There’s an old adage that one should write drunk and edit sober. This is my attempt at slightly tipsy. Why? Because I’m saying farewell to Australia, and there’s no good way to depart such a big (and big-hearted) country without a bit of tipple to send me on my way.
Where to begin? When last we left off, I was speaking on Australia’s forgotten Aborigines and I was halfway to Adelaide. Since then, we — me and a couple of couch surfing friends from Germany — completed the crossing of the southern continent from Perth to Sydney, a distance of at least 5,100 km based on the southern route we took. It’s an accomplishment that, frankly, many Australians still don’t manage to do. But what a journey. I honestly haven’t even begun to fully process the whole trip, but the landscape and the people that I’ve met on the way have been indelibly stamped on my soul.
The first thing you have to realize about Australia is that, obviously, it’s quite large. But it’s also devastatingly empty. Up until relatively recently, it was a “ghastly blank” (as Victorian writers called the interior) about the size of the continental United States, but with less than 1/10th the population. Even various estimates say the Aboriginal population before European colonization probably didn’t exceed 1 million, with most tribes clustered in the country’s fertile southeast around modern-day Murray River. The reason for such a low population density is evident: the whole place is essentially a big, flat, empty desert rimmed by a moist greenbelt where most people live. Something like 95 percent of Australians live with 5 km of the coast.
And yet, this great inland emptiness exerted a pull on me just as it has eccentric explorers since Europeans first intentionally bumbled into Australia. The “ghastly blank” isn’t as blank or as ghastly as it was when Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills set off from Melbourne in 1860 to cross the interior and see if it did, indeed, contain a great inland sea. (It doesn’t). The trek captured public imagination in Victoria and elsewhere in the Australian colonies, and the train of camels, horses and brave explorers set off on Aug 20, 1860. Among the equipment Burke deemed vital was a Chinese gong.
Theirs was a strange expedition, in part because of the monumental incompetence on the part of Burke, a “cocky police superintendent” who convinced the Philosophical Institute of Victoria that he should lead the expedition despite having no bush experience and, apparently, no great sense of direction. (He was known to get lost in the middle of cities and towns.) After six months wandering about central Australia and generally annoying the local tribes, an advance party of Burke, Wills and two others reached the Flinders River, 15 miles from the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north. Dense mangroves prevented them from seeing the sea and realizing how close they were to their goal, so they returned to their base camp at Cooper’s Creek in the continent’s middle, only to find it deserted. The men left behind had departed only earlier that day, but Burke and Wills had no way to know that.
Here’s the really tragic part, however. Carved on a nearby coolibah tree was the message:
APR. 21 1861
They dug, found a bit of food left by the retreating base camp party, and themselves departed the next day, leaving their own message that they had returned carefully buried in the original cache. Too carefully, as it turns out. When one of the men from the base camp returned the next day to check on the camp, he couldn’t find Burke’s message. In fact, Burke and Wills were a few miles away vainly making for a police station 150 miles away. Its name? Mt. Hopeless.
Burke and Wills died in the desert while John King, one of the two men who accompanied the doomed duo almost to the Gulf, was saved by Aborigines and rescued two months later. He was the sole survivor.
This story was often on my mind as we drove (and drove, and drove, and drove) from one flyspeck town to another, eating up the emptiness in between. You simply don’t see this level of isolation in most western, developed countries and I found it easy to imagine the frustration and despair that the hapless Burke must have felt at the size of the “ghastly blank”.
The Burke and Wills expedition was by most objective measures, a bit of a cock-up. Lewis and Clarke, they weren’t. But in the endearingly Australian way of celebrating things other countries might prefer to sweep under the collective rug, theirs is an enterprise viewed with affection among Australians, even more so than the successful Stuart explorations. In the same way, Harold Holt, who was prime minister in the 1960s and whose term rather famously (in Australia) came to a premature end on Dec 17, 1967, when he disappeared and presumably drowned off Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria, is memorialized by the Harold Holt Swim Centre in Melbourne. Australians tend to have a sense of humor about tragedy.
We stopped in Adelaide for a few days, couchsurfing with Tony C. He’s a good guy, but like many Australians, he’s quite the character. He works for an institution for the criminally insane, and he has the Australian cheery, “no worries, mate” attitude towards the men there who routinely threaten to kill him. He grows sombre, though, when he discusses instances where his colleagues are hurt. One man, who killed a someone — he hit him with a crowbar pulled from his trunk rupturing his spleen — threatened to kill Tony some weeks weeks ago. Tony talked him down, but later, on one of Tony’s days off, there was another melee involving the guy and three people were seriously injured.
