Monthly Archives: April 2007

World Writers in Oz

I find that most Americans are surprised to learn that many famous British and American writers visited—and wrote about—Australia. Mark Twain wrote extensively about Australia in his book Following the Equator. The work includes information about his lecture tour and the people he met, but focuses more on what he saw and learned, both positive and negative. While Twain does not shy away from biting social commentary, the vast majority of his writing about Australia shows admiration for those who built the country and amused astonishment at Australia’s picturesque history. He also describes in often loving detail the beauty of his surroundings, as in this description of his arrival in Adelaide, South Australia.

It was an excursion of an hour or two, and the charm of it could not be overstated, I think. The road wound around gaps and gorges, and offered all varieties of scenery and prospect—mountains, crags, country homes, gardens, forests—color, color, color everywhere, and the air fine and fresh, the skies blue, and not a shred of cloud to mar the downpour of brilliant sunshine. And finally the mountain gateway opened, and the immense plain lay spread out below and stretching away into dim distances on every hand, soft and delicate and dainty and beautiful. On its near edge reposed the city.

British novelist Anthony Trollope loved Australia. On visiting the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, he wrote, “To me it was more enchanting than those waters of either the Rhine or the Mississippi.”

Charles Darwin, for whom Port Darwin, a deep harbor in the Top End, is named (the city of Darwin later took its name from the harbor), also toured much of Australia. While visiting the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, he noted in his Geological Observations, “It is not easy to conceive of a more magnificent spectacle than is presented to a person walking on the summit plains, when without any notice he arrives at the brink of one of the cliffs.”

And D.H. Lawrence wrote a book titled Kangaroo, which is set in Australia, the title character being a politician who is nicknamed “Kangaroo,” who ends up dead by book’s end. However, for much of the book, the only slightly fictionalized Lawrence and his wife wander about the countryside, amazed at its beauty. One of the lines I quote most often from this book is “That is another of the charms of Australia: the birds are not really afraid.” I found this to be true, and offer as evidence the photo below of a crimson rosella in the Queensland rainforest eating seeds out of my skirt, as I sit cross-legged on the ground.
Crimson Rosella

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Koala

While writing was a primary goal of my first Australia trip, and has remained a major component of all my travels since that life-altering trip, I also have a great fondness for photography. When I landed in Australia, in addition to my trusty Nikon FM2, I had a fair number of lenses, a tripod, and 120 rolls of Kodachrome film. As a result, images are part of what I hope to be sharing with you on this blog. And I figured that there could hardly be anything more Australian for kicking that off than a nice koala (even though, personally, I prefer kangaroos).

“Koala” is an Aboriginal word for “never drink” or “no water.” Koalas get almost all the moisture they need from the eucalypt leaves they eat. However, they do occasionally drink, but only small amounts, and only in the summer, when the leaves dry out. Adult koalas come in a surprising range of sizes: from 10 to 30 pounds, and two to three feet in length. They have remarkably soft fur, but their long, sharp claws make them less than ideal as cuddly toys.

Koala

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Matilda and friends

While Australians will likely understand the title Waltzing Australia instantly, the meaning might not be obvious to non-Aussies. Of course, mention the famous poem and song “Waltzing Matilda,” and the connection will be made for more folks. However, there are still some outside Oz who are scratching their heads as to the meaning of much of what appears in the original work, and therefore wonder what I’m saying in my title. (This is also a good opportunity to introduce you to one of Australia’s great writers!)

A. B. “Banjo” Paterson was a lawyer, journalist, and poet who wrote some of Australia’s most famous verse, including “The Man from Snowy River,” “Clancy of the Overflow,” and, of course, “Waltzing Matilda.” Like all his poetry, these three iconic poems celebrate aspects of Australian life as it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Australia is a land that has long admired great riders, and “The Man from Snowy River” reflects that by recording the breathtaking ride of a mountain horseman who, when faced with a cliff that stopped other riders in their tracks, turned his horse and, with a cheer, “raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed.” “The Man from Snowy River” was turned into a wonderful film that adds a fictional back story to the true events in the poem, to set viewers up for the chase and ride at the end, which also offers the opportunity to enjoy a good bit of Australian scenery. (If you see the movie, note the dapper lawyer who introduces himself as Andrew Paterson. A. B. Paterson witnessed the famous ride of which he wrote, so he of course had to be on hand in the film version.)

“Clancy of the Overflow” spoke longingly of the life of the drover (what Australians call their cowboys). At the end of the poem, the poet wonders if he wouldn’t prefer Clancy’s life on the plains to a city desk job.

Like “Clancy,” “Waltzing Matilda” celebrates the life of freedom that Australians also valued. In this poem, more familiar today in its musical versions, a swagman boils his billy by a billabong and sings of waltzing Matilda. A swag is a bed roll, pack, or bundle of personal belongings. A swagman is someone who carries a swag as he wanders, or waltzes, back o’ Bourke, or out in the boonies, as we Americans might say – the wild, undeveloped areas far from the cities. Another name for that swag was Matilda. A billabong is a cut off bend of a river; a water hole created when a river changes course, leaving a pond “stranded”; or a backwater or water hole in an otherwise dry riverbed—from Aboriginal billa = creek, river or water, and bong = dead. A billy is a metal bucket in which water is heated, generally over a camp fire, for making tea (the origins of the word are uncertain, but it may be derived from Aboriginal billa, for water.)

