A Game of different Thrones.
Just imagine if Dr Who had been an Australian. The Tardis would not have been a police box, it would have been a public toilet. Now, that would have given the Daleks something to exterminate or at least disinfect. Imagine the confusion caused by a brick and concrete dunny plonking itself in the middle of some alien civilisation. What would be the effect on our eternal time lord of appearing in a thunder box instead of a police box?
For decades Australia’s civic engineers have rejoiced in plopping these structures in conspicuous places all over our landscape, a triumph of bodily function over form. Sometimes you look at the kind of beauty spot, where a more aesthetically sensitive culture, like the ancient Greeks or Romans, might have placed a temple. In Australia it is likely to be occupied by a shithouse: a pean to poop.
I consider this because last year, we came across a public convenience of a shape that was out of this world. (See photo above.) If it wasn’t cement, it could have doubled as a space capsule. It was possibly built as a side product by a company that makes concrete water tanks to catch rainwater for country houses and farms. From water supply they branched out into water closets. It was an utterly functional concrete cylinder with a long drop bog inside and was on a road with the flashy name Silver City Highway where no matter how long you drove, nor how fancy the road’s name, you still seemed to end up in the middle of nowhere.
And that seems to be the problem with Australian toilets. There are enough of them in the middle of nowhere, but increasingly few in the middle of somewhere. A few years ago I had a loud dispute with a service station operator, who I discovered had closed their toilet just after I had filled my car and wanted to empty my bladder when I paid for the fuel. They sold drinks but did not seem to comprehend the inconsistency in closing off the place where one could relieve oneself of the by-product. I threatened to piss on his petrol pumps.
In the suburbs, the convenient old fashioned pee and plop facilities are being replaced by those painful automated Exeloo things, that cater for one occupant per cubicle and as soon as the door is shut burst forth with an orchestral version of Bert Bacharach’s “What the world needs now is love sweet love.” Rubbish! What the world needs now is more toilets, useful ones in better places.
Recently on a holiday to the far north, we stopped at the town of Port Douglas, I was caught short and headed for the one Exeloo in a nearby park. I missed being the first there by a couple of seconds. While the automated voiceover tells you in an American accent, as the door slides shut that your maximum use time is 10 minutes, this guy seemed determined to use every one of them. Another would be patron came along and pissed in the nearby bushes. I gave up and found an obliging bar that let me use their toilet.
This trend seems to ignore a compelling demographic reality. Fairly soon, with our ageing population half the continent could be incontinent. So let’s deal with the problem now. We seem to be opening more eating and drinking places than ever, so we need to be more realistic about what happens to these substances once they pass through our alimentary canals. Public toilets were the product of a more socially conscious time to discourage people caught short with the urge, from pissing and pooping in public places.
Now in the age of making things public private again, these public facilities are either being removed entirely or minimised with those inadequate Exeloos or “Boxes of bog and Bacharach” as I like to call them.
Years ago on a trip to Nepal we could see the result of public authorities’ absence from responsibility for dealing with these calls of nature. The Kathmandu bus terminal would have been better named Kathmanpoo with nearly every bit of its concrete paving taken up with piles of human excrement. Descartes’ axiom “I think therefore I am.” should be widened, to take into account not just the concerns of our thinkers, but the needs of our sphincters. A couple of recent surgical operations left me in hospital with constipational after effects, each time the hospital staff would enquire with considerable concern: ”Have you opened your bowels today,’? If successful I would reply: ”Yes and I closed them too.”
It made me think of Descartes, a product of his 17th century era. Today he could be more prosaic. Perhaps with a line like: ”I crap therefore I live.”
Dining at the Daintree-
where you are on the menu.
Being eaten alive is one of our most primitive fears. Despite our veneer of civilisation, this dread is hard wired into what science used to call our reptilian brain. It was in place from a time before humans dominated the planet, were not yet the ultimate predator and if unlucky, were possibly another meal for a rival carnivore.
News of shark attacks shock us, when any rational consideration tells us motor vehicles are far bigger killers. Yet we love our cars and most of us hate sharks.
There is however one reptilian brain that has been around considerably longer than ours and now protected in Australia’s wild, doesn’t have to worry much about being eaten. It belongs to crocodiles, particularly the saltwater variety that has a taste for careless humans in Australia’s far north. Its ancestors predate the dinosaurs and survived the asteroid strike extinction 65 million years ago, that wiped out most dinosaurs, most other animals and most plants. It is a great survivor.This beast even withstood 20th century over-hunting in north Australia.
We are standing on a wide flat nearly empty boat floating on a murky brown tropical river training our eyes and binoculars to see one of these legacies from the primeval. On far north Queensland’s Daintree River, edging a stretch of rainforest considered the oldest in the world, there is a thriving industry offering visitors like us a chance to gawk at saltwater crocodiles, the apex of the world’s current hypercarnivores. You could say we are drawn by a kind of macabre fascination to see close-up a source of brutal violent death.
I could not ignore the alluring frisson of fear that comes from knowing there is less than half a metre of fibreglass boat between a river said to be full of the beasts and us.
Several tour companies vie for our dollars and the first one we try turns us away because the 11am boat is full. Next door the 11am boat has just one other couple booked and the folks coming ashore from the 10 am trip say they saw three crocodiles downstream.
Our boatman is Bruce who has lived in the area all his life and to our surprise turns upstream as we watch the rival packed boats heading in the other direction. I am feeling a bit cheated until he stops on the opposite bank and we notice in a patch of sunlight in some dense vegetation, a piece of dark grey stippled material that looks like a very large, expensive, haute couture Hermes handbag on its side.
The handbag moves slightly as the boat drifts a little upstream and then through the reeds and vines we can see the jaws of the bag are wide open, a doorway to a very basic but highly effective mode of being consumed.
We move on and see five crocs all up, including a juvenile on a big log, another handbag shape in the reeds, one more floating as a disguised log and one sunning on an open bank that rapidly turns itself into a floating log before I can get my camera in place.
The trip here was not to look at crocodiles, it was partly as a balm for me after two heavy duty surgical operations and to help prepare for a third at the end of October. While Jill organised it and claimed it was for me I suspect it was to help her cope too.
We flew to Cairns where the airport that calls itself international, reminded me of an outback cattle yard. Sure they had those aerobridge gangway things and a fancy airconditioned shopping block selling useless international brands like Amani, Rolex and Versace but the conduit connecting the two had cheap galvanised rails, bare grey concrete floors, ticky tacky walls and louvred windows. It looked like the sort of chutes used to move livestock, not paying passengers. It reeked of the mentality in Queensland when it was governed by the despicable farmer controlled National Party.