(The murder victim’s defense lawyer argued, unsuccessfully, that the victim died because a hospital refused to scan him for internal injuries and didn’t give him proper care.)
Adelaide is one of those cities that at first glance is pretty, well-ordered and gives every outward appearance of a comfortable prosperity. People still say, “thank you” to the bus drivers here when they reach their destination.
But if you ask Tony — and most other Australians I met on this trip — it’s going to hell. The prosperity is fragile and there’s not enough water. The lush gardens of central Adelaide hide an underlying rot “the government” would rather cover up than address. It was an often-expressed attitude by people of Tony’s generation.
And indeed, Adelaide is in a bit of a bad spot. There isn’t enough water for South Australia’s growing population, and the economy isn’t growing as fast as it could be. It has the lowest average wage of all of Australia’s major cities and the highest unemployment rate. Young people have been moving to Melbourne, Sydney and Perth in search of better opportunities. Part of the problem is the country’s location. While Perth is often called the most isolated big city in the world, it’s still got a thriving port, a vibrant mining industry and access to world markets via the Indian Ocean. Likewise, Sydney and Melbourne are both closer to Pacific ports than Adelaide is. South Australia and Adelaide is an inconvenient distance from both hubs and from Darwin on the northern coast. There’s little incentive for companies to locate near Adelaide.
I guess that’s why they make such good Shiraz and Riesling wines in the region. I managed to pick up a bottle of excellent Wolf Blass Shiraz when Tony, Julia and I popped into the winery one boozy afternoon.
The good wines can be credited to German immigrants, and that brings me to the Migration Museum in Adelaide. One afternoon, Julia and I crept in after wandering around the central business district, which resembles most other CBDs in Australia: a walking mall, with a number of shops, usually of middling quality and astronomical prices. Australia’s isolation doesn’t allow much room for affordable anything.
Anyway, the museum. It was complete in the way that smaller museums usually are, compensating for its small size by packing every square meter full of displays, information plaques, multimedia displays and interactive dials and switches. The first gallery was devoted to John McDouall Stuart, who had considerably better luck than poor Burke and Wills, succeeding in becoming the first European to cross Australia from Adelaide to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1861.
And while the museum did an admirable job in presenting the damage to the aboriginal ways of life the white settlers inflicted, there was not a single word on the penal colony origins of Australia. In fairness, Adelaide was started as a free colony, not a prison, but reading the information plates on migration to Australia in the 19th Century, you would have though the entire enterprise was a queer lark on the part of restless Britons instead of a deliberate thinning of the underclass by the government.
“Decisions had to be made,” read one plaque. “To go or stay? Where to go, America or Australia?” Well, for the early settlers of this giant, lethal continent, there wasn’t a choice at all. They were put on ships for the high crime of stealing bread or a turnip, and exiled to a place that Europeans had no idea how to farm or survive in. Hardly a profile in free agency.
It’s the Opal Capital of the World, as it grandly bills itself, and it has suffered the boom and bust cycle that is so common of extractive economies. But what is most interesting, besides its surreal desert landscape, is that 40 percent of its people live underground in “dug-outs”, many of them quite modern and spacious. Going down into one is like going down into a bomb shelter of the 1950s, or perhaps the underground lair of a Bond villain, as Bill Bryson wrote in his book, In a Sunburned Country
Its low buildings usually burrow further into the small hills. Hitting opal veins is common, but finding rich veins is becoming less so. Still people continue to come to seek their fortune and hopefully strike it rich. Earlier miners, however, had it rougher. Sandstone, which makes up most of the rock around the area, is tough. That made it very safe to mine since it was unlikely the tunnels would collapse, but it made for back-breaking work because they had to tunnel out all these shafts and burrows with pick-axes, little knives and trowels. The Old Time Miners’ Museum had a number of mannequins explaining the nature of the work, including a surprising one above us seemingly about to drop down a shaft onto our heads.
There were a number of underground hotels, but we pitched up at a caravan park, Riba’s, on the outskirts of town. It allowed underground camping, but I didn’t like it. It was too creepy, too claustrophobic and too hot. It was cooler outside — and I had cellular signal. I offered Julia my spot in the underground camp site, but we couldn’t peg the tent, so she declined.
