Australia's Clubs

 

 

If you want a beer in regional Australia, you may have no choice but to (temporarily) join our club writes David Whitley

Once you step out of the centre of Australia’s big cities, with their cosmopolitan elites and food that’s occasionally not fried, you enter the dark, often bleak world of the club. It may be a Leagues Club. It may be an RSL Club. It may be a Bowls Club. It may be a Greek or Serbian Club. But it really doesn’t matter – they’re all pretty much the same. 

These clubs theoretically exist for the benefit of their members – although in reality they are often self-sustaining juggernauts. Those linked to sports teams, in particular, can be utterly gargantuan. Yet, irrespective of size, they all have a remarkably similar feel. They’ll have a number of different bars, yet all will be open plan and depressingly utilitarian. There will be a food outlet that serves burgers, pizzas and chicken schnitzels – they’ll give you a buzzer and you go and collect it when it’s ready. In some instances there will be a secondary, marginally more upmarket food outlet upstairs, where bangers and mash or half-hearted lamb shanks are brought to your table. The room for this restaurant will look pretty much the same as the one for the bar, albeit with someone having gone round with the Mr Sheen.

The real driving force behind these clubs, however, is the partially sealed off room with neverending banks of pokie machines. For those who’ve not come across the pokies, they’re skill-free slot machines that involve  the old, the lonely, the desperate, the poor and the downright stupid just sitting there, feeding them with money. Imagine the atmosphere of a bookie’s shop, combined with the moral fibre of someone who stands in car parks offering to ‘protect’ your car for a fee. Forget the food or the drink, it’s these pokies that – more often than not – fund the club. People just joylessly pour all they’ve got into them. 

In suburbia and regional Australia, these clubs dominate the drinking landscape. This is partly due to stinginess in handing out liquor licences – small operations don’t stand a chance when the big boys can essentially block them out. It’s also partially down to tax. The clubs are theoretically for members only (although anyone can sign in as a temporary member and drink there), and they get a whole raft of tax exemptions as a result of it.

Thus, they’re almost always the cheapest place to drink in town – although don’t expect any craft beers, cocktails or interesting wines. Size and economies of scale mean they only buy in from the big producers. 

There’s nothing wrong with this per se. The clubs serve a purpose for those who want cheap drink in zero atmosphere. The problem comes when their presence is so overwhelming that there’s nowhere else to have a drink for miles around. Any small bar that wants to try something different simply isn’t going to be able to compete – even if it gets a licence in the first place.

Thus, across Australia, there’s a dominance of these cheerless barns. There are over 6,500 of them in the country, and you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference between them. They act as a surprisingly major political lobby group too, and hype up their community/ charity status as a way of any action being taken against them. Any sane Australian would love to see the pokies ripped out. But it’ll not happen as the clubs need them to survive. 

Yet, surely, if the drinking scene is dominated by places that make their money from gambling rather than drinking, something is wrong?

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

by David Whitley

 

Coathanger

 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge climb must be the most successful tour operation of its kind anywhere in the world. It is a complete human conveyor belt – an entire factory dedicated to elevating whole groups of people spiritually and physically skyward. The Bridgeclimb complex is erected in a series of tunnels where, until a few years ago, they did nothing more adventurous than sell Porsches. At the height of the season Bridgeclimb is now processing groups of up to 10 tourists, 24 hours a day.

 

You are prepared, kitted out and trained in a super-efficient environment. You are shown how to attach your harnesses and are fitted with earphones that instead of going in your ear rest on your cheekbones and send vibrations that your brain deciphers as your guide’s voice. This way your ears are also open to eternal sound. The whole atmosphere feels strangely like it will on the fateful future day when some of us (or some of you) will be selected for transfer to a less exhausted planet. 

 

And as you walk out beyond the giant support pylons you battle with what will presumably be the same feeling that there is a better than average chance that you might not return to earth in one piece. There is something bizarre in the human psyche that makes people pay a hefty fee for the privilege to climb to potentially fatal heights…the same heights that, on another day, they would demand a considerable premium to work at. 

