I’m going to be a travel writer in my next life. Travelers—regardless of where they go—never run out of writing topics.
My husband and I (with good friends from Nebraska) were lucky enough to visit Australia and New Zealand this past January and February. This was to be the trip of a lifetime, and it took us over eight years to plan it, save up, and make it happen. It was worth every moment of planning and every penny spent. If you’ve been lucky enough to go yourself, then you know. If not, I hope you get the chance.
In part, this trip was Bill Bryson’s fault. In 2000, Bryson wrote a book called In a Sunburned Country. I discovered it in an airport bookstore some years ago, and fell in love. This book was a gift from the voice gods. I laughed until I cried through most of it (making other airline passengers desperately jealous) and wished fervently that Bill lived nearby and would drop over now and then to chat. Most of all, I wished that I could somehow, some way, get to Australia. Among my favorite passages was this one (page 6), which I would go on to share in countless workshops, and which (I don’t doubt for a moment) prompted teachers across America to buy Bryson’s book (and perhaps, to plan their own visit down under):
[Australia] has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures—the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. Pick up an innocuous cone shell from a Queensland beach, as innocent tourists are all too wont to do, and you will discover that the little fellow inside is not just astoundingly swift and testy but exceedingly venomous. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.
Who could resist booking the next flight? I learned a great deal about Australia from In a Sunburned Country, but I also learned a thing or two about writing. Bryson doesn’t try to tell everything. He picks his moments and details carefully, and he never glosses things over as many travel writers do. Also, he never settles for big, sweeping generalities: e.g., Australia sure is vast! He has a knack for digging up the little known details—the toxic caterpillars, the attacking seashells.
Throughout our trip, I asked myself (as I was having the time of my life), Which of these experiences would I write about if I did my own travel book? Following are the six I chose. I’m presenting the “sweeping generalities” version first to emphasize the difference. (Students will often say things like, “I gave you details—I told you Australia was vast!”) What they don’t realize is, that’s an introductory comment that leaves readers wanting the story lurking underneath.
Highlight 1: Showering at Sea
The Sweeping View: Showering on a ship can be tricky!
The details . . .
We spent a few days cruising from Auckland in northern New Zealand down to Milford Sound, then across the Tasman Sea to Australia. One of the many things you learn while cruising is how to keep your balance when the floor is constantly moving. Another is to adapt to living in a small space. The truth is, most of us probably occupy far more space than we need throughout our lives, but at sea humans quickly learn to fit all essentials into a room of less than 200 square feet. And why not? It holds a bed, couch, two chairs, a television, storage cupboards, a closet, dresser and mirror, refrigerator, and bathroom with toilet, sink, shelving, and . . . a 2-foot by 2-foot shower.
Admittedly, unless you’re exceptionally slim, the shower is a tight fit. In fact, a better motivator to lose weight I’ve yet to experience. (Trying on tight swimsuits under fluorescent lighting is a poor second.) You don’t want to twirl around, and you don’t want to stick your elbows out. No vigorous lathering either. Within moments, you learn to keep your feet slightly apart and to keep one hand on the wall-mounted handle bar or one of the fixtures at all times. Lose your balance on a big wave, and you’ll get a nasty spurt of extremely hot or cold water or a mouthful of shampoo (if you’ve gotten that far). I had trouble only on the Indian Ocean sailing from Esperance to Perth, when we hit the largest waves of our trip. They’re unpredictable, and you cannot time them. (Wonderful for sleeping—not so good for standing in wet places.)
It isn’t easy getting shampoo out with one hand (because you’re holding on with the other); the trick I learned is to pre-loosen the cap prior to getting in. “Shower prep,” which became a new routine, included pre-loosening all shower product caps, turning the shower head so overly cold or hot water wouldn’t hit you directly—you do need to get in before you turn the shower on so you don’t wind up flooding the floor—and of course, placing your towel within easy reach, keeping in mind that lurching toward the sink is likely to be your exit style. If you drop the shampoo or shower gel while you’re still showering, you can bend over to get it (not recommended), or squat down (you have to let go of your “safety handle” though), or just wait until you’re done and retrieve it when you get out (the best option). I should mention that my husband and I both quickly learned to shower in under three minutes.
Highlight 2: Here Comes the Sun
The Sweeping View: Doubtful Sound, Dusky Sound, and Milford Sound are beautiful, though seldom sunny.
The details . . .
“This is your captain, speaking to you from the bridge.” These words, in our captain’s soon-familiar Greek accent, greeted us daily, and were usually followed by a routine summation of our longitude, latitude and cruising speed. On one memorable occasion, though, the captain added these words—rarely heard by anyone at sea: “If Captain Cook had encountered this weather when he entered Dusky Sound, he would have named it something else.”
