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Sydney Harbour Bridge

John and I leave Armidale early in the morning, heading south. The day before, on our drive through Uralla, Ginny pointed out Moons Bakery, open from 4.00am and a truckies’ favourite. But it’s still too early for us to think about food.

The roads are quiet and we make good time. We pass through Murrurundi and hit racehorse country. The vast Emirates Park, with a picture of a horse and jockey on its stone gateway, has black post and rail fences. I’m surprised. Aren’t these fences usually white? What’s with this rebellious black?

We come into Singleton in the Hunter Valley and see coal trains and power stations. From Singleton we take Putty Road to Windsor, through the mountains and forest, a quiet narrow two-way road with little traffic.

The road seems to go on forever, up and down mountains, winding and straightening out and winding again, with beautiful views over the mountains. We are in the Hawkesbury Valley now. Finally we come into Windsor and stop at nearby Richmond for a break. It was a beautiful drive for me but exhausting for John.

Still, as Breda and I later agree, rather this quiet endless road than the racetrack that is the Pacific motorway into Sydney.

From Richmond to Springwood in the Blue Mountains we take Hawkesbury Road up the mountain on hairpin bends, it’s breathtaking. We pull into a lookout and through the smoke haze see Sydney’s towers in the distance.

I’ve been to Springwood many times. When I worked for Deaf Australia, I often stayed here with Breda and Cameron, getting the 7.30am train to Sydney each day with Breda, but John hasn’t been here before.

We drive around looking for a supermarket, I know there is one on the main street but I can’t seem to see it. Eventually we find one on a back street but the shelves are almost completely bare, as if there is some impending disaster and everyone has raided the shop. We’ve never seen a supermarket like this. What’s going on? Later Cameron tells us he’s surprised the store is still open, it’s been going out of business for months. He also tells us where the other supermarket is and I can’t believe I missed it.

After managing to find some supplies to contribute to the household pantry, we find Cameron, Taffy the dog and Kasha the host student at home. Breda isn’t due home for a few hours and Rowan has just left for work, delivering pizzas in this his gap year.

The back deck is the perfect place for a late afternoon tea. I love this house, it’s very Breda and Cameron and it backs onto the Blue Mountains national park with wonderful peaceful views of mountains, trees and changing light. Today we have a glorious pink sunset.

I’ve previously met Kasha when talking with Breda on Skype, and it’s good to meet him in person. He boards here for school terms but is going home for an extended weekend. Deaf community families often have deaf students boarding with them like this so they can attend a school that best suits them. We chat about school and home, he seems a nice, friendly, confident teenager. It always gives me hope, for deaf people, for the deaf community and the future, when I chat like this in Auslan with young deaf people.

This is a bilingual household where everyone uses both English and Auslan to varying degrees of fluency. Breda, Kasha and I are deaf, Cameron, Rowan and John are hearing. No one gets excluded and conversation is wide-ranging and animated.

Kasha leaves early next morning and Breda, John and I get an early train down to Sydney, leaving Cameron to work at home on his video productions.

We are going to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, a major reason John and I have made this trip.

Breda and I had been so excited to learn the organisers would provide some interpreted sessions. Two keynotes and a couple more, they said. We interpreted this optimistically and pored over the program, sending in our list.

Oh no, came the reply. All sessions in one venue are being live captioned, so they really could only stretch to a total of three interpreted sessions in addition to the two high-profile keynotes.

Over four days!

Most of the festival program is free but the captioned sessions have an entrance fee. We are so disappointed. But still, we are going. But only to the free sessions. Why should we have to pay for access? Other people at the festival don’t have to.

Today’s interpreted session is about history writing. Breda enjoys it. Although history interests me, I struggle to stay awake. John is unimpressed.

Breda goes to work and John and I stroll along the waterfront from Walsh Bay, under the Harbour Bridge towards Circular Quay. There is a cruise ship in port and everything looks so splendid: the sparkling water, the big white ship, the Opera House, Circular Quay with its ferries and background of skyscrapers. We stop at the Rocks for lunch at the Munich Brauhaus before catching a ferry to Watson’s Bay – because it’s the next one leaving and because being on a boat on the harbour is my number one thing to do in Sydney. Some smoke from burnoffs in the mountains hangs over the harbour but it’s a beautiful sunny day and we drink it in, standing in the boat’s prow, the wind in our hair.