 

In the end the trek to the 134-metre summit is much easier than most people imagine and, because of the sheer dimensions of what Sydney-siders call ‘the Big Coathanger,’ you never really feel like you are living on the edge at all. Even without the safety harnesses and the training you realise that it would be almost impossible to fall without putting some serious determination into it.


But the Bridgeclimb affords combines a feeling of adventure with the most spectacular views on the planet. You are standing on top of a 53,1440 tonne steel arch (pinned together with 6 million rivets – some of them up to 40cm long for any budding riveters out their) and you can take in a 360° view of what is very likely the most iconographic cityscapes in the world. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it is easy to see why so many people line up everyday to be ‘elevated.’ But the following day I was once again back at sea level. My week in Fiji had passed in a blur of ‘office work’ – battling with an overflowing inbox and magazine deadlines – but Hawaii had seriously boosted my appetite for waves. So I abandoned downtown Sydney and headed for Bondi Beach.

 

I paddled out into the line-up at Bondi and dropped into a couple of sweetly peeling left-handers. I had already been in the water almost two hours when I noticed what could only be described as a blur of activity on the horizon. It came closer until eventually it was only about 200 metres away and I could clearly see a huge flock of gulls and frigate birds diving on an immense school of fish. There were easily a thousand birds and they were churning the water up in a frenzy. It was impossible to imagine that all that thrashing and blood was not going to be enough to attract at least a few submarine predators.


“Never seen a feeding-frenzy like that in twenty years,” marvelled one grizzled old surf dude. Aussies are notoriously proud of their man-eating wildlife. I caught a few more waves and then paddled back in. After all tomorrow morning I had an early flight to Perth and then I would be heading into the great ‘Red Centre.’ It seemed right that after all this I ought to save my sorry carcase for the creatures of the world’s most fatal desert.

Scrub Hill

 

One person who knows the forests and swamps of Fraser Island intimately is Uncle Joe. Better known as Jo-Jo – or simply ‘Cuz’ – to his boss Norman at Scrub Hill Tours, Uncle Joe is certainly one of the best Aboriginal guides in Australia. He’s toured much of the country already Norman claims that he has been ‘head-hunted’ as a guide in the Top End where another mob was so impressed with his knowledge that they virtually tried to kidnap him. With his toothless grin and gnarled, oakwood features Uncle Joe’s infectious laughter also makes him a perfect guide.

Countries as far removed as Botswana, Guatemala, Algeria and Peru have trained many of their indigenous people to be spectacularly good guides but the Australian tourism industry in general seems to be overlooking one of its truly unique treasures: an immeasurably rich and mind-bogglingly ancient traditional culture. You can travel a long way across this great island continent without meeting an Aboriginal guide. Yet these are people whose ancestors managed the land so effectively for 50,000 years before the first white settlers arrived. Most tourists would be more impressed to hear the history of Uluru (once Ayer’s Rock) straight from an Aboriginal mouth. Recent Aboriginal history is perhaps even more astounding than tales of the dreamtime.

Uncle Joe has the rough, gnarled features that betray a hard life. Like his boss – and every other man on the community-run project – Joe has served time behind bars. “When we were kids there were very few corridors of life open to us,” says Norman. “Teachers ignored us and just naturally assumed that we would never amount to anything. So, of course, labelled like that it was very rare if any of us did. When Jo-Jo and I were teenagers we were automatically stamped as outlaws: every Friday we would head for remote beaches where we could hang out because if the police caught us around town on Friday they would just push us all into jail and keep us there until Sunday night. This was so the white people could enjoy their weekend without having to see black fellas around town. We were outlaws anyway so we began to look on jail as a trial we had to pass to be accepted.”

In effect jail-time became a sort of surrogate initiation to manhood. “Even today in this town it’s unusual to come across an Aboriginal lad who makes it to twenty without spending time behind bars. It’s a sad fact and something that we are still struggling to change. This was perhaps the most racist town in the country.” Norman tells a story of how he and some friends managed to catch three Klu Klux Klan members who were burning a cross in front of his Aunt’s house. Norman too was a boxer in his youth and the KKK men clearly had a bad night.

