act of contrition

beneath the white sails, setting the record straight

good news, australia! forty-nine years after the opening of danish architect jorn utzon’s sydney opera house, the final touches are in place to make it possibly the finest facility of its kind.

utzon, who won an international design competition in 1957 with his vision of white sails billowing over the opera house, was sacked in 1966, after nine years of agonizing labor that had transformed a rocky point overlooking the city’s harbor into an architectural wonder.

a helicopter hovers over one of the eggshell “sails”, composed of perfectly geometrically aligned tiles

when utzon departed australia, never to return again, he left unfinished the nuts-and-bolts work needed to make the insides of the eggshells sing like the magnificent exterior he had so painstakingly constructed. after he left, the job was handed over to a three-man committee. in helen pitt’s comprehensive history of the controversial construction, entitled “the house”, she says it was like “asking three men to finish a rembrandt”.

the result left room for improvement. for more than forty years, performers and audiences whispered about the sound quality at the grand concert hall. it just wasn’t utzon.

no longer! as the opera house prepares for its fiftieth anniversary next year, jorn utzon’s vision is complete. opera house c.e.o. louise herron, who spearheaded the upgrade, invited more than three-thousand faithful for a black-tie gala on july 21, 2022 for the grand reopening of the newly refurbished concert hall. she revealed in her program notes that, “the muller-b.b.m. acousticians, who worked on the philharmonie berlin and other fine concert halls throughout the world, regard this as their finest achievement.”

a packed house witnessed the opening performance at the newly refurbisheed grand concert hall

it shows!! the grand reopening featured the sydney symphony orchestra fittingly performing mahler’s “resurrection” symphony. it was preceded by a concerto written for the occasion by indigenous composer william barton, who incidentally is also australia’s leading didgeredoo player.

mahler’s “resurrection” is challenging music. under the baton of newly-appointed permanent conductor simone young, the orchestra shook the hall to its pre-fab concrete foundation in an epic performance. the capacity crowd rose to its feet in a roar of approval. the sydney opera house is now the global benchmark for excellence, inside as well as out.

a standing ovation from the packed hall

it was an evening that reflected australia’s growing self-esteem and stature. denmark’s ambassador to australia, pernille dahler kardel, was a special guest for the occasion. this was a night of righting the wrongs of history, in much the same way aussies have been doing with their aboriginal predecessors. jorn utzon, who died in 2008 at his home in denmark, was probably smiling from heaven.

the danish ambassador, flanked by opera house c.e.o. louise herron and new south wales arts and culture minister ben franklin.


what a croc!

pseeing yellow water

we seen a croc ‘r two in kakadu, and they been seein’ us, too

on patrol in the yellow water billabong

it took a while for us to figure it out. why would “yellow water” make the “must see” list of tourist attractions in australia’s northern territory ? “yellow water” sounds like a sewage pond.

certainly not a holiday to die for. maybe to die from.

my first thought when i saw the sign was, maybe it’s a warning. like “yellow fever region”? on second thought, maybe it’s a urinal, asking for contributions. maybe i could help out.

actually, the visit to yellow water, or ngurrungurrudjba in the language of the traditional owners of the land, the gagudju people, was possibly the highlight of our maiden visit to ‘the territory”. it’s a billabong in kakadu.

yep, ngurrungurrudjba is a billabong in kakadu. maybe a word of explanation is in order.

let’s take billabong first. it is several things. first, it’s an iconic aussie surfwear brand. it’s also a naughty four month old shoe thief who’s the newest member of the family.

billabong caught in the act

for our purposes here, though, billabong refers to the stagnant ponds that remain in river beds during the dry season, when the floodwaters recede. when the rains return, these billabongs overflow their banks and disappear into the flood plain that covers the lowlands.

yellow water billabong is part of the south alligator river system, a peculiar name since there are no alligators in australia. only crocodiles. in the dry season, it’s just a big croc pond.

the n.t. (northern territory) is mostly “m-t” (empty)

kakadu is australia’s largest national park, home to the gagudjus, a wandering tribe that has inhabited these lands since time immemorial. it is a 20,000 treasure trove of waterfalls, rain forests, dramatic escarpments, aboriginal rock art, exotic bird life, and the yellow water billabong.

massive crocs glide by alongside cruise boats within arm’s length on the billabong, ready to snap off the limbs of anyone foolish enough to point. (“look ma, a crocodi…aaahh!”).

