A land of contrasts—I went from freezing snow to hot, damp rainforests to hot, dry deserts, and to the spectacular Great Barrier Reef and the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Darwin. Multiple visits required.
Australia is well worth the long (15 hours) LAX to Sydney flight. When you go, be sure to look up Wayne Robertson (WaynesWorld@ledanet.com.au), Australia/New Zealand Guide Extraordinaire. Knowledgeable, intelligent, untiring, will find anything of interest, even glow worms under a tree stump, and has the best sense of humor. A guide like Wayne makes the visit enjoyable and memorable.
Kangaroos are so numerous that they are boring unless they are doing something interesting, like hopping or eating;
Female kangies are in a constant state of pregnancy; embryo in the tubes, developing embryo in the pouch, joey half in and out
Wombats are only cute as babies; their poop is square like Williams-Sonoma chocolate marshmallows and stacked on high points to mark their territory.
Koalas have fingerprints and you need an electronic microscope to distinguish between koala and human fingerprints.
Australian animals are lactose-intolerant.
Emus can’t walk backwards and make a thrumming sound in their throats like a drum.
- Kangaroos can’t walk backward either, which is why the manga is on Australia’s shield— they are only looking forward, not backward
Kiwi is a nocturnal, flightless, not particularly attractive, bird. The kiwi fruit you may eat is really the Chinese gooseberry that some New Zealander (also referred to as a Kiwi as Australians are called Aussies and Maoris living in Australia are called Mossies, which is also the name for mosquitos and you think English has abundant homophones) grew and marketed effectively.
Maoris were cannibals and head-shrinkers.
Aussies shorten the long words and add ie: Australian, Aussie; Tasmania, Tassie; wombats, wombies; kangaroos, kangies; relatives, rellies.
Woolworth’s is alive and well as a large grocery chain.
McDonald’s serves a Kiwi burger, a hamburger with a fried egg on top
Cadbury chocolate started by Quakers, who also started the first schools in Australia.
Cadbury now owned by Kraft, which also owns Vegemite, headquartered in Melbourne.
The Hills Hoist, we, who are old enough to remember, know as the clothesline, was invented in Australia.
Tip is the same word used for garbage dump, and very little of it goes on because...
Minimum wage is $11+ an hour.
Everything is expensive even the cheap clothing imported from China in Target.
The Australian government gives $5,000 cash for every baby born; guess who’s having the babies?
Until the 1970’s, immigration to Australia was white only; when they opened to everyone; a perhaps unintended consequence was good food, instead of the British fare (except lemon curd and scones, of course). British, New Zealanders, then Asians are the largest immigrant groups plus the 100-150,000 illegal immigrants annually from Tamil, Afghanistan, Iraq, which they call gray labor.
Kiwi shoe polish, was named by William Ramsey for his NZ wife
Auckland has the largest Polynesian/Pacific Islanders population in the world
Must add to American slang:
“No worries” as the response to “thank you”
Spit the dummie (spit out the pacifier) = about to cry, having a hissy fit
Rattle your dags (dags are the poop-matted wool on a sheep’s bum) = hurry up, move it
Down the gurgler = down the drain
Quite keen on = fond of something
Fancy = like or “Do you fancy him?” aka “Are you hot for him?”
Brekky = breakfast and even Burger King and McDonald’s have brekky specials
Before my travelogue begins, I must quote Bill Bryson on Australia (reading In a Sunburned Country is a must): “It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures--the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish--are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped to death by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.
“This is a country that is at once staggeringly empty and packed with stuff. Interesting stuff, ancient stuff, stuff not readily explained. Stuff yet to be found. Trust me, this is an interesting place.” I loved Australia and never saw a poisonous anything, only a few toxic travelers.
First up is the exciting geological history that is Australia, which oddly enough was new information for me since the Theory of Tectonic Plate Drift wasn’t covered in my school days. Australia and New Zealand were once part of the southernmost precursor supercontinent, Gondwanaland (Laurasia being the other supercontinent), that came about in the late Mesozoic era as a part of the breakup of the theorized goliathly super-duper supercontinent Pangaea. When separated, Laurasia moved farther north and Gondwanaland drifted south. Gondwana included most of the land masses in today’s southern hemisphere: Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand, as well as Arabia and the Indian subcontinent, which have now drifted entirely into the Northern Hemisphere. The continent of Gondwana was named by Austrian geologist, Eduard Suess (a relative of the rhyming Doctor, do you suppose?), after the Gondwana region of central northern India (from Sanskrit gondavana “forest of the Gonds,” the Gondi tribe in central India), when he first put forth his theory in 1881. The African, Antarctic, Indo-Australian, South American tectonic plates crashed and smacked into each other creating mountains and land formations. Several orogenies occurred in the late Ediacaran (formed in the last 50 million years of the Neoproterozoic era, during which a new texturally and chemically distinctive carbonate layer appeared, indicating climatic change) and Cambrian periods. For your edification, orogeny refers to forces and events leading to a severe structural deformation of the Earth’s crust due to the engagement of tectonic plates; an orogen is accomplished in part by the tectonic processes of subduction, where a continent rides forcefully over an oceanic plate (non-collisional orogens), or convergence of two or more continents (collisional orogens). Response to such force results in the formation of long tracts of highly deformed rocks called orogens or orogenic belts. The word “orogeny” comes from the Greek (oros for “mountain” plus genesis for “creation” or “origin”), and it is the primary mechanism by which mountains are built on continents. Orogens develop while a continental plate is crumpled and thickened to form mountain ranges, and involve a great range of geological processes collectively called orogenesis. Who knew? Wasn’t covered in UCLA’s Geology 101 (The Shenandoahs, in the eastern US, the result of tectonic plate collision, are only a billion years old; Himalayas also of tectonic plate clashing).
Australia is the sixth largest country (4.8 million square miles, 7.8 million square kilometers), smallest continent, largest island (calling it an island, however, is quite western-centric since it is the size of the continental United States, despite how maps and globes portray Australia), lowest, flattest, and other than Antarctica, driest continent. While much of the land masses in Europe and North America are geologically recent, Australia’s landscape is billions of years old. Situated in the middle of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, there is little volcanic activity and earthquakes are rare (tell that to Christchurch, New Zealand). The huge mountain ranges, such as the Pietermanns and MacDonnells of Central Australia, were created by internal pressures millions of years ago and have gradually been weathered away by wind and rain, remaining as mere bunions, protuberances on the horizon. The average elevation is 330 meters (1,000 feet) making Australia the lowest continent. The highest point, Mt. Kosciuszko (named by a Polish explorer in 1840 in honor of the Polish-Lithuanian hero, who was a colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, who the Continental Congress brevetted to Brigadier General, meaning he acted in the brigadier general capacity, but did not receive the corresponding increase in pay--ever fiscally responsible the US Gov, and was made a naturalized US citizen; he also led the Kosciuszko Uprising  against Imperial Russia and Kingdom of Poland, and was the Supreme Commander of the Polish National Armed Force) at 2,228 meters (7,300 feet), is part of one of the longest mountain chains in the world, the 3,500 kilometer (2,100 mile) Great Divide which runs down the east coast of Australia. The Great Divide formed when the floor of the Tasman Sea smashed up against the coast of Australia. The lowest point, Lake Eyre (not named for Jane, but after the first European, John Edward Eyre, to see it in 1840) is 15 meters (49 feet) below sea level and is filled on average every 15 years by flooding rains flowing inland from The Great Divide. On the rare occasion it is filled, it is the largest lake in Australia and is located about 700 kilometers (435 miles) north of Adelaide. The torrential rains of January 2007 took six weeks to reach Eyre, so the flooding rains of Queensland, December 2010 I experienced should have arrived by early February 2011 in Lake Eyre. Like the Okavango Delta, Eyre Lake is endorheic--has no outlet; evaporation its main source of water loss, and therefore it’s surrounded by salt pans.
