One mad family drives a campervan across Australia...Disaster ensues
This is the book for you if you've always felt that you had that big trip in you....if you grew up watching Neighbours and twenty years on, wonder where your life went as suddenly you've got kids and haven't spoken to your wife in years- even if she is only in the kitchen, but you're always in the lounge.
Set against the great adventure that is Australia, this is an emotional, funny, dark, observational, and very real family travel story.
All the Aussie highlights are in from Reef to Rock, Ramsay Street to Steve Irwin...plus it's a great story too of a can-do culture in Australia and can't do nanny state back home....
Oh and there's a part two in the pipeline. The same story but from the wife's point of view.....
And so, off we head, in search of Steve.
I have never watched his shows. I remember his daughter at the memorial and thinking what a precocious child, feeding the world's media and not even ten years old. This is not natural behaviour for one so young, I thought. I recall finding his death hysterical on the air, in that he had perished to a stingray. I can’t forget interviewing Australian rugby world cup winner Matty Burke in Newcastle and egging him on about Steve only for him to straight-bat me back with total sincerity that it was a sad day for every Australian. I had been looking for a gag out of him! I couldn't understand our country grinding to a halt like this over Johnny Morris. Clearly he was the classic Aussie mate in a world where mate-ship was king.
I see roadside images of Steve the closer that we get. I remember Jo and Dan saying last night that sometimes in the holidays Bindi appeared at the zoo. Yeah right, I thought. That's the kind of great myth that brings in business, only for busloads of tourists to depart uttering the words 'Guess we didn't see his daughter then, maybe next time.'
We are heading to Beerwah, itself an unusual name. It is the first time really that we have not tried to hug the coast, coming inland off the A1. Ahead lies the M1 to Brisbane, our first motorway, as we would think of it. We have driven to Cairns and are nearly at Brisbane, and we haven't seen a proper motorway. That gives a fair picture of the isolation of some of these places and Beerwah, believe me, is remote, but then zoos have to be, I suppose, by definition.
I am driving too, and it is a stress swinging blind off the A1 onto the Beerwah road, or as they call it here, Steve Irwin Way.
God, this man owns this land. He has been dead- what two or three years- and he has a road named after him. You have to have been dead a century or two in England to get that honour and then someone will probably complain. Nor, is there anything else on it. This is not unusual in Oz but the location adds to the drama and the star quality factor. And then suddenly we're there, parked up just two spaces from the Irish inevitably, though arriving at a different time.
I know as little of this zoo as I do the man. I am surprised to find that is not some poky little zoo. It is a fully-fledged tourist attraction, not easy to get to, hence buses laid on from Brisbane, easily an hour plus away.
Once we're in we find ugly Tasmanian devils, dingoes, and Aggro. Aggro is a crocodile. Such is my Irwin ignorance that I don't even realise that Steve caught these crocs himself, often relocating them for their own safety. I just thought he fought them for TV. I am astounded by the little notices by the croc pools. 'Caught by Steve' or 'Caught by Steve and Wes' or something equally heroic.
Then I realise that the name Wes rings a bell. I remember hearing Terri Irwin flogging her book on Simon Mayo's show on BBC Radio 5 Live, possibly the Christmas before last. She came across well, though I still thought the whole commercialisation of Steve, the whole writing the book cash-in, the whole Bindi being a star with a fashion label was just not right and signs of an abnormal family. I remember too that Terri mentioned this chap called Wes. Wes is Steve's best mate, for whom the show must go on.
My radar says that you can see Terri's influence in the Hollywoodisation of the park. First evidence of this is at the elephant feeding, all beautifully choreographed with entertainment manager Mike turning up standing in the back of the jeep. My first thought is that perhaps Steve had the vision, the balls, and the passion; Terri might have brought the American Disney magic.
I take a moment to feed the elephants, and I don't normally do stuff like this. Back at the Billabong sanctuary, I had been the one taking the photos while the kids whored themselves to every koala, kanga and croc, and this is no different in that it is not so much about the slimy sensation that you get in your hands when you feed the elephants, it is, of course, about the photo op that you can purchase later. Terri. Disney, Magic.
