A Travellerspoint blog

Australia

A Day in Brisvegas...

sunny 32 °C

The train is eerily quiet. The only noise is the high pitch squeal of the train wheels against the tracks, yet the carriage is packed with suburban types. It’s a sign that I’m in a city. It’s a bizarre concept that the more people you put in one place, the less they talk to each other. It’s a very un-Australian feeling, in fact it feels more like the UK as the clouds hang low and gray, threatening to open up at any moment. A few stops after I get on the train, a man in his mid-50s hops aboard and parks himself opposite me. I try not to stare, but it’s difficult. He’s wearing a tweed bonnet, a saggy yellowing vest with a pen clipped on, super short red shorts, high white socks and black, velcro-strap trainers. He looks very confused but, at this point, still in control of himself. I start to wonder how long it will be before he begins his unsuccessful train hijack attempt using the broken umbrella that he’s carrying.

The train pulls into Brunswick St Station and I get up to leave, hobo hijacker follows. He’s standing directly behind me and I’m convinced it’s only a matter of time before the back of my head feels the full brunt of a flying umbrella. I’m pleasantly surprised when the doors open and I step down onto the platform unhindered. I turn around and see him disappear into the crowd, which is quite an achievement considering his attire. I head up a set of stairs from the platform and come out into a large shopping mall where I proceed to spend the next 10 minutes lost, trying to figure out where the exit to the outside world is. I walk past a woman wearing a blue t-shirt with a large tourist information logo on it and “airport assistance” written across the back. I panic. Is Brisbane just one huge indoor shopping mall connected all the way out to the airport? I start following random people, hoping they know the way out. It dawns on me that I might be following people heading for the toilets and that I’ll subsequently look like a pervert as I stand looking confused and shifty outside a toilet cubicle. I decide to keep following anyhow and the decision eventually pays off as I stumble out onto Brunswick St mall.

Pleased to be in the outside world, I make my way up the mall toward Ann St and the city. As I’m nearing the opposite end of the street, hobo hijacker comes darting out of a shopping arcade, minus his umbrella and looking shiftier than ever. I’m curious to know what he might be up to but decide not to follow him incase he’s toilet-bound. I make my way along Ann St and can’t help but admire the surroundings as the road gets closer to the city. The architectural juxtaposition of old cathedrals and Victorian public buildings surrounded by shiny new skyscrapers is a novelty for those from the old world. I get to Queen St mall and am slightly taken aback by the number of people out and about on a Tuesday afternoon. Is anyone actually at work in Brisbane other than shop assistants? The electronic, merry Christmas tunes from a million Santa toys in a discount store remind me that it’s the festive shopping period and so I make a beeline for a coffee break at Southbank instead of fighting the yuletide crowds. By this stage I feel like I’m acting out a Lonely Planet mini-itinerary for Brisbane as I’ve briefly covered Fortitude Valley, the CBD and now Southbank in a mornings meandering.

Caffeine fuelled, I make my way over to the botanic gardens and then into the Queensland Parliament. I find myself in a tour group consisting of me and a very enthusiastic chap from Hong Kong who satisfies every possible cliché about Asian tourists, including the standard Hubble telescope-esque camera lens. We make our way around a few grand and ornate rooms before getting to the main chamber. The guide explains a little about the proceedings then goes on to tell us how there are 59 MPs in the Queensland parliament and that getting them all together at one time is a logistical nightmare. Granted Queensland is a larger than Britain but I’m left wondering what he’d think about trying to get 650-odd MPs down to London from every corner of the UK. I try and ask him but he’s in full-swing with his own spiel and by the time he stops the moment has passed.

Upon emerging from the Parliament, I realise that in a lot of Lonely Planet suggested itineraries there is something about going to a trendy spot for a drink. I decide that trendy isn’t necessary but refreshment of the beer kind is. I find an Irish bar on Queen St mall and head in for a healthy dose of European culture. As I settle down with my Guinness and big screen TV showing Bordeaux v Marseille I instantly regret my choice of pub. Directly behind me is a group consisting of one girl and two guys. The girl is English and set to “constant smelly chat” mode. Her voice fills the bar and her stories of travelling Australia are never-ending. The two guys she’s with have glazed looks that suggest they haven’t spoken in hours. I do my best to block her voice out but sentences like, “yeah, the outback’s really difficult but like, the tour bus was good and so everyone should go…” go straight to the “judge on first impression” section of my brain.

