As I write this, I'm in a small English village called Bletchingley, just south of London. I've just been pleasantly whiling away a couple of hours at my local pub, the Whyte Harte (yes, I spelt that correctly!) Of course I was only intending to stay for one beer, but imagine my surprise to see the Australian movie 'Crocodile Dundee' on tele at the bar. It's relevant on two counts. One, it remind me that it's Australia Day tomorrow. In fact with the time difference, it's January 26th already in Australia- albeit five o'clock in the morning, so I guess there's probably not too much celebrating going on just yet. In just a few hours, the cockroach racing will be in full swing. More about that later.
I was also reminded of my first trip to the US in 1992. Crocodile Dundee had just come out then, and for many Americans that I met, that movie was the sole source of their knowledge about my country. On my latest trip to America, eleven years later, the talk was all about Steve Irwin, the 'Crocodile Hunter'. I don't mind, but it is odd that of the near 300 million people in the United States, most of them only know Australia as a land of beer drinking larrikans and deadly animals. I've spent most of my thirty-five years in Australia, and I've never seen a crocodile in the wild, nor any deadly snakes. Deadly spiders and beer drinking larrikans are a different story; there's plenty of them!
So I thought: what better way to introduce a book about my travels around North America, than to start with a bit of background information about my own country, so you know what I'm comparing the United States and Canada with. Well here goes...
At the beginning of the Cambrian period about 600 million years ago- give or take a few- the supercontinent of Gondwanaland occupied the southern hemisphere of the earth. By the end of the Silurian period, the northern supercontinent of Laurasia had been formed. In the Devonian, Gondwanaland moved toward Laurasia, South America colliding first in the west, then progressively eastward as Africa encountered North America and Europe. By the Carboniferous, Pangaea was complete. Pangaea remained together from Carboniferous to Triassic, when it began to split apart. Gondwanaland split from Laurasia first, the separation proceeding northward. South America and Africa moved southward, opening the Tethys Sea between Eurasia and Africa and India, which was driving northward from its original location as Australia moved eastward. Yeah, go east you good thing!
About 40 000 years ago, Australia was inhabited by Aborigines. Aborigines fished the seas and rivers, hunted kangaroos and emus to eat, and lived a nomadic lifestyle, moving on from an area before they had overfished the waters or depleted the supply of game. Then thirty eight thousand and eight hundred years later, a few ships full of pasty white people turned up on the shores, and Australia was never the same again. The English imperialists massacred the aborigines wherever possible- rifles against sticks, not really a victory to be proud of- and when open slaughter wasn't possible, they traded typhoid infected blankets with the natives. Amongst the aborigines, who had no resistance to such diseases, typhoid spread like well, typhoid, and killed a large percentage of the indigenous population. Still, some of the natives were an annoyance to the settlers, apparently unwilling to just hand over their country and quietly die a slow painful death from the exotic diseases they'd been given. In 1824, settlers were authorised to shoot Aborigines. In 1828, the Governor declared martial law. Soldiers or settlers arrested, or shot, any blacks found in settled districts. Not one of the mother country's proudest moments, and it's been left out of the modern history syllabus in English schools, I bet- along with the opium wars. My young English workmate commented to me the other day about what 'stubborn bastards' those Chinese were years ago. He'd seen an English documentary about how the Chinese had, in the 1800’s, 'refused to trade' with the English. When I pointed out that they only refused to trade because all that England had to offer was opium and bad weather, and that the English then bombed the shit out of their port cities until China relented, agreeing to re-open their ports to English ships, loaded with opium, he was shocked.
Anyway, the English took over the island continent of Australia, and it made a wonderful place to send convicts from their overcrowded jails. That's right, Australia was settled as a penal colony, in case you didn't know. As punishment for stealing a loaf of bread, convicts were transported to the other side of the world to spend the rest of their lives in paradise, drinking cold beer under a palm tree on a sandy beach, while at home their mates ate black pudding and greasy chips, sitting on a pebble beach at Brighton with hankies on their heads, in the drizzly rain. Nowadays there are over a million English people queued up to emigrate to Australia, but we only let 'em in a few at a time. Hee hee.
