On Tuesday, 16 February 1965, Sydney’s Botany Bay was graced with an extremely rare visitation – a thirty foot (9m) whale shark, which washed ashore on Bare Island in the bay’s northeast corner.


Little was known of whale sharks or their haunts back then. Hardly anyone had ever seen one; it would be over 20 years before the Ningaloo Reef population was discovered. The first documented sighting of a whale shark in Australian waters was by fishermen near Jervis Bay, NSW, in April 1938, sparking headlines nationwide. With only a handful of sightings since then, the arrival of one of these mysterious spotted sea beasts in the waters of Australia’s biggest city caused a sensation.

Sad to say, its stranding was no freak whim of Mother Nature. The poor creature was hounded ashore by an electrical repair vessel, the Warratah, which chased it around Botany Bay for about an hour. Numerous small fishing boats joined in; at one point the harassed shark surfaced under a dinghy containing two fishermen and almost capsized them. After heading towards the open sea, the whale shark turned for Bare Island, where it became stranded on rocks amidst heavy pounding waves.

About 50 onlookers approached for a closer look (a footbridge links the island to shore) but the wild waters forced them back. The Warratah crew tried to tow the five-ton animal back into the bay, but their efforts ended in a snapped line.

Skindiver Eric Buchanan then tied a two-inch nylon rope from the launch Temora around the tail. But again the line broke, and Buchanan had a narrow escape when a big surge almost rolled the shark on top of him. As he scurried to safety the shark washed another 20 feet, coming to rest on a flat rock platform above the tide line, where it spent the day slowly dying.

Over the day, an estimated 10,000 people jammed nearby roads, wanting to see the beached giant. Some brought hacksaws and other tools to carve out a souvenir. The whale shark’s mouth – five feet across – was forced open with an iron bar, and over the next day or so its eyes were gouged out and its dorsal fin and tail sawn off.

The Australian Museum announced it would either take the corpse or cast a replica, but it was already too late. Little or no attempt was made to secure the site and by the next day, with hundreds of people still visiting, it was reported that ‘only half the monster remains and knife-happy tourists and fishermen have cut off huge chunks of flesh’. Too mutilated to tow, the shark was left stinking in the sun, much to the displeasure of Mrs Moore, the wife of Bare Island’s caretaker, who called it ‘an overpowering and unwelcome visitor’.

Before the remains were finally disposed of, the Australian Museum took some skin and teeth samples (item IB.7314 in its collection). To this day, no-one has ever reported another whale shark in Botany Bay – and who can blame them for steering clear after such a savage reception?

whaleofasharkPS: By pure coincidence, just five days after the Bare Island stranding, Ben Cropp and George Meyer obtained spectacular footage of two whale sharks near Montague Island off the NSW south coast. They had spent several days looking for a whale shark which Meyer had seen while diving there, and at first worried that the Bare Island shark was that animal. This was only the second time a whale shark had been filmed underwater, and the first time in colour. Hans Hass shot some black-and-white footage in 1950, which appears in his movie Under The Red Sea (aka Diving In The Red Sea).

 EXPLORATION FAWCETT (1953, Hutchinson) by Percy Harrison Fawcett

A century ago South America was at the tail end of the rubber boom, a jungle frontier wilder than the American West. Life was cheap, anacondas were 60 feet long and Percy Fawcett was in the thick of it, swashbuckling his way through exploits that make Indiana Jones look about as intrepid as a suburban paperboy.

An English army officer, Fawcett began his South American adventuring in 1906, surveying boundaries in remote wilderness along the Brazil-Bolivia border. This was a hideously arduous undertaking but Fawcett was the man for the job. His attraction for death-defying jungle jaunts seems to have baffled even himself. As he put it: “Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me”.

Fawcett spent most of the first quarter of the 20th-century exploring Amazonia. He became fascinated by rumoured lost cities, particularly one he called Z, a mysterious civilisation of ‘white indians’ said to exist in the Matto Grosso. Z was his obsession and downfall; in 1925 Fawcett and two others (including his eldest son Jack) failed to reappear from an expedition in search of it.

The dream that unknown white civilisations might be found in the unexplored depths of new countries crops up again and again in the annals of European colonialism. The legendary ‘Welsh Indians’ were a staple of US frontier lore, while Australia had (or rather, didn’t have) its elusive ‘white colony’ which convicts believed lay in the bush just beyond Sydney, as described in my book Tour To Hell.

In the early 1950s Fawcett’s surviving son Brian assembled Exploration Fawcett from the Colonel’s journals, adding a chapter about the search for his father. It was a bestseller and no wonder, bursting with piranha-infested rivers, drunken gunmen, lethal wildlife, revolting diseases, haunted houses and poison-tipped arrows raining down from jungle tribesmen not home to visitors.

Percy ‘Exploration’ Fawcett

A major strength is that Fawcett himself is much more than your typical rock-jawed derring-doer. He frequently surprises. For instance, his method of avoiding starvation in the jungle was to ‘pray audibly’ for food, an early exercise in positive thinking that he claims invariably resulted in the sudden appearance of game willing to be shot for his pot. Ready to sign up for an expedition with this man?

Fawcett’s enthusiasm for extreme and horrific conditions is impressive, if more than a little barking mad. And it is debateable how many tall tales crept into the narrative, especially given that he often recounts stories from people he met along the way. Some critics have suggested his son Brian may have found vested interest in adding colour – and a few feet to the gigantic 62-foot anaconda his father described shooting (this is two to three times longer than various recorded maximums for the largest anaconda species).

