Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The travelling has stopped, but should the blogging?

It's been pretty quiet on the Chaz In Oz blog of late, and most of you know why: the last month has been a whirlwind of packing, travelling, packing again, and finally unpacking. We're back home in Canada, and the amazing year is rapidly fading into memory.

We returned two days before Christmas, spending about 28 hours travelling from Auckland to Bracebridge. Jet-lagged and emotionally drained as we were, we decided we really wanted to celebrate Christmas properly, so we hauled out the decorations, bought a few more gifts to supplement those we had brought back from Oz, and hung stockings on the staircase with care. We even got a tree (and believe me, nothing makes you feel like Charlie Brown as much as going to the Christmas tree lot at 3:00 on Christmas Eve).

Now the suitcases have been emptied and put away, the souvenirs have got new homes, the photos have all been downloaded, and the passports tucked away. But I find there are still a few things I meant to blog about. I didn't mention visiting my "aunt" Janet, my didgeridoo lessons, or our adventures in New Zealand. And, as several people have pointed out, the fact that my last post on the Red Centre adventure was labelled as "part one" implies fairly strongly that I have more to say on it. Sure, I can tell the stories to people in person now, but this blog has always been at least partly about saving my memories of the trip, as well as telling folks back home what we're up to, and I know as well as anyone how quickly memories can fade. So, over the next few weeks, I'll try to post a few more blog entries. If you think that's cheating, you're free to ignore them; personally I'm going to enjoy strolling through some more of my Australian adventures, at least in memory.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Red Centre part one: Alcoota School

Before we came to Australia, someone gave us a bit of advice. When on exchange, they said, people will sometimes invite you to do things you may not initially feel like doing. Accept those invitations; say yes to everything.

It was great advice, and we heeded it while in Alice Springs. We were staying with Phil and Trina Kotzur, who teach at a school in Alcoota, about two hours drive out of Alice. On Sunday night, while getting ready to leave, they invited us to visit them at the school. We debated whether to go -- we were already way over the mileage limit on our rental car, and with only five days in the centre we wondered if we shouldn't use the day to do other things -- but in the end we said yes.

It was a real eye-opener, a chance to get a glimpse of life in an aboriginal community. The kids don't speak English when they come to school, so the school employs adults as teaching aids to sit in the classroom and translate if necessary. The school has a fairly high attendance rate, thanks partly to the efforts of one older man who is hired to walk to each home in the village every morning and collect the children (sort of like a school bus, but on foot). The school day begins with breakfast and tooth brushing, shoes are a rarity, and parental involvement is almost non-existent. When boys get to be about 15 or so, the older men will come and get them and take them off in the bush for a couple of months initiation, after which they are ready to get married. When Ana asked a group of teens what they do for fun, they said "hunt" -- kangaroo, echidna, goanna.

At the same time, you don't need to spend much time in the school to realize that kids are kids everywhere -- they mug for the camera, they giggle at the funny strangers, and they play silly when the teacher wants them to be serious. Basketball is popular, and AFL is even more so, with many of the kids sporting team shirts.

Going to the Red Centre was a highlight of our year in Australia, and going to Alcoota was a highlight of our trip to the Red Centre. Say yes to everything: good advice. Thanks Phil and Trina.

There are photos here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Drumming at The Loo With A View

I thought we were going out for dinner. Turns out we were also going to become part of the Mooloolaba street theatre scene.

It started with a magazine assignment: a dozen fun and unexpected things to do with kids this summer. A few months ago we had stumbled across a drum circle that meets on the beach in Mooloolaba, a town about half an hour south of here, so I decided to include that in the article. After tracking down the leader (which took a week, and involved speaking to every drummer on the Sunshine Coast before finally connecting with a guy named Krusey), I had the piece. Talking to him about the drumming made me want to go back and see it again, so we decided we'd go this Wednesday night.

Not far from where the drum circle meets, there's a fabulous hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant. It's one of these places that is jam-packed even on a Wednesday night, where people mill around on the street waiting for their takeaway orders while people inside sit at rickety tables and eat off mis-matched crockery. Sharon hadn't been there, so we decided to have dinner before the drumming. Jackie (Sharon's teaching partner) and her family joined us, so we made a little party of it.

Naturally we'd forgotten to book a table, so we ended up getting takeaway. Josh, Jackie's son, had brought his djembe drum along, so while we waited the kids took turns performing on the street. Josh even put his hat out, but nobody seemed to think their talents were worthy of a coin.

With bags of massaman curry, pad thai, fried cashews and vegetables, and prawn chips under our arms, we strolled over to the barbecue area to feast. The beach at Mooloolaba is a real gathering place, and a lot of fun at night. There are lights on the sand, so you can watch people playing beach volleyball and footy while the younger children play on the playgrounds. There's a large balcony beside the toilet block (a complex known as The Loo With A View), where the drummers meet, while below them on the sand the local fire-twirling group practice their skills. At another table, a parcour practitioner was doing handstands and other tricks.

Before long, everyone in our group was taking part in some element of the scene. Ana borrowed the camera and went to take photos of the fire twirlers. After chatting with them for a few minutes, she handed the camera back to me so she could learn how to toss firesticks around. Sharon, Jackie, Kadek and Josh joined the drum circle. Isaiah went to chat to the parcour runner, and soon he was trying his hand at that. Charlotte and Indi, meanwhile, ran back and forth between the playground and the beach, while I just wandered around photographing the whole thing.

It was a great evening -- casual, fun, spontaneous, unexpected. Photos here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The biggest show in Coolum

I'm not sure what it was that made me suspect the Coolum School Carnival wasn't your typical school 'fete', but it may have been the day Charlotte and Isaiah asked if they would be able to buy armbands for the rides. Thirty dollar armbands.

School carnivals aren't really part of the culture at our kids' school in Bracebridge, but I've certainly been to a few as a reporter. They're all pretty much the same -- face painting, a couple of games, a bake table, another table selling second-hand books and third-hand rubbish, maybe a barbecue. After photographing a few dozen of them, I could almost predict the shots. (It became so predictable, in fact, that as an editor I used to forbid my reporters from shooting face painting, demanding that they at least try to get me something I hadn't seen before.)

But rides? Real carnival rides assembled by pierced and tatooed, dope-smoking, trailer-living carnies? Nope, never seen that at a school carnival. Not even at a school as large as Coolum State School, which has over 1000 students going up to grade seven.

As the carnival got closer, it became even more apparent that this was a rather large event in the school calendar. The teachers are all expected to run an activity or a stall at the Friday night carnival. Sharon, ever the mischief-maker, noted that staying at school until 9:00 at night on a Friday isn't really in the union contract and wondered what would happen if a teacher refused. She may has well have asked what would happen if she sparked up a joint in a staff meeting. "Oh, you really wouldn't want to do that," she was told. "There would be trouble."

We briefly considered making some of that trouble when we got a letter from the Governor of Queensland. There was a reception for teachers at Government House in Brisbane, and visiting Canadian teachers were invited to attend. Only two problems: it was on the same night as the Coolum carnival, and children weren't welcome. It was really the last issue that clinched it for us, since we really couldn't see what we would do with the kids while we drove to Brisbane and back. Besides, by this point Isaiah and Charlotte had been whipped into a frenzy of excitement about the carnival and it would have been too cruel to tell them they couldn't go. On top of that, when we really thought about it, we decided we were actually more interested in seeing what all this carnival excitment was about than seeing the inside of Government House.

The big carnival day was a couple of weeks ago (I've fallen a bit behind in my blogging). And it is indeed an impressive event. I'd say it's on the same scale as a smallish fall fair -- not as big as the one in Bracebridge, but still quite a show for something that's run entirely by teachers, parents and conscripted students. There were games (a dunk tank, a plate-smash-ball-throw booth, mini golfing, etc.). Another half dozen booths were selling food, and there were tons of prizes being raffled. Sharon ran the petting zoo. And yes, there was face painting. The rides were big and impressive -- with equally big and impressive lineups -- and they seemed to have a better class of carnies than most, with nary a facial tattoo in sight.

There were also a few uniquely Aussie attractions, including showbags. These are sample bags filled with various kinds of candy, or "lollies" as they call them here. I've been told they started out as sample bags given out, or sold at low cost, by retailers and manufacturers, but the whole thing has grown to astonishing proportions since then. At the big fairs they have hundreds of different kinds of showbags, containing everything from hair products to clothing, and costing anything from a couple of bucks to twenty or more dollars. At the Royal Melbourne show a couple of years ago there was a $999 showbag that contained goods valued at over $2,000, including vouchers for three nights accommodation and dinner. When the big Brisbane fair, the Ecca, takes place in August, the daily paper publishes a special insert listing all the showbags and their contents. There's an online list from this year's show here. The premise, apparently, is that by buying the bag you are getting greater value for your money than you would if you bought everything separately. I'm not sure that's true of all bags, but the kids certainly seemed happy with their six dollar showbags full of sour candies.

The carnival draws thousands of visitors -- not just students and their families but loads of people from the community. They come for the rides and the games, and at the end of the evening they stick around to watch a very impressive fireworks display. And, in the process, they raise tens of thousands of dollars for the school. Final figures aren't in yet, but since many of the goods are donated, the profit margin is impressive.

