Australia: Short stories from a big country

A vast dramatic landscape with an equally dramatic history, Australia is a country with a complicated yet distinct identity. From first-nation painters to riverboat postmen and outback pub landlords, we meet the people who make the nation.

By David Whitley
Published 7 Apr 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:18 BST
A view of the Hawkesbury River, Brisk Bay and Patonga Beach

View of the Hawkesbury River, Brisk Bay and Patonga Beach.

Photograph by Getty Images

01 The postman
"She loves her Anzac biscuits," says Randall Ferrington as the familiar sight of Boots the dog comes bounding down towards the Marlow Creek wharf. Sure enough, a member of the crew jumps off the boat with a biscuit in one hand and the mail sack in the other.

Life's a little different for the remote communities on the Hawkesbury River to the north of Sydney. There's no road access, which means they have to get around by boat. It also means that Australia Post has to get inventive, subcontracting the mail run to a company running pleasure cruises.

Randall's behind the wheel as the Riverboat Postman makes its extremely leisurely way around seven drop-offs, taking in gum tree-shrouded islands and chunky sandstone cliffs.

"It's still a postal run, first and foremost," says Randall. "The people of Milsons Passage have already declared themselves an independent republic. If their parcels don't arrive, they might declare war. And we'd be the first casualty."

As a huge pelican flies across the eyeline and kayakers pass under the railway bridge, he adds, "but this isn't exactly a hardship posting…"

02 The kangaroo rescuer
Brolga goes in to feed his new addition with a certain degree of trepidation. "I need to wear cricket pads to go in with him," he says of Pete, the southern hairy-nosed wombat. "He's very aggressive. He mauls you like a pitbull. That will go in time apparently — it's just part and parcel of being a boy wombat."

Chris Barns got the nickname Brolga during his days as a tour guide, and it was an incident back then that led to him becoming known as Kangaroo Dundee.

"I found an orphan kangaroo that had been alive for two to three days inside a bloated kangaroo corpse at the side of the road," he says. "And I gave up tour guiding that week."

Brolga dedicated his life to rescuing orphaned kangaroos, eventually setting up a 90-acre sanctuary on the outskirts of Alice Springs. He spent the first few years sharing a tin shack with a venomous snake that lives in the walls, and then became an accidental TV star.

The third series of Kangaroo Dundee will air on the BBC later this year, and his unexpected fame has brought some awkward trappings. "Pete the wombat's mum was hunted, and he was found in her pouch by a South Australian Aboriginal community," says Brolga. "The elders had seen me on TV, and brought Pete to me saying they wanted me to have it. I told them I didn't have a licence to keep it, so asked them to take it back while I worked out the logistics. That involved building a fortress, because wombats dig. Boy, do they dig."

As he does the rounds, pulling out a milk bottle for those who still need hand-feeding, he muses on life beyond the 1.5-mile perimeter fence. "There are far more red kangaroos out there than in here. This," he says waving at the vast outback, "is where they live. I'm just giving those that wouldn't survive their own piece of the wild."

03 The craft brewer
"About 10 years ago, there were probably only half a dozen good taps in the entire state," says Brendan Chan over one of his Walker Texas Ranger IPAs. "Most of the good stuff you had to hunt down or import."

The standard joke about Queenslanders — that they call beer 'XXXX' because they can't spell piss — is going to have to change. The Brisbane Brewing Co in the Queensland capital's West End is one of a glut of microbreweries that have mushroomed since a change in bar licensing laws in 2009.

"It's a much younger scene than Perth or Melbourne, but the sense of community distinguishes us," says Brendan. "We try to swap beers and techniques. I'm wearing a Newstead Brewing Co shirt right now, come to think of it…"

04 The four-wheel driver
"The road gets resurfaced every day," says Steve Hargraves. "Mother Nature takes care of that."

The road in question is Teewah Beach, which stretches for 31 dune-backed miles through Queensland's Great Sandy National Park. Full road rules, if not markings, apply — while police regularly come down with speed cameras and breathalysers to catch miscreant Land Cruiser-bashers.

It hasn't always been this way. "I learned to drive up here," says Steve. "My parents let me have the car to go and search for firewood when I was six."

It's still a family place. Campers line the back end of the beach, with dads teaching their kids how to fish at the water's edge, watched by sea eagles overhead.

We climb up a section of the dunes called Red Canyon due to the rusty colours in the sand, and Steve points to the different colours in the ocean. There are two distinct trenches, where fish tend to gather, and the ocean's bigger boys come to snaffle up the fish.

Sure enough, just as we turn to leave, two grey shapes emerge just beyond the outer sandbank. It's a mother humpback whale and her calf, migrating south.

"We usually see them at the lighthouse at the end of the beach, so count that as a bonus," says Steve.

At the end of the beach, we cut through to Rainbow Beach on the other side. "In the years I've been coming here, I've seen this lagoon form," says Steve. "The landscape has been similar for 600,000 years, but it is changing every day."

Here, the dunes form towering, multi-coloured cliffs. Steve goes over to break a few chunks of rock off, then starts painting rainbows in the wet sand with them, but a wave washes it away before he can finish. "Ah well," he says. "Blank canvas again…"

05 The Nyoongar man
"If you mix water with the resin of the marri tree — which is found all through the southwest — it will cure just about everything," says Greg Nannup. "It has antiseptic qualities, it stops bleeding and it's good for eczema. It tastes awful, though."

High on the hill in Perth's Kings Park, Greg is passing down the wisdom he has inherited from his ancestors. He is one of the Nyoongar — an indigenous people comprising 14 Aboriginal groups in Australia's southwest — and his family have been guiding in the bush for generations.

The presence of the plants in Kings Park helps bring his tales to life. The banksia flower would be left smouldering to 'carry fire' from place to place; the grass tree could be woven and used as an emergency water source.

Greg has a big bag of tools. One fire stick would be put inside a hole carved inside the other, then twisted to create sparks; returning boomerangs were used to scare ducks, but bigger non-returning ones were used to hit them; axe handles were sealed on with a glue made from kangaroo poo.

He also weaves in tales of Perth's history. "Kings Park is now used for a lot of weddings — but it always has been a place of weddings. Land has a purpose, and it will always find a way of being used for that purpose."

Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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