Australia is approximately 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles) from north to south and 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from east to west. The tip of Australia, Cape York, is equivalent to Costa Rica in the northern hemisphere and the most southernly point, South East Cape in Tasmania, is similar to Boston. So I reveled in snow/hail at Crater Mountain and 100 degree heat and 100% humidity in Queensland. 80% of the Aussie population live along the eastern side of The Great Divide. 80% of Australia receives less than 600 millimeters (24 inches) of rain annually, while 50% of the continent receives less than 300 millimeters (12 inches). There are 10 deserts in Australia, The Great Victoria, the largest at 348,750 square kilometers (216,703 square miles; FYI: Death Valley Desert is 2,240 square miles, the Gobi about 500,000 square miles, Kalahari 220,000 square miles). The past ten years brought little or no rain, and the drought broke while I was there. Drought is a constant companion in Australia; Aboriginals and Europeans alike have suffered and will continue to suffer its effects. Even the public toilets have dual flushing mechanisms; gray water is in use everywhere. Australia is way beyond putting a brick in their toilet tanks (San Francisco 1980’s) and not washing their cars in the driveway. Far north Queensland, however, is in the tropics and their rainfall is measured in meters, not millimeters. Thornton Peak averages more than 10 meters (33 feet) annually while the coast a few miles away averages 3 meters (10 feet). This is where I would no doubt live when Australia waives the $500,000 cash deposit I would have to make to immigrate (to make up for all those years I did not contribute to the medical care system) and to be near the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia contains rocks over three billion years old as well as some of the world’s most infertile soil. Central Australia is the remains of sea and lake beds from 50 million years ago. Flowing beneath is the Artesian Basin, the best aquifer in the world, which is used by today’s cattle station owners providing water for their herds. While much of Australia’s ancient soils are sandy and infertile, dig beneath and a wealth of minerals are found--nickel, copper, iron, aluminum, tungsten, silver, gold, diamonds, opals, coal and over ⅓ of the world’s uranium deposits and most of its dolomite (calcium manganese carbonate, used as fertilizer, ceramics and construction materials) reserves. Mining is Australia’s biggest export earner and is continuing to expand to meet the demand of an insatiable Asian market. And you thought the biggest earner were those hotties in Thunder DownUnder and Ugg boots.
The fascinating geologic history of Australia seems to be skipped over in US classrooms, with history starting with Captain James Cook and his intrepid little HMS Endeavor voyage in 1768, where he charted New Zealand and the east coast of Australia. Never mind that he didn’t discover Australia, that he wasn’t even a captain at the time (he was promoted in 1771), and his purpose was to observe the infrequent passage of Venus across the face of the sun. Precise measurements of this event were needed worldwide in order to determine the accurate distance between the earth and sun. As part of his second voyage to the South Pacific, he wanted to find the rumored Terra Australis Incognita, great southern continent. He did circumnavigate the southern waters around Antarctica proving Terra Australis Incognito did not exist, but did discover several island chains in the South Pacific. Cook is often credited, incorrectly, with discovering Australia. There is nothing definitive as to whom “discovered” Australia, since we European-centrics can’t possibly credit some non-white hunter-gatherer group, that could neither read nor write, with discovery.
The Euro-invasion began with Arthur Phillip, Australia’s first governor, who arrived in Botany Bay, 1788 with 11 ships many full of the dregs of British society from the overflowing jails. In fairness to the convicts, in an effort to deter crime, over 200 offenses were punishable by death. Surprise, surprise, as today, this did not deter crime. Actually, a whole class of criminals evolved in response to poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and the rigid class society, where wealth was concentrated in the hands of the few. Before the War of Independence, 50,000 British prisoners had been sent to the US. Had to find another venue since white slavery seemed to be problem in the newly formed US. It was Joseph Banks, the botanist on Cook’s Endeavor, who suggested that Botany Bay in New South Wales as an ideal place for prisoners. Upon arrival Phillip decided the proposed site had neither secure anchorage nor sufficient drinking water and continued up the coast to Port Jackson, noted and named by Cook, who 18 years earlier sailed past and found, “one of the finest harbors in the world.” The reason for the site for the settlement of Sydney within the harbor was, “The different coves were examined with all possible expedition. I fixed on the one that had the best spring of water and in which the ships can anchor so close to the shore that at a very small expense, quays may be made at which the largest ships may unload.” Botany Bay busted. The settlement was named Sydney, after Viscount Sydney, the British Home Secretary, Phillip’s immediate boss.
Not enough food, wildlife scarce, poor soil for growing without fertilizer, Phillip put the colony on half rations and sent to Capetown for supplies. He made it a hanging offense for stealing food. One man died of starvation in the queue waiting for his rations. Phillip began encouraging free settlers to immigrate and have the convicts work for free. Those convicts who showed through hard work their worth, were given reduced sentences and pardons.
It was hoped that Aborigines would give up the nomadic life and work for the Europeans at the bottom of the social ladder, as Indians had done on the sub-continent. From the beginning, however, the Aborigines spurned the new arrivals and thought them inferior, immoral, violent with no hunting or fishing skills and no idea about the land (all quite true). Phillip’s charter was to treat the local Aborigines with respect. To better understand the locals, he ordered the kidnapping of two local tribe members, Bennelong and Colbee (Hey, he was trying). Colbee escaped, but Bennelong seemed to enjoy the company of the governor and went to England with him for three years. Arthur Phillip is credited with getting the colonization of Australia off to a fair start for success.
Convicts, used as slaves on the cattle and sheep stations, helped free settlers get rich, and the “convict period” of Australian history came to an abrupt end with the discovery of gold. For 30 years after 1852, miners from all over the world arrived in Australia with gold fever. After WWII Australian exports flourished and more than five million people migrated to Australia in the latter half of the 20th century. Today more than one in five Australians were born overseas, 22% from Asian countries. The links with Britain, the mother country, have slowly eroded, then speeded up with the European Union when Britain had to buy from EU countries and stopped using Australia and New Zealand as their breadbasket (tough on the locals, who adapted quickly). The best guess is that Australia will soon become a republic with its own president as head of state. It might help if the Queen would quit rooting for England to win the cricket title, when Australia and New Zealand are part of her domain.
Melbourne (named after the British Prime Minister ) is located in the State of Victoria, the most southern state. Hip, lots of young people, coffee bars, outdoor cafes, restaurants--and too little time to hang out and enjoy the action. In 1835 two men arrived in the Melbourne area looking for land; John Batman, bushranger tracker (Daniel Batman, the Australian sprinter, is a direct descendant), who named the area, “Batmania,” and “purchased” the land from the local aborigines, who had little concept of ownership, for 40 blankets, 30 axes, 100 knives, 50 scissors, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour and 6 shirts (sounds like a better deal than the Manhattan purchase), and John Fawkner, a businessman from Launceston on Tasmania. Fifteen years later the Australian gold rush began, the State of Victoria separated from New South Wales, and Melbourne became the world’s richest city. Evidence remains: beautiful old English, Scottish and Australian banks with magnificent carved stone facades, gold leaf ceilings; Williams Street, the legal area, where solicitors still wear horsehair wigs in the magnificent supreme court building with its grand dome and the “sheila” with the scales of justice. Over $200 million worth of gold was taken from the earth. Today with over 3.7 million inhabitants, Melbourne is cosmopolitan and diverse. Melbourne has the largest Chinese population outside of China and the third largest Greek population outside of Greece. Many Asians come to Australia to learn English. Education is a significant revenue stream for the economy, more than tourism. Federation Square, an explosion of angles, curves, steel, glass and geometry, is a stunning work of architecture and houses several galleries and art museums I thoroughly enjoyed. The Melbourne Gaol (pronounced “jail”), housed and hanged some of the most notorious criminals in Australia’s past. Alcatraz had its Bird Man, Melbourne hung Ned Kelly of the infamous Kelly Gang in the gallows of the gaol. Ned Kelly, like Jesse James and Wyatt Earp, became a legend and Mick Jagger starred in the movie!
