Friday, 11 October 2013

Amazing What You See in the Outback!

     Prof. Tim Flannery is probably best known to Australians as the head of the now defunct Climate Commission, which caused some controversy. However, his real forte is as a very brilliant mammalogist and paleontologist. His book, Country (Text, 2004) is worth reading, not only for its scientific information, but for some of his personal reminiscences. Take, for example, the account on page 29 of his youthful venture with a mate called Bill into Rottnest Island, off Fremantle, WA.
Bill's parents had honeymooned there and apart from an unfortunate incident involving Bill's dad snoring open-mouthed on the beach, and a defecating seagull with a crackshot aim, they had come away with wonderful memories.
     But his most amusing anecdote was the one about the American paleontologist, Tom Rich.
     In 1978, Dr Rich was digging up fossils near Lake Tarkarooloo, in the Lake Frome basin of South Australia. The heat was terrific, and the undersized bushflies (which Flannery describes as "the son of a maggot born on a dungheap") even worse. Except to Dr Rich. He had recently returned from a dinosaur hunt in Saudi Arabia, and had adopted the Arab costume: a white, neck-to-knee robe called a thobe, and a checked gutra wrapped around his head in the fashion which had lead disrespectful Arabophobes to coin the slur, "towelhead". But the Arabs knew what suited their climate, and Dr Rich was now more-or-less immune to heat and flies.
     One day, when Rich had found a pair of beautiful fossil turtle carapaces, the sky turned ominous and dark. Not to worry; a thunderstorm is nothing to someone decked in thobe and gutra. His companions returned to camp, but he was determined to dig out those carapaces and apply a plaster jacket before the storm struck. As Flannery later recalled on page 97:
     When he turned up later that day, Tom told us that after we upped stakes he heard a wheezing old truck bump along the track to the quarry - the first visitor at the remote location. As the battered vehicle drew near it slowed to a halt and its driver, a rabbit shooter who sat propped between his rifle and a slab of Victoria Bitter, stared at Tom, who had forgotten the strangeness of his habiliments, and asked in tremulous voice, 'What are you doin' out here, mate?' The thunder pealed and the first fat drops of rain began to fall as the swaddled figure, without car, horse or even camel to support him, replied in a broad American accent, 'I'm digging for turtles.' At this the rabbiter gulped, turned mechanically away, and drove up the track.
     No doubt that anecdote went all around that rabbit shooter's circle of friends, and not one of those who believed him would be able to guess the truth. But you see, there is usually a perfectly logical explanation for everything you come across, no matter how bizarre.

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