Discovering Australia (and the secret life of the Kingfisher man)

The Guardian, May 11 1996

It is early morning on the Murray river up on the northern border of the state of Victoria. Every so often, a gang of bright white cockatoos comes crashing out of the tree tops, screaming abuse at each other on their way across the water, but otherwise the river and the forest are deeply silent as Bill Vickers pushes his boat upstream.

On both sides, he is flanked by tall, thick trees, River Red Gums, some of them 500 years old. They are huge and many of them have thrown their limbs into the air in wild and crazy shapes and tossed their heads so that the whole of the Barmah state forest looks like a snaphost of some frantic dance.

Vickers knows his way. He has lived in this wilderness all his life. His father used to work the old paddlesteamers that ploughed up and down the cocoa-brown river carrying passengers and cargo from New South Wales in the east, and now he spends his days here in his own boat, the Kingfisher, exploring the river and its creeks and wetlands. He knows it like a farmer knows his fields and where a stranger might see nothing but wood and water, he can read the clues which they offer to their secret life.

Here, on the northern bank, is a 400-year-old red gum with a deep dent in one flank of its bark, shaped like a narrow doorway with a pointed top – all that remains of the day when an Aboriginal fisherman took his stone axe to the tree and carved a canoe out of its living bark. He took care to make a shallow cut on the side of the tree that was sheltered from the mid-day sun, so that over the years, the scar has slowly healed. Here, on another tree, is a mark like a rugby ball where another hunter has cut out a Coolaman, a kind of bark basket which Aboriginal women use to carry roots and yam and water.

Here now, in amongst the forest on the south of the river, Vickers sees a scarred piece of land where Aboriginals congregated for centuries to cook their food on heat beads – lumps of clay which they dug out of the river bank, moulded into shape and then rolled into the fire until they were bursting with heat. They used them to bake the fish that they speared in the river – yellow belly, red fin and cod – or the animals that they caught in the forest, snakes, goanna, turtles and witchity grubs. There is still plenty of cane grass, like thin bamboo, which they used to cut for spears: they’d heat it over a fire, gently turning it and stretching it until it became absolutely straight, and then they’d seal it with tree sap to hold it in place and stop it splitting, fix a chip of sharpened red gum ot one end, and then hurl it like a javelin. They could kill a kangaroo at a hundred yards.

Further upstream, Vickers comes across a shell midden, a hump of what looks like soil but turns out to be the remains of thousands and thousands of mussels which were eaten here, while the scorch marks from the fires on which they were cooked still show on the branches of the tree above. There are millions of fresh water mussel still lying in the banks of the Murray, protected from white hunters not by law but by the simple defence that that they have the consistency of leather and they taste like pure mud.

There are birds everywhere – white faced heron, whistling kite, darters, crimson gallahs that tumble through the tree tops, dollar birds, honey eaters, a couple of dozen tiny welcome swallows perched in a line on a dead tree in mid-stream until they rise as a body and float off across the surface of the water, spoonbills, big fat pelicans floating in self-important little groups, an eagle nesting right up at the top of the highest gum tree it could find, kookaburras cackling like maniacs in the tree tops and then stomping around on the river banks using old mussel shells like hammers to break open fresh shell fish. This is an exotic place.

Here, a mile or two upstream is Snake Island, named for what it is – the home of hundreds of poisonous slippery things. In amongst the trees, there are bigger land animals – emus and kangaroos. At night there are koalas and possums, too, though you hear them before you see them. (It is possible that there is no sound on planet Earth more ugly than the shrieking of possums as they celebrate orgasm).

In the bark of some of the trees from time to time, Vickers can make out numbers that were carved there 130 years ago by an Irish settler named Gus Pierce, who set out to survey the whole length of the Murray river. He travelled with an eccentric Frenchman and a young Aboriginal man, whose job was to make peace with the tribes they encountered on their journey. As it happened, it was the Frenchman who did the job better, by playing his violin, producing music from a piece of timber and beguiling those who lived among the red gum trees. As he made his way down stream, Gus Pierce measured out the miles and carved the distance from the river’s source into the barks of trees. Years later, when surveyors armed with computers and electronic tools checked his work, they found that over nearly 2,000 miles of the Murray, he had drifted off target by a total of only 20 yards.

And all this is hidden, available only if you have the eyes of Bill Vickers. In a sense, all of Australia is like that. More than any other country in the world, Australia is invisible – its landscape and its people misconceived by the rest of the developed world from which they are separated not only by distance but also by a thick screen of familiar and deeply misleading images. We know Ayer’s Rock and Crocodile Dundee, we have seen cricketers in white war-paint and sun-hardened old bastards who spit at the sight of a pom, but we haven’t seen Australia. The state of Victoria, in particular, defies the easy stereotypes.