We hired a little car and drove just north of the city to Trinity Beach where Jill had organised a flat attached to a family house. It came with a three metre deep swimming pool and a somewhat timid female kelpie called Bella. We could see the water from our verandah. The beach, deep within crocodile territory, was patrolled by a lifeguard, as if that was any use. Alarmingly the water was the kind of murky they say the crocodile conscious should avoid. Still I went for a brief swim a couple of times and found the surf and current surprisingly strong.
I bought some flippers at Kmart to see if I could swim following my surgery. I found I could, but lost a flipper in the surf. After I had given up looking, a girl found it on shore about 50 metres along the beach, such was the current. The only crocodile I saw here was sculpted in the sand by some French tourists. I notice they sunned themselves on the sand but did not enter the water. The beach however was closed by a crocodile sighting a week or so after we left.
We also took a day trip north to Port Douglas and found a kind of wealthy Victorian holiday colony, part of a prosperous style contiuuum starting at Victoria’s Portsea, heading north to Byron Bay and Noosa, and finally here.
Note: to view this and the following two galleries in slide show form, single click on any image and the use the arrows to scroll. To return to the blog , click on small x near top of screen.
After visiting some friends that had migrated to the district from further south, we headed deeper north across the earlier mentioned Daintree River, to the Daintree National Park now a world heritage area, a listing still angering some of the more rurally focused locals. We were aiming for Cape Tribulation, the end of the bitumen road and thus the limit for our hire car.
The road north from the river was an experience in itself. It is meant to be driven slowly (40 to 60 kph most of the way) and to calm the traffic there are constant speed bumps of an alarming sump scraping height. The reason for the caution is displayed on repeated roadside signs warning of cassowary crossings. The rainforest is prime habitat for these giant flightless emu sized birds that are considered critically endangered. Only 4500 are thought to survive in Australia with about 400 in the Daintree region.
If crocodiles fascinate us as a reptile survivor of the dinosaur extinction, cassowaries should fascinate us even more, because they are dinosaurs. It has been long realised that along with primitive mammals, some non-dinosaur reptiles and amphibian archosaurs like crocodiles, that beaked birds survived the asteroid strike extinction. What is not widely appreciated and was only really confirmed in the late years of the last century is that birds are the direct descendents of a dinosaur strain and thus the only dinosaurs to survive.
Cassowaries which predate the extinction by about five million years are spookily prehistoric with the cartilage horn on the top of their heads and the bare red and blue skin that covers their neck from the base of their heads to where their feathers begin. They can also defend themselves. In the 1920s a 16 year old bovine brained local tried to club one to death only to be disembowelled by the bird’s razor like centre claw.
When we last visited the region 26 years ago, we saw cassowaries further south at Mission Beach. This time despite visiting the excellent Daintree Discovery Centre twice, we saw none, but we did see footprints in some mud. To make it worse a guy we met had seen one at the centre the day before us and had a photo on his phone.
Jill had organised to stay in a small bungalow at a place called Cape Trib Beach House at the end of the bitumen, but we weren’t at the beach, even the most expensive cabins did not have beach frontages. But they all had rain forest and some of their inhabitants, including chook sized orange footed scrub fowls and larger multi colored bush turkeys. Our closest encounter was with a huge golden spider that was hanging off our shower curtain. It was escorted outside in a glass. Staying in the forest hut made us think of the Japanese practice called Shinrin yoku, which translates as “forest bathing,” and has grown to describe the popular belief, that just being in a forest can be thearaputic. We agreed.
Here are photos that show some Daintree delights. The first is Cape Tribulation Beach lit by moonlight and the lights from a restaurant.
The Tribulation in the local name, was experienced by Lieutenant James Cook towards the end of his 1770 exploration of Australia’s east coast where the bottom of his ship, The Endeavour, rubbed across what we now value as the Great Barrier Reef, just nearby. A few hours later, on a reef now named after the ship, it became holed and stuck. Thanks to a feat of great seamanship the crew managed to land further north for repairs at a place later named Cooktown.
For us there were few trials at the Cape. Most of the red necks did not seem to have ventured this far north, so most locals we met were those who either loved the natural beauty or loved the income from a visiting clientelle, a united nations of mainly backpacker types, who loved the natural beauty.
The beach where we stayed was naturally beautiful and tempting, but signs warned crocodile jaws lurked and not even the most foolhardy backpackers put their toes in. We did put our toes in but only to get to a powerboat to take us to a yacht that would carry us to the delights of the outer reef.
We took the expensive yacht option because the much cheaper inflatable powerboat operator refused to take me, because my recent spinal surgery might not take well to the boat’s pounding in the chop from a substantial southeasterly. The yacht option, a $1 million French built catamaran, loved the wind and powered out to the reef skippered by a Sydney to Hobart yacht race veteran and assisted by a young Kiwi who seemed to have salt water in his veins. There were only three other couples, one pair of Americans on a whirlwind Australian honeymoon were particularly interesting. The woman had been on the personal staff of Hillary Clinton in her presidential bid while her husband had been on the staff of former president Obama.
Our destination was a sandy coral cay about 100 metres long which tended to shelter our snorkelling from the wind. The first underwater sight was another survivor from the asteroid extinction, a large sea turtle. I got clear photos and the crew said it was a comparatively rare hawksbill. Apart from that, I found the snorkelling disappointing and the reef was not in as good shape as I had seen further south off Townsville, years earlier.
Still the yacht was a joy in itself. A rising breeze powered us back to the mainland with the younger ones lying in the forward nets drinking wine and getting wet, while Jill and I sat in the steering cockpit chatting with the skipper.
Back on shore we had to put our feet in the the water again which brings me back to crocodiles and a silly 1950s pop song I couldn’t get out of my head the whole time I was there. It starts:
“Never smile at a crocodile,
No you can’t get friendly with a crocodile.
Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin,
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin…..”
Every year at least someone in Australia gets fitted into a crocodile’s skin, often brash German tourists tempted by waterholes and their romantic love of “ze nature.”
Since hunting was banned in the late 20th century salt water crocodiles now number up to 200,000 in the the wild. A friend who lives south of Cairns, says his local river more than 20 kilometres from the sea is now full of them, wiping out other river species like platypus. A former culling opponent, he is rethinking his opposition.
In the end I decided to get in first. We went to a cafe that served all kinds of unusual burgers: kangaroo, buffalo, wild boar, emu, what they called roadkill and crocodile, (farmed of course). Naurally I chose croc. It was a bland white meat that tasted a bit like chicken. After I left, I noticed there was a fibre of croc stuck between my teeth. I could not help thinking how it could have been the reverse and whether a croc would worry about a fibre of me.
The pecking dis-order.
