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Down Under Postcard, Fall 2004

Jonathan Young and Anne Bach visit Australia and New Zealand

Jonathan Young in the land of the Hobbits

People say Australia and New Zealand are like America was in the 1950s. We had to go see for ourselves and would like to report there is some truth to it. The lands down under do seem a bit calmer than California, and more attentive to the beauties of nature.

Travel to far away places provides an opportunity to reflect. With this thought in mind, we accepted lecture opportunities to explore some terrain new to us. One of the benefits of combining work and play is the chance to meet people who will tell us secret haunts and local lore.

We started in Sydney, where new friends at the Jung Society told us where to find some great examples of Aboriginal Rock Art. This tip led to several fine expeditions into rainforests and coastal cliff dwellings. The old images included significant creatures, such as kangaroos, whales, and sea turtles, many rendered on a large scale.

We also found some gracious Aboriginal elders who took us around Sydney harbor in an old boat. They pointed out where the various native clans were located and explained the importance of each group's totem animals. We learned about how awareness of the dreamtime permeates the aboriginal worldview. Dreamtime includes the ongoing guidance of ancestors, and valuing the imagination, as well as visions that come in sleep. One of the elders put on full paint and demonstrated how to play a didgeridoo. A highlight of the outing was a visit to an island where initiatory rituals are still conducted.

Within the first few days down under, we seemed to let the natural world take us over. While driving to trailheads, we spotted wallabys darting along the road briefly before leaping into the bush. To be in a place where kangaroos eat out of your hands and tropical birds flock around you at the hint of a cracker is entering another dimension.

Our best city adventure was to check out an area called The Rocks where the first European settlers built their homes. One row of homes was where poor families lived starting in the 1850s and is now a museum of the common people. It is amazing how little space they had to raise large families. Taped oral histories played in many of the rooms. It felt like we got to know some of the people who spent their lives in these modest dwellings. One of the privies in the back has somewhat updated plumbing but it still felt like sitting in the outhouse in another time. Some things remain ever the same.

We headed north to Brisbane to speak for another Jungian group. Queensland is warmer and more laid-back than Sydney. The rainforests here are full of brightly colored lorakeet parrots and crimson rosellas that will land on your shoulders -- and work their way down your arms in shifts to eat birdseed out of your hands. Anne would frequently have one perch on her head. Even the ibis were social. Their long beaks let them have a bite at a safe distance. Our fingers never got nipped, obvious evidence of the civility of the place.

A high point was visiting a wildlife preserve where we got to hang out with koalas. When I was four years old an Australian couple took a liking to me on a London bus. Later, they visited California and brought me a very realistic stuffed koala. It was my beloved teddy bear and now lurks in a display case near my desk. Koalas in the wild move almost as little as the stuffed variety. They are willing to be held and are surprisingly solid, not at all fluffy. They seem contented. Then again, a koala's highest ambition is to find fresh leaves to eat, so life can be pretty easy.

Locals told us the sublime place to snorkel was on Moreton Island, so we made the trip and explored some spectacular wrecks laced with myriad exotic fish. That night we waded into the surf to feed wild dolphins. They very gently took small fish from our hands. It was like chatting with angels.

Before leaving Australia, we wanted to see the beach where the famous lifeguards did surf rescue by rowing through heavy waves. Our aboriginal friends had explained how the place was named. An early British sea captain was very impressed with a native and commented on how manly the fellow seemed. Since then the area has been known as Manly. The beach is now one of the top surfing spots.

Locals call the water between them and the U.S. "the big pond." They refer to ocean you cross between Australia and New Zealand as "the ditch." In the main hall of Auckland airport, an enormous carved Maori arch provided a ceremonial welcome into their land. It certainly let us know we weren't in the Land of OZ anymore. We found lodging near the Maori areas and discovered ample evidence of indigenous heritage.

Maori rituals are akin to the Polynesian traditions I learned about in Hawaii while archiving Joseph Campbell's papers. The warriors take great pride in striking fierce stances with curled tongues. Ceremonial masks allow ancestors and divinities to visit the living on special occasions. Our practice of Halloween masks also evokes the spirits of the departed, but we take that ritual rather lightly.

A day to remember was going out to Hobbiton, where key scenes of The Lord of the Rings were filmed. We got to see how the Shire faces the Party Tree. Hobbit holes are all around, and even without the lush landscaping, the site is magical. Walking along the path Gandalf and Frodo took, it was easy to imagine Bilbo popping out of a round doorway, pipe in hand.

On our last day, checked out a historical village that had some traditional reed huts. This was the original housing of the Maori. While exploring the little homes, it started to feel like we just might go native. Leaving New Zealand was sad as the unspoiled splendor of the landscape had won us over.

Travel is usually a quest for some intangible quality. Perhaps the visit down under was partly a search for a humane worldview. We found that places still exist in the English-speaking world that are kindly and unpretentious. In practical terms, Australia and New Zealand are completely up to date. In holding onto the small graces, they are fortunate to be quite behind the times.

In the end, we travel to discover something about ourselves. We are reminded of what we value and how we want to live. Chesterton said "The purpose of travel is not to set foot on foreign land, but to set foot on your own country as foreign land." We return ready to appreciate the marvels of life at home -- and more aware of the qualities we want to claim in ourselves.