How not to be Australian – part 3

Cradle Mountain summit, Tasmania by Ashley Kalagian BluntDespite becoming delusional, I was making steady progress up Cradle Cliff. Steve, of course, was thirty metres ahead. I stared daggers at his steadily receding back. Despite being far more athletic than me, he’d been keen on Dove Lake trail because he’d somehow gotten the impression that this was a holiday, not an intervention.

Another couple were scrambling over the rocks, making their way down. They were two fit young people in brand-name workout clothes and trainers – trainers, not even proper hiking boots. They jumped from rock to rock like they’d both been bitten by the same radioactive spider.

‘Hey, did you make it up?’ I called. ‘How far is it?’

The guy shrugged. ‘Maybe 30 minutes?’

I nodded, clinging to the edge of the rock face to let them pass.

I can handle 30 minutes.

Five minutes later, I asked another lanky guy the same question.

‘It’s probably an hour, I think.’ He consulted his watch. ‘Yeah, it’s been an hour since I left the top.’

By that time, the optimistic part of my brain had been in overdrive far too long. I gave into full-blown pessimistic fear like the embrace of an old friend: not only was the top at least an hour away, but I was also, right at that moment, actively developing skin cancer.

Tassie hike
The rocks continued straight up. There was no longer any slope, just a cliff face of giant boulders. I’d come so far, and my brain was determined to reach the summit – Year of Success, symbolism, etc. My body, however, did not give a scrub’s tit about success. My body knew I shouldn’t be climbing a chaotic mess of appliance-sized rocks over a 500-metre drop. My body knew I had been out in the heat with limited water for many hours. It knew I often cut myself with dull kitchen knives and had more than once managed to trip and fall over while standing still.

Based on that preponderance of evidence, my body decided that if it couldn’t override my brain by broadcasting its increasing fear, it was going to shut this expedition down the only way it knew how: DEFCON 1 panic attack. My legs and arms trembled. I started hyperventilating. Anxiety threatened to choke me.

‘Steve,’ I called. ‘I don’t think – I don’t think I can do it.’

He turned to look down at me, hanging one-handed off a boulder with the grace of a shaved orangutan.

‘Are you sure?’

In response, I started to sob.

At that moment some of the hikers that we’d passed earlier caught up with us – a family of five, mom and dad and three boys.

The oldest boy might have been 12 and the youngest seven or eight. They were scampering up the rocks like monkeys on a jungle gym. Their parents called to them to wait without actually expecting them to do so. Both parents showed the level of exertion you’d expect from – well, from people on a great short walk. They didn’t look or smell like they’d just poured a bottle of last week’s sweat over themselves. They didn’t seem overly concerned that one of their kids might tumble from the cliff face to an abrupt death below. And what I particularly noted was neither of them was clinging to a rock ledge weeping because their whole year was over before it started.

Steve worked his way down to me. We waited while the parents ambled past us, chatting cheerily. Other hikers were coming down the rocks, and we could tell from their beatific faces that they’d made it to the summit, taken in the 360-degree view, and achieved a meaningful personal goal. More people were making their way up as well, including several other primary school kids who were clearly my physical superiors.

These were Australians – fearless, physically fit, blissfully unconcerned over their children’s daredevil antics. No matter where they were actually from, in that moment, on that mountain, they were Australian – and I, definitively, was not. I might fancy myself a bit of an outdoorsy type, I might genuinely enjoy a great short walk – but so help me, I was going to cling to the Canadian definition of ‘walk’, even if that made me an un-Australian wuss with piddling career prospects.

Sitting on the cliff ledge, I cried for a while.

Steve sat beside me, patting my hand. ‘It’s not a big deal,’ he said.

It was a big deal.

We headed back down. I accepted that I’d have a meandering, futile year just like every other year. Despite my passport, I’m not very Australian, and maybe I never will be. If I do get skin cancer from the vicious Aussie sun, I’m sure I’ll be among the over-anxious minority who don’t survive.

But in the meantime, I might be able to at least find a scrubtit.

