Annoying Oz

 




If you’re going to Australia, it pays to be pre-warned about the country’s idiosyncrasies – so here’s what to brace yourself for.Australia is a great country, but that doesn’t mean to say everything about it is perfect. Though Australian culture may be similar to British or Irish culture in many ways, there are still a few differences that you only really start noticing once you’re over there. Some will charm – such as the willingness of people to give directions or the wonders of drive-through booze shops – but others will irritate. And, in no particular order, here are ten of the things that are almost certain to get on your wick.
 
A constant diet of rugby league/ AFL
Australia is a nation split by sporting codes. To a certain extent, cricket and rugby union cross the divide, but most states will identify themselves as either AFL or rugby league territory. Of the two, AFL (Australian Rules Football) is the most fascinating. It bears some resemblance to Gaelic football, and attracts gigantic crowds – sometimes up to 80 or 90,000 – yet the rest of the world couldn’t care less about it. It’s a fast moving game, worth at least one visit to see. Victoria is the game’s unquestioned hub.

Queensland and – in particular – New South Wales, are rugby league territory. For the uninitiated, imagine a load of Neanderthals constantly running into each other while the fans pretend they’re watching a sport of genuine international significance. You’re about there.What will get you riled up is that Australia’s newspapers can often feature little else but stories about AFL (in Melbourne) and rugby league (in Sydney).

Parochialism
If you want a pathetically one-eyed, regional focus on the world’s events, watch the Australian news. Coverage always tends towards the “One Australian and 473 other people have been killed in a bomb attack” approach. The country also shows itself up by fawning in the most feeble way imaginable every time someone relatively famous from overseas is kind enough to set foot in the country. Paris Hilton can drop by to plug something or other and it’ll be treated as if it was a Papal visit.
 
Television
Combining the American approach to having five minute long ad breaks every ten minutes with the programming budget of a small, relatively unpopulated nation, Australian TV is almost unremittingly awful. At best, you’ll constantly cringe, at worst you’ll want to throw bricks at it. There are a few decent homegrown programmes, but they’re very rare. Otherwise it’s a diet of painfully unfunny talk show hosts, ads and every derivation of CSI you can possibly dream up.

Overattentive shop assistants
If you’re the sort of person that likes to browse without being disturbed, the Australian shopping experience is not for you. You’ll be leapt on with a “how can I help you today?” as soon as you walk through the door. Of course, the person doing this is unlikely to know anything useful about the stock – they’ve just been told to be attentive.

Obsession with house prices
Auction (incorrectly pronounced as ‘ock-tion’) prices are what passes for news in these parts. A house in a relatively uninteresting suburb sold for 5% more than a similar house did two months ago – hold the front page. Alas, this attitude leads estate agents to think they’re genuine celebrities, and doing you a favour by behaving like egregious arseholes on a constant basis.

Bacon, sausages and chocolate
On the whole, most Australian produce is of a higher standard than its British counterpart. But there are some notable exceptions. Those who like a meaty breakfast will probably be facing disappointment – Australian bacon and sausages tend to lack any taste whatsoever, as any expat living over there will tell you between the tears. Chocolate is another bugbear – it just doesn’t taste right. The usual argument for this is that they have to put special preservatives in to stop it melting in the shops, but nobody’s quite sure whether this is an urban myth or not.

Beetroot with everything
A far greater culinary crime is Australia’s obsession with ruining perfectly good food by putting a slice of beetroot on it. This is particularly the case for burgers, for which beetroot is no more suited to than custard or iron spikes. You’ll get your burger, sink your teeth in, recoil in revulsion and then realise that a beetroot slice has infected it. Remove said beetroot, and everything else will have been stained by it. It’s best to loudly bellow “NO BEETROOT ON MINE PLEASE” as soon as you enter the shop/ restaurant.

Pokies
There are plenty of great pubs in Australia, but too many fall into a sadly identikit mould. You’ll find a basic range of fairly nasty beers, a food menu that’s chicken parmagiana or steak and little attempt to disguise that the real money is made from gambling rather than drinks. A large section will be devoted to the TAB (sports betting and horse racing on multiple screens) whilst the real goldmine is the poker machines. The area with the pokies (as they’re universally known) is invariably a tragic scene, with people thoughtlessly pouring their money into a game without skill, hoping against odds and logic for a payout.