“Lorna, Lorna, sitting on the grass, up came a magpie and bit her on the ….” My father, of a more euphemistic generation, politely left blank the space that should have contained the word ”arse,” when he recited his rhyme about a scoundrel bird from my mother’s youth. My mother, one of those people once pecked twice shy, maintained a magpie hatred for the rest of her life.
The attacker on my mother’s tender parts was the pet of two elderly unmarried sisters, my Great Aunts Lil and Pops, who lived in reduced spinsterly splendour in an enormous termite ridden old wide-verandah Queensland house in the once genteel inner Brisbane suburb, Taringa.`
I only saw the house a few years before the aunts died when it was bulldozed into a block of cream brick six pack flats. I was fascinated by its faded grandeur. Two features I particularly remember were a dinner gong and a large dining table with a moth eaten green velvet cover. They cooked in the kitchen on a coal burning stove and in the lounge there was a grand fireplace, a gesture to the land of their British ancestors rather than the reality of sub tropical Brisbane. I think there was even a room for a maid.
I own two relics from that house, given me by the aunts. One is an old ship’s sextant, now displayed in our lounge room and upstairs we have a 19th century turned wood swivel back office chair that I once stripped and oiled. Another gift that did not make it home was a large print depicting the Charge of the Light Brigade in a gold painted wooden frame. That frame was so full of borer, it almost turned to dust before we put it in our car and Dad managed to dispose of it before it could infect our house.
The aunts and their house have nothing to do with this story, except that they kept a magpie as a pet, something once common, but in most states illegal today. The bird was fairly autonomous. It flew around their garden and indeed the suburb during the day, returning to a safe perch in-house for a guaranteed feed during the evening and took a dislike to certain people, in particular my mother.
It seems cruel to confess I have a certain sympathy for the bird. My mother was in my experience, not the most likeable person: jealous, narrow minded and manipulative. She tried to undermine in an almost Freudian way, any girlfriend I brought home, so I am on the side of the magpie. Even though it is long dead, I can sympathise with its action.
Like with many of my mother’s prejudices, I have fallen into the opposite camp, so I add my voice to the growing dawn chorus cheering these cheeky black and white buggers, not just for their wonderfully evocative flute like yodelling, melodic song, but for their intelligence. From a brain the size of a shelled almond comes smarts at least equal to a dog. Like dogs, magpies that are in close contact with humans, often figure out how to get a percentage of the deal.They are also one of the few birds where the young engage in play, like you see among young mammals .
Just backtracking to the bird’s song; it is said to be one of the most complex in the avian world. A British observer has likened it to a demented keyboard, but he would coming from a country where most land birds are small, brown and twittering. I might be wrong but I suspect each magpie family sings its own song, a cascading variation of notes different to their neighbours.
For any non-Australian, PNG or New Zealand readers, I need to explain that the bird I am discussing is not related to the Eurasian magpie pica pica which, a member of the corvid family, is related to ravens and crows. Pica pica is the bird made famous in Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) where a delectable serving wench is accused of stealing from her employer’s silverware and as was the fate of serving wenches in such opera, condemned to death. After much music she is saved from the firing squad at the last minute when the missing cutlery is found in a magpie’s nest. Rossini did not operatically describe the fate of the bird.
Our magpie (misnamed by the early Europeans) is know for some misdeeds but not theft. It has now, on DNA evidence been recently reassigned to a largely Australian and Indo-Pacific family called Artamidae which includes our currawongs, butcherbirds and woodswallows.
Cracitus tibicen is our magpie’s biological name and they have eight subspecies and two main groups. Here in Melbourne and the coastal region from southern New South Wales across to central South Australia, our birds have white backs from the rear of their heads to their tails- Cracitus tyrannicus.
Inland and across Australia’s north, the birds are generally black backed with only a small white bit across the rear of their heads and neck, a black patch, then a mainly white tail visible in flight. There are regional variations, but these are the basic two types.
Therefore in Melbourne we have the white backs, but if we drive 200 kilometres to our place in the country near Mansfield, which is over the Divide, they are mainly black backs. I say mainly because the mountains are a boundary between the types and here you breed hybrids with varying amounts of black and white back plumage.
There is probably no other Australian bird that so divides opinion, not just because certain sporting teams, most famously in Australian Football, where the most polarising team, Collingwood, have taken magpies as their symbol. They are truly a team that evoke black or white reactions.
But like the team, the birds can be aggressive, particularly in the nesting season when males will attack anything they see as a threat, particularly by swooping or dive bombing. Every now and then the collision causes someone to lose an eye.
On the other hand there is an opinion (and it is one my experience leads me to believe), that magpies don’t attack people who feed them or provide other desirables such as a birdbath. Magpies are a long lived bird, up to 30 years if they are lucky. Researchers also believe they can distinguish different humans, possibly by face recognition. Therefore it pays to be on good terms with a bird that has both a long life and the capacity to hold a grudge.
My family’s association with them goes back to when we first built our country house, and soon after a magpie plonked itself on the balcony rail looking for a handout. Satisfied we were an easy touch, its entire family soon turned up. But we were then to discover some of the intricacies of magpie politics. They are extermely territorial and family groups fight viciously over what they consider to be their patch. A death in a family can leave them with reduced fighting capacity and their territory susceptible to enemy take over.
Our house was on territory boundary and because we were good for a feed, it was desirable property. We didn’t visit for a while and when we did, we realised magpie ownership had changed. The uphill family we had befriended, which consisted mainly of females and had become tame enough to eat from our hands, had been displaced by the downhill mob, mostly males and considerably more wary.
This arrangement had a fatal flaw. Downhill’s dominance was only until the next breeding season when the uphill tribe produced more young and had the numbers to recapture us. Then there was a little drama.
It happened during the season for swooping on walking or cycling humans. Normally the birds attack from behind and all the victim hears is the whoosh of wings and the snap of a beak. The telling thing was we had never been swooped up here, giving rise to my theory they don’t attack people they recognise as friends and providers.
But one day with a visiting work colleague and family I was walking down a nearby hill when there was a sudden whoosh and snap behind us. I looked and spotted the culprit flying back to the electric overhead wires. Am I kidding myself that a bird can look embarassed?
I turned to face it and it looked at me for a couple of seconds, then started preening its feathers as if to say: “It wasn’t me.” And we continued our walk undisturbed.
Such is the bird’s popularity, there are websites, Facebook pages and Youtube clips devoted to their antics interacting with people and even dogs they have befriended. One, www.penguinthemagpie.com is based on the story of a storm tossed magpie chick rescued by a young boy from Sydney’s posh northern beaches. It has spawned something of an industry and gained worldwide attention, partly thanks to the skill of the boy’s photographer father. There is now a book, original photo prints selling just below $500 each. Celebrity endorsements are claimed and even mumblings of a movie.
