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At the Barunga Festival a few hours south of Darwin, it hits me that I am experiencing a totally different version of Australia from the one I am used to.

Dancing at Barunga (Photo: Peter Eve- Tourism NT)

The people are not speaking in English but rather in several languages, all Australian but incomprehensible to me.

The Barunga Festival held annually in June is a highly regarded indigenous cultural and sporting festival in the Top End.

It has historic roots as the place where a call for Aboriginal rights, the Barunga Declaration, was presented to Prime Minister Bob Hawke in 1988.

Amid the thousands of Aboriginal people camping at the Festival are a few hundred Australians of European descent many of whom are experiencing what it is like to be in a minority. For us it is fun, curious, a privilege.

Close up of Crocodiles (Photo: Peter Eve-Nt Tourism)

Excitement is mounting because tonight we are going to see and hear some of the best singers and bands in the Northern Territory.

“Give a big hand for Jessica Mauboy!” shouts the MC and the crowd cheer as the Darwin-born star bounds across the stage and launches into the songs that have confirmed the talent first seen nationally on Australian Idol in 2006.

A lantern at Barunga Festival looks ready to eat the moon (Photo: Peter Eve--Tourism NT)

Then it is the turn of Arnhem band Yilila, which turns on a performance of such energy and excitement that we rush towards the stage and dance to the pounding rhythm.

Lead singer Grant Nundhirribala dances, jokes, and sings in a superstar performance we wish the whole of Australia could see.

At the climax of one song, all lights go out except for those illuminating two giant batik-style crocodile figures that are the backdrop of the stage. It is a special moment.

The music is a culmination of a day of surprises. In contrast to the negative portrayals of indigenous life the Northern Territory, we found a green, clean and prosperous Barunga community with a “no alcohol” rule being observed for the festival.

The crowd thrilled to a spear throwing contest where a woomera-style device proved its worth by propelling the spears to their distant target without the run up associated with the javelin.

Art exhibitions, concerts, didgeridoo manufacture, story-telling and sports events are all part of a program drawing increasing numbers each year.

Spear throwing competition (Photo: Peter Eve-- Tourism NT)

http://www.jawoyn.org/barunga-festival.htm

http://www.yilila.com

http://www.jessicamauboy.com.au/

Nature's menu near path to waterfall (Photo: Michael Day)

(Published in The West Australian)

We sample bush chewing gum as we wander along a track in Nitmiluk National Park, in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Our happy-go-lucky guide with the movie star name, Tyrone, then invites us to try another dish on the bush tucker menu.

It is a bush peanut, but Tyrone delights in telling us it is named after part of the rear end of a dog, which it resembles.

“Remember the words ‘under the shade of the coolibah tree’ in Waltzing Matilda?” Tyrone asks, pointing to the very species in question. It is a spindly thing with barely a leaf.

“No shade,” he laughs, before hunting for bush passion fruit but finding instead bush mint.

“Heard about a seven course Territory meal?” he asks. We shake our heads.

“A six pack and a beer,” he roars, and we get caught up in the happiness of this man.

Turtle

He has another joke about how the tasty long neck turtle is a convenience food, coming as it does with its own plate.

Push through some palm trees, and all eyes feast on our destination: a cool, clear pool under a silver waterfall. The ochre cliff backdrop is studded with palms and all manner of greenery.

We city people can’t help but observe that the Northern Rockhole is an ideal movie location.

Cliff that appeared in Jedda (Photo: Michael Day)

In fact, on a cruise the next day in nearby Katherine Gorge we saw, illuminated in the morning sun, the giant cliff that was a location for Jedda (1955), the first colour feature movie made in Australia.

Film set

As well as the scenery, there are any number of people like Tyrone who play cameo roles to the hilt, characters who make the Territory seem like one big film set.

One of  these is  raconteur and outdoor chef, Geoff Mark, who entertains guests at his Stockmans’ Camp Tucker Night at Katherine.

While he spins his yarns, “Marksy” serves barramundi with lemon myrtle, traditional gem scones, and quickly-cooked marinated kangaroo (“the longer you cook it, the tougher it gets.”)

Marksy informs us that he tells overseas tourists  he knows the  first names of all the wallabies at the far side of the paddock.

“I shout out ‘Barry!’ and sure enough, one of them will pop its head up,” he says with a grin as wide as the Territory.

There is another reminder of the silver screen when we meet a star of Crocodile Dundee at the Adelaide River Inn, ninety minutes south of Darwin

Charlie R.I. P. (Photo: Peter Eve- Tourism NT)

Charlie the Buffalo, who was hypnotised in the movie by Mick Dundee, is now in an eternal slumber.

He had an appointment with the taxidermist a few years ago and now stands rampant in the bar of the Adelaide River Inn ninety minutes south of Darwin.

END

*

* I acknowledge the kind assistance of  Tourism NT

http://en.travelnt.com/explore/katherine/nitmiluk-national-park.aspx

http://en.travelnt.com/search/product-detail.aspx?product_id=9001105&category=TOUR

"Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream" (Photo: Michael Day)

(Shorter version of this story published by The West Australian)

“Put your helmets on,” our nuggety guide, Mick Jerram, told the nine members of our group.