I quickly finish my pint and make a swift exit before the two guys drop-dead and she directs her chat toward someone else. Once out on the street, I realise I need to find some yin to balance the yang of the smelly pub chat. I make my way to the supermarket, stock up on supplies and head back to the suburbs for a healthy dose of Australian barbeque culture. The perfect remedy…

Posted by scotsman 21:55 Archived in Australia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

My Eight Legged Chums

Australia is a part of the world where insects are not to be taken lightly. This is a land where a tiny spider can put you in intensive care for a week, trying to breath through your ears, and a land where most insects will have a nibble at any bodily part, exposed or otherwise. It's not only the appetite that some Australian creepy-crawlies possess that scares me, but their sheer size too. Ask any Aussie to show you what they would class as a small spider and they will shape their hand as though they're about to bowl a cricket ball!

Coming from a country where it's a hardy "wee beastie" that survives the icey winters, I was genuinely anxious about going to Australia and finding myself face to face, so to speak, with any number of killer creepy-crawlies. So much so in fact, that during my time on the girt by sea I checked under every toilet seat, that I had the pleasure of perching upon, just incase a little redback spider was waiting for me to bare my white bum. This is actually a life-long fear after watching an episode of The Really Wild Show. They happened to have a feature about the Australian "Dunnie Spider," which just happens to be the redback, and although there has only ever been one incident of a biting to the bum, it's still a very distinct possibility. I saw this when I was 11 or 12 years old and it still haunts me at 22.

Anyhow, despite the profusion of Australian spiders that can have you coffin-bound, the one that troubled me most, and had me lying awake at night, is the huntsman spider. Even though it is, allegedly, harmless, the sheer size and reputation of it had me concerned to say the least. Some can have a leg span of up to and over 15cm's and huntsmans also have tendancies to happily make their way into homes where they are not welcome and even more worryingly into peoples cars. Now, anyone reading this in a part of the world where the spiders are as large and hairy as coconuts may scoff. But to the average northern European, a spider with a 15cm legspan crawling across your car dashboard whilst your whizzing down the motorway is cause enough to induce heart palpitations.

My first encounter with a huntsman spider was whilst I was working at a pear orchard in the Adelaide Hills. It was only a baby huntsman, sunning itself upon fine a beurre bosc (brown pear), with its legs tucked in, making it look smaller than it actually was. Although after a quick wiggle of the pear, its long hairy legs came into full view as it plummeted down from the fruit onto the long grass. About a week after this initial encounter I had another moment in the pear trees with a hairy huntsman. This time though my eight legged chum was not so little. In fact he was twice the size of the little bugger the week before but he still managed to conceal himself well enough underneath a pear so that when I plucked the fruit from the tree and saw the hairy legs I almost squealed like a pre-pubescent schoolgirl. Instead, in one fluid motion, I hurled the fruit across several rows of trees and began a small, personal highland fling in the trees as I was sure the spider had landed on me. Of course it turned out that I was spider free and instead there was a huntsman sitting on the top of a pear tree a few rows down thinking "what the..."

A few more visits followed in the ensuing weeks that I spent in the Adelaide Hills, each of which adding to the possibility of flowing white hair by the age of 30. As a result of these experiences I decided to do a little research on the critters in question and found my way to the Australian Museum website http://www.amonline.net.au/factsheets/huntsman_spiders.htm
Not only does this page contain enough photographic evidence to put forward a case for maybe rounding up every single hunstman in Australia and dumping them in a place where they can do no harm (I suggest Siberia). But it also has a few interesting facts. For example, if anyone ever tells you that a huntsman is harmless then simply remind them that "Huntsman spider bites usually result only in transient local pain and swelling. However, some Badge Huntsman spider bites have caused prolonged pain, inflammation, headache, vomiting and irregular pulse rate." Irregular pulse rate? Siberia is sounding awfully appealling just now.

