An Australian Interlude
This spring brought no trekking (a disappointment), just some time teaching Moby-Dick in Australia. Here are some disjointed observations about that time.
My Trip to the Zoo
My pilgrimage to the Australian Zoo, shrine of Saint Steve Irwin, actually began the night before. In the Brisbane hotel riding the elevator up with a colleague discussing my upcoming trip, I noted that I wasn’t all that interested in crocodiles. A voice from the corner said “you will be.” The man— short, dark, wirey and profusely tattooed—smiled showing a set of broken teeth. He said he lived amongst them, and I would learn that same love. We both laughed as I exited at my floor. I took it as yet another life-lesson: love your crocodile neighbor as you would love yourself.
I was up early, as usual, spending my normal hour and half in the gym, then was off to Fortitude Valley Station to catch the train—recognizing I’d need fortitude to get through the day. The train system out of Brisbane is wonderful as long as you know exactly where you are going (not Australian Zoo but instead Beerwah station). On alighting the platform at Beerwah, I met the stationmaster who, though a bit of a mumbler, arranged to have the zoo shuttle come pick me up and handed over a complete train schedule to plan my return trip. Jackson, the shuttle driver—a good kid originally from Melbourne—moved to the Sunshine Coast because of Covid and never left. He was familiar with the US (and had even visited Savannah as he had worked at Disney during college). Like the stationmaster, he went out of his way to make sure I had my day’s transportation lined up.
The zoo is much like many zoos I have visited regarding habitat and animals, but the Irwin family casts a long shadow. Along with Steve, who is celebrated at every turn, the children— Robert, Bindi—and Terri, his wife, have clothing lines and a range of merchandise, as well as parts of the park in their names. The zoo itself is well-designed and well-run. Standing in line waiting for the gates to open, I wondered if I should have rented a baby and a stroller—it seems a requirement for admission. After a quick duck through the gift shop for the souvenirs I was under threat of sanctions to produce, I wandered past tortoises that would have been right at home on one of the Encantadas Melville described in such detail. Then in quick succession I saw American alligators, a Tasmanian Devil (it looked nothing like the Warner Brothers cartoon), and couple of Cassowarries (along with myriad smaller creatures). Soon the path opened to the center: the crocodile showcase—ponds, a stadium, even a fashion emporium. I stopped for coffee in a second-floor shop that overlooked the main crocodile pools. From where I sat, I could monitor the activities of Bosco, Agro, and Acco, each of whom showed an early morning sluggishness usually reserved for humans on the weekends. I’m pretty sure that after some judicious chewing, I would fit easily in their bellies.
A turn took me past the habitat of a few more crocs, several advertised as couples, and then led to the obligatory reptile house full of big snakes under glass. Then it was out to some wild bird habitats, a pet-the-kangaroo space, and of course a bunch of cute koalas in trees with stands for people to take selfies with them—the zoo does try to accommodate modern media desire. After passing some long-legged fishing birds and a couple big-ass Emus, I encountered the tiger, who really was arresting—such magnificence. The zoo prides itself on the elephants but are in process of rebuilding the habitat, so missing the pachyderms, I pressed on to “Africa” — giraffes, zebra, and three Rhinos (who, like the tiger, were equally arresting).
Finding myself at the end— the tip of “Africa”— I discovered I had to backtrack some distance to get back to the gate, but happily, as fate would have it, after re-passing the rhino/giraffe compound, I saw a shuttle bus stop, and who was just then pulling in but Jackson! I caught a ride back to the main gate; then he circled around for his trip to pickup folks from the train station, letting me hop on for my return.
I had an hour before the next train and so explored Beerwah, a small but lovely town, originally a center of lumber and pineapple production. The train line from the city was built out here in the 1890s, so the the area is not isolated, though it’s not close enough for commuters. Like so many rural towns in Australia (and New Zealand), Beerwah is primarily a long line of shops fronting the main road (just across from the railroad tracks). It’s a prosperous place, full of elderly (probably retired) folks with quick smiles and warm greetings (guess I fit right in!). Stopped at Vianta for coffee. It seems the notion of iced coffee has yet to arrive here, so in my overheated condition, I “enjoyed” a hot flat white (they advertised air conditioning on the door, but the thermostat must have been faulty). The manager asked if I was Canadian. When I replied American, he noted that is was safer to guess Canadian first—these commonwealth folks try to stick together.
