Travelling with ten year old Sapphire is always a joy and more often than not it is she that is scolding me rather than the other way around: "Mum, why do you always end up talking about farting?"
Travelling with Sapph in the middle of Australia on mostly un-sealed roads in a truck-ish 4WD with a motley group of tourists and camping out under the stars in swags has been an even more rewarding experience and one that I've been privileged to view (partly) through her eyes.
When we arrived in Alice Springs on the very first night, we were in a nice resorty-hotel, wearing our then dust-free Melbourne clothes and about to order dinner in a nice restaurant. As we perused the menus inevitably peppered with kangaroo, camel and (presumably frozen) barramundi, Sapphire opened the conversation with "I remember the first time I saw an old lady's beard up close."
Oh? Turns out it was when she went to church with Grandma. "Yeah, I saw a few that day." Over our shared pitta and dip entree platter, I made Sapphire and Love Chunks swear on their eternal souls that they would ensure that I never, ever grow a beard. Not even when completely gripped by Alzheimers or Dementia and wearing my knickers around my neck in a locked ward. "No matter what the cost or the inconvenience, please promise me that I won't end up looking like Billy Goat Gruff - hell, let's talk up starting up a savings plan for my post-retirement grooming fund!"
Geriatric whisker issues aside, Sapphire has noted my heartache about the cholesterol situation with interest, pity and a healthy dose of 'Well, what did you expect' pragmatism but kindly informed her father that "Mum has been really good, hasn't she? She even gave me the mini-Toblerone we got on the plane."
That's right readers - I have been good. However, I'll admit to ordering cappuccinos lately purely due to the sprinkling of chocolate powder they shake over the frothy milk but Sapph seems to have joined me in avoiding cholesterol, telling the waitress, "I'd like to have the kids meal of spaghetti bolognese but please don't give me the chips but a green salad instead."
"Okaaaay," said the waitress, giving me the This-Is-A-New-One-For-Me raised eyebrow look. Hunger and laziness prevented me from talking about the time when we were in Coles going over the fruit and veg when Sapphire spotted a kilogram-sized back of brussels sprouts and came rushing over. "Look Mum, a whole bag of brussels sprouts! I LOVE these - can we have some please?" Another woman wheeled her trolley over me and whispered out the side of her mouth, "Did I just hear that or dream it?"
As we visited, walked, climbed and photographed Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), King's Canyon, Palm Valley and Ormiston Gorge, she studiously wrote down all of the Aboriginal art symbols and bush tucker plants in her tiny notebook. When our tour guide Geoff cooked up some kangaroo bolognese for our first meal around the campfire, she tasted it, smiled and said, "I think that this is your signature dish, it's full of flavour."
On our second night, we found ourselves at a cattle station camping ground, with a wood-heated hot water system feeding a shower open to the elements. The black bottle-shaped heating contraption needed heaps of handfuls of spinifex, wood splinters and team effort to get going, but careful planning (ie yelling out "Is anyone in there?") ensured that no-one was caught imitating the full moon in their exposed nudity.
Sapph and I were the first in on the basis of her youth - get the kid clean and in the swag first. Love Chunks stood guard outside and pulled his cap over his ears to soften the impact of our screams of agony as the 'hot' water - roughly air temperature or 4C - rained down on our bodies. Sapphire was gasping for breath as I squealed and apparently those sipping their tea peacefully around the fire a few hundred metres away suddenly decided to forgo a shower that evening.
Later that night was a snore festival like no other. Two couples were all snoring, somehow cruelly timed so that at any given moment those of us still awake were always treated to the leaf-blower volume of an inhalation and the angry walrus sounds of exhalation. Soon an additional percussional element entered the fray - kind of like a sweeter, softer version of Donald Duck - wallah wallah wallah wallah wallah. Lying there in the spotlight dazzle of the full moon, I couldn't help but start giggling at the irony of 'getting away from it all' and yet being surrounded by a cacophony of ear-nose-and-throat emanations to rival anything that inner Melbourne had to offer during rush hour.
A minute later everyone else who was awake sat up and started laughing - eleven out of sixteen of us were all sitting up in our swags and wrapped in our sleeping bags, cackling louder and harder than the snorers yet woke up none of them. Perhaps they'd already deafened themselves.
Sapphire made friends with Toughie, a barrelly blue heeler who lived in the Oak Valley Aboriginal community. He lay beside her at the fire and lifted his front paw to guide her hand towards his stomach, insisting on a tummy scratch. Hours later he waddled away, sated with love and left over BBQed steak.
There were tears on the last morning when the hot air balloon had inflated enough and the imposing wicker basket was ready for us to climb into. Her anguished face looked up at me as she grabbed at my jacket, "Mum, I don't think I can do---" before being drowned out by Franz's call to us all, "GET IN NOW!" She did and she loved it.
On the flight back home, we buckled ourselves into our seats and got out our respective books and newspapers. Tapping me on the arm she said, "I just don't think I could ever marry anybody called Rupert."
"Well, you once said that it was a ridiculous name for a man."
"Did I? Oh, but I was only joking - what if he was nice and----"
"No Mum, I'll never say yes to someone called Rupert."
We opened up our books and read for a minute or so before she tapped me again.
"He can't come from Footscray either."
"But what if he's kind, smart, funny and rich?"
"Then he won't be living in Footscray."
She bowed her head back down into the John Marsden, smiling.