The site has other facts too that could suggest that huntsman spiders are friendly, almost cuddley creatures. But personally, I wouldn't mind seeing my eight legged chums living happily in a dark forest in frozen Siberia. Well out of the way of soft little backpackers like myself.

Posted by scotsman 17:14 Archived in Australia Comments (4)

Aussie Rules

An outsiders perspective

Australian Rules Football, it kind of makes sense doesn't it? For a nation that defines itself by the little differences, i.e. hopping mammals and red soil, it's only natural that they have a unique national sport. Aussie rules is played solely in the land down under. This is of course excluding a small town in the USA , my source on this latter fact is again somewhat questionable, but allegedly it's true. The only other sport in the world which is similar to aussie rules is gaelic football, played in Ireland. I have always thought that Australia's national sport was a direct descendant of the Irish version of football, but apparantley aussie rules is more a mixture of many different versions of football, brought to the country by those fine, founding settlers (even if they were in chains). However, due to the similarities between Australian football & Irish football, an international match is played each year between the all-Australia team and their Celtic chums. The outcome of this match, according to any Australian you ask, is a thorough spanking of the Irish. In defence of the Celts though, the aussies use a rugby style ball whilst the boys of the four-leaf-clover use a real football. Each year it is taken in turn which ball to use. So imagine the poor Irish lads trying to bounce this egg shaped ball in front of them, only to find that it boings back in the direction of their nether-regions.

Anyhow, the fundamentals of Australian rules footy are that their are 18 players on each side, with goals at either end of a large, grassy oval. The goals are 4 vertical poles, two long poles in the middle with a stumpier one at either side. The attacking team can use any part of their bodies to get the ball between the two largest poles for six points or if they get the ball between a large post and a stumpy post it's called a "behind," and they are given a consolitary one point. Both sets of players appear to be allowed to beat the shit out of each other, all in the name of a good game, whilst the umpires look-on. The only time when a player can get a hold of the ball without the possibility of a knuckle in the eye-socket, is when they catch a kicked pass from a team-mate. This being called a "mark." These appear to be the main rules of the game with the rest being a bit of a free-for-all. There are guys who dash on and off of the field dressed like road-workers that are called "runners," relaying messages and instructions from the coach. And there are also a few randoms who walk on with water bottles for the players and just hang about a bit, watching the match from a players perspective I suppose.

After my many months roaming this land from one end to the other, I have adopted the Adelaide Crows as my team of choice for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the first ever aussie rules game I saw was at AAMI stadium in Adelaide, between The Crows & The West Coast Eagles. The game was a fairly dire affair compared with some of the games I've seen on the TV since and Adelaide played so bad that I just had to support them. I mean it's not as if they need anymore fans as the stadium was packed, but it's just that any team I support is normally as successful as any tropical nation at the winter olympics (for proof, see Dundee United's results over the last 10 years). I'd better add here that I have since been proved wrong on the Adelaide Crows front, what with them finishing top of the ladder this year and making the finals, but I would just like to say that I decided to support them at the start of the season when they were being tipped to finish bottom and am therefore exempt from any glory-hunter jibes. My second reason for supporting them was even more unorthodox. Whilst at the Crows-Eagles game, a young boy in front of me kept on shouting, "C'mon Shirley, get into them Stiffy!" And I just knew that any team, whose fans who could shout these players names with a straight face, was the team for me.

Going to a live game is both a good and bad way of getting to know what aussie rules is about. In my experience at the afore-mentioned game, because the pitch is so large, I couldn't actually see what was going on at the other side of the field. And when the match actually started with the bounce in the centre of the pitch, it was, from where I was sitting, like watching a 20-man wrestling match in the middle of a cricket oval for 10 minutes. It was just chaos. Although despite struggling to keep up with some of the game I actually found that I picked up the rules very quickly watching it in real life. A few days earlier I had been at a BBQ at a friends house and a pre-season friendly match was being shown on the TV. This was my first experience of seeing an aussie rules match that didn't end with the Neighbours music. I just could not understand what was going on. I did my best to make sense of the basic rules but I think I'd had one too many of the Barossa Valleys finest by that point and the game just flowed over me without making any sense. So it was perhaps because of this lack of understanding that I found myself in the burning afternoon sunshine at AAMI stadium, devouring a Mrs Macs beef pie and Farmers Union iced coffee, soaking up the match like a thirsty sponge. Determined to learn the intracacies of this fine game.