we were determined to see yellow water billabong even if we had to wear nose clips, because, frankly, we’d come for the birds. this billabong has been voted the #1 destination for birdwatching in oz! second place went to the alice springs sewage ponds in the southern northern territory, or “lower n.t.” in the local lingo. seriously!

yellow water attracts roughly a third of australia’s 900 or so bird species. we saw white-bellied sea eagles, whistling ducks, white egrets, pied herons, magpie geese, night herons, azure kingfishers, black-necked storks and comb-crested jacanas, to name a few.

the birds were great. don’t misunderstand. but it’s a challenge to snap a high-resolution photo of a bird at 100 meters with the average cell phone camera. on the other hand, photographing a croc looking you straight in the eye presents the opposite challenge. it’s hard to fit them in the frame. you snap them, they snap you.

this 15 ft. (nearly 5 meter) croc kindly swishes his tail so it will fit in the frame

we had booked a sunset cruise at yellow water, then returned before dawn the following morning for a sunrise encore. both were excellent, but something was troubling. the birds were plentiful, the crocs suitably sinister, the weather ideal, the guides informative, the sunrise and sunset magnificent. but the water? yes, it was putrid. but it was… dull as recycled cardboard. a crocodile camouflage gray. what were we missing?

what had the gagudjus (pron: ‘ga-ga-jews) seen that we weren’t seeing? it was a real head scratcher. we didn’t get it until we returned home and downloaded our photos. there it was! yellow water! we’d seen the trees and missed the forest.

a cruise vessel on yellow water billabong at sunrise

the gagudju people had known what they were talking about. we’d been too busy looking at birds and crocs and water buffalo to notice the “ngurrungurrudjba”. duh!!

most of the day, yellow water billabong water is just a mud puddle crawling with creepy man-eating reptiles. but at dawn and dusk, it transforms into a golden pond crawling with creepy man-eating reptiles.

in our defense, we were only there two nights. for the gagudjus, this is the promised land. they know it intimately.

which comes first, human safety or crocodile safety?

they may not look gagudju-ish, but they’ve been wandering the desert and fishing this billabong for thousands of years.

and sure enough, the waters do part each year, allowing the tribespeople to walk across the sea bed, in keeping with oral tradition.

there’s no clear record of how the gagudjus coexisted with the crocs, who were probably there first. but the gagudjus live in harmony with the environment, which in the top end includes tropical heat, torrential rains, annual floods, (and no internet).

without a written language, the gagudju people passed down from generation to generation highly localized knowledge of weather and climate patterns. they identified six distinct seasons that are particular to the yellow water region.

calendar of the six seasons by violet lawson, a traditional owner from the ngurrungurrudjba “yellow water” region

the most welcome time of year they call yucky, spelled “yekke”, which ushers in the cool, dry months when the waters recede and the “balanda” (the gagudju-ish word for gentiles) arrive in their campers to inject a little cash into the local economy.

in contrast, the “balanda”, who stay mostly in darwin, observe just two seasons in the top end, which they call “the wet” and “the dry”. they also note the brief interim period when lightning storms illuminate the night sky to herald the change of seasons.

in gagudju lore, a powerful creation ancestor called namarrkon the lightning man shoots down from the heavens on a bolt of purple-white light with thunderous fanfare to deliver relief from the heat.

that’s namarrkon, at the top right of the wall painting

during “the dry”, the gagudjus camp mainly in the floodplain; but to paraphrase a line immortalized in song by two members of “the tribe” (lerner and loewe), “the rain, as in spain, stays mainly in the plain”, so during the rainy season the gagudjus move up to the stone country for shelter.

also, there ain’t no crocs in the rocks.

a painting in the park depicting an indigenous family on the move

before the balanda began settling the top end nearly two centuries ago, (mostly the west bank of the alligator river), the population of what is now kakadu national park was about 2000 people. that number has since dwindled to about 500, who maintain the sacred sites and preserve their ancestral culture.

their mission includes preserving one of world’s greatest concentrations of rock art. some paintings are as much as 20,000 years old, making this one of the longest historical records anywhere.

nym djimongurr, photograph by valerie ihuede, c. 1970

many of the 5,000 artworks were spruced up and repainted by clan elders in a restoration project in the mid 20th century, as kakadu was coming to international prominence. much of the work was done by nym djimongurr, (pictured here), an elder who left behind a living record of his knowledge of gagudju-ish humor, stories and customs that provides visitors today with insights into bininj culture.