We entered Dusky Sound just at dawn, encountering clouds and mist—and were told this was typical, that the beauty of the area was due after all to the daily rain. It was still beautiful, especially when clouds opened just enough to let ethereal sunlight streak through. The ship slowed to a speed of 7 or 8 knots, creating a floaty, dreamlike feeling.
Within two hours, as if on cue, the clouds had all but departed, devoured by the sun. People who had been huddling in the top deck viewing room to keep dry now flooded the outer walkways, cameras and cell phones in hand. Getting a spot at the railing (any railing) became immediately difficult, and walking without blocking someone’s photographic shot of a lifetime was impossible. Beautiful spots are frequently described as breathtaking, but on this day, I learned the true meaning of that word. Gasps were literally audible everywhere, and people spoke in whispers, as if entering a sanctuary.
The captain later told us that in his 20 years of cruising the sounds (which he does multiple times per season), he had never, not even once, witnessed a day such as this, never seen azure blue skies in any of the fjords—and never expected to do so again in his lifetime. We’d been cautioned to wear jackets and sweaters. I never unpacked mine, and basking in the sun, was thankful for the thin shirt I’d bought on a whim in Honolulu before our flight.
The captain also mentioned that had it been raining, as per usual, we’d have seen many more waterfalls in this uninhabited paradise. I don’t think anyone missed them.
Highlight 3: Criminal Justice
The Sweeping View: Australia was settled by convicts.
The details . . .
Australia is the world’s sixth largest country and its largest island. It is the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. It was the first continent conquered from the sea, and the last. It is the only nation that began as a prison. (Bryson, page 6).
Our first stop in Australia was Sydney. Sydney is a feast for the senses. The harbor is a perpetual motion machine, filled with every sort of vessel imaginable from kayaks to cruise ships, with ferry boats of all sizes, yachts, catamarans, and sailboats all vying for space, juggling their way through an intricate mesh of oceanic right-of-way rules. Coffee. The aroma is everywhere. And (sorry, Starbucks) it is the best I’ve ever tasted. Almost good enough to skip the cream. Almost. (And if you ask for cream, you get whipped cream—ask for milk and you’re just as likely to get half and half, which is admittedly much better.) Music plays along the quays, and it is hauntingly good—everything from country to classical, right there on the walkways, with best guitarists, drummers, violin and base players imaginable. Breweries and pubs abound, all atmospheric and bustling with visitors and locals. That irresistible Aussie accent is everywhere, but there’s an intermingling of German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, and other languages I didn’t quickly recognize. To say it’s picturesque is like describing Santa as a chap who favors red. It’s also overwhelming. So the best place to begin (especially for newbies like us) seemed to be an overview tour.
As we quickly discovered, Aussie (pronounced OZ-ee in Australia, not Aw-see, as we Americans typically say) tour guides are extremely well-informed about history—British, American, and Australian. They laugh (good naturedly, never in a mean spirited way) at our inability to answer questions like, Who was Lafayette? A favorite topic (for them and for us as listeners) is how Australia got its start as a penal colony. I’d had a vague vision of this: killers, hoodlums, embezzlers and jewel thieves chained to ships, dumped on the rocks, and left to make their way as best they could. Amazingly, I got the rocks part right. And there is to this day a section of Sydney known as The Rocks, now filled with breweries, pubs, boutique shops and other touristy hangouts. But most of the story I got wrong. As it so happens, “convicts” in the bad old glory days of the UK were often imprisoned for such petty offenses as stealing a button. No kidding. As in What are you in for? Answer: Button theft. Most of these original settlers were anything but dangerous.
Originally, British convicts were sent to America. America got fed up with this practice, however, and told the UK in so many words to find another location for their deportees. “What about that big island way down south?” some Brit suggested, and the idea of settling Australia in this unconventional manner was born. It was not without its problems.
First off, the idea was not to imprison these convicts, but to put them to work—herding sheep or cattle, farming, manufacturing, and so on. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t have a trade and knew nothing of farming or ranching. Being game isn’t enough when it comes to farming; you have to know what you’re doing. The early settlers began plowing fields and sowing seed in April, as they had in England. But the seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are reversed, so the first few crops were abysmal failures.
This state of affairs led to Plan B, requesting ONLY those convicts who had a trade or useful agricultural experience—including medical people, teachers, cooks, farmers, boot makers, blacksmiths, and so forth. (To this day, both Australia and New Zealand continue the practice of asking prospective immigrants to demonstrate precisely, and in elaborate detail, how they plan to contribute to the society’s economy before considering admittance. I know this because I asked—and yes, I did consider moving.) Being assigned to Australia became a sort of mark of achievement.
