Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Old And New, And Maybe True Blue

With my brother gone my father and I could revert to sleeping in the back of the car. We had a week to get down to Sydney for my father's departure and so we decided to forgo the well-worn coastal route through the beach resorts of Surfers Paradise and the Gold Coast, and instead we headed inland over to the dividing range before heading south into a part of New south Wales known as New England. The gently rolling green hills, quaint, tidy towns, and burbling streams, so uncharacteristic of the archetypal image of the vast Australian outback, dry, inhospitable, and probably out to get you.

The vast, untamed expanse of the Great Dividing Range at Gibraltar national park.

It's not just the landscape that is reminiscent of the old country, but the  place names too. A lot can be deduced from geographic names as they tend to persist for longer than the people who created them. A careful study of hydronyms and toponyms can be like a window back in time e.g. the eastern Spanish town of Cartagena was founded by the Phoenicians and named after their capital Carthage, whilst the name of the Moldova river (in the region of the same name) derives from old German meaning "wild river" - the Phoenicians may be long gone and the Germans now don't live anywhere near Moldova, but the names survive and tell us a little about the movement of people even before there was any recorded history. Australia is chock full of names that are familiar to anyone from the British Isles, and even their distribution betrays the evolution of the colonisation of the continent. In the southeast, around Sydney and Melbourne where the first colonies were founded, many of the names would be familiar to any Londoner - Camberwell, Eltham, Camden, Mitcham and many more - indicating that the initial convict colonists were taken from the immediate London area (at the time London's jails were so overcrowded that many prisoners were kept on derelict ships on the Thames). As you advance further into the interior the names are from further afield in England, and then finally in the far outback most names are either Scottish or Irish in origin (Bannockburn, Stirling, Castlereagh, Clonarky, etc.), indicating the waves of migrants that came following the Highland Clearances and Irish Famine in the mid 19th century who arrived after all the best land had already been taken and were further down the British pecking order.

I couldn't not stop at Aberdeen (my second of the trip so far) to see if it resembled the original Aberdeen (my home town) at least a little. The answer is no.

Australian small towns all have an air of being in a strange time warp. Spotless town centres with dainty curio shops selling absolutely useless knick-knacks, neighbourhoods of bungalow houses each with wide porches dripping dainty cast iron decorations, and wide pavements devoid of people as they're all in their cars. To me they all seem a little too perfect, as if they've just been unwrapped and not yet lived in, but designed with 50's suburbia in mind.

Tourism is big business in Australia and each of these towns is trying desperately to capture the grey nomad market - the growing number of retired or semi-retired people who are using their surfeit of free time to roam around Australia (for most of them are loathe to leave the country) in camper vans of various descriptions. Not only is this a growing demographic but they have more disposable income than cheap backpackers such as myself. To lure these wealthy wanderers each town seems to have created a marketing gimmick to make them sound more appealing. Invariably the attractions are rarely as enticing as the glossy brochures make out e.g. large roadside models of fruit. Anything predating World War II is invariably signposted as some grandiose attraction. I get the impression that since Australia is such a young country it is trying overly hard to create a historical narrative for itself, which more often than not revolves around war dead, particularly from the First World War, that it feels a little fake to me. I suppose it's easy for me to say, having roots in three different cultures each with long histories, and so that feeling of being from somewhere, from somepeople, comes without effort. This national myth-creation is something that fascinates me, whether it be new countries such as Australia, or authoritarian regimes trying to whip up nationalist sentiment by rewriting (or at least re-emphasising) history to deflect from their own abuses and shortcomings. It seems to be an intrinsic human need to elevate the past, to find justification, glory and solace in it, even though it is the present and the future that really define us and our worth.

The small town of Maclean in northern NSW bills itself as "Australia's Scottish town",. But apart from a few lamp posts painted in various tartans and a few street signs inn Gaelic this was the most authentically Scottish thing about the place: the sign for the toilets (the toilets themselves were nothing like Scottish ones; they were too clean for a start...)

Be that as it may it's just not possible that every little town will have something to rival the Taj Mahal. But then again I suppose they don't need to, as many of the grey nomads seem very disinclined to leave the certitude of Australia's shores. I quickly learnt to ignore the signs indicating such-and-such historic, or that heritage-quarter since, as I've mentioned already, that's not what Australia's good at. Instead we wove a route through the national parks and got my fill of walks, waterfalls and viewpoints as we made our way inexorably southwards. We even found a number of quirky natural sites, such as Australia's largest fruit bat colony near the town of Grafton where we managed to time our arrival with the evening exodus. The surprising thing was that the bat colony was right on the edge of the village, straddling the main road passing through, and so you could park yourself on the porch of the local pub and see the spectacle for yourself (or you could wander down to beside the trees to get a closer look and properly smell the guano and hear the cacophony of shrieks and cries).

Legions of fruit bats leaving their arboreal roost at dusk in search of their nightly feed. The noise and smell were  overpowering.

By the time we reached Newcastle, a couple of hours north of Sydney, it was time for my dad to catch his flight back to Europe and I reverted to my solitary nomadic ways.

No comments: