Australian Botanic Garden & A Scavenger Hunt Twenty-Two Years in the Making: Week 174

Grevillea paradoxa flower and bee: Australian Botanical Garden

Grevillea paradoxa

In 1992 anything I needed to know could be found in my set of World Book Encyclopedias. In the pre-internet days, my encyclopedias were a carefully curated fountain of knowledge that my parents didn’t need to monitor. Naughty buzzwords like ‘penis’ only ended in disappointment once redirected to the ironically sterile ‘reproductive system.’

Sometimes my dad would use the encyclopedias to create spontaneous educational lessons. There was something about the sight of 21 gilded volumes sitting on a shelf that tickled his fancy at the most inopportune time.

“Stephanie, what is unique about the Liberty Bell?” My dad would ask, clasping the black hardbound cover in his hands.

“I don’t… know.” I replied. It was evening and I was snuggled under a blanket in the downstairs lounge. My peripheral vision was glued to the Sesame Street movie flashing in front of me.

Think about what I read. How is it different from a new bell?”

“It’s… shiny?”

“Stop watching that TV! Here- give me the remote!”

Queensland silver wattle yellow flower: Australian Botanical Garden

Queensland silver wattle

Other times my mom used the encyclopedias to segue into topics such as plagiarism. This usually happened when I was writing school projects. I was completely nonplussed at the idea of getting in trouble for doing homework.

“Well,” my mom explained, “plagiarism means you can’t just write everything you see in the book.” I thought maybe she meant all of my sentences just had to be shorter than the ones in the book.

If I could go anywhere I would go to australia. This is the australian flag. I want to see soom australian animals like the salt water crocodile, a dingo, a koala. a Tiger Quail, a wombat, a cuscus and some plats like the ghost gum.

Looking back at my second grade Australia report, I definitely had my World Book Volume A at my side. Aside from ride an ostrich, (blame my South African mom for this erroneous inclusion) my Australian flora list read like a data table of native plant species.

Forest red gum peeling bark: Australian Botanical Garden

Forest red gum

They were the kind of plants that not even botanists get excited about; I know this because I went to the Australian Botanical Garden to find them. Of all the trees and bushes on my list, only the forest red gum was apparently important enough for a large sign.

Orange thorn bush: Australian Botanical Garden

Orange thorn bush

The Fruit Loop was one of the walks at the Australian Botanic Garden which contained a lot of interesting fruiting plants that definitely were too exciting for my seven-year-old self. The orange thorn bush had berries like miniature oranges. Unlike their namesake, the sweetness of the fruit and the bitterness of the rind were inseparable. After eating a few of them, the back of my throat was as dry as a cotton swab.


The old man saltbush was the hardest one to find. I enlisted the help of both the nursery volunteer and the visitor center to find the location of the elusive plant. The center’s computer eventually prevailed and I was led to a flower bed on the outskirts of an inflatable jump house and a kid’s birthday party. A metal dog tag clasped around one of its stems identified the plant by its scientific name.

Old man satlbush green leave: Australian Botanical Garden

Old man saltbush

I found a Grevillea striata grafted onto a Grevillea robusta, which was also on my list, so that kind of counted as two trees.

Grevillea striata: Australian Botanical Garden

Grevillea striata

The ghost gum and the snow gum were both in the park, but they just weren’t labeled. As this was a scientific journey, I was embarrassed that I couldn’t tell these two apart from each other nor from the red gums. I took photos of pretty flowers instead.

Sturts desert pea, red flowers with a black center: Australian Botanical Garden

Sturts desert pea

I know for a fact that the bonya pine grows on top of one of the tallest hills in the park, however I only learned this after missing the turn and riding my bike down the steep hill. A part of me wanted to traipse back up, but the other part just couldn’t be bothered. Barret sided with the lazier part of me.

The only plant I didn’t bother looking for was the karriatuarra jarrah. It doesn’t exist on Google, so I didn’t have a hope in hell of finding it at the botanic garden.

At the end of the day, I might make a terrible botanist but I will eventually see this list through. My second grade teacher would be so proud.


Dry grassy field at the Australian Botanical Garden

How to get to the Australian Botanic Garden: Narellan Road, Mt Annan NSW 2567

How to vote like an Australian: Week 173

An example of an Optional Preferential ballot: NSW, Australia


In honor of the 4th of July (I admit I’m a bit behind on my blog), I would like to write about one of the most patriotic things a citizen can do: voting. However, not just any old voting will do. Today we are going to talk about voting Aussie style. Not only is it unique, it’s also compulsory. That’s right, Belgium and Australia are the only two countries in the world in which you have to vote or you will get a nice little fine in the mail.

