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North From Alice

Alice Springs was interesting and colorful, but it was also kind of seedy and I was glad to leave and get back out on the highway.  So much for my childhood fantasies.  I thought about driving all the way up to Darwin, which is about three full days from Alice Springs, but for several reasons I decided not to go up to the "Top End."  I wanted to see some places up there, like Kakadu National Park (where they filmed the waterfall scene in "Crocodile Dundee"), but it was still the Wet Season and a lot of the roads there were still flooded.  Apparently it was also pretty hot and sticky up there and, as I learned, motel rooms in the Top End are pretty expensive.  Also, I was getting road-weary and didn't want to tack on another week of driving across this very large continent, so Darwin will have to wait until my next visit to Oz.

 

Above:  Tennant Creek is the only town between Alice Springs and Katherine – a distance of 800 miles.  It's a pleasant little town.  But frankly, there isn't much to do here except spend the night in a motel, so that's what I did.

After leaving Alice Springs on Thursday morning, I drove all day north on the empty two-lane Stuart Highway, passing a roadhouse every hour or two.  Around 3 p.m. with the thermometer hovering around 95 degrees, I pulled into Tennant Creek (pop. 3,500), a mining town with a large Aboriginal population.  Indeed, it was the only semblance of a town that I had passed through all day.  I filled my gas tank in "downtown" Tennant Creek, then found a motel across the street and, after chatting with the pleasant owner, got my key and hefted my duffel bags into my room. 

 

After closing the door, I cranked the AC up all the way, turned on the radio and listened to the local country music station as I unpacked.  Yes, they have country music in Australia and, as in America, it's quite popular in rural areas like this.  The station was playing an Aussie song called, "She's My Butcher and I Think I Love Her," and I cracked up at all the innuendos ("She has nice thighs, firm breasts, sells me t-bones and pot roasts...") as it reminded me of country music back in America with the same corny suggestiveness.  Then I proceeded with my typical end-of-day ritual:  transferring digital photos from my camera onto my laptop to free up my camera's memory card for the next day of shooting.

 

It had cooled off to a balmy 85 degrees by dusk, so I emerged from my nice-and-frosty room and wandered through the quiet streets of this quiet and pleasant little town that sits alone in the desolate Outback.  On the way back to the motel, I stopped at the main grocery store in Tennant Creek, where I bought enough groceries to get me to the coast, which was still a few days away.

 

   

Above left:  A memorial to John McDouall Stuart alongside the Stuart Highway north of Alice Springs.

Above right:  John McDouall Stuart (1815 - 1866) was the first white explorer to travel across central Australia.  Stuart crossed from south to north in the 1860s, just as I was doing 140 years later.  The Stuart Highway was named in his honor, of course, and roughly follows his route, from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north.  Good on ya, mate!

 

       

Above left:  Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn near Alice Springs at 23.5 degrees south latitude.  I was now officially in the tropics.

Above center:  Road construction on the Stuart Highway.  This is why they call central Australia "The Red Center."

Above right:  The Devil's Marbles near Tennant Creek is a large area of huge granite boulders way out in the middle of nowhere.  This area reminded me of Joshua Tree National Park in California, but without the crowds -- or the Joshua Trees.

The Aborigines

About half of the customers in the Tennant Creek grocery store were Aborigines, and one scene in particular was memorable.  A white woman and an Aborigine family who were obviously dear friends but who apparently had not seen each other in a long time embraced with unrestrained happiness and excitement.  What really struck me about it was that, although I'd seen plenty of Aborigines in Australia during the past few weeks, this was the first time I'd seen whites and Aborigines interacting so joyously.  The event made me think more deeply about the Aborigine situation in Australia.  And so, being in the middle of the Outback, I thought this would be a good place to discuss it.

 

Aborigines, descended from the original inhabitants of Australia, today comprise about 3% of the total population of Australia.  You don't see many Aborigines on the east coast of Australia, like in Sydney or Melbourne, but you do see a lot here in the Outback.  The Aboriginal story is complex and I've been trying to understand it during my travels through Australia.  In many ways, their plight is similar to that of the Indians / Native Americans in the U.S. but in some ways it's an even sadder story.  I'll try my best to summarize what I've learned here, but I'm sure I'll over-simplify it, so my apologies in advance if I do.