Aborigines have continued to cop a raw deal. Their population was decimated from an estimate of half a million when the English arrived, to 31 000 by 1911. Despite the substantial increase in the population of Aborigines since 1911- back to about 400 000, or 2 percent of the population, the conditions of life in which they find themselves remain impoverished and highly oppressive. In any social indicator available, Aborigines are found at the top or bottom. Diseases, such as coronary disease, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory infections, are far more prevalent than 30 years ago. Life expectancy is 50-55 years for males, approximately 55 years for females. The likelihood of an Aborigine being unemployed is far greater—22.7 percent as opposed to 8.1 percent. For Aborigines fortunate enough to have employment, their income is 25 percent less on average. Although only making up two percent of the population, they take up fourteen percent of the beds in the prison system. Just don’t go asking me what the answer is, cause smarter men than me have tried and failed.
Australian history over the last couple of hundred years has been pretty boring. We became our own country in 1901, and have caught up to much older countries in terms of industrialization, technology, and in that short time we’ve caught up in pollution levels as well. The English Queen is still our head of state, even though we have our own boss. We had a referendum in 1999 on whether or not to get rid of the Queen and replace her with a President, but Australia voted that we couldn’t give a rats ass either way. It’s compulsory to vote in Australia. You can go to jail- and people have- for not voting. Non-Australians think that’s hilarious. So do I. We’re so slack, you have to threaten us with jail, just to make us vote. I got a fifty dollar fine for not voting once, but the Electoral Office let me off because I said I’d been fencing in the outback at the time and my horse had died, leaving me stranded out woop woop. They did tell me not to use the dead story again though.
To be honest, I couldn’t be bothered voting unless one of the candidates is better than the other. My country has been led by nothing but a succession of liars and complete rogues. The only real leader we had was Bob Hawke, who was Prime Minister from 1983 to 1991. If Bob came back I’d vote for him, but he’s too busy with his new wife, drinking bubbly and getting around in fluffy white bathrobes. When Bob was at University in Oxford, he drank his way into the Guinness Book Of Records by skulling two and a half pints of beer in twelve odd seconds, a record unbeaten still. I’ve often joked that in fact this was later an important part of his election campaign, but in actual fact he admits it. At a conference in Europe recently, he said of his beer drinking record "In a political sense, it was one of the big advantages that I got out of my time at Oxford…It endeared me to a large section of the Australian voting population." When Australia won the America's Cup yacht race in 1983, it was something like four o’clock in the morning, our time. (The race was in America) Bob Hawke came on tele absolutely maggotted, and declared just prior to falling over that "any boss who sacked a worker for not turning up to work that day was nothin' but a bum!" No-one turned up for work that day. The country shut down. It was an impromptu public holiday, and Bob Hawke's popularity was never at a higher point than that day, I can assure you. Of course, we'll never know his exact popularity rating because nobody from the polling office was working that day.
Besides Bob, the only interesting leaders we had were Billy MacMahon and Harold Holt. Billy MacMahon, I was quite convinced, died in bed with a hooker. However, I can’t seem to find any information about that anywhere on the net, so either it’s all been kept hush hush, or I just got all screwed up with my stories. Forget about him. He’s not so interesting any more. Prime Minister Holt went for a swim at the beach one night and just never decided to come back. That was in the sixties, then last year, thirty-six years after his disappearance, the State’s Coroner opened a new inquiry into Harry’s death. For all his potentially great work as leader of the nation, it was Harry’s departure that he is remembered for, etched into the Australian vernacular, the term ‘do the Harry Holt’ now interchangeable with ‘to do the bolt’ or ‘to leave’. Most Australians know that Harry rendezvoused with a Chinese submarine, and defected to join the circus.
