Read all about the 2015 Sculpture by the Sea at Cottesloe here
Read all about the 2015 Sculpture by the Sea at Cottesloe here
In the classic Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction, the characters played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discuss what Europe is like compared to the USA.
Travolta’s character Vincent Vega puts it best when he says “You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences.” That’s how the Amazing Aussie Adventure feels: the biggest things of all are the little differences.
For a country that speaks English as a first language and drives on the left-hand side of the road, you’d be surprised at the little differences in Australia.
Yes, they speak English here. And it’s not even like it’s “American” English, for all intents and purposes it’s the same English that I know. Things like realise and fantasise are still spelled with an “S”, and as a professional copywriter, I go around correct American English spellings on my company’s website. We’re an Australian company and our brand should reflect this. But then other things trip you up.
Like pants, for example.
As with the North American continent, pants here are not your underwear. If someone mentions wearing “dress pants” they do not mean the occasion is so formal it requires special underwear, but just smart trousers. Pants are what we, in the south of England at least, call trousers. I know the English makes no sense, since surely underpants go under your pants, but that’s just how it is. Neither is right and neither is wrong, but it can be confusing if you see a pub’s dress code stating that pants must be worn.
Which brings me to another confusion: thongs. If a pub has a dress code, and it mentions pants, it only follows that it would also mention no thongs allowed. As an Englishman, I nod my head to this and think it makes sense — pants yes, thongs no. Nobody wants to see your g-string. But thongs are what the rest of the world calls flip-flops. Or if you want to compromise, sandals. If a friend mentions they wear thongs in the shower, they’re talking about their footwear, not their choice of shower apparel.
Even when you logically know these things you can still get tripped up.
British kids raised on a TV diet of Neighbours and Home and Away are more familiar with Aussie slang than maybe other nations around the world. Apparently, Aussie TV soaps are also responsible for the proliferation of “up-speak”, but that’s a different conversation for another day. But when someone calls you a flaming drongo or a great galah, you are already on the ball. Except you’ll almost never hear someone talk like that outside of the country.
But there’s also a world of Aussie slang that you might not know, from having roos loose in the top paddock to being mad as a cut snake. Before moving to Australia, it’s a good idea to read some Aussie literature to get up to speed. You can buy books of Aussie slang, though trying to drop things like “I hope your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny door down” into everyday conversation is as difficult as using the phrase “le singe est sur le branche” when in Paris (there’s not a lot of jungle in France).
You’re likely to also be confused by being asked how you are going, especially if you’re not travelling anywhere at the time. It’s just saying “How are you?” and probably means something similar to “How are you going on your journey through life/the day/the universe”. One of the things that delighted me most early in my days in Australia were the words “dobber” (what you might call a snitch or a grass, but in a much more schoolboyish way, than a criminal informant sort) and the phrase “made you look you dirty chook.” Other phrases you’re likely to hear in normal conversation include “winner winner chicken dinner.”
You’ll be glad to know that Aussie politics is just as bipartisan as it is in the UK or the USA. That’s about all I understand of it. Oh, and the Liberal Party are not what anyone else in the world would ever describe as “Liberal”.
The one and only election day I’ve been to here was a big disappointment: I was promised a sausage sizzle and a cake stall, and there was neither. Both of those things probably also need explaining another time. Voting is also compulsory here: not voting means a fine, and possible jail time if you don’t pay.
Strangely, it doesn’t seem to drastically increase voter turnout.
Obviously, in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed, and for a while that confuses you, until you go through a full cycle of seasons and learn to disconnect the month from the season. What you don’t get used to is the confusion between things like Easter and Christmas and the seasons. It feels plain weird to have Christmas in the height of summer, and to see inflatable Santa wearing shorts and holding a surfboard — but then everything else is still branded for the Northern hemisphere version of Christmas. Evergreen trees decorated with tinsel and fake snow, cards have images of snowmen and robins. Santa still comes on a sleigh, pulled by reindeer! There’s “Australian” versions of songs like Jingle Bells and the 12 Days of Christmas, and even that song by Rolf Harris that we won’t listen to any more — but they’re not really official songs, not like the traditional carols.