kakadu became a national park in 1979. in 1981 it was added to the list of world heritage sites. the unesco proclamation notes that kakadu:

“provides a window into human civilization in the days before the last ice age (and) reveals insights into hunting and gathering practices, social structure and ritual ceremonies of indigenous societies from the pleistocene epoch.”

almost any list of oz’s best national parks will rank kakadu #1. but it’s far from the most visited park. the most popular are those closest to sydney and melbourne. both have 20 times the population of the entire n.t.

like most of the top end, kakadu is practically “m-t”. “the territory” boasts a population density of about one person for every five square kilometers, most of them in darwin. by contrast, australia’s most densely populated region, the capital territory (canberra), has 150 people per square kilometer. (canberrans are quite dense.)

to understand just how remote the top end is, darwin is roughly a 45 hour drive (not minutes, hours) from any of australia’s big cities. it’s closer to jakarta than to sydney. getting to kakadu from sydney means a 4 ½ hour flight to darwin, then another three hours by car. so if you go, you can be pretty sure it won’t be crowded. (unless this blog post goes viral)

sunset from darwin’s bicentennial park overlooking the harbor

as a bonus, you can spend time in darwin, australia’s gateway to asia.

darwin’s status as a territorial capital is unique the n.t. is less autonomous than the country’s six states, and the people don’t seem to mind, partly because it’s virtually m-t, so there’s hardly any taxpayers. territorial status provides the n.t. most of the same rights and privileges as the states, but their administrative budget comes from the federal government. so by declining statehood, territorians can do whatever they please and let the feds foot the bill. they’re not that dense.

darwin is unusual in another respect. it’s been bombed. many times. it may be remote, but it’s strategically located on the timor sea. the same japanese planes that hit pearl harbor in december, 1941 turned their sights on darwin ten weeks later. they dropped twice as many bombs in the february 19, 1942 raids, killing 252 people. (damn near everybody there)

japanese bombers struck darwin 62 more times over the next 20 months.

the cenotaph war memorial at darwin’s bicentennial park

that bleak period is memorialized in a graphic display along the waterfront overlooking darwin harbor, where the bombs hit hardest. the city’s bicentennial park showcase the hardships endured during the period when all darwinians had one ear cocked for the sickening hum of incoming bombers.

it was “fair dinkum”, the locals said. “fair dinkum” is a catch-all aussie slang term. in this case, it seems to mean “this is not going to be pretty”.

bicentennial park serves as a reminder of darwin’s strategic importance, both in past military encounters, such as with japan, and the present, as the nation responds to an increasingly assertive china, which sees its backyard extending all the way to the australian shoreline.

darwin is, however, quintessentially aussie, as in directionally challenged. just as the australia’s south coast is on the east coast, the western most spot in the city of darwin is called… wait for it… east point.

that pales in comparison to what almost was. when australia became a federation in 1901, the north was part of the south. no one seemed to think it odd that south australia extended all the way to the north coast. eventually the southerners begged to be relieved of responsibility for the northern half because they couldn’t afford to administer it. there were no taxpayers there.

imagine the north coast being in the south

that’s it for year one. year two of the aussie adventure promises more road trips, as we’ve finally received our car. (it’s a beast) also, expect more adventures of billabong. he’s already practicing croc hunting.

billabong the croc hunter with his “catch”

we hope to include (covid permitting) a trip to uluru, in the southern northern territory. as the irreverent tourism slogan goes, see you in the n.t.

breaking news: a dane visits denmark

…and the lovable larrikin, a dog with a stick, and a cow with a telescope

it wasn’t exactly a state visit, but the ambassador of denmark to australia stopped for a “friendly chat” with the shire president of denmark, australia, in june to convey a brief message: “change your name, guys. we had it first”.

shire president ceinwen gearon was “not in” when the ambassador arrived, and kept the envoy cooling her heels in what might otherwise have been considered a diplomatic snub.

the president and the ambassador

but hey, this ain’t highfalutin’ europe, this is a back of beyond surfer town in west australia. the prez was at her day job at the local hospital. when staff called to tell her the ambo was waiting, she jumped in her van and zipped over to pose for pictures in her best jeans and housecoat. hell yeah! i mean, this is the wild west, and in oz that’s about a third of the country. or two thirds, depending on how you count.

