Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2004/5


THE FAR SIDE OF THE EARTH

GHLIII

New Orleans is located at 30 degrees North latitude and 90 degrees West longitude. Its antipode - the spot on our planet directly opposite - is at 30 degrees South latitude and 90 degrees East longitude. It's in the Indian Ocean.

Except for two flyspeck islands to the southwest, Ile St. Paul and Ile Amsterdam, the closest solid earth to that point of empty water lies some distance to the east: Rottnest Island, just off Fremantle, close to Perth, on the west coast of Australia. On dry land, you can get no further from the Big Easy.

Rosy and I have been there - as the North American delegates of the Down Under Fan Fund - and as delegates on our own, to the far side of the Earth.


*


They call them "windcheaters" downunder - the jackets we call windbreakers up here in the States. Both Rosy and I needed ours as we waited for our cab outside the Julian Warner/Lucy Sussex bungalow, where we'd been ensconced for the first few days of our DUFF excursion (see "No Picnic at Hanging Rock" in Challenger #18). It was cool in the pre-dawn, and Venus burned high in the gorgeous purple sky, the Southern Cross having already set. As our taxi negotiated us to the airport, I kept a lookout for kangaroos.

I was feeling cheated. This was our fourth day in Australia and so far we hadn't glimpsed any of its legendary fauna. On our jaunt to Hanging Rock we'd seen sheep and cattle and goats and a Shetland pony and a swaybacked horse - but no 'roos, koalas, kookaburras, or platypodes - nothing distinctly Australian. What a bummer! I was beginning to think that we weren't in Australia at all, but some extreme suburb of L.A. where the moon looked funny.

Perhaps I was merely nervous about the flight. The four-hour loft to Los Angeles from Nawlins, followed by 14 ½ hours en route to Melbourne, had taught me that flying could be endured, even by an aerophobe like me. But that lesson had only been absorbed intellectually. My terror of the airways extended into the cellular, and there, nerves reigned. Perhaps my search for kangaroos and their kindred was born of that fear; for sure, we'd seen none as we pulled under the gate to the Melbourne aerodrome. The sign above the gate should have inspired me:

LIFE IS SHORT, THE WORLD IS WIDE

- but I didn't appreciate the reminder.

The plane, I must say, was a beaut. We don't have Airbus A330s in America yet, more's the loss; the long wings, the wide windows, the comfy seats, the fold-down movie screens - none completely allayed my terror, but I was developing quite a faith in Qantas. Nevertheless it was still with trepidation that I watched the shadow of the plane shrink below me.

As we headed west, we passed over Adelaide, a city Naomi Fisher had praised - and which we weren't scheduled to visit. Already regret was beginning to grow in me for what we could not see on this trip. I eyed the unknowable terrain past Adelaide with something like sadness. I knew from the map that it was bush, wild turf we wouldn't see up close - if Qantas kept its perfect flying record going, that is. It was territory we wanted to see, too, emptiness having its own appeal. But it also had its purpose; its very desolation gave our destination its rarest distinction: the most isolated city in the world.

Craig Stephenson - since early on, our contact with Swancon, this year's Australian National SF Convention - met us at the Perth airport, holding a sign reading DUFF at the gate. Perth's isolation - further from another major metropolis than any other substantial gathering of humanity anywhere - was something of a pride with "Stevo". He bustled us up to Kings Park, overlooking the city and the beautiful Swan River. I have to say, for a burg founded in 1829, Perth looked both clean and modern, some contrast to its contemporary, New Orleans, the squalid pesthole where I live.

That was it for the touristing, at least for the moment. A con awaited. Now I get to sound like an ingrate.

For one thing, though Swancon was glad to welcome its American guests, and comped us memberships, it couldn't afford to pay for our room. DUFF had to. Also, the event was small - about the size of a DeepSouthCon, i.e., a membership in the low hundreds. And that constituency was young and inbred; everyone seemed not only to know each other, but to hang together most weekends, not just this one. We couldn't help but feel ever so delicately out of place. How doubly glad we were to greet Bill Wright and the great Robin Johnson, the Aussiecon chairman whom I first met at the '74 DSC. Excerpt for these worthies, I'm sure we were the oldest people at the event.