Like my great aunts’ magpie in Brisbane, it seems the now fully adult Penguin flies around most of the day, but lines up at the front door to be let in the house when the family comes home. I have come across magpies with broken wings that have been adopted by people. One I encountered lived with three small yappy dogs and used to run up and down the front fence with the dogs, joining them in barking. Magpies are great mimics.
A less slick website than Penguin’s, is The Magpie Whisperer- www.magpieaholic.com run by a woman based, I think, in the Victorian city Geelong. She posts videos online of the antics of the large magpie family that visits her backyard. She too has cashed in to some extent, offering a book and comic based on her bird experiences.
All this must disgust the enviro-zealots, especially men with beards and heavy boots in government conservation departments, who like to suppress human interaction with native wildlife. They have failed because nearly everyone I know feeds magpies. One friend in Brisbane’s subtropical warmth, with his kitchen door open much of the year, has magpies fly straight in and sit on the back of his dining chairs for a feed. His wife is less impressed by their droppings but doesn’t discourage the visitors. She is originally from Thailand and apparently sees magpies in her kitchen as just another example of baffling Australian behaviour.
The bearded zealots find it less baffling than infuriating, but they fail to understand most magpie feeding is initiated by the magpies themselves simply by begging at a door or window looking cute. This also gives humans an interaction with the animal world, something remote for many city and suburban people, who make up more than 80 per cent of Australia’s population. Like pets, semi-tame magpies play a role as ambassadors for nature in the court of humanity. So if the prohibitionists want to ban feeding, they need to consult the magpies first. The feathered focus group on our balcony would sing loudly in protest.
Something in the Eyre
Its black raisin eye seems directed at me as the dolphin makes a semi-circular arc in and out of its wet habitat, to briefly inspect the airy one of mine. Then a second or so later it happens again. Are there two dolphins, or just one deciding to investigate me twice? Just as suddenly all is calm- no time to extract my camera to prove this encounter has happened.
I am balancing my narrow kayak in one part of an intricate mesh of shallow waterways on the extreme tip of a triangular land mass called the Eyre Peninsula that pokes out in the Southern Ocean. We are just west of the halfway point across the Australian continent. The light here seems to have been lime-washed, the water often emerald green, the vegetation low and harassed by a wind that can be spontaneous and unforgiving.
Cursing my lack of photo proof, I consider how some of my ageing hippy/new age friends might have been impressed. But there is now nothing except the circular ripple left by the creature.
Beyond it, I can see a line of what are marked on the map as “shacks” hugging the shore of a beach that glows white in that limy light. I know from paddling there the previous day, that the beach is not sand, but entirely of shells from the round native oyster that used to be abundant here, but was harvested to near extinction. I also know that one of the buildings under no stretch of the definition can be called a shack.
It is McMansion in size and style, on a block that takes up an entire headland and is surrounded by a high wall. It might even have a swimming pool, but I could not see beyond that wall. Who would build such a house and need so much privacy in a place as isolated as this? And why would it need to stand out so much from the others here? Is there some person here who chooses isolation to enjoy wealth? The lesser structures on the beachfront nearby seem almost entirely nailed together out of second hand or scrap materials.
The location is further from the South Australian capital, Adelaide, than Adelaide is from my city Melbourne in the next state to the east. I couldn’t help feeling there was something strange about the enormous building.
Coffin Bay is equally strange, mainly for its name. It is the town my kayak points away from. I am hoping to make it to (for me), an unexplored part of this bay, but the wind is rising and I turn back to the town as the waves build too.
Jill and I, along with our old dog Astro, have parked our caravan in Coffin Bay for 10 days, the furthest point away from home during a two month trip to parts of Australia we have so far largely avoided.
The first stop on the trip was Australia’s most muscular river, the Murray at Echuca in partial flood, with its nostalgic overload of restored paddle steamers built in the days before railways or usable roads.
Leaving here, we called in on the so called Riverina district of southern New South Wales, particularly famous for its enormous bulk cheap wine production and the city of Griffith with Italian mafia undertones.
Hiding between the huge industrial tank-farm factories of the wine giants like Yellowtail, McWilliams and DeBortoli, are small family wineries offering great value, because the region’s name on a bottle does not command a premium price.
From there we turned south west to the citrus haven Mildura in far north west Victoria where the Murray was even closer to flood.
Then it was straight north to the wide, featureless, flat and fly infested outback and one of its few bumps, the old mining city Broken Hill.
This place provided the BH in the name of the world’s biggest miner BHP, but the company has since moved on to ravage more profitable pastures.
The town also provided the backdrop to the early ’90s drag queen movie “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” that gloried in the songs of ABBA. Ever since this otherwise butch bush town has done a feature in feather boas, false eyelashes and dancing queens. It even has an annual festival called “Broken Heel.”
Leaving there it was a long day west ending in a quick overnight in Port Augusta on the northern tip of Spencer Gulf, the body of water that washes the eastern side of the peninsula that was our destination.
I had been to the Eyre Peninsula once before in 2002 on the day when the car radio was alive with the death horrors of the first Bali bombing. Our family had been to Perth across the Nullarbor Plain and while Jill and our daughter Chloe, flew back, I drove with a much younger Astro as my companion, who slept most of the trip in the back seat. He is about 17 now and still sleeps most of the trip in the back seat, but needs help getting in and out of the car.
The Eyre Peninsula is about the size and shape of Tasmania and would be a rival to the island state if it was sawn off the mainland and floated a few hundred kilometres south. On that first visit, Astro and I left our campground at Streaky Bay in the north west corner and I drove the entire peninsula coast, including a stop off at the Point Labatt sea lion colony, then a diversion to Coffin Bay for its oysters, and still made it to Adelaide by midnight.
Jill had never been to the place, but we were inspired by celebrity chef Adam Liaw who devoted one of his Destination Flavour TV programs to the culinary possibilities of the area’s produce. He grew up in the peninsula steel mill town Whyalla, where his Malaysian born father was a local GP. We were intending this caravan trip to again head north to visit friends in New South Wales and around Brisbane, but thanks to him instead decided to head west.
Coffin Bay’s name is about as far removed from the usual schlock given to holiday destinations as it is possible to imagine. You could try Garbage Dump Point as an antonym to Surfer’s Paradise, but a town with the same name as the box we are burned or buried in is a pretty good try.
OK how did the town,which has a permanent population well short of 1000 get such a Halloween identity? It was initially named Coffin’s Bay by its first British discoverer, Matthew Flinders who spotted it on his 1802 circumnavigation of the continent, and bestowed on it the name of his friend Sir Isaac Coffin.
