Category Archives: History

Reflections on Life, Travel, Work, and Australia

I feel I should mention that, despite the sadness expressed at leaving Australia, I have, since my first trip Down Under, created a fulfilling life focused on things I love: writing, sharing, history, food, culture, travel. I’ve been to dozens of other places (see my The World’s Fare blog for some non-Aussie travel tales), and I’ve had an additional two trips to Australia (which I’ll be sharing here). I had some amazing experiences on those trips.

But home is not bad, either. Like most people who are self-employed, I work harder for less money than many in the corporate world, but I’ve had the joy of being able to pick work that I find rewarding. I feel as though I’m living my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” (I have become insanely frugal, however, which allows me to live better on less money than many people do who earn far more than I do.)

While I’ve written books (including, of course, Waltzing Australia) and hundreds of magazine articles, a large part of my writing has been in the realm of education: history, geography, and language arts. I’ve worked for every major educational publisher in the U.S., including the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and National Geographic Learning. Sharing what I’ve learned in my travels and research is always a joy. I’ve even gotten to write student readers on topics related to Australia (one of the Great Barrier Reef, one on the platypus, and a couple on Captain James Cook).

For the last 20 years or so, in addition to education, I’ve been working in the arena of food history. Much of my travel has focused on place where food history is anchored: Mexico, South America, China, India, the Spice Route, and so on. More recently, I’ve been focusing on history closer to home. The combination of food history and home focus has resulted in my newest book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. If you look at the list of links at right, you’ll see I’ve also started a blog to support that endeavor.

So it did hurt to leave Australia, but I’ve found that joy can be found anywhere. It is not a place; it is a mindset and a journey and a feeling that one is contributing. Still, I will never stop loving Australia, and I delight in sharing its beauty, wonder, and friendliness with others–something I do not only through this blog but also through slide shows and speaking engagements. Australia is the anchor of my current life. It will always be part of me.

And there is still vastly more I want to share about it. So please do keep coming back.


Filed under Australia, Book, Food, History, Thoughts, Travel, Writing

Monday, September 16

This morning, Judy and I headed for Australflora and Gum Nut Village, a nursery that specialized in Australian plants, plus craft gallery and tearoom, all run by a charming, lucid man named Bill, who obviously knows Judy well. (Not too surprising, given how focused on indigenous plants Judy’s garden is.) We browsed for a few hours through the fabulous flowers, and I bought a few packets of seeds, to see if I can raise a few Aussie blooms in a pot back home. We chatted with Bill for a while, about local events, local folks, and how to care for a few plants Judy recently obtained. Then we headed for the giant “gum nut.” A gum nut is the hard, woody fruit of a eucalyptus tree—though in this case, it is a replica of said fruit the size of a small cabin. This gum nut houses the craft gallery as well as a lot of May Gibbs books and paintings.

May Gibbs was the artist/writer who, about 100 years ago, created a world of fairy folk that she dubbed gumnut babies. These delightful little creatures, who lived among and dressed in the flowers of gum trees (eucalypts), populated a series of children’s books, the most famous being Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, which appeared in 1918. Gibbs’s creations became part of Australians’ childhood heritage. In fact, so iconic was Gibbs’s work that she was honored with a Google doodle on her 136th birthday.

And in case you haven’t seen a gum flower before, here is one of the many varieties—and one can see how easy it was to imagine it as the attire of tiny fairies.
Judy and I had lunch in the tearoom then we headed back to the house. Geoff was waiting for us. We chatted for a little while over tea, then I finished packing. At 3:00 pm, it was time to head for the airport. Judy and Geoff have been so gracious and generous, as well as a lot of fun, that I really hated saying good-bye. However, I’m sure part of that is also realizing that the trip is nearing its end—too soon, I’ll be saying good-bye again to Australia.

