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The apology to the aborigines for the “stolen generations” may not have made headlines in North America, but it was a big deal here in Australia. We happened to be on the road when it happened, but I found a copy of “The Age” at a newsagent’s shop in Tasmania. The front page on Valentine’s Day was given over to five large photos of aboriginals, some in tears.

The headline read: Outburst of Emotion Echoes Across the Land. It was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s moment, as he made the speech acknowledging the pain of the native people caused by government policy of legal kidnapping graphically illustrated by the film–“Rabbit Proof Fence.” When I saw the film I assumed that since the film was set in the thirties, the policy that formed its central conflict had disappeared years ago. Not so.

The policy was in place from 1910 until 1970. It affected up to 100,00 aboriginal children who were removed from their families and placed in church or state institutions or foster homes. According to verbal testimony taken for the 1995 inquiry “Bringing Them Home,” many of them were subjected to physical and/or sexual abuse.

The main motive seems to have been assimilation. Undoubtedly there were altruistic caregivers who were primarily concerned with the welfare of the native children, but the instant orphans were discouraged from speaking their own language or getting in touch with their families. The best of intentions could not compensate for that emotional amputation. Rudd’s speech carefully avoided the promise of monetary compensation, but he did declare the need to “remove a great stain from the nation’s soul.”

The apology may have been nothing more than a symbolic act, a way of assuaging the guilt of the white population of Australia, but it is a beginning. Even coming from a country with an awful history of native subjugation and despair, I have been shocked by media reports on conditions in aboriginal settlements here. Let us hope that Rudd’s vision will be translated into effective action that will trigger the changes that are so necessary to restore the pride and self-sufficiency of the aboriginal population. There are no easy solutions.

Treatment of the native population by the early English settlers is a sad story, horrific in the case of Tasmania. Arthur Phillip’s instructions were “to endeavor by any means to open an intercourse with the natives and to conciliate their affections….” But Phillip had come to settle “terra nullius” with ships full of convicts and soldiers, not the most enlightened of people. Early contact between natives and newcomers often led to conflict, sometimes to bloodshed.

Before the first year was out, even the thoughtful Captain Phillip had sanctioned kidnapping a native in order to learn the language and customs of the aboriginals in the area.

At least Arabanoo was a grown man.

Take a look at a globe, if you’ve got one handy. Or launch Google Earth and point it toward Australia. Due south of Melbourne is an island about the size of Ireland. Originally called Van Diemen’s Land, it is now known as Tasmania. To mainland Australians, it is affectionately called “Tassie.”

As we slipped away from Melbourne the morning of February 8th aboard the “Spirit of Tasmania” I got a plaintive text message from my daughter–“please take the chocolate with you.” My penchant for Cadbury’s dark chocolate with almonds has not made this blog to date, but there it is. She needn’t have worried that I would leave it behind.

Since our only packing restriction was the size of the Subaru, we were equipped for an expedition to the Antarctic. Even in summer, Tasmania can require everything from ponchos to mittens. We had camping gear, hiking clothes, paddling gear, city clothes etc. The only significant item item of clothing for which I felt no need was my tux.

I saw our first vacation to Tasmania as an exploratory visit. We had bookings for the first three nights only. The accommodation our first night got blown away when circumstances required us to let our departure slip back one day. By that point, every place in the arrival port of Devenport was booked.

Not to worry. We still had our booking at a cottage near Cradle Mountain. It would mean driving up there as the light was fading. though, and I didn’t realize what that meant.

If you’ve seen a video game where creatures are constantly popping up in front of you while you are trying to negotiate your way up a narrow, winding road, you can imagine the drive. Most of Tasmania’s critters are nocturnal, and they seemed to like nothing better than testing my night vision and reflexes. But the next two days made up for it.

Cradle Mountain is one of the most spectacular areas of Tassie, and the island is blessed with beautiful scenery. There are only about thirty days of sunshine per year and we got two of them. We circled Dove Lake, scrambled up to Marions Lookout, met a curious wallaby and a couple from Newfoundland.

I had a rough idea of what we might be able to see during the following ten days but we didn’t come close. It is a matter of topography. Tasmania is an island like Sardinia where practically nothing is flat. We did a lot of driving and seemed to get not very far.
The most spectacular place we came across was a spur of the moment choice, thirteen kilometers up a gravel logging road. It was a stunning, precipitous look off called Devils Gullet, not too far (as the crow flies) from Cradle Mountain. I’m afraid my photos do not do it justice. The vertiginous view from a scary metal perch over the edge of a sheer drop rivals that of the Grand Canyon.

From Devils Gullet, we dropped down to a little patch of paradise in the Tamar Valley, the Pearwalk Cottages. It was another fortuitous find. We had been referred to it by the owner of a Bed and Breakfast nearby that was fully booked. It was so lovely that we went back the night before we left.

