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Down Under 2: Australia

Down Under 2: Australia


Stirling with the Mayers


            I met Peter my freshman year at Oberlin and by Thanksgiving we had become fast enough friends that we hitchhiked together to Alexandria, Virginia, to spend the holiday with his remarkable family. We shared a fascination for odd facts, a seriousness of purpose coupled to an addiction to whimsy (we were chorus in productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas), and an interest in sport. He fenced foil for the varsity; I fenced epée, enjoyed practicing with the team, wrote the team song, and sat on the bench during fencing meets. Peter still fences weekly in the South Australia Fencing Club; I worry about dogs getting through the fence around our property in Oaxaca. We roomed together our sophomore year, went abroad the next year, he to England and me to Spain (and together to Morocco over Christmas break), and we were roommates again as seniors. He married Lata Sundaram the day after graduation and went to Madison for a PhD in political-economics, with a focus on India; I went to Harvard and back to Spain, eventually taking a job at Indiana University in a first stop on what turned out to be a long meander around the American academic world. Peter took an interim job at the university at Adelaide in South Australia, and is still there. He and Lata bought the carriage house of a fancy estate up in the suburban Stirling Hills, refurbished it, and live there with their daughter Asha and their lovely collection of Indian art.


After our ramble through the New Zealand Alps, Peter and I flew together from Auckland to Adelaide.


            This was my first trip to Australia and I had no concrete expectations. I knew the country was large, about 1/3 the size of the United States, and that it had a population not quite that of Mexico City. I had some vague notions about sheep and wine in the south, tropical jungle and coral reefs in the north, and lots of very empty desert in between. I had even fuzzier notions about Aborigines, Australia’s racial policies, and culinary customs and architecture. In talking with Australians I met in my travels, I found the nasal twang of their accent sometimes hard to grasp. I knew that Australians had acquired from the Brits an addiction to rugby and cricket, that they drove on the left, and that there were kangaroos. I didn’t have a clue about wallabies, potoroos, or Australian Rules Football. After three weeks in country with two excellent tutors, I have a better sense of the vast scope of my ignorance, and I have developed an affection for Australian Rules on the telly.


            In a week of gallivanting around the hill country near Stirling, Lata and Peter proved to be superb hosts. I got to wander historic downtown Adelaide, one of the most beautifully laid out, greenest, and cleanest cities I have ever seen, and it is the very first that employs bronze pigs to tell people where to put their garbage.  


I visited the Anthropology museum, and was overwhelmed with the sophistication of the Aborigine art and artifacts collected there. Lata is a docent at the Museum of Immigration, and between the two adjacent museums I got a insider’s view of Australia’s shameful history of discrimination against the Aborigines, white-only immigration policies, and official reversal of both, although, as in the US, old hates die hard. Also, given the similarity Peter’s and Lata’s and my our eclectic cultural interests, I got to visit the central market, attend the theater (a peculiar and disjointed, though well-acted play), and a superb lecture on geology. ¿Cómo no?


Peter knew that I enjoy birding and prefer rough trails to walking on pavement, so he made sure to introduce me to an assortment of bogs, ponds, estuaries, hilltops, and creeks.


One morning, out in the bush birding with a friend of Peter’s, I caught a glimpse of movement behind me and whirled around with my camera: yes, indeed! The butt-end of my first kangaroo in the wild.


It wasn’t long before I saw many more, doing what they mostly do during the day, which, since they like most of Australia’s wildlife are nocturnal, is sleep. Kangaroos in drouse or browse mode are easier to photograph than ones that erupt when they are startled.

We visited several nature parks, too, in one of which I got to see my first pandas, and even pet one!  Potoroos and wallabies too, such as this lady who has her joey in her pouch.


