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Dancing with Strangers

by Inga Clendinnen

The True History of the Meeting of the British First Fleet and the Aboriginal Australians, 1788

History books are not normal bookgroup fare but if your group is in need of something different, stimulating and truly fascinating then this is for you.

The book is constructed from contemporary journals, reports, letters and drawings and paintings of five main crewmembers of HMS Sirius detailing the early British- Australian encounters, in which Inga Clendinnen gives her own sensible and logical analysis of the material without resorting to spurious hypotheses.

From the documentation she has created a thoughtful, accessible and beautifully written book about the arrival at Botany Bay of the first British fleet (and several hundred convicts) in 1788 and their first meeting with Australian Aboriginals in which, for a short-lived period, blacks and whites were on remarkably friendly terms (they quite literally danced together on first meeting).

It’s not without humour either. Describing how the fleet communicated by sign language (a “hint” they received from a list given by the Earl of Morton on how to deal with “native people” – which, incidentally, was also given to Cook) she relates how they were advised that signing opening the mouth wide, putting the fingers in and then chewing would demonstrate want of food she suggests that rather than being taken to mean, “We want to eat”. Might it not under certain circumstances mean, “We want to eat you”’?

A chapter entitled “What the Australians Saw” describes how the British may have looked to the Aboriginals; “beardless creatures of indiscriminate sex bundled in swaddling despite soaring temperatures, half of whom dragged heavy chains around their ankles and were flogged by the other half; who felled trees quite useless for making canoes or spears; who were surrounded by delicious four-legged animals (they brought sheep with them) yet preferred to stalk kangaroos in fantastically inept fashion; and who would every so often string up one of their group by his neck and leave him to die.” What must they, the Aboriginals, have made of this?

Clendinnen appeals in her introduction that her book might help, by retracing the difficulties in the way of understanding people of a different culture, we might grasp how taxing and tense a condition ‘tolerance’ is – a sentiment, I feel, that we are all too acutely aware of in today’s so-called climate of “terror”.

For books on a similar theme see also our review of <a href=""target="_blank">ENGLISH PASSENGERS</a>.

For information about the wines produced in the New South Wales region, see below.

Hunter Valley
After James Busby landed in Sydney with Australia''s first vine cuttings, the first wine region to be settled for serious grape and wine production was the Hunter Valley, 160km to the northwest. Semillon and Shiraz were (and are) the varieties this region is famed for. Semillon, notoriously lean and mean when young, turns into a rich toasty butter-bomb, and Shiraz, despite the oft-repeated tasting note of ''sweaty saddles'', is some of the most gutsy, earthy and beguilingly baked-fruited of all. It’s hot here - some say too hot - and this is more than obvious in Hunter Chardonnays. Darlings of the 1980s, they got the variety off to a flying start in this country by virtue of their out-and-out tropical toastiness.

A little further inland, to the west of the Hunter, is Mudgee. In Aboriginal Mudgee means ''nest in the hills'', and this is the perfect nesting place for Shiraz. Not the leathery spicy style of the Hunter, or the plummy violetty stuff of the Barossa, but ripe, rounded, lusciously flavoured wine that lends well to being blended with the Cabernet and Merlot also grown hereabouts. It''s the highland coolness that makes the difference.

Situated at 600-900 metres above sea level, the volcanic hillside vineyards of Orange are some of Australia''s coolest. This makes them great place to grow white grapes. Look out for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc with great citrus intensity: they get ripeness from warm sunny days, and crisp fresh acidity from cool mountainside nights. Compare them with wines from the Adelaide Hills and note the difference.

Two types of wine come from Riverina: easy-drinking cask wine, and rich, golden, apricotty botrytis Semillon. Tasting the latter, which gathers the best from the region’s long sunshiny days, and you''ll be in for a dessert wine treat. Sticky sweet fortified wines from the region are an after dinner bonus, if you can find them.

New Regions, New Wines...
West of the Great Dividing Range, sheltered away from coastal rain, are three new regions: Cowra, Tumbarumba and Hilltops. Watch Cowra for peachy rich Chardonnay, Tumbarumba for tangy Sauvignon, and Hilltops for berry and spice Cabernet, and see what else emerges in the future...

To find out more about Australian wine and wine growing regions, log on to <a href=""target="_blank"></a>.


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