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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: Australia & NZ

Whitsunday Islands, Australia

Karyn Planett

The Whitsundays are a magnificent stretch of islands that lie sprinkled off Australia’s Queensland coast like a shower of pebbles. Mariners the world over know of this waterway where 74 islands are studded with palms and wrapped in white sand. Some are little more than coral outcroppings, other boast world-class resorts. The real attraction for many, however, lies just beneath the waves.

Great Barrier Reef

The Whitsundays are a cluster of offshore islands stretching 200 miles between Townsville in the north and the town of Mackay in the south. Together, these coral specks form the Whitsunday Island National Park, part of the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is acknowledged as the world’s largest living thing for, after all, it is alive. Washed by the warm waters of the Coral Sea, it stretches more than 1300 miles from the Torres Strait in the north to the Tropic of Capricorn off Queensland’s city of Rockhampton.

This reef was formed by countless millions of microscopic polyps whose skeletal remains stacked upon one another to form the structure. Live polyps continue the process to this day developing into such unique formations as “wrinkled brain,” and something called “elkhorn.” All this becomes the basis for other marine life including algae and a rainbow of tropical fish. Snorkelers and divers can easily identify such beauties as red emperors and butterfly fish, not to mention the angelfish we all know and love from our childhood tanks at home.

As discoverers and cartographers struggled to chart and name all these countless specks forming the Great Barrier Reef, they let their imaginations run wild. A close inspection of these charts will introduce the observer to the likes of Magnetic Island, Great Palm Island, Heron Island, Lizard Island, even Daydream Island. Then, not too surprisingly, there’s Shark Reef, Wreck Reef and Osprey Reef. It seems as though their creative genius ran a bit dry in short order.

Captain Cook’s Catastrophe

Everyone knows of Captain Cook’s accomplishments, few know of his missteps, so to speak. During his command of HMS Endeavor from 1768 through 1771, Cook and crew spent time in these waters charting the islands. While here, his ship suffered substantial damage after hitting a patch of coral. It was uncertain for a time, whether the craft could even be saved. Cook was forced to beach the vessel at nearby Cooktown, as it is now known, to make necessary repairs. The spot where Cook’s vessel actually suffered this humiliating accident is, today, called Endeavor Reef.

The Passage

The Whitsunday Passage is a narrow waterway, some 30 miles in length that stretches north-northwest from Cape Conroy to Double Cone Island. A mere two miles wide at its narrowest point, it requires the skill of learned seafarers to successfully navigate these waters. The broadest expanse measures only six miles across.

Waters here are as shallow as 84 feet deep, but also reach depths of 360 feet. Today’s navigational aides have done away with the need for look-outs perched high atop the ship’s masts or in crow’s nests, spyglass in hand. Our Captain maneuvers from the comfortable luxury of the bridge, surrounded by the highest-tech equipment found at sea.

Simpler crafts, such as sailboats and gorgeous yachts come to the Whitsundays in numbers. For their captains recognize that a cruise through this magical island maze is, according to many who have sailed here before them, one of cruising’s most rewarding experiences. 

Tauranga, New Zealand

Karyn Planett

Beauty and Bounty

Rudyard Kipling, were he alive today, could be heard exclaiming that New Zealand is “the eighth wonder of the world.” He visited this country in 1891 during a lengthy sea voyage, the advice of his very wise doctor. Kipling was not wrong about New Zealand. An author, a respected poet, and an avid world traveler with a keen sense of wanderlust, Kipling knew a good thing when he saw one and he viewed New Zealand as absolutely magical.

Well, the challenge for your visit to Tauranga can all be summed up in the ringing out of the name of a North Island enclave near Tauranga called “Whatawhata.” That’s what you’ll be asking yourself when presented with a list of activities for your short stay.  Whatawhatamigonna do? You’ll need to decide exactly which of the many options will receive your full attention today – a dramatic beach, a blast of vulcan fury, a sip of a fine regional wine, a journey back to a time of conflict, or an introduction to New Zealand’s Maori culture?

The North Island

As easily as one wanders from Disneyland’s Fantasyland to Frontierland, feeling as though he’s literally traveled through time, one can journey between New Zealand’s North Island and South Island. Though both islands are dazzling to the eye, the North Island offers up a panorama of explosive geysers and primeval pools of bubbling mud. All around are fissures in the earth shooting steam clouds into the sky.

It is said that the North Island’s creation is rooted in Maori mythology. Long ago, a powerful son of the gods caught a large fish in the sea. Maui, as this lad was known, ordered his brothers to leave the fish alone. But his brothers defied Maui’s order not to eat the fish he had caught. The fish wriggled and writhed and ultimately escaped to create the jagged landscape that is now New Zealand’s North Island. In the Maori language, the North Island is known as “the fish of Maui” or “Te Ika A Maui.”

A Place Called Tauranga

The town of Tauranga lies perched on the North Island’s eastern coast where the waters of the Bay of Plenty wash ashore. Captain Cook was so impressed with the congenial islanders in this area that it was he who named this spot the Bay Of Plenty. And, with good reason. The mild climate here supports a bountiful agricultural backdrop including large forests used for timber. Though Tauranga is today a busy center for tourism and commerce, it also has a very rich history.

Some 150 years ago, Tauranga was a bustling community that relied on flax trading for much of its income. As with so many fledgling towns, along with merchants and traders came the missionaries to spread the word of God. But no faith could stem the tide of conflict. In 1864, Tauranga experienced some terrible battles during the New Zealand Wars. In fact, a compassionate tale is often told about an incident that occurred during the fierce Battle of Gate Pa. It is said that a British soldier, wounded during a skirmish, cried out for water as he lay on the damp earth wracked with pain. A brave Maori woman named Heni te Kirikamu heard the soldier’s weakening cries. Unable to listen any longer, she silently crept behind enemy lines to fetch water to take to this fallen soldier and four others who lay wounded nearby.

While in Tauranga, you can visit Gate Pa, site of one of the final battles between the British and Maori people or the Missionary House that dates back to 1847.

Further Afield

Rotorua is the highlight for many visitors who experience its bubbling mud pools and steaming thermals. At the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, geysers fill the air with a mist that mystified early members of the Tuhourangi-Ngati Wahio tribe. Also mystifying is why some people bungee jump, zip along the Kaituna River in jetboats, or raft on the Rangitaiki but they do because this is unmistakably the land of adventure.

Chinese Gooseberries

Nearly 100 years ago, Chinese gooseberries found their way to the Bay of Plenty. Three decades passed before a farmer named Jim MacLoughlin set aside an acre of land for the cultivation of this fruit. But it wasn’t until some 25 years later that that this unique, fuzzy brown fruit became a marketable, exportable commodity. It became known, quite simply, as kiwifruit. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So, while here in sunny Tauranga, you can wander past the historic sights, take in the local color, or sit under a shade tree along The Strand scooping out the flesh of a perfectly-ripened kiwi while reading a Kipling tale. It’s all rather pleasant, one might say.

Perth, Australia

Karyn Planett

Western Australia’s “City of Lights”

It was 1961. The United States’ manned space program was operating in full swing. Astronaut John Glenn had been selected as the first American to orbit the earth. While in flight, he and his craft flew directly over the Western Australian city of Perth. Though this was during the deep dark of night, it is said that Perth’s 1.2 million enthusiastic citizens flicked on the switches for every single working light bulb in the entire city. In doing so, these jubilant Australians signaled a luminescent hello to Colonel John Glenn from his land-based comrades below.

Lonely Isolation

Western Australia is by far the nation’s largest state. In fact, Alaska and Texas combined are not nearly as big as this 960,000-square-mile state. Note for comparison that India, while approximately the same in scale, is home to 700 million people. Western Australia, in contrast, is home to a mere 1.5 million. And those people choose to live there for a host of reasons including the glorious beaches (some 4,000 miles of them to be exact!) and delightful climate. In fact, the sun shines an average of eight hours each and every marvelous day.

Perth holds the dubious title of the “world’s most remote capital city.” How remote is it, you ask? It is so remote that many Sydneysiders have never even journeyed there. Perth, oddly enough, is geographically closer to the Indonesian island of Bali than it is to Sydney.

Early Settlers

The first European to lay eyes on this vast area was a Dutchman by the name of Dirk Hartog. That historic event took place in 1616. Following in his wake, over the years, were many seamen from the Dutch East India Company, some of whom who had been blown off course while sailing to Java, formerly Batavia. The noted British explorer William Dampier also arrived here, in 1688 aboard Cygnet, but he declared the entire area devoid of anything worthy, and sailed off in disgust. 

Close to 100 years passed before another Brit, Captain James Cook, sailed these waters.

This part of western Australia remained overlooked and underpopulated until 1827, when the London-based British Colonial Authorities grew suspicious of the French, whom they felt were interested in establishing a base there. That action, they believed, would threaten the British stronghold in eastern Australia. Therefore, the British authorities hurriedly sent out Captain James Stirling to demonstrate England’s presence in the area by building a British stronghold. He selected, for this fledgling community, a site along the Swan River some ten miles upriver from the sea. And within two years, the city of Perth was somewhat established, boasting a population of 300 permanent residents.

Unfortunately, not many others were eager to follow in their footsteps. In fact, only 3,000 residents called Perth home as recently as 1858! At that time, local government officials were forced to ask for convicts to be imported as a source of desperately-needed labor. Harsh conditions, lack of good roads, and unreliable communication all combined to add to the town’s feeling of isolation.

There’s Gold In Those There Hills

Gold was discovered in the 1890s at places called “Coolgardie” and “Kalgoorlie” found some 300 miles east of Perth. In fact, within one frenzied 30-day period during the goldfields’ greatest boom time, a staggering 200 pounds of this precious metal was mined. Waves of fortune-seeking prospectors flocked to the countryside. Telegraph and telephone service was brought in. A well-needed railroad was completed in 1917. Then, with the discovery of oil in the region, even more fortune seekers flowed in.

Over time, huge cattle ranches were built up providing not only enough beef to feed the nation but a surplus for exports as well. More money was to be made from the uranium mines that were later discovered. And, if these riches were not enough, in 1970 a productive diamond mine was also developed nearby!

