Category Archives: History

Sunday, September 1

I arose to the sounds of hundreds of galahs, as well as a few butcher birds and noisy minas. Dawn was beautiful, with a pink blush rising up from the end of the valley.

I hiked around for a couple of hours before breakfast, shooting photos—some probably for the third or fourth time. I got shots of Alec and Burt, as well as some of the other hands, and more photos of galahs and the red ranges. At some level, photography feels like a way to hold on to a place.

I had a big breakfast, figuring it could double as my lunch, then I gathered my gear and dragged it to the little bus that would carry me back to Alice Springs. I tried to stay cool and in control, but tears were running down my cheeks as I handed over my bags. I have really loved this place. It’s everything I dream of when I dream of the Red Center, the epitome of old outback Australia. And as long as it took me to get back here, it’s too soon to be leaving. I blurted out, “I don’t want to leave,” then climbed into the bus. I’m sure they must have wondered how I got so attached to the place in just a couple of days, but they could not know the personal history that made it so much more intense than it would have been if this were my first trip to Australia.

Buttermilk Sky

Buttermilk Sky

It was a beautiful drive back to Alice Springs, beneath a splendid buttermilk sky. When I got back to Toddy’s, I checked in, dumped my gear, and then headed into town. Boy, has the Alice changed. The feeling is still there, and I recognized much, but the Todd Street Mall is now an astonishing concentration of larger, more modern places, shopping plazas, offices, and motels (though interrupted, I was grateful to see, by Adelaide House and the John Flynn Memorial Church).

The Stuart Arms has been torn down, and a glass and steel shopping mall has replaced it. I did discover one good thing, however, and that is that on the second story of this new structure there is a nice museum of Northern Territory/arid regions natural history: rocks, fossils, mammals, birds, reptiles, plants, insects, and heaps of aboriginal artifacts, from old boomerangs to a lovely display of Albert Namatjira paintings.

Albert Namatjira
Australians will have heard of Albert Nmatjira, and those who have read my book, Waltzing Australia, may remember the biography I included of the great artists, but for others who may not know the man or his work, Namatjira was a splendidly talented Aboriginal artist who better than just about anyone else captured the beauty and spirit of the Red Center in his watercolors. He became famous but was always torn between the European culture where he was a celebrity and the culture in which he was raised. He passed away in 1959, but he is still celebrated in Australia. In this video, in addition to giving background on Namatjira and showing some of his paintings, the creation of a play about his life is also discussed.

If you want to see more of Namatjira’s paintings, here’s a site that includes many of them.

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August 30, part 3

Old Homestead interior

Old Homestead interior


Around 9 o’clock, we gathered in the homestead lounge to hear Alec tell us tales of the settling of this area, and about some local Aboriginal customs. He had lots of Aboriginal artifacts: hunting and fighting sticks, shields, coolamons, spear and woomera, digging sticks, and didgeridoos. What made the evening even more fascinating was Alec himself. He’s half Scottish and half Aborigine. His great-grandfather was John Ross, who explored this area, and for whom Ross River is named. (Alec is Alec Ross.)

Alec has had quite an astonishing life. He was taken from his Aboriginal mother when he was age 2. (It was believed at the time that half-white children should be brought up as whites.) He was raised in a camp up north, until the Japanese started bombing it and everyone was evacuated. He left school at a fairly young age to become a droving cook (the cook on a cattle drive–Australian cowboys are generally known as drovers and the moving of cattle was droving). He’s a big man, well over 6 feet, and powerful, so to earn additional money, he began boxing, and he became the number one contender for the Australian heavyweight title. A half brother in Alice Springs read about him and contacted him, to let him know he had family in the area. He was 37 when he finally met his mother. Sadly, se died soon after.

Alec went on to build a good life. He has won awards as a gardener, and he has three sons who are top soccer players in Alice Springs. Now, he’s happy here at Ross River Homestead, teaching bush cooking and boomerang throwing, telling tales at night in the rustic lounge, and pretty much making sure things go well and everyone is getting the most out of their time here. Just guessing, but I can’t help but think that the strong sense of family among those who work here at Ross River would appeal to the little boy who grew alone.

Alec is not the only person here with family ties to the area. One of the stock girls, Natasha, is a granddaughter of the Greens, who first envisioned this place as a holiday accommodation back in the 1950s. It adds to the sense of history here, that the staff is so connected to the place. (And I’m grateful to the Greens for their vision. I love this place.)

