NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – UPPER MURRAY RIVER

Beijing, 8 October 2013

After a quick visit to Canberra and its museums, which I covered in my last post, we were on our way to the Snowy Mountains and beyond. Since I want to focus on the beyond, I’ll quickly slip through the mountains part. It wasn’t quite that easy in practice. Our plan was to drive along the Alpine Way, but when we got to Jindabyne, we discovered that the Way was closed after Thredbo because of a massive landslide.  What to do? After poring over the map, we decided to loop through the mountains to the north and rejoin the Alpine Way just before Corryong.

And so we found ourselves, without really planning it, in the upper reaches of the Murray River. I have to tell you, it was absolutely, absolutely lovely.  Maybe we were lucky with the season, with spring being in full swing. It certainly helped that we had clear, sunny days. Here’s a series of photos I took with my iPhone. Hopefully, they can give readers a sense of the sheer beauty of the landscape that we had wandered into.

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You can see the Snowy Mountains in the distance, while the river in the foreground is the Murray River and the ponds are the famous billabongs which I mentioned in my first Australian post.

When I saw this landscape after our drive through the relatively dry eastern side of the Snowy Mountains and the forests of Kosciuszko National Park, I could not stop myself from thinking biblically. Up popped the Old Testament story of the Israelites who come back to Moses after exploring Canaan and exclaim, “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey!” Milk and honey … that certainly describes the land we saw before us. William Blake’s Jerusalem also came to mind:
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

My wife’s first thought had instead a whiff of the pagan. It reminded her, she said, of Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit.

the-hobbit-movie

Whatever the reference, it was certainly very beautiful.

After spending a night in Corryong, and getting some good advice on which road to take from a very nice lady at the local information centre (I have to say, these information centres gave us excellent service everywhere we went), we set off along a small road which hugged the Murray River. It was all very peaceful.

upper murray river valley-corryong 050

We watched a local farmer and his family herd in cows and their calves for marking, as they bellowed mightily against this corralling, and had a long chat with them about the future of farming. We watched Australian white ibises, which we had last seen in Sydney as scavengers, fly regally over our heads, while sulphur-crested cockatoos crossed our path with a slow and sensuous flap of their wings.

sulphur-crest-cockatoo

We finally reached Lake Hume. At first, it was the drowned trees which struck us

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then it was the pelicans, which were swimming among the trees

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The last time I had seen pelicans was as a child in St. James’s park

Then the lake broadened out.

upper murray river valley-corryong 036

We followed the lakeshore until Albury. Thereafter, the landscape got drier, flatter and less interesting so I’ll skip the final day.

Finally, it was time to drive back to Sydney. We decided to pass through Corryong again; we had liked it so much. We had one last vision of wondrous drifts of wildflowers in the fields

upper murray river valley-corryong 038

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before we headed up through Tumbarumba and Tumut to the Hume Highway. Next stop, Sydney Airport and then Beijing. Sigh!

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Hobbit: http://www.digitaltrends.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/the-hobbit-movie-48-fps.jpg
Sulphur-crested cockatoo: http://www.zoo.org.au/sites/default/files/styles/zv_carousel_large/public/sulphur-crest-cockatoo-animal-profile-web620.jpg?itok=dXPfOmk5
all other photos: mine

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – ABORIGINAL ART

Beiing, 6 October 2013

My last post ended with us driving up King’s Highway towards Canberra. The only reason we were going there was to visit a couple of museums to look at their collections of indigenous art. There’s been a lot of brouhaha over the last thirty years about the new indigenous, aboriginal art coming out of Australia and I was curious to see what I would find in situ. I’ll say straight out that on the basis of what I’d seen before coming to Australia I was not a huge fan of indigenous Australian art. But I was willing to be persuaded.

Our first port of call on this voyage of discovery was the New South Wales Gallery of Art in Sydney, one of those Worthy Civic Buildings which I referred to in my first Australian post. We started by visiting the exhibition Sydney Moderns, whose poster picture was this painting of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which I had a few things to say about in that same post).

gallery of nsw-harbour bridge

Nice, but really this was just an outpost of European art. So then, after a quick salad on the terrace of the Gallery’s cafeteria, we headed for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Art collection.

And I found myself having the same problem I’ve always had with aboriginal art.

It’s the dot thing. The dense array of dots and lines which make up the paintings leave me cold. It’s just … too much. My eyes wander over all those dots, and wavy lines, and circles, and what-have-you, and … that’s it, they just wander, and eventually slide off the painting. My appreciation is not helped by the often dull pigments which are used. Here’s a number of this type of painting, from the 1970s onwards (when it seems that this style burst onto the art scene) in the National Gallery’s collection in Canberra.