All this glorious prosperity was not lost on the citizens of Perth and nearby Fremantle. Skyscrapers rose from the earth. Theaters and marinas were built. These sister cities truly blossomed, flush from the riches the land had provided.

But Perth and Fremantle really came into the limelight when the world’s eyes were focused on the 1987 America’s Cup race, held on the waters off Fremantle. The crew of Australia II had, in the previous race a few years earlier, relieved the United States of this prized sailing trophy which had been in American hands since the race’s inception, an incredible 132 years earlier. (Note, for the record, the Cup was successfully wrestled away from Australia’s competitive sailors and returned to American shores following the races off the coast of Fremantle. This coveted Cup then went to New Zealand where the competition will heat up again in a few short weeks.)

Perth today enjoys all the trappings of a vibrant, young, prosperous city glowing in the sun. And the port of Fremantle is its lively sister city.                                                                                                          

Newcastle, Australia

Karyn Planett

Like Carrying Coals to Newcastle? Not Likely.

Well, for those familiar with the saying, “it’s like carrying coals to Newcastle” you understand it means doing something absolutely pointless or completely superfluous. It’s because there’s already lots of whateveritisyou’retalkingabout there. It’s like saying, “do you want some more useless stuff for your room Tommy?”. You see, England’s Newcastle-upon-Tyne needed no coal in the Middle Ages because it was a successful coal mining center already. Get it?

The Newcastle you’ll soon visit was named for its English counterpart because it, too, has known success associated with coal mining. In fact, it’s claimed that even today Australia’s Newcastle is the world’s largest coal exporting port. So you won’t likely be carrying coals to this Newcastle, now will you?

Mark Twain Was Here

In 1895, he was. The American author and humorist described Newcastle as “a very long street with, at one end, a cemetery with no bodies in it and, at the other, a gentlemen’s club with no gentlemen in it.” Today he’d be dead wrong on both accounts, oddly enough. There are the most congenial gentlemen and ladies whose true mission is to welcome you to their thriving community, New South Wales’ second largest. They’ll tell tales about its early days as a penal colony, dating back to 1804 when convicts were punished by doing hard labor in the mines. They’ll speak of the industrial boom time when miners were digging for coal as fast as the dockworkers could ship it out. And when the steel mills glowed red hot even through the long, balmy Australian nights. Then, how the local Novacastrians were hard working, salt-of-the-earth blue-collar folks carving out a life. And, they’ll boast about the city’s gentrification standing tall in the shadow of Sydney’s limelight, a mere 100 miles away. These folks, some of the 250,000 residents, will be waving from their terraces as you sail up the mouth of the Hunter River.

Looking Back At Hard Times

You can do so with little trouble. This was a penal colony and few came here in the early days for shopping and a barbie in the park. No. They came to do time or oversee those who were.

Maitland Prison, a museum today, housed some of the nation’s hardest criminals for 150 years. It’s considered the country’s longest operating prison. Hear tales from ex-warders and ex-inmates who served in Maitland. The first group went home at the end of their shifts; the latter to maximum security lockdown. You won’t have time but, if you did, you and your pals could book a night in lockdown for the true prison experience. What a hoot!

Even prisoners needed a bit of fresh air now and again. That’s where the Former Convict Lumber Yard comes into play. Now a park, it features representations of what a day in the woods was for these less-than-friendly fellows. You’ll need a bit of imagination as some of the early buildings have not withstood the test of time.

But Others Have

Those in Morpeth, for example. During the 1830s and 1840s, this town served as the Hunter Valley’s main port. Lieutenant E.C. Close is noted as the visionary who, from 1831 to 1841, developed 2500 acres into a river port. Many of the historical buildings are listed on the Register of the National Estate including Closebourne House, the public library, railway station and police station. The town, a popular get-away destination today, was named for Morpeth Northumberland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s neighbor back in England.  

Another resort town in the area is called The Entrance, curiously. And speaking of curious, one of the highlights is the daily pelican feeding. Other sites include the Boardwalk, the War Library Museum, and lots of recreational opportunities. The area has a fascinating history, with enough stories for a Hollywood blockbuster – shipwrecked fishermen taken in by Aborigines; a white woman living with the indigenous people; Chinese fishermen at Toowoon Bay and a rail line to Newcastle from Sydney that opened the floodgates of tourism.

And, for those who are more interested in nature, there’s the Blackbutt Reserve or the Australian Reptile Park. In addition to adorable fuzzy stars like koalas and kangaroos there’s the oddball platypus and the gnarly dingo. The highlight for some is the park’s ever-popular venom-milking program that’s credited with saving some 300 lives annually.

Well, all this sightseeing need not weary you. Step into a tearoom for a spot of tea, nibbly bits and bikkies or into a wine bar to sample some of Hunter Valley’s finest wines from its 110 wineries including the award-winning Roche Tallawanta Shiraz or their fine Premium Reserve Shiraz. Toast to your adventures ashore in Newcastle as you sail out, back past those who so eagerly welcomed you earlier in the day. Remember to wave.  

Napier, New Zealand

Karyn Planett

It’s 10:46am, February 3rd, 1931. As unsuspecting locals go about their mornings-as-usual morning, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake rips right through the streets of Napier with a deafening, grinding force. It was as if a hoard of angry gods unleashed the full strength of their fury, grabbing the earth and shaking it like a rag doll. This terror and violence lasted a horrifying two and a half minutes. When the rumbling stopped and the dust finally settled the tiny town of Napier was wiped smack off the map.

Then someone smelled smoke. A fire had started in a local pharmacy incinerating the rubble as well as everything in its path including nearby Hastings. As the carnage continued, 258 local people perished. Astoundingly, the entire area was raised up by this cataclysmic thrust a staggering seven feet creating 9,000 new acres of dry land. Imagine. Now, if this weren’t enough for the dazed community, over the next two weeks there were 525 aftershocks. These paled, however, by comparison with the shock community leaders faced with the prospect of literally starting over to rebuild their town. But, rebuild they did for the fine folks of Napier are quite hardy, indeed.

Art Deco

Yes, it was determined almost immediately to rebuild the town, starting with essentially a clean sheet of paper. Within months, the Napier Reconstruction Committee was formed and plans for a new central business district began to take shape. Architects, working as teams and independently, were profoundly influenced by the European Art Deco style of the mid-1920s, with its geometric forms, stucco surfaces, and relief decorations. Remember, this is not the same as the art deco of Miami Beach, which is closer to a parallel movement called Streamline Moderne. Traces of that style are found in the Municipal Theater. The Masonic Hotel, Taylor Building, Daily Telegraph Building and Kidson’s Building are each considered among the classics of the European genre.

There’s also a touch of California’s Spanish Mission style. Napier’s citizens were so impressed by stories of Santa Barbara’s recovery after a 1925 earthquake that they used that California city as inspiration for their own architectural revival. Charlie’s Art Deco Restaurant in the Hawkes Bay Chambers is worthy of a look, as well.

Cape Kidnappers

Curious name... “Cape Kidnappers.” This is the wind-and-sea sculpted, five-mile long peninsula at the southern end of Hawkes Bay. And, as the story goes, when some unruly Maoris tried yet failed to abduct one of Captain James Cook’s crewmen from Endeavor in 1769, that great explorer was able to add to his list of strange and wonderful Pacific place names... “Cape Kidnappers”. It’s also home to one of nature’s stranger species... the gannet.

“Gannet” is the more attractive name for a member of the booby family. In fact, over 20,000 of them nest here creating the world’s largest and most accessible mainland colony of these spectacular flyers, but unsure walkers. Until early May they soar overhead on six-foot wingspans bearing the latest seafood offerings for fuzz-ball chicks waiting hungrily. Due to the parents’ long days in flight searching for food, their land legs are often not as highly developed and landings can be a comical affair, for the observer that is.

The World’s 41st Most Beautiful Golf Course

That factoid comes from Golf Magazine’s respected ranking of the World’s 100 Best. However, as usual, beauty comes at a cost. The Links at Cape Kidnappers presents some of the most intimidating holes a golfer can face. Challenging fairways stretch along fingers of land scalloped into jagged cliffs. Greens at each tip create a permanent penalty for misdirected shots as golfers are warned against fishing for balls lost in the surf hundreds of feet below. And if the predictable wind is blowing, you’ll not be worrying about your handicap on this Tom Doak-designed, par 71 carnival ride. You’ll simply be holding onto your hat and making sure you don’t get blown over the ledge.

Once safe back in the clubhouse, there’s a buzz with first impressions and “never seen anything like it” stories as everyone shows off enough new logo wear to create covetous glances back on the home course.

Hawkes Bay Wines

After all this outdoor activity, something New Zealanders relish, you’ll discover there are some delightful indoor ones as well. One is tasting a variety of excellent New Zealand wines as the Hawkes Bay region has earned world-class credentials for many of its wineries. Craggy Range is currently top-of-the-heap with their Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Syrah offerings. But several others (Brookfields, Church, Mission, Sileni and Ngatarawa) are also wonderful as local winemakers use the 300 plus days of sunshine per year that warm the area’s vineyards.

So there you have it. Culture, nature, sport and the nectar of the gods all in one tidy package.

Hobart, Australia

Karyn Planett

Australia On Steroids

At some point near the end of the last ice age—some 10,000 years ago—seas flooded the lowlands connecting what is now Tasmania to the Australian mainland creating the notorious Bass Strait, a legendary body of water among the world’s racing yachtsmen. Its location astride the “Roaring 40s” of the Southern Ocean makes it the highlight of the annual Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race. During a freakish storm in 1998 five yachts were sunk with the loss of six lives during that race. Only 44 of the 115 starters were able to limp into Hobart.

The inevitable isolation of Tasmania allowed for the development of physical characteristics distinct from any other region in the world, flora and fauna as unique as a science fiction fantasy, and tales of the human condition ranging from the sublime to the bizarre.

As a visitor to Hobart, you may face your most daunting challenge yet, simply because there are just too many choices for a one day visit. Some historical highlights might help you decide.

European Settlement

Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer upon whose “Sea” you have just traveled—was the first European to sight this island in 1642. The first settlement did not arrive until 1803 composed, in fine Australian tradition, mainly of convicts and their military guards. One of the world’s most notorious penal colonies was later established at Port Arthur.