We were on a 24-hour kayak journey down the Katherine River in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Looking like a refugee from a Vespa convention, I began paddling towards the first rapid of our trip. I was master and commander of Boom-Shiva, a sit-on-top, one-person style of craft.

The rapid wasn’t exactly Niagara, barely rating as Class 1: “small; passages clear; no serious obstacles”. Helmets weren’t necessary but it was comforting to know that Mick was being extra careful.

I flailed with my paddle as I shot down the torrent. As I passed Mick, supervising at the side of the rapid, he grinned: “Should give you a speeding ticket!”

Diplomatically handling over-confident customers as well as timid novices is part of the skill set of Mick and colleague Jenn Child of Gecko Canoeing.

After another small rapid, Mick casually remarked that it’s best not to paddle while shooting a rapid unless you really need to change direction. I took that gentle hint on board.

Lorna in action (Photo: Tourism NT--Peter Eve)

He reassured first-time paddler Lorna that her hilarious, involuntary reversal down the rapid was not such a bad manoeuvre: “You go where the water takes you rather than being nervous and doing the wrong thing.”

No rebukes, no teasing, just advice. Mick showed us how to use the paddle as a rudder, and why we should lean into a rock or tree if we were on a collision course.

“By leaning in, the water comes under the kayak and pushes you away,” he said, demonstrating the action with his cupped hand.

Welcome

We were hours away from any human settlement in a stretch of river reached via a bumpy off-road track where stately  brolga birds  stood in a signature Territory welcome.

Paperbarks trees, pandanus and casuarinas lined the high banks. Serene stretches of barely moving water were separated by rapids that could be handled by novices yet still excite the more experienced. Families often make the trip.

Relaxing in the river (Photo: Michael Day)

“You can drink straight from the river, the water is never fresher,” said Mick, dipping his water bottle to demonstrate.

Then he went silent, pointing with his paddle to the bank. We drifted closer and saw a freshwater crocodile basking on a log.

A cockatoo, like a white fan, gracefully alighted on a branch overhead. As we moved downstream, wallabies bounced along the bank. I just missed seeing a dingo.

The silent meditation induced by the picturesque surrounding was shattered as a bunch of blue-winged kookaburras went berserk.

“They’re warning us to stay out of their territory – it’s almost like they want to escort us out,” said Mick.

“They are the sound of the north but they don’t laugh like other kookaburras — it’s like they have a flat battery,” he said. Sure enough, the birds conked out without a  cackle.

We stopped for an afternoon tea laid out on collapsible tables that had been folded into Mick and Jenn’s Indian-style canoes.

Fruitcake

With helmets back on, we shot a  rapid named Fruitcake, the name  becoming relevant to me as I bumbled my way down, forgetting the lessons I thought I had learned.

“This next rapid is Dead Man’s Drop,” announced Mick. “It’s a Grade two but you’ll be ok.”

Over-confidence tamed, rudder action memorised, sphincter tighter than a shark’s, I stroked into the rapid.

I headed for the side of a big rock, leaned into it and shot along until a big snag of a tree came in sight. Another lean and I was away but going straight at Mick standing waist deep at the river bank.

He pushed down on the side of my kayak and I ricocheted back into the current. When I arrived in calm waters, I felt like I had won Olympic gold.

We dragged our kayaks on to a beach to camp for the night.

Dining under an outback sky (Photo: Tourism NT -- Peter Eve).

A fancy city chef could not have provided a better candle-lit dinner than the one Mick and Jenn cooked over an open fire.

“Do you ever get the feeling that someone will be voted off?” asked James. Then it was time for all we jolly swagpeople to turn in.

I was happy at the absence of mosquitoes and half-wondered about saltwater crocodiles but was too tired to worry.

I had not been about when Jenn had told the others that, yes, there were young male salties in the river but, due to the lack of grass for nest-making there were no females. so the aggression levels were way, way down.

“We are careful and don’t swim in deep holes and there haven’t been any problems in the 15 years of these trips,” she told me at the end of the trip.

Stars

The best part about the night was waking up every so often to gaze at more stars than I imagined ever existed. Once I thought I saw on the opposite bank a serial killer shining a spotlight over our sleeping forms but then realised it was only Venus rising at full voltage.

Mick puts out the fire (Photo: Michael Day)

An hour before dawn, I had a job to do, and I remembered Mick’s ground rules that  some fellow paddlers told me had prompted instant constipation: “Take  the shovel , toilet paper and one of these brown paper bags. Bury what you do but bring back the paper in the  bag and throw it on the fire.”

I wandered off into the dark, long-handled shovel over my shoulder. As I crouched, my flickering torch made a leafy branch look like some carnivore, thereby helping the process.

After a morning rapid to wake us up, we  glided along the dreamtime river. Pete flicked out his fishing line and hooked a  barramundi but the fish  escaped by winding the line around snags.

