It kind of sounds like the name of a rock band–underground orchid–but it is, in fact, a real plant. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that while I was in Western Australia, I visited the town of Babakin, which is located in the modest range of this rare flower. Rhizanthella gardneri is its scientific name, and, as its common name suggests, this orchid lives underground.
For a long time, if one saw an underground orchid, it was by accident. Then, once people figured out that these orchids grew among the roots of a specific plant (broom bush), they could be searched for with some hope of finding them. However, scientists have now found that they can locate the orchids using radioactive isotopes–which in turn led to the discovery that these odd little orchids are even rarer than original imagined–only about 50 known plants left in the wild. (When I was in WA, I only saw photographs, as these orchids are too rare to dig them up for the amusement of tourists.)
I imagine you’d like to see an underground orchid, so I’ll send you to a site with a photo (and more info), as I don’t like “borrowing” photos that are not my own or given to me by their owners. The tiny, white flower is remarkably pretty, so while I hope you’ll come back here to explore further, I do also hope you’ll go check the photo.
Western Australia’s Underground Orchied, at Science Daily.
The video below is a National Geographic talk on Douglas Mawson and what the speaker labels “the best survival tale you’ve never heard.” The speaker, David Roberts, himself an adventurer and author of a book on Mawson titled Alone on the Ice, makes the interesting observation that the reason the whole world hasn’t heard the story is largely because the explorers were Australian, and back around 1900, Australia was still being pretty much ignored by the rest of the world. That’s not the only reason, but it’s definitely part of it.
It’s an incredible story, and well worth knowing about. Hard to even imagine surviving something like this.
When L. Sue Baugh announced to the writing group a few years back that she and her friend Lynn Martinelli wanted to document the oldest places on earth, there was no way for those in attendance to know how serious she was–and how glorious the results of that project would be.
Sue and Lynn sought to experience landscapes that resembled what ancient Earth might have been like long before humanity appeared. Their search led the two women into remote regions of Western Australia, Canada, Greenland, the United States–and eventually into territory not marked on any map.
The outcome of their research is Baugh’s book Echoes of Earth: Finding ourselves in the origins of the planet. The work combines science and philosophy, but it is dominated by the photographs that so gloriously capture the primitive beauty of the places explored. The book is remarkable not only in its subject matter and beauty, but also in its format. There are die cuts, half pages, and fold-outs, making the book an interactive experience.
While Baugh says she loved everywhere she visited, she said Australia was the place that most captivated her. She relates, “I don’t think my heart ever fully came back from there.” Of course, that’s a sentiment I share with her.
The book is not just getting noticed by Baugh’s associates in local writing groups. It has in a short time racked up an impressive number of awards:
• A silver medal for Photography/art from the Nautilus Book Awards
• Awards in two categories from the Benjamin Franklin Awards (Baugh is happiest with the award in the nature/environment category).
• A gold medal for science/nature/environment category from Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Not too surprisingly, the book is available on Amazon. However, if you want a signed, numbered version–with additional materials–you can go to the website for Wild Stone Arts.
It is hard to read any Australian history without bumping into Burke and Wills. I saw several places associated with them on my first trip to Australia, and an account of their exploration and tragic end is included in the appendix of my book, because it’s something the curious about Australia need to know. I had always hoped to visit Cooper Creek, where they spent their last days, and I finally reached it on my fourth trip to Australia. It was moving to see the DIG tree and know that lives had hung in the balance here, but it was also an amazingly beautiful, peaceful location. An Aussie videographer named George Royter has done a nice job capturing the beauty of Cooper Creek in a video on his blog. Note, however, that when my friends and I camped there, we had the place to ourselves, so it was even more peaceful than indicated by the video.
George Royter’s Cooper Creek
Thomas Keneally is great at capturing telling moments, poignant details, emotional impact, and he’s exceptionally good at transmitting them to the reader. Who wasn’t impressed with Schindler’s List? Keneally writes a lot about history, but he also writes a lot about his native Australia, and in his book Outback, he captures so much of the essence of the country’s rugged interior that it has become one of my favorite books about Australia.
Keneally writes in the book’s forward, “It is as if in the immensity of outback Australia, people’s temperaments expand like yeast to occupy and give point to the immensities of space. It is hoped therefore that in these pages you will visit an enchanting and unknown country whose customs, secrets, ironies and landscapes you could not previously have guessed at.” Because I’ve visited that enchanting country, I can attest to the accuracy of Keneally’s observations, at least as far as the wonder of the land and friendliness of the people.
Outback is out of print now, or at least it’s not carried on Amazon, but there appear to be scads of people selling second-hand copies. If you’re interested in Australia, I encourage you to track down a copy.
I am often asked when and/or how my interest in Australia got started. As with so many of my interests, it started with books. Between his service in the military and his career in business, my dad had gotten to know a fair number of Australians, and as Australians are great book lovers, books were what they most often sent as gifts. The one I remember most vividly was a magnificent volume titled The Australians, with gorgeous photography by Robert Goodman and wonderfully crafted text by George Johnston. It came out in 1966, and today you can only find it in secondhand shops, but during my childhood and into adulthood, I returned to it often. I’m sitting now, flipping through the book, and smiling that I have visited so many of the places that captured my imagination when I was a youngster.