 

Above:  An early encounter between white Australians and Aborigines.

When the first white settlers landed in Australia in the late 1700s, Aborigines had been living on this continent for over 50,000 years.  Unlike in America, where the white settlers recognized Indians as native inhabitants, most of the first white settlers here viewed Australia as just an empty continent.  They simply moved in and took over, while enslaving and killing thousands of Aborigines in the process.  Unlike in America and in New Zealand, the native tribes in Australia didn't mount a coordinated resistance to the white intrusions, mainly because there were dozens of separate Aborigine groups, many of whom spoke unique languages.  It also seems that, unlike with certain fierce and territorial Indian tribes in the U.S. (such as the Comanches and Blackfeet), it wasn't in the Aboriginal culture to resist -- nearly as much, anyway.

 

The whites tried to extinguish the Aboriginal culture in the early 1900s by breaking up families, forcing children into boarding schools, and outlawing the language and customs, a policy that largely failed.  Over the past 30 years, the Australian government has tried to make reparations to the Aborigines, including returning some of the land to the original tribes.  A lot has been done to heal the wounds of the past, but there's much that remains to be done. 

 

That's the history.  Now here's my opinion.

 

From what I've seen during my travels over the past three months, there's a huge difference between New Zealand and Australia in terms of how well the natives in those countries have assimilated into their respective white societies.  In New Zealand, the native Maoris and the whites co-exist in what appears to be a state of relative parity and comity.  I encountered numerous Maoris in urban areas of New Zealand, like Auckland and Wellington, and overall there seemed to be relatively little discrimination against them by the whites.  I'm familiar with the Native American situation in the U.S, so I was surprised by the relative lack of tension between white New Zealanders and Maories, from what I saw there.

 

Above:  Aborigines playing didgeridoos on the street in Sydney.  These were among the very few Aborigines that I saw in the large, eastern cities of Australia.

It's a very different story here in Australia.  For one thing, I've seen very few Aborigines in large Australian cities.  Instead, most natives in this country, as in America, live in poorer, rural areas.  There also seems to be a much higher level of discrimination against the natives here in Australia than in New Zealand and thus, Aborigines generally subsist in a lower socio-economic strata.  This probably has to do, partly at least, with how whites historically have dealt with the native populations in the two countries.  In New Zealand, there were relatively few clashes between Maoris and whites during white settlement and the two groups worked together relatively well.  During white settlement in Australia, on the other hand, the whites decided that instead of working with Aborigines, they would try to dominate them (like in America).

 

This is a complicated topic and it's just my opinion, of course.  I'm sure this is far too simplistic, being based only on the scant three months I've spent traveling around New Zealand and Australia.  I'm still trying to understand the Aborigine situation here (as well as Aboriginal concepts such as "dream time"), but it's clear to me that Australian Aborigines today, like Native Americans in America, face a lot of problems, including discrimination, poverty, and high levels of unemployment, alcoholism, and substance abuse.

 

From what I've seen, and except for a few chance encounters in grocery stores and such, there doesn't seem to be much social interaction between Aborigines and whites in Australia.  It's probably for the same reasons that there isn't much interaction between Indians and whites in America:  a difference in culture, a lack of understanding, and a degree of mutual suspicion.  It's certainly a sad situation, but from what I understand it is getting better here.  Slowly.

The Beginning (or Maybe End) of the World

I left pleasant Tennant Creek early the next morning and, a bit north of town, I turned off the Stuart Highway and headed east onto the Barkly Highway.  The Stuart Highway -- the only paved road within a thousand miles on either side of it -- had been my companion for the past 10 days, guiding me safely across the heart of the Australian Outback, and I was a bit saddened to leave it. 

 

Above:  "Three Ways" is a big dot on my map but as it turns out, it's just a roadhouse north of Tennant Creek at the junction of the Stuart and Barkly Highways.  Not surprisingly, it's where you can go three ways.  I said a sad goodbye to the Stuart Highway here and headed east.

