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GLOBE TREKKER: NORTHERN AUSTRALIA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Megan McCormick, Ian Wright
Directors: Peter Boyd Maclean, Jenny Dames
Audio: English Dolby stereo
Subtitles: None
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: Pilot Productions
Features: Round the World tour, fun travel information, web links
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2002

"The tropics are so temperamental!  Either way, down there or up here, I'm going to get wet."

Episodes ****

Australia, aside from being the sixth-largest country in the world, is also one of its newest.  Although formally established as the Commonwealth of Australia on January 1, 1901, the nation was considered a dominion of the British Empire up until the Statute of Westminster of 1931 (ratified by Australia in 1942).  Even then, the British Parliament still held symbolic authority over the individual Australian states until the passing of the Australia Act in 1986.  Today, Australia maintains strong ties to Britain and considers itself a constitutional monarchy with the English monarch as Australia's head of state.  So, Queen Elizabeth II technically reigns (in absentia) as Queen of Australia over the six states, several territories, and scores of small islands which comprise the nation of Australia.

Europe first became aware of the existence of this large Pacific continent back in 1522 when it was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Cristovao de Mendonça.  In 1770, Lieutenant James Cook re-visited this intriguing land and claimed the eastern two-thirds of the continent for Britain.  White settlers officially landed on Australia on January 28, 1788 (now a national holiday), and the country has been linked to Great Britain ever since.  In fact, Australia, for some time, even served as a British penal colony, especially following Britain's loss of its North American colonies, and remnants of this convict past can still be seen in parts of Australia.

Today, Australia remains a popular destination for immigrants, albeit of a less criminal nature.  The native Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders make up a small portion of the population (2.2%), but Australia has become a rich multicultural melting pot for peoples of English, Chinese, Indochinese, Japanese, Greek, and Italian descent, to name but a few.  Furthermore, Australian maintains a strong immigration program to off-set its aging population and the absence of nearly one million overseas residents, the "Australian Diaspora" (about 5% of the total population).

With such diversity, Australia represents an irresistible stop-over for a popular and long-running travelogue show such as Globe Trekker.  Long a staple of cable and public broadcasting television, Globe Trekker has been hopping around the world for over a decade under such aliases as Lonely Planet and later Pilot Guides.  Currently known as Globe Trekker since the new millennium, this travelogue show specializes in breath-taking cinematography and intimate encounters with the ethnic and cultural populations of its host countries.  The Globe Trekker presenters are not afraid to wander off the beaten path away from the usual tourist traps, either, and as a result they frequently revel in some wonderful sights and sounds that the typical tourist might miss entirely.  This particular disc, Globe Trekker: Northern Australia, offers a trip to Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef and then to the rugged Australian Outback.

In possibly one of the most aquatically picturesque Globe Trekker episodes, Megan McCormick visits Queensland, five times the size of Texas and yet only Australia's second largest state (the other Australian states are New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia).  Queensland in particular is famous for its 3000-mile coastline, which borders the Great Barrier Reef, so Megan sensibly starts off from Surfers’ Paradise on the Gold Coast, home to beautiful beaches, heavenly waves, and a gluttony of tourism-oriented developments.  The locals in Surfers’ Paradise are quite friendly, particularly the Bikini Meter Maids, whose function presumably is to roller-skate in bikinis around the boardwalk while altruistically depositing tokens into parking meters to save tourists from receiving parking tickets.  Suffice it to say that the Bikini Meter Maids are big tourist attractions in Surfers’ Paradise and don't mind posing for photographs, either!

Megan vicariously experiences a few moments in the day of a Bikini Meter Maid before trekking northwards to Noosa, a quieter and low-key surfers’ mecca renowned for Mod Aus, an innovative Thai-influenced cuisine blending European and Asian styles.  Megan chomps down on a Morton Bay bug salad.  It's a lot better than it sounds - the Morton Bay bug is actually an Australian crayfish!

Next, Megan travels to Harvey Bay via the Bruce Highway and catches a ferry to Fraser Island.  As the world’s largest vegetated sandbar, Fraser Island is also home to seventy fresh water lakes.  Megan even takes a dip in Window Lake, named for its sparkling clear waters.  In fact, these lakes are probably safer than the tiger shark-infested coastal waters, complete with dangerously strong undertows.  If the sharks don't get you, the deadly Box jellyfish (or "sea wasps") might.  These jellyfish, found in abundance along Queensland's coast from November through April, are to be avoided if possible.  Megan opts to stay on dry land, going instead on an Australian beach safari in a four-wheeler up to Indian Head, only to encounter some wild dingoes and even worse, the dreaded....cane toad!

