November 6, 2014

Outback 2: Brisbane bound

We liked Moree, I think I mentioned that. In our search for a cafe open for breakfast on this Sunday morning, we came upon a yard full of shiny new monster machines ready for the paddocks of this rich agricultural region. I manoeuvred the camera lens through the holes of the mesh fence.
From Moree we took the Newell Highway northwest in the direction of Goondiwindi, which sits on the MacIntyre River just inside Queensland. North from Goondiwindi the Newell becomes the Leichhardt Highway, which almost brought us full circle. Some 225 kilometres further north, at Miles, we had turned off the Warrego Highway on to the Leichhardt on day one of the trip. 

Google reckoned it would only take about five and a half hours to drive from Moree to Brisbane, so I had a plan to linger awhile once we reached Goondiwindi. Increasingly there were wide cleared plains; high-intensity-green low crops in furrows (alfalfa?), the remains of cotton stalks, and blown cotton along the wayside; large advertising hoardings and the inevitable hamburger chain, last seen two weeks ago; elaborate overtaking lanes for taking out many trucks, several oversize loads, and more traffic generally. On the New South Wales side of the border is twin town Boggabilla, a small town with a big silo.

All the time, of course, I was still trying to capture my interesting farm pic, with limited success.
We meandered along the tree-lined MacIntyre River Walk for quite a while. It was lovely, on a beautiful day. There were plenty of birds: in fact, the name Goondiwindi derives from an Aboriginal word meaning resting place of the birds. Some of the Red River Gums are more than 100 years old. I spotted a Galah in a nest high in a hollow of one of them – plus a pelican, three species of cormorants, a darter, a Great Egret and a juvenile Whistling Kite. 
When explorer Allan Cunningham named the MacIntyre after the man who had supplied the horses and drays for his expedition in 1827, the river was little more than a series of ponds that were only connected after good rains. The needs of subsequent pastoral properties led to the construction of a weir to regulate the flow. There wasn't a bridge for a long time, however. All goods headed across the border had to be ferried across by punt and rope. The first bridge was built in the 1870s, and this was replaced by the current Borders Bridge in 1914. Thankfully, most traffic now uses a bypass around the town that was not constructed until 1992. The bridge is beautiful.
So many towns on our travels have a history of flooding, and Goondiwindi was no exception. Records go back to 1886, since when 60 major flood events have happened. In 1956, three serious floods – to heights of over 10 metres – occurred within six months, and this resulted in the construction of a levee to protect the town from an 11-metre level. By the Bridge is a monument that commemorates the events of that year. The MacIntyre broke all height records during the floods of 2011, however, reaching 10.64 metres.
From Goondiwindi, we took the Cunningham Highway to Warwick, a distance of just over 200 kilometres. It felt like a long way, I'm not exactly sure why. The agriculture changed: sheep grazed in what looked like cropped fields; there were olive trees and vines. Then the sheep gave way to cows, and we climbed up through tumpy country. We entered the Condamine catchment – familiar territory. It rained, briefly; and still there were dead roos by the road. A cop car was hidden down a track on our left, speed-trapping oncoming cars approaching downhill. Well and truly back in Queensland, then.

Mid-afternoon light complemented the outlying hills and valleys of the Main Range, and the climb up and over Cunningham's Gap was as lovely as ever, complete with the sound of Tink-Tinks (Bell Miners). For the first time we noticed the damage they've done to the forest. Their charming, mesmerising call is in fact a warning to other birds to stay away. Instead of removing insects that are harmful to the eucalypts, Bellbirds 'farm' them, removing their starchy secretions (called lerp) but leaving the insect to produce more food for them. If insect numbers increase enough, the tree dies. This we had learned from biologist Tim Low who has written a fascinating book called Where Song Began. The answer is Australia, whose birds changed the world, he claims. Yet another reason to diligently protect their habitats.
We had left just after dawn, and we arrived home just before sunset, 16 days and 5668 kilometres later. It had been the best trip so far of our grand Australian adventure. I can't wait for the next one.


