Category Archives: Book


When Waltzing Australia was published in 2007, I felt certain that there would be a sequel—a book that covered the astonishing adventures I’ve had during return trips, each of which took me even farther afield.

But life intervened. I had to earn a living, so I began writing textbooks and magazine articles. Then I became increasingly drawn into food history, and a couple of books came out of that (Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland and Pigs, Pork, and Heartland Hogs: From Wild Boar to Baconfest). As the years went by, it seemed increasingly unlikely that I’d ever get around to that sequel.

And so, I’ve decided that this blog will stand in for that second Australia book. The adventures are now a few more years in the past, but that’s the nice thing about falling in love with a really ancient land—if you’re considering a rock that is 35 million years old, it doesn’t really matter if a few years have passed since you last saw it. So I’ll be getting back to blogging here, though not perhaps so regularly, and probably with fewer photos, because I was still using film on those last trips, and scanning slides takes a lot of time. But we’ll see. Books without wizards or werewolves don’t make one rich, so I still have to earn a living “on the side,” so there is never as much free time as one would like. But I still want to finish recording the trips back, as there were so many wonderful adventures.

Wish me luck. And hope to see you as I continue the journey.



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Trip 3: Monday, August 21, Part 1

It is 6:30 am, and I am packed and at the door, awaiting my departure. It is a remarkably beautiful morning. The moon, a huge crescent, has not yet set, and the sun has not yet appeared, though the sky is silver and orange at the horizon from its approach.

The cascade of bougainvillea just outside the door, the palm trees outlined against the brightening sky, and the chirping and singing of dozens of birds make the difficulty of getting here kind of dissolve into unreality. I am overjoyed to be back.
By 7:00, I was safely planted in a khaki-colored 4WD and on my way. We rolled around town, picking up other travelers. We stopped outside the Hotel Darwin, which I’d hoped to visit when I thought I’d be arriving much earlier yesterday. Sigh. Through the front doors, I could see the ceiling fans of the Green Room, which seemed unchanged from when Judy and I had enjoyed drinks there during my first trip.

Then we were on our way, heading south on the Stuart Highway. The weird beauty of the surrounding savannah delighted me: the slender gum tress, the palms and pandanus, and the stretches of dry grass and brown-red earth. The air is wonderful, clean, and scented by eucalypts.

Termite mounts, from little ones all the way up to the giants, are now frequently visible from the road. Paperbark trees and yellow-flowered kapok bushes also appear on occasion, but mostly we just see miles of various gum trees and dry grasses spreading across the plains and blanketing the frequent hills and ridges.

We drove through Adelaide River, a tiny town that became remarkably important during WWII. It was a huge center for troops and airfields, especially after the Japanese bombed Darwin, and it became an important supply and communications base for the Australian armed forces. Along the road, we saw signs identifying where each of the many WWII airfields was once located, as well as a sign for the Adelaide River War Cemetery. I think much of the world forgets (or never knew) the impact the war had on Australia.

As we drove, I began to get acquainted with my traveling companions. All were from Sydney, it turned out, with the exception of our guide and cook. John, our guide, originally lived in London but now makes his home in Darwin. Kate, our young, vivacious cook, hails from Victoria. The Sydney-siders included Don and Leslie, Graham and Shirley, Hazel, Marianne (Mim), Athena, and Belinda. Everyone of course thought it rather remarkable that a woman from the Chicago area would be on a trip that would be heading into such a remote area of Australia. Little do they know…

We had a morning break in Pine Creek, an old gold mining town that is a popular place for travelers to stop—largely because there aren’t that many places out here where you can stop. While the population is less than 700, it still manages to rank as fourth largest town between Darwin and Alice Springs. I was amused by the roadhouse, which identified itself as a “Hard Rock Café.” While food and drink were on offer, as is the case with so many of these remote outposts, it also serves as post office and market for both locals and travelers. Deep pink bougainvillea, wildly perfumed pale pink frangipani, and noisy birds made the small settlement charming.

