Monthly Archives: March 2007

A Town Like Alice

After three weeks in Queensland, I headed for Alice Springs, a town in the middle of Australia’s Red Centre.

We drove out to the old Telegraph Station, which is where Alice Springs began. Charles Heavitree Todd (for whom the Todd River and Heavitree Gap were named), Superintendent of Telegraphs and Postmaster General of South Australia, sent telegraph surveyor William Whitfield Mills into the Northern Territory to survey a route for a telegraph line that would link Adelaide with Darwin, and Australia with the world. Mills was also instructed to find suitable sites for telegraph repeater stations.

Following the route of explorer John McDouall Stuart, Mills came, in March 1871, to a permanent waterhole, which he named for Todd’s wife, Alice. The central telegraph station was built adjacent to “Alice Springs.” This would be the midway point of the 2,230-mile Overland Telegraph Line, which was built in record time and opened in 1872.

By 1900, the isolated telegraph station was home to a cook, a blacksmith-stockman, a governess, four linesmen-telegraph operators, and the Station Master and his family. The town that grew up nearby was originally named Stuart, after the intrepid Scotsman who, in 1862, made the first successful south to north crossing of the continent. But because the area was so widely known for the waterhole and its attendant telegraph, the town was renamed.

The handsome buildings of the telegraph station, all solidly constructed of locally-quarried stone, with white roofs and broad verandas, are still standing. The Station Master, head of the largest station on the telegraph line and the only magistrate in Central Australia, was an important man, and his residence, though modest in size, occupies a suitably preeminent spot in the station compound. Behind it is the kitchen, separated from the main house, as dictated by the heat. Nearby is the Post and Telegraph Office, the heart of the station, with wires radiating out toward Adelaide and Darwin, as well as to the power house. Messages telegraphed along the line had to be electrically boosted, the power being supplied by huge wet-cell batteries stored in this building. Rounding out the compound are a buggy shed, forge, storage area, and large barracks, which combined sleeping quarters, schoolroom, and dining facilities.

Massive, old gum trees shade the wide, dusty, red yards, where ancient, wooden wagons stand in brittle retirement. The spring called Alice is nearby, at the base of a rugged, boulder-strewn hummock, encompassed with grass and trees and full, at least when we were there, of delighted children, both Aborigine and white, playing and splashing in the water.

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Rum Rebellion

While in Queensland, I visited the Beenleigh Rum Museum. I guess it’s not too surprising that, in a country that cherishes its convict heritage, people would commemorate a bootlegging past.

The Rum Museum was filled with artifacts and displays detailing the part rum played in the early days of colonial Australia. It was a more significant factor than might be imagined. Always a valued commodity in a harsh, thirsty land, rum, with the help of the New South Wales Corps, became the colony’s primary currency. Wages were paid and purchases made with rum. Through import monopolies, the Corps maintained control of the trade and, therefore, of the colony, for nearly 20 years.

Such liquid assets were easily forged, and illegal stills abounded. Of course, the problems involved in an economy built almost entirely on an illicit liquor trade are legion, and England eventually sent a stern disciplinarian out to solve the problems. Captain William Bligh (of Bounty fame) was installed as Australia’s fourth Governor.

The scope of the problem had been underestimated, as almost all military officers and free settlers were involved in the rum trade at some level, and Bligh’s interference and accusations merely served to precipitate the Rum Rebellion. Bligh was arrested by Major Johnston, Commander of the New South Wales Corps, in January 1808, and spent more than a year in confinement. When news finally reached London, a new Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, was sent out, this time accompanied by a full Regiment to back up any orders he might wish to make. Macquarie was a bit more judicious than Bligh, and, rather than directly attacking the rum trade, he simply worked on expanding and developing the colony until land became more profitable than rum.

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Anzac Biscuits

Well, I’ve done five excerpts from the book, so I thought it might be time for a “detour.” Aside from travel, one of my great interests is food — primarily food history and food as it relates to culture. If you click on the link to Hungry Magazine, at right, you can see a lot of my stuff under food history and travel. But I thought that here I’d share a little foodie insight into Australia, along with a recipe for a classic Australian food item — Anzac biscuits.

“Biscuit” is Australian (and British) for what Americans call a cookie. Anzac (or, more properly, ANZAC) is an acronym for Australia New Zealand Army Corps. The corps, which served with distinction in World War I, is probably best known for its heroic service during the bloody Gallipoli Peninsula campaign. (A glimpse of this ill-fated campaign can be had in the wonderful, devastating Australian movie Gallipoli, which stars a very young Mel Gibson.) Though the fighting was vicious and very costly for the ANZACs, the Turks came to admire the heroism and high spirits of the corps, and called them the New Spartans.

