, we splashed around for a while, then had lunch. Leonard didn't want another long walk, so we agreed to go our separate ways after lunch; he took the bus round the island while we walked.

We set off along the road, past the turn to Parakeet Bay (which had been our original destination), and then on the road across the island. This took us past one of the big lakes on our left, some pleasant groves of eucalyptus and other trees, and some virtual saltpans on the right. One of these was covered with a white fibrous crust of salt-saturated algae. The pink lake took its colour from a different kind of alga, but was similarly very salty. Round the lakes grew only hardy salt-tolerant vegetation.

We continued to the crossroads, and turned west towards the lighthouse, which appeared quite acessible from a distance but was actually on a steep hill overlooking a deep valley. For reasons of time, I decided not to climb up to the lighthouse. But as we walked along the valley, I saw a dark shape in the dappled shadow under some trees: a quokka lazily foraging. On closer inspection there turned out to be three of them there. They were not at all frightened, and allowed us to get quite close while they ambled about. A couple of cyclists came by, and most likely wouldn't have spotted the quokkas if we hadn't been so obviously looking at something under the trees.


Eventually we continued on our way and turned back on the road along the south side of the island, thinking that we would go down to Parker Point if time allowed. But as we walked up the first hill, Rosemary gave a yelp: a blister on her heel had burst, and it was clear that we would be going slower from then on. So we changed plan and headed straight back.

Soon we passed a cyclist who told us there was another quokka just ahead. Sure enough, we came upon it in a small patch of shade under a bush by the roadside. We watched it for a while until it hopped away into the bushes.

We came to the top of the next hill, and were rewarded by a stunning view. A huge bay was bounded by headlands on both sides; the water was all shades of blue from azure to pale turquoise, and a gentle surf beat on the pure white sand. But alas, no time to go down and soak up the peaceful atmosphere. But for most of the rest of the way we had lovely views; once past the Parker Point turnoff, we could see rocky islands, wrecks, and the mainland in the far distance.

A wreck

We saw yet another quokka; we were almost getting blasé about them by this point. Then we came to a railway line, looking desolate and untended. We walked on, but soon heard the sound of a train approaching. So we stopped and watched, while a single carriage full of tourists went past. We walked on and came to an information display about quokkas. While we were reading it, the train came back on the other side of its loop, and we watched it go back again.

We got back to Thomson Bay in god time, and bought cold drinks and sat down to drink them. I went off for a quick forage in the souvenir shop (which had nothing worth buying), and when I came back Leonard had arrived. After we finished our drinks it was time to go down to the jetty and catch the boat back.

We looked up the timetables and found there was a bus ten minutes after the boat was due to arrive, and another half an hour after that. But the boat was quite late departing, and when we arrived back, Leonard had only two minutes to catch the bus. He dashed off in hope of getting it, while Rosemary and I went over to the E shed market. The main markets, including the produce stalls, were closed, but the food hall was still open, so we got beers and sat outside drinking them and watching the passers-by and the ships in the harbour.

Then we wandered off to the station, and found a train about to leave for Perth, so we caught it. It went along the coast for a while, then turned inland past the showgrounds, and ended up at Perth station. We made our way to the Wellington Street bus station and got the bus back to the university.

12 January 2009

It was a noisy and disturbed night. First a very loud police siren, then a noisy party arriving at the college. Next thing I knew, the dustcart banging around outside the door, followed by the lawnmower cutting the grass (which took an inordinately long time).

Up to breakfast and over to the Mathematics Department (the lectures this week are in the Weatherburn Lecture Theatre). Peter was the first speaker, talking about synchronization. The audience were prepared to be very interactive, and clearly didn't believe one of Peter's proofs, although it seemed quite obvious to me. The result was to slow him down, so that he didn't get quite as far as he had hoped.

At lunch Gordon took Brendan, Rosemary and me to the Broadway Fair, where his preferred eating place was the turkish kebab house. I think he was disappointed that the other three of us chose fish and chips! Afterwards, Gordon went to get his hair cut, while the other three of us went up the road in search of coffee, which we finally found in Ned's.

After lunch we had two hours for the problem session, with a half-hour break in the middle for tea. Many people had given me problems, and I was fairly sure that there were more to come. Some of those who had prepared problems were not there to present them; I spoke about some of these, but inevitably some will appear only in the written version.

