Night had fallen a few hours already and my apprehension was turning into fear. I kept my eyes on that narrow, steep road, trying to see beyond the darkness. I concluded that the alternative plan to spend the night and sleep in the car, with my wife and four-year-old son, would also not be possible.
Fear took hold of me when I saw, coming towards us, out of the curve in front, two shining headlights.
Australia is an immense, huge, fascinating and dangerous country.
Australia’s size is equivalent to the size of Brazil which in turn is as large as the United States if we don’t consider Alaska and return it to Russia as many Russians desire.
Considered itself a continent, Australia is the driest inhabited continent on the planet, I say inhabited because the driest continent on the planet despite being full of ice, I recently discovered to my total surprise, is Antarctica, but as far as I know besides penguins and other animals, no person lives there. For this reason Australia with the most unique flora and fauna in the world, is extremely vulnerable to the climate change we are going through, as was demonstrated by the horrific fires that occurred in 2020, which reportedly killed more than 800 million animals and forced another two billion of them to move from their habitats.
The history of Australia’s colonization is very interesting. It has always been inhabited by the Aborigines, about a million of them at the time of the discovery, a collection of approximately 500 original tribes, believed to have emigrated from Asia, probably from India more than thirty thousand years ago. A primitive, spiritual people, attached to the earth. According to they belief the world was created from a dream or dreamtime, when ancestors came out of the bowels of the earth to form all that the world contains. Unlike other religions, Aboriginal belief does not place humans on a higher plane and they believe that their ancestors who have morphed into mountains, rivers, flora, fauna remain alive spiritually in these areas of nature.
It is not known for sure who was the first European to reach the dry continent. Recently, a map was discovered in Los Angeles, which scholars say shows that the first European to land in Australia was the Portuguese, Cristovão de Mendonça in 1522. As proof, they say that some words from various Aboriginal tribes come from the Portuguese, the most interesting of the words “tartaruga” turtle, equal to the Lusitanian language
It is known that the first settlers were the Dutch in the 17th century. In 1606 the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon arrived in Australia and in subsequent years was followed by several other Dutch sea man that named Australia New Holland. There’s even the story of The West Indies Company’s navigator, Abel Tasman, who discovered New Zealand and Tasmania, an island south of Australia that bears his name. According to the ship log records, Abel Tasman arrived in Tasmania without noticing Australia’s immense continent just above it.
Who really claimed and took over Australia for England, was captain James Cook who landed at Botanic Bay, which would later be called Sydney, in 1770 and went on to map the entire east coast of Australia.
The colonization of Australia was done in an unconventional way. England established penal colonies on the continent and in the period between 1788 and 1868 sent to Australia about 160,000 criminals of all kinds. Australia only became independent in 1901 and is formed in addition to aborigines, immigrants and the majority who control the country, descendants of criminals. They say that to be an authentic Australian, one’s ancestry must count with relatives who were reluctant guests of the penal colonies.
The world’s deadliest animals are found in Australia. Poisonous snakes, such as the Death Snake that has the fastest dinghy of all snakes, Taipan snake of huge prey, Brown snake, second most venomous snake in the world that kills more than all poisonous snakes combined, Blue-ringed Octopus, which in a single sting releases a poison, which has no antidote, capable of killing more than twenty people, Funnel Web Spider, poisonous, aggressive, lives in cities, with prey able to pierce a human nail, Saltwater Crocodile, huge, can weigh more than a ton, and does not hesitate to lunch on humans, Shark Flat Head, swim in shallow beach waters and likes human flesh also, European Bee , poisonous, found throughout Australia, causes extreme allergic reactions, and Jellyfishes, such as the Irukandji that can “throw” poisonous stingers for which there is no antidote, and the Australian Box Jellyfish, transparent, virtually invisible, extremely poisonous whose sting kills a person in less than two minutes.
On the other hand, in Australia there are Kangaroos and Koala, two animals that define the continent. There also lives my favorite animal, the platypus. A small underwater mammal with primitive and adaptable characteristics that make it unique. It has a waterproof brown hair and lay eggs! Only one other mammal in the world that lay eggs, is the Equidine, a small porcupine anteater, also native of Australia. What draws attention to the platypus is that it has a duck beak, flattened almost comical, not found in any other mammal, with receptacles that help detect electrical currents in the water to find food. Also unique to a mammal is that the platypus carries for defense, a powerful poison in the hind legs, which does not kill, but causes intense pain in us humans. In addition to all this, in recent years scientists have discovered that the platypus’s skin shines with black light! What do you think of that?