In Pine Creek

In Pine Creek

Turning westward, we left the sealed (paved) road behind, so transit became a bit bumpier—but for me, that always feels like adventure. It was a spectacular, brilliantly clear day, with the sky a fabulous, unblemished blue. We continued to be surrounded by that strange, undulating sea of eucalypt-dotted dry grass savannah that could not by any means be described as beautiful, but which delighted me none-the-less, since it carries so many memories for me. Large birds—I’m guessing kites—gracefully dipped and rose on rising thermals, sailing over the dry land in search of food or perhaps looking for a mate.

Lunch was at a beautiful location on the banks of the Daly River. As always in arid regions, one can recognize a watercourse from a distance because of the sudden intensifying of vegetation. Here, bright water wound between flourishes of green and stands of gum trees taller than those that dot the dry plains. It looked inviting, as the weather was hot, but we were warned to stay clear of the water, as it is inhabited by saltwater crocodiles. This is definitely a region where it’s good to have a guide.

Daly River

Daly River

(By the way, if I use words that aren’t familiar, my book Waltzing Australia has a glossary of commonly encountered Aussie terms, and you might find it a useful resource—and it gives a bit more background on Australia in general.)

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Merry Aussie Christmas

If you’ve read my book Waltzing Australia, you’ll know that I have celebrated Christmas in Australia, and it was indeed a “scorching summer’s day,” as is celebrated in this fun, Aussie version of “Jingle Bells.” As for some of the terms in the song, if you’re an Aussie, you’ll know them, and if you’re not, check the glossary in my book. That said, it’s fun, regardless of whether or not you understand every word.

Merry Christmas, wherever you are.


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G’Day Blue

Continuing the Slim-a-thon, here’s another Slim Dusty Classic. My dad was still alive when I first went to Australia, and this was one of his favorite songs, once I introduced him to Slim Dusty.

“Blue” is an Australian nickname for guys with red hair. The word can also refer to anything from being glum to a fight to a type of Australian cattle dog, but if you use “Blue” as a man’s name, it means he’s a redhead. (Because calling him “Red” would be too obvious.) If you’ve read my book, Waltzing Australia, you’ll know that I encountered a couple of Blues on my travels, which probably also contributed to my enjoying this song.

In this song, Slim sings of the virtues of a man named Blue, saying he’s never on the bite and never a skite. On the bite means looking for loans, and a skite is a braggart. So, lacking these vices, Blue is a good bloke to have as a mate.

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Reflections on Life, Travel, Work, and Australia

I feel I should mention that, despite the sadness expressed at leaving Australia, I have, since my first trip Down Under, created a fulfilling life focused on things I love: writing, sharing, history, food, culture, travel. I’ve been to dozens of other places (see my The World’s Fare blog for some non-Aussie travel tales), and I’ve had an additional two trips to Australia (which I’ll be sharing here). I had some amazing experiences on those trips.

But home is not bad, either. Like most people who are self-employed, I work harder for less money than many in the corporate world, but I’ve had the joy of being able to pick work that I find rewarding. I feel as though I’m living my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quote: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” (I have become insanely frugal, however, which allows me to live better on less money than many people do who earn far more than I do.)

While I’ve written books (including, of course, Waltzing Australia) and hundreds of magazine articles, a large part of my writing has been in the realm of education: history, geography, and language arts. I’ve worked for every major educational publisher in the U.S., including the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and National Geographic Learning. Sharing what I’ve learned in my travels and research is always a joy. I’ve even gotten to write student readers on topics related to Australia (one on the Great Barrier Reef, one on the platypus, and a couple on Captain James Cook).

For the last 20 years or so, in addition to education, I’ve been working in the arena of food history. Much of my travel has focused on place where food history is anchored: Mexico, South America, China, India, the Spice Route, and so on. More recently, I’ve been focusing on history closer to home. The combination of food history and home focus has resulted in my newest book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. If you look at the list of links at right, you’ll see I’ve also started a blog to support that endeavor.