Woman’s fire Dreaming, by David Corby Tjapaltjarri (1971):

national gallery-painting-2a

Untitled, by Timmy Payungka Tjapangarti (1989):

national gallery-painting-9

Wirrpi (Near Lake Macdonald), by Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungarrayi (1997):

national gallery-painting-8

Tupun Nguranguru, by Harry Brown and others (2012):

national gallery-painting-10

I can’t even get comfort out of the paintings’ spiritual content. There is a lot of talk of these paintings representing the spiritual dreamings of the artist, and we are invited to see in all those dots, wavy lines, and geometrical figures, dreams of rivers, hills, rocks, pools, and other elements of the landscape, or to see real or imagined animals, spirits, or ancestors, the whole sometimes representing tribal myths. But this is not my spiritual language. Give me a Virgin Mary and some saints and I can “read” the spiritual message. Aboriginal spirituality, alas, is a closed book for me, and will always be.

But all is not lost for me. There is Rover Thomas.

The first time I came across Thomas was a few years ago in Paris. My wife and I were there on our way to somewhere else, but we took a few days off to visit some new things which had been sprung up in the city since our last visit. One of these was the new Musée du Quai Branly, a museum which focuses on indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from all over the world (as one might guess, the core of the collection is a couple of colonial-era collections, but we’ll skip over that). Great museum, by the way, well worth a visit.

Musee du quai branly

The museum has a section on aboriginal art from Australia. To be honest, it is not the most interesting part of the collection. But it did have a painting by Rover Thomas, River Ord, River Bow, River Denham.

Now that is a style which I can relate to! Clean, simple lines, on which my eyes can fasten and linger.

This is another Rover Thomas in the National Gallery in Canberra, Ruby Plains killing 1 (1990)

artist-rover-thomas-4

One of the things I learned in Australia is that Thomas is part of a group of like-minded painters from the Kimberley region. Here are a couple of paintings by Paddy Jampin Jaminji.

artist-paddy-jampin-jaminji-1

artist-paddy-jampin-jaminji-2

In passing, I should say that the first of Thomas’s painting, a bird’s-eye view of rivers in a landscape, brought a memory back to the surface, of a visit which my wife and I made a few years ago (maybe the same summer we visited the Musée du Quai Branly) to the Tate Modern in London. They were showing a painting from their collection by the Australian painter Fred Williams. I show it here.

Dry Creek Bed, Werribee Gorge I 1977 by Fred Williams 1927-1982

Same idea, different approach.

Anyway, coming back to aboriginal art, in Sydney my wife and I came across another style of aboriginal art which we found quite congenial. These are paintings on bark. Here are a couple of examples from another museum we visited in Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art, from the period 1960-80.

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So like I say, there is hope for me. I just have to ignore the dot paintings, even though they seem to dominate the market.

By the way, in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, we stumbled across these wonderful objects:

aboriginal art-sydney 002

These are made by an aboriginal group called the Tjanpi Desert Weavers. Here’s a couple of photos of the artists making these objects.

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Those last pictures of the desert part of Australia move me to finish with this coda. During my web surfing for this post, I discovered another school of aboriginal painting, from the 1950s, the so-called Hermannsburg School. The primary artist from this school was Albert Namatjira. Here is what seems to be a typical example of his style:

artist-albert-namatjira

When I looked at this and other of Namatjira paintings – watercolours, actually, for the most part – I had a shock of recognition. My parents had a small painting in exactly this style! I have already mentioned that my father was really into genealogy. As part of his work, he discovered that a long-distant cousin had emigrated to Australia during the Gold Rush. Not from my father’s English side of the family, by the way, but from the French side! He then tracked down some of the man’s descendants, got into correspondence with them, and finally, when he had retired, visited Australia with my mother to meet them. One of them gave him the painting, which she had painted (she said; who knows, though, maybe it was an Albert Namatjira!)

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painting Sydney Harbour Bridge: http://media2.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/thumbnails/uploads/rotator_images/SYDMOD_980x400_SID50819.jpg.770x314_q85_crop.jpg
“Woman’s fire Dreaming”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/167747.jpg
“Untitled”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/181491.jpg
“Wirrpi (Near Lake Macdonald)”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/227909.jpg
“Tupun Nguranguru” : http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/223919.jpg
Musee du quai Branly: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/archive/f/f2/20100310000626!Musee_du_quai_Branly_exterieur.jpg
“River Ord, River Bow, River Denham”: http://richardtulloch.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/rover-thomas.jpg
“Ruby Plains killing 1”: http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/IMAGES/LRG/147688.jpg
Paddy Jampin Jaminji-1: http://img.aasd.com.au/30313805.jpg
Paddy Jampin Jaminji-2: http://img.aasd.com.au/05502896.jpg
Fred Williams: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/T/T12/T12271_9.jpg
Bark paintings: my pictures
Tjanpi Desert Weavers: my pictures
Albert Namatjira: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/16/Namatjira_Landscape.jpg