Ned was an Irish bushranger (highwayman). Even though his dad was a convict, Ned’s old school records showed he helped out his mates and saved a seven year old from drowning. At 12 (his dad died and he was a big, strong kid) he went to work for Harry Powers, the numero uno criminal at the time, by taking care of his horse. By age 16 Ned had been in prison three times. In 1878 when Ned was 23, police went to arrest his brother; Ned was captured after a 12-hour gun fight with 28 bullet wounds, mostly in his legs since he wore body armor made of plough shares weighing more than 80 pounds. Ned became popular with the locals because when robbing banks, an accomplice burned all the bank’s papers, including loan papers. No one had to repay loans because the proof was eliminated, compliments of Robin Hood Ned.
“Marked Men” were those who had been shipped off to criminal colonies. One woman was imprisoned 18 times for swearing, having no money, and/or petty stealing. Each winter she committed a crime so that she would have shelter (dark and dank trumps freezing). Bob “Smallboy” and Jack “Tummunperway,” the first to be executed in the Melbourne gaol, were aborigines. Unfortunately, John Davies, the colony’s first executioner, didn't quite have things properly prepped, so the floor didn’t drop correctly. The men were placed back on scaffold during repairs and eventually were hanged slowly, as the rope stretched, writhing convulsively while local aborigines looked on. White men would have made quite the impression. 1975 Australia stopped capital punishment (P.S. They are also way ahead of the US on recycling and water management).
Considered one of the world’s most livable cities, Melbourne is shopping central with the Queen Victoria Market (built on a former cemetery) full of food, clothes, leather, tea, anything you want. I bought a ½ kilo of cherries (original cuttings from Japan) and ate them all. The clothing area had everything you could find in a Chinese night market--lots of cheap Chinese made goods, like the rhinestone camisoles I bought. Lots of hip, stylish shops, even a designers’ row in Melbourne. Walking was beautiful with the jacaranda trees’ (originally from Argentina) beautiful periwinkle blossoms in full bloom. Unfortunately, Melbourne and most of urban Australia, has been invaded by Kmart, Krispy Kreme, KFC, McDonalds (with brekky mackies and McCafes), Starbucks, Target, Hungry Jacks, which looks exactly like Burger King, which it is, but that name was already in use.
Melbourne has the largest tram (think cable car trolley) system in the world. Very easy to get around and I learned that a short black is espresso and a long black is regular coffee, although I stuck to lattes. The Eureka Tower, a 90-story apartment building, has Skydeck 88, the highest observation vantage point in the southern hemisphere, with a glass viewing edge that is opaque as it moves out a few feet, then the sound of shattering glass makes the floor clear! Missed that experience--so I must go back with an intrepid friend.
One evening we drove out to Philip Island, home of the Penguin Parade, where the world’s smallest penguins (for your edification, there are 17 species of penguins), the blue fairy penguins, emerge from their day of fishing at sea, waddle back to their burrows and feed the kids, who start calling to their parents at sunset. It’s dark and noisy and totally fun. Apparently penguins can recognize individual voices; it was all joyful cacophony to me. Penguins climb cliffs to burrow and make nests and tend to use the same burrows for breeding and parenting year after year. The blue penguins are adorable and full of joie de vivre antics as a raft of penguins emerges from the sea after sunset to avoid the sea eagles; a waddle of penguins stop, look, and listen before tottering forward a few steps and repeat the stop, look, and listen every few steps. Too cute. The park has many volunteers because the penguins do get lost, especially when their burrows are built so far from the shore, and have to be directed around the visitor center and parking lot. Signs warn visitors to check under their cars to be sure a little penguin hasn’t hidden underneath. The blue penguin, whose blue back is perfect camouflage against the sea from airborne predators, lays two eggs and within five weeks of hatching, the babies are as large as the parents. Both parents nest; both parents feed the chicks. After three weeks, both parents fish during day and come back at night to feed chicks, which was what I witnessed--regurgitating into the chicks’ mouths, penguin pabulum. The average life span is seven years; the oldest is 24 years. They spend 80% of their lives in water; when chicks first leave for their first 12 months at sea, only 50% survive. There are 45,000 penguins in the Philip Island colony. While visiting the Cleland Reserve in Adelaide, I watched a giant Australian pelican eat a baby duck. As it stalked another, the baby paddled maniacally towards its mother, while I waved my arms and shouted, scowling at the person who was spouting some nonsense about “natural nature.” It’s a tough world for the babies.
From Melbourne we went to Adelaide (also in The Economist’s top 10 most livable cities, 2010), a town on the southern coast of South Australia State; 1.6 million population with 1.3 living in Adelaide with its one-half hour time difference. Adelaide, fifth largest city and called the “city of churches,” was named after Queen Adelaide, the German-born consort of King William, whom he married after a previous lengthy liaison, who bore him 10 illegitimate children, and whom he dumped the minute he realized he would be king. However, Frau Adelaide produced no progeny, so alas, Willie had no male heirs and William’s niece, Victoria, became the ruling monarch upon his demise and we know how that blood line is working out.
Adelaide is now the charming “city of recycled churches”—converted to night clubs, businesses, homes, pubs, retail shops. Beginning in 1837 as a free state and incipient social engineering plan, colonizing southern Australia was designed to reduce the congestion in Britain’s cities during the industrial revolution by having the rich buy and own the land and sending a blue collar labor force aka poor people, instead of convicts. Workers began producing more than they could use and exporting began. With the discovery of copper and silver in the late 1840’s, Central Australia’s economic base expanded. However, with the discovery of gold in neighboring Victoria and New South Wales, 25% of the workforce was lured away into trying their luck in the goldfields. But the discovery of more good grazing land in the north of the state, plus finding lead, zinc, and silver, the population expanded. Adelaide, considered one of the most beautiful cities in Australia with a population of over one million, is famous for its parks and gardens and has become the center for Australia’s impressive wine industry, which I sampled at every opportunity.
I took the loverly, bouncy ferry crossing with tea and biscuits over the azure, and assuredly freezing, sea, landing on Kangaroo Island, Australia’s third largest island (second largest, Melville Island), producer of eucalyptus (mallegum tree is best) oil, lavender, honey (manuka is best and I’ve eaten all of mine). KI has the only pure bred honey bees in world and the US is importing Australian honey bees because the Aussie species doesn’t have the little orange mite that has been killing all our bees, which originated in Russia (sounds like an old communist cold war biological weapon plot surfacing). Kangaroo Island was uninhabited when discovered in 1802 by Matthew Flinders, an English explorer. Almost half the island has never been cleared of native vegetation.
Although, they have desalination plants because of droughts, most KI residents rely on rainwater collection in their homes. Rationing showers? Flushing once a day? Residents of KI have to really love the rural location, much of which is wildlife sanctuaries.
Everybody adapts, especially Australia’s strange and marvelous marsupials. These unusual animals were saved from competition with the mammalian carnivores and herbivores because of their isolation when Australia split from Gondwanaland 40 million years ago. Their cousins drifted free in South America and Africa, but became extinct when out-competed by the more evolutionary advanced placental mammals (young grow and develop in the mother’s womb) from the northern hemisphere land masses. Australia’s geological isolation caused the development of some rather unusual and distinctive plants and animals; many having retained characteristics that place them very low on the evolutionary scale. Most Australian animals are marsupials (young are born in embryonic state and develop in a pouch), which along with the monotremes (warm-blooded, but lay lizard-like eggs and suckle their young) are the earliest warm-blooded animals to emerge from the primordial ooze. In order to protect these low-onthe-evolutionary-scale fauna, residents on Kangaroo Island have to obtain permission to own a kitty, which must be neutered, have a chip implant and registered. All other cats are shot on site. It’s estimated that the feral cat population consumes 1½ tons of protected wildlife a day. Dreadful.
