Australia

Neighbours...

 
Your television has been lying to you, as David Whitley explains... 

It’s sunny all the time
 
On the whole, I’ll take Australian weather over its British counterpart. It’s often lovely. But the idea of perfect sunny days every day is a grotesque myth. Sydney gets more rain than London (although it does tend to come down all at once rather than as constant drizzle). And July and August in the southern cities can be grimly chilly – not helped by many houses not having central heating systems. Oh, and when it is sunny, it can often be brutally humid. Yet you never see Dr Karl saying “Christ on a bike, I’m sweating like Brian Blessed in a library here.” It’s a con, people.

Everyone likes surfing
 
Surfing is pretty big in Australia, sure. But the idea that everyone, given a spare couple of hours, will grab a board and run into the sea is extremely fanciful. Australia has one of the world’s highest obesity rates, and for every flaxen-haired surf dude are three or four sat on the couch, stuffing their faces with pies.
 
People say things like “rack off”
 
They don’t. They swear properly. “Get f***ed” being far more common that “F*** off”. And, frankly, some Australians use swear words like the rest of the world uses commas.

Everyone moves to Darwin eventually
 
By rights, Darwin should be a booming metropolis on a par with Tokyo or Mexico City, crammed to the gills with former Neighbours characters telling each other to rack off. In reality, very few people move to Darwin unless in a government job, the military or they’re working on a mining project. That’s not to say Darwin’s a dump, though – far from it. After Sydney and Melbourne, I’d say it’s the most engaging, interesting Australian city. There’s a mix of outback, Asia and alternative culture that gives it a distinct character. But most Australians haven’t been there, and would consider the idea of moving to the Northern Territory capital rather weird.
 
Everybody’s white
 
Erinsborough and Summer Bay appear to be ghettos for white Australians. And there are some places around the country where this is the case – but they’re usually deathly dull slices of suburbia inhabited by people whose ambitions to learn about the world don’t step beyond their own street. One of Australia’s strengths is that it has absorbed large numbers of immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and – especially – Asia.  It’s what has turned eating out in Australia from steak or schnitzel to a thoroughly internationalist experience. And that’s a huge positive.

Oh yes, and it’s a mistake to think that Aboriginal Australians all live in the desert. Far more live in urban areas – something curiously missing from the soaps.

  

Photo credit 1

by David Whitley

 

 

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Adelaide

 

 

David Whitley heads into the recording studio in a bid to make it as a rock god.

 

As locations go, it’s about as far from rock and roll as you can get. In deepest suburban Adelaide, there’s a grill in the back yard and a few plastic chairs out the front. I knock tentatively. “Er, is this the right place for the groupies and throwing TV sets out of the window?” Inside what looks like an average family home is a full-blown recording studio. 52 Nelson Street is the unlikely home of Beat Records. But more importantly, it’s home to Rock Star For A Day (Rockstarforaday.com).

 

The idea is staggeringly simple: wannabe megastar goes into studio, records a few songs with professional equipment and engineers, then goes home with their very own CD, complete with artwork. In the generation of X Factor and American Idol, it’s a wonder that no-one has thought of it before. Ben Pattison admits that he only started it up to fill up empty slots in the studio, but it has since taken on a life of its own and gone mobile in shopping centres, social clubs and corporate offices.

 

Unfortunately for Ben, and his cohort Robbie, they have something of a challenge today. My sole singing experience consists of bellowing Here I Go Again by Whitesnake into a karaoke microphone, making up for glaring lack of talent with sheer volume and overly-enthusiastic showmanship. That song isn’t even on the list. Their task is the ultimate in putting lipstick on a pig.

 

I’m ushered into the studio, which has guitars, headphones and drum kits strewn all over it. Pride of place is given to an ultra-sensitive microphone of the top professional standard. It’s a bit like throwing a prime Wagyu beef fillet to a stray dog. For my first single, I’ve opted for damage limitation; a slow Powderfinger ballad with no awkward lyrics, no high notes and most definitely no rapping. I stumble nervously through it, and then Robbie plays it back.

 

“Good work mate,” says Ben as we all listen through, faintly amazed that it’s not a complete shambles. “Shall we do another take?”

 

After a couple more goes, the whole thing starts to become rather enjoyable. I’m singing it like I mean it and jigging around on the spot like I’m in the Band Aid video. After take four, I head into the mixing booth to watch Ben in turd-polishing mode. The vocal track is all on the screen in the form of a wave. He starts inserting little markers where the duff notes, missed cues and flat bits are, then replacing them with better versions from the other takes. It’s like a multiple organ transplant, but the final version sounds really rather passable. I’m beaming from ear to ear – maybe I could be a rock star?