November 2, 2014

They are not drowning, they are fighting

The port of Newcastle in New South Wales handles thousands of coal bulk carriers every year. Two weeks ago the harbour witnessed an unusual event, when Pacific Island 'climate change warriors' launched their traditional wooden canoes – specially made and hand-carved for the occasion – and, joined by locals, paddled into the path of the coal carriers to draw attention to the plight of Pacific Island states for whom climate change is very much a reality.

They came from nations whose island homes are being inundated by rising, rougher seas; whose rainwater drinking supplies are less reliable; whose breadfruit trees are withering in increasingly salty or drought conditions. From Fiji, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; countries whose citizens may be the world's first climate change refugees. Many of the Islands are coral reefs or atolls, sand ridges, or mangrove-covered sedimentary deposits.

Two weeks of action were organised by 350.org: the Islands' own group and 350.org Australia. Following the Newcastle flotilla, the Islanders visited other parts of the country, and I went to meet them and hear their stories at the Brisbane meeting in West End last week: Arianne from PNG; Kaio from Tuvalu, and Rose from Saibai in the Torres Straight. Kaio retained his sense of humour despite what must seem like a bleak future. The Islanders feel forgotten. They have received some foreign aid, but not enough to construct the extensive sea walls they believe are necessary and additional rainwater storage systems. What is Australia doing? Apart from trying to raise its position in the league of largest global coal exporters, in which it currently lies fourth.

The Islanders would like Australia to reconsider its commitment to coal. They have lobbied for 20 years for international political action to put the brakes on carbon emissions, but they represent not many people living on tiny dots of land far away in a vast ocean. This visit was to further raise awareness of their plight; they want to keep their islands above water.
This photograph, taken by Mike Bowers and published in The Guardian, illustrates the scale of the problem. (There was very little coverage of the Newcastle flotilla in the Australian mainstream media, needless to say.) It is both terrifying and poignant. It makes me feel the same as I did when Kaio told us Newcastle was the coldest place the islanders had ever been; that they had never seen hail stones before; and how, since three palm trees constitute a forest back home, the destruction of trees at Maules Creek* had deeply saddened them.

You won't be surprised to learn that the Pacific Island climate change warriors were not able to meet with Tony Abbott. And meanwhile two weeks passed in which economists continued to doubt the economic viability of the Galilee Basin, the location of Australia's next coal fest; the Queensland Government pressed on with its legislative changes to thwart landowners and environmental protectors; and Premier Campbell Newman stressed the urgency of progressing the proposed mega-mines in his State of the State address to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) in Brisbane.
* the Whitehaven Coal project threatening the Leard State Forest in New South Wales


October 25, 2014

Outback 2: Bourke to Moree

We had decided to fit in a detour to Lightning Ridge on our way to Moree. So an early start was essential: thanks, Willy Wagtail, for the alarm call. (I could easily have stayed in North Bourke another day, by the way.) We'd already sussed a bakery that opened early enough for coffee and croissants now we were back in relative civilisation. I persuaded my friend that we should take time to eat it by the Darling rather than on the move. There was stillness and early-morning light, you see. Birds were at their ablutions.
It's about 300 kilometres from Bourke to Lightning Ridge, and we had to move fast if my friend was to have enough time looking at opals and we were to reach Moree before dark. We travelled along highways I'd never heard of – Kamilaroi (from the 'Great Divide to the Great Outback') and Castlereagh – and through equally unknown towns, such as Brewarrina and Walgett. Further along the Kamilaroi beyond Walgett is Wee Waa. What a splendid name. Coonabarabran is another one, near the Warrumbungle National Park. These places were much too far south of our route. Their names are the kind you have to practise before you can use with confidence, and even then you get the emphasis wrong. Some of my Aussie friends still fall off their chairs when I try to say Capalaba, a suburb of Brisbane. Which 'a' would you accent?