Aussie rules matches have two other notable good and bad aspects. The good thing is that there is no supporter segregation in the stands and despite beer flowing freely from the kiosks, there never seems to be any trouble whatsoever. Compare this to any European football game where crowd violence is rife and it's a small miracle. Imagine if beer was sold at a Rangers-Celtic match in Glasgow, there would be even more stabbings after each game than there already is. The bad point of a live aussie rules game is, however, probably what keeps the crowd harmonious. Everyone is unified by the hours of advertising crap that they have to sit through before kick-off. From the mascot driving around in the "Noodle-Box" wagon to the "Farmers Union" walking iced coffee doing the live "Foodland" lucky dip, or whatever it might have been. This conitinual advertising bombardment of the fans in the stands must keep many AFL (Australian Football League) clubs in the black. At the same time the mutual boredom felt by the supporters must create a more communal atmosphere. Perhaps I've destroyed my own argument here by saying that the advertising might actually add to a more peaceful environment but I think that if you were to ask an average fan at a game to sit through another 3 hours of the advertising, he would probably choose to be stabbed in a supporters brawl outside the stadium instead. To experience the commercial overdose is at first almost comical, but to put up with it every week must be mind-numbing.

From an outsiders perspective, Australian Rules Football is at first a confusing experience. But once you master the finer points of it you realise it's just another branch of the beautiful game.
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Posted by scotsman 20:30 Archived in Australia Comments (4)

Backpackers Make The World Go Round

Well, kind of....

Every year the Australian government issues around 100,000 working holiday visas to travellers between the age of 18-30 and who come from a country which isn't Iraq, North Korea or Afghanistan (well it might be a bit more specific than that but you get the gist). This means that at any one point the ratio of working-holiday backpackers to Australian residents is 1:200 (based on the fact that there are roughly 20 million Australians, give or take a few for those lost in the bush). One in every two-hundred! And that's not including the hardy-rucksack transporters who visit on a 3-month tourist visa.

The majority of backpackers here are however on a working-holiday. And it is this group of travellers who contribute the most to keeping Australia running smoothly. For example, if the various Europeans, and a few North Americans, who slave away in vineyards, orchards and various other places of greenery all stopped, the shelves at Woolworths & Coles fruit & veg departments would be bare. Albeit there might be a few nitbits about, picked by the Vietnamese, but the majority of the work is backpacker, back-breaking stuff. I have to admit that when I first experienced fruit picking work and saw the Vietnamese workers toiling away, I was seriously impressed. I thought if ever there was a nation that should export fruit-pickers, it should be Vietnam. I wondered to myself whether there was a university of fruit-pickery in Hanoi, founded perhaps by Ho Chi Minh himself in honour of the many fruit trees lost during the American war!? Unfortuneately not. Although excellent workers, my oriental horticultural heroes didn't quite turn out to be the superstars of fruit that I had envisaged.

As a result, backpackers fill thousands of fruit-picking and packing jobs each year all over Australia. The government run job-search website even has a specific "harvest-trail" section, aimed at backpackers looking to earn a few extra dollars. However, it's not just in agriculture that backpackers are the essential workforce. In almost any job that doesn't appeal to the average Australian you'll find a backpacker slaving away. Working in roadhouses, helping out on a cattle station, kitchen-hand work or various other jobs that involve cleaning a "dunnie." It's the humble backpacker that keeps things running smoothly. And the Australian government know this! A few months ago, Canberra decided to change the rules so as to make more use of the backpacker labour. Formerly, a working-holiday visa was a once in a lifetime affair, but now you can have a second visa if you did 3 months of harvest work during your first stay. Perhaps if we hang on a bit longer, John Howard and his cronies will offer a residency visa to anyone willing to pledge allegiance to the fruit trees?