the talks were held in the shire council chambers, where a portrait of the queen hangs on the wall. wrong queen. at least from the danish point of view. it’s the british queen. (that can be excused. australia is, after all, a member of the commonwealth)

just in case they have a change of heart, however, the ambassador is sending over a portrait of denmark’s queen margrethe, which incidentally is strikingly similar to the portrait of queen elizabeth hanging in the council chambers. (no, the queen isn’t hanging. just the portrait)

as for the name change request, it’s on hold. the town appears to have come by the name honorably, through an irish doctor whose family traces its roots back to a 7th century visit to ireland’s west coast by shipwrecked vikings, as honorable a bunch of rapers and pillagers as ever walked the earth.

interestingly, however, the good doctor never set foot in australia.

red dots denote the denmark region of the rainbow coast

dr. alexander denmark was a british navy surgeon at the turn of the 19th century, much beloved by a young hospital mate he trained as a physician. years later, that young man, thomas braidwood wilson, was exploring the south australian coast with an aboriginal guide, mokare, when they came upon a lazy stream mokare called kwoorabup. wilson, who was into naming stuff, decided to rename it the denmark river in honor of his old mentor.

over time, the region became known as the denmark district. decades later, when a permanent town was established where the river flows into “wilson inlet”, (which dr. tom named after himself,) denmark somehow won out over kwoorabup. the town’s namesake, meanwhile, lies in an unmarked grave back in england.

the denmark surf shop

denmark’s 25-hundred permanent residents (denmarkers? denmarxists? denmartians?) make a living mainly off the tourist trade. in summer, the shire balloons to several times its normal size as wave chasers descend on the “rainbow coast” seeking swells coming straight from antarctica.

even the prez keeps a board handy, and city employees work flexible hours so they can skip out when the surf’s up.

the coast gets its name because in winter, the low sun on the northern horizon combines with storms along the southern ocean coastline to create perfect rainbow conditions.

rainbow on the rocks – torndirup national park

on the morning of the winter solstice (22 june in oz) we drove east along the rainbow coast to torndirrup national park. we went for the spectacular rocks. what we got was a rock ‘n rainbow “two-fer” topped with an icy antarctic blast.

torndirrup bears witness to the long-term cohabitation of australia and antarctica (about 1.3 billion years). they only split up and went their separate ways about 50 million years ago. it seems to have been a messy breakup, and there’s no telling whose “fault” it was. it must have ugly, though, because the custody battle over several islands is still causing tremors, and a chill wind blows up from the south pole.

a wintry antarctic blast has pernille holding onto her hat

over the past fifty million years, the raw fury of the sea has left a ragged imprint on torndirrup’s coast, carving up granite like a thanksgiving turkey, one granule at a time, serving up its feast on tectonic plates. it’s a work in progress.

for the moment, the main attractions are a natural bridge and a gash in the granite called “the gap”. but a transformation is underway, one eon at a time. we plan to drop by again in oh, say, ten million years to see what the artist has wrought. we can’t wait to see the time-lapse photos.

and since we can’t wait, we wend our way west from the wild wintry winds to the wonderful world of warm water waves and award winning wines. welcome to the magical margaret river region, the space between the capes. it’s a place of waves and grapes.

from cape naturaliste in the north to cape leeuwin in the south, the margaret river knob is 85 miles (135km) of divine coastline jutting out from australia’s southwestern corner, right into the path of a tropical ocean current that funnels warm-ish water (in red in the graph below) into the cape’s wave-grinder. the effect is most pronounced in winter. see the infrared water temperature shot at left. (red is warmest)

so on a chilly june evening, the margaret river beach is buzzing, as are the blanketed spectators snuggled together, toasting each other (and themselves) as wave dancers pirouette through the psychedelic proscenium arch.

the river mouth was the site of the world surf league’s margaret river pro competition in may, 2021

on shore, a blizzard of sundowners rages, while on the western horizon, the flaming orb gently slips beyond the waves. it’s rumored the “blizzard-enabled” can hear the hiss as flame touches water and disappears in a puff of smoke. pretty rad, dude.

we pause for a moment waiting for the credits to roll. then as orange fades to black, the audience retreats to the parking lot, hoping not to encounter a sobriety check on the road home.