People kept asking Sharon if we have anything like it in Canada. Her stock answer was "No, we just pay higher taxes." And the event certainly is partly about making money. But it's also really interesting to see how this event can reiterate the school's position as a community site, drawing back people who haven't been to the place since they graduated.I hear the reception at Government House was lovely, and I would have liked to see the place. But I think we made the right decision by staying in Coolum for the evening.

Photos of the fun are here.

Photos of Fraser

If you're on Facebook, you may have seen these photos on my profile. If you're not, and you want to get some idea of what Fraser Island looks like, follow this link.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The most beautiful place in Australia?


There are many beautiful places in Australia, and in the past ten months or so we’ve seen a lot of them. The Great Ocean Road, the rainforest of the Wet Tropics, the Whitsunday Islands, Great Keppel Island, the Blue Mountains, the Misty Mountains, Port Arthur, the Great Barrier Reef – they are all stunning and memorable. But I think the most beautiful place we’ve seen so far may well be Lake Mackenzie on Fraser Island. And we very nearly didn’t go there.

Fraser Island is located just off the coast about 40 kms north of here. At more than 100 kms long by 30 kms wide, it is the largest sand island in the world. It’s listed as one of the must-sees on this part of the coast, and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. So why not go?

Well, it’s partly because we thought we may have already seen much of what Fraser has to offer. Descriptions of the island emphasize the long, pristine beaches, the lush rainforest, and the crystalline freshwater lakes.  Sounds lovely, but also very familiar: we’re living just a few minutes walk from a long, pristine beach; the hinterland around here is full of stunning rainforest walks; crystalline lakes are a bit harder to find in Australia, but as people who live an hour's drive from Georgian Bay, we have had just a bit of experience in that regard. At this point in our journey, with just two months to go, we’re having to make some serious choices about what to see and where to go. Skipping a trip to Fraser seemed like an easy choice.

And yet, it kept nagging at us. The place is listed as a world heritage site, after all. And there are some elements of Fraser that we haven’t experienced, such as driving on the beach (the beaches there are designated as highways) and seeing dingos in the wild. In the end – with a very strong nudge from the staff at Sharon’s school – we decided to go.

Going to Fraser isn't as simple as just scooting up the road. Fraser Island is an enormous sand dune, after all, and conventional vehicles simply aren’t allowed on the barges that go to the island. You can hire your own 4x4, or you can take a guided tour aboard special buses. We’re not usually fans of guided tours, but the horror stories of novice drivers getting their jeeps bogged in deep sand convinced us that we should let someone else do the driving.

We weren’t very far into the trip before I decided we’d made the right decision. Travelling from Noosa, we drove up the beach on the mainland for about 30 kms, then took an inland track to reach Rainbow Beach, where we would catch the barge to the island. As the bus heaved and pitched through the soft sand of the inland track, and squeezed past oncoming cars on a path that seemed barely wide enough for one, I was glad I was able to just sit back and enjoy it.

Once we reached the barge landing site, I was even more pleased. The barges that run to the island may look like typical ferries, but they don’t bother with niceties like docks: because the whole region is sand, they just pull up right on the beach rather like a D-Day landing craft. Getting the bus to the barge meant running an obstacle course, the driver gunning his engine while navigating between a handful of utes and trucks that were bogged axle deep in the soft sand. His running travel commentary suddenly stopped, replaced with a tense hissing sound as his headset picked up his heavy, concentrated breathing.

A five minute barge ride and we were on Fraser, where we skirted through another cluster of bogged vehicles before roaring down the beach. Looking out the bus window at a couple busily shovelling sand out from under their wheels, it wasn’t hard to picture myself in the same boat.

Turning inland to another incredibly tortuous track, the driver explained that the island is unusually difficult to drive on these days. Rain acts like a grader, packing the sand down and smoothing it out. Fraser hasn’t had a decent rain in months, so driving the sand roads is like driving through sugar. Sugar with metre deep holes that set the bus swaying in a sometimes quite alarming fashion. At one point we even saw another off-road tour bus getting bogged, something that would no doubt help shorten the career of its driver.

Thousands of people come to Fraser each year to camp on the beaches or stay in one of the resorts. Doing a daytrip meant we had to settle for just a couple of quick highlights: we would walk a rainforest track beside a creek, and we would swim at Lake Mackenzie.

The rainforest track was lovely. Water slowly percolates through the island's sand, taking about a century to go from the high lakes to the creeks. Because of that, drought has little effect on the island's water table. Even though it hasn't rained in weeks, the forest was lush and green. The creek water, being so completely filtered by the sand, is absolutely clear -- in photos you really can't tell that there's water in the creek at all.


That same water, when sitting in a lake many metres deep, turns out to be the most stunning rich blue. Lake Mackenzie is that blue, an unbelievable, breathtaking sight. Even though the lakeshore was crowded with a hundred or so visitors, it still managed to feel like a pristine hideaway, a place so perfect that it could not possibly be real.

Swimming in that lake was an absolute joy. It reminded me very much of swimming at Bruce National Park in Ontario, except that the water was about 23 degrees.


We could have stayed there all day, all week if we were allowed. There's no camping allowed at Lake Mackenzie, which no doubt helps preserve the water quality. But both Sharon and I said that, one day, we will come back to Fraser Island. And next time we'll drive our own 4x4, soft sand or not, just so we can camp on the beach and return to Lake Mackenzie to swim there every day.


Oh, and the famous Fraser Island dingos? Didn't see a one on the island. But we did see one trotting through the ditch on the outskirts of Rainbow Beach. Looked rather like a stray dog to me, which I suppose is really what they are.

(As for photos, Sharon's got a bunch on her Facebook page. I'll have to see if I can figure out a way to link to them for people who aren't on Facebook. Stay tuned.) 
 
 


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Road Trip part four -- the strangest bird in Australia

It was Bill Bryson who first got me interested in seeing a cassowary.
Before reading his book about Australia -- sold here as Down Under, and sold everywhere else as In A Sunburned Country -- I had never heard of cassowaries. But Bryson is fascinated by the deadly and dangerous critters of Oz, and among his catalogue of the spiders, snakes, jellyfish and the incredible number of other Australian things that can kill you, he mentions the cassowary. I don't recall his exact phrase, but he says something about this elusive flightless bird that lives in the jungles of north Queensland and kills its prey by leaping in the air and slashing with a single, oversized claw on the front of its foot. Since cassowaries are nearly as big as emus, that's a pretty serious slash. People have been killed by cassowaries.
Naturally we added them to the list of creatures we wanted to see.

We have, in fact, seen some since arriving here. It was at Australia Zoo, and we spent a few minutes marvelling at these really odd looking birds.The colours on their head are truly bizarre, and what looks like a rooster's comb on the top is really a bone, or an extension of the beak, or something else that's neither feathery nor fleshy. In fact they're so odd that we began to suspect they aren't really a bird at all. We decided they are, in fact, people dressed up in costume. Some sort of elaborate Australian hoax they play on tourists. The down under version of the jackelope.
If that's the case, though, it seems that a lot of people are in on the joke: travel around Cape Tribulation and you see signs by the side of the road all over the place asking drivers to slow down to avoid the cassowaries.After seeing so many signs we decided these improbable creatures were likely real -- after all, if huge jumping rats (aka kangaroos) and platypuses are real, then why not flightless birds with day-glo heads and deadly kung fu kicks? So we started looking for them.
Every time we stopped somewhere that had cassowary warning signs along the road, we would ask about sightings. We were directed to this trail or that trail, spots where there had been plenty of sightings. But each time we came up empty-handed.
We felt sure we would see one once we got north of the Daintree River, to a region that's sometimes called Cassowary Country. It's a truly remarkable spot, where you can stand in the rainforest, look across a beach and see where the Great Barrier Reef comes as close to the mainland as it does anywhere. You have to take a ferry across the river as there are no bridges, and the road twists and turns through the jungle. Every few kilometres you come across a roadhouse, a caravan park, a little resort or a shop. It could feel very twee and touristy, but it doesn't. Instead the whole place has kept an air of being a little secluded spot at the end of the road. Which it is, sort of -- once you get to Cape Tribulation, about 40 kms north of the river, it's the end of the road for people driving conventional vehicles. The rest of the way to Cooktown the road is suitable for four wheel drives only. If you want to get to Cooktown in a regular car, you have to backtrack and go 100 km inland before heading another 200 kms north.
We didn't go as far as Cooktown. Instead we waded along the sand at Cape Tribulation -- which Captain Cook named after he ran his ship onto the Barrier Reef -- and dipped our toes in the 30 degree water, keeping a close eye out for crocs. We stopped at a small tropical fruit orchard and had ice cream made with wattle seed and black sapote. We peered through the dust-storm haze to try and glimpse Mount Sorrow, also named by Capt. Cook (he was having a really rough time when he explored this part of the coast). And we hiked the trails where we'd been told we might see a cassowary. No luck.
A few days later, we stopped for the night at Mission Beach. This funky little beach town is known as cassowary central: the warning signs were the size of billboards, and the caravan park had photos of cassowaries walking right past the camp kitchen. The woman at the front desk said the birds didn't come to the park any longer, since they had been relocated, but she told us we had a good chance of seeing them if we hiked the fan palm trail.
The trail was lovely -- fan palms are really striking, and they cast a dappled, lime green light over the whole place. The narrow track twists and turns through the forest, and at times you can't see more than five metres down the track, which made me have second thoughts about whether I wanted to run into a deadly kicking bird at such close quarters. I needn't have worried, though: once again, we reached the end of the trail without a sign of a cassowary.
We're back in southeast Queensland now, and unless we go back to Australia Zoo we have absolutely no chance of seeing a cassowary. On Sunday morning I was chatting to a man about our travels in the north and told him of our quest. He said his brother recently moved to Cape Tribulation. And has he seen any cassowaries, I asked? The man shook his head. "Been there five months, and hasn't seen one." It made me feel a bit better.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Road trip part 3 -- hot springs and red dirt

When we were preparing for our sojourn in Australia, I found myself making lists of the things I wanted to see and do. Some were very touristy (Opera House, Australia Zoo, Great Ocean Road), some related to regular life (taste Vegemite, sample lots of different wines, watch Aussie rules football). And some were just a bit quirky. Among the latter was my desire to camp in an open field of red dirt.