But NatCon/Swancon was fun, and we made the most of it. The kids were friendly - loved those twins! - and the other guests were entertaining and interesting. We enjoyed watching the talented paleontologist Brian Choo paint dinosaurs. Danny Heap and Justin Ackroyd were there - they handled the small auction - and the former DUFF winner, Cathy Cupitt, cuter than ever. Simon Oxwell and Grant Watson, the undoubted stars of Perth fandom, put on their "Raw Cordial" show, a live and film presentation that was the gag highlight of the con. Our hosts, Julian Warner and Lucy Sussex, appeared; the lovely Lucy is a multiple winner of downunder's Ditmar Award for her short stories, and this year came away with the A. Bertram Chandler Award for her overall contributions to Aussie SF. Tony Shillitoe, Australian professional GoH, gave a terrific talk in which he spoke earnestly and intelligently on the value of the fantasy genre - giving voice to people's passion on a heroic scale. "Voices are important," said this teacher - voices of defiance and hope against unjust systems. Stephen Dedman was a familiar name; talked to him quite a bit at Cupitt's house, where we crashed after the convention.

We managed, too, to explore Perth - a little. In addition to thrice-daily excursions to the Internet Café in the bookstore down the block, and dinner expeditions (don't ask for water in Australia, because they'll bring you mineral water, at $5AU a pop) on Easter Sunday, we wandered into the delightful student quarter to see a movie - the only film we'd see on our entire trip. Sacrilegious souls that we are, it was The Magdalene Sisters, one of the most powerful anti-Church movies of the past thirty years.

The programmers for the event - criticized later for failing to utilize their excellent Aussie guest list - put us on two panels, and let me handle another one myself. Our mutual panels were on being a newcomer to fandom and fan funds. Rosy shone, her natural charm beaming forth. We really got off on a special Hound of the Baskervilles presentation - a compilation of scenes from lots of versions, from Rathbone's to Stewart Granger's (uniformly panned) to a dreadful animated version that looked like Scoobie-Doo without the Scoobie. (Right … just the doo.)

Another panel dealt with Batman, and hey, blokes, teach your granny to suck eggs! An audience member had the ill grace to mention that I was a DC veteran, which I think intimidated the panelists, especially when I mentioned interviewing Bob Kane in his comics-art-bedecked living room and the fact that he was such a … a … (Spanier?) Putz! Putz, yes, that's it. The kids had never heard of the Giant Props Era, nor knew much about the enormous change in the character when Julie Schwartz took over Detective Comics, but hey, they tried. I tried not to talk too much.

The pup moderating my one-man Smallville panel didn't try - he'd never even seen the series! Expected to carry the full load, I was crippled by a spoiler factor: Aussie television was a full year behind us in providing fans their Clark Kent fix. So the audience wouldn't let me talk about the pivotal Chris Reeve episode, "Rosetta" - eventually nominated for a Hugo - or anything more recent than the climax of the first season. I did manage to work in some comments about the place of character in Smallville, a central theme I'm convinced of the whole series. A kid's gripe about Jonathan Kent's attitude towards Lex Luthor - the crowd was wild about Lex - sparked a long GHLIII monolog about the purpose of parenthood, and my only political comment of the con: that Jonathan's moral strength and obstinate myopia are symptomatic of why America invaded Iraq.

A major treat, the concom had us present the fan Ditmars - Aussie fandom's equivalent of the Hugos. Rosy and I alternated reading the nominees and then the winner, and even if we'd never heard of them, at least our announcements were met with wild enthusiasm from the winners. In addition, the con was kind enough to announce Challenger's fourth Hugo nomination, revealed by Torcon just that week.

Came the convention's epic moment - our party. Rosy and I decided weeks ago that to make a splash at Swancon, we had to make a real splash - with hurricanes. We bought umpteen packets of the famous Pat O'Brien's cocktail mix and arranged with the concom to hold a party after the masquerade.