            Although many of country’s marsupials –and there are many dozens!--are endangered, it turns out that there is no shortage of kangaroos or wallabies, and they roam where they like, which is pretty much everywhere. When they reach pest dimensions, professional hunters cull the herds. I can report from experience that kangaroo meat is delicious, though very low in fat, which makes it a bit tough. Taste? Well, a little like antelope.


Kangaroo Island


            There was a time when Australians feared that kangaroos and wallabies might go extinct the way so many of the country’s native fauna did during the early pillage phase of Australia’s history, so they carted several hundred of each over to a nearby island to which only a subspecies, the western grey kangaroo, was native, and called the place Kangaroo Island. It is about 145 kilometers long and 50 wide. It is hilly, not mountainous, but the edges drop into the sea as precipitous cliffs. On the north side the shore is protected by the Australian landmass, but the southern edge faces Antarctica, and the seas crash and the wind roars and it is a wild and beautiful if not very comfortable place. Several of its diminutive bays provide R&R for fur seals and sea lions when they return from their fishing forays into the icy deeps. Nearly a third of the island’s land has been set aside as nature preserve. Sheep graze on the rest of the land, which they share with the 4,000 people who call the island home. Lighthouses tell ships to keep their distance.


            As Rabbi Sheb Tov ibn Ardutiel de Carrión wrote in the mid-14th century, “los huéspedes y los peces / a los tres días hieden” (after 3 days guests and fish both stink), I figured 11 uninterrupted days with the Mayers in Stirling was too long, so I would hie my self over to Kangaroo Island for four days to give them a break. Of course I offered to take one or the other along, my treat, if they’d like. Peter demured; to my delight, Lata didn’t. At six o’clock one morning the two of us took the three-hour bus ride down to Cape Jervis (population 202) to catch the ferry for the 45-minute ride to Penneshaw (population 276) on KI.


            Over the next three days we rambled, mostly from nature reserve to nature reserve, at each of which we spent two or three hours hiking the trails and taking pictures of the bush, the seacoast, and their inhabitants. At the misnamed Seal Bay, we watched sea lions, warn out from fishing, flake out on the beach with their friends and relations for a few much needed zzzz’s. They didn’t pay as much attention as we did to the skeleton of a stranded baby right-whale laid out on the dunes.


            At Admiral’s Arch we watched their distant cousins the fur seals, who appear to prefer bare rocks to sand, join them in slumber. Then, battling gale-force winds and sleet, we clambered down nearly to water’s edge to glimpse the rock- and surf-carved arch that gives the place its name. The “stalactites” are fossilized roots!



            An early navigation chart referenced some “remarkable rocks” along the island’s southern coast, and the name, which may well be an understatement, stuck. Lata and I battled the wind down the long boardwalk —built to protect the fragile heath vegetation along the coast. Essentially these Remarkable Rocks are a large glob of granite, mixed with mica, quartz, and feldspar, that worked its way up through the earth’s mantle to a place where, the surrounding, softer, rocks having eroded away over 50 million years or so, they were left on the surface. Unlike it’s geologic sibling Ayers Rock (aka Uluru), in the middle of the Australian desert, this glob has been chiseled by wind and water for eons, leaving gigantic, fanciful shapes to surprise sailors and attract tourists.


Photo H



The Tropical North


            Back in Stirling we schmoozed for another couple of days and then bid our goodbyes. I am hoping that Lata, who is a chocoholic and whose interest was piqued by my description of moles, will appear here in Oaxaca one of these days. Then I flew off to Cairns and the tropical state of Queensland. (Disclaimer: most of Australia is flat. South Australia around Adelaide, and Queensland around Cairns, are among the very few parts that are not. But they are the only ones I saw, so my mental picture of Australia is skewed, and any generalizations are suspect.)


            Yes, tropical. As in Crocodile Dundee. Rain forests that clothe low hills that drop right into the ocean. Estuaries and Swamps that house fearsome creatures like snakes and crocodiles. On the arable bits, sugar cane. Nearest neighbor: Papua and New Guinea.