Every Australian road movie I've ever seen has a scene where people pull out their bedroll in the middle of a dry red plain and sleep under the stars. We don't sleep under the stars in Canada -- the bugs eat you if you try, and there's almost always a heavy dew. But in the drier parts of Australia, apparently, there are no mosquitoes, it doesn't rain much, and there's little dew, so a tent becomes superfluous. Instead you roll out your sleeping bag and bed down. If you want something a little more enclosed, you use a swag (yep, like the one that jolly swagman had when he sat down beside the billabong).

We've done a lot of camping this year, most notably during our two week road trip to the north where we camped every night, but almost all of our trips have been along the coast, where a tent is desireable. So far I've not slept under the stars. But I did manage to get a night sleeping in a red earth plain.


It was at a spot called Inott Hot Springs. We had been travelling across a farming region known as the Atherton Tablelands, and were looking at a place to stop for the night. Sharon was browsing through a directory of caravan parks while I drove. "Hey," she said. "This one says they have hot springs. Six of them." She glanced at the address and then at the map. "It's a bit out of our way, but what do you think?"


"Sounds good to me," I said. Sharon called the campground on the mobile to reserve a spot for the night. She had an odd look on her face when she hung up.


"They said you don't reserve a spot," she said. "You just show up."


"Could be interesting," I said.


The Kennedy Highway is Qld Highway 1, which begins in Cairns and runs south and west until... well, until you get farther west than any sane person would really want to go. We were only a couple of hours from the coast, but we soon began to feel like we were getting near to the black stump. The land got flatter and drier, and soon we started to see massive termite mounds in the fields. Then we saw a warning sign: watch for stock on the road. No fences. In other words, the cows here just roam free because there's so little traffic and so few cows that it's not worth the hassle of fencing them in.


It was getting late when we arrived at Innot Hot Springs Holiday Village, and the owners were just sitting down to enjoy a beer. "Campsites are over there," they said, waving vaguely to the west. "Just pick a spot and we'll settle up in the morning."

The campground consisted of a few fenced acres of dirt -- dirt that was, if not "red centre" dirt, at least sufficiently russet to make me feel very happy with our decision. A couple of block buildings housed a camp kitchen and toilets. There was a small motel, and at the centre of it was a fenced area that contained the swimming pools. There were six of them in all, ranging from 20 to 43 degrees -- the three warmest ones were enclosed, with signs stating that children under 15 weren't permitted in.

We quickly pitched the tent and hit the pools. The water had a powerful mineral scent -- sulphur among others -- but it was relaxing. In one of the pools we chatted with a woman from Townsville, who said she used to be a dancer. She said she comes to the springs every 8 to 9 months to soak, whenever her body starts to feel a bit stiff and sore.

Whether it was the mineral water, the hot water, or the stillness of the outback, that night we all slept more soundly than we had in weeks. I was sorely tempted to pull my bedroll out of the tent and sleep under the stars, but decided I would pass on that experience until I had a chance to discuss it with a knowledgeable Aussie. To be honest I was just a bit afraid of what sort of critters might come visiting in the night.

The next morning I awoke early, about 5, and slipped out of the tent. In the distance I could see steam rising in the early morning air, so I grabbed the camera and went to investigate. It turned out to be the creek where the hot springs bubble up, 72 degree water that comes up from the ground, hot enough to make tea if you don't mind sulphrous tea. Upstream from the spring, the water is 18 or 20 degrees. Immediately downstream it's too hot to stand in. Even the sand is hot.

Apparently there have been hotels and baths on this site for a century or more. These days there are two -- the caravan park and motel on one side of the creek, and a motel and pub on the other. Other than that, there's nothing for miles but reddish dirt, termite mounds, gum trees and, apparently, some thin and hungry cows. Someone told us the caravan park is for sale, asking price somewhere over $3 million.

Seeing hot springs wasn't part of my plan for Australia. But camping in a field of red dirt... Check that one off the list.

Photos are here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Road trip part two: a very special pub

Like most people who grow up in a house where there's lots of music, I marinated in my parents' music when I was a child. Since they had fairly broad tastes, I ended up soaking up a few odd influences, including a bit of Aussie music. They owned several Rolf Harris records, which my sister and I listened to over and over. Never mind Tie Me Kangaroo Down; to this day I can sing every verse of The Court of King Caractacus, should the need ever arise (it hasn't so far, but it's good to be prepared). There was also a single Australian 45: Slim Dusty singing A Pub With No Beer. It was this record that had us stopping at Lee's Hotel in Ingham.

We had driven through Ingham on the way north, even commenting on Lee's Hotel as we went past -- or at least, commenting on the life-size statue of a cowboy on a horse that is perched on the hotel's roof. But it wasn't until later that I realized that Lee's Hotel marked the site of Dan Sheahan's dry evening.

Sheahan was a farmer in the area, and one evening in 1943 he rode 20 miles into Ingham to have a pint. Unfortunately there was an American military base in the area, and the American soldiers had consumed every drop of beer in the pub. Sheahan had to make do with a glass of wine, so he sat down and penned a poem about how sad it was to be in a pub with no beer.

The poem got published in the local paper, the clipping was passed to a singer, who passed it on to another, and eventually it got to Slim Dusty who turned it into a song. The poem had changed quite a bit by then, but it was still recognizeable as Sheahan's, and eventually he was credited as the author.

The original pub was torn down in the 60s, and replaced with Lee's Hotel. It was mid-afternoon when we came into Ingham for the second time, and we still had a few miles to go before we stopped for the night. But I knew I would regret it if I didn't stop in and tip my hat to Sheahan's creativity and to my parents' record collection, so we found a parking spot on Ingham's main street. (That's not a difficult task: not only is Ingham a fairly quiet town, but it has one of the widest main streets I've ever seen. To walk from one side to the other you step off the sidewalk, walk past one row of angle-parked cars, cross two lanes of traffic, past another row of angled parking, and up onto a grassy strip wide enough to have its own picnic area. You are now at the middle of the street, and need to do it again to get to the other side. By which time you're ready to pop into Lee's for a beer.)

"Care to join me for a pot?" I asked Sharon. She just smiled. "No, you just go do what you have to do," she said. The kids were watching a movie in the back seat, apparently unaware that we had stopped, so I grabbed a camera and headed in.

At first glance, the bar at Lee's looks like a fairly typical pub: long bar along one side, pool table in the back, two t.v.s showing different programs, blackboards advertising the upcoming pool comp and pub draw. The barmaid and the only customer were watching a 1970s disaster film on one of the t.v.s, laughing about how long it was taking before the hero's helicopter inevitably crashed into a cliff.

What set the bar apart was a wall of tribute to Sheahan. An enormous plaque told the tale of his poem, and featured both the original and the more famous song version. Beside it was a mass of newspaper and magazine clippings, telling other versions and details of the tale.

"Pot of Four X Gold please," I said to the barmaid. (A pot is a small beer, a little smaller than a half pint. A schooner is the next size up, and it was a hot day, but the family was waiting in the car. I had to be reasonable.) I sipped my beer, read the plaque, and eventually asked the barmaid if she would take my picture in front of it.


"You'd be amazed at the number of people who take their pictures here," she said. As if to prove her point, a moment later a woman came into the bar and took a photo of it. "It's for my dad," she explained. "He loves this song."

Mine too, I thought as I finished my beer and walked out into the sunshine.

"All good?" Sharon said as I climbed in the car.

"All good," I replied.

Thanks mum and dad. Thanks Slim Dusty. Thanks Dan Sheahan.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Road trip part one: Paronella Park

Wow, what a lot of country there is in Queensland! We just spent two weeks touring up north, saw much, and missed a great deal more. Over the next few days I'll try to put together a few thoughts on some of the highlights of the trip, including a map. Today: Paranella Park.

The bible of our trip so far has been Lonely Planet's guide to the East Coast of Australia. It's well-written, informative, and usually pretty accurate. But sometimes it misses the mark. Paronella Park is one of those times. Barely rating a mention in the text, and not even listed in the index, we might have missed it entirely if our friends Mike and Erika hadn't told us about stopping there during their tour of the north.