 

That illusion lasts right up until the next track; the Youth Group version of Forever Young. The first take is a horror story – wrong register, wrong lyrics, wrong notes... just plain wrong. We give it three more goes, but that second note in the chorus never amounts to any more than a strained squeak and there’s clearly not enough good material in the four takes to salvage the bad.

 

This leaves only one option for the last song. I need to go with where my musical talents lie, and that is relentless shouting. The timeless opening riff of You Really Got Me kicks in, and I launch into the Kinks classic like it’s never been done before. The microphone is probably wincing as I howl away with gusto, by now fully buying into the whole rock and roll dream. There’s applause from the other room as I finish off with a heavy metal snarl. “Woo!” whoop the boys. “Check out One Take Jake!”

 

I’m still buzzing as I model for the somewhat perfunctory photo shoot. My CD cover ends up being a somewhat shoddily Photoshopped affair, with my rock and roll poses superimposed onto a stage in front of adoring fans. But frankly, it doesn’t matter a jot – it’s the feelgood vibe of being let loose in the studio and putting your all into a ridiculous childhood fantasy that counts.

 

Simon Cowell is hardly going to come battering down my door and I won’t be getting a record contract any time soon, but for one day I got to be D-Whit: rock megastar. Take that, Jagger.

 

Wilpena

 

First-light is referred to in the picturesque Outback slang as ‘sparrow’s fart.’ It was not this, however, that greeted us as we stepped out of our cabin, but the cackling call of the kookaburra that is known as ‘the bushman’s clock.’ We’d cracked a few stubbies the night before and, as we started out towards a ridge that was just beginning to rear up against the paling sky, my usually tireless sidekick Crocodile Dougee was sporting eyes like the slits in Ned Kelly’s tin helmet.

 

 

A couple of emus watched us gawkily as we followed the trail into a dry gully where surprised kangaroos and the smaller euros bounded away ahead of us. We climbed quickly away from the few raggedy desert oaks and ghost gums that dotted the plains towards sparse forests of native pines and the sun was already burning fiercely by the time we reached the tree-line at Lone Pine lookout. From here we could see our cabin beyond the shearing sheds of Rawnsley Park Station and, farther off in the heat-haze, to where the burnt-yellow bush finally merged with the tricky mirages of the Outback horizon. We rested for a few minutes and then turned to walk up over the ridge to where a totally different view would greet us. An immense natural amphitheatre lay spread before us, with patches of eucalyptus shining silver in the clear morning light and sporadic water courses that were marked by marching lines of red river gums. It was easy to appreciate that this ‘lost world’ was part of one of the oldest landscapes on earth.

 

It is said that way back in the Dreamtime an Aboriginal hunting party was surrounded at a waterhole here by a pair of giant water-snakes, each twelve miles long and five hundred metres thick. After a long and desperate battle the hunters managed to kill the snakes and their bodies finally petrified to form the walls of one of the most spectacular and unspoilt jewels in Australia’s natural treasure trove. Geologists say that these twenty-five miles of abrupt walls are all that remains of an immense mountain that was worn down and hollowed out by the rainfall of countless millennia but, to the layman at least, the mind-boggling timescale needed for such an excavation serves to make this almost as unbelievable as the Aboriginal story.

 

Wilpena Pound, as this ‘lost world’ is now known, is the geological pride of South Australia. To the south it is a 280-miles drive to Adelaide, the state capital, and to the north there are 400 miles (as the wedge-tailed eagle flies - assuming even he could survive the journey) of lizard-baking ‘Red Centre’ before the Queensland border-town of Birdsville.

 

Because of this relative inaccessibility Wilpena Pound has managed to preserve a power and a beauty that frequently eludes visitors to that most famous of Outback icons in the Northern Territory, where thousands of tourists (known to the traditional owners as minga – ants) swarm over Uluru in defiance of polite requests by the Pitjanjatjara elders to refrain from climbing on their most sacred monument.

 

St Mary Peak, the highest point on the walls of Wilpena Pound, representing the head of the male water-snake, carries a similar power for the Adnyamathanha Aboriginals of the Flinders Range. Pauline Coulthard, an Adnyamathanha woman, explained the significance that the peak still holds for her people today: “As we were growing up we weren’t allowed to climb Ngarri Mudlanha (St Mary Peak). Ngarri Mudlanha means ‘the mind waits’ – the mind pauses and you can’t think straight. The Adnyamathanha people won’t climb the peak because of its religious power.”

 

Despite its incredible age the Flinders Range is still in the process of rearing higher above the sea and the area is prone to frequent earth tremors. As always the aboriginals have their own way to explain these vibrations; an Adnyamathanha legend tells of a monster called Kaddi-Kra who sought refuge in an underground cavern in Wilpena. The cavern caved in and the rumblings that can be felt today are attributed to the frantic attempts of Kaddi-Kra to claw his way out.

 

In 1851 a stockman called William Chace followed some Adnyamathanha hunters through Sliding Rock Gorge, the steep-sided gully that is still the only way into the crater, to become the first white man to enter the sacred world. The Aboriginals called it Wilpena, which means ‘Cupped Hands’ and possibly related to the way in which wildlife and nature seemed to have been scooped up and protected here. To Chace the high, regular walls resembled a gigantic cattle-pound and so the name developed.

 

It seems that Chace had arrived during a benevolent wet season and his report of the lushness and abundance of the area inspired many white settlers to move to the area. A decade later the unreliable rains dried up altogether and a third of the area’s sheep and half of the cattle died. Many of the Adnyamathanha population had starved by the times the heavens opened again three years later…with floods and bitterly cold winds that decimated the survivors still further.

 

The Adnyamathanha looked on these ‘heaven-sent’ calamities as punishment from the ancestor’s for allowing the invasion of sacred Wilpena by outsiders. From where Crocodile Dougee and I stood, on the back of the female snake, we could use St Mary Peak as a reference point to pick out the position of Hill’s Homestead where a pioneering family spent a futile twenty years trying to tame Wilpena. In 1904 The Hill brothers began work on the road through Sliding Rock Gorge that would finally allow them to get their wheat and wool to market. They were frequently endangered by the scrabbling of Kaddi-Kra and it took several years to complete, through a season of prolonged drought…but just a few short days for flash floods to demolish it. The Hills must at times have shared the opinion that their efforts were cursed by the spirits of Wilpena.

 

Today Wilpena Pound is one of Australia’s most pristine national parks and all that remain of those pioneering days is the old homestead and a few rusting iron tools that commemorate the tough pioneering spirit while simultaneously paying homage to the unconquerable toughness of the Australian Outback.

 

Coober Pedy

 



David Whitley meets the cave-dwelling opal miners in Hollywood’s favourite piece of post-apocalyptic Outback real estate

The walls of my hotel room look like they’ve been splattered in blood, and there are no windows to allow natural light in. It would appear as though I am the unsuspecting star of the latest film in the Saw series. In Coober Pedy, this is all perfectly normal. My hotel room is underground, having been dug out into the side of a hill, and the deep red streaks are part of the remarkable natural sandstone in the area.

But this stone harbours greater riches than just geological quirks that make an international quality hotel room look like a blood-splattered dungeon. 90% of the world’s opal comes from this part of the South Australian desert. And that’s what brings people to Coober Pedy. Since the first opal was found by a 14-year-old boy in 1915, miners have flocked from all over the world to dig out their fortune. This has led to a bizarrely cosmopolitan community in the heart of the Outback. Approximately 45 nationalities are represented in and around Coober Pedy, leading to unexpected sights such as Italian clubs, Chinese restaurants and Greek cafés.

Oh, and an underground Serbian orthodox church, which, as 80% of homes in the area are, is tunnelled out of the earth. To understand the Troglodyte mentality in Coober Pedy, you have to look at what’s above the ground. The landscape is unbelievably stark. Everything is coated in a salmon pink dust, and the only things to mark the landscape are the heaps of rubble spat out by the opal mines. It’s no surprise that when Hollywood wants to set a movie in a post-apocalyptic hellhole or inhospitable alien planet, they bring the cameras up to Coober Pedy. It may be a good ten hour’s drive north of Adelaide and in the middle of nowhere, but it has been perfect for the likes of Mad Max 3 and Pitch Black.

Signs dotted around the town warn against walking backwards, in case you fall down a deep mine shaft, and the drive-in cinema warns that patrons are not allowed to bring explosives inside. And then there’s the climate. Winter nights can be bitterly cold, while daytime temperatures in the high forties (or even early 50s) are the norm. It’s a brutal, dry, dust-blown place to live. Hence people prefer subterranean homes where temperatures are constantly between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius. It may be an unimaginably awful place to live – around 4,000 hardy souls call Coober Pedy home – but it’s a fascinating place to visit. You can go down into the mines, browse around Aboriginal art galleries that double as kangaroo orphanages and flounce about in giant rubble heaps trying to find your own specks of opal.

Or, alternatively, you can see how the other half lives. Colin Maclean lives in Faye’s Underground Display Home. It was excavated by hand, firstly as a garage for the postman in Coober Pedy’s early years, and then as a home for redoubtable café owner Faye Nayler. Faye has now moved on to Queenlsand, but Colin has kept the three bedroom home open to visitors for $5 a pop. It’s a remarkable place to live – and unexpectedly lavish. The upstairs section has an indoor swimming pool, while a chain of bedrooms slinks further underground and a (never-used) fireplace is fashioned out of semi-precious jasper stone.

If it wasn’t at the end of a dodgy dirt road and surrounded by mines, it’d actually be a quite appealing home. Unbelievably, though, Colin didn’t come here for the opal. He lived in the Barossa Valley wine region until he retired, then decided he “would try something different”.He’s now been in Coober Pedy for around seven years, and has become part of the community, just like the other oddballs that have been lured in by the Outback’s weirdest settlementt. He’s on the roster at his underground church, and is a member of the local golf club. For the latter, you can forget about greens and fairways – it’s all dirt and players carry around a small piece of false turf to tee off from. But they do have one unexpected benefit – the Coober Pedy Golf Club is the only one in the world with reciprocal playing rights at the legendary St Andrews in Scotland.

  

Woomera


Eager to get his hands on a few deadly missiles, David Whitley pays a visit to a secretive military town in the South Australian desert

I thought my primary school had a pretty cool setting – the playground was surrounded by corn fields, and we often got to see a tractor. But the primary school in Woomera wins hands down – it has a park full of intercontinental ballistic missiles outside. There are a fair few bizarre places in the Australian Outback, but Woomera takes some beating on this front. Approximately 300 miles north-east of Adelaide, Woomera has an eerie Truman Show-like feel about it as you drive through. The houses are prim and neat and the streets are kept spotless, but there seems to be no-one there.

Then you see the rockets, missile launchers and anti-aircraft guns, and it starts getting rather sinister.This open air display of military hardware is all about showcasing Woomera’s somewhat shady heritage. The town (read: military base) was set up in 1947, when the British and Australian governments decided they needed somewhere to blow things up. The British government was deeply concerned when Nazi Germany began the era of missile warfare in 1944, launching unpiloted bombs on British cities from sites in the Netherlands. The UK needed such rocket technology, and the Aussies were only too happy to hand over a vast swathe of land in the South Australian outback. Never mind the sheep farmers and Aboriginal communities out there – the allies needed somewhere to test out weapons of mass destruction.

And so Woomera became the service town that no-one was supposed to know about – its existence was only officially confirmed in the 1980s. Nowadays, the Visitor Centre at Woomera also doubles as a local history museum. The displays take you through the thousands of huge explosions that have taken place in the Woomera Prohibited Area over the decades, and touch on the more acceptable history as a space monitoring centre and launch site. Some parts of the story are beautifully absurd. Special planes were designed and constructed at huge cost just so the researchers had something realistic to blow up with their rockets. Oh yes, and there is also a fully functional bowling alley in the middle of the Visitor Centre – almost certainly the most isolated of its kind in the world.

What is perhaps more interesting is what the museum doesn’t tell you. The word ‘nuclear’, for example, is conspicuous by its absence. It’s almost as if they’d prefer you to believe that the rockets they were firing into the desert landscape were full of chrysanthemums and cute pictures of puppies. Also glossed over are the current goings-on in the Woomera Prohibited Area. Joint space research projects with Japan are gleefully trumpeted, private research is alluded to and the status as an active Defence Department playground is quietly brushed under the carpet.

Tell-tale signs are there for the eagle-eyed, however. Staff at the Visitor Centre wear shirts adorned with the logo of BAE Systems, an arms manufacturer with a – cough – controversial track record. And then there are the signs around the Stuart Highway, which firmly remind you that you are travelling through the Restricted Area. The road itself is a public free for all, but you can’t wander more than a few metres off it without laying yourself open to some serious trouble. And that’s both in terms of friendly interrogation from military types and the distinct possibility of walking over something that can make your legs look like the remnants of a kebab thrown on the floor after a Saturday night drinking binge.

 

 

 

By David Whitley