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 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?"