In the 1980s I lived for a year at Neutral Bay and worked at the University of NSW, getting a ferry and a bus to work each day. In the winter dark I’d often sit out on the ferry deck on the trip home, rugged up against the cold, looking at the city lights, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and the clear night skies and watching the seagulls flying along beside the boat, and I’d fall in love all over again with this glorious harbour.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, anyone tired of Sydney Harbour is tired of life.

We get the 2.48pm train back to Springwood. I want John to see how spectacular the mountains are in the late afternoon light, but he falls asleep!

“It’s just rocks and trees!” he says. “It’s not like it’s Niagara Falls!”

Next morning, while everyone else works, John and I drive to Faulconbridge, the next town up the mountain, and visit the Norman Lindsay Gallery. http://www.normanlindsay.com.au/

Wandering through the gallery, admiring the incredible art, mostly of nudes, John turns to me and says, “This bloke was a sex maniac!” But he’s impressed.

Lindsay’s talent was very broad: drawing, painting watercolours and oils, etching, sculpture, writing and even model ship building.

The gallery is in the house where he lived. It’s a lovely white sandstone house with big rooms and high ceilings, verandas with columns, a grape arbor along one side, and a large detached kitchen connected to the house by an enclosed walkway with sculpture courtyards on either side. In the grounds are sculptures, fountains, a painting studio, an etching studio and a café. This artist was surely not impoverished.

We take the path down to the swimming pool at the edge of the bush. It is empty of water and a little overgrown with grass but it’s easy to imagine how magnificent it was in its heyday. It is enormous, the concrete edge on the opposite side looking out over the mountains like an infinity pool. Beside the steps down to it are curved stone terraces like an ancient amphitheatre.

“Imagine how many people might have sat here watching the goings-on in the pool!” John comments.

We catch an early afternoon train down to Sydney where I meet up with Breda at Walsh Bay for the second interpreted Writers’ Festival session. John goes off to do his own thing for an hour, he’s had enough, he says, of writers pontificating.

Breda and I both enjoy this session, especially Don Watson talking about how management-speak (‘agile’, ‘impact’) is taking over our everyday use of language. We duck out a little early to dash for the train at Circular Quay, via what feels like a million stairs through the Rocks.

At Town Hall we weave our way through the crowds outside, to find our seats to see Gloria Steinem in conversation with Jennifer Byrne. John and several deaf people are already there and Cameron joins us soon after.

We have front row seats, reserved because we need to be able to see the Auslan interpreter. Being deaf does on occasion come with extra benefits – and it doesn’t hurt our hearing partners either!

Sydney Town Hall is magnificent, with soaring organ pipes, a gallery above, leadlight and beautifully ornate embellishments. Tonight it is packed. This event has sold out.

Gloria Steinem is inspiring. Even John is engrossed. She talks about her latest book, My life on the road; her childhood with a father who packed the family into the car each year, moving them to a new place; and her own choice as an adult to spend a lot of time on the road, meeting, listening to and working with people.

Afterwards Breda, Sofya and I buy her book and join a long queue. Ahead of me I see Yvonne, a woman I knew many years ago when I lived in Sydney. I catch her eye, she excuses herself from her friends, and we catch up while the queue slowly moves us towards the marvellous Ms Steinem, who signs my book and smiles when I say and sign ‘thank you’.

Across the road we join the rest of our group at a restaurant in the resplendent Queen Victoria Building. Champagne is poured and we drink in celebration with Alastair McEwin, on his appointment as the new Disability Discrimination Commissioner, which he is due to take up in July. We are all so excited to see one of our own take on this influential role.

But Al is still Al, this guy from Adelaide we’ve known for so many years, still making us laugh. We tell him he’s going to have to watch himself now, people will be watching him.

It’s a deaf community goodnight – the “long goodbye” – and we have to run for the train but we make it home just before midnight.

It’s been a great night. All these people I’ve not seen for a while, Gloria Steinem’s enthusiasm for life at 82 and the promise for the future that Al’s appointment brings, fill me with optimism.