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April 15, 2024

Australia Through Other Eyes

By Lydia Manx

Like I said a few weeks ago, I have been trying to read through my stack of books that I had bought for one reason or another and set aside to get to 'one rainy day' or something like that. Given it never rains in Southern California, I broke down and started the summer with Tony Horwitz' One for the Road. I was first introduced to Mr. Horwitz over a half dozen years ago with a copy of his book, Confederates in the Attic. His jaunt through America in search of why Civil War re-enactions were so popular today in a modern world was a fun read. I was addicted. I have read pretty much anything Mr. Horwitz ever wrote. It took me a while to find his novel, One for the Road, which is billed as 'an outback adventure'. I already knew that good old Tony had a rather radical style of immersing himself in his stories so I turned the pages with excitement and voyeuristic lust. And One for the Road didn't disappoint.

Australia has always fascinated me ever since the nuns in school showed us pictures of kangaroos and explained about joeys in the pouch. That was completely cool. Later trips to the San Diego Zoo and seeing the koala bears and other exotic creatures from down under further captivated my imagination. I'd put the land down under as a place to go visit some day in the future. (I've gotten close but have yet to actually touch Australian soil.)

Then I read Tony's book. I'm not so sure I'd take his journey. With his typical throwing himself completely into his adventure, he decided to walk and hitchhike across Australia. Granted it was back in the 80's but still, he was hitchhiking in a hundred degree weather with little more than charm and a bottle or so of water to keep him company.

His descriptions of people and places are told in his own manner with a mixture of amazement, and at times disbelief. He encounters a fellow hitchhiker who tells him about the piece of road ahead. The conversation was amusing and yet flavored with an honesty of a fellow traveler.

"Mate," he says, crossing the highway to greet me, "mate, if you have any sense, you'll turn around. I spent sux days from Adelaide to here. Wurst sux days of my life."

The hitchhiker's accent tells me he's from New Zealand. The hitchhiker's stench -- and the battalion of flies buzzing around his head -- tells me he knows of what he speaks.

"Mate," he says, sitting down on his pack now, "it was horrible, let me tell you." And he does. Two days in Port Augusta, in burning sun, with no one stopping to pick him up. A ride finally to Coober Pedy -- "hell on earth, mate, hell on earth." Stuck there for another two days. Then a ride with two Aborigines who broke an axel in the middle of nowhere, and just abandoned the car -- and him -- to wander off into the scrub.

Tony Horwitz goes down the road despite the warning to find out the man wasn't kidding. The days are hot and the nights freezing cold. Much of his trip was spent either waiting for a ride or trying to figure out where he was and if he was going to make it. He goes to the edge of nothing and comes back with a healthy respect for the landscape and the people. His humor is laced with an honesty about his ignorance and his defeat on many fronts. He saw a side of Australia that nearly challenges the reader to go travel the same road in search of the people and land. At least that's what the reviews claimed. Not this reader. I shuddered and passed on the book to others with no desire to take the same journey. Crippling heat, massive amounts of flies and ants coupled with dry landscape that could be flooded instantly during the wrong season. It isn't my type of road trip.

The summer continued and I read other books, and then I saw a book on one of my reference shelves I'd forgot I had. When I'd bought the Horwitz book, Amazon naturally kept referring other books in a similar vein. I ended up picking up The Explorers by Tim Flannery. It was shoved on a shelf and I forgot I'd picked it up. That was a mistake because this was a fantastic book. I do have to admit to being a history geek. I took quite a few courses in college for fun. I read nonfiction historical books when I am researching an era or trying to find the voice of a generation.

Tim Flannery edited and introduced the history of how Australia was seen from historical records and books he'd spent time reading and researching. The Explorers: Stories of Discovery and Adventure from the Australian Frontier was snippets of longer works. Before each chapter Mr. Flannery gives a bit of his insights and perspectives. He doesn't hide from the ugly bits of Australian history nor avoid making social commentary. He's from Australia and proud of his country, but not always his countrymen. After Tim does the introduction, the real meat of the book begins with an excerpt by William Jansz in 1606. The book is laid out in chronological order and each work has an inset picture of where in Australia the adventurer is journeying. Many of the same paths Tony Horwitz later traveled are 'freshly discovered' by the Englishmen traipsing over the continent.

Charles Sturt found out how hot it got in 1845 when his thermometer broke due to the heat in the Simpson Desert. The mercury in the thermometer was bouncing from 125 to 127 degrees and eventually burst the bulb. This journeyman recounts his horrific trip, including scurvy and blackened skin of his men. I had a healthy respect for the desert but this hellacious trip didn't seem to have an upside. Nevertheless I kept reading the book. Each voice was different, and the various authors had their own view of Australia and the land they tried to conquer despite horrible conditions and natives attacking.

I hadn't realized camels were used in the exploration of Australia. It made sense given the deserts and heat but I just hadn't even considered it. There are still to this day apparently stray camels that'd escaped their various owners over the decades and run wild. Having personally been on a camel when I was in North Africa a few decades ago, I know first hand that these creatures are not gentle and sweet natured animals. They spit, bite and do disagreeable things to people they don't like.

A piece from John Ainsworth Horrocks in 1846 is titled "Shot by Camel." Mr. Flannery includes it in the book, illustrating just how bad things could get. Horrocks is trying to find good pastoral land by Lake Torrens. He has a camel in his expedition that proves to be his undoing. The goat was dispatched early on due to it being difficult but Harry, the camel, got the best of the explorer. He begins by apologizing to the committee who had sponsored the journey and with regret explained why it failed. He had gone to shoot a species of bird for his collection when the following happened.

My gun being loaded with slugs in one barrel and ball in the other, I stopped the camel to get at the shot belt, which I could not get without his laying down.

Whilst Mr. Gill was unfastening it I was screwing the ramrod into the wad over the slugs, standing close alongside of the camel. At this moment the camel gave a lurch to one side, and caught his pack in the cock of my gun, which discharged the barrel I was unloading, the contents of which first took off the middle fingers of my right hand between the second and third joints, and entered my left cheek by my lower jaw, knocking out a row of teeth from my upper jaw.

From there it got worse and ended with the demise of the camel, who had to be shot twice before it finally died and the subsequent death of author of the letter. Australia proved to be harsh for the visitors and animals alike. Each era brought a new sort of explorer to the land attempting to tame the wilds and create England again.

The archives Flannery used for his book were from rare books, and at times unpublished records. His sharing the historical diaries and journals made for a powerful read. There were words that even with his explanations at times sent me to secondary sources because I am not Australian and the familiar plants and animals for a native left me lost. I still am not sure exactly what Nardoo is precisely. William Wills journals a heartbreakingly sad bit in 1861 relating his slow death with a full stomach. Nardoo is described as a spoor bundle of an aquatic fern that supposedly resembles a four-leafed clover. Wills and his party tried to sustain themselves on this odd plant and didn't survive.

Not all the events described were horrific and final. There were a mixture of hopeful men and arrogant men trying to carve their own style into an already deeply distinctive landscape. It's a book I found fun to pick up and read in small gulps of time. There were many brilliant fools and decisively lost men who traveled in hopes of making Australia into another bit of England. By the end Tim Flannery quite clearly showed how Australia ended up conquering more than one adventurer.

Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-10-05
1 Reader Comments
07:29:54 PM
My own teenaged desire to move to Australia was put to rest when I went to the library and got a book on insects of Australia. I'm surprised all the camels weren't carried off by the bugs long ago.
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