Australians are good at all sports, not just boat racing, roo shooting and disappearing to China. We get medals all the time for swimming, running, jumping around, hell, we get too many medals for a country of just twenty million people. But our favourite pastime is making the English look useless, particularly at any game that they invented, like cricket. Our best cricketer ever was Don Bradman. Don was so good at batting that the English just gave up trying to bowl him out. Instead they tried to kill him by throwing the ball at his head. In 1989 high profile Aussie cricketer David Boone became a cricket legend by knocking back fifty two beers on the way to a cricket match in England, and still kicking ass. We’re good at all sports, but cricket is the one that’s the funniest. Shane Warne is the biggest character in Australian cricket at the moment, I reckon. At least I think he’s back in the game now. He was told to stay at home for a year or two, after testing positive for a banned substance. He said his Mum gave it to him. His Mum said she was just trying to help him not be such a fat bastard. Before that he was in strife for giving away secret pre-match information to an Indian bookmaker, and before that he was in big, big trouble for doing some dirty talking to a young English lass, and before that he was in the bad books for smoking cigarettes after he’d accepted a hundred thousand dollars from Nicabate to give up, and about that same time he was really in the shit for trying to beat up the two little kids who photographed him smoking that cigarette! He’s a naughty boy, but he gives us all something to laugh at, and that’s why we love him!
Kerry Packer is another great character in Australia. He’s not such a sportsman though, not like Warnie and Boonie. Unless you count drinking beer, smoking Winfield Reds, swearing, gambling, being Australia’s richest man, or dying several times sports. Kerry is a media mogul, and he doesn’t give a shit about anything. He’s died a half dozen times on the operating table, and every time leaves hospital the next day in a wheelchair, sucking back on a Winfield Red. Kerry loves to gamble, and it’s nothing for him to drop a couple of million in a night when he’s in Vegas. When he has a good night, he’s been known to tip his favourite waitress a hundred thousand dollars or more. Kerry loves horse racing too, and is a keen punter. Australia’s biggest horse race is the Melbourne Cup, every November, and when Kerry opens his wallet to bet on the Cup, you can watch the odds shorten nationwide. He’s not as Rich as Bill Gates, but can Bill Gates come back from the dead?
I'm always surprised by how many Americans (bless 'em) ask me what the climate is like in Australia. My answer is always "what part of Australia?" Australia is big. Real big. It’s as big as the mainland US, and thirty-two times the size of the United Kingdom. At almost eight million square kilometres, Australia is the sixth biggest country in the world, and the only one that deserves its own continent. Australians don’t share, you see, even our continent. In the south, it's about this far from Antarctica (holding my thumb and forefinger about a quarter of an inch apart) and can therefore get quite chilly. In the north, it's about this close to the equator (thumb and forefinger again) and is thus hot and humid; a tropical climate. Then in the middle, which is most of the country, it's desert. Desert, desert, desert. Hot. Dry. By far the largest part of Australia is desert or semi-arid — 40% of the landmass is covered by sand dunes. Only the south-east and south-west corners have a temperate climate and moderately fertile soil. It's a big place. Don't come to Australia in your annual two weeks' vacation, and expect to see much of the country. It's a day to get there, and a day to get over your jet lag, a day to recover from the inevitable first hangover as you discover that Australian beer is far stronger than most mainstream American beers, then there's a day to prepare for your return, and a day to get home. That leaves you nine days in between to explore Australia. Travelling up the east coast- which is where we all live- it's 1000 kilometres from Melbourne to Sydney, then another 2500 to Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef, which is by the way without competition as the biggest coral reef in the world. The popular tourist destination of Ayers Rock (Uluru) is the largest monolith in the world, and set in the middle of the island continent is 2000 kilometres from just about anywhere. If you want to travel cross country, it's a 5000 kilometre drive from the east coast to the west coast. Have a fun nine days!
So that’s history, geography, indigenous affairs, politics and sport covered. I’ve paid homage to King Kerry, bragged about the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru, and I’ve done my patriotic duty by having a couple of good digs at the British. What’s left to tell you about Australia? Well, there’s the animals. Some time back, I wrote an article on my web journal about a TV show I'd seen on called 'Dangerous Australians'. At first, I thought it was about my ex girlfriend and her friends, but it was actually a kind of over dramatized docco about our creepy crawlies. Definitely not sponsored by our Tourism Department! There I was pondering the perils of being trampled by a rabid moose in the vast wastelands of Alaska, or being eaten alive, feet first, by a family of ravenous Kodiak bears. But perhaps I'd be safer taking my chances with those huge beasts, rather than spending another day sharing my home with the nasties we have down under. Anyone planning a trip to the land of Oz, take note:
Forget your cobras and your rattlesnakes, Australia is home to the deadliest snakes on the planet. Top of the list is the inland taipan or imaginatively named 'fierce snake'. The maximum yield of venom recorded from one bite of the inland taipan is 110mg. That would probably be enough to kill over 100 people or 250,000 mice. Poor mice! Following a close second is the Australian brown snake- no imagination used when naming him. One 1/14,000 of an ounce of the brown snake's venom is enough to kill a person, which makes it even stronger than Israeli vodka.
