Carole Allsop visits Australia for the first time.
Brits travelling to Australia had always seemed a bit of a cop-out to me, compared with journeying to, say, Africa, Asia or South America. Visiting the country ranked one of the best places in the world to live in in terms of wealth, education, health and quality of life, where you don’t even have to learn the lingo, felt like an easy option. Half of Britain’s daughters have moved to Australia too, or that was the impression we got from fellow passengers on the plane journey out. Everyone was heading off to visit daughters who’d settled there. And that was precisely why we went – my partner’s daughter had traded in commuting into Liverpool Street for life in Bondi Beach.
The landmass of Australia stands for things ancient. The sandstone in the Jack Hills of Western Australia contains the mineral zircon, formed in molten granite from the earth’s crust 4.4 billion years ago, the oldest terrestrial material on earth. The Aboriginal people are thought to be descended from the earliest migrants out of Africa around 72,000 years ago. They reached the Australia/Papua landmass, becoming isolated for 50-60,000 years when the waters closed in around the north of the Australian continent. Aboriginal fishing methods, their use of fire and 30,000 year-old grindstones are just some of the reasons for labelling them one of the oldest surviving human cultures on earth.
The nation of Australia stands for things new. It is a modern predominantly white country, whose population are mostly descended from relatively recently arrived British and Irish settlers. Today, in the bright well-stocked supermarkets, products carry stickers proclaiming ‘Proudly made in Australia’, but it wasn’t always so. The transportation of convicts, often guilty of the pettiest of thefts, in overcrowded ships from England to a land without buildings on the other side of the planet started towards the end of the 18th century. The ‘convict stain’ is still a source of shame, and a topic generally shunned by Aussies.
The irony of Australia’s image today as having one of the highest standards of living in the world, along with one of the cheeriest and most easy-going of lifestyles, is stark. It was a massive desert continent thinly populated by ancient dark-skinned hunter gatherers in the southern hemisphere, totally unlike the tiny green and chilly islands from which pallid shivering Brits sailed so far to be dumped on its eastern coast. The early arriving convicts and those in charge of them suffered from desperate food shortages, dependent on sporadic ships arriving with supplies, and life was cruelly tough. The few willing settlers and those that had served out their sentences were given convicts to help them farm, and Sydney, as described by Robert Hughes, was an ‘unplanned straggle of shacks’, its ‘streets were dusty tracks in summer and ditches in winter’. It was a convict architect, Francis Greenaway, transported for forgery, who was recruited to design the buildings, of which convict barracks were two of the first. But later came the gold rush in the mid-19th century and far from being compelled, Europeans eagerly boarded ships to find their fortunes on the other side of the world. Australia’s development had begun.
Asia being much nearer than Europe, many Chinese were among the entrepreneurs who arrived to hunt for gold. Enterprising and hardworking, they were seen as a threat, and various anti-Chinese policies culminated in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 which excluded Asians from settling. Had this not happened, Australia would very likely have become a land peopled largely by those of Asian heritage. Since the relaxation of such policies, it now has the highest proportion of its population born overseas of any country, though the points-based immigration system is often held up as a model by Brexit supporting Brits. And there are also many more Asians now, though people born in England are still the highest percentage of new settlers. The five top self-declared ancestries of Australian born people are English (36.1%), Australian (33.5%), Irish (11.0%), Scottish (9.3%) and Chinese (5.6%).
Anticipating snakes, spiders, droughts, forest fires and bright sunlight, my partner and I crossed the globe for a two week visit which was limited to touring New South Wales. The February morning of our arrival in Sydney was notable for its torrential rain; people serving in the café where we were taken by a friend for breakfast rushed for buckets to collect the water gushing through a roof, while we wondered where to buy umbrellas.
Sydney Harbour lives up to all expectations, a glorious expanse of endless blue. It was thrilling to head out on a ferry and imagine it all from the point of view of those early sailors tentatively sailing into the world’s largest natural harbour in the late eighteenth century. They soon came across members of the Eora clan on the shore. The indigenous people initially paid little attention to the sailors on their extraordinary ship billowing almost 3000 metres of sail, unaware of the enormity of the impact on their lives and those of their descendants the arrival of these strangers heralded. Today, modern visitors arrive in thousands on cruise ship liners. There is always one docked at Circular Quay, the opera house and the harbour bridge crowning the scene, and they may perhaps encounter some resourceful aboriginal buskers playing the digeridoo on the dockside.
