Thursday, May 9, 2013


Australia is a huge country.  To most people, it looks like a large island, but geologically, it is a continent, the smallest of the 7 continents.  Our ship, the Celebrity Solstice circumnavigated Australia.  We boarded the ship in Perth, so we missed the southern part.  For most of its history, Australia has been pretty much isolated from the rest of the so-called civilized world, and it has developed a unique culture.  I've discussed some of the culture in my previous articles.


Aussies go crazy over this song, Waltzing Matilda.  It is considered the unofficial Australian national anthem.  In the U.S., we have cowboys; in Australia they have swagmen, which are essentially itinerant laborers, traveling around the Outback shearing sheep.  The song was written in 1895 by the Aussie poet Banjo Paterson to honor them.  The tune is that of an old Scottish folk song. 

The song is about a swagman who steals a jumbuck (a sheep) for his tucker (dinner), and when he is cornered by the police under a coolibah (eucalyptus tree), he leaps into a billabong (a stagnant pond) to avoid capture.    His ghost is believed to be roaming the area near Winton, Queensland, where they built a museum to honor him and the song.  The song is about defiance of authority, and in that regard, Aussies are much like Americans. 

To "waltz Matilda" is to travel with a swag, or bundle.  the swagman would wrap his belongings in a laundry bag draped over his back, like the stereotypical hobo in the U.S.  They called that bag a "Matilda" a Teutonic female name meaning "mighty battle maid",  presumably because the bag was the swagman's substitute for a woman.  You know there's such a thing as too much information!


We sailed from Bali to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory of Australia.  Darwin is a modern city of 129,000 on the coast of the Timor Sea.  It's only a few degrees South of the Equator, and the climate is tropical--hot and wet.  Stepping off in Darwin is like walking into a steam bath.

Darwin has an interesting history dating back to 1836 when the HMS Beagle sailed into the harbor with its famous passenger Charles Darwin.   The city has been devastated twice and rebuilt twice, both in recent times.  The Japanese bombed it during World War II, and Cyclone Tracy leveled it in 1974. 

Darwin has beautiful beaches, but they are not popular with tourists.  The main reason is the crocodiles that swim in Darwin Harbour and crawl up on the local beaches.

About 30 miles out of town is the suburb with the interesting name Humpty Doo.  It is a town of 5000 which is known for its Big Boxing Crocodile on the Arnhem Highway.  It's about 40 feet high, so it's hard to miss.  We didn't visit, but I believe that is the only town named Humpty Doo in the whole world!

We boarded a tour bus for the trip to Litchfield National Park, about a 2 hour drive down Route 1, The Stuart Highway.   We saw several road trains--trucks hauling 3 trailers.  These are legal in Australia; I've never seen them anywhere else.   Needless to say, parallel parking these monsters is a job and a half. 

This area of Northern Australia is known for its fauna, specifically crocodiles and termites.  You probably don't want much contact with either.   We skirted the edge of a large area called Arnhem Land which is the ancestral home of Aborigine tribes--the equivalent of an Indian reservation in the U.S.   We didn't visit.


However, we did pull off the road a couple times to photograph termite mounds.  The termites in this area are quite brazen; they built earthen mounds more than TEN feet high.  These things are scattered throughout the countryside.  If you build a log cabin, they'll carry it off, bit by bit.   Seriously though, the termites attack the trees in the woods.  The Aborigines look for these hollowed out logs to make their didgeridoos.  They find these logs in abundance.  The termites eat not only wood, but paper, cloth and carpets.  In a more egregious example, these voracious critters consumed $220,000 in Indian rupee notes last year. 

The termite mounds are magnetic.  They are aligned in a North-South direction.  From an evolutionary standpoint, the termites built these mounds to protect themselves from seasonal flooding.  Termites, of course, can't swim.

At Litchfield National Park, we visited the beautiful Florence Falls and Wangi Falls.  It would be quite refreshing to go for a swim below the falls.  However, the posted signs caution that you might meet some unfriendly crocodiles, so swimming is out of the question.   At Wangi Falls, we saw many flying foxes which nest in the trees and fly (or glide) from tree to tree.  Also common in the area are wallabies.  These are small kangaroos, or as I'd call them, "wannabes".  We stopped for lunch, and on the menu once more for us, as in most of Australia, was barramundi, a tasty fish.  I was hoping for barbecued crocodile.


Crocs come in two varieties--freshies and salties.   Freshies are fresh water crocs, and they are usually smaller and less aggressive than the salties, the salt water crocs.  If you see one, you probably don't want to stick around long enough to determine which one it is. 

The salties can live as long as humans and keep growing their entire lives.  They can grow to be 30 feet long.  They are also lightning quick.  They can spring out of the water in an instant and take your arm with it.  They deserve our respect!   Our guide guy, actually his name was Guy, explained that the croc will lie in wait for an unsuspecting animal, a cow perhaps, to wade in for a drink.  The croc would then spring up and grab the cow with its huge jaws and pull it under the water to drown.  It will then leave the cow there for a day or two and return to feast on it.  

We visited a crocodile farm where we were given an opportunity to feed these beasts to get a better indication of their strength.  I stood on a platform above the croc and tied a large piece of meat on the end of a string dangling from a long wooden pole.  I lowered the meat down while the croc, with just his head sticking above the water surveyed the situation.  In an instant, the croc sprung out of the water and grabbed the meat.  When Dianne tried it, the croc took the pole also and almost her arm too.  Fortunately for Dianne, she let go of the pole or she might have been on the croc's menu. 


