Finalist: 2016 NT Literary Awards, Best Travel Writing
Leave urban pools for dust and open your doors to the world of wild swimming – Top End style. All you need is confidence, four wheels and a hearty dash of wanderlust.
Australian Traveller, February 2016
I’m breaststroking through blue emerald bliss when the sun clips something ahead of me in the water. Glistening in the late afternoon light, the object looks lumpy, green and as long as a school ruler. Is it moving? It’s moving. I move. Croc. Head. My blood pressure punches skywards as I rocket over to dry land like a mechanical puffer fish. “Paaaaaul!”
But there’s no one around to witness this riot of anxiety – least of all Paul. He’s holding our five-month-old baby, waiting for me at the other end of this stream’s loop. His words to me as I set off on my swim were these: “It’ll go against every instinct you have, but keep swimming the whole way around until you get to the footbridge.” ‘Every instinct’ refers to the decidedly croc-ish vibe of a winding waterhole so beautiful it could well rob heaven of its title should the two places do battle.
Bitter Springs, 420km south of Darwin, lies tucked inside the frond-filled Elsey National Park. If ever there were a ‘wild swim’, this one fits the bill. Remote. Check. Adventurous. Check. An added hint of danger. Yikes, yes, check. This dip forms the first stop on our quest to plunge inside a handful of the Northern Territory’s prettiest remote waterholes – an idea inspired by a growing swimming movement of which I’ve recently caught wind.
Wild Swimming, as it’s been dubbed, emerged in the United Kingdom about a decade ago with the formation of the Outdoor Swimming Society. Lamenting a rise in indoor pool culture and a decline in “swimming under an open sky”, proponents believe that chlorinated, fenced-in swimming robs the activity of its spiritual qualities. These include swimming’s capacity to connect us with wilderness, induce joy, help us to lose track of time and dream in sync with water’s breaths, currents and tides. After all, swimming finds its roots in the exploration of rivers, oceans, waterfalls and beyond, wild swimmers say – not in concrete-lined urban pools.
As the Society’s Robert MacFarlane puts it: “To enter wild water is to cross a border. You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink – and you break the surface of the water itself. In doing so, you move from one realm into another: a realm of freedom, adventure, magic, and occasionally of danger.”
In more recent times, the movement has backstroked across oceans and found a foothold in Australia. Our nation is arguably a more suitable hot bed for wild swimming than is the UK, owing to the heat, our varied landscapes and the greater proliferation of waterfalls. The first local book on the topic landed on shelves in late 2015 and simultaneously, websites sprung up to help Aussies locate wild swims the map over.
Bitter Springs is listed on new site Wild Swimming Australia, yet at the time of writing, the location’s entry remains unpenned. Perhaps it should read ‘croc-infested’. Or should it? That lump hasn’t moved, and soon enough I’m convinced the object in question is more logodile than crocodile.
I dive back into the springs and meander through the remaining loop. Here, the stream thins to a tight corridor. A wall of tall, luminescent green reeds lines one side of the bank, while bursts of pandanus stretch crooked limbs over the water’s surface from the other side. Two finches, the size of shot glasses, take turns dipping into the stream ahead of me. They flutter their wings in the springs, making a staccato sound akin to a mini propeller. My mind switches to rancho relaxo mode, and as the 34-degree waters flick at my feet, any residual croc fear dissolves.
With the birds now behind me, I spot Paul on the footbridge in the distance. I freestyle the final stretch and unleash a babble of excited gibberish upon exiting the water. He reassures me that all NT public waterholes are vigilantly monitored for crocs by parks staff. Armed with that knowledge, wild brumbies can’t keep me from dashing past palm trees to swim the loop again – on repeat until sunset.
After a night bedding down in the village of Mataranka, we amble north up the Stuart Highway to Katherine. Spotting a colourful sign, which we’ll later found out is designed by artist Ben Quilty, we’re lured into the Finch Café for some spiced lentil, roasted cauliflower, yoghurt and hazelnut salad, plus a pot of locally made bush tea. As we hail from Darwin, we’re well accustomed with NT friendliness, but Katherine takes our city to the cleaners in this regard. The café’s owner Phoebe cheerily asks where we’re headed today and invites us back that evening when the Finch dusts off its heels and morphs into the Gouldian Bar. Regrettably, we decline. We’ve got our next wild swim to conquer, after all.
Nitmiluk National Park is a whistling kite’s flight from Katherine – a 30km putt up the road. Here, our water-borne adventure starts at the first of a series of thirteen gorges and ends at the expansive eighth gorge.
We amble into the visitor’s centre and enquire about the walking trail that’ll lead us there. “Watch out for buffalos and wild pigs,” warns Parks Officer Megan. “They’ve been spotted hanging around.” My hair shoots from my scalp like a nest of frightened snakes. “They usually avoid people, but just keep an eye out, stick to the trail and stay still if you spot any of the animals milling about,” she says.
I gulp as we later step over dark blobs scattered among the dried-out creek bed leading down to the eighth gorge. Wild pig dung. I freeze and scan for predators. None in sight. Yet I remain on high alert as we arc our way over rock shelves and tumble through a run of lush rainforest before reaching our home for the night.
While our campground is set high on a sandy embankment, a nearby lookout ledge reveals a stunning sight. “Quick! Come check this out!” hollers Paul. I bolt over to witness the view. It doesn’t disappoint.
Imagine an Australian Game of Thrones set. Cliffs, around 40 metres high, blush in tones of pink, bronze and rose. Between them ebbs a rippling, glassy stretch of indigo water. Sandy banks rise on the gorge’s opposite side. And a swim-out spot directly below features low-bending trees that hang a canopy over a shallow, crystal clear pool. We feel as though we’ve stumbled on some sort of dreamland – a water world unto itself.
For the rest of the day, we swim to neighbouring gorges; fall asleep inside shadows when the sun burns its brightest; and momentary, we follow the prettiest-grasshopper-that-ever-was as it leaps over black boulders near the water’s edge. Its multi-toned blue wings flash technicolour as it flits out of view. We note its bright pink legs and purple feet. Yet later, we can’t locate the insect in any Top End fauna guide. Perhaps this gorge really is an alternate universe, more delightfully unpredictable that any hotel suite or designer pool we’re likely to encounter.
True to the Outdoor Swimming Society’s manifesto, our two wilderness swims have connected us with the untamed, cranked open our imaginations and immersed us fully in the present. Final stop: the gentle Umbrawarra Gorge Nature Park, 140km north of Nitmiluk.
“This’ll be like a ‘nightcap’ wild swim – something to ease us back into civilisation,” I suggest to Paul, who nods in agreement from the driver’s seat. With croc, buffalo and pig danger now artfully dodged, this nature park makes for a gentle wind down.
On the short walk from the parking area to the gorge, eucalyptus leaves hang from tree branches like Christmas decorations. The nearby stream reflects its surrounds with photographic clarity.
Finally, our party of three rounds the path’s final bend. In the same vein as the eighth gorge had done, Umbrawrra Gorge reveals itself like a mini kingdom. There’s a beach, a run of sand, towering cliffs and jade-toned, rippling water. The latter beckons, stat.
We’re alone. And as Paul takes our son to explore the gorge’s outer nooks, I’m alone again, too. I’m edging two feet into the cool when a rainbow bee-eater bird flits past. It dips its tail and breaks the water’s surface before returning to the sky. In the same breath, I feel everywhere and nowhere. I’m floating. I’m had. I’m wild swimming seduced.
Together, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park rangers and traditional owners are using new ideas to save an old soul – a species of satchel- sized kangaroo known as the rufous hare wallaby, or mala.
Qantas Magazine, August 2014
TURN THE CLOCK BACK 80 YEARS. As dusk knits colour into the sky above Uluru, a cast of small furry faces appears. With white bellies and shaggy coats, the miniature kangaroos are just 30cm tall. They dart past ghost gums, sleep in sprays of spinifex and pull pencil-thin tails over red desert plains.
“At one time, there may have been as many as 10 million of these little animals across the arid and semi-arid landscape of Australia,” writes conservationist Jane Goodall in her book Hope For Animals & Their World.
“But their populations, like those of many other small endemic species, were devastated by the introduction of domestic cats and foxes. Indeed, during the 1950s it was thought the mala was extinct.”
For a decade or so, this myth persisted. Then in 1959, almost 1000km south of Darwin, tracks were found stamped in the soil – long narrow lines, straddled by footprints the size of 50-cent coins.
“The walker didn’t know what they were, so he brought an old Walpiri man along who knew these were mala tracks,” says Dr Jim Clayton, ranger, ecologist and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (UKTNP) natural heritage officer. “So the species was rediscovered after all that time.”
Clayton says the mala are an important part of national heritage for all Australians. “We have iconic animals such as the bilby, but shouldn’t forget this suite of smaller animals that forms part of an ecosystem that has changed dramatically in recent years.”
Former vet Kerrie Bennison is Uluru’s natural and cultural resources manager. She oversees a team of five rangers who work with Anangu traditional owners to revive the mala in the Red Centre. “This animal is one of the most endangered there is, one of the most rare. The majority of Australians don’t know these tiny, 2kg kangaroos exist,” she says. “There’s not anything else – particularly in urban areas – that looks like them. They’re beautiful and really furry, and have these short, cute arms.”
Bennison says the Uluru mala project emerged after a series of disasters occurred in older colonies. Following the initial mala track sighting in the bush, two mobs were found in the Northern Territory’s Tanami Desert. A single fox wiped out the first group. A rogue fire destroyed the second. “Conservationists said, ‘That’s it. We’re taking them into captivity,’” she explains. In 1980, 22 mala were withdrawn from the wild and resettled in Alice Springs.
Clayton, who speaks Pitjantjatjara, the language of Uluru’s traditional owners, held meetings with elders following the species’ disappearance from the rock. He recalls that older Anangu lamented the loss of an animal central to the Uluru creation story – and the fact that younger people knew so little about the mala.
Craig Woods, a traditional owner and Uluru cultural heritage officer, has worked with the park for more than seven years. “The mala are part of the spiritual connection to Uluru. Some people have the mala as their totem animal,” he says.
In order to afford the species official conservation priority, the Anangu cast votes ranking the importance of each threatened animal. Among women voters, mala topped the list. It polled second for the men.
Six years later, in 2005, the rangers and 30 Anangu opened a predator-proof paddock. It became home to 24 mala.
Fast-forward to mid-2014, and the 170ha space – with sweeping views of Uluru – is now flush with newly bred roos. The mob is almost
300 strong, the largest known population in Australia, accounting for up to 75 per cent of mala nationwide.
The reasons for the success are manifold. But perhaps the project’s most innovative feature is its equally proportioned concert of Indig- enous and non-Indigenous input. Australian Geographic magazine heralded the mala project as one of the best examples of what joint UKTNP park management can achieve.
“We made a big conservation step forward, but also this massive cultural step forward,” says Bennison.
For starters, a combined Anangu and non-Anangu team built the 5.6km fence over 18 months, according to a flexible timeline. This allowed for requisite pauses, for cultural ceremonies and the like. “We could have got contractors in and had it finished within a couple of months, but we took longer. We wanted to feel that the project was ours,” says Clayton, whom the Anangu call “Jimmy-warra”.