While I’m not a swagman, and I was usually carrying more luggage than just a Matilda, I did waltz over a substantial part of Australia during my six months, and have returned to waltz again, on three subsequent visits.

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Kakadu

From the Red Center, I traveled north, to Australia’s Top End. I was only in Darwin for a day before I headed out with a small adventure tour group to visit Kakadu National Park, and wonderful wilderness made internationally famous in the movie “Crocodile Dundee.” On our second day in Kakadu, we visited Yellow Water.

Yellow Water Lagoon, with its many branches and inlets, was as still as glass when we arrived just after dawn. Reflected in the smooth, silver-blue water were the willowy paperbarks, dark-leaved mangroves, and densely clustered groves of pandanus that grow along much of the shoreline. A small, flat-bottomed, aluminum boat was tethered to a tree at the lagoon’s edge, and in this we launched out onto the bright water.

Like most of the estuaries and lagoons of Australia’s north, Yellow Water is home to the enormous (adults 15-25 feet in length) and dangerous saltwater, or estuarine, crocodile—“salty” for short. You stay out of the water. Not only can salties make an easy meal out of any human foolish enough to go for a swim, these monsters think nothing of tackling water buffalo, grabbing them by their faces when they come down to wallow and pulling them under water. Though massive, salties can move with incredible speed, even on land. They have reactions fast enough to catch a diving bird in flight, lurking below the water’s surface, then exploding into action

Most of the salties we saw were lazing in the sun or cruising through the water lilies. We did see one, though, who’d just caught dinner—a 20-pound ox-eyed herring—and we watched as he calmly crushed his struggling prey, the sound of crunching bones echoing across the still lagoon. Then he deftly tossed the fish into the air, catching it so it would go down head first, and with one gulp it was gone.

A large goanna moved cautiously into a clearing at the water’s edge. Goannas are monitor lizards, of which there are about 19 species in Australia. The largest is the giant perentie, second in size only to the related Komodo dragon. The goanna before us was no giant, but was at least four feet long. We went ashore to get a closer look, approaching slowly and quietly. The lizard’s forked tongue flicked in and out as it “tasted” the air, and it could tell something was going on. I was closest to it, and I could hear it hissing. Then it reared up, and I froze. Eventually, the goanna moved off into the brush, and we returned to our boat.

Yellow Water is so called because after the rainy season the water’s surface is entirely covered with yellow water lilies. The lilies we saw were either purple or white, and clung mostly along the shore. But it is feathers, not flowers, that draw visitors to Yellow Water, for here one of the largest selections of Northern Territory birds congregates.

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Kings Canyon

From Alice Springs I headed, in company with a largely Australian group of campers, into the delightful wilderness of the center, where we hiked, camped, and explored.

We drove to a spot about two miles from the head of Kings Canyon. Undulating, scalloped stone walls fell from the plateau above like a great, ragged, red furbelow. Hugh led us up one of the steep, broken stone pleats. A 700-foot climb brought us to the top of the canyon wall, where the scene before us was wonderful, but almost too strange to describe. Surrounding us were bizarre domes, shelves, steps, and sculptures of layered, fractured, red rock. A sea of what looked like giant, worn, red beehives, four feet to 20 feet tall, stretched into the distance.

Crossing this remarkable terrain, we wound between humps and mounds, clambered up and down broken stone slabs, and crawled through a long, low cave. We explored the area known as the Lost City, which, with its domes, spires, and terraces of red rock, does look like the half-buried ruins of some Eastern citadel.

On cliffs and in crevices grew lone ghost gums, graceful trees with chalk-white trunks and slender, pale, olive leaves. Twisted, weather-blasted cypress trees clung with gnarled roots to splintered shelves and inclines of rock, and ancient, feathery cycads grew lushly in the shadows and valleys. The cycads here are the rare Macrozamia macdonnellii, which may have grown in this area for as long as 200 million years. In places where the terrain was flat, the ground was dotted with the wonderful, round, golden “pillows” of spinifex grass. The leaves of spinifex are tender and green when young, but as they mature they roll up into pale “needles,” which one quickly learns to avoid. But I love the look of them—like herds of huge, golden hedgehogs.

We hiked on through the weird, inspiring, rust-colored landscape. Near Aladdin’s Lamp, a four-foot-long rock sculpture balancing a few feet above our heads, we came to a rather scary but safe (we were assured), narrow bridge of flat sandstone slabs wired to tree branches, which had been dropped across a 90-foot-deep crevice. Only a few people were so daring as to stop in the middle of the bridge to pose for photographs.

On the other side of the crevice, we continued on till we reached the impressive, precipitous North Wall of Kings Canyon. At the canyon’s edge, Hugh climbed a rise, then strode out onto a thin, rock shelf projecting into space. Quickly, others followed, to enjoy the unexcelled view of the canyon below and the land we had just traversed.

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