But as most Australian oyster lovers know, Coffin Bay is one of the most celebrated sources of the shellfish in the country. So is there a touch of black Australian humour in the name’s success? As any oyster eater knows it can take only one bad one to propel its eater in the direction of the rectangular wooden box. Or perhaps it is a bit like the Japanese eating the deadly puffer fish they label fugu, a kind of Russian roulette with chopsticks.
In the ten days we were there, I calculate I ate about 16 to 18 dozen plus two oyster pies from the town’s bakery, with barely a burp. As any reader of my earlier blogs might remember I am very partial to oysters, particularly the sweet native rock oysters that grow around the bays and inlets of Australia’s east coast where I grew up.
There used to be native oysters here too, the flat round Angasi oysters, which have been found in Aboriginal middens dating back thousands of years. But it took only a few decades after they were first exploited by invading Europeans, starting in the 1850s, for the Angasis to be virtually wiped out. Isn’t it one of the features of this country that the so called “settlers” seemed to be able to settle the hand of destruction on virtually everything they settled upon?
Anyway, after World War II, Pacific oysters from Japan were introduced and thrived, proving easy to grow and now make up the bulk of the oysters eaten in this country. However the Pacific is now threatened overseas by a disease that wipes them out and some adventurous South Australian growers are learning how to grow the somewhat tricky Angasis as a back-up. They have also found there is an overseas market for them fetching five time the price of a common Pacific in places like Hong Kong or even France. Back from the edge of extinction they have been saved by the economics of elitism.
Kangaroos and emus wander the town footpaths, but seafood is curiously harder to find. On the Coffin Bay tourist map, the oyster sheds, about a dozen of them, are shown on a back of town industrial estate. The first one we came to is called Pristine Oysters and it turns out is something of a celebrity, being one of the first to successfully farm Angasi. It was paradise, the common Pacific oysters were $8 a dozen and I bought $16 worth, while the Angasi were $10. I did not know what to expect, so I just bought a dozen of them.
The Angasi have a rounder and more scallop looking shell compared with the more elongated Pacifics. Back at the caravan, I prised open a dozen of each and found the Angasi had a browner flesh, compared with the grey fleshed Pacific. This batch of Angasi were also sweeter than the Pacific. I went back for more the next day and this time they had a slight metallic taste, not unpleasant but noticeable, possibly harvested from another location.
By the time we left Coffin Bay, and I had consumed the 18 dozen or so oysters of both species, I ate them mostly raw and unadulterated with anything but their own briny liquid. But occasionally I experimented with a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped spring onion and ginger which I first ate raw and then cooked on a cake rack, steamed in an electric frypan with some water in the base. All tasted good. Once though I tried a recipe for the Aussie staple, Oysters Kilpatrick. All I can say is that bloke Kilpatrick must have hated seafood.
I’ll stop raving about these shellfish and leave the last word to that American macho master wordsmith Ernest Hemmingway. “As I ate the oysters with their strong flavor of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” This passage is from his autobiography: A Moveable Feast.
My oyster feast turned movable too when it became time to leave Coffin Bay and head for a more northerly location.
Through the heavy duty agricultural land where wheat grows on the coast, we headed for Streaky Bay where the Eyre Peninsula joins the start of the great Nullarbor Plain, the vast stretch of emptiness that links eastern and western Australia. Here our van had a waterfront site allowing me to launch the kayak right in front, when the tide wasn’t out.
This isolated town was also the location where our ancient dog, Astro, as I said, aged about 17, had a sort of fit which we thought was a stroke. He could barely stand up, but when he did, walked in circles with his head tilted. The local vet had gone out of business and the nearest was 300 kilometres, either south or north west.
There were dire forecasts from fellow caravanners and a farmer we met, with typical farmer tact offered his services of a shotgun and shovel. It is just as well we did not accept because Astro gradually improved and after many hundreds of kilometres heading back east we stopped in the South Australian wine town of Clare, whose vet told us his affliction was common in canine geriatrics, was called “vestibular syndrome,” its cause was unknown and most dogs recovered.
Our dog worries over, we were able to enjoy the real reason we visited Clare: riesling. The valley is famous for producing some of Australia’s best examples of wine from this comparatively delicate grape. Our visit included the region’s oldest winery Sevenhill Cellars, founded in 1851 by Catholic Jesuit priests to produce altar wine. While they claim 90 percent of the Australian market for this very select category, they also produce a pretty decent range of wines for less sacred tables, including of course riesling.
And with many dozen bottles of this elixir under the caravan bed we headed home where an appointment with my car mechanic loomed. The aged Subaru Outback we used to lug the van half way across the continent and back had split the rubber protection covers on its front driveshafts allowing the dust from those unsealed South Australian roads to get in and shred the internals. Welcome home, remember to spend many $$$$$
Tomorrowland with Islamic sauce.
Kuala Lumpur is not one of the most immediately appealing cities. As an Asian melting pot, its charm is as a place where east meets east. But it presents to the first time visitor something less attractive- a jumble of freeways and overhead railway lines, architecture that ranges from the globally spectacular Petronas Towers, to tawdry shopping malls, the mock Islamic of the main post office with its high rise faux carved screen facade, to the faded British Raj splendour of the old Central Railway Station.
There is even a high rise tower of the ever ruling UMNO political party with its walls a giant video screen pumping out a message appropriate to the political mood. A few blocks away in down market Chow Kit is the diminutive dowdy headquarters of PAS, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, the heavy duty Islamist opposition that dominates the two most north eastern states with Sharia law. It would like to do so to the whole country.
We chose to soak up the Malaysian urban experience and stay in an apartment in a huge high rise complex in what might be described as up market Chow Kit. It is up market in that it is on a hill and strangled by a spaghetti mess of freeways, overhead railway lines and even a monorail that cut it off so completely from the downmarket and more interesting Chow Kit, that the only easy way out was by taxi. You could, if someone showed you the way, get to one of the two nearby railway stations by foot, but the authorities don’t make it easy by providing anything like a proper footpath.
For me each trip to KL is sort of a trip down memory lane, except in this city many of the lanes have been widened into six lane freeways. I must have visited the city six times over the decades, but it holds a special place in my nostalgia nuerones because it was my first taste of Asia on the return leg of a trip that was my first taste of the world.
In the meantime the city has changed dramatically from the mainly low rise somewhat sleepy tropical town that I first encountered 40 years ago. I landed there for a couple of days with my then girlfriend on the way back from that first overseas trip. Ruth and I had met in Melbourne soon after I moved there the year before. She had just migrated from Scotland. Although we were about the same age, she had already lived in numerous places. Born in the working class west end of Glasgow, Ruth had gained a law degree and had already lived in South Africa and Israel and had spent a good deal of time in Greece, France and other parts of Europe. I had hardly been anywhere even in Australia and Melbourne was the most exciting place I had experienced after a childhood in Sydney’s western suburbs and subsequent years in Brisbane. I was therefore very enthusiastic, when after a year together, she said she wanted to go home to see her Scottish friends and offered to pay my fare because I was then an impoverished student.