 
Lane Cove Lit Awards 2017

This excerpt from my current manuscript-in-progress, How to Be Australian, was shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Awards and first published in the 2017 anthology.

How not to be Australian – part 2

By now the trail was a steep outcropping of white rock marked by deep ridges. Chains ran along steel poles drilled into the rock. Using the chains, we hauled ourselves hand over hand. This seemed to be the only way up for anyone other than an actual mountain goat.

Tasmania Cradle Mountain hike by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
We were sweating like Niagara Falls. The forecast was 35 degrees with unrestricted sun, but surely, it would be cooler as we headed up the mountain.

Despite the heat, I was feeling peppy. I couldn’t see the top, but it felt like we were making great progress.

‘This trail isn’t very fun,’ Steve said.

I ignored him. As I climbed, I searched the surrounding bush for Tasmania’s native scrubtits. I was keen to see one, a desire that I will admit was based 100% on their name.

We were nearing the top of the rock face. I called below to Steve to hurry up, and with one last burst of energy I heaved myself the final few steps onto what I could only assume was the summit.

There, in the distance, was what appeared to be another mountain. A completely separate mountain. This new behemoth stood by itself against an empty sky.

Our current mountain had features such as vegetation and a trail and even thoughtfully installed chains to aid in climbing. The beast ahead had none of these things. It was a barren pile of rocks with thrusting upper ridges that looked like the inspiration for Mount Doom. The Eye of Sauron would have been right at home between the horrible crags at its peak.

‘Is that Cradle Mountain?’ I said.

‘I guess so,’ Steve said.

‘I thought we were on Cradle Mountain!’

‘I guess not.’

He looked at me with eyes that seemed to say, ‘Dove Lake is but a one hour descent away. No one has to know we turned back’. Except I’d already told all of the internet that I was starting my new year hiking Cradle Mountain. My pep was waning, but I steeled myself.

Tassie - Cradle Mountain sign by Ashley Kalagian BluntWe arrived at the base of The Real Cradle Mountain. As the trail ascended, it quickly lost all the qualities normally associated with the term ‘trail’, such as being a surface suited for walking on, having edges, and guiding you to a particular destination. Instead, there was a stark metal pole every 50 metres or so, indicating roughly the direction you might want to head. This was the only sign that any human had ever been here before us. Earlier we’d heard cicadas buzzing and possible scrubtits chirping. Now there was no sign of life beyond the lichens on mountain’s brown rock. A hot breeze whistled over the barren landscape. I could have sworn it said go baaaaaaack.

We were walking on apple-sized rocks and then we were stepping over watermelon-sized rocks and then we were lost among prize-winning-pumpkin-sized rocks, piled up like they’d been dumped from a giant sack. Some seemed precariously balanced, as though one load-bearing rock could let go and all of Cradle Heap would collapse into the valley below, with our bodies crushed among the debris.

Tassie - Cradle Mountain trail by Ashley Kalagian Blunt
I was thinking that uncomfortable thought when the rocks around me became larger still. These were refrigerator-sized rocks, and all pretence of walking was gone. Clearly Tourism Tasmania couldn’t grasp the definition of great, or short, or even walk.

Steve and I started clambering skywards. Conscious of how easy it would be to slip and plummet, I placed my feet and hands with a cautiousness normally reserved for holding newborn babies. My heart raced and the whole mountain seemed to sway (cradle like, one might say).

Soon my heart was on the verge of exploding out of my chest, just like a baby alien, but instead of starting a homicidal rampage, it would plop to the ground and slither down the rock face, leaving a crimson trail of defeat.

This excerpt from my current manuscript-in-progress, How to Be Australian, was shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Awards and first published in their 2017 anthology.
Part 3

How not to be Australian

Cradle Mountain summit, Tasmania by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

It’s a credit to my seventh-grade geography teacher and the entire Canadian education system that I’d always assumed Tasmania was one of the South Pacific islands, most likely a sister of Tahiti. It certainly sounds exotic. Tasmania! It was disappointing to discover the island is actually a miniature version of Scotland named after a Dutch guy – and the Dutch weren’t all that excited about it either.