No-one ever tells you, for example, about the coastline of Victoria which has hundreds of miles of beaches that put the Mediterranean to shame. They look just like photographs in a colour supplement with the surf rolling in from the Tasman Sea over rock pools and miles of flat gold sand. And there is no-one on them: this is a country with a land mass larger than the United States and a population only just over twice the size of London’s.

No-one ever tells you about the rolling green farmland that stretches east of Melbourne like a postcard from the Lake District; or about Phillip Island, south east of Melbourne, where at sunset every evening, hundreds of miniature penguins return from a day in the ocean, flapping their way through the surf and marching resolutely up the beach to their nests in the hinterland.

And it’s only when you spend time in a city like Melbourne that you begin to understand just how complex and loveable a society has been created here. Despite the worst efforts of its alarmingly right-wing government, the city remains one of the most civilised in the world – the wide open streets and the trams that rattle down them, the city beaches in St Kilda, the restaurants in Lygon Street, the cafes on Acland Street, the massive trees in the Royal Botanical Gardens (and the fruit bats as big as cats which claw around in their branches), the sprawling chaos of Victoria Market, the huge concrete cauldron of Melbourne Cricket Ground where crowds of 80,000 gather for love of a game, the whole idea of a city so cosmopolitan that its population speaks more than 170 different languages. Sydney is flash and fun for 48 hours, but Melbourne is the place you fall in love with.

There is something fundamentally irresistible about the natural life of Australia. It makes your heart beat the first time you see real kangaroos hurtling across the plains, or spot a koala gorging itself in the top of a gum tree, or see crimson rosella parrots sweeping down out of the trees, or ride a horse through the snow gum forest up on Mount Buffalo. It makes your heart stop when you drive down the Great Ocean Road, west of Melbourne, and suddenly see the Twelve Apostles, gigantic towers of wave-worn rock, soaring out of the sea.

Why on Earth does anyone who wants winter sun suffer the charmless tedium of a concrete box in Tunisia or the disco dungeons of the Canaries when this extraordinary place is sitting in 85-degree sunshine all through our darkest months? The answer in the past, of course, was the arduous journey, which meant sitting like a chicken in a coop for 30 hours with the blood draining out of your lower body and all electrical activity draining out of your brain. But it’s not like that anymore.

The journey time has got much shorter. If you fly Singapore Airlines, you can travel from London to Melbourne in 22 hours – less time than it would take, for example, to drive down to south west France, a journey that has become commonplace for English tourists despite all that it means by way of being cooped up in a mobile box. The seats on the new 747-400s are far more comfortable than their predecessors; they have more leg room and if you travel in Raffles (business) class or First Class, you get a small paddock. And you don’t get bored. Their planes are like flying pleasure palaces.

By the end of this year, the whole Singapore fleet will give every passenger their own individual video screen which means they can choose from a dozen different video channels full of features films and documentaries and recycled BBC comedies, or play computer games, or even use a telephone which is tucked away in the arm of the seat. They ply you with apparently limitless supplies of free alcohol and whereas airline food used to be a tasteless joke, they now bring you a thesaurus on a plate – panfried escalope of veal in marsala sauce with pureed carrot timbale with cream and buttered fettucine noodles. It’s a kind of madness, floating over the Indian Ocean in the middle of a gastro-electronic orgy. But it’s not boring.

There is still jet-lag to contend with, but even that has become easier if you don’t mind swallowing potentially explosive cocktails of alcohol and narcotics. The trick is to switch into Australian time as soon as you sit down in the plane at Heathrow and that means knocking yourself out for a night’s sleep well before your body is expecting it: temazepam and neat vodka does the trick. You get two hours en route at Singapore Airport where you can now get a shower in an extraordinarily high-tech bathroom (which is fine apart from the evil little electronic eye that spies on the loo and flushes it if you go anywhere near it).

The whole experience has become almost laughably easy. You can book a hire car anywhere on the continent of Australia by dialling Budget’s central reservation line in London (0800 181 181). You can book a hotel room in just about any town on the continent by dialling the London number for Flag (0800 892 407); they have nearly 500 hotels, more than any other group in Australia. Some of them are just modern motels but others like the Mount Buffalo Chalet are old and full of character. If you want to float up the mighty Murray in Bill Vickers’ boat, your best move is to go to Barmah and ask for the Kingfisher man.