Mostly, we stayed in what the Australians call “cottages,” self-sufficient units with bath and kitchen. Two of them were in popular destinations. They were modern and classy with prices to match. One place we stayed was a dump. We stayed in a bed and breakfast that had been been built by convicts and housed the workers under lock and key in the basement. One night we camped out and listened to the gulls.

During our too brief stay we tasted some fine Pinot Noir at several lovely wineries in the Tamar Valley; we strolled for hours on a white sand beach in the Bay of Fires; we hiked up and over boulders to see Wineglass Bay; we paddled among dolphins in Freycinet National Park; we visited two historic bridges, two lighthouses, one mansion and the National Rose Garden.

But there is so much more. We haven’t seen Hobart or the Tasman Peninsula or Bruny Island or the West coast or Lake St. Clair. We’ll be back. Tassie’s alluring, addicting, just like chocolate. Did I mention the Cadbury Factory? Next time, I can leave my stash behind and live off the land. Fine wine, bread and chocolate. What more can you ask for?

Two weeks ago I got a lobotomy. Don’t let anyone tell you the brain doesn’t have nerve endings. It was (still is) very, very painful. It all began with my vision of peripherals not working. I would wheedle, I would cajole, I would uninstall and re-install. No matter what I did, nothing would get the mother ship to accept its acolytes. A scanner, a webcam, a sweet little device called a Squeezebox that allows music on the computer to be played through the stereo. My short, squat computer refused them all.

So, the question began niggling at me. What to do? Computer problems have a way of messing with your mind. If only, you say to yourself. If only it would work the way it should. Reformat is such a harmless sounding word.

Our very first lobotomy happened entirely by accident. It was in Hong Kong shortly after the handover from Dos to Windows. I know, I’m dating myself. Despite its reputation as a great place to buy electronics, the IBM laptop we purchased was a major investment. It was the software that was cheap. Something about not paying royalties. Sure enough, six months later there were serious issues.

I took it back to the shop and told the owner about the problem. He smiled at me, took it under his arm and said: “reformat. ok?” I had no idea what he was talking about. It did not dawn on me that he was talking icepick. That I would be picking up a reamed-out brick instead of the clever little crutch that I had come to depend on for everyday life.

Everything we had written and received had been turned into randomly polarized electrons. Contacts, email, articles. I looked at the man in disbelief. “You mean you didn’t save it somewhere?” He looked around the shop to see if my life had been mislaid somewhere among the printers. “Works okay now.”

The very word ‘reformat’ gives me heart palpitations. But time heals, as they say. We forget. Twelve years is a long time. I have everything backed up. It is simply a question of reinstalling my programs and the data. That’s what my rational, intelligent mind had to say. My body got the night sweats. Big brain won. I lost.

All my contacts, appointments, email. Everything My computer guru did the same thing I did to reinstall Outlook data file. He tried. He failed. If you are reading this I may have had your address in my files once upon a time. Not any more. No worries. Someday, someone will figure it out. In the meantime, enjoy the peace and quiet of my absence. Pretend I’m on Mars. I won’t be bugging you anytime soon.

Check back here in a few days. We just returned from nine days down under down under. That’s right, Tasmania. Words and pics will be up as soon as I get the bills paid and a pile of laundry done.

When my wife mentioned an upcoming conference in Sydney and asked if I would like to come along, I didn’t need much persuasion. It has been on my list of must-see cities for quite some time. I jumped on the internet and booked two cheap tickets, realizing my mistake a minute too late, when it popped out of my printer. My error was in not realizing that there are two airports in Melbourne.

Tullamarine International Airport is about ten minutes away in light traffic, twenty at rush hour. The other airport is located some 62 kilometers southwest of here, right outside the city of Geelong, a metropolis of some 205,000.

When I called two minutes later to report my mistake and ask for assistance, I was informed that the discount airline owned by Qantas could not fly from Tullamarine because they would be competing with the mother company. I could write off the tickets I had just purchased, or fly out of Avalon, where parking was cheap.

So, we got up early. Halfway across the bridge the reminder in my brain went off, the senility signal that lets me know I have done something really dumb. We were heading for a city with one of the most spectacular settings in the world and I had just forgotten my camera. To my mind, I was going practically naked.

Traffic was light, so we arrived early, only to discover that the departure had been delayed a half hour. I had been notified by email but hadn’t realized it.

The comedy of errors was just beginning. The conference was being held in a lovely hotel at Coogee Beach, right on the ocean. The morning paper predicted rain– all three days. Rain like I had never seen in Melbourne. Monsoon rain.

Sydney had the good sense to provide its airport with rail transport, so we took the train into the City. We braved the downpour a few blocks to a friend’s flat. She had a fine view of the harbor, and planned to offer us lunch on the patio, followed by a good beach walk.

