Monthly Archives: May 2007

Riding the High Country

One of the things I really wanted to do while I was in Australia was ride horseback across the mountains in Victoria. Perhaps I’d seen the movie The Man from Snow River a few times too often, but I found the near mythic connection with Australian culture and horses to be too hard to resist. So I signed up for a Walhalla Mountain Saddle Safari, which advertised itself as being “not for the faint of heart.” Now, for a girl from the city, that means you’ll be roughing it—a few days without running water, sleeping on the ground, that sort of thing. Well, we were certainly roughing it, but this turned out to be a wild ride. Here, from the book, is a little background on my companions for the adventure.

There were eleven riders in all, with a wide variety of backgrounds, and ages running from 19 to about 45. I was the only American and the least experienced rider of the group. My three months of lessons, which culminated in the rib-breaking fall just prior to my departure for Australia, were ranged against people who own horses, train horses, and even ride daily as part of their work. I was definitely out-classed here. This was not a bunch of weekend hacks out for a romp in the woods. This was a bunch of hardcore riders out for the thrill of a lifetime. Almost everyone had been on one or more of these adventures before. Of course, it added tremendously to my sense of security and well-being when Judy, a veteran of many saddle safaris, donned a crash helmet, noting cheerfully, “My doctor said if I get injured again as badly as I did last time—well, it would be the last time.” (Despite this disheartening introduction, Judy turned out to be both a good friend and the source of most of the botanical information I garnered on this trip.)

The eleven riders include Colin, who is the kind of rider who can pick a flower at a dead gallop; Bradley and Beth, both accomplished equestrians; Jenny and Lisa, sisters from Melbourne, whose only difficulty was adjusting to a saddle, as they usually ride bareback; Mary and Bob, horse owners from near Melbourne; Judy of the white crash helmet, also a local horse owner; Les, a rancher from New South Wales; Carol, one of the few newcomers, but still an experienced rider; and me. We were accompanied by trail boss Malcolm (Mal), who is blond, rugged, handsome, and looks like he belongs here; and Mal’s young but skilled assistant trail bosses, Andrew and Marie. Meeting us most nights with the truck was Debbie, Mal’s wife, a petite, vivacious, pretty brunette.

The only other group members were Rex and Huon. Rex is a shelty and belongs to Mal and Debbie. He traveled with Debbie in the truck. Huon, a probable German shepherd/labrador cross, belongs to Andrew and Marie. He came with us, dashing madly back-and-forth all day long, making sure everything was all right and that no one got lost.



Filed under Australia, Book, Travel

Hamersley Range

The book is almost ready to be printed. The cover is done, and I’ve seen the proofs. So by this time next month, I may be able to announce the book’s release. Once the book is in print, this site will focus primarily on sharing photos that illustrate the book and relating other travels, including my three return trips to Australia. But that’s still in the future. For now, here’s another excerpt from the book. I’d traveled from Darwin across the top of Western Australia, and had joined a camping tour. We spent a couple of days in the Hamersley Range, thought by some to be one of the first parts of the earth’s crust to cool! It is criss-crossed by gorges, many of which we visited.

Leaving Hamersley Gorge, we continued to drive through a dramatic landscape of red, gold, and green. Our next stop was at Oxer’s Lookout, which overlooks a great, deep, sheer-sided hole where Weano, Hancock, Joffre, and Red Gorges come together like a titan pinwheel.

We stood for a while on the brink of the cluster of gorges, then skirted the rim of Weano Gorge until we came to the steep, narrow path that leads to the bottom. Only a few members of the group tackled the 300-foot descent, but those of us who ventured down into the gorge were abundantly repaid for our efforts. We descended into the widest part of the gorge, where the walls are rough and offer good handholds and relatively easy climbing.

The vegetation in Weano Gorge was sparse, with a few flowering bushes standing amid shaggy tufts and straggles of golden grass. The dry grass often rustled as we approached, and we would see little lizards that had been sunning on the rocks disappear into the safety of the brush.

