Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cutting Teeth - In Queensland

There’s a lot of things that will kill you in the far northeastern corner of Australia known as tropical north Queensland. The Australians who live there never tire of telling visitors about the many hazards present in their state, famed as home to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s as though once you’ve made the 15 hour trip from California the locals inadvertently intend that you should never leave your hotel room.

Despite its perils, Queensland does have something for everyone. There’s the famed Australian Outback -- millions of acres of barely inhabited nothingness. There’s the Reef, with its thousands of islands and countless dive spots. There’s the tropical rainforest which cascades down to the very edge of the ocean. And there’s the beach, hundreds of miles of brilliant white sand, utterly unpeopled and unspoiled. Aside from snow-capped mountains, Queensland has every possible setting a tourist might want. And every one of them has something sure to kill you.

Steel fencing encloses vast stretches of beach to keep them safe from the great whites that prowl off-shore. During Queensland’s early spring and summer, a second, inner net is dragged out to keep the swimming areas clear of box jellyfish or “stingers” as the locals call them. One well meaning Queenslander told me that should I get stung I’d have 90 seconds to get back to shore, find some vinegar, and splash it on the stingers. This would neutralize their deadly toxins. Fortunately, he explained, there are bottles of vinegar left out at all public beaches. Unfortunately, if I didn’t make it in time, I’d begin to lose consciousness and death would quickly follow.

Of course, he reminded me, that while deranged and racing panic stricken from the surf, I should try not to attract the attention of any of Queensland’s thousands of enormous crocodiles that regularly drag inattentive bathers to gruesome and bloody submarine deaths. And don’t get them started about scorpions, spiders, deadly rainforest plants, or Queensland’s famed and endangered cassowary bird, which, unlike its relatives the ostrich and emu, is aggressive and can kick a grown man 20 feet through the air, splitting his chest open in the process.

I’m a reasonably adventurous traveler. I’ve bungee jumped. I’ve stepped out of a perfectly good airplane 15,000 feet above the ground. In one 12 month stretch I visited four different countries all claiming to be the world’s most destitute. I even rent an apartment in San Francisco. There’s not much that scares me. But this constant confrontation with nature’s deadly side gave me the idea that boldly probing Queensland’s many wonders might result in more adventure than I wanted.

After a few stunning dives on the Reef and with “stinger” season about to begin I decided that the dry Outback might be a bit less hazardous than the wet and wild coast.

Ha! I was told by each and every Queenslander. Had I never heard of the taipan, the brown snake, the death adder, or the tiger snake? Didn’t I know that Australia was home to 8 of the 10 deadliest snakes in the world? No, it’s 18 of the world’s 20 most deadly snakes another well intended, proud and chauvinistic Aussie informed me with the same zeal New Yorkers once used when bragging about the crime problem in their city. (Just so I shouldn’t miss the point, during my visit one of the local papers reported that fatal snake attacks had risen 600% in 1998 alone.)

Well then, maybe just a daytime bush walk in the Outback, I suggested. Fine, I was told. Just be careful of the black spear grass, an innocent looking plant with a seed that catches on one’s socks and then slowly corkscrews its way into one’s ankles where the body’s natural humidity causes it to germinate. The well meaning man who guided me through the eerie lava tubes of the Undara National Park told me that occasionally very nasty infections result, with a plant eventually erupting on the other side of one’s leg. Clearly this was something I wanted to avoid because bringing live plants back from Australia would violate USDA and Customs Department regulations.

Having survived the Reef, rainforest, and outback, I was ready to see more of Queensland’s non-fatal side. What about a farm stay? I asked of the tourism people. “Well, ah, okay,” they said.

Nearly all Americans come to Queensland to dive the Reef. My request for a home on the range experience had them ruffling through their brochures.

“What kind of farm?” they asked.

“How about an alpaca farm?” I said.

“Al-what-a?” the woman said.

If nothing else, the Australians are persistent and not long after I was headed toward the Willow Park Alpaca Stud and Albion Farm Stay, home to a herd, rather “mob,” of fuzzy, funny-looking, and, most importantly, non-venomous alpacas. The worse they could do was gob some spit at you, I was told. Non-venomous spit.

I didn’t know much about alpacas. A few years earlier I had seen a mob of them in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Their fur was the king of all fibers I learned, more prized than cashmere or pashmina. Alpacas and an alpaca farm, I thought, might be the way out of my confined, urban apartment existence and to a long held back-to-the-land fantasy that once had me and my wife working on a goat farm. But unlike goats or cows, alpacas didn’t require milking twice a day. Aside from an annual shearing, they pretty much took care of themselves.