There are only 14,000 sea lions left on the planet with 75% in Australian waters. The KI Seal Bay colony I observed has 1,100. Frankly, I just observe because they stink and the mating season just ended so there was no action--fights, yelling, yo mama stuff. They feed at sea for 2-3 days, then flop on the sand and digest for 2-3 days-- providing very little entertainment value. Seal Bay was declared a sanctuary in the 1800s, so these guys are rather complacent. Even though about 700 pounds, these sea lions are very mobile and can run on all four flippers and are close rellies of the seals in the Galapagos and San Francisco’s Pier 39. Males live to 18 years, females, 25 years, as it should be since they endure an 18 month gestation just to keep the species going. Sea lions have hair, not fur, which makes them more susceptible to cold, so they will move inland and cover themselves partially with sand. I saw them under stairs, up against the buildings, in the bushes. Sea lions lose 20% of the newborn pups right off because the dominant male will kill them to get at the females for another round of sex. Good grief. And while I enjoyed the day on Kangaroo Island, I missed the wine tastings in the Barossa Valley, Australia’s most famous wine growing region. Another reason to return to Adelaide.
Central Australian Outback, Northern Territories
From Adelaide to Alice Springs (Remember the PBS series, A Town Called Alice with Bryan Brown?), where we visited the Royal Flying Doctor Service, founded in 1928 by the Very Reverend John Flynn (“The furthest corner. The finest care.”) covering an area the size of Western Europe starting with a small bush airline, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (Q.A.N.T.A.S.) and the School of the Air, established in 1951, educating the rural students through radio, and now skype and internet. I walked the Todd Mall where the aborigine ladies showed their wares, didgeridoos (think giant, beautifully decorated kazoos) were played, and relaxed in the Red Ochre Cafe (barramundi en papillote with wild lime and coriander butter with the local pinot).
There was a walkabout with an aborigine (looked Caucasian with his two front teeth removed as part of a rite of passage) and his son (blonde and blue-eyed; there are no full-blooded Aborigine people today) who showed us the native plants, sacred sites, and told us about the origin myths and “secret women’s business” and “secret men’s business,” and he kept it all secret. Told us what plants and animals were good to eat: Perentie lizard (Varanus giganteus) second largest lizard after the Komodo, is not only good to eat, it’s a good lizard--it eats the poisonous snakes. Witchetty grubs (Endoxyla leucomochla), the larvae of the cossid moth, are also good to eat and taste like peanut butter. Who knew? It’s a large grub, 6-8 inches long and about 1½ inches in diameter. Yuk. But if the local animals are too dumb to domesticate, the Aborigines did a good job of figuring out what to eat as they wandered from water hole to water hole, hunting and gathering.
Australia’s Aborigines believe their people have lived in Australia since the dawn of time called, “Dreamtime,” although Mungo Man and other anthropological evidence says more like 40,000 years. It’s believed they walked to Australia when there were existing land bridges during the major tectonic plate shifts and ice age periods. Although lumped together under the term, Aborigine, these hunter-gather groups developed over 200 different languages and local traditions. Around Alice Springs (“Mparntwe” in the Arrernte language) and Central Australia there are approximately twenty language groups with Arrernte the largest, and Pitjantjatjara, Walpiri, Warumungu, Lurtija, etc. These are more like clans or tribes. For thousands of years these family groups roamed and traded together over territory stretching from 110 kilometers east and west of the McDonnell ranges and about 330 kilometers north and south. Their strong ties to this landscape include many sacred sites. A sacred site means a place sacred to Aboriginal people or significant according to their tradition. It could be trees, hills, rocks, springs. Many sacred sites mark a particular act of creation by ancestral beings in mythological times, e.g., the mountain where Caterpillar bit off the head of Stinky Beetle, where Baiamo created the first man and woman; others are ceremonial grounds. The aborigines believe that sacred sites are powerful places and violation of their sanctity can be dangerous both to those who transgress and to the custodians of the site. These sacred sites are protected by legislation. Like the US Native Americans, Aborigines have been given huge tracts of land even though their numbers are small and many live in poverty on their lands in dirt poor villages; alcohol and huffing major problems. Gotta get the kids in school and educated.
One of the highlights of Alice Springs was meeting with Alec Ross, “a living history of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station,” as the subtitle of his booklet reveals, which he autographed for me. Alec is one of those half-caste children (ala Rabbit Proof Fence) taken from his mother at age three (although he doesn’t know his exact birthday; he selected April 6) to be educated and indoctrinated. Unlike what was featured in Rabbit Proof Fence, many half caste children were shunned and abandoned by Aborigines. Alec says it was the best thing for him because he was with other children. During the World War II build up the kids were moved to a Methodist Mission on Croker Island (200 miles northeast of Darwin), which Alec thought was paradise as they had the run of the place: “We grew all our food and everything we wanted. And we had horses, wild horses and ponies and pigs and goats and all running wild.” He even remembers seeing the first Japanese planes on their way to bomb Darwin; the kids and the Japanese waived to each other every morning they flew over. The movie, Australia, shows Croker Island being bombed; “never happened,” tells Alec. Eventually, the kids had to be evacuated and had to walk 300 miles to the American base. Alec tells that most of the kids were under the age of 12 with four female missionaries and two Aboriginal trackers. The Americans took care of 80 kids; “Each kiddie found a mate.” Alec, and Aussies in general, are fond of Americans because of what we did for them in World War II. After the war, the 69 remaining children were sent back to Croker, this journey taking 19 days compared to the 72-day trek at the time of their evacuation. Alec had to leave the missionary school when he was 18; he held odd jobs (even gravedigger) and was a professional boxer for five years, married, three boys, lived in Sydney and eventually went back to Alice Springs where he leads tours and gives history talks on the Ross River Homestead, named after Alec’s great-grandfather, John Ross. Alec participated in meetings about the “Stolen Generation,” those half-caste aborigines who were removed from their families. “I was disappointed with the meetings,” said Alec. He gave talks to aboriginal kids from the bush, told his story, “but they didn’t listen...I found with those kids there, they never actually read a book. They never read.” Now 80, Alec is still in Alice Springs talking about his life and the history of the area. He tried to show me how to throw a boomerang, which is meant to land behind the animal to move it forward so that one could spear him. I’m as good with a boomerang as I am with a baseball--useless. Alec met Tom Selleck when he did site scouting for Quigley Down Under. He also did bodyguard work for Frank Sinatra and Dolly Patron. A big, handsome guy; he’s well worth the trip to visit and hear his stories.
The situation with the Aborigines seems to parallel the Native Americans--heart disease, renal failure, diabetes, inadequate/adequate government support, depending upon who’s talking. Like the American casino operations, significant income is derived from aboriginal land leases--I wonder who’s getting the big bucks. And this is unbelievable: Up until 1962 it was still legal to poison Aborigines with strychnine-laden water and flour. While it’s estimated there were 300,000 Aborigines when Captain James Cook first cruised by the east coast, today there are still only 300,000 living in Australia. At the start of the twentieth century, the Aboriginal people were considered a dying race and most of them lived on government reservations or church-run missions. Massacres of Aborigines continued to go largely unpunished into the 1920’s, by which time the government policy was to remove light-skinned Aboriginal children from their families and to sterilize young Aboriginal women. Even today the Aboriginal life expectancy is 20 years less than other Australians, and Aborigines make up the highest percentage of the prison population. The 1993 Native Title Act allows Aboriginal groups to claim government-owned land if they can prove continual association with it since 1788. Before the 2000 Summer Olympic Games an estimated 250,000 people marched across the Sydney Harbor Bridge in an effort to get the government to acknowledge there was a stolen generation and to apologize to them. They didn’t. Until 2008.
On the five-hour drive to Uluru, we visited Curtin Springs (named after former Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin) Cattle Station and Wayside Inn. The million plus acres was previously owned by Aborigines. Dawn and husband, Ash Severin, come in 1956 to take over running the station with his father, Peter, now 83 and working as hard as everyone else. She told us that the first year, six cars drove by; next year, 9 people. They had an inch of rain the first year; then it didn’t rain for ten years. Curtin Springs became the first tourist stop outside Alice Springs on the way to Uluru. Having to plan for 7-10 year rain cycles, the Severins decided to diversify and built cabins and a camping area. Peter had an agreement with the local aboriginal leadership not to sell alcohol to the aborigines. Curtin Springs was then charged with discrimination and had to begin selling alcohol to the aborigines; his tourist trade slumped because the whites didn’t like to drink and eat where there were drunk aborigines. Ten years and $1.8 million in legal fees later, Curtin Springs once again has its special license to sell and serve liquor to everyone except the aborigines. Their motel/camping area is lovely, the grounds lush, yet rustic with its own wandering emu.