Great-billed heron (Photo: Tourism NT-- Peter Eve)

A great-billed heron posed on a bare branch, kite-hawks circled the sun, an azure kingfisher made a cameo appearance and  two young sea eagles displayed their fluffy white bellies as they performed a fly past. I felt I was witnessing the essence of Australia.

Our trip over, we hauled our kayaks up to a waiting trailer where I left faithful Boom-Shiva to nestle against some siblings: T-hugger, Melon, Newby and Namaste.

Wallabies bounced in swerving escort as we drove back through the bush towards the distant highway. A whole family of brolgas danced goodbye

END

* I acknowledge the kind assistance of  Tourism NT

http://www.geckocanoeing.com.au/


Roma Forest Boardwalk w Misting Winter 2002

Misty "rain" on the forest boardwalk in Roma Street Parkland

(Published by Capital Magazine)

After a short stroll from the concrete jungle of Brisbane, visitors plunge into a rainforest and make their way toward a pandanus headland overlooking a lake.

The only sound is their own voices, usually  marveling at how they can be so close to the central business district yet be moving through a landscape that could well be inhabited by the Phantom of comic book fame.

Giant ferns line their path. Vines drop from towering trees and finish within swinging height over pools at the bottom of waterfalls. A misting system sends out a thin silver rain that does its botanical duty as well as creating a jungle illusion for visiting humans.

This pocket of rainforest is just one of the distinct “rooms” or precincts of the Roma Street Parkland set in the heart of the Queensland capital.

Visionary

The 16 ha Parkland occupies a space that had been a railway goods yard until that facility was moved. Debate about the future of the valuable land was vigorous — a sports stadium was considered.A visionary decision by the Queensland Government in 1999 led the area to become the Parkland. It opened in April 2001.

When locals want to boast about the Parkland, they speak about :the world’s largest subtropical garden in a city centre” but such a description tends to mask the real charm of the place.

The delicious experience of wandering along the winding paths through and between the precincts has nothing to do with size, but more about the human scale of the beauty.

Visitors do not trek through lawns typical of conventional parks–though there are tree-studded expanses on its edges — but rather pop into surprising visions of beauty that are close by and rather cute in their dimensions.

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Surprising visions of beauty (Photo: Chris Day)

Lush feel

The place has a green and lush feel in many places, the result of the careful use of recycled water.

Visitors usually begin their journey at the central point known as the Hub and move into the Spectacle Garden, the natural canvas on which the gardeners paint their miniatures.

Circles cut into low-rising hedges frame displays of delicate flowers. Next to them are high, zig-zag borders which enclose triangles of red. Stepping-stones over a miniature stream lead to a path that curls around a corner and leads to a tower of flower, a layered column festooned with petals of all hues.

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Tower of flower (Photo: Chris Day)

Not all the plants are subtropical. Triangular trees — the topiary reminiscent of Versailles– occupy a discreet spot, and cyclamens decorate the ground under a  spreading camphor laurel  tree.

One of the key figures behind the success of the Parklands is  the curator Bob Dobbs, who has  held that position since its inauguration.

Green fingers

For 21 years beforehand, Bob had cultivated tea in his native Sri Lanka and it seems as though the beauty of his homeland has inspired his green fingers here. He accepts praise with polite reticence.

“It’s a constant challenge to think up something new,” says Bob, explaining that the designs are changed every six to eight weeks.

After leaving the spectacle of the Spectacle, visitors follow the curve of Foxtail Avenue to where the six-year-old section of the Parkland adjoins the steepish upper precinct, known for generations as Albert Park.

On those grassy slopes are an amphitheatre, sometimes used for outdoor Shakepeare, a wedding pavilion and a playground, complete with a swing for the wheelchair brigade.

On the flat land ahead is Weeping Fig Avenue, one of the many surprises that are the signature of this place. The tops of the high trees once reached over the wide path and create a fresh and embracing tunnel of green. Badly damaged by a storm, it has made a strong comeback and will soon return to its former glory.

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Weeping Fig Avenue before the storm (Photo: Chris Day)

Visitors walking along that avenue soon have the chance to admire a soft, green fernery. Elsewhere in the park they might spot a Wollemi pine,  a tree so ancient its forebears might have provided lunch for vegetarian dinosaurs.

Elevated walkways

Elevated walkways connect some of the precincts, taking people into the arid land gardens and  then the rainforest. From a lookout, they can clearly see the old town hall clock, a view obscured in most parts of Brisbane by office blocks.

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From an elevated walkway towards the Town Hall clock (Photo: Chris Day)

Down below the walkway, on  the pandanus headland, is a bronze sculpture of a railway worker’s hut, complete with a  window looking out on the lake that stretches back to the hub. The artwork is just one of many carefully installed in the park.

The lake is favourite watering hole for a variety of birds, including the ibis, which is admired by visitors but rejected by locals who do not regard its beauty as enough compensation for its scavenging.

