Category Archives: History

Trip 3:Wednesday, August 23 Part 1

We’re leaving Menu Camp today. We were up early enough, and collapsed and packed our tents and sleeping bags swiftly enough, that we were all in time to photograph the sunrise. Then we had breakfast (toast and Vegemite, hurrah!–I’ve missed it), packed up the truck, and hit the road.

It’s winter, the dry season up here, so the sky was clear and brilliant. The scenery changed frequently, with varied plants, and animals punctuating the remarkable landscapes. Began to see boabs, those weird, bloated tree that you only see in this corner of Australia.
Boab
We traded eucalypt savannah for weird, lunar desolation and dead trees, then back to savannah. Smoke on the horizon again. Guessing it’s the annual burn-off that Aborigines have so long done in this region, and which more recent arrivals have learned to do, to prevent uncontrolled wild fires. A massive, ancient, red-rock escarpment rose to our right, the jumbled slopes and flat top covered with trees, but the perpendicular red walls, bare. So many grasses: short and golden, tall and red, like sheets of velvet in some places, rigid tufts in others, green, yellow, tan, from a few inches up to seven feet tall.
Escarpment sharper
Rapid-fire wonders: bustards, huge black cockatoos, clouds of corellas (small, white cockatoo species), “ant” hills (really termite mounds), kapok flowers, feral donkeys (one with a small, black foal), butcher birds, and bursts of small, dark swallows with white breasts. At a large waterhole, we saw cormorants and egrets, and the trees were filled with galahs. Melaleuka scented the air, though they were outnumbered by gum trees. Still, the constant background for these changing vistas was heat, dust, and rocks.

Into Bradshaw Station complex. Not a planned stop, but the trailer hitch needed to be fixed. We took advantage of the stop to photograph flocks of cockatoos, the imposing escarpment, purple-flowered wild tomatoes, yellow-flowered kapok, and pink-flowered turkey bushes.
Cockatoos

Kapok Flowers

Kapok Flowers


Hitch fixed, we were on our way—though only to the edge of the Angalarri River, which feeds into the Victoria River, the largest river in the Northern Territory. Joe Bradshaw, for whom the station was named, was the first white man to settle the far side of the Victoria River.
The only way across the Angalarri is by boat, but there is a barge here that is used for moving equipment, supplies, vehicles, and livestock, and it is plenty big enough for our 4WD and a bunch of campers. We crossed the river at an angle, which gave us the opportunity to see a considerable amount of wildlife or signs of wildlife. This is a tidal river, so there are saltwater crocodiles here, and we saw a fair number of crocodile “slides” down muddy slopes into the water. Kangaroos and wallabies watched us from the banks. I was delighted to see mudskippers hopping along the shore. Wattles, with their fragrant, yellow flowers, grew in large clumps. Birdlife included black cormorants, whistling kites, and a white-faced heron. We also saw a number of gorgeous white-breasted sea eagles, which prompted the gentleman driving the boat to relate the mating rituals of these impressive birds. To get the attention of the female (which is the larger bird), the male catches a fish, takes it high in the air, then drops it, going into a power dive and catching the fish again just before it hits the water. If the female is impressed, the two fly high into the air, lock talons, and spiral toward earth, letting go just before they crash. They mate for life.
White-Breasted Sea Eagle lighter

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August 21, PART 2

The earth became redder as we continued on, and the trees became greener. The road was rough, the weather hot, the flies, dreadful, the scenery, brilliant. In the distance, we could see smoke rising from a brush fire. It must have been a big one, as the smoke rose to the clouds from an area miles long.

We eventually rolled onto the historic Bradshaw Station, an area of roughly 3,475 square miles. The remoter areas of the station are now used by the military, and we had seen evidence of that back in Pine Creek, where a fair number of jeeps and gents in camo had also stopped.

This part of the station is known for the antiquity of its Aboriginal rock art, which apparently appears throughout this region, and the afternoon held a stop at a rock “gallery” where huge stone outcrops offered both shade and “canvas” for ancient paintings rendered in white and red. Clouds of butterflies heralded our arrival and pandanus lined our route as we hiked amid the rock walls. It was surprisingly cool in the shadow of the rock.

Pandanus

Pandanus

Butterfly

Butterfly


The paintings were, on the whole, less complex than many I’d seen in Kakadu National Park, on my first trip. However, they were still fascinating, and one could easily recognize many of the creatures depicted, along with the handprints that connect painters with the rock and their work.
Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal Art


Then back on the road, across the harsh and ancient land. My heart sang, resonating again to that special something that this land possesses that so touches me.

Pulled into Menu Camp around 5pm. This area was a spot where drovers used to stop to eat, which is how it got the name Menu. There was a nice campsite set up already. It is, in fact, permanently here, just for the camping outfitter with whom I’m traveling. It offers a screened dining area, a creek-water shower, and a dunny (outhouse/toilet) that faces the sunset.

This is a spot of great beauty—but also of many flies. After putting up our tents and getting our gear stowed in the tents, Athena, Belinda, and I set off to explore a little before dinner. We wandered amid trees and then down to the creek, which is narrow but clear and lushly surrounded by pandanus.