As we continued along the floor of the gorge, the ragged, red walls began to close in on both sides. Soon we were winding through a narrow, undulating passage where there was only a thin strip of light far overhead. The walls of the crevice now rose cool and purple, in smooth, water-sculpted ripples. We climbed over slabs and plates of shattered rock, as we followed the twisting path, trying to avoid the spots where trickles of water made the well-worn stone slippery.

We emerged from the long, dark channel into a bright opening. A clear, jade-green pool filled the space where the chasm suddenly widened and dropped dramatically. Here the walls were again red and rugged, rising straight up out of the water on all sides. The narrow passage continued on the far side of the pool, but was submerged.

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Filed under Australia, Book, Travel

Now For Something Completely Different

While the main focus of this site is pretty clearly Australia, including my adventures in and writing about the sunburnt country, I also want to share other destinations and interests. I travel a fair bit, and have seen some things I hope to share. I also write about food: primarily food history, but also food and travel, chef profiles, and so on. If you visit Hungry Magazine (link at right), you can check the archives for both Food History and Travel to see some of my work.

However, due to the miracle of modern technology, you can also hear me talk a bit about travel and food, as I was recently interviewed on the Restaurant Guys Radio show. (Phone interview—they’re in New Jersey, I’m near Chicago.)

I was rather surprised to find myself talking with them about travel and the magazine, as I had thought we’d be talking about food history. I was prepared to share all sorts of fun facts about how we came to eat what we eat today. So they caught me a bit off guard. I will share with you now the answer to the final question they asked me about where to find extreme food—an answer that came to me only moments after hanging up the phone. And the answer is, of course, that you can find extreme food anywhere, because everything is extreme if it’s not what you normally eat. I’ve had jellied eels in London, barbecued grasshoppers in Mexico, and cod tongues and seal-flipper pie in Newfoundland, Canada. Of course, the farther one gets from one’s own culture, the more things seem extreme. Obviously, for someone who grew up in the Midwest, Asia and Africa offer the greatest opportunities for eating outside one’s comfort zone. However, that said, we have so many Asian and African restaurants in Chicago, I don’t have to go far to eat strange stuff—duck tongues and chicken feet are fairly accessible here.

However, while I’m happy to try something new, especially when it is an important part of a region’s culture, I don’t go out of my way to eat the wacky stuff. I passed on a local event featuring worms and scorpions last year, and I recently turned down an invitation to attend a dinner featuring cicadas (inch-long bugs that emerge from the ground during the summer every 17 years). The point of eating strange food for me is connecting to a culture, not just being able to gross people (or myself) out.

So HERE is the link to the interview.

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If you rotate Australia slightly, you will see that it looks as though it would fit fairly snuggly into the eastern curve of the African continent. According to the theory of plate tectonics, that is, in fact, precisely where Australia started out. Aside from shape, another bit of evidence of the one-time proximity of these two continents is the local flora, particularly acacias and boabs. Acacias are primarily found in Australia and Africa. Boabs are only found in Australia and Africa—though they are called baobabs in Africa.

Most of Australia’s boabs are located around the town of Derby, in the extreme north of Western Australia. The trunk of the boab is bulbous, and one famous boab was large enough to serve as a makeshift jail during the early days of settlement out west.

The limbs of the boab are generally leafless, which, combined with the bulging trunk, gives the tree a most unusual appearance. Aboriginal legend tells that the boab tree was once tall, proud, and beautiful. However, the tree’s conceit and air of superiority when comparing itself to other trees angered the spirits, and they bewitched the tree so that from that time forward it would grow upside-down. When you hear the legend, then look at the boab, you can’t help being amused at how utterly the tale suits the tree—it really does look like it has been uprooted and stuffed head first into the ground.

Boab, Western Australia

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Filed under Australia, Geography, Lore, Nature, Photography, Travel

Cooktown revisited

When I included an excerpt about Cooktown in my March 20 post, I was not yet posting images (had to read all thos FAQs on how to do it). But I don’t want you to miss seeing some of the places I’ve already described here—and that I’ll describe in far greater detail in my book—so I figured I’d go back and “revisit” some of these places, so you can match images to words.

So here’s what it looks like in Cooktown. The small hut after the intersection is the public accountant’s office I mentioned in my earlier post. Of course, there are more buildings to the right. but not a lot more. This is a town that is definitely dominated by the wilderness that surrounds it. I think it’s perfectly splendid.