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August 30, part 2

Red rocks and ghost gums

Red rocks and ghost gums

Wildflowers

Wildflowers

I delighted in the red rocks and red earth, trees and grasses and kangaroos. I wandered near riverbeds that were lined by river red gums and, on the whole, dry, but not always, and waterholes were always a good place for birds and animals. Strolling between hills, I rejoiced to see the ghost gums dotting ragged hillsides, their white trunks standing out so distinctly against the red rocks and brilliant blue sky. Wildflowers dotted the red earth in many places. It was all so beautiful.

At one spot, I came across the remains of a small stream, with little left to show what its extent must have been in wetter weather other than the sculpted “waves” in the sand that showed the patterns of the water that passed through at some point. My eye was caught by a glimmer at the bottom of several of the little dips in the patterned sand, and I scooped a bit up and folded it into a bit of paper, so I could get it identified later. I had assumed perhaps a bit of pyrite, or “fool’s gold,” but Jeff assured me it was real gold. However, he explained that it was so fine and so spread out that one would need to vacuum up the entire desert to collect enough to make even a few dollars. Sigh. Still, it was fun to have, so I folded my tiny bit of red dust back into the piece of paper with which I’d retrieved it, and tucked it into the pocket of my suitcase. To me, the red dirt was more valuable than gold anyway.

As evening approached, I headed for the dining room of the wonderful, old, wood-beamed homestead building. The homestead was settled in the 1890s, and this building dates to that period. It has, of course, been updated a bit, with electric lights and running water, but it is otherwise still beautifully preserved and evocative of a different time. Still, there is talk of further updating the homestead, perhaps not this building but everything else, making it more of a resort, adding facilities that will delight the teens I heard moaning that there was “nothing to do here.” Pity one can’t make people understand how worthwhile it is to simply reconnect with nature and its beauty. Sigh.

Dennis, an Irish lad I met on the bus in from Alice Springs this morning, joined me for dinner, which added lively conversation to a pleasant meal. I had kangaroo as an entrée (worth noting for U.S. readers, in much of the world, including Australia, an entrée is, as the name truly suggests, a way of “entering” the meal—i.e., an appetizer—then what Americans call an entrée is called your main course, or just main). It was marinated in wine and ginger, so I couldn’t really tell it from nice beef—which probably helped. But I had to try it. For my main, I had grilled barramundi, the splendidly meat, white-fleshed fish to which I’d been introduced on my first trip downunder. It was fabulous. For dessert, one could hardly have anything more classically Australian than pavlova—also yummy.

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Wednesday, August 28

Another glorious sunrise, accompanied by the symphony of birds. My back, shoulders, and neck still ached from carrying a pack and camera equipment yesterday, but a few minutes of vigorous exercise loosened the muscles back up.

Again, at breakfast, the birds came to check for handouts. Most abundant were the rainbow lorikeets, followed by currawongs, plus a few crimson rosellas, and a satin bowerbird dashing in out of the brush, hoping the other birds would drop something.

James, the lodge manager (a handsome, young man with immense enthusiasm for the beauty of this place) came around to see who would be coming on the Tullawalal Circuit hike with him this morning. This is one of the “short walks” at Binna Burra, and I signed on. Then I dashed back to my cabin to finish packing and moved my gear to the lodge, since checkout was at 10 am, and I’d be on the hike then.

As we had done yesterday, we gathered at 9 am on the flower-bordered lawn behind the dining room (always behind, because the front projects over the cliff edge). It was to be only a 2-1/2 hour hike, so we didn’t need packs. It was amazing how much lighter my camera equipment seemed when it wasn’t in company with a backpack.

Everywhere, great views.

Everywhere, great views.

We headed across the clearing and past the original house built by the family that settled Binna Burra, up around the campground, and past the lovely pittosporum tree, the fragrance of which delights me beyond words. We stopped at a sign that outlined today’s hike, and then we headed into the forest.