Once the fence was up, a collective bank of traditional and non-traditional ecological wisdom informed the animal-care plan. Interviewing locals in Pitjantjatjara, Clayton and linguist Patrick Hookey gathered Indigenous understanding about the native mala’s behaviour and diet.
The paddock’s ecosystem design grew from here. It included feed stations and water drips, as well as hard science strategies tocope with threats such as fire, and rabbits, which compete with the mala for food. Bennison adds, “We also started working with mala conservationists across the country to devise a bigger-picture species-strengthening plan.”
To tackle cultural objectives, a targeted junior rangers program began. Via this, local Anangu children came to learn about the feeding system, spot tracks and conduct paddock burns. The pro- gram is staffed on a drop-in basis, pays casual wages and offers local employment opportunities. Yet its value transcends economics.
“For young people to see this species, one so familiar to their grandparents, means there’s a chance now to retain knowledge,” says Clayton. “Not just cultural knowledge, but Indigenous ecological knowledge thousands of years in the making.”
There’s the future to consider, too. While foxes and feral cats remain beyond the paddock boundaries, it’s unfeasible to return mala to open plains. Instead, there’s potential for Uluru-bred mala to be relocated to fox- and cat-free parts of Australia. Translocation is an idea that already boasts momentum among the broader mala conservation community. Trimouille Island in Western Australia, for example, is thought to host the nation’s next-largest population – one bred from Central Desert mala.
While others may have trodden a less interventionist path and let nature take its course, Clayton says this was never an option. “It’s hard for land managers to stand back and say, ‘This animal is becoming extinct, so it’s time for it to disappear’. Especially when we know that the species is in an unnatural, human-induced condition in the first place. Mala aren’t something we have the right to shut the door on.”
On a pre-dusk walk in the paddock, Clayton speaks of community nights when older Anangu come to see mala and sometimes assist with paddock burns. Among the regulars is a man in his 70s called Reggie. On burn nights, when the grass explodes with flame, he sits in the scrub and sings songlines to the sky.
Then there are Anangu who travel from farther away. One night, says Clayton, a frail woman came from lands south of Uluru. As they searched for mala, the woman, who had not seen the animals since childhood, began to clutch his arm. “She wasn’t saying much; she just stared intently at the tracks in the torchlight and kept cling- ing on tight. I asked if she was OK. She caught her breath, looked up with wide eyes, and said, ‘Yes. This is great, this is great.’”
Cate Blanchett is approaching the next phase of her career with her characteristic passion and spontaneity.
Vive Magazine, 2007
Cate Blanchett rests beneath rain-smeared windows. She's stealing quiet time before the photo shoot. A newspaper sits open on her lap, rollers crown her golden-blond head, and cottonwool balls keep each toe from spoiling a fresh coat of polish. Upon introductions, she glances up and extends an arm. “Hi, are we speaking today?” Yes, a bit later. From as yet-unpainted lips, a tired smile surfaces.
In the backdrop, the stylist wheels racks of gowns, while the photographer’s assistant quietly shoots off a round of test shots. Someone fetches Blanchett a coffee – her second or third. Her hair, which she later describes as “too blonde” (so much so she is getting it fixed this afternoon) is blown, combed and sprayed.
Finally primped for the set, the paper is folded away – reluctantly, no doubt – and she shrugs off her lethargy. Blanchett stands and straightens a stark black dress, then walks towards me barefoot. She is tall, but not as tall as I expect, and her waist is somehow slimmer. She reminds me of an origami crane: angular, beautiful, delicate.
“Can I show you something divine?” she asks, holding up a v-neck chocolate-coloured gown dotted with green stones. “But I can’t wear it out to dinner tonight. It’s raining, I’ll look ridiculous.” She makes chicken wing motions with her elbows and pulls a goofy face.
From comic and animated to intense and pensive, the many faces of Cate Blanchett are quite a thing to witness. On the day we meet, she has just attended a dinner with a talk by environmentalist Tim Flannery. Recalling it, and the intellectual debate it stimulated among the audience, her face lights up. “I thought to myself, ‘this is an extraordinary meeting of minds.’ And the dialogue that happened afterwards ... ” she pauses dramatically. “Andrew [Upton, Blanchett’s husband] and I were thrashing things over, in a really athletic way, on the way home. We didn’t go to bed until like three. Which, when your kids are awake at five, is quite late.”
For the moment, it seems nothing excites her more than matters domestic, political and cultural. Asked what she is reading, she scrunches her brow and explains that a friend recently gave her a copy of Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. But, it’s “too fat”, and her mind is too laden with stories of the non-fiction kind. “I’m reading cultural papers, actually.”
It figures, particularly considering next year she and Upton will themselves assume the wheel at a cultural institution – namely the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). The pair will take over from Robyn Nevin as co-artistic directors. Their three-year contracts include a clause allowing each of them to take three months out each year to pursue other interests. So fear not: she will still grace the screen. Perhaps just not as often.
“I feel the need to move forward,” she told The New Yorker’s John Lahr earlier this year. “Moviemaking becomes a little pointless after a time. You think, ‘Well, yes, that’s an incredible role, and, yes, it would probably stretch me as an actor.’ But performance is not, and never has been, really, all of who I am.”
This decision, along with others she has made in her eleven-year screen career, stems from an urge to push herself, both artistically and intellectually. I suggest her approach is organic. “Look it is, it actually is!” she says. “And you can’t say that too often, because it sounds false. But maybe that’s why each step has been really fulfilling, because it’s been surprising, and not manipulated – and not to get anywhere in particular. Opportunities present themselves and then grow into different opportunities.”
As soon as things look like they’re heading into a ‘plan’, Blanchett becomes uncomfortable, explains her long-time agent Robyn Gardiner. “She has to feel she has something special and interesting to bring to a part, or to an opportunity. Whether it’s to do with the rest of her career, such as her upcoming position at the STC with Andrew, or the way she approaches the environment, nothing she does is cynical. Everything is approached with integrity, truth and intelligence.”
Much has been written of the actress’s remarkable mind, and rightly so. Small talk is not her gig. She speaks in paragraphs rather than sentences – each twisting and turning before trailing to an eloquent end. As Andrew Denton puts it, interviewing Blanchett is like “trying to catch mercury in a sieve”.
The same can be said when making sense of her body language. A chronic fiddler, she picks up a needle in between sips of her coffee and threads its empty eye through her hem. Later, it is her hair, which she ties back, bundles low, then sets loose about her shoulders.
She wants to swap ideas, not be stuck in monologue, and the frustration shows. “I like discussion, particularly with people who think in completely different ways to me. You don’t want to be surrounded by homogenaic thought processes that confirm your own.”
This brand of ‘intellectual perversity’, as she calls it, has guided Blanchett since her teenage years (if not far earlier). Fresh out of Methodist Ladies’ College, the former school drama captain made the interesting choice to marry art history with economics at the University of Melbourne.
“I chose economics for that opposing take: to understand politics from a different perspective. And art history? Well, the art room always involved a lot of creative rambling.” Academia, however, proved too structured and contained. At 18, she pulled out, donned a backpack, and shot overseas, before returning to Australia, finally, to study acting.
Often draped in vintage suits, by age 23 she had graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art and set herself a five-year time limit to make a go of acting. She wanted to learn to deal with the rejection and scrutiny, or else fail happily and try something new. Fortunately, she was cast in Oleanna, starring opposite Geoffrey Rush. The 1993 play came to Australia at ‘just the right time’, and the production was a hit. “I was so lucky. Some people say you make your own luck, but a lot of it is about timing,” she says.
On and off stage, Blanchett boasts an animal power, says Nevin. “She’s quite a ferocious creature in a way. There’s something physical about her that’s very cat-like.” Remembering Hedda Gabler, staged at the STC in 2004, Nevin describes the actress’s presence as like that of a caged eagle: potent and strong with a lust for freedom; yet at the same time, emotionally fragile. “She’s around my office a lot, in and on the sofa. I have images of her at various angles: curled up, lounging. She has a very long, lean body. She has a strong poetic sense and her thoughts are fine and detailed.”
Nevin believes Blanchett has the mindset for directing. “She’s not as subjective as most actors are. She takes such a broad view. She needs to understand the play as a whole.” To positive reviews, Blanchett has so far directed Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, and later this year will direct Blackbird by David Harrower. She is in the process of auditioning new faces when we speak.
Lining up a second meeting, she whips out her diary (“I won’t succumb to the BlackBerry”) and thumbs through the following week, seemingly crammed with Blackbird engagements. “Hmm, that’s right: next week the designer, the composer and the lighting designer are coming around to talk about the play. I’m really looking forward to that ... it’s not an individual art form. Even when people talk about a director’s vision, or a virtuosic performance, those things still need a framework to exist in, and that framework is part of a collaboration. Part of the reason, part of the joy is that it is collaborative, connected.”
She is not normally this busy, Blanchett explains, but she and Upton are trying to do two jobs at once. With two films due for release later this year – I’m Not There, in which she plays Bob Dylan; and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the sequel to 1998’s Elizabeth, which nearly earned her an academy award, the silver screen remains a focal point. It seems she is at the peak of her popularity and powers.
“People describe her as a chameleon,” says Gardiner. “That’s one of the major attributes she has as an actor. She can be anything. She’s not a movie star, she’s an actress.” Blanchett’s list of credits outlines the point. She played an Irish national hero in Veronica Guerin (2003), a reformed junkie in Little Fish (2005), and other standout titles include the The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), The Aviator (2004) and Notes on a Scandal (2006).
“I don’t covet roles, really. It’s the juxtaposition of one experience against the other that I’ve found exciting,” she explains. “It’s a bit like skiing in a way. You know what the run is, you’ve done it before, but you set yourself new challenges. The joy is in not knowing where you’re going, except that you’re going down.”
Blanchett says she owes her success to a refusal to self-sabotage. Instead she seeks risk, all the while bringing a lightness, ease and playfulness to performance. “The skill is to be free to invent in the moment – every night, if you’re on stage, or every take.”
Bronzing the elfin ears she wore for The Lord of the Rings led many to tag her sentimental. “To my detriment, I am not,” she says. “I don’t polish memories.” Take with you what’s useful, she believes, “the rest stays in the photo box”. She will not keep a diary. “It’s a bit grand, or sort of self- important, you know. Though I probably should because my memory is so bad.”
When she explains the blur of her last few months (a move back to Sydney from London; settling the children; sinking her teeth into STC plans with her husband), I ask how she digests, and ultimately make sense of, experiences. The question stirs her. She stops, looks confused and sits upright. For once she is without a reply. Not, however, for long.
“Have sex!” she exclaims, then places her head her hands and groans. “No, seriously. Let me think ... ” Blanchett lapses into anecdote.
A few weeks ago she took some time off at Palm Beach in Sydney’s north. There, a tick bit her. At first, when the sickness hit, the doctor deemed it chicken pox. But it was typhus – Queensland tick typhus. “I was hallucinating, I was sweating. It was like a chronic fatigue cycle. I tried to get up and do things, because life is so interesting you don’t want to take time out from it.”
