Tag Archives: Australia

Don’t Let the Camels Bite You, and Other Lessons from a Long Walk in the Outback

Coolgardie, Australia, Camel Team (photo in the public domain)

On The Monthly, Robert Skinner reluctantly agrees to join his parents on a camel trek in South Australia. While the participating humans walk, the camels pull carts that carry their gear for the trek.

My dad’s cousin Robyn had married a bushman called Don, and together they raced camels and went on wagon expeditions. This was the first time they were bringing other people along. There would be between 9 and 14 people on the trek. Being in such close quarters with strangers for ten days was not my dad’s idea of a good time. He would have preferred to be at home with a book or tinkering in his shed. But his own dad had a reputation for disappearing out the back door every time someone showed up at the front door, and my dad was forever trying not to be that guy.

The night before we left Adelaide he did that thing nervous parents do, where they start fussing over their kids instead. He looked at me gruffly and said, “Now listen, Bob. What are you going to do out there for entertainment?”

“I dunno. I brought a few books.”

“You understand that these are country folk we’ll be travelling with. They like different things to us.”

“Well, what about you? What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to look at the fire,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”

Before traveling in Australia myself, I’d read two books by the Australian novelist Peter Carey — Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda.  I did not quite believe the characters. I have since crossed the Outback three times. It is populated by the kinds of people that choose to live in difficult and remote places; it’s weird in its own rough way.

On one of my trips through I saw a camel cart, piled high with a living room furniture set. The last time across I met three ancient women sitting in low rocking chairs, knitting in the heat while a blonde girl child ran around in the dust underneath the raised house. I’d stopped to ask about short-cutting through their cattle ranch on the private road traversing their land. They were not at all surprised by my appearance and asked merely that I be sure to close the gates. I remain convinced that they were the fates, spinning my destiny in this flat treeless place, hundreds of miles from anywhere.

Thanks to my own adventures, I found this description of one of the camel drivers — and all the other absurdities in Skinner’s story — completely plausible.

Brian or Nat usually drove the main wagon. Nat was a bosomy powerhouse who raised a family, kept a menagerie of pets and broke in camels for a living. She wore the same singlet, shorts and thongs the whole trip. Even on frosty nights. One evening she reached into her bra looking for a cigarette, and I saw her pull out a lighter, a tobacco pouch, a packet of tissues, a hunting knife, $20 (in change) and a bundle of keys before she looked up and said, “Oh, here it is. It’s in my fucking mouth.” On the fourth day she got kicked full in the face by a camel and just started kicking it back.

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Are We Swallowing Culinary Propaganda?

chocolate cupcakes with pink and white heart-shaped sprinkles
Image in the public domain

There are many fronts in the culture wars, but none so visceral as the tactical battleground of food. Cultural taboos make for easy bullying, whether that means slipping pork chops into the halal section of the supermarket or rebranding lamb as a meat that brings all Australians together (aside from vegans, of course). At Meanjin Quarterly, Shakira Hussein describes her encounter with a right-wing nationalist group doing culinary PR on the streets of Melbourne, and looks at how the food we eat — or don’t — is weaponized against cultures perceived as enemies.

Named for the Norse god of war, the Soldiers of Odin are the Australian off-shoot of a Finnish far-right organisation that claims to be protecting ordinary citizens against crime by conducting vigilante patrols on the streets, as well as providing succour to ‘The Homeless, Less Fortunate & The Elderly’. Like Reclaim Australia, the Q society, the United Patriots Front and of course Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, they also claim to be a frontline defence in the battle against Islamisation and sharia law. I had interviewed other members of the so-called patriots movement at their highly publicised rallies during which they had clashed with anti-racist protestors and the police, but somehow I felt more threatened by the four Soldiers of Odin than I had by the crowds at those earlier events. Perhaps the hate-speech against my religious community sounded more sinister in the darkness and the shadows, but most of all, I think it was the cupcakes.

‘Seriously, they were giving out cupcakes,’ I told my friends. ‘With love-hearts on them! It was terrifying.’

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What It’s Like to Drown

Photo by 29cm (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Fenella Souter reports in detail on what it’s like to drown through the harrowing personal experience of a woman named Merav. In a bid to show off to her boyfriend 40 years ago, Merav jumped into the surf at Gunnamatta Beach in Victoria, Australia, and lived to regret it.

Her first wave is an angry, spine-jarring dumper that hurls her down and holds her down. The returning rush of water sucks her back out, still under, while one of the many fierce rips that run out from this beach takes her in its grasp. When she finally pops up, choking and spluttering, disoriented under a leaden sky, sand in her ears, bikini top hanging around her neck, she’s at least 25 metres from where she went in.

The situation is suddenly crystal clear to her.

