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.
Category Archives: History
My post on Ghost Gums has, for some reason, remained my most popular, despite the fact that I posted the entry more than five years ago. However, despite that popularity, it was still notable when it had more than 100 hits today. So I did a quick search on ghost gums to see what news might have triggered the avalanche. I was sad to learn that it was because of a particularly unpleasant act of vandalism: the twin ghost gums made famous by Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira were burned to the ground. I’d seen these famous twin trees on two different trips to Australia. While all ghost gums are beautiful, the connection to Namatjira made these seem particularly evocative.
It’s hard to imagine what would drive someone to destroy these lovely, historic trees. It doesn’t even make a statement. It’s just mindless destruction.
For those who might be interested, here is a bit more on this incident and Namatjira.
In the early days of Australian settlement, it was not very easy to convince skilled tradesmen to migrate. With the American colonies, promises of land and wealth and freedom, combined with the relative proximity of being only one ocean away, made it easier, but Australia was just too far and, in the early 1800s, did not have a great reputation as a destination. So certain people responsible for finding the needed skills for the new colony hit on a plan. They would hire beautiful, young women to hang around bars and buy drinks for tradesmen with the requisite skills. When the tradesmen were adequately anesthetized, these girls would plant on them something stolen from someone else, and then immediately report to a conveniently placed constable that a crime had been witnessed. The targeted tradesmen would be caught “red handed” and still under the influence, and within days, he’d be on a ship bound for Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was originally called.
This practice was popularly memorialized in the song “The Black Velvet Band,” with the velvet band in question tying up the hair of the lovely young maiden employed in rounding up tradesmen. Most versions start with the story’s events in Belfast, but there are versions of the song that replace this with any number of locations in the British Isles, as Ireland was by no means the only target of the practice. Today, it’s hard to find an Irish or Australian folk band that doesn’t include this song in their repertoire.
There are many versions of the song on YouTube and other sites, but here’s one from The High Kings: The Black Velvet Band.
My copy of the collected verses of A.B. “Banjo” Paterson has money as a bookmark. It’s an Australian $10 note, and the reason it makes the perfect bookmark for this collection is that it bears the image of Banjo Paterson, with a sketch in the background of the ride from “The Man from Snow River.” The fact that Paterson is on the money might suggest to non-Aussies the cultural significance of this poet.
While a lot of his poems are gloriously evocative, Paterson also occasionally revealed in his work a classic element of Australian humor: hyperbole. When things are rough, you exaggerate. In fact, Australian humor is kind of a blend of the wild exaggeration one finds in classic tall tales of the American west and the very dry wit of the British–but all modified and a bit twisted by the wonderful peculiarities of Australia itself.
One example of this hyperbolic humor is the following Paterson poem, published in the late 1800s. Interesting to note that it ends with ghosts being heard–since that’s how the even more famous Paterson poem, “Waltzing Matilda,” also ends.
The Geebung Polo Club
by A.B. “Banjo” Paterson
It was somewhere up the country in a land of rock and scrub,
That they formed an institution called the Geebung Polo Club.
They were long and wiry natives of the rugged mountainside,
And the horse was never saddled that the Geebungs couldn’t ride;
But their style of playing polo was irregular and rash -
They had mighty little science, but a mighty lot of dash:
And they played on mountain ponies that were muscular and strong,
Though their coats were quite unpolished, and their manes and tails were long.
And they used to train those ponies wheeling cattle in the scrub:
They were demons, were the members of the Geebung Polo Club.
It was somewhere down the country, in a city’s smoke and steam,
That a polo club existed, called the Cuff and Collar Team.
As a social institution ’twas a marvellous success,
For the members were distinguished by exclusiveness and dress.
They had natty little ponies that were nice, and smooth, and sleek,
For their cultivated owners only rode ‘em once a week.
So they started up the country in pursuit of sport and fame,
For they meant to show the Geebungs how they ought to play the game;
And they took their valets with them – just to give their boots a rub
Ere they started operations on the Geebung Polo Club.
Now my readers can imagine how the contest ebbed and flowed,
When the Geebung boys got going it was time to clear the road;
And the game was so terrific that ere half the time was gone
A spectator’s leg was broken – just from merely looking on.
For they waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
Was the last surviving player – so the game was called a tie.
Then the captain of the Geebungs raised him slowly from the ground,
Though his wounds were mostly mortal, yet he fiercely gazed around;
There was no one to oppose him – all the rest were in a trance,
So he scrambled on his pony for his last expiring chance,
For he meant to make an effort to get victory to his side;
So he struck at goal – and missed it – then he tumbled off and died.
By the old Campaspe River, where the breezes shake the grass,
There’s a row of little gravestones that the stockmen never pass,
For they bear a crude inscription saying, “Stranger, drop a tear,
For the Cuff and Collar players and the Geebung boys lie here.”
And on misty moonlit evenings, while the dingoes howl around,
You can see their shadows flitting down that phantom polo ground;
You can hear the loud collisions as the flying players meet,
And the rattle of the mallets, and the rush of ponies’ feet,
Till the terrified spectator rides like blazes to the pub -
He’s been haunted by the spectres of the Geebung Polo Club.
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’ve mentioned both Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson, and shared some of their poetry. The two poets were friends and both contributed to the Sydney Bulletin. However, they took different stances on the outback–at least partly in fun, to stir up discussion on the topic. Lawson traveled in some of the same areas Paterson did, but wrote rather scathingly about it, in contrast to Paterson’s generally adoring outlook. Paterson penned the following to let Lawson know that he disagreed. In response to this “argument” between Paterson and Lawson, other poets of the day jumped into the versified “discussion.”