Flies
Forget the sharks, crocs and snakes – it’s the flies that will drive you to the brink of insanity.

Casual racism
Australia has a perhaps unfair reputation for being a massively racist place. Like everywhere, racism certainly exists, but it is arguably overplayed. What you will probably discover, however, is a higher degree of casual racism. It’ll not be naked aggression, just a series of ignorant throwaway comments about all Asians being bad drivers or Aboriginal people being workshy. In many ways, Australia is like your slightly embarrassing granddad; it hasn’t learned that some lazy opinions are best not voiced and it would sooner stick to them than assess the evidence. It by no means affects the whole population; it’s just slightly more prevalent.

 

 

Stuart


David Whitley hits the Stuart Highway, and feels humbled by Australia’s vast, dry interior.

 

You can quickly go off kangaroos. Don’t get me wrong, under normal circumstances I can happily watch them all day. But at 6.30am, when I’m bleary eyed, behind the wheel of a strange car and tentatively inching my way through the minimal dawn light, they are less welcome. At this time of the morning, kangaroos are a ruddy nuisance. They come out in force, leaping nonchalantly across the road from all angles and making driving a test akin to The Gauntlet on Gladiators.

 

Emergency stops are as regular as gear changes at this time of the morning around Wilpena Pound, but it’s worth the test of nerves. Wilpena Pound is a huge natural amphitheatre in the Flinders Ranges, and all around are fabulous walking trails, scenic drives and 360 degree lookouts. But the landscape is far too varied and jagged to be proper Outback. And today’s drive was our first foray into Australia’s vast, inhospitable interior. The cross-continental adventure really starts at Port Augusta, a deeply unattractive town that is billed as the Crossroads of Australia. From here, the major highways head east, west, south and – more pertinently for us – north.


Port Augusta lies at the head of the Spencer Gulf. From here, the Stuart Highway ploughs its way up to Darwin and doesn’t cross a permanent source of flowing water until Katherine – 1,500 miles away. To get an idea of how remote the territory the Stuart Highway crosses, bear in mind that the road has only been properly sealed for 23 years, and the train line from Adelaide to Darwin was only completed in 2004. Interruptions include four settlements that would be regarded as villages or small towns at the most in the UK, with a roadhouse every hundred to two hundred miles dispensing fuel and awful food.

 

And if it sounds a tough drive, then think what it must have been like for the man the highway is named after. John McDouall Stuart* led six expeditions into Central Australia, eventually becoming the first person to successfully cross the country from South to North and back again in 1862. Each time he was walking over brutal country into the complete unknown, tortured by searing heat and often going days without water. His story is well worth reading – and some of the rest stops along the way cover the basics of Stuart’s incredible achievements. But the surprising thing for us on our first foray along the Stuart Highway was how fascinating the landscape was. We had been prepared for long, tedious slogs up a gunbarrel-straight road, but our first eight hour stretch of driving had us gripped.

 

This is partly due to the occasional stop-off along the way. At one point, we pulled over by Lake Hart. The railway line separates the road from what is usually a dazzling white basin. Hart is one of the ring of vast salt lakes that dot the interior of Australia. It’s a mere baby compared to the giants such as Lake Eyre and Lake Torrens, but it still gives a glimpse into what makes Australia’s outback so unique. The salt lakes are usually dry, as are the creeks that run into them. But a few times every century, it rains spectacularly in the north of the country and the creeks brim with water. They flow into the salt lakes, which fill and suddenly turn from barren landscapes into amazing scenes of life. Millions of birds flock from miles around to feast.

 

This year has seen one of those heavy rains. Lake Hart looks relatively full of water, while charter flights have been running to let tourists see the incredible scenes at Lake Eyre. What has taken white Australians decades to understand, however, is the complete unreliability. The central Australian landscape is best thought of as being like a dormant volcano – it can appear dead for years, and then will suddenly explode into life for brief, irregular periods. But what really grips is the vastness of the stark landscape as you drive through it. Despite the abnormal level of rain, the horizon looks unbelievably dry. And, importantly, it also looks so big. There’s little option but to feel very, very small indeed and just submit to something more powerful than you could dream of being. 

 

 

*Stuart was a Scotsman, and unquestionably the least incompetent member of the famous Stuart dynasty – which ruled Britain for many years with varying levels of bunging inadequacy.

