Melbourne’s most terrifying attraction

Melbourne Medical History Museum
When I visited the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne, the last thing I expected to find was Champagne Jimmy.

I expected to find Dr Tracy’s ovariotomy instruments. Well, not his specifically, but something very much like them.
Ovariotomy instruments, medial history
Dr Richard Tracy performed the first such surgery in Victoria in 1864, using this horrifying set of ovariotomy instruments. He became ‘locally and internationally renowned’ for his success with the procedure. The set contains a scalpel, scissors, ‘a vulsellum forceps (with hooked tips),’ a ‘double sharp hook for raising the peritoneum’, pedicle clamps with detachable handles, and on the left, a mess of thick greyish thread that looks like it’s been removed from a ratty blanket.

I also expected the original shock therapy machine from 1885, described as an example the annals of ‘quackery’. It uses a hand crank to generate a charge.
IMG_2077
I even expected to learn about bizarre apothecary treatments, such as the use of fox lungs for respiratory conditions. The Saxons believed that ‘for oppressive hard drawn breathing, a fox lung sodden and put into a sweetened wine, and administered is wonderfully healthy.’ (Fox lung in beer, however, results in blindness). 

Amid all that, Champagne Jimmy caught me off guard. First of all, check him out.
Champagne Jimmy or Diamond Jim, historic Melbourne medical doctor
The slicked-back horns, the bushy horseshoe moustache, his apparent love of the Hawaiian hang ten sign. Not to mention the uncorked champagne bottle at his feet, which is definitely what I look for when choosing a surgeon. ‘Does this guy know how to party?’ is the first question you should ask when considering a new doctor.

The museum describes Dr James Beany as a flamboyant and controversial senior surgeon and a ‘Melbourne personaility’. He was so flamboyant he earned himself two nicknames. He was called Diamond Jim for the rings he wore, ‘even during operations’, and Champagne Jimmy, ‘because of the champagne he dispensed freely.’

Champagne Jimmy sounds like an absolute delight. That is, until you picture him wielding the surgical tools of his era.
Historic medical surgery tools
Imagine it: you’re on the surgical table, wearing an old-timey paper gown, and in stumbles Diamond Jim, champagne bottle in one bejewelled hand, giant amputation saw in the other, and little flakes of sausage roll pastry stuck in his moustache. Right before you pass out (from terror; anesthetic doesn’t exist yet), Jim drops the empty bottle at his feet and flashes you the hang ten sign.

How this museum didn’t make Melbourne’s top ten attractions, I’ll never understand.

Lessons from Australia: You don’t hit sleepy lizards

Last week I was on a self-styled writing retreat in country NSW, near the Hunter Valley, and it was sublime. I spent most of the week at this desk, staring out at this view of the Williams River. I was interrupted only by eastern rosellas, kookaburras, and one dead mouse that showed up in the middle of the kitchen on our last morning like the perfect metaphor for the piece of writing I was working on, ie lifeless and a bit cliched.  Writing retreat bedroom with desk, view of river
The writer friend I was with, A, was a bit skittish of mice, so guess who had to scoop the fresh mouse corpse into a dustpan and drop it into the trash? I imagined it was the end the mouse would have wanted, laid (well, dumped) to rest among a week’s worth of food scraps.

Occasionally we stopped writing and went to explore this new corner of NSW. I can sum up our explorations in three incidents.

1. We go for lunch in Morpeth, a town that features a historic bakery, exclusive parking for ‘tourist coaches’, and, by law, a lolly shop. Inside Miss Lily’s Lollies, there’s a woman working behind the counter, and one other person, a man. He’s tall and fit-looking, in black dress pants and a pressed button-up shirt and shined shoes. He’s standing over three clear display buckets and talking loudly into his phone: ‘You’re all good for candy watches and candy bracelets, but you’re down to – one, two three – four, you’ve only got four candy watches. Definitely going to need more candy watches.’ He has the tone of someone conducting important business.

2. The Erringhi Hotel in Clarence Town has a $5 burger night on Wednesdays from 4-6pm. We’re eating our burgers at 5:57 in the pub courtyard, which has a garden that drops off down a small hill. A boy, maybe five years old, parades around the courtyard with a Spider-Man action figure. He stops at the edge of the hill, looking down into the darkness like he’s ready to take the plunge. A man that is probably his dad calls across the courtyard, ‘Tim, no.’
Tim swivels his head toward his dad, then back down the slope.
No,’ Dad says.
‘Bogeyman?’ Tim asks.
‘Yep,’ Dad says, and takes a swig of beer. Tim sighs and dashes into crowd.