They established us in an unused bar on the convention floor and very kindly provided us with three huge buckets of ice - gifts from the local McDonald's. (Cleaner and with quanta more class than your local Mickey D's ... or mine.) Rosy hung decorations with a Mardi Gras theme, carefully adorned the bar and tables with Mardi Gras beads and faux doubloons, and I played bartender. Simple enough task, really. Fill a pitcher with cold water, mix in the powder, fill a cup with ice, pour in the kool-aid, add half a jigger of good Australian rum, and watch the people smile.

Costumed Australians flocked to the bar. Rosy hung beads about every neck and I poured inebriant down every (legal) throat. They came back for more, and more. Turned out that Mardi Gras is an almost exclusively gay holiday downunder; the natives were tickled to find out that it's a universal bash in New Orleans. And that it came with its own signature booze.

The hurricanes and cyclones flowed - the beads rattled - the Aussies got down - and I heard a compliment I never expected to hear: "You guys rock!"


**


Indeed we did, after the con - rocked on a train to Fremantle, and rocked on a shuttle boat to Rottnest Island, on Australia's westernmost coast. Again Bill Wright was our guide, and Robin Johnson came along. My fears that we'd be shepherding a couple of feeble old guys were quickly dispelled - active and athletic, both boys put us to shame.

Robin knew Fremantle well - he was not only a worldcon chairman but a travel agent in his past. He knew where to take us - the Maritime Museum, where the featured exhibit was the wretched and fascinating story of the haunted ship, the Batavia. Horrific stuff - a shipwreck on a desert island, a Lord of the Flies tyranny, murder by massacre, justice by rope. The Museum had relics of every kind from the Batavia on exhibit, including the skeleton of a victim (his skull dented from a cutlass blow) and a hunk of the keel, preserved somehow at the bottom of the sea. Very scary, very cool.

Then we were off on a shuttle across the deep, deep blue-black Indian Ocean - which blew my mind - the Indian Ocean, good grief! Never have we, or any members of our families, been further from home. Or hotter. While Bill went swimming and Robin took a bus tour, Rosy and I rented bicycles and pedaled hither and yon about the nearby bays and inlets - a beautiful experience, but criminy, was it hot, and Gawd!, were we out of shape!

Too bad, because the day was beautiful and Rottnest, despite its ugly name, was a nifty island. The sea was exquisite, if just as cold to the toes as its Atlantic and Pacific cousins, and the view of distant lighthouses and even more distant Perth calmed and soothed the heart. I had a serious case of the vacation jitters. There was so much to see, so many wonders to experience, and the days seemed so crowded and busy and short. I found I had trouble staying in the moment, because the sense of things-undone-and-left-to-do was just so intense. For instance, after a week in Australia, I hadn't seen any kangaroos not made out of metal - a set of sculptures on the streets of Perth. And here on Rottnest, despite hours of sweaty pedaling, we had yet to see any quokkas.

Quokkas are funny critters, even in Australia, where funny critters abound. A marsupial, they're unique to Rottnest, never having gained a foothold on the mainland. The story of the quokka is a funny one, and quite involved, so instead of regaling you with their tale, I'll just refer you to http://www.calm.wa.gov.au/plants_animals/mammal.quokka.html and let it go at that. Signs at the boat dock asked stupid American tourists neither to fear nor to feed them. So while surreptitiously ogling the sunbathing tourist girls, I also scanned the scenery for quokkas, but found none.

It was late afternoon, and the four of us were cooling off at a beachside café, when I voiced this gripe to Robin and Bill. Robin reported seeing multitudes of the beasts on his bus trip. I fairly seethed with frustration. Then Robin returned from the bathroom and advised me to step into the dining room.

Lumbering patiently amidst the table legs of the café was a brown furry beast that seemed assembled by committee. He was about the size of a beaver - larger than I'd expected - with a rat's tail and a possum's friendly face. He reminded me a bit of Louisiana's nutria, which are not, of course, marsupial - but I was not disappointed. This was a quokka - unique to my experience, utterly unafraid, and cute.