Easter, too, is “branded” for Spring — even though it officially falls in Autumn, so it’s not really all about rebirth and new life and all the traditional themes of abundance. Except that the seasons get even weirder: it’s in Autumn and Winter that it rains and things like your lawn that died in the summer comes back to life.
Sometimes it’s the little differences you didn’t even expect. When something you know from home looks different or tastes different to what you’re used to, or when you can’t find something in the supermarket and you realise you don’t even know what it would be called here.
One of the things I wanted to take up when I came to Australia was learn to surf.
It seemed like a simple enough task — I’d surfed once or twice in the past and had managed to get to my feet. I figured some dedicated lessons would refresh my memory and after a short course I’d be ready to buy my own surfboard and start hitting the surf at weekends.
My first surf lesson in Australia, a wave hit me the wrong way and I wrenched my shoulder. These things happen, I didn’t think so much of it at the time. Except it carried on hurting throughout the day, in a way a pulled muscle doesn’t.
I cancelled my following day’s lesson to avoid making it any worse, but by the Monday morning although it wasn’t any better I didn’t want to miss another day’s lesson (they’re non-refundable) so got through it with pain killers.
My ideas of buying my own surfboard were seeming more far-fetched: I wasn’t getting any better at surfing (that is, I still couldn’t stand on the board without falling off) but it was only my second lesson…
A few days later, with my shoulder still hurting, I saw a doctor. I described the pain, how it happened, and demonstrated the limited range of movement. The doctor told me it was a torn shoulder rotator cuff, and referred me for an ultrasound.
An ultrasound and an x-ray later confirmed a partial tear, but luckily not a bone chip that the ultrasound suggested.
It was more than six weeks before I was able to surf again, and complete the surf lesson course. By this time, summer had faded in Western Australia but sunny mornings spent in the surf, mostly falling off, were time well spent.
And no, I never did buy that surfboard, or really ever manage to learn to surf properly.
Although I did get a certificate.
I wrote a few weeks ago about swimming outdoors at Serpentine Falls, and how it was the only time I’ve been wild swimming other than at Highgate Ponds in London.
Swimming is something I enjoy a lot. I like the meditative calm of just pushing through the water, thinking quietly, and the variety of being able to pick up the pace if I feel the need: and being non-impact, it’s much better suited to me than running.
Naturally, on this amazing Aussie adventure of mine I have embraced with open arms the many opportunities for swimming in the ocean.
Admittedly, I am still a little nervous venturing into the ocean in the knowledge that there’s so many things that can kill you. This is not helped by the government-fuelled hysteria over sharks. This isn’t a place for a full-scale rant about the WA shark cull, but the fact is that sharks still kill fewer people than careless drivers. Sharks are an easy target, however, and have been a figure of fear ever since Jaws.
My first opportunity to get into the ocean in Australia was at Greens Pool, in William Bay National Park. The “pool” has almost completely calm waters because the bay is sheltered from the waves of the Great Southern Ocean by large, round boulders. When I was told we were going to Greens Pool I didn’t immediately make the connection that this “pool” was the ocean: in the UK if you told me we were going to visit a pool, I’d just presume it was a particularly good swimming pool. In Australia, if you’re going swimming anywhere it’s safe to presume it will be outside.
Greens Pool was a great way to get in the ocean in Australia, with a gradual slope into clear waters and no waves. It’s also fairly typical of beaches on the Southern ocean, because the water is freezing cold. Being English, I’m not unused to cold water, although I can’t remember the last time I went in the ocean in the UK without a wetsuit (because the last few times were surf-related).
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Albany, on the southern coast of WA, an area famous for its whales.
There’s also a choice of beaches, and on a warm afternoon, one of the last of the summer, we went swimming at Middleton beach. The last time I came to Middleton Beach it was October, and a humpback whale was merrily splashing in the water a short distance off the beach. This time, there were no whales, and although it was not quite as cold as Greens Pool, and even though it’s protected by King George Sound, it was noticeably cold.
