Our abseiling instructors, also members of the AirTC, gave us a thorough safety briefing. We progressed through the different faces, along with cadets who had never abseiled. Not only was the descent exciting, the climb up was equally thrilling. The route up was a rocky incline off to the side of the cliffs. It wasn’t rock climbing in the strictest sense, but it was some serious hiking around large rocks. We all chatted excitedly, especially after the 150’ cliff, when the adrenaline was really flowing. This was one of the most exhilarating events of my life, in an unparalleled woodland paradise.
At some point we noticed loud voices carrying through the trees from a neighboring site. We all exchanged confused glances until we figured out what was going on. Some teenage girls in another group had been eavesdropping and were absolutely in love with Rob. Mark rolled his eyes and explained they were part of an inner-city group of at-risk kids. At the time, Rob was holding a conversation with a cadet when he remarked that something, I think a TV show (maybe The Nanny), was “the stupidest thing” he had ever seen. The girls fell all over each other, screeching with laughter, mimicking Rob’s American accent: “the stoooooopidest thing!” Rob looked at me, mouth agape, and shook his head in disbelief. A few moments later the girls actually started calling his name, taunting him to join their group. You have to imagine the Aussie accent, “Rawb! Oh Raawwwwb! Come on ovah he-yah Rawwwwb!” then peals of raucous laughter. He did a good job of ignoring their pleas.
I realized I had picked up an admirer – just one though, not a group. I noticed throughout the day that one junior cadet, about fifteen years old, had attached himself to me. Someone even remarked that he had a little crush. At the end of the day, he handed me a slip of paper with his name and address written in pencil. This wasn’t exactly uncommon – we were encouraged to bring business cards printed with our name and basic contact information – and at the end of every Flight meeting I walked away with senior cadets’ cards, or their contact information written on the back of one of my own cards, in my pockets. This youngster was the first to show initiative.
Our next stop was to a RAAF Search and Rescue station. My notes exclaim “HELO FLIGHT!” We took a long flight over the coast in a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter. The pilots were very personable and seemed amused by our enthusiasm. How could we not be enthusiastic? It was a gorgeous day and we were flying over a stunningly beautiful shoreline with friendly Australians.
You’d think I would have adjusted at this point, but my memory really deteriorated during this period, as sleep deprivation piled up. Although, a few events on this day and the next stand out pretty boldly. I believe later on in the day we returned the cadets to their unit, then went shopping at an immense Target to replenish personal items, and just to have fun. I remember laughing hard with everyone as we walked back to the van – dead on my feet. I could have this memory on the wrong day, though.
Thursday, 25 July
We departed Nowra for Newcastle, a large industrial city on the coast north of Sydney. The British pursuit of escaped convicts lead to the discovery of the region's abundant coal deposits in 1797. It was a forced labor site for the most recalcitrant prisoners until 1823. Over the next hundred years the city developed into a trade, manufacturing, and ship-building center. It remains the largest coal-exporting harbor in the world.
I believe we started out the day in our IACE uniforms since we had a meet-and-greet upon arrival with the AirTC cadets and the Deputy Lord Mayor of Newcastle. We first met at the Flight’s unit location, Adamstown Army Depot, and were introduced to our host cadets. Kacy and I would stay with a family of four, a couple with two daughters. The youngest was a cadet, who was seventeen years old, and her sister was about twenty.
Accompanied by the AirTC cadets we toured the city in a large van. It was clear winter day, with a cornflower blue sky. We stopped for photos at a former coastal defense battery on top of a hill. After the tour, we were received by Deputy Lord Mayor Manning at the city’s formidable government building. We socialized with various government officials in a formally decorated room while eating finger foods. After the reception, we paused for photos on the building’s gray steps, then shook hands, and bid our host goodbye.
Instructors and assistants in the back row.
We packed up the ropes and gear, then headed to a picnic/barbeque area. The adult leaders started a fire in a grill, and cooked bratwurst-like sausages for all of us. Someone produced cans of soda. As we were gathered together for lunch, some kookaburras had perched on a nearby branch, beadily eyeing us. I threw pieces of bread to them. They ruffled their feathers and scowled. I was puzzled – didn't all birds love bread? I then threw small pieces of sausage. The birds turned into a squawking feeding frenzy. Ah. They’re carnivorous.