Eventually, though, she was forced to, and upon recovering came the change: she could now approach work in a much calmer way. “I wonder if I have to get sick to process things?” she ponders aloud.
After more thought, a final answer arrives: “I process things through discussion. I think through conversation, things grow ... that’s where Andrew and I balance each other. He’s able to absorb, process and articulate, and I’m able to absorb, process and demonstrate. He’s instinctive, very free, very good at spotting what’s to come; whereas I tend to be very much in the moment, the present.”
Of this relationship Gardiner says, “She and Andrew are the tightest unit I know.” They met on the set of Thank God He Met Lizzie in 1996, and their first kiss occurred while Blanchett was comforting Upton over his break-up with a friend of hers. As he told The New Yorker, “We were both taken by surprise ... I mean, it could have been a one-night stand. We just kept going. Three weeks into our relationship, Cate says she thought, ‘Oh, God, he’s going to ask me to marry him. I’m going to have to say yes.’ I asked her three weeks later.”
“They’ve got a shorthand to communicate. That and just such a firm bond. Andrew’s very wry, and Cate’s just grounded,” observes artist McLean Edwards, who painted the couple with their sons for the 2006 Archibald Prize. “I just asked her for all the Hollywood goss. She has a combination of humour and innate bloody intelligence – which translates into an easy-going, funny disposition that’s particularly Australian. I liked Andrew too, at one point I said, ‘You can go. He can stay’. They laughed and I thought, ‘Phew!’”
If Australia has shaped her personality, it has done the same for her mind. On the day we speak, her head is awash with thoughts on national identity, power, myth and government. Politically, we are lost, she says. “There’s a huge wave of scepticism and about government action, and a short-termism that penetrates everything: ‘this is what I need and if I’m not getting it, I’m leaving’. There’s very little ideology in politics anymore, because ideology takes time.”
On the topic of her sons and motherhood, any vehemence melts. “I guess that’s why people keep having children. It’s the ultimate expression of hope, isn’t it?” Her sons constantly break her heart, she says. “What did TS Elliot say? ‘In my beginning is my end.’ I think that’s why people stare at their babies for so long. You can see it’s a thing, and it’s there, but not there. Like a black hole, but not in a negative way. There’s incredible depth to it. I value my family above all else.” She and Upton don’t wish to be precious parents, she says. For their children they want breathing space and colour.
As Blanchett’s queue of appointments beckons – first, hair re-colouring; second, collecting the boys; third, attending a film industry dinner – she picks at the last of her couscous salad. (Today she’s a climate change-inspired vegetarian, egged on by worries about the energy consumed in feeding grain to livestock. But check to see if she has stuck with it in two weeks’ time, she jokes).
She has one more thing to say: “I want a clearer eye. And that doesn’t mean that strands don’t fall through my fingers or that I don’t have hopeless days, but it’s important to pick yourself up. I don’t want to live a drunken, weeping life.”
How you can make smarter, kinder choices for your plate and the planet.
marie claire, November 2014
Gaze into your weekly shopping basket. On the surface, what’s there might look like a line-up of foods ready to be spooned out or peeled in order to craft your next quick breakfast or weekend picnic in the park. But weigh the contents up for their “sustainability” and a more complex story may emerge.
Each item you take to the check-out creates an ecological and social footprint. Food kilometres, the distance ingredients trek, help determine the footprint’s size. The goods in an average Australian grocery trolley travel about 70,000km, according to We Need To Talk About Food, the City of Melbourne’s sustainability guide. That’s nearly two times the circumference of the earth. Other influencers include the effects of chemicals used and emitted in a food’s production, plus animal welfare and the work- ing conditions afforded to food producers.
“Food production contributes immensely to greenhouse gas emis- sions, water usage, land degradation and fossil fuel use,” explains dietitian Caroline Trickey. “All of this can damage our environment and contribute to climate change, which is detrimental to our food supply.”
Professor Kadambot Siddique, director of The UWA’s Institute of Agriculture, adds that buying sustainable foods has a host of flow-on effects, including securing a food supply for future generations and protecting the welfare of farmers. Here, we reveal five sustainable food choices to keep in mind ...
According to Associate Professor Timothy Gill from The University of Sydney, the meat and livestock industry contributes one-fifth of all greenhouse emissions, which stem from methane production as well as land and water use. And while seafood cultivation creates less environmental strain, it does come with its own set of issues. In order to meet global demand, decades of excessive fishing have led to the exploitation of three-quarters of the world’s oceans.
Perfect your pick: Most tuna species, especially bluefin, are listed as threatened. So fish fans should visit the deli rather than the tinned-food aisle, while farmed Australian salmon is sustainable*, says Assistant Professor Gabrielle O’Kane of the University of Canberra.
One of the top-ranked rules of sustainable eating and drinking is to “buy local”. But in the case of coffee, Australia doesn’t produce much of the bean. So if you can’t find local labels, keep an eye out for Fairtrade-certified brands. These work closely with farmers to ensure they’re paid a living wage. Home-brewed coffee – carried to
work in a re-usable travel mug – is a far more sustainable approach than buying takeaways.
Perfect your pick: Buying Fairtrade is a no-brainer, and Australian shoppers are joining the sustainability movement – 17 per cent now opt for Fairtrade-certified products at least once a month. Even Nespresso this year launched a recycling program where customers can drop off empty pod cases to Nespresso boutiques. Similarly, the brand partners with Fairtrade on various projects, and sources 80 per cent of its coffee via its sustainability program.
Due to its link with livestock and methane, dairy doesn’t win big sustainability points, so cutting back is ideal. Another concern with the industry is the rise of “feedlot dairies”. The RSPCA explains these are yarded areas in which cattle are held in close confinement. There’s now around 600 of these in Australia. But here’s good news: there are a counter-revolution in motion. “A number of ethically minded farms are taking dairy farming back to traditional methods for the benefit of our environment, animals, farmers and health,” states not-for-profit organisation Sustainable Table.
Perfect your pick: Farming dairy cows using organic/biodynamic methods has been shown to reduce a farm’s overall greenhouse gas emissions when compared to conventional farming methods. So look for organic and biodynamic dairy products in the supermarket aisle.
Our love of this gluten-free, protein-rich, ancient grain has caused a global price spike. As a result, it has made quinoa largely unaffordable for people in places like Bolivia and Peru, which provide much of the world’s supply. Tasmanian farmers have led the push for growing local quinoa, while scientists in Western Australia are researching which varieties grow best in that state. Though Aussie options are limited for now, that shouldn’t be the case for long.
Perfect your pick: Choose Australian-grown, organic quinoa, suggests Caroline Trickey. Try Kindred Organics Quinoa from Tasmania. Or, if homegrown grains aren’t an option, look out for the Fairtrade logo on quinoa sprouted overseas, says Julia Sumner, general manager of Oxfam Australia Trading.
Conventionally farmed chickens live in barns with a maximum of 14 birds per square metre, whereas organic and free-range farmed chickens – collectively called “pastured chickens” – share open spaces that allow for five to 10 birds per square metre respectively. On top of being kinder, the second option could be better for you, too. A 2010 Penn State University study found that when measured against commercial hen eggs, organic or free-range eggs have twice the vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acid content.
Perfect your pick: Organic eggs rise to the top of the ethical saucepan, followed by free-range varieties, says Trickey.
Watch hatching turtles by moonlight, fish for threadfin salmon, see Indigenous textile artists at work – sailing among the 11 islands of the relatively untouched Tiwis reveals an unruffled slice of the Top End.
Qantas Magazine, March 2015
UNDER A TUMBLE OF PEACH and gold sand something metallic has caught the late-afternoon sun on Bare Sand Island’s shoreline, 50km west of Darwin. Artful, bone-white shells swirl a frame around it. Indigenous guide and traditional owner Shannon Lee bends in close. “It’s a bullet, an old one at that.”
The metal casing is lined with filigree, a cream- coloured cylinder protruding from the base. “You were meant to find this. I don’t know why, but it belongs with you. It’s definitely from World War II,” Lee says.
Some 80km south of Bathurst and Melville Islands in the Tiwi group, Bare Sand Island is an uninhabited canvas, hosting a lone tree and a ripple of sand dunes. “It should be called One Tree Island,” Lee remarks.
In WWII, this spot may have netted stray bullets from Japanese fighter planes en route to Darwin. Today the island’s beaches reserve most real estate for turtle nests.
On the first night of a four-day Sail Darwin tour of the Arafura and Timor Seas, a birthing ritual supplies the evening’s main entertainment. Orange-rind streaks appear in a powdery sky. Time moves in first gear. Then, finally, in the lowest of light, giant flatback turtles begin to emerge from the surf, lifting pale 80kg shells onto land.
The size of small bath tubs, the reptiles slide, inch by inch, from wet sand to dry, leaving prints like tyre tracks in their wake. Halfway up a dune, one barnacle-dotted turtle stops, exhales, and then flings sand around like confetti. She has selected a spot and spends the next hour digging a neat hole for her golf ball-shaped eggs. She’ll deliver 55 in total. The turtle toils through a now-inky night, her eyes narrowing to slits as fatigue sets in.
Flatback turtles nest year-round, yet here, for the most part, they choose the months between May and October. Lee says that they return four times a year. Each generation returns to nest at the beach where they were born, and so the legacy continues.
A full moon illuminates the beach, the busy turtles glowing in the shimmering light, each about 100m apart. The moon casts a trail along the sea, too, linking the shoreline with our catamaran.
THE NEXT MORNING, pink sunrise pops through the boat’s portholes. Ahead stretches the Apsley Strait, a weave of water dividing Bathurst and Melville Islands, the Tiwis’ major land masses. Viewed from the clouds, the islands are a sweep of spearmint rivers and fern trees that look like the tops of feather dusters. Here, brumbies and frill-necked lizards roam.
Seen from the ocean, these islands are all about their liquid, blue-green frames. That, and silence.
Once ashore, it’s an altogether rowdier affair. The Tiwis are dubbed the “Land of Smiles” for good reason. Its inhabitants can be heard chatting and laughing from quite a distance away. Tess Atie, adviser to the Northern Territory government’s chief minister, is strolling by the shoreline as we disembark. She trails her boss, who’s here on an official visit. “Where he goes, I go,” she says with a nod.
Atie knows Shannon Lee, so the pair swap “G’days”.
“This mob is doing really well here,” she says. “They give hope to other communities. They’re growing strong.”
JUST 3000 PEOPLE live on the Tiwis and roughly 90 per cent are Indigenous. It’s a place with quirks, such as its community of cross-dressing Sistagirls. The girls stand, perhaps uneasily, alongside a strong vein of Catholicism, the legacy of missionaries who – having arrived just shy of a century ago – were the island’s first longstanding European settlers. Many of the Top End’s Stolen Generation also spent their childhoods at Tiwi Island missions.
A short walk through a nook of tamarind trees reveals murals imprinted on shed and building walls. They display pictures of pregnant women, warning viewers not to smoke. Just beyond, lies a church. It resembles Noah’s Ark on stilts: a giant ribcage of chocolate-coloured beams, wrapped in yellow wooden walls. Inside, an ornate altar incorporates Indigenous patterns and palettes. It’s a work of art, which as it becomes clear, is a theme that unifies the Tiwis.