3. While we’re out for a bushwalk, A tells me about the time her dad gave her tips for safe country driving while they were on a road trip in SA. ‘The important thing is not to swerve for small animals. It can be really dangerous.’

Soon after, while her dad is driving, they see a sleepy lizard crossing the road. He swerves around it. ‘What are you doing?’ A says. ‘You just told me not to swerve like that!’
In a tone that implies A is a bit of a monster, her dad replies, ‘You don’t hit sleepy lizards.’

Being a foreigner, I didn’t know what a sleepy lizard was, and later when I asked A about this, I couldn’t remember the lizard’s adjective. Smiley lizard? Shakey lizard? Sleepy lizards, I learned, are a slow-moving variety of blue-tongue skink exclusive to South Australia, and they are amazing.

It turns out sleepy lizards are known by many names: the shingleback, the stumpy tail, the pinecone lizard and the bob-tail goanna. Their diet consists mainly of flowers. They live as long as 50 years, and in that time, they develop a social network of both friends and foes. And one more thing about sleepy lizards: they grieve.

This research comes from ‘probably the longest-running lizard survey in the southern hemisphere, if not the world‘.Williams River, NSW Australia Australia always has new and fascinating things to teach me.

xo
Ashley

PS. I have a fabulous newsletter featuring great reads, author news and book giveaways, and you can sign up to get in on its goodness.

 

A new life of mud pits and stink water

I recently discovered Anna Altman, an American author with chronic migraines. Altman  perfectly highlights truths like this: ‘Our culture encourages us to think that, if we push ourselves hard enough, we can overcome whatever ails us.’

As she discovered when her migraines became debilitating, it’s simply not true. But we deeply want it to be true, which is why it’s such a pervasive idea. In an essay about living with chronic illness, Altman describes what felt like her ‘failure to bear up under average hardship’ when she could no longer work full time. Yes, I thought. Exactly.

After trying all kinds of doctors and treatments for years with little success, Altman says, ‘I ended up finding that giving in to my limitations and trying to find a meaningful, happy life within them helped a lot.’ Her mother counselled that in spite of what she had to give up, she could make a new life for herself.

Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life was definitely the theme of my recent trip to New Zealand. When I say ‘recent’ I mean two months ago, because this is yet one more way I’ve given into limitations.

Steve and I booked the flights early last year. I suppose we thought I might be significantly better after all those months. We were very optimistic, it turned out.

In the past, planning a trip to New Zealand would have involved researching all the best hiking trails, kayaking spots, and sunrise yoga on the beach. By November though, it was clear I wouldn’t be doing anything physical. We still refer to the mildest incline as my nemesis.

If I couldn’t hike or kayak or swim, if I had to give into those limitations, what could I fill that gap with? What could this new life as a chronically ill person still desperate to travel look like?

Te Ika-a-Maui, New Zealand’s North Island, had a perfect answer: HOT SPRINGS. Living within the limits of chronic illness, traveling to hot springs

This photo from The Lost Spring looks incredibly relaxing, but what isn’t pictured is the chainsaw and wood chipper blasting away on the other side of that wall. It was actually intolerable, since one of my least fun symptoms is noise sensitivity.

But that was okay, because New Zealand has dozens of hot springs, and I’d planned to visit as many of them as possible. Hot springs are definitely within my limitations, as you can see here at Hell’s Gate mud spa, which was blissfully chainsaw free.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in new Zealand

New Zealand is full of options. When you’re done slathering yourself in mud at Hell’s Gate, you can soak in this even smellier sulphur pool. It was super weird and I loved it. Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in New Zealand, sulpgur

At the right time of day, you can visit Hot Water Beach in Hahei and get your able-bodied husband to dig a sand pit that will fill up with geothermically heated water. It seeps out of the ground at 65 degrees Celsius, so dig the pit carefully to make sure some cool ocean water seeps in also.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot water beach in New Zealand

Or just visit a traditional New Zealand cat cafe, where you can spend an hour sitting quietly, drinking a cup of tea, and feeding kibble to 17 cats. Traveling with chronic illness, cat cafe in New Zealand

I was able to see and do a lot while mostly sitting down and relaxing, which meant I felt especially good in New Zealand. I was still disappointed to miss out on sights like Cathedral Cove in Hahei, which was only accessible via a rather vertical one-hour hike or an expensive boat journey that would have been exhausting for me. I stayed in the shade on the beach and Steve hiked up on his own. Traveling in New Zealand Cathedral Cove

All that resting meant I was able to see some of the flatter sights, however. This was especially exciting in Rotorua, one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. It’s an active geothermal area, which means all sorts of weirdness goes on. This is a park in the city, where there is a variety of steaming lakes and bubbling mud pits. This steam blows right onto one of the major streets. Travelling with chronic illness to Rotorua, New Zealand

I wasn’t kidding about the mud pits.

