01/25/2016 02:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ozian Weather and Fauna


About ten days ago at 6 PM the temperature in South Yarra (our section of Melbourne) was 111 degrees (F). Today the high for the day was 64 degrees. Basic math says that's a 47 degree difference. For my Aussie friends my handy mobile app temperature converter has it as going from nearly 44C to 18 C. While Melbourne weather volatility is legendary ("If you don't like the weather in Melbourne, just wait two hours and it will change" - unfortunately good weather is just as volatile and likely to change to bad) these past 24 hours even have Melbournians taking note as well.

For a Bay Area guy these extreme changes (Oh, I failed to mention there were significant winds and clouds along with the extreme heat) are one of the few things I don't care for about this wonderful town. Note the other two are: relatively primitive broadband (we are stuck with telephone based DSL) and camera based moving infringements (tickets). To those of you who follow the Letter, I was denied any exemption from my second speeding violation (at the same place twice over a week) and will wind up paying $491 AUD for the two tickets!!!!

Real quick about the weather: it's been explained to me that Melbourne sits between the winds of the hot dry central Australian desert and the very cold Antarctic. They fluctuate in terms of their influence on local Melbourne weather (apparently within a day). It's generally very windy in the afternoons - not great for tennis players like myself -- you feel you're fighting an extra opponent when hitting against these winds. Yesterday seemed like a snow day in Minnesota (never been there). Virtually no one was on the streets. Denise and I took a short walk at 9 PM (91F) and our neighborhood was deserted.

Speaking of tennis, the Australian Open began last week. We have tickets. Play was suspended in the "quallies" (yet another Australian diminutive) when it was 43C because of the heat. We have several pair of friends in town for the Open. One couple has been to the AO twenty times. Laura of this couple seems to know more about the Prahran Market than I do, having lived around the corner and shopped there nearly daily for the last five months. She told me the name of the guy who sells the large mushrooms. I was impressed.

I want to spend a little bit of time discussing the fauna of Oz. I don't have Bill Bryson's (author of an often hilarious travelogue of Australia called In a Sunburned Country) breadth of experience with the animals of Australia, though Bryson's descriptions and fears of death from the various strange critters of Down Under seem clearly exaggerated for the reader's enjoyment. However, one time Denise and I were walking with another local couple in a national park north of Brisbane. Even though we all stayed on the trail, Denise and one of our friends (another woman), each discovered several leaches attached to their legs after our walk. Perhaps Australian leaches prefer the female flesh. Luckily our friends had had some previous experiences with leaches and owned a leach removal solution and kit ready to use when we got back to their home.

But except for our occasional forays into the outback and jungle, most of my personal experiences with Australian animals are aviary, since I've spent most of my time so far in Melbourne. I've therefore missed out on the crocks, sharks, deadly snakes and insects that so enthralled Bryson with fear.

But just the local birds in the cities are amazing. Their sightings and emitted sounds remind you constantly that you are not in Kansas. The crows here are huge and make pterodactyl-like "caws". I know no one has ever heard a pterodactyl but I hope you get what I mean. These crows are loud.

And the mockingbirds' music is nothing like what I've heard in the States. They sing in this off-tone minor Theolonius Monk style key that I find absolutely engaging and delightful. There are birds here that make a familiar dove-like "coo" sound as well. Up in Brisbane, I took this photo 2 years ago of an Australian ibis. Now I'm telling you, these bird are all over Brisbane. They also make incredible sounds. You just know you're not in Kansas when an ibis lands right next to you.

Most of my more far out Australian animal experiences came when Denise and I went up to an animal sanctuary just north of Brisbane. But I have met two koalas in the wild. One was just outside the Tourist Information Office in Port Campbell (on the Great Ocean Road). The office was about to close at the end of the day. Three or four people outside were looking up a tree that was right in front of the office. I right away noticed a koala happily eating leaves. The tourist info guy came out and said "There are koalas all around here, but we've never had one right on our tree in front." Lucky me.

