I recently read an article by an AC writer called Susan Jane who lives in Australia and it got me thinking about that country.
My family is dispersed around the globe as part of the Irish diaspora and with two uncles who went to live in Perth and Sydney respectively in the 60s, I now have around 20 cousins over there.
My Irish grandfather felt compelled to leave Ireland (Oldcastle in county Meath near Dublin) at the start of the twentieth century. He had a wife and a bunch of kids to support and he found work in England. His wife, my grandmother, died young – having given birth to 12 children – and the children were dispersed to friends and relatives as my grandfather couldn’t cope with them all while working. Eventually some of the kids – grown up – went to, variously, the Caribbean, the USA and Australia – to Jamaica, Los Angeles, Perth and Sydney.
I visited my uncle Des in Sydney in 2000. My other uncle, Sylvester, lives in Perth but has vanished from family view.
I spent around a month in Australia, in Sydney, in Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands and here are some quick impressions of this incredibly rich, varied and interesting country.
You really do hear “No worries” a lot in Australia and it means “Yeah, it’s OK. We can do it.” Australia has a Can Do culture and coming from the No We Really Don’t Think That’ll Be Possible English culture it was very good to hear!
The Pacific Ocean culture is very much in evidence in Sydney. I liked it. That is, I liked the mix of European and Asian. These guys don’t live in Europe – the people running the show may come historically from Europe but they’re living way out there between the Coral Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, the Indian and the Southern Ocean. They’re between Antarctica, South America, Africa and Asia. In Australia you sense you are on a continent that is not Antarctica, South America, Africa or Asia. In case you doubt that, you see plenty of Australia-specific animals and vegetation. Large and small marsupials assail you often, kangaroos bounding in front of your car. At the Barrier Reef you swim with hallucinatory fish that make you euphoric and fill you with joy. You eat food that you don’t find elsewhere in the world. I first tasted scorching-hot wasabe sauce in Sydney. Although it’s clearly not Australia-specific I swear it was ten times hotter than any wasabe I’ve tasted since!
The Sydney Opera House is beautiful outside and ugly inside. Outside, it sweeps and soars beside Sydney Harbour like a great sting ray or a dozen white oysters opening all at once. Inside by the ticket office, it exhibits some scandalous brutalist architecture and shabby materials. It made me think of a provincial theatre I knew as a kid in a small Surrey town called Leatherhead. (Exactly.) The concert hall we went into was good acoustically. But the Sydney Opera House puts on its best show for external observers.
The Barrier Reef was stunning. I understated that. It was STUNNING. The water! The fish! The coral! The islands! We went to Green Island and Fitzroy Island and had the best time. You just walk into the water and there you are, surrounded by sealife you’ve only dreamt of. We went deep sea diving but the water was very choppy and the guides were too young (and they’d been drinking on the boat out there) so we didn’t have a lot of confidence in them. Still, the Barrier Reef was – STUNNING.
Australia’s aboriginal people. Many of Australia’s original native inhabitants are in a bad way. We saw a fair amount of ruin and alcohol damage. Not a great legacy of European settlement. Progress needs to be made. Education and wealth needs to be shared.
Bondi Beach. Part legend, part photoshoot, part beach… Always makes me think of the closing scene in Point Break, the cult film with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, though in fact that scene was filmed at Bells Beach in Victoria. Bondi is fun, frivolous, iconic and eternal.
Kookaburras are fab. Not just their laugh, but also the look of them. Lovely creatures.
Kangaroos. (As above. The look that is.)
Koala bears. Koala bears are permanently stoned on eucalyptus tree leaves which is why they are so sleepy and so sweet. Even at their most awake, koala bears look half asleep. They are gorgeous, cuddly, extraordinary creatures and need to be protected.
Cassowary birds. Are weird. Ostrich-like. A bit aggressive. Interesting. Attractive.
Curtain fig trees. A Tropical North Queensland tree, we saw these mostly in the Atherton Tablelands. They have to be seen to be believed. Another hallucinatory Australian image.
Hailstones the size of tennis balls. In Sydney.
Stingers. Jellyfish that can kill you. They were on their last legs, or tentacles, when we arrived at the Barrier Reef. We risked swimming and were OK.
The Three Sisters outside Sydney. This rock formation in The Blue Mountains, Katoomba, is110k west of Sydney. Their height ranges from 900 to 920 meters. The Aboriginal “dream-time” legend recounts the story of three sisters – Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo – who lived in the Jamison Valley and were members of the Katoomba tribe. The sisters fell in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe but were forbidden by tribal law to marry them. The three men determined to take their lovers by force anyway and provoked a major battle between the two tribes. Since the three sisters were in mortal danger during the battle, a tribal elder from the Katoomba tribe turned them into stone to protect them from harm. As he was killed in the battle he couldn’t reverse the spell and the three sisters are still there, stone figures dominating the landscape.
I flew to Sydney and back with Japanese Airlines, via Tokyo going out and Osaka on return. JAL’s a great airline. I’d go to Australia once a month frankly, if only it was nearer. A three or four hour flight would be acceptable. 24 hours is pushing it a bit.
But Australia is certainly a continent to see while you’re lucky enough to have temporary residence on this planet.