Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mzanzi Down Under

In February this year I jetted off to Perth, Australia, and for an entire month I bicycled, boated, flew, took the train, hired a car or hitchhiked all the way round the island continent. I arrived back in Perth 28 days later, physically and financially a shadow of my former self. Going home, platsak, I realized this devilishly hot and humid country doesn’t put Mzanzi in the shade; not by a long shot.

Australia has their iconic yellow and black kangaroo sign right? Well we have our jumping kudu framed by a red and blue triangle. Our flying kudu is way cooler. They have Bell’s Beach, we’ve got J-Bay. Earth’s largest living organism, the Great Barrier Reef, isn’t such a big deal. For starters it’s miles offshore and it’s in a remote part of the country. Once you’re there it’s like any other reef, just bigger. But let’s dig a little deeper, shall we.

Good Railways, Silly Road Signs and Police on Steroids

Australia’s public transport is top notch. All of their big cities have the equivalent of a Gautrain except for Darwin, which was flattened in 1974 by a category 4 cyclone. Although theirs are beautifully integrated and modern cities, Australia is unfortunately an extremely expensive country, so much so that Australian’s fly outside Australia when they go on holiday, to cheaper places like Bali and Phuket.

For a gigantic country like Oz, the 110km/h strictly enforced speed limit is excruciating. And another kind of nanny-state hell exists for those road users stuck for hours on the road: plenty of ridiculous road signs and a hundred extra rules to abide by. There are warnings for everything; from crests to dips in the road, from signs cautioning about soft sand on the beach to unexpected waves.

You can be fined at the airport for bringing foreign dirt into Australia [check the soles of your shoes], or, gasp, your favorite cereal. The thinking goes that a stray oat kernel might sprout in a sand dune and infiltrate the Outback.

8 Times

You might think a country 8 times the size of South Africa [and the world’s 6th largest country] would have 8 times more to offer, but unless you’re a sand salesman, you’d be wrong. Australia’s size means it’s moer far to get around. Nullaboor in Western Australia is as flat as a pancake. The track that crosses the Nullaboor is the world’s longest straight section of railway line in the world. Ja, it’s pretty boring.

Perth, 3300km from Sydney, is one of the world’s most isolated cities. Imagine having to travel from Cape Town to Pretoria just to get halfway to Johannesburg.
But the number one issue facing this mammoth country, believe it or not, is climate change.


Crime can seem like the worst problem in the world, but it’s fiddlesticks compared to Australia’s climate conundrum. It’s ironic that being the world’s number one coal exporter, Australia has the highest per capita level of emissions in the developed world, and they’re reaping a whirlwind of climate problems In February they have to endure constant, unbearable heat across the length and breadth of the country.

When I visited Melbourne’s average temperatures were the highest since records began. Many other centres set new all-time records too. It was hot, and rainfall was either absent or miserly figures like 0.2mm for the entire month. In Perth we measured the heat ourselves; at 7pm it was still 37 degrees Celsius. This heat turns Australia’s forests into a tinderbox, and when they burn the damage is catastrophic.

On a trip to the famous Pinnacles Desert two hours north of Perth the mercury shot up to 44C in Cervantes. Imagine standing with your ankles in the sea, and the rest of your body feeling like it is stuck in a gym sauna; the air so hot it pinches the soft linings of your nose. The Pinnacles is basically a graveyard of rocks in a sandpit the size of 5 rugby fields.


I found the humidity a problem everywhere in coastal Australia, from Perth, to Sydney, with Darwin being the worst. Without an air conditioner in Australia you’re toast! At night you lie naked except for a scrap of underwear in your tent; you’re a pathetic, heaving foetus, trying to survive overnight in the sauna conditions. You’re covered in a permanent film of sweat, bugspray and sunblock. You wonder, maybe it’s your own body heat and breath causing the infernal heat in your tent – but when you open the tent flap at 4am it’s just as warm outside. And how do Australians suggest we cope with the infernal heat of the day? “Take hot showers,” they say.

Further up the coast of Western Australia is the attractive town of Broome, one of the fastest growing centres in Oz. It has camel rides on the beach, a section that boasts the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world [except it’s underwater] and special gutterless roofs because when it rains it pours so much the water literally rips the gutters off the eaves.


Broome seems like a lekker place. Cable Beach has that classic sickle shape. But you realize something is wrong when it’s the height of summer, it’s mid to high thirties and uncomfortably humid, and despite the national holidays, not a soul is swimming in the sea.

It turns out that this is one of a bunch of nasty consequences of climate change haunting virtually the entire coastline: floating clouds of poisonous jellyfish and stingers. I scoffed at the warnings at first, until I was stung by something so small I couldn’t see it. It left a yellow bruise on my chest for weeks.

This was one of the most frustrating aspects of visiting Australia. The height of summer, and miles and miles of gorgeous coastline but it’s too dangerous to swim in the sea. When I visited the Great Barrier Reef we all had to pay for stinger suits, which effectively cover 90% of your body. But you can still get stung on exposed parts like hands, feet and cheeks. What’s the fun in swimming in summer dressed like a glove?

Wallabies VS Springboks

When the nickname for Australia’s national animal is also the longer version of a term we use to say someone ain’t too bright, you’ve got to hand the trophy to the Boks. In contrast to a Wally, a Bok is up for anything. Calling someone a Bok is a compliment. Kangaroos, in Africa, against our predators, wouldn’t last more than a few blinks after sunset. And that should put paid to the question surrounding whether the Wallabies are better than the SpringboksBut here’s the clincher. The fact that you can buy boerewors and biltong in Australia, and it's called boerewors and biltong, says a lot about what a lot we got. In every area we give Oz a real run for its money.

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