Port Arthur is now Tasmania’s top tourist attraction but its history borders on the horrific. Its prison housed the hardest criminals Britain and Ireland could produce and, although it was conceived as a model prison where new theories of rehabilitation were tested, it had, by reputation, some of the harshest conditions existing anywhere on earth. Surrounded by shark-infested waters on three sides, it was sold as inescapable. Even so, one enterprising convict tried crossing its narrow land bridge disguised in a kangaroo hide. He failed to reckon on the half starved guards on duty who tried to shoot him for a meal.

It is said that the former prison is inhabited by ghosts and, indeed, a nighttime ghost tour is offered. Some of the ghosts may be those 35 victims of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre—the worst mass murder in Australian history. Today’s bucolic fields speak to a gentler future.

Native Species

Tasmanian Aboriginals had occupied the territory of the island for some 35,000 years, but their fate at the hands of a colonial power was the same sad story replayed among indigenous populations around the world. Those who managed to survive European diseases were eventually wiped out during an episode known as the Black Line when colonists formed a human chain across the island to corral the remaining aborigines and remove them to Flinders Island. As a result there is almost no native culture preserved in Tasmania. The same fate befell some of the unique species that once inhabited this wild island.

Tasmania was once home to a marsupial resembling a wild dog. It had distinctive striping across its back and was known colloquially as a Tasmanian Tiger. It had earlier existed on the mainland but lost out to the dingo. Farmers, bounty hunters and collectors for overseas museums appear to have finished the job in Tasmania as well although there are, to this day, unconfirmed sightings.

Seemingly headed for a similar fate is the Tasmanian Devil, another marsupial resembling a small dog. It has a decidedly unpleasant temperament accentuated by a screechy growl. Devils are scavengers living primarily on road kill. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have the reflexes to avoid becoming road kill themselves. Despite efforts to preserve the species, the combination of disease and highways has reduced their population by 80%.

The Fun Part

Australians have a well-deserved reputation for being almost obsessively active. If anything, Tasmanians may take that to another degree. Owing to the variety of physical environments close at hand, trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, surfing and other water sports are all on the daily menu. Most can be enjoyed on nearby Mt. Wellington, which provides a dramatic backdrop to Hobart. Any number of conveyances can get you to the top, and whether you descend by foot for an up close look at the wildlife, or by skateboard for an adrenal rush, you’ll have earned your share of the other great Aussie pastime—eating and drinking. A stroll through the nearby, lovingly-preserved town of Richmond, or historic Salamanca Place, hard by the port, will reveal eateries and drinkeries featuring locally brewed beers, locally grown wines, and locally caught seafood sure to form an indelible memory to punctuate your day in Hobart. Battery Point speaks to 19th-century elegance with its tiny cottages and sweeping mansions.

The Great Barrier Reef

Karyn Planett

It’s Alive ! It’s Alive !

But, you knew that. The Great Barrier Reef is, indeed, alive … alive with a rainbow of colors you’ve never dreamt of and with fish as strange as aquatic Avatars. It has definitely earned its well-deserved bullet on Mother Nature’s Greatest Hits chart, as well as its place in the WOW Hall of Fame.

That said, what do we really know about this undersea marvel? Well, the facts and stats are staggering. For the record, though, note that experts don’t always agree (there’s a surprise!) and what follows is our best representation of the materials we’ve reviewed on your behalf.

*             The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world.

*            Hence, it is the largest living thing on earth and can be seen from outer space and astronauts zipping by.

*            It measures 1,300 miles long, from Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island to New Guinea’s Gulf of Papua.

*            The reef covers 80,000 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Kansas.

*            Scientists believe the reef’s current structure is approximately 8,000 years old. Some experts think its original reef is 500,000 years old while others peg the age closer to 18 million years old. It’s like trying to guess a beautiful woman’s age. Anyway, either way it’s rather young as those in tiny little modern corals of southern Europe are said to be 230 millions years old.

*            The many islands of the Great Barrier Reef, 900 give or take, are either coral in nature or were formed when they were separated from the mainland some 10 to 125 miles away.

*            Tides and waves alter the reef daily. Dugongs, related to elephants and manatees and weighing up to 400 kilograms, visit the reefs a little less frequently.

*            The Great Barrier Reef Lagoon, wedged between the coast and the reef, is approximately 325 feet deep.

*            In some places, the reef measures 400 to 500 feet thick.

*            It was formed from a collection of 2,500 smaller reefs, which are intertwined.

*            300 – 400 species of hard coral are found here.

*            1,500 species of fish live in and around the reef.

*            2,000 - 4,000 species of shellfish also call the reef “home.”

*            Some of the world’s biggest black marlin swim nearby.

*            Humpback whales are also common in this area, especially             in early September. A total of 30 whale species swim by.

*            In 1970, the government established the Great Barrier Reef             Marine Park to prevent oil companies from drilling on the reef.

*            In 1981, the reef was chosen as a World Heritage Site.

*            In 1985, the government declared the entire reef (except for 2%) a national park.

*            Evil poachers, nonetheless, raid the reef for shells and certain             sea creatures.

So How Did It All Begin?

One little hard coral polyp at a time. Individual polyps as small as 3 millimeters each cluster into colonies that can measure 1.5 meters in length, width, or height. Technically, they’re invertebrates, without a backbone. With the death of hard coral, a minuscule limestone structure is formed when its skeleton collects nearby debris or tiny bits of sand. With this process repeating over and over, millions of times, the reef grows and grows.

All the while, soft coral is floating about on the periphery of the growing reef waiting for plankton to drift by and serve as its nourishment. Together, they form the reef’s two main groups of corals. Within these coral groups are thousands of varieties living on the reef with such exotic names as “brain”, “organ pipe”, “fan”, and “staghorn”.

Remember, corals need a dose of bright sunlight for their survival and Australia supplies plenty of that. That’s why they’re usually found in the more shallow parts of the sea.

Now the Sexy Bit

This is where it gets interesting, especially if you’re either a scientist or a coral. They, the corals not the scientists, reproduce sexually as well as asexually. The former when male and female coral polyps cast forth millions of sperms and eggs. Once released, the goods float merrily along the water’s surface to meet up like teenagers at a prom. They fertilize and the fertilized eggs then dodge predators eventually hatching into adorable little larvae that drift aimlessly about with plankton in the ebb and flow. Should all go well, and in all reality it doesn’t for most of the larvae, they begin the next phase of their life attached to a reef to produce a brand new coral colony. In contrast, asexual reproduction happens when polyps or colonies become separated from the parent colony. It’s boring. But this isn’t -- some polyps are both male and female.

Words to the Wise

Divers and visitors exploring the reef must do so without disturbing it. The local authorities are passionate about protecting its fragile surface from boat anchors, fishing nets, souvenir hunters and the like. And, as is always the case where delicate ecosystems are concerned, a good visitor takes only pictures and leaves behind only a very few footprints. Unfortunately, the Crown-of-Thorns Seastar didn’t get the message and has been chomping away on the coral, taking as much as one square yard of coral each day. Little do they know we view the Great Barrier Reef equally eco-y as the endangered rainforest. Having said that, some view them as evil habitat destroyers while others celebrate this type of population control that frees up space for newer reefs. The debate rages on.

Darwin, Australia

Karyn Planett

Australia’s “Top End”

“Farewell Australia! You are a rising child, and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South; but you are too great an ambition for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”

Our dear friend Charles Darwin wrote these stinging remarks in his Journal during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1832 to 1836. He was sailing the local waters known as the Timor Sea. Perhaps our celebrated evolutionist was having an off day—not discovering any new species he could go on and on about. Even so, the affable Aussies would have said, “No worries mate! We’ll just name a whole bloomin’ town after you.” And so they did. And now you know. And now you’re here. So there you are.

For the record, the naming of the town Darwin is in fact attributed to two different Captains of the Beagle, a John Lort Stokes and a J. C. Wickham. Whatever. The year was 1839 and each fellow had sailed previously aboard the Beagle with Darwin.

Northern Territory

Now this is the perfect place to test the philosophical question, “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around, would there be a sound?” There is almost no one around. In the NT, as it is called, approximately 1% (200,000) of Australia’s entire population lives on 20% (1.35 million square kilometers) of the nation’s land. And, technically speaking, this land is not a state like Queensland or Victoria. In days gone by, this region was administered by New South Wales, then South Wales, and finally the federal government beginning in 1911. Though Canberra still administers to some business, for the last quarter century the territory has been declared self-governing.

The NT has two distinct areas—the tropical (think Crocodile Dundee) northern Top End and the parched (think Road Warrior) deserts of the Red Center. Between them is something that has been described as Mother Nature’s attempt at a barbed-wire fence where you’ll find Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Alice Springs. Connecting them is a ribbon of highway that beckons backpackers, cattle trucks, kangaroos, and wayward adventurers out for a bumpy ride.

Early Explorers

With sea days ahead, you should pick up a book detailing the history of the region’s early exploration by white settlers. You’ll discover the first European to lay eyes on this coastline was Jan Carstenzoon, a Dutch fellow sailing on the Arnheim in 1623. The whole area remained uncharted and unexplored by Europeans for generations. Anthropologists believe, however, that the Larrakis Aboriginal people have lived in this region for many thousands of years. In fact, some scientists propose the tribes in the Top End are among the world’s most ancient races. Today, these people represent one-fourth of the Territory’s 200,000 inhabitants.

The Aborigines’ story in the NT is much like it was elsewhere across the land. One hundred years ago, the majority of the Aboriginal people were housed in Christian missions or restricted to reserves set up by the government. Those who did find work lived on cattle stations or in town. Today, the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act is in effect. In 1976, this measure was passed returning the land to the original owners and they now own approximately 50% of the NT.

Back to the explorers. There was a good German fellow named Ludwig Leichhardt who reached Port Essington (just north of Darwin) by traveling overland from Brisbane in 1845—think no room service! There were other adventurers with names like Eyre, Sturt, Gregory, Mitchell and Howitt poking about the continent around this same time. It is Burke and Wills who remain Australia’s most famous explorers for it was they who traveled from Melbourne to something called Camp 119, south to north across the vast island continent, to within a stone’s throw of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their exhausting tale is well worth reading in the days ahead.

