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  • Writer's pictureGregory T. Wilkins

Australia - Land Down Under (2013/14)

November 22, 2013 -- Count Down to Australia When I was a young boy, I wanted so badly to go to Australia. I have always had this love of adventure. It stems from childhood when my mother suggested we take a bike tour as a family vacation. Our family gathered together to talk about the possibility, and unanimously we voted in the affirmative. We even created a logo and our brand was the Wandering Wilkins. Now, the dreaming and scheming never truly got us out of Florida, but it did get me thinking of the possibilities. How was I going to get out of my flea bitten town to see the world? If I was not going to lead myself toward the promised land (or the Land Down Under--cue the Men At Work record), it was never going to happen. And as the ol' adage states, "A journey of a thousand miles, begins with a single step". And I was so ready for more than just step; I was prepared to run, leap and crawl--anything to escape the confines and doldrums of Florida. My first opportunity was with my 7th grade English teacher, Ms. Lewis. She was a dynamic woman with long, brunette hair who encouraged us to explore. She spoke about when she was in college and her first trip to Europe. Over poetry and short stories, she opened the door to mythical places as she would teach us American literature. And with America as a platform and entwined with world history, she spoke with clarity of her understanding of the planet and places farther than I imagined. It was the same world I had only viewed in picture books and seen on National Geographic and the Mutual of Omaha. I yearned for something more, a place rich and wondrous, something more than the ordinary outside my classroom door.

Ms. Lewis said that she was a planning a trip to France...Paris to be exact. She held an informational meeting at one of my classmates homes and explained what the adventure would entail-- museums, history, exploration. My mother drove me to the planning event, and I hoped that she would support me going--afterall, she went to France after the war when she finished college at Washington University in St. Louis, and I figured I would have an ally. Now my mother did support me going--but not financially. She supported the dream, the possibility and my love of learning and adventure. However, there was no way she or my father could financially support the trip because my father was out of work and they could barely keep food in the cupboards for our hungry bellies. If I could raise the money, Mother would sign the permission slip and the world would be mine.

I worked every odd job on the block where I lived to earn enough money to go. But no matter the effort, enough funds were not gathered and I remained home in Eustis, Florida. I ached for something more than the ordinary. And I felt confined to my nest with wings cut and the possibility of flight left only to the imagination. I was going nowhere fast and my heart ached. My first year in high school provided me another opportunity for travel. I saw posted on a bulletin board a year excursion to Australia. A program called Youth for Understanding was looking for curious souls. Again, I shared the opportunity with my parents and was told it would be fine to go if I raised all the money. And one more time, not enough pennies were earned leaving me state side. And so now past has come full circle, and this time I am going to Australia for seven weeks. I will be doing global service in New South Wales doing a variety of work--rural organic farms that are off the grid, LGBT music festival, urban gardening, teaching, etc. It is going to be a blast! And fortunate for me one of my current students family lives in Sydney and has welcomed me to spend time with them on both ends of the trip as well as during the winter holiday. The other blessing is I am flying Delta on a Buddy Pass from a dear college buddy from Warren Wilson College. The countdown has begun and may the blessing continue.

November 28, 2013 - Adventure Awaits Having traveled as much as I have, I have learned to pack well. Living simply is easy; people complicate travel. How much and how many things does one truly need to take on a journey? Arriving last winter to India with nothing but a day pack because my main pack was left on the tarmac in Amsterdam, I learned that I could live without stuff for at least ten days. It was easier than I imagined, though not having my clothes at first was a bit off-putting. I would rather have a good night's sleep and hot water to bathe in than a fresh pair of clothes. Priorities shift indeed with the haves and the havenots. It reminds of me how little most of the world has it, and who am I to squabble with a few inconveniences?

This year I am taking a few more items than I would normally. I will be camping for about 2/3 of my trip and preparing for rain. I will take: a tent, a sleep sack and small airline blanket. I will also bring a pair of shorts for swimming as well as an extra long sleeve shirt. In total I will bring: 3 pairs of socks, 4 black undershirts, 4 black underwear, a long pair of pants that converts to shorts, one pair of swimshorts, one a pair of slides, one black polo, 1 black long sleeve shirt, one tent, one sleep sack, one blanket, one towel, travel guide, toiletries, camera, computer, and one rain jacket plus rain pants. In addition I will wear on the plane: black boots, black socks, black underwear, black jacket, black long sleeve shirt, and black hat.

My backpack should not be misplaced this yr. I have one connection MSP/LAX/LAX/SYD. The one thing I a hoping for is 1st class travel but with a Buddy Pass you never now what you will get. Everything fits without any major rearranging and ready for the day to begin. I am not one who gets anxious about travel. I am ready. November 29, 2013 I grew up with a genetic disorder called otosclerosis. ( It is something that never bothered me as a boy, but it did affect my speech because I could only hear parts of words. My hearing loss would cut off ends of words so that I would lose the t, r, k, etc.  I learned to over compensate it for it, and being in the theatre definitely helped me learn to enunciate. (In fact most did not know of my lost b/c I was able to fake hearing 100%.) Not knowing how words and sounds were heard correctly, it was something I never paid too much attention.