Dawn said the “springs” in Curtin Springs is really just a damp spot next to a salt flat. They are not on a pure artesian basin; all the water is bore water. They have 119 bores of which only 14 are usable for water; some are too salty and there is not enough flow to irrigate for crops. The bores are typically 9-30 feet deep and some over 400 feet with the cost of drilling skyrocketing the deeper one drills. There is no natural surface water, so every bit of rain water is collected. In the early days, they had to round up cattle with helicopters and motor bikes, again costly. Now they just use the water holes powered by solar, diesel, wind with in and out trap doors in the fences around the water holes. In 2001 they had good rain, which was followed by fires and feral camels moving through the property that destroyed fences so they had no way to control the herds. Back to Square One, AGAIN. Raising cattle is a complicated process: keeping the high quality cattle away from breeding with lesser types, deciding what kind of bull semen to purchase (Dexters good for milk and beef, can be purebred or grades 1, 2, or 3; British Whites, also good meat and milk, and docile, an important trait during breeding season, Murray Greys, according to Dawn, would rather “fuck than fight,” so they are being added to the herd and breeding process; she didn’t mention the cute Oreo cows, the Galloways). The cattle station is a 24/7 operation; days begin before sunrise and continue well after the dark. The children are educated through the School of the Air (computers and internet a boon to the rural families, who previously had governesses), then going to boarding schools when old enough; health emergencies are handled by the Royal Flying Doctors. After feeling completely beaten up by the heavy, back-breaking work, non-stop problem solving, constant pressure of environmental woes, aging ten years for every one, I asked, “Why in heaven’s name do you continue to stay and do this (Dawn was a city girl)?” And her answer, “Because I love this wonderful man; I get to sleep with the most amazing man; wake up at 4AM beside this incredible man. I see the Milky Way and millions of stars.” Ah, true love.
Dawn also talked about the challenges for the future of the cattle station. They provide their grandchildren with a life they don’t see in town and are working with their grandchildren to love the land and the business, since their children have seen and experienced how hard the work is and want no part of it. Talking with Dawn and seeing the operation is one reason I enjoy traveling with Overseas Adventure Travel; I always have interesting experiences like meeting people who have a passion for something beyond my ken.
Four o’clock one morning, I went ballooning, with yet another adorable balloon guy, over the Outback. There was the Southern Cross, Orion and the Pleiades in the pre-dawn darkness, even the Milky Way. Ballooning is such a lovely way to see the land and the big red kangaroos that were crepuscularly foraging, not to mention the champagne with biscuits when we landed. We could see Pine Gap, the satellite tracking station, which is part of ECHELON, a signals intelligence collection and analysis network, staffed by NSA and CIA. Read: spying with geosynchronous satellites, microwave transmissions from our long-distance telephone calls and other secret spy stuff. There about 2,000 Americans connected with Pine Gap, enough to influence the local economy. Alice Springs celebrates Halloween, plays baseball and basketball in the land of rugby and cricket.
Ayers Rock (almost 300 miles from Alice Springs), now called Uluru, its original name, and probably the world’s most famous monolith, was given back to the Aborigines in 1985. Entrance signs request that you honor the Anangu traditions and not climb the sacred rock, which, I, of course, totally respected and did not climb, and the fact that it was sandy, slippery and people die up there, had nothing to do with my decision. And, I mostly honored the signs requesting that visitors not take pictures of designated sacred sites. I thought “secret women’s business” sites were okay as I am a member of that class.
What appears on the horizon as misty lumps, soon morphs into Uluru and Kata Tjuta (“many heads”) also known as the Olgas, after Queen Olga of Wurttemberg, who was previously Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna of Russia, member of the Russian imperial family, who in 1846 married Crown Prince Charles, who was homosexual with frequent and notorious dalliances, notably the American, Charles Woodcock. British-born Australia explorer, Ernest Giles, wanted to name formations after his benefactor, Ferdinand Mueller, but Mueller persuaded him to name the formation Mt. Olga in honor of the Queen on her 25th wedding anniversary (she sublimated with social causes). Mueller also convinced him to name the “discovered” lake, Lake Amadeus after King Amadeus of Spain, who was previously Prince Amedeo of Savoy from Italy. In 1867 he married Donna Maria Victoria del Pozzo, although not of royal birth, she was the heir to a vast fortune. Money always talks. On their wedding day, events did not bode well for the future: The best man shot himself; the Palace Gatekeeper slit his throat; the King’s aide died after falling from his horse; the bride’s wardrobe mistress hanged herself; the colonel leading the wedding procession collapsed from sunstroke; and the stationmaster was crushed to death under the wheels of the honeymoon train. The Italian reigning king of Spain was neither the brightest crayon in the box, nor very literate, and most certainly not well-liked by his Spanish subjects. Legend has it that once, whilst he was going for a drive around Madrid in his carriage, his secretary pointed out that the house they were passing was that of the famous writer Miguel de Cervantes, upon which he replied, “Well, if he is so famous, even though he has not come to see me yet, I’ll pay him a visit soon.” Cervantes had died 200 years earlier. But I digress.
What was once thought to be a meteorite, Uluru was formed by sediments laid down 600-700 million years ago in an inland sea, then thrust up 1,100 feet above ground by geologic forces. From a distance it looks like a smooth solid mass; it is really made up of compressed pebbles and sedimentary rock. I walked its 6-mile circumference, clicking away at the different formations, coves hiding water holes, curtains of stone cresting like waves, and Aboriginal rock art. Twothirds of the rock is said to be underground. FYI: small shrimps exist on Uluru; they come out when it rains. Uluru is famous for its changing colors and play of light on its surface. I did dawn, day and champagne sunset in my chic-worthy-of-the-Queen flowered hat with pink fly veil. Yes, I was a vision. Think Katherine Hepburn plus forty pounds. At sunrise I shared my orange juice and champagne with dental nurse, Angela Murray of Newcastle, England, who was traveling with her boyfriend in celebration of her 50th. He was busy taking pictures of Uluru from every possible angle and light, so we became girlfriends and toasted with mimosas!
All of the 36 domes that make up Kata Tjuta, are secret men’s business sacred areas and part of the same alluvial deposit as Uluru. Uluru, although a one rock mass, the grains and particles forming it are smaller than Kata Tjuta, which is compressed large boulders, sandstone cemented conglomerate deposits, that were geologically pushed up with the sandstone quickly eroding as there was no vegetation to hold it all together. Both sites were fascinating and this central Northern Territories outback area has much more: Kings Canyon, Rainbow Valley, Kakadu National Park, West MacDonnell National Park, Henbury Meteorite Craters, bird reserves, rock carvings. Then there’s Darwin and the coast. Much more to see and experience.
Great Barrier Reef
Flying into Cairns we drove up to the quaint town of Port Douglas and stayed at the amazing Sea Temple Resort, another place where I could have spent a week or two; there was a pool that meandered through the resort so I could swim leisurely snooping into poolside patios (perhaps one day they’ll turn it into a lazy river). Nearby was a bird habitat where I was attacked by a lesser sooty owl. Apparently he liked my bright red toes. A couple of traveling buddies saw the attack and Emily said, “Wait Don, maybe he’ll attack her again and we can get an action shot.” Always glad to provide entertainment as the owl clawed my toes. I think he was Jonathan Livingston Owl seeking his freedom.
Port Douglas is a major launch point to the Great Barrier Reef, which is definite must-do again. The ship had everything I needed. Snorkel, fins, and lycra unitard with attached hood and mittens. The Aussies wanted me protected against the very poisonous box jellyfish; I found it to be the perfect sun-protecting swim suit. The boat took us to three different areas on the reef, which is really a series of 3,000 individual reefs and 900 fringing reefs around islands, 1,240 miles long about 40 miles off the coast of eastern Australia. The reefs come from the limestone skeletons formed by billions of polyps, whose nourishment comes from its symbiotic relationship with a single-cell algae, zooxanthellaw. This algae reacts with sunlight to photosynthesize and provide energy for the polyp.