The ANZAC infantry units were then sent on to France, where they participated in some of the most brutal battles of the war. Because Britain, at the time, had a pretty low opinion of the inhabitants of the antipodes (all those transported criminals, you know), they tended to think of them as cannon fodder, and as a result, Australia and New Zealand (still considered a single political unit at the time) had the highest casualty rate of any country in the war—69 percent. The ANZAC cavalry units were sent to the Middle East, and their heroic and astonishing feats can be relished in the Australian movie The Light Horsemen. (This movie is a lot less grim than Gallipoli, especially since the ANZACs won their battle in the Middle East. And it’s great if you love horses.)

When Australian and New Zealand forces were separated in 1917, ANZAC ceased to be an official designation, but the name lives on in ANZAC Day—April 25, the date of the Gallipoli landing—when both Australia and New Zealand commemorate the dead of the two World Wars.

So, what, you may be wondering, do all these soldiers and horsemen and horrible battles have to do with cookies? Well, as with the US’s involvement in the World Wars, people back home got involved, too. This consisted of everything from Victory Gardens to women working in munitions and aviation to simply giving up a lot of luxuries so that the soldiers could be supplied. Tales of the origins of ANZAC biscuits, which were developed based on an old Scottish oat cookie recipe, range from making foods that didn’t use luxurious ingredients, such as eggs, to developing something tasty that could easily be shipped to soldiers. Whatever the real story is, there is no doubt that their purpose was to honor the brave Australian soldiers and horsemen of World War I.

These are such incredibly delicious, luxuriously rich cookies, you’ll have trouble believing that they represent a time of hardship and privation.

One note regarding measurements: I got this recipe in Australia, which means that it used a mix of British Imperial measure and European metric. I’ve translated it into American standard measure, but thought you’d wonder why some measures are a little inexact. For example, one cup Imperial is 10 ounces, while in American it’s 8 ounces, and tablespoons are the tiniest bit bigger in Imperial measure. However, being off one way or the other by a couple of shreds of coconut or drops of golden syrup won’t really make a difference.

Anyway, these are among the most delicious cookies on earth. Enjoy.

Anzac Biscuits

1-1/4 cups rolled oats
1-1/4 cups plain flour
1-1/4 cups brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup shredded coconut (or a pinch less)
one stick butter (125 grams, to be exact, so a smidge more than one stick, really)
2 slightly overflowing Tbs. Lyle’s Golden Syrup (available in the baking section of most stores)
1 tsp. baking soda
3 Tbs. boiling water

Combine oats, flour, sugar, and coconut, blending thoroughly. In a small saucepan, combine butter with golden syrup, melt over low heat, and remove from heat. Add baking soda to the boiling water, then add this to the butter/syrup mixture. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and stir in the liquid. Mix thoroughly.

Drop mixture by the tablespoonful on to a greased cookie sheet, approximately 3 inches apart, to allow for spreading. Bake at 300-310 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 17 minutes. Allow to cool on cookie sheet for 5 minutes, then remove to wire rack to cool completely. Makes approximately 36 cookies.

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Cooktown

I had been in Australia for a couple of weeks already before I reached Cooktown, a small town named for the great Captain James Cook, whose ship the H.M.S. Endeavour ran into the coral off the coast here, and limped into the mouth of what would soon be named the Endeavour River for repairs. Once a prosperous gold-mining town, it is now a small, isolated community surrounded by bush. This book excerpt is from my first day in Cooktown.

Cooktown was founded in 1873, during the Palmer River gold rush. By 1874, the population exceeded 30,000, and the town boasted 94 hotels. But after only 10 years (and $10 million in gold), the rush was over. Today, Cooktown is a small, quiet, rugged country town. There is a vibrancy and adventurousness behind that quiet, however, no doubt born of remoteness and a colorful past.

Here, prefab butts ghost town, elegantly columned arcade overlooks corrugated roof, gold rush excess stands beside rustic practicality, all softened by palm trees and cascades of bougainvillea. There are three hotels, a few stores, some offices, and clusters of tidy homes. Everything has a veranda. The grocery store was a bank during the gold rush days and, with its high, arched entryways, is one of the town’s more impressive buildings. The office of a Public Accountant is an iron-roofed, gum-slab shanty the size of a tool shed on an otherwise deserted dirt track. Rutted, red roads disappear into the green of the surrounding bush. Barefoot Aborigines wander the dusty streets or sit in the shade talking and watching their children play

Nearby, the sky-blue, mangrove-bordered river sparkles in the bright light. Low, green hills rise at the town’s edge and roll, unevenly, into the distance. The town’s odd, seemingly contradictory combination of rustic and exotic appeals to me immensely. The warmth of the equatorial sun seems to permeate everything, including the friendly people I met as I strolled around town.