Driving through the Australian countryside, I passed towns with names that only Fred Flintstone could have conjured up. Towns like Biddaddaba. The welcoming sign for the city of Warwick informed me that I was passing through a “tidy town.” Albion was not far away. I began to daydream about my future as one of America’s great alpaca barons, rocking away on the porch of my alpaca Ponderosa, contemplating the fortunes of my mob with my feet up. Far away from the perils of sharks, and stingers, and spear grass, and crocodiles, I began to relax and enjoy Queensland’s gently rolling farm land.

My daydream came to an end at a small rural junction outside of Warwick where a sign pointed to the town of Albion. But a few minutes down the road I had more than covered the distance with no sign of a town. After turning around, I quickly arrived at Willow Park Stud, realizing that in rural Australia you don’t have to be as big as a town or village to have your own road sign. You can just be a house or a farm. Albion and Willow Park were one and the same.

Forty furry, long necked, absolutely goofy looking alpacas stood quietly clustered together in the large paddock. A few had been shorn and their odd, camelid features must have inspired George Lucas and his production designers when they first imagined some of the creatures that inhabit the world of Star Wars. Out strode Harry Liaubon, who together with wife Jen, owns Willow Park and has been in the alpaca business for 10 years.

Harry, with his stiff gray mustache, head of perfectly silver hair, and a broad, gap-tooth smile, looked more the retired Buckingham Palace guard than alpaca tycoon. On the “barbie” he had a six inch thick, butterflied leg of lamb that easily weighed 10 pounds.

“Do you have other guests?” I asked Harry who easily juggled cigarette, beer, and grill tools while swatting at the flies that should be Australia’s national bird.

“No Robby,” he said. “Just the three of us. It’ll cook down. You’ll see. No worries.”

“Australia,” I thought. “Big country. Big food.”

Over dinner Harry and Jen gave me a brief tutorial on alpacas. They’re a high plains animal from the Andes whose wool was once coveted for royal garments. Now they provide the yarn for the finest of woolen goods. An alpaca sweater at Neiman-Marcus, for example, can go for $500 or more.

At Albion, Harry and Jen raised the more common huacaya with its coat of puff-ball wool as well as suris whose wool hangs in long, tightly curled locks like the tassels of a flapper’s dress.

“Just feel this Robby,” Jen said. I plunged my hands in a large bag of alpaca fiber. Until someone begins weaving feathers or baby’s hair it will have no challengers.

I told Harry and Jen that I had come to Albion for a hands on experience. I wanted to know if alpacas were in my future. They shouldn’t coddle me. “Right,” Harry said, “No worries Robby. We can cut some teeth tomorrow.”

That sounded good -- until the next morning when I learned that Harry really meant cutting teeth -- alpaca teeth. For an alpaca, life at Willow Park is the gravy train. Without having to forage among the rocky plains of the Andean altiplano their teeth grow indefinitely, like beavers or woodchucks without wood to chuck.

“Problem is” Harry explained, “that when the machos (males) are battling for mates they tend to bite each others’ testicles. So we need to cut their teeth.” I briefly put myself in the male alpaca’s place. Have my teeth cut with a garden shears or have my testicles bitten by a romantic rival. It was a choice that made me want to forget about dating altogether.

Like goats, alpacas are gregarious animals. They like company. Trying to separate one from the mob is like trying to split a drop of mercury. Jen, Harry, the dog, and I eventually penned half a dozen animals in a small corral and then went after our intended, long toothed quarry, a pure, all-white suri named “Whitewater.” Chasing the quick, fuzzy, jumpy animals on wet grass pebbled with slippery alpaca droppings was the kind of activity guaranteed to appear on a “stupidest home videos” program. I, of course, had brought only one pair of pants.

Once we had Whitewater in his own corral, it was time for a bit of dental hygiene. But first, of course, we had to get a hold of him. Harry, 59, strong and wiry, demonstrated, walking slowly behind Whitewater before grabbing a fistful of wool under the neck while going for a headlock with his other arm. “Right,” he said freeing the animal, “Now you try it Robby.”

In my still semi-presentable pants, I cautiously approached Whitewater from behind as Harry had done. We stood about the same height, 5’7”. Harry told me the larger machos weigh about 180 pounds so Whitewater had me by 40 pounds. “I can do this,” I told myself.