Australians love their beer and other alcoholic beverages. We were surprised to learn that pubs, bars opened before supermarkets and that early in the morning they served beer as breakfast. In addition it is possible to buy alcoholic beverages in drive-in stores, without having to get out of the car. Australian children grow up eating Vegemite a by-product of beer production, of horrible taste, but favorite of Australian children, which is used as a sandwich paste.
I lived in Australia for a year, not a long time. Today I regret having spent much of this time working. I should have taken the opportunity to explore more of the country, at the time I had no other option, but the little I learned about Australia in that period, left me fascinated with much nostalgia.
We managed to rent a penthouse apartment in the only tall building on Manly Beach at that time, a wonderful place on the other side of Sydney Harbor. To get to Manly Beach from the city center, it was possible to go by car or bus and cross the very well-known Sydney Harbor Bridge, but it was best to take the ferry, which sailed out of the world-famous Sydney Opera Theatre building. The drive to Manly beach took about twenty minutes, by ferry twice as long, but it was much nicer going to or from Manly by ferry than by car.
On the second Sunday after we moved from the hotel to the apartment in Manly, I woke up very early, around five o’clock in the morning, due to a loud noise I couldn’t identify. The sun had not yet raised, but the day was beginning to light up. I went to the terrace and was surprised to see the beach below, usually deserted crammed with people.
I called my wife and soon to see and we noticed that there was a lifeguard competition with a lot of people coming from all parts of town, watching. We practically spent all day in amazement watching the games, on the terrace, our VIP box.
The competition included all kinds of events. On the sand, individual race, group race, stick picks race, flag picking race. At sea, individual rescue, group rescue, resuscitation, individual and group boat racing. It caught my attention that the male lifeguards, before they got on the boats, inserted their speed bathing suits in their butt crack before seating on the boat, showing their uncovered butts to the public. I think the wet bathing suit gave them trouble rowing. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even pay attention to this detail, I was more interested in the girls at the beach, who at that time, almost forty years ago, sunbathed without the top of the bikini.
In the time we spend in Australia we got to know Sydney, the center, the beaches, the harbor. We went a few times to Bondi, the most famous beach in town. We also visited the zoo, in a privileged location, where the animals, especially giraffes, enjoy a unique view of the city. On a long weekend we went by car to visit The Blue Mountains, a kind of rainforest near Sydney. There we saw the famous triple peak, Three Sisters, we went down by train on the steepest railway in the world and crossed a huge gorge on a cable car with glass bottom, suspended by steel cables, a kind of Sugarloaf cable car of Rio, but horizontally.
That was it.
Finishing my work, it was coming to the time to leave Australia, I mentioned to my office colleagues that before leaving, I was planning to take a week’s holiday at Easter and visit the capital of Australia, Canberra.
“Visit Canberra? It’s not worth it, you better not go.” Reacted one of my colleagues, soon confirmed by several others who were there listening to the conversation.
“What do you suggest” I asked
“Hill End” was the cryptic response
“What is Hill End, what’s interesting there?”
They didn’t want to tell me, and in the days before my vacation, they kept insisting that I visit Hill End, the End of the Hill.
I finally decided to go to Hill End, not knowing what was waiting for me.
Looking at the map, I found that Sydney, Canberra and The End Hill formed a triangle and that just before Hill End there was a city I had also heard of, Bathurst, an off the coast place, Australia’s oldest interior city. I thought we could go to Canberra then stay in Bathurst, visit the city and from there travel to explore Hill End.
Execution does not always happen as planned.
The visit to Canberra lasted two days, it was nice but boring. Apart from buildings that hosted the various government entities and some parks and museums, nothing captured our interest.
We left for Bathurst early Thursday. The trip would take four hours at the most. We thought we’d arrive at lunchtime so w could calmly look for a hotel. We had not made an advance reservation thinking that it would be no problem to find accommodation, after all the city was not small and had several hotels.
A big mistake.
Along the way, the road was almost empty of cars, but we were surprised by the number of motorcyclists we encountered. Every motorcycle seemed to go in the same direction as us. Arriving at Bathurst around one pm, we learned that on Easter weekend takes place there Australia’s biggest motorcycle race, famous all over the world. We also learned that the previous year there were several riots and fights of motorcyclists with the police that left us worried, but there was an even greater concern.
Because of the race, there was not a single hotel room available in Bathurst!