You can find the whole history of the place here if you're interested, but here's the thumbnail version. Early in the last century, a Catalan fellow named Jose Paronella got engaged to a girl in his home town, and left to make his fortune in Australia promising to return to her when he was rich. 13 years later, he came back only to find that she had married someone else (she waited 8 years, he hadn't written a word, and she decided enough was enough). The family, to save face, offered him her younger sister instead, so Jose took her and returned to Australia. He had indeed become rich, buying and selling cane farms primarily, so he decided to build her a Spanish castle in the Australian bush.

For the next 20 years, until his death in 1948, Jose built his castle. It wasn't a private place; it was built as an attraction, a place where people could come and buy ice cream, swim at the foot of the waterfall, stroll through the gardens. Since it was located on what was, at the time, the main highway, it did pretty well too, attracting hundreds of people every weekend. Some of it was cutting edge: there was a ballroom which doubled as a cinema, powered by electricity from Jose's own hydro plant; the tunnel of love was originally supposed to be lined with enormous aquariums, although that plan had to be abandoned; the ballroom featured the first mirrored "disco ball" anyone in the state had ever seen, imported from California.

After Jose died, the park passed through various family hands, and eventually was sold. Keeping it open was obviously a huge effort, a battle against fires, floods, cyclones, and all the other excitement Queensland's tropics have to offer. When the Bruce Highway was built 30 kms or so to the east, the road became a very quiet backwater. Eventually Paronella Park was just abandoned. For 20 years or so it sat vacant, a crumbling ruin in the jungle beside a small caravan park. In 1993, a couple named Mark and Judy Evans stayed at the caravan park while travelling the country with their children. They toured as much of the site as they could, and fell in love with it. Eventually they bought it, traced its history, and started clearing away the jungle.

The result is this really quite magical place. More than anything else, it reminded me of the ruins where King Louis lives in The Jungle Book: even though the architecture is Spanish rather than Indian, and there are no monkeys to be seen, there's still that sense that this is a place that was once quite remarkable, and which has been here for hundreds of years.

The caravan park is still there. Since your admission fee includes both day and night tours, as well as a site at the caravan park, we camped there overnight. That meant we got to see the site at night, which was particularly cool: we watched fireflies, saw the fountains lit up, fed masses of eels that inhabit the waterfall pool, and saw tiny baby bats in the tunnel of love.

Above all, it's pretty clear that Paronella Park is a tribute to the energy and vision of Jose Paronella. He designed everything and did almost all the work himself, just hiring a couple of local guys to help him with a bit of the heavy lifting. If he were still alive he would no doubt be clinically diagnosed as -- to use the technical term -- an obsessive nutjob, and I have not doubt he must have been a royal pain in the ass to live with. But what a creation he made.

I'm not sure whether the place will last for long. The sand Jose used in the cement apparently has an algae in it which is slowly eating the place. On top of that, cyclones and floods seem to be quite regular events in that part of the country. It may be that, 20 years from now, the whole place will have vanished back into the jungle. But for now, it's a remarkable place and well worth stopping.

I've posted some photos here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Random observations from the road


We're half way through an epic road trip up the Queensland coast. I'm sitting in the wi-fi hotspot of a caravan park in Port Douglas, it's 10:00 at night, and I'm too tired to compose a proper post after spending a fabulous day snorkelling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef. So just a few notes from the road:

Queensland's official slogan is either The Sunshine State or The Smart State, depending on which license plate you have. It should really be "Queensland: honest, it's not ALL cane fields".

You can't describe the reef without resorting to plattitudes and superlatives. You know how when you watch a nature doco or see travel brochures, and they show people surrounded by stunning coral and vibrant fish, and you say "sure there are some spots like that, but they've just included the best bits in the brochure." Picture yourself in one of those docos, and imagine it going on and on and on, and you've got some idea of what the Great Barrier Reef is like. Yes, they've included the best bits in the travel brochures: because there are an endless number of best bits.

Snorkelling is like flying in a plane above the landscape; scuba diving is like being weightless and swooping in between the mountains.

Platipuses (platipi?) are much, much smaller than you think. The males are only 50 cms long -- about the size of a muskrat. Still well worth getting up early to catch them swimming in the river, though.

After swimming in ocean water for months, it feels very odd to suddenly jump into an icy mountain stream and taste fresh water. It seems flat somehow.

Nothing adds a frisson to a walk along a deserted beach quite like a sign that says, in three languages, that crocodiles have been seen in these waters. I don't care that the water is 28 degrees: I'm not going in.

After spending all day travelling along the Cape Tribulation road looking for cassowaries, I am starting to suspect they don't really exist. They seem like such improbable creatures anyway. OK, so I've seen them at Steve Irwin's zoo, but I now think it was probably just an emu in a prosthetic. Or else a backpacker in a costume, trying to earn a few bucks.

One night we had a bunch of drunken revellers at the next campsite. People complained and they were moved. The next night, flying foxes and nesting curlews took their place. I slept better with the drunks -- at least they had good taste in music.

It is going to be really, really hard to go back to camping in Canada, where you have to put your food away at night. Here, nothing eats your garbage and then comes looking for you as a dessert. (Unless you camp within 50 metres of a waterway; then it doesn't much matter what you leave outside. You're the main course and dessert.)

We went sailing on the Maxi Ragamuffin, one of only two boats to have won the Sydney-Hobart race three times. Any other boat I ever sail on is going to feel like a barge. All of us are listing that trip as one of the highlights of our time here. (The fact that we were in the Whitsunday Islands, one of the finest sailing spots in the world, didn't hurt.)

If I could, I would grow an enormous amount of bamboo in our back yard. It's just such a cool feeling to walk through a bamboo garden. Makes you feel like a panda.

I would also grow mango, jackfruit, sapote, lychee, and all the other fruits they use to make ice cream at the Daintree Ice Cream Company.

Including durian, even though I would have to sit outside to eat it because Sharon can't stand the smell. Probably outside in the neighbour's yard.

That's all for now. Tomorrow we go looking for the resident crocodile in the local river. I'm told if you wade in, splash around and make a noise like a chicken he just shows up. I'll let you know how it works out.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dancing where the tourists fear to tread

"It's what kind of dance?" I asked.
"A douf-douf dance," Sharon said. "At least that's what Linda calls it."
"Why does she call it that?"
"Because if you stand outside her house when the dance is on, all you can hear is the music going douf-douf-douf. She says they're a lot of fun, and a great place to see some real Aussie characters."
The official name of the dance, it turns out, is the Verrierdale Full Moon Dance, and last weekend we got to experience it. If one of the goals of an exchange is to see parts of the country that tourists never see, the Full Moon Dance was definitely one of the highlights. You will certainly not find this event in any guidebooks. Even most of the locals I've talked to have not been, although everyone has heard of it.
Verrierdale is one of those places that once aspired to be a hamlet, but never quite made it. It's somewhere between Noosa and Eumundi, an area where you realize you're no longer on the coast and have entered the region known as the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, a region of rolling hills and tall trees interspersed with patches of cleared farmland.
If there are any signs pointing the way to Verrierdale, I didn't see them. If there were ever any shops, a post office, or a pub there, I suspect they've vanished. But what remains is the old community hall, and once every few months, when the full moon falls on a weekend, the hall is the site of a Full Moon Dance.
Full moon dances are an old tradition in Australia and in Canada. It dates back to the time before electricity, when a full moon provided the light you needed to get back home late at night. Around 20 or 30 years ago, someone started holding dances at Verrierdale every time a full moon fell on a Saturday, and they're still going on.
Linda gave directions as I drove along the back roads to Verrierdale. We could tell we were nearly there when we started to see cars and utes parked along the roadside. We found a place to park and made our way toward the music, walking through a night rich in the scents of eucalyptus and marijuana.
Up the steps, past the security guard, and into the hall and we were suddenly surrounded by music. The hall is about ten metres square. And yes, hall is too grand a term for it. It's a barn, a shed, a room, with bare wooden studs, an exposed tin roof, and lights that consist of a handful of bulbs in plain metal shades. The main lights were off when we entered, though, and all the illumination came from a cluster of spots aimed at a two-foot high platform at one end of the room that serves as the stage. A middle-aged guitarist was doing a solo gig, hammering out some rocking blues and singing with a gravelly growl. About 60 people packed the room, bopping to the music and cheering enthusiastically at the end of each song.
The guitarist wrapped up his set shortly after we got there, so while the dj took over the speakers we wandered out the back door in search of the bar. Down another set of steps and we were in the yard, where a hundred or so people milled around and the beer was being served. The dances are run or sponsored by the local chapter of the CWA (Country Women's Association, which seems to be roughly equivalent to the old Women's Institutes in Canada), so the bar and the barbecue area -- you can't have an event in Australia without serving beer and sausages -- were staffed by friendly matrons who looked like they should be named Helen or Olive. Drinks in hand, we started circulating.
It soon became clear that the Full Moon Dance is the preferred pick-up venue for folks who have been living in the hills since the Rolling Stones were relevant. Since I was the only guy in our group of five, we found ourselves making all kinds of new friends with the male locals. At least one of them invited our group to come and join an after-party at his bus (it wasn't clear whether it was a mode of transport or a home, but in either case we declined).
While the attention was persistent, it was polite and friendly, and led to some interesting conversations. I had a chat with a postie, and told him I thought he had the best job in the world. (Posties -- mailmen -- in Queensland deliver the mail on dirt bikes, riding up sidewalks and across lawns to put the letters in the mailboxes without getting off their bikes. It looks like tremendous fun, and apparently the used bikes are in enormous demand.) He said he thought he had the best job too, for the first day or two. "At first I couldn't believe I was getting paid to do this," he said. "Now I wonder if I'm getting paid enough. Rain is a bitch. So are dogs. And these days, magpies."
While chatting with him, we missed the start of the next band, and only caught a couple of their songs. They were a folky duo -- a guy on guitar, a girl on keyboards -- and, judging from the songs we heard they sang an awful lot about the joys of having sex. Still, they were very good (musicians, that is -- although she was gyrating pretty convincingly, and he indulged in some enthusiastic howling), and I was sorry not to have heard more of their set.
Another drink out in the yard, and it was time to catch the third band. This was a three piece, two guitarists and a stand-up bass. These guys were real pros, and it soon became clear that many of the people in the crowd knew their songs. They called themselves the Brewster Brothers (the two guitarists were obviously brothers), but one of our group told us excitedly that they were the creative force behind a great 80s band called Angels. Their set drew in the crowd from the yard, and soon the hall was packed with  over a hundred people, stomping their feet on the wooden floor and bouncing along to the tunes. When we called out for an encore, they said they had to clear the stage for the next band but would perform an acoustic number on the floor if we would clear them space. We did, and they did, performing a jugband piece which I'm sure was inaudible from any more than three metres away. But those who were closest to the music stomped and clapped along, and those who were standing a little farther back stomped along to those in the front row, and a good time was had by all.
The final act of the evening was a complete change of pace, a nine-piece dub/reggae band called Dub Marine. They were fantastic: energetic and talented and just the right way to bring a musical climax to the night. You can see them on YouTube if you want to get a taste of their style.
And then, suddenly, it was all over. There's apparently a rule that the music has to stop at midnight (not everyone appreciates the douf-douf, it seems), so the sound went down, the lights went up, and the crowd started to disperse. We collected the rest of our crew, and told the friendly locals thank you very much, but we really wouldn't be coming back to the bus.
As we left the hall, a brilliant full moon lit the way to our car. And suddenly, despite all the music I'd heard that evening, I had another song going through my head. It really was a marvelous night for a moon dance.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Studying Strine