With the animal in reach, I lunged. But my hands found nothing to grab. The first 6 inches of an unshorn alpaca is utter fluff. While I tried to reach deeper, Whitewater saw his chance and landed a crushing, backwards upper cut of the foreleg to my ribcage. As I struggled to hold on (and get my breath back), Harry quickly pried open Whitewater’s mouth to take a look at his testicle tearing teeth. “No,” he said, “this one can wait. But let’s give’m a pedicure since you’re so cozy and all.” Harry quickly clutched Whitewater’s feet and snipped off the overgrown, claw-like hooves with the same garden shears he would have used on Whitewater’s teeth.

Over lunch, Harry and Jen explained the economics of alpaca ranching. In Australia, an alpaca can live for 20 years while producing 7 to 11 pounds of wool each year. The wool sells for about $20 a pound so a good producer might earn a few hundred dollars annually. Yet a highly prized female or hembra can sell for $50,000 or more. Although I have an MBA from a prestigious business school, I couldn’t quite figure out the bottom line in this.

“Well, you see,” Jen said, “nowadays the business is in the breeding, not the wool.”

“You’re lucky if the wool pays for the feed,” Harry added.

Evidently, for years alpaca farming has been a coming thing. There are said to be only 10,000 alpacas outside South America, and ranchers have been waiting for the animal’s day to arrive. Meanwhile, long term alpaca breeders like Harry and Jen, he a retired automotive engineer, she a retired oncology nurse, have become well-to-do beyond their dreams. It all started because Jen saw an alpaca for sale that was so cute she couldn’t resist it.

“You’re looking at three quarters of a million out there Robby,” Harry said to me as we quietly rocked on the porch of his 40 acre Ponderosa.

“Really?” I said, amazed that so few animals could be so valuable.

“Course, I don’t mean to big note myself,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Big note myself?” he said. “Oh, I don’t mean to wave the flag is all” he added as a way of explanation before taking a drag on his cigarette and a pull on his beer.

Australians possess a bewildering multitude of peculiar expressions. It’s as though, separated from the rest of the world, the English language has evolved much in the same way Australia’s fauna has, resulting in expressions as unusual as the koala or platypus. Harry was simply trying to explain that he didn’t mean to boast about his and Jen’s success. These two unassuming alpaca farmers had become wealthy on an animal that costs far more to buy than it can ever recover with its fleece. I realized I could afford to become an alpaca rancher just about the same time I could afford to buy a home in San Francisco.

A few years ago Harry and Jen’s mob numbered 160. That was when they ranched near Melbourne. They moved north in search of peace and quiet. Rural Queensland is a quiet, slow moving place. Something like agricultural America 30 or 40 years ago. And in this vast quiet, Albion was very quiet. Not much more sound than the occasional bleating of a sheep or the wind rustling through the eucalyptus.

With my fantasies of an alpaca empire dashed, I resolved to learn what I could in the time I had left at Albion. With the animals so expensive, why, I wondered, wasn’t there more artificial insemination, which might bring the price down to where I could start out with an itsy-bitsy mob of 2 or 3 animals.

“Can’t do it Robby,” Harry began. “They’ve spent millions researching it. You see, the macho’s a dribbling ejaculator. You just can’t get enough of the stuff.”

“Well, I suppose you could try to catch some of it -- you know -- afterwards,” Jen said before going on to describe a process that could only interest an alpaca breeder or, possibly, a member of Ken Starr’s staff.

“And you see,” Jen added, “the hembra, well, she’s an opportunistic ovulator. You can’t really know when she might be ready.”

“She needs that warm and fuzzy feeling,” Harry said, before she’ll release an egg. Apparently a turkey baster just isn’t what fires a female alpaca’s libido.

For several days Harry and Jen had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of a baby alpaca or cria. Every couple of hours we went out to a small corral to see if Tammy, the pregnant hembra, had “unpacked.” I was scheduled to leave that afternoon but decided to stay another night, hoping to witness the cria’s birth. Jen said there was nothing cuter than a new born alpaca. I didn’t doubt it.

Over dinner that evening Harry and Jen confided to me that what they most like about alpaca farming are the clear nights when they go out into the paddock, hand in hand, lay down beneath the stars, and listen to the alpacas. “They make this delightful murmuring sound,” Jen explained.

Tammy didn’t unpack while I was at Albion but during my last night I did walk out into the paddock. Fires glowed along the dark horizon where farmers were burning their fields. The night sky was black and filled with unfamiliar stars. Huddled together against the slight chill, the mob lay quietly murmuring, their soft rumblings like a chorus of small brooks cascading through a mossy forest. Maybe I never would be able to afford an alpaca ranch of my own. But I had found a wonderful place in Queensland - a place where there was nothing to kill me but the quiet.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 12, 1999 edition of the San Francisco Sunday Examiner Magazine.

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