Anyhow, despite being a sought after labour force, the traveller still has to give up 29 cents in every dollar that he or she earns, to the Australian tax coffers in Canberra. Although technically you are entitled to claim the tax back, in nine months travelling around this fine country I have only met one couple who actually knew how to go about claiming it back and were actively pursuing their cash. Most people can't be bothered with the bureaucracy. So backpackers are contributing thousands of dollars to the Australian government and the only service they get in return is a Medicare card and maybe the possibility of a free stay at the Woomera detention centre if they overstay their visa? Free accommodation!

Aside from ploughing cash into Peter Costello's pocket, backpackers aid the economy in a more simple way. The money they earn in Australia, is spent in Australia. The obvious beneficiary is the tourist industry. Thousands of young nomads roaming the country with cash to burn means that hostels and campsites have a steady supply of customers, even in the quiet seasons. The national park services also get a steady cash flow. Uluru Kata-Tjuta national park alone could probably clear a sizeable chunk of third-world debt, what with its $25 a head fee. And mechanics all over, benefit from backpackers who travel in cars that should have been turned into tins for baked beans years ago. Only a traveller on a tight budget would look at a Holden or Ford with saggy axles and bald tyres and think, "She's a beaut!" Then willingly hand over several notes of large denomination, believing that their new tin can will safely get them around one of the largest countries on earth. Only to find themselves 3 weeks later standing in a mechanics in a backwater town called Woolyrooballs, speaking to some guy called Bruce about the complexities of having an engine that is essentially buggered.

Where would Australia be without the backpacker? It's a question worth thinking about...
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Posted by scotsman 00:46 Archived in Australia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

It's All About The Wildlife

Kangaroos & Koalas?

A major part of what makes Australia so unique from the rest of the world is the wildlife. For millions of years the various critters that roam this red land were left to their own devices and allowed to evolve in whatever way they saw fit. As a result, when the first Europeans came to Australia they were somewhat baffled by the various furry creatures. One of the first englishmen to observe a kangaroo described it as a "small bird of beautiful plumage."

Today there are more kangaroos in Australia than when Europeans first arrived 250 years ago, due to more water and food sources being created by the development of agriculture. This however has both positive and negative outcomes. It's obviously good for our hopping friends as it helps keep the population strong and growing but the flip-side to this is that a larger population means they are harder hit during times of drought. As the tucker dwindles in the back of beyond, the roo's come closer and closer to the road in search of food and the outcome is gruesome. And due to our furry friends being nocturnal, they generally meet their maker on the steel bars of a hurtling road-train. The more unfortunate encounters for both man & beast are when the average car hits a kangaroo. The animal being likely to either end up somewhere inside the engine of a Ford or Holden or apparantley, if you are unlucky enough to hit one whilst it's mid-hop, it could end up coming through your windscreen. A close encounter with the wildlife that you really didn't count on having! On the long drive between South Australia & Western Australia, there is a stretch of road between the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse (which incidentally has it's own time-zone! That's got to screw up your TV guide.) and Caiguna where around every 200 metres lies a kangaroo carcuss. It's about 150km's between the afore-mentioned destinations so without doing any calculations it's easy to see that's a lot of dead fur.

It was on this very stretch of road, on a cold, misty morning that my good lady and I added to the carnage on the tarmac. We set off from the Cocklebiddy roadhouse at an hour which we thought reasonable enough for the kangaroos to be settling down for the day. Ten minutes into our days drive I happened to look to my left, through the passenger side window, only to lock eyes with a wedgetail eagle standing in the low shrub at the side of the road. I only caught a glimpse for a millisecond (we were going 110k's) but it was one of those moments where your brain takes a snapshot and it sticks in your memory like glue. Seconds later my girlfriend emits one of those high-pitched lady yelps reserved for times of extreme fear. I turn around and see a kangaroo directly in front of the passenger side of the car and doing it's best to outrun our hurtling Ford Falcon. I slammed my feet on the brakes so hard that if we hadn't been wearing seatbelts we could have flown to Perth through the windscreen. Everything went in slow-motion. The poor little bugger must only have managed a couple of bounces before he tried to jump out of the way and slipped onto his side on the wet road, but it seemed to last for minutes. By this time the car had come down to 60k's but we still hit little skippy with a loud thud. Fortuneately for us and the car, the kangaroos final bounce and slip meant that we drove over his legs as he lay on the road and there was no damage to the car and no roo in the windscreen. The bad news was that our furry friend was left lying on the road with broken legs, unable to walk/hop but still trying to pull himself up. We pulled over and got out of the car, unsure of what we could do to help. We flagged down a car but the lady inside was as useful as a boat in the desert. We tried another car. A gentleman in a 4-wheel drive pulled over and we explained the situation, hoping that perhaps he might know of some kangaroo hospital just up the road staffed by disciples of Rolf Harris. His response to our story was,
"I'll hit it on the head with something."
And drove of before we could say,
"But........"
He pulled up next to the kangaroo, rustled around in the back of his car and pulled out a golf club. He stepped up to the roo, swung for Australia and then pulled the body off the road before jumping back into his car and carrying on with his journey. All in a days work. We stood for a full 10 minutes with our jaws at our ankles. Stupid tourists.

