COLD BEER AND CROCODILES: A BICYCLE JOURNEY INTO AUSTRALIA by Roff Smith
Place of Purchase: Crown Books, Houston, Texas (found on a $1.00 table, years before reading)
Reading Began: July 28, 2004
Completed Reading: August 11, 2004
Overall rating: Seven out of ten
Recommendation to others: If you have a love for Australia or if you simply enjoy travel memoirs, this is a book you should read. The author is likable, so I enjoyed traveling the country with him, and he’s American, so I could imagine some of his isolation issues as an expat. His descriptions of Australian culture and geography are vivid, and his experiences are funny and sometimes sad. It’s a delightful journey to take in a beautiful country with rich history.
Why I chose to read this book: I have wanderlust, and this was about Australia. It took no thought to pick this up.
Further reading by this author: Australia : Journey Through A Timeless Land (though I’ve only just learned this exists!)
Comments: I’ve dreamed of Australia throughout my life, so this book appealed to me on an emotional level first. My sense of wanderlust was stoked again and again as the author described every single step he took in his bicycle journey around the perimeter of the land, and my dreams of the country have only increased now that I have tangible information on which to reflect. Even with no prior first-hand experience, I still found myself visualizing and identifying with every leg of his journey, and I enjoyed the imagery and stories as if I was native to the land. That is this book’s greatest strength. And yet, since the author is an expat New Englander, he managed to convey a sense of isolation, as if he continued to be a visitor to the country after a decade living there. This sense of aloofness gives the journey a fresh take; the author saw everything with new eyes, and the reader is able to see as clearly as him.
The author’s (and reader’s) journey follows the coastlines of Australia, for the most part, with passage through the Outback in the northern portion of the continent. He struggles as I would imagine one should, but he also conveys the freedom that I dream of. Leaving his job, his life, to take this journey (of 10,000 miles and 10 months) is a dream I’ve often found in myself, so I lived fully vicariously through Smith. And I wasn’t disappointed in any way… at least, not until the journey ended.
I’ll always be grateful they drank me into [diving in the Great Barrier Reef]. The next morning we motored to Michaelmas Cay, about two hours out of Cairns. The divemaster went through the rules and, for neophytes like me, explained the rudiments of snorkeling. Faintly nauseated at this business of spitting into one’s face mask, I slipped over the side, plunged my face into the waves, and nearly spat out my snorkel in stunned amazement. A technicolor dreamscape burst in front of me, more sensuous and lurid than anything I could have imagined: a slow-motion kaleidoscope of reds, golds, blues, and oranges; intricately patterned coral beds; plunging crevices where the light shifted from brilliant green to deep indigo. Kicking along the surface, face down, and floating over one of these precipitous dropoffs made me feel as though I was flying. Below me, torpedo-like fish, schools of rainbow-colored darters, and a species patterned with garish blue-and-yellow stripes maneuvered amongst the corals. Farther below, in the cool blue depths, a giant Maori wrasse — an enormous bass on steroids — idled in the current. A huge sea turtle wafted by.
I loved every second of my time out there and resolved to do more of it — maybe even learn to dive — some day. But life is short and the world is full of great things, and on my way back to the shore I found myself captivated once more by the jungly mountains soaring above the city. At that distance, their steep flanks and mile-high summits made Cairns’ expensive resort hotels look like tiny white sugar cubes along the coast. That’s when I fully understood that there are beach people and there are mountain people, and once the mold has set it can’t be recast. By the time the catamaran berthed in Cairns, my day on the reef had settled into memory, a glorious novelty to remember and cherish. My forward thoughts were already up in the hills. Chapter 13 – Effin’ Q (p. 95)
I was heading for Kununurra, a man-made oasis on the eastern fringe of the Kimberley, still a good 200 miles away. The sun was merciless. Daytime highs crept to 115°, making the broken and blistered ironstone scattered on the hillsides too hot for sitting.
A few weeks from now, when the big rains came, this would all be transformed into a tropical rock garden: Cliff faces would become waterfalls, dusty riverbeds would turn into cataracts, and dense clumps of cane grass would sprout almost overnight from the cracked earth, growing 20 feet a month while the monsoons bucketed down. For now, however, there was nothing but mile after mile of dazzling sun, the ceasless drone of the flies, and the slithering sound of my bicycle tires on the steamy asphalt. Chapter 21 – Lost In The Labyrinth (p. 152)
Broome was my ultimate prize, the most exotic, remote and romantic of Australia’s sunset ports. Getting here on a bicycle from Sydney was an accomplishment I wanted to savor. It wasn’t just the 5,000 miles; coming here is like reaching another world. This is a steamy, ceiling-fan sort of place that belongs in a Joseph Conrad novel, more Asian than Australian, with its legacy of Japanese pearl divers, Malay seaman, Arab and Indian gem merchants, Chinese traders, Afghan camel drivers, and the seagoing riffraff from every seedy port in the Orient — almost anyone chasing fast money. Back in the 1920s a fleet of more than 400 pearling luggers operated in these waters, street signs had to be written in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and English, and the only regular contact with the rest of Australia was the steamer that puttered up the coast every six weeks.