The return trip was with Malaysian Airlines and I can’t remember whether it was her idea or due to airline scheduling that we ended up a few days in KL. Ruth had never been to anywhere in East Asia and having never before been out of Australia, I was going to be wowed by anything exotic. We stayed in what was then called the Hotel South East Asia. It was one of the city’s few high rise buildings, towards the south of the centre and although I stayed there on a subsequent trip, there are so many high rise in that part of town now, on this most recent trip I could not determine if it was still there.
Ruth was a bit of a gourmet, unusual for a Scot she liked good exotic food and KL offered tastes never before experienced. Firstly there was sate, great cheap fistfuls of them with never before experienced spicy peanut sauce. That was a revelation and a bit of a problem for me who had resolved to try to lose weight, so over a dish of spicy clams, we had a row. While I was trying to restrain myself she was agog with new culinary delights.
I know we took one trip down to the coast at Port Dickson. As a seaside location it was underwhelming with a rubbish strewn beach and filthy water. I believe it has since been cleaned up, but what I most remember was my first taste there of chili crab and the revelation of orange papaya, so much better than the dreadful bitter yellow ones from my parents’ Brisbane backyard.
Another memory was how few of the Malay Muslim women then wore the Islamic hijab headscarf. Now Malay women wear their religion if not on their sleeves, certainly all over their heads.
In 1987 my wife Jill, then a teacher at Melbourne’s Wesley College, had a Malaysian Muslim girl student, who was very bright and did not think her hair was something that needed to be shrouded. Jill remembers her laments, after returning from trips home during school holidays, that she was being harassed by other girls to cover her follicles in the interests of ”modesty.”
Now the city’s taxis and public transport display messages forbidding not only anti-social activity such as carrying explosive liquids, but the human interaction of lips upon lips that we call kissing, but which the morally uplifted here describe as “indecent behaviour.”
Another sign of just how far religion has penetrated the Malay mind, was an advertisement for a real estate development. It pictured not just water views but views across water to a mosque.
After that first visit, I returned to KL by myself in 1980, well after Ruth and I busted up, and stayed at a down at heel Chinese run cheap hotel, either the Tivoli or Rex which were almost next to each other in a street called Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman. This is a long street in the city centre named after independent Malaysia’ first prime minister. I know I stayed at both of these hotels over the years. They were better than flop houses and offered clean sheets but smelly toilets. Under the creaking ceiling fans I would lie looking at the green panelled walls and think I was a character out of a Somerset Maugham novel.
This trip, before we paid a visit to this street, I had been told not to expect to find the old hotels, they would have been long demolished. We easily found the nearby Globe Silk Store which was still in business, so was the Minerva bookshop where I had once bought a Koran and also the Colosseum Picture Theatre and adjoining restaurant where I used to have breakfast and once ate a sizzling steak on an iron grill. There was also a heavy duty Islamic restaurant which I remembered, but I couldn’t locate either hotel, although there did not seem to be any new buildings in the area. I went to the Minerva bookshop, musing how strange an establishment with an emphasis on Islamic texts should be named after a pagan Roman goddess. Asking the guy behind the counter, he told me the two hotels had closed years ago and were transformed into shop/warehouses for the clothing trade. Indeed when I walked back along the street, I found the two buildings still there, one on the corner of a lane, the other a few buildings along, both now garishly painted, with women’s clothing on display.
Earlier in the morning we had visited the big local market back at lower Chow Kit. I have an obsession with collecting soaps from my travels and I bought some exotic examples there while Jill got some colourful cloth for our daughter. Late afternoon when we reached the southern extremity of Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, we came across another market, this one apparently aimed at tourists and got some souvenirs for the grand daughters.
Beyond the market was an enormous underground train station named Masjid Jamek, named after the fine ancient mosque on the river junction nearby, which we had visited on previous trips. We had not travelled on the KL suburban railway system much on earlier visits, as most of it was not built. In the past the city had serious road traffic and pollution problems and then the government just decreed they would build a rapid transit system, mostly elevated rail and down the middle of streets if necessary. In our home city Melbourne, the government is considering elevating some sections of suburban train lines as an economical way of eliminating dozens of dangerous and congesting level crossings, but it is facing stiff opposition from NIMBY (not in my backyard) interests.
We were curious to experience the KL solution and we bought a ticket randomly selecting the Gombak Line. It heads to the north of the city towards the mountains of the Genting Highlands and near the Batu Caves an important Indian Hindu religious shrine, we have visited in the past. We boarded the train in time for the afternoon commute, and the carriage was packed with hijabed women all heading home to the suburbs.
What we didn’t realise until the train reached the Gombak terminus was there was no driver, it was fully automated. A young woman was present as a sort of safety overseer. She walked down to the rear end of the train as it was about to change direction and with a key opened a panel containing a whole suite of manual controls including an emergency brake, presumably in case someone fell or jumped onto the track, but she didn’t touch them as the train headed on the return 28 kilometre journey to Kelana Jaya south towards the sea. It is one of the longest fully automated train systems in the world, and made me feel just how conservative we are in Melbourne, still grumbling over and resenting the automated ticket vending system.
We had one contact in KL, a former student of Jill’s, Drew Ambrose who is based in KL as a senior correspondent for the Al Jazeera media network. As a retired journalist, I was keen to see how a fellow journalist viewed the social and political situation in the region and with his insights he didn’t disappoint. It was Chinese New Year and, some of the best eating places in the city were closed for the holiday. Instead we sampled the food delights of Malaysia’s third most numerous ethnic group, the Indians. Little India was all that could be expected, noisy, colourful and fragrant.
Finally we felt we had to visit one institution devoted to something at the very heart of the identity of the majority Malay population- Islam. Indeed despite the country being founded as a secular state, it curiously has Islam as the state religion and it is illegal for an ethnic Malay to be anything else. If they did want to convert they need permission from a Sharia Court and it is never granted. It is illegal to attempt to convert a Muslim to another religion, while it is fine to try to convert a non- Muslim to Islam. Make sense?
Other religions are tolerated for other ethnic groups, but atheists get a hard time of it if they come out of the closet. Better to stay in the closet with the equaly persecuted homosexuals.
The Muslim institution that attracted us was the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia. Like many of the other Islamic institutions in the city, it is impressive and impressively funded by the taxpayers irrespective of their beliefs. The displays offer everything from ancient korans, decorated weapons, pottery and clothing to models of different types of mosques from around the world. I was particularly taken by a mosque designed and built in the United States. Curiously there were a number of exhibits of Islamic curios from that most fanatically Christian country. I wonder what the museum was trying to demonstrate. I wonder if there are similarly characteristic churches in Saudi Arabia.