While living in Washington, DC, I had a physical and explained to my doctor about my ear. The reason I did it was b/c my mother said that when was a boy I was misdiagnosed, and I wanted to get a 2nd opinion. Long story short, I found that my loss could be repaired. My doctor was from Walter Reed Hospital, and he performed the surgery. I could hear perfectly overnight. It was like a miracle. For the first time I could hear holiday music and the most faint sounds. Cured!

Today when I woke, I did not hear the alarm well. I thought nothing of it until I got out of bed and everything sounded muffled. My left ear was not 100%. I thought maybe it was stuffed up and blowing my ears out like you do when on plane would make a difference. I didn't get better results. My ear definitely has a problem. I am not going to let this small mishap from not taking me to Australia. I lived with the problem before, I will do it again. Maybe it will come back to me? Worse case scenario I will have to manage it when I get back from my travels. Then gain, maybe it's fluid in the ears? It is frustrating indeed, especially as I am preparing to leave today for my fight. November 30, 2013 I started my day early and doubled checked my backpack to make sure I was prepared for 7 weeks of Aussie bliss. My planning paid off, and it was time for me to set off and get my journey going. If I had forgotten something I was going to have to manage w/o it or come up with another option.

Taking Land to Air, I arrived to MSP with plenty of time to settle in and begin my wait for my flight. The night before it appeared that there were flights available but knowing how things go on stand-by I knew better than to get my hopes up high as things could change with a push of a button. And it's a good thing I did not get too excited as my first flight was overbooked by more than 8 and standby had 2 dozen waiting. So, my name and others were pushed to the next flight. This occurred over and over again like a bad version of "Ground Hog Day". Each time my heart would race only to be dashed aside with hope lost. Picking up my day pack, I would shuffle with the rest of the herd to wait again, and again...and again.

To be quite honest, I have gotten accustomed to waiting. It is part of the journey, and I learned my lesson well when I was to India last year. The same thing happened, but I was fortunate to get the last flight to Amsterdam, November 30 this year however did not provide me with such luck. I then heard through the grapevine that Buddy Passes were on hold Sunday b/c of the Thanksgiving holiday. If I did not get on the last flight, I would have to resort to a weekend in Minneapolis. Now MSP is not the worst place to be stranded I have done far worse...namely Mumbai, India for 4 days. At least I had connections in Minneapolis. The other win was Delta had free wifi, and I could connect on Facebook to at least post my status. I also got on the cell phone and began calling about to find a place to rest my weary head. Who was going to be in town was going to be the next challenge. I called Cricket and left a message. I then called Jason and Brian and left them messages as well. Darn, no luck on the home front. I guess everyone was out for the holidays; how could I blame them? I made it over to the Delta concierge and fold them I lived too far way to drive home. They took pity on me and gave me a hotel voucher for a reduced rate. Calling the 1-800 # I found a room for $65 including fees and transportation pick-up from the airport. This could be a back-up for me in a worse case scenario. To be quite honest though I did not want to spend the $ here in the USA for a room. Every penny spent here was one less dollar in AUS. I resorted to return to Facebook just in case someone saw my predicament.

Not soon after logging on, Cricket returned my message from my earlier message. He and his family were out of town, but if I wanted to I could stay at their house. I was overjoyed! I took them up on the offer and was given the secret hiding place for their house key. Spending $27.50, I took the Super Shuttle to his place, found the key, let myself in and quickly settled into bed. I was exhausted. A full day at the airport was lost, but I was not beaten. Before leaving the airport, I confirmed that indeed Buddy Passes would not work on Sunday b/c of Thanksgiving. I also inquired about Monday and was told that all seats were booked with no openings. I was told to not even bother coming as it would amount to nothing. So, I stayed at Cricket's for three nights, and his family returned on Monday evening. Cricket and I caught-up about his excursion to Hungary a month ago as he hiked across the countryside. I am blessed man to have good souls surround me. I checked my email with Cricket's computer the next day, and I discovered that others replied to my Facebook note. I was given offers to stay with other people in MSP. I also got an offer to hang out with a fraternity brother on Sunday, but I opted to stay put and rest. There is no need to burn the candle from both ends. All the same, friends did pull through. THANK YOU! Today (Dec. 3), Cricket taught this morning at a middle school, and he drove me to the airport. I arrived by 6:45 a.m. and went to check-in. I hoped to switch my flight from Sydney to Melbourne, but I was told I had to fly into SYD b/c it was a Delta hub. This was concerning b/c the flight takes 2 days, and I will arrive the same day I am fly to Melbourne on Jetstar. It looks like I will have to plead my case and hope the flight gods fall to my favor. There is nothing more that I can do at this juncture. I will now cross my fingers for 1st class. LAX lunch/dinner at McDonald's, $7.40 (plain burger, medium fry, large drink)