During the day, strange grey-white shapes had appeared in the sky, and much to everyone's amazement, a few spots of rain fell while we were having tea. I am told that the only rain at this time of year is supposed to be storms.

We kept going for the entire two hours without finishing, and by the end I think the audience were as exhausted as I was. So Brendan and Rosemary (who had jointly presented a problem and had some more discussion of it to do) dragged me off to the University Club for a beer. Since we were no longer at a function in the Club, they were a little bit snooty about serving us, so we left after a beer and went to the Chinese restaurant near Ned's. This was OK except for the fact that they didn't get the order right, bringing garlic chicken instead of lychee chicken, but it did the business. After dinner it was home to bed.

13 January 2009

We had a fairly early start since Rosemary was lecturing at 9. As we walked in, we noticed a mural in vaguely Byzantine style high over an arch. I pulled out my camera to try to take a photo of it. But the camera just buzzed angrily at me, and refused to focus on the scene. Nothing I could do would cajole it into working properly. I fear the camera may be dead, and I will need my third in less than a year.

When we arrived at the lecture room, I went to Rosemary's lecture and to Peter's which followed. I had a couple of grumbles about some of his proofs, which seemed to me to be missed opportunities. Then I went off to read my email.

Arch at UWA

I finished this just in time for a pre-arranged lunch with Robert, to talk about a paper we are trying to write, about various combinatorial variants of base size which have been studied by a variety of people under a variety of names, and a variety of more or (usually) less interesting results found. Our discussion spurred me to suggest a couple more things to go in: results about invariants of abstract groups defined in terms of base size in various actions; and universality results (based on the idea, prompted by Bill Kantor's recent paper, that Frucht's theorem is equivalent to the statement that every finite group is isomorphic to the two-point stabiliser in one of a fairly simple family of permutation groups).

As we were finishing, Rosemary showed up. Robert left to go to the next lecture, and I stayed until Rosemary had had her sandwich and coffee. It has been announced that there is a conference excursion to an open-air film show tomorrow, and on Thursday we will be packing; so we realised that if we were going to see "Snugglepot and Cuddlepie", which we had found in the Perth guide, it would have to be this evening. So Rosemary went to the service station for insect repellant, and then I tried to phone for information and tickets.

After some difficulty I managed to get through to a human being. She was completely unable to sell me a ticket, and warned me that we might not get in since only thirty tickets were left; but eventually I managed to extract from her the information that it was at 5 o'clock. So after we had spent a bit of time reading email, we set off for Kings Park (after both Cheryl and Michael had caught us, Cheryl to arrange a time to talk about our paper, Michael to give Rosemary her cheque).

The Saw Avenue Auditorium was about half-an-hour's walk, mostly along a sandy bush track. We arrived in good time; they were just setting up and were unable to sell us tickets, but said they would give us a shout when they were ready. It is an open-air auditorium in a lovely bush setting, with polished marble front to the stage, and plenty of space to sit; a couple of steps raised the ground behind the stage apron area.

We sat there and waited, and chatted to a person sitting nearby; I wrote some of my diary, and people (mostly families with small children) started arriving. Most people had brought picnics; of course, we were not properly prepared!

Eventually the performance was ready to start. A woman called any children in the audience who wanted to be part of the production, and gave them their instructions about what they had to do, and when. (All through the show, they followed their instructions brilliantly.) Then the show began. It was a ballet, with narration and a little bit of singing; most of the cast were young girls, some very tiny indeed, as you get in any ballet school. (Mr Possum was male, the only one, I think.)

All thoroughly good fun, given the disjointness and lack of plot in the book. The different creatures danced their parts with many characteristic touches: the frogs turned their feet out as they hopped, and Mrs Lizard was well in command of her tail. Indeed she and Mrs Snake were the stars of the show, and their duel particularly well done. At one point, a noisy flock of galahs swooped over the performance and added a real touch of the bush to it.


After three quarters of an hour it was over; we left the cast being photographed by doting parents, and took ourselves off. We tried the Zamia café in the Synergy bushland, but found that it only did breakfast and lunch and had closed at 4:30. So we walked out of the park and over to Pavarotti's.

Signs on the door announced that they were closing for good at the weekend, but they were still open, and even had to be careful where they sat us since they had a lot of bookings. We had a very acceptable meal (I had veal escalope with vegetables, including that quintessentially Australian vegetable, silver beet), and a bottle of wine (this posed something of a problem since they were running down their stocks; our first three choices were unavailable, and they tried to palm off on us some cheap blend). The bottle of Cockatoo Ridge merlot we ended up with surprised me by announcing that it contained traces of dairy products. At the end of the meal, the waitress admitted that the café was closing since the cost of the lease had been jacked up by a factor of three.