You may be wondering how it works to simply turn convicts loose to pursue their careers. Well, remember, most were not particularly menacing. Further, confinement wasn’t really necessary. There was no point in running away because (as Bill Bryson so clearly points out), survival outside the city limits was impossible. Of those few who did attempt escape, none survived. Not one.
You know how the story goes . . . if you’re not chomped by sharks or crocodiles . . . Oh, and we should also mention that Australia is home to some impressive spiders. Hold out your hand, fingers splayed. That’s about the size. Not to mention the snakes . . . and then there’s that lack of water . . .
Highlight 4: The Sydney Opera House
The Sweeping View: The Sydney Opera House is spectacular.
The details . . .
The Sydney Opera House is impossible to overlook. Like Lauren Bacall in “Key Largo,” it simply exudes class and grace. It’s impossibly gorgeous from every angle. The first question our tour guide asked us, majestically swinging her arm in the direction of the roof: “What do these architectural features remind you of?” Wings, some said. Sails, others offered. Officially, they’re known as shells. Whatever you call them, photographers cannot get enough. The opera house may well be the most photographed landmark on earth.
The day we were lucky enough to visit, a lot was happening. In the Concert Hall, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing music from Faust. The Concert Hall also houses the world’s largest pipe organ; gleaming gold, it’s roughly the size of the average American living room. In the Joan Sutherland Theater, singers and actors were preparing to stage another production. Usually, groups are not allowed to enter either theater because groups make noise—and even the tiniest noise distracts both actors and musicians. For some reason (maybe we looked unusually orderly) we got to go in both. (First sun in the fjords—and now this.)
We put on headphones to hear the tour guide, who could not raise her voice above a whisper. The acoustics (thanks to the lush Australian birch wood interior) are such that the slightest breath, shuffle of feet, or flick of a gum wrapper can be heard throughout either of the main theaters, so we were firmly cautioned not to speak at all and to step as quietly as if sneaking past a sleeping tiger.
One or two at a time, we slipped sideways into the upper balcony of the Joan Sutherland Theater through a black velvet curtain so enormous and heavy you expected at any moment to encounter the Phantom of the Opera. Upon entering, we had to quickly (and silently) pull the curtain closed behind us to shut out all light. The theater itself (except for the stage) was so dark and steep that I felt certain I would trip on the invisible stairs. Inch by inch, toe by toe, I felt my way up to a cushy seat in the top balcony, my husband insistently tugging me along (He can see in the dark). Though I was as far back and high up from the stage as you could get, I could see and hear every word the director spoke as he moved actors about the set. The sets, incredibly elaborate and colorful, are done on a huge elevator platform a full floor below the stage, then raised up for each performance. This ingenious approach allows the Opera House to schedule, say, Madame Butterfly for the afternoon, then perhaps Faust for the evening—simply by rolling a new platform into place and raising it to stage height.
After exiting as silently as possible, we went outdoors for a close-up look at those magnificent shells. That iconic white roof is not painted, as many people think. It’s composed of 1,000,050 tiles—from snowy white to mellow cream. They reflect light in such a way as to give the roof its perpetually dazzling appearance, whether in sun or the glow of floodlights that illuminate it every evening. Unexpectedly, the tiles are cool to the touch, even under the intense heat of Australia’s famously relentless sun.
The Opera House, we learned, was designed by world-renowned architect Jørn Utzon of Denmark. His design was one of one of 233 entries in a competition, and ironically enough, was at first rejected. Several architects, however, kept circling back to Utzon’s design, seeing it as more visionary than bizarre, and in 1957, he was proclaimed the winner. Whatever they saw in Utzon’s design was later recognized by others, and in 2003, he received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honor. The citation read as follows:
There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is [Utson’s] masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.
Indeed, for many it is a symbol of creativity itself. Receipt of this well-deserved prize had to be bittersweet, however, for it followed years of controversy and tension between Utzon and the SOHEC (Sydney Opera House Executive Committee). Ultimately, some funds intended to pay his workers were withheld, and Utzon resigned from the project—though he was later brought back as a consultant. It seems some people are irreplaceable after all. Sadly, though, he never got to see (except in photos) the fully completed building that was undoubtedly his work of genius. Utzon was not even present at the opening and dedication by Queen Elizabeth in October of 1973. The Opera House was originally slated to cost $7 million and scheduled to be finished in 1963. It was not completed until ten years later, and wound up costing a whopping $102 million.