next morning, the thrill seekers are back. air temperature is about 50 fahrenheit, (ten celsius), and water temp about 68 (20 celsius). not bad for dead of winter this close to antarctica. we wander down to a rocky stretch of beach called redgate, just south of margaret’s mouth.

on this day the swells are relatively tame, but margaret river’s reputation for magical rides has made it an annual stop on the world surf league championship tour. with more than 40 world-class breaks, these are waves to die for. some have.

just south of the river mouth, amid the rocks of redgate, a grim reminder of nature’s power

the rocks at redgate bear witness to the power of the infamous rip currents that terrorize the cape’s wave riders. big signs warn of the danger. but on the morning of december 8, 2012, the signs were missing, apparently the work of vandals.

when two visiting americans paddled out from redgate beach that morning, lured by massive swells, they had no warning of the danger that awaited them. memorial plates embedded in the granite tell their tragic story

from the rocks it’s a two minute walk to the riflebutts reserve dog park, and as this blog is about to get very doggish, why not start here? it seems as if the augusta-margaret river shire council went on a sculpture binge around the beginning of this century, commissioning dozens of works. we ran across one on a morning jog through riflebutts.

“the stick” by russell sheridan at riflebutts park in redgate

many of the installations are noteworthy, but as we prepare to become parents of billabong the border collie, this one was irresistible.

not billabong, just a goofy hound with a stick
introducing the real billabong at 11 weeks old

it’s titled “the stick”. it’s the work of margaret river artist russell sheridan. a local sculpture website describes sheridan as “a larger-than-life character (who) memorably mythologizes the australian larrikin.”

larrikin? uh-oh, a new aussie-ism. turns out larrikinism is a time-honored australian tradition.

a history of the larrikin spirit written in 2012 calls it the key to unlocking the aussie identity: the lovable scallawag. its roots go back to penal colony times, when disdain for authority was a badge of honor.

but these days most aussies are coastal urbanites, a far cry from the hardscrabble convicts of two centuries ago. as the continent meekly complies with what others might consider draconian covid lockdowns, many are wondering whether the rough and tumble larrikin spirit is gone forever. steve waterson, writing in the australian newspaper, asks, “do we recalibrate our self-image, admit there’s no crocodile dundee left in any of us?”

truth to tell, oz is known more these days for water sports and wine. margaret river scores high on both counts.

don’t ask why, but one fine day, two wine ignoramuses got a hankering to go on a tour of the margaret river vineyards. (i mean, while we’re here…)

completely oblivious to reputations of various wineries, we simply typed into our GPS the name of a road where we had been told we’d find some “cellar doors”. when we came to that road, we turned right. a moment later we saw a sign that said “woody nook cellar door”, so we turned in.

the woody nook vineyard’s cellar door

the place looked deserted (middle of winter, you know) but the sign said “open” so we walked in. twenty minutes later we walked out the proud owners of a case of 2014 woody nook cabernet sauvignon.

wine and i have never gotten along, but this was lovely stuff. and it had a gold medal to boot. i have no idea how they hand out gold medals, (the writing is in french) but pernille serves vino at diplomatic functions, and the name “margaret river” with a gold medal on the label means wine about as good as you can get in oz, or anywhere.

back in the car, we proceeded to the end of the road, turned around and came back, passing a few more cellar door signs. it was vino roulette, where we stop, nobody knows.

the fermoy winery in margaret river

as we drove, we suddenly had that feeling. turn in. it was a place that might have been an old barn somebody had painted pink, installed a glass front, and called a winery. we walked in to find a group of ‘tasters’ gathered around a table, sampling the wares. as we glanced over, something caught our eye.

on the wall behind them was a massive photograph. a bride and groom dancing. and a caption. “wine fit for a princess”. hey, wait a sec! we know that princess! that’s “our” princess mary, the aussie commoner who married the danish prince!

sure enough, this is the winery that produced one of the wines served at the wedding of mary donaldson and frederik, the crown prince of denmark, in 2004.

the result: another case of wine for our “cellar”. with a gold medal, too. maybe they sell these gold medal stickers at the local wine growers association. who knows. was it a great wine? don’t ask us. but it was pleasing to the palate (suddenly we’re connoisseurs). and what a conversation piece!