Since this was a shorter walk, and not one of those gotta-keep-going-or-we’ll-never-get-back-by-dark marathons, James set a pace that was brisk but interrupted far more frequently. He pointed out buttress roots and strangler figs, stinging trees, forest apples, and rosellas crunching gum nuts overhead. We stopped to see the trapdoor spiders, and James pointed out a rock surrounded by cracked snail shells. This, he explained, was the work of the noisy pitta, a bird that smashes shells on rocks to open (and eat) the snails. We saw a hoop pine, one of the many popular timbers that became an early industry for the area (and which might have caused an early end to the rainforest, had not several people had the insight to protect this region). James also pointed out the Lignum Vitae, the tree with the hardest wood in the rainforest. Also known as ironwood, it’s so dense it sinks in water. It can be used for bearings and was a common material for parts of ships that would wear out if lesser woods were used. It has an oil that makes it insect resistant, and when it falls, it takes eons to decay. Cool.

In the distance, we could hear a catbird calling. Its call was sort of a cross between a cat’s meowing and a baby’s cry. Then we walked on.

As we walked, James told us a lot about the rainforest. Trees with buttress roots don’t have taproots. Everything in the understory has adapted to take maximum advantage of the limited sunlight: new growth is reddish, which processes sunlight more efficiently, and on some vines, the stems are as flat as the leaves, and are green as well, so more of the plant’s surface is exposed to the light.

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Sunday, August 25

Up early. For breakfast, I had the “ashi fruit” I bought in town last night. It actually didn’t match the description I’d been given; it was more like a cross between fruit salad and cucumber. Not a big flavor, but very juicy and refreshing.

Then on the road again, ever northward. Ballina is really lovely as soon as you get out of the commercial district. I left the Pacific Highway and took the coastal road. The view of Lennox Head as I came through the hills was spectacular, with craggy cliffs giving way to long beaches. Morning light danced on the ocean, and everything is green and increasingly tropical. On through lovely, rapidly changing countryside–forest, coastal scrub, beaches, towns–to Byron Bay.

Byron Bay is a beachfront town famous for its splendid beaches–and for being the eastern most point of mainland Australia. The town and nearby Cape Byron are largely surrounded by national parks and nature reserves. It’s a lovely area, and a very popular holiday spot for Aussies.

I left the main highway and headed up a series of narrow, winding roads that led through parkland and out onto Cape Byron, a rugged point of land that stretches out into the ocean. At the tip of the cape is the Cape Byron Lighthouse, which was built in 1901.

Fun little bit of history: Cape Byron was named by Captain Cook (most stuff was on this side of Australia) in honor of his navigator, John Byron, who would in time become the grandfather of the great poet, Lord Byron. Because people who settled the area originally assumed the cape had been named for the poet, rather than the navigator, the town ended up with a lot of very literary street names: Tennyson, Browning, Marvell, Ruskin, Wordsworth, and so on. Made me smile.

I hiked around the splendid, craggy, green-clad cape for about an hour, photographing distant mountains veiled in mist, crashing waves below, rocky cliffs, curving white beaches, the lighthouse, and all the foliage.

Heading north once more, I regained the Pacific Highway, only to leave it again at Mooball, to follow the Tweed Coast Road–a blending of gorgeous horse properties, tacky beach communities, and glorious beaches and headlands.

Before too much longer, I crossed the state border into Queensland, and a little before noon, I was in Currumbin. On my first trip to Australia, very early in my stay, I visited the wildlife sanctuary in Currumbin. It was my first immersion in the birds and wildlife of Australia. I’ve since seen more out bush, but I still wanted to return.

They had changed the name, from Currumbin Bird Santuary to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, and there was a greater emphasis on animals this time—but it was still fabulous. The birds were abundant and dazzling, but the larger numbers of kangaroos and wallabies made my heart sing. There were lots of other animals, of course, including plenty of koalas (which I happily photographed), but the ‘roos and wallabies were all about, grazing amidst the visitors, and I was overjoyed. I spent about 2-1/2 happy hours wandering through the beautiful grounds, photographing trees, flowers, and critters. It was wonderful.

Byron Bay

Byron Bay

Cape Byron Lighthouse

Cape Byron Lighthouse

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August 24, part 2

The town of Dorrigo is a typical, old, veranda-dominated Aussie bush town, but it was not my destination. I drove through and then headed back to the Rainforest Center in Dorrigo National Park. Glorious mountain views. Simply reaching the park was a treat.

This area was first set aside for protection in 1901. Dorrigo National Park is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area. The rainforest is both ancient and lush. It’s the sort of place one could probably spend years researching, but happily, they have marked nature walks for those of us with slightly less time than that.

