Monday, January 24, 2011

From Sydney to the Blue Mountains

Life has been a whirl of lectures and excursions since we posted our last entry, and I’m happy to say there’s nothing I’d leave out if we had to do it all over again. All of our lecturers and guides have been uniformly excellent, making it a pleasure to be a student again. Over several days we got a crash course in Australia’s colonial history as well as an overview of its major flora and fauna. Did you know that Australia has almost 800 reptile species (many of them deadly) while North America has fewer than 300? Or that eucalyptus leaves are toxic to most animals other than the koala, which is uniquely adapted to eat them? We also learned that you don’t tend to find “climax” forests dominated by one species of tree in Australia, due to the climactic extremes and relatively poor soil. Instead you find a diversity of flora marked by unique adaptations to the difficult conditions. There are, for instance, hundreds of varieties of eucalyptus trees. On an appalling note: until 1967, Australia’s Aboriginals were categorized not as humans but as part of the “flora and fauna” of the continent . . .

We encountered more appalling history at the Hyde Park Barracks downtown. The same Governor Macquarie mentioned in the last blog entry ordered a convict who’d once been an architect to design and build the barracks, where thousands of convicts slept, ate, and, most of all, worked. Inside was a replica of a wooden triangle to which convicts were tied, then lashed 50 to 100 times with a cat o’ nine tails and doused with salt water—all for such crimes as speaking too loudly or not working at a fast enough pace.

Last week our evenings were nearly as busy as our days. As part of the program, we all attended a speakers’ series called “Sydney Stories,” one evening hearing from a comedian who fled with his family from Vietnam in the 1970s, on another an Aboriginal performer involved in Australia’s civil rights movement, and on yet another a folk historian/musician who shared stories of working-class Sydney (and bawdy songs with lyrics that shouldn’t be repeated here). One night, Philip, Nat, and I also went to an interview/performance/movie in the beautiful neo-gothic quadrangle of the University of Sydney. There we had the privilege of listening to Kev Carmody, an Aboriginal folk singer who wrote and sang the music for the film “One Night the Moon,” which was shown on an enormous screen while we lay on the grass. Set in rural Australian in the 1930s, the film is both gorgeous and heartbreaking—definitely see it if you can.

The past couple of days were spent in the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney. They’re dramatic not because of their height but because of the canyons carved among them. Imagine Arizona canyon country—but filled with eucalyptus trees. On the way, we stopped at a botanic garden for native species and had the bizarre experience of learning about Australian botany from a guide who told us he believes in creationism instead of evolution. At one point he said that, like Jesus Christ, shade trees are our salvation. Weird . . .

Staying with our group for our entire weekend in the mountains was Howard Barker, a naturalist/expert on all things Australian. His knowledge is truly encyclopedic—and he was extremely enthusiastic about sharing it. We were lucky to have him along, but I think we all suffered from a bit of information overload. Speaking of which, I think it’s time to finish this entry. I’ll leave it to Philip to tell you all about the snakes and mountain devils, as well as our sighting of one of the most elusive creatures in the Australian bush . . .


Hyde Park Barracks

Convict hammocks

Typical Sydney row houses

More row houses

Koala at the zoo

Philip and his new friend

View of the "Grand Canyon" in the Blue Mountains

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