Down a run of stairs and across glossy lawn a circle of women sit in the shade painting mussel shells. Mary Warlapinni, Lucianne Lynch and Molly Munkara offer marmalade-soaked damper and tea. A fourth woman, Valentina Tungatlum, wears a Western Bulldogs cap. She paints shyly with her back to the group. Warlapinni boasts an impressive afro and, again, knows Lee’s family. “Are you related to Bertie? Yeah. And to the other one? Yeah.” She grins through gap teeth when he nods in affirmation.
The women belong to a skills development group focusing on textiles, painting, tourism and business tools, such as how to price artwork. “We still go out hunting. We live the traditional life, too,” says Munkara. She’s asked if the missionaries were well-received on the island. “They tell Christian stories alongside our Tiwi creation stories. I go to church and I think things work quite respectfully.”
Another circle of artists gathers a few streets away at the Tiwi Design art centre. The main trade here is fabrics made by a more well-known women’s collective, Tiwi Design. The centre also stocks paintings, iron wood sculptures and totemic poles called pukamanis.
As a shop visitor ponders dress ideas for an upcoming ball, roll after roll of vibrant fabric is spun out before her – fluorescent pink, Fanta orange, leafy green and terracotta. Most bear the crosshatch pattern for which Tiwi Designs is famed. Others have traditional sketches of local animals – owls, brolgas and black cockatoos.
A mini pukamani owl carving, about 80cm tall, stands out among the other gallery pieces. Its gregarious creator, artist Romolo Tipiloura, is close by, chewing the fat with friends. He explains the owl’s significance to the Tiwi people, keeping one hand pressed flat against the carving’s head. “The owl is the wise guy and the peacekeeper. The story goes that long ago, trespassers intruded on the islands. Locals became angry and tried to scare the trespassers away.” The owl was watching from above, and he flew down to intervene, Tipiloura adds. “The owl said, ‘Hey you guys, share!’ So the owl encourages Tiwi people to be their best.”
Our journey back to the water takes us by the lawns and church, and past a stand-alone telephone memorial. The Tiwi Islands played a little-known role in foiling attacks on Australian soil during WWII. From this pedal phone beside the church at the Pirlangimpi township, locals put a call through to Darwin. They’d spotted enemy planes over the islands, headed south.
“We were the first mob to warn about the Japanese air raids,” says Munupi Arts & Craft Association assistant Regis Pangiraminni the next day. A Tiwi man also captured the first Japanese serviceman taken as a POW on Australian soil, after his plane crash-landed on Melville Island. Connie Tipuamantumirri, at 84 one of the centre’s oldest artists, was a child at the time of the attacks. Though now largely mute, she merrily accompanies our group through the centre’s pottery sheds, open-air studio and paint-mixing room. Later, she unfurls her own work: giant black-and-white canvases depicting stingrays and crocodile teeth.
ON THE HOME STRETCH, 20 minutes north of Darwin, marine art of a different kind erupts. As the catamaran cuts through an unbroken blanket of ocean, a palm-sized fish shoots from the water. It flies like a tiger moth, fins outstretched, before slipping again through the surface.
Onboard, co-skipper Paul Farrell rolls the Bare Sand Island bullet across his palm – a .50 calibre tracer bullet, he decides. “During the war, one in every seven bullets fired would send a flash through the air as it travelled.”
Perhaps the pukamani owl ensured this shot steered clear of destruction, instead guiding its path to a peaceful plot of sand.
A garfish springs into view. Leaning back on its tail, it rides the air like a miniature waterskier and flies like a sparkling silver ribbon. It’s a living tracer bullet, one that knits together this seascape’s past and present in the prettiest way possible.
FREE TO DREAM
Individual experiences, both real and imagined, are crystallised in the horological masterpieces of independent watchmakers.
Max Büsser’s imagination explodes with rockets, robots and intergalactic rivalry. “My ideas mostly come from my childhood when I was a consummate daydreamer,” says the Geneva-based head of MB&F (Maximilian Büsser & Friends), often described by devotees as a maverick watchmaking genius.
“I spent many of my days saving the world, be it in a spaceship or a fighter plane, or as a transformer robot! When one of my designs is finished, it often hits me that my inspiration must have come from there. Creating my machines is like having psychotherapy.”
For co-founder and technical director of de Bethune, Denis Flageollet, ideas rest in more earthly spaces. “Inspiration is not found in dreams, it comes from experience, culture and a quiet atmosphere. When researching, the most important thing is daily support from a very good, spirited and constructive team.”
The pair forms part of an exclusive, respected gang: independent watchmakers with sometimes miniscule annual production runs, and a passion – and a passionate following – that brings creativity and charisma to the watch world.
Defining ‘independent’ though is a slippery exercise. Ask 10 watch aficionados and you’ll get 10, potentially wildly, different answers.
Technically, Patek Philippe, Parmigiani Fleurier, Rolex and Audemars Piguet all fit the bill: they fall outside the walls of the ‘big three’ conglomerates, LVMH, Richemont and the Swatch Group.
For luxury timepiece consultant, stylist, writer and speaker, Meehna Goldsmith, the best definition of independent is brands established by watchmakers who themselves make the watches.
“They have the skills to work on the most complicated of movements, such as tourbillons and minute repeaters, and they are the creative force behind their companies,” she explains. “They have the ability to design and build a watch from the ground up and, in most cases, manufacture their own movements.”
It’s a skill set that doesn’t spring from nowhere. Before flying solo many watchmakers cut their teeth in the technical departments or managerial wings of bigger players. Bart and Tim Grönefeld, founders of Grönefeld timepieces, worked under Audemars Piguet subsidiary Renaud & Papi.
Büsser was the former managing director of Harry Winston. His brand is a clear rebellion against the mainstream. “MB&F was born as much from my passion for beautiful watchmaking as it was from my rage against the fact that everyone keeps copying each other in this industry,” he says.
Michel Parmigiani, founder of Swiss-based Parmigiani Fleurier – partly funded through a creative partnership with the charitable Sandoz Family Foundation – shares this stance. As he told Goldsmith: “There are quite a few companies that produce watches and they aren’t watchmakers. It’s not their core business and they are taking advantage of watchmaking tradition. For me, it’s not legitimate. At Parmigiani we don’t produce jewellery and pens. It’s like it is in the garden: everyone has to stay in his or her plot.”
Exceptions to this major-label-to-solo-trader trajectory include watchmaking pioneer George Daniels’ apprentice Roger Smith, whose brand carries his own name; and famously, Felix Baumgartner of Urwerk, who set up shop out of watchmaking school when a family friend issued him a $20,000 commission.
Baumgartner reportedly doesn’t like to conform to societal structures and his freewheeling philosophy extends to the conditions afforded to Urwerk’s staff, all of whom start and finish work when they please – as long as the job gets done.
Intellectual output from the independents reflects this same spirit of freedom and their watches represent their individual creative vision. On the business side, however, independence carries all the risks, as well as the benefits, of freedom, explains Baumgartner.
“At Urwerk, we are two people making all the decisions regarding creation and production. so everything moves quite fast. We have no board of directors to convince,” he says. “But it also means we don’t have any financial partners to back us in case of problems. We’re on our own.”
The independent path covers difficult terrain and without this backing, many young brands drop from existence. Of the 30 independent labels born in 2004, Baumgartner says that today, only three remain active.
“You have to do your best with limited resources,” says Flageollet. Components can be frustratingly hard to source, while research and development regularly rack up hefty bills. Some of MB&F’s movements required up to four years’ development investment and as many as 400 parts, demanding large budgets and painstaking logistical coordination, says Büsser.
Then there’s distribution. “With our microscopic production, we are barely of any economic interest to the best retailers in the world,” he says. “So we need to find retailers who love what we do and support our creative crusades more by passion than by financial reward.
“The Hour Glass was one of the first six retail partners who funded the beginning of our adventure by paying in advance for the first piece, based just on our designs, two years before we delivered the first HM1. MB&F would probably not exist without The Hour Glass.”
Challenges aside, when independent watchmakers reflect on their exclusive craft, two words dominate their collective sentiment: joy and freedom. As a native American saying goes, the soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.
“The greatest joy of being an independent is freedom,” says Baumgartner, who draws equal satisfaction from his partnership with designer Martin Frei. “He uses his entire artistic luggage to imagine and sketch Urwerk watches. He is a sculptor. He thinks that a watch has to be a beautiful object that gives you pleasure when looked at all day long on your wrist.
"A few years ago, we unveiled the Ur-CC1 ‘King Cobra’, a crazy watch developed as a tribute to Louis Cottier [an avant-garde watchmaker]. This piece required more than three years’ development and in 2009 we unveiled only 25 pieces in white gold. This was not a commercial operation but more of an emotional adventure and a technical challenge for us. These are exactly the reasons why, in a larger group, this project would never have seen the light of day. It was too risky, too small a return on investment.”
Away from pressing commercial pressures, such as aligning with a brand’s history and its aesthetic legacy, independent watchmaking can bring fulfilment fireworks – never more so than in the moments when an idea becomes an object.
“The joy is immense,” says Büsser. “First and foremost it’s the joy of being free. Free to create what we believe in without even having to give a thought to what the market would want. Free to not have to follow the growth/profit diktat that corporations live by. Free to work only with people with whom we share the same passion, enthusiasm and values. Free to say no whenever we need to.
“By achieving total creative freedom, we can not only constantly reinvent ourselves, but also be proud, at all times, of what we’ve achieved and what we are trying to achieve. Above money or any other motivator, ultimately pride is infinitely more important.”
THE HOURGLASS MAGAZINE, 2012 Annual
Finalist: 2014 NT Literary Awards, Best Travel Writing
For centuries, Aboriginal language groups met ritually at the Bora Ring, a bush stage in Queensland’s Cape York. Here they’d dance and share cultures. The tradition was revived in the 1970s and for many, the biennial Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival, now in its 20th year, is the diamond in Australia’s festival crown.
Australian Traveller, October 2013
I barrel down the hill like tumbleweed in wind. My feet find a path past towering gums and I brush by onlookers, lined seven people deep, to reach the edge of the Bora Ring. Ten Indigenous men stride onto stage. Applause ignites. A thousand watching faces fall silent. We await the first dance.
Sometimes life hands you an experience so beautiful and mercurial that my job, to press the things I see into words, becomes tricky. I reckon my Darwin doctor – who gave me a flu jab the day I returned home – said it best. “That festival is meant to be ‘the one’. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Or maybe it was Pierre, a French-Australian friend and writer who, while waiting in the festival’s coffee queue one orange-lit morning, said, “This is utopia. It’s how Australia should be.”
Held every two years in bushland near the township of Laura, 317 kilometres north of Cairns, the 2013 Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival sees 17 Indigenous groups dance 30-minute sets. It runs for three days in June and attracts 5000 visitors. Half of whom are Indigenous, the other half non-Indigenous.
This ying-yang, black-white balance partly explains the festival’s popularity. It has harmony to it. A mood of sharing. And that takes the event beyond dance that’s performed, and, ho-hum, observed. Here you feel the dances.