The beach has a floating pontoon in the summer months — I guess for jumping and diving — and we made use of it for that. What the two beaches had in common were their calm waters, ideal for leisurely swimming, and hot days combined with cold waters.
Recently, I visited two Perth beaches: Cottesloe and Scarborough, though I only swam at the latter of the two. Cottesloe is Perth’s most popular beach, but despite temperatures in the high 30s on Friday, by Saturday they had dropped 10 degrees — the multitude of visitors to the beach were there for Sculpture by the Sea.
A short drive along the coast from Cottesloe is Scarborough beach. Unlike Middleton beach and Greens Pool in the south of WA that are on the Southern ocean, Perth’s beaches are Indian ocean — bringing with it warmer waters.
Scarborough is a popular surfing beach, and it was easy to see why on this particular day.
Scarborough is a long, beautiful beach, with sand banks and rolling waves. With a strong swell there was less swimming to be done, and more diving into the waves, and avoiding being knocked off your feet.
I’ll be returning to Scarborough beach in the near future for several days of surfing lessons: watch this space.
Esperance is an odd kind of city, on the south-west coast of Western Australia. It has a modest population of about 15,000 people, but with a reputation for the best beaches in the world Esperance is a draw for cruise ships and tour groups from around the world.
I arrived in Esperance at the start of Autumn, 10 days into March, with the heat mostly gone out of the summer and the tourists largely moved on. Though already Autumn, it would be mistaken for a good summer’s day back home: deep blue skies and sun sparkling on the southern ocean like thousands of fireflies.
Esperance — so I am told, and I am little sceptical — officially boasts the best beaches in the world. Apparently this is based on something like the lightness of the sand, or perhaps length of beaches. The city is a 6-hour drive from the city of Albany, hardly a bustling metropolis in its own right but many times the size of this city 500 km further along the cost.
That’s not to say Eleven Mile beach is unremarkable. With the sky a deep blue and the sun shining on the ocean, it was sparkling like thousands of fireflies on the surface of the water. The beach’s soft sands weren’t so “white”, though — and it’s not a criticism, merely an observation that it would be lazy to describe them so simply. They are an incredibly pale yellow, a soft cream, perhaps.
This morning, on my second day in town, I woke up to rain. After a month in Australia not seeing rain, and apparently no significant rain in this region since the year began, it was welcomed. Although I had been looking forward to visiting a beach properly, and experiencing its famous icy waters, I was content to listen to the sound of heavy rain on a tin roof — and when the rain eased, listening to the streams of water as it ran down to the parched garden.
In the afternoon, with the rain and thunder behind us, our host took us out in his four-wheel drive vehicle to experience up close many of the city’s bays and beaches. Even if the rain had stopped, it still wasn’t a day for swimming, but that was OK too — because there’s plenty to see on the beaches and the surrounding areas without having to get your feet wet. Intentionally.
I don’t remember the names of all the bays and harbours we visited, driving down on to the wet sand and following the tracks of vehicles that had gone before us earlier in the day. The names don’t matter, I’m not a tour guide.
On one beach a group of vehicles stood, seemingly abandoned, with doors hanging open and belongings on the sand around them, until we noticed half a dozen surfers out in the water. The swell wasn’t large, but what I enjoy about surfing is sometimes as much about the zen of it: sitting on a board in the water, just quietly and peacefully waiting for the next wave. They weren’t chasing adrenaline today, they were just enjoying being out surfing at all.
On one beach I stopped to look at the line in the sand where the tide reached. Whether the tide was coming in or going out I didn’t stay long enough to make out, but at a certain point the sand was darker and uniformly speckled, while past that point it was glassy and smooth. Perhaps the mottled side of the sand was marked by the morning’s heavy rain, and the great southern ocean was edging its way up the shore to wipe the slate clean.