pernille laughed when i said we could visit three wineries in an afternoon. wine tasting and driving don’t mix. but on we went to a third, and a fourth, and even a fifth. it was getting toward sundown and everything was closing, but we did manage to buy a third case of wine.


it was called cherubino. we know that because it was delivered to our house a week later. and the debit was on our bank statement. it was a pricey afternoon.

fortunately, after all that tasting, we found my airport. it was right outside the last winery we visited. we must have flown home. and we greatly appreciate whoever delivered our car back to our b&b.

after a good night’s sleep, the next adventure was to the most southwestern point on the continent, cape leeuwin, where two oceans collide. (at least in the aussie version).

along the road we encountered a restaurant with a sense of humor.

cape leeuwin is the site of the tallest working lighthouse on the australian continent. it’s also the home of a pirate cow holding a telescope with her hook. (real pirates have hooks, don’t they? and parrots on their shoulders, right? this one did.)

it’s hard to know what substances the augusta-margaret river shire council were ingesting around 2010 when they launched a region-wide “cow parade”. it seems to have been part of the same craze that produced the dog with the stick (above).

the cow parade was billed as the world’s largest public art event. cow art? at first i thought it was a typo, that they were in fact alluding to the bovine penchant for methane production. but no, these were supposed to be works-of-art. the “f” stays with “of”. “art” is separate.

the local tourism association apparently bought 80 or so methane-free (i.e. environmentally friendly) fiberglass cows and gave them to locals of artistic bent who volunteered to adorn them for display in various states of absurdity. despite the hail of udderly cheesy puns that followed, most of these “moo-sterpieces” were auctioned off after the parade to raise moola (cash) for local charities.

the pasteurized pirate, named “moo-rine the marauder”, eventually found a home at the lighthouse. several others migrated to cowaramup, a real life place in the capes region known as “cow town”. cowaramup’s website calls them “moorals”. (talk about milking a bad pun!)

it’s time to knock this off. pernille just came in in a bad mooood and said, “it’s pasture bed time”.

oh yes, the lighthouse.

the cape leeuwin lighthouse and interpretive center sit at the most southwesternly point of the continent. signs proclaim this to be the meeting point of the indian ocean and the great southern ocean. on some days the smashup can be quite violent. on this calm and windless day it was little more than a surface splash.

some newfangled international maritime organization came along some time back and tried to redefine the southern ocean boundary so it no longer touches australia’s southern coast. the aussies aren’t buying it. the larrikin spirit rose up and told them to go stuff it. crocodile dundee lives!

the cylindrical tower of the cape leeuwin lighthouse rises 39 meters (128ft.) from a square base up to an observation platform and a 100 million candle power halogen beacon that guides sailors around the treacherous cape.

the 100-million candlepower halogen lighthouse lamp

our plan was simply to walk the lighthouse grounds. we’ve been to plenty of lighthouses. but rowena, the interpretive guide lured us in, and we’re glad she did.

the tower’s 176 steps are a trip up through a time when the lighthouse was manually operated, originally using a kerosene wick lamp revolving in a mercury bath with a clockwork mechanism. it was the world’s largest kerosene lamp when the lighthouse opened in 1895, and could be seen for 40km.

for nearly a century, the facility was completely manually operated. three lighthouse keepers lived on the premises, so there was someone on duty 24/7/365 until it was converted to electricity in 1982.

after our lighthouse excursion, we went north to perth, excited to learn more about the west australian capital and oz’s fourth largest city. instead, we were given 24 hours to pack up and go home or face two weeks hotel quarantine. at our expense. we hightailed it to the airport. when it comes to covid, the devil-may-care larrikin spirit is overruled. crocodile dundee is in lockdown.

stay tuned. next episode we escape to real croc country.

watching birdwatching –

you knew it had to come to this.

nankeen kestrel in flight

being married to a twitcher (hardcore birdwatcher) is like, um, well, hmmm, um… well… in a bird paradise like australia, it’s a first-class ticket off the beaten path to some of the most exotic places on the planet.

since arriving in oz, we’ve tried to combine business trips with side excursions to “megaspots” where bird life is varied and plentiful, or where rare species hang out. this month pernille had business in brisbane and sydney, the capitals of queensland and new south wales, respectively. instead of flying, we drove, with a few detours along the way. round trip, nearly 3,000 km.

the first day’s drive traversed 800 km (500 miles) to coffs harbour, a seaside community along new south wales’ north coast known for surfing and bananas (one banana so big you can walk through it).

