A Travel Vignette

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From an Australian Travel Diary (1986)

The Great Australian Salute and Mother-in-Law Fish

A Bob Djurdjevic Column, December 1986

SYDNEY - Have you ever bumped into your wife, half a world away, after midnight, while changing planes at an airport, as another male passenger seem to be trying to pick her up? I did!

My flight to Sydney, Australia, with a stop-over in Honolulu, Hawaii, was delayed just long-enough for me to witness this scene at the gate next door. But for such a stroke of fate, my wife and I were planning to meet the following day at our Sydney hotel. "Best laid plans of mice and men...," I suppose.

Speaking of mice, you should have seen that guy turn into a "wall hanging" after he'd learned who I was (I think my wife told me that he was an Australian). Except there was no wall behind him -- only the airport terminal glass window -- hardly enough protection for a hopeful family buster, wouldn't you say?

When we met again in Sydney, my wife and I both noticed that our ankles were swollen. "What did you expect?" I asked her, as we both lay in our lounge chairs at our roof-top hotel pool. "We'd been couped up in that thing, sitting up for over 30 hours!" In fact, on my Continental Airlines flight, which had stopped in Fiji for refueling, we even had the cabin crew spaces sold out to passengers. As for the cabin crew, they kind of had to be suspended from the ceiling; or propped up from the floor; or from the toilets... Which is why this was the last time I'd used Continental, to the best of my recollection, anyway...

 In the afternoon of our first day in Sydney, as an "old timer" in that city, I suggested that we walk from our hotel to North Sydney (about three to four miles) and across the famous Sydney bridge overlooking the Opera House (the "coathanger"). It was a very long walk. Even the images of Paul Hogan, the "Crocodile Dundee," painting the upper frames of the bridge before he turned to film-making weren't enough to console our already swollen feet. That is why, when we arrived at North Sydney's "Noah's" hotel, a place at which I had stayed before, we were relieved to have a light-hearted conversation with the bartender.

"Where are all these flies coming from?" I asked, recounting how many times my wife and I had to swat them off our faces on the walk to North Sydney. "I was here last September, for example, and I don't remember seeing that many of them!"

The bartender grinned. "Did you see the (Perth) golf tournament on the 'tellie' this afternoon?" he asked. My wife and I looked at each other in bewilderment. "No, we didn't," I said. "What does that have to do with flies?" I asked. "Oh, it does," said the youngish-looking bartender grinning ear-to-ear. "Because if you did watch the golf tournament," he explained, "you would have noticed Greg Norman, for example, making the motions with his hands all the time as if he were swatting flies."

"Oh yeah?" I said. "So what?"

"Haven't you heard? That's 'the great Australian salute'," he said, repeating the motion as if swatting flies off of his face. He went on to explain that it all had to do with the country's sheep-raising tradition. Which meant that in the hot "summer months" (by their standards), like December, the flies are all over the place.

The Tourists...

After an arduous car drive from Canberra to Melbourne (this is probably an understatement as we spent almost 14 hours behind the wheel for a distance which seemed on the map no greater than the seven-hour L.A.-to-Phoenix drive), we finally checked in at our downtown Melbourne hotel late in the evening. Along the way, we saw the beauty of the "Australian Alps," the awesome "Snowy Mountains," which reminded us of Arizona's high-country. Countless white sheep colored the green hill-sides of New South Wales as well as Victoria. At one point, near Jindebyne, where we stopped for lunch, a pair of black swans provided a peacefull backdrop as they gracefully glided in a pond by the roadside.

By sunset, I'd even won a bet with my wife that we would see an actual live kangaroo! He (or she, I couldn't tell) was grazing peacefully not more than two hundred yards from the busy road to Melbourne. Along the way, there were also scenes of tour buses, parked by the road side, which had emptied their silver-haired visitors into local pubs. We'd overheard some of them wondering where their bus drivers would choose to stop for their next meal... In our case, we knew where ours would be -- wherever we chose to stop... As long as it were on the left side of the road!

The Penguins...

One of our daughter's teacher, an American with a Ph.D. in education who used to teach school in Australia, told us that we just "had to see" the penguins coming ashore on Phillip Island, off the coast of Melbourne. Apparently, this only happens in "summer months" (starting with December), before the "sea birds" move on into colder waters during the rest of the year.

So, after a two-hour drive from Melbourne, my wife and I found ourselves on Phillip Island, a largely agricultural community southeast of the city. We were told that the penguins don't come out until after sunset, so we still had some time to kill. In a nearby park, largely populated by the eucalyptus trees, we spent the sunset hours searching for the "koala bears," and/or the "kookaburra" birds. We were lucky... We got to see both of them in their natural habitat. One "kookaburra" bird played games with me whenever I tried to take his picture. Each time, he fluttered away just before I could click the camera. But, we had no such problems with one of the local "koala bears." He was fast asleep on his eucalyptus tree branch... He must have had a good meal already...