Good thing is I got on the first flight to LAX. I got the last seat and bulkhead for a few extra inches of leg room. Let's see if I get the same luck to AUS...come on 1st class! The plane from LAX leaves at 8:15 p.m. and I will spend the day watching travelers pass through the terminal. 9 hours of waiting and I pray that I can get on the flight. There is one more tonight, and I hope I can get on either one. December 3 - 5, 2013 Cricket drove me over first thing in the morning to the MSP Airport. We woke at 6 a.m. and out the door by 6:30. A dusting of Minnesota snow covered the earth from the night before, and there was a northwest chill in the air. Saying our farewells along the very deserted airport departure lane, he insisted I call him should delayed travel occur in my forecast. I hoped that I would be able to change my flight for SYD to Melbourne, but no such was in store for me. There was a flight, but it wasn't on Delta. My Buddy Pass would not suffice. So, SYD it was. I was going to have to beg for miracle once I arrived to SYD, b/c my flight to Melbourne was going to be missed b/c of the flight delays. The Delta plane was to leave at 9:00 a.m., and my fingers were crossed b/c the rest of the day all flights appeared booked. I was fortunate. I and another Delta employee got the last 2 remaining seats. The real plus was that we got bulkhead which meant a few more inches of leg room. We were off to LAX.

I slept most of the way to LAX. Once we landed, I waited for 9 hours hoping that I would be able to get the next flight to SYD. If I did not make it, only one last remaining flight was left. Lucky for moi, I got it! Now, it was not First Class, but no complaints were coming from me. I sat next to a Chinese family that emigrated to AUS. They owned a restaurant and had family living in the USA. They had six people in their party plus 2 grandchildren. I said a silent prayer that they would sleep until AUS. Before long I was out. I woke for a meal and to go to the restroom. For the most part, I was asleep until AUS.

We arrived to SYD on schedule. As I had anticipated, my Jetstar flight was gone. I waited for the carousel to expel my bag, but no backpack came. I knew the routine well for lost baggage b/c almost each time I fly on a Buddy Pass my items are misplaced or forgotten. The bag made it from MSP to LAX, but it was left at LAX. I filed a report with the hopes that it would get to Melbourne the following day.

I exited security and immigration without incident. I exchanged $100US for $99.50AUS. I made my way to information desk and found that the domestic airport was not connected. I paid $5AUS or a train ticket and made my way to the Jetstar counter. I pleaded my case, and the desk staff was kind to not have me pay any fees after they heard of my voyage taking so long to arrive to AUS. The only thing was that all flights from SYD to my final destination were booked until 2:30 p.m. At this point, waiting is turning into a old trick. And so I did just that...wait.

The flight from SYD to Melourne is quick--1 hour and 5 minutes. Taking my notes that Alan Phessey had sent to get to his place in the city, I found my way to Skybus. I paid $28 for round trip fair and was to then catch a bus from Southern Cross to his house in Fritzroy. Number 86 was right where the directions said it would be. What was not shared however was that while I had a pocket full of coins to pay for the bus, you don't pay when you are on it. You are to get a ticket beforehand and swipe the card when you get onboard. I got on board to pay but nothing could be found. Worse case scenario was that I would get arrested and pay a fine if found by a police officer. I figured if that came to be part of my destiny, I was going to have to repent and hope for the best. Lucky for me, it all worked out fine, and I would not have to beg for mercy. I got off Smith and Hodges, the same corner as Woolworth grocery.

I made my way up the road to Alan's place. A large green fence surrounded his house. I opened the gate and entered a secret garden. Flowers and vegetables bloomed. A shocking yellow door stood in front of me; I rapped on it. Alan greeted me. It was good to have found it. I was exhausted and ready to call it a day. December 6, 2013 Sophisticated and slick, edgy and exuberant, the city of Melbourne's physical and cultural landscape is shaped by a dynamic population, ever-ravenous for a bite of global culture, and I have found this description to be true. The place pulsates with multiculturalism--people from around the globe inhabiting neighborhoods that a full of life and adventure. You do not have to go far to experience something or someone different from yourself. And while the majority are Caucasians, it is a place in transition which I find refreshing. Ornate Victorian-era architecture and established boulevards reflect the city’s history. In the hub of it all is the cutting-edge Federation Square with modern architecture and a vibrant beat. The Tourist Centre is especially helpful with knowledgeable elder volunteers--and I must add very friendly staff. Transportation too is accessible. Trams lumber back and forth on routes radiating out like spokes from central Melbourne, buses and trains are within easy reach, and cycling (both private and public) is a common way to get from A to Z. Being a walker, it is easy to also get from one point to another as signage is excellent, and if you do need to inquire about directions. Melbournians are helpful and friendly.