1,500 kinds of fish, 300 species of coral, 4,000 kinds of clams and snails, not to mention 400 species sponges, starfish, sea urchins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs (manatees), giant manta rays, whales, even sea snakes; something for everybody. I have no idea which parts of the reef I saw, but I was in the water at every opportunity. It was beyond that tired word, awesome, mega, giga awesome. I saw Dorie, Nemo, amazing corals and anemones, a big sea turtle I tried to follow, but as sluggish as he looked, he quickly outpaced me. The first time out I was so caught up with the exciting scenes, I only briefly wondered why I didn’t see anyone else’s fins until I heard shouting and engine noises. I stuck my head up to see one of the darling Quicksilver boys in a boat, who had motored out to tell me I was headed for New Zealand and he would like to take me back nearer to the ship. I would have preferred to have been towed along behind the boat, but he insisted I get in. When I could return to the water, he suggested I just lift my head out of the water occasionally to keep the ship in sight. I returned to the gold-striped sweeties, butterfly fish, banner fish, angel fish, orange-fin anemone fish (Nemo with blue stripes), blue damsels, blue and yellow wrasses, split level hogfish, parrot fish (which makes a bubble with its spit to sleep in; the bubble masks his scent and heartbeat from predators; in the morning he eats his spit bubble for brekky, yum. And one male presides over several females; however, if the male dies a female will change sex and coloration and assume the male role), striped sturgeon fish, orangelined trigger fish, and zillions more. I could have easily spent eight hours in the water. Truly, this was a life highlight experience. I could easily spend a month in this area: Brisbane, Whitsunday islands, Noose, Moreton Island dolphin feeding with whales and dugongs, Harvey Bay and humpback whales, Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, Green Island, Lady Elliot Island, Heron Island, Michaelmas Cay, and whole areas of the Great Barrier Reef.
North from Port Douglas is Cape Tribulation, Cooper Creek Wilderness, and Daintree Rainforest, a refugium of Gondwanan forest, primitive flora and fauna. Remember Medicine Man with Sean Connery? There are so many unknown, uncatalogued plants in subtropical, warm temperate and cool temperate rainforests in Queensland that cures to everything are potentially lurking. The theory of tectonic plate drift, where continents float over the Earth’s surface, has been proven by the overwhelming evidence of ancient flora and fauna. The section of Gondwana that formed the Australian continent remained largely intact as long ago as 285 million years ago, 240 million years before it broke away and drifted northward. From geological evidence it appears that northeastern Queensland went through a number of changes while still attached to Gondwana. Ancient rivers deposited huge volumes of sediment. Geological processes uplifted the region above sea level. Molten rock was forced up from deep within the Earth’s crust, but did not penetrate the surface. Following the uplifting, heavy eroding went on for 30 million years, exposing the granite peaks. The next 170 million years were quiet, no major upheavals. 100 million years ago currents circulating the Earth’s mantle fractured much of the edge of Gondwana, while at the same time a slow uplifting gave the streams more erosion power exposing the granite peaks that are Queensland’s Thornton Peak, which was mist covered while I was there in December. During the last 100 million years a warm and wet climate prevailed across much of Gondwana. Vegetation thrived dominated by conifers, cycads, ferns and mosses. The first flowering plants, known as angiosperms, appeared and the Daintree Rainforest appeared during this time, 120 million years ago. When Australia broke free from eastern Antarctica sometime between 55 and 45 million years ago drifting northward, it carried the plants and animals of Gondwana. For the next 30-35 million years the continent evolved a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna because of its isolation. With its gradual drift into Earth’s desert latitudes, a radical change impacted its plants and animals. Many adapted to the new conditions, and those who couldn’t became extinct. Flora evolved which possessed the ability to withstand prolonged aridity. Eucalyptus, eventually became one of the most successful of Australian plants derived from the ancient rain forests. There are over 900 species of eucalyptus (kookaburra’s gum tree being one). Another big change occurred more recently, a mere couple million years ago, the Australian plate collided with the Asian plate forming the Indonesian Archipelago and pushing up the highlands of New Guinea. Sea levels fluctuated caused by the effects of the ice ages. Land bridges between Asia and Australia formed, disappeared and formed again. Australia’s forests came face to face with the evolutionary products from another continent, allowing an interchange to develop. These rainforests are 135 million years old, the oldest on earth, and were made The Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Site in 1986. Few places on earth contain so many plants and animals whose ancestors can be traced through fossil records to Gondwana origins and today remain relatively unchanged.
The Daintree (named for Richard Daintree, chief geologist of Queensland, 1872) Rainforest is believed to be the oldest and continuously growing rainforest in the world. Daintree has survived extreme climatic changes, effects of ice ages, escaped volcanic holocausts and endured incursions by the sea. It’s now contending with the results of the European invasion, cutting down forests for cane growing and urban expansion. Much sugar cane is grown in northern Queensland; after five years sugar cane has to be replanted because quality deteriorates. In our walkabout through the rainforest, the woman who lives there with her children and grandchildren, pointed out plants that were once thought to be extinct and talked of scientists who were researching many of the plants. Ribbonwood, until 1972, was only known through fossils. That year cattle were mysteriously dying in the Daintree area. A veterinarian found large seeds in the stomachs of cattle, which he sent to a herbarium for identification. Botanists stated the seeds were from tree believed to be extinct for millions of years. The Cooper Creek Cachment has 140 endemic plants (occur no where else); there must be cure for something here. Many plants in the rainforest are toxic. One has been tried to cure cancer, but the toxin killed the patient. One is being tried as a cure for cancer in dogs and is showing some success. For many of the toxic plants there are no cures; some plants are filled with strychnine.
December to April is the wet season. I loved it; it rained almost the entire time we were there, a lovely, soft, continuous fine downpour, and we missed the subsequent major flooding problems. Cape Tribulation (named after the trials and tribulations of Captain Cook, which were many when he ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef) gets 155 inches of rain per year, Mount Hermon and Thorton Peak, get 235 inches annually and 390 inches in a really wet year. Amazing! I stayed in a little chalet/bungalow built on stilts (not for flooding, but for keeping the room cool); it all felt very primeval and exotic. I walked on the beach, wandered through the dense jungle, and thoroughly enjoyed the rain sans umbrella.
Rainforests flourish in poor soils because of their efficient recycling of nutrients; dead matter and litter are quickly broken down and recycled. Daintree is a closed forest, a “complex mesophyll vine forest,” meaning it feeds upon itself. The Daintree has more plant species than other rainforests and is characterized by many large, soft-leafed plants, vines and lianes, trees with buttressed roots, palms, ferns, orchids, mosses, and lichens. The fan palm species is 150 million years old; there are 400 million year old mosses that were among the first plants to come out of the ooze and survive. The Golden Penda tree with its buttress roots is the ancestor of all eucalypts. A number of trees produce fruits and flowers on their trunks, a process called cauliflory. There is an abundance of mosses, lichens, and epiphytes, 800 species of trees, many endemic. Fan palms at Cape Tribulation, not to be confused with cycads, are thought to have originated in east Gondwana before the breakup, and are palm-like plants which flourished during the Jurassic period from 210 to 145 million years ago. Cyclads were some of the first seed-producing plants, which are cone bearing with male and female plants that are pollinated through wind dispersal. The black palm is dense and very hard and was used for spears and arrow tips by the rainforest aborigines (Kuku Yalangi). The fan palm’s fronds are large enough to stand under and wait out the rain and not get wet, which I did instead of lugging a brolly along (I have camera, binoculars, fanny pack already encumbering me). The rattan vine is called the wait-awhile or lawyer vine. A climbing palm, it starts with copious dagger-like spikes and fine yellow arching stems armed with stickery prickles that can grab you and cause you to wait awhile, back up and remove. They grapple, grip and anchor themselves into surrounding foliage and continue their upward journey to the sunshine nutrients. Many ferns, some tree-sized and some which flourished 325 million years ago when they first appeared on Earth. The strangler fig makes its way to the light by wrapping itself around a growing tree, then begins its real life at the top of the forest canopy throwing its roots down around the host tree, gradually robbing the host of light and ultimately killing it, slowly and ungratefully. Birds eat fig seeds and their droppings at the top of the canopy can begin the life of the strangler fig, which develops a maze of crisscross roots that fuse together around the host’s tree trunk, while the crown of the fig enlarges, growing up and over the host tree. It eventually replaces the original tree. Aborigines buried their dead in the hollow of the strangler fig’s host. When Captain Cook found this tree, he reported that the land had trees that ate people. There are over 100 species of plants that produce buttress roots: neat, symmetrical, and triangular, twisted, thick or curved. These buttress trees are typically shallow-rooted and lack a tap root. The buttress roots have special cells called lenticels, like those in mangroves that enable the root to take in air and moisture.