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – KANGAROOS

Beijing, 3 October 2013

If there is one thing which is as Australian as the eucalyptus (see my previous post), it has to be the kangaroo. In fact, it’s even more Australian! As I pointed out in the last post, a few eucalyptus species exist which are not native to Australia. On the other hand, no kangaroo species exist outside of Australia.

Not only are kangaroos very Australian, they are also pretty weird. The first Europeans to reach Australia immediately noticed them. How could they not? There was nothing like them anywhere else in the world. Here is the first entry that Joseph Banks, the botanist aboard James Cook’s HMS Enterprise, made in his diary about kangaroos:

“Quadrupeds we saw but few and were able to catch few of them that we did see. The largest was calld by the natives Kangooroo. It is different from any European and indeed any animal I have heard or read of except the Gerbua of Egypt, which is not larger than a rat when this is as large as a midling Lamb; the largest we shot weighd 84 lb. It may however be easily known from all other animals by the singular property of running or rather hopping upon only its hinder legs carrying its fore bent close to its breast; in this manner however it hops so fast that in the rocky bad ground where it is commonly found it easily beat my grey hound, who tho he was fairly started at several killd only one and that quite a young one.”

In his diary, James Cook was somewhat more prosaic:

“Saturday, 23rd June … One of the Men saw an Animal something less than a greyhound; it was of a Mouse Colour, very slender made, and swift of Foot. … Sunday, 24th June … I saw myself this morning, a little way from the Ship, one of the Animals before spoke off; it was of a light mouse Colour and the full size of a Grey Hound, and shaped in every respect like one, with a long tail, which it carried like a Grey hound; in short, I should have taken it for a wild dog but for its walking or running, in which it jumpd like a Hare or Deer. Another of them was seen to-day by some of our people, who saw the first; they described them as having very small Legs, and the print of the Feet like that of a Goat; but this I could not see myself because the ground the one I saw was upon was too hard, and the length of the Grass hindered my seeing its legs.”

Folk back home in Europe had only the vaguest of ideas of what this strange animal looked like. A few years after Cook’s visit to Australia, Joseph Banks requested George Stubbs, better known as the painter of rich men’s horses, to paint a kangaroo. This is what Stubbs came up with, on the basis of various skeletons, some rough sketches, some verbal descriptions, and a kangaroo skin which Banks had brought back to the UK:

The Kongouro from New Holland by George Stubbs

And this, through prints and other disseminations, was the only picture the Brits had for many years of the kangaroo.

Europeans found this animal weirdly fascinating. It didn’t walk or run, for Lord’s sake, but bounded along!  Like a hare. Or maybe a deer. Or actually more like a frog. And what was this story about some of them having two heads? Whoever was making these claims had either imbibed too much rum or was spinning tall tales (well, they were either convicts, or sailors, or soldiers: all dodgy types, right?). And then it became clear that the tale of two heads was actually true, but only because mothers carried their young in a pouch.  In a pouch, for Lord’s sake!

Kangaroo_and_joey

And they boxed!

kangaroos boxing

All this made the kangaroo even more fascinatingly weird.

Of course, we have the advantage of having grown up with the weirdness, which makes the strange familiar. Yeah, sure, the kangaroo bounds, so what’s the big deal? It boxes? Ho-hum. And its mothers have a pouch in which to put their kids? Sensible design idea, don’t we do that now? (I did)

snuggly pouch

But we definitely weren’t blasé about the idea of coming nose to nose with a kangaroo. Our interest was already heightened at the airport in Beijing when we were waiting to board our flight to Sydney. We started chatting to a couple of Australians who had just finished touring China, and when we told them we would be hiring a car they warned us to be careful about running into kangaroos, especially at dusk. Were they that common, we asked? Oh yes, they replied, and hitting them made a mess of your car. Ah.

So of course the first time we saw this sign on the side of the road as we drove out of Sydney

kangaroo sign

we began to scan the sides of the road with growing excitement. But it was only when we had crossed our fords and were wending our way to the King’s Highway to be on our way to Canberra that we saw our first kangaroos!

kangaroos 002

They saw us too and kept a wary eye on us. At some point, they started bounding off across the grass into the trees. Now, I’ve known all my life that kangaroos bound but let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the actual experience. You see this really quite big animal hunch over and start bouncing along just like a rubber ball, and with a very smooth motion. It’s lovely.