14 January 2009

A late start this morning; no lecture until after morning tea. So I worked on the problems until time for a welcome cup of coffee, with which, instead of cakes or biscuits, we were given scones with cream and jam.

I sat through Rosemary's lecture, partly listening and partly sending the problems file to London, compiling it, and correcting the few errors that had crept in. But towards the end of the lecture I realised that I was missing a few problems, at least one of which I didn't have.

I had lunch with Cheryl, Peter and Rosemary at the University Club, and then went back to the College after the missing page. I didn't find it, but did a bit more work on the problems. When I came back, I found Daniela, whose problem I thought I had lost. She said that she hadn't actually given it to me, but that she had just emailed me a version of it. So I could give most of my attention to Peter's lecture and only a little to the problems, and have the file ready to send off to the organisers before the end of the lecture.

Peter had some significant simplifications to the story of spreading groups, and stated that he really believes that spreading and QI are equivalent. I remain unconvinced, for what that is worth. Neither of us will convince the other until we can find either a proof or a counterexample. But it seems to me that the existence of a non-negative integer vector with certain properties in a submodule is much weaker than the existence of a zero-one vector with the same properties: witness projective planes, Hadamard matrices, etc.

After the lecture, we had tea, then Rosemary and I went to buy a picnic to take to the open-air film. After that I worked for a while, sending off a reference for Robert and doing a couple of other jobs, though I was really too tired for much intellectual effort.

At 6 we knocked off and walked through the campus, past the small Japanese garden that Rosemary had found earlier. It was in a courtyard in one of the buildings; very peaceful but inaccessible to passers-by who could only stare across the water.

We left the campus and walked to the edge of Matilda Bay, where lots of people were cooking barbecues, playing on the grass, and so on. We sat on a seat and looked at the stunning view of Perth for a while (would one get blasé about this?), and then walked down to the Somerville Theatre, bought tickets, and went in. We bagged a couple of seats and then went to the front where a group of conferees (not as many as I would have expected) were setting up a picnic.

We ate and drank some of our picnic and some of other people's, and chatted to Cheryl, John, Charles, and various others, until people began returning to their seats. The sun was going down, and lighting the top branches of the very tall Norfolk pines surrounding the seating area. The screen was pitched between the tallest of these, which looked as if they had been planted on purpose. Soon the trailers began; visibility was not marvellous at first but improved as darkenss fell and stars came out.

The film was "Fugitive pieces" (I have read the book by Anne Michaels, but couldn't remember it clearly). For the most part, a sensitive portrayal of a boy who is haunted by the murder of his parents and beloved older sister by the Nazis; he cannot escape from his demons, despite attempting to write them out. Very well done, with nice details and good photography. For me, cynic that I am, it was spoilt by the ending, when he meets a woman and casts her (and his unborn child) as the one who will save him, without (as far as we were shown) knowing anything about her at all. We are left with the impression of a happy ending which I found unconvincing.

The drama of the film was slightly dented early on when the koookaburras (who had been flitting around the arena scavenging while we had our picnic) burst into peals of laughter.

At the end of the film it was quite dark, with no moon; the stars shone brightly, including our last view on this trip of the Southern Cross and Pointers, from the front lawn of the College.

15 January 2009

Up early again and over to the University, where Rosemary was first and Peter third. The day was already warm; tomorrow is predicted to be even hotter (40 degrees). Peter had told me at breakfast that he had emailed me the seven problems he would present at the end of his talk; so I read his email and pasted the relevant part into the problem file, while keeping half an ear on Rosemary.

After the coffee break, I had to get on with reading the paper I am to discuss with Cheryl at lunchtime. It was impossible in the time available to get up to speed on the detail; but I figured out what most urgently needs to be done, and an important special case which covers our examples and may be easier than the general case. So Eamonn only got part of my attention.

Then I put that away, to attend properly to Peter's last lecture. It was mostly about posing as problems many interesting classes of permutation groups whose position in the classification is as yet unknown.

Cheryl and I went back to the University Club for lunch. Quite a few other people came too, but we managed to scare them away by looking as if we were working very hard. We did end up with easy things to do, and harder things to think about (which will make it into a nice paper if we can sort them out).