Many other books followed, but it was about 10 years later that I saw the first images that suggested to me that Australia was actually a potential travel destination. John Denver shot a TV special in Australia, and he took a gaggle of celebrities on a tour to some of the most interesting places. Among those places, the one that was burned into my memory from that program was Ayers Rock/Uluru.
It was many more years before I finally got to the place where I needed Australia–really needed to go and explore it for myself–and understood that it was okay to go. That was the trip, of course, that changed my life, the trip that became my book Waltzing Australia — the reason people ask me how my interest in Australia got started.
I like to think that someday, someone else will be asked how their interest in Australia got started, and that for someone, it will be with my book or my blog. We’ll see.
Anyway, John Denver really liked Australia, so he went more than once. In fact, the John Denver CDs in my collection were purchased in Australia– which means they have songs that I don’t think many folks in the United States have heard, including Sing Australia. It’s not my favorite John Denver song (hard to pick a favorite, though if I had to, I’d say Calypso), but it’s definitely the most Australian of his songs. You can check it out here– with a nice slide show of Aussie images.
A lot of folks ask me what writers I’ve enjoyed who write about Australia. So far, I’ve shared some of my favorite Aussie poets (and I’ll share more in the future), but this time, I thought I’d recommend a book that I particularly loved. It’s Tracks by Robyn Davidson. A few years after Tracks came out, images from the adventure were released in a collection titled Alice to the Ocean. The photos are great, but for me, the original book meant more to me.
I actually didn’t read this book until after I returned from my own transformational, solo wander around Australia, even though Davidson’s journey took place well before my own adventure. I don’t suppose it should come as too much of a surprise that a woman who wandered around Australia would enjoy a book by another woman who wandered around Australia. I really found myself drawn into Davidson’s book. Her descriptions were wonderfully detailed and evocative, and they recalled for me places I’d been and things I’d felt. For me, the book did more than simply entertain–it resonated. It reflected some of the mystery and wonder that I had experienced in the Outback.
While Tracks will not really introduce you to Australia, that wasn’t its goal. I went to discover Australia; Davidson went to discover herself. Also, she had backing from National Geographic, and I paid my own way. So the trips are quite different–and yet there is a connection with the land that very much reflected my own experience.
Tracks remains one of my favorites among dozens of books I’ve read that are set in Australia. I definitely recommend it, but especially for those who enjoy travel or love Australia.
For those of you who prefer electronic books but don’t have Kindles, Waltzing Australia is now available at Smashwords. That means it is now in forms that will work in Nooks, iPads, and any other device on which books can be downloaded.
If you’re interested, you can find it here: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/143849
So now, everyone can have access to the adventure, the joy, the history, nature, and lore of Australia that flows through the pages of Waltzing Australia. I’m pleased that the delights of the land Down Under can now be shared with an even wider audience.
Of course, I’ll still keep posting peripheral material here — all the things that wouldn’t fit in the book. So you can continue to enjoy and learn about Australia, even if you don’t latch on to the larger story. But, of course, I do hope you’ll join me on my 20,000-mile trek around and across a country I found so enchanting.
Filed under Australia, Book, Food, Geography, History, Literature, Lore, Nature, Poetry, Travel, Writing
I do a lot of educational writing, including textbooks, but one of my favorite assignments in this line of work is the student reader. These readers are single-subject books for kids to read independently, and because they are intended to encourage reading, they need to have topics that will appeal to kids. I just finished writing one about dangerous things on the Great Barrier Reef. I included sharks and rip currents, of course, but most of the reader was taken up with things that are venomous–and the list is pretty impressive. The stonefish is the most venomous fish in the world. The box jelly (aka sea wasp) is the most venomous jellyfish in the world. And the list goes on.
As an avid collector of seashells, I also included one of my favorite shells–the cone shell– which I’ve had the good fortune to only encounter in shell shops. The snail that occupies the most handsome of the many possible cone shells is also among the deadliest. It reminded me of why the rules for reef walking include wearing shoes and not picking anything up. If you want to see the cone snail in action, check out this National Geographic video. (And while the venomous harpoon system is amazing, the size of the snail’s mouth is also pretty stunning.)
So remember not to ever pick one of these up if you’re on the Great Barrier Reef.
Often, when I write or speak of Australia, I will include a phrase about loving the “sunburnt country.” While most Australians would immediately understand the allusion, most folks outside Australia would not — though some might think I’m alluding to Bill Bryson’s book The Sunburned Country (which was released in Australia with the title Down Under). In fact, both Bryson’s book title and my comments are allusions to a famous Australian poem by Dorothea Mackellar.
Mackellar was born in Sydney in 1885 and went on to become one of Australia’s most notable poets. The poem for which she is best known was written when she was only 19. Actually, the poem itself, titled “My Country,” is rarely quoted in its entirety. It is the second stanza of the poem that almost everyone in Australia learns by heart growing up.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror–
The wide brown land for me!
This stanza has been set to music, and the “sunburnt country” phrase appears regularly in tales of the land Down Under. A hundred years after its writing, it remains an iconic tribute to Australia.
Should you wish to read the rest of the poem, you can find it here: “My Country.”