The other animal I've had intimate contact with are Australian flies. They come out in the late spring and were epidemic this year. Over at the Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club, I'd be about to serve and a fly would go up my nose or into my ear. I received a recommendation to use "Bushmen's Bug Repellent Spray." I've put it on and it has helped a bit but personally, I think the flies have developed immunity.

When Louie, my son, and I checked out some of the rock formations like the London Bridge off the Great Ocean Road, the flies were so numerous that despite the repellent we had to hurry back and forth from the car all the while performing the "Australian salute" of waving one's hands rapidly back and forth in front of our faces.

At the animal sanctuary Denise and I got to go near kangaroos and wallabies. I prefer the wallabies - they're cuter. In Oz kangaroos are considered pests like deer even though they are a "protected" species. There are regular hunting seasons for kangaroo (estimated 150,000 females are killed each year). Kangaroo meat is regularly available. I tried it once in Sydney - I had to. It was pretty tender and good - much like venison. But I've only had it once.

At the sanctuary there were wombats, dingoes and even duckbilled platypuses. The herd (flock?) of emus that thundered by me scared me the most. You definitely want to get out of the way of these 200-pound birds. They wouldn't let us get near the even more dangerous cassowaries. These huge birds were in cages because by reputation they will leap up (all these big birds are flightless) and come down on their victim with their razor sharp claws.

Wombats are cool. They are gopher like marsupials that don't do much during the day. Dingoes are Australian feral dogs that appear to have evolved away from the domestic dogs of Asia between 5000 to 10,000 years ago. They are the largest non-human mammalian predators in Oz.

What can you say about a platypus except that they look ridiculous and are amazing. Their "duck-bill" is actually soft and furry and is more like a snout. They are mammals but lay eggs. How crazy is that? I just read that the male also has a heel that can inject painful venom into unsuspecting humans like me. Hey Mr. Bryson, I'm not leaving the car either.

The Australian Open started last week and as mentioned, a group of American friends are in Melbourne to enjoy the tennis with us. My Letters Light edition ends with the usual Aus (as in Oz) vocabulary lessons.

But before I go through some new specific words and phrases I must turn you onto two websites. The Australia Slang Dictionary website is a treasure trove. I was quickly able to find "taking the piss" to mean teasing/making fun of/joking as in "She looked as if she was taking the piss." When first reading this in a news article in the Age I assumed it had something to do with drinking too much alcohol. How wrong I was.

Two Letters readers independently turned me on to the second site which is a wonderful article about how Aussies in different regions of Australia speak and use different phrases and words for the same thing. So please do not take my versions of Australianisms as authoritative. They are simply fun for me to figure out and share.

Here's one about which I could use some confirmation. It's "to the tip" as in "He just sent their projectors to the tip." I'm guessing from an Australian town council site about their local waste sites that "to the tip" means "put in the garbage" or "put out with the trash". I'd be grateful for confirmation.

How about this one, chuffed? I have two completely contradictory definitions in my Dictionary app on this one. "1. Delighted, pleased, satisfied 2. Annoyed, displeased, disgruntled." Huh? Here's the sentence I found chuffed in, "Little wonder Gilsson looked chuffed." Now I have no idea if Gilsson was happy or sad. Both definitions by the way are attributed to British slang in the 1850s. Help?

Okay. An easy one: ute. (informal) a utility vehicle (I think as in a pickup truck or camper?) Origin 1940-45.

And our last Ozian phrase of this Letter courtesy of my Bay Area friends, Laura and Arnie: stickybeak. Noun: an inquisitive or prying person, a busybody or meddler. Verb: to pry into other people's affairs (Australian slang, 1925-30). "I don't mean to stickybeak, but when is she leaving?" Laura also treasures her copy of The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary, which according to Amazon is no longer in print.

Until the next Letterbe well.