Tag Archives: Australia

The South Coast

10 Feb

Oh, my, so behind on the travelogue! Let me try to summarize our two weeks along the South Coast after we left Ulladulla/Kings Point.  The photos above are of the gorgeous beaches in and around Mystery Bay. Our friend Maggie Brady let us stay in her wonderful summer house there, and we liked it so much we stayed for almost two weeks! Mystery Bay is about 10 km from Narooma, the biggest town in the area. It is very popular with Canberrans–3 hours away–as a place to escape the inland heat and, if fortunate enough, to buy a getaway house.  Maggie and her late husband Alan were able to buy their house many years ago, when the prices were not so impossible. She has been very generous in allowing us to stay here. We like it because, unlike so many other houses that Australians build along the coast, it really is in the bush, designed to be unpretentious but functional, and it blends into the landscape. (It was designed by a German, and you can tell!)

The only drawback: there is no internet, no cell phone, no shops in Mystery Bay!  It really is, then, a getaway, but not conducive to long-time stays, unless one figures out how to get some reception.  A lot of the time we would walk up the hill, and then could make a phone call, and we had a portable WiFi device that worked some of the time.  This was indeed a good place to be for the lamentable period of the inauguration and the first disastrous weeks of the new U.S. presidency.

We saw some animals that we rarely had seen in the past: at 1080 Beach, the beautiful beach shown above, swamp wallabies roam calmly, undisturbed by people. And for me, most excitingly, ECHIDNAS are all over the place!  I think we had only seen one echidna in the wild before this:

In case you wonder what an echidna is, they are one of only 5 monotremes in the world–that is, egg-laying mammals–including the platypus.  Covered in spines, somewhat like a hedgehog, they will curl up in an impenetrable ball if harassed. They appeared in the front garden in Mystery Bay, sniffling around the vegetation, in the late afternoon.

As for the reason Mystery Bay is so named, here is the explanation, on a plaque at the beach:


The prevailing suspicion is that they were done in by miners who didn’t want to pay their assessed taxes!

Along with gorgeous beaches and fabulous fish, the South Coast region around Narooma includes temperate rain forests, at least one of which has been tended by the State Forestry Division.  It provides a magical walk through fern gullies and feathery palms.

Because of the lack of internet at our digs, we spent a lot of time at the Narooma Public Library–we weren’t the only ones!  The place was buzzing with activity, from children’s reading hour to art presentations.  Public libraries–the last openly free service to the public.  A godsend to the communities they serve! And here, outside the windows, I could watch the lorikeets sitting in the most beautiful grevilleas.

In our search for affordable housing–remember, that was part of the original purpose for making this trip–we had been advised to check out Bermagui, where we had been told old Canberra lefties were starting to retire, so there was a livelier cultural scene than its earlier phases could provide.  This is the town made famous by Zane Grey, who discovered it as a gateway to magnificent deep-sea fishing. We had visited the place often when we lived in Canberra. Somehow, we were not impressed. The wonderful old Bermagui Hotel is so tarted up it was virtually unrecognizable from its previous appearance as a small-town gem of a hotel, and we really didn’t see much of a cultural buzz anywhere. Never mind, our friend Tonia did introduce us to an amazingly good gelato shop there. Prices for housing were a little bit lower than further north up the coast (we did find that as soon as the rail line ended in Nowra, the prices of real estate began to drop)–but still fairly high for our tastes.

Finally, we decided to drive down to Mallacoota, in nostalgic recognition of a family expedition of many years ago.  When we were beginning our work on The Blue Guide in about 1992, we were in Melbourne, and were advised to visit the most isolated point in Victoria at Mallacoota. Max, at 10, was with us when we set off to go there.  We thoroughly miscalculated the amount of time the drive would take (this was in the days before Google Maps).  As it became apparent that we were still hours from our destination, Max began to whimper from hunger.  By the time we got to our hotel, it was absolutely pitch dark out and there were NO places open that had food.  The clerk at our hotel suggested we visit the golf club, which might still be open.  We made a beeline there, arriving just as they were closing. They let us have a prawn cocktail, which Max promptly devoured, and then roosongolfcourse2_mallacootaimmediately fell asleep.  In memory of this occasion we did revisit the golf club, only to find mediocre food at exorbitant (to us) prices. But there were still kangaroos on the golf course!