I drove the rest of the day heading east on the Barkly Highway, while passing just a handful of cars and trucks, then I pulled in that evening to the mining town of Mt. Isa.  The town sits just inside the Queensland border and is the site of one of the richest copper, silver, lead and zinc mines in the world.  With a population of about 25,000, Mt. Isa is an oasis of civilization on the edge of the Outback.

 

The American travel writer, Bill Bryson, wrote about the town of Mt. Isa a few years ago in his wonderfully funny and insightful book about Australia called "In a Sunburned Country."  Bill, however, was going in the opposite direction, heading west into the heart of the Outback instead of slowly emerging from it, like I was as I drove east.  Bill compared Mt. Isa to the end of the world as he traveled towards the desolate Outback, the same thoughts that I had about Port Augusta a few weeks ago, near Adelaide, as I headed north into the empty desert.  I really did feel like I was leaving civilization at Port Augusta, so it was to nice to know that others have felt the same way as they've ventured into this area, one of the most desolate places in the world.  

 

There isn't much else to say about Mt. Isa, so I won't.  No, actually it's not that bad of a town.  The folks seemed pretty nice and the fish & chips dinner I had here, hundreds of miles from the coast, was surprisingly delicious.

 

There's a rhetorical saying in the U.S. that goes something like, "Have you ever seen anyone wash their rental car?"  The implication, of course, is that if you don't actually own something, you don't feel attached to it or responsible for it.  Well, I've been driving my trusty Hertz Camry for a month now and I feel both responsible and attached to it.  So the next morning, hot and glorious it was, I did indeed give my rental car a much-needed washing.  Shortly afterwards, I filled its tank at a BP and left Mt. Isa, continuing my eastward journey across the empty Outback.

 

    

Above left:  The Barkly Homestead roadhouse near Three Ways.  As you can tell from my website, stopping at each semi-occasional roadhouse is among the few highlights of driving across the desolate Outback.  There were guys in the bar here drinking beer –- at 10 o'clock in the morning.

Above right:  This sign used to say "460 km."  But these days it's "only" 260 km to the next gas station.

 

       

Above left:  The grassy plains of the Northern Territory reminded me of Kansas.

Above center:  Entering Queensland...

Above right:  ... where the Barkly Highway quickly deteriorated.  It's no fun meeting a road train on a single lane of blacktop.

 

       

Above left:  One of the millions of termite mounds in northern Queensland.

Above center:  "Beautiful" downtown Mt. Isa, a mining town with about 25,000 people in the proverbial middle of nowhere (and my home for an evening).  The smokestack is from the lead smelter and, at one time, was the tallest smokestack in the world. 

Above right:  A memorial to Burke and Wills, the "Lewis and Clark" of Australia.  They passed through this remote area in 1861 and died shortly afterwards.  I was hoping to have a better fate.

Crocodile Dundee's Pub

I was still several hundred miles from the coast and, while planning my trip that morning in Mt. Isa, I realized that there were a couple of ways of getting there:  the quick way and the interesting way.  I chose, of course, the interesting way, which is better known as Route 66 (and even better known as the Matilda Highway).  After a few hours of dodging humongous road trains, including a quadruple that was over 200 feet long and never seemed to end, I pulled into the hot and dusty hamlet of McKinlay around 11 a.m.

 

If you’ve seen the movie “Crocodile Dundee” then you’ve seen McKinlay because the town’s only pub, now called “The Walkabout Creek Hotel,” was used for the bar scene in that movie.  (By the way, a “hotel” in Australia, unlike in America, is an older pub with simple and inexpensive accommodations that are usually on the second floor).  I enjoy visiting obscure towns where movies were filmed, and in the past few years I’ve been to:

  • Mystic, Connecticut, the site of “Mystic Pizza” with Julia Roberts,

  • Florence, Arizona, the site of “Murphy’s Romance" with James Garner and Sally Field, and most recently,

  • Coober Pedy, which is where Mel Gibson's "Mad Max" movies were shot. 

 

This is the theme song of the first Crocodile Dundee movie.  As I recall, this song played at the end of the movie, when Mick was walking atop the commuters in a New York subway station.