Cooktown, Queensland, Australia


Filed under Australia, Photography, Travel

Ghost Gum

The eucalypt, or eucalyptus (either form is acceptable and correct, but it’s usually “eucalypt” in Australia—or else they just call it a gum tree) is the signature trea of the Australian landscape. About 75 percent of the trees in Australia are eucalypts. However, not only are most Australian trees eucalypts, but most eucalypts are Australian. Of roughly 650-700 different species of eucalypt, only seven occur naturally outside Australia. (All those eucalyptus trees in Southern California are imports.)

Sometimes the name makes it clear that trees are eucalypts/gums, such as blue gum, river red gum, spinning gum, or lemon-scented gum. However, many have names that don’t give the genus away, including the jarrah, giant karri, ironbark, bloodwood, and mallee. Eucalyps are evergreens. However, though they don’t shed their leaves, many species shed their bark. They range from short and scrubby to towering giants that rival the redwoods. Their flowers come in a wide range of colors and sizes. They are graceful but incredibly hardy, enduring a wide range of difficult climates. In fact, they are virtually created for disaster, as their seeds are germinated by forest fires.

I have always loved eucalypts. My first experience of them was in Southern California, but I loved them instantly. I certainly didn’t go to Australia to see gum trees, but their presence everywhere I went offered endless delight, and I have a lot of photographs of eucalyptus trees.

Among the many species of gum trees, one of my favorites is the ghost gum. This denizen of the outback is splendid in its pristine whiteness. It stands in wonderful contrast to the red rocks or blazing blue sky that forms its usual backdrop.

Ghost Gum


Filed under Australia, Nature, Photography, Travel


From time to time, I write poetry, either when needed for an occasion or simply when something moves me deeply. Not entirely surprisingly, I’ve written a bit of poetry about Australia. I love all of Australia, but the outback, particularly the Red Center, really makes my heart sing. So I thought I’d share a bit of my verse—because you’ll get plenty of prose in my book (which, of course, you’re all going to buy, right?).


Red rocks simmer beneath the
Immense, relentless sky,
The sky that disallows a hiding place
And watches every languid move
In a kingdom ruled by light and heat.
Golden tufts of plants that once
Were green dot the rolling dunes
Of wind-rippled red dirt, where
Tracks of little lizards and large bugs
Look like seams stitched in sand,
Connecting the broad, red patches between
Pale, dry, curving humps
Of spinifex. The fragrance of the heat
Rises in air that’s still but for the hum of flies.
The land is huge and open, formidable
In its timelessness, but still it is the sky
That rules, the space above the land
That dominates. The burnished blue
Metallic sky seems infinite, and bids
Souls grow to its clear, endless size,
Or else they will be overwhelmed.
A crow appears, and its loud “Ha, ha, haa”
Mocks those defeated by the sky,
For if not loved, the place cannot be borne.
There is too much honesty and innocence;
The openness of earth and air
Does not spare the shadows.

©Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under Australia, Poetry

Me and the Wallabies

I mentioned in the Koala post that I prefer kangaroos to koalas. I should have included wallabies in that statement of preference. Most people think the difference between kangaroos and wallabies is size. Most kangaroos are bigger than most wallabies, but the size difference does not always exist. The Kangaroo Island kangaroos, for example, are only about three feet tall. The real difference is the number of molars in their mouths—wallabies have one set fewer than kangaroos, which is why they usually have dantier, prettier faces than kangaroos. Kangaroos can look a bit horsey, due to that longer jaw. But I love them both. They have heaps of personality, and as one person told me (a gent on Kangaroo Island), “They make wonderful, faithful pets.” Don’t I wish.

Anyway, I do have a great affection for the creatures. Here’s a photograph of me at a national park in central Tasmania, on the shores of Lake St. Clair. The wallabies here are Bennett’s wallabies. These beautiful, gentle creatures are only too happy to share your picnic—particularly as it was spring, and the females all had joeys.

Me with Bennett’s wallabies in Tasmania


Filed under Australia, Photography, Travel

Katherine Gorge

It has been a little while since I shared an excerpt from the book (the page building is coming along nicely, by the way), so I thought I’d return to the narrative briefly—until I have a little free time to scan some more slides to share with you.