            I rented a car and drove the winding coast road to Port Douglas for two days of sightseeing, hiking, and birding. There I decided to splurge: I engaged Doug Herrington, a local birding expert, to tutor me on the avifauna.  And tutor he did, for ten delightful hours or so, starting at dawn. We logged a little over 100 species, most of them large, exotic in appearance and habit, and entirely new to me. Scenery extraordinary, too. At lunch we ran into a mate of his who sometimes takes small groups up the Daintree River. I contracted to join a group at dawn the following morning. All in all, an exhausting day well spent, that I topped off with an hour observing the hippy-fauna and the femi-fauna at the small meadow next to the Port Douglas wharf.


Photo J


            Followed by a morning on the Daintree River.


Photo K


            And an afternoon in the Mossman Gorge Rain Forest.


Photo L





            In my vague notions of what I was getting into on this trip, I actually had three pre-arrival goals. Spend quality time with Peter and Lata: check. Go birding in the northern tropics: check. Go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef: pending. I’m not really a water person, and I don’t generally find fish fascinating (at least not the way my brother John does), preferring my wildlife with legs or wings, but, still it is one of the world’s wonders, and I was looking forward to a day of paddling around the reef paradise with my mask and flippers.


John, it should have been you. I signed on to a small-boat scuba and snorkeling excursion. About 30 passengers: I heard Spanish (Castilla and Andalucía), French, German, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and at least two other languages that I couldn’t pin down. The only thing they all had in common was not yet having reached their 35th birthdays. Only one other bearded chap and I were the outliers on the age curve, and he looked like he habitually swam marathons, and he brought his own scuba equipment!


The tour targeted sites out on the Reef, each with different corals and varieties of marine life. The ride out from Cairns was 90 minutes of chop punctuated by the sounds of puking over the after rail. Not joining this particular activity was I believe the only other thing the other old beard and I had in common.


Photo M


I listened to the snorkeling orientation, took two good puffs of Albuterol, and got fitted for a snorkel (because of my age, they gave me one with a black tube, indicating that the spotter, top-ship, was to keep an eye on me). They gave me flippers, and wet suit, and sent me to the orientation briefing. As the boat bobbed in the chop, the SCUBA folks stepped down onto the dive platform and slipped into the water. A line of bubbles followed their progress to the edge of the reef. The rest of the young folks were chomping at their mouth pieces to get going, and four by four they, too, slipped into the water, and flippered the thirty meters or so that separated us from the coral.


Me, I lowered myself carefully into a sitting position on the edge of the platform. I planned to start by splashing water over myself, but the chop made that unnecessary. I slipped in, put my face down, took a deep breath through the black tube, set my flippers pumping up-down, up-down, and steered toward the rear splashes of the pack. I got out about 15 meters out and . . . .


Both my legs cramped and my breathing shut down. Big time.


Restrained panic. I executed a 180, flippered my flippers as vigorously as my semi-functional legs would let me, and made it back to the platform without having to signal for help. I suppose that is something, though I don’t know what. I dug out my inhaler, took another couple of long puffs of Albuterol, and, after about 15-minutes of wheezing, recovered enough to be able peel out of the wet suit—with help—, hang up the snorkel and flippers, and spend the next five hours on deck peering at the water and listening to returning swimmers’ rapt tales of corals swum over, of encounters with fish, medium-size sharks and all of Nemo’s striped and spotted cousins, turtles, sea stars, sea cucumbers, giant clams, and all the other colorful, exotic denizens of Dr Seuss Land.


I don’t want to end on a downer. Actually, the views of the reef from the upper deck were gorgeous, I had some interesting conversations with the young’uns, and the lunch was plentiful and pretty good. All-in-all I had a good, if wistful, time. But as I said, John, it really should have been you.


(Please note that so far I have refrained from showing bird pictures. That’s because I have relegated them all to installment Three of this blog. And that’s only a small selection.)