I spent my first full day exploring the churches and the central hub of the city. Alan (my Couchsurf host) suggested I visit St. Paul's and St. Pat's as their architecture is full of grandeur and told they perform "high church". I got up early to beat the heat of the day, but temperatures were cooler than I had anticipated. (I was thankful that I brought my Patagonia fleece.) With potential rain in the forecast, I borrowed an umbrella from Alan and was off. Along the way I was tickled to see so much graffiti on the walls--very good art I must say and not just some random tag. I did not get far up the street before having to unearth my camera to capture the display(s). Full size walls were done in a kaleidoscope of color and the hunt for the next piece I found thrilling with each alleyway I would cross. I arrived to St. Paul's before the main church door was open, I saw young boys entering in and out a side door and followed  as if I knew what I was doing. They arrived early to prepare for the Christmas service and were going to rehearsal. Lucky for me, I was going to get free entertainment.  Settling into one of the pews, I sat back to listen.

St. Paul's Cathedral is in a prominent location in the centre of Melbourne, on the eastern corner of Swanston Street and Flinders Street. It is diagonally opposite Flinders Street Station, which was the transport hub of 19th century Melbourne and is still an important centre. It is directly across the street from the Tourist Information Center (Federation Square). The church  sits on the ground of where the first public Christian service was conducted in 1835. At the time of its construction, St. Paul's was the tallest building in central Melbourne and dominated the city's skyline; this is no longer case as the city has grown-up and out in all directions. St. Paul's is built in a revival style known as Gothic transitional. The cathedral was consecrated on 22 January 1891, but the building of the spires did not begin until 1926.

St Paul's is unusual among Melbourne's more notable 19th century public buildings in that it is not made from bluestone, the city's dominant building material. Instead it is made from sandstone from the Barrabool Hills and limestone embellishments of Waurn Ponds limestone, both from near Geelong, giving the cathedral a warm yellow-brown coloring rather than Melbourne's characteristic cold blue-grey. This gives it a strikingly different appearance to the bluestone Gothic of St Patrick's Roman Catholic cathedral on the eastern edge of the city. Because the spires are made from Sydney sandstone and are 30 years newer, they are of a darker tone than the older parts of the building. St Paul's Moorhouse Tower is the second highest Anglican spire in the world, the tallest being that of Salisbury Cathedral.

The cathedral's pipe organ which was built by T. C. Lewis and Co. of Brixton, England. Over six and half thousand pounds were spent on its construction, shipping and installation before it was played at the cathedral's opening in 1891. Various modifications and maintenance works have been carried out since then, culminating in a $726,000 restoration which was completed in 1990 with the help of a National Trust appeal. In its restored state the organ has four manuals with 44 stops and pedals with nine stops, all with electro-pneumatic action. It is housed in the cathedral's south transept behind newly-stencilled facade pipes. Their sound is spectalar! It reverberates into the very bottom of your belly and sends sivers down yoor spine. I look forward to returning on Sunday for the 2nd Week of Advent to hear it in it's full splendor with a full choir. December 7, 2013

My bags arrived last night to the Melbourne Airport. Alan received the call and was told that they would be ready for pick-up at baggage claim 3. He was very kind to drive me over which saved me $21 in Skybus and tram fees. Just as planned, my backpack was there. Alan jetted about the terminal in his Honda and whisked me away in seconds flat. This was a huge blessing, and it was nice to once again to have my bag in my possession. He said that he did not want to keep me from seeing the city, and was I interested in seeing Hanging Rock? Of course I was going to jump at the invitation. I remember seeing a film  (Picnic at Hanging Rock) in the 1990s about some school girls who went missing from Hanging Rock. I thought it was a true story only to find that it was fiction. Leaving the terminal, we jetted off the exit and into the countryside. It was a perfect day for an excursion. Hardly a cloud was in the sky, and you could see for miles (or Kilometers if you are an Aussie). Taking several roundabouts and down side roads, we managed to arrive in one piece after about an hour. Hanging Rock is in the middle of farmland and way from the hustle and bustle of Melbourne. Highland cows and sheep grave the fields with a scattering of 19th century farm houses in the distance. It sits in central Victoria. (I learned that Victoria is named after Queen Victoria.) Hanging rock was once known as Mount Diogenes. It gives a eerie vibe with rock formations tht seem to almost stand at attention on the lower level of rock face. (I also learned a new work abseiling, the scaling of rocks). The rocks rest in the Wurundjeri nation's territory, an aboriginal group. Hanging Rock is a mamelon created 6.25 million years ago by stiff magma pouring from a vent and congealing in place.