We had a splendid time in Mallacoota–stayed in a lovely AirBnB apartment on Bottom Lake, a bit to the south of the village proper. The village is indeed isolated, reached from Princes Highway after a winding 13-km. road.  According to Wikipedia, its year-round population is 970, a figure that swells to 8,000 in the summer. An enormous campground dominates the town. But the area is just stunning, with flocks of rare grey-headed flying foxes (they weren’t in residence when we were there, but we went to a very informative and well-attended talk about them, put on by the University of the Third Age, a very active group of older residents of the area), and magnificent gum trees. The larger image below is of the most venerable Mallacoota Gum, of which there are only 38 individual specimens left.

But our biggest excitement in Mallacoota came on a walk through the Croajingolong National Park, a section of which skirted the lake where we were staying. After a nice but rather uneventful trek up to The Narrows of the inlet, we were walking back to the car, when George yelled, “Erika, get your camera out quick!”  There in our path was an enormous goanna–at least 4 feet long, and flicking out his tongue furiously.

We kept our distance until he finally galumphed off to the water. We had never seen such a goanna so close by!  They are apparently quite common in this national park. Very exciting.

After two days in this little corner of Victoria–far too isolated to consider moving there permanently–we headed out up the Monaro Highway for Canberra.  The South Coast is a beautiful merging of sea and forest, green and clear blue waters, and still rather removed from what passes as “modern” civilization. That has distinct advantages, but for those of us in need of some cultural institutions–and at least reliable internet–it really is too far (Narooma is 5 hours from Sydney, 8 hours from Melbourne, 4 hours from Canberra). Definitely worth a visit, and we are so thankful that we had the opportunity to stay there for a while.

Immigrating to Australia

6 Feb

As promised, we will be looking into the procedures for seeking refuge in other countries should things in the U.S. under Trump become intolerable. Today we went to the desk-front office of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (that last little dismaying bit about “border protection” has been added in the last few paranoid years here, coinciding with the government’s horrendous treatment of desperate refugees trying to enter Australia by boat. Just an aside to let you know that the whole Western world seems to be going insanely xenophobic….). We presented ourselves as naturalized Australian citizens who would be moving back here, chiefly because of the election of Donald Trump, and asked for information on procedures for immigration by other Americans into the country.

First, the good news:  we as Australian citizens would be able to sponsor family members to enter the country and apply for permanent residency (although there are quotas, and it seems that every application is handled on an individual basis).  And Max (our son), as an Australian citizen, would have no trouble bringing his non-Australian wife and child; she would also be able to get work permits and permanent residency status easily once she was here.  But here’s the bad news:  we as Australian citizens would have no ability to sponsor friends or anyone else; they would simply have to apply through normal channels, following the procedures laid out on the Department’s website,  www.border.gov.au.  The cost of applications is much higher than it was when we applied, and the categories are more restricted. But if you are white, have money, and have desirable skills, it is still possible to be accepted. As of yet, Americans fleeing Trump’s America do not qualify for refugee status, but we will continue to monitor that situation.

There are now several categories of tourist and working visas, most of which allow for visits of up to 3 months, some for entry several times within a year, up to 3 months at a time. Word is that getting citizenship is far more complicated and much more expensive than when we became citizens. At that time in the early 1990s, we just had to have been in the country continuously for 2 years (this is after having working visas and permanent residency status). I think we also had to take a small test of some kind, agreeing to swear allegiance to the Queen of Australia, but I do remember that we weren’t even asked to sing “Advance Australia Fair,” the national anthem, of which I had memorized all the words in anticipation of having to sing it to pass the citizenship test

Advance Australia Fair!