The lake is home to such fish as freshwater mullet, silver perch and the Pacific blue-eye but the most unusual denizen of this particular deep is Queensland lungfish whose ancestry  could date back 100 million years.

Frangipani court

A short walk alongside the lake leads to frangipani court, a pleasant area where the scent competes with barbecue perfume on summer nights.

Ahead  is “Celebration Lawn” where events such as the annual multi-cultural festival attract thousands of visitors, providing live entertainment for residents in apartment buildings on the borders of the Parkland.

On one side is a waterfall that combines a natural flow over several steps with sporadic jets of water firing out of semi-submerged silver domes.

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Water play (Photo: Chris Day)

Automatic people counters show that some 500,000 people visit the Parkland annually. Manager Peter Bayliss says regulars include fitness groups in the morning and evenings, inner city residents, and students of nearby schools.

As the pleasant nature of the place becomes more widely known, increasing numbers of families, horticultural groups, tourists and community organizations are heading for the Parkland, he says.

Mr. Bayliss expresses pride in the 22-strong workforce (eight gardeners) and he pays tribute to some 70 regular volunteers who provide guided tours or assist with the gardening.

Queenslander in white

Queenslander in white (Photo: Chris Day)

(Published by Capital Magazine)

A Sunday morning stroll along one of the most prestigious streets in Brisbane makes the place seem happily egalitarian.

Bunches of cyclists chatter to each other as they peddle along Laurel Avenue, looking like psychedelic bumble bees in their Lycra.

Joining early morning walkers are young dads propelling their heirs in jogging-strollers, giving tired mothers a sleep-in.

Although not a gated precinct or sited on a breezy ridge that is the normal abode of the wealthy in Brisbane, this avenue is definitely a boulevard of a fortunate elite.

Laurel Avenue is the first place that proud Brisbanites take their guests to showcase their subtropical capital. There are guided walking tours and it is a regular location for television commercials and films.

Readers of the city’s daily newspaper, The Courier-Mail, have voted it the most popular street, and  local real estate agent Nanette Lilley with co-author John Woods  have described the street’s history and charms in an illustrated booklet “Welcome to Laurel Avenue”.

Beauty

The sheer physical beauty of the place is enough to explain its popularity.

Shaped like green chalices, giant camphor laurel trees line the avenue. Some of them are centenarians.Their sculptured trunks support arms of lush greenery that reach over the tarmac to caress the limbs of their counterparts opposite. They create a green tunnel that runs the length of the long street.

Green tunnel of Laurel Avenue (Photo: Chris Day)

Green tunnel of Laurel Avenue (Photo: Chris Day)

Set like jewels on both sides of the avenue are houses that speak elegantly of Australia and nowhere else.These are the “Queenslanders”, the pride of the nation’s vernacular architecture.

Often raised high off the ground, these homes are wrapped in wide verandahs with ornamental balustrades and lacework trellis screens. Many of the corrugated iron roofs are crowned with ornate ridge decorations, finials and ventilators.

These houses were designed to allow breezes to sweep through, cooling the interior with the aid of whirling overhead fans. (Today many houses are airconditioned.) In days largely gone by, people often slept on the verandahs in summer.

If the houses were raised high enough on their stumps, families could hold parties in the often skirted, cooler empty space below or use part of the area for a laundry, workshop or children’s play area.

The visual impact of Queenslander houses is often augmented by the splash of colour provided by a bougainvillea, and this can be seen in Laurel Avenue.

Mango trees, frangipanis and jacarandas also display their beauty in the lush  gardens that thrive in the loamy soil deposited over the years by the Brisbane River, just 300 metres away (some  housing blocks go down to the water).

Exotic perfumes

The street is known for the whiffs of exotic perfumes, some of the aromas once coming from small bonfires of laurel leaves made by road sweepers.

Houses now can change hands for more than $1.5 million.  The self-selecting mechanism of price determines who lives in the street. Professionals and business people are strongly represented.

The avenue has  long seen a strong legal presence, with the Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Sir Harry Gibbs (1917-2005) being perhaps the most distinguished example.

Cricketer Donald Bradman was a regular dinner guest at the home of Otto Nothling, for whom Sir Donald (then only 20) was dropped in the Second Test of the 1928-29 Australia versus England series.

Floraville (Photo: Michael Day)

Floraville (Photo: Michael Day)

Being close to the University of Queenland, the location is popular with senior academics.

Long-term resident Ro Spalding said she and her husband, Andrew, decided to pay the $13,250 price tag for their house in 1969 partly because of the big block on offer.

“Many cricket matches have been played in that yard,” Mrs Spalding says, pointing to where her now-adult sons and friends perhaps dreamed of wearing baggy green caps,the headgear of the national cricketing team.  A family of kookaburras now inhabits the former pitch.

The cackle of the world’s biggest kingfisher is not the only birdsong that entertains residents. At dawn comes the deep, mellow call of the butcher birds. The distinctive “crack” of the whip birds often snaps through the air accompanied by the raucous screeches of lorikeets and cockatoos.

Queenslander

The interior of the Spalding home has aspects typical of the Queenslander: big bedrooms, high ceilings and wooden fretwork (including a stylized union jack) over a bay window designed to take advantage of the cooling nor’easters.

Entry to the Spalding residence (Photo: Michael Day)

Entry to the Spalding residence (Photo: Michael Day)

Ro Spalding remembers how she loved the Avenue from the start: “I liked it in the heat of summer because as soon as I crossed the bridge (from the adjoining suburb of Indooroopilly) I always felt it was a couple of degrees cooler here, helped perhaps by the number of established trees,” she says.

Andrew Spalding leads an action group dedicated to preserving the unique character of Laurel Avenue and surrounds.

Residents have had a few victories over the years.  For example, a developer agreed not to replace a magnificent Queenslander with smaller dwellings after some 400 residents besieged the mayor, who intervened.

The arrival of rectangular “Tuscans” in various spots in the avenue has sparked controversy in the street.

Now new styles of houses may not replace pre-World War II Queenslanders.

Camphor laurel trees are also controversial. Brisbane City Council says that although they are regarded as a weed tree (ranking fourth of 200 environmental weeds), the trees in Laurel Avenue are protected under a 2003 law that recognizes their historic and landscape value.

END

Long and low verandah on Laurel Avenue (Photo: Chris Day)

Long and low verandah on Laurel Avenue (Photo: Chris Day)

Jimbour mansion (Photo: Chris Day)

Jimbour mansion (Photo: Chris Day)

( Published in The West Australian newspaper)

Hard-bitten explorers would say the country west of Dalby is almost suburban Brisbane but for most ordinary travellers it sure looks like the edge of the outback.

A great cloudless sky hangs over almost nobody and almost nothing.

We thundered along the road, off into the middle of the great flatness, this outback for beginners. We had no particular destination in mind. Just to be in the wide open spaces was tonic enough.

And then, instead of seeing camels we were presented with the other treat of the desert– a  mirage.

Shimmering on a distant hill was a French chateau, a trick played by the light and our parched minds.

But it was real all right, and the reality bit deeper as we handed over $4 each to walk about the gardens of what is known as “Jimbour House.”

We were the only ones within cooee but the man extracting our money  gave both of us a visitor’s identification badge to attach to our clothing.

Dry

“Pretty dry,” I said to him in what I hoped was acceptable outback banter. My words  prompted a  response and thankfully it wasn’t a sound stock whipping of the new chum.

He gave an unexpected reply: “This used to be paradise, and if rains a lot it will be again,” he said.

“In the 19th century when Europeans first came here it rained two and a half inches a month but this year we’ve had only an inch in the past six months.”

In other words, this place should not look anything like the outback.  As the bloke further explained, it is actually on the fabled lush Darling Downs. In fact, Jimbour is a working grain and cattle station with a vineyard attached.

Pastures

Jimbour means “good pastures” in the local Aboriginal language so everyone is hoping this dry spell is a phase that is soon to end.

We walked up to the stone gates, an airstrip to the left and the vast paddocks to the right.

The Gates of Jimbour (Photo: Chris Day)

The Gates of Jimbour (Photo: Chris Day)

The mansion makes a grand sight. Squint your eyes and this could almost be a chateau outside Paris, instead of a farm house 238 km northwest of Brisbane.

Two hundred men took two years to complete the place, which cost 30,000 pounds to build. The curtains are drawn, giving the building an air of mystery. They say that occasionally one man lives there.

The gardens have the feel of history, as if the ghosts of Victorian families still romp in this refuge.

In one green corner,  a towering fig tree planted in 1876 extends its shade over an equally aged Queensland bottle tree, whose hollow bulbous belly prompts some people (well, me) to  confuse it with a  boab.

Straddling a long hose pipe, a well-endowed scarecrow keeps watch over a 3000 square metre 19th century style “kitchen garden” in which grow vegetables that are not so often seen in modern veggie patches. Giant weird cabbages look like migrants from the distant barrier reef.

A manly scarecrow (Photo: Chris Day)

A manly scarecrow (Photo: Chris Day)

Additional official visitor attractions are the restored church, store and water tower but there are some semi-abandoned side buildings that are more intriguing. Stalls in the old stables bear the fading names of “Banjo” and “Pharoah”, two nags that must have long since galloped up to St Peter’s race course.

As we hand back our badges near the entrance we ask about the Jimbour opera, a cultural event that started here back in 2003 and last year attracted an audience of 6000 to its recently built amphitheatre.

“This year its not on but come next year,” invited the badge man. And why not? It’s got to be one of the best outside venues anywhere. Plus it has a good claim to be an important place in Australian history.

It was from this spot in 1844 that the Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt began his trek across western Queensland to Port Essington in the Northern Territory, opening up the interior to Europeans.

Ludwig later completely vanished in the outback. We took no chances, and consulted the map. After the sunset ended its purple and orange display, the big moon and giant stars lit the tarmac on the way back to the city.

END

For more on:

  • Jimbour house: see http://www.jimbour.com
  • Ludwid Leichhardt, see Wings of the Kite-Hawk by Nicolas Rothwell, Picador 2003.
  • The Darling Downs, see The Darling Downs: A Pictorial History by Maurice French and Duncan Waterson, 1980. USQ Press.
  • The Dingo Fence: The Fence People; Yarns from the Dingo Fence by Dinah Percival  and Candida Westney, Century Hutichinson, 1989
 Tawny Nurse shark  (Photo: Kirsten Michalek-Wagner. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, GBRMPA)

Tawny Nurse shark (Photo: Kirsten Michalek-Wagner. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, GBRMPA)

(Published by The West Australian newspaper)

If they ever want a new name for ReefHQ Aquarium in the Queensland city of  Townsville they should cut to the chase and call it Undersea Hollywood.

The place has all the glamour of Oscar night.

Its stars are all dressed up in colorful costumes that camouflage their often weird personalities. It’s a fact that many of them change their gender at the mere suggestion of some action.

Many of them seem to have stage names too.

Nothing ordinary like Helen, John, Richie or Daniel. They call themselves “Blue Devil”, “Angel”, “Swarthy Parrot”, and, gimme a break, “Horned sea star.”

And the activities on display range from family entertainment to all the sex, violence and bizarre behaviour that some addled script writer would think up if only the studios would pay enough.

Parents may want to show their children the damsel fish where mum and dad swim in attendance to their offspring and warn off interlopers.

But it is more than likely that the ankle-biters will be giggling away to themselves as they discover that the nearby sea cucumber breathes through its bottom.

Strange goings on

Staff member  Craig McGrogan, who is showing me about the place,   seems a normal sort of a bloke but he clearly enjoys describing the strange goings on in the world’s biggest coral reef aquarium.

Here I am admiring the flashlight fish, with their beautiful headlights, and Craig goes and brings me back to reality by explaining what is actually going on.

He says the fish switch on their headlights by rubbing bacteria attached to their scaly bodies. The   brilliant glow attracts tiny, gullible and simple-minded animals that soon become a midnight snack.

But Craig assures me that not all the creatures use their special skills to lure others to their deaths. The musical furry lobster, for example, warbles a merry tune to entice a long-legged lady to have sex in the sea-grass.

If the aquarium did not provide information, talks and guided tours, most visitors would find it hard to distinguish the tough guys from those who just wanna have fun.

They might think that the tawny nurse shark, for example, is a monster of a deep. But Craig points out that “Cuddles” parks himself in front of the sign with his name on it and snoozes away the afternoon.

“Most sharks are sadly misrepresented as indiscriminant killers but they are really very selective predators,” he says.

“Look,” he says, directing me to what I learn is the large male humphead wrasse.

Humphead wrasse (Photo: Julie Jones, GBRMPA)

Humphead wrasse (Photo: Julie Jones, GBRMPA)

As we stare at the fish, the hump on his head turns a rusty orange colour, a sure sign he is feeling amorous.

Leopard shark

Observing that behaviour, Ms leopard shark would surely wish she could change species. When her man feels the urge, he swishes over and bites her fair on the fin.

Craig is full of interesting facts, even if some are a bit gross. He likes to describe how the parrot fish make their own sleeping bags by secreting mucus. They then tuck themselves into the sticky thing, thereby making it harder for predators to sniff them out.

Parrotfish sleeps in a mucous cocoon to mask its scent from predators at night ( Photo: Parrot fish: Neville Collins, GBRMPA)

Parrot fish sleeps in a mucous cocoon to mask its scent from predators at night ( Photo: Parrot fish: Neville Collins, GBRMPA)

ReefHQ Aquarium is the perfect place for those who may not be able to get out to the coral, or who want some more information before or after a dive.

And it’s ideal for anyone tired of the made-up entertainment at the movies. At this special venue, they can thrill to the real-life drama, battles and love stories of the reef.

End

http://www.reefhq.com.au

Thanks for your assistance, Tourism Queensland http://www.tq.com.au

The road leading to the longest structure on earth (Photo: Chris Day)

The road leading to the longest structure on earth (Photo: Chris Day)

We had time to spare as we drove towards one of the greatest structures on the planet so we decided upon some intelligent conversation.

Our expedition was to find the starting point of the longest fence in the known universe, the 5400 km long dingo barrier that stretches from Queensland, where we were, to South Australia.

The sky was enormous and the Darling Downs went on forever.

We fell into talking about the plants that lined the road to our destination.

“It’s young corn,” I proclaimed to my companion, with all the confidence that ignorance bestows upon a man of middle years.

As we moved along, the plants were a little taller and had a brown tuft on the top. “It must be more mature corn,” said my companion, who in retrospect may have been teasing me.

We both cracked up when we spotted a sign saying: “Sorghum Crops.” But in my defence how many people know what sorghum is? Answer: the fifth important cereal crops of the world, used mainly for animal feed and for questions on pub quiz nights.

As we came closer to our destination, the vast sorghum plains were replaced by dry, stony ground. As we pulled up, I searched for the great monument that would surely mark the start of the fence that marches all the way from an isolated spot somewhere near Jandowae to the Great Australian Bight.

White stick

Paydirt. There, stuck in the ground next to the first fence post, was a thin, short, white stick with the words “DINGO FENCE STARTS HERE” printed in black marker pen.

The great monument at the start of the  world's longest fence (Photo: Michael Day)

The great monument at the start of the world's longest fence (Photo: Michael Day)

We looked at each other with the unspoken question: “Can this be it?”

We pilgrims to this iconic site seemed to be getting the short end of the stick literally and figuratively—until I had a rethink and reframed our fate.

I reverted to type, defined by age and gender, and began a rant, loftily proclaiming that the monument was authentically Australian in its laconic claim to a great achievement.

There was no need for a latte-sipping,  city-dwelling,  pony-tailed advertising geek to dream up some fancy slogan to promote this place. No need to sell toy dingos made in China or a Meryl Streep doll that squawked in failed strine: “A dingo’s got my byby.”

There was no applause for my rave, my companion having wandered away. Feeling more like an intrepid explorer than a tourist, I decided to fossick. I tentatively climbed a wire fence, looked behind a big rock and there was my hidden treasure– a plaque, cemented in place but almost out of sight.

Perhaps the positioning was to avoid a spray from those guys with shotguns who aim at public signs just like their dogs do at trees and for the same reason.

Longest

The plaque inflated the claim for the fence Instead of calling the dingo barrier the world’s longest fence, it proclaimed it to be the “longest man-made structure” on the planet. As I absorbed this statement, I experienced a conflicting emotional combination of rising national pride and surging doubt.

Surely any smart-alec hearing about this claim would ask the question: “What about the Great Wall of China?”

Later investigations showed that the Wall is about the same length as our fence but, fortunately for Australia, nobody in China is quite sure of its exact measurement.

Anyway, the Chinese contender is just stone, not requiring the skilled maintenance ours involves.

I strode up to the 1.8 metre tall fence. It stretched into the big brown yonder, the only wonder of the world made of wooden posts, strainers, star pickets and netting.

We tried  jokes. “It’s working– not a dingo in sight,” I said. “No Mongol hordes either,” jibed my companion.

We drove along a dusty road for a few kilometres and watched a sky full of cockatoos whirl, dive and then settle on giant eucalypts, transforming them into living Christmas trees.

Instead of checking the claims for the fence, including the one that it protects 26.5 million hectares of sheep and cattle grazing country, we decided to take the authorities at their word.

As we drove back past the start of the fence and re-entered the sorghum savannah, a solitary fox crossed the road in front of us.

With a haughty stare at us, the animal put its tail erect in the “up yours” position, as if it were a spokesman of all dogs, including its wild cousin, the dingo.

END

Maxi views with a Mini on Magnetic (Photo: Queensland Tourism)

Maxi views with a Mini on Magnetic (Photo: Queensland Tourism)

(Published by The West Australian newspaper).

It’s an island of love that is shaped like a heart and has a name that attracts.

When you land on Magnetic Island just 20 minutes by ferry from the Queensland city of Townsville, expect to hear a love story pretty soon, because that is what happened to me.

A local called Lucy gave me a lift in her car, and we wound our away along cliff side roads above an idyllic bay, she told me her story.

“I came here seven years ago as a backpacker, met a guy who was living here– and that was it,” Lucy told me. Marriage followed as soon as visas allowed. She hasn’t lived in her homeland since.

Later, when I hired a mini moke from Magnetic Moke, I told the people in the office about Lucy.

“Yes,” said one. “And I know an English lady who came here, married a real estate agent and has been here for more than 20 years.”

She obviously picked the right location, location, location.

Sunshine

Magnetic Island is situated in a spot that enjoys 320 days of sunshine a year and gentle winds to blow away excess tropical humidity.

The island seems to be built of giant boulders with peculiar shapes, some looking like rounded versions of the Easter Island statues. Hoop pines pop out of the crevices to make every day feel like it’s Christmas Day.

To get an overview, take the “forts walk” to the camouflaged lookout posts perched on the top of the highest points of the island. The views of the Coral Sea make it seem strange that it was ever a battleground.

Koala

Look carefully on the path and you are likely to spot a koala clinging to the highest branches of a gum tree. Read the signs for poignant information about the men and women who were stationed on the island during World War 2.

Among the current attractions are kayaking, jet skiing, snorkeling just offshore, trips to the reef and horseback riding.

Then there is love, that something special in the air.

So much of it, in fact, that that a group of independent businesses work together to make the place Wedding Central. For example, there is a hairdressing salon called Hairport , a celebrant called Crusty Herron and somebody  else who makes wedding cakes and plenty who provide venues.

Luxury

The lucky couple has a choice of honeymoon venues, including Pure Magnetic, with its luxury Balinese style bungalows close to the sea.

And anybody can get in the mood love at  Le Paradis where French love songs play over the sound system.

