Seeing the world, one country at the time

Aussie Antics

Victoria Barracks Tour

Somewhere I read about a free military band concert at the Victoria Barracks and this appealed to the cheapskate in me. Victoria Barracks has been home to the Army since 1848. It is one of the oldest of the British Garrison Barracks still occupied and used by the Australian Army. Following its construction between 1841 to 1848, it was occupied by Imperial, Colonial and Australian Army units. The colonial Georgian complex today is a fully functional Military Barracks and still a hive of activity.

Lars and I are graciously welcomed to the barracks along with several other tourists, mostly Australian by our master of ceremonies and a phalanx of guides. On most Thursdays, A flag-raising ceremony and lively display by the Australian Army Marching Band is held, followed by guided tours. This is in conjunction with a monologue by a certain Sergeant John Parsons, a soldier who lived there in the 1850’s. Warrant Officer Retired, Norm Harries MBE, taking on the personage of Sgt John Parsons, recalls the life of a soldier in Victoria Barracks during its first occupation by the 11th Regiment of Foot, circa the 1840’s and 1850’s.

The band in red marches onto the field and plays the Australian national anthem and Waltzing Matilda after which Sgt Parsons delves into the history of the Australian military and the Victoria Barracks before breaking us up into groups. Lars and I end up with our guide Tom Marshall and a couple giggly, shy Japanese girls. Tom speaks some Japanese and will sometimes direct a phrase or two toward them. They nod and giggle. He served in Japan for a while and must have enjoyed it, from the twinkle in his eye as he talks about it.

Tom spews out facts between greetings to anyone we met on our tour of the buildings. “G’day, how’re ya going?” He says in passing. He points out that the Sydney sandstone used in the construction of the buildings is held together by burnt sand prepared by female convicts and today’s guard house was where misbehaved soldiers were put in solitary confinement. He stops for a chat with the guards, who are all equally amiable and joke easily with us. The flag on one wall showing an emblem of a rising sun made of bayonets is the symbol of the Australian army. Sergeant Major Henry Green was the first soldier in the Australian Army. Aussie soldiers are called “Diggers” and even their hats are called “digger” or “slouch”, with the characteristic one side folded up. Their first battle ever was against the warlike Maori, from neighboring New Zealand.

We exit and start a tour of the grounds, where he points out the large, Banyan-like Port Jackson Fig Trees, though I’m not sure why, except that he is a treasure trove of Aussie trivia and he’s proud of every thing Australian. “Australia is a very agricultural country. It is the second biggest wheat exporter in world. Warrata is the NSW state flower and the Kookaburra is the state bird.” “I wouldn’t be dead for quids (or money). It’s such a beautiful day”, he quips.

Australia has a short modern history, although aboriginal people have inhabited the Sydney region for many thousands of years. It is a strange and fascinating history, based on the bizarre idea of sending criminals halfway across the world. Australia’s links to the British crown are a result of Britain’s search for a presence in the world to offset all the Spanish and Portuguese colonial acquisitions and to protect their trade routes. In April 1770, the great English sailor and navigator James Cook landed at Botany Bay, in modern Sydney’s southern suburbs. He later claimed the entire east coast of Australia for Britain, under the name of “New South Wales”. Cook, however, sailed right past Sydney Harbour, little knowing that this would be the site of a future colony.

With Australia as their new colony, they needed to fill out the population, so they shipped convicts there for long sentences, often for crimes such as forgery. In today’s terms, these were harsh sentences for such petty crimes. However, it turned out that living in Australia wasn’t such a bad gig after all, and many stayed once their sentence was up. The convicts very often well behaved and the soldiers looking after them and the colony were popular and well liked by everyone, including the convicts. They spent most of their time doing useful projects like building roads and fighting bush fires. One in six people can trace their history back to the convicts. “We’re very proud of it now. Sometimes we even make it up”, Tom reveals with a grin.

Sydney was founded on 26 January 1788, when the eleven ships of the First Fleet, bearing 1400 people; convicts, soldiers, administrators and their families and a handful of other settlers, arrived from England to establish a remote new colony. Sydney is named after Thomas Townsend, the first Viscount Sydney, who was Secretary of State for the colonies of Britain at the time of the city’s founding. New South Wales was settled in 1788 as the first European settlement, but it wasn’t until January first, 1901 that Australia was declared a federation, when six states joined forces. The Aussie flag has the stars of the Southern Cross with seven points for each six states and one for all the territories and Union Jack.