To see these sights, I had to walk around. This meant planning carefully and rationing my energy. It worked out. The highlight was Wai-O-Tapu. The website describes this ‘Thermal Wonderland’ as ‘a spectacular showcase of New Zealand’s most colourful and unique geothermal elements sculpted by thousands of years of volcanic activity’ and it is not wrong.

This is Champagne Pool, named for its bubbly constitution. Traveling with chronic illness, Champagne Pool, NZ

And this is Devil’s Bath, which Atlas Obscura describes as a ‘neon green pool of stagnant stink water’ and compares to ‘a cartoonish radioactive dump site’.  traveling with chronic illness, Wait-O-Tapu New Zealand

Trust me, I loved every minute of this. Even the minutes where my symptoms flared in the heat and I struggled to breath after battling a mild incline.

I’m very lucky to have been able to travel to New Zealand at all. Many people with chronic fatigue syndrome and other chronic illnesses wouldn’t be able to. Still, part of me insists that if I push myself hard enough, I can overcome my illness. Every time I try, I make myself worse.

So, welcome to 2019: The Year Of Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life … Again.

PS. In New Zealand, shopping carts are called TRUNDLERS. Really. Made my day.

 

Canberra: world’s most ludicrous capital?

Over my several years in Australia, whenever the topic of Canberra came up, people derided it. Australia’s capital is the epitome of bureaucratic blandness, people told me, a snake-riddled suburbia of confounding roundabouts, especially punishing to anyone stupid enough to try navigating the city by foot.

In response to this unanimous negativity, I developed a perverse desire to like Canberra. (This is further evidence that my brain’s main goal is to sabotage me.) I’ll show them, I thought. When I visit Canberra, I’ll see it from a whole new perspective.

I even tried to navigate the city by foot. This experience is best captured by this actual Canberran sidewalk to nowhere:

Sidewalk to nowhere, Canberra, Australia
This stretch of pavement may as well end with a sign reading, ‘That’s what you get for walking, you two-legged idiot! Regards, Canberra.’

The more I learned about Canberra, the more ridiculous it became. The city’s name comes from nganbra, a Ngunnawal word supposedly meaning ‘meeting place’. However, according to local elders, writes my favourite Aussie historian, the word actually means ‘breasts’. As David Hunt put it in True Girt, ‘Australians are the only people in the world who would name their national capital “Tits”’.

This is typical of the national tendency to appropriate Aboriginal words without grasping their meaning, Hunt adds. In this way, Canberra is somehow more, rather than less, appropriate as the name of the country’s capital.

Or, consider this: front and centre over Parliament’s main entrance is a stainless steel rendition of the Aussie coat of arms, kangaroo on the left, emu on the right, each leaning in to support the shield. According to Justine van Mourik, Parliament House’s art curator, when artists submitted coat-of-arms designs during the building’s construction, at least one was rejected because the kangaroo was ‘not visibly male’.

The kangaroo now poised above Parliament is definitely visibly male, its hunk of maleness the same size as its snout.
Visibly male kangaroo, Australian Parliament Coat of Arms

Van Mourik offered no explanation for this criterion in Parliament’s coat of arms; there’s no mention of animal gender in the charter that dictates the design, and it’s definitely not a standard feature. Here is another rendition of the coat of arms I found in Canberra. Note neither of these animals are visibly male. Also, they’re rocking some A+ googly eyes.
Australian coat of arms with googly eyes, Canberra

Another Parliament fact: if you take the guided tour, you’ll learn that the monstrosity holding up the flag is ‘the largest stainless steel structure in the southern hemisphere’. So there’s something to inspire national pride!
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia

I’ve also read conflicting accounts of the city’s design. The American town planner responsible, Walter Burley Griffin, may have based the layout on occult symbols, maybe Freemasonry or Kabbalah. National Geographic observed that, seen from above, Parliament House looks suspiciously like the Illuminati’s all-seeing pyramid eye, and some people believe the double ring roads encircling Capitol Hill indicate the area is a consecrated temple. National Geographic went on to note that these suspicions are baseless – but that’s exactly what the Illuminati would want you to think, isn’t it.