The luggers are long gone, done in by the advent of the humble plastic button after World War II. Broome slid into a genteel decline until the 1980s, when paved roads and an airport capable of handling jets made it possible to holiday here, if you had the time and money. Even now getting here is no simple matter. It’s easier and cheaper to fly to Hawaii. But where in modern Hawaii are you going to find an empty strand of fine white sand 15 miles long, let alone one with the unbuttoned easieness of the Australian outback? This is a town where you can buy a $200,000 string of perfectly matched pearls in the showroom at Paspaley Pearls on Carnarvon Street, or walk around the corner and grab a beer at the Roebuck Hotel — a rough-as-guts pub straight out of Crocodile Dundee, where a notice tacked by the door forbids fighting, throwing furniture, begging for liquor, or “urinating outside the toilets provided.” Chapter 23 – Life’s A Beach (p. 163)
I liked the Aborigines. It was nice to be among people who understood intuitively what I was trying to accomplish in my slow journey around Australia. No Aborigine ever said it was harebrained to tackle the outback alone and on a bicycle, or delivered long-winded lectures about how vast the distances were, how hot the heat could be, or how big and aggressive the road trains were. They thought it was a fine thing for a man to spend a few months wandering the countryside. On foot, on a bicycle – it didn’t matter. Sympathy for the land was what counted. How different from white Australia, where passsersby often felt it their bounden duty to point out my pigheaded foolery in traveling through the outback on nothing better than a bicycle. Inevitably the phrase “It’s a big country” would pop up, delivered in a wise and lofty tone, as thought I had yet to figure out that Australia was big despite four months of cycling around it. None of these doomsayers ever asked what preparations I had made or how much water I carried – nor would they have recongized sensible answers to those questions.
For that matter, no Aborigine ever demanded money for water, as would occur to me at a few roadhouses along the way. If a vehicle full of Aborigines happened down the road, they invariably stopped for a chat and asked if I’d like my water bottles topped up. It was a social occasion, usually with a slew of kids playing in the scrub, joyful at briefly escaping the confines of back seat or flatbed. Their parents would tell me about the country I was riding through, I’d tell them about some of the places I’d seen, we’d have a bit of a laugh. Nobody was in a hurry to get anywhere or do anything.
As I traveled slowly through their ancient land, sleeping each night under an eternity of stars, I grew to appreciate the Aborigines’ relaxed approach to time. It is probably the sharpest division that exists between our cultures. Most of us spend our lives marching in quiet desperation to the ticking of clocks, marking appointments and deadlines in calendars, and rushing to be on time for them. We spend fortunes on Palm Pilots and Filofaxes, develop ever-faster computer chips, and devote countless billions to correct Y2K problems that impishly fail to materialize.
Aborigines long ago adopted, in everyday life, Albert Einstein’s simplest yet most profound theorem: All time is now. The unassailable philosophical common sense of this can be infuriating to those who live by the clock – and, of course, it’s not terribly practical when it comes to running a business. But the more I traveled the outback, setting my days by the sun and the stars, the more I found myself living each moment as it came. Chapter 24 – Father Matt of Bidyadanga (p. 173)
The Eyre Highway through [the Nullarbor Plain] skirts the edge of what must be the most forbidding line of cliffs on the planet. Australia comes to an end with frightening abruptness, the sheared-off edge of the continent dropping hundreds of feet to the booming surf of the Southern Ocean. Occasional side roads lead to the brink — and to achingly desolate views of banded limestone cliffs stretching into the salt haze for miles in either direction.
I straddled my bike atop this precipice one afternoon, a cold wind in my face, looking out on a heaving gray sea that reached to Antarctica. Behind me the dead-flat scrub of the Nullarbor Plain stretched into infinity. Nothing brought home Australia’s isolation more than standing at the edge of these lonely cliffs, listening to the hollow boom of the breakers far below. There was no other sound. I was the first—or the last—man on earth. Chaper 38 — Of Headwinds and Headcases (p. 248)
As an expatriate New Englander, I had always felt much more at home here in Melbourne than I had in brash, California-style Sydney. Melbourne — with its old-money shadows and school ties and chilly patrician atmosphere — fancies itself a sort of antipodean Boston. Like the more WASPish Bostonians, Melburnians consider themselves better bred than their nouveau-riche counterparts in other cities. In reality, much of Melbourne’s blue-blooded wealth was a lotto win, grubbed out of the mud by strike-it-rich prospectors in Victorian goldfields during the 1850s. Melburnians like to be reminded of this fact about as much as the Cabots and Lowells enjoy having the days of child labor in the cotton mills pointed out to them.