An unpatrolled beach, deserted, at 4.30 in the afternoon. A sea whose fury she has seriously underestimated. A boyfriend who can’t save her. She can see his flailing arms, his mouth moving. “Right then and there, I thought, ‘I’m not going to get out of this.’ I didn’t lose all hope, because the will to survive is so much stronger than that but I realised it was so much more dangerous than I had thought. I was already struggling to keep breathing.”

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Giving the Ultimate Gift: Granting the Wish to Die at Home

Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At The Australian, Andrew McMillen writes on palliative care as a critical service, and of the “power and the grace” required to care for those who are terminally ill and grant their final wish: to die peacefully, at home.

On an adjustable bed in a room towards the front of the house is Tony Huelsmann, a retired dancer, choreographer and dance instructor whose skills were once in high demand at schools throughout Melbourne and Brisbane. Sandra was one of his dance students. He was 30 when they met, seven years older than her, and it was love at first sight.

Born in Germany, Tony has spent much of his life in Australia. Now 80, he is dying from complications associated with several internal and ­external cancers, including a rash of angry red squamous cell carcinomas that have colonised the skin of his swollen upper thighs. These painful sores require daily dressings, performed by a personal care worker, while Karuna’s rotating ­roster of nurses help with symptom management, bed-baths, toileting and bedding changes, as well as emotional support for both husband and wife.

Since May, Tony’s world-spanning life has been confined more or less to these four walls while Sandra cares for his every need. At night, she snatches sleep where possible. It is their wish for Tony to die at home and they are both determined to see this wish fulfilled.

“A good palliative care nurse should be invisible,” she says, while navigating her hatchback between house visits. “You’re there to help them negotiate the process with friends and loved ones. The Dalai Lama says compassion should be selfless: it’s not about you, it’s about them. You’re a springboard. But it’s a real dance: you’re not a robot, and you go in with your whole self and heart open. We’re all emotionally involved, and the moment you’re not – when it becomes mechanical – I think you should quit.”

By midday Friday, Tony has lost more strength and lucidity. Swollen from the waist down, he has little control of his body. Today, for the first time, he is unable to use scissors to cut the tape that his wife uses to dress his sores. When Karuna nurse Kate Hooper visits his bedside, Tony clocks her prominent baby bump. A man near death meets a woman weeks away from giving birth. Pointing a shaky finger, he smiles and rasps to her, “How long to go?”

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‘This Is Home Now’: The Karen People’s Journey from Myanmar to Australia

Escaping persecution and conflict, many Karen people of southern and southeastern Myanmar have migrated to Thailand, settling primarily in refugee camps at the Myanmar-Thailand border. As Margaret Simons reports on SBS, about 200 Karen people have since found a new home in Nhill, a country town halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia. Their presence has brought new life to the town — jobs, connections, and a sense of community — making Nhill a model for the rest of the country.

A board outside the shop announces, in the exotic Brahmin script of Myanmar, Kay’s great act of generosity and now her cause for hope. She has given, rent free, the space at the rear of her store to Karen community leader Kaw Doh Htoo. There, he has opened a grocery store for the Karen people who have made this remote country town their home. . . .

He sits at the formica table and tries to describe how he came to live here, in this little declining town with its wide streets and closed shops speaking of past prosperity. The Karen come from the hills and mountains of Karen state, part of Myanmar near the Thai border. He gets choked up.

This is home now, he says. It is a good place. But he misses the hills and jungle. Ask him what he hopes for his children, and he weeps.

Hope, after all, can be as sharp as a knife. . . .

But there are other things here, too — less visible to the passing eye. Nhill has a higher rate of volunteering than the nation as a whole. It has what Deloitte Access Economics has termed unusually high levels of social capital. Put more simply, it is a town with a big heart and, over the last six years, it has come to stand for a very different kind of Australian story.

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An illiterate child from a small town in India falls asleep on a train and ends up lost in Calcutta, unable to find his way back home. Twenty-five years later, while living with his adoptive family in Australia, he locates his lost hometown using memories and Google Earth:

This was it, the name of the station where he was separated from his brother that day, a couple hours from his home. Saroo scrolled up the train track looking for the next station. He flew over trees and rooftops, buildings and fields, until he came to the next depot, and his eyes fell on a river beside it—a river that flowed over a dam like a waterfall.

Saroo felt dizzy, but he wasn’t finished yet. He needed to prove to himself that this was really it, that he had found his home. So, he put himself back into the body of the barefoot five-year-old boy under the waterfall: ‘I said to myself, Well, if you think this is the place, then I want you to prove to yourself that you can make your way back from where the dam is to the city center.’

Saroo moved his cursor over the streets on-screen: a left here, a right there, until he arrived at the heart of the town—and the satellite image of a fountain, the same fountain where he had scarred his leg climbing over the fence 25 years before.

“A Home at the End of Google Earth.” — David Kushner, Vanity Fair

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