We also can’t forget John McDouall Stuart who blazed the trail south to north in 1862 linking Port August to Darwin, which was then linked by underwater cable to Java and all the nations beyond ten years later. That was a great day for Australia and set the stage for the city’s modern day history.

In the cool evening air, why not stroll along the Esplanade or sit under the Tree of Knowledge, a sweeping banyan revered by Buddhists worldwide, so old it could tell many tales. If it fell and no one was around to hear, it may well still report a powerful sound.

Cairns, Australia

Karyn Planett

Reefs and Rainforests

Right. It’s “CANS” like beans, not CAIRRRNS. Armed with this information you can saunter with a purpose once ashore. With a jaunty “G’day”, you’ll greet locals accustomed to welcoming those who come by sea. It started long ago when Captain Cook sailed these waters aboard H.M.S. Endeavor on Trinity Sunday, 1770, hence the name Trinity Bay.

And speaking of coming by sea, the Coral Sea to be exact, do you know you’re now closer to Papua New Guinea than to much of the rest of Australia? And, isolated. A somewhat inhospitable terrain forms a natural boundary to this region what with the Tablelands and all. But, more on that later.

A Sleepy Little Backwater Town

Cairns is the capital of the “Far North” or the “Deep North” or the “FNQ--Far North Queensland” with 65,000 year-round residents. It’s a jolly town, blending older stilt houses (built to catch cooling breezes) and holiday bungalows with respectable hotels and eateries. Surrounding the city are rainforests, cattle ranches, sugarcane and pineapple plantations as well as macadamia groves.

Cairns was just a blip on the horizon for eons. Then, someone discovered gold and tin further inland and it grew into a city that serviced these industries. Cane fields were planted, then coffee, and these crops were trained to Cairns for shipment abroad. A community grew though this spot was too far from Australia’s bright lights and biggish cities to be much of a lure. That was until 1980 when an enterprising tourist board identified Cairns as not only a destination in and of itself but more popularly as a jumping off point to the Great Barrier Reef that stretches 1200 miles from Papua New Guinea to the Tropic of Cancer.

Cairns is without great local beaches, so visitors usually pass the day meandering about. Its famous Esplanade lies directly opposite the waterfront from Trinity Bay. Locals recite stories about Wharf Street, at the southern end of the Esplanade, when it was known as the Barbary Coast due to its cast of shady characters and disreputable ruffians. That was in 1876. Today, this promenade is benign, perfect for bird watching (brightly-colored tropical birds perch overhead) or picnicking. But don’t forget that CAN of beans!

The Reef Beckons

Most visitors catamaran to the reef for the day--to snorkel or dive, or do some deep-sea fishing. These waters are labeled “the black marlin capital of the world.” From August to November anglers catch these 1,000-pounders that are buggers to land. Tuna, sailfish and barracuda ply these waters, as well.

The Great Barrier Reef is the “world’s largest living structure” and is bright with color, alive with rainbows of fish, and a visual treat like no other. Don mask and fins for you won’t want to let this rare opportunity pass you by. Not wanting to get wet? You can still enjoy the view aboard a semi-submersible or watch “Finding Nemo” if you’re truly a landlubber.

Butterflies Flutter By

The Atherton Tablelands, a 3,000-foot-high plateau of the Great Dividing Range, are named for John Atherton who built his farm here in 1877. High above the steamy mangrove flats surrounding Cairns, this mountainous area is noted for waterfalls and deep gorges. Toward the end of the 1800s, sugar cane was introduced to these mountains. As mentioned, growers needed to transport their crop to market. So powerful men with picks and shovels cleared rain forests, bridged gorges, penetrated jungles and skirted waterfalls to construct a railway line from the cane fields to the port of Cairns. This project, completed in 1888, took four years.

Ultimately, the line was abandoned when more efficient transportation was available. Today, the former sugarcane train chugs that same 20-mile run through 15 tunnels, across 40 bridges, past waterfalls, a climb of 1,076 feet en route to the town of Kuranda, “Gateway to the Atherton Tablelands.” Some 600 residents, mostly farmers, live there. It’s also home to the Butterfly Sanctuary with more than 1,500 tropical butterflies including the nation’s biggest, the Ulysses Butterfly. The Kuranda Station itself is quite lovely--decorated with tropical plants and hanging ferns.

Docs and Ducks

Other options for visitors to Cairns include the Royal Flying Doctors Service, a service that provides medical care to the remote regions of Australia by visiting homesteads and communities in need. You can stop by their Cairns’ facility, even climb aboard a Queenair aircraft once used by the flying docs.

Or, you can hop aboard a “duck”, an amphibious WWII Army boat that motors along while you search for goannas, turtles, fish and eels. Just don’t say, “quack quack” if you want to keep your dignity in tact.

Brisbane, Australia

Karyn Planett

Bugs and Beaches

Brisbane’s famous for a host of reasons but two curiosities seem to leap off the page. First, bugs. There’s something called a Moreton Bay bug that resembles a crayfish and the locals love it. So, too, their Southbank Parklands that feature Australia’s only inner city beach. This keeps her 1.7 million residents particularly happy on those steamy sub-tropical days where a whisper of wind just can’t be found.

Brisbane is vibrant and historic, draped lovingly along the banks of the Brisbane River upstream from Moreton Bay. Her grid-pattern streets are ideal for out-of-towners as the east/west streets are named for kings, and north/south streets for queens. You just gotta know your royalty.

King Of The Explorers

Our beloved Captain James Cook first sighted nearby Moreton Bay while charting these waters aboard H.M.S. Endeavor during his first "voyage of discovery." Cook searched but failed to find the mouth of this freshwater river, known today as the Brisbane River. Two decades later Matthew Flinders retraced Cook's route but also failed to locate the outlet to the bay. Eventually, in 1823, it was discovered by John Oxley. He was the surveyor sent by the Governor of New South Wales to locate a suitable site for a penal colony to house incorrigible convicts who committed crimes after being banished to Australia for earlier convictions. One year later, those prisoners arrived to build a settlement at a spot known as Redcliffe Peninsula. Unfortunately, the combination of hostile Aborigines and little fresh water forced many convicts from Redcliffe to present-day Brisbane, 14 miles upriver from Moreton Bay. Anthropologists report that Jagera, Ngundadnbi and Turrbal Aboriginal clans had lived in the Brisbane River area for a considerable time prior to these Europeans.

By 1839 Patrick Logan, the Garrison Commander, completed plans for this new town called Brisbane. Logan ordered the Redcliffe penal settlement abandoned in 1842 then opened up the area to settlers. Brisbane prospered, then declared her independence from New South Wales in 1859. Statehood was granted in 1901.

The city was named after the Scottish soldier and astronomer Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, Governor of New South Wales from 1821 to 1825. Today, Brisbane is the capital of Queensland and is Australia's third largest city.

Squares and Obelisks

Sadly, a disastrous fire destroyed most historic buildings constructed before 1864. Later, dozers made short shrift of rundown buildings making way for gleaming highrises. Even so, there’s plenty to admire. Visitors must make their way to ANZAC Square, (between Ann and Adelaide Streets) dedicated to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The Shrine of Remembrance, Eternal Flame and WWII Shrine of Memories are worthy of a pause. The John Oxley Memorial obelisk (between Victoria and William Jolly Bridges) marks the spot where Oxley landed in 1823. A “must-see” is the collection of Corinthian columns at City Hall. Built of Queensland sandstone, this is Brisbane's showplace. Parliament House, (George Street) with its sandstone French Renaissance-style from 1865, is also worth a stop. It’s still used today by the Queensland Parliament.

The Old Windmill, the city's oldest structure, was built on Wickham Terrace in 1828 by a gang of convicts. It was originally designed to crush corn but never worked properly so Captain Logan ordered it turned into a treadmill. Then, in the 1920s, the treadmill was removed and the base became a meteorological post and signal tower. Newstead Park features the city’s oldest house (1846) as well as a memorial to Lyndon B. Johnson.

Along The Waterfront

Brisbane is actually built along a peninsula with the sea on one side, the lazy Brisbane River on the other. It’s ideal for an endless parade of rowing sculls and kayaks, yachts and sailboats, tugboats and ferries, cruise ships and paddle wheelers. Lining the riverbank is a rainbow of flame trees, jacarandas, tulip trees, frangipani, and bougainvillea--all nurtured by the subtropical climate.

Local people, and visitors alike, take time for a cool respite in the Botanic Gardens that front the riverbank next to the Parliament House. During the days of the penal colony, this was officially a 50-acre government garden. In 1865, it was converted to a Botanic Garden, Queensland’s cradle of horticulture. The government built new botanic gardens at Mount Coot-tha following eight floods between 1870 and 1974 that washed away important plant specimens. From there, you can see the surrounding seven national parks plus everything between the Great Dividing Range and Moreton Bay.

Another important sight along the river is The Queensland Cultural Center -- the new, slick complex housing the Queensland Art Gallery, Concert Hall, Lyric Theatre and Queensland Museum. Residents are aptly proud of this impressive salute to the arts.

Those venturing outside Brisbane often visit the Australia Zoo, home to the nation’s famous “crocodile hunter”, the late Steve Irwin. This 60-acre facility features over 1,000 native and exotic animals. But before you go, don’t forget a plate of “bugs”, an order of Queensland mudcrab, and a chilled Australian wine to wash it all down.

Australia's Railroads

Karyn Planett

“Alllll Ah-BOARD!”

So booms the stationmaster’s baritone voice. Along the platform jostle ticket holders eager to cross the Australian hinterland by rail. Ahead is a chapter of this nation’s history and thousands of kilometers of rails. A puff of diesel smoke wafts on the tropical air, the whistle blows, and powerful locomotives lurch forward. In tow, gleaming carriages filled with train buffs and veteran travelers alike. Their adventure is about to begin.