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Jackeroo

Moving up the coast of Queensland, I spend a few days in Townsville.

Back at the People’s Palace, I headed to the coffee shop for dinner. A young man at another table grinned when he saw me and asked, “You were just in Airlie Beach, weren’t you?” When I responded in the affirmative, he grabbed his coffee, came and sat with me, and said, “I thought I recognized you. You were there yesterday.” (It really is a small town.) He chatted while I ate, telling me with considerable excitement about his current plans. He is heading inland to Julia Creek to work as a “jackeroo,” or ranch hand. By the time my meal was through, he was done with his tale, and was obviously pleased to have had someone with whom to share his great good fortune. I smiled as he headed off to find a pub to celebrate his last night in the big city.

One of the things that I had wondered about was how I would handle the solitude of a six-month solo tour. At home, I live alone, but work, church, family, and friends provide me with lots of human interaction. I like having time alone, but I also like people. I like talking and sharing. So I had thought that perhaps being on my own for so long a period might be a problem. However, I am beginning to think that Australia is not really going to give me much opportunity to feel lonely.

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Rainforest Revelation

Yet another excerpt from my book. I hope you’ll continue on the journey with me. This passage is from early in my trip, while I’m still in Queensland.

It is almost beyond words to describe the beauty of the rainforest. It is harder still to express how that beauty affected me. My reaction was almost physical—an intense serenity, an elated peacefulness poured through me, like cool water in a dry land.

The forest is rejoicingly beautiful and incredibly green. As one descends, the trees close overhead, so even the sunlight filtering in seems green. Water trickles over moss-covered rocks, joins with other trickles, forms streams that end in waterfalls and great, deep pools that spill endlessly down the mountainside, disappearing and reemerging from the fabulous tangle of undergrowth. Fig trees with fantastic aerial root systems twist into weird, intricate shapes. Palms, mahogany trees, figs and gum trees stretch high overhead. Ferns attain amazing sizes. Trees drip with vines. We could hear the calls of wild birds and see an occasional flash of vivid color, but the only creature we saw clearly was a brush turkey building its nest.

Most of the trees grow straight and tall, trying to reach above the green canopy and into the sunshine. Some grow at precarious angles, wedged into gaps in the mountain’s side, clinging to boulders for support. Fallen trees have become gardens of moss, ferns and shelf-like, orange fungus, but even the living trees support mosses and ferns. Creeping vines carpet the forest floor in green. Climbing vines, some with thorns, twist up, over and around, hanging in festoons from tree to tree. Small, subtly colored flowers peek through the leaves of many bushes. The rich beauty of the place is almost overwhelming.

By the time we had descended to Cedar Creek Falls, we were breaking out of the rainforest and getting back into eucalypt forest. There, a great slash of bare, gray rock cuts through the trees, where Cedar Creek bursts through a broad cleft and falls to a series of deep pools connected by cascades and rapids.

Stained, stone walls rose up on the far side of the pools, but the slope on the side where we stood was like giant, uneven steps, broken and worn. We climbed down through the rocks for a better view, balancing along stone ledges paralleling the rushing water, hopping across boulders. There were people swimming in one of the lower pools, and boys diving from the cliffs into the deep water below.

“Idyllic” was the first word that came to mind, but it is not strong enough. This, to me, this whole day was far more wonderful than “rustic contentment.” It was a revelation. I wanted to stay, and my gaze clung to everything around me, trying to hold me there.

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Looking Back/Arrival

Until my book gets released, I’ll share excerpts from the book here. Once it’s out, I’ll start sharing photos and then, in time, move on to other topics and destinations. For now, here is an excerpt from the first pages of Waltzing Australia.

I pull a battered loose-leaf binder off the shelf. It bulges with lined notebook paper—hundreds of pages, some dirty or torn, all hand written with an exhilaration that I can still feel when I think back to the early days of the dream. It is the record of the first step. I had known that it would take a drastic step to get me headed in the right direction, to cut me free from what I had always done. But I had underestimated how much it would change me. It seems long ago—and yesterday. The road that has led me to where I am today has been long, but I know that it is the right road—and for me, Australia was the beginning of that road. Settling down to read and remember, I turn to the first page. . .

Wednesday, August 17
Sitting at a small desk in a small hotel room, I gaze at my surroundings and wonder out loud what I’ve gotten myself into. I think of all the studying and work that went into getting me here and try to imagine where it will lead. As I organize pens, writing paper, and the few books I thought worth bringing, I think of all the work that will be needed to justify having come. Starting from scratch is not easy—but then, nothing important is.
There are so many dreams tied up in this: starting over; writing; Australia; finding out what I can do, what I need, and maybe who I am. The prospects are both wonderful and frightening.


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