The train back was uneventful and, after my obligatory swim, I’m now going to bed early— exhausted but pleased.
Heron is a spot of sand out on the Great Barrier Reef reached by ferry. The trip out takes you past Erskine and Masthead islands, both sources of peace in the lee when the crossing is on a choppy day. That phenomenon sets you to thinking about cycles of peace and disruption that being on Heron entails. Home to a resort, a marine research station, and innumerable birds, visitors of the island are never out of the sound of squawks or the smell of birdshit. The resort, trying to cater to an upscale clientele, contends with rails, walls, and footpaths glistening white with guano. The research station is much the same, but given the spartan accommodations, expectations of well-scrubbed conditions are lower. Indeed, the birds are among its reason for being, so there is something of a celebration of shit and squawk there.
The ferry approaches the pier, passing within yards of a rusting wreck which now serves as channel marker, reef-life support, and a memento mori guarding the entrance to the island and announcing that you have just passed out of human linear time and stepped into a celebration of cycles—life, death, decay. The most insistent celebrants are the Black Noddies who are currently nesting and brooding. They dominate certain trees, leering at passersby daring any slackening of pace, threatening some general but unclear retribution for any interruption of their reproductive cycle.
The arrogance of the Noddies is balanced by the timidity of the sea turtles— emblem of Heron Island and heartwarming underdogs to every extinction minded eco-warrior. From the half-track flipper print trails of the mothers crawling from the water to the vegetation’s edge, laying the eggs she hopes won’t be disturbed by rapacious mammals or curious humans, to the baby turtles who, feeling a slight temperature shift signaling dawn or dusk, scramble across on impossibly wide beach, dodging those same curious humans, but more important, the mob of seagulls descending for dinner— those yearly cycles cycle.
The island’s more or less circular nature invites human cycling as well, wandering tempered by tide and temperature. Starting from the pier, would-be circumambulators must first negotiate the resort paths, popping out on the beach just past the swimming pool, then to wander down usually broad sand to the eastern tip, circling to the south where the rocks proliferate, the sand heaps, and the water presses, slowing progress to a trudge. Soon the wreck comes into view, the way stabilizes and the circle completes.
As island life is lived by sun, moon, and tides, the daily cycle demands presence at first and last light. From the research station, a short path crosses the island to the north side where morning devotees join the beach’s parade to the east, pacing usually in pairs and gathering at the point, near each other but respecting the reverence of the moment. The ambient light fills the sky while each awaits the sun, or as Hölderlin put it:
Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day.
Cameras click, coffee is sipped, and silently people arise to wander into the new day, one that after any and many obeisances to the sun, turns late. Now, on the western point in the lengthening shadow of the wreck, comes the end of that diurnal cycle
A day without adventure
Townsville— people always grin, sneer, or frown when you tell them it’s your destination. A harbor linked to some mines (they seem to be hauling all of Australia to China by the shipload). Arrived at the Quest on Eyre long-stay hotel late (missed the sunset, broke my streak), slept late, discovered a less-than-optimal exercise room (good weight machine, inoperable cardio devices). Even though I’d had a massive Greek salad last night at airport (actually not Greek salad, just a couple of pounds of cucumber with the occasional black olive), I was ravenous. First stop, the local chemist to replenish sunscreen, took me into the back of the Cole’s grocery where— true confession #1—at 9:00 am I bought roasted half-chicken which I then destroyed while sitting on a park bench at the water’s edge, an act witnessed by morning runners, strolling retirees, and wandering homeless folks.