We saw kangaroos a number of other times over the rest of our trip, and always this wonderful sight of them bounding along.

bounding-kangaroos

But all too soon as we drove up King’s Highway, we saw another, and grimmer, reality – dead kangaroos, killed by vehicles

dead kangaroos

My wife reckons that we saw more dead kangaroos along the side of the road than live ones. I think she’s right.

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George Stubbs’s kangaroo: http://cdn.50up.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/The-Kongouro-from-New-Hol-010.jpg
Kangaroo and joey: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Kangaroo_and_joey03.jpg
Snuggly pouch: http://img.diytrade.com/cdimg/863429/8193309/0/1236395200/snugli_baby_carriers_nojo_baby_carrier_baby_carrier_reviews.jpg
Kangaroos boxing: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7050/6843889051_d1e4ea5e91_z.jpg
Kangaroo sign: http://aphs.worldnomads.com/kiwiaoraki/6858/Australia_Pictures_2_993.jpg
Bounding kangaroos: http://createwolstonpark.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/bounding-kangaroos.jpg?w=847
Dead kangaroos: http://yaldapashai.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/dsc0191.jpg
remaining picture: mine

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – THE EUCALYPTUS

Beijing, 2 October 2013

In my previous post my wife and I were driving down the coast just south of Sydney. I should point out that during the drive, while we were keeping one eye on the sea to our left we had the other eye fixed on the forests of eucalyptus on our right. They clothe the upper reaches of the Great Dividing Range which runs parallel to the coast. Both of us found these forests of eucalyptus fascinating.

What is more Australian than the eucalyptus? My favourite source of information, Wikipedia, informs me that of the 700-plus species of eucalyptus, only 15 occur outside of Australia and only 9 of these do not also occur in Australia. So Australia is Eucalyptus-land. But we humans have carried it out of Australia.  The tree which destroyed my bed of nasturtiums when I was a child was a eucalyptus. This was in Eritrea, and the eucalyptus was brought there by the Italians when it was an Italian colony. One of my memories of that period was taking a walk with my English grandmother through a plantation of eucalyptuses. The crackling of the dry leaves on the ground as we walked over them, that typical scent of eucalyptus, my pulling off the bark hanging from the trees – all this I still, more than 50 years later, remember vividly. Since then, I’ve always had a fondness for the eucalyptus, even though its being taken out of its natural Australian ecosystems has been criticized: an “invasive water-sucker”, it’s been rudely called. All my life, I have seen it dotted around parks and along streets, the last time in Sausalito when we went to visit our son in San Francisco.

SF 097

So it was with pleasurable interest that I was finally meeting the eucalyptus on its home turf.

I mentioned in my last post our drive through Heathcote National Park. That was our first taste of a forest of eucalyptuses. But we wanted more. So when we decided to leave the coast for Canberra, I thought we could first swing through Brooman State Forest down to the Clyde River and then follow the river until we got to the King’s Highway, which would take us up to Canberra. Based on the maps I had, I thought we would be taking small but asphalted roads the whole way. Wrong! Almost immediately we found ourselves on a dirt road which given our little Micra made me somewhat nervous. My levels of nervousness increased geometrically as the road got progressively rougher. And then we arrived at an intersection not marked on my map. Which way to go? After a moment of hesitation, I indicated a direction to my wife. As we drove deeper into the forest, and as signs of human presence quickly disappeared, my wife became more cheerful while my forebodings grew. While she exclaimed at the beautiful things we were passing I began to mentally review various nightmare scenarios we could be facing: we would run out of petrol, we would run off the road, something under the car would break, a tree would fall on us … Then the road started running downwards and suddenly we found ourselves at a ford. We had to drive through the Clyde River! The ford was 50 metres long, at least!! I stared aghast; this was not among the nightmare scenarios I had envisioned. Could we get across? My wife got out, took off her shoes, and waded in. Yes, yes, she said, you can make it. I looked at the height of the water on her calves and hoped that she was right. After a short prayer I started driving across, leaving my wife to wade over behind me.

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We made it, for me a huge relief, for my wife a huge enjoyment, with her merrily taking photos left and right as she waded across the river.

fording the river and creeks 010

fording the river and creeks 011

I thought that was it. But we had to ford three more streams feeding into the river! At the last, I really thought we had had it, the water was considerably deeper than even at the river.  But an angel was with us and we made it across. Thereafter, the road got better and I could relax and get into the mood of things. The road was a delight

fording the river and creeks 018

the river was lovely

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Gazing down on it I could almost imagine what this country must have looked like to the first European immigrants who arrived here, before they started changing the landscape to make it look more like what they knew back home.