As I sit cross-legged before the bush stage circle, I know I’m witnessing something singular. On the festival’s opening night I’d seen groups stomp and sing, shaking up dirt in this very space. Dressed in straw skirts, their heads topped with white cockatoo feathers, they were loud, excited, electric.
These ten men stand apart from the others somehow. They’re laconic, masculine and much more low-key. But it goes further than that.
“We’re the Marrinyama dancers. This is the dance of our grandfathers. First one is an introduction,” says an amplified voice.
Their ankles are fringed with eucalypt leaves. Their bodies striped with feathers. Ochre lines their skin. Bark cylinders crown their heads. I write one word in my notebook. Pride.
“Next one we might do is kangaroo.” A dancer bends his knees, brings his wrists to his chin and gently twitches his shoulders. “Kangaroo,” an elder echoes appreciatively behind me.
Unlike the bigger groups, the Marrinyama men are just that, men alone – unaccompanied by women or kids. There’s seriousness about them, plus a sense of something ancient and private. It’s like they’ve walked through time to dance and share their secrets. (I might have believed they’d done so, if one dancer’s arm didn’t sport a Go Pro camera).
Next they perform ‘crocodile’, ‘dingo’ and ‘fish’ sequences. While their dance is subtle, and in some parts delicate, above all, it teems with intensity. I scribble down a second word. Power.
As they finish up, the crowd breaks into applause. Festival creative director Raymond Blanco grips the microphone. “Never will you experience the diversity of Aboriginal cultures like you’ll find here at this festival. Amazing.”
I follow the men off stage and watch them pose for photos. There’s a dancer who catches my eye. While holding a painted staff, kneeling with his group, he looks extra serious. Determined. Suddenly though, he cracks it. His mouth flips into a beaming, gap-toothed smile.
Speaking with the group’s leader, Lance Sullivan, I discover what makes these men different. They’re from Queensland’s central desert and live fairly traditional lives. They catch fish and hunt kangaroo – with boomerangs strong enough to break legs. Importantly, he says, they still practice circumcision.
“A lot of people are scared of us because we’re the last tribe that still does it. There’s no hospital or shop near us, so it’s tricky.” I ask Lance about his justice system and he points to spear scars on his calf. His fingers trace similar lines on his chest. “These are from initiation.”
Today they wear feathers plucked from emu, duck and turkey. Usually they use blood for adhesive, but this time glue fixes feathers to their skin.
The dances, he says, teach the tribe how to be men, how to fish and how to hunt. “People think we’ve died off. But our lore is strong. We want to keep our culture. We come here to show the world that even though we’re fading, we’re still here. We’re alive.”
This frame, this frozen moment with Lance, shifts something in me. While I’ve long been fascinated by Australia’s Indigenous culture, it’s always seemed like a lake on the horizon. One I badly want to see, but never expect to reach.
Maybe it’s the guilt talking, based on our shared history. But silly or otherwise, Aboriginal culture is something that deep down, as a white woman, I feel I’m not entitled to share, or to learn from.
As Lance talks so openly, barriers fall. Add to this conversation the fierce energy I’ve seen among other groups here and I start to understand not only how enriching Aboriginal cultures are, but that they’re tough and sacred, too. They vary with as much splendour as does our continent – from the tropics to the desert.
As the next performance starts, I walk back to the Bora Ring. As well as ‘bush stage’, this term also refers to an initiation rite into manhood. I’m careful not to tread on its inside, as women are forbidden from doing so, except when performing.
The sound of clapping crescendos and the dust bowl fills with young folk. They’re painted white and each wears strips of red. Performers aged four and up lunge into position, spread knees and outstretch hands. Drum beats thud. Dust rises. The crowds whoops. Like an old school rave party, there’s a ‘build up’ and a ‘drop’. The beat rides right through us.
The group is from Yarrahbah, Queensland’s biggest Aboriginal community south of Cairns. While the kids dance, town major Mama Neal assumes the mic. “We’ve survived. Put your hand up if you love that. We have survived!”
He’s more political than other group leaders and issues a few missives. “We want non-Indigenous people to have second thoughts about making decisions for us. It’s not right. We need the government to take a step back and relax.”
Later Mama Neal says he wants the Laura Dance Festival to promote respect for his people. “It’s an opportunity to have us all come together. White people coming here to learn – that’s a great thing.”
‘Sharing culture through dance’, says festival director Raymond Blanco, is a new focus this year. Previously groups competed with one another, but that led to infighting. “The festival’s more relaxed now that we’ve got rid of the competitive element.”
I look beyond the ring at the more typically ‘festival’ parts of the site: the stalls, the open spaces where kids kick footy, and the marquee where we eat and soak up music after dark. I agree the event does ‘relaxed’ with panache.
It’s late afternoon and the light turns golden. There’s a river below the campgrounds, so I go in search of the water, hoping for a swim. My head’s awash with fresh ideas, images and inspiration. I need to take a breather.
En-route I stop at the info stand. “Any crocs in the river?” I ask. “Well…. ” A volunteer adjusts her specs. “Yesterday we heard there was a saltie down there. Depends on what you’re comfortable with. I’ve been swimming all weekend.”
I hunt for the river anyway. I climb a sandbank stamped with footprints. Then descend upon a thick knot of mangroves. Laughter and shrieks ping from the mint-coloured water. A cluster of Aboriginal kids splash around fully clothed.
I spot a place to perch. “They’re ballsy,” I think. “No fear.” I’m not brave enough to join them, but I sit there for a while anyway. It’s nice sometimes, I reckon, just to eavesdrop on happiness.
In A Shorter History of Australia, author Geoffrey Blainey wrote that Aboriginals and European-heritage Australians came from worlds so polarised, in both a philosophical and practical sense, that the two groups were incompatible. Maybe he got it wrong and all we needed to do was listen.
Here by the water, one eye looking for a saltie’s snout, I’m unsure how I’ll capture the spirit of this story. It’s one best danced, that goes without saying. But these white feet have limitations. They’re more suited to swinging beneath a typewriter. I pull open my notebook. Let’s begin with feet, I pencil. And with finding a path.
The next Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival is in June 2015.
Three fresh Australian Indigenous festivals
Australia-wide there are more than 130 festivals dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. That number is on the rise, too. In 2013 three new, and rather massive, players join the circuit.
Byron Bay, NSW
Headlined by singers Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Archie Roach, this festival is 100 per cent commercial, meaning it stands on its own feet – it doesn’t rely on government grants. The agenda is hugely diverse. On offer you’ll find music, dance, theatre, comedy, film, visual arts and, enticingly, knowledge exchanges sessions.
Alice Springs, NT
Sixteen Central Australian Aboriginal groups come together for this gathering named after the Arrernte (Alice Springs-area language group) word for ‘place’. Themes include desert living, cultural heritage and healing. Its itinerary boasts theatre, film, landscape installations and a concert held in the iconic Todd River bed. Another standout feature: 2000 locals deliver a storytelling performance based on the tale ‘Great Caterpillar Dreaming’.
Hetti Perkins, eldest daughter of the late Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, creatively directs this behemoth festival. It opens with a parade of young people and features 11 big city days of visual arts, literature, music, performing arts and art workshops. The Bangarra Theatre Group presents ‘Dance Clan 3’ and Aboriginal elders spark symbolic ‘firelights’ outside nine cultural institutions supporting the event.
WHAT BEING AUSTRALIAN MEANS TO ME
Willie Gordon, Nugal-warra elder and Cape York story-keeper, shares ideas for a hope-filled Australia Day with Jennifer Pinkerton.
If you were born in this country then I classify you as an Australian. And one of the beautiful things about Australia is that we have all these different cultural values in our mix, values we can learn from. Sometimes these cultural boundaries impose comfort zones on us; we’re afraid to move out of our comfort zone because we think other cultures might pose a threat.
When we travel, we extend our comfort zone and challenge our preconceptions. Before I went overseas – and I’m embarrassed to admit this – I thought that everyone in England was white! But I saw that they came from all over. I was 40 years old; I felt so stupid. I was amazed at my misunderstanding. I had to travel that far to realise that multiculturalism is everywhere.
I was also surprised that, when in Hong Kong, I couldn’t see the sun because of smog. It was foggy every day. I couldn’t believe that it didn’t go away. I couldn’t fathom it. I found myself thinking: “At home, we have nice air, we have rain, we have sun and we can see the stars.” In Australia, we’re pretty lucky. In fact, I am looking at the stars right now!
Travel helps free up our ideas, and see the things we take for granted. It challenges fixed views and makes us realise what we have. Sometimes we wait for a disaster to happen in order for us to be united, you know, like a fire or flood. Why don’t we be united anyway – before disasters hit?
The only fence that we build is the one that exists in our own minds. And we’re the only ones who can pull it down. I want my grandchildren to say, “Well OK, there is no barrier”. And we should teach them that there isn’t a barrier.
There is no ‘black’ and ‘white’. We’re just people. We’re Australian people. We are on the same boat.
If we keep going back to history trying to fix it, then we won’t be moving forward as a united people. We need to draw on our strengths to do this. The past is what we learn from, but education helps us move confidently into the future. And by education, I mean gaining knowledge and understanding. Reconciliation is about accepting people. It starts with you. Not with the government.
Each ANZAC Day I salute the people who have died for our country. I don’t think any of my people, the Guugu Yimithirr, went and laid down their lives, but I try and go and appreciate the people who did.
For Australia Day, I believe we should broaden things out and salute the people who have worked hard to build our country. I think it should be a remembrance day for the hard yakka we’ve been through, you know? My father, for example, cut sugar cane in the burning sun. Cutting cane was really hard work. His sweat, and that of many others, forms part of the patchwork that makes our country what it is.
What does it mean to be a good Australian? First of all you need to find out who you are. We tell our children about other people, so they’re busy looking over there and not looking at themselves. We lose sight of ourselves. In today’s society, we drive cars, live in houses, have vaccines against illnesses, watch television, and all these need dollars. But we still need our spirituality and cultural values to make us strong – that’s the thing that’s going to get you through. Then the practical will follow. That’s what I believe. And you don’t need to be religious for that. It’s about saying, “I want to strive to do good”. And when you’re strong, you encourage other people to think about who they are and what they need to do to strengthen their own spirits. You have to want it. Once you’re strong, then you can share it.
A general practical thing you can do is make sure your little patch of land is OK. And one of the simple things I think should happen is that every Australian plants a tree on Australia Day – it could just be in your garden; a fruit tree. We’d have 25 million more trees! Something simple like that doesn’t need any political argument or debate.
Another thing: be part of your community. Get involved. Some people wander off on their own… We see ourselves as individuals. But we’re all connected in one way or another.
It’s time to stop this black and white thing, and just get on with looking after our garden. We have to make sure our country and environment are protected, because it’s the only garden we have. And we’re fortunate. Australia has a pretty good garden. It’s our birth place and with the right care it can give us strength – the strength we need to journey through life, and to survive for many more thousands of years.
AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLER, December 2013/January 2014
Many think of Valium as ‘mother’s little helper’, blue pills popped by harried housewives in the 1960s and 70s. Yet the drug’s effects are still being felt as long-standing addictions – often among Australia’s elderly.
