Getting To Know Australia, Without A Map

12th May 2014

Retired Boots at Paraburdoo

Photo of Retired Boots at Paraburdoo by Kelli Mutchler

Climbing Mt. Parsons

Photo of Climbing Mt. Parsons by Kelli Mutchler

Sculpture by the sea- Cottesloe Beach

Photo of Sculpture by the sea- Cottesloe Beach by Kelli Mutchler

Fowlers bay at night

Photo of Fowlers bay at night by Kelli Mutchler


Photo of Bicheno by Kelli Mutchler

Freycinet National Park

Photo of Freycinet National Park by Kelli Mutchler

Kangaroo Tail Soup at Nundroo RoadHouse

Photo of Kangaroo Tail Soup at Nundroo RoadHouse by Kelli Mutchler


Photo of Nundroo by Kelli Mutchler

From its dusty sienna soils to its leathery locals, Australia earns the poetic moniker “A Sunburnt Country.”  Sand, skin tones, fresh produce and paint works are all shaded from pale red to the brightest yellows and oranges; hues that reflect not just the country’s southern location, but its indomitable spirit and enthusiasm for life outdoors.

Another Australian experience is its unusual cuisine. There are certain foods you’re fortuitous enough to try just once. And the exploding brain of an obese native bug tops the list.

But the rest of Australia’s indigenous and exotic foods, so often misrepresented by Vegemite and “shrimp on the barbie”, are far easier to try. And – unlike my introduction to the Witchetty – pleasantly unexpected.

I didn’t always consider Aussie meals, tucker, to be an ethnic cuisine; at first, I didn’t consider it much of anything. Greasy chips, English-style roasts on a Sunday, mince beef pies and sausages drowned in tomato sauce.

Yet the danger in categorizing a country’s national dishes so simply is that we, the Visitor, miss out on its more subtle and unique local palates. Down Under, you have to dig a bit to discover the tastes that shape this island.

Flavors of summer and sea, from fresh Pacific oysters to Barramundi fish and crisp, bright native limes. Quandong fruits, with their heavy round pits and the tart flesh that melts into jams and chutneys. If you’re caught in a Melbourne rain storm, nothing comforts better than a crumbly chocolate Tim Tam dipped into a cup of black tea. After roasting through a Western Australian afternoon, caramel ice cream infused with Murray River salt lowers your body temperature as quickly as air conditioning.

Originally published on Too Mutch For Words.

