It was not the best weather for a week in a summer house at Boeslem Strand, Ebeltoft, Mols. We spent some time calculating the best opportunity to mount the bikes and ride into the natural beauty of this place. Huge tracts of the area is incorporated into Mols Bjerge National Park, protected since 2009. Greedily, we rode both the tandem bike and a couple of town bikes to get around when the weather smiled upon us. Sometimes we did get caught in the rain, but unperturbed on we rode.
This week has been full of impressive experiences in South East Queensland. My brother and his family from Denmark visited, in conjunction with celebrating his 50th birthday.
Our home in Brisbane is neighbour to breath-taking natural environments with exquisite opportunities to experience unique flora and fauna. South East Queensland lets you get close to authentic nature in ways Danes are unused to: in Denmark very little land is left uncultivated.
During the week, we’ve lived high up in the thin mountain air of Lamington National Park at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, where we spotted birds and wallabies on bush tracks, had colourful parrots vying for our outstretched food bowls at the bird feeding station, enjoyed breathtaking sunsets, interacted with birds of prey from the humble, yet clever magpie, Jackie, to the large and ferocious wedge tailed eagle, Stella, who spread her wings over the valley, but then had to walk back up through the bush because the wind direction was wrong. We’ve also been out on a catamaran in Moreton Bay where we were treated to a playful show of humpback whales on their migration up north, including a young male jumping right out of the sea and spinning around his large body. We walked on the beach of Moreton Island, fed dolphins at Tangalooma and marvelled at the sunset over the mainland. Finally, we’ve been up the Sunshine Coast to the home of the late Croc Hunter, where we scratched lazy kangaroos between the ears, padded koalas and marvelled at crocodiles at Australia Zoo.
We are all full of great impressions – with a little help from Mountain Villa luxury, rangers and zoo keepers, nature has generously given us experiences that remind us that life is bigger than our small concerns and insignificant lives.
While these experiences have been fantastic and will stay with us for a long time, from the tourist’s point of view they have not be excellent. Consistently, what let them down were the very people who try to make a buck out of the riches of nature because they fail to provide a whole experience at consistent quality. And most of this could be fixed easily: providing better customer-centred service and food experiences that match the experiences nature offers.
For my brother’s birthday we wanted a special meal, so we went to book a table at the only restaurant at O’Reilly’s. That was not possible. But the manager would tell the kitchen that a party of nine would arrive at around 6.30. So we did, yet they were out of tables and had a couple of parties waiting already. We were directed to the bar, where we would be called down when a suitable table became available. Once we were seated, next was the menu. The ranger conducting bird of prey show had lectured on the consequences of eating beef and lamb, and promoted the idea of consuming kangaroo and other meats that can be harvested sustainably and preserve habitat for birds of prey. But there was no kangaroo on the menu – no option for sustainable eating at the restaurant. We placed our order and were treated to abject confusion over the drinks order, with two reminders required before the beer was served. The whole chicken stuffed with chicken farce turned out to be a very small cylinder-shaped chicken piece – and a bit of a farce – and the grilled salmon was rather cold and quite raw. The tandoori pizza turned out to be pizza bread with curry on top and the beef and salami pizza was rather dissappointingly without any vegetable matter at all. It was not cheaply priced and we expected better. And when we went to pay, the manager forgot to press some button so that the attempted eftpos transaction was nearly 500 000 dollars!
On the day we went whale watching we were stuck at Tangalooma for a while before the dolphin feeding at six pm, after which the catamaran would take us back to the mainland where we would arrive after eight too late to go to dinner. So we had to eat before dolphin feeding. However, the only food place open was a canteen with an uninspired menu of pies and sausage rolls, uncomfortably close to a noisy construction site. The proper restaurants opened too late to let us eat there. The cafe did open 1 1/2 hours before dolphin feeding time, but its menu was limiting. When the beeper told us we could pick up our dinner, the bredcrumbed fish was either cooked twice or baked for too long, its breadcrumbed skin extremely hard.
At Australia Zoo the ‘Feeding Frenzy’ area consisted of long queues before various types of fast food outlets. Not seeing anything we felt like eating for lunch, we lunched on muffins and coffee This was disappointing. One might be naive to expect a zoo to deliver a proper dining option, but it would certainly enhance the overall experience.
Would it be too difficult to provide a range of food choices that respond to a range of tastes and deliver a whole experience that is positive from one end to another? In spite having world class natural experiences to offer, all three experiences were tainted by the poor service and consideration of visitors’ whole experiences.