I'm very glad that I came at this blind, though and that is rare in this day and age. If I had come as a massive Steve fan, what would I make of all this? If I arrive with nothing but a gutful of negativity, then the only way is up perhaps, though Nat jumps to the Irwin's defence when I say that they have clearly sold out, reminding me that it takes a lot to run a zoo.
I am now so relaxed at being an Aussie that I think nothing of approaching the ice cream vendor and asking him if he knew Steve. Unfortunately for him, his warmth and generous conversation still doesn’t make him a sale!
We're en route to the Crocoseum. What a ridiculously brilliant name, conjuring up an image of Roman gladiatorial conquests in a modern day sporting stadium. Absolutely stunning, and to get there we pass now abandoned show areas of a previous Steve era. Once the crocoseum came along, that was it and the goalposts were moved. I hear it can seat five thousand.
I am still unsure of what we are doing or seeing, except that there is a croc show at eleven. We take our seats high in the stadium and Steve videos play constantly on the big screen. I don't think that there has ever been a dead man who is more alive than Steve Irwin. He is what I refer to as a brand within a brand. The zoo is one thing but Steve Irwin is an altogether different beast, and you cannot help but think that in a John Lennon way, his death was and is good for business. I can't decide if the ever-present images of Steve are a family in denial, their way of keeping him alive or business is business and Steve remains at the core of that. Perhaps both.
They must have so much archive, unused footage that will keep the Irwin shows playing forever, but what of the next generation of Irwin product? Well, unbelievably, I am sitting five metres from it. To my right I recognise Terri and Bindi and deduce that that has to be Junior Steve. I didn't even know there was one, let alone his name. Movingly, though to him it is probably just normality, young Robert Irwin watches his Dad on the big screen, as the tape counts down with an awesome production piece into the croc show. This, genuinely is one of the most exciting beginnings to a show of any nature that I have ever seen anywhere in the world.
So, it really is true, Bindi and the Crocmen are about to perform at the Croc show. She already has her own TV show, and every July 24th you can come and have a birthday breakfast at the zoo for Bindi's big day. I am astounded, in fact star struck. I can almost touch them.
It dawns on me that it was here that Bindi did that TV memorial. At the time, I couldn't understand how there had been footage of such a personal event, and why oh why she was on it and then I see that there are TV cameras all around, and that in fact, as I had wrongly judged before, she hadn't been appearing before the world's TV cameras just days after her Dad died, but she was on home territory, and that, naturally, they were in control of the image at all times.
Then, I overhear somebody in front talking- this apparently is their home too. The Irwins actually live here, and I never knew. They roam the park freely unbothered and at one with their animals, and so from a remote corner of Australia was built an international phenomenon- a million times the Crocodile Dundee story, and with conservation at its heart. And you are welcome in almost every day of the year.
So, here's the bit that everyone struggles with- thrusting Bindi into this spotlight singing with the Crocmen that 'they don't want to save the world by wearing tights, they'll fight the animal world with human rights,' or something like that.
She is almost political in the ad-libbed conservation messages that she delivers, though she must be too young to see the ironic juxtaposition of Australia's four campest men prancing around on stage with such a serious message at its heart. Hey, I get that they are making environment and wildlife fun, and for the kids too, but frankly it is all a bit un-hetrosexual for me. Bindi, I must observe, is an absolute pro, and possibly the cutest kid alive. I pray just one thing that she doesn't grow up to reject the fact that this life was pre-determined for her, and you wonder if somewhere along the line young Robert who must know his Dad as much through the TV image as time spent with him, may move away from the zoo and reject the whole thing, when surely the script dictates that he inherit it.
I am uncomfortable with the force-fed environmentalism served through the eyes of young Bindi but I suppose it is her generation who will have to save the planet, if you believe in all that stuff.
Again, we have high cheese production values, as microphone Mike makes a second appearance of the day, and there's the dreaded audience participation in the bird show, but all this birds and snake-handling is tame stuff compared to what is to follow- the main event, the croc show.
Wait a minute, that's Terri down there in the Crocoseum and Wes is actually doing the croc show. This is like playing football with the Beckhams in their own back garden. My ignorance is such that I didn't realise that they themselves did the croc show, and there are two of these a day. It just never occurred to me. I work with so many people in radio- programme controllers mainly- who can't cut it when it comes to broadcasting themselves, and I have no respect for them, so to see Terri getting her hands dirty and nearly eaten is the kind of management with big bollocks attitude which can only command respect.