The town was, as someplace like it should be, full of “characters.” By far my favorite — other than creepy Barbara, at Riba’s, who seemed deaf and totally lacking in social skills — was Terry Kuss, who was married in the outback. He says he was mentioned by Time magazine in a 1990 story on Rev Malcolm Thomas, who traveled Australia as an itinerant preacher. I looked for the article, but haven’t been able to verify his claim to publicity.
Terry was helping run Joesphine’s Art Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage, and when we got there, the place was closed for a ‘roo feeding. After about 10 minutes, Terry popped his head out the door and whisked Julia inside. I had gone in search of coffee at what I thought was a cafe. It was instead a mineral shop, but the owner, a blustery Croatian who had come to make his fortune in opals, offered to make me a cup of coffee. I declined, saying I didn’t want to put him to any trouble.
“Is no trouble. Is trouble if I make it just for me. But for two, is no trouble.”
Still I declined and wandered over to the gallery-cum-orphanage.
Terry was showing Julia around. He and I got to chatting and it turns out that he used to live “out bush,” as he put it where he had no running water, no electricity and had to chop wood for cooking and run the generator for the occasional electricity.
“That got too hard, so I decided to move to the city,” he said.
“Oh?” I said. “Where did you move to?”
He looked a bit perplexed and said, “I moved here, mate. To the city.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that someone might consider Coober Pedy an actual city instead of a mining colony or, at best, a small town.
Coober Pedy has been featured in many a movie: Mad Max 3, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and my personal favorite, Until the End of the World. Its stark hills, which back up to the Stirling Range, gives it an otherworldly look. Indeed, one attraction outside of town en route to the Breakaways, a spur of the Stirlings, was called the Lunar Plain, because seeing it in the early morning light left me with a distinctly moon-landing feeling. If I was going to fake a moon — or Mars — landing, this would be my soundstage for sure.
Finally, Sydney. On Feb 11, we rolled into town. After almost a month on the road, thousands of kilometers, hundreds of liters of petrol and a couple of snippy conversations, Me, Julia and her friend Steffi, who we picked up in Adelaide, made it. I dropped the girls off and went to meet my friend Andrew West, a radio presenter with the ABC with whom I had gone to graduate school.
Our journey was at an end, and my time in Australia, too, was drawing to a close. I confess, I didn’t have the energy to properly enjoy Sydney, but I could tell it was a rich, glorious city. Sydney Harbor is a jewel, and the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge invite you to find a cafe, read a paper and just watch the mix of Australians — all seemingly tall, good looking and healthy — pass by. In the harbor itself, more likely than not, you’ll see an armada of sails skipping across the water as captains and pilots race their catamarans and sloops back and forth between the ferries plowing their way from Sydney to Manly and to other beach ‘burbs nestled in the hills that gracefully fall into the sea.
My time in Melbourne, likewise, was too short. That was made the more apparently by the hospitality and warmth I was shown by my couchsurfing host, Tullia J. Melbourne for me had been a conflicting mass of memories, given that I had gotten married there. But Tullia and her housemates put me at ease with the Australian penchant for affability, hospitality and a general inclination to not take things too much to heart. How can you ever be down too long in a country that celebrates drowned leaders with swimming pools and names highways after successful explorers, but holds the doomed losers closer to its collective heats? This is also a country that has taken in several of my old friends from Baghdad, providing them a haven when they had to flee the war there, and then thanking them for choosing to become citizens in their new, southern home.
As I said, this is a big, and big-hearted country. It’s got its flaws, and its insecurities. Its treatment of Aborigines is an open wound, and the legacy of its “Whites Only” immigration policy that lasted for almost three-quarters of the 20th century still lingers.
But it is also a country that takes care of its people. Its geographical isolation has engendered a sense of shared experience among Australians, as if the whole country is packed in a rather roomy lifeboat adrift, and people had better work together if they wanted to make it. There’s a refreshing lack of patience for self-importance. Australians will cheerfully take the piss out of you, but that just means you’re a mate. It’s very, very difficult to dislike a place like this.
I left Australia with a deep affection that I hadn’t felt before, and that’s because of the Australians themselves. From the western jackaroos of Perth to the urbanite hipsters of Melbourne, they are an extraordinary bunch from an extraordinary country.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!