As was the case the first time I encountered a sub-tropical rainforest, on my first visit to Australia, so too now, I was delighted beyond words by the beauty that surrounded me. Palms and strangler figs, ferns and mosses, tree bases with buttress roots or covered in shelf fungus, vines and flowers, intense greenery everywhere, layers and layers of green, with small plants growing on larger plants–enclosing, almost overwhelming. Birds everywhere.

I hiked through the rainforest for a bit more than an hour. Because this is not a tropical rainforest, it does not have the benefit of permanent heat. The wind turned cold, and it actually sleeted while I was in the rainforest. At least, they called it sleet. Later research turned up the fact that Commonwealth countries are referring to a different type of precipitation than we Yanks are thinking of when we use the word. In the U.S., sleet is freezing rain. Over here, it’s a mix of rain and snow that partly melts as it falls–something like a cross between hail and snow, coming down as little, soft, white spheres.

Getting cold and wet was only a minor inconvenience, surrounded as I was with so much beauty, but it was also getting late, so time to head back down the mountain and continue on my way.

North, through crowded, commercialized Coffs Harbour, and back to the lonely roads, through fields and forest. Woolgoolga and Corindi, past Grafton, along (and over) the Clarence River.

Outside of Grafton, the countryside turns into sort of southern Illinois, but with sugarcane instead of corn. This is the only uninspiring stretch of road so far, but it’s still pleasant: flat land, with some run-down houses, but lush fields of green cane, yards with increasingly exotic flowers, beautiful horses at the scattered stud farms, and the broad, canal-like river to the left, only a few yards away.

Back toward the coast, and finally, around 4:30, into Ballina.

Dorrigo Park mountain view

Dorrigo Park mountain view

Rainforest tree with vines and fungus

Rainforest tree with vines and fungus

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Saturday, August 24

I awoke to the sounds of multitudes of birds. When I stepped out onto my private patio, overlooking the lily pond, I noticed the swimming pool nearby, and was just a little sorry that my short stay and the still-cool weather precluded taking advantage of it. Instead, I filled my canteen (nice to have in the car on long drives) and packed the car. And so, in brilliant sunlight, accompanied by the laughter of kookaburras, I set off again, ever northward.

I turned left just past Urunga and found myself surrounded by the incredibly beautiful ranch land and meandering waterways of the Bellinger Valley, with a backdrop of green mountains beyond the green fields and stands of trees. Before long, I pulled into the wonderful long of Bellingen. Between the charming antiquity of the town and spectacular setting, I could easily imagine myself living here.

Charming is a big part of what folks come here for. Clustered along the banks of the Bellinger River and bisected by a road named Waterfall Way, the little town offers 100-year-old buildings, arts and crafts outlets, and coffee shops and gourmet eateries. In other words, I’m not the first person to have stopped in and found this place desirable.

I spent about an hour and a half hiking around town, admiring the lovely, old buildings and fun shops. The Bellingen Courthouse was built in 1910. However, this is still a working courthouse, not a tourist stop, so I just photographed the outside and continued on. The Old Butter Factory, built in the 1920s, was fun for its history, architecture, and charming craft shops. I’m not here to shop, so I simply admired the architecture of the old Hammond & Wheatley Emporium, a general store built in 1900 and now repurposed as a clothing store. More delightful architecture, B&Bs, cafés, and I easily accumulated a few dozen photos.

As much as I loved the town, I also loved the surroundings. The general green beauty was restful and exciting at the same time. There were a lot of magpies, which pleased me, as I’ve always enjoyed their delightfully musical song.

But soon it was time to move on, heading for Dorrigo.

Bellingen Courthouse

Bellingen Courthouse

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August 23, part 3

I headed next to South West Rocks, in Arakoon National Park, to visit the Trial Bay Gaol. The old, abandoned, stone jail sits, handsomely forlorn, surrounded by greenery, on a point of land overlooking the sea. A lovely setting for a resort, but an odd one for a prison. (And for those not familiar with the word “gaol,” it’s the traditional British spelling of “jail.” Pronounced the same.)

I wandered through the museum, which outlines the prison’s history. It started life as a Public Works Prison opened in 1886. It was an experimental prison, one that tried to reform inmates through work. It was believed that humane treatment would be more effective in redeeming the criminally inclined.