"You've seen a quokka in his natural habitat," Robin laughed. "A tourist restaurant!"

Now I felt like I'd been in Australia!


Night fell. While Rosy, Bill and Robin chatted, awaiting the boat back to the mainland, I lay on my back on the cool green grass and stared up at the vivid Southern Cross, dominant in the alien sky. I almost dreaded the approaching boat ride. I wished we'd joined Robin for the bus trip to the end of the island, but still, it had been a glorious day - one of the best we'd have in Australia. Never again, I knew, would we be that far from home - never again, I knew, would we watch a quokka bumble across a lawn, as one did just then, a few feet away.


***


The next day answered almost all of our fauna needs. We accompanied Dave Cake - Perth fan, onetime DUFF (and present GUFF) candidate - into the country outside of town. Rosy was looking forward to seeing some real outback, not realizing that the Outback to Australians is like the Kansas wheat country is to us. We couldn't see red dirt and aborigines and Ayers Rock without a separate plane trip - and having committed to an extra day or two in Perth, we just didn't have the time.

So we saw the Swan Valley, instead. Wine country - too far north, David said, for the primo stuff, but the grapes we passed still hung heavy on the vine, and they made attractive counterpart to the white-barked gum trees. I'd hoped to see some 'roos and wombats and whatnot in the wild, but in that I was to be disappointed - sort of. Dave took us to the Caversham Wildlife Park, where 'roos and such were guaranteed - if lamentably tame.

But like I say, I wasn't that disappointed, because though the zoo - soon to move - seemed a bit crude, it was also approachable. That is, you could get up close and personal with the inhabitants, and through them, with a bit of the Australian experience. Such as the sluggish koalas - poor grey lugs who eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves, which are poor in nutritional value and give them only enough energy to scratch. The 'roos, in their petting pen, also seemed a little tepid - but only because it was the height of the day. But I'm not making a big enough deal about our first live encounter with one of Australia's signature creatures.

Kangaroos remind me of deer - they have about the same temperament and are spotted in the wild with about the same luck and frequency. In captivity, they were anxious to scarf from our palms the pressed foodies given us by the park management. Biggest hoot: the joeys, hooves and heads sticking out of their mamas' packed pouches, sometimes so huge and cumbersome that we wondered why the doe didn't dump her package onto the turf, commanding him, Get a job!

The beasts were plentiful - dingoes, Tasmanian devils, wallabies - even camels, brought to Australia as beasts of burden in the Red Center. My favorite critter at Caversham was a friendly parrot who stuck his head out of his cage and engaged me in conversation. "Helloooo?" he said, and "Helloooo!" I said back. This went on for quite some time. (A photo of this encounter appeared in Challenger #18.) My least favorite? The flying foxes, bats which piss constantly and who contaminated the whole zoo with their reek. Yick

Cake escorted us to lunch at one of the wineries in the Swan Valley, the Houghton Vinyards, and Rosy bought a bottle of their brew as a succulent souvenir. It awaits an appropriate moment for uncorking.

 

****

 

That night we joined the dead dogsters from the Swancon at a farewell bash. The site was a downtown eatery known as Pancakes, which served crepes, mixed liberally with fannish pandemonium. We probably shouldn't have given Perth two extra days, but it was still a bittersweet moment when we said farewell. The lady who drove us back to Cathy Cupitt's, where we were staying, pointed out a building she said was modeled after Marilyn Monroe. Huh? I must have been too tired, or too surfeited with crepes, to understand what she meant. Perhaps I was simply too sad about the passage of time. The next day, after all, we would return to Melbourne, on the downhill side of our DUFF journey.

That night Cathy's place was rich with Sfers, "filling in the corners" of the convention with late-night conversation. We joined in until exhaustion took its toll. The enxt morning we were awoken by the contrasting sounds of Cathy Cupitt's breadmaking machine and an unknown Australian bird, making beautiful music outside of our window.

Coo-loo-looooo. Uhh ... that was the bird.

 

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