Indian Pacific Railway, Sydney To Perth

Guests will travel 4352 kilometers aboard the world’s first transcontinental railway. They’ll slip from one time zone to the next, crossing three in total, as they clickity-clack along for the next two and a half days. It’s like hopping aboard a Pullman in Istanbul and stepping down in London!

En route is a trained staff aided by scores more along the way. This silver city of wheels costing millions is thought to be the most comfortable of the world’s long-distance rail journeys. Surely the air-conditioned cars are a huge bonus for the rumble through the parched Outback.

What Lies Ahead

First the Blue Mountains, 40 miles from Sydney, that once were a formidable barrier for early settlers. Powerful locomotives chug mightily for the gradient is 1 to 33 making it the country’s greatest rail incline. Once over this hurdle, the train slips toward the horizon with heaps of sheep in view. To the left and right are settlements like Molong, Manildra, and a spot called Cookamidgera.

Guests settle into cozy compartments where space is a luxury and wise design crucial. Beds are comfy and the night sky entertaining. The Southern Cross serves as their guide as the train’s rhythm rocks devoted insomniacs to sleep.

A New Day Dawns

Travelers awaken to a scrubbier, horizonless, red landscape. Kangaroos hop about. Wayward camels amble by. Soon, they’re in Broken Hill. Though unassuming, it’s a vital link between the payloads of lead, silver, and zinc and the outside world. We’re not talking trinkets, but over $50 billion in precious metals. Once visitors step down to the platform they understand the sacrifice made by local miners—the heat is historic.

Adelaide And Beyond

Adelaide’s the stopover city for the Indian-Pacific route as well as the departure point or terminus for the Ghan Train (more on the Ghan later). With good reason, it’s Australia’s “most livable community.” It was settled in 1836 by religious people called “free settlers”, much like American Puritans, who wished to live away from the convict settlements. The countryside and southern seas provided a bountiful life and Adelaide flourished.

Leaving Adelaide behind, Indian-Pacific travelers soon spot the Flinders Ranges. Burly men known as fettlers walk the line ensuring everything is in order. They are reminiscent of early settlers who built this railway when everything was packed in by camel—grub, water, even sleepers to shore up steel rails. They placed 1000 miles of tracks in only five years. The last spike was driven in 1917 to much celebration.

Next, the uninviting landscape of the Nullarbor, a vast swath of “no trees” six times the size of Belgium. Ahead is 300 miles of the world’s longest railway without a single turn, straight as an arrow.

Meanwhile, cooks announce they’ll serve 1300 pounds of fish and meat, 2000 eggs, 900 sausage links, and enough bread to feed an army during this run.

Another starry night hypnotizes. At daybreak, reality descends that the crossing of this mighty continent is drawing to a close 65 hours since stepping aboard in Sydney. Perth appears on the horizon. Behind them, one of the most dramatic chapters in Australia’s early history of rail travel.

Back to The Ghan

A shortened name for the line’s previous nickname “The Afghan Express”, The Ghan travels 3,000 kilometers south to north from Adelaide and Darwin. It’s so named for the line traces the route carved by Afghan camel caravans that, before the railroad, trekked this barren landscape. Afghani camel drivers had been brought here with their animals to open up the nation’s uncharted interior.

This all began in 1878 when a short stretch of rail line was laid from Port August to Oodnadatta. Fifty years later, it reached Alice Springs. Before that, travelers were forced to journey the last leg by camelback.

The original Ghan was retired 30 years ago, replaced by newer trains. In 2001, the last stretch from Alice Springs to Darwin was begun with the first traveler reaching Darwin February 4, 2004. This rail line now links the Great North with the rest of the country opening up opportunities for commerce, tourism and travel by train buffs bent on riding all the world’s rails. And, as a nod to one of the country’s most celebrated personalities, a locomotive was named for the late “crocodile hunter” Steve Irwin, a native son.

Australia's Animals

Karyn Planett

Kookaburas, Brumbies, and Wombats

Forget the koala, forget the kangaroo. We all know their celebrated stories. Let’s look at the other freaks, oddities, weirdos, and dopey-looking animals calling Australia home including those who found their way here by ship. Let’s begin with the kookaburra because he’s rather famous in this neck of the woods.

Give Us A Laugh Then, Mate!

Australia’s kookaburra is lovingly referred to as a “laughing jackass.” Not to his face, of course, ‘cause he’s got a nasty habit of pecking interlopers on their heads when they’re least suspecting. Just know he’s the biggest of the kingfisher family. But rather than spend his days fishing, he hunts for bugs, snakes, rodents, even lizards. He greets the crack of dawn with raucous laughter, a melody that’s the music of the bush. In fact, his tune fills the soundtracks of many Australian movies. The kookaburra is so famous, this “bushman’s clock”, that he’s even got a song about him. Written in 1934 by Girl Guide leader Marion Sinclair, it goes like this…

Kookaburra sits in an old gum tree,

Merry merry king of the bush is he,

Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra,

Gay your life must be.

Let’s leave it at that!

We’ve also got little budgies (budgerigars) that, to the untrained eye, are parakeets. Australia’s most common parrot, they’ve been shipped all over the world since being discovered by John Gould in 1794. On the other end of the scale, literally, are the flightless emu and cassowary. The emu is second in size only to the ostrich and can run 50 kilometers per hour. The cassowary has a helmety thing called a casque atop his head and is considered unattractive to everyone except his Mum. But, enough about the birds. Let’s move on.

Some Of The Others

You’ve got your echidna, which resembles a mobile hairbrush. Like the platypus, it feeds its young milk yet lays eggs and represents the elite class of animals known as monotremes. The platypus, if you haven’t seen one, looks just like a flat-tailed, web-footed, broad-billed, furry hot water bottle. Sorry, it’s true.

Then there’s the frill-necked lizard that resembles Diana Ross singing in Central Park wearing orange tulle during a lightning storm. Remember the event? This lizard is Australia’s reptile emblem and his frill is the size of a dinner plate. Add to that his flopping tail, gaping mouth, nasty hissing, crazy hopping, and you gotta walk away. If not, you’ll get a painful bite.

And, finally, the wombat. He’s been compared to a hairy, black bulldozer. His not-so-little underground burrow-home can be 30 meters long with cozy sleeping rooms. Hence, the wombat is the largest burrowing herbivore and wreaks havoc on any landscape.

Hitching A Ride

Europeans brought animals with them, some good for Australia (sheep and cattle), others not. The story of some of these feral animals that’ve changed the face of Australia follows.

Camels. Hundreds of thousands of camels. Well, not originally. They multiplied, as they are wont to do ‘cause they don’t have TV. Historians record that Afghan cameleers brought the first batch to Australia 160 years ago, give or take. They served explorers and pioneers well. Camels work eight to ten hours daily, gallumping along up to 25 miles with 600 pounds on their bumpy backs. Given their freedom when mechanized transportation was introduced, they took to the bush.

Cane toads, on the other hand, are a huge menace. In 1935, they were brought to Queensland to combat the cane beetle. The beetles perished, the toads thrived, and the rest is the ecological nightmare that helps Australia defend its strong stance regarding non-native animals.  

Twenty-four wild rabbits, introduced as game in 1859, turned into 300 million! They’re like teenagers. It became a monumental horror. Then, the myxomatosis virus was introduced 50 plus years ago and effectively killed over 90%. Survivors still destroy the landscape.

Water buffalos are a very large disaster. Mean suckers, these. They flourished in the tropical north where cattle couldn’t. Brought from Indonesia in the early 19th century, they supplied meat, milk, and hides for the settlers. They damage the environment to feed themselves because they weigh 1700 pounds and stand nine feet tall. Do give them a wide berth if you see any!

And we’ll close our little nature lesson with the brumby. Named by the Aborigines, he’s a wild horse descended from the stock brought by settlers in the 1780s. A “waler” is one that dates back to when the whole country was called New South Wales. They’ve been around a long time. Brumbies are now being culled, sadly, but they “destroy habitat and cause erosion”. In the meantime, it’s wonderful to see them run free. And let’s leave it at that.

Aboriginal Food

Karyn Planett

And On Today’s Menu…

Imagine your handsome waiter exclaiming in mouth-watering detail that evening’s chef’s special featuring what we imagine Australia’s Aboriginal food to be. “We’ll be offering for your dining pleasure this evening an unrecognizable insect, lightly seared then served in a fusion of its own bodily fluids followed by a medley of hand-gathered bark shards dusted with crushed boulderbits.”

It’s extraordinary how wrong one can be.

Having said that, just know that many celebrated Australian chefs are acknowledging that certain foods, once only traditional Aboriginal fare, have star market value. Australians are recognizing not only the importance of these offerings to people who literally live off the land but to cityfolk as well. Scientists, too, are analyzing the nutritional value these foods provide those who gather and serve up what Mother Nature supplies.

But is this all that appetizing for the Western palate, you ask? It might be just about as tough a sell a bush tomato as are brussels sprouts to any five-year old worth his bubble gum. 

Some Bush Tucker, Mate?

A look at Australia’s history reminds us that the Aboriginal people lived off the land long before England dumped her “undesirables” on this vast continent. And who said their cooking was so great anyway? Bubble and squeak, for goodness sake! Nonetheless, the Aborigines eventually traded in their digging sticks for Teflon cookware and turned their backs on Mother Nature’s bounty. That was until recently when there was a renewed interest in native foods. For the record, the early settlers learned from the Aborigines and shared in the bounty. But that all changed.

To acquaint the novice to native Australian delicacies, we need to learn about a few of the many options available to the keen bushtracker who has learned to read the land. These are the true gatherers we learned about in school. They do little cultivating and merely search for or stumble across berries and fruits, edible grasses and unsuspecting animals.

More Than Just Witchetty Grubs, Bub!

Currently there are a number of specialists chronicling Aboriginal foods. A fellow named Les Hiddings, considered one of the country’s foremost authorities on edible plants, hails from Townsville’s Land Command Battle School. He has formally documented more than six hundred edible plants. Thankfully, we’ll highlight only a few.