Yesterday arvo I stopped in to the Salvos op shop, and got chatting to a tradie who was there on smoko. He said his name was Davo and he used to be a fisho but now he had his ticket as a sparkie. "Busy?" I asked. "Flat out like a lizard drinking," he replied, climbing back into his ute. "Running from here to back of Bourke."

Yep, Australians sure love their slang. Go to any tourist shop and you can pick up tea towels, tee shirts and stubby holders emblazoned with colourful Aussie-isms. You'll find them stacked up beside the "genuine Aboriginal-made" didgeridoos and the wallets made from kangaroo scrotums, just the thing to take back and amaze the folks at home. But, after spending nine months here, I've noticed something rather curious. It seems many Aussies love their slang the way some people love their antique furniture: it's great to have it around, but it's not something you'd use every day.

There are nine slang terms in the paragraph above -- ten if you count changing the name Dave to Davo -- and I've heard all of them used in conversation here. But not the way I've compressed them. Rather, they seem to be used sparingly, sprinkled in to conversation like a garnish rather than forming the main course. Some of those words are used so often that they're not really regarded as slang -- regardless of who is speaking, a ute is always a ute, never a pick-up truck; and Salvos is such a common term for the Salvation Army that their official web site is salvos.org.au. At the other end of the spectrum, obviously a phrase like "he's a two pot screamer" or "she lives beyond the black stump" is something that is best used sparingly.

But in between them are the genuine slang terms, and they seem to be used in a slightly different fashion. As someone who is interested in language, I've been paying a bit of attention to who uses what slang, and I've been really struck by how much it differs. Some people will use a word like "arvo" all the time, most folks seem to alternate between arvo and afternoon, while some just use "afternoon". Some people would never use a word like "snags" (sausages) or "shonky" (of dubious quality), even though I've seen them used in straight-laced newspaper stories.

Even the ubiquitous "mate" varies quite a bit: everyone says it, but not everyone seems to be able to pull it off. On the lips of some people, it sounds as awkward and contrived as it does when... well, when I say it, which I have done on occasion, just to see how it feels.

I think it really boils down to a matter of accent. Those with the real occer accent (think Paul Hogan) can pull off a lot of slang. Someone like Nicole Kidman could get away with the occasional line -- you can picture Nicole asking Hugh Jackman to "grab us a tinnie of Four-X, will ya darl?" but not, perhaps, commenting that Baz Luhrmann has a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. Talk like Cate Blanchett, though, and the world of Aussie slang is forever closed to you. The current prime minister, Kevin Rudd, is more in the Cate Blanchett camp, and he causes no end of mirth whenever he tries to get all "blokie" with the Australian public. He recently set off a bout of hilarity when, in an interview, he used the phrase "fair shake of the sauce bottle" to mean giving something a chance. It sounded so absurd that, even months later comedians can get a laugh by working that phrase into a conversation.

So who has which accent? That's where it gets really confusing. It's not geographic, or even socio-economic. This article on language and identity says it's influenced by gender and ideology. I agree with some of that -- certainly you hear many more men than women speaking with the occer, or broad Australian accent. Some of the ugliest speech I've heard this year was in Sydney, where I heard a number of young women speaking with a broad accent: it was hard, strident, and unmusical, a really unpleasant accent to listen to. I heard it quite a few times in and around Sydney, but haven't heard it here in Queensland. Is that because there is a regional accent at work, or have I just become more accustomed to it? I'm not sure.

What I do know is it can make it very tough for us to figure out who comes from where. Forget spotting the Tasmanians or the South Australians by their accent. Even after nine months I still have a hard time picking out some of the New Zealanders, for example (the trick is to listen for someone who doesn't seem to have quite as many vowel sounds as the rest of us!) I can usually spot the South Africans, at least, as well as most of the Brits.

And, of course, I can pick the occasional Canadian and American in the crowd. And whenever I hear their accent, I ask myself: "is that really what I sound like?"

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Darling Downs (a very long post)

Apologies for the length of this post. Blame it on Holden: I was waiting for the car to be serviced, so I had time to write.