I could have stood for hours by one collection of rocks. The rocks were mixtures of dark greys and browns, with white sand dusting their crevices like snow. Every now and then a larger wave would come along and wash all around them, and I’d watch as the water drained back through all the small gaps between them. The ocean was a light aquamarine, but in the small rockpools that briefly formed it barely reflected the cloudy sky — in my pictures the water is all but invisible apart from where it catches the light.
On the beach, the pale glassy sand met a white-fringed ocean that went from the slightest hint of blue to aquamarine and out to a deeper blue as it swept out to more distant islands.
The islands themselves seemed to be fighting a war between rock and vegetation, overseen by the patient ocean. Out of the ocean rose smooth reddish brown rock, streaked grey and black in places, and it was impossible to tell if the greenish black vegetation that covered the rock so completely on top was spreading downwards to the sea to cover every last remaining stone, or if the island was balding, with the vegetation receding up the front and sides.
Above the beaches, the same greenish black vegetation was cut through with the dusty red tracks of roads, and up out of the foliage rose monoliths of that reddish brown rock, crusted with yellow moss in its cracks, and worn into the familiar shapes of people and animals by countless seasons of wind, rain and sun.
From high vantage points you could look across the harbours as the sun briefly came out and bleached the sandy shores of colour so that the almost resembled Dover’s chalk cliffs and made that same ocean — still aquamarine darkening almost in a line to a slate or cobalt blue — shine against it where it swept up and retreated. In the sun my attention was directed back towards the houses of Esperance, where a dark curtain of rain was again falling on the city.
Around the beaches, up the paths in the vegetation and rock, were areas for campsites — no doubt filled to capacity in the high season, and a ranger’s house a short distance away. I was reminded of Edward Abbey’s season in the wilderness of Arches National Park in the USA, and wondered what a life would be like as a ranger: wanting to live among the nature of national parks, and recognising that the roads and campgrounds and tourists are in part necessary encroachments for civilisations that must see value from these places: a value that comes from making them easily accessible and habitable.
This weekend the Amazing Aussie Adventure continued as I got the opportunity to check out the opening of Sculpture by the Sea on Cottesloe beach.
Cottesloe is a tremendously popular beach in Perth, but I’d never visited it properly before — then again, I’d never been to Perth at this time of year before, either, and visiting at the end of summer makes a big difference.
Making the beach even more attractive was a range of sculptures by more than 70 artists — local artists and artists from WA were exhibited alongside international artists, making the beach and surrounds into one big modern art gallery.
Among the sculptures were “Ocean Cathedral” by Debbie Harding, a cathedral window made out of bamboo with a view of the ocean, “Wave 1” by Annette Thas a wave made out of plastic Barbie dolls, and “Red Center” by Carl Billingsley, a veritable sea of red and yellow survey flags, that reminded me, in my exceedingly amateur opinion, of some of Van Gogh’s paintings.
Other sculptures had an ecological message: including “150 Surfboard Graveyard” by Chris Anderson, a “graveyard” of broken parts of surfboard, all sticking out of the sand, a life size rhinoceros knitted entirely out of black plastic bags by Mikaela Castledine, and a fish tank of “Things You Might Find On Your Trip to the Beach” (by Marina DeBris) — entirely consisting of rubbish the artist finds washed up on the beach.
There are too many sculptures and installations to list here — but if you like art, want something to talk about and think about, the exhibition is running until the end of March. I can highly recommend it.
As a belated birthday outing, I went to Perth zoo on the Friday after I arrived.
Despite sleeping very little on the flight from London to Singapore earlier in the week, I’d been fortunate that I hadn’t too much difficulty adjusting to the time difference (Perth is 8 hours ahead of GMT).
On a briefly unrelated side note, whenever I have a time change like this and find myself suddenly wide awake at 5 or 6am, I often think about trying to train myself to stay awake at that time permanently. After all, it would add several more productive hours to my days.
As you’d probably expect, I always decide I like sleep too much, and get over the inconveniently early wakefulness without too much effort.
At this point in the adventure, I felt like I’d lost a day and a half when I left London on Monday morning and arrived in Perth on Tuesday afternoon. The feeling of things not being quite real was exacerbated by feeling a little adrift in the week. J
ust the same, I had largely overcome my mid-afternoon slump by the end of the week. Instead, what I had left behind felt more like a dream than the dusty red earth that was now home.