Clichés among my preconceptions about Australia were, of course, expected encounters with boomerangs, koalas and kangaroos. These three images dominate the souvenir industry but the first two barely featured in our trip. After five days in Sydney we headed out on the Paramatta Road and through the Blue Mountains along the edge of Woollemi National Park, but kangaroo roadkill sightings were the only evidence of the creatures, and it wasn’t until we drove down to the southern coast of New South Wales that we eventually saw real live hopping kangaroos, which caused much excitement after so many corpses.
Koalas are timid creatures and although I hear it’s possible to sight them, we had to resort to a visit to Taronga Zoo in the hope of laying eyes on the iconic creatures. We felt badly cheated when we found that once inside we’d have to buy another ticket to see them, and that in fact, there were no more available that day. Never once did we come across mention of or information about the legendary boomerang, although we visited plenty of museums on the trip, where the curators are careful to honour the Aboriginal past, with special sections devoted to the art and history of ancestral Australia.
One of the central problems for country’s modern-day image is the Aboriginal question. When the convicts and their jailers arrived, what existed were many different societies of people, who were essentially ‘civilised’, able to feed themselves and educate themselves for their needs using their oral traditions. They passed down through the generations extraordinary knowledge of how to survive and thrive in the harshest of environments. They have been called ‘uncivilised’ but brutality is one of the hallmarks of the uncivilised, and there was plenty of that from those who settled in the new land. The Aboriginal peoples have been reeling ever since from the body blow of losing their ancient lifestyles and being forcibly propelled into a society whose materialism is alien to them. They were herded into one undifferentiated group and cleared from the lands that lent themselves to farming and mining. The many and various clans now find themselves at a loss as to how to adapt, whether they want to or not. Largely invisible to a tourist in a city like Sydney or Canberra, they are spoken of as peaceful but also deeply troubled.
The real Australian emblem was not for me the kangaroo, the koala or the boomerang, but the eucalyptus. Cracked, parched and peeling, or slender, tall and white the gum tree is ubiquitous, with countless species and catchy names, the scribbly gum, the brittle bark, the black butt. The gum within is highly combustible, a factor in the spread of bush fires. Our friend regaled us with alarming tales of the speed a bush fire travels at on the journey from Sydney to Mudgee and was then surprised the next day when we decided against a car trip in the hairdrier heat in the direction in which plumes of bush fire smoke were clearly visible in the distance. We opted for a vineyard wine tasting instead, and drinks at the Woolpack Hotel, chatting to the friendly barman who gave us souvenir ‘stubbies’ with the hotel’s name on them.
We spent half of our visit in Sydney but got snapshots of city life in Canberra, small town life in Mudgee, and the idyll of the quiet coastal resort area of Berrara Bay, where kangaroos abounded nibbling on the neat green lawns of the holiday homes. We would have liked to head up to the Great Barrier Reef, but distances are vast, and prices high. It was well beyond our means in terms of time and money. One of my chief impressions was a surprised pleasure at some of the building styles in cities and towns. Somehow I’d been expecting more concrete, but Sydney’s quaint houses with their wrought iron fences and balconies, or, in the towns we drove through, the clapboard bungalows, the hotels that function as pubs, the low-rise wooden high streets, all reminiscent of the USA before the chains arrived with their monotonous glaring logos.
Another pleasure for me was that our visit was almost completely free of encounters with Australia’s scariest wildlife, its sharks, crocodiles, poisonous jellyfish and spiders. On a walk in Booderee National Park, we met a red bellied black snake, its head above the long grass, and we retreated rapidly. A taxi driver told us he has a place down the coast, where a family of red bellied black snakes live in his well. He welcomes their presence there, because they eat the far more deadly brown snake. Could one ever get used to such things?
There is also the matter of the sun. Australia’s young tend to be glamorous, healthy-looking and tanned, in their shorts and Factor 50 (skin cancer is such a risk that no other sun cream factor is available), but the elderly with their leathery skins dotted with dark liver spots show the results of a lifetime in the sun. When all’s told though, it’s an enviable lifestyle for most down under. My partner and I agreed that his daughter would be insane to return to the grey clouds and commuter crowds of London. We’re already planning our next trip – hoping to go walkabout, and to see the western city of Perth where my grandmother was born in the 1900s and grew up. She set off for Africa, a young woman in her early twenties only returning once for a brief trip late in life. But that’s another story.
Sydney Harbour lives up to all expectations, a glorious expanse of endless blue [own photo]
The town of Mudgee [own photo]
The real Australian emblem was not for me the kangaroo, the koala or the boomerang, but the eucalyptus [wiki commons]
Sydney, as described by Robert Hughes, was an ‘unplanned straggle of shacks’, its ‘streets were dusty tracks in summer and ditches in winter’ [https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/BOOTH%281873%29_1.225_THE_OLD_TANK_STREAM%2C_SYDNEY.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]