Ruminations from afar

26 Jan


As soon as we arrived in Australia, we announced to everyone that we were refugees from Trump’s America. In Ulladulla, I went to a small AA meeting—with the always comforting mix of people, from sheep shearers to housewives and North Shore Sydney sorts here on holiday. When I said that we were escaping Trumpism, they all laughed in a kind of skittish solidarity. Even here, thousands of miles away and in a rural setting with little access to the internet or cell phones, one can’t entirely escape the terrifying news that the United States of America has gone insane and is attempting to jettison the last vestiges of liberal democracy. While Australians are happily going about their everyday lives in this salubrious summer season, safe and prosperous, the clouds of uncertainty and impending doom hover in the background.

Newspapers—and Australian papers are generally not known for their overly liberal views–are full of fearful analysis. The Australian Financial Review—the country’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal—carries headlines such as “Turnbull scrambles to save TPP, condemns protectionism,” with grave warnings that “the prospect of some sort of trade war with China is now a very real risk.” Another article decries Trump’s “untruths”: “What we are witnessing is the destruction of the credibility of the American government”; for the writer of these words, the worrying aspect of this destruction is that American governmental honesty was the cornerstone for all other democracies. Without that model, then no government can be trusted anymore. No matter how one feels about specific issues such as TPP, the expression of these concerns is a vivid indication of the global impact of Trump’s irresponsible and impulsively demagogic decisions.

On the glorious upside of America’s global reach and the most positive aspect of globalization: the photo above shows the community bulletin board in the tiny beach town of South Durras, near Bateman’s Bay. Durras was our favorite summer spot when we lived in Canberra, so we had to make a nostalgic visit again as we drove down the coast from Sydney. Normally this bulletin board would announce community barbecues and town meetings. I was overwhelmed with emotion to see that even in this little corner of the country, women (and men) would be marching in protest of “Trump’s inhumanity.” Proof again that this is a global issue, not just sour grapes on the part of American “elites.”

I’m writing this (long-hand!) on January 26, Australia Day, which is in itself a politically vexed holiday on the national calendar. A combination of the 4th of July—barbecues and fireworks—and Columbus Day—a cringe-making imperialist celebration of European conquest of a “new” land, appropriately considered a “day of invasion” by the indigenous people so cruelly displaced by this arrival—the day really marks the end of summer holidays and the subsequent beginning of school terms next week.


A sign in a shop window in Bermagui, NSW.

We have been in four different communities along Princes Highway today, and none of them seemed to be celebrating much, at least not communally. I am choosing to see this as a positive step—that many Australians recognize the inappropriateness of festivities on this day, at least here on the South Coast, where many Aborigines live. (To be fair, Pearl Beach and many other places still have a community barbecue with traditional snags and onions and white bread grilled amid booths selling Lamingtons and hand-crocheted doily covers for toilet-paper rolls, and TV still broadcasts an Australia Day concert from Sydney). But it could also be a sign of the increasing unease, distrust and disconnect across all Western nations concerning the citizenry’s relationship to its governments. The shock of America’s descent into xenophobic extremism, the indecent reaction by so many Americans to a perfectly decent Obama presidency, is felt as strongly here as everywhere else. The whole world is girding its loins for the uncertainties and madnesses ahead.

In Oz again

16 Jan

First of all, let’s just dismiss the idea that any 12-to-15-hour flight in economy class can ever be “enjoyable,” or even comfortable.  It’s just something one has to endure if one wants to experience the Southern Hemisphere.  We arrived this time via Auckland, which just added to the amount of time spent in transit.  Too bad we couldn’t have stopped for longer in New Zealand–perhaps another time.

So here we are back in Australia, our second home (we’re dual citizens), still in jet lag, and me with an airplane-induced cold. But it’s summer in Australia, and we are in Pearl Beach, a very upscale beach community about an hour and a half to the north of Sydney.  Our friends Bruce and Diane Swalwell have lived here in one place or another since we first came to Australia in 1990; we met them 40 years ago, when we were all dorm parents while in graduate school in Philadelphia. Our kids grew up together.  Pearl Beach is the most perfect beach for children, since it has limited waves, and a beautiful strand to walk on, plus fascinating rocks and tide pools to explore.  It received its name from Arthur Phillip, Captain of the First Fleet, in 1788, when he spotted the cove while exploring this part of the coast; he said the waves breaking against the beach looked like a strand of pearls. And they do!