Bush bananas resemble crisp cucumbers that are quite moist. Billygoat plums are there for the picking across a sweep of northern Australia. They’re so rich in Vitamin C that lab tests show they provide the same amount as a dozen oranges. Think propagation for export! So, too, the quandong, the screw palm nut, and something lovingly referred to as the bush monkey nut. The screw palm nut has a high fat content supplying the diner with lots of energy. On the other end of the spectrum, the bush monkey nut is low in fat and seems promising for health freaks and dieters. And the wattle seeds deserve a mention. They serve as a spice.

Croc, ‘Roo, and Carpet Snake

Can’t forget our protein. Native fare includes tender morsels brought to you by the neighborhood crocodile, emu, kangaroo, wombat, bogong moth, mangrove worm, carpet snake, and echidna, which is said to closely resemble pork. Goanna, on the other hand, is compared to, yes… chicken. Everything seems tastier if cooked with yarlka bush onions.

And dessert is a rare treat, indeed. If you’ve eaten all your veggies, you get to bite down on the engorged abdomen of a two-centimeter-long honey ant savoring the nectar stored within. For the vegetarian (and who wouldn’t be at this point), there’s the sweet taste of the Grevillea flower. Wash this all down with alcohol-laced fermented eucalyptus sap brew and you’ve got yourself some darn good grub.

Oh, and speaking of grub… the witchetty. In truth, this is a rather generic term given to a host of larvae of several beetles and moths lurking around the trunks, roots, and stems of certain trees and shrubs. Aborigines and starred chefs panfry them to a golden glow. It is said they remind the diner of a browned sausage filled with, yet again, chicken, egg yolk, and ground almond.

Chef, your work is cut out for you.

Australian Rules Football

Karyn Planett

What Rules?

Maybe you’ve seen this already on ESPN or some other starved-for-programming 24-hour sports network.  The game is called Australian Rules Football, or colloquially “Aussie Rules”, or even more colloquially “Footy”, or is it “Footie?” (I’ve never seen it written.) 

Anyway, the version I remember involved guys wearing short pants that looked like they were left over from the ‘60s hurtling toward each other at closing speeds approximating runaway locomotives then leaping high in the air and crashing together as a ball the size and shape of a healthy Casaba melon bounced harmlessly along the turf.  This collision seemed to be the point of the match as it encouraged far more lusty shouting from the fans than when someone actually picked up the melon and ran with it.

A Footy Pilgrimage

Armed with this indelible impression, we could not pass up the opportunity to witness footy (my preference) in the flesh (literally) whilst (British affectation) in Melbourne recently.  So off we hiked to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, that venerable temple of Australian sport, for the two o’clock kickoff.  Once there, we quickly discovered the kickoff was scheduled for six o’clock.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, the game was being held at the far more modern (and by definition less venerable) Telstra Dome.  Oh, blast!

We arrived really early at the T.D., so early in fact that the beer wasn’t even cold yet and they hadn’t even put the teakettle on the boil!  The good news was we were able to witness what footy players consider “warm-ups”.  This consisted of the entire team jogging together—and by this I mean TOGETHER…shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, belly to backside—at an impossibly slow pace using little baby steps.  This was an eye-opener if there ever was one.  It was probably some sordid vestige of their early days as a prison colony.

While the now clearly exhausted players rested up for the start of the game we were treated to The Team Songs.  These were broadcast over the stadium PA, which someone had left on the volume setting selected for an earlier Bruce Springsteen concert.  The songs themselves sounded as if they’d both been recorded by the State of Victoria Senior Men’s Chorus backed by the winner of the All-Australia Marching Band Competition and had lyrics that went, “men, men, men, men, manly men, manly men, pulverizing girly men…” or words to that effect.

Footy Fans

About this time we made friends with the family sitting in front of us who were turned out in colors clearly indicating their support for the Collingwood Magpies.  Their team featured black and white vertical stripes resembling prison uniforms, which in the end seemed somehow appropriate.  Father, mother, and two daughters—who both looked like they played the sport—each wore the uniform number of their favorite Magpie set against a palette of solid black.  Since the other team, the Hawthorne Hawks, sported uniforms of brown and yellow that looked like something from the original McDonalds franchise, this was a canny fashion choice.  After some quiet condemnation of our ignorance, they took pity on us and attempted to explain the rudiments of what we were about to watch.  It didn’t help. 

They also introduced us to the meat pie, which did.

But before I describe the actual game, perhaps a bit of history will lend perspective.  We are led to believe that Footy began as a sport designed to keep cricketers in shape during the winter off-season.  Now, if you’ve ever watched cricket, which involves about nineteen guys standing around while one player does all the running and throwing, you’ll be forgiven if this seems an unlikely origin.  Nevertheless it is needed factoid to explain the field which, it seems, used to be approximately the size of Utah, but has since been reduced to something on the order of a Home Depot parking lot in order to fit inside a domed stadium.  The field is neither geometrically round, nor aerodynamically oval.  Like the ball they play with, it’s just sort of…fat.

Footy Stats

The size of the field turned out to be important after all as there is an almost incomprehensible number of people on it… throughout the entire game!  To start with, each team seems to have about forty players.  They are nearly all have thighs the size of municipal sewer pipes, and are all exactly five foot ten except for one player on each team who is seven foot six.  Also on the field are about ten referees.  They look exactly like the players, so they probably were once, but they can now be distinguished by uniforms of a color no team would ever willingly choose.  Four of the referees wear white hats like Greg Norman and stand between the goalposts.  When points are scored, they point with a pistol motion toward the center of the field.  Sometimes they wave a white flag in a particularly provocative way.

Then, since the game clock never stops so there are no opportunities for those important strategic huddles with the coaches, each team has a couple of “runners.”  These guys wear neon green outfits to separate them from the teams and the referees and are allowed to run out on the field at any time during the game to carry messages from the coach to the players.  You can see them running alongside a guy who is being dragged down by six other guys probably saying something like, “coach says if you don’t suck it up, you’ll be on the first train to Adelaide.”  But wait!  There’s more.  No time-outs means no Gatorade, so some other guys wait in pairs, spaced more or less evenly around the edge of the field holding water bottles.  Whenever there’s a free kick, which everyone uses as a breather while the clock runs, the Gatorade guys run out to replenish precious bodily fluids.  Given the size of the field, I think they actually cover more ground than anyone.

Footy, The Game Itself

Shockingly, the game doesn’t start with a kickoff after all.  It starts with a bounce-off.  I kid you not. One of the referees lifts the ball high over his head then slams it into the ground so that it bounces about twelve feet in the air.  At this point the two seven-foot-six guys, in what looks like the ritual mating dance of flamingoes, run into each other and try to tip the ball to a teammate.  What follows is pretty much what you’d expect.

A guy picks up the ball and starts running.  If he doesn’t bounce it on the ground once in a while, it’s a foul and the other team gets a free kick.  If he’s tackled he has to give up the ball or it’s a free kick.  So instead he can punch, not pass, the ball to a teammate, or he can kick the ball to a teammate who, if he catches it, gets a free kick.  Eventually someone gets a free kick from somewhere close enough to the goal to score either one, six, or nine points depending on who the referee in the hat is pointing at.  After about five minutes, all the players are exhausted from having to run around such a large field and the ball begins to spend a lot of time on the ground.  All of this ultimately results in two guys hurtling toward each other at closing speeds approximating runaway locomotives, leaping high in the air and crashing together.

So we weren’t disappointed after all.

Albany, Australia

Karyn Planett

Whaling and War Time

“In no other port of the Commonwealth were the ships seen together… in the full magnificence of their numerical strength.”  --The Advertiser, 21 November 1914

Such was the memorable yet cryptic report announcing that, on November 1, 1914, Australian and New Zealand troops had set sail in a convoy from the sheltered anchorage of Albany’s King George Sound. The deckhands had cast off the lines, the captains had set their course, and locals had tearfully waved farewell till the last ship slipped behind the horizon. They’d wished the lads “God speed!” and “Safe return!”, fearing that for many this was a futile wish. The convoys carried fledgling soldiers toward Europe to answer the call to bear arms and go war, which Britain declared August 4th, 1914 following Germany’s invasion of Belgium. In total, between the two troop convoys that departed a mere two months apart, were 40,000 soldiers and nearly 17,000 horses. This represented approximately 10% of all the Australian soldiers who had signed on to go to battle. There and then, they and their New Zealand comrades had sealed the brave bond of brothers in arms.  

Remembering Their Story

Following months of training in Europe as well as the Middle East, these farm boys, many too young to even enlist, faced the grotesque brutality of war front on as they slogged ashore on the bloody beaches of Gallipoli, Turkey. A barrage of machinegun fire was their only welcome. While troops from other nations stormed ashore on the Gallipoli Peninsula as well, and paid a hellish price for it, this was the ANZACs first significant battle.

The date… April 25th, 1915. Over the next eight months these lads fought hand-to-hand, trench-to-trench with Turkish men no older than they. This horrific bloodshed lasted until the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of November, 1918 for on that fateful day peace was declared. Sadly, the toll was high for everyone, something we know too well.

For, five years from call-up till the guns were silenced, nearly 250 Australian and New Zealand ships, both troop and hospital, sailed into and out of Albany. Some returnees recuperated and recounted their stories within the pristine walls of Albany Hospital. Other combat tales were never told, for those soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice and were buried at Memorial Park Cemetery.

Memories linger, lo one hundred long years have come and gone. One century on, the 25th of April, 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the landing of ANZAC troops on the distant shores of Gallipoli as World War I grabbed the throats of young men and women who fought for their nations’ honor as well as their lives. Pause to remember those ANZAC troops, many of whom saw their homeland for the very last time from the exact spot where you now stand.

Long before WWI, Albany was a rag-tag rumble of houses as early as 1627. And before that, the Noongar people were here, trading with extended family members as far away as Perth. Their journey sometimes required them to traverse the inhospitable countryside for hundreds of miles, on foot.

In the 1820s, ships called here while in the Southern Ocean hunting for whales and seals. It’s claimed by some that whaling is the country’s oldest industry. Following the discovery of petroleum oil in the mid-1800s, whaling went into a decline. All this history is detailed in the Whale World displays. Located at the former Cheynes Beach Whaling Station, some 45 minutes from Albany, you’ll hear tell of the time when some 850 whales were taken annually. The station closed in 1978.