Living on the coast, it’s easy to forget that Australia is primarily a land of grazing. There’s farming around here – we see the results of it in the farm markets that occur every weekend – but the crops are mainly ones that require lushness and abundant rainfall. Pineapples, mangos, macadamia nuts, bananas, avocados... they’re all grown on the rolling land known as the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. The flat land between the hills and along the coastal plains farther north is sugar cane country, where an enormous proportion of the world’s sugar supply is grown.
But when most of us foreigners think of Australian agriculture, these aren’t the first images that come to mind. We see great expanses of flat, dry land being picked over by hardy sheep and skinny cows, and graziers who use helicopters and motorcycles as well as horses to patrol farms the size of European countries. We picture the Outback.
We’ve talked about wanting to see that side of Australia – perhaps doing a farmstay vacation, which would allow us to spend a few days living on a real, working farm. Then we heard about the Jondaryan Woolshed.
It’s located on the Darling Downs, an enormous agricultural district that begins about 150 kms west of Brisbane and extends for hundreds of kilometres inland. It’s been farmed since the 1840s, when graziers from New South Wales discovered the productive plains. It’s not the Outback, but it’s certainly a lot closer to it than the Sunshine Coast is.
A cluster of 50 or so houses beside the Warrego Highway, Jondaryan is completely unremarkable – a gas station, a pub, a one-time general store that is now home to a Thai massage practitioner (“Medical school graduate. Hospital accreditation in Thailand” according to the sign). The only thing that sets it apart from any of a hundred other villages on the Darling Downs is the Jondaryan Woolshed.
The Woolshed was once part of a large farm, or station as they’re known, some three hundred thousand acres in its heyday. By outback standards that’s not really all that big – a mere 11 kilometres square – but it still seems big enough to me. Since it was primarily a sheep station, the people who owned and ran Jondaryan Station needed a place where the sheep could be sheared once a year. So in the 1860s, they built one of the biggest woolsheds in Queensland. A woolshed is a big barn with numerous access points so sheep can be quickly herded in to the shearers and herded out again. It’s quite an operation, with a number of specialized tasks to ensure everything flows quickly and smoothly. The last thing the grazier wants is to see his skilled – and highly paid – shearers wasting time chasing sheep or picking up wool. With stations for 52 shearers, and a steam plant that powered the clippers, the Jondaryan woolshed could shear 5,000 sheep a day.
Eventually the station lands were broken up and sold to other farmers, and the woolshed was no longer needed. Rather than tear it down, though, it was turned into an agricultural museum. Other buildings were brought in, and an impressive collection of farm machinery was put together. It’s open year-round, but once a year, for two weeks, all the machinery is fired up and the old skills are celebrated for a heritage festival. We decided to go out there and see it.
During most of the year visitors can sleep in the woolshed, but during the festival those bunks are reserved for the volunteers, so we booked a motel room in Toowoomba, about 35 minutes to the east. Perched on a mountain range that marks the eastern edge of the Darling Downs, Toowoomba is a surprisingly lovely town of about 90,000 people. It’s the biggest inland city in Queensland, a place that looks like it has always been moderately prosperous. The downtown has an enormous number of beautiful old buildings, including an art deco movie theatre. The good people of Toowoomba have a great affection for plants, and most streets are lined with mature, well-tended trees. There are some terrific gardens which are kept well-watered despite an ongoing drought (the town apparently has a supply of well water which is used to water the flowers). We didn’t manage to get to the large Japanese garden, but we did enjoy the Scented Garden, which was built in consultation with the association for the blind.
When you leave Toowoomba and head onto the Darling Downs, you immediately see the difference in water conditions. The Downs are dry, dry, dry – a monochromatic landscape of grey and brown, broken by olive green trees. There is obviously water here, though: some fields have been irrigated, and glow a vibrant green. Driving down the highway, with an irrigated field to the left and a grey dustbowl to the right, is a bit like watching both parts of the Wizard of Oz at the same time, with Kansas on one side of the road and the Emerald City on the other.
Out at Jondaryan, we watched a display of shearing (using both old-fashioned hand clippers and the more “modern” steam-powered ones), and went to a farm animal petting area. Isaiah and Charlotte tried their hand at whip cracking, and we sampled damper (camp bread cooked on coals, very much like bannock). But the highlight came when we stopped to watch the steam-driven well drilling machine. It seemed pretty straightforward – a steam engine pulled up a weighted cutter, then pounded it down into the ground – and I made some innocuous comment about finding water to the man operating it.
In response, he put the machine in neutral, grabbed a jar and a couple of pieces of wire, and walked over to join us.
“Geren dyo finning wader?” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Dis yeer woya n finning wader. J’ever seenem dun?” A thick occer accent coupled with a minor speech impediment left me scrambling to understand each word. I got the gist, which was more than Sharon could do – I recognized the bemused look on her face, and knew I’d have to translate.
I assumed he was going to show us how he used the wires as divining rods to find water. I was only partly right. He opened the jar and pulled out a blue chalk crayon, rubbed it on the wire and dropped it on the ground.
“Dis yeer woya n go bik wadever tuch’n last.” He held the bent wire in his hand and walked past the chalk crayon. As he did, the wire turned gently and hovered over the crayon. He grinned triumphantly.
Next he rubbed a pulled a scrap of rope from the jar, rubbed it on the wire and dropped it on the ground. Again he walked around the paddock, showing us how the wire would turn to find the rope.
“Dis yeer woya n finning people too. Yeer, you touch ‘n.” He held the wire out to Isaiah, who figured out that he was supposed to touch the end of the wire. Our guide then walked past him, showing us how the wire turned to point at Isaiah.
“Nah yew touch ‘n,” he said to Ana, who touched the wire. This time the wire turned to point at her when he walked past, apparently having lost interest in Isaiah.
“Remarkable,” I said politely. I was a bit afraid to point out that it looked to us as though he was just turning his hand to make the wire point where he wanted it to. After all, I reasoned, if this man really thought an old coat hanger could remember whatever had touched it last, there was no saying what he might do if his beliefs were challenged. The only safe thing was to play along.
The next demonstration was to show us how he could find water. This required a thinner, more flexible piece of wire. Holding it in his hand, he explained that it could tell him how far down he needed to drill to hit water. He raised and lowered his hand gently, allowing the wire to bounce. Each bounce, he said, meant one foot. I wondered why a supernatural phenomenon would work in feet rather than leagues, metres, cubits or chains, but decided not to ask. Silently we stood there, watching politely as he bounced the wire up and down a couple of dozen times. “Ah,” we said appreciately as the bouncing stopped and he offered up another meaningful grin. The wire waved slowly back and forth, which he said meant there was a stream there with another one below it. He bounced the wire a few more times, noting that the two streams were quite close together.
The grand finale was to give each of us a turn with the wires. One by one we walked across the paddock, a wire held in our hand. Nothing happened until our guide reached out and took our hand in his. Then, the wire would turn to one side or the other, matching the direction of the wire he held in his other hand. “Oi’s got static lectristy, n’it gos inna yews,” he explained. It felt to us as though he was just turning our hands to make the wire spin, but we said nothing.
After we’d each had a turn, we thanked our guide and made our retreat across the paddock. Nobody said a word as we headed toward the woolshed to see the shearing demonstration. Looking back, I could see him watching us depart, a big grin on his face.
It occurred to me that this could all have been an elaborate practical joke, the Aussie bloke trying to convince the dumb tourists that you could find wire or chalk with a piece of wire. Perhaps we would be the subject of a yarn told over damper and billy tea in the woolshed that night. Then again, he may have felt he’d just done his bit to advance international scientific knowledge. Regardless, it had certainly been a remarkable and unexpected addition to our day.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ashes, match five, day one

A hundred years ago, when I was a university student, I spent a season working on the outdoor maintenance crew at a large townhouse development. There were about ten of us working at a place that really only needed about half that number, so we had a lot of time on our hands. One day someone found a few tennis balls lying around in the work yard and started tossing one against a brick wall. Someone else got the idea of hitting the ball with a scrap of wood to see how many times they could bounce it off the wall without missing. Before long, we had invented a game. We painted lines on the wall and the ground, scavenged scraps of wood to carve various paddles, and arranged tournaments. Rules were gradually agreed on to suit the vagaries of the playing field (if you hit the water tap in the wall, you got two points; if you hit the sewer grate on the ground, you lost your turn.) The game was christened f**kball, in honour of the expletive that was usually uttered when anyone missed a shot.

More than just a way of killing a few hours, f**kball was a terrific example of the process which I suspect is behind most sports, a process which has its roots in boredom and enforced idleness. You're sitting on a hill in Scotland, watching the sheep, idly knocking round pebbles with a stick and trying to get them into a distant hole. Before you know it, you've created golf. In winter, you slide bigger rocks across a frozen pond to see if you can get one to land on that dark patch of ice over yonder. Welcome to curling. You and a bunch of mates start kicking a ball around the pasture one day, and someone suggests getting it across that line/between those posts/into those trees. Congratulations: you've got the roots of soccer, rugby, NFL, AFL, and just about every other big ball game.

And then there's cricket. I'm watching the beginning of the final Ashes match right now, and try as I might I can't imagine how on earth this game came to be. It is so incredibly convoluted that it can't have evolved spontaneously. And yet who in their right mind would have sat down and created such a bizarre sport? If you google the question "who invented cricket" you get answers ranging from a bunch of shepherds in the 17th century, through 16th century Belgians, 14th century Kentishmen, and even pre-Norman conquest northern Europeans. (My favourite, though, is this post on Wiki Answers, which simply says cricket was invented by "my nan")

I suppose those sort of origins make sense -- with 500 years or more to mess around with the rules, you could end up with something as complex, as ritualized, as completely odd as cricket. Think about other things that are that old -- law courts come to mind -- and you certainly see the same sort of elements. People dress in funny outfits, use arcane language, do things that may be rational or may just be tradition.

This can make it a very hard game to watch. I've enjoyed watching AFL and rugby league, because I can very quickly figure out what's going on and appreciate the skill of the players. Cricket, on the other hand, is all about strategy. It's not the single hit that makes a great batter, it's the timing of the hits, the ability to hit certain kinds of balls, the consistency that keeps him on the field for a hundred or more runs. The bowler isn't usually trying to hit the wicket with every ball; rather, he's trying to find the weakness in his opponent, hammer away at that chink in his armour, and manouever his way through. Apart from the occasional spectacular catch or hit, there are very few highlights-reel moments in cricket. It is not a sport that you can dip your toe into. You need to make an investment in the game if you want to have a clue what's going on.

Or, at the very least, you need to have grown up with the sport in the background so you can absorb some of it by osmosis. Canada is, as far as I know, the only Commonwealth country not to have made that investment, so most of us are clueless about the game. Australians, on the other hand, know all about it. It's a summer game here, so the current Ashes series is a bit of an anomaly (the Ashes is an annual series of games between Australia and England, played during the English summer), but during the summer you see it being played everywhere.

You also see it in print. Biographies of famous cricketers are at the front of every bookstore, including new books about Don Bradman, who played in the first half of the 20th century and who is still touted as perhaps the greatest batsman ever. It's clear that Aussies, like South Africans, Indians, Pakistanis and Brits, take their cricket very seriously.

Until the summer games begin, I think this last Ashes match may be my last chance to watch cricket on t.v.. I think I'll try to catch a fair bit of it and see how much I can soak up. I should have plenty of time to do so -- the afternoon session of day one just began, and it's expected to last for another four days. Like I said, cricket is a game that requires commitment.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

How ya goin, mate?

Yesterday arvo I stopped in to the Salvos op shop, and got chatting to a tradie who was there on smoko. He said his name was Davo and he used to be a fisho but now he had his ticket as a sparkie. "Busy?" I asked. "Flat out like a lizard drinking," he replied, climbing back into his ute. "Running from here to back of Bourke."

Yep, Australians sure love their slang. Go to any tourist shop and you can pick up tea towels, tee shirts and stubby holders emblazoned with colourful Aussie-isms. You'll find them stacked up beside the "genuine Aboriginal-made" didgeridoos and the wallets made from kangaroo scrotums, just the thing to take back and amaze the folks at home. But, after spending nine months here, I've noticed something rather curious. It seems many Aussies love their slang the way some people love their antique furniture: it's great to have it around, but it's not something you'd use every day.