Today Wes and Terri are baiting Mossman, and with brilliant camera work you can see from wherever you sit the precise moment when Mossman is released from his holding area outside the arena, and all the way up to the point where this terrifying beast is seduced into the main pool. The camera work and camera positioning are second to none.
All the while Terri is educating, selling, and cracking gags. The only fact that I retain is when she says that Steve had a vision and spent nine million dollars of his own money to build the Crocoseum, at the back of which lie all the crocs, each with its own residence if you like, and on a given day, anyone of them could be doing the show. Nine million dollars, everybody!
I assume that nothing has ever gone wrong. Surely we would have heard about it, but knowing that nothing can go wrong in the hands of these seasoned experts in no way takes away from we are about to see, and the slightly dark hope that it might, as Terri takes enormous pieces of meat while still commentating, and Mossman performs on cue, jumping high for tea.
The Billabong looks pathetic in comparison, and at the time I thought it was awesome. Wes goads the world's great survivor from the animal kingdom, a predator that has outlived them all. He's being backed up by a team of four or five, and then suddenly Mossman death-rolls, and Wes shouts 'cut it now' as the mighty croc makes its move on the huge block of meat hung to the end of a string. And remember they do this every day- twice a day!
Is it cruel to make sport and entertainment out of the animals that the Irwin Zoo love so much, or is it the method through which they educate? Either way, at just fifteen metres from the croc, it is breathtaking.
After, it's down to the shop where the full range of the Irwin product is clear, and there's a special guest appearance from the Crocmen signing their CDs, prompting me to ask the assistant if these guys are really famous, or just within the bounds of the zoo. Fool that I am, it was unclear that they were megastars!
I repeat to Nat that the Irwins have sold out and she is denying it, reminding me that all the profits go the Wildlife Warriors conservation charity. I won't let it rest, saying that you could still pay yourself zillions before giving what's left to a good cause.
I am, of course, being completely harsh here on the fact that they have done incredible work but I think the thing that swayed it was leaving the store with a good few hundred dollars on the credit card, the principal purchase of which was the full attire from the 'Steve Lives' collection. Yes, the Steve Lives collection.
Oh boy, was I looking forward to telling the Irish this. Is it a piss-take or the ultimate in positivity- or self-denial? Either way from plastic Bindi things to the Terri Cougar collection (clothes), Irwin was a brand, and it proved you can put your name to anything.
After lunch, in the shape of the highly nutritious themed-park hotdog, we wander the park. I am swayed by the Irwin attitude. Their enthusiasm and attitude is total, their commitment genuine. The difference between you and I and them, is that they didn't just think about it, they did it. With their natural instinct throw in.
I learn that when the tigers are just two weeks old, their handlers begin to virtually live with them so the relationship of no fear and compatibility is formed. I watch Sam now so totally at one with nature feeding the kangaroos incessantly. I can't pull him away. I stand in front of Steve's old tree house that they apparently turned into a TV suite. I stare as the elephants play football. It is inspiring.
This is a key moment that confirms both my naivety of the Irwin story, and my absolute belief, in this context, that naivety is bliss. Behind the elephants are the Irwin houses. This is their home, their business, their passion, their entire world. The public could just wander down and knock on the door, but I think we all understand the rules of engagement. I would be surprised if anybody at all had over the years.
As the day has worn on, I have become fascinated retrospectively by Steve and the entire family. If I weren't normal and the commute from the UK to Beerwah had been shorter, I would now be a stalker. I am immersed in guilt over everything that I have said on the radio about his death, and my cynicism towards everything Irwin including a nation's collective grief at his demise. I remain astounded by his ironic death- at the hands of a stingray.
Australia Zoo is a wonderful experience, enhanced of course, by the tragedy that has propelled its fame, and the bright shining hope that is Bindi. We bale out around half three in the knowledge that we have done a day's entertainment but must make tracks for the night. Plus, the heavens open and it is pouring. My lasting memory? The incredible tributes paid by the public that now form a permanent part of the zoo underneath the main concourse.