Depending on the type of the election, there are two main ways to conduct elections. The first and more straightforward method is called Optional Preferential (see drawing above). Unlike the US, which favors a two-party system, Optional Preferential will never leave you feeling like you’ve wasted a vote. Unless of course you are the kind of person who uses your ballot to draw anatomically correct figures.

This form of voting is commonly used in some local council elections and also to elect the NSW Legislative Assembly. The number ‘1’ is placed next to your preferred candidate and you can either finish there or continue numbering as many other candidates as you wish.

At the end of the election, these votes are separated into their first preferences. If one candidate receives 50% +1 of the first preference votes, they win.

If not, the lowest performer is ruled out and their votes are disbursed according to the second selection on the ballot. For example: velvet blue, your first choice, receives the lowest amount of votes. Velvet blue is eliminated from the pool and your vote goes to your second choice, Robin egg blue. If a ballot paper does not have a second choice it is exhausted and removed from the pool.

This continues amongst the lowest performers until a candidate emerges with the majority of the votes. Therefore, if you number multiple candidates, your vote could still count even if your first choice does not win.

The other common form of voting is called Proportional Representation. It’s commonly used to elect members of the Legislative Council and is a system which increases the odds of a minority party being represented.

An example of a Proportional Representation ballot: NSW, Australia

Unlike Optional Preferential, the Proportional Representation ballots can be massive. In fact, the 1999 election was a record-breaking election in terms of the size of the ballot paper.

As Norm Kelly puts it in his book Directions in Australian Electoral Reform:

“The March 1999 NSW Legislative Council election produced one of the largest ballot papers ever used in Australia (and possibly the world), with 81 groupings (including 78 parties) comprising 264 candidates.

The ‘tablecloth’ ballot paper measured 102cm by 72cm (approximately 3’4” by 2’4”). Its size created major logistical issues for the election, requiring the construction of wider voting booths and the use of larger planes for transporting papers.”

The most distinguishing feature of this ballot paper is the think line which runs across the top. It divides the paper according to the two options available: voting above the line and voting below the line.

Voting above the line is the fastest way to complete your civic duty. Just mark ‘1’ next to one of the political parties and you’re done. You could also continue numbering 2, 3, etc. should you feel inclined.

All political parties with a box above the line must have at least fifteen members. The reason being is that a vote above the line is essentially numbering each party member 1-15 in the order in which they appear. Obviously it is the party that decides the order of their own candidates.

Voting below the line is something you might want to do when you either disagree with the party’s order of candidates or you want to cherry pick your own dream team across party lines.

To do this you need to number at least fifteen candidates in numerical order. If you’re really gung-ho you can even number every single candidate on the ballot. Below the line voters can also choose from the group-less candidates on the far right hand that are in an ‘ungrouped’ column.

Even if you aren’t an Australian citizen, you can still benefit from this random bit of political knowledge. Just think about how exciting your next Halloween costume contest or bake-off would be if it were Aussie rules style. I can personally guarantee that the vote tallying makes a great spectator sport.

Iron Cove: Week 172

Bridge over the Iron Cove walkway: Sydney, Australia

Iron Cove is home to one of the most wretched activities in the world: jogging.

When asked if I wanted to join a jog around Iron Cove one Saturday morning I replied, “only if I can ride my bike.” As soon as I saw the faces of the sweaty, miserable hordes of joggers I knew I had made the right decision.

Is it a coincidence then that right next to one of the most popular torture routes in Inner West Sydney is the site of a former insane asylum? I think not.

Completed in 1885, the Callan Park Mental Hospital sprawls over a massive 100 acre plot along the Parramatta River. It was built at a time when new ‘discoveries’ in treatment were being made in the United States. Just as Pennsylvania influenced the rehabilitation of convicts in the 19th century, a Quaker physician named Dr Kirkbride influenced mental health treatment around the world, Iron Cove included.

Old greenhouse at the Callan Park Mental Hospital: Sydney, Australia

Dr Kirkbride was one of the first advocates for humane treatment and reasoned that patients, “are not disabled from appreciating books…or enjoying many intellectual and physical comforts.” He also held the first gathering of professional psychiatrists, which became the forerunner to the American Psychiatric Association.