As a note to those who aren’t acquainted with some items of British or Australian slang: lemon-squash would be lemonade, a selector would be roughly the equivalent of a homesteader, and “push” was slang for “gang,” the Sydney Push being a notorious gang of the time. And for Americans, “defence” is the British spelling of “defense.”
In Defence of the Bush
by A.B. “Banjo” Paterson
So you’re back from up the country, Mister Lawson, where you went,
And you’re cursing all the business in a bitter discontent;
Well, we grieve to disappoint you, and it makes us sad to hear
That it wasn’t cool and shady — and there wasn’t whips of beer,
And the looney bullock snorted when you first came into view —
Well, you know it’s not so often that he sees a swell like you;
And the roads were hot and dusty, and the plains were burnt and brown,
And no doubt you’re better suited drinking lemon-squash in town.
Yet, perchance, if you should journey down the very track you went
In a month or two at furthest, you would wonder what it meant;
Where the sunbaked earth was gasping like a creature in itts pain
You would find the grasses waving like a field of summer grain,
And the miles of thirsty gutters, blocked with sand and choked with mud,
You would find them mighty rivers with a turbid, sweeping flood.
For the rain and drought and sunshine make no changes in the street,
In the sullen line of buildings and the ceaseless tramp of feet;
But the bush has moods and changes, as the seasons rise and fall,
And the men who know the bush-land — they are loyal through it all.
But you found the bush was dismal and a land of no delight —
Did you chance to hear a chorus in the shearers’ huts at night?
Did they “rise up William Riley” by the camp-fire’s cheery blaze?
Did they rise him as we rose him in the good old droving days?
And the women of the homesteads and the men you chanced to meet —
Were their faces sour and saddened like the “faces in the street”?
And the “shy selector children” — were they better now or worse
Than the little city urchins who would greet you with a curse?
Is not such a life much better than the squalid street and square
Where the fallen women flaunt it in the fierce electric glare,
Wher the sempstress plies her needle till her eyes are sore and red
In a filthy, dirty attic toiling on for daily bread?
Did you hear no sweeter voices in the music of the bush
Than the roar of trams and buses, and the war-whoop of “the push”?
Did the magpies rouse your slumbers with their carol sweet and strange?
Did you hear the silver chiming of the bell-birds on the range?
But, perchance, the wild birds’ music by your senses was despised,
For you say you’ll stay in townships till the bush is civilized.
Would you make it a tea-garden, and on Sundays have a band
Where the “blokes” might take their “donahs”, with a “public” close at hand?
You had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the “push”,
For the bush will never suit you, and you’ll never suit the bush.
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.
The “again” above is because I used “A Town Like Alice” for the title of my first post about the time I spent in Alice Springs. That post was about my travels, but this one is about a piece of great Australian literature. Author Nevil Shute originally titled his book The Legacy, but after a movie and a mini-series named A Town Like Alice, more recent printings of the book have born what is by now the more familiar title.
A Town Like Alice was based on a number of true incidents from World War II– among them, the Japanese treatment of women prisoners in Malaysia and an Australian soldier who was tortured — that Nevil Shute combined into a harrowing but ultimately triumphantly romantic novel. While the story is fiction, it is sufficiently anchored in history to offer interesting insights — including the occasionally amusing contrasts between Australians and the British at that time.
The mini-series, which starred Brian Brown and Helen Morse, was wonderfully involving. It is fairly faithful to the book. However, as far as I can tell, it’s only currently available in VHS, at least in the United States. So if you’ve still got a tape player, you’re in luck. It’s also on YouTube, in 21, 14-minute segments. But the book has been reprinted, and is available in a format that doesn’t go out of date every few years — ink on paper.
Of course, this is not the only great book from Nevil Shute. It is, however, a story I have come to really love. It is astonishing what people can survive — and it’s a good reminder that hardship doesn’t rule out a happy ending.
So check out the book–A Town Like Alice.
If you’ve read my book–or if you grew up in Australia–you will have encountered the stories about Adam Lindsay Gordon. He is among Australia’s greatest poets, and among those poets who celebrated the wide open spaces. He actually wanted to be known as a great horseman, which he was, but it is his poetry that lasted past his sad end. Actually, I have quoted him previously in this blog, as well. Excerpts from his works have become almost proverbial in Australia.
Because of his melancholic inclinations, little of his poetry is cheerful (in pretty sharp contract to Banjo Paterson). My book only included a few excerpts, because Gordon’s poems tend to be long, but here, I can give you a full-length work that reflects both his love of the bush and his melancholy tendencies.
The Sick Stockrider
Hold hard, Ned! Lift me down once more, and lay me in the shade.
Old man, you’ve had your work cut out to guide
Both horses, and to hold me in the saddle when I sway’d,
All through the hot, slow, sleepy, silent ride.
The dawn at “Moorabinda” was a mist rack dull and dense,
The sunrise was a sullen, sluggish lamp;
I was dozing in the gateway at Arbuthnot’s bound’ry fence,
I was dreaming on the Limestone cattle camp.
We crossed the creek at Carricksford, and sharply through the haze,
And suddenly the sun shot flaming forth;
To southward lay “Katawa”, with the sandpeaks all ablaze,
And the flush’d fields of Glen Lomond lay to north.
Now westward winds the bridle path that leads to Lindisfarm,
And yonder looms the double-headed Bluff;
From the far side of the first hill, when the skies are clear and calm,
You can see Sylvester’s woolshed fair enough.
Five miles we used to call it from our homestead to the place
Where the big tree spans the roadway like an arch;
‘Twas here we ran the dingo down that gave us such a chase
Eight years ago — or was it nine? — last March. Continue reading
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.