 

Disclosure: In the Flinders Ranges, David Whitley was a guest of the Wilpena Pound Resort (Wilpenapound.com.au) and the South Australian Tourism Commission (Southaustralia.com).

 

More photos here

 

 

Nimbin

 

 

David Whitley heads out to the alternative lifestyle hotspots in northern New South Wales in search of the elusive hippy.

“I-I like to call it Amazonian Fizz Guava,” comes the toned-down New York accent from behind. It looks so placid and juicy, but as soon as it hits the tongue, its sourness makes you recoil. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but it attacks with surprising bitterness. “I-I told you, didn’t I!” says Paul, with almost childlike glee, as he turns around and meanders back through his threadbare wooden shack.

Paul Recher is a hippy. In fact, he’s almost a dictionary definition of the word. He initially came out to the forested Northern Rivers region of New South Wales to dodge the draft for the Vietnam war, and ended up staying to grow his own jungle. Whilst he does make the occasional valid, lucid point – why should the Government protect us from our own bad eating and drinking habits by putting a poison (fluoride) in the water? – he is quite clearly out of his mind.

Carefully constructed arguments are interjected with rambles about Communists and terrorists, and it’s almost unequivocally a result of taking far, far too many drugs. It’s difficult to know what to call the place he lives in, a short drive from Lismore in the far north of the state. It’s most certainly not a farm, nor is it a ranch, a station or a plantation. We may have to settle on ‘patch of land’.

Pulling up along the dirt driveway, the entrance is marked by what can loosely be described as an artwork. It’s a hotch-potch collection of rusting road signs, bathtubs, gas canisters and household implements, and it illustrates Paul’s mindset quite nicely. On a guided tour of his luxury resort, he explains that he has three residences “so they can’t find me.” They all have different purposes, apparently, although the only discernable difference is that one is by a big pond which he can jump into every morning in lieu of a shower.

Around the palace grounds are all manner of leech-infested trees. They’re tangled up in each other and interspersed with random little plastic toys – the sort you’d get in a McDonalds Happy Meal. It’s decided that it’s best not to ask. “Wow!” he exclaims as he turns round, bringing everyone to a crashing halt. “My own jungle. Incredible, huh?” The reason we’re here is because Jim wanted us to see a real hippy. Jim has run tours from Byron Bay to Nimbin for the last twelve years, and finds that most people just don’t get it.

“People go to Nimbin, thinking they’re going to find hippies,” he says in relaxed-yet-measured tones. “But the hippies aren’t there – they’re all up in the hills. It’s like trying to find a town full of lighthouse keepers.” They may not be genuine hippies, but the townsfolk of Nimbin are undoubtedly different. The town itself is a byword for counterculture in Australia, although that comes more from the reputation as being the easiest place in the country to buy marijuana, rather than any particular achievements. Still, it is surrounded by both luscious countryside and the wannabe writers, artists, environmentalists and organic farmers who choose to live there.

Nimbin itself cannot be described as beautiful, though. It’s somewhere between quaintly ramshackle and pure and simple run down. The inhabitants seem on another planet, shambling down the street like extras in a zombie movie. Fashion sense is clearly not a priority here, with terry-towelling tracksuits appearing to be all the rage, whilst you’d be hard-pressed to find this much facial hair anywhere outside of a ZZ Top concert.

As you’d expect in a place notorious for it, more than a few people are trying to sell special tobacco to the tourists, but a few are a little more enterprising. Take the little old woman who has clearly learned how to fleece the visitors for every penny they can get. She’s selling small cookies out of a bag for $10 a pop, marketing them as genuine souvenirs of the whole Nimbin experience. Now call me frugal, call me tight, but that borders on extortion – you could get a cookie that size in Coles for less than two dollars. Still, it seems as though my fellow travellers aren’t quite so savvy, and snap them up, picking away at their meagre feed all day long. Each to their own, but I shall be spending my $10 more wisely on a big schnitzel in the local pub. Unsurprisingly, they all have to stop off at a service station later on to buy huge bags of crisps, and oversized chocolate bars, the fools.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what the actual tourist attractions are in Nimbin. It’s more a place you go to for the experience rather than for any particular activity, but if there is one, it’s probably the museum. It is a triumph of half-hearted curation, with the old VW Kombi out the front being possibly the most structured thing about the whole place. Inside is like a teenage boy’s bedroom; an unmitigated mess, with what can only be identified as ‘stuff’, thrown everywhere and the floor used as storage space. The walls are splashed with old newspaper articles and rampant sloganeering. Peace symbols, cannabis leaf ensigns and rainbows are emblazoned everywhere, and you fear entering the next room just in case you trip on a corpse that someone’s forgotten to clear up.