We came across more eucalyptus forests as we crossed the Snowy Mountains after Canberra, and slowly a thought formed in both our minds. My wife put it very well when she said one day that eucalyptus trees look dusty. So true! The green of eucalyptuses is indeed a very dull green, the sort of green you see on trees lining a dirt road where passing cars throw up clouds of dust. I was pleased to see a comment in the museum we visited in Canberra, to the effect that the first European painters had been perplexed by the green of the local trees, which to their eyes was dull and quite unlike the bright greens of the trees they were used to in the UK (They were also perplexed by trees that didn’t shed their leaves but shed their bark. That doesn’t bother me so much; effects of globalization, I suppose).

Early painting

It’s nice to know that we had the same reaction in 2013 as a bunch of Brits 200 years ago did when also on their first visit to Australia.

Next post I’ll deal with another very Australian thing, the kangaroo.

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Early Australian art: http://www.myplace.edu.au/verve/_resources/Early_Colonial_Art_1830_page.jpg

Other pictures: mine and my wife’s

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NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – GRAND PACIFIC DRIVE

Beijing, 2 October 2013

Welcome back to these notes on the trip my wife and I made to Australia. Our stay in Sydney is covered in the previous post.

After Sydney we moved south. This meant hiring a car, and we got ourselves a bright red Micra

micraIt’s a snug little car which was just the right size for me, my wife, and three pieces of luggage (which ended up being five after we had bought things in the local supermarkets which we can’t get in Beijing). Initially, we faced the challenge of driving on the left-hand side of the road. This is one of the less useful things which Australia has inherited from the UK. I passed my driving test in Scotland and so started my driving life driving on the left, but the vast majority of my driving since then has been on the right. As for my wife, she’s never really driven on the left. So there was a bit of tension at the beginning, especially as we had to drive out of Sydney during a busy period. But we quickly got the hang of it and thereafter we had no problems – except for two things: we systematically put the windscreen wipers on when we wanted to signal a right or left turn (because the positions of the two levers were the reverse of their positions in “normal” cars); and when we turned right at an intersection we had a tendency of ending up on the right hand side of the road. But no worries! As you can see, we have survived to tell the tale.

Our initial plan was to drive down the coast towards Melbourne, along the Prince’s Highway, and then turn inland whenever it was time to start heading back to Sydney and its airport. I should explain why we chose to do this. Some five years ago, in a lodge located on a tributary to the Amazon River not too far from Manaus

juma lodge

we met an Australian and had one of those conversations you always have when meeting fellow-travellers: swapping notes on places travelled and things to see. The conversation inevitably turned to Australia, and he told us to go to Sydney and then drive along the coast. He wrote it all down on a paper napkin, which we carefully kept – but alas, that paper napkin is in storage in Vienna! When we were planning this trip we were trying to remember if he had told us to drive south or north from Sydney. For reasons which I cannot now remember, we plumped for going south. But this turned out to be not such a good idea. Contrary to what we had expected, we found the coast ho-hum. It was terribly built up, the sea-shores offered the usual sea-related touristy stuff, and most of the towns we passed through were suffering from ugly strip development. There were three bright spots in the gloom. The first was a highly enjoyable drive through Heathcote National Park just south of Sydney, where we saw massed Eucalyptus trees close up for the first time in our lives

eucalyptus-forest

After which we landed up on the Grand Pacific Drive. This road hugs the coast for some 20 kilometers, so we got wonderful views of the coast in the dying hours of the day.

pacific coast 006

The second bright spot was the few hours we spent on Jervis Bay, which has the most amazingly white sand (and very clear water – but bloody cold, at least when we were there).

Jervis bay

The third bright spot was our dinner at Batehaven, next to Bateman’s Bay. We had an excellent fish and chips (at a place called Berny’s – pass the word). In contrast to driving on the left, fish-’n-chips is one of the more useful things which Australia has inherited from the UK.

bernys

We ate it sitting at a table in the city park with the sea in front of us, lingeringly licked our fingers when it was all wolfed down, and then walked along the beach under a waning moon. Wonderful.

But all this was not enough to keep us from abandoning the coast. We decided on a rapid change of plan: make a brief trip to Canberra to visit a museum and then head for the Snowy Mountains. But before we did that, we went for a little ride through the Benandarah State Forest. This ride, and what we found there, will be the subject of my next post.

