When I was doing the final edit of my book, one of the most painful cuts was a chapter I called ‘Eats Roots and Leaves,’ detailing the best trip of my travel-writing career – ten days in Australia. Here it is, with some of my photos of the critters I met in Oz:
In January 2000, I flew from Toronto to Los Angeles on Air Canada, in coach, then boarded a Qantas 747 in business class for the fourteen-hour flight to Sydney.
When I had flown in my younger days, I was always relieved when the no-smoking sign went dark after takeoff. For one thing, I took it as a sign we weren’t going to crash. For another, it meant I could light a cigarette.
Drinking and smoking had gotten me through many long-haul flights. But, by 2000, nearly all airlines worldwide, including Qantas, had banned smoking. Drinking, however, was encouraged, especially in business class, where my fellow passengers began the flight with cocktails and moved on to wine with dinner. I abstained, having decided years before that I didn’t want to arrive at any destination either loaded or hung over.
I had brought along a carry-on bag filled with books. I read Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy cover to cover while my seatmate and most others got a full night’s sleep. I don’t sleep on planes.
Arriving in Sydney just after dawn, I was met by a uniformed chauffeur, who put my bags in the trunk of a black Mercedes and drove me to my waterfront hotel near the Harbour Bridge. I would have a driver on all my travels this trip, as well as a guide when I ventured into the wilds of Oz.
In arranging my itinerary before leaving Canada, I stressed: No small planes! But I was conned into a seaplane from Sydney to Whale Beach for lunch at a cliff-top restaurant called Jonah’s.
I regretted it as soon as I climbed into one of the two seats behind the pilot. My companion, a nice lady from the Australian Tourist Commission, pointed out the sights while I sat with my eyes closed and my knees turning to mush. When we finally landed, fifteen minutes later, a boat had to get us because the plane lost power and couldn’t taxi to the dock.
“I hope there’s another way back,” I told the nice lady, “because there’s no fucking way I’m getting in that thing again.”
She laughed and promised to call a taxi for the return trip.
“There’s a land route!”
“Sure, but it takes about an hour back to Sydney,” she said.
“I wouldn’t care if it took a month.”
It didn’t matter. The plane was broken.
In the city, I researched assignments in advance of that summer’s Olympics interviewed the mayor and other bigshots. But my excursions into the less populated corners of Australia were the most memorable.
Leaving Sydney – business-class on Qantas, of course – I flew to Brisbane, where I was picked up by a young woman who told me a joke I never forgot – after revealing that “roots” is Aussie slang for having sex.
Q: Why is a man like a wombat?
A: He eats roots and leaves.
She drove me up the Sunshine Coast. We stopped for lunch – I ate a “bug,” a lobster-like sea creature – at a beachside restaurant in Noosa and saw a kookaburra sitting in an old gum tree.
It was another three hours or so to the ferry at River Heads, followed by a thirty-minute sunset cruise to the Kingfisher Bay resort on Fraser Island. Dinner was in the open-air Seabelle restaurant, which provided one of the best leads I’ve ever written:
I was dining on kangaroo fillets when the dingo strolled into the restaurant.
Not a bad opening line, either, if I ever set a novel Down Under.
My next stop was Kangaroo Island, where I pleasantly overdosed on shooting wildlife – with my Nikon – and there was nothing but saltwater between me and Antarctica.
The island was lousy with exotic birds: enormous wedge-tailed eagles, tiny fairy penguins, rainbow lorikeets, glossy black cockatoos, yellow-billed spoonbills, black swans with bright red bills.
I also got within camera range of New Zealand fur seals, a giant lizard called a goanna, wallabies, a spiny anteater called an echidna, New Zealand fur seals, and spent hours on a beach with a herd of sea lions.
My guide and I stopped for lunch in a picnic ground, where I called home from a phone booth. Daughter Lacey answered.
“Right now,” I told her, “there is a big mama kangaroo and its baby lying in the shade, under a picnic table, about two meters away” – metric for my Canadian daughter.
“Cool,” she said. “What time is it there?”
“It’s lunchtime. Tomorrow. My guide – his name is Greg – is cooking steaks on the barbecue.”
“That’s what I had for dinner the other night.”
“I can’t imagine eating a dead animal while one of its cousins is watching,” Lacey said.
“There were no live kangaroos in the restaurant. But there was a dingo.”
Later that afternoon, I got within petting range of a koala.
After two nights on the island, I flew back to Sydney, spent a couple more days tying off the loose ends of my reporting, before boarding a Qantas jumbo jet, business class, to Los Angeles. Naturally, I didn’t sleep.
The coach section of the Air Canada flight to Toronto was about half full. I moved to a vacant row in the back of the center section, told a flight attendant not to wake me for anything, and fell asleep across the three seats – until a beverage cart smashed into my head.
“Hey!” I cried out.
“You shouldn’t have your head in the aisle,” the matronly flight attendant scolded. No apology.
Welcome to cattle class. Welcome back to Canada.
If you’d like to read the 34 chapters that survived to the final draft, here is a link to order The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.