An elephant swayed from side-to-side as she picked her way down the side of mountainside in a jungle in northern Thailand. She felt her way with her trunk to test the terrain before she put each enormous foot carefully into a tiny space between loose rocks.
The mahout on the creature’s head turned around to where I clutched Elizabeth’s arm in terror. If it hadn’t been for my dear sister, my life would have been much less adventurous. And I would never have been perched so precariously on a platform on the animal’s back, waiting to be thrown to the ground and trampled underfoot.
‘Very safe,’ the mahout called, laughing as I shrieked. I swear could hear him thinking, ‘Silly Farang!’ (foreigner).
‘Grandmothers like us should be at home sitting in rocking chairs,’ Elizabeth said calmly, ‘not rocking around like this on the backs of elephants.’ She didn’t seem at all fazed by that experience or others that followed.
In the eight years she lived in Bangkok, Elizabeth orchestrated the most amazing adventures for family and friends who flocked to her apartment in Soi 12, Sukhumvit, right in the heart of Bangkok. She showed us the tourist sites; we explored China Town and travelled the Chao Phraya River on over-laden local ferries where we rubbed shoulders with Buddhist monks – taking care not to touch and so defile them – and with old men holding live chickens and old women clutching babies on their laps.
Elizabeth took me on boat trips on the tiny klongs (canals) that criss-crossed the city, mostly hidden from tourists. We visited the Klong Toey slums near the port with a Redemptorist priest as our escort and a vicious cock-fight an unexpected and unwelcome spectacle. At an international charity workshop we talked to the nuns and to the young women from slum districts who were learning to make patchwork bags, placemats and quilts. One day when we went looking for a medical museum that I’d read about, we even found ourselves in the morgue of a hospital with corpses placed haphazardly on trolleys and only partially covered with grey blankets – and no staff in sight. That was really scary!
When not playing hostess to Australian guests, my sister could often be found in an orphanage in the slums, feeding and cuddling babies or playing with toddlers.
‘I’ve learned not to go to the babies that cry the loudest,’ she said. ‘They get all the attention. I pick up those that are lying quietly. They’re passive because no one cuddles them.’
Fast forward twenty five years. Now my still energetic seventy-two-year-old sister lives in Dowerin, a tiny country town almost 160 kilometres north-east of Perth in the central wheat-belt region of Western Australia – as far from the bustle of Bangkok as it’s possible to imagine. Apart from the few days each year in August, when the Dowerin Field Days attract thousands of people from all over the State to the agricultural displays on the football oval, it’s quiet in the town.
Always the consummate hostess, Elizabeth owns the Dowerin Bed and Breakfast with her husband, Peter Worts.
‘We thought this lovely house looked like a B & B the minute we saw it,’ Elizabeth says. ‘I’ve travelled overseas and all over Australia and stayed in lots of home-based accommodation. I love entertaining, and thought I could probably do as good a job as many other people in hospitality.
‘Peter and I came to Dowerin ten years ago to semi-retire. We’ve obviously failed at that!’ she adds.
The Dowerin Bed and Breakfast has become a home-away-from-home for many people from government departments who visit Dowerin and the surrounding areas, as well as for tourists and business people travelling in the wheat-belt. Elizabeth’s attention to detail ensures that guests enjoy a warm welcome, delicious food and a comfortable room or purpose-built garden unit where they can sit on a veranda and enjoy the expansive rural views.
During the Dowerin Field Days, the bed and breakfast accommodation bulges with visitors. Some people even park their caravans on the property for the duration of the Field Days. Breakfast begins at six each morning as people prepare to set up and staff their stalls and exhibitions. At the end of each of the busy days, a party atmosphere prevails as twenty or so guests and visitors sit down to three-course, restaurant-standard meals. People book a year, two years ahead, for the privilege of staying at the Dowerin Bed and Breakfast during Field Days.
As well as running the bed and breakfast and helping Peter with his business, Shades Pergolas, Elizabeth has immersed herself in the life of the town – book club, craft group and art classes. She is also a long-term member of the North East Wheat Belt Travel Association, which promotes tourism in the region. As a member of the Country Cousins network of Western Australian farm-stay accommodation, she actively helps to maintain the standards of the network and attends regular meetings and conferences in regional Western Australia.
This active, much-in-demand grandmother of ten and great-grandmother of four makes time to drive to Perth almost weekly – a three-hundred-and-fifty kilometre round trip – to visit family and friends. She often takes care of her younger grandchildren, either in Perth or during school holidays at Dowerin. She regularly visits her daughter and grandsons who live in Bridgetown. Beautiful crotchet rugs, knitted jumpers, hand-made gifts flow from her hands for new babies, toddlers and the older children.
Elizabeth and Peter holiday regularly – in Bali, in Thailand, where Elizabeth’s son Damian manages a restaurant, or further afield. Last year they spent five weeks in England, where they visited Peter’s relations and went to some of the places where he spent his childhood. Often they take their caravan on short trips to the beach; to the outback where they camp on stations near water holes, perhaps to see the wildflowers in the mid-west; and to places in between.
Energetic and full of enthusiasm, my sister is a woman ageing with style. Perhaps one day, she’ll settle down in that rocking chair she mentioned in Thailand. But I imagine that won’t happen soon!