There are nine slang terms in the paragraph above -- ten if you count changing the name Dave to Davo -- and I've heard all of them used in conversation here. But not the way I've compressed them. Rather, they seem to be used sparingly, sprinkled in to conversation like a garnish rather than forming the main course. Some of those words are used so often that they're not really regarded as slang -- regardless of who is speaking, a ute is always a ute, never a pick-up truck; and Salvos is such a common term for the Salvation Army that their official web site is salvos.org.au. At the other end of the spectrum, obviously a phrase like "he's a two pot screamer" or "she lives beyond the black stump" is something that is best used sparingly.

But in between them are the genuine slang terms, and they seem to be used in a slightly different fashion. As someone who is interested in language, I've been paying a bit of attention to who uses what slang, and I've been really struck by how much it differs. Some people will use a word like "arvo" all the time, most folks seem to alternate between arvo and afternoon, while some just use "afternoon". Some people would never use a word like "snags" (sausages) or "shonky" (of dubious quality), even though I've seen them used in straight-laced newspaper stories.

Even the ubiquitous "mate" varies quite a bit: everyone says it, but not everyone seems to be able to pull it off. On the lips of some people, it sounds as awkward and contrived as it does when... well, when I say it, which I have done on occasion, just to see how it feels.

I think it really boils down to a matter of accent. Those with the real occer accent (think Paul Hogan) can pull off a lot of slang. Someone like Nicole Kidman could get away with the occasional line -- you can picture Nicole asking Hugh Jackman to "grab us a tinnie of Four-X, will ya darl?" but not, perhaps, commenting that Baz Luhrmann has a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. Talk like Cate Blanchett, though, and the world of Aussie slang is forever closed to you. The current prime minister, Kevin Rudd, is more in the Cate Blanchett camp, and he causes no end of mirth whenever he tries to get all "blokie" with the Australian public. He recently set off a bout of hilarity when, in an interview, he used the phrase "fair shake of the sauce bottle" to mean giving something a chance. It sounded so absurd that, even months later comedians can get a laugh by working that phrase into a conversation.

So who has which accent? That's where it gets really confusing. It's not geographic, or even socio-economic. This article on language and identity says it's influenced by gender and ideology. I agree with some of that -- certainly you hear many more men than women speaking with the occer, or broad Australian accent. Some of the ugliest speech I've heard this year was in Sydney, where I heard a number of young women speaking with a broad accent: it was hard, strident, and unmusical, a really unpleasant accent to listen to. I heard it quite a few times in and around Sydney, but haven't heard it here in Queensland. Is that because there is a regional accent at work, or have I just become more accustomed to it? I'm not sure.

What I do know is it can make it very tough for us to figure out who comes from where. Forget spotting the Tasmanians or the South Australians by their accent. Even after nine months I still have a hard time picking out some of the New Zealanders, for example (the trick is to listen for someone who doesn't seem to have quite as many vowel sounds as the rest of us!) I can usually spot the South Africans, at least, as well as most of the Brits.

And, of course, I can pick the occasional Canadian and American in the crowd. And whenever I hear their accent, I ask myself: "is that really what I sound like?"

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Soaking in the view



Sometime last year my friend Joe asked me a profound question. "When you see a beautiful scene," he asked, "how long do you spend sitting and looking at it?" He said he's often wondered how long others sit and look at a landscape before they grow bored, or sated, or just restless.

Like all good questions it was one that I couldn't answer right away, but have come back to again and again since being asked it. I've started watching people to see how long they sit and soak up a view before grabbing a photo and moving on, and I've started to judge the quality of landscapes by their ability to hold my attention. Judged on that standard, Australia's mountains rank pretty high.

While we were in Tassie I was completely entranced atop Mt. Wellington. It was a gorgeous winter day, temps around zero or just below, and we were a few hundred metres above Hobart. The view to the east over the town was stunning, but what got me mesmerized was the vista to the west. Looking across the top of Wellington, we could see dozens of other, snow-capped peaks -- the real mountains of Tasmania. Isaiah, Charlotte and I trekked out across the snowfields for a couple of hundred metres, just far enough to leave behind the tour buses and the crowds, and enter the silence. And, while the children pretended to cook a gourmet meal with the snow (we were still in the grip of MasterChef fever), I just sat and stared. And stared. It was nearly an hour later before I finally tore my eyes away from the sight and wandered back to the car. So, Joe, there's one answer for you.

This past week I've been enjoying mountains of a very different kind. I'd been commissioned by an Australian magazine to write about three or four peaks on the Sunshine Coast, so I've been going crazy trying to learn all I can about Mounts Tinbeerwah, Cooroorah and Coolum. Naturally, that means climbing all three.

When I say climbing, of course, I mean hiking up. Although there are rock faces on all three, I'm no climber and had no intention of becoming one for the sake of this article. Tinbeerwah, in fact, is just about the easiest mountain climb there is, with a road that reaches almost to the peak. Coolum is a bit more challenging, a hike that took Isaiah, Charlotte and I about 45 minutes going up. Both offer great views, though, and can keep you happily sitting in the sunshine for an hour.

The last one I needed to climb was Cooroorah. It looms over the village of Pomona, and is 430 metres of steep, jagged rock. There's a trail going up -- going pretty much straight up, in fact. It's a gorgeous mountain, and a challenging hike, but what makes it really astonishing is the King of the Mountain Race. Every year, up to a hundred lunatics gather in Pomona to run up the mountain and back down again. It started with a bet in a pub many years ago, and has now become an event that draws thousands of spectators.

They say you need legs of steel to go up and nerves of steel on the way back down, because that mountain is STEEP. Add in a 1.3 km run from the village to the foot of the mountain, and you've got a very challenging race.

We went to see the race last weekend and watched four-time champion Neil Labinsky set a new record of 22.4 minutes. That seemed awfully fast to me, so the next day I decided to go to Pomona and climb the mountain for myself. Since it was my first time up the mountain I decided to cheat by starting at the foot of the mountain rather than in the village. Even so, after 20 minutes I had only reached the first rest stop, winded and ready to sit for a while. And I hadn't even started the hard part of the climb. Including my rests, it took me nearly 50 minutes to reach the top.

When I got there, I found a shady seat, leaned my back against a rock, and sat. The view was magnificent -- a good hour's worth of sitting to be had from that view -- but I think the first half hour was really all about recovering.. Add in some more time to brace my legs for the descent, and Cooroorah may just have the best view in all of Queensland.

I don't suppose Neil Labinsky spent much time absorbing the view while he was up top. I like to think I got a better use out of the mountain, but I know that he can pop up there and take in that view any time he's got ten minutes to spare.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Still thinking about Tassie


The problem with having a busy routine and trying to maintain a blog is that you inevitably end up having to choose between doing stuff and writing about it. We’ve been keeping pretty active since returning from Tasmania, so I haven’t had a chance to write about all the fun stuff we did there. I’ll try to get at least some of it down in pixels and bytes before we go off on our next adventure.

On the way to Tasmania, we stopped in Melbourne. We had visited Melbourne back in January... well, sort of. We arrived there after spending more than a week in Sydney, and were feeling pretty citied-out, so even though we’d heard Melbourne was a lovely, vibrant, exciting city, we decided to spend all our time there explring the countryside. We drove the Great Ocean Road, and went to see penguins at Phillip Island, and toured the lovely Dandenong forest and hills. Of Melbourne itself, though, we saw nothing. Needless to say our good friend Jackie, who is from Melbourne, has given us no end of grief about that.

This time, we had a day’s stop-over there on our way to Tasmania (due to the oddities of the airlines, it worked out to be cheaper to fly to Melbourne and stay overnight than it would have been to fly direct to Hobart. Go figure.) Since we hadn’t seen much of the CBD (Central Business District, or downtown), we decided to stay right in the heart of it, booking a room at a “backpackers” hotel near the train station. (Backpackers seem to be a uniquely Australian institution. It’s a term that covers everything from cheap and funky through grotty all the way to downright scary. This one was on the grottier end of the scale, but it was only for one night.) We planned to spend our day and evening in Melbourne just walking and exploring.

It turns out that, as advertised, Melbourne is a lovely, vibrant, exciting city. It’s got some fabulous architecture, tons of great restaurants, and some really cool markets, as well as one of the world’s best public transit systems (which includes free trams in the CBD). We stopped in Federation Square, a former industrial area which is now home to art galleries and museums. In celebration of winter, there was an outdoor art show with the theme of light. The most interesting exhibit was a platform about 20 m square, dotted with dozens of pillars about 2 m tall. Each pillar contained speakers and light panels, which lit and played in response to the movement of people on the platform. In effect it was a giant sculpture and musical instrument which we were all playing. Very neat.

After a bit of walking around, though, we started to get chilled (it was around 6 degrees in the evening). Isaiah and Charlotte’s ears were getting cold, so we stopped into a tourist shop to see if we could get them some cheap “beanies” (or touques, as we know them). And that’s where I suddenly understood how crazy Melburnians are for AFL.

