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