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: Travel
On my second trip to Australia, I stayed at a wonderful “resort” in the Red Center, in the Eastern MacDonnell Ranges. (The quotes around “resort” are because this is far from what that word might conjure in other locales — this place is a bit rustic, though in my case, rustic was what I was hoping for.) Ross River Resort offered me a cabin not too far from the original, historic homestead, and I spent three remarkable days, hiking around the fabulous rock formations, enjoying the bird life, learning about the area’s history–simply perfect. At least one bird photo (Galahs) that I’ve posted previously is from Ross River, as is the “Cabin ‘roo” I wrote about some time ago–with a photo of the large kangaroo that was waiting on my cabin doorstep when I returned from a hike one day–in case you want to see anything from the resort that was. It was a memorable location, and I’d always hoped to get back.
However, in January of this year, brush fires in the region swept through the area, consuming the cabins, camp grounds, and other facilities at Ross River. The original homestead appears to have survived, but the property is ruined, from the standpoint of continuing as a resort. I am hoping they rebuild, as it was such a splendid place to experience the solitude of the Outback — without having it be too much solitude. (That is, spend the days wandering alone in the wilderness, but have a few folks around the fire in the evening with whom one can recount the day’s adventures.)
The thing that makes it a bit more dramatic is that firefighters thought they’d saved the resort. The fire had been stopped. It had rained. But then the wind picked up, and suddenly, the fire was roaring again.
For more details on the fire, here’s an article from the Australia Broadcasting Company: Outback Resort Devastated By Fire.
Really sorry to lose this place. Hope they stage a comeback.
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.
It has been a while since I posted. I’m still mighty busy, but I missed posting. So I’ve thought of a few things that won’t take up too much time, but that I think you might find interesting — things that couldn’t be included in my book–in this case, sound. In the book, I relate how didgeridoos are made, getting shown how to play the didgeridoo, and even buying my own didgeridoo. Here, I thought I’d post a video from YouTube of someone playing a didgeridoo. Hope you enjoy this as much as I do.
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.
Among the most famous characters in Australian literature is a half white-half Aborigine gentleman of remarkable abilities: Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, or Bony to his friends. (It might seem like a stretch as a name, but a hundred years ago, when Bony would have been born, it was common for mixed-race children who were raised in orphanages to be given the names of famous people.)
Bony is the hero of a series of mysteries written by Arthur Upfield, who was born in Britain but lived in Australia most of his life. The depth of Upfield’s familiarity with the outback and its people make the books particularly enjoyable for those who love Australia, but the audience has never been limited to Australians only. Descriptions of the weirdly beautiful scenery of Australia’s more remote areas are accurate but also wonderfully evocative–and necessary, because in these books, the land is a key element. However, these well-crafted books have been long-time favorites around the world for nearly a century now primarily because of the beautifully developed character of their hero.
These mysteries would be more along the lines of Sherlock Holmes than they are of many gun-heavy modern mysteries. The murder has already taken place before Bony arrives on the scene, and the pursuit of the bad guys is an exercise that combines Bony’s considerable intelligence and Western education with his Aboriginal skills and experience.
There are nearly 30 mysteries in the series, but one that is a good starting place might be The Bone is Pointed, as it highlights the dualities of Bony’s background. The title refers to the Aboriginal practice of pointing a bone as part of transmitting a curse. Because the case is cold, and because it takes place in the vastness of the outback, Bony sees it as being ideal for his particular skill set:
“It is an investigation to be conducted only by me, on several counts. I am, of course, familiar with drawing-rooms, but they are not my natural background. This world of the bush is my background, my natural element. The bush is like a giant book offering to me plain print and the language I understand. The book is so big, however, that I require sometimes a great deal of time to find in it the passages interesting me … time is my greatest asset; without it I am as ordinary men.”
One comes to feel, after having read a few of these books, that one would recognize Bony if one were to meet him on the street. Little quirks and details, such as his inevitably badly rolled cigarettes, make me smile with familiar affection, as I feel I have come to know this remarkable man.
I don’t know that you need to care a great deal about mysteries as a genre to enjoy these books. They are so evocative of time and place, offer such insight into the cultures of the outback and of Aborigines, and are so finely drawn, that all you really need to care about is a good story. The nice thing is, if you do find Bony appealing, there are lots more adventures for you to enjoy.
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.
A lot of folks ask me about traveling solo, especially in Australia–which amuses me only because Australia must be the easiest place on earth to travel solo, at least if you speak English. People are friendly and helpful. You don’t have a lot of political unrest. Crime is low. Food is safe (and, in many instances, spectacular). Unlike the US, Bed & Breakfast places are usually a bargain, and there are myriad accommodations at even lower prices, from backpacker cabins to low-cost hotels. Plus Aussies are keen on seeing their own country, so there are loads of great tours that will carry you into even the remotest parts of the continent–and supply the tent, sleeping bag, and other gear needed for such adventures.
I’ve traveled alone lots of other places, and while large urban settings are pretty easy to negotiate while traveling solo, from London to Istanbul to Beijing to Tokyo, I haven’t been anywhere else where the countryside is so easily accessed, even by those on their own. Driving on the left is a bit of a challenge for an American, but the roads are generally good, and I’ve found accommodation ranging from pleasant to quite wonderful even in the smallest of towns. And because there are a lot of solo travelers, you can often find places in popular destinations that have rooms for singles.
Granted, I have a rule about going into trackless wilderness–don’t do it without a guide–but in Australia, guides into the trackless wilderness areas of the continent are multitudinous and generally reasonable priced. Also, as noted above, they supply the gear, so you don’t have to worry about overweight luggage on the flight over.
If you don’t want to drive, Greyhound and Ansett buses cover the country well, plus there are trains and airplanes, of course. (And if you’re coming from the US, you can get discount passes for just about all of these.) Public transportation is good in the cities–and I actually prefer public transportation when I’m in crowded urban areas.
The friendliness of the locals is not to be underestimated as a factor in happy solo travel. I travel alone because I don’t always have anyone to travel with, not because I’m antisocial, so I’m delighted that, in Australia, people will sometimes invite you to join them when they see you’re on your own. In restaurants, some will just come over to your table and ask how you are and what you’ve been up to, and depending on the level of interest you express, will pull up a chair and chat for a while. This is usually other solo travelers, but is also sometimes someone who works at the restaurant. I’ve stayed at B&Bs where, because I was the only guest, they invited me into the kitchen with the family, rather than leaving me alone in the dining room.
So of all the places I’ve been in the world, I’d say Australia is probably most ideally suited for solo travelers. It’s so open and welcoming, but it’s also easy to get around. Hope this removes your last excuse for not going!
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.