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Red Micra: http://images.cardekho.com/images/car-images/large/Nissan/nissan-micra/05-nissan-micra-brick-red.jpg
Lodge in the Amazon: http://www.jumalodge.com/gallery/2012/2.jpg
Eucalyptus forest: http://www.elrst.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/eucalyptus-forest.jpeg
The coast along the Grand Pacific Drive: my picture
Jervis bay: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/70/a6/66/jervis-bay.jpg
Bernys: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-dRGLeO8Kuw8/UhBa4uMijTI/AAAAAAABGmQ/afHL9AEl4Qs/s0/DSC03108.JPG

NOTES ON AUSTRALIA – SYDNEY

Beijing, 1 October 2013

G’day cobbers!  My wife and I are just back from a short holiday in Australia – the first time either of us have visited the country.

OK, let me say right up front that I am indulging in some revolting ethnic typing here. No-one during our trip said either “g’day” or “cobber” to us. Maybe in the small part of Australia we visited – Sydney, the coast immediately to the south of it, Canberra, and the Snowy Mountains – people don’t use these expressions, but the fact is no-one said them. Sorry about that!

But they did use a number of expressions which sounded odd to my English ear. “No worries”, used the same way I would use “you’re welcome”, as in “thank you”, “no worries”. “See you later” at the end of a conversation, even if there was no chance in hell of ever seeing the other person again. “How’s it going today?” at the beginning of a conversation, where I would merely say “hello” – the Americans have the same habit; I’ve never known how to respond to this. They obviously don’t want to hear a catalogue of my ills, so should I just say “fine”, even if I’m feeling like death warmed up? And should I in turn ask them how it’s going for them? That seems the logical – and civil – thing to do, but the few times I’ve done it my American or Australian interlocutors have seemed rather startled.

Then there were words used in normal conversation which I’ve only heard as Australian exotica. Take “billabong”, for instance, which I’d only ever heard in the song “Waltzing Mathilda” (“Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, Under the shade of a coolibah tree” etc.). But after hearing several people talk about billabongs, I plucked up the courage to ask what they were exactly. (FYI, they are isolated ponds left behind after a river changes course; we saw many of them on the upper reaches of the Murray River – more on that later. Now I have to find out what a coolibah tree is ..)

And of course there was the accent. Though distinctive,  it wasn’t that hard for us to decipher. But for several nights in a row I did try to figure out, through endless repetition with my mouth in various shapes, how the Australians were forming their O’s, as in “no” or “go”. My wife eventually ordered me to halt my dreadful drones, or else.  The New Zealand accent is much harder to follow, as my wife and I discovered a few years ago when we visited that country. I quickly got into the habit of standing next to her whenever she asked a New Zealander a question, because there was a 99% chance she wouldn’t understand the answer whereas in my case it was only 60%, so I could step in to continue the conversation and not have us standing there smiling uncertainly at the responder.

If I start with these linguistic considerations, it’s because the language we heard during our trip typifies my feelings about Australia: so much was deeply familiar, yet so much was quite strange. This continuing counterpoint between the familiar and the strange accompanied us throughout our trip.

We started our trip in Sydney, emerging bleary-eyed from our overnight flight to a sunny, beautifully clear, fresh day, conditions which we had pretty much for the whole trip. Ah, those clear, intensely blue skies! After all the misty, foggy, smoggy days we had endured in Beijing, we couldn’t stop remarking with wonder on the blueness of the sky, and on the clarity, the sharpness of the air.

Our first port of call was – had to be – the Sydney Opera House down at the harbour. The path we chose to get there took us through the city’s botanic gardens: shades of Kew Gardens in London, so familiar to me after multiple visits there as a child with my grandmother. A familiarity made that much stronger by the Worthy Civic Buildings like Government House and the Art Gallery of New South Wales which lie along the gardens’ edges and which obviously belong to that class of British official buildings which clutter up Imperial London and dot the cities of the ex-British colonies. But the gardens also had a more exotic flavour, planted as they are with Australian species I had never seen before; look at this tree, for instance, with its shaggy bark. My wife and I gawked at it, never having seen anything quite like it. It’s a Prickly Leaved Tea Tree, by the way.
sydney general 007
And look at these really odd birds, with their curiously curved long thin beaks, which populated the gardens.
sydney general 015
They played the familiar role of pigeons in a park, padding cautiously around people sitting or lying on the grass and looking out for any crumbs or left-overs to pick up, as this photo by someone else amply demonstrates.

ibis eating food

They went about their business in a much more dignified manner than pigeons, though; aristocrats fallen on hard times compared to pigeons’ scabby lumpen-proletarianism. I later learned that this is the Austalian white ibis.