We left Sydney at night, when (to my eye) the harbor is at its most exquisite. I felt a genuine physical ache as I watched the harbor landmarks shrink and the lights dim in the ship’s wake. The last thing I recall seeing as we pulled out of port was the Sydney Opera House, stunningly situated between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Royal Botanical Gardens. A proper setting for an empress.
Highlight 5: A Living Dinosaur
The Sweeping View: The cassowary is a very large bird, descended from dinosaurs.
The details . . .
Prior to visiting Australia, I doubt I’d have known much about cassowaries were it not for a remarkable book called Birdology by one of my all-time favorite authors, Sy Montgomery. The whole book is fascinating, but I was especially intrigued by the chapter “Birds Are Dinosaurs,” which details Montgomery’s research on cassowaries, and her encounters with them in Queensland. In her introduction to this remarkable creature (page 49), she explains,
To the nimble likes of predatory Velociraptors, birds owe their speed and their smarts. To dinosaurs, they owe their otherworldly appeal—and as well, surely, some of their transcendent mystery and beauty. For this is one of the great miracles of birds, greater, perhaps, than that of flight: when the chickens in my barnyard come to my call, or when I look into the sparkling eye of a chickadee, we are communing across a gap of more than 300 million years.
Cassowaries are big. By bird standards, huge. The largest can weigh upwards of 150 pounds. Like ostriches, they walk (stride is more accurate) or run. They cannot fly (anymore—they could once), and if they could fly, it’s daunting to imagine the wings that would be required. Happily, they are mostly vegetarian, largely because they have no teeth. They do stomp and devour both lizards and rats. They also forage for berries and seeds—and have been seen gazing at butterflies, just before eating them. Though they don’t seek out larger prey, they are more than capable of defending themselves, thanks to sharp killing claws (very reminiscent of Jurassic Park). When it feels threatened, the cassowary (which already towers over most creatures, including shorter people), can leap an impressive five feet into the air and come down with deadly force, using this lethal claw like a knife, eviscerating whatever is unfortunate enough to be standing too close. In fact, these birds have been known to kill people, though lethal attacks are rare. They are highly protective of their chicks and eggs, and cassowaries will charge and even strike if they perceive that their young are in danger or their nests are about to be robbed. Interestingly, it’s the male that guards the eggs and raises the chicks to adolescence—when they are evicted. Once the nest is built and the eggs laid, the female leaves home. (Yes, I do know what you’re thinking—and you’re not the first.)
Unless you live in the Queensland rain forest, the odds of glimpsing a cassowary in the wild are small. We did, though—through the window of our tour bus. This bird had just strolled casually across the road right in front of the bus, unaware and fearless. They don’t imagine anything can hurt them (though whether this is the result of confidence or simple lack of imagination I can’t say), and most cassowaries that die in the wild are killed by buses or cars, though occasionally one is done in by exceptionally ferocious dogs (When dogs and cassowaries meet, the odds are in the bird’s favor).
I didn’t get a photo that day—wrong side of the bus. But I did come eye to eye with several cassowaries at a wildlife sanctuary outside Sydney, en route to the famous Blue Mountains. I must say, there is no warmth in that gaze. None. This is clearly not a pet, nor does this bird exhibit the slightest interest in or curiosity about humans. They notice us the way we might notice, say, an ant. Unless we happen to be roadblocks (not advised), potential threats or conveyors of food, we are simply elements of the ever changing landscape. There is no sign on the cassowary compound saying “Don’t touch,” but I doubt most people would need to be warned. Those ancient eyes are warning enough.
Highlight 6: Hugging (mostly thinking of hugging) a wallaby
The Sweeping View: Wallabies are adorable!
And now for the details . . .
Kangaroos are masters of their domain, and as such, command attention and respect. They become tame quickly if food is about, and more than once at various roadstops we were warned not to approach too close or attempt to pet them. Kangaroos can be extremely aggressive, even hostile. They are impatient if food isn’t forthcoming. They don’t bite—they kick. And when they kick, they mean it, and they can cause serious injury.
Wallabies, on the other hand, are extremely shy creatures. They are less than half the size of even small kangaroos, and look downright cuddly. If they were stuffed toys, you’d want to take them home even if you didn’t have any kids. Like kangaroos, they love treats and enjoy being hand fed. But unlike kangaroos, they don’t demand anything, and will wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . making sure you are friendly.