The rest of morning/early afternoon included lots of instant coffee, a lecture on the Great Barrier Reef Conservancy, a brief FaceTime conversation with the woman I love, teaching class, conducting office hours, posting a new test, and then: good boy, outside! I broke out of the Georgia Tech kennel and wandered, sniffing out those places I’d marked in 2020, the last time my wandering brought me here. Also, I wanted to get to the bottom of all the sneers directed toward this town. The reef is a ways offshore but the tourist/environmentalist industries are clearly big as is the mining. The town lines the edge of the bay and its estuary, pushing up against some steep red-rock mountains. My memory was a long boulevard running along the shore lined with restaurants and hotels, fancy and shabby, with a wide greenway park on water’s side. To get to the main part of the town I would walk up over a ridge (along a highway) dropping down to a few square blocks of typical stores— Woolworths, op-shops, law offices and a brewery in the old post office.
As close as I got to adventure today was starting out at the shoreline boulevard walking in the direction of the river and discovering that by following a bend, the old town is accessible (no ridge climb, no highway walk). That route passes through a very interesting old government area, including a war memorial park, the Tobruck Memorial Baths (which memorializes a WWII battle),
a classic brick customs house (comparable to the ones at Wellington or Hobart)
and some great late 19th century hotels.
The road was also lined with restaurants and nightclubs, many advertising Friday and Saturday night late, loud music. Clearly it’s Townsville’s social center.
Returning to the shoreline road, I passed a fish and chips stand that offers most of their seafood (different kinds of fish and calamari) grilled and substitutes salad for chips. In other words, it’s not a fish and chips joint, but one I will return to next week. At the water’s edge, signs warn away all swimmers— saltwater crocodiles (shades of Val Plumwood)—but the sidewalks swell with citizens. The town promenades late afternoon, something that brings a smile. Following along, I watched as people hopped out of the parade, turning into the bars and bistros, settling into seats by sidewalk tables ordering up big mugs of beer— prompting yet another smile.
A long loop to the end of the strip brought me back to the road that leads past the grocery store to the hotel. On the corner is the 1929 Hotel Sea-View—site of my other sin.
In my week on Heron I ate a lot of salad, but most of the main courses were dominated by rice or pasta which I was not eating at the time. Today I realized (and this is just a rationalization) that I was really hungry for protein. A seemingly unrelated but crucial component to my sinful life is that, on landing in Brisbane the day I first arrived, I got 100$ Australian out of the ATM. Those two 50s have been in my wallet ever since, long enough to not actually count as real money any more. So at the Sea-View, I dropped part of one of them on this:
And it sure was good.
A minor outing
Every morning for my walk I find the strand lined with runners, new-mothers pushing strollers, and sun-withered impossibly thin old Aussie women (I mean old) striding rapidly past all us youngsters. Reluctant to abandon my new-found carb-less hardness, I nevertheless relented after afternoon class and sought out beer— real ale, the anti-keto elixir. Townsville is peculiar in that a number of establishments follow old colonial hours, opening briefly during lunch, closing, then reopening in the “after work” hours. The brewery was closed today, so I found myself wandering out of class, visiting an art gallery, then hitting the Hotel Sea-View, a strand bar frequented by both tourists and a sweaty working class (the latter apparently get off work around 3:00). As the downtown pubs would not be open until 5, I settled into a place in the beer garden where I could check the scores of the rugby league games, read a book, watch an old couple play pool, and monitor a crew whose captain wore a Stranger Things T-shirt and bought a new pitcher about every 5 minutes.
I’d been hesitant to hit the Australian pubs as in my memory the beer as I remembered it was the equivalent of Natty Light, but I . I was surprised by the Sea-View taps, so much so that, at 4:30 I had to force myself to walk away (only had some eggs for lunch so the beer hit hard). Following the loop toward downtown, I still hit pub row too early for admission. Wandering on, I found a central business district emptying out fast except for an alley with a nice but expensive pub lightly populated by folks who seemed desperate to seal that last deal before sundown. An amazing beer but a bit too corporate for comfort. The way back home— high-traffic streets, sidewalk beside a four-lane— was necessary but disheartening, so, even though only a block from corporate beer heaven, I stopped at the Hotel Herbert. Not promising, the large beer garden was empty, but the bar! An extended U projecting into a room full of people with that refrigerator repairman pants sag sitting on the arc drinking Great Northern (think Budweiser). The bathroom had the classic urine trough full of lemonade hockey pucks and the bartender was a real tough old broad who knew everybody. She made me feel right at home and made the whole cycle worthwhile.