   

I didn’t see the second Crocodile Dundee movie but, like many Americans, I really enjoyed the first one, so I just had to visit the Walkabout Creek Hotel.  Yes, it’s been a few years since the Crocodile Dundee films came out, but I was still expecting to see at least a couple of tourists poking around taking pictures.  When I walked into the bar, though, I was surprised to find just a barmaid and a few local guys sitting at the counter drinking beer and watching the horse races on television.

 

I spent a few minutes looking around the pub, which is pretty much like it was in the movie.  The walls are covered with several risqué posters, some candid photos of Paul Hogan taken during the filming and a few pictures of his co-star, Linda Kozlowski, wearing the skimpy-but-oh-so-memorable black thong at the crocodile pond.  That thong made a big impression not only on me but also on Hogan, because shortly after he started raking in money from “Crocodile Dundee,” he dumped his Aussie wife of several years and married that Yank, Linda.  Last I heard, Paul and Linda were living somewhere in southern California.  Crocodile Dundee, apparently, has gone Hollywood.

 

The pub was interesting but not worth spending $25 on a “Walkabout Creek Hotel” t-shirt.  I didn’t buy a beer, either, since it was in the morning and I still had a couple hundred miles of driving ahead of me that day.  So after chatting with the friendly folks there (none of whom, unfortunately, looked even remotely like Linda Kozlowski), I got back in the Camry and hit the road as the thermometer topped 95.

 

   

Above left:  The Walkabout Creek Hotel in McKinlay, made famous in the movie "Crocodile Dundee."

Above right:  Cheers, mate.  Here's the inside.  Note the photos of Paul Hogan on the top.

Waltzing Matilda:  Exposed

About an hour later, I pulled off the deserted highway and, following the signs, drove about six miles down a deserted dirt road, then pulled into an empty, dusty parking lot for the Combo waterhole.  That name probably doesn’t ring any bells, but the Combo waterhole is the billabong made famous in the song, “Waltzing Matilda."

 

A.B. "Banjo" Paterson

(1864 - 1941)

     Andrew Barton Paterson was born on a sheep station in the Outback of New South Wales.  His parents sent "Barty," as he was known, to Sydney when he was young to get an education.  Afterwards, he joined a law firm in Sydney as a lowly clerk but worked his way up and, by the time he was 22, became a lawyer for the legal firm of Street & Paterson.

     Andrew vicariously escaped the drudgery of his desk job in Sydney by writing stories for local publications about his beloved Outback, using the pen name of "The Banjo," the name of his father's racehorse.  His first famous poem, "Clancy of the Overflow," was published in 1889 and paid tribute to a man who lived an unfettered life in the bush: 

 

And I somehow rather fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,

Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,

While he faced the round eternal of the cashbook and the journal,

But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of the Overflow.

 

      A year later, Banjo penned a poem about a cowboy's life in Victoria called, "The Man From Snowy River" (which, 90 years later, was made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas).  In 1895, while visiting the bush in Queensland, he co-wrote the song "Waltzing Matilda" with Christina MacPherson, a woman he had become romantically involved with.  It never made him rich, though, because Paterson sold the rights to "Waltzing Matilda" in 1903 for just five pounds.  Paterson returned to Sydney, married, served in World War I, retired in 1930, and died in 1941.

     Paterson remains one of Australia's greatest literary talents and, through his poems and stories, he chronicled life in the Outback better than perhaps any other writer.  He is an inspiration to writers like me, whose pathetic attempts to adequately describe the mythical Outback greatly pale in comparison.

 

   

Above left:  Banjo Paterson.

Above right:  Banjo (right) camping in the bush.

If you’ve been following my website, you know that “Waltzing Matilda” is one of my favorite songs.  Indeed, learning that song in the First Grade planted the seed for my eventual trip to Australia 35 years later, although I never figured out what a Matilda was or how exactly one waltzes with it.  During the next day, I gradually learned the story behind the song, so here goes:

 

Back in 1895, a poet from the Sydney area named Banjo Paterson visited Queensland for the first time and came out to this waterhole one afternoon with his fiancé, Sarah Riley, and Sarah’s father, a local rancher.  Yes, it’s that same Banjo Paterson (how many could there be?) who wrote the poem, “The Man From Snowy River,” whose path I had crossed a month earlier near Canberra.