Another major Australian icon is the Koala. These furry little marsupials live in and on gum trees throughout Australia. They sleep for up to twenty-hours a day, perched on a limb of a gum tree. And when they awake they spend most of their time gobbling up gum leaves. This latter fact is thought by many to be the reason why Koalas have the "drunken" slouching look that they often have in the few hours they are awake. Many people think the chemicals in the gum leaves drug our furry chums. Although according the the Australian Koala Foundation this is a myth. The latter organistation are also responsible for these two, interesting facts:

  • When koalas are born, they are only 2 centimetres long, which is about as big as a jellybean!
  • When koalas become upset and worried ("stressed") by the loss of their homes, they may get a disease called " Chlamydia".

Koalas with STD's? Interesting. However, koalas actually become quite aggressive and noisy during their mating season. When a male koala feels the urge of nature, he climbs out of his tree and goes hunting for a lady. To go near a koala whilst they are on the ground and searching for some lady-fur is a very bad move indeed. Something tells me that the folks at Taronga Zoo in Sydney who charge $3 to hold a koala, either know when these cute furballs are in the mood for love or only use lady-koalas to keep the tourists happy. I've been lucky enough whilst in Australia to see a few wild koalas but when you see a male one on the ground, it's a strange sight.

At the beginning of the year, my girlfriend and I found ourselves looking after a small property in Gippsland, Victoria for a friend who was on a trip to Sydney. The property was a small hobby farm with a couple of horses, a couple of cows, a cat and two dogs. Our job was to keep the animals happy and fed. One night after feeding our assortment of 4-legged friends we sat down to watch the saturday night movie, Apollo 13. The film had been on for around an hour (better make that 30 minutes of movie & 30 minutes of commercials, shocking country for adverts) when Tas, the German Shepherd leapt out of his comatosed state and ran towards the window, barking and baying for the blood of whatever was out there. I went to the window, gazed out for a moment then shouted,
"Naomi, there's a fucking monkey in the back yard."
I immediately started to think about what kind of monkeys there were in Australia so as to try and identify the two and a half foot tall ape. I couldn't think of any. I decided on the next best course of action. I went and put on my glasses and quickly realised that I had made a mistake that any short-sighted tourist to this unusual land would have made. It was of course a frisky koala, out hunting down some ladies. The thing is, because you always see koalas in trees, you don't realise how long their back legs are. Even on most postcards, koalas are sitting on their bums and not showing off those fine pins. I went outside, after a brief tussle with the dogs at the doorway, and found the little furball almost jogging towards the nearest tree. I watched as he climbed up about 8 feet to a spot where he felt safe and could get a good look at the surroundings in order to spy any blood-thirsty dogs. Instead, all he saw was a bespectacled Scottish tourist staring back at him. I wandered around the tree, looking at him from various different angles and not once did he take his eyes off me. I eventually left him to his own devices and went back to the adverts/film on the TV. When I went back out after the movie he had gone, drawn away by the power of lust!

The Kangaroo & Koala are probably the most famous of Australias furry wildlife but there are dozens more characters out in the vast expanses of bush. It's just finding them thats the problem.
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Posted by scotsman 23:29 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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