So who said Australian wildlife was completely safe?  Even koalas are not entirely docile!

The cane toad, or giant neotropical toad (Bufo marinus), is a prime example of what happens when mankind foolishly transplants an alien species into a new environment bereft of any natural predators.  The cane toad was introduced into Australia from Hawaii in 1935 to control a pesky beetle population plaguing Australian sugarcane crops.  First released around northern Queensland, the omnivorous cane toad not only completely ignored the sugarcane pests, but it began to feast instead on Australia's native fauna.  The few native predators which attempted to eat the cane toad were rudely introduced to bufotoxin, a deadly venom secreted by adult cane toads from paratoid glands behind their eyes and across their backs.  Even touching a cane toad can have deleterious (or hallucinogenic) effects upon unsuspecting people.

Thus, with little in the way of effective predatory intervention, the reviled cane toad has proliferated almost without check throughout Australia, threatening the native species and generating creating an ecological disaster.  How badly do despairing Australians hate the cane toad, which can grow to the revolting size of an ugly, mutant house cat?  Well, Aussies have made a natural past-time of running over as many cane toads as possible during long car journeys!  For a truly hilarious yet insightful look at the cane toad dilemma, check out Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1987).

So, don't be a dill.  Next time you travel to a foreign country, think twice before sneaking pass custom officers with any critters (or even fruits, like apples and oranges) not already indigenous to that region!  Without careful consideration of the possible environmental ramifications of your act, you risk becoming regarded heinously with eternal disgust and revulsion by future generations, not a particularly a good legacy, mind you.

Megan wisely shuns the cane toad before embarking upon the long drive from Fraser Island to Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands, the "gateway to the Great Barrier Reef."  Formed by the eruptions of old volcanoes, the Whitsundays are a beautiful place for snorkeling, sun-tanning, and sailing.  From here, Megan has her heart set on experiencing the thrill of several days aboard the Matador, an 85-foot world-class racing yacht once used in the America's Cup, sailing's premier racing event.

Megan's first dive to the Great Barrier Reef includes a search of a legendary (but elusive) gigantic Mauri Wrasse.  Although she doesn't find it, there are many other gorgeously colorful and friendly fish living among the spectacular corals of Blue Pearl Bay on Hayman Island.

As if to illustrate the hazards of other Queensland wildlife, aside from cane toads, north Queensland is also home to many crocodiles which lurk in wait within the region's fresh waters.  Swimming in these rivers and creeks is rather ill-advised, to be frank.  Megan, being either crazy or just insanely bold, actually finds a disturbingly large crocodile to sit upon (presumably for the novel experience).

Escaping with all her limbs still attached, Megan heads northwards for the Magnetic Islands.  Named after a particularly disorienting experience by a befuddled Captain Cook with his suddenly-useless compass in the vicinity of these isles, the Magnetic Islands are also home to more spectacular portions of the Great Barrier Reef.  Incorporated into the Reef over the years have been the wrecks of various ships, including the Yongola.  Megan takes a dive down to visit the Yongola, a passenger ship that was hit by a cyclone in 1911 and quickly sank to its watery grave.  As with all shipwrecks, the coral has claimed the ship for its own.  The Yongola is now home to the Great Barrier Reef's unique and frequently spectacular blend of seafaring flora and fauna.

The next stop on Megan's itinerary is Cairns, where she hopes to partake (surprise surprise) in yet more diving and exploration of the Great Barrier Reef.  Sometimes referred to as the world's largest single organism, in reality the Great Barrier Reef is a huge ecosystem comprised of three thousand reefs and nine hundred islands and countless thousands of different species of fish and corals.  Extending for over 1,200 kilometers, the Great Barrier Reef is considered a World Heritage site and is today protected as the world's largest sea reserve and marine park.

From Cairns, Megan travels to Thursday Island, the capital of the Torres Strait islands off Cape York Peninsula, the northern tip of Australia.  Comprised of over one hundred islands, only a handful of which are inhabited, the Torres Strait islands are a stepping stone to Papua New Guinea.  The people on these islands reflect a strong Melanesian, Papuan, and even Japanese influence, and Thursday Island was even once the center of a thriving Japanese pearl trade.  Megan has an opportunity to ogle some gem-quality pearls.

But clams aren't particularly exciting creatures otherwise, so Megan returns to the mainland where she joins a wild boar hunt.  Such hunts are sanctioned as a means of controlling the population of the now-feral boar, yet another non-indigenous animal introduced to Australia (by Captain Cook, no less).  At least the primal hunt results in a rather enjoyable and tasty barbie.