Redback spiders actively search out man made structures. They actually prefer to build their webs onto concrete or brick rather than in trees. Some of the less pleasant effects of a redback bite are: paralysis, loss of coordination and tremors, vomiting, dizziness or fainting, rapid or irregular heartbeat, fever, severe muscle spasms, tingling in the teeth, swelling of the tongue, infection of the bite, convulsions, thirst, diarrhoea, shock, rashes, patches of sweating and severe inflammation of the eyes. But the good news is that redback venom is slow acting, so you get to enjoy this roller coaster of symptoms for a few hours before you die. In the age of the outdoor toilet, it was always prudent to carefully check the seat area before resting your fleshy buttocks down, as this old Australian bush ballad reminds us...
'There was a Redback on the toilet seat when I was there last night.
I didn't see him in the dark but, boy, I felt his bite.'
The Redback on the Toilet Seat, Slim Newton, 1972.
The lethal funnel webbed spider is an aggressive little bugger to say the least. It can survive underwater for up to 30 hours by trapping a bubble of air on its hairy body. Couple that with the fact that it is often attracted to the humidity of household swimming pools, and I guarantee you'll be treading water rather than putting your feet down next time you take a dip.
The blue ringed octopus, a small but beautifully coloured little chap, has been found to produce two distinctly different types of venom; one which it uses to stun prey such as crabs, and the other which- unfortunately for us- it uses only to ward off apparent predators, such as humans. Irony being what it is, the octopus’ fluorescent blue rings only become visible when it is about to attack. So if you see a cute little sea creature about the size of a golf ball, with brilliant blue rings on its body and tentacles, I hope you’ve had a good life- because bar a few minutes- it’s over. Bear this in mind- 'First you will feel nauseous. Your vision becomes hazy. Within seconds you are blind. You lose your sense of touch. You cannot speak or swallow. Three minutes later you are paralysed and unable to breath.'
But he's a regular pussycat in comparison to our newest member of the 'Deadly Australians' hall of fame - the irukandji jellyfish. Only peanut sized and virtually invisible in the water, this little cutie packs a punch that would have Mike Tyson screaming for Mummy. Only discovered in recent years, there have already been deaths attributed to the irukandji, and a documented case of a women who was still suffering symptoms seventeen months after being stung. Results announced in the newspaper just today indicate that a magnesium drip has been found to ease the pain of a irukandji sting, where morphine has proved useless. Apparently, with the aid of the magnesium drip, the pain is only roughly equivalent to passing a kidney stone the size of a double decker bus. Associate Professor David Taylor, the director of emergency medicine at Royal Melbourne Hospital, shared his wealth of expertise on the subject when he said 'We just think that out there in the deep blue there are a whole lot of critters that are ready to sting you and me.' Hmm.. all that expensive tertiary education wasn’t wasted on him.
And that's not to mention the twenty-five foot white pointer sharks, or the giant saltwater crocodiles that tip the scales at a healthy one tonne! 'Come on in guys, the water's beautiful!'
As well as boasting more than its fair share of deadly animals, Australia also has a vast array of bizarre and unique critters of the non-lethal variety. Of course, everyone's familiar with the kangaroo, which is low in cholesterol, high in protein, and delicious if it's cooked properly. The kangaroo is part of the marsupial family, which are mammals that keep their young in a pouch until the infant is old enough to be independent. Koalas are another marsupial, and no they're not called 'koala bears'. Koalas are so lovable because they're permanently stoned from eating eucalypt leaves. Australia is also home to the only two members of the monotreme family; egg laying mammals, if that isn't a contradiction in terms.