 

Banjo heard a lot of stories that afternoon while picnicking next to the Combo waterhole with the Rileys.  Shortly afterwards he wrote the words to “Waltzing Matilda,” which was loosely based on some of these stories, including a sheep shearer who committed suicide during an ill-fated sheep shearer's strike in the 1890s, and another man who'd recently drowned at a nearby waterhole.

 

Over the next few weeks, Banjo wrote the words to the song while Christina MacPherson, a friend of Sarah’s who was also visiting the Rileys' ranch, composed the music, based on a tune she had once heard.  Apparently though, Sarah didn’t take kindly to her fiancé Banjo working so closely with Christina and so, in a huff, she split up with poor Banjo a short time later and called the wedding off.  No one's sure exactly what happened, but Sarah refused to speak to her friend Christina ever again and shortly afterwards, Christina's brother ran Banjo off the ranch.  Hmm... sounds like a good made-for-TV movie.

 

In case you were wondering, like I was, the term “Waltzing the Matilda” means being on the road and carrying a swag (a bedroll), as many traveling sheep shearers did back in those days.  If you recall, the song is about a jolly swagman who stops at a billabong and, while he’s waiting for his billy to boil, spots a jumbuck and stuffs it in his tucker-bag.

 

Huh?? 

 

Translating that into English, it’s about a transient worker who visits a pond and, while he's making some tea, spots a sheep, which he stuffs into his food bag (he apparently had a very large food bag).  Soon afterwards, troopers arrive to arrest the jolly swagman.  But vowing never to be taken alive (and probably not so jolly anymore), he jumps into the billabong and drowns.  According to the song, if you visit the billabong today, you can still hear the swagman’s ghost singing “Waltzing Matilda.”

 

After driving all that way out to the Combo waterhole, I was pretty disappointed not to see any jolly swagmen there.  In fact, no one was around except for a voracious mob of bushflies who eagerly greeted me.  Even though it was pretty hot and despite the swarm of bushflies, I ate lunch here overlooking the billabong “under the shade of a coolibah tree,” just like in the song.  Although this place was a lot drier than I imagined it would be, I could almost see Banjo sitting here and listening to stories about the bush. 

 

 

Here's Lazy Harry singing Waltzing Matilda.

   

To complete the experience, I took out my “Lazy Harry Sings 25 Australian Favorites” CD, popped it into my car's CD player, and listened to “Waltzing Matilda” sung in Harry’s nasally Australian accent.  In fact, I played it about five times. 

 

As I finished eating lunch, I turned off my CD player and, after all was silent once again, I listened closely.  During that moment, I thought I faintly heard the swagman’s ghost singing “Waltzing Matilda.”  Or maybe it was the drone of a hundred bushflies.

 

Waltzing Matilda 
(Words by Banjo Paterson)

 

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolibah tree.

He sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled

"Who'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me?"

 

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda

You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

He sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled

"You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me."

 

Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong

Up jumped a swagman and he grabbed him with glee.

He laughed as he shoved that jumbuck in his tuckerbag

You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

 

(Chorus)

 

Down came the squatter mounted on his thoroughbred

Up jumped the troopers, one, two, three.

Where's that jolly jumbuck you've got in your tuckerbag?

You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

 

(Chorus)

 

The swagman he got up and jumped into the billabong

You'll never catch me alive, said he.

His ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong

You'll come a Waltzing Matilda with me.

 

(Chorus)

 

 

       

Above left:  The Combo waterhole, the inspiration for "Waltzing Matilda."  Those are coolibah trees on the banks, just like in the song.

Above center:  I had lunch here under the shade of a coolibah tree.  Just me and a hundred bushflies.

Above right:  After popping a CD into the stereo here, I listened to "Waltzing Matilda" -- about five times, in fact.

The Historic Little Town of Winton

To complete my experience on the Matilda Highway, late that afternoon I pulled into the small town of Winton, Queensland.  Winton, with a population of about 1,500, is a very pleasant Outback town and, I decided, was a good place to spend the night.  Amazingly enough, this tiny town sitting alone in the Outback is the birthplace of not one but two of the most famous symbols of Australia:  “Waltzing Matilda” and Qantas Airlines.