It was the Christmas holidays, and my husband and I were in Tasmania for the first time. We’d recently become Australian citizens, and how better to celebrate than by experiencing more of this vast and baffling country?

Beyond finding the one place in Australia where the summer weather wasn’t a murderous inferno, I had a much more important goal for our Tasmania trip: to hike the Cradle Mountain summit on New Year’s Day.

My past few years had been meandering and futile, and I’d recently found myself unemployed. For months my typical day involved scrolling through several hundred jobs ads that all reminded me I was not, technically speaking, qualified for anything, and trying to hold off until at least noon before having my first glass of coffee-flavoured tequila.

Years ago I’d read that Australia had the highest rate of skin cancer per capita in the world, but also the highest recovery rate. This particular article attributed the high recovery rate to the cheerful, easygoing, no-dramas national attitude. Whether this was scientifically defensible or not, it made an impression on me: if the average Aussie could manage skin cancer with a positive attitude, surely I could at least stop handling my lack of career prospects by lying facedown on the floor in a puddle of tears and snot. I was, on paper at least, Australian – it was time I started acting like it. I’d discovered the Cradle Mountain hike on Tourism Tasmania’s list of 60 Great Short Walks. At six to eight hours, it seemed pretty long for a ‘short’ walk. But doing an ambitious hike with the definitive reward of a summit struck me as exactly what I needed to kickstart the year.

Dove Lake, Tasmania travel, by Ashley Kalagian BluntOn January 1, Steve and I stood in the Cradle Mountain car park as dawn broke on a brand new year.

‘Hey,’ Steve said as we laced our hiking boots, ‘how about we do the Dove Lake trail? It looks nice.’

This was about the eighth time he’d suggested this.

‘I told you already, it’s mostly flat. How is walking in a circle around an oblong lake going to set me up for a hard-charging, success-filled year?’

‘It’d just be nice.’

‘Says the man with a career!’ I retorted, as if this made perfect sense. How could he possibly understand? When it came to redundancies, he’d always been on the giving end.

We set off, bypassing the deep blue calm of Dove Lake and its forested surrounds. Steve looked dejectedly over his shoulder.

Bushwalking was one of the few ways we thought we fit into our new country. We’d always thought of Aussies as outdoorsy, people that liked getting out to surf, swim and hike. We’d been outdoorsy people in Canada, at least when the temperature was above -35.

But it turns out there’s outdoorsy people, and then there are Australians, who combine a love of nature with recklessness verging on insanity. Steve formed this impression from the first Aussies he’d met, while on vacation in Europe. There, a group of Australian blokes had invited him to go hang-gliding. In the Alps. They’d already been rappelling, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, parachuting and bull-running, and frankly, if things didn’t get a little more interesting, they were going to have to rollerskate the wrong way down the Autobahn, blindfolded. (As it turned out, one of them slept with a local’s wife, and they had to clear out of town abruptly when the husband rounded up a posse to demonstrate just how interesting Germany could be.) Moving to Sydney, we discovered this was part of the national character. Barefoot toddlers regularly flew downhill on scooters straight toward traffic, people casually drank more alcohol in an evening than I’d consumed in the past decade, and just beyond the bright yellow signs with NO SWIMMING – RIPS or pictures of deadly jellyfish, there were always, always people in the water. It was like the whole country was united in a joyous death wish.

In contrast, Steve and I have insurance on our insurance. We weren’t sure we could ever adapt to the fearlessness of Aussie culture. We’d lived here five years, yet we couldn’t shake our Canadian accents, we still asked where to find the whole bathroom instead of just the toilet, and despite having it explained to me numerous times, I still couldn’t distinguish between a mole and a dead-set mole.

None of this bothered Steve, but it irked me. I admired Aussies. I craved their carefree attitude. If I pushed myself, I thought, I was sure I could be more Australian. And that began with staring danger right in the face by hiking a really big mountain.