It was dark by the time I landed in Sydney at 6:15. I caught the bus to the city then hiked the rest of the way. Fortunately, I have a suitcase that can convert to a backpack, and when the walk turned out to be longer than I’d anticipated, I made that switch. Still, even with the suitcase worn as a backpack, I was fairly weary as I climbed the stairs to reception at Sydney’s Traveller’s Rest Hotel. However, I was pleased to find that, though a bargain accommodation, Traveller’s Rest was clean and cheerful and quite comfortable.

After settling in, I walked toward nearby Chinatown, stopping at a place that offered an all-you-can-eat Cambodian buffet. Glass noodles with tree ears, curried eggplant and pumpkin, meat with chilies, tofu with veggies, and several other dishes made for an interesting and tasty meal. Then it was back to the hotel and early to bed. Tomorrow, I get to find out how Sydney has changed.

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Filed under Australia, History, Literature, Travel

September 14, part 2

Judy was free to join us for the afternoon, so after lunch, the three of us headed off again, along the winding roads and amid the towering trees and abundant ferns of the Dandenong Ranges. This time, our drive took us to Emerald Lake, where Judy and I would be able to catch the famous Puffing Billy, a beautiful, century-old, narrow-gauge steam railway. The train and its original 15 miles of track are considered to be among the finest preserved steam railways in the world. Famed for the beauty of its setting as much as for its handsome antiquity, the Puffing Billy is now run for tourists and train enthusiasts.

Puffing Billy Station

Puffing Billy Station

Puffing Billy arrives.

Puffing Billy arrives.

The train ride, through forest and mountain, past handsome farms and green valleys, was a delight. The whistle would toot as we neared a town, farm, or station, and everyone would turn and wave at the passengers. At the old trestle bridge—considered the best place from which to photograph the train—we saw dozens of cars and a fair crowd of people waiting to watch the train pass, all waving to us as we went by. Finally, after about an hour ride, the train dropped us in Belgrave, where Geoff was waiting to pick us up.

Another scenic drive returned us to the ranch, where we had afternoon tea. Then Geoff drove me to the top of Mount Dandenong, so I could see the sunset from the mountaintop. Wonderful.
At 7:30, Robert, a friend of the family, arrived. Robert was quite a character: big, burly, blond, open, effusive, clearly delighted with life. He has worked oil rigs all over the world, but has now returned to Melbourne to run the family business. Great fun listening to his tales.

Judy, Geoff, Robert, and I were all dressed for an evening out, and we headed to restaurant in Sherbrooke that Judy and Geoff save for special occasions. Had a beautiful evening of champagne, great food, and delightful conversation. For dinner, I had tortellini al pesto to start, pork and seafood Wellington for my main, and a ginger-crisp basked filled with sliced strawberries for dessert. Very nice.

We finally returned home by midnight, over full, slightly giddy from the excellent company, and definitely happy.

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Filed under Australia, History, Travel

Saturday, September 14

Up bright and early. Headed off with Geoff on a walk around the perimeter of the property. We circled the paddocks, checked the dam, admired the large plot where Judy grows proteas (amazing looking flowers), examined the gooseberry bushes, and stopped frequently to admire the birdlife. Amazing number of birds here. I could only hear the whip birds and bellbirds, but I saw eastern rosellas, crimson rosells, swallows, kookaburras, mud larks, wattle birds, wrens, wood ducks (mostly around the dam), sulphur-crested cockatoos, butcher birds, and magpies. Wow.

The ranch may be only ten acres, but sitting as it does on the side of the mountain definitely makes walking around this little ranch serious exercise. No wonder Judy and Geoff are so fit! (Though Judy says she hardly notices the fairly steep grade after so many years of climbing it.)

Judy had riding lessons today (learning dressage; she normally does endurance riding), so Geoff was my guide today. We drove first up to the William Ricketts Sanctuary. Ricketts was a potter and sculptor, born in Richmond, Victoria, in 1898, but who settled here in the Dandenong in the 1930s. He bought a four-acre area of trees and ferns here in the mountains, and began to fill it with his remarkable work. He lived at the Sanctuary until his death in1993. The 92 sculptures feature Aboriginal people, stories, and myths, all snuggled amid stunning greenery. The thing that made it just a bit more remarkable for me is that I had just heard of Ricketts for the first time when I visited the Pitchi Ritchi Sanctuary at the edge of Alice Springs less than two weeks ago! (See the post for Tuesday, September 3.)