I even found a blog dedicated to documenting the remaining asylums built in the US during the Kirkbride era. As Ethan McElroy explains:

Once state-of-the-art mental healthcare facilities, Kirkbride buildings have long been relics of an obsolete therapeutic method known as Moral Treatment. In the latter half of the 19th century, these massive structures were conceived as ideal sanctuaries for the mentally ill and as an active participant in their recovery. Careful attention was given to every detail of their design to promote a healthy environment and convey a sense of respectable decorum. Placed in secluded areas within expansive grounds, many of these insane asylums seemed almost palace-like from the outside. But growing populations and insufficient funding led to unfortunate conditions, spoiling their idealistic promise.

Garden path at the Callan Park Mental Hospital: Sydney, Australia

While I don’t know if Kirkbride ever stepped foot in Sydney, the Callan Park Mental Hospital was designed according to his views and the first block of neo-classical sandstone buildings was named after him. When the last patients transferred out of the Kirkbride Complex in 1994 the facilities were renovated for the Sydney Collage of Arts. The numerous other buildings within the grounds are in various stages of development for use as cultural, historical, non-profit, and mental health facilities.

“So, if you hate running,” my friends asked when they finally caught up with me, “how are you going to do the City to Surf?”

The City to Surf is an annual race in Sydney that is the largest running event in the southern hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. At 14 km, it’s about 12.5km longer than I have ever run before.

“Don’t worry,” I replied, “I’m definitely not planning on running.”

About: Iron Cove

About: Callan Park

The Outback: Week 171 Part 2

View of Mt Connor from Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

107.2FM was the only radio station on the Lasseter Highway. There were no DJs or advertisements, just a collection of obscure American albums that someone cared enough about to share with whoever might be passing through the dusty red landscape.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Curtin Springs. It was a motel with a gas station and a shop that had as many functions as a Swiss army knife. Jars of pickled snakes and small wooden plaques lined the shelves behind the counter. A TV in the corner of the room was blaring part two of an annual rugby game called State of Origin. The first time I heard the tournament’s name I thought it was an important political address by the Prime Minister.

Although we were in the middle of nowhere, the young staff were all foreigners extending their Working Holiday visas. Citizens of certain countries can stay another year in Australia if they spend three months working in regional Australia. If it wasn’t for this program, places like Curtin Springs would have a very difficult time finding employees to wear their trademark blue and yellow shirt: Ugly staff but top service.

The facility itself was surrounded by a million acre cattle station, all of it owned since 1956 by the Severin family. It was easy to forget the arid land could support a working farm. In fact, the only time I heard a cow was before dawn. A pack of dingoes had surrounded the frightened creature with barred teeth and howls like electric chimes.The parking lot emu at Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

Barret, our friends, and I pitched a tent in the Curtin Springs campground and built a small fire to cook our dinner. A tame emu strolled by, pecking around the fringes of our site.

“Hey you guys, guess what band was playing on the only radio station in the outback!”

“You’ll never believe it,” Barret added, “it’s so random.”

It was impossible to guess, so Barret finally shouted out, “Coheed and Cambria- the entire album!”

Turns out there is no ‘underground’ cattle station, only our American friends driving behind us with their iPod radio adapter. I was a little disappointed to hear that.

Uluru at sunrise: Northern Territry, Australia

Just south of Curtin Springs and the Mobil gas station, a large plateau the color of dusty rose punched out of the flat terrain. To the unsuspecting traveler it looked like Uluru, but it was actually a beautiful red herring named Mt Connor.

The real Uluru was smooth, worn, and patterned like a tiger with dot-dot-dash stripes. When the sun began to rise, the bush landscape became two-toned. The tips of the vegetation were rosy-lime-green while the lower portions were blue-jungle-green. A ray of sun struck the monolithic rock and warmed it up like a glowing stove top.Receipt from Ayers Rock Resort: Northern Territory, Australia

This beautiful landscape first became a national park in 1950. Eight years later the land was taken from the traditional owners, the Anangu, and ownership was only returned in 1985. Since then, ‘Ayer’s Rock’ and ‘The Olgas’ are officially recognized as Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Longstanding cultural traditions, which had been suspended during that period, have also since resumed and contentious issues such as the ‘right to climb Uluru’ are being addressed. While it is legally possible to climb Uluru, it is culturally insensitive and heavily discouraged. The route up the rock is a sacred path taken by a few select Aboriginal men.