the big banana is a family fun water park built in a banana plantation

accommodation for the night was a funky motel just off the beach, near a surf shop bumping noses with a skin cancer clinic. a coincidence?

after a morning hanging out with beach bums and seagulls at coffs harbour (elev. 3 meters), we set the GPS straight east and upward to o’reilly’s rainforest retreat, nearly a thousand meters higher.

o’reilly’s is the centerpiece of lamington national park, a world heritage area straddling the new south wales-queensland border.

lamington is for the birds, sure, but it’s more. it is vistas limited only by the curvature of the earth, hikes down mountain tracks to tropical rain forest waterfalls, and live trees so big you could hold a family reunion inside their hollow trunks.

o’reilly’s is ranked among australia’s top 10 romantic hotels, though the last 12 miles (20km) of road is a white-knuckle affair with more than a few “lover’s leap” opportunities (ideal for newlyweds experiencing “buyer’s remorse”.)

for birders, it’s home to several rare species, including a twitcher’s dream, the albert’s lyrebird. this long tailed bird only exists in a small area of eastern australia, marked in purple on the map.

albert’s lyre bird

we spent the better part of half an hour ogling a pair of these rare birds foraging in the forest undergrowth, unperturbed by our presence.

lamington is a bit of twitcher sensory overload, though. first thing each morning a crowd gathers at o’reilly’s for a bird-feeding walk. every participant is given a handful of crushed nuts. holding out your hand is considered an invitation for the feathery natives to zoom in for a nibble.

yes, a bird in the hand beats two in the bush, but they’re in and out so fast it’s hard to get a good photo. it’s even harder when you’re holding one hand out and taking pictures with the other.

pernille refuses to count captive birds among the nearly 200 species she’s seen since our arrival in australia, but we couldn’t resist the lure of the daily “birds of prey” show at o’reilly’s. many of these are “rescue birds”. the owls are adorable.

american bald eagle

the young sea eagle above is of the same genus as the american bald eagle. they look similar now, but this “ugly duckling” will mature into a swan.

from o’reilly’s we went “rolling down the mountain” going not so fast, toward brisbane, for a one night stand in australia’s third largest city. business, you know. that was followed by another day’s drive toward sydney, with an intermediate stop on the outskirts of newcastle (#7 in population, a coal town just like its UK namesake)* for a quick peek at the hunter wetlands.

“wetlands” it turns out, is just a fancy term for swamp, and a chunk of the hunter wetland conservation area was once the newcastle city dump.

later it was converted to a football field, but the surface kept flooding. eventually it was returned to what it originally was, a swamp. a bird conspiracy, perhaps?

“cacatua galerita”, painting by sharon o’hearn

the hunter wetlands visitor center hosts regular ornithological art exhibits, this one featuring the bane of our canberra existence, the sulfur crested cockatoo. they’re handsome devils, usually pure white with that hand-of-bananas plumage shooting out of their heads. but their screech makes neighbors want to call the police with a public nuisance complaint.

less noisy and maybe more regal is this egret portrait. her mate (right) is roosting on a log just outside the exhibition hall, probably waiting for closing time.

we arrived early enough to witness the invasion of the magpie geese, which takes place at an appointed time every morning, when an attendant dumps a bucket of grain at the edge of the swamp. the attendant says the birds know exactly when to fly in, except twice a year when daylight savings time gives them a headache.

another hunter wetlands specialty is a dinosaur. yep, a pre-duck duck that preceded modern day waterfowl in the evolutionary chain. they’re freckled.

these rare freckled fellows sleep all day, so they appear here in their preferred sleeping position, head buried between wings.

before exiting the swamp, we were treated to one more visual feast, mom and dad black swan and their three white ducklings paddling single-file across the algae covered pond.

there’s a lot to learn from our web footed friends. be kind. listen. (click the link).

so what is it like being hitched to a twitcher? to borrow a phrase from owlspeak — it’s a hoot.