Hanging Rock contains numerous distinctive rock formations, including the "Hanging Rock" itself (a boulder suspended between other boulders, under which is the main entrance path). Other formations are called the Colonnade, the Eagle and the UFO. Upon entering the space be sure to duck your head or you might return with a souvenir bump on your noggin. The highest point on Hanging Rock is 718 metres above sea level and 105 metres above the plain below. I climbed to the pinnacle and posted a video on Facebook of the surrounding area. As stated earlier, Hanging Rock is located within the Wurundjeri nation's territory, but they exercised a custodial responsibility on behalf of the surrounding tribes in the Kulin nation. It was a site of male initiation and as such entry was forbidden except those young males being taken there for ceremonial initiation. Like U.S. history, westerners did some terrible tings to the locals--removed hem from ancestral lands, put children into mission schools, made them wear western cloths, cut their hair, and forbidden to speak their native language. After colonial settlement, the Aboriginals were forced out by 1844. Today the park is open to all. Below the rocks are a horse racing arena, educational centre, gift shop and coffee shop. The eucalyptus trees perfume the air. It is rich indeed an reminded me of my time working at U.C. San Diego in La Jolla, CA. Bird songs I had never heard before sing into the morning air, and first the time I was able to hear a cuckaburo. I told Alan that this was a school song I learned, and he had never heard it before--and of course I sang it for him. "Cuckaburo sits on the old gum tree, eating all the gum drops he can see, laugh cuckaburro laugh cuckaburo save some drops for me." What was even more spectacular was a flash of red that caught my eye. Vibrant red and quite large, I followed it with my eyes. It is a large bird. I asked what it is called and thought I was told it was a rosetta. Trying to find more information about it, I must have misheard and will to inquire again. The other bid I saw was the white parrot called a White Cockatoo or an Umbrella Cockatoo. I have seen them before in captivity and in pet shops but never out in the open. Wild and free it gave a ferocious squawk. I almost fell off the rock in startlement. I peered at it for 15 minutes or so until it opened its wings and flew--gorgeous indeed! The special opportunity I had out here in the country was my first siting of a kangaroo!

The kangaroo is an unofficial symbol of Australia. It appears on the Australian coat of arms, on some of its currency, and is used by some of Australia's well known companies (Qantas) and also as a symbol on the Royal Australian Air Force. The kangaroo is a marsupial from the family Macropodidae (macropods, meaning 'large foot'). They are not only native to Australia. They are also in Papau New Guinea kangaroo. Kangaroos have large, powerful hind legs, large feet adapted for leaping, a long muscular tail for balance, and a small head. Like most marsupials, female kangaroos have a pouch called a marsupium in which joeys (a kangaroo baby) completes postnatal development and often times continues to live in for a couple of years. The front feet are very thin and small when comparing the back hind legs. The back legs remind me of skis. The tail is used as an extra appendage for balancing and when jumping to keep it aligned to the ground--sort of like a monkeys but not as dexterus. Kangaroos are often referred to as "roos". Male kangaroos are called bucks, boomers, jacks, or old men; females are does, flyers, or jills. The collective noun for kangaroos is a mob, troop, or court.

A common myth about the kangaroo's English name is that "kangaroo" was a Guugu Yimithirr phrase for "I don't understand you." According to this legend, Lieutenant Cook and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks were exploring the area when they happened upon the animal. They asked a nearby local what the creatures were called. The local responded "Kangaroo", meaning "I don't understand you", which Cook took to be the name of the creature. The Kangaroo myth was debunked in the 1970s by linguist John B. Haviland in his research with the Guugu Yimithirr people. January 4, 2014- Outside of Nimbin Faeries live around the world. While living in Asheville, North Carolina, I heard about the faeries of Short Mountain in TN. I never managed to get there in the1980s.When I moved to California and later to WA state, I once again tried to connect with them and my attempts were futile. Upon arriving to MN, I finally made my way to the Northwood faeries of Kashaway. My last five years with the tribe has been wonderful.

Coming to AUS, I wanted to reach out to my international faerie sisters/brothers and through the international network reached out to Spidercutie who lives on Faeryland about 1/2 hour outside of Nimbin. I dropped him a note and let him know that I was going to be venturing to AUS. I was hoping I might be able to stay on the land for a few days and help with their forestation project. He promptly replied to my email and informed me that it was also during the time of the summer solstice, and if I was so inclined I was more than welcome to meet other faeiries at the gathering and to volunteer there as well. I jumped at the chance!

I arrived three days before the gathering and helped clean the house, weedwack the trails, helped with meal preparation, and prepared for ritual. Slowly the faeries began to emerge and arrive to sanctuary. Opening ceremonies had about 80 in attendance with 60 who stayed the entire week. It was pure joy! Faeryland has 8 men who live there year round. They live in huts and cottages scattered across the land. They communally raise produce and look after the earth and each other. Some have been there for more than 12 years, while others have been there for a little over a year. I forget how many acres of land they manage but want to say it is about 140 acres. Their view is spectacular with rainforest and mountain ranges in the distance. Wildlife abounds with the calls of birds filling the air throughout the day as well as crickets, frogs, fruit bats, wallabees, kualas, and slithering things (of which I ran into 3 pythons).

