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The Land of Oz

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Our guide loved a good practical joke. And like most Australians, he thought, the more dangerous, the better.

He'd been saving the rotten pot roast for a special occasion. A sea kayaking trip to an island off the Great Barrier Reef provided the perfect opportunity for a good laugh at the expense of an unwitting Englishman.

You see, Australians hate the English. It goes way back. After they got their noses bloodied by the Americans in the Revolutionary War, the British, fearing the same thing might happen at home, rounded up all the troublemakers and shipped them off to a big rock in the Southern Hemisphere where they couldn't bother anybody ever again.

The English stamped the back of the transportee's shirts with the letters "P.O.M.E," which is short for "Prisoner of Mother England." The convicts thought this was amusing and started calling their British captors "pommes," or "pommey b___s," terms still used with derision today.

On this day, our guide told the Englishman, "Take this mate," as he handed him the putrid piece of meat. "Swim out there with this and you'll attract wildlife."

The Londoner, unfamiliar with the Australian sense of humor or the area's large, man-eating sharks, snorkeled out trailing a faint stream of blood.

"What are you doing, you wanker?" I asked, since I was snorkeling in the same area.

"He said it would attract fish," the man answered, pointing to the guide chuckling on the beach.

"He's right," I said. "It will attract big fish."

The man dropped the roast, swam back to the beach and cursed the guide, who was laughing even harder now, finding the red-faced Brit even funnier than the shark bait trick.

"Just having a bit of fun, mate," the guide said. "Where's your sense of humor?"

Apparently back in London. Big mistake. Rule No. 1 traveling Down Under _ when in danger or in doubt, smile, then laugh. The Australians have wicked senses of humor, even in the face of death, and no patience for those who do not.

"Yank, Yank, septic tank," the guide yelled across the bar later that night. "Your shout?"

"Excuse me?" I asked.

"Seppo," the guide said.

"What?" I repeated.

"Bloody Seppo," the man responded. "Your shout."

Rule No. 2 _ Australians have their own language _ a sing-song vernacular that often rhymes called "Strine." For example, "Yank, Yank" rhymes with the "tank" in "septic tank."

The Aussies also like to shorten many of their words and end them with "ie" or "o." So Christmas presents become "Chrissie pressies." Milkman becomes the "milko." Garbageman becomes "garbo." And septic tank becomes "seppo." Got it? Good.

So when the guide yelled "Bloody Seppo . . . your shout." He meant, "Hey Yank. Your turn to buy a round of beer."

That's why it pays to learn the language. Then if you laugh and smile a lot, you'll make it Down Under.

But one more thing. Rule No. 3 _ don't be too full of yourself. Australians are masters of understatement and have no room for braggards and bullies. Let your ego show and they'll lop you off at the knees. They even have a term for it: "Cutting down the tall popply."

In fact, it has been said that certain Australian politicians have turned down knighthoods because they thought it would make them unpopular with the voters back home.

Australians also love to argue. Be forewarned. Chances are they don't disagree; they just like a good fight. Walk into any pub in the country and ask the first person you see if Lindy Chamberlin killed her baby and you'll be at it all night.

The following may also offer some additional insight about folks Down Under:

FOOD: Nothing fancy. Strictly British pub fair. Meat pies, sausage rolls and Vegemite, a bitter, yeast extract Australians use like jelly on bread. Vegemite is a favorite breakfast, or "brekkie" food. The only place you'll find grilled kangaroo is The Outback, or bush, where food is referred to as "tucker."

BEER: Foster's may be Australian for beer in U.S. commercials, but order this export in a pub Down Under, and you might wind up shouting for the whole gang. Although Foster's has the most market share, beer preference varies from region to region and the loyalties are as fierce as those of British soccer fans.

Two biggies are Castelmaine's XXXX (four ex) and Victoria Bitter (VB). The blokes north of Sydney (Queensland and the Northern Territory) drink XXXX. They say VB stands for "very bad." Their counterparts in New South Wales and Victoria drink VB. They say the lads up north are idiots and think "XXXX" spells beer.

WILDLIFE: Australia is the land of marsupials, animals that raise their young inside a pouch. The most famous specimens include the kangaroo, wallaby, koala and wombat, but don't expect to see them walking the streets of Sydney.

Head into the bush and you probably will see at least one dingo, the Australian coyote. One of these wild dogs was blamed in the 1980 disappearance of Lindy Chamberlain's baby, an incident portrayed in the Meryl Streep movie A Cry in the Dark, and mentioned again in the famous "a dingo ate my baby" episode on Seinfeld.

Other animals of note: the Tasmanian devil, a badger-like creature known for its ferocity; the flying fox, a fruit bat the size of a small poodle and the laughing kookaburra, a member of the kingfisher family whose recorded cry has been featured in every Tarzan movie since the dawn of time.

NASTIES: As far as spiders go, Australia has the red back, a relative of the black widow, and the dreaded, ground-dwelling funnel web of Sydney, which can both prove deadly.

The sea wasp or box jellyfish, with its transparent tentacles 10 feet long, has killed 60 swimmers this century. There are also sea snakes, ounce for ounce, among the deadliest creatures on earth. On land, there is the taipan, tiger snake, brown and death adder, also among the world's most venomous animals.

And you can't forget the sharks and crocodiles. Saltwater crocodiles, or salties, range from about Rockhampton to the top of Western Australia and up into Malaysian Peninsula. Twenty feet long and weighing more than a ton, saltwater crocs, or "salties," are the most dangerous animals in Australia. Their freshwater cousins, called, you guessed it, "freshies," are not a threat to man.

Australia is also known for its sharks, particularly the great white. The largest specimen ever caught on a rod and reel, a 2,664-pound beast, was captured off Ceduna, South Australia. But no worries, mate, the last fatal shark attack in Sydney Harbor occurred in 1937.

With that said, perhaps the greatest danger a visitor to the 2000 Olympic Games may encounter is getting caught in a pub with shallow pockets. You never know when it will be your turn to "shout" and you don't want to be caught speechless.

"Plenty of space, plenty of laughs, not much potential for violence. Gotta be truthful though, has its share of sick puppies. Rough around the edges to say the least. Can't say I could live anywhere else. Just one condition though. . . . Don't take yourself too seriously. You'll be offended. Do you drink beer? Yes, well, that will help."

Tom Carroll, former world champion surfer, on his native land

About the author

In 1988, after five years on the police beat at three different newspapers, Terry Tomalin resigned his position at The Times and embarked on year-long backpacking trip through New Zealand and Australia.

As a boy, Tomalin loved Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and like his hero Jim Fowler, longed to wrestle a giant anaconda. But when Tomalin arrived in Australia some 20 years later, he was disappointed to learn that the giant snakes were only found in South America.

This, however, didn't stop the intrepid adventurer. Tomalin braved a typhoon in a tent, then crossed crocodile-infested, rain-swollen rivers in a bus on his journey the rainforests of Queensland. For two months, he subsisted on a meager diet of meat pies, sausage rolls and Castelmaine's XXXX beer and in the process, acquired many Aussie mates who were easily impressed by the writer's ability to drink beer standing on his head, a skill developed during his college rugby career.

Today, the 39-year-old Tom-o (as he is known to his buddies Down Under) still enjoys watching re-runs of Skippy the Kangaroo on television and dreams of some day making a guest appearance on Steve Irwin's The Crocodile Hunter, but only if he gets to wrestle a really big snake.