A three day sail East of Darwin we passed the Whitsunday Islands and arrived near Cairns on the Pacific Ocean side to see the iconic Great Barrier Reef.  This is a coral reef which runs for a thousand miles or more, about 20 miles off the Australian coast.   You can probably see it better from the air because the color of the water changes to blues and greens.  This reef is really, really big--almost as big as Japan.  You can't really appreciate it unless you get in the water--either scuba diving or snorkeling.  They you can really see the bright colors.  If you don't want to do either, they provide a glass bottom boat and also a submarine (semi submersible).  We took a ride in both.

To get to the reef from the ship, a large catamaran with three decks docked with the ship to pick up the passengers for the 20 mile ride.  When we arrived there,  we saw several large commercial pontoon boats anchored by the reef.   They provided us with wet suits and flippers, as well as a buffet lunch.  I had concerns about the environmental impact of all those tourists on the fragile reef.  However, that was only a small portion of the Great Barrier Reef.  Did I mention, it's very large!

Dianne and I donned our wet suits and flippers and eased into the salty water.  I don't much like keeping my head in the water, but in the short time I paddled around and did so, I could see the beautiful coral which acquires its color from the different types of algae, the sea anemones with the colorful fronds and sea cucumbers which essentially act like vacuum cleaners on the sea bottom.  You may recall the line from Finding Nemo, "with fronds like that, who needs anemones."

We returned to the Solstice just as a violent thunderstorm hit.   Because of the strong winds and high waves, we couldn't safely tie up to the ship to board.   On our catamaran, it was a scene from Titanic.  We were soaked to the skin in the horizontal rain as everyone rushed to get inside the enclosed area.  I don't much like crowds indoors, especially sopping wet crowds, so I stayed outside with several others under an overhang, getting wet, but at least, I had fresh air.


Brisbane is a very large city in Queensland state, and is Australia's answer to Miami Beach.   Queensland is referred to as the "Sunshine State".  You couldn't have convinced us of that because it rained the entire day we visited.  The climate is sub-tropical.  The Brisbane River runs through the heart of the city, and it is very scenic.

Brisbane has a peculiar street naming system.   The North-South streets have female names like Ann and Mary.  The East-West streets have male names like George and Albert.  We didn't ask, but presumably, the streets are named after British kings and queens.  We saw a billboard for XXXX, a popular beer in Queensland.  Wags have said that it got its name because Aussies can't spell beer. 

Our tour bus sloshed through the driving rain to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary on the colorfully named Fig Tree Pocket Road.   The Sanctuary is a popular animal park where you can walk amongst the tame kangaroos and be photographed holding a cute koala.   We often call them koala bears, but they're not really bears.   These creatures can be vicious, and the handlers have to essentially drug them before they let you hold them.   The kangaroos were oblivious to the rain.  We even saw our first duck billed platypus which was right at home in the wet weather, swimming around in the swamp, which the politically correct would call wetland.  But then all the land was wet that day.

We shook the water off our umbrellas in the gift shop where the walls are adorned with photos of famous people holding the koalas.  These people have little in common except that they are celebrities.   For example, on just one wall, I noted photos of Mikhail Gorbachev, Hayden Panettiere, Taylor Swift, Eric Clapton, Pope John Paul II, Janet Jackson, Luciano Pavorotti, Wayne Brady and the Queen Mother (at age 100)--all holding the obligatory koala.   In his time,  Pope John Paul II was the most recognizable person in the whole world--but only when in uniform.  He was wearing it while holding the koala. 


Australia is notorious for its invasive species.   When the British settled Australia, they imported animals and plants for nostalgic reasons.  They were familiar with them back in England.  At that time, nobody considered the environmental impact of exotic species which would have no natural predators in the new land.  The word environment had probably not been invented yet.   The best example is the importation of rabbits.  In fact, the British introduced rabbits five different times--the first four times unsuccessfully--to make sure the rabbits thrived in Australia.  They were originally raised for food.

Back in the 1800's, Europeans created Acclimatisation societies to "enrich the fauna of a region with animals and plants from around the world", based on the belief that the local fauna was in some way deficient.  Thomas Austin, an early Australian pioneer, formed the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria.  He released 24 wild rabbits on his property in the South of Australia for hunting purposes. These rabbits bred--well--like rabbits.   Austin also brought in English hares, blackbirds, thrushes and partridges.  Where's Elmer Fudd when you need him?    In any event, for his efforts, Austin has a lot of things named after him in Australia. 

In efforts to eradicate the rabbits, the authorities attempted biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction--for rabbits.   They even enlisted the help of the famed Louis Pasteur who unsuccessfully attempted to use chicken cholera bacillus on the furry creatures.  In the early 1900's, the Australians built three rabbit proof fences in Western Australia which stretched over 2000 miles.  A fourth one was built in Queensland.   The problem with the fences is that termites eat the fence posts.   Also farmers often left open the gates for livestock or machinery, and the rabbits would get through.  Despite all the setbacks,  by the 1950's they were able to cut the rabbit population dramatically, from 600 million down to 100 million using the myxoma virus.  However, the remaining rabbits had genetic resistance, and the population has rebounded somewhat.