Could you even begin to imagine what the first white settlers thought, 200 years ago, when they landed on the huge southern island continent, and were confronted by such strange beasts as kangaroos, wombats and koalas, not to mention the platypus and echidna? I got a kick out of this nature review of Australia from Douglas Adams' 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’. Maybe you will too:
“The second confusing thing about Australia are the animals. They can be divided into three categories: Poisonous, Odd, and Sheep. It is true that of the 10 most poisonous arachnids on the planet, Australia has 9 of them. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that of the 9 most poisonous arachnids, Australia has all of them. However, there are curiously few snakes, possibly because the spiders have killed them all. Any visitors should be careful to check inside boots *before putting them on*, under toilet seats *before sitting down* and generally everywhere else. A stick is very useful for this task. Strangely, it tends to be the second class of animals -the Odd- that are more dangerous. The creature that kills the most people each year is the common Wombat. It is nearly as ridiculous as its name, and spends its life digging holes in the ground, in which it hides. During the night it comes out to eat worms and grubs. The wombat kills people in two ways: First, the animal is indestructible. Digging holes in the hard Australian clay builds muscles that outclass Olympic weight lifters. At night, they often wander the roads. Semi-trailers *Road Trains* have hit them at high speed, with all 9 wheels on one side, and this merely makes them very annoyed. They express this by snorting, glaring, and walking away. Alas, to smaller cars, the wombat becomes a symmetrical launching pad, with results that can be imagined, but not adequately described. The second way the wombat kills people relates to its burrowing behaviour. If a person happens to put their hand down a wombat hole, the wombat will feel the disturbance and think 'Ho! My hole is collapsing!' at which it will brace its muscled legs and push up against the roof of its burrow with incredible force, to prevent its collapse. Any unfortunate hand will be crushed, and attempts to withdraw will cause the wombat to simply bear down harder. The unfortunate will then bleed to death through their crushed hand as the wombat prevents him from seeking assistance. This is considered the third most embarrassing known way to die, and Australians don't talk about it much.
At this point, we would like to mention the Platypus, estranged relative of the mammal, which has a duck-bill, otter's tail, webbed feet, lays eggs, detects its aquatic prey in the same way as the electric eel, and has venomous barbs attached to its hind legs, thus combining all 'typical' Australian attributes into a single improbable creature.
There is also the matter of the beaches. Australian beaches are simply the nicest and best in the entire world. Although anyone actually venturing into the sea will have to contend with sharks, stinging jellyfish, stonefish -a fish which sits on the bottom of the sea, pretends to be a rock, and has venomous barbs sticking out of its back that will kill just from the pain- and surfboarders. However, watching a beach sunset is worth the risk.
As a result of all this hardship, dirt, thirst, and wombats, you would expect Australians to be a dour lot. Instead, they are genial, jolly, cheerful, and always willing to share a kind word with a stranger, unless they are an American. Faced with insurmountable odds and impossible problems, they smile disarmingly and look for a stick. Major engineering feats have been performed with sheets of corrugated iron, string, and mud. Alone of all the races on earth, they seem to be free from the 'grass is greener on the other side of the fence' syndrome, and roundly proclaim that Australia is, in fact, the other side of that fence.
See Also: 'Deserts: How to die in them', 'The Stick: Second most useful thing ever' and 'Poisonous and Venomous arachnids, insects, animals, trees, shrubs, fish and sheep of Australia, Volumes 1-42'”
Remember I mentioned cockroach racing? Well, if I was at home right now, I'd be gearing up for a busy day at Brisbane's famous Story Bridge Hotel for their annual Australia Day cockroach races. Yes, thousands of Brisbanites gather every year to cheer on their favourite cockroach, and drink some beer while they're there. It's mid summer in Brisbane at the moment, and they've been experiencing a heat wave, so it should be a big day at the pub. Last year, the Story Bridge kindly donated a couple of Cockroach day T-shirts for me to give out as prizes to competitions on my website. On the back of the shirts was the Australia Day Cockroach Racing Hall of Fame, a list of all the champion cockroaches since 1982, a hallowed group featuring such legends as Cocky Dundee, Cocky Balboa, Roach Rage and Millenium Bug. I also weasled a Story Bridge Hotel stubby holder, which I held onto and later gave to a wonderful lady called Dixie, for her 79th birthday, when I stayed with her in Oregon.
