Wednesday 28 September 2011

William Dampier, Pirate & Explorer

Everyone loves a pirate, so here's a profile of a pirate who gave his name to a Western Australian town. 

I originally wrote it for an ecommerce website many years ago. I think it was meant to accompany a page of pirate-themed toys for sale, but don't hold me to that...

Sometimes a pirate, sometimes an explorer, William Dampier was one of the first Englishmen to set foot in Australia.

Australia is not a place generally associated with pirates. By the time it was settled by Europeans, the great age of piracy had passed it by.

However, one English pirate had a role in our pre-colonial history. William Dampier (1652-1715), a buccaneer for some years in the Caribbean, became the first Englishman to chart the coast of north-western Australia.

Just fill in the map as you go along

How involved he was in piracy is actually an open question. Some have suggested he merely found pirate ships a convenient way to travel. Whatever the truth, he certainly did keep company with pirates and knew their ways well.

He also was an inquisitive explorer. In January 1688, Dampier was one of the first Englishman to set foot on the Australian mainland when his ship, the Cygnet, was beached on the northwest coast near King Sound. The Cygnet carried Dampier to a number of destinations in Asia. Throughout his voyages, he kept well-written notes of his observations.

Dampier had his share of adventures as well. When he separated from his shipmates in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), he took seven crewmen on a small boat through a hurricane to Sumatra. Exploring the area, he kept adding to his journals.

A huge rollercoaster of a tale

He published his work in 1697 as New Voyage Round the World, and it became a best-seller. His work caught the eye of the Admiralty. In 1699 they equipped him with HMS Roebuck, a slightly leaky cast-off, and set him off the explore the coast of Australia (then known as New Holland).

This was no joy-trip. Aside from the suspect nature of the boat’s structure, the captain and crew were of a headstrong buccaneer background. Nevertheless, they reached the west coast safely, and Dampier got to name Shark Bay for the sensible reason that it was a bay with lots of sharks in it.

A cunning plan

Proceeding along the coast to the northeast, Dampier’s urgent need was to find fresh water for the crew. Previous maps of the area were full of gaps, and he felt sure he would come across a river at some point. In an echo of the search for the Northwest Passage in the northern hemisphere, he also believed there must be a Southeast Passage that would lead to the Pacific.

He was right, of course, as the Timor Sea and Torres Strait would have led him there. Unfortunately, the need for water grew too great, and the Roebuck had to leave to resupply in Timor.

This was the end of Dampier’s exploration of the Australian coast, though he did continue on to chart New Guinea and New Britain (now the Solomon Islands). On the Roebuck’s return to England, its planking finally gave way and the ship was lost in the Atlantic. Amazingly, the crew made it to a nearby island with some supplies, and were rescued by passing ships.

Two schools of thought

Although he had achieved some remarkable seamanship and expanded the store of human knowledge with his explorations, Dampier’s voyage had an unhappy ending in England. A former crewman, Fisher, had spread malicious information about him through the Admiralty and, with the loss of the Roebuck, Dampier was barred from commanding future naval vessels.

This didn’t stop him making a career as a privateer, a kind of semi-official pirate. He became a privateer later in his life, earning a commission from the English government to harass Spanish shipping.

He’s an interesting figure, an adventurer who steered a difficult course between official honour and the reckless freedom of pirates. With an Australian town and archipelago named after him on the coast he once explored, it’s worth remembering this early explorer and sometime pirate.

(Public domain image of William Dampier is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Project Gutenberg)

Monday 19 September 2011

A Festival Like Alice 2

As I mentioned in the previous post, I'm currently in Alice Springs for the annual Alice Desert Festival. I'd already done some dot painting and taken in an outdoor premiere of a new play; now here's what happened the next day.

Music in the gorge

The dry weather around Alice obviously makes it easy to schedule outdoor events. Match it with the Territorians' willingness to drive long distances for a day trip, and you have a 272km round trip to Ormiston Gorge to see the local choir Asante Sana perform in a spectacular location.

It was well worth the drive. The gorge is a fantastic place, with a sheer wall of craggy red rock looming over a watercourse lined by a broad stretch of sand on each side. The effect is that of an inland beach in a larger than life setting.

The choir were good too, starting off with a brace of African songs and then heading into more general material.

The highlight of the afternoon, though, was the cameo appearance of tenor Boyd Owen, who performed a powerful operatic aria which resounded through the beautiful space. And he did it in bare feet too, something he noted as a personal first.

Bush food on the menu

Back in Alice that evening, the Wild Bushfoods Gala Dinner featured the skills of chef Andrew Fielke, cooking several courses composed of bush foods presented in a modern style.

Outside the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza, we sampled canapes including crocodile spare ribs, and saltbush and whiting fritters.

Then, seated at the tables within, we were served dishes such as yabby bisque with coconut lemon myrtle foam; barramundi with pencil yam and leek gratin; slow roast camel scotch fillet with pepperleaf potato gnocchi; and this dish, braised kangaroo tail and seared kangaroo filet mignon with bush banana and brown butter:

Dessert, in case you're wondering, was sugar bag honey parfait and coolamon tuile, with wattleseed and Ferrero Rocher ripple gelato. Sweet.

[Read the previous Alice Desert Festival instalment here]

For more details of the Alice Desert Festival, click here. Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by Tourism NT.