The original prison took 13 years to build, which I imagine had as much to do with its isolation as with its impressively sturdy stone construction. It was a fairly extensive complex of buildings, as it would have to not only house but feed and care for the inmates and guards who lived there. It would be home to prisoners who would be doing public works–in this case, building a breakwater on the nearby bay. Despite the presence of a prison, the bay was not named for a day in court, but rather for a ship named Trial that was wrecked there in 1816. (Interestingly, the ship, a brig, had been stolen by a group of convicts, so the name of the ship suited those sailing it when it sank.) The ship was found in 1817, and because there was no sign of survivors, it was assumed that everyone, convicts and hostages, must have perished. It was actually the consistency with which ships were wrecked in this area that led to the attempted building of the breakwater, though that didn’t really work out as hoped.

The jail was expanded in 1900s, and electric lights were added. However, climbing expenses and violent storms combined to derail the breakwater project far short of its intended length. In 1903, the jail was closed, and in 1904, it was auctioned off. Then, during World War I, it was needed again, as an Enemy Alien Internment Camp–a place to keep any Germans or Austrians who were feared to be enemy sympathizers. Finally, in 1922, everything that could easily be removed was taken, leaving only the haunting ruins that are now designated a heritage site.

I hiked around the ruins for about 40 minutes. The buildings were impressive, and I took a fair number of photos. I also chatted for a while with the woman who operates the museum. She was worried about the wild wind that was whipping the coast today. She said it normally doesn’t get windy until well into summer, and this is still winter. Also, she said it’s getting warm early, and it was unusual to have no clouds. Since she lives in the forest nearby, the dry weather and winds have her a bit worried, as fire can sweep through quickly in these conditions.

Inside Trial Bay Gaol

Inside Trial Bay Gaol

Wall of Trial Bay Gaol

Wall of Trial Bay Gaol

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August 22, part 3

I parked the car and hiked the nature path at the mountain’s base. Trees with thin, straight, gray trunks surrounded me, supporting the green canopy overhead. Ferns and grass trees crowded the shadow-dappled forest floor, and small flowers peeked out from among the ferns. I recognized the pink boronia, purple flag iris, and bright yellow pea flowers with mahogany-red centers.

I then went for a bit of a drive, down to where the houseboats are rented for holidays on the nearby Myall Lakes, past the old Bulahdelah Court House (built in 1886 and now a museum), and through some beautiful horse- and sheep-raising land that was somewhat reminiscent of northern England (except for the gum trees).

I photographed fields and mountains, wild flowers and trees, currawongs and kookaburras, and generally enjoyed myself. However, since I’m totally wrecked by two days of flying followed immediately by four and a half hours of driving, I gave up my wandering before I got too weary to find my hotel again.

Sitting on the edge of my bed, writing down the day’s activities, I can look up and out the window, through the palm fronds, to the peak of Alum Mountain. Behind the hotel, a family of kookaburras has broken into raucous laughter. The air is fresh and cool. It’s good to be here.

I spent a couple of hours sorting through maps and vouchers and itineraries. For this trip, I’m targeting a combination of destinations I learned about during my first trip, things that I’ve read about since then, and things I want to revisit. Plus I want to visit those friends from the first trip who have stayed in touch. There’s not enough time to do all I want, of course, but I’ll fit in as much as I can.

As the sun began to get low in the sky, I enjoyed a stroll around the motel. A nearly full moon was rising above Alum Mountain, and the sun setting beyond the distant hills touched the clouds and horizon with pink and lavender. The kookaburras were laughing again, and the frogs in a nearby pond began to set up a racket: a sound like a cross between a bouncing ping-pong ball and those little metal cricket-clickers. A few minutes later, the pastels were replaced by the stunning red of afterglow, the trees silhouetted black against the fiery horizon.

Being fairly far out in the country, the motel’s restaurant seemed like my best option for dinner. It turned out to be a surprisingly good option, with a menu that was surprisingly ambitious, given the homey modesty of this place. I enjoyed a pumpkin soup that was rich, smooth, and flavorful, and followed that with a tender veal schnitzel that came with steamed broccoli, glazed carrots, and buttery potatoes au gratin. Not a destination restaurant, mind you, but far better than I had expected.

It has been a very long day. So even though it’s only 8:30, because I can feel the jet lag dragging on my limbs, I’m going to head for bed. Good night, Australia. Happy to say I’ll see you in the morning.

Forests on Alum Mountain (white at base of trees is alum stone)

Forests on Alum Mountain (white at base of trees is alum stone)

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Mawson of the Antarctic

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.

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