Lost means little when you’re halfway up a rock face, wedged furtively between towers of stone. Every surface looks the same from this angle; no map promises us stable footing. While other peaks in the Hazard Range of Freycinet National Park can be reached on a maintained trail, this one has not been tamed. The only proof of previous human touches are these granite guides. To trust them is to trust everyone who has climbed ahead and kept them in place.Isn’t there something all-inclusive about these wee piles? Throughout the ages, humans have written sagas with nothing more than a few stones, carefully placed one on top of the other: to indicate hunting ground in Greenland, to commemorate grave sites in Portugal, to garner good luck in South Korea. And almost everywhere, they are used to mark trails and point a traveler in the right direction. So I wedged my heel into a narrow crevice, sighed and stretched upward. We can doubt, or we can learn from the signs left by others. After all, it is always better to climb forward than to slide back down.
Photo of Mount Parsons, Mount Sheila, Western Australia, Australia by Kelli Mutchler
“Penguin!” Hadyn shouted at every black and white bird on the horizon. Knowingly, he mistakes large gulls for the little local inhabitants that nest along Bicheno’s rocky shoreline. Someone has unscientifically (and rather boringly) named them Little Penguins; they are the tourist attraction for this, also little, East Coast town. Fuzzy black wings wave at you from souvenir magnets, or drive old Volkswagen vans on cartoon postcards. In the midst of the region’s ‘Busy Season,’ we saw more of these battered, vintage vehicles – and the typecast wild-haired, wild-pant-ed people who drove them – than we do penguins. But with two main streets, one post office and one general store, it only takes two VWs to make the place feel crowded.
Photo of Bicheno, Tasmania, Australia by Kelli Mutchler
Places have a way of changing history. 200 years ago, the chalice-shaped inlet of Wineglass Bay oozed with the blood of butchered whales, turning the peaceful waters into a glass of Merlot and invoking its descriptive name. But today, as tourism draws ever-increasing numbers to Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park, this gruesome truth has been swapped with a more romantic story. Modern visitors are awed by the view from Wineglass Lookout, and assured that the pristine stretch of shoreline is merely titled after its elegant, natural shape. But today, as tourism draws ever-increasing numbers to Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park, this gruesome truth has been swapped with a more romantic story. Modern visitors are awed by the view from Wineglass Lookout, and assured that the pristine stretch of shoreline is merely titled after its elegant, natural shape. Declared a national park in 1916, Freycinet is one of the first federally-protected wildlife regions in Tasmania. Australia’s endemic creatures haunt its underbrush: wallabies, striped skinks and venomous tiger snakes, rosellas and oystercatchers and kookaburras. Dolphins and tentative Humpbacks ride the waves. Perhaps they remember Wineglass’ past better than we do?
Photo of Freycinet National Park, Coles Bay Road, Coles Bay, Tasmania, Australia by Kelli Mutchler
Great White sharks are not the only man-eating menace along this Western Australian coastline. Here, art becomes reality at the Sculpture by The Sea festival.
Photo of Cottesloe Beach, Marine Parade, Cottesloe, Western Australia, Australia by Kelli Mutchler
With over 29 million cows in the country, it is easy to see why certified Aussie Angus steak dominates the palate. Ranching is a massive and proud industry; yet, by current environmental standards, we should be eating more kangaroo. Roaming “The Centre” in uncountable numbers, ‘roos produce less methane, graze more sustainabily and cause less ground damage than their bovine neighbors. So Chef Ceaser skinned ours first, carefully removed the sinew and turned it into a sweet and sour soup. The result tasted like Australia itself: a solid broth with an infusion of ethnic spices, and a kick as strong as that from the feet of a giant Red ‘roo. Distinctive and powerful.
Photo of Nundroo RoadHouse, Nundroo, Australia by Kelli Mutchler
Salt, decomposing meat and uprooted seaweed – that distinctive odor of the ocean - flooded my nostrils as I climb out of the truck. After 3.5 weeks at Nundroo Roadhouse, my boyfriend and I finally left the few square kilometers we were calling home. It wasn't the job we were temporarily fleeing, but a small scene that has become all-too-familiar. Ceaser’s vehicle had carried us only 32 kms, from our staff room to the coast. This was the closest I had ever lived to the ocean, and there it was: the rhythmic lapping of the tide, the overwhelming scent. No beach had ever smelled so inviting as Fowlers did that night.
Photo of Fowlers Bay, South Australia, Australia by Kelli Mutchler
From our room, the passing road trains sounded like swooping aircraft, not the earth-bound rush of mighty 18-wheelers bearing their goods eastward. The highway sustained life out here. It is a straight and lonely stretch of asphalt – or bitumen, the Aussies would say – stubbornly crossing the barren Nullarbor Plain. It’s the unpredictable suicide route of too many short-sighted wombats; the stark yet exotic touring line for patient road trippers; the demarcation zone between roadhouses, these isolated outposts of civilization. 150 kms from Nundroo Hotel Motel to Nullarbor Roadhouse. In the other direction, 150 kms to Ceduna. Instead of losing my mind to extreme loneliness, I was surprised by a sense of gumption. Like pioneers, we refused to let the environment wear us away.
Photo of Nundroo, South Australia, Australia by Kelli Mutchler
You’ll notice the bugs first. Not just because Western Australia has a wider variety of crawlies than Victoria; but, because they swarm out here. You’ll notice the mullets second – for the same reason. Paraburdoo has a population of 2,000; 3 registered hair dressers; an extended family of beetles and stink bugs; and haircuts that belong in a biker gang of Billy Ray Cyruses. Para (as the locals call it) has one bar, and I worked at it. You can imagine how this fails to thrill like the 24-hour dance parties of St. Kilda. Unless you consider two pool tables and a 10:00pm close worth mentioning. Finally as we neared the end, this country was a thousand ways different than the big cities, which is why I’m ready to leave it behind for a final work stint on the East Coast.
Photo of Paraburdoo, Western Australia, Australia by Kelli Mutchler