Still Fawcett is a lively writer, a most entertaining vicarious travel companion and an excellent antidote to the gentle horror of a regular city commute. You can bet he’d much prefer a river churning with ravenous piranha to a train carriage stuffed to the gills with office workers checking Facebook.

PS: Paramount has a movie lost in pre-production, The Lost City Of Z, based on a book of that title (2005) by David Grann which offers a theory about Fawcett’s disappearance. Charlie Hunnam will play Fawcett; Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller also star. Director James Gray promises it will be ‘epic and hallucinogenic’ – two words which well describe Fawcett’s own book. And yet I wonder: could any Hollywood adaptation keep pace with the wild ride of the real story? Brad Pitt, whose production company kicked off the project, was originally slated for the lead role but dropped out four years ago. From Jungle Hell to Development Hell, the Colonel’s adventures continue…

PPS: A conspiracy theory (not espoused by Grann’s Lost City Of Z ) contends that Exploration Fawcett was a smokescreen concocted by Brian Fawcett to disguise his father’s true fate. Colonel Fawcett, so this story goes, never intended returning and abandoned the outside world to found a secret jungle commune. It’s an attractive idea – the indefatigeable seeker of lost worlds ends up building his own to lose himself in – but convincing evidence remains thoroughly lost, too.

Vale and RIP Christopher Lee (1922- June 7th, 2015) and Ron Moody (1924- June 11th, 2015)

Wicker LeeDracula will always be the role most linked to Christopher Lee but for me his best is the one he (ahem) staked his career on – Lord Summerisle, the urbanely barking squire in The Wicker Man (1973). This neopagan-horror-mystery-folk-musical (yes, it’s all of those) is the must-see peak of the Rural Weird genre and a towering high point in British cinema generally. I’ve heard it was Lee’s favourite of all his movies; the erudite content appealed to him so much that he invested 5000 pounds into pre-production, determined, as he wrote, ‘to Draculate no more’.

Whether you’re into film, horror, comparative religion or 1970s British pop culture, I strongly recommend Allan Brown’s book Inside The Wicker Man for the bizarre tale of how this cult classic was made and almost lost.

wickerAThe screenplay was by Anthony Shaffer, whose fiendishly clever play Sleuth became another brilliant early 70s British movie (starring Olivier and Caine). The dancer Lindsay Kemp, who taught Kate Bush and David Bowie, plays The Wicker Man’s publican, and Britt Ekland (voice and nudity ‘dubbed’) is his saucy daughter. Like Lee, Edward Woodward in the lead role – a policeman investigating a missing child on a remote Scottish island – gives perhaps the best performance of his acclaimed career. Then there’s the peerless soundtrack by Paul Giovanni, which could be some great lost Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span album.

Now don’t get me started on Lee’s Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun….

faginI can’t shut up without similarly saluting the wondrous Ron Moodywho died four days after Christopher Lee but lives forever as Fagin in Carol Reed’s spectacular mega-musical Oliver! (1968). A witty reviewer once pointed out this was the most G-rated film ever made about non-G subjects (murder, theft, child abuse, prostitution, etc, etc). Christopher Lee and Ron Moody: true talents and true celebrities. And both truly enriched the world they have just left.

Here’s one for the bucket list – Platypus diving!

Platypus diving, Oliver's Pool, Mackay hinterland. Photo courtesy Nelson Hall/Queensland Tourism
Oliver’s Pool, Mackay hinterland.
Photo courtesy Nelson Hall/Queensland Tourism

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra has recently overhauled its World War One Galleries, using innovative technology to enhance the experience without sacrificing heritage or succumbing to gimmickry. It’s a remarkable achievement: read all about it here, or on the Travel Insider website.


A link to my story on LIZARD ISLAND RESEARCH STATION, one of only four marine biology outposts on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Crown-of-thorns starfish at Lizard Island Research Station. This natural reef predator is favoured by manmade changes to water chemistry

Crown-of-thorns starfish at Lizard Island Research Station. This natural reef predator is favoured by manmade changes to water chemistry. Photograph: David Levell




Bathurst celebrates its bicentenary this coming May. Although the grand colonial architecture adorning those wide streets dates from the Gold Rush (i.e. mid-19th century plus), Bathurst was founded in 1815 and is Australia’s oldest inland town. Where else can you stare down a T.Rex, explore an art colony in a nearby almost-ghost town and eat crocodile pizza in an 1850s church building in a street named for a gang of bushrangers? Check out my travel feature here.

All photography © David Levell
Abercrombie House

Bathurst’s magnificent Abercrombie House – a virtual colonial castle, privately owned and occupied but offering regular tours.

Australian Fossil & Mineral Museum, Bathurst

Nose to nose with a T.Rex – only in Bathurst! The Australian Fossil & Mineral Museum, Bathurst, has the only complete T.Rex skeleton on permanent display in this Wide Brown Land.

Hill End's main street, today and in Jeffrey Smart's 1950s painting

Hill End near Bathurst was a large gold-mining town in the 19th century. Morphing into an artist colony in the 20th, it has been the subject of several iconic Australian paintings. Signs in the streets mark the spots. Above, Hill End today and in Jeffrey Smart’s 1950s painting. Below is Russell Drysdale’s The Cricketers.

Where Drysdale's The Cricketers was painted

Below: Golden Gully: the landscape transformed by the Gold Rush.

Hill End's weird Golden Gully

Hill End’s weird Golden Gully


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