The Featherdale Wildlife Park (near the Blue Mountains) that housed the cassowaries also had wallabies—many of them. Unlike the cassowaries, which are confined (thank heavens), the wallabies roam freely, and you can talk to them, pet them (if you’re lucky enough to get that close), and feed them. The sanctuary staff don’t want them eating pretzels and jelly beans (sold to tourists in great quantities), so they stuff “wallaby food” (a dried, seedy grass) into ice cream cones. You hold a cone, and if you’re lucky, a wallaby will come up and eat from it.
It took a lot of coaxing to get that first wallaby to approach me. I knelt down low, talking to it in much the way you might talk to a kitten or puppy. He was very unsure, but in time, he did come up to me and take that first nibble. Wallabies are careful eaters. They don’t take big bites, and they chew for a long while. This helps a small amount of food last long enough that you can reach out ever so slowly and stroke that divinely soft fur—softer than mink. Their front paws are like tiny hands, and they will reach out to hold the food as they take a bite.
When nothing dire happened to Wallaby #1, the others gained courage. In moments, I had two feeders, then three, and finally four. I would have had more, but by then I was out of food. Indeed, one of the wallabies reached out and took the final remnant in his “hands.” I discovered quickly that wallabies (at least these wallabies—conditioned through months of cone training) don’t really favor dried grass. Who can blame them? They prefer the cones, and eat that part almost exclusively. Also, they have very sharp front teeth, top and bottom (needed in the wild to munch grasses), and though they are anything but aggressive, you do want to be careful where you place your fingers on the cone. On a trip of incredible adventures, it was unquestionably my wallaby encounter that stood out most.
In conclusion . . .
I could have written about so many other things, among them . . .
- Watching kangaroos bound over the fields outside Melbourne.
- Seeing a mother crocodile guard her nest along the Daintree River.
- Dealing with a sink (in Port Douglas) that would not behave, and continuously left us soaking wet.
- Having toilets on board ship cease flushing (luckily, this didn’t last too long).
- Eating heavenly gelato on Manly Beach—after riding the half-hour ferry from Sydney.
- Having residents of Auckland not only direct us but actually guide us to a local drugstore. The people of New Zealand are not just courteous and friendly, they’re sensitive and kind. All the time.
- Learning that Australian snakes, while deadly, are also shy and will depart when they sense vibrations from your footsteps—and then being told to “stay on the path” anyway. Shy. Not going to test that theory.
- Circling Alice Springs for over an hour because our plane was “too heavy to land” and we had to burn up heavy fuel.
- Landing in Alice Springs and wishing I were still in the air conditioned plane (just kidding).
- Walking through Hyde Park to the Botanical Gardens and experiencing the only downhill moving walkway I’ve ever encountered—so fast you are literally launched off the end.
- Riding the world’s steepest railway in the scenic Blue Mountains.
- Looking up into the sky far out at sea and realizing I had never, ever really seen stars . . .
. . . and too many more things to list. I chose these six because they’re the ones I keep reliving. And because when friends ask about our trip, most of my stories hearken back to one of these adventures.
What if you haven’t been to Australia??
By the way, I don’t believe for a moment that you have to visit Australia or New Zealand to have something to write about. One of my favorite essays EVER (student or professional) was written by an eighth grader and titled “Parking with Dad.” It described in hilarious detail the tedium of endlessly circling parking lots to find that “perfect” parking spot where nothing could happen to Dad’s car. Whether our travels take us to Australia or K-Mart, there are always things that stand out. Learning to recognize those moments or experiences (whether they last a minute or a day) is important for any writer.
Something to Try
Here’s something to try with your students: Have them list things, big and small, that happen over a specified period of time—a weekend, a week, a month, whatever. Shoot for a list of 50-100 with older students, 10-20 with younger. Then ask them to identify three they could write about. Do this with them so you can share your list, which (I guarantee) they will love. You (and your students) can write about these highlights or not. But do share the lists (or selections) with others, and ask them to help you identify the ones they’d most like to hear about—this is nearly always a surprise. The purpose of the exercise is to talk about why certain choices stand out for us, and what makes for a “good” writing topic. Where do we get our writing ideas? From life.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
We’re going to take a small hiatus, allowing ourselves (and you) a welcome summer break! Please enjoy it to the fullest, and if you even think of going to Australia or New Zealand, we would love to hear about it. Meantime, Jeff and I will be reading some fascinating books and preparing to share them with you beginning sometime in August. We can’t tell you the titles because the excitement would be too much—but you won’t be disappointed! As always, thank you for stopping by. Don’t forget us over the summer, and please come back often and bring friends. Remember . . . to book your own writing workshop featuring the 6 traits, Common Core Standards and the latest and greatest in young people’s literature, give us a call: 503-579-3034. And please . . . Give every child a voice.