Menu Camp

Menu Camp


Dinner was great fun. This is an excellent group of bright, charming people, and Kate is an excellent camp cook. After dinner, we sat around the campfire, sipping coffee and admiring the dazzling splash of stars overhead. I was delighted beyond measure to see the Southern Cross again.

Then we headed for tents and sleeping bags, as we have another early start tomorrow. Alas, the coffee proved to have been a mistake, as despite what by now was full-fledged exhaustion, sleep evaded me for far too long. Sigh.

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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 (Min), 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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Lance Corporal Bacon

I always like to remind people that, despite what most of us saw in textbooks long ago, history is not a line; it is a web. Everything is connected to myriad other things. I was reminded of that today, when I ran across an item about Lance Corporal Bacon. I’m working on a book on the history of pigs, which will be something of a companion volume to my book on the history of corn (Midwest Maize), since, at least in the U.S., pigs and corn are close to inseparable.

Reading a book on bacon, I ran across this bit of information: that the ANZACs, during World War I, gave a nickname to bacon that was almost all fat but with just a single, thin stripe of meat across the otherwise white slab. Because a lance corporal had only one stripe on his sleeve, the long streak of meat in the bacon became identified with that lone stripe of rank, thus making the fatty slab Lance Corporal Bacon.

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ANZAC Centenary

I have written a number of times about the ANZACS, both on this blog and in my book. You can do a search if you want more details. I came across this post and was reminded that it is, indeed, 100 years since the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli and became legends.

Pacific Paratrooper

James Charles Martin (1901-1915), youngest Australian KIA at Gallipoli James Charles Martin (1901-1915), youngest Australian KIA at Gallipoli

Anzac Centenary

Between 2014 and 2018 Australia and New Zealand will commemorate the Anzac Centenary, marking 100 years since their  involvement in the First World War.

Gallipoli today Gallipoli today

The Anzac Centenary is a milestone of special significance to all Australians and New Zealanders.  The First World War helped define them as a people and as nations.

PhotoELF Edits:2012:10:04 --- Saved as: 24-Bit JPEG (EXIF) Format 98 %

During the Anzac Centenary they will remember not only the original ANZACs who served at Gallipoli and the Western Front, but commemorate more than a century of service by Australian and New Zealand servicemen and women. [And I hope other nations will as well.]

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The Anzac Centenary Program encompasses all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations in which they have been involved.   And to honour all those who have worn the uniforms.  The programs involved with the Centenary urge all to reflect on their military…

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May 9, 2015 · 3:21 pm

Midwest Maize

This is not about Australia–but it is about why I left the corporate world and went to Australia–to transform my life into that of a writer. Today is the official publication day of my book, Midwest Maize: How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland. Books have actually been shipping for about a week now–all those that were pre-ordered–but now the book will start to go to bookstores and libraries.

The book is a food history–where corn/maize came from, how it diversified and spread, and ultimately how it created the U.S. region known as the Midwest–not just the farms, but the cities, as well–cities that would vanish if they weren’t supported by the region’s sprawling farmlands. But it is also a history of agriculture, of food preparation, of the contributions of different ethnic groups to the food culture of the region, of fairs and celebrations, and of people who raise, work with, trade, process, and cook corn today.

There is more information, plus a few early reviews, on the University of Illinois website, if you’re interested. Plus I’ve started a blog, to relate all the traveling I did and discoveries I made as I drove around the Midwest, pursuing the stories that fill the book. That blog is also named, not too surprisingly, Midwest Maize. I’d love it if you bought the book, maybe even “liked” the Midwest Maize Facebook page, but if all you do is enjoy a bit of the fun I had exploring the Midwest, that would be okay, too.
ClampittS15-smaller-B

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Australia’s on the Wallaby

Another of my personal favorites from Slim Dusty is “Australia’s on the Wallaby.”

“The Wallaby” in the title is short for the Wallaby Track–which really is no track at all, but refers to the roads and wilderness walked by itinerant works and dispossessed families in search of work. The term dates to the 1800s, and was even the title of a poignant painting –On the wallaby track — created in 1896 by Australian artist Frederick McCubbin. The painting shows a young family alone in the bush, with the wife holding an infant and her husband boiling the billy can over a small fire. So the term predates the Great Depression — but during the Great Depression, people again took to the Wallaby Track, though in greater numbers than ever before.

During the Great Depression, 1 in 3 Australians became jobless, and so a stunningly large percentage of the population was wandering in search of any kind of work that paid. Australia was, indeed, on the Wallaby. A book titled On the wallaby: a true story about the Great Depression in Australia in the 1930s, by William Kidman, reinforces the identification of the term with this period.

The “cooee” in the song is a cry used in the Australian bush to connect with other wanderers, to attract attention, or to indicate one’s location.

This particular video is not in particularly good shape, but you can hear the song clearly. I hope you enjoy it as much as I always have. The song is, like most Australians, cheerful despite difficulties being faced.

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