Tidbits from Down Under – Part 3
While reading my second installment of “Tidbits from Down Under,” I realized that introductions, caveats, disclaimers, etc. took up a large portion of the piece.
This time, having already heard from a friend from Down Under, I will just repeat and expand one “disclaimer”:
These “tidbits” are impressions of someone who knew very little about that magnificent continent called Australia. They are in no way, shape or form definitive, authoritative, historic or comprehensive and may not even be totally accurate* — first and cursory impressions and observations often are not. (I believe this should cover all bases.)
Finally, these oh-so-true words from our friend Down Under: “Having myself travelled moderately extensively in my own country, I can assure you that what you have seen in your stay here probably represents less than 1% of the wonders scenic, historic and people-wise this country has to offer.” Amen, or as they say in Australia, too right, mate!
Too right, because it would take months to just cursorily explore a continent covering almost four million square miles, to circumnavigate an island with a magnificent 11,000-mile coastline and to barely get to know a nation and a people as fascinating and diverse as is Australia and as are the Aussies.
But we tried, starting with an escape from an unusually warm Sydney to the cool and breathtaking Blue Mountains, only a couple of hours by car west of Sydney and part of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Site. While standing at Echo Point admiring the green wilderness right below us, gazing over the sheer cliffs and canyons at the hazy-blue mountains in the distance, mountains reaching more than 3,500 feet, our superb guide and friend, Tony Blair, had to raise his voice to describe the wonders of this beautiful and ancient region in order to be heard over the buzzing drone of the cicadas.
We discovered that some of the more common species of cicadas in Australia (there are more than 200 species there) live underground for around 6-7 years, perhaps explaining why the adult cicadas are more abundant during some seasons than others, making the noise — “love songs” to the females — some years louder than others and making the drone of cicadas one of Sydney’s most recognizable sounds of summer.
We learned that the Blue Mountains get their hazy-bluish color, and their name, from the finely dispersed oil released by the millions of eucalyptus trees combined with dust particles and water vapor. We would see a similar “color phenomenon” (different causes) at South Australia’s beautiful “Blue Lake.”
More importantly, we learned why the early settlers in the Sydney area saw these “impassable” mountains both as a blessing and a curse. A blessing because they formed an insurmountable barrier convicts could not cross and escape (to China, many of them thought). A curse because the European settlers believed that abundant and much-needed fertile lands lay beyond the Mountains, but unreachable to them. We also heard fascinating stories about early gold exploration and the rich coal deposits and successful coal mining in the area.
Finally, we were delighted by the history and legends (there are at least three, probably more) behind the spectacular erosion-formed “Three Sisters.” One of them is an Aboriginal “Dream Time” legend in which three beautiful sisters from the Katoomba tribe are turned into stone by an elder to protect them from being captured by three brothers from another tribe who wanted to marry them against tribal law. Unfortunately, the elder was killed in the fighting and no one else could undo his “protective work.”
Another legend says that the three sisters were turned into stone by their father to protect them from a bunyip. “The bunyip, or kianpraty, is a large mythical creature from Aboriginal mythology, said to lurk in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes.”
This region of Australia was home to Aboriginals for an estimated 14,000 years. It is thus not surprising that such legends and myths abound, albeit others claim that they are non-Aboriginal fabrications to make such landmarks more interesting.
Prior to returning to Sydney and over delicious, steaming hot shepherd’s pie and meat pie at a small café in one of the many idyllic little towns dotting the Blue Mountains region, we discussed another fascinating and historic Australian topic, opals and opal mining. Australia has dominated the opal industry since the late 1800’s, with more than 90 percent of the global output. Some sources claim that Australia produces as high as 97% of the world’s precious opal.
A friend who joined us for the trip to the Blue Mountains and who himself has done some opal “digging” described the excitement and the trials and tribulations of such a hobby. But for the early opal prospectors and for those who still mine opals for a living, perhaps “Opals Down Under” describes such work best as “one of heartbreak, frustration, determination and at times success at incredible odds” and one “rich in myths and legend.” “The History of Opal” and “History of Opal Mining in Australia” are pretty good reads on this colorful and precious aspect of Australian history.
Sadly, a few days after visiting this incredibly beautiful and historic part of Australia, fierce bushfires — the worst in New South Wales in 45 years — nearly encircled the Blue Mountains region destroying 200 homes and nearly 100,000 acres of bush land as of 24 October, with both figures expected to rise. While, fortunately, human losses have been few, there are concerns that the impact on wildlife in the area will be “dramatic…with growing numbers of possums, koalas and gliders being found with burns and smoke inhalation.”
Bushfires have been consistent and devastating features of Australian history, with some calling Australia the most fire-prone country in the world. Although bushfires were part of the Australian landscape way before any human settlement, “Aboriginal arrival to Australia resulted in an increased frequency in the incidence of bushfires, a pattern which was replicated upon European settlement.”
The first such major firestorm after arrival of the European settlers and the largest Australian bushfire in recorded European history appears to be the February 6, 1851, “Black Thursday” fire (Many major bushfires are named based on the day on which they occur) that burnt approximately 12 million acres, claimed 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle.
An eyewitness describes the inferno in the Melbourne “Argus” newspaper of February 8, 1851, as follows:
The fire kept enlarging its orbit, rolling about like some huge monster, destroying everything it touched, its track marked by charred timber, embers and ashes, cries and lamentations. Not content with dashing along the ground, it ran up the highest trees and the flames leaped in monkey fashion from tree to tree.
I still vividly remember watching on television the devastating “Black Saturday” fires in February 2009 and worrying about some good friends in Canberra, just North of Victoria. “Fires” because more than 400 fires raged across the State of Victoria in what some consider to be “the worst natural disaster in Australian history,” killing 173 people, destroying more than 2,000 homes, an even greater number of other buildings and charring more than one million acres.
There have been numerous other devastating brush fires. This “Summary of Major Bush Fires in Australia Since 1851“provides an excellent historical accounting.
In the next “installment,” (finally) a look at some of the Aussies and what it takes to go after those opals, to make large parts of Australia “bloom” and to weather everything this sometimes unforgiving continent can throw at them, including bushfires, droughts, dingoes, red-back spiders and, did I mention, cicadas?
* Talking about accuracy, that “midi” of delicious beer I mentioned in Part 2, should have been a “middy,” as the 285 ml. glass of beer is correctly called in New South Wales. (Australian readers — if any — must by now be convinced that I have kangaroos loose in the top paddock.)
Summary of major Bushfires Since 1851. Victoria Australia ( 30 pages )
by Romsey Australia) /
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