Like with Serpentine National Park, going to Perth zoo on a week day in school time meant that it was reasonably quiet — with a surprising number of Scottish visitors. One of the things I noticed about Perth zoo was how spacious it felt — it had clearly been designed with a lot of thought to shade and wide open spaces.
You might think that one zoo is a lot like the next, but now that I think of it despite having visited various zoos and safari/wildlife parks at home, this was the first zoo I’d been to outside of the UK. I guess with all the travelling over the last few years, zoos were always further down the list than things like exploring the city.
Sure, Perth has its giraffes and lions and cheetahs and rhinos [fun fact: despite their intimidating appearance, rhinos are regarded by their keepers as overgrown dogs: they’re gentle creatures that like attention and a good scratch behind the ear] but the next realisation after the sense of space and shade in Perth zoo was the variety of Australian animals that I’d not experienced before.
There were the prehistoric and vicious-looking Cassawaries, the Quokkas who always look delighted about something, endangered Bilbys — and a veritable galaxy of small Australian marsupials. One of my favourite animals was the tree kangaroo, a native of Papua New Guinea, and an interesting-looking creature I’d not so much as heard of before.
There were also the more familiar dingos, koalas, wallabies and a walkabout section through a wooded area where kangaroos would hop happily across the path in front of you. And despite having seen crocodiles in zoos and alligators both wild and in captivity, I wasn’t expecting a crocodile the size of the specimen in Perth zoo.
Perth zoo is a fantastic place for conservation, and learning. I learned a lot about the zoo’s conservation projects in the wild, including its fantastic native breeding program, and I was educated on topics such as the importance of dingos to the ecosystem.
Once regarded as a pest, it’s been found more recently that in areas where dingos are reintroduced, the feral invasive species like cats, rabbits and foxes all decline, and the native plants and marsupials recover.
At risk of sounding like a tourist guide book, Perth zoo is a great place to visit. Even if it is more conventional than a place like Serpentine National Park — it’s a place to discover animals you’ve never seen or heard of before, but also learn about conservation efforts in Australia, and around the world.
To begin with, it felt like a dream.
My first days in Australia were spent in a suburb in Perth’s hills, a place called Karragullen.
The area is almost completely unnoticed and quiet, with a large oval just a few steps away from the house — where at night the kangaroos all come out to graze on the grass.
Standing on the oval as the sun was setting on my first night in Australia, it was hard to identify what felt more real — the people and places I had left behind in the English winter just the day before, or this warm Australia night filled with stars.
My first full day in Australia, with some friends I packed a picnic and swimming gear, picked up some friends at Armadale train station, and all went to Serpentine National Park.
The feeling of everything being not-quite-real didn’t subside with the picnic spot at Serpentine, where tame kangaroos were hopping around and begging for food.
The signs warning people not to feed the ‘roos were for a good reason: they can get aggressive if you don’t feed them, as some other picnicers were finding out with one of the animals refusing to leave them alone and acting shows of dominance.
After our lunch the four of us set off uphill on a walking trail, billed as only moderate difficulty — but we hadn’t bargained on the day being as hot as it was.
This was my second time walking in the Australian bush, and like the first time I quickly realised that I didn’t have what I needed to do even a moderately gentle hike properly was walking boots (especially important for me, with my feet) and a platypus for water.
Carrying a large, solid plastic water bottle was too bulky and too heavy for this — even though having plenty of water is about the most important thing you can carry.
The highlight of Serpentine National Park was the Serpentine Falls, a small waterfall over a sheer granite rock face. While the waterfall itself wasn’t much to look at, the volume of water over the falls being much smaller in the summer, the fresh water pool below the falls was welcome — and very cold, especially in the deepest parts — on a hot day.
Serpentine Falls was my first experience of wild swimming in Australia — a world of difference from swimming in Highgate Ponds in London, particularly because you don’t come out muddy and smelling of pond water!