Former Sydney-sider Michelle Palun tells me the story of how she met and married her charming Frenchman, Marc and then chose Magnetic Island to set up the restaurant, which, which has since won awards for “best alfresco” and “best European cuisine.”

For a swish, romantic lunch, you can park your moke near Peppers, a new restaurant by the water.

Out at Bungalow Bay Koala Village, young couples known as “flashpackers” enjoy air conditioned comfort in bungalows that don’t stretch their savings.

Anybody without a special person around can at least go on a tour there and cuddle one of the koalas.

Even though the creature is a marsupial, instructors by the photographer to “grin and bear it” prise a smile out of even the most introverted of visitors.

Magnetic is a place like that. It can attract anybody and make them love the place.

END

www.townsvilleholidays.info

www.puremagnetic.com

www.peppersblueonblue.com.au

www.mokemagnetic.com

http://www.bungalowbay.com.au

Le Paradis: Ph: +61-7- 4778 5044

Thanks for the assistance, Tourism Queensland: http://www.tq.com.au/

Sandy beach on an island of sand (Photo: Michael Day)

Sandy beach on an island of sand (Photo: Michael Day)

(Published in The West Australian)

“What awful creature does not live on Fraser Island?”

We tourists scratched our heads to find the answer to the question posed by our guide.

Our ragtag group of suburbanites was  gathered in the rainforest in the centre of the world’s biggest sand island, a couple of hours north of Brisbane.

One wag shouted out “Stingray” and everyone laughed rather guiltily because of Steve Irwin.

But try as we could none of us could figure out which Australian beast avoided the island.

The guide had already told us the coastal waters  were infested with man-eating tiger sharks. And just when we felt safe being out of the water, he warned about the killer dingoes.

Dingoes

The Fraser Island dingoes are only pure bred of the species left in Australia and they are  not house trained. They’ve attacked so many visitors that handing out doggie biscuits or barbecue left-overs scores a $3000 fine.

What else could it be?  There are plenty of snakes. A few minutes after I had stumbled through the bush looking at the trees and shrubs  I freaked to learn that the island is a haven for death adders, the second deadliest reptile in the world.

Elevated epiphyte (Photo: Michael Day)

Elevated epiphyte (Photo: Michael Day)

Totally stumped, we waited for the guide to speak. He smiled smugly. “Give up? It’s the mosquito!”

Apparently there is no stagnant water and little else to support the curse of the holidaying class. So thumbs up for Fraser Island.

Another good thing is the authorities have managed to exclude those other awful creatures, the “developodiles.”

These two-legged predators are busily suburbanizing, mall-ifying and high-rising every last spot along the once glorious coast north and south of Brisbane.

Fortunately, Fraser Island is a world heritage site so there is  no “development” allowed other than the already existing resorts and  the 10 per cent of privately owned land.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the place is guaranteed safe for future generations. About 750,000 visitors arrive on the island every year, and they all get about in powerful vehicles. The sand roads that are so bumpy that the most common expression is:  “Aaaarrrrreee    wwwwweeee therrrrrrreee  yyyyyettttt?”

The answer is usually “Nnnnoooo” because it is long ride in from the beach through forests to the freshwater Lake McKenzie.

White sand

Fine white sand lines the lake. The shallows are a lovely turquoise but out further it becomes dark and deep. Nothing harmful can survive in the lake and  swimming is pleasant in the silky water.

The main stop is Central Station where a rainforest valley has the feel of a Garden of Eden. There were no apples, but a two metre long carpet snake glided along in full view.

Pathway of peace  (Photo: Michael Day)

Pathway of peace (Photo: Michael Day)

A 2,500 year old king fern sits on the edge of a stream that winds its way through the forest. The water is soundless because it flows over sand, with  no pebbles to make a noise. It’s a refreshing feel to be in the rainforest, which  sprouts out of the sand. The vital nutrients come from  leaf litter and debris laid down over thousands of years.

We head on down through forests of satiny trees that were once called turpentine pines but had their names changed for marketing reasons. These trees were used to build  the Suez canal and the London underground.

Eventually the roller coast track smoothes out and we emerge out of the forest and  on to the beach for the drive home. Sea eagles and kites fly overhead and  oyster catchers peck away near the shoreline.

As our tour bus powers along the compacted sand, we see the deadliest creatures on Fraser Islands coming straight at us—the 4WD crowd.

“They always go too fast   and are often drunk,” our driver says.

There were only  a few about on our day but take care at Christmas and Easter when they have to bring in the cops for radar checks on the beach.

The big tip for Fraser Island is to go off-season, stay for a few days, look left and right when you cross the beach–  and leave the mossie repellent at home.

END

http://www.fraserisland.au.com

Select by choosing from geographical settings of travel stories by Michael Day, a travel writer based in Brisbane, Australia.


This is a sample of travel stories I have written on assignment as a travel writer, or when covering Asia for my newspaper, or as a freelancer. They have been published in newspapers, magazines and Web-based newspapers. (Yes, that is a real Oscar in my hands. Made out of genuine plastic.)

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