On the way back to the department, Cheryl showed me the "Christmas tree" near the pavilion by the oval. They are not covered in flowers, but have enough to be impressive; but it is clear that, when they are not flowering, they would not look like much more than a fairly insignificant scrubby tree. They were not obviously parasitising anything, but I am prepared to believe that there are some tree roots under the ground that they are growing on.

I was going to get to work on a grant application, but met up with some people and had a long sociable chat, which I interrupted to go to Akos' lecture. I sat in the back and worked on the application, fighting against an appallingly badly designed website (at least it didn't crash, as it did last time I tried this).

Then we had the problem session debriefing. I had meant to get some Mars bars as prizes, but hadn't had time over lunch. As well as the work I knew about (Rob and Marcel on Alan's problem, Peter on Marcel's, and John on Wei Jin's), Eamonn had some results on Charles' problem, and there was an update on the ovoid problem. I learned that Jan has actually finished the classification of the QI groups. We finished in well under an hour.

Rosemary and I went to try to check in on-line; after some unsuccessful attempts, we came to a page which said that this facility is only available on domestic flights. So we wandered off home, to work for a bit and to pack. But it was clear that we wouldn't want a big dinner; so I took a walk to Broadway Fair to get some food.

It was a nice last spin around the area, with brightly coloured lorikeets flying among the pale-limbed trees and squawking loudly, and the sharp call of peewees ringing out. I got sushi and onion bhajis in the supermarket, and walked back via Matilda Bay, with the river and city looking even nicer and even more people out enjoying themselves. A willy wagtail was on the grass in front of the College.

Rather annoyingly, we found no soap in the room. The college had provided two very small cakes of soap, which we had eked out for two weeks; some very small slivers had been left, just enough for one night, but it was not to be.

As the Fremantle Doctor had sprung up, we decided to eat outside on seats on the newly-mown College lawn, and then sat for a bit writing up the trip, while the sun sank and the sort evening light gradually faded. Then back indoors to pack.

16 January 2009

We woke to a smell of smoke, and ashes drifting through the air. A grey pall of smoke was visible from the window. As we went to breakfast we could see it billowing over the rooftops from Kings Park. There was a major bushfire in the park. It turned out later that someone had lit it deliberately.

After breakfast, we left our keys at the office and our bags in a secure room, and phoned a taxi to pick us up at 1:45. Then we walked in to the department, making a small detour so I could show Rosemary the Christmas tree near the oval.

After a very fine lecture from Rosemary on orthogonal block structures, we went out to coffee and found the nicest cakes yet, little custard tarts like the ones from Lisbon. We discussed the fire, and Chris Monteith reported that his girlfriend had found on the web that people on the Kings Park side of Mounts Bay Road were being advised to evacuate if they were not prepared to fight the fire.

We realised that there was a good chance we wouldn't be able to get our bags after lunch, so we hurried back to the college to pick them up and carry them to the department. It was already very hot; smoke was drifting across the main road, which had been closed by the police, so the taxi couldn't have reached us anyway. I also called the taxi company and re-booked the taxi for one of the entrances to the university, fifteen minutes earlier. As a result I was a bit late for Akos' lecture, but he was doing some straight permutation group theory when I arrived so it was easy to pick it up.

Kings Park fire (photo from ABC)

After the lecture, Hassan told me that he really wanted to be able to help us by taking us to the airport. He even lent me his mobile phone to call the taxi company again and cancel the booking. They were showing a video of the body pump class that Cheryl had led last week, causing great mirth to all, so I had to go outside to make the call. The taxi people were not at all bothered.

We went to Ned's for lunch; I had a chicken roll, a couple of ginger beers (Bundaberg, of course), and a coffee. We walked back to the university and around the grounds. We found a very nice sunken garden which could be used as an intimate theatre, and later on a Shakespearian theatre in another courtyard which also boasted a couple of peacocks (a male and a white female). Through the next arch was another peacock. Heading back to the department we met Brendan, Cheryl, and Peter, and said more goodbyes.

We went back to the department and sat in the common room until it was time to go; we looked at the web, and swapped information on the temperatures we were flying back to, and Robert found some pictures of the fire. It seems that quite a big area has been devastated. Finally Hassan and his wife came and we picked up our bags and were on our way.