So it did hurt to leave Australia, but I’ve found that joy can be found anywhere. It is not a place; it is a mindset and a journey and a feeling that one is contributing. Still, I will never stop loving Australia, and I delight in sharing its beauty, wonder, and friendliness with others–something I do not only through this blog but also through slide shows and speaking engagements. Australia is the anchor of my current life. It will always be part of me.

And there is still vastly more I want to share about it. So please do keep coming back.


Filed under Australia, Book, Food, History, Thoughts, Travel, Writing

Thursday, September 12

The drive from Apollo Bay to Lorne was only 45 kilometers, but it took me an hour and a half, partly because of the winding roads, but also because I stopped every 10 minutes for photographs. Lovely bit of coastline–gentler than the one I left behind, but still impressive, with long beaches, sparkling water, and dark, green mountains.

I stopped for lunch in Lorne. I was here on my first trip to Australia, though coming from the opposite direction. It was on that first drive to Lorne that I decided that I’d have to return to this coast someday and explore it further. So glad I succeeded in doing that.

I had chicken and chips from a take-away shop, as I did on that first trip, eating on a beach that was sunnier but only slightly warmer than it had been on my previous visit. Lorne has grown since I saw it last, and it is prettier than I remember. I walked around a bit, looking for things I remembered, especially the golden cypress trees. Then it was time to get back on the road, continuing the drive, shoot photos, drive, shoot photos, drive routine of the morning. This was still a wildly picturesque bit of coastline, with the mountains (Otway Ranges) rising out of the sea, the road a narrow ribbon clinging to the land’s edge, forests giving way to beaches and small communities, occasional dramatic cliffs, lighthouses –all truly wonderful.

From rugged coast...

From rugged coast… verdant grazing land.

…to verdant grazing land.

Through Aireys Inlet and Anglesea, and around Torquay. Leaving the coastline, I found myself amid surroundings that alternated between increasingly grand cities and handsome farms with broad, green paddocks. Up through the center of Geelong, and on into Melbourne. Driving in Melbourne is a special treat. Ha. Because of the trolleys, you can’t stay in the middle to make a turn, you have to go to the far curb and wait for the light to change, and then turn across all traffic lanes. Glad I only had to do it a couple of times. I dropped the car at the Thrifty office in Elizabeth Street at 3 o’clock. It would be almost an hour before Judy (of the white crash helmet, if you remember her from my book) was due to pick me up, but the folks at Thrifty kindly said I could leave my gear in the office if I’d like to go for a bit of a stroll through town. So off I went, to see how well I remembered Melbourne. There were, of course, changes, but there was also a lot that was familiar.

I was not far from the Melbourne Central Shopping Center, which has the unusual distinction of having a historic shot tower rising up through the center of the complex, and I headed there first. I was not interested in shopping, but I enjoyed exploring the shot tower. I then continued up Elizabeth Street as far as Bourke Street and the ornate, old Post Office. I picked a side street and then swung back in the direction of Thrifty. I was surprised (and pleased) to find Judy waiting for me. She said she’d known the gear in the corner was mine because she recognized my Akubra (the handsome gray Snowy River hat I bought on my previous trip). We grabbed my bag and set off down the two blocks to where Geoff, Judy’s husband, awaited us in the Land Cruiser.

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September 3, part 2

After an hour and a half, I began the walk back to Toddy’s. I noticed that there is a motel now on the site where we camped in Heavitree Gap, during the “flood trip” that capped my first trip to Australia. It made me a little sad to think that others will not be able to camp here, between the towering, ragged, red rocks and the banks of the Todd River.

I stopped at a small shop on the way back to Toddy’s, to buy some fruit and a sandwich for my lunch, then continued on. The office at Toddy’s closes at 1:00 pm, and they had my luggage, so I had to get back. I made it, with a little time to spare. Then, after rescuing my luggage, I sat in the sunshine and ate my sandwich, enjoying my last minutes before the airport shuttle would arrive.

Leaving is acceptable only because I find it impossible to believe I won’t be back someday. Good-bye, Alice—till next time.