That said, despite some reviews I’d read online (including one with the memorable comment, ‘I thought I was going to die’), I assumed the Cradle Mountain hike wasn’t actually dangerous – just strenuous. Besides, I was seasoned at Great Walks, Short and Long. I’d hiked on five continents, including all four days and 4215 vertical metres of the Inca Trail. I could handle whatever Tasmania had to throw at me.

This excerpt from my current manuscript-in-progress, How to Be Australian, was shortlisted for the Lane Cove Literary Awards and first published in the 2017 anthology.
Part 2

Road Trip to the Future

You should definitely buy ten copies of @thebigissue this month, not only because it’s always great, but also because my creepy Tasmanian time travel trip is in there. Here’s a sneak peek: Ashley Kalagian Blunt - Tarrahleah article

This article is excerpted from my current manuscript-in-progress, a memoir called How to Be Australian. It explores the experience of becoming Australian citizens and the complex process of developing an Australian identity through travel, socialising and wild curiosity.

This issue is on sale until 17 May.
Big Issue Magazine 561

 

My neighbourhood is a poem

Lately I’ve been collecting the names of houses in my neighbourhood. Where I grew up, houses didn’t have names. They were just houses. Everything else had names, including apartment buildings, but not houses, and that didn’t seem strange.

When I moved to Australia, I was surprised by how many houses had names, and announced those names via name plates as if they were attendees at a networking event. But I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the house names because I was a busy person with places to be and things on my mind. My neighbourhood is a poem, Ashley Kalagian BluntNow that I’m sick, I don’t have places to be, or much on my mind. When I can walk, I drift along like a fatigued tortoise, trying to reach a precise step count.

Interestingly, this seems to have cleared up some mental capacity for noticiting details, such as all the strange, poetic house names I’ve passed for years but never noticed. Consider these actual local house names:

Orana
Nebraska
Lochinvar
Norwich
Flinders
Hurlstone
Millbrow
Allerton
The Lily
Elton
Divo
Mea Mai
Banyak Pintu
Austin
Hartford
Sedainota
Shangri-La
Edna
Orielton
Karuah
Monteith
Rosedale
Samian House
Darley
Ventura
Boro
Cornucopia House
Durham
Enom Roo
Grosby
Abna
Pleasant Cottage
Huon
Derwent
Lymington
Elk
Toorack
Moss-side
Clareville
Minora
Rosstrevor
El Nido

Even though Edna and Elton are on different streets, I picture them as a friendly elderly couple. I also picture Elton with a purple glitter finish, maybe some rhinestones (the actual house isn’t living up to its name’s potential). I also quite like Rosstrevor. I assume it was a gay couple who argued for ages about the house name, and finally agreed to mash their first names together.

Shangri-La is a terrible choice. If I came home daily to a place called Shangri-La (or in my case, rarely left) and it was dusty and someone had left clipped nail shards across the bathroom counter and there were burned out lightbulbs that only an electrician could replace because that is not at all inconvenient, I’d feel pretty disenchanted with life.

I mentioned my house name curiosity to my colleagues recently, and one of them told me about a man she knows who migrated to Australia and decided at some point to name his house. He had a tasteful nameplate made with the image of a rosella and a fancy font spelling out “Bella Bosta”.

“It’s Brazilian slang for beautiful shit,” she said.

Which is just about the best metaphor for life I’ve ever heard.

 

Scene from a holiday

Winnipeg in winter, under a blanket of snowArriving in Australia to discover four weeks annual leave was standard – plus you might get some extra leave at Christmas, just because – was like getting a hug from a rainbow unicorn. It was not quite Western Europe’s six-week leave extravaganzas, but I wasn’t going to complain.

Except that four weeks of leave in Australia is nowhere near enough. At least not if your family lives in the middle of the Canadian prairies, because you are morally obligated to use at least three of those weeks to visit said family. And getting yourself there involves the modern travel equivalent of paying thousands of dollars to churn your own arm through a meat grinder.

