Australia Day, 26 January, is the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Great Britain, and the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove by its commander Captain Arthur Phillip, in 1788. (www.australiaday.org.au)
We have a national day in England. St George's Day. Honestly, without Googling it, I don't know when it is. That's because it's not a big occasion on the calendar. Australia Day is different. So different. Essentially, it's a Bank Holiday, everywhere shuts down and everyone does really Australian stuff. Our day started with a visit to the packed Noreuil Park, in the south-west corner of Albury, along with some of Rachel's new colleagues. There were certainly hundreds of people there; possibly thousands by the time we left. In this photo, the mayor of Albury is leading a citizenship ceremony, where immigrants officially became Australians. A couple of Brits made their way up on stage; others involved were from India, Thailand and Egypt. We were on the banks of the Murray River, where loads of kids were swimming and floating along on Aussie lilos. Many of the males in attendance were eager to make a quick exit and get home in time for the cricket, but there was a real sense of community and national pride. It made me sad to think that our flags often have such negative connotations. Outside the World Cup, you'll most often see the St George's cross being flown by the far-right English Defence League. Nick Griffin's British National Party have smeared the identity of the Union Jack, brought to Australia for the first time 224 years ago. Shame on them. Our country is brilliant, yet we don't celebrate it. That's not right.
Back at home, the TV went on and I flicked between the tennis on Seven and the cricket on Nine. Australia continued to pummel India at a scorching hot Adelaide Oval, while Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova reached the women's final at the Australian Open in Melbourne. The BBC's excellent text commentary has kept me in touch with the Pakistan v England test match in Dubai - throwing a third different time zone into the mix!
Several of the teachers at Rachels' new school - and their families - got together in the evening for a barbeque. Well, how else could you end Australia Day? Stereotypes suggest Aussies rule the roost when it comes to 'barbies' and I can only reinforce that. A feast comprising steaks, sausages, chops, burgers and fish was laid before us, with some outstanding egg and potato mixes to compliment the main offerings. On the eve of the new school term, it was a nice way for us to forge new friendships and build on those which had already started earlier in the day. The garden had seemingly been shaped with cricket in mind and we bowled a few overs with the kids once our food had gone down.
Invited to take a dip in the adjacent pool, we definitely weren't about to refuse. At the end of a day which saw temperatures hit 39C on the Victoria-New South Wales border, it was hugely refreshing to jump in. Having said that, the water was far warmer than any pool I've swum in back home! Without exception, everyone we've met so far has made us feel welcome. Several have contacts at the local newspaper, which could be good news for me.
I can't finish a blog entry on Australia Day without mentioning kangaroos. A couple of days ago, we drove a few kilometres out of town to the Oz.e Wildlife Sanctuary - one of the strangest places I've ever been to. The reception area was deserted, apart from some snakes in cabinets and a peacock at the front door. It was Mary Celeste-esque. Eventually a woman appeared to take our money and hand us bags of animal feed. No mention was made of the un-manned desks, so we commenced our tour. Having seen only two other vehicles in the large, dusty car-park, it was not a surprise to see we were pretty much the only visitors. Kangaroos, lying in the shade, instantly heard us rustling the food bags and bounced over. One tugged at my t-shirt when I dared to stop offering handfuls of pellets. We moved on.
Disappointment at not seeing koalas last week was soon forgotten when we came across two in a tree. One was sleeping, wedged perfectly between two branches towards the top and the other was chowing down on vast amounts of eucalyptus leaves. Neither acknowledged us, only stirring when disturbed by the pitter-patter of the sprinklers on their fur. We moved on.
After stopping to watch a solitary penguin, similar to those on Phillip Island, we made for the exit. A large peacock was loitering at the entrance back into the reception and Rachel was concerned it was waiting for a customer to open the door in order to make a bid for freedom. I was more worried the snakes inside had escaped their cabinets but both fears were unfounded and we departed in undramatic fashion.