QWeekend Magazine, The Courier Mail, May 2014
There was something about Mary. When I was little and my grandmother would smile at me, I could see almost every tooth in her mouth. She wore colourful beads from Morocco and France. They looped down to her breasts and knocked against her blouse when she spoke. Her laughter would crackle through the air like fireworks. She was a party that I always wanted to stay up late for.
I was a teenager when the wind changed. Mary’s personality grew wild and wintery. She would lash out at family and slur words over dinner. ‘It must be the drink,’ I thought. The ritual draining of her wineglass became a play that would start serenely enough, but end in calamity.
One night she thudded her fists against the table, a drumbeat to accompany her off-key singing and insults flung at my grandfather. “What would you know? Nothing!” she hollered, before crumpling into her seat.
Things fell apart further. On a separate night, my aunt Marianne says Mary “tripped all over the place when she was trying to go to bed.” Not long afterward, she suffered a car accident on the way home from our house. She gave up her license immediately. Later still, Mary fell in her driveway, badly damaging her back.
My father John pieced together the puzzle when eventually she needed help getting to GP appointments. “I’d sit beside her and Mum would ask outright for Valium scripts. I should’ve worked it out sooner. She’d been taking it for years.” Forty years in fact.
‘Valium’, or Diazepam, is a benzodiazepine. This class of tranquilising drugs includes Alprazolam, better known by the brand name ‘Xanax’.
‘Benzos’, as they’re called colloquially, bind to an inhibitory receptor in the brain, thereby relaxing the muscles and sedating the mind. The drugs are big business. Seven million benzo scripts are written nationally each year, says the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
Mary was first prescribed Valium by her family doctor. It was the 1970s. She was menopausal and had suffered a rough patch in her marriage with my grandfather, a civil engineer and workaholic.
“This new wonder drug came out, and it was meant to help people with depression and sleeplessness. Our family doctor was a good friend. He put her on it, and she stayed on it until she died,” says Marianne.
“Towards the end, when she was in the nursing home, she asked me, ‘Have I done this to myself?’ I said, ‘Of course not, Mum.’ But to be honest, I thought she had done. The ramifications were often horrible.”
My family’s story isn’t singular. Rather, Mary’s trajectory is unfortunately familiar, according to Janet Shaw, CEO of Australia’s only benzodiazepine-focused counseling service, Reconnexion.
Among the organisation’s benzo program patients, two-thirds are women. Eight per cent have taken benzos for twenty years or longer. Reconnexion counselor and social worker Stephanie Twaites says: “Our clients are unlikely. They’re not the sorts of people who would usually fall into the drug and alcohol category.”
The University of Tasmania’s Dr Juanita Westbury researches benzo use in nursing homes. She says that around one in four Australian residents take the drug. In this arena, figures from Queensland nursing homes sit roughly in the middle when compared with those of other states. “Queensland is not the best, and it’s not the worst,” she says.
The issues arising from nursing home benzo use, however, are common countrywide. “Older benzo users sleep more during the day and statistically have increased risk of falls,” Westbury says. “Often if someone is on benzos they don’t engage as well with nursing home staff, or with their families. They’re prone to ‘going off’ at people. We hear relatives saying, ‘I don’t want my loved one taking this drug.’” When I read this quote to my dad, he nods and exhales slowly. “We know all about the side-effects, don’t we?”
Benzo users, says Twaites, often come in two sizes. There are young users. But more often users are older people. They started taking the drugs in their twenties or thirties, then kept going. Like Mary, those from this latter group – the bulk of Reconnexion’s patients – were advised to take a benzo for anxiety or sleep issues. “They get prescriptions. They’ve become dependent and doctors have continued to prescribe them the benzo,” Twaites says.
A 2013 study in the Medical Journal of Australia confirms her observation. It found that among 305 rehabilitation patients hailing from Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania, 78 per cent of benzo addicts sourced drugs from doctors.
As lead author Dr Suzanne Nielsen from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre tells Qweekend: “Dispensing statistics show that older people are getting benzos more commonly. And something that we’ve heard quite a lot is that people don’t know these medications aren’t meant to be used long-term.”
Consumer product information from Valium’s manufacturer Roche Pharmaceuticals suggests use not exceed four weeks. Yet dependence can develop within that timeframe, or even earlier, Twaites says. “Valium isn’t recommended for people over the age of 65 anyway.” Slower digestive systems can allow the body to build up stores of the drug, which in turn affects memory as well as muscle coordination.
A 2012 British Medical Journal study raised more serious concerns still. “This research crystallised data about harms from benzodiazepines,” says Dr Christian Rowan, President of the Australian Medical Association Queensland.
The study noted that hypnotics – medicines that trigger sleep or partial loss of consciousness – lead to raised incidence of cancer malignancy, heart disease and death.
Some users sense these dangers intuitively. They get a ‘bad hunch’ about a benzo drug early on. My aunt Marianne, now in her sixties, briefly took Valium during a bout of low mood. She stopped almost immediately. “Mum used to say how great she felt while she was taking Valium, but I felt awful, like a Zombie.”
Dr Marie Porter, 75, is an author and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland. She took benzos for a year before deciding to withdraw.
“I was in my early 40s and a mother to three boys. My 12-year-old Anthony was totally physically handicapped. The specialists told me he’d never live to age one. But I made up my mind that wasn’t going to be the case,” she says.
“We worked so hard. Not just me, the whole family. I got to the stage where I couldn’t sleep at all and I could hardly think clearly. I once put on a dress back-to-front and wondered why it looked strange.”
Marie’s doctor referred her to a psychiatrist who put her on “maximum doses” of two benzos, Serepax and Rohypnol. “I was in and out of hospital for a year. I got to a stage where I thought, ‘This is just masking things. I need to get off these pills.’ So I stopped. My doctor was absolutely incredulous that I could do that. He asked me what happened. I told him I shook and cried for a day, but I coped.”
Marie was one of the fortunate ones. In some cases Benzo withdrawal can take two years and involve headaches, memory loss, slurred speech, feelings of confusion, emotional detachment and flu-like symptoms.
Among the benzo users Twaites sees, many were not initially informed of its addictive potential, nor offered counselling support. “The issue behind taking the drugs in the first place was never really treated – whether it was insomnia or panic attacks.”
University of Queensland epidemiologist Professor Jake Najman has monitored state-specific medication use since 1983. Among his long-term study participants, all of whom are female, 30 per cent report having experienced a mental health issue, mainly anxiety or depression.
On the day he spoke to Qweekend, Najman says: “In the last week, 23 per cent have taken a prescribed medication. That included different medications like benzos Valium and Temazepam. Extraordinarily, over 50 per cent report they’ve self-medicated in the last week.” His figures include complementary medicines, as well as over-the-counter and illegally sourced drugs. “It’s like almost everyone is doing it.”
Says Rowan: “I absolutely do see benzo dependence as an issue in Queensland. There is an abuse potential, and that’s why Alprazolam [was] upscheduled to a Schedule 8 [S8] drug.” This will mean that physicians need Department of Health authorisation before prescribing the medicine.
Like Twaites, Rowan opposes what he deems Australians’ predilection to ‘fix things with a pill’. “Sometimes it’s easy to look for a quick solution. I call it part of the McDonalds-isation of society,” he says. “For things like sleep issues and anxiety, benzodiazepines do have place in medical management. But only in the short term. First you often need to try psychological and non-medical strategies. The issue could be stress at work or constant connectivity to technological devices. If people begin taking tablets for things like that [stress and insomnia], it can mask the real issue.”
Yet in some cases, especially among illegal users, band-aid solutions are precisely what’s sought. Marketing officer and Australian resident Annika*, 26, first bought Valium in her home city of Kilkenny, Ireland. She’s now switched to other benzos, including Xanax and the sleeping pill Zolpidem. The shift partially occurred due to the difficulty in sourcing Valium in Australia, especially in comparison to the UK or South East Asia, where three years ago she bought tablets as little as five cents each.
“I started taking Valium about the time my dad got sick with cancer. I had a contact in Ireland who stole them direct from the factory. I just wanted to blot out my life. It was a struggle and I didn’t want to deal with it. In the beginning, I’d get up, go to work, come home, have a bottle of wine and a Valium and that was it. I would wake in the middle of the night, and reach over and have one, too.”
Just as other users report, however, Annika had trouble in limiting her dose. “Things got to the point where I was having about six to seven Valiums a night. I felt fine, but my friends said I’d slur my words and look out of it. I remember buying up to 100 over the counter in Laos and Cambodia. I got into the same routine, all over Asia. My friends were on at me, but there was no talking to me. Now I can’t remember chunks of our trip.”
By the end of her holiday, Annika’s bags carried just five remaining pills that she discarded before passing through Brisbane Airport. In the two years since her holiday, she’s developed a better sense of the local drug scene. Annika reports that young people in Australia use Xanax the way that the Irish use Valium: “to help take the edge off a big night, to calm down and to fall asleep”.
Xanax is the Valium story all over again, “but much worse because of its short half-life,” argues an anonymous University of NSW medical historian interviewed for this story. She explains that Xanax is just as addictive as Valium, yet more dangerous because the body processes the drug faster, hastening the need for subsequent doses.
“Xanax is almost too good a drug for anxiety,” says Don Woollard, 55, a former library technician with social anxiety. Don started taking Serepax in his twenties. He later switched to Xanax to cope with the stress of study.
“Xanax kicks in quickly. It takes about 20 minutes, and will last for roughly four hours. The problem lies with tolerance and dependence. A tolerance develops quite quickly, or at least it did with me. Instead of one tablet you need two to get the same effect.”
After nine years on Xanax, Don is now anxiety drug-free. Though he says his memory and cognition are shot. “I know people who still use benzos. Some maintain that they can control the dosage. If that’s the case, I can see how benzos can be effective. But I have no experience with that. I could never control the dose. They make you feel so good that you just want to feel that way all the time. And you’ll do pretty much anything to get more.”
Christian Rowan sees the Valium and Xanax stories as having similar plots, yet different cast members. “I think of the Valium story as middle age women managing distress – ‘My doctor gave me Valium to put me out of my misery’. While Alprazolam users are younger and seeking more intoxication, more 'out of it-ness'.”
Perhaps on account older user demographics, as well as heightened GP awareness of addiction pitfalls, national Valium use is slowly declining. Queensland’s usage figures are static. But on a state and federal level, Alprazolam use has spiked. And that’s despite difficulties users face in finding doctors willing to prescribe the drug – a task that will be made harder still on account of Xanax’s S8 reclassification.
“It’s embarrassing asking doctors for it,” says Annika, who sought a Xanax script from a surgery in Sydney’s Bondi Junction just prior to the drug’s upscheduling. ‘No Xanax prescribed here,’ read a sign sticky-taped to the window.
Late last year Xanax’s manufacturer Pfizer announced it would stop supplying the drug in Australia. The company predicted the S8 move would affect its bottom line. However, with two-thirds of Alprazolam currently taken in generic form, the decision is unlikely to affect supply.
