DIARY OF A RETIRED RUGBY LEAGUE WRITER
WEEK 35 2019
Our river cruise from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, to Budapest in Hungary, on ‘Scenic Crystal’, is into its sixth day, and there are fine views of Fortress Marienberg, Wurzburg, Germany, on the left bank of the Main River. The highlight of the day is a coach trip along the Romantic Road to the charming medieval town of Rothenburg, with our guide, Karl, doing an excellent job. My wife, Marie and I walk the town walls, and there are great views of the Tauber River. While Marie shops for slacks, I have a Dunkel (dark lager) at a quiet pub, away from the tourist hordes. A middle-aged woman sits near me, and gets through three cigarettes, while I finish my beer. And she didn’t pause for breath.
Back on the boat, violinist, Palina provides beautiful pre-dinner music. I confess to shedding a tear as she plays ‘Alleluia’.
Dinner is by invitation (of restaurant manager, Nikola Stjepanovic) at Portobello’s Restaurant, and we sit next to retired Australian sea captain, Gil Whitton from Port Stephens. His lady is Hungarian/Australian. Late night drinks with John Borszeky and his wife, Lyn from Perth; Adelaide couple, Jeff (a chiropractor) and Kylie; and Brisbane University lecturer, Peter Long, who lives next door to Bishop Park, Nundah, home ground of the mighty Norths’ Devils Rugby League Club, where I played the 1979 season. Peter is good mates with my former Queensland Newspapers’ workmate, the rebellious Don Gordon-Brown. Peter has a soft spot for cynical journalists.
Australia beats Canada in a World Cup basketball warm-up match, giving us bragging rights over the Canadians on board. Australians and Canadians are the dominant force on the cruise.
Gary, from Allora, recalls a night at a pub in Gatton, in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, when he singed his beard, drinking a flaming sambuca. He tells me this story, because I am drinking a flaming sambuca. I don’t have a beard.
There is an author on board. No, not me, silly. Mike Woodhams, who writes Frank Ryder (MI6) thrillers.
Our cruise director, Tadej, gives an interesting talk about the Main – Danube Canal, which we are to pass through. But, at the same time, Tadej sends a collective shiver down the spine of guests, when he says low water levels mean we might have to transfer to a coach, at some stage. This is something everyone fears, because the summer has been dry, and cruises have hit bottom – literally.
Another cruise boat, Jane Austin (built in 2015) is alongside us in one of the locks, and then we dock alongside them at Bamberg. A Pom on the Jane Austin says they are only fed bread and water. He was joking of course. That menu was reserved for guests on the First Fleet, sailing to Australia from the old country.
We have a lovely time in medieval Bamberg, where there is a pope and a king buried, in one of the churches. Our guide looks like former Brisbane Brothers’ rugby league player, Scott McGuire and talks like Arthur Bostrom, who played Officer Crabtree, in the comedy, ‘Allo Allo’. As we pass Lewinsky’s bar, on the banks of the Regnitz River, I comment that the table service there is probably popular with Americans, but it goes straight over his head. Oh. Well. He is only young. Marie loves the rose garden in the inner court of the ‘Neue Residenz (New Palace). We have drinks at ‘Brauhaus’, in the Little Venice area of the city, with Peter Long. I order one of the local dark, smoked beers, but the waiter brings me a pilsener. Never mind. A pilsener was probably more suited to the hot day.
Dinner with Jeff and Kylie; John and Lynn. I have late night drinks with Jeff, talking footy – rugby league and Aussie rules. For a South Australian, he has a reasonable knowledge of the 13-man game.
Images of Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies fill the mind, as we are taken on a tour of the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg. Quite chilling, really. An Australian lady wants to know where Hitler’s Bunker is located. Try 400km away, in Berlin. Our guide, Felix, has a good sense of humor. After the rally grounds, we move on to the ‘Documentation Centre’, which is now an impressive museum, covering events from World War II in a fair minded, open way. I wonder if there is an equivalent in Japan!
‘Scenic Jasper’, the boat we were supposed to be on, passes us, going the other way. This results in a renewal of whinging from some guests.
Funny trivia night with fellow Australians. We call our team the ‘Wombats’, and finish second. Maybe we should have chosen another name.
On-line News Ltd article rates Toronto one of the world’s great sporting cities. Mentions the local Aussie rules side, but there is nothing about the Toronto Wolfpack Rugby League Club, which plays in the European Championship. Obviously written by someone from the Adelaide Advertiser.
This day 35 years ago, Trevor ‘The Axe’ Gillmeister, from Norths, was named Colt of the Year in the Brisbane competition. He would go on to represent Australia and to captain Queensland, as well as winning two premierships with the Broncos.
Cruising now on the Danube, we berth at 2,000 year-old Regensburg. Fellow passenger, Col Egan from Cleveland in Queensland, is a cricket tragic, having played the game in country New South Wales, in centres such as Bourke, Gundagai and Wagga Wagga. He and his wife had done a Trafalgar tour of the UK and Ireland before the cruise. “A publican in Cork wanted to adopt me,” Col says.