Uluru at sunset: Northern Territory, Australia

Photography is another thorny issue since ‘avoidance tactics’ are traditionally practiced after the death of a person. In the past this meant the deceased’s name was not said, but today it also encompasses photography and film. Obviously this is practiced to varying degrees within the community, but there are a few sacred points around Uluru where photography is prohibited.Polaroid of Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

Instead of climbing Uluru, our friends and I spent the rest of the day on a circular hike around Kata Tjuta, which means ‘many heads’ in Pitjantjatjara. Unlike the sandstone-composed Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a mosaic of pebbles and rocks cemented together by sand and mud. One of the boulders next to the footpath looked like a geodesic meatball.Polaroid of Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

The name of the walk was The Valley of the Winds and it cannot be overstated how beautiful the view was when we reached the top of the valley. The hidden oasis was a refreshing pause from the unrelenting sun, and that was the middle of winter!

Polaroid of the King's Canyon rim: Northern Territory, Australia

The following day we drove to Kings Canyon. From ground level, the canyon appears to abruptly end at a sheer cliff face. However, the view from the rim reveals a massive expanse of stupa-like domes. Along the route we saw lizards, honey pot ants, and collected swarms of hitchhiking flies on our backs. The latter is one of those things you just come to accept because it’s just not worth fighting.Rock formations at Kings Canyon: Northern Territory, Australia

The trick to dealing with the flies was to keep moving. Then, when the sun set with a pink halo completely encircling the horizon, the flies just disappeared out of thin air. The red landscape turned to bruised plum and the temperature dropped. The desert might be sparse, but there is life quietly tucked away in every fold and crevice.Red earth landscape of the outback: Northern Territory, Australia

About: Curtin Springs

About: Uluru and Kata Tjuta

About: Kings Canyon

Polaroid of Uluru in the afternoon: Northern Territory, Australia


Coober Pedy: Week 171 Part 1

Kitchen at Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

When the rest of the world emerged from under the cloak of World War I, Coober Pedy went underground. The name in fact is a local Aboriginal term for white man’s hole.

“You see that?” Colin asked. His hand directed us upwards to a slender wooden match that poked out of a crack in the kitchen ceiling. “It’s been up there for 18 years and hasn’t moved. That’s how I know the earth is stable.”

Like many residents in Coober Pedy, Colin lived in an underground ‘dugout’. No matter the weather, the temperature inside a dugout hovers around 72 degrees without the aid of heaters or air conditioning. It’s an unusual architectural legacy courtesy of the WWI trench fighters turned opal miners. Colin’s home is a tourist site courtesy of Faye Nayler.

Air vent inside the guest bedroom of Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Faye moved into town in the 1960s to work at a local restaurant. When her employer fired her for not cooking green meat, she made her own café. Then, with the help of two friends, she spent the next ten years digging her own home.

Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Faye was one of the first people to recognize the town’s tourism potential and one of the first to offer tours of her own house. When she retired to Queensland, Faye sold her property with the stipulation that it must remain a lived-in tourist attraction.

Colin, the homeowner, who lives at Faye's Underground House: Coober Pedy, South Australia

“Do you ever get tired of showing people your home?” I asked Colin at the end of the tour.

“Of course,” he sighed and shrugged his shoulders, “but we get to meet visitors from all over the world.”

Terry feeding a baby kangaroo at Josephine's Gallery: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Josephine’s Gallery is a five minute walk from Faye’s Underground House. It has Aboriginal art, opal jewelry, and a barnyard odor. The owners run a kangaroo rescue center behind the shop and, like everything else in Coober Pedy, it’s a DIY kind of enterprise.

During the holidays, when bursting fireworks echo across the treeless landscape, Josephine and Terry bring the kangaroos inside. They turn up the TV and let their spoiled marsupial grandkids eat Twisties and drink black tea.

“Now that one is a bit stupid.” Terry affectionately pointed to one of the red kangaroos. “He cries when it rains. Mind you he is five years old, so that is not normal. I have to move him out of the rain myself.”

On the way out of the shop, I picked up a brochure about how to rescue joey kangaroos. It’s not for the faint of heart. Older joeys just need to be kept warm, but furless ones that are latched on to a nipple must not be forcibly removed. The rescuer would need to slice through one side of the pouch and cut the nipple off at the base.

Tie the end of the teat off with a piece of string. The baby will eventually release the teat.

Underground Art Gallery: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Just down the road, at the bottom of a long staircase, was a room filled with dubious Aboriginal art and the requisite opal jewelry. “Everything is on sale,” advised the guy behind the counter. He was rough around the edges and I had a hard time imagining him daintily arranging the necklace display. The far end of the counter was lined with photos of machines.