Stephanie Twaites suggests the rules surrounding benzo prescribing be restricted and extended further. Before receiving prescriptions, patients could be screened, she says. Similarly, a permit system could be applied to doctors prescribing benzos of all shades.
“Maybe doctors don’t have the time or the skills to screen people about what’s really going on. But benzo use needs to be talked about more. It feels like there’s still a lot of silence around these issues.”
A 2011 review from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College in England entitled ‘Benzodiazepines revisited – will we ever learn?’ reiterates Twaites’ sentiments insofar as they apply to the United Kingdom. It argues, “The practical problems with benzodiazepines have persisted for 50 years, but have been ignored by many practitioners and almost all official bodies.”
Australian GP attitudes to benzo prescribing remain spilt – partially due to the spectrum of patient reactions to the drug. While a proportion tolerate benzos well, others incur addictions so severe that they become other people entirely, says addiction medicine specialist and GP, Sydney-based Dr Andrew Byrne. “They lurch between episodes of varying intoxication and withdrawal which often involve aberrant behaviour, legal infractions and occasionally injuries or death.”
As a result, Byrne supports calls for high-potency benzos to be banned nationwide. He instead advocates prescribing low-dose, long-acting benzo drugs. This is provided GPs follow safeguards such as supervising doses, treating underlying issues and taking urine tests to ensure compliance with an agreed-upon course of treatment.
Presently, GPs receive insufficient guidance on how to stabilise addicted patients. Byrne argues that professional bodies like the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners need to urgently provide physicians with more detailed direction on ‘best practice’ benzo prescribing.
Dependency rates could be further eased by encouraging doctors to monitor and regularly review patients, adds Dr Christian Rowan.
Among addicted benzo users, ‘doctor shopping’ for prescriptions is another problematic, yet static issue. Rowan says that in Queensland, doctor shopping rates have neither increased nor decreased, though “some prescribers are well-known for supplying benzodiazepines as requested.”
Qweekend spoke to a Canberra-based GP who says responsibility for ongoing benzo dependence rests too with the prescribing culture at medical ‘super-centres’. Doctors who operate in smaller community practices develop long-term relationships with patients. He believes this places them in a better position to more easily recognise someone hunting a quick script, and thereby refuse one if necessary. “GPs working in super-centres see high volumes of patients for short consultations. People are in and out. Here, doctors are sometimes less diligent in spotting addictions and in saying ‘no’ to issuing scripts.”
Speaking about nursing home benzo dependence, Juanita Westbury says issues often relate to resources, or lack thereof. “Part of the problem is that everyone blames everyone else as to why residents are on it. If you ask the doctors, they say the nurses ask for it. Nursing staff say that patients ask for it. It’s sometimes easier for staff to deliver a pill than it is for them to sit down with residents. This is a problem that would ease with better resources,” she says.
In late March, Alzheimer’s Australia found that 80 per cent of dementia patients in nursing homes take psychotropic drugs, though only one five patients benefit from doing so. A federal senate committee inquiry held the same month found an “over-reliance on medication to manage the behaviour of residents”.
Yet Westbury contends that despite all the attention, little is being done to stem use of the drug collective, benzos included.“Often [nursing home] staff believe that benzos will help with a patient’s quality of life. But if you’re asleep half the day, or you fall while you’re under the effect of a benzo, then it doesn’t patients’ improve quality of life at all.”
When I think about Mary’s final years, Westbury’s words ring true. Benzo addiction dulled my grandmother. It pulled the fireworks from her sky.
Marianne agrees. She winces when recalling that before passing away three years ago, Mary would plead for her drugs. “The way mum would ask for her Valium was heart-breaking.”
She says: “Like many women of her generation, mum just didn’t have the emotional capacity to stand back and ask what was going on, to talk about what was beyond the addiction and to confront it. There was a lot of guilt and shame. Things were kept hidden.”
After Mary died I spoke to my dad about her mood swings. I learnt that my grandmother wasn’t drunk on those nights we shared dinner. In truth, she was also drugged. And in so being, she wasn’t here with us, or with me. Mary was just Mary. Not nana, the woman whose laughter I loved more than summer holidays, or whose toothy smile fired my heart’s electrical grid.
In January, on roughly the day she would’ve turned 92, my dad waded through some of Mary’s belongings. He rang to tell me what he’d found. “There are packets and packets of nana’s Diazepam here. They’ve expired of course.” There were loose notes, too. But one stood out from the rest. I asked him what she’d written. It was list of things to remember – a page crowned by capital letters that weaved the word ‘Valium’.
*Name changed to protect identity
THE BENZO TIMELINE
Hoffmann-La Roche chemist Leo Sternbach identifies the first benzodiazepine, later released as the anxiety drug ‘Librium’
Librium launches in Australia with the slogan, ‘No matter what the diagnosis – Librium!’
Valium hits Australian shores, with widespread marketing on radio, billboards and in women’s magazines
Mid- to late-1970s
Benzodiazepines top global ‘most frequently prescribed’ lists
Emerging evidence of drug abuse and dependence overshadows clinicians’ earlier enthusiasm for benzos
Xanax launches in Australia, offering fast symptom relief for panic attacks and anxiety
Valium’s turns 40. To mark the occasion, Roche unfurls a banner reading, ‘Thanks for the relaxation and happiness you’ve given us over the years’
The benzos Diazepam (Valium), Temazepam and Alprazolam (Xanax) are officially implicated in the death of Australian actor Heath Ledger
The Royal Australasian College of Practitioners reports sales of Alprazolam rose by 28 per cent on the previous year
Valium is detected in the bodies of 72 per cent all Scottish drug-related deaths
Pfizer announces it will no longer distribute Xanax in Australia. Seven million benzo scripts are written nationwide
The TGA upgrades Xanax from a Schedule 4 to a Schedule 8 ‘drug of dependence’. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme removes Xanax from its registry. All other benzo drugs, including Valium, maintain ‘prescription only’ classification.
International model, top-selling crime writer and presenter Tara Moss doesn’t do things by the book. As at home with Dior as she is with the dead, she is a woman who is not afraid to tackle all aspects of life.
Vive Magazine, 2008
“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil, assaulted by bears. C is for Clara, who wasted away, D is for...”
With a pause between each letter, Tara Moss recites The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. Excitedly explaining how she learned the alphabet as a child, she tucks her dark-painted toenails beneath her long, bare legs and settles deep into the sofa. “My taste for the delightfully morbid started early,” she says with a smirk. “I was a strange kid.”
Wedding glamour with geek, and geek with goth, Moss is a woman who defies classification. First, there is her outfit. Despite the driving rain outside, her skimpy snakeskin-print dress – combining at least six shades of purple with Elvira-inspired lace-capped sleeves – is fit for summer in the tropics. Then there is her towering height. Not to mention the hair as big as a house. Delectable drag queen meets Amazon woman, and all before the trap door of dark tales has even begun to creak open. “I’m incredibly verbose,” she warns. “I have no idea how you’re going to turn my ramblings into anything readable.”
Talk she undoubtedly can, but the truth is, Moss’s musings make for gripping conversation. She speaks slowly and dramatically, in a throaty Canadian accent. As Richard Mayer, producer for the crime documentary series Tara Moss Investigates observes, “With Tara, there is no warm-up time. She’s engaging right from the get-go.”
Studying for a private investigator’s license, frequenting morgues and tending to pet snakes are all in a day’s work for the 33-year-old. ACNielsen rates her Australia’s top-selling crime novelist. And who can forget her former career as an international model? Certainly not the press.
“In every new territory I become published, I go through it all again. The same experience, the same headlines: ‘Beauty and the brain?’, ‘Bombshell with brain?’ All these people wondering how this person could have possibly written this book.” Plumber-turned-author would never rate a consistent mention, she quips, yet model-turned-author does.
But her sense of humour remains. In 2002, journalist Emma Tom proposed a polygraph test to prove authorship of her books. “Bring it on,” said Moss. In terms of silencing her critics, the results were successful; for a short time, anyway. “As a woman, it’s disappointing because it happens to other women all the time. Let’s wake up and face facts here, people. There is no association between physical appearance and intellect whatsoever. I write. That’s what I do. It’s no big deal.”
Ah, but it is. Having written full-time for the past eight years, producing four novels – Fetish, Split, Covet and Hit – it’s a pursuit she has relished since the age of 10. Growing up in small-town British Columbia, stories of murder and mayhem dripped from her pen. “A demonic car killed off my classmates one by one,” she says, remembering her first novella.
“In today’s post-Columbine environment, you’d probably have little Tara Moss dragged off and put into a straitjacket.” But kids wanted to be written in and killed off, she insists. “They asked for their own chapter where they reached their grisly demise. I would hand these out after school each day.”
Add to the picture a childhood lust for all things boyish, and the modern-day adventurer in Moss takes shape. “I hated all expectations of what a female was meant to be excited by. I hated sewing, cooking, finding the man and getting married. Guys got to have more fun. They’re flying planes, running businesses and doing things I thought were cool.”
When she won a Barbie for the ‘girl’s prize’ for a running race, “I cried. I didn’t want it, but those were the rules. My mother helped me transform it into Vampira. We dyed her hair and clothes black and gave her a Frankenstein stitch on the side of the head. Mom understood my morbid sensibilities.”
As her teenage years unfolded, it was her mother who suggested modelling. The idea was to “bring her out of her shell”, and the 15-year-old soon found herself plunged into the international fashion scene.
At the time, the phrase ‘next big thing’ flew from all corners, but Moss now laughs this off. “I did well, but I wasn’t the next big thing. There were a number of times I was discovered, then undiscovered, then discovered again.” In the end, posing and preening lost its appeal. “There is no power in modelling. There are no personal choices, no sense of expression and no progress. I turned to writing out of complete and utter boredom with my life.”
Her life, however, was about to change regardless. On a trip to Australia in 1996, she emerged from her apartment one day and spotted a man wearing a shoulder holster, a fake gun and a detective’s badge. “That was it. That was two years of my life right there – the shoulder holster. Everybody’s got their thing.” As it turned out, actor Peter Mochrie was shooting on location. Quaint but true: the detective scored a damsel. It’s a sweet story, but in the long run, the romance was not to be. Eventually, it was film producer Mark Pennell who secured her affections. The couple wed in 2004 and Moss relocated from Sydney to Melbourne.
Adjusting a fold of her dress, Moss says, “I’m a big believer in lists. I like writing about things I would like, or want to do with my life.” But she says Pennell had qualities for which no list could cater. “I just recognised him, and he recognised me. He fell off the page.”
As for future lists, children spring to mind – motherhood is a role she hopes to fulfil with “as much cool as my mother did”. Sadly, Moss’s mother passed away in 1990, a loss made more bearable through the process of writing. “It helped me to put on paper some of the things I was feeling at the time,” she says.
When the lead character in her books, Mak Vanderwall, has flashbacks of visiting her mother in hospital “all puffed up and bald from chemo”. “That stuff is all real," she says. "I made a choice to go pretty personal and it got me where I am today.”
Death, like all aspects of life, is something Moss tackles upfront. “You can face death head on and live a bigger and happier life than people who don’t. Otherwise you can let it get on top of you and become sad, depressed and overly focused on the negative,” she says. “The world really is yin and yang. For every horrible act there is a beautiful act, you just need to find it.”