For another taste of the exotic, Megan heads back to the mainland and samples a local snack food - Oecophylla smaragdina, or the green tree ant.  Believe it or not, this type of weaver ant is an excellent source of vitamin C.  To eat it, simply pluck one of these Bush tuckers off a nearby leaf and bite off its abdomen (preferably before the ant bites you back).  Presumably, mixing a bunch of these honey ants in a pail of water makes for a rather refreshing lemonade-flavored medicinal beverage!

Megan's adventurous journey ends fittingly at yet another fantastic Great Barrier Reef dive site, the Cod Hole.  Situated near the posh and luxurious Lizard Island, the Cod Hole is home to some spectacular species of fish, including reef sharks, snappers, Clown Trigger fish, unicorn fish, and lion fish.  However, the Cod Hole is named for its famous Potato Cod (Epinephelus tukula), a huge fish that is one of the Great Barrier Reef's most-amazing attractions.

While the Great Barrier Reef is obviously quite wet, the same cannot be said for much of mainland Australia.  Three-quarters of the Australian mainland, 90% of which is unpopulated, is rugged landscape and mostly covered by sand dunes.  This decidedly arid region, popularly known as the Outback, has replaced the American Wild West of old as a modern-day romantic version of the Final Frontier.  This Outback is also the destination for the next Globe Trekker host, Ian Wright.

The Englishman Ian Wright has the longest tenure of all the Globe Trekker hosts.  A three-time winner of the prestigious U.S. Cable Ace Awards for "Best Magazine Host" (for his Morocco, Central Asia, and Ethiopia Globe Trekker programs), Ian has a pleasantly off-beat and amusingly self-deprecating style that instantly endears him to everyone he meets, tourists and natives alike.

Ian's adventures begin in the Northern Territory capital of Darwin, recently destroyed by a 1974 cyclone but now completely rebuilt.  Darwin is also the "gateway to the Outback" and has many friendly hostels in which to exchange experiences with other tourists or to rest up before a long trek into the vast and endless expanse of the Outback.  Darwin's proximity to Asia also makes it an ideal stop for exotic culinary delights.

Ian buys a boomerang before heading eastwards for Kakadu National Park, a truly enormous reserve that stretches for over eight thousand square miles.  It is also a good place for wildlife sightseers to visit between April and October when the wildlife is most abundant.  Just travel with a good guide, and beware of the wild crocodiles!  Ian tries his hand at feeding a crocodile (but doesn't quite go so far as to sit on one).  However, he does allow a black-headed python to wrap itself around his neck (a pity the spineless camera operator shrank back in fright).

Happily, Ian isn't crushed to death but lives on to travel to the town of Katherine just in time for the Barunga Aboriginal Festival.  Held annually every June, this huge conglomeration of Aboriginal people is a celebration of sports and culture.  The festival is a great opportunity for tourists to sample several varieties of local Bush tuckers or participate in events like spear-throwing contests, didgeridoo-playing, and cultural dances.

Then, Ian sets off (with a new didgeridoo in tow) via a commuter plane to Cloncurry, Queensland for the Cloncurry Bush festival.  An annual celebration of the Queen of Australia's birthday, this festival is apparently also the Outback's answer to a bluegrass and poetry reading concert.  Ian takes a stab at Bush poetry in front of a live audience before participating in a nocturnal kangaroo hunt.  Despite their cuddly international reputation, kangaroos are considered pests which regularly damage regional crops.  At least they are an indigenous species, and the natives know how to make efficient use of kangaroo parts.  Next time you are in Australia, purchase a wallet or purse made out of kangaroo testicle sacs.  Or, sample a cooked kangaroo tail, a rather common and hearty meal in the Outback.

Ian heads back into the Northern Territory for Alice Springs, the biggest if isolated Outback town.  Alice Springs is also home to many Aborigines, a people native to Australia since long before the dawn of recorded human history.  Their ancestors are believed to have arrived in Australia over 50,000 years ago, and the Aboriginal people are presumed to possess the world's oldest surviving culture.  Over the centuries, there has been an uneasy integration between Aboriginal people and the later European immigrants, and racial issues are still an on-going concern.  Recent, dark chapters of Australian-Aboriginal human rights atrocities, such as the "Stolen Generation," are still relatively fresh in the minds of many Aborigines.  Today, these people live in separate and sometimes highly isolated communities or impoverished small towns, although the younger generations are gradually drifting more towards urban settings.  Over half of the Aboriginal population resides in New South Wales and Queensland.

Alice Springs is noted for its Aboriginal artwork which can be found in some forty-odd galleries scattered about town.  Ian receives a crash course about the complex symbolism in Aboriginal art before heading out west of the town into the sparsely-populated and arid Outback.  He helps out on a cattle station, one of the few regular means of employment in this otherwise unforgiving land.