*according to wikipedia, the australian port of newcastle is the world’s largest coal exporting harbour.

lest we forget

the strength of a nation rests on the ties that bind; a common language, a common heritage, a common purpose; the experience of fighting, even dying, for shared values.

there’s probably no way for a newcomer to grasp the depth of emotions aroused in the aussie soul by a single name: gallipoli. for more than a century, the shared grief elicited by that military disaster has done more than perhaps anything else to galvanize the nation’s identity.

each april 25th, the day in 1915 when australian and new zealand troops stormed the turkish beach at gallipoli, both nations stop to honor their war dead, on what is known as anzac day.

scottish-born australian eric bogle perhaps best captured a nation’s agony in his 1971 song, “and the band played waltzing matilda (click the link)

as shadows fall over australia’s national war memorial, crowds gather for the daily “last post” ceremony

the national war memorial is canberra’s #1 tourist attraction.

museum director matt anderson points to the wall where the names of 102,000 australians are engraved. of those, he tells us, 62,000 were lost in four years of world war one, including 8700 in the bloodbath at gallipoli.

memories fade, and the last world war one veterans have long passed. still, anzac day observances are held all over australia each april 25th. that first war left an indelible scar on a young nation’s psyche. almost no one was spared the loss of a loved one. on well-manicured lawns in village squares across the hinterlands of oz, the names of would-have-been husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, are chiseled in stone.

except in the tiny tassie town of legerwood (pop. 193). its boys are memorialized in trees.

legerwood wasn’t even an official town until 1936, but in october, 1918, residents gathered along the main road to plant saplings in memory of each of the seven local boys lost in the fighting.

for the rest of the century the trees stood as a silent reminder of the stolen promise of a generation. by 2001, the trees had become a hazard and had to be lopped. the local folk were having none of it, however. they commissioned chainsaw artist eddie freeman to carve the tree stumps into likenesses of the fallen soldiers.

pernille and i might have missed the modest collection of houses that calls itself legerwood as we drove along tassie’s back roads, except for the roadside sculpture garden that commanded our attention. we stopped for a closer look.

what we found was a window into seven war-shortened lives.

thomas edwards was the oldest of the legerwood volunteers. he and his wife of six years, florence, are shown in a goodbye embrace at the center of a carving that depicts the townspeople’s grief.

interestingly, none of the legerwood boys actually died at gallipoli. they all were killed on the western front in belgium and france toward war’s end.

if anzac day and the legerwood memorial weren’t enough, australia’s military legacy was underscored weeks earlier as the royal australian air force celebrated its 100th birthday.

the r.a.a.f marked the milestone with a nationally-televised aerial spectacular in the skies over canberra’s lake burley griffin. (which incidentally didn’t exist then, either). imagine what might have been if the boys storming gallipoli had been able to call in air support.

the roulettes acrobatic team put on a show for canberrans and a live nationwide TV audience

canberrans poured out of their homes and offices on a picture perfect day to witness the flyover. they came by bus, car, bike, on foot; children in prams or on dad’s or mom’s back, with cameras and binoculars, stationing themselves on hills and bridges and along the shores of lake burley griffin, (which is named for the american architects, walter burley griffin and his wife marion mahony griffin, who won the competition to design the capital city in 1911.)

the throngs weren’t disappointed.

governor general david hurley hosted a phalanx of dignitaries for a gala event at government house at the west end of the lake to witness the display, while the band played “waltzing matilda”.

government house as seen from across the lake during the ceremonies

a bird perches along the shore of lake burley griffin to watch the flyover

it’s interesting to note that if the air force didn’t exist in 1915, neither did canberra, and this might be the time to introduce our home town.

in 1911, australia’s parliament formally set aside land for a national capital territory, but nothing much was there. it was just a mountain outpost noted for crisp alpine air and cold clear nights, a sharp contrast to the balmy coastal climate of the country’s major population centers. it wasn’t till the 1920s, after the falling out that prompted walter and marion griffin to return home to chicago, that their vision for a grand city began to materialize. canberra officially became the capital in 1927.

newcomers arriving in the city today see a fully formed metropolis, unaware that the lake, which forms the heart of the capital and seems as if it was always there, was only inaugurated in 1964. only in this century has the griffin’s vision of a grand capital (based loosely on l’enfant’s design for washington d.c.) has come into full view.

the parliament building, the national museum, the trendy kingston foreshore, and other distinctive features dotting canberra’s lakefront are less than 25 years old.

it is quite a paradox that canberra is a young city in a young nation that was still cutting its teeth when world war one broke out. and yet, canberra and australia are home to a civilization that existed in peace for tens of thousands of years before europeans arrived. there is still a reckoning to be done. lest we forget.