Writing, and the research behind it, brings Moss into contact with the darker aspects of life. “Whether it’s shooting guns, going to the FBI Academy or getting a brain scan as part of university training, experiences are what I live for,” she says.
A self-professed “chronic over-researcher”, she claims to use a mere five per cent of her findings, but nonetheless, she feels research is important for giving her books a sense of reality. “I was at the morgue the other day and I realised it was the first time I had seen a body with its eyes open. Previously, I didn’t get what it was like to look into eyes that didn’t look back. That’s why research is so important – had I done this earlier I could have made a sentence in Hit that little bit better.”
For Moss, maintaining a career is akin to needing oxygen. “It’s something that keeps you living and breathing,” she says. “It may sound self-indulgent, but it comes down to personal development and making your mark.”
With this in mind, the seemingly contradictory fragments of Moss – a woman as comfortable with Dior as she is with the dead – fall into place like clues from a crime novel. “They’re all just part of me. I find routine incredibly depressing. There’s so much out there, you can’t take it all in over one lifetime. Why wouldn’t you try to fit as much in as you can?” she says. “Never live the same day twice.”
As she catches her breath, a chocolate cookie she ordered appears on cue. Avoiding its ugliness is futile: the brown crust is cracked and flat, and bears four Smarties in a clumsy diamond pattern. Studying the arrangement, she furrows her brow. With dark-painted fingernails that match her toes, Moss snaps off a chunk in disgusted delight. “For a second I thought it was a happy face, but I think it’s actually an alien. That’s OK – it’s inspired,” she says.
Plot Your Organic Summer
If you are what you eat, then organic gardener Shelley Pryor is the picture of glowing good health. She shows Jennifer Pinkerton around the abundant garden she tends at Queensland health retreat Gwinganna and shares tips for creating your own organic Eden.
A cloud of yellow butterflies flits past my face as the scent of lemon balm breezes by my nose. If this isn’t heaven, it’s not far from it.
“It’s amazing in this garden. You feel instantly relaxed,” says Shelley Pryor, picking a Mexican sour gherkin from a nearby plant. She eats the tiny fruit whole and, grinning from beneath her broad-brimmed hat, says, “I hate being indoors.”
Pryor is the resident organic gardener at Gwinganna Lifestyle Retreat in the Tallebudgera Valley in Queensland. After starting here as a sous-chef in 2006, she swapped the kitchen for the garden three years ago—and has never been happier.
The property has four gardens, which supply about 90% of all the seasonal herbs and greens, as well as many of the vegetables, used in the retreat’s kitchen. Pryor also looks after a flock of silkie-bantam chickens, which includes roosters Prince Harry and Prince William. It’s unlike any other job Pryor has had before; each day in the garden excites and delights her.
“I often lose myself in thought for five minutes just watching the insects. It’s beautiful out here— it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or sunny. I love observing whatever’s going on in the garden.”
At 43, Pryor could easily pass for a woman a decade younger. She’s a youthful testament to being raised organic. And I’m sure her definition of a ‘filler’ would have something to do with soil—not injectables.
She and her three siblings grew up in East Gippsland, Victoria, climbing fruit trees and fishing for yabbies. If an adventure ever ended in tears, they’d treat their scrapes and bruises with medicinal herbs. “We hardly ever went to the doctor,” says Pryor. “Our first- aid kit was right outside the back door. We’d get some yarrow from the garden if we needed to stop bleeding or some aloe vera to press against sunburnt skin.”
They enjoyed eating and to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. In Pryor’s case, this advice came to define her lifestyle, her career and her approach to nourishment and wellbeing. She loathes having to buy fruit or vegetables: “I’d rather just go without,” she says.
Ill health is rare for Pryor, but if a lurgy does strike, garden scissors still trump pharmacy shelves. “The other weekend, I walked into a door and banged my cheekbone,” she recounts. “I packed some comfrey onto one half of the site, and the next day, there wasn’t even a mark—the plant absorbed the inflammation and even stopped the bruising.” The other side of her cheek? “Black as black!”
Continuing our walk past bushes of Thai basil and rose-scented geranium, Pryor can’t help but spill the beans on each plant’s healing powers or flavour.
Pryor’s family property was self-sustaining, with all produce grown and prepared on site. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mum’s food tasted incredible. She put herbs in everything, and her pantry was so colourful—it was filled with bottled fruit of every kind.” Pryor’s mum, Lynne, gave garden chemicals a wide berth. She taught her kids to grow food
I hate to admit it, but I’ve never heard of many of the plants we brush past here: Buddha’s hand? Herb Robert? Gotu kola? But that doesn’t stop my mind sparking with ideas on how I could convert the sad patch of dirt attached to my Sydney townhouse into a garden cornucopia thriving with Vietnamese mint, mini papaya trees and visiting bees. I realise that supermarket shopping has me in a three-herb prepackaged vice, and I want out.
“Getting started with organic gardening begins with putting your soil in rehab,” Pryor says. “It’s great to start small. If you like Mediterranean food, plant rosemary, thyme and basil. Then learn how to cook with them. As your confidence builds, your passion will, too.”
PREVENTION, September 2011
As a vintage clothes-loving stylist leads her around Dublin, Jennifer Pinkerton eschews the usual pubs and cathedrals and discovers a city high on whimsy.
International Traveller, Issue 11
He bounds from the door of a derelict Dublin terrace. “Carpe diem,” cries Kevin Cunningham, “Let’s go and see the nuns!” With a voice like a flute and a pocket full of keys, our host leaps across Henrietta Street, a corridor of aged Georgian houses in the northern part of the city.
I feel like I’m on a film set. In a sense, indeed I am. Kevin manages a neighbouring heritage home, let out to film and photographic crews.
There’s a shoot taking place today and that’s why we’re here. This is our first stop on a Le Cool Experience walking tour, an unorthodox concept from online local magazine Le Cool Dublin: an evolving tour taking in Dublin’s latest trends – street art, fashion, culture – where the stops, routes and suite of hosts (or ‘tour contributors’) are different each time.
Though our intention was to see Kevin’s film set house – complete with dripping candles, cluttered mantle pieces and aged paintings of Jesus – he is already badly sidetracked and eager to show us other grand neighbouring properties, many of which are crumbling and unoccupied.
Holding on to his hat, Kevin hops from stair to stair like a West Side Story extra. “I think I can get into this one,” he says, sidling up to a door and twisting a key with vigor. No dice. He shrugs. “Looks like they’ve changed the locks.”
“What about the nuns?” a walker asks.
“Ah yes! Onwards!” And we push on through another door still.
It’s an unscripted part of the tour, and a delightful one at that. No one quite understands Kevin’s magical set of keys, or how he got hold of them in the first place, but to behold his enthusiasm for the street and its history feels surreal, yet enchanting. And a little bit elicit.
Our petite red-headed guide Irene O’Brien – Le Cool stylist and writer – is thrilled at Kevin’s energy, but gently frustrated, too. “Many of our contributors love to talk. My biggest challenge is keeping to a time schedule so we fit everything in,” she says from behind over-sized ’70s shades.
Runaway schedules aside, the tour’s surprise elements keep walkers returning for more. These include Dubliners as well as travellers from further afield. “People enjoy the ‘of-the-moment’ nature of the tour,” says Irene. “As well as the fact that the walk changes every time we do one.”
It’s a new breed of tour that grants guests an audience with extraordinary people, collectives and spaces – typically those with an artistic or community-based bent.
Le Cool Dublin’s publisher Michael McDermott explains the idea’s genesis. “We decided that we [the editorial team] spend a lot of our days sitting behind laptops and not getting out to see things as much as it might appear that we do. So we got thinking, ‘How about we put together an eclectic kind of walking tour? One that isn’t traditional in any regard, that isn’t historical, and one that is continually evolving?’” he says.
“It’s kind of exciting because we’re bringing people into doors and spaces that they wouldn’t normally be aware of. And finding out, you know, where the party’s at.”
For now, according to Kevin, the party’s at a nunnery located one residence south of the door that wouldn’t open. But the receptionist is hardly on the ready with champagne. She blushes shyly while 10 travellers fill her foyer, each sending camera flashes bouncing off the walls. “Mind if we take a quick look?” asks Kevin, addressing her by name. She nods. And on Kevin cartwheels, sharing architectural details, gossipy tidbits and more.
Soon, though, there’s a scene change. And quite a shift in mood. We walk from Henrietta Street towards a fence bombed with yarn. This is Granby Park, a temporary pop-up community space created by volunteers.
“Four weeks ago, this was rubble and needles,” explains the initiative’s co-creator, Sam Bishop. Along with other altruistic architects and artists, Sam produced the park with crowd-funded finance. “It’s about showing people you can make something out of nothing,” he says.
Granby’s is open for just one month, so it’s a moment-in-time experience for our particular group. It boasts a café, play area and an outdoor cinema, however my favourite feature is the amphitheatre. Three hundred repurposed pallets were used to craft its walls, an elegant wooden loop in which ‘industrial’ meets ‘hip’.
I’m keen to stroll these paths, where posies spring from old boots, but Irene ushers us on. We push on through the city while clouds scatter rain. A date with death awaits.
James Joyce House of the Dead is yet another project born from passion. Located at Usher’s Island, this creaky old manor is a venue for wakes, events and ‘living dinners’ – monthly recreations of the dinner party featured in Joyce’s short story The Dead.
Its owner, charismatic former human rights lawyer Brendan Quilty, greets us at the steps. “Come in for tea and more!” he sings, winking with the word ‘more’.
In a painted pink room Quilty serves coconut cake on fancy china, then regales us with tales from the house. “We once held a wake for Ned Kelly,” he says. “It was a random event. But we bought a coffin for the occasion,” which we see later downstairs.
James Joyce’s aunts, Gabriel and Greta, lived here in the late 19th century. Visiting as a student in 1979, having not read a word by the author, Quilty experienced an epiphany. “I knew I’d own this place one day,” he says.
Local playwright Peter Sheridan writes of its atmosphere: “As you walk up the stairs you cannot help but feel the presence of ghosts; Gabriel and Greta, all the guests and James Joyce, too. Then you notice that the stairway slopes to the left and it is almost as if you are falling back into the past, falling into the arms of all the living and all the dead.”
Exploring this restored rustic house, its creaky steps and electrically-charged quirks, again we’re compelled to stay longer. It’s clear our affable host feels the same. But with Irene sneaking regular peaks at her watch, time is running thin.
“If you’d like to come back for dinner, I can have it arranged at short notice,” Quilty calls after us as we spill back onto the street.
Padding along the homestretch beside the River Liffey, Irene tilts her shades, pats her frock and sighs. She’s spent. And understandably so; this tour’s seen energies soar higher than a cathedral spire.
“A buzz sets in when people are open to anything and they come along knowing very little about what to expect,” she says. “It’s something quite alive, and many an idea and friendship has been sparked during our rambles. Often, walkers aren’t quite ready for the conversation to end.”
In true urban style, Irene bids us farewell and disappears down a laneway. Before she’s out of sight, her red locks catch the sun. A final flash of colour on a drizzling Dublin day.