And it’s high summer in Australia!  No better place to experience essential aspects of Australian life than at the beach in January:  kids playing cricket in the sand, families with all their beach gear walking and biking down the road, wet bodies walking up to the showers or to their cars.  And there couldn’t be a more salubrious setting than Pearl Beach, with its jungle-like bush around, and its overwhelming number of birds and wildlife surrounding the beach.  And to hear kookaburras again is just music to my ears.

The Swalwells’ house is a block from Pearl Beach’s Arboretum, a lovely left-wild but well-cared for parcel filled with the most glorious red gums and ferns and cabbage trees. The paths are tended by the village’s residents; flyers on the trails list the “Birds of Pearl Beach,” which number more than 100.  We didn’t see any there this time, but the vegetation was as beautiful as ever.

Oh, to be able to live here! But alas, as with most of Australia’s East Coast, the house prices are obscene, even for falling-down fibros.  So we will have to look further afield, even for rentals. But aren’t we lucky that we can visit this wonderful place?

Australia! My Australia!

6 Sep

Having just returned from a near year of travels in Europe and contemplating where and how we should live in this next phase of our lives, I have been ruminating on our former and future relationship to our second home, Australia. We arrived in Canberra 26 years ago, in 1990, so that I could take up a position teaching art history at the Australian National University. Max was 7 when we arrived, we were 41. We were so excited to leave the U.S., and we were fully committed to becoming as Australian as we could be. We had no intention of ever returning to America. Here’s how I described our transformation there in my book, Images of the Pacific Rim:  Australia and California, 1850-1935:

My family and I were successful transplants. We took up Australian citizenship as soon as it was allowed. We learned all the verses to ‘Advance, Australia Fair’ and we followed every incident in cricket and four different football codes, none of them gridiron (as Australians refer to American football). We revelled in the magnificent birdlife and the beautiful beaches. After a few years in Canberra, I was commissioned to write, along with my husband, the Blue Guide Australia (1999), a cultural tour guide of the entire country.We considered the book, which took seven years to complete, a love letter to our new country.

But return to America we did. What happened? As I have begun writing this, the memories have made me sad and melancholy, so I am going to skim over some of the specific situations that led to our leaving, while giving some of our impressions of Australia as it appears to us today, as we sit here in the abysmal atmosphere of the 2016 U.S. election year.

The first shock came when I arrived at the university, to be told that the department had decided to begin a new degree program and that I would be teaching in this program–a decision that had never been mentioned in my interviews nor that I had any desire or predilection to teach. This was my introduction into a tertiary system in which the head of department has much more say over those under him than an American academic would be used to. My refusal to acquiesce set off an adversarial situation that remained throughout my time there. This man–and it’s important to state that I was the ONLY woman at that time in the department–would try to deny me tenure (one gets tenure in Australia without being promoted), and I was never promoted in the 13 years I taught there, despite glowing student evaluations and a decent record of research. I was, then, pegged as “difficult”–a woman, an American, and an uppity American woman at that.

Then came my first faculty meeting. In a room with at least 150 faculty members, I saw only 6 women. When one of these women had the audacity to raise her hand and ask a question, the entire room looked at her with astonishment, as if they were amazed and irritated she was there at all.  I can still see their faces! At that moment, I realized I had just moved my family thousands of miles to be part of an institution that was systemically sexist. We women on the faculty were meant to be utility players, were rarely given promotions, were often on part-time contracts, and every method would be made to prevent us from advancing.  Occasionally, the university would carry out a study of gender discrimination; the findings would state that yes, there was systemic discrimination, then the report would be put in a drawer and forgotten. This happened throughout the 1990s. I do think that in the 2000s some progress has been made on this front, but now the Australian university system is under such strains–the same that are happening in all universities–that the issue of gender equality is one of its lesser problems. (Read this and weep, and note that differences in the Australian funding system: https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2016/september/1472652000/thornton-mccamish/thinking-caps