Wow. Security is tighter at the tiny Alice Springs airport than it is in Chicago. They went through everything, measuring the length of my pocketknife, making me remove the lens from my camera. Seriously, how many terrorists come through Alice Springs?

The flight was pleasant, with the red land flashing past below me. Landed in Adelaide (10 minutes early), grabbed my bags, and headed outside, just in time to see Louanne coming across from the parking lot. We headed out to North Haven, where Louanne’s mom and dad, Rae and Bert, were waiting for us.

(For those of you who have read my book, Waltzing Australia, you may remember Louanne from the trip to Kangaroo Island, as well as my meeting Lou’s parents when I returned to Adelaide from the KI sojourn.)

After dinner, we spent a few hours looking through photographs of Rae and Bert’s two-year, around-Australia wonder. They saw some places I visited on my previous trip, but they also visited a lot of amazing places I haven’t seen and now want to visit. They have a 4WD Toyota Landcruiser, so they can go almost anywhere—and they did. Wow. We also looked at photos and heard tales from Louanne’s “gap year” wander around Europe. Hardly a surprise, then, that they’d welcome a wanderer into their homes, having wandered so much themselves.

The evening was spent, as it had been on my previous visit, in delightful and enthusiastic conversation. Part of the time was given over to discussing news events in Australia, along with updates on other people I met on that first visit and questions about my own travel plans. They described some of the local places they wanted to show me, and then we headed off to bed, so we’d be ready for an early start tomorrow.

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Ted Egan

Among the first Australian originals to which foreign tourists are introduced is Ted Egan–at least if those tourists go on a tour that takes them anywhere in the Outback. Egan is a singer, songwriter, activist, author, politician, and hardcore enthusiast and promoter of the more remote regions of Australia, especially in the Northern Territory. While he has created documentaries about Australia and campaigned on behalf of the Aboriginal people, he is most often encountered in the form of a couple of humorous songs that are almost inevitably played by the coach captains who ferry visitors around the Outback — probably because one of the songs, titled “Our Coach Captain,” is about how how lucky we are that our current coach captain has let us come along for the ride.

When he sings, Egan most commonly “plays” an empty beer carton–which seems the perfect “instrument” in the rugged locales that are both backdrop and subject of his songs. I had heard many of Egan’s songs during my first trip to Australia, but it wasn’t until my second trip that I saw him perform live–just outside of Alice Springs.

For those of you who don’t know Egan, the following videos offer a brief introduction to an iconic Aussie. For those of you who do know him, it’s always fun to see him again.

The trailer for his TV series:

Singing along while playing on a beer carton: (Note: In this song, Egan mentions Jeannie Gunn, who was the author of the Australian classic “We of the Never Never,” and the Fizzer is one of the people in Jeannie’s life, as she learned to adapt to the Outback. VRD is Victoria River Downs, a large cattle station in a remote part of the Northern Territory.)


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Underground Orchid

It kind of sounds like the name of a rock band–underground orchid–but it is, in fact, a real plant. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that while I was in Western Australia, I visited the town of Babakin, which is located in the modest range of this rare flower. Rhizanthella gardneri is its scientific name, and, as its common name suggests, this orchid lives underground.

For a long time, if one saw an underground orchid, it was by accident. Then, once people figured out that these orchids grew among the roots of a specific plant (broom bush), they could be searched for with some hope of finding them. However, scientists have now found that they can locate the orchids using radioactive isotopes–which in turn led to the discovery that these odd little orchids are even rarer than original imagined–only about 50 known plants left in the wild. (When I was in WA, I only saw photographs, as these orchids are too rare to dig them up for the amusement of tourists.)

I imagine you’d like to see an underground orchid, so I’ll send you to a site with a photo (and more info), as I don’t like “borrowing” photos that are not my own or given to me by their owners. The tiny, white flower is remarkably pretty, so while I hope you’ll come back here to explore further, I do also hope you’ll go check the photo.

Western Australia’s Underground Orchied, at Science Daily.

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Cooper Creek

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.

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