First you must twitch and writhe all the way across the world’s largest ocean and, for the first time in your life, use one of those airsickness bags for its intended purpose (sneakily, so the stranger beside you doesn’t notice). This brings you to LAX, also known as Satan’s Playpen, where, guess what? You’ve missed your connection and your luggage is on its way to Houston. Goodbye, luggage! Enjoy your new life!

You spend six hours facedown on the carpet at Gate 91 until you fly to Minneapolis, where the airport is a mall (excuse me, ‘shopping centre’) next to an even larger mall (excuse me, ‘corporate hate crime’).

It is -27 degrees Celsius in Minneapolis, and you are finally on another plane. But then it stops abruptly just seconds after reversing out of the gate. The plane sits on the tarmac for 20 minutes, and you wonder if they are de-icing the wings with that blue chemical spray that has the same hue as toilet bowl cleaner, because that is an extra thing fun that has to happen in winter climates otherwise you might die.

But no, there is another problem.

‘It seems one of the straps used around the plane’s front tire has gotten stuck because of the cold weather, and wouldn’t you know the ground crew just can’t get it unstuck there, folks,’ the pilot says. ‘They think that if everybody in the first, well, let’s say six rows or so, if everybody could just head to the back of the plane, that might shift the weight and take some of the pressure off that tire.’

It is this sort of technical solution that gives you so much confidence in the aviation industry. Several rows of disgruntled passengers trudge past. The entire plane seems to hold its breath.

‘Well, the ground crew says that worked, so you can return to your seat, folks, and after we get the wings de-iced, we can be on our way.’

You’re so glad you’ve used a year’s worth of leave for this.

 

5017

Picture this: It’s the year 5017. Your coffin is dug up from the mausoleum you built specifically for the purpose of sheltering your earthly remains.
Museum of Old and New Art, HobartIt’s carted to another planet and put on display in a post-modern museum/aquarium where octopus perform tricks with hula hoops, not because they’re forced to, but because they’re really into it – by that time I imagine whatever the dominant species is, they’ve figured out how to communicate with octopi – the point is, how would you feel about your coffin with your remains being on display?

I think it’d be pretty awesome as long as the octopus tricks were tasteful and not, you know, lewd.

 

How to be Australian according to your passport

Your passport contains the distilled essence of Australia. Study its images carefully during the interminable minutes in line at Immigration. Each image is a puzzle piece. Fit them together, and you will know what it is to be Australian.

Australian passport
Australian passport images, in order of appearance

  • Parliament, featuring the largest free-standing stainless steel structure in the southern hemisphere
  • A kookaburra who really wants you to know about travel insurance
  • A Tasmanian devil suffering lockjaw
  • Surf lifesaving chicks about to launch floaty things into the water
  • A camel caravan
  • A thorny devil
  • A depressed wombat
  • A water tank, windmill-thing and what might be a station house
  • People sitting on car bonnets observing a horserace
  • An even more depressed platypus
  • A man being cruel to a herd of cattle
  • An open-mouthed saltie
  • Cricket
  • A smarmy koala
  • A noble dingo who definitely hasn’t eaten any babies this week
  • Two scuba divers checking out coral
  • Beachgoers
  • A page translated into French, Australia’s unofficial second language
  • A pointy-nosed chipmunk?
  • A highway leading to distant hills, with trees
  • A love-struck emu
  • An RV hitched to a ute, maybe Uluru in the background?
  • A bearded dragon who’s ready to party
  • A kangaroo whose grandfather was a horse
  • Two ladies in togs holding a rope in knee-deep water staring down a big wave
  • A lone surfer
  • A patriotic eagle, the eternal symbol of Australian freedom
  • Just a regular echidna
  • A rural town hotel that definitely has a pub
  • A semi-truck (the designers must have been getting desperate at this point)
  • A sulphur-crested cockatoo who just came out of the dryer
  • Maybe a bilby?
  • Girls playing rugby in skirts because females play sport too
  • Another lizard-type thing – wait, is that a goanna?
  • Sailboats on a harbour
  • A man in an overcoat and fedora staring off towards some power lines or possibly a fence with a definite serial killer vibe
  • Also a lot of plants. Give me a break, I’m not a botanist.