Explorers and settlers also came, and some went. In addition, the authorities eyed this region as an alternative to the penal colony already in existence in New South Wales. It came to be when Major Edmund Lockyear sailed in with a fleet of soldiers, convicts, and a surgeon aboard the Brig Amity, arriving in 1826, on Christmas Day. A replica of the Amity was begun in 1975 using local shipwright Mr. Pieter van de Brugge and Mr. Stan Austin as the project supervisor. Restoration work was also done on the Old Gaol (Jail) that dates back to 1852. It’s now possible to feel what the conditions were like for prisoners serving time here.

While in Albany, you can also discover other chapters of its history as Western Australia’s oldest permanent settlement, a military outpost built to thwart France’s attempt to increase their interests in this part of the world, plus once serving as the entry point to Australia’s Eastern goldfields.

Try to leave time for a meal. Western Australia offers up fresh-daily seafood, locally-sourced produce, and divine desserts. Time is precious but maybe sample a Geraldton rock lobster, South West marron, yabby, trout, barramundi, Exmouth prawn, Rottnest scallop or Mandurah crab. They all pair well with award-winning wines from the Margaret River and Swan River regions. For the record, prisoners were offered a simpler menu.

Adelaide, Australia

Karyn Planett

Adelaide, Adelaide

Prettiest Town the Ozzies Ever Made

Stretched along the banks of the gently-flowing River Torrens, is what many consider to be Australia’s most livable community.  In fact, some experts compare Adelaide favorably with the Scottish landmark city of Edinburgh and America’s capital, Washington D.C.  

Civic leaders liken the region’s mild climate with that of the Mediterranean.  This pleasurable feature has attracted not only travelers from around the country and nations abroad, but countless filmmakers who relish endless sunlit days during their tight production schedules.  Horticulturists and picnickers alike loll in the warm afternoon sun in the city’s countless manicured parks.  And international business executives marvel at the high-tech industries that use Adelaide as their home base.

All in all, Adelaide enjoys a long list of admirers.  Count among them the inveterate traveler Mark Twain.  He extolled the city’s many virtues during his visit, remarking that “if the rest of Australia or any small part were half so beautiful it was a fortunate country.”

Pocket of Puritanism

Early settlers to the state of South Australia were often compared to America’s Puritans.  These rugged individualists wanted to escape their previous communities which had been settled by, and therefore populated with, convicts and former convicts.  These God-fearing citizens sought to build towns that were to be carved out solely by “free settlers.”  Their goal was to create a sober and moral society.

They landed on the shores of what is now known as the oceanfront suburb of Glenelg on the outskirts of Adelaide.  The date was July 1836, some two generations after the First Fleeters had washed ashore in Sydney Harbour.  These idealistic pioneers named their new home “Adelaide” in honor of England’s King William IV’s wife. 

Their devout conservatism gained them a reputation of being puritanical and prudish.  Over time, these conservative people, who represented the central core of this tight community, set about creating a civil code and developing an efficiently-run, truly civilized city.  Outsiders watched this city’s growth and occasionally viewed the forefathers with a critical eye, labeling them “smug.”

“City of Light”

City planners laid out what was to become one of Australia’s most livable cities.  Colonel William Light, a talented engineer for the British Army, put draft pencil to graph paper in 1836 and laid out the city of Adelaide in an efficient grid pattern.  The aforementioned gaggle of free settlers who accompanied him to this barren outpost pressured the colonel to complete this task in an exhausting sixty days. 

The site Light chose for the town of Adelaide raised many eyebrows and created quite a stir.  Many were skeptical about the location, due to the topography, yet he defended his decision, requesting only that his choice be judged by posterity.  His task took a heavy toll on his health; Light died a short period after his deadline, due to a long battle with tuberculosis.

Included in his designs was a central business district, one mile square, encircling Victoria Square.  It is here that the main banks and businesses are found.  Forming a boundary around this area are four terraces, named for the points of the compass, and a greenbelt beyond.  It is this celebrated series of parks that create a buffer from the surrounding suburbs and industrial areas, thus allowing for an urban oasis in the midst of this city of more than one million inhabitants.

Adelaide’s Art and Architecture

The city’s early architecture is evident from the Corinthian-columned Parliament House, which dates back to 1881, the 125-year old General Post Office, the Adelaide Gaol (Jail) and the many cut-stone churches and wrought-iron-balconied homes.  The South Australian Museum boasts a fabulous collection of Aboriginal and Melanesian artifacts.  Directly adjacent is the Art Gallery of South Australia, which houses the country’s largest collection of Australian art.  The 40-room mansion known as the Henry Ayers House, dating back to 1846, is located across the road from the gallery.  It was the former residence of the premier of South Australia, who held office for seven terms.  Ayers Rock, the stone monolith in the Australian Outback, bears his name.

As you wander through one of the city’s many parks, take time for a picnic of fresh fish treats from the Southern Ocean and an award-winning wine from nearby Barossa Valley.  And salute Adelaide’s genteel nature, born from the rough pages of Australia’s early history.                                                                   

          Karyn L. Planett

The Great Australian Bight

Karyn Planett

The Outback Of The Seas

Let’s start with a definition. A bight is, at its simplest, a bend or curve in a geographical feature usually occurring between land and water. Early explorers defined a bight as a bay they could sail out of without tacking. Now, one could be excused for not knowing the true definition and merely assuming that naming the Australian Bight was merely a matter of looking at a map of the coastline and imagining a bite taken out of it by some giant continent-eating sea monster. Whatever!

And, it’s tempting to say of this nearly uninhabited part of Australia that there’s no there there. But, in fact, there is a great deal of interest here both at sea and ashore.

The Roaring Forties

The Great Australian Bight opens into the Southern Ocean, newest of the world’s five oceans and the only one unbroken by any land mass. It’s been known for centuries as the Roaring 40s because of the prevailing westerly winds that howl constantly along this band between 40 and 50 degrees south latitude. These are the winds that have made the Tasman Sea, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Drake Passage such storied bodies of water. The part of the Southern Ocean we sail in today is considered the roughest and most dangerous body of water for competitors in round-the-world yacht races like the Vendee Globe. That’s really because a yacht in trouble here is quite far from any land-based assistance. We’re bigger. We’re fine.

A Marine Desert

The seabed at the Bight is relatively shallow but has little of the rich marine life that characterizes most continental shelves. Home to many sharks and whales, it nevertheless lacks the kind of abundance that supports commercial fishing. The seabed here is actually an extension of an inland desert known as the Nullarbor Plain. What little rain falls inland runs mostly away from the sea so there is none of the natural fertilization that takes place around similar continental shelves. Even so, the coastline here features soaring cliff faces up to 100 feet high jutting straight from the sea seemingly guarding the mysteries of the Nullarbor Plain beyond.

Crossing The Nullarbor

The Nullarbor Plain is the world’s largest single piece of limestone, encompassing 77,200 square miles, and spanning over 700 miles at its widest point. The highway that traverses it has a ninety-mile long straightaway and crossing it has become the ultimate outback experience. To early settlers of the Australian continent, the plain was impassable and formed a natural barrier that isolated the towns of western Australia from the rest of the country.

In 1841, Edward John Eyre, who described the Nullarbor as “the sort of place one gets into in bad dreams”, made the first harrowing but successful crossing. Setting out from Fowler’s Bay in South Australia with a companion and three Aboriginal men as guides, Eyre endured more than just the natural hardships. Two of the guides killed his companion and made off with all the expedition’s supplies. But Eyre and the remaining guide were able to complete the journey and give heart to later travelers, the telegraph, and eventually the Trans-Australian Railway, which has its own record-breaking stretch of over 300 miles of dead straight track. 

The Nullarbor Nymph

Lightly settled, harsh environments like the Nullarbor give rise to more than their fair share of losers, legends and lunatic behavior. Towns such as Cook, once a thriving railway stop along the straight bit but now a ghost town harboring its last four citizens, are the typical stories. At Marilinga, a place of spiritual significance to Aboriginal peoples, there were seven nuclear tests conducted in the 50s. No one is sure whether contamination still exists, and no one is sure whether all the inhabitants were cleared out before or after the testing.

Eucla lies astride the Eyre Highway and is the only location with a direct view of the Australian Bight. In its early days Eucla was one of the most important telegraph stations on the line. In the 1890s a plague of rabbits ate most of the indigenous vegetation destabilizing the sand dunes, which soon began to swallow the town.

By the 1970s, Eucla had a population of only eight but received worldwide attention when photographs were published of a half naked blonde girl who had gone “bush” and was living with the local kangaroo population. By the time the press had quadrupled the town’s population, it became clear that the ruse had been perpetrated by the owner of the town’s only hotel and restaurant, and the blonde girl on film turned out to be a 17-year-old model. Chalk it up to another classic tale of the Outback.

Auckland, NZ

Karyn Planett

City of Sails

"A country of inveterate, backwoods, thick-headed, egotistic philistines"  
—Vladimir Ilyich Lenin 1909

"The United States invented the space shuttle, the atomic bomb and Disneyland. We have 35 times more land than New Zealand, 80 times the population, 144 times the gross national product and 220 times as many people in jail… So how come a superpower of 270 million got routed in the America's Cup, the world's most technically oriented yacht race, by a country of 3.5 million that outproduces us only in sheep manure?"
—Eric Sharp 1995

Funny how opinions of a place can change over time. In fact, for many Americans, that dark day in 1995 when Team New Zealand ran off with the America’s Cup was the first time they gave much of a thought to the home of the “kiwis”. Since then, the combination of pleasant climate, pleasant people, natural beauty, and the natural adrenalin high of their “extreme” sports has made it one of the more popular destinations for U.S. travelers.

A Pocket History

According to archaeologists and anthropologists, primitive Maori tribesmen paddled their dugout canoes into the Auckland area somewhere around the year 800 A.D. As their numbers increased and conditions grew crowded, the Maoris took up their war clubs. Battles raged between rival clans. The fighting became so fierce and never-ending that the warriors christened Auckland Tamaki , or “battle,” and the isthmus lusted over by all the warriors, Tamaki makau rau , or “battle of 100 lovers.”