Saw lots of cool insects, including a stick insect that was mating (I am so easily entertained). The female is twice as large as the male, so she selects the position and settles on a tree to breed, overpowering the male. The tree sends out a pheromone to warn other trees in the area to produce tannin so other stick insects don’t attack the other trees, thereby making one tree the sacrificial plant to protect the others of its species (like giraffes and the acacia trees). Amazing. At brekky I saw dozens of flying foxes or fruit bats, which aren’t bats. They use their eyes; I thought they were large birds until I saw the ribbing in the wings. They are related to lemurs in Madagascar and are a keystone species, one upon which many other lives depend; they perform the dual task of aerial seed dispersal and flower pollination. The spectacled flying fox is the most common species in Daintree. I glued my binoculars to the crowd of them hanging upside down in trees waiting for them to fly off.
Another keystone species, the Southern Cassowary, which eats poisonous fruits and disperses seeds that through its purified poop are no longer toxic. Bet there is an enzyme or something in the cassowary’s stomach or digestive track that could be useful for curing something, since it leeches the poison out of toxic plants. The cassowary (from Papuan, kasu meaning “horned” and weri meaning “head”) belongs to a primitive Gondwanan group of mostly large birds called ratites. This ancient group includes the emu, rhea from South America, African ostrich, New Zealand kiwis (and giant moa, which the Maori ate into extinction). The large helmet casque on its head above the bright blue neck is a foam-like substance with a hard outer covering much like fingernails. The guess is that it is probably a crash helmet for running through the bush and/or used for courting behavior, who has the tallest comb (think penis on the top of its head). It’s believed the cassowary is descended from the velociraptor, who scared the willies out of me in Jurassic Park. Once the cassowary mates, the males incubate (50 days) and care for the chicks, 9-18 months. I only saw a male with two teenage chicks. Mothers must be off at book club or wine tasting once the birth event is over. Saw the beautiful electric blue Ulysses butterfly and the Boyd’s forest dragon, a colorful lizard endemic to Daintree.
Cruising a rainforest river I looked for estuarine crocodiles among the mangroves. These guys existed alongside the Tyrannosaurus Rex. They swim out to sea looking for new estuaries when displaced by other crocs, sometimes several hundred meters out to sea, so swimming isn’t especially popular here. Did you know that crocodiles are opportunistic feeders, and have been known to travel several hundred meters from the water for a dead animal, often dragging it back to the water? And did you know that like lions, young crocodiles are devoured by their elders? Tough room river.
Feral pigs are destroying the rainforest. They eat frogs, dig up and eat worms, which are important to the recycling of debris in the forest; they eat vast quantities of fruit, competing with the cassowaries. The pigs dig up plants destroying root systems. I saw much evidence of this. To date they have removed 90% of the earthworm population, and fouled swamps and streams. These feral pigs are cagey; when trapped they emit a warning pheromone to warn other pigs of the trap. Seems like shooting them and starting a bacon business would be the way to go. With all the known and unknown in the rainforests, you can see why people are adamant about protecting them.
No, I did not do the Sydney Harbor Bridge climb; it takes three hours and there’s too much to see and experience in Sydney. I did tour the Opera House and see a Christmas Eve performance starring Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a tenor, who was gorgeous. The children’s chorus was adorable, but Teddy was a hunk with a voice that melted chocolate and me. The Opera House is really a number of music and performance rooms and would never have been built today. The winning architectural drawing was merely a sketch with no engineering or building plans. Originally it was estimated that it would cost $7 million and take 3 years to build. It ended up costing $102 million and 16 years to build. Although heads rolled, no one would give up on the concept and it is now probably the most recognizable building in the world with its 1,056,006 ceramic roof tiles.
A hip, youth-oriented city, Sydney deserves at least a month’s visit. I’d rent a house there, but I doubt even my dearest friends would handle the 15-hour flight. Too much to see and sample at the Rocks and Circular Quay, Darling (after Governor Darling) Harbor, Russell Crowe’s stomping grounds in Woolloomooloo, Manly Beach (which was named by 24 year old millionaire Joseph Banks, who sailed with Captain James Cook as the botanist; he thought the aborigines he saw there were fine male specimens, very “manly”), Bondi Beach and the walk from Bondi to Bronte, Duke Kahanamoku’s surfboard, who taught the Aussies to surf in 1914, architectural walking tours, charming small communities surrounding the city. Sydney has that San Francisco energy with its outdoor cafes, wine bars, street performers (buskers). I loved the ferry ride, the aquarium, Paddy’s Market, having a short black and watching the action.
There is all of Western Australia left to explore with one of the main attractions being William the Concherer (I did not make that up). William is a bottlenose dolphin that catches his fish using a conch shell. William waits for a fish to swim into his shell and then races to the surface with it. After giving the shell a few sharp shakes to stun the fish, he dumps the shell’s contents into his mouth and gobbles the tasty morsel. Researchers call this fishing behavior “conching” (must have been a dull day), and it’s incredibly rare. In 25 years of observation, scientists have only logged seven confirmed sightings. William will even modify his conch shells to make them better-suited for fishing. What an extraordinary sight to see. I am ready to return.
Australian fauna contains three main elements: those uniquely Australian (monotremes), those of Gondwanan origin with affinities to other continents (marsupials, emu, cassowary, frogs) and those that flew, floated, drifted in from Asia in the last few million years (bats, rodents, snakes, lizards, insects, oh my). After a day of prison lore, the Bonorong wildlife center let me get up close and personal with monotremes and marsupials, the animals that inhabit Australia and nowhere else. I passed on the complimentary kangaroo food, quite happy to take pictures of others feeding the kangies roaming freely, although they were mostly lolling about since the marsupial kangies are crepuscular and nocturnal. Although with the non-dieting roos, it was a bit daunting to see these large creatures hopping over to the hapless tourist with her hand out with food. Marsupials cover a diverse range of animals, from the cat-like Quoll, to the dog-like Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger), which became extinct in the 1930’s.
Echidnas are apparently what happens after mini-anteaters, hedgehogs and porcupines have a frenzied menage a trois. Echidna is the Greek mythological she-viper, half-woman, half snake, “Mother of all Monsters” because she birthed most of the Greek monsters. A monotreme, for those forgetting 8th grade science, is an egg-laying mammal (as is the platypus, which I never saw despite courageous efforts). Echidnas have tiny spines on their tongues like an anteater that help capture their prey and they have electro-receptors on their bills; they can feel ants moving through vibration. The platypus is the only other mammal with electro-receptors in its bill. Very cool. The female lays a single soft-shelled, leathery egg twenty-two days after mating and deposits it directly into her pouch. Hatching takes place after ten days; the infant echidna, called a “puggle,” then sucks milk from the pores of the two milk patches (monotremes have no nipples) and remains in the pouch for 45 to 55 days, at which time it starts to develop spines. The mother digs a nursery burrow and deposits the little puggle, returning every five days to suckle it until it is weaned at seven months. No La Leche League here. The average wild echidna can live as long as 16 years. Listen up, guys. Male echidnas have a four-headed penis. During mating, two heads on one side “shut down” and do not grow in size; the other two are used to release semen into the female’s two-branched reproductive tract. The heads used are swapped each time the mammal copulates.