I drove the Brewarrina to Walgett stretch and have not a single photo to show for it. In fact, the whole day was ever-so-slightly disappointing. After what I'd read about Lightning Ridge – how once you've been you never want to leave; and how it's quirky and different and special, which made me think Nimbin with opals – I found it ordinary, scruffy in places, with a wide main drag like a thousand others. 'Lightning Ridge is a place you'll talk about the rest of your life', claims the Kamilaroi travel guide. Well, I might, but not necessarily in a good way. For one thing, I saw the most beautiful opal stud earrings that were unusually red, and I left town without them.
If you're after a black opal, it's worth doing a bit of research before you go. There are lots of shops and 'galleries', and you might otherwise spend ages wandering from one to the next. There are different kinds of opal: you need to familiarise yourself with solid opals and doublets and triplets (http://www.opalsdownunder.com.au/
learn-about-opals/introductory). As with most precious or semi-precious stones, the more you pay, the nicer you get. We spent quite a while in just two shops, my friend searching for rock samples that included rough opal, and me admiring polished stones set in jewellery, unusual pieces preferably. This seemed to me to be the nicest shop by far.
Then we visited the Walk In Mine, which dates from the 1960s. Here you can get a good idea of the risky conditions in which opal miners sought to make their fortunes. Hard hats are provided; but it's probably not a place for the claustrophobic. (The second picture below is not the way visitors get in and out!)
We had to drive south to join the Gwydir Highway, north of Walgett. A few metres beyond the junction was a wonderful view of a farm, to our right. It had all the components – homestead, outbuildings, silos, machinery, animals. But I didn't make my driver stop. Why do I mention this? Because I recall a similar situation on our last Outback trip. In one of those Darling Downs towns – Dalby, perhaps – where there are lots of farm machinery outlets. A row of brand new shiny tractors were on display, and in front of them was a large puddle in which their reflections were symmetrically mirrored. I haven't forgotten the photograph that never was; and here was another whizzed-by opportunity. I'm not obsessing. It's just that you know when you 'see' a photograph with massive potential, and you'll always wish you'd gone back. How many times could I use a nice farm as a scene setter? Better move on.

We'd had the highway vs back tracks debate. Highway won, for speed. I tried to be enthusiastic about the country we were passing through. But it wasn't Outback. Interestingly, there tended to be forest on one side of the road and cleared land on the other. We often debate as we travel around this country whether or not woodland is original. I am currently reading The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia by Don Watson – an excellent book – and have to conclude this was probably not. The trees were taller than we'd seen since the Wadis of Birdsville. How long ago that seemed already. There were many large trucks on the road – and still a sizeable amount of roadkill.

Our question at this stage of the trip was, where does the Outback end? Sulphur-cresteds and Galahs seemed to have replaced flocks of Little Corellas. There was no signage warning of 'roos on road' or a tight bend ahead. Emus were on the wrong side of fences keeping sheep in their paddocks. Earlier in the day stretches of the road had obviously been upgraded from 'developmental': that is, there was a central strip that had relatively recently had its gravel verges sealed.

About 75 kilometres northeast of Walgett is the town of Collarenbri. We brewed a cuppa by the Barwon River where the backlit grass heads were stunning. Pause for self-indulgence, following my farm deprivation.
As we got nearer to Moree a storm was brewing over flat plains. We only skirted the rain, but still benefitted from a rainbow.
 
By now we were in cotton country. We passed signs to the Collymongle Cotton Gin (Colly to its mates) from the Moree Road.
Moree is a large agricultural centre at the junction of five major roads. It has daily services to Sydney by plane and train, thermal baths, the largest pecan nut farm in the southern hemisphere, the Mehi River, and a history of flooding. We liked the place: it was green and tidy with smarter houses and a pleasant feel. We were staying at the Albert Motel in a quiet part of town. As we checked in to our large room, there was a brilliant sunset sky following the storm. 
The Albert is just round the corner from Moree's RSL, which is where we went to eat. My friend had never been in such a large Services Club, so we had a look around: the groovers on the dancefloor, the large array of poker machines and the bars, where glum-looking rugby fans were watching the Wallabies getting hammered by the All Blacks in round two of the Bledisloe Cup. 

We had to sign in as temporary members. At the desk there was sophisticated technology whereby a swipe of a driver's licence printed your signature as if to sanction a list of rules you hadn't seen – and presumably logged your details on their database – whether you liked it or not. 
So… the last night of our road trip, a fact I was trying hard to forget. I'm so bad at going home when I've been tripping. Awards this time went to the Bourke Bridge Inn (accommodation) and Birdsville (overall experience). Happy times.