We gave up searching for a hotel around 5:00 p.m. Looking at the map, I noticed there was a hotel in Hill End. The city was about an hour and a half from Bathurst and as we had no choice we decided to travel there. Maybe there would be a room available at the hotel. Otherwise, alternatively, we would sleep in the car, which with a small child, we wanted to avoid.
Reviewing the map in more detail, I realized there were three routes to Hill End. Without thinking, I chose the shortest, 75 kilometers. I don’t even remember if we bought or had some supplies for the trip, I don’t think we had, but nevertheless we left.
We started getting a little anxious when the paved road ended and we had to cross a small creek without a bridge. It wasn’t deep and the passage wasn’t problematic. The white dirt road was dry, deserted and the car was going well until we found the sheep.
Hundreds of sheep in the middle of the road, we couldn’t get through. We waited a long time, since the sheep didn’t pay attention to us, I decided to go ahead. I left slowly, the shepherd who followed right in front of the flock, looked at us without saying anything, and between bleats, we carefully managed to get the sheep to open a corridor in front of us.
Immediately then we saw on our right a small creek, practically dry and in front of us the road climbing on a huge mountain. Near the creek there were some trees, but the mountain seemed dry, without vegetation. We started climbing as the sun went down.
The road snagged the mountain and was getting narrower and narrower. We kept climbing very slowly apprehensive about the gorge, which the higher we climbed, the darker, higher and more terrifying it looked.
Due to the uphill without asphalt, the sheep and low speed we were traveling, it was already almost eight o’clock at night. The narrowest road yet, didn’t even seem made for cars.
That’s when we saw the lights coming towards us, a little pickup truck.
I tried to find a wider part of the road, pulled the car into the mountain wall, stopped and waited for the truck to pass. The experienced driver managed to pass almost scraping on my side and when he was close I asked.
“Does this road lead to Hill End?”
“How long until then?”
“On this road? About an hour”
Later I found out we were a little over ten miles from Hill End, on average we were traveling at a speed of approximately twelve miles per hour. A turtle could have caught up with us.
Finally, we reached the top of the mountain, looking down we saw some lights, houses. Then I understood why the city was called Hill End, End of the Hill.
The houses were scattered, lots of empty land between them, streets without asphalt.
Finally after stopping a few times to ask, we arrived at the hotel. It wasn’t a hotel, it was a pub, a bar, one of those from the old west, with pilasters to tie horses, it looked like a western movie scene.
I went into the lounge and asked the bartender:
“Is there a hotel here? Do you have room available?”
“Yes, yes the last one” was the double answer.
I breathed a sigh of relief, paid for the room that only had one bed and on top of the bed an open skylight. It seemed like it never rained in that place.
While my wife was preparing the room for the night, I went to the bar to order something to eat. Then I decided to take a walk around the back of the building. I didn’t get very far. I couldn’t believe what I saw.
I looked up, the sky was completely clear and because it was so dry and I was on the top of a mountain, amazed, I could see the whole milky way, the largest number of stars I’d ever seen in my life. I stood there, enchanted, until my neck started to hurt.
Back in the room, my restless wife asked why I had taken too long. I explained and we went to sleep right under the skylight, illuminated by the light of the stars.
The next day we learned that Hill End had been a built when they discovered gold in that region in the second half of the 19th century. The city used to have at that time 8,000 inhabitants, two newspapers, eight churches and twenty-eight hotel bars. In Hill End it was unearthed the largest gold nugget ever found, containing more than 75% gold, weighed almost 290 kilos and reached the height of the shoulder of a man, Bernhardt Holtermann, who discovered it in 1872. Today Hill End, devoid of gold, has less than 200 inhabitants.
Australia by the way is the country responsible for the largest gold nuggets found in the world to date. In addition to the Hill End nugget, the largest, called the Holtermann nugget, the second largest, is called Welcome Stranger, found in the state of Victoria, weighed nearly 100 kilos. The third largest found in Western Australia weighed 95 kilos. As a comparison the largest gold nugget found in Brazil to date, was in Serra Pelada, called Nugget Canaã, which still exists, has not been melted and is on display at the central bank museum in Brasilia. Weighs 61 kilos.
Exploring Hill End, we bought a gold prospecting certificate that enabled us to mine. As expected, we found nothing, but we bought a book that tells the story of Hill End and a copy of the newspaper of the time, which we keep to this day to remember our adventure in the city of gold.
The return to Bathurst was quick, less than an hour. We returned by the long road that although dirt was dry, wide with few curves and allowed a speed almost equal to a paved road.