Even though it was December (read June in our hemisphere), right after sunset, it felt positively freezing on the beach. Antarctica unleashed the winds which reminded us all just how far South on the globe we really stood. My wife and I felt like "typical Americans," shivering in our T-shirts, while surrounded by the bundled-up Aussies, and/or by the well-coached silver-haired group tours, who stepped out of the their tour busses with blankets and all. Chalk one up for group tours!

Finally, after my wife and I had just about given up the ghost on the frosty beach, one tiny little penguin emerged from the waves amid the coast guards' search lights. He looked left. He looked right. He moved forward. Several other penguins, I couldn't quite tell of what sex they were (I could have used my Canadian friend, Tom Weissmann here), followed him within a few steps.

There was a hush in the crowd, by now crazed with anxiety as well as frozen from top to bottom. "Here they come!" pronounced the voice from the organizers' loudspeakers triumphantly and with noticeable sense of relief in his voice. It was the fourth time that night he'd told us the same story. "Poor man," I thought. "He'd been trying to keep us all warm with promises like this all night!"

But the "boss-man" penguin felt no such sympathy. He straightened up trying to decide if it were time to run back, or to go to bed. For whatever reason, he decided it was time to run back. The beach didn't seem safe enough. He turned around and waddled back into the ocean, with all the rest of the little penguins following behind him...

"Oh, no...!" you could hear the groan of the freezing crowd, which had been disappointed once again.

Eventually, the tiny penguins came out of the ocean again, one by one, braving the human corridor which had formed a path for them from the ocean to their "sandy homes." By this stage, my wife and I were also ready to hit the sack. Two and a half hours later, we did, after having spent most of our drive back just thawing out.

Meet The "Roos" And The "Mother-In-Law" Fish

The following day, we flew from the frigid Melbourne to the Australian tropics -- the balmy Brampton Island off the coast of Northern Queensland. After a fairly rough flight from Brisbane through a cyclonic weather to Mackay, we landed just in time to see the clouds move on and leave behind a beautiful sunset. At the resort we stayed at we were greeted by an emu and a flock of parakeets. The contrast between our new surroundings and the frosty experience from the night before was immediate and stark.

Before dinner, my wife and I were sipping our cocktails at an outdoor bar next to the resort's main dining room. "There goes a kangaroo," I said casually pointing to a furry creature which was hopping across the lawn not more than 50 feet (about 15 meters) behind our table. "A kangaroo?!" my wife exclaimed jumping to her feet in excitement. "Where?" "Right over there," I pointed again to the lawn. "You're pulling my leg," she replied reproachfully as she sat down disappointed that she had not seen the animal. "It must be your martini!" she added upon some reflection. For a few moments, I was also doubting myself. Then there was another kangaroo. Hop-hop-hop across the lawn he went. "My martini, ha?" I harped back at my wife whose mouth was dropping open at such an unusual sight for North Americans. Yet, the Australians around us reacted to the "roos," as they called them, about as excitedly as we would seeing a dog scamper across our lawn.

During the week we spent on Brampton Island, we also took a 50-mile hydrofoil cruise to the Great Barrier Reef -- at 2,000-miles+ the biggest living creature in the world. For a snorkeler or a scuba diver, it is also an underwater paradise. I have never seen anything as beautiful as that in all my travels.

That's where I also got acquainted with a "mother-in-law fish." Never heard of a "mother-in-law-fish?" Neither had I prior to this experience. But, that's how a native-born Australian explained to me the eight-foot creature I had observed while snorkeling off of a sandy little atoll. "What's a 'mother-in-law fish?" I asked figuring I was biting the bait. "It's a fish with a lot of bones," replied the Australian guide. So, nobody likes to eat it. This seemed like a "fishy" explanation, but I swallowed

it anyway. But, back at our Brampton Island resort, where an Australian oceanographer had no ax to grind with regard to minimizing the tourists' anxieties, he said that there was "no such thing as a 'mother-in-law fish.'" "So what was it?" then, I asked. "It was probably just a shark!" he explained. "Just a shark?" "Yeah, there are plenty of them around here, too," he said calmly pointing in the direction of the resort's beach. "There are?" I repeated almost in shock.

I kept thinking of the number of times I had capsized my windsurfing board while trying to keep my balance; or of the sailing races in which I had taken part with nothing but the life vest as protection. Then I thought how lucky it was I had not found this out on my first day of vacation.

The next day, however, in the midst of another cyclonic storm, I took part in a catamaran sailing race. I was paired with a Scottish medical doctor who was equally as inexperienced in this sort of a thing as I was. The winds were gusty, and the rain was coming down in sheets. Even though we must have been less than a few hundred yards away, we could not see the coast. Nor could the spectators see the boats, either. So, at one point, my wife got a bit panicky as she reportedly told the race officials, "but we have reservations for a flight home tomorrow..." As if, "can't you do something about the weather?" They tried to assure her that we ought to be able to make that flight. As did the Australian who told us about the "mother-in-law fish," too. But, I was hoping she wouldn't have thought of it at the time. As it turned out, my Scottish partner and I finally did make it ashore, as evident by the fact you're reading these lines.

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