I think that Hassan hadn't planned for the road to be closed. We had to go round the block to get to the alternative route, which took us through the centre of town (which he didn't know well, since of course he never drives there; the buses are so good) and through many slow traffic lights. Finally we were over the causeway and on the airport road. He suprised us a bit by turning off along a different road which he claimed was a bit quicker.

Anyway, the journey took nearly an hour, and we were slightly later than the advertised check-in time, but the flight had been put back an hour an the check-in was remarkably quick. The only bad moment was that the girl at the desk didn't recognise the stamp in my passport as permission to enter the UK and had to go to ask someone. (I would have thought that the number of UK entry stamps would have been some evidence!)

Then upstairs, through customs and security, and finally the souvenir shops where we spent some of our remaining dollars on presents, and sat and waited at the gate for the (further delayed) boarding. Once we were off, the captain told us that the plane had been delayed by a "passenger incident" in Singapore; the plane had had to return to the gate to offload the offending passengers. But he promised to make up some time and get us to Singapore only an hour late (and hopefully in time to make our connection).

We were on the left side of the plane, so no chance to see the fire from the air. But we had a view of Fremantle port, and later a brief view of Rottnest.

The sun at the window was very bright, and there was solid flat cloud cover, so not a lot to see. I watched a television documentary on "Dark side of the moon", with various talking heads (including the present-day Pink Floyd themselves) and too little footage of the original. At one point they seemed to suggest that it was their delayed reaction to Syd Barratt's breakdown.

After a while the sun set, slowly (we were flying almost along the line of the terminator), and there were the most wonderful colours in the sky. Two layers of cloud below, with the sun in a red-hot gap between them; above, brilliant orange, shading into a pink I have seldom seen in the sunset sky, and then into deep blue. Above were ragged, angry-looking shreds of black cloud silhouetted against the orange. This went on for a long time until it finally faded and Venus came out.

I thought I could see the crescent shape of Venus. It may have jut been distortion caued by the window glass; or it may be that at this altitude the viewing is clearer, and such effects are visible. Earlier, I am fairly sure I had caught a glimpse of part of a halo around the sun; again it was hard to be sure it wasn't just an effect of the window.

While I watched the sunset, I listened to the Beatles. Poignantly, George Harrison sang "Here comes the sun" as it went, and then

I look at the world, and I notice it's turning . . .
As I'm sitting here doing nothing but aging

We arrived at Singapore an hour late, but with plenty of time to make the connection. (In that huge but beautifully organised airport, our departure gate was only a little way from our arrival gate.) But we found that the flight to London had also been put back for an hour, and the gate would not be open for quite a long time. So we walked all around the terminal (quite a long distance!), and then sat in a lovely spot, a little garden with running water and orchids.

After a while, back to the departure gate, arriving just before the (rather slow) security check was open.

We learned later that the plane had been delayed by an incident in Melbourne, which may have been that a tow rope broke. It was further delayed in Singapore, though it was not clear whether it was the slowness of the security check on the re-boarding passengers or the inefficiency of the Qantas staff in getting us on. But eventually we were on our way. By now it was pitch dark; I ate a meal with a bottle of wine, and then slept for a bit.

17 January 2009

I woke after a while and looked out the window. We were near Mashhad in north-eastern Iran. The air was clear, and the desert lit by a moon in its third quarter; a few towns were brightly lit. I drifted back to sleep, but later found myself awake, so listened to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and then to Tommy Emmanuel.

They served breakfast, handed out landing cards, and at last we were approaching Heathrow. The pilot had warned us that we would be stacked because of the traffic at Heathrow. So it was even later when we made our final approach. The buildings were quite close beneath us when the pilot fed power to the engines and turned the nose of the plane up. If I hadn't been watching, I might not have noticed, the manoeuvre was so gently done. The pilot's explanation was made in a quiet voice I could hardly hear; but it seems that the plane two ahead of us had had a mishap of some kind, and the plane ahead of us didn't have time to abort its landing, whereas we (just) did.

We made a long circle and came in again towards the take-off runway, and landed safely. But from there it was quite a long slow taxi to Terminal 4. Once at the terminal, it was all very quick, apart from one glitch; to make us know we were back in Britain, the lifts were not working. Soon we were on the Piccadilly Line in a damp, grey morning, and heading for home.

The first thing I did was of course to phone the bank and have my card re-instated. They wanted to go through all the transactions; but since all but the one in Brisbane had been refused, there seemed no point.