To enter the gardens we first had to walk down Victoria Street, which was lined with magnificent plane trees – the familiar – but also rows of two-floor houses with verandahs running the length of the second floor – very foreign to our eyes.

sydney general 002

My wife saw a resemblance to houses we had seen ages ago in Savannah, Georgia. To me, they had something of the Caribbean or the Latin American, or maybe the South-East Asian. Certainly not English.  We saw similar houses in other parts of old Sydney. I wonder where their design came from?

This road threw up another delight, this flowering plant which we later saw in a number of other places.

sydney general 001

My wife and I had never seen this plant before, but it reminded us powerfully of the flowering agave plant which we often see when we go down to the sea in Italy.

flowering agave plant

And so eventually, after these various detours, we came to the Sydney Opera House.

sydney opera house 001

What a magnificent, magnificent building! All the more stunning because of its position in the harbour, its white sails, or wings, or shells, picked out against blue: blue skies above, blue waters below.

sydney opera house 014

We came back to it again and again, with a ride on one of the harbour’s many ferries …

sydney opera house 025

… with a concert one evening (where we were served up a strange medley of Wagnerian themes), which allowed us to see the building at night …

sydney opera house 019

… and finally with a tour of the whole complex, where I discovered to my surprise that the shells are not plain whitened concrete as I had imagined but are covered with ceramic tiles of different shades of white, and with different degrees of shine, very beautiful to look at close up.

sydney opera house 023

sydney opera house 006

The Opera House is undoubtedly a marvel, alone worth the trip. It is truly unique, I cannot think of any building anywhere quite like it (incidentally, the story of its construction is also dramatic, full of clashes between huge egoes, of back-stabbings, of bad-mouthings, and of a final dramatic denouement; worthy of an opera). I cannot say the same of that other architectural icon in Sydney, the Harbour Bridge. Perhaps its construction was an engineering feat in its time (the 1930s), but I find all that criss-cross of thick, black iron bars horribly clunky.

sydney harbour bridge

It reminds me of Scotland’s Firth of Forth railway bridge

firth of forth railway bridge

the ugly duckling to the later Firth of Forth road bridge, with its beautiful soaring lines of a classical suspension bridge.

firth of forth road bridge

Perhaps Sydney’s city fathers could consider a rebuild along the latter lines, or at least a make-over. I’m sure that with modern computing to help them refine the load calculations, engineers could get rid of half of that ironware and still have the bridge stay up. Just a suggestion.

I will pass over the rest of our time in Sydney, pleasant as it was. In a later post or two, I’ll come back to our visits to two of its museums when I mention our lightning visit to the Federal capital city, Canberra, and I’ll cover the rest of our trip.

See ya later!

_____________

Ibis eating food: http://www.rudyrucker.com/blog/images2/au_ibistable.jpg
flowering agave plant: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/75/Agave_at_Cape_Sounion.jpg
harbour bridge: http://www.ausmotive.com/images/MB-Sydney-Harbour-Bridge-crossing.jpg
firth of forth railway bridge: http://infohost.nmt.edu/~armiller/jpeg/firth3w.jpg
firth of forth road bridge: http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/images/P-473-488-90/38/3839/K3YYF00Z/posters/forth-road-bridge-built-in-1964-firth-of-forth-scotland-united-kingdom-europe.jpg
all other pictures are mine

DOG DAYS IN BEIJING

Beijing, 27 July 2013

It’s already dog days in Beijing, with the mercury climbing into the high 30s Centigrade. This weather brings out these strange extraterrestrial beings onto the roads

Hot Weather Lands In Nanjing

which on closer inspection turn out to be women riding cycles while wearing special UV-protective sun visors and covering every bit of exposed skin.

sun visor-1

As for the pavements, they host the somewhat odd spectacle of women sheltering below umbrellas under cloudless skies.

chinese women umbrellas-1

The reason is the same in all cases: the desire to protect delicately pale skins from suntan. Chinese women have a fetish for pale skins, not only shunning the sun but also spending large sums on products which claim to whiten their complexion.

skin whitener-2

The purpose, of course, even if these women don’t realize it, is to distinguish themselves from their sisters toiling in the fields under the broiling sun and getting a tough, leathery skin for their pains – the peasants, in a word. Despite communist-era claims to the contrary

propaganda poster-3

every Chinese knows that life as a peasant is not particularly pleasant

rural woman-1

which is why China’s rural people escape to the cities the moment they have half a chance, and why city folk look down on their rural cousins.