At the William Ricketts Sanctuary

At the William Ricketts Sanctuary

The sculpture here was just as handsome and evocative as that in the Centre. Geoff and I spent a fair bit of time admiring the work and reading the stories that went with each piece. Then we headed off again.

I was taken around the area, to meet the locals–all of whom had heard I was coming. I met David the grocer, Chris, the “local Yank,” an antique dealer, a bookseller, and a local author. We popped around to the petrol station that Geoff and Judy own (Geoff is a wonder at repairing and rebuilding cars), and while there, I met Rocky the Cocky, their pet sulphur-crested cockatoo (a very friendly chap, it seemed). We then stopped to pick up pastries at Mangle’s, the deadly, cream-filled bake shop, before heading home for lunch.

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Filed under Australia, History, Travel

September 11, part 2

My destination in Warnambool was the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, a museum and recreated shipping village of the late 1800s, built on the site of gun emplacements that were originally set up to protect the coast and its fleet from Russian pirates.

Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village

Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village

If you saw the movie “Quigley Down Under” (a movie with a fun soundtrack but more flaws of geography and reality than I could comfortably withstand, despite my loving Tom Selleck and Alan Rickman), you will have seen this location, as it was used for the street scene when Quigley first arrives in Australia and disembarks his ship (and immediately gets into a fist fight). I love “living history” in any form, and while the village was relatively quiet, as it is currently off season, it as still a delight. I wandered through all the buildings, learning all I could of sailing fleets, shipping-related skills, the businesses that surrounded and supported shipping, and this area’s history.
Flagstaff's Shipping Village

Flagstaff’s Shipping Village

Next, I walked to the museum, which is home to the state’s largest accessible collection of shipwreck artifacts. Both fascinating and heart rending, items that had been salvaged from sunken ships or washed ashore along the “Shipwreck Coast” are reminders of the people and dreams that were lost, along with the ships. Along this 80-mile( 130-kilometer) stretch, more than 80 ships have gone down. A lot of the ships were cargo vessels, so there was not always a stunning loss of life, with the worst and most famous being the sinking of the S.S. Admella in 1959, when 89 people died. But still, each wreck represented loss on many levels.

The items that filled the museum were remarkable. One of my absolute favorites was the Loch Ard peacock. It is a gorgeous, life-sized, Minton porcelain peacock that was part of the cargo of a clipper ship called the Loch Ard. Despite a horrendous storm that battered and sank the ship, the peacock was so well packed that it survived the wreck completely intact. (Sadly, most of the crew and passengers, 52 of them, were not so lucky. One of the two survivors, Eva Carmichael, later related that, when the captain saw her on deck, just before she was swept away by a wave, he said to her, “If you are saved Eva, let my dear wife know that I died like a sailor.”)

There were thousands of artifacts, including tools, belt buckles, ships’ tackle, crockery (some broken, some in remarkably good condition), clothing, cutlery, bottles, furniture, shoes, silver goblets, cooking utensils, and vastly more. A really handsome, square-cut diamond ring caught my eye, beautiful despite being heavily encrusted. But everything was intriguing or evocative, and memorable for the tales it told of life in the days of wooden ships.

I still had a lot to see along the coast, so I finally tore myself away from the museum and, with a quick stop in the gift shop to buy a booklet about the place, I continued on, heading now for the Great Ocean Road.

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Filed under Australia, Geography, History, Lore, Travel

Wednesday, September 11

The wind was wild when I arose, but there was sun peeking through in places, sneaking a few beams of light in between bursts of rain. Not ideal, but it seemed more promising than yesterday’s steady rain.

