Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Geebung Polo Club

My copy of the collected verses of A.B. “Banjo” Paterson has money as a bookmark. It’s an Australian $10 note, and the reason it makes the perfect bookmark for this collection is that it bears the image of Banjo Paterson, with a sketch in the background of the ride from “The Man from Snow River.” The fact that Paterson is on the money might suggest to non-Aussies the cultural significance of this poet.

While a lot of his poems are gloriously evocative, Paterson also occasionally revealed in his work a classic element of Australian humor: hyperbole. When things are rough, you exaggerate. In fact, Australian humor is kind of a blend of the wild exaggeration one finds in classic tall tales of the American west and the very dry wit of the British–but all modified and a bit twisted by the wonderful peculiarities of Australia itself.

One example of this hyperbolic humor is the following Paterson poem, published in the late 1800s. Interesting to note that it ends with ghosts being heard–since that’s how the even more famous Paterson poem, “Waltzing Matilda,” also ends.

The Geebung Polo Club
by A.B. “Banjo” Paterson
It was somewhere up the country in a land of rock and scrub,
That they formed an institution called the Geebung Polo Club.
They were long and wiry natives of the rugged mountainside,
And the horse was never saddled that the Geebungs couldn’t ride;
But their style of playing polo was irregular and rash –
They had mighty little science, but a mighty lot of dash:
And they played on mountain ponies that were muscular and strong,
Though their coats were quite unpolished, and their manes and tails were long.
And they used to train those ponies wheeling cattle in the scrub:
They were demons, were the members of the Geebung Polo Club.

It was somewhere down the country, in a city’s smoke and steam,
That a polo club existed, called the Cuff and Collar Team.
As a social institution ’twas a marvellous success,
For the members were distinguished by exclusiveness and dress.
They had natty little ponies that were nice, and smooth, and sleek,
For their cultivated owners only rode ’em once a week.
So they started up the country in pursuit of sport and fame,
For they meant to show the Geebungs how they ought to play the game;
And they took their valets with them – just to give their boots a rub
Ere they started operations on the Geebung Polo Club.

Now my readers can imagine how the contest ebbed and flowed,
When the Geebung boys got going it was time to clear the road;
And the game was so terrific that ere half the time was gone
A spectator’s leg was broken – just from merely looking on.
For they waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
Was the last surviving player – so the game was called a tie.

Then the captain of the Geebungs raised him slowly from the ground,
Though his wounds were mostly mortal, yet he fiercely gazed around;
There was no one to oppose him – all the rest were in a trance,
So he scrambled on his pony for his last expiring chance,
For he meant to make an effort to get victory to his side;
So he struck at goal – and missed it – then he tumbled off and died.

By the old Campaspe River, where the breezes shake the grass,
There’s a row of little gravestones that the stockmen never pass,
For they bear a crude inscription saying, “Stranger, drop a tear,
For the Cuff and Collar players and the Geebung boys lie here.”
And on misty moonlit evenings, while the dingoes howl around,
You can see their shadows flitting down that phantom polo ground;
You can hear the loud collisions as the flying players meet,
And the rattle of the mallets, and the rush of ponies’ feet,
Till the terrified spectator rides like blazes to the pub –
He’s been haunted by the spectres of the Geebung Polo Club.

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Keneally’s Outback

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.

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In Defence of the Bush

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.

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Going Solo in Oz

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!

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First Contact with Australia

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. Here, it is presented with a nice slide show of Aussie images.

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