We celebrate Australia day on January 26th as a commemoration of 'birth of our nation'. However, many Australians know little more about the history of Australia Day, other than it's a public holiday, and an excuse for a few beers. I've 'borrowed' this short extract from the Australia Day Council of Tasmania's website... "The 26 January, through 200 years or more of debate and controversy, has remained the traditional Australian celebratory national day since that date in January 1788 when formal possession was taken of the Colony of New South Wales. The fledgling colony very soon began to mark the anniversary of 26 January 1788 with formal dinners and informal celebrations. Manning Clark notes that on the 26 January 1808, the anniversary of the foundation of the colony was observed in the traditional manner with drinking and merriment".
Mostly we just love it cause it's a public holiday, and no-one enjoys a day off work more than the Aussies (except Israelis, who seem quite happy to shut down for a whole week at a time during Jewish celebrations!) I reckon that's why we'll never become a republic- we love the Queens Birthday Holiday too much! If we lost that, we'd have no public holidays between Labour Day and Christmas.
The one public holiday that really does mean something to Australians is April 25th- Anzac Day. Rather than fading into obscurity like so many things seem to in our busy modern world, Anzac Day has experienced a revival, as young Australians come to realize the sacrifices that were made to ensure our freedom. Once thought of as a day for veterans and their families to remember their lost friends, Anzac Day now draws the respect and admiration of Australians of all ages. Every year, Anzac Day services here in Australia attract record crowds. But even more astounding are the services at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli. A decade ago, the dawn service at Anzac Cove was attended by a handful of Australian and New Zealand dignitaries, and a few hundred Antipodeans who happened to be in the area at the time. Now, the crowd numbers well into the thousands, and every year it draws more and more Aussies and Kiwis, who deliberately plan their travels to be in Turkey at that time of year.
Anzac Day commemorates that horrible day in our history eighty-eight years ago, when troops from Australia and New Zealand (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) made a dawn beach landing in Turkey. Turkish forces had sunk several British and French ships, and it had been decided that the only way to capture Constantinople would be to land troops at Gallipoli. Before the troops even had a chance to reach the sand, the sky was lit up by enemy flares, and they were greeted with massive gunfire. Those who weren't shot in their boats, or in the water as they struggled to reach land, found themselves pinned down on the beach- they had been landed in the wrong place. Instead of a flat beach, they were confronted with steep cliffs. At the end of the first day, 2000 men -'Anzacs' as they became known - lay dead on the beach and in the lapping waves. The bloody battle continued for eight months until the British command decided to withdraw the Anzacs. Over 10 000 brave men had sacrificed their lives on the sands of Gallipoli.
'News of the terrible losses at Gallipoli was printed daily in the newspapers back home in Australia. Included in these lists were the names of the fathers, brothers and mates now buried, or missing, on the Gallipoli peninsula. But instead of making Australians too frightened to enlist, the news did the opposite. In July 1915, when the casualty figures coming back from Gallipoli were at their worst, more than 36.000 men volunteered. (This is more than in the whole Army today) Veterans of Gallipoli called these men the ‘fair dinkums’. 'Any man who volunteers after knowing the horror of Gallipoli must be fair dinkum,' they said
-Independent ANZAC Network Database
Despite the bloodshed- some say because of it- there has developed a deep bond between the Turkish people and us, the descendants of the Anzacs. This verse on a memorial at Gallipoli, was penned by Attaturk himself.
THE ANZAC MEMORIAL
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives..
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore, rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side,
here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries...wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
M. KEMAL ATATURK, 1934
(The founder of Turkish Republic)
I had hoped to be in Gallipoli for Anzac Day, but it just wasn’t feasible. Nevertheless, I will definitely visit Anzac Cove, and pay my respects to the men who made the ultimate sacrifice so that people they’d never meet could have the freedom that we enjoy to this day.
That is my country, my home. Terra Australis, the ‘Great Southern Land’. A fair dinkum place, where you check your boots before you put them on. Now, on with the show…