terra australis incognita: the gaping hole in my map

by Alissa

After the first wild forays of our academic quest (Montana. Switzerland. Texas.) it became apparent that if we wanted Ace to stay in the game (Budapest! Vancouver!), we might not have much control (Ontario) over our eventual destination (Australia!?!).

The last few years, when people have asked where we would like to end up, I’ve remained fairly noncommittal. “Oh, we think we’ve ruled out Africa, Asia, and probably South America, but otherwise we’re open,” I’d say, pretty much forgetting that Australia even existed.

I have never been to Australia, and never really intended to go. The exportable pieces of Australian culture I knew of were great: Aussie shampoo, the Man from Snowy River, Nicole Kidman. What else could I possibly need that Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough couldn’t provide? To go there just for the sake of going there? Not on my list.

Australia lies at the other end of the earth. You can go left or right, but either way you make the journey, it is just about as far from here as you could possibly get before slipping over the line to being on your way back again. Sixteen hours on a single flight? The last time I sat on a plane that long, I finally finished reading Moby Dick. I was 21, flying from Jakarta to Amsterdam. They served me tofu five times. It was excruciating. Definitely not something to repeat with a toddler.

With just over three months between me and that trip with a toddler, I am in serious need of a better idea of what lies on the other side.

In reply to my first cry of panicked ignorance, a friend sent me this video, saying, “I think it tells you all you need to know really.” And honestly, after watching it, I felt SO much better. Also, it filled me with a burning curiosity and sense of wonder about how this woman could exist, and the place from which she springs. It gave me hope that there might be room for us to make a home there, too.

The next day, Ace gave me a copy of the Fatal Shore: the Epic of Australia’s Founding, by Robert Hughes. It’s a zesty and thorough telling of Australia’s history as a British penal colony, starting with Cook’s exploratory landing in 1770 through the end of transportation in 1868. I’ll talk more about the penal system and convict life in another post. Tonight, what fascinates me is the European discovery of the continent and how quickly and drastically the ensuing settlement changed its face. From Cook’s visit in the Endeavour to the art of Deb ‘Spoons’ Perry only took 242 years.

What enabled this migration: The discovery of a reliable method of calculating longitude, and the knowledge of the means of preventing scurvy on such a painfully long voyage. Hughes points out, “Malt-juice and pickled cabbage put Europeans in Australia, as microchip circuitry would put Americans on the moon.”

Mathematicians and sauerkraut makers. We’ll fit right in.