After the camping trip in Kakadu, I returned to Darwin for a couple of days, and then caught a bus down to Springvale Homestead near Katherine. Visits to tropical caves, a fabulous thermal spring, and the Elsey Station, plus a chance to participate in an aboriginal corroboree, made this a solidly worthwhile stop. My last day in the area, before heading west, I visited Katherine Gorge. This is actually not a single gorge but a series of gorges. Most people can make it through the first two, but it takes a bit of work, and most of the day, to make it as far as the sixth gorge. However, if you have the time, it’s wonderful.

The fourth gorge is one of the longest, so it took us a while to reach the top. By the time we arrived at the barrier separating the fourth and fifth gorges, the day was warming up, so it was time for a swim while the billy boiled for tea. The water here is clean and pure, as it has been everywhere I’ve ventured in the Top End, so Peter filled our billy right from the river.

After tea, we headed for the fifth gorge. It was a spectacular climb, taking us high up one of the gorge walls for more breathtaking views than we had previously experienced. As we scrambled among outcrops of stone and along narrow ledges, we came to a spot where wild passionfruit was growing in abundance. As I clambered up and down that magnificent, shattered, chaotic landscape—towering, water-sculpted rock walls, fascinating plants, the sparkling river, dazzling scenery on all sides—munching on warm, tangy-sweet wild passionfruit, soaking up the gloriously brilliant sunlight, I could not help but think to myself, “I don’t know what the rest of the world is doing right now, but it couldn’t be this good.”

About half way up the fifth gorge, Peter slowed the engine and pointed out a huge cave in the rock wall beside us. The ceiling of the cave was covered with the wonderful, bottle-shaped mud nests of the fairy martin, just one of the many birds I’ve seen in my wanderings.

The climb to the sixth gorge was the most difficult, over an absolute chaos of tumbled boulders. The rocks were worn smooth and into fantastic, weird shapes by the action of the water. We swam for about half an hour in this gorge, some people even heading to the top of the section to see if they could make it to the seventh gorge. I swam along the cliff walls, examining some of the caves, trying to spot some of the area’s wildlife. Then it was time to head back.

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Filed under Australia, Book, Travel

The Baby on the Train

One of the hardest aspects of writing, for me at least, is cutting things out that don’t really belong, that don’t truly advance the story, or that simply interrupt the flow. However, as William Zinsser noted in his classic book On Writing Well, “Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” And “Clutter is the enemy.”

While working on my book, I found it difficult at times to eliminate little vignettes that seemed to underscore for me how charming the people were that I met as I traveled through Australia or bits of trivia that I found interesting but that didn’t contribute to the narrative. But I couldn’t include everything—at least not and have the book be fewer than 2,000 pages!

So I spent a lot of time uncluttering my book. It flows much more smoothly now, and I think it’s a much better work for the discipline. But perhaps this blog is a place to salvage a few of those edited bits—kind of like the “bonus tracks” on a DVD of a carefully edited movie.

The following little vignette is from Queensland. I was taking the scenic (though once utilitarian) train from Kuranda to Cairns, a trip that zig-zags down cliff faces, past waterfalls and rainforest and through numerous tunnels. It is a gorgeous ride, and the time passed all the more pleasantly because of a charming couple from Sydney.

On the train, the seats are set up facing each other, all on one side of the car. I sat by a window and was soon joined by a young couple with their two children. The younger of the children, around one year old, was in a stroller, which they turned to face the window. As we approached a tunnel, the father snapped his fingers, and everything went dark. “All gone,” he said to the delighted infant, who obviously had no doubt that his daddy was capable of such magic. The older boy, aged four or five, was overjoyed to assist in the game, and leaned just far enough out the window to let daddy know when daylight was coming—which of course reappeared with another snap of the fingers. The baby was wild with excitement, gurgling, laughing, clapping his hands, and pawing daddy’s leg. This happened at each of the 15 tunnels, which kept baby very happy for the whole trip (much to mother’s relief, as the milk bottle was empty). Between tunnels, we admired the scenery, and chatted.

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Filed under Australia, Writing