I must raise it with Donald Trump.
A slow steamboat to Chinatown.
Bee Hoon Hor Fun. If you say it with an Australian accent, it could refer to a bogan blokes’ night out with V8 Commodores and naughty girls. But if you see it written along with Chinese characters out front of a street restaurant in Penang, it is just another of the almost endless food innovations of this majority Chinese Malaysian city that has fascinated me and my tastebuds for more than 35 years.
I’m not sure what the dish really is, probably some kind of noodle concoction. There are so many food variations that nearly every restaurant or humble street food stall seems to offer something different. That is why Penang is classified as one of the top food cities in East Asia, no small achievement in a region of the world known for interesting eating.
I first visited Penang in 1980 and unexpectedly spent my first night in a brothel. The Tong Lock Hotel was not my first choice, but arriving at nearly midnight I didn’t have many choices. I was taken upstairs to my room by an old Chinese man, who when he tried the key in the door, was repelled by a woman’s voice within who screamed something in a Chinese dialect. He motioned me to wait on a bench outside the door. Eventually a young man tore out of the door wearing a motorcycle helmet and sprinted down the stairs. He had dark skin and a wispy beard and I presumed he was a Malay Muslim. The woman who had been attending to his needs emerged next, fixing her clothing. She apologised to me in her best Chinglish: “sorry no finish.”
I went and flopped exhausted on the still warm sheets wondering if the Muslim guy had kept his helmet on during the proceedings, hoping Allah wouldn’t recognise him for his sin.
My plans to check out of the hotel the next day foundered, I stayed a week and I found myself getting quite friendly with the girls who never tried to engage me in any transaction except a challenge to games on the hotel’s one pinball machine with the loser to pay. I always paid. I guess that was the extent of my Hor Fun.
I was lured to Penang this time for some gastronomic consolation before allowing surgery on that part of the male anatomy that plays up on blokes my age and has a name that is often confused with an adjective that describes a position on the ground adopted by the very submissive. If that is not enough of a clue, the word starts with ‘p’.
There have been six or seven visits to Penang since the first and I have always been transfixed by its old centre called Georgetown with its streets of quirky terraced Chinese shophouses that as the name suggests, were designed for families to live and work in the same structure. There could be any sort of business on the ground floor: shop, warehouse, restaurant or even a small factory, while the family lived in the one or occasionally, two stories above.
In the better streets there were mansions built by successful Chinese or Malay businessmen. In their declining years a lot of these were turned into cheap hotels like the Tong Lock.
Such streetscapes have been almost totally wiped out in the edifice complex driven corporate state that has become Singapore and have largely disappeared in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, a city that now resembles a kind of Disney inspired Islamic Tomorrowland, but not rich enough to go to the extremes of Dubai.
Neglect had saved Penang’s centre, but we always feared its charm could not withstand the bombastic developer bravado that underpins modern life, particularly when a lot of the local wealthy Chinese associated success with things big, new and shiny.
We were wrong. Enough of the locals realised the city, once called ”The Pearl of the Orient” was still a gem and despite some opposition, succeeded in 2008 in having the heart of the old capital, Georgetown listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. It could also be the outsider factor. Penang locals would not be the first to need the admiration of others to look, appreciate and remind them what they have. From the people we spoke to: local Chinese, Malays and European expatriates, the listing has been a huge success.
The mansions are being restored in to expensive hotels, offices, museums or some even back into mansions. Some shophouses have also become tourist oriented; restaurants, bars, boutique hotels museums and so on, but the charm of the place is that most continue to be what they always were: homes or businesses with accommodation above.
However, there is one new use that appears to be growing quickly and adapting to the foreign admiration- the shophouse homestay or even better, the whole house renovated and rented for the price of an average hotel room.
After years wondering what shophouse living would be like we took the chance and rented a renovated one we found advertised on Airbnb. It was in a row of 10 terraces on one side of a lane so small and obscure that our lifelong Penang resident taxi driver had never before been there.
As a concession to guests from cooler climates, three of its rooms were air-conditioned, including the main room downstairs and the main bedroom. They needed to be because we soon realised the house front was on the sunny side of the street, and in the dry season the city was experiencing higher than expected temperatures for late January, the locals blamng it on El Nino and climate change. Most days peaked out at 36 to 38 degrees, instead of the 32 normally expected at this time and even most of the locals were beginning to wilt.
The house had a well equipped kitchen, but we did not use it- the eating out choices were too tempting- extensive, varied and mostly cheap.
But there was one temptation in the kitchen that I was busting to use. When we first arrived in Penang we stayed four days in a high rise apartment up the coast near the resort beach Batu Ferringhi. There were no shops or restaurants near the apartment. On a visit to the enormous new Tesco supermarket soon after we arrived in Penang, I bought a steamboat. I am not talking about the kind of steamboat that might feature in a slow boat to China, but table top cooking device popular with Chinese and other East Asians. They are a bit like an oriental fondu and sometimes known as a fire pot or hot pot.
I have two of them at home, the traditional type where you put hot coals or charcoal down the centre chimney to heat a stock held in a circular metal ring around it. Each diner chooses the food they want and drops it into the liquid to cook. But the charcoal fired ones are a hassle to get going and to keep the cooking temperature correct. The one at Tesco you put on a small tabletop butane stove, but its best feature was inside it had four segments ensuring each diner’s preferred foods were not mixed with others’. This is important to Jill who doesn’t like shellfish or crustaceans usually featuring in steamboat offerings.
I bought the little gas stove at another nearby shop, but had to resist using the setup until I got home, even though I could not resist getting it from its box now and then to admire. I am sure I could have found something similar Melbourne’s Asian shops, but that’s not the point. Part of the pleasure of travelling are the treasures you bring back which remind you of the trip every time they are used.
Not using it did not stop us having a steamboat. We found lots of great eating places, just walking the streets each night. One nearby did traditional steamboat with the charcoal fire in the centre and a stock of fishhead soup.
When we bought our Tesco steamboat (which was on sale half price for Chinese New Year) we showed it to the elderly Chinese mother of the woman who owned our northern apartment facing a beach curiously named Miami Bay. She was impressed by the device, but when we showed it to a younger guy, he was not, saying it should have the centre chimney and be heated by charcoal. This he asserted was what Chinese preferred. This must however be a Chinese Malaysian thing because four years ago when we visited Hong Kong, the steamboats we sampled there were all powered by tabletop gas stoves.
And after returning to Melbourne and trying it out several times, I can attest the gas version is easier to use, not suddenly running out of heat while you still have half the ingredients to cook.