I had a few British and Irish publicans say the same thing about another Col Egan, a Brisbane Souths’ rugby league stalwart, who came on two of my Kangaroo supporters’ tours.
Our ‘Active Walking Tour’ to the Palace of the Princes of Thurn and Taxis, was not as active as we thought. In fact, it was downright leisurely. Back on board, our dinner-waiter, Mikael tells me he once worked on a farm at Tolga, on the Atherton Tablelands in North Queensland, Australia, when he was a backpacker.
I receive news from Australia that the Brisbane chapter of the Carlton Beer and Beef Club may shut down, because the current organising committee have had enough. I am their ‘go-to man’, when it comes to the role of MC for functions.
At 2.20 a.m., Marie and I are woken by a noise, and a shudder. We both shudder, because it seems we have hit the river bottom! But the boat surges on.
Berth at Passau, still in Germany, but on the border with Austria. The Rivers Inn and Liz join the Danube here. We board a coach, headed for the hills, which are alive with the sound of music. Our female guide from Lower Austria sings, ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ as we head off. This could be a long day. The driver is Slovakian. We cross the River Inn, into Austria, on the outskirts of Braunau, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, and then alight in the centre of Salzburg. Leisurely walk around the city, where Marie and I had stayed in 1994. There is a greenie/vegan protest. Not a very big one, in the home of bratwurst and schnitzel.
Afterwards we attend a ‘Sound of Music’ show at Zistelalm, which is 1,100m above sea level on Gaisberg Mountain, and it is much better than I imagined. Our guide, who is quite cynical about the Julie Andrews’ inspired craze, also agrees that this was a pretty good show. Quality music and a charming cast. The food is fine – strong beef soup, grilled chicken breast, and, of course, apple strudel with whipped cream.
It is my 67th birthday, and Brian Atherton, groomsman at our wedding in 1975, sends best wishes. Originally from Widnes in Cheshire, England, he tells me that Bo Goulding, a proud Widnesian, and the father of former Great Britain rugby league halfback, Bobby Goulding, has died.
Big fires hit the Granite Belt area of Queensland. It is believed they were started by overseas backpackers, camped in the bush.
‘Old Dave’, from Nova Scotia, tells me about the weather, back home in Canada.
Berth at Melk in Austria, where Marie and visited the 18thC Benedictine Abbey in 2002. We decide not to do it again, and instead explore the town below. One of the other passengers tells me that one of the town’s resident barbers, also raises Peregrine falcons, for Saudi Arabia.
The cruise through the Wachau Valley is stunning. In heavy rain, Marie and I walk to the wine growing centre of Durnstein, where a wedding party carries sunflowers. Marie buys local gin, after we sample the local wine.
Local duo, ‘Sundowner’, delayed by heavy traffic, provide the on-board music, some of it Country and Western. They are a bit stressed, but do a good job.
Austrian capital, Vienna is our ‘home’ for two nights. Marie and I were last here in 2002, in November, when the weather was much colder.
Our guide, on a coach tour of the city, has so much information, our heads are turning left and right, like tennis fans. Marie and I get off at the Opera House and walk to St Stephens Cathedral. Coffee, tea and apple strudel at a cafe, with Peter Long. Stop in at a fete, where lots of people are in traditional dress, and a local television crew is interviewing attendees.
Our vessel is up against an Avalon boat, and I chat to one of their guests, a Rhodesian, who now lives in East Sussex, after having also lived in Leicester. He is ex-military, and says at one stage, the military had (dictator) Mugabe in their sights, literally. Most of the passengers on his boat are Americans, and he has them in his sights. Only joking.
Schnitzel for dinner is ordinary, so dry. A rare, poor meal on this cruise.
Private, classic-music concert at Palais Liechtenstein, Vienna, is inspirational. The lead violinist is so energetic and the drummer has hilarious facial expressions. The music of Strauss and Mozart is truly timeless.
Ballina defeat Murwillumbah Mustangs 38-18 in the Northern Rivers Rugby League Grand Final, with former Test centre, Jamie Lyon, Ballina’s captain-coach, scoring three tries. Former Newtown, Sydney Easts and Balmain forward, Greg Bandiera turns 70. Greg, originally from North Queensland, had a season with Old Boys at Murwillumbah. I interview his many times when he was chief executive of Gold Coast Seagulls.
Binna Burra Lodge, in the Gold Coast hinterland, has been largely destroyed by a bushfire. So sad. Binna Burra has always been a favorite of our family, for bush walking.
3 Marie and Steve Ricketts toast Bamberg
4 Nazi Rally Grounds, Nuremberg. Our guide, Felix.
5 Vegan protest, Salzburg
6 Sound of Music cast
7 Melk Abbey, Austria
8 Palais Liechenstein, Vienna
9 Classic music concert, Vienna.