My trip under down under is coming to an end. Now I’m just down under, on what Tasmanians call the mainland.
My sweetie has come to fetch me home… but before we get on the plane tomorrow, I want to find out what he thinks about this place on the other side of the world…We're in the Brasserie in Katoomba, drinking James Squires Amber Ale, then across the street in Cafe Zuppa, eating delicious vegetarian food for the third night in a row... I mean, why mess with a good thing?
LB. Tell me three things you knew or thought about Australia before you came.
MM. 1. That Ayer’s Rock - or, as it’s called now, Uluru - was the place that everyone was supposed to go to. But you told me early on that it was too far for this trip since it’s miles and miles and miles from nowhere. Well, except Alice Springs, and even then it’s 300 kilometres to Uluru. Plus it costs a whack of dough to get there.
2. That I wanted to see the Opera House and Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and I also wanted to find out where one of my favourite TV shows was filmed, and that’s not Skippy the Bush Kangaroo or The Flying Doctors – but… wait for it… Water Rats! I kept looking for someone the right age to ask… Turns out I had to check it out on Wikipedia. Some episodes were filmed on Goat Island, which we passed on the ferry to Manly Beach.
3. That I expected two kinds of characters: Crocodile Dundee or a California-surfer dude.
4. Until I met you, I never even realized that Tasmania was part of Australia.
LB. How did those preconceptions work for you, Mike?
MM. Those stereotypes came back to boomerang me in the ass. I didn’t meet Crocodile Dundee or a surfer. I met artists and historians and ordinary people. These people are not unlike… home.
LB. What do you mean?
MM. Melbourne was like Montreal. Sydney was like Toronto and Vancouver. Hobart was like Halifax.
LB. So do you feel like you got your money’s worth?
MM. Absolutely. Since almost the first moment I stepped off the plane, I stopped thinking about how much it cost to get here. It’s not a terrible thing to learn that Australia is like a lot of places on the planet. The similarities aren’t so disappointing. There were still enough unique experiences that put the commonalities in perspective. But as soon as we left Melbourne or Sydney, and came to places like Airlie Beach or Katoomba, we found something distinctive.
One of the things that’s been great about the trip has been learning about its history, in comparison to that of our own colonization, or of the Spanish in Mexico, Central and South America. What came as a surprise was the relatively short history of colonization and development, compared with other British colonies. Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence in 1534… as opposed to 1770 or so when Cook visited Adventure Bay in Tasmania. European contact at home came over 200 years before it did here.
The uniqueness is in the people’s histories – they’ve come up with the same types of societies… As early as the 1950s, Sydney was a backwater. The site of the Sydney Opera House was the tram garage. If you use urban centres as a measure, our societies have evolved very similarly, except they were on fast forward compared to ours.
I found it surprising that the convict story plays such a huge part in people’s memories here. I didn’t expect that.
And then there’s the Aboriginal story – their treatment echoes any colonizer’s attitude or mindset toward first peoples. We did it in Canada; they did it here. We’re still dealing with it in Canada; they’re still dealing with it here.
LB. What underwhelmed you?
MM The wildlife. I didn’t see ONE kangaroo, or ONE wallaby. I think I saw a possum. I saw some cockatoos and a white-breasted sae eagle in the Whitsunday Islands, and one gigantic Huntsman spider in the closet at Airlie Beach… no snakes… I never even came close to seeing a crocodile!
LB. Tell me three things that stood out for you on this trip.
MM. Only three? Okay. How easy it was to drive on the left-hand side of the road. Except every time I went to use the signal light I’d hit the windshield washer.
My heretofore ignorance of the country: how little I actually knew about Australia. I could have read up on it before I left, but it took coming here to really know it. Plus Bill Bryson’s excellent book, In a Sunburned Country… and a novel called The Roving Party by a young Tasmanian, Rohan Wilson – which I bought at a reading in Hobart after he won the Vogel Award… and the non-fiction Van Diemen’s Land, James Boyce’s award-winning history of the island – which went hand in hand with the fiction.
There were some moments like when I was stuck in noisy traffic or in a crowded bar in Sydney, when I think: I came halfway round the world for this? I could have stayed home and experienced the same thing. But then something would happen.
Like having lunch on the rooftop of the oldest bar in Sydney, with the Opera House and Bridge a silent backdrop…
Yesterday spent in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, overlooking Jamison Valley from the first cable car ride in my life…
The field trip before the conference, when we visited Hook Island and the cave of the Ngaro People, followed by snorkeling off Whitsunday Island then a picnic on Whitehaven Beach…
Singing, with the most spectacular sunset backdrop imaginable, at Airlie Beach…
Sitting around Peter MacFie’s kitchen table in Richmond, eating potato and leek soup and trading songs, before having our own personally guided tour of Port Arthur with Peter – who had been the historian who developed the site’s interpretation…
Sunset on top of Mt. Wellington, overlooking Hobart Town…
A most memorable day spent on Bruny Island…
LB. So, on your last night in Australia, is there anything else you’d like to add?
MM. Yeah. It snowed.