Big Question Marks

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Just Checking the Royal Emails...

It's not every day one gets an email from royalty. What started as a simple, quiet Saturday evening just became about 1000 times more interesting, and took us back down memory lane....

Our story takes us way back to our days on the road with Daisy, a little over a year ago now. We had been camping for a few days in stunning Cape Range National Park, a little piece of outback paradise set next to the beautiful blue-green waters of the Ningaloo Reef. It had been an eventful couple of days: drift-snorkeling the coral reef right off the shore of Turquoise Bay under the searing outback sun; veering around a lone brumby (wild horse) on the highway; shooing a six-foot snake that was trying to sneak into our van; eating dinner under a spooky pink globe of a sun (we learned later it was pink from the smoke of a massive bushfire burning up a cattle station a short way down the coast); finding our campsite taken over by giant scary crabs that would skitter around our van when the evening darkness set in. After seeing nearly the whole country and experiencing all the surrealness of Cape Range, we figured there couldn't be that many thrills left for us on the road.

So when we learned from some fellow travelers of a tiny sovereign nation housed within the borders of Australia, just a few hundred kilometres south of us, we had to know more! We questioned locals, who would laugh a bit, shake their heads, and confirm that yes, the Principality of Hutt River (formerly Hutt River Province), does indeed exist. Strangely enough, Hutt River (about the size of Hong Kong Island) was marked on some of our maps, but not on others. But the more we learned about the Prinicipality's history, the more intrigued we were: in a nutshell, in the late 1960s, the Australian government imposed wheat production quotas seen as ridiculous by a farmer named Leonard. He fought back, and found a pretty awesome loophole in the Constitution which allowed him to declare independence from Australia in 1970 with his piece of land. Eventually he took on the title of Prince Leonard (not King, as "kings speak to God" was his reasoning), and with his wife, Princess Shirley and the rest of the royal family, has been quietly irritating the Aussie government for decades. So of course we had to pay a visit!

After spending a few nights in the cute beach town of Kalbarri, we packed up Daisy and headed inland off the main highway. A few back roads later, we reached a sign: WELCOME TO THE PRINCIPALITY OF HUTT RIVER. We pulled into the driveway and there was no palace or moat: it looked like a your ordinary farm. Should we have called ahead? We had a bit of a wander around the dusty grounds (to our relief, at least there were signs welcoming in visitors) and eventually we were greeted by an elderly but lively man: His Royal Highness Prince Leonard himself! The Prince gave us the grand tour — though we figured by now he'd be sick of doing so — and he explained the whole secession story in detail, down to the law which allowed it, his special non-tax-paying arrangements with the Australian Tax Office (thanks to friends in high places), and his free trade agreement with Australia. We were awed at the fact that anyone — let alone a wheat farmer with a lot of land to tend to — would read legal documents and the national constitution for fun. But then, there probably isn't a lot to do out there. We were pretty impressed by the plucky HRH Prince Leonard's intelligence. We oohed and aahed at the royal gifts received from around the world, the photographs, and the spirit with which Prince Leonard carried himself. You could tell that, even after 39 years, he was still grinning at his big win!

The Prince later took us into the post office (yes, Hutt River has its own stamps and postal service — in fact, apparently in 1976, when Australia Post refused to handle the nation's mail, it was re-routed through Canada) and stamped our passports. We bought some postcards and even some Hutt River currency (awesome!). In the end, Adrian couldn't resist the notion of earning an official title in the kingdom — nor Prince Leonard's sales pitch — and became an Officer in the Illustrious Order of Merit (he keeps forgetting to add the O.I.O.M after his name on cheques!). We just couldn't resist contributing to the guy who's been sticking it to the Aussie government for the past 39 years!

Eventually, we shook hands with the prince again (the princess wasn't around that day) and he left us to explore the other royal buildings — including a chapel with some extremely frightening religious art to go with the royal portraits. We later mailed Adrian's O.I.O.M. pin home and have been waiting for the accompanying certificate to arrive from Hutt River since then. This week Adrian finally remembered to make contact about the missing certificate, and expecting a response from the kingdom's scribe or something, opens an email tonight from Prince Leonard himself — letting him know the Principality will reissue the missing papers. Long live the prince, we do say!

And with all that said, even though we couldn't have spent more than an hour or two within its border, the Principality of Hutt River remains close to our hearts. Whenever someone flips through our passports reading, "Thailand, Hong Kong, Taipei, Brisbane — Hutt River?? Where is that??" We can only laugh and tell our strange story. If anyone's planning to be near Perth next month, take note: Hutt River's 40th anniversary of independence is coming soon. Surely a good party! Mark April 21st on your calendars — we'll bring the fireworks.