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 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.