After lunch we went for a drive instead. The next morning it was only spitting out so I set off on a constitutional from Coogee to Bondi Beach. There were no bronzed bodies to distract me. Wind was whipping up waves across the beautiful rocky shore. Halfway there I came across a cemetery where the dead have the most amazing view.

To a surfer, wet is wet. The famous Bondi beach was deserted except for human seals. I caught a bus into the city and it was there the deluge broke. The word rain is inadequate. It was coming down in buckets.

I ducked into an upscale noodle place and settled in for a long lunch. Everyone out on the street was moving very quickly, battling the fierce wind and rain with inadequate umbrellas. Smokers huddled in doorways.

The Museum of Sydney was right across the street, a port in a storm. It was a good place to begin my visit. Inside, I came across a wonderfully apt quote by the accomplished Australian author, Geoffrey Dutton.

“Sydney’s shape was determined by the sea, and like the sea it lies open and glowing to the eye. When it rains in Sydney, the water comes down in sheets… shoes grow mould in the cupboards. But Sydney, you remember, is a soft light on golden sandstone, the attack of the ocean, the shelter of the Harbour.”

The next day the rain let up. I was finally able to explore without gumboots. I circumnavigated the famous opera house, walked under the towering bridge, toured the laneways of the Rocks. When asked, I graciously offered to snap fellow tourists in front of the obligatory backdrops. Feeling naked.

But then I began to accept the fact. It is hard to really see when you are busy snapping. And I would have been taking the same pictures as everyone else. They are all on Flickr. Check it out. Sydney. It’s one spectacular place.

It was a day like any other day, only yesterday was my 63rd birthday so I could have expected perfection. On birthdays you ask your loving ones to reward you for having squirmed out of your mother’s uterus demanding air, food and attention, all at once.

My wife wished a happy birthday on me before the coffee was done brewing. My daughter left for work before we were up, but there was a lovely card on the dining room table. The natural health food food store remembered me.  Isn’t that something?

It wasn’t my birthday in North America yet, so I couldn’t expect friends and family there to adjust their mental calendars and send their wishes in advance, but I was a bit miffed all the same when my inbox turned up empty.

It was a year ago exactly that we moved into our digs here in Essendon. For a month or more I had my work cut out for me arranging furniture, hanging pictures and getting things put away, dealing with detritus, 62 years of accumulating stuff.

If you are distressed by mess and want to be able to find things again, then tidying up is a never-ending process. Last week I tackled the garage. Yesterday, the tiny, windowless office I call my own consumed much of the day.

It made me think of tidy towns. From what little I could find on the web, it seems to be a concept that originated in Ireland, but it has taken hold in small towns here in a big way. The very idea seems to contradict the notion I have of Australia as an outlaw, outback country where Mad Max is cruising along waiting for some evil creature to pop his head up.

To my way of thinking, tidy towns are imbued with artificiality, like Disneyland. But they seem to have taken off in the mother country as well.  The screenplay for “Hot Fuzz” took this idea and ran with it, to hilarious effect.

Seaside, Florida is a real town on the Gulf coast designed around the tidy town ideal. No one actually lives there. Each home is a summer getaway with an owner’s plaque on the outside indicating the family members, including pets, and where they live their “real” lives, when they are not in Seaside.

Every house looks like a bit of Cape Cod, glued into place around a perfect town green. The cobblestone streets add a nice touch. It was the location setting for Jim Carey’s wonderfully perverse “comedy”– “The Truman Show.”

The only part of my birthday that I had planned ahead of time was dinner with my wife and a friend down in St. Kilda and a evening with a fifty year-old lefty by the name of Billy Bragg.

Dinner was delightful. When we showed up for the show,however, a small sign indicated Billy would not be performing until 10:30. Most nights, that’s my bedtime.

He was the headliner so it was his prerogative, I suppose, but the tickets said 8 PM. We grumbled a bit. My wife had a busy day planned so she bailed out and caught the tram home. I’m not a great salesman, so I flogged her ticket for a fraction of its cost.  Geoff and I went inside. It was a ballroom. Pricey beer and no seats.

True to his word, Billy came on at 10:30. Fortunately, the two musical acts during the two and a half hours prior to his appearance were first rate. Billy sang some songs everyone knew as well as some new ones from an upcoming CD. He told some jokes and anecdotes and preached to the converted at some length toward the end of the set. He called us his brothers and sisters and urged us to be activists and not get cynical.

It wasn’t tidy, the perfect ending of a perfect day.  It wasn’t the Truman Show, but it wasn’t Hollywooden either. It was messy, uncomfortable and unexpected, just like real life.

Flickr Photos


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February 2008

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February 2008
February 2008