Continuing the botanical theme, he points out the Flame or Coral Trees that lose their leaves and grow red flowers during winter, and the Norfolk Island Pine, which is unique to Norfolk Island, hundreds of miles off the coast of Australia. When Captain Cook arrived in Australia in 1774, he wanted them for ship masts because until then the British army had to buy the wooden masts from Norway. But the wood of the Norfolk Pine is too soft. “They are direct descendants from the Mutiny on the bounty with Captain Bly. You can find people with the names, like Fletcher and Christian”. It was also a convict colony. This gives Norfolk island its odd character, isolated until recently when it became a popular vacation destination only for Australian retirees. “They have our stamps and flag, but their own language, a creole”. Two thousand people live on Norfolk Island today. Tom speaks of Governor Bly, a colorful character best known as the Captain who was relieved of his command of the Bounty. He was unseated as Governor too, poor man. Governor Macquarie took over and calmed things down and left a more positive legacy.

Our next stop is at the Chapel, originally the kitchen of the officer’s mess. The wood stove is still there, but little else remains since they decided to convert it into a chapel fifteen years ago since it wasn’t being used. The baptismal font is an old WWI helmet. The cross over the door is a double symbol of the Christian cross and the southern cross. Tom shows us a Lillipilli tree planted by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1943 during a visit when she was head of the Red Cross.

Our last stop is at the museum, a collection of medals and costumes and military history. Among other medals was the VC, or Victoria Cross, the British Crown’s highest military decoration. Tom has a great sense of humor and greets everyone, including some younger sailors (he was a navy man) we meet while touring the old holding cells in the back of the museum. When we finally bid him farewell, we realize that two hours have gone by. That wasn’t the plan, but it had been fun.

Taronga Zoo

Having lost an hour we can’t walk, but have to catch the bus to the Quay so we can get to the zoo and eat lunch. We get the crowded ferry across the harbor to the Taronga Zoo and pay $30 to get in (30 times as much as in Bolivia). It’s a gorgeous park with a perfect view of Sydney Harbor. We ooh and ah over the typical Aussie animals like the adorable koalas, echidnas, quokkas, wombats and platypus. We visit the nocturnal room to see bats and rodents and the very cool Frogmouth (owl) who closes his eyes to blend in and look like the branch he’s sitting on. Outside we find the nervous little meerkats, Kodiak bears, and reptiles like the incredible komodo dragon. For lunch we decide to find a place to sit and happen upon a bird flight show. It is incredible. In an amphitheatre overlooking the water, an American trainer gets kites, eagles, owls, cockatoos, Lorikeets, and herons to fly in over our heads, swoop around, find hidden objects, land in certain places, play catch in midair, etc. They are amazing tricks and we are flabbergasted that you can train birds that way. Everyone loves it. It is very dramatic and beautiful.

From there we head to a koala feeding. I love those adorable creatures that are so laid-back because they’re trying to digest eucalyptus leaves all day long, and sleep 20 hours a day. They are the cuddliest-looking creatures ever. The funny thing is that they’re not that cuddly or soft. They just look it. They’re marsupials, not bears, so they have a backwards pouch and when the baby is born, it climbs in itself, because the mother’s claws are too dangerous. It stays there for six to eight months eating and growing. It fastens its mouth over a teat, larger than the mouth, so it’s clamped shut and ensures that the baby doesn’t fall out of the pouch. It stays like that until it’s big enough and can open its mouth. (Skip to next paragraph if you are easily grossed out).? Then it eats the Mom’s diarrhea-like poop, which contains pap, to give it the necessary enzymes to let it digest eucalyptus. At this point it’s ready to eat on its own. The animal kingdom is indeed a strange place. And I thought that dogs sniffing each other’s butts was disgusting!

We have a date with Flic for sunset over the harbor from the Shangri-La hotel, so we get the ferry back and wait for Flic. By the time we get up there, the sun has just gone down and they won’t let us in anyway. I am underdressed. We end up at the famous “The Australian” pub in the Rocks instead. It is one of the oldest pubs in Sydney, a typical early twentieth-century hotel, built in 1914. It retains its original pressed metal ceilings and etched glass fittings. The split level bar follows the rugged lie of the land. It has a very colorful and intriguing past, complete with murder.

Continuing with our Australian history lesson, we watch Ned Kelly that night, about the infamous Irish immigrant who faced off with the federal police, was hung and became a national hero. At this time I had no idea how pervasive his influence is on Australian culture. He is everywhere, in movies, books, exhibits, sculpture, you name it. He is more than a person, he represents the Australian spirit, much like “Waltzing Matilda”. If he hadn’t fought and killed several British constables, he probably would have been honored at the Victoria Barracks.