Speaking of the Miami Bay apartment, I was keen to rent one in a high rise because it contrasted to the shophouse, and also represented what many locals aspire to. Outside the heritage centre of Georgetown the island is sprinkled with so many and of such height the landscape these days looks like a pin cushion. Indeed we were told many apartments had been bought by wealthy mainland Chinese and were left empty. Apparently because of restrictions the Chinese government imposes on moving money from the country, buying a foreign property is seen as a means of warehousing wealth off-shore.
Our apartment had a great view of not only Miami Bay but also north to the resort island of Langkawi. The beach, which we accessed diving across the main northern road, had a small restaurant and a handful of shops, but a very elaborate new toilet complete with men’s and women’s Islamic prayer rooms. When I spoke about this to a Chinese guy, he expressed resentment that on a majority Chinese island, taxpayers’ money was lavished on mosques and prayer facilities, but he claimed the Chinese had to raise money themselves if they wanted to build or repair a temple or clan house. It was a form of apartheid, he said.
The beach was popular with local Muslim families, with the women quite happy to take to the water in their full gear and headscarf. It made a nice change from the Saudi tourists where the guys relax in shorts and T shirts, while their women are fully covered in black with only a slit for their eyes. We saw a number of couples like this and the mysogynistic irony did not seem to have occurred to the men. Women imprisoned in this clothing because a religion believes their immature men can’t control their dicks.
But I noticed a number of these black crow look-alikes, at the end of the trip at the airport, had pulled open the eye slit to expose their faces. I wondered what would happen if they continued like this when they returned home.
In contrast, on our beach there was one young woman who was enjoying herself kicking a football to a little girl. She was dressed in the Malay Muslim clobber, but she obviously took her football seriously and was a good accurate kick. She was also obviously unperturbed that such an action in pubic would put her legs into a position that a repressive regime such as Saudi Arabia would interpret as ”immodest.”
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This was first published as a Saturday Essay in The Age newspaper Melbourne on 27 September, 2008. I worked there as a journalist for 21 years until August 2012 when redundancy became too good to refuse. I am recycling it because it talks about very ordinary events that make life seem just that bit more extraordinary
By Geoff Strong.
I was four years old when I crawled into a tiger’s cage. There, in one of my earliest memories, is an enormous yellow and black head that I was trying to caress with my small hand and entice with the soothing words “nice pussy, nice pussy”.
As a small child I had no pets, despite wanting to pat anything with fur or feathers. My parents refused my pet pleas on health grounds, until the day of the tiger. It certainly focused their attention.
Absent from my memory of the event, but etched in that of my late father’s, were the shrieks and gasps from the crowd outside the cage. I also have no memory of what probably saved me from a very abbreviated existence: the actions of a circus trainer who flopped a large piece of meat into the other end of the enclosure.
On the way back to our Sydney home, my parents discussed the incident and the lengths I would go to for animal company. “I think we should get him a dog,” my mother said, putting aside for a moment her obsessive cleanliness and microbe phobia. She probably figured a cocker spaniel would do less damage than a tiger.
The cocker spaniel’s name was Frisky. He was not particularly smart, certainly not smart enough to avoid the car that led him to an early grave in a neighbour’s yard a few months later. My parents avoided getting a replacement, which made me a one-boy canine rescue squad, bringing home any apparently lost mutt I could find, among them one whose fangs made the scar still on my left hand. Dad quietly got rid of them all, saying their owners had been found.
I was eight when Skipper appeared. As a friend and I tore along the street on our bikes, there was suddenly a third member of our gang: a cattle dog-shaped black and white mongrel who raced along beside us. My father made sure the dog was locked from our yard when we went out, but on our return he was inside the front fence wagging his tail. His contempt for barriers should have been a warning. Dad was charmed by his audacity but still said he would have to go once his owner was found. As Dad calculated the dog, who had ground-down teeth, would have been about five when he arrived, that would have made him well over 20 when he departed 18 years on, his owner still missing.
I chose his name, and not long after his arrival we took him on holidays to a lake on the NSW south coast. Dad was a strong swimmer, while at that stage I could not swim at all, so he conducted a test. He jumped into some fairly fast-moving water, swam out and appeared to get into difficulties. The dog watched the swim with concern, but the difficulties were too much. He yelped, jumped in, swam out and grabbed Dad by the trunks, trying to tug him back to shore. That sealed it, despite the teeth-holed togs, Skipper had endeared himself to my father beyond question.
“He’s a smart dog,” Dad would boast to anyone who would listen. Smarter probably than even he realised. For starters there was the matter of Dad’s occupation. The cunning mutt had got himself adopted by a butcher, guaranteeing a lifetime supply of fresh meat and quality bones.
Then there was the matter of the front fence, which he crossed when he wanted, as easily as humans would use a gate. When he jumped to the other side, he could be away for days maintaining his alpha-male status and returning exhausted with a torn ear, a savaged front paw and once with what Dad reckoned was a bullet shot through his rear-leg muscle.
High gates were erected to stop him getting to the front, so he simply crawled over the side fence. Dad installed a line of barbed wire along the top of our perimeter. I was embarrassed to bring friends home to play in a yard that looked like a prison camp, but still the dog disappeared. My father was being outwitted, but how?
One day he called me to sneak down the back, hide behind a bush and watch. There was a gate into our neighbour’s yard secured by an old iron sliding hasp. I saw this happen: Skipper lifted the hasp lever with his nose, slid it across, opened the gate with his paw and vanished.
A lock was placed on the gate, but he still escaped, tearing bits of fur and flesh on the wire. Dad was embarrassed by customers in his shop telling of seeing the dog suburbs away. He once turned up at my school, pretending not to notice me, and in one case a woman delivered a boxload of very Skipper-looking puppies. I never found out what happened to them.
For all his faults, Skipper was a great companion. He would chase anything, play with anything and accompany me and my friends on any adventure.
My father was amazing with animals: dogs loved him, he tamed a sparrow, budgies kissed him on the cheek and he easily taught Skipper tricks; it seemed he could get the dog to do anything. It was like having a circus acrobat in the family.
We moved to Brisbane when I was 13, and soon our area began being populated by little Skippers. This went on until, about the age of 15, he became too weak to scale the fence. But if he met a female dog on a walk, he would still offer his DNA. I was 25 when he died. Blind and deaf, he still managed to climb the steep stairs of our high Brisbane home, until one day he fell.
In retrospect, I never understood why what could be described as the root-causes of Skipper’s problem were not snipped off by a vet. Neutering back then, Dad said, was done to female dogs and cats, not males. But I learned from my mother the meaning of the noun “reprobate”. This did not apply to my father, a quiet, teetotal family man. Maybe he was vicariously living a double life through Skipper. Maybe there was a tiger in him after all.
Geoff Strong is (was) an Age senior writer.