We who come from cultures which have been worshipping the sun for at least sixty years and have proclaimed far and wide the beauty of a tanned skin

sun tan lotion ad-1

can titter at this Chinese phobia of a darkened skin, which sometimes really goes to extraordinary lengths

facekini

But we should remember that before this sun-loving period of ours our genteel women also avoided the sun, for much the same reason. I am indebted to the blog “It’s About Time”, in a section devoted to parasols in Western art (from which I also got some of the photos below), for the following quote from Randle Cotgrave’s 1614 Dictionary of the French and English Tongues, where the French word ombrelle is translated “An umbrello; a (fashion of) round and broad fanne, wherewith the Indians (and from them our great ones) preserve themselves from the heat of a scorching sunne; and hence any little shadow, fanne, or thing, wherewith women hide their faces from the sunne.” Like the Chinese women I see on the Beijing streets today, for centuries our great ladies liked to walk outside screened from the sun, as these paintings from different periods attest:

Fragonard:

00 Fragonard with parasol

Copley:

00 Copley with parasol

Goya:

00 Goya with parasol

Manet:

00 Manet with Parasol 1881

Monet:

00 Monet with-a-Parasol

Renoir (I had the luck to see this particular painting at the Met in New York a few months ago):

00 Renoir-2 with-parasol

Seurat:

00 Seurat with parasol

Valloton:

00 Vallotton with parasol

the American painter Mars:

00 Mars-twenties-with parasols

Are we so right to love a tan? Of course, the snobbish element of having a pale complexion is to be abhorred, but I’m not sure tanning is such a wonderful idea either. I must admit to being biased on this topic; I have a fair skin which burns rather than tans and I’ve always disliked being in the sun. But the rise in skin cancer incidences and deaths is vertiginous in many of those countries where people routinely cook themselves on a beach all summer. It is made that much worse by the thinning of the ozone layer, which is allowing in far more harmful UV than used to be the case. Which explains this public health ad from Australia, one of the hardest-hit countries: many people with fair skin, a strong outdoors culture, and located far south where the ozone layer is thinnest.

australian ad-1

The Slip Slop Slap campaign is another attempt by the Australian government to combat skin cancer:

australian ad-3

Looking at that, it seems to me that maybe our Chinese sisters aren’t so wrong in their sun shunning antics after all.

_____________________

woman with sun visor-1: http://s1.djyimg.com/i6/5100409191528.jpg
woman with sun visor-2: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/123/cache/fashion-shanghai-motorcycle_12361_600x450.jpg
Chinese women under umbrellas: http://blog.chinatraveldepot.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/103-1024×768.jpg
Skin whitener ad: http://gaia.adage.com/images/bin/image/large/Nivea91008b.jpg?1221045176
Propaganda poster: http://chineseposters.net/images/e11-992.jpg
Rural woman: http://chinadigitaltimes.net/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/13china01-6501.jpg
Sun tan lotion ad: http://file.vintageadbrowser.com/l-2sxa9y5hxoogx7.jpg
Facekini: http://www.ecouterre.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/qingdao-china-sun-protection-mask-facekini-2-537×402.jpg
Fragonard: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2475/4438032996_d685b495fb.jpg
Copley: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-7FFaKUq3lgs/Th6koRKMutI/AAAAAAAArNs/2WRM4y4ZwUs/s640/p%2B1763%2Bc%2BJohn%2BSingleton%2BCopley%2B1738-1815%2BMary%2BTappan%2BMrs%2BBenjamin%2BPickman%2BYale%2B%25282%2529.jpg
Goya: http://www.aparences.net/wp-content/uploads/goya-parasol-vert.jpg
Manet: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TGlqCaT0tMI/AAAAAAAAWls/cEdFU0kuto4/s1600/p+%C3%89douard+Manet+%281832-1883%29+Woman+with+a+Parasol+1881..jpg
Monet: http://www.chinaoilpaintinggallery.com/oilpainting/Claude-Monet/The-Walk-Woman-with-a-Parasol.jpg
Renoir: http://www.renoirgallery.com/paintings/large/renoir-lise-with-parasol.jpg
Seurat: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4037/4367819565_d255f31c2d_z.jpg?zz=1
Vallotton: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TH8YPdMzVyI/AAAAAAAAXno/iOmadhyVbOI/s1600/F%C3%A9lix+Vallotton.+%281865+-+1925%29.+On+the+Beach+Sur+la+plage.+1899..jpg
Mars: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_CvDCiEFbNy8/TJezx5Y-UgI/AAAAAAAAY1g/HY7j9dPmqIg/s1600/Ethel+Mars+%281876+%E2%80%93+1956%29+Nice.jpg
Australian ad-1: http://www.abc.net.au/reslib/200812/r320709_1428893.jpg
Australian ad-2: http://lavaleandherworld.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/slip-slop-slap-legenda.jpg?w=600