 

 

Above:  Downtown Winton, a pleasant little town in the Outback.

In April of 1895, shortly after Banjo and Christine co-wrote “Waltzing Matilda” at the Riley’s ranch, the song was sung in public for the first time in Winton’s North Gregory Hotel (Winton's first North Gregory Hotel, that is, not the newer brick one that stands now on the site of the former).  The song was an instant hit and spread across Australia like wildfire, eventually becoming the country’s unofficial national anthem.

 

In the 1970s Australians decided that they needed an official national anthem, so they put it to a vote.  I guess Aussies didn’t think the words of “Waltzing Matilda” were dignified enough to represent them at the Olympics (can you imagine a gold-medal winner standing on the podium while proudly singing about billabongs and swagmen?)  So instead they gave the nod to a bland tune called, “Advance Australia Fair.”  You know how I would’ve voted.

 

The other important event in Winton’s history happened in 1921, when a couple of pilots got together here and formed the “Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service,” which they abbreviated to Qantas.  The first meeting of Qantas took place in the Winton Club, which still stands -- although part of it today is a takeout Chinese restaurant (seriously).  Qantas soon afterwards moved their headquarters to Brisbane, but without the encouragement and financial support of the Wintonites (er, Wintonians?), Qantas Airlines would have never gotten off the ground, so to speak.

 

Above:  Sunset at the North Gregory Hotel, the site where "Waltzing Matilda" was first performed, in a previous incarnation of the hotel, back in 1895.

That two important events in Australian history occurred here in this tiny town in the proverbial " middle of nowhere" I found to be quite amazing.  That’s especially true since the most famous thing that my hometown of Portland, Oregon (with a population of over a million people) is known for is being the home of that baton-wielding Olympic skater, Tonya Harding.  In case you haven’t heard, by the way, Tonya was arrested a while ago for throwing a hubcap at her boyfriend.  Yes, I’m serious.  But at least she hasn’t stuffed any jumbucks in her tucker bag.  Not yet, anyway.

 

I hadn’t stayed in any hotels yet while in Australia but I couldn’t pass this chance up, so I walked into the pub of the North Gregory Hotel and booked a room.  That evening, I strolled along Winton’s empty main street and watched the blazing sunset, then returned to the hotel where I’m writing this entry now.  It’s about 9 p.m. on a very warm and breezy Saturday night, and I’m on the second-floor balcony overlooking the hotel’s courtyard where an outdoor barbeque is finishing up. 

 

The North Gregory Hotel is a pleasant place to stay and the staff here is very courteous.  And best of all, you can almost hear “Waltzing Matilda” playing through the floorboards.

 

       

Above left:  The pub of the North Gregory Hotel.  That's the friendly owner, David Strang, standing with the phone.  I had a nice chat with him.  He was wondering what a lone American traveler was doing here in the middle of the Outback.

Above center:  Along with "Waltzing Matilda," Winton was also the home of Qantas Airlines.  Qantas was founded here at the Winton Club in 1921.  Part of it, no kidding, is now a Chinese takeout restaurant.

Above right:  Another Winton curiosity is Arno's Wall.  Arno is in his 70s and immigrated to Australia many years ago from Germany.  He has put everything, including literally the kitchen sink, into this wall.

 

   

Above left:  Inside Winton's "Waltzing Matilda Centre," the only museum in the world dedicated to a song.  This display of a swagman getting caught with a jumbuck is called, "Busted."  Just kidding.

Above right:  That's A. B. "Banjo" Paterson, author of "Waltzing Matilda" and "The Man From Snowy River."  By the way, Banjo was named after his father's horse, not a musical instrument.  Good thing he hadn't named his horse "Daisy."

 

   

Above left:  It's an interesting museum, but I probably learned more about Waltzing Matilda than I wanted to.

Above right:  Leaving Winton on one of Queensland's single-lane highways.  Fortunately I didn't meet any road trains here.  Only six more hours until the coast!

 


 

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