And one more thing, which isn’t exactly a civic issue, but I’m including it anyway. Canberra is home to the gang-gang cockatoo, nicknamed the squeaky gate cockatoo. This is because their call sounds exactly like you’re in a horror movie and a deranged man wielding a blood-soaked chainsaw is creeping up behind you through an unoiled door. Which, I can say from experience, is especially unsettling to hear when you’re walking through the bush alone.

I first visited Canberra in 2012, and I’ve been back a few times. Though I now accept that it’s a ludicrous city in many ways, I actually like it more for all these reasons. And sometimes, it’s also quite beautiful.

Swans, Canberra Australia
Black swans on Lake Hurley Burley, sunset

Just don’t expect to get anywhere on foot.

Pose with my grave and skeleton

NewSouth City Series travel books

Before visiting Melbourne in September, I read Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. It’s one of the City Series from NewSouth, ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’. I’ve spent several years working my way around Australia while reading my way through this series. Melbourne has been my favourite yet.
Melbourne travel book in Melbourne Laneway
There’s a moment in the book where Cunningham is learning letterpress at a workshop downtown while listening to AFL (Aussie-style rugby) on the radio and taking soup breaks to stay warm. ‘I realised,’ she writes, ‘that I felt about as Melbourne as it’s possible to feel. It was a good sensation, one akin to (but colder than) waking up and taking an early morning dip at Bondi Beach and consequently feeling very Sydney.

This is my favourite description of both Melbourne and Sydney.Travel to the Nicholas Building Melbourne AustraliaThe letterpress workshop took place in the Nicholas Building. I was keen to visit it because of Cunningham’s description of the three ‘lift operators’ that work the building’s elevators. ‘Joan has been spending her days in the lift for thirty-five years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in a lift like that? It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Melbourne was published in 2011. Sometime since then, the lift operators have vanished. There were no newspaper clippings or photos, and I had to push the lift buttons myself.

Still, I was already inside and decided to wander around the Nicholas Building, which had the vibe of a curious relic. I was immediately rewarded with this sign on a seventh-floor door:
The Royal Over-Seas League in Melbourne, Australia
What is the Royal Over-Seas League? I’ve entertained myself by tossing around possibilities for days, and I’ve come to hope they’re the Avengers of the Commonwealth, like the Justice League but British, knighted by the Queen maybe – and I had stumbled on their Australian headquarters!

I was also rewarded when I reached the top floor.
Travelling in Melbourne Australia, discovering graffiti
Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem:
Graffiti in Melbourne Australia
So now I know what I’ll carve on my tombstone. I’m even toying with the idea of having my skeleton put on a pole, like one you’d find in a science lab, and positioned beside my tombstone, perhaps holding a sign inviting photos. Could be a real tourism opportunity for whatever lucky city I’m buried in!

Being sick, I wasn’t able to do a lot in Melbourne. In my wanderings through the Nicholas Building, I went through the wrong door, got trapped in the stairwell, and had to walk down several flights to exit on the ground floor. The exertion of walking down stairs made me nauseous. And when stairs make you nauseous, that’s when you know it’s time to return to your hotel and go to bed at 4:17 pm.

Still, it was a treat to wander along different streets, sit in different cafes, and catch up with some the many friends who’ve moved to Melbourne. The theme of this catching up was definitely Let Me Tell You About How My Body Has Turned On Me, but that’s fine. I’d much rather people ask about my crazy illness than pretend everything is normal. And I’m slowly slowly slowly (like a sloth through tar) getting better, so I feel optimistic. I know I’ll eventually visit Brisbane and Adelaide and even Alice Springs, and read those books. Who knows what unexpected wonders I’ll stumble upon. ~

PS. The tour guide who helped me out was Local Guide to Melbourne. Highly recommended!

 

Brain worms: A Love Story

I’m in The Moth GrandSLAM this August – and here’s the story that got me there. It’s probably the greatest love story of all time (and my friends’ favourite story about me, ask any of them), so no wonder it won The Sydney Moth StorySLAM in April 2016.

This was the start of the now classic genre, a story in which I almost die, featuring my husband in the role of himself. This one takes place during my travels through Armenia.

The Moth is a live storytelling event that began in New York in 1997 and now takes place internationally. The theme was kin (the caption says jokers, but the caption is wrong).

A few things I particularly like about this video are how it feels like the camera is pushed flat up against my face, at what is definitely my most flattering angle. Also, that I’m sporting my trademark hairstyle, the clump. It’s gonna catch on, trust me.

 

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.
Read part 2 here