The rest of the street is similar. Rainbows adorn every shack-like building, and all sell everyday necessities such as aromatherapy oils, plant seeds and, er, nice things made out of wood. But the tour isn’t really about Nimbin itself, it’s about the whole vibe. Jim himself is all part of the fun. He’s possibly the most laid back person on earth, and throughout the trip, winding through the Nightcap National Park, he’s telling stories. We hear of one paranoid type on his bus who became convinced that his cake was evil. So evil in fact, that he couldn’t give it away or put it in the bin – the tour had to stop until he’d buried it in the woods.

He’s also big on his music, and it seems as though the whole journey is carefully choreographed. As soon as one Creedence Clearwater Revival tune finishes, it’s straight on with something off the Easy Rider or Big Lebowski soundtrack. Over the top, we get more stories, each interlinked whatever music playing as the bus heads up and down the slopes.

And you can begin to see why this area does attract those who aren’t after the suburban rat race. It’s incredibly green, and the tree-covered hills seem remarkably unAustralian. That everyone round here seems to speak like Jim is an indication that many have found their place to be, to relax, create and grow Amazonian Fizz Guavas if they so wish. It may not be the life for all of us, but you can at least get an inkling of why it works for some.

  

Queensland

A kangaroo on the beach: The Australian cliché jackpot

 

David Whitley stumbles upon a magical wildlife encounter at Cape Hillsborough in Queensland

It’s that magical period of dusk where the moon is forming a perfect white circle in the sky, and the range of orangey pinks are layering stripes over the top of the water on the horizon. This would be pretty marvellous any evening; the massive 6.5 metre tide at Cape Hillsborough is on its way in, covering the bobbles made in the sand made by burrowing soldier crabs earlier in the day. Wedge Island provides a perfect backdrop, and the arm of the cape itself protects the almost unnatural glimmer of the beach. 

But it’s not just any evening. I’ve got company. There are a few children still on the beach, plugging away with their buckets and spades, but it requires a double-take to realise that one of the outlines isn’t child-shaped. 

We have been joined on the beach by a very special lady. 

One with a pouch and a very long tail. An eastern grey kangaroo has come to enjoy the sunset as well. I start off observing from a distance. She sits still for a bit, then hops over to what she must regard as a much more exciting spot on the beach. I don’t want to scare her off, so I approach gradually. She seems remarkably unthreatened – I guess that comes from growing up near a holiday park full of families with young kids – and I find myself getting almost within touching distance. 

She fidgets, trying to get a sandfly off her leg, but unperturbed by me. I move around to the side so that I’ve got the coloured sky and Wedge Island behind her. And then I just sit there on the sand, watching night come in. She’s not exactly the ideal model – she has an uncanny habit of moving her head just as I think I’ve lined up the perfect photograph. But after a while, I put the camera away and just lie there entranced. To get so close to such a magnificent wild creature, one-on-one, for so long and in such an incredible setting is one of those memory of a lifetime moments. And then she moves – not to hop away, not to go and investigate something more interesting, but to lie down on the sand less than a metre away from me. It’s around 45 minutes before I can bring myself to leave. It’s almost totally dark. 

I turn round to see the children still absolutely focused on building their giant network of sand canals. Philistines.

 

Gold Coast Zorbing

 

 

David Whitley goes rolling downhill in a giant plastic ball in southern Queensland

Welcome, my friends, to Teletubbyland. On top of the lush green, perfectly-sculpted hill, closely cut and rolling like a particularly vicious golf green, is a giant ball. About four metres high, made entirely of see-through, bubble wrap-style plastic, it bobbles around, reflecting the sun and looking quite, quite surreal. Suddenly it starts rolling towards us, almost squelching down the hill. It slowly gathers pace, but gives the impression of an old, fat Labrador gambolling along with its tongue out, ready to greet his master home from work. Oh yes, and there’s someone inside it, flapping around in a rather undignified manner.