Three hundred miles southwest of Alice Springs is the sacred Anangu Aboriginal site of Uluru.  After Mount Augustus in Western Australia, Uluru is the world's largest monolith, a site virtually unchanged for eighty thousand years.  Formerly known as Ayers Rock, the monolith reverted back to its original Aboriginal name in 1986 and, despite being out in the middle of nowhere, is today one of Australia's popular tourist attractions.  Climbing Uluru is permitted but dangerous, and the Aboriginal people themselves don't climb it out of respect for its sacred significance to their culture.

From here, a six hundred mile Tanami trail cuts westward through the Tanami Desert to link Alice Springs with Halls Creek in Western Australia.  However, it is an extremely hot and desolate region, and careless or unprepared travelers can easily perish in this region.  So, respect the land and travel with an experienced guide.  Travelers who run out of food, never fear - the Aborigines have been eating Witjuti Bush grubs in the region for thousands of years and can show a starving traveler how to locate this fine if wriggly source of life-sustaining protein, too.

Along the Tanami trail, Ian visits Kandimalal, an ancient meteor crater almost one kilometer in diameter.  Well-known by the local Djaru Aboriginal people for years, this Wolfe Creek crater is now a national park.

Ian survives the road trip through the desert to Halls Creek, a fairly inconsequential town.  Nevertheless, Halls Creek is one of the few settlements before the nearest coastal town, Broom, another four hundred miles away.  Obviously, anyone trekking across the Outback can expect a lot of driving and outdoor camping under the clear starry night skies.

Broome, once Australia's largest pearling port, is now a popular beach resort for tourists.  Anyone seeking a quieter retreat can try the nearby Cape Leveque, home to the Bardi Aboriginal people, or can check out the serene "staircase to the moon" at night, the reflection of lunar light off the local mud flats.

From the coast, Ian flies to the town of Kununurra.  By day, it is just another good place for casual agricultural work, perfect for the carefree tourist seeking a little extra income.  By night, especially during one of the Bachelors and Spinsters Balls, it is a truly wild party town.

Ian ends his tour of the Outback in the Bungle Bungles.  These ancient hills in the Kimberley Ranges are known by the local Aborigines but few others.  As a result, tourists rarely visit this spectacular landscape, just one of many wonders yet to be really discovered and appreciated in the vast and still mostly-unexplored Outback.

Ultimately, the dry and desolate Outback is a complete contrast to Queensland's Great Barrier Reef, although both are popular tourist attractions.  For the casual tourist seeking a bit of surf or scuba-diving with his sand, the beaches of Northern Australia are ideal.  For the more adventurous cowboys out there, the lure of the sandy and arid Outback is a modern-day mirror of the romanticism of America's old Wild West.  Either way, Australia has something for everyone!

Video ***1/2

Globe Trekker: Northern Australia presents two original Globe Trekker episodes in their original full-frame format.  A variety of different film media, including videotape and special underwater stock, is used in these episodes, so the contrast level and graininess of the images is not always uniform.  Nevertheless, the images are crystal clear and frequently quite colorful, especially in sections involving the Great Barrier Reef.

Audio ***

Globe Trekker: Northern Australia is presented in English Dolby stereo.  The soundtrack is a mixture of on-site recordings, voice-over narratives, ethnic music, and an abundance of sounds from the natural fauna.  Dialogue is generally audible, although occasionally drowned out by ambient noise.  Such is the nature of travel through the rainforests or the Outback!

Features *

"If you spend too much time thinking about it, then you miss it!  Things come.  Keep looking, meet different people, and exchange ideas.  There is no rule." - Ian Wright

I want to quickly praise the rather pleasantly aquatic, animated menu screens (like watching Finding Nemo) for Queensland, in opposition to the arid, scorching look of the chapter selection screens for Outback Australia.

For anyone with a desire to take a trip Down Under, this disc offers basic information pages regarding the Australian weather, cuisine, travel infrastructure, historic sites, and festivals.  This information can be further complemented via links to the various Globe Trekker web sites.

The only other feature is a Round the World tour (10 min.), a collection of clips promoting various Globe Trekker DVDs.  Hosts Ian Wright, Christina Chang, Megan McCormick, and Justine Shapiro can be seen traveling through such countries as Brazil, Spain, Sri Lanka, and Bolivia, to name but a few.

Summary:

Globe Trekker: Northern Australia is funny, exhilarating, educational, and always entertaining.  This is probably one of the best of many Globe Trekker DVDs and should appeal equally to outdoorsy adventurers as well as home-bound explorers.

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