I adored teaching and I had some excellent students  and first-rate colleagues from whom I learned a lot,and I had the opportunity to contribute some real scholarship to a relatively new field, the history of Australian art and photography. But eventually, the dysfunctions of my department and the frustrations with the university became unbearable for me. And in Australia, having as small a population as it does, there really is little possibility for lateral movement to another position. And as far as I could see, at least in the fields that I was capable of working in, this systemic sexism existed across the board in the country. Those who followed the appalling treatment of Julia Gillard when she was Prime Minister will understand how entrenched in Australian attitudes is this masculinist misogyny:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOPsxpMzYw4

I do feel that Australian women now may becoming more empowered, and have had enough of “mansplaining.” They are starting to revolt seriously, and I hope that a new generation of Australian women will have a real “fair go”, as the Aussies would say.

George also confronted different, yet related, workplace difficulties, in his case involving the painful and ultimately racist process of reluctant “Aboriginalization” on the part of institutions set up to support and aid the Aboriginal population. In his case, the attacks were a reverse kind of racism:  ageist, anti-American, and, yes, sexist. He was finally able to extricate himself from what should have been the perfect position for him, and worked as the assistant for a famous Aboriginal academic–only to find that he would have to be overseeing the dismantling of an academic program, an action of which George wanted no part. In both of our working situations, an Australian penchant for Schadenfreude, maintaining the status quo, and playing the power game came to the fore.

We do realize that all of these events and situations are just a microcosm of global transformations, but as it was happening to us in Australia, and as ex-pats, we were particularly sensitive to our personal experience within, for us, this new society.

We were trying so hard to become Australians! Ultimately, we had to face up to a fact that all ex-pats usually have to face:  you can never completely become a part of that other society, even one with as many affinities to the “home culture” as Australia has to the Western United States (I firmly believe that Australia has more in common with California than California has with Alabama or Maine). Max, who never lost his American accent, was, I think, quite happy in Canberra–it’s a great place to raise a boy, as long as he likes sports, and we were never happier than when we took Max to a sports oval or stadium for one of his many athletic competitions, whether baseball, soccer, or rugby. Being involved in and liking sport is a necessity to fitting in in Australia, at least for a boy. But he always felt a bit of an outsider, and rarely brought home friends to meet us. Again, this may just have been his personality, and I do know other Americans who have assimilated more completely than we apparently did, but as I have been thinking about our time there, I am still a bit baffled about what finally led to the decision to return to the States.

The process began, I think, when Max applied for colleges in the U.S. He was all set to go to Melbourne University, but just to humor me, I had him apply to a few schools where I had wanted to go in the U.S. Lo and behold, he got into Reed College–and, given that the exchange rate at the time made it appear that we were living in poverty, he got a full scholarship!  So after not having returned to America more than once in 12 years, he set off for university a continent away. That was hard, but we still assumed we would stay in Australia. For the first two years of his college life, Max commuted between continents. The realization that once he was in the U.S., the prospects of him returning to Australia to live were slim, was probably the biggest impetus to our decision to move back to California. If Max had indeed gone to uni in Melbourne and had stayed in Australia, we might still have been there.

Just as Max went off to college, we moved to Queanbeyan–a small town outside of Canberra, the only place where we could afford to buy a house. We had been persuaded by one of the art professors at the School of Art that if more of “us” moved there, we might be able to create a livelier social scene in this typically parochial country town. Then that art professor tragically died in a freak accident, having had no luck persuading anyone but us to move there!