This is a Zorb, a hi-tech method of rolling down a hill without the grass and mud stains. All the fun, but without the need to buy special washing powder or get treatment for grass-induced rashes. Now, the Gold Coast has many a weird and wonderful attraction, but this could well top the lot. Apparently it has been here for three-and-a-half years, but unless you’ve got a friend who just happens to live round the corner, you’re probably not going to find out about it. For a start, it’s way off the main strip, about 3km north of the Dreamworld theme park at Pimpana, and there appears to be no signposting for it. Even when you get there, it’s hidden behind a Go Kart track. Whether this is a cunning viral marketing push up there with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fabled Thailand beach or a stunning lack or organisation, I’m not sure.

Eventually, we find the site, and we’re greeted by a scruffy looking chap who looks like he’s just woken up next to a half-empty bottle of moonshine. He greets us with a chirpy g’day and then disappears around the back for ten minutes to do Important Things. We’re left staring into space, wondering which poor blighter has the job of pushing the gargantuan spaceballs up the hill. He returns from the pressing negotiations regarding the Middle East peace process to talk us through the options. Basically, there are two ways of rolling down a hill in a big, dumb, plastic globe – either strapped in with a harness or freestyling amongst a couple of buckets-worth of warm water – and both, we’re assured, are riotously good fun.

After being sucked in by the comprehensive spiel, I’m led to a battered old ute which looks like it has seen both world wars. The Zorb is shunted on top of the back with the use of a couple of poles. It seems as no-one’s quite stupid enough to attempt to push them uphill all day after all. “They’re only made in New Zealand,” I’m told, as we chug to the top of Mount Wiggle. “And they cost about $12,000-$15,000 each. Pretty serious equipment, this fella.” Apparently, it takes about 25 minutes to fully inflate one using a souped-up leafblower, and twice that time to get the air out. To attempt the task on lung power alone would be an exercise in extreme masochism.

On the crest, we’re greeted by John, who is clad in the corporate uniform of paint-splashed overalls. I’m taking on the harness first, and he briefly explains how to get into it whilst pushing the ball onto the pool of water on which it is designed to rest. I leap inside and get busy with the process of strapping myself in. Feet first, then waist, then chest, and, following the rapid dislocation of both shoulders, I get my hands in the handgrips behind me.

There are two options; go down forwards for the view, or backwards for the fear factor. Being both an admirer of the countryside and an utter coward, I choose the form… oh hang on, we’re off!  The supersized hamster ball slowly lumbers downwards, with me flipping over and over, entirely helpless and in bellowing hysterics. There’s no real adrenalin rush – far too slow motion and jelly-like for that – but the sensation is something approaching unbridled, childish joy.

Performing somersault number four or five, a mound appears in front of me. Ah… this could be a problem. There are a lot of nasty trees to the right, and should this send me off course towards them, it’s going to be a mighty tricky rescue operation. The Zorb lurches slightly that way, but gravity wins out and it’s a few rolls to the finishing line. I’m not sure whether they fill the plastic with nitrous oxide, but I’m almost in tears of laughter as I’m helped out of my psychedelic cocoon.

The water option is an entirely different experience, partly because you’re granted a limited bit of freedom, partly because you get soaking wet, and partly because I have company this time round. What will follow is an inelegant mess of flailing, tangled limbs, but first, the pipedream. The idea, we’re told, is to run the Zorb downhill, staying upright all the way. Keep the weight centralised along the radius, don’t lean too far in any direction, and go aggressively from the push off to get it moving properly. Easy, huh?

Alas, no. Two seconds later we’re both sloshing around in a pool of water, banging arms and legs into each other in a desperate attempt to get upright. As our spherical plastic cage gathers pace, I desperately try to regain my footing. Up again, I wobble, slip and crash backwards, my landing cushioned by a nice, bouncy stomach. From here on in, it’s a desperate scramble for dignity, hands clawing at the walls, knees and feet going every which way in the pool beneath us. The comic roar is doubled this time. Whether it’s a release of delight and energy that has been hidden away since early childhood, or the wartime spirit of keeping up the grin during impossible adversity, I really don’t know, but pure glee is splashed across our faces upon exit, despite just having suffered total humiliation.