“He with the biggest tools wins,” the shop owner explained when he saw me glancing over the photos. “I’m selling my stock off to go into the dugout digging business.” It turned out there was a construction boom of sorts since Chevron found a large deposit of shale oil near Coober Pedy.

Diesel engines pump the town’s water supply from an aquifer and send it through a reverse osmosis treatment. At $5 per 1,000 liters, fresh water costs double what it does in metropolitan Sydney. I couldn’t imagine how much it would cost to import water if petrochemicals poisoned the aquifer.

“Are people worried about fracking?” I asked the owner.

“Yep,” he replied with a slow nod of the head. He seemed worried but also preoccupied with getting his share of the wealth. Seventy percent of the world’s opals comes from Coober Pedy, but that doesn’t mean anyone is guaranteed riches.

Polaroid of town look-out point: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Coober Pedy has a growing population of 3,500 but it also feels like a graveyard. It’s a place where cars are left to rust and pie-in-the-sky dreams go to die, businesses included.

Two men were sitting outside the Cup and Opal when Barret and I approached. One guy smiled, jumped up and led us inside. Barret and I were hoping for food but as soon as we entered it was obvious it had been a long time since anything edible had been served.

The tables were all pushed to the right of the café and covered in dust. Two perpendicular display cabinets ran along the left. “I will give you a nice discount,” the man announced with a thick Eastern European accent. “For you- 40% off. Very nice. Very very nice.”

“I’m shopping for my sister.” I replied as he began pulling out cheap necklaces. “I like it, but she’s so difficult.” Who could argue with a sister in another country?

Polaroid at Riba's underground camping: Coober Pedy, South Australia

Just outside the town limit was an underground campsite called Riba’s. The layout of the tunnel was somewhat in the shape of the letter P but with boxy campsites carved out along the route.

Rick and Barbara, the owners, had started out mining opals until tourism became more profitable. Aside from underground camping, Rick also gave nighttime tours of a mine shaft on his property.

The way opal mining works is that the available land belongs to the government and is only leased for a twelve month period. After registering for a permit, the hopeful miner marks a 50x50m or 50x100m claim with four posts and then registers that site. A person can only have one plot at any time.

According to Rick only one government plot had ever been sold and it was to a German tourist. When word got out about who was ‘selling’ land online, the shady local left town. It’s hard to do business when no one trusts you.

More the 90% of the opals found in silica veins are completely worthless potch opals because they didn’t have continually even pressure during their formation. The problem with mapping silica veins is that the potch and the valuable stuff show up as one and the same. Between the difficulty in surveying and the council’s mining legislation, there are no large scale operations.

Riba's night mine tour: Coober Pedy, South Australia

What surprised me most though about the whole process were the homemade components: the newspaper tube dynamite, the black light noodlers, and the safety protocol. If you fall down a shaft remember to spread your arms wide.

Rick pulled out some metal dowsers to show us how to map out silica veins. A plump woman with short bleach-blond hair and a tribal tattoo on her neck volunteered to try the dowsers. Her husband stayed behind with the camera. He had a pot belly and was wearing swim trunks that looked like a baggy Australian flag.

“Slow down,” Rick advised when the woman began to walk down the hall. “Make sure you hold them loosely.”

“I don’t do slow,” the woman replied in a curiously child-like voice. She reminded me of the time my dad hastily declared that he, “didn’t drive over 40mph anymore.”The town of Coober Pedy, South Australia

On our way out of quiet town, down the dusty main road, Barret was pulled over for a Breathalyzer test. It was late afternoon and there was only one other car behind us. Coober Pedy felt so Wild West that I was surprised to see a cop, let alone a Breathalyzer. The frequency of the machine’s beep increased until the test was finished.

“You’re good,” the female officer announced as she walked away. Barret hit the gas. The town was an industrial anthill in our rearview mirror.  Hundreds of white triangular mounds against red earth, almost a hundred years of digging.

“Doesn’t it look like the town lost something?” I asked Barret. “Collectively, they just lost it.”

Polaroid of a warning sign in the mine fields: Coober Pedy, South Australia

About: Coober Pedy

How to get to Faye’s Underground House: Old Watertank Road, Coober Pedy SA 5723

How to get to Josephine’s Gallery: 131-133 Hutchison Street, Coober Pedy SA 5723

How to get to Riba’s Underground Camping: 1811 William Creek Road, Coober Pedy SA 5723

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