The Australian landscape is so unlike what I grew up with. The land is so vast with properties as large as all of Jutland and red dessert running the depth and breath of the continent with sparse populations of people, sheep and cattle. The population density is 2.9 people per km2. Comparatively, 131.3 people live on each Danish square kilometer and every bit seems cultivated and tamed.
The Australian fauna is like something out of a magical picture book: kangaroos and wallabies get around by bouncing, koalas look like cuddly teddy bears from a toy shop, mammals lay eggs and colourful parrots and lorikeets screech rather than sing, drunk on the concentrated nectar of native flora.
The flora is also uniquely evolved, none better than the eucalypt, tall timber with sparse crowns, providing at best speckled shade to those seeking its protection, risking the dropping of massive branches at no particular notice. They have learnt to suck every bit of moisture out of the ground that surrounds its roots and provide just enough nutrition in the leaves for sleepy koalas living in the fork of their trunks. Red gum, blue gum, scribble gum, rose gum, ghost gum – there are more species of gum tree than can be counted. The smell of eucalypt in my nose, clearing the sinusses in dry winter, is so different from earthy dank smell of the beech, oak and pine forests of my wet childhood winters.
When we lived in Bunya, on the Samford Range, dry schlerophyl forrest surrounded us. Tall gums towered over us and young saplings crowding the understorey, observing our transformation of the landscape as we built our home and gardens, knowingly nodding to the kookaburras’ laugh ringing from their brances. Our hopes to live gently and sustainably on our land were challenged by the years of drought, the hard baked soil of clay and shale and water-stealing gum trees. We later learnt that the land was cleared in the late 1800s to build Brisbane’s wharves and public buildings and then abandoned when farmers found it too poor for a sheep run. So it regenerated to its natural state until subdivided into 2 hectare blocks in the late 1900s. We bought our land in 2000 and lived in our self-designed house from 2002 to 2010. We loved our time in Bunya: it was a time of Australian dreams, plans and optimism; but eventually we were beaten back to comfortable suburban Brisbane.
In his award winning novel, Eucalyptus, Murray Bail touches on the myth of Australian identity. It is a timeless story about a widower landowner, who loves two things: his carefully cultivated eucalypt collection on his vast rural property and his beautiful daughter, Ellen. Like in a fairy tale, he announces he will give his daugther away to the first man who can complete the challenge: naming all the eucalypts on his property. Strangely resigned to her fate, his daughter gradually fades away. Two suitors are on the scene – Mr Cave who walks the land with her father to identify each tree, and a stranger, who turns out not so strange, meeting Ellen in the forrest and on her sick bed to tell her stories that sustain her. The closer Mr Cave gets to name all the trees on the property, the sicker Ellen gets, and the more compelling become the stranger’s stories.
Each chapter is named after a spieces of eucalypt. As I read the story in my suburban home, I am reminded of the selfishness of eucalypts and the harshness of the Australian landscape that we felt when we lived in Bunya, just 22 km from the capital city centre. How much harsher would that landscape be away from the sea board in the red centre?
Bail seems to poke fun of that most enduring Australian self-identity: that of the bushman living in the outback, the brave pioneer of new frontiers. Even when the myth was developed in the 1800s by ‘bush’ poets like Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, people predominantly lived close to the sea, as did those writers themselves. But the idea of Australians as conquerours of the landscape still prevails today – perhaps most accurately depicted by open cut mines scarring the landscape – when really the majority of people live in safe, unchallenging and comfortable suburbia on the seaboard, rather than in the bush.
Australia is still a harsh landscape. It invites you in with its raw beauty and its potential, but offers little in return for hard work and spits you out when you have been defeated. We feel it perhaps not often, in our urbane homes with manicured palm tree gardens, where we have been able to cultivate and control the land to suit ourselves. Nonetheless, in 2011, Mother Nature demonstrated our limited security so devastatingly, when Brisbane River broke its banks and flooded the once swampy plains of its delta, where Brisbane now stands. Flood water sweept our status symbols and security out into the bay, leaving a trail of stinking mud and devastation.
Just like Ellen’s relationship with gum trees was one of ambivalence, so is my relationship with my adopted country: I love this country for its breath-taking beauty and I despise for its harshness and unreasonableness which reminds me constantly of my own insignificance and indeed that of our entire species.
This weekend I was reminded of what I love most about Australia – its vast natural beauty. With a couple of friends, Mick and I went to Binna Burra, a heritage listed resort in Lamington National Park on the Gold Coast Hinterland.