Abel Tasman didn’t receive a very friendly welcome either when he and his crew came ashore in 1642. The fierce Maoris, being less than totally hospitable, dined on a few of Tasman’s unlucky sailors. This unsavory event discouraged other adventurers until Captain Cook, in his inimitable way, developed a far friendlier relationship with the Maoris when he came ashore in 1769. They graciously granted this legendary navigator free reign to explore and map their land during his first voyage of discovery aboard HMS Endeavor.

In 1820, a missionary by the name of Samuel Marsden dropped anchor off what is now Auckland. His crew, from the sailing ship Coromandel, needed new masts and spars for their vessels so they took to the forest and began chopping down the towering trees. Marsden, all the while, was also saving souls. Within 20 years the trusting Maori people sold their beloved 3000 acres of land, now the heart of Auckland, for 50 blankets, some garments, tobacco, provisions, and a paltry £50.

Even at 1840 real estate prices, it was a real steal.

The pakehas  (Maori for “those who are colorless”) began to arrive in earnest once the deal was struck. Lawlessness reigned day and night as whalers and sealers ravaged the tiny community. Then Captain William Hobson arrived, laid down the law, and convinced the Maoris to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, which ceded their land to Britain.

A Pocket-Sized City

One out of every three New Zealanders lives in Auckland. Many are of European descent but there are substantial Maori, Asian and Pacific Islander communities as well. In fact, Auckland has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world. One of the few cities in the world to have harbors on two separate major bodies of water (the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Tasman Sea to the west), Auckland is popularly known as the "City of Sails". And no wonder because the city boasts more yachts per capita than any other, anywhere. From the Harbour Bridge you can look down upon Viaduct Basin, which has twice housed America’s Cup challengers and is one of the city’s high-energy restaurant and entertainment centers.

You can also look up at Sky Tower rising above Auckland’s central shopping district. At 328 meters, it’s the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere. Newmarket and Parnell are upscale shopping areas with a wide variety of boutiques and designer shops. Otara and Avondale have famous flea markets and, along with Victoria Park Market they offer a bright change-of-pace shopping experience.

A drive to the top Mt. Eden, a dormant volcano, will give you a view of the city from another perspective. On the way down, pass through Auckland’s largest park, The Domain, where the Auckland Museum displays a magnificent collection of Maori and Polynesian art.

But however you decide to experience Auckland and its people, they are sure to show you why it is ranked fifth among the world’s most livable cities.

Australia’s Jackaroos

Karyn Planett

Oh, Give Me Land Lots of Land

While the power of Hollywood has pretty much created the definitive “cowboy” and made the American West his home, there are a lot of other places in the world where cow punchin’ of a very different sort takes place.  Think about the cowboys of the Argentine pampas and their bolladeros, or Mongolian cowboys with their miniature horses and funny hats.
The unique aspects of raising cattle in the Outback have led to a distinctly Australian version of this workingman hero too, the jackaroo (and increasingly, the jillaroo.)

Helicopter Cowboys

Out there, in back of the beyond, when they sing, “don’t fence me in” they really mean it!  The typical Australian ranch or “cattle station” isn’t measured in acres but rather in square miles.  Sometimes tens of thousands of them.  All because natural feed is as scarce as land is plentiful.  In the U.S. they may talk about the number of head an acre can support.  Here it’s the number of acres per head.

These enormous distances have led to the emergence of helicopter cowboys for mustering (rounding up) a mob (herd) of cattle.  As recently as thirty years ago, it would take weeks or months for mounted stockmen to gather large herds into holding yards on the way to market.  This new breed of airborne wranglers and ropers can do in a day what would have taken eight guys on horseback one month to accomplish.

But aside from the $20,000 training course and the fancy Top Gun helmet, you wouldn’t know these high-tech cowpunchers from the ground level kind.  They all wear jeans and boots, carry their swag (bedroll) with them, and sleep rough in the bush for a week at a time.  Their gathering techniques don’t differ much either—get behind ‘em, make a lot of noise, and push ‘em where they don’t want to go.  “Much the same rules that apply in the saddle, apply in a chopper,” says one.  “You might be the best pilot in Australia, but if you don’t know cows, you won’t be successful out here.”

The Dog and Pony Show

Airborne or horseback, man’s best friend is still his best friend, and a bloke couldn’t get a better buddy than his “bluey.”  Out where there simply aren’t enough people to provide an adequate labor pool, the blue heeler helps control herds that graze across the vast bushland.  “Heeler” refers to their herding technique of snapping at a cow’s heels.  Blue heelers make great pets too, and it’s rare to find a landowner who won’t brag on the intelligence and loyalty of his four-legged mate.

Australian cattlemen also couldn’t get by without their stock horse, the “Waler”, after New South Wales where the breed was developed.  English bloodstock landed with the First Fleeters was interbred with horses from India, South Africa, and Persia.  What emerged was a distinctive saddle horse ideal for life on the rugged frontier stations.  By 1860 there were half a million of them and they went on to fame and glory carrying thousands of Australian cavalrymen into overseas wars.

Road Trains

The final link in the enormous enterprise that is the Australian cattle business is the road train.  If you’ve ever been blown off some highway by an eighteen-wheeler going past at seventy miles an hour, imagine a sixty-two-wheeler!  These leviathans of the flat track feature not one but three double-decker trailers, hauled by a tractor as tall as a house, powered by a 14-litre turbo-charged engine generating 400 kilowatts of power. When fully loaded with 150 animals it weighs over 115 tons, stretches half the length of a football field from bull bar to tail lights, and even with one set of air brakes for each set of wheels, it takes half a mile to come to a stop from cruising speed.

Road trains sport names like “Whispering Death” and the men who drive them are justly proud of their swashbuckling image and of the enormous skill required to control one.  Many of them spend over 200 nights a year on the road hauling freight, food, and fuel in addition to livestock.  It used to take a team of drovers on horseback five months to push 1500 cattle to market, and the stock often arrived in poor shape.  Road trains have become the lifeline of the Outback and running a profitable cattle station without them just wouldn’t be possible.

The Australian Boomerang

Karyn Planett

From Tacky Souvenir to Legitimate Sport

For many a world traveler, a genuine Aboriginal boomerang is the perfect memento of the visit to old Down Under Australia—it’s rather unique, packs easily, plus it won’t set off the airports’ bells, whistles, and metal detectors.  But for some souvenir hounds, the bloom comes off immediately after rifling through the luggage upon reaching home.  Attempts to show off for the neighbors by actually throwing this nifty boomerang have resulted in everything from a disappointing and perhaps final flight path; damage to structures or unwary pets; or, most grievously, a perfect throw resulting in injury or death for the thrower.  It’s just about this time when most people realize that boomeranging is not a child’s game but rather a serious sport not to be trifled with.  In fact, the risk-averse novice may want to learn a bit more about these potentially lethal chochkies before actually owning one.

Origin of the Species

The throwing stick has, for the record, been around since the time of ancient Egypt but it was the Australian Aborigines who raised this weapon to an art form.  The oldest boomerang ever found has been carbon dated to about ten thousand years old.  In fact, the word evolved from the Aboriginal “Boomori.”  Good to know should you appear sometime on “The Weakest Link.”

According to Aboriginal legend, the earliest known use was to create day and night.  A couple of lads with boomerangs managed to kill Bila, the sun woman, and the whole world suddenly went dark.  Immediately realizing their bonehead mistake, the deadly duo started throwing their boomerangs in all directions until one of them actually did something right by aiming it toward the east, and a great fire ball rose up, swept across the sky and set gently in the west.  Bingo (not an Aboriginal word)!  Day and Night created.  End of story.

Types of Boomerangs

While the returning boomerang is the most famous, it’s really just for show since if it actually managed to hit anything it would, ahem, drop like a stone.  The hunting boomerang isn’t designed to return, but meant to smack the sense out of a bird or a kangaroo or a wombat.  The club boomerang, on the other hand, is designed to knock the daylights out of the other guy with a boomerang in his hand and mayhem on his mind.  The hook boomerang is a truly fearsome weapon for hand-to-hand combat.  It is crafted to stick in an enemy’s shield causing the handle to flip over and split the other guy’s skull open.  Don’t buy that one!

For really showing off, there are the “alphabet” boomerangs.  A “U” shape one has a short, accurate return flight pattern; an “X” shape one just looks pretty in the air; and a “Y” shape one is for trick throws and crowd pleasers much like a throwing knife if you can get the point to stick into something.

Accessorizing Your Boomerang

Of course, no sport is complete without a distinctive “outfit” or “kit.”  It is reliably reported that Nike is working on a boomerang shoe, due in shops next year, and is hurriedly signing up national teams in anticipation of boomeranging becoming an Olympic demonstration sport.  Until then, the committed “boomer ranger” will have to make do with cool Aboriginal gear like the dilly bag, the nulla nulla, and the woomera.  These can be obtained via the Internet with the logo of your favorite professional team.

Throwing and, More Importantly, Catching

Select a very large, preferably grassy, area.  Throw your boomerang at a 45-degree angle to the wind and never throw in breezes above five miles per hour.  Hold the boomerang at either end with the flat side against your palm, tip in the middle, using the thumb and first three fingers.  Throw straight forward, in a vertical position, from above the shoulder.

The boomerang will return in a horizontal position, which is where you’ll find yourself if you aren’t in the ready position.  Hold your hands open, palms together, like a book.  Catch with both hands following the flight path, to the side of the body.  Avoid trying to catch at head level.  If it looks like the boomerang might hit you, turn your back, bend over, cover your head, then live to try another throw.

Boomerang Milestones

  • For those new to the sport, a few stats will give you some goals to shoot for.  And that will be just about all you’d ever like to know on the subject.
  • Consecutive two-handed catches: 801, Stephane Marquerite, France, 1989.
  • Out and return distance: 134.2 meters, Jim Youngblood, USA, 1989.
  • Flight duration: 2 minutes 59.94 sec., Denis Joyce, USA, 1989. (The three-minute barrier is yet to be cracked!)
  • Consecutive catches in five minutes: 73, Matthiew Weber, Switzerland, 1991.
  • Consecutive catches, two boomerangs, keeping one aloft at all times: 207, Michael Girvin, USA.