This is footy season, so every Friday and Saturday night I get to choose between watching rugby league or Australian rules football on t.v. One of the things that’s intrigued me about Aussie rules (AFL) is that I have no idea where the teams are from. I certainly don’t know all the places in Australia, but I’ve got a pretty good idea of where the big ones are. But when I watch AFL, I see 60,000 people cheering as teams from St. Kilda, Essendon, or Collingwood hammer each other. And I think “surely these must be fairly big places to have this many fans come out to their games week after week. Why have I not heard of them?” In Melbourne, I suddenly realized what was going on. St. Kilda, Essendon, and Collingwood aren’t cities. They’re all parts of Melbourne.

And they’re not suburbs from distant parts of the city – they’re neighbourhoods, butting up against each other. In our walks around Melbourne, we passed through several of these neighbourhoods without even realizing it. You can see how close they are on this map.

In all, Melbourne – a city of 3.8 million people – has nine professional AFL teams. Ten if you count Geelong, which is a small city about 70 kms from downtown Melbourne. Imagine if Toronto had nine professional hockey teams – not just teams from Etobicoke and Scaroborough, but teams based in The Beaches, the Danforth, the distillery district, and so on, with another pro team in Milton. On top of that, I’m told there are another nine semi-pro teams scattered around Melbourne. The pro teams share the city’s stadiums, each of which has four games on a typical weekend. The desk clerk at our hotel said there are about 300,000 Melburnians at a footy match each weekend!

I’ve been told that going to the footy in Melbourne is one of the city’s quintessential experiences. Unfortunately we hadn’t timed our trip to catch a game. But this weekend we’re going to do the next best thing by going to Brisbane to watch the Brisbane Lions take on the North Melbourne Kangaroos. Charlotte bought a Kangaroos hat in Melbourne, mainly because she liked the name. She’s not sure whether she’ll wear it to the game on Saturday, though, as it only seems right that we cheer for the Brisbane team. (Isaiah bought a Geelong Cats hat, because they won the first game he saw on t.v., and because we stayed in Geelong while exploring the Great Ocean Road. But he thinks he’ll cheer for the Lions as well.)

Most Queenslanders seem to view AFL as a bit of an intruder, here in the rugby league heartland. That would explain why tickets are being sold on a two-for-one promotion this weekend. But it should still be fun to pile into The Gabba and see what all the fuss is about.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Eating well with the nine-year-olds

Every now and then you get to witness a t.v. show that makes the shift from programming to phenomenon. This year that show is a little reality program called Master Chef Australia.

The premise is pretty simple: a few dozen of the country's best amateur cooks compete to see who can impress a team of professional chefs/food critics in a variety of challenges, as their numbers are gradually winnowed down until only one remains. The challenges are all genuinely food-related, such as making a meal from a given set of ingredients, or trying to copy a professional chef's signature dish (usually something horrendously complex). The competitors are quite ordinary -- not the "eye-candy with issues" that are cast on most other reality shows -- and there's a spirit of camaraderie that is refreshing. It sounds rather mundane, and highly derivative, but amazingly it isn't. It's entertaining and fun, and it's the top-rated show in Australia -- with an audience of 2.3 million this week, that means about 10 per cent of the people in the country are watching it.

This is the final week, and everywhere you go you hear people talking about the show, debating whether Chris should have been voted out despite the fact that his braised beef cheeks were judged a failure, or whether Poh was wise to use century eggs in her dumplings. It's particularly popular with families -- we're certainly not the only family that gathers together to watch it every night, nor are we the only parents to see our children suddenly taking a greater interest in plating technique or a desire to learn to make croque em bouche.

Naturally, then, when we started planning a birthday party for Charlotte, she decided she wanted it to have a Master Chef theme. Today we had six 9- and 10-year-olds over for an afternoon of cooking and fun. We mimicked a number of elements from the show, which all of the kids watch with just as much fanaticism as Charlotte does. For example, every week the professional chefs on the show conduct a "master class" in everything from sausage-making to how to make a proper kofta. We decided to teach the kids how to make their own pizza, starting with making the dough from scratch:


A popular elimination challenge requires contestants to name all the ingredients in a complex dish such as minestrone or Indonesian curry. We had a blindfold tasting where the kids had to identify items as varied as golden syrup and fresh lychees.

We even had a visit from one of the judges, Melbourne Age food critic Matt Preston.

All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable and memorable birthday party.




Tomorrow night is the final episode of the show, and along with a few million Australians we'll be gathered around the t.v. watching to see who wins. And, like a few million Australians, we'll be hoping to reap the benefits of the show in the coming months as our children attempt to cook ever more complex and satisfying dishes.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

...in the forests of the night

Like most islands, Tasmania has benefited from its isolation. Give a land a few thousand years of peace and quiet and you’re bound to end up with some creatures that don’t exist anywhere else. That’s as much a result of what doesn’t evolve as what does. Australia as a whole didn’t throw up any large, hoofed ungulates like deer or antelope, so that niche in the ecosystem was filled by enormous jumping mice (kangaroos and wallabies). And until a few thousand years ago, Australia didn’t have many large carnivores either – no lions or wolves – so small scavengers and herbivores were able to live unmolested.
Unfortunately, around 5,000 years ago or so the aborigines who lived in northern Australia met up with some wandering Polynesians who introduced them to this really cool companion animal they’d domesticated, and before long there were dogs – and later their wild cousins, dingos – running all over the country, gobbling up anything that wasn’t fast or fierce or poisonous or camouflaged.
For whatever reason, though, the natives who lived across the Bass Straight didn’t take to dogs. It could be that they just didn’t travel to the mainland much – having 200 kms of the most storm-tossed ocean in the world to cross may have had something to do with it. So the devils and the thylacines survived. At least the devils did. The thylacines – marsupial dog-like creatures also known as the Tasmanian Tiger -- were doing alright too, until Europeans decided they didn’t really like having their sheep eaten and started hunting them. In the late 18th century there was a bounty on thylacines – up to one pound a head, an enormous sum at the time. The last known animal died in a Hobart zoo. There have been hundreds of sightings since then, but nothing confirmed by scientists.
We recently visited the Bonorong Wildlife Park, a rehabilitation and rescue centre just outside Hobart. We hand-fed kangaroos, petted a wombat and an imported koala (another creature that never made it across the Bass Straight), and marvelled at the weird sound produced by devils (it’s a cross between a growl and a shriek – a bit higher pitched than the one on the Bugs Bunny cartoons. If you imagine yourself as a newly arrived settler in Tasmania, huddled in your hut and hearing those noises echoing through the dark, it’s not hard to see why they earned their name). On a wall outside the gift shop is a tribute to the thylacine. I was surprised that it said “some believe the thylacine to be extinct,” so I asked inside. I ended up chatting with Greg Irons, an energetic man in his 20s who runs the rehabilitation centre. I asked him if he thought thylacines still existed. “Ten years ago, I would have said almost certainly,” he said. “Today, probably not.”
More than a decade ago, he said, a hunter he knew and trusted said he had spent a full minute observing a thylacine from about 20 metres away, and had even taken a plaster cast of the print. Irons thinks that may have been one of the last ones left. “We still get people in here who say they’ve seen one, or who claim to know where they breed, but...” and he dismissed their credibility with a shrug.
But why, I wondered, was he so sure they had died out? While driving to the Hastings Caves and Cockle Creek we had seen just how dense the Tasmanian rain forest can be, and that area was just the beginning of a massive wilderness region that stretches for hundreds of kilometres. Surely there could be thousands of thylacines still roaming in the forest undetected? Irons said that’s not the kind of habitat these cats need. “They weren’t fast animals, but they had endurance. Lots of things could outrun them but they would just keep going and going until they caught up.” They were hunters of the open land, he said, and that land is pretty heavily used by farmers and shepherds. If there were still thylacines there, someone would have seen them.
If the thylacine really is gone, though, it certainly still lives on in Tasmanian iconography. From license plates to beer labels, t-shirts to shot glasses, thylacines are everywhere in Tasmania. In downtown Hobart, I walked past the former headquarters of the Cascade Brewery – Australia’s oldest brewery, founded in 1834. Atop the grey stone building was a carving of a beer cask, and perched on that was the unmistakeable striped figure of the thylacine. Since the building was constructed in the 1870s, the sculpture dates from a time when thylacines were still roaming the fields and hedgerows, still being shot on sight and poisoned for a bounty.
And that, it seems to me, is the oddest thing about the way thylacines are used in Tasmania. Yes, it’s a romantic animal with a great name (Tasmanian tiger), but it didn’t just die out by accident. It was wiped out on purpose by the great-grandparents of those who now celebrate it. It would be like coming to North America and seeing monuments to the passenger pigeon everywhere, or finding out that the international mariners federation had adopted the dodo or the great auk as its symbol.
I hope there are still a few thylacines roaming the forest. It could happen – ten years ago, most scientists agreed that mountain lions no longer lived in Ontario; now there’s a broader consensus that they may still exist in the wild.
I also hope someone manages to find a cure for a disease currently sweeping through the wild population of Tasmanian devils. It doesn’t look good, though: in the past ten years the population of wild devils has dropped by 70 per cent. Most people like Irons are focused these days on building “island” populations, keeping a few devils disease-free so they can be reintroduced if a cure for the disease is ever found. They’re also trying to stop new logging roads from being built into areas that are currently disease-free, and even talking about building a devil-proof fence to keep infected animals out of clean parts of the island.
If all that fails, there’s a very real possibility the Tasmanian devil could go the way of the Tasmanian tiger.