On the way to Watagan State Forest, the adults and cadets explained that they were a part of the government-sponsored defence force cadets, with Army and Navy counterparts. They paid small fees each term, but otherwise their uniforms and field equipment were issued for free, to be returned when the cadet left the organization. Field equipment? Yes, even the aviation-centric AirTC held bivouacs in the Aussie wilderness, and practiced their “bushcraft”. Some cadets reminisced about the previous summer’s bivouac and the leech infestation. I shuddered.
The cadets described the various types of hats and uniform combinations they were allowed to wear. During our visits to the various flights, the junior cadets wore a flight cap with their blues. Senior cadets wore what we would call the service cap. That Friday, some cadets had the “giggle hat” while others wore the “slouch hat” with their green or camouflage uniforms. The iconic Aussie slouch hat – a wide-brimmed felt hat surrounded by a puggaree, or pleated cloth band – was an option for both blues and camo uniforms. I don’t remember the conditions under which they wore it with their blues. The cadets loved that hat, and many said they couldn’t wait to get a “proper Akubra”, the premium brand. Rob also expressed his fondness for the slouch hat.
It was also with this group that we came to understand the differences between Aussie and American terms for levels of education. As I recall, high school for them ended around what we would call 10th grade. “College” for them was late high school for us. “Uni” was the University level.
We arrived at the park, and hiked to our abseiling site. It was a group of sheer cliffs and bald rocks. The practice face was about 60’, the intermediate was about 90’ with a negative incline, and the final was an immense pillar of rocks 150’ high. The terrain, again, was primeval and there’s nothing that I’ve seen, so far, that compares to it. Most of the trees were eucalypts, with narrow fragrant leaves. The rocks and hills were exposed and worn. You could easily imagine a dinosaur or giant sloth crashing through the trees. There was a deep and ancient peace – until Rob’s fan club showed up.
Kacy and I were dropped off at our host’s home, where we met all members of the family. We were shown to our fully furnished, but alas unheated, rooms in the basement. There was a chill in the air, for more than one reason. I do not remember specifics but I do recall as we sat and conversed with our host family, the mother made some pointedly sarcastic remarks towards me. I felt the smile slide from my face a couple of times, and only hitched it back up with considerable effort. I thought maybe I was being overly sensitive. But no, I noticed her husband and youngest daughter shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and looked down in dismay. The youngest even gave me an apologetic look. I was confused and a little upset. I’d just met her, what could I have possibly done?
I was relieved when it was time for bed.
We returned to the Depot, and changed back into our civilian clothes. The officer told us we could keep the uniforms, if we liked, and suggested we use them for the next day's activities. We thanked him and the Flight for their generosity.
At some point during the day my host cadet pulled me off to the side and explained her mother’s behavior. She said that her older sister had been involved in a serious car wreck within the last year, and the people at fault were in their late teens and early twenties. Her mother still felt some resentment towards anyone in that age group. I thanked her for sharing that with me, told her I understood completely, and reassured her I was not angry in any way. I felt for the entire family.
Kacy, Ashley, Brian, Rob, Mark, AirTC Cadet Kye Blunt
Friday, 26 July
Early Friday morning we met a group of cadets and adults at the Adamstown Army Depot. Our itinerary noted that we would be abseiling – rappelling to Americans – so we dressed in jeans and casual shirts. The guys were wearing brown leather boots, Kacy and I were wearing running shoes. After introductions, we followed an AirTC officer into a large supply room filled with stacks of uniforms and equipment. We were awestruck by their resources – they had ready to issue sets of blues, green fatigues, and camouflage uniforms, with all of the required accessories. This was our first view of Aussie “jelly bean” camouflage. They were going through a uniform and insignia transition so most of the cadets were wearing older style green fatigues. To our immense surprise, the officer gave us each a set of “jelly bean” camos to wear that day, complete with a green wool sweater, socks, and a green “giggle hat” - a short brimmed and unruly boonie hat. Kacy and I were given broken-in black leather boots for the day.
A proper Akubra - made of rabbit fur felt.
Puffed up kookaburras waiting for meat - not bread.