Category Archives: History

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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Filed under Australia, Book, Geography, History, Nature, Travel

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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Filed under Australia, Food, History, Lore

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.

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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.]


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.

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Filed under Food, History, Literature, Travel, Writing

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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Filed under Australia, History, Lore, Travel, Video

Slim Dusty and Waltzing Matilda

In Australia, this will be a long weekend, as Monday is Australia Day, the celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, which initiated European settlement of the land Down Under.

In the spirit of that celebration, here is Australia’s legendary Slim Dusty (whom we lost in 2003, sad to say) performing Oz’s “unofficial national anthem” at the closing ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. It’s fun to see everyone sing along so enthusiastically. If you watch the video, keep an eye out for a few other Aussie icons.

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Filed under Australia, History, Video

Rex, Albert, and Bobby

I’ve posted previously about Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira and his remarkable, evocative work, and I mention him as well in my book, Waltzing Australia. I had seen his work even before my first trip to Australia, when, in addition to seeing more of his paintings, I also visited some of the sites Namatjira had painted. But I hadn’t encountered any information on how he learned to paint.

Because he too loves the Outback, I follow the blog of Bobby Dazzler, who does a nice job of highlighting iconic elements of the “back o’ beyond.” His most recent post is about Rex Battarbee, the artist who taught Namatjira. I can only imagine how delighted Battarbee must have been to find so gifted a student. Anyway, if you’re interested in Namatjira and would like to read the article, you can find it here:

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Filed under Australia, History