“Tensions run high at times. Our ancestors on Fraser Island were at the front line of the European invasion. It was our people who were among the first to die. Later we were sent away to missions. Few of us can be sure even of what our roots are. There were about five thousand Butchulla people when the Europeans came here. But after the stolen generation there were just two families here. My grandmother was the last of our people to be born in the old way, on the ground under one of the sacred trees.

Norman’s mother was one who, apparently, never doubted even after all this that her people still had a real future. A woman as tough as the harsh land that she comes from Auntie Francis, as everyone called her, seems to be the arch-typical Aussie battler. Among other things Auntie Francis was a prize-winning boxer in her youth who gave more than a few professional male boxers a thumping they didn’t fast forget.

Hearing from her son that teachers deliberately ignored Aboriginal kids she obtained permission to visit schools and sit in on classes to make sure her people were getting the education due to them. Scrub Hill Farm at the edge of the town of Hervey was her initiative too. She lobbied for a permit to buy the hilltop site which was then a poisonous aluminium mine and, with her sons, she worked to establish a bush-tucker farm that could not only offer tours and accommodation but also, eventually, supply home-grown Australian salads that could compete with introduced crops.

Walking around the project Norman shows me the sacred trees, the astounding variety of fruits and edible shrubs, the tree whose root is used to make boomerangs...His enthusiasm is infectious and I begin to wonder if I can change my itinerary entirely and learn more from Scrub Hill and some of the most interesting guides I had yet found in Australia.

But it was not to be. Norman had a community committee meeting to sit in on. More importantly, he reckoned that his mum was already there.

“...and she’ll probably thump me if I’m late!”

 

Horse Riding

 

There are moments in life when you feel free. Often they happen when you travel, which might explain why so many of us keep pouring all our hard earned cash into the next trip, thirsty for the next mind-blowing epiphany or adrenaline filled rush. For me, one of those moments happened when I was riding along the beach on the North-Eastern Coast of Australia.

 

I’d arranged to go horse riding on Seven Mile beach, a long stretch of sand 25 minutes drive south of Byron Bay. Here, the much more relaxed Ballina Council allows a range of four-legged and four-wheeled beach activities during the less crowded weekdays. My beach ride with Seahorses riding school includes pick up and drop off from Byron Bay, lunch with tropical fruit, and perhaps the biggest draw card of all- the chance to swim in the surf with the horses. Riders have the opportunity to take the ride at their own rate. Novices and those a bit unsure of themselves in the saddle can happily walk the horses along the beach; whilst more experienced riders have the opportunity to set their own pace.

I've been assigned a black mare called Jade, and as Jo, the owner, had gives me a leg up into the saddle, she mentions that my stead has a bit of spark. Once we reach the beach, I set off with another rider ahead of the pack at a brisk trot. After we're a safe distance from the others, I give Jade all the rein I can, entwine my fingers in her glossy mane and lean forward. I don't even need to touch her with my heels to get her going. Jade's not a spark but a whole box of fireworks. She's off and running. And I'm loving it.

At a gallop we hug the shoreline, eroded bone-coloured sand dunes frosted with green straw grass to our left and turbulent metallic blue surf to our right. Despite our fast pace, my mare doesn't like getting her hooves wet and sashays sideways each time the tide laps in, leaving a snake trail of hoof prints in the sand behind us. It seems as if there's not a soul in sight. No parents running after little kids with tubes of fluorescent zinc, no backpackers taking surf lessons, and no rainbow beach umbrellas cart wheeling towards us. At best, I think I can see ant-sized people scattered a few kilometres down the beach.


It's pure exhilaration and only the thought of my head hitting hard wet sand at top speed convinces me to check our pace. After a long run, I slowly rein my mount in. The rest of the riders are a spec in the distance, so I turn and walk slowly to meet them. A jellyfish the size of a car tyre lies washed up on the sand, an iridescent pancake thrown out by the ocean. As the sun warms my back I notice that smooth volcanic pebbles dot the shore like black stars. The only sound is a fusion of wind and surf. That moment as we walk together, the world makes sense.


But the best is yet to come. With horses stripped of saddles and riders sans clothes, we lead the horses barefoot across the burning sand to the water. Just like your average punter, the horses have their own quirks. Some happily make a beeline for the water like a kid on the last day of summer holidays, whilst others flatly refuse to put a hoof in. Given Jade's water phobia, I ride Jo's palomino pony, who is more partial to taking a dip.