After the breakfast included in my room charge, I started my day with a driving tour around Port Fairy. Charming little town, where the wide streets are lined with buildings from the 1800s–50 of them registered with the National Trust. Fishing is the main business in town, though proximity to the Great Ocean Road makes it popular for tourists, as well. Even in less than ideal weather, I enjoyed it, snatching photos between gusts of wind and bursts of rain. Then it was time to head back to Highway 1.

Port Fairy

Port Fairy

I turned off the highway at Tower Hill, a state park that is, contrary to images the name might suggest, a giant crater from a volcano (now inactive) that erupted an estimated 30,000 years ago. Lakes and islands fill the broad crater, which is known for its wildlife. As was the case yesterday, in the Grampians, due to the blustery weather, I was alone, as I headed along the narrow road that winds among the trees in the massive caldera.
Inside crater, Tower Hill

Inside crater, Tower Hill

It was raining pretty steadily by this time, so I couldn’t really get out and wander, which is a shame, as it is a beautiful area. I did get a few photos, but mostly I just enjoyed the greenery and the remarkable amount of birdlife. As I drove down into the crater, through the forests, and among the waterways, I enjoyed seeing swallows, Cape Barren Geese, black swans, and other birds.

At one point, I found the road blocked by a tree that had been downed by the wild wind. This might not seem like a major problem, but the single-lane, one-way road is very narrow and the trees are close on either side. I had to drive in reverse for about a quarter mile–which made my being alone on the road very welcome. Can’t imagine having to back up a whole line of cars. Fortunately, after that quarter mile, there was a parking area that offered not only a bit more space to maneuver, but also an alternative exit, so I could get around the tree, and didn’t have to back up the several miles to the entrance. That would have been distressing.

Climbing out of the crater once again, I circled its rim, passing through Koroit, a small, old town considered to be one of the country’s best examples of an early Irish settlement. Then it was back on Highway 1 again, headed for Warnambool.

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Filed under Australia, Geography, History, Nature, Travel

Sunday, September 8

Up early, breakfasted, and on the road. We traded the seashore for broad wheat fields and sheep properties dotted with charming, small, rural towns of vintages similar to those we’d already seen. We drove through Crystal Brook and then Gulnare. The terrain and the crops changed as we got to Clare. Settled in the 1840s and named for County Clare in Ireland, the Clare Valley is one of South Australia’s excellent wine regions. Sheep and wheat gave way to vineyards. As the term “valley” suggests, there are hills surrounding Clare, the old town at the center of Clare Valley. This town is larger than the rural towns through which we’d passed, but it was just as charming. Richard headed for a hilltop that would give us a good view of the town before we headed in and through.



Nikki and Richard share a love of fine wine, so a stop at the Wolf Blass Eaglehawk winery was deemed a necessity. The winery was handsome and the surrounding vineyards were lush and well trimmed. It’s spring, so no grapes are in evidence, but the vines were handsome in their neat rows.

Wolf Blass Eaglehawk Vineyard

Wolf Blass Eaglehawk Vineyard

Continuing down the Clare Valley, still surrounded by thriving vineyards, we came next to Watervale and then to Auburn, on the southern edge of the valley.

Continuing southward, we came to the town of Tarlee, which blends old and new, with historic buildings and services to accommodate surrounding farms. Stone quarries here supplied the stone for many of Adelaide’s most notable buildings, and that same stone was much in evidence even in the more modest buildings of Tarlee. Tarlee is a crossroads, and it was the road that drew us onward. Richard and Nikki have to work tomorrow, so we needed to get home at a reasonable time.

But not without eating. We picked up food in Tralee, and then we stopped a bit farther down the road for a picnic lunch. Richard chose a handsome spot on the banks of the River Light. This river was named for Colonel William Light, who designed the city of Adelaide and named the Barossa Valley. The grassy spot was shaded by huge gum trees, and we could hear no sounds other than the river and the many birds as we dined.

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Filed under Australia, Food, Geography, History, Travel