We loved our funky house, which had once been a neighborhood grocery store with living quarters behind–we set out right away to fix it up and make it a fun, happy place. But here we experienced the absolute worst of the Australian character. Next door to us lived dope-dealing low-lifes, with barking dogs, lots of sad caged animals, and a teenage mother who handed her two kids over to her mother who screamed at them all day. Drunken fights took place often outside our front door, and very shady characters appeared constantly for their fix.  When we tried to get the other neighbors to join us in reporting them to the police, none of them would confront the family and were reluctant to go to the police. But when we were fixing up the house, painting it and removing aluminum siding, those very same neighbors were quick to report us for leaving debris on the verge. A fire truck, and two police cars appeared to give us a stern warning and told us to remove the offensive objects immediately. Obviously we weren’t ever going to be part of this community. We were seen as “having tickets on ourselves,” as snooty Canberrans, and what’s worse, AMERICANS–time for some “cutting down of tall poppies,” to use another Australian phrase. The last time we were in Canberra, we drove past the house. The garden that we had so lovingly planted and landscaped had degenerated into a mudhole, uncared for and unrecognizable.

The final straw, I think, was the 2001 election, in which the mean-spirited, nasty little piece of work that is John Howard was re-elected Prime Minister. I have never felt such high dudgeon about a political event in my life. When we first moved to Canberra, we felt that Australia was still a place committed to the common weal, that there was a sense of a shared communal bond that reminded us of America in the 1950s. (Australian patriotism is of the most touching kind, not overblown and xenophobic like America’s, but heartfelt and simple; we still sometimes go to Anzac Day ceremonies at the Australian consulate.) The PM then was the very populist Labor leader Bob Hawke, followed by the pugnacious yet elegant Paul Keating, who, while watching the old Labor constituencies crumbling, still held to decent social democratic policies begun by the great Gough Whitlam. But the ascendancy of small-minded conservatives like Howard marked a decided societal shift that mirrored, once again in microcosm, what was happening in the U.S. and around the world. Being so involved by living in the Australian capital, we just felt this shift viscerally. That election day was also the first and only time (again, in Queanbeyan) when we experienced anti-American sentiment directed at us. When we went to vote, the man at the polling station heard us speak and questioned whether we were qualified to vote. Sigh.

In the end, I think we just got so tired of fighting battles at work, and then having to be the representation of all that was wrong with America every time we opened our mouths. We got tired of being ex-pats. Don’t get me wrong, we do not regret our time in Australia at all! We made some wonderful lifelong  friends–many of them through AA, which was the greatest thing that happened to me in Australia, that I got sober. We miss the Aussie sense of humor (Roy and HG are national treasures:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyDuSHOmhG0) and a more nonchalant approach to life, we REALLY miss the birds, the beautiful clear sky, the incomparable beaches, the unique landscape. But when we went to visit two years ago, we felt that things were not right. That horrid neoliberal process that began with Howard has allowed, among other things, the continuation of a draconian refugee policy that, to our minds, has destroyed Australia’s reputation as “the lucky country”, where equality and a “fair go” were considered the greatest strengths. As one of my Australian friends in AA once told me, “scratch the surface of any Aussie, and you’ll find a racist.” While that is, of course, an exaggeration, and we know that the entire world is experiencing these reactionary swings, the Australian nonchalance in the face of what amounts to human rights abuses and outright torture is starting to affect the country’s image abroad, and, I think, is wearing on those caring Australians who don’t know what they can do to effect a policy change. We just sensed a different psychic attitude the last time we were there. Add to that the fact that Australia is now so expensive that there isn’t a house in all of Sydney under $1 million, and our dream of a nice, safe, happy place to live out our days has nearly vanished. And, finally, there are those pesky children–now a new grandchild. Australia’s permanent dilemma–being a Western nation far, far away from its ethnic origins, not en route to anywhere–is its greatest curse, or perhaps, its salvation. But for us now, it’s just too far.


And yet, and yet: there are those beaches, there is (at least for the moment) universal healthcare, and an easier, less complicated way of life.  The changes wrought by recent events may be a global dilemma, and one that internationalists like us, who really don’t feel completely at home in our own first country, just have to accept as the way of the world in the 21st century. My book Images of the Pacific Rim was about an “aesthetics of place”, how visual imagery creates conceptions of “home”; perhaps in the end, we will just have to accept that aesthetics are the deciding factor, despite any other considerations.