After hoisting myself onto the horse with all the dignity one can muster in a low cut bikini, I spend the next minute shifting from side to side on the skeletal back of the pony. I'm secretly glad my posterior has a lot of padding to help me perch on top.

The horses wade into their chests, the breakers slapping their bellies. They jump, frolic, and shake, neighing loudly to each other. Even though the water only comes up to my calves, I'm drenched as my stead paws the surf the way a bull would before a charge. My Palomino dips her muzzle and throws her head from side to side. She couldn't be more at home if she was a duckling.

After a few minutes, though my horse decides she's had enough. She heads to shore for that favourite horsey pastime, a roll in the sand.  I'm unceremoniously left behind, sprawled in the water at the hooves of my fellow riders. I'm soaked, I'm laughing, and it’s one of the best days of my life.

 

Meat pies

 

 

Driving up the Pacific Highway from Sydney to Byron Bay is like taking a snapshot of a country in transition. Back in the day, small towns and businesses were built to cater for the heavy traffic heading up and down the coast. Kilometre by kilometre these towns have dried up, now just little off-road ramps as the government has put in safer roads and built bypasses along he highway.

There are, however still some towns left standing along the highway that will give you a window into regional Australian life. In Frederickson, you'll pass single storey weatherboard homes with wrap around verandas that are raised off the ground to combat the flooding that creeps through the town every few years. Jacaranda trees will bloom in the front yard, carpeting the ground in purple flowers, and dairy fields will roll around the valley and hills, dotted with black and white coloured cattle. There's an old dairy next to the highway, an old cheese factory attached to the dairy.

Frederickson is six hours from wither Sydney or Brisbane, making it the perfect rest break if you’re driving up the highway. But the one thing that has cars pulling up on either side of the highway and people running across the road dodging traffic is a humble little pie shop called Fredo's.  There are some things that define Australia, and the humble meat pie is one of them. The meat pie has always been the classic working mans meal, the gourmet highlight of trips to the football and the ultimate on the go Australian snack. Traditionally the Australian meat pie has consisted of beef mince in thick tasty gravy encased in a thin golden pastry with a crunchy, flaked pastry top.

In the early 1990s, a small general store along the highway in Frederickson started selling a dozen or so homemade meat pies during the winter to travellers that were sick of the usual soulless hamburger and hot chips style fast food on offer at most petrol stations. Today, Fredo’s is a Pacific highway icon, offering over 50 different types of savoury pie per day from a rotating menu of 160 different pies. Walk into the tiny shopfront and you’ll glimpse beef & burgundy, steak &onion, apricot chicken, lamb & mint, curry, steak & kidney pies, as well as fresh sausage rolls pulled straight from the oven.

Some of the pies on offer are a little left of the centre.  Along with your usual suspects, there’s a kangaroo pie, one made of emu, and their most famous creation: the croc pie, made out of crocodile meat. While I’ve never been game enough to give these pies a go, it’s partly because my favourite pie- the steak & onion is simply so good, with it’s thick tender chunks of beef in a thick onion gravy. The hardest part once you’ve picked your pie is working your way through the three deep queue to the front counter to pay.

The pies have been named some of the best in Australia and while it’s a fairly contentious title, Fredo’s has to over 70 regional and national awards to back up its claim to the throne. The pies are a local operation, and where possible, ingredients are sourced from the local area, generating income for what is a tiny community. Even the beef in the pies comes from cattle grazed on the fields around Frederickson.

Most people eat their pie standing up outside, and there’s always a bit of traffic chaos around Frederickson for your dining entertainment as the truckies pull up and run in to stock up on pies for their long haul run. But the best entertainment is the pie shop’s next door neighbour. Living next door to the pie shop is a giant overweight Rottweiler. The dog is a real ham, using his powerful puppy dog eyes to beg for a bit of your pie just as you’re down to the last, satisfying bite.

Judging by the size of his belly, a sucker is born every day. In my experience though, he’s had to suffer through with just a pat. These pies are just too good to share.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson