It is 4am. It won't be light for another two and a half hours. True to form on the second night after a 26-hour flight to or from the UK, sleep is evading me. Sick of lying motionless in the darkness, thoughts buzzing about my unsleepy head, I have crept downstairs to my computer and am trying to remember at least some of the words that were spilling onto my pillow.
Following one of the hottest and driest Aprils on record in northwest Europe – evidenced by satellite imagery of the yellowing Midlands and Southeast of England – and a glorious few days after my arrival in London, June rapidly became unsettled, weatherwise. During one heavy-showery afternoon's shopping in High Street Kensington, I had to remind myself I wasn't in a stormy Brisbane: drenching rain suddenly fell out of the sky, where raggedy, almost whispy dark grey clouds hung low and threatening.
In Brisbane meanwhile, the days were sunny and cloudless but with fearfully cold nights – 5 degrees on one such. This is a striking sunrise I missed but my friend captured for me.
In northern New South Wales there were floods of disaster proportion in many of the places along our March road route: Armidale, Glen Innes, Dungog, Gloucester, Walcha, beautiful Bellingen and Coff's Harbour.
Now, fairly predictably after my departure, it's suddenly hot and pink-skin weather in the UK, with today expected to be the hottest of the year (30 degrees). When I touched down at Brisbane Airport early last Saturday morning, the sky was surprisingly summer blue (less than a week after midwinter's day) and the air smelled of warmth. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday hold the tiniest white cloud on a full sun, although 'cool' is the word (22 degrees tops). In fact, later, it's dull and Tupperwary.
A little more than three weeks ago, I arrived ten minutes ahead of schedule on one of the first flights into LHR's Terminal 3 on a fine summer's morning. I have never passed through customs and baggage reclaim at Heathrow so rapidly in my life. Everybody on the M25 seemed to be driving at breakneck speed, which I suppose must mean I've acclimatised to Queensland's nanny-state 100km/hr limit on freeways. Road surfaces have deteriorated significantly since my last visit in August 2010, and in places were almost as poor and potholed as those in New South Wales. The blame is laid on the harsh last winter of frosts and snow.
Other striking moments of my travels included the always-impressive parallel lines of Australia's sand ridge deserts – in this case in the Great Victoria Desert, I think, in South Australia – visible from 35,000 feet when flying over the interior*;
the density of cows or sheep per meadow in the UK, which far exceeds even the lushest pasture in Australia; the reddest, most poppy-filled field I've ever seen, but unfortunately on a Suffolk lane where it was impossible to stop and photograph; a zillion elegant swans on the Thames in Kingston;
and the vibrant green of Abinger Hammer cricket pitch, which dazzled even on a rainy afternoon.
Abinger Hammer lies roughly half-way between Dorking and Guildford: villages don't come much more quintessentially Surrey than this. There's a clocktower overhanging the A25 complete with little man who would strike the bell with a hammer if the clock was in working order; a village sign that shows the silhouette of another man at work in a forge, reflecting the village's past importance in the iron industry of The Weald; and the River Tillingbourne flowing placidly between the road and the cricket pitch. It once provided power for the ironworks and now sustains brown trout and a watercress farm. Abinger's village shoppe reputedly sells children's fishing nets for use in this babbling brook; there's the obligatory tearoom; and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Ye olde English village paraphernalia was no more evident during my trip than in Tenterden, where I visited dear friends who have recently moved into this deepest, darkest part of Kent. I drove down in grimly torrential rain, but the following morning sunshine showed off this little town's charm.
I had relatively hassle-free flights back home this time, with everything running smoothly and on time. I did, however, have a strange encounter with one of the cabin crew. Towards the end of the first leg of my return flight – maybe two to three hours from Singapore – a lady full of self-importance and newly applied red lipstick asked me to pull down the blind at my window.
'Why?' I enquired.
'Because this is a night flight', she replied sternly.
'Clearly not,' I suggested, 'It's been light outside for hours.'
'But all these people are sleeping,' she proclaimed, gesturing around the cabin.
'I will be sleeping on the next leg,' I explained, 'but I will not expect everyone to be confined in a state of perpetual darkness to allow me to do so.'
'It's up to you,' she concluded frostily and walked away.
As far as I am aware, the only regulations about window shades on aircraft apply to take-off and landing. The maintenance of night-time conditions throughout a 13-hour leg of a long-haul flight is surely a matter of flexibility and discretion. Most of the people who were still asleep had been so for several hours when I raised the blind halfway in order to be able to see to write. And let's not forget that some long-haul passengers use sleeping drugs in order to remain unconscious throughout the whole journey. Surely the rest of us shouldn't have to sit in interminable darkness to perpetuate their 'night flight'? I prefer to gradually work towards the time zone of my destination. And had I not looked out, I would have missed this magnificent cumulus cloud towering to almost 39,000 feet.
On a lighter note, I leave you with an aggressive driver, a strange pad in Brighton and a fat cat. Hasta la próxima, mi patria.
* I've previously seen these parallel lines from above northwestern WA, in the Great Sandy Desert. They have always fascinated me, although it's taken a long while to determine what they are. A sand ridge desert is where dunes lie in parallel lines in the NNW-SSE direction of the prevailing winds, sometimes for hundreds of kilometres. They can be as much as 30 metres high and remain in place anchored by vegetation