Sunday 18 September 2011

A Festival Like Alice 1

I'm on my very first visit to the Northern Territory, and I've gone right to the centre of Australia - Alice Springs. In a few hours on Thursday morning I was transported from a chilly tram stop on Bourke Street, Melbourne, to the hot dry red-dust environment of Alice Springs. And all without producing a passport.

I'm primarily here as a guest of the Alice Desert Festival, an annual week of cultural events which this year runs from 9 to 18 September. Alice may be a small town but as it rarely rains here, it gives the festival organisers great scope in staging outdoor events in spectacular locations.

Joining the dots

But more of the outdoors later. The first thing I attended was actually a low-key indoor event at the Ngurratjuta Art Centre. It's a fairly humble place, being tucked away at the back of a building in an industrial part of town. Within its grounds, however, is an impressive art gallery showcasing watercolour work by local Aboriginal painters.

The centre's workshop is open to indigenous artists to use for free, including materials, with the centre taking a commission from art sold. The centre has a particular goal of encouraging the continuation of the style of artwork made famous by Albert Namatjira, and I noticed the surname 'Namatjira' on some of the artists' lockers around the walls.

The festival session invited visitors to try either watercolour painting or dot painting for ourselves; and of course we all chose the dot painting. Having been shown how to make dots of various sizes using either wooden skewers or the end of a paint brush, we were then reminded that it wasn't an abstract exercise - the works should tell a story.

Here's my first effort, not bad for a beginner I thought:

And if you're wondering what the story is - it involves a group of wild camels I encountered on the road to Hermannsburg the previous day (can you spot them in the art?). Here's a pic from real life:

Olive and pink by sunset

For my second festival event, I walked through a river to get to the venue. To be precise, it was the dry riverbed of the Todd River, and it was the quickest route from my hotel to the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, where the play The First Garden was being premiered.

You may reasonably assume that 'Olive Pink' refers to the colours of vegetation or landscape, but in fact she was an early Aboriginal rights activist and former anthropologist who decided to create a garden of native plants in Alice Springs, with the help of Warlpiri man Johnny Tjampitjinpa.

She lived within the park until her death at 1975, aged 91. She was a remarkable and strong-willed woman whose life story is well worth reading.

The compact cast of three actors (playing five characters) did a great job of portraying the high points of her life within the reserve, though delivery tended to the melodramatic at times, due to the necessity of projecting as clearly as possible in an open space.

Natasha Raja, co-writer of the play with Christopher Raja, convincingly portrayed both Pink's force of character and her stubborn refusal to be beholden to anyone; while Scott Fraser neatly cast light on her personality as both down-to-earth helper Henry Wardlaw and the ghost of her would-be fiancee who was killed at Gallipoli.

Also impressive was Eshua Bolton, an indigenous actor originally from New South Wales, who ranged from the youthful excesses of the young boy Tasman to the calm and thoughtful personality of Tjampitjinpa.

The setting, of course, was perfect - gum trees, bird calls, and a bluff of pink rock rising up behind the set with its humble hut. Remarkably, I was told afterward that the section of the garden in which the play was being staged was roughly the area in which Olive Pink had lived. I wonder what she would have made of it?

Next: Choral voices in a gorge, and bush foods for dinner... [Read the next instalment here]

The First Garden continues to 25 September; for more details of the Alice Desert Festival, click here. Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by Tourism NT.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Queenscliff Time Bubble

I've just returned from Queenscliff, a town about 100km south of Melbourne, at the easternmost end of the Bellarine Peninsula which wraps around the southwestern shoreline of Port Phillip Bay.

In the 19th century Queenscliff was a popular holiday destination for Melburnians, linked by vessels which steamed straight down the bay between the two places. Sadly, today we have to settle for going the long way round via Geelong.

What's fascinating about the town is its almost completely unbroken set of Victorian-era buildings in both its main street and residential streets. As I've intimated elsewhere, it's as if its 19th century inhabitants made a deal with someone supernatural in order to keep the place untouched by the excesses of 20th century architecture.

Here are some of its gems which I liked the look of...

1. Vue Grand. It was once the 19th century Grand Hotel, but after a wing was burned down in the late 1920s, it gained an art deco makeover and the fashionably spelled 'Vue'.

 2. Queenscliff Post Office. I've mentioned before how much I enjoy discovering country town post office buildings which are still used as post offices, and here's another fine example.

3. Former Wesleyan Church. Down the other end of this block is this former place of worship, now an atmospheric second-hand bookshop.

4. Fort Queenscliff. Further along and around the corner is this army installation, built to ward off a Russian invasion (seriously) during the Crimean War. Allegedly it fired the first shot by British Empire forces in both World Wars, when it fired warning shots against a) a German vessel attempting to flee through the nearby Heads out to sea in 1914; and b) an incoming local cargo ship which hadn't responded to a signal in 1939.

5. Bellarine Railway. In the other direction, down toward the harbour, is the terminus of this tourist railway which runs Sunday steam services along a stretch of the former branch line from Geelong. Fine train!

6. 360Q. Finally, to break the Victorian-era stranglehold, here's the brand new 360Q building in the rebuilt Queenscliff Harbour. It's a lighthouse, a restaurant and an observation tower all in one. Nice views.

And you can read more about Queenscliff's attractions, accommodation, dining and shopping in the forthcoming update to my Melbourne Getaways app for the iPad and iPhone.

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of V/Line and the Vue Grand.