Koalas, so cute in the tree, and upon closer look, you can see no one’s home. They are the dumbest animal because they eat nutrient-poor food, the leaves of the gum tree (Blue and Manna gums their fave), and over the years the brain of the koala has shrunk to the size of walnut. The two halves of said walnut brain are individually connected to the brain stem. They have extended intestines in order to extract nutrients, and a serious appendix and liver to process the gum tree toxins. Koala babies eat mom’s poop to obtain mom’s bacteria and microbes to be able to digest gum leaves. Koala fossils have been found in northern Australia and date back 20 million years when the area was rainforest. Even fossils of a giant koala have been found. A healthy koala female can produce one baby a year for about 12 years. A baby koala, called a joey (as is a baby kangaroo) is hairless, blind, earless and only ¼ inch long at birth when he crawls into the downward-facing pouch on the mother’s belly (which is closed by a drawstringlike muscle that the mother can tighten at will) and attaches itself to one of the two teats. Young remain hidden in the pouch for about six months, only feeding on milk. During this time they grow ears, eyes, and fur. The joey then begins to explore outside of the pouch. Like wombats and sloths, koalas have a low metabolic rate for a mammal and rest about 20 hours a day, mostly sleeping and eat the remaining four. Koalas have poor eye sight, yet excellent smell; scent glands are on their chest, so they rub their chests on trees to mark their territory (forest aromatherapy). Much more civilized than the dog pee thing. Koalas are the only animal that eats gum tree leaves, which is a type of eucalyptus (gum trees are 10% of the eucalyptus family). Even though their fingerprints are difficult to distinguish from humans, they have two thumbs and three fingers. So a paw print would give them away in any crime scene (perhaps a possible CSI plot?). Summer is mating season and when koalas call, it’s horrid--loud and harsh, but what can you do when you’re trying to mate and the females are generally comatose and disinterested. Koalas have their problems, chlamydia, loss of eucalyptus habitat, so their population is being watched to make sure these cute guys remain on the planet.
The closest living relative of the koala is the wombat, which looks like a furry teddy bear until it’s an adult and then looks like a flat-faced javelina. It has a backward-facing pouch for its joey, so when digging the wombat does not fling dirt in its pouch and bury the baby. Although mainly crepuscular and nocturnal, wombats venture out to feed on cool or overcast days, which is when I saw them at Cradle Mountain National Park. They are not commonly seen, but leave ample evidence of their passage, distinctive cubic feces, whereas, possums leave a cylindrical poop. Female wombies will signal when they are in estrus with an attractive poop design in a conspicuous place for the alpha male to judge her artistic abilities. Who knew how exciting poop could be? Wombies are sweet and cuddly as babies, until the teenage hormones kick-in; they turn obnoxious, want nothing to do with the park people they’ve imprinted upon and, in fact, see humans as a problem. When this behavior appears, they are ready to be released into the wild. Parallels with human teenagers? The wombat has a hard bum for protection. Wombie can slip into his burrow butt-side out and protect itself from others wanting to come in. He can also flatten himself allowing an unwary animal to follow him into the burrow. As the intruder crawls over wombie, he then can suddenly raise up and crush the interloper against the ceiling. Unfortunately, curious small children have been killed this way. Wombats are powerful enough to crush the skull of a dingo. Wombats are the longest living of the marsupials, which, in general, don’t have particularly long life spans, 5-15 years.
When you hear a Tasmanian Devil, you understand why an overly religious/superstitious person thought he heard Satan’s minions--loud nasty growling. Their red mouths are creepy, but opening their nasty red mouths is a dominance gesture. In a mob of devils the smallest tends to be the dominant one because as the runt, she has learned to be the most scary and fight for every scrap of food. In a wildlife park there were four tassie sisters that growled and snapped at us. They are not social animals, and fortunately are intimidated by humans. Not even the wildlife handlers attempt to pick up and cuddle. By the way, Tassie Devils never attack humans, although their growling and snapping would make you think so. They are scavengers, not hunters. Devils mostly die-by-car as they enjoy a road kill meal. Although they can go 4-5 days without food, like hyenas, they will eat everything, including bones and fur. Their bite is like a hyena, stronger than a pit bull and they can smell a dead animal from two kilometers. The strength of their bite is in the back of their mouths, so when they are biting each other, it’s just dominance display, not doing real harm. Life is hard for the tassie devils. Babies are the size of a tic-tac with only a nose, mouth, and back legs. Up to 40 of these embryos have to fight their embryonic brothers and sisters to get to a nipple. Those who get there and hang on, survive. A female can have up to four babies at a time--a 90% death rate for the other embryos. Tough room. The Tasmanian Devil is completely gone from mainland Australia because of dogs. Those in Tasmania are suffering from devil facial tumor disease, a facial cancer that has wiped out ¾ of the devil population. Plus they have low genetic diversity; the cancer evolved because of low genetic diversity. Fortunately, the devils on the west coast are free of the cancer, so Tasmania hopes the tassie devils survive the disease even though the cancer mutates rapidly and currently there is no cure.
Who knew there are 63 species of Kangaroo, including wallabies, wallaroos, potoroos, bettongs, a small kangaroo or pademelon, from rat size to 200-pound big Reds and Eastern Greys. The kanga population exploded to 50 million when the Europeans arrived creating farm lands and consequently, food for the roos. The government now allows a cull of up to five million annually to keep their numbers in check and prevent starvation. Dingoes are their main predator.
Females are nonstop breeding machines; a baby, actually more like an embryo about the size of a jelly belly, has to climb into the pouch to latch onto a nipple to continue developing, an older joey can reach in the pouch to get at the other nipple which contains a different, higher calorie milk formula. Almost immediately after giving birth, the female becomes fertile and males within the mob smelling the hormones in her urine are quick to notice. After mating the fertilized egg will remain dormant until the already suckling joey leaves the pouch. If food becomes scarce, the female may keep the fertilized egg in suspension until conditions improve. Female kangaroos can control the sex of the joey. Female roos will stay with the mom and learn mothering; the boys truck off and go to another mob (or troop or herd) to ensure gene pool diversity. The downside for the boys is they may never have sex as the female roos only want to breed with the king of the mob. Males practice boxing with each other prepping for a time when they may have a chance to knock off the alpha roo, who usually only has the top spot for about a year. Their paws have long nasty fingernails, so the boxing roo will rest on his tail and kick with his hind feet to try to gut his opponent. Gee, they look so benign as they hop over for hand feeding.
Kiwi, flightless nocturnal birds found in New Zealand, are about the size of a chicken. Most birds have hollow bones; the kiwi has marrow which makes it heavy. It once flew, but got too fat and evolved into a nocturnal bird when its daytime food became scarce (from overeating?). The kiwi egg is six times larger than a hen’s egg; it’s 60% yolk, compared to the hen’s 40%, and the daddy kiwi, like the emu, watches the children. Unusual for a bird, the Kiwi has a strong sense of smell and continuously shuffles through the bush probing the soil for worms and insects. There are four species of kiwi and programs are in place to increase the population, since they are very vulnerable to the imported predators, rats, cats, stoats, pigs, ferrets, and possums.
The dingo, according to DNA testing, is thought to be the world’s first domestic dog, evolving 135,000 years ago and predating the wolf, a separate species. It is believed the dingo is the ancestor of all dogs, the base stock of over 600 true dog breeds. Traded by Asian fisherman the dingo has long been highly prized by the Aborigines as bed warmers (Three-Dog Night), camp cleaners, hunting companions and guard dogs. However, the impact on Australian wildlife has been catastrophic. They wiped out the tassie devil and Tasmanian tiger from mainland Australia.
If you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot
Slowing down won’t kill you
You are long dead, what’s the hurry?
Distracted drivers are dangerous
Drowsy drivers die
Sunburn is not a souvenir
Who’s your Sober Bob? (designated driver)
Slip. Slop. Slap.
Sunscreen campaign: Slip on a shirt; slop on sunscreen; slap on a hat. (School uniforms include hats in summer ensemble)
Sign in shop window: Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free kitten.
Australia is a land of contrasts, which deserves multiple long visits. Remember, it only looks small; it’s the size of the United States.