With its gracious Victorian-era bank buildings and green-and-gold trams running along leafy boulevards flanked by plane trees and the lazy Yarra River running through its heart, Melbourne is European. Chapter 45 — Memories of Melbourne (p. 273)
I didn’t know much about long-haul cycling expeditions when I set out from Sydney. I learned and grew fit along the way. I must have done some things right. I carried enough water on desert crossings, avoided sunstroke in 140° heat, camped safely by the roadside at night, and developed reasonably canny judgment.
But life on the road is straightforward. Needs are basic: food, water, a snug place to sleep. The highway itself provides a steadying and easily understood sense of direction and purpose. The stark simplicity of the outback landscapes and the fragile clarity of the desert light makes plain things that are hard to resolve in the hustle and clutter of the workaday world.
I had set out on this journey to learn about Australia, to try to figure out my future here — if, indeed, I had one. … I had learned much and seen much. Now it was time for reflection.
Within a day or so, I had slipped back into my old role of the accidental expatriate. This time around, however, I boxed my bike, packed my bags, and headed back to New England. … I was happy that first morning: this was America.
Then came a few weeks later when I had to fly back to Australia for a magazine assignment. I’ll always remember the relaxing moment I stepped into the Qantas departure lounge at the L.A. airport, picked up that day’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, and began catching up on the cricket season, the weather map, the familiar names and faces and stories of Australia. With a pleasant shock, I realized that I was going home. Epilogue (p. 282)
USEFUL INFORMATION AND INTERESTING NOTES
Unless you’re filming one of those nature documentaries, your odds of seeing a snake [in the Outback] are slim. And your chances of being bitten are even slimmer — provided you don’t do something idiotic such as thrusting your hand in a hole or under a rock. The mother of all herpetological mistakes is to try to kill a snake: Eighty percent of snakebites are inflicted on people in the act of attempting to kill one of these reptiles. In months of traveling through the outback, I chanced across only a handful of snakes, and most of those were on the road. When it came to camping in the bush, I never lost any sleep worrying about snakes. Chapter 15 – Emus and Me (p. 110)
Two particular towns in Western Australia were mentioned as unfriendly; better to pass on through than stop for any length of time: Carnarvon – specifically, the Wooramel Roadhouse and the Outlander Roadhouse (south of the town); and Caiguna. Neither was friendly to passers-through, and neither was inviting to strangers. Chapter 30 — We Sell Water Here; Chapter 36 — “Refusal Often Offends” (p. 236)
The Barossa Valley is Australia’s premier wine-growing region, a pocket of the Old World dotted with the steeples of Lutheran churches built of local stone by Prussian and Silesian settlers more than 150 years ago. The phone books overflow with German surnames: Heuzenroeder, Lehman, Linke, Graetz—fourth-generation descendants of the early pioneers. The little German villages still have their own brass bands, and some of the older folk continue to speak an Australianized form of German known as Barossa-Deutsche. Barossa Valley bakeries sell German breads and pastries; butcher-shop windows are crammed with smoked meats and sausages made from old family recipes. I stopped in at Linke’s butcher shop on Murray Street in Nuriootpa and treated myself to one of their pungent garlic mettwursts—the best in the valley. Chapter 40 — Back to the Barossa (p. 257)
The next day was Anzac Day, the anniversary of the April day in 1915 when Australian troops waded into history and a hail of Turkish bullets on a formidably defended beach near Gallipoli in the Dardenelles. The storming of that beach marked the first time Australia had gone to war as a nation, and each year the nation pauses to give thanks to those first “diggers” — and to the generations of Australians who have fought and died in other 20th-century wars. It is a public holiday; unlike any other civic event on a calendar chock-full of extra-long beachy weekends, however, this one is serious. Across the nation — in every city, town, and hamlet — there are well-attended dawn services, wreath layings, and solemn parades of silver-haired veterans marching through the streets in their Sunday suits, regimental ties, and campaign medals, cheered on by thousands of other compatriots. The motto of the day is “Lest We Forget.” No one does: This is a day of genuine thanks. Chapter 46 — The Last Leg (p. 278)