One nice element that is different from Kawashaway, Faeryland has electricity and hot water from a solar panel. The community focuses on sustainability with compost toilets, recycling the majority of their waste, and eating vegan and vegetarian food. Eggs are harvested from their organic range chickens and heaps of fruits and vegetables come from the steward's of the land gardens. Faeries over the week hosted a variety of workshops from poetry, nonviolent communication, connecting with your faery spirit, erotic touch and breathing, shaving and manscaping, guided meditation, daily heart circles, etc. Some special evenings were dedicated to faery short films, the history of the faery movement reflecting on historial/cross-cultural  perspectives, and the ever-amazing No Talent Show. I was welcomed into the fold and glad to have gotten to know this tribe. I look forward to returning. January 5, 2014 -- Wollemi Pine, Critically Endangered While in the rainforest, I heard about the Wollemi Pine when speaking with Phaes, a Radical Faery. Aboriginals would come from miles and miles to honor these trees, dine and celebrate among them and then return home. The faeries are trying to help reestablish them in the rainforest. The trees, covered in dense, waxy foliage with distinctive bubbly bark that makes them look as if they are coated with brown chocolate, live along the banks of a small stream and are world classified as critically endangered. There are others outside of Sydney that occupy a tiny 5,000-square-meter grove of prehistoric rainforest in the 500,000 hectare park. In that park alone so far, 23 mature trees and 16 younger ones have been found, making them also among the world's rarest plants. The oldest tree is believed to be from 200 to 300 years old.The discovery is the equivalent of finding a small dinosaur still alive on Earth," said Carrick Chambers, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens. "While the trees can be identified as pines, or conifers their closest relatives are extinct plants only found in fossils from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods about 65 million to 200 million years ago," said Ken Hill, a botanist with Sydney Botanic Gardens. If successful, these trees will have huge historical significance as they are very rare indeed. With good stewardship and the right temperatures, the Radical Faeries hope that they will flourish. It is amazing to give life to something that will far outlive our small time on the planet. I was fortunate to see them, plant a few in the fertile soil, and be blessed by them in their natural habitat. Wollemi Pine Fossil Record: 150 million years old January 6, 2014 -- Tropical Fruits New Years Extravaganza I spent a week volunteering for the Lismore Tropical Fruits for their New Years celebration--3,000+ attendees from around the world, 3 large parties, multiple dance and chill venues (cabaret, art gallery, men's space, women's space, trans space), and hosted by a significant volunteer force. This year was their 25th anniversary and done to the 9s with a circus theme. Arriving on December 27, I camped on the Lismore Showgrounds and helped prepare the space for the big day(s). I assisted with the cabaret space, hanging/making large backdrops, as well as cooking for approximately 120 people each day. People come all over Australia to attend this annual event which has grown annually and generates millions of dollars for the local economy.

What is amusing is that Lismore is out of the way in a small rural town--a lot like Mankato, MN. It is a district seat and many farmers come into town for shopping and errands. Lismore is a subtropical town in northeastern New South Wales, Australia. It is the main population centre and regional centre in the Northern Rivers region of the State. The City of Lismore lies in the Bundjalung people's nation area and is home to approximately 30,000 people as well as home to Southern Cross University.

I flew into the Ballina Airport and because I was familiar with bus travel because of my excursion to the Radical Faeries, I knew what bus(es) to take. I did not know exactly how to get to the showgrounds and decided to pend $10 AUS to drive me with my backpack versus trying to find the place in the subtropicl heat and humidity quickly rising once I got into town. It was about 1.5 miles out of town, and the rest of the week I hoofed it back and fourth. Madam Pan with the Radical Faeries invited me to help set-up Shirley's Temple and join their festivities. Not knowing anyone, it was an excellent opportunity to meet Shirleys and to help participate in their legendary extravaganza.

The Shirley's had about 25 people joining them, and they have become an annual force on the camp ground with themed dance space, bar space, inflatable pool and of course an array of costumes and drag. After volunteering each day with Tropical Fruits, it was a nice place to chill, talk about the day, have a beer and watch the evening settle-in. I was blessed at the end of the week by becoming an honorary Shirley and was presented a tank top with a Shirley logo saying, "Oooooo Fruity!". I was encouraged to set-up camp with them, but I was warned that Shirley's stayed up late, and I wanted to bein tiptop shape each day to volunteer. I decided to put my tent in the Bear Coral which was 1/2 way between the two shower areas, close enough the temple and yet far enough away to not hear the music base drum me to sleep.

Tropical Fruits hosts this massive party and has a rich story.

From their website---The first openly gay and lesbian event was advertised in Nimbin News, announcing a bar-be-que at Whian Whian for members of the 'gay and transgendered' communities.  In June 1981, a meeting was held at the Bluebird Restaurant in Lismore. The Northern Rivers Gay Group (NRGG) was formed with a committee being elected. NRGG grew quickly, organizing picnics, bar-be-ques, beach parties and balls. 

From this time through to 1988, the social calendar for the gay, lesbian and transgender (g/l/t) communities was busy. A number of venues and farms operated as meeting places, including the Bluebird and Double Dutch Restaurants in Lismore, Mandala near Uki and Lawrence Station near Grafton.

Social groups came and went. At the end of 1982, Northern Rivers Gay Group was disbanded. Later, Summerland Gay Women was formed, met at Double Dutch and later metamorphosed into Summerland Gay People, which also folded when Double Dutch closed.

Political controversies occurred through these years, too. In 1984, the then-editor of theNorthern Star published a series of homophobic editorials around the gay and lesbian communities and the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The local gay radio show was also involved in a debate concerning content of programs.

Tropical Fruits is born

In June 1988, Tropical Fruits was formed, following the disbandment of Summerland Gay People. Using bands of faithful volunteers (male and female) as its organizing principle, Fruits’ membership and reputation grew quickly through the late 1980s and early 1990s by holding regular parties and picnics at local beaches or members' farms and dances at country halls in the area.

In 1997, the New Year's Eve party was moved from Repentance Creek Hall to the Rugby Union Club in Lismore. Rainbow Circus 1 was created with two marquees, fireworks, luscious sounds, live music and other performances.

2002 was a regenerative time. At the annual general meeting (AGM), a new committee was elected with Erif Benham (Saint Erif) emerging as an indomitable community organizer. In 2003, Rainbow Circus moved to Lismore Showgrounds, becoming the signature Tropical Fruits’ New Years Eve Party with two nights of parties in themed auditoriums, live music, cabaret, art exhibition, fire works and performances.

The administration of Tropical Fruits finally moved out of members' lounge rooms when the Clubhouse or Fruitbowl was opened in December 2004. It rapidly became a de facto community centre with an office, workshop space and storage area, and now functions as a meeting place for local GLBTI groups as well as regular activities like crafternoons.

In 2008, Saint Erif was diagnosed with a terminal illness and tragically passed in January 2009. She was instrumental in establishing the land fund for a future Fruits’ home. Later in 2009, it was renamed the Erif Benham Memorial Land Fund. Also in 2009, Fresh Fruits, the most recent youth group within Fruits, was formed and the Queer Fruits Film Festival was added to the end-of-year party, thus making it a festival.

Through all these years, Fruits’ has expanded with part-time staff helping with administration and event organisation. By 2011, there were 17 sub-committees, each one working around particular areas like governance or Fruitopia Fair Day. In late 2011, the Fruitbowl was purchased by Tropical Fruits, this being the first time that a regional GLBTI group in New South Wales (possibly Australia) has bought its own home.  


'Our People, Our Places, Our Parties'

Now that 'Gay and Lesbian' is erased from Sydney's Mardi Gras, the Northern Rivers GLBTI History Project definitely places 'Lesbian and Gay' front and center with its inaugural project, 'Our People, Our Places, Our Parties', a documentation of the informal and formal meeting places of the lesbian/gay/bisexual and transgender (l/g/b/t) subcultures in the region from the 1970s through to the 1990s. “The Northern Rivers has one of the largest gay and lesbian communities outside the urban areas” said Ian Gray, a member of the group and long-term resident/local, “and we want to record and document our histories.”

Although Tropical Fruits has its clubhouse, the Fruitbowl, and organizes regular events, including the iconic New Year's Eve festival, other venues and different kinds of social events contributed to the development of our regional subcultures.

"I moved here in 1994,” said Peter Mitchell, the group's founding member, “and knew about the Tropical Fruits' parties in country halls, but was also told about coffee shops and picnics at the beach. These are very different ways of meeting other community members in contrast to wandering into a bar in the Oxford Street.”

The group will record interviews and publish a booklet that will describe these meeting places and record the ways l/g/b/t community members met and socialised through these decades.

“We want to document the venues that contributed to the diversity and sense of community in the region,” said Hayley Katzen, a recently joined member. “We invite people to bring along their photos and memorabilia and stories about the places where they've socialised - the private farms, the dances at country halls or coffee shops like Caddies and Double Dutch.”  January 16, 2014 - Stars I never really pay too much attention to the night sky because so often light pollution overshadows the heavens and leaves me wandering what rests above my head. While living in Idaho with Scott Clyde on his wheat farm, we would gaze into the skies and observe the constellations. Big city living had nothing on the massive open sky and the possibilities of limitless space travel dreams. Stars as big as baseballs and falling stars screeching across the evening air would chase my best wishes into hopes and prayers of good fortune, health and travel. So vast and appearing unattainable, I am always amazed that people have crossed the heavens and have walked on the moon--all within my lifetime. What lies above has been of interest to people since the beginning. Everything from the star the wisemen followed to find Jesus at his birth to the Aztec and the building of their pyramids as well as arguments (war, death and devastation) as to the earth or the sun being the center of the cosmos, people have been transfixed on the sky. Because of the Sun’s huge influence on Earth, many early cultures saw the Sun as a deity or god. For example, Ancient Egyptians had a sun god called Ra while in Aztec mythology there is a sun god named Tonatiuh, Greeks called it Helios and the Romans called it Sol. All eyes looking up and out, we today often forget about what lies beyond (but within our reach). While in Australia I celebrated the summer solstice with the Aussie Radical Faeries at Faeryland outside of Nimbin. Honoring the moon and welcoming the sun, we gathered in a field to celebrate. Drums, whistles, and dancing led us forward. Men gathering together as days of old whispering secrets and practicing ritual. Mantras were sung as spirits gathered in the wood gazing upon us just as they did the ancients. It felt good to be invited. Some interesting Sun facts that were spoken were:

  • Around 74% of the Sun’s mass is made up of hydrogen. Helium makes up around 24% while heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, iron and neon make up the remaining percentage.

  • At around 1,392,000 kilometres (865,000 miles) wide, the Sun’s diameter is about 110 times wider than Earth’s.

  • Light from the Sun reaches Earth in around 8 minutes.

  • The Sun’s surface temperature is around 5500 degrees Celsius (9941 degrees Fahrenheit), so pack plenty of sunscreen if you plan on visiting (remembering that the average distance from the Sun to the Earth is around 150 million kilometers).

  • The Sun’s core is around 13600000 degrees Celsius!

  • The Sun is by far the largest object in the solar system. It contains more than 99.8% of the total mass of the Solar System (Jupiter contains most of the rest).

  • It is often said that the Sun is an "ordinary" star. That's true in the sense that there are many others similar to it. But there are many more smaller stars than larger ones; the Sun is in the top 10% by mass. The median size of stars in our galaxy is probably less than half the mass of the Sun.

  • The Sun is, at present, about 70%hydrogen and 28% helium by mass everything else ("metals") amounts to less than 2%. This changes slowly over time as the Sun converts hydrogen to helium in its core.

  • The outer layers of the Sun exhibit differential rotation: at the equator the surface rotates once every 25.4 days; near the poles it's as much as 36 days. This odd behavior is due to the fact that the Sun is not a solid body like the Earth. The differential rotation extends considerably down into the interior of the Sun but the core of the Sun rotates as a solid body.

  • Conditions at the Sun's core (approximately the inner 25% of its radius) are extreme. The temperature is 15.6 million Kelvin and the pressure is 250 billion atmospheres. At the center of the core the Sun's density is more than 150 times that of water.

  • The Sun's power (about 386 billion billion mega Watts) is produced by nuclear fusion reactions. Each second about 700,000,000 tons of hydrogen are converted to about 695,000,000 tons of helium and 5,000,000 tons of energy in the form of gamma rays. As it travels out toward the surface, the energy is continuously absorbed and re-emitted at lower and lower temperatures so that by the time it reaches the surface, it is primarily visible light.

What I found particularly interesting was being on the other side of the Earth the stars that I would gaze upon were different from what I knew in the Americas. The Southern Cross a.k.a. as Crux, is the smallest of the 88 modern constellations, but is one of the most distinctive. Its name is Latin for cross, and it is dominated by a cross-shaped asterism. It is also reflected in the Aussie flag as well as New Zealands. Each night it would greet me. I could have been on another planet and would not have known the difference because my reference of what I knew was changed. I don't know why, but I never thought the stars would change. It's something I took for granted and delighted to have seen something new. January 18, 2014 - Small Gestures It's small gestures of kindness from Aussie "strangers" that I will hold close to my heart as I return back to the United States. People who know nothing of me, going above and beyond to welcome a yank with hospitality, will resonate in the years to come as I look back on this adventure. Gentle souls who expect nothing in return but give for giving sake is what I admire in humanity. To ask and to receive without expectation this is what I hold dear.

I came to AUS with bare essentials--enough to fill a backpack, nothing more. Packing and repacking, (but not a sleep sack) I would spend my evenings scaling back on "necessities". I would ask myself if this or that was needed, is it important, can I  do without? And in doing so, I left behind a sleeping mat and sleeping bag, extra socks and t-shirts. Keep It Simple Silly (KISS) would ring in my ears as I would pare down the nitty gritty. Later I found I needed a sleep mat and bag as the ground was harder than imagined and evenings colder than anticipated. Whispering my needs to the wind, open hands in the day following provided gifts that eased my transition into the Land Down Under.

The same was true with my planning. I was going to volunteer across the continent with the goal of saving as much money on accommodations as possible. For the 7 weeks I was going to be there, everything was ready but 4 days and 3 nights. Working with the Radical Faeries I told them during one of our sharing times that I was looking for a place to stay with the hope of getting to Byron Bay or Brisbane. Gecko said that I would be welcome at his place at Byron, and my need was fulfilled. As a form of thank you, I helped landscape the 7 acres he lived on as well as trimmed a large hedge and cleaned palm trees of dead fronds scattered across the property. I volunteered with urban gardening, healthcare fundraising, teaching and working with LGBT youth, reforestation, etc. The ol' adage that the "best things in life are free" has merit indeed. Many thanks to the people who assisted me on this adventure.

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