September 19, 2014

Outback 2: iconic Outback town

With the possible exception of Broken Hill, Birdsville is the most famous Outback town in the land. I wouldn't include large mining centres such as Mount Isa or Kalgoorlie in my top 10; even Longreach might not make it, on 'too buzzy' grounds. Birsdville is up there because of its annual horse races in early September, and its pub. I wasn't going to drive 1500 kilometres, however, to see the town at its most atypical, party town packed to the gunnels with racegoers. And you can't stay in the Hotel at race time, which for me was a must. Birdsville's position, however, on the edge of both civilisation and the most spectacularly impressive landscape, should be enough of an incentive to visit before you die.

The races began in 1882 and have only been cancelled three times since then. In 2010, it was due to flooding, but there were still good times. The town's population swells by thousands at race time, and preparations were well underway when we were there. I suspected some of the campers arriving were there for the duration. Below is the racecourse: there's little shade for punters in the heat of the desert.
Anyone who is anyone knows of the Birdsville Hotel. In some ways, it was almost bound not to live up to expectations. There were great characters on the public side of the bar, but the young staff on the other side didn't seem to care much about service, which was perfunctory at best. After our scenic flight, we got back for breakfast just before 9, which was the cut-off. We were staying at the Hotel for three nights and ate every evening in the restaurant. But there was no breakfast for us at 4 minutes to 9… and no apology (of course).

I liked our room, however, with its IKEA furnishings. It was perhaps a tad pricey, but this was the Birdsville Hotel. The bar had a great atmosphere. I would have loved one night to be able to choose what to eat rather than having pizza, barbie or roast night decided for me, but that may be a function of deliveries at intervals to make a spoilt Southeast Queenslander shudder. I am not really complaining: I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Birdsville. I definitely got the impression people don't usually stay as long as we did: they pass through or spend one night. Many people fly into town, which is why buildings in this region have signage on their roofs rather than at ground level.
Beer delivery day was particularly noteworthy.
The Royal Hotel was constructed in 1883, the same year as the Birdsville Hotel. Little timber was available for building so the walls were constructed from dehydrated gypsum mixed with sand and water to bond the stonework so it faired better in the extreme temperatures. The Royal was a hotel for 40 years before being leased in 1923 by the Inland Mission for use as a clinic. Materials needed for the conversion were brought in on 75 camels. In 1937 the property became a private residence. It's in a pretty sorry state now, although there have been plans for its restoration.
Our first day in Birdsville was a chillin' day. Much of the morning was spent in the Visitor Centre which is large and modern and packed with all sorts of information. The helpful staff are the source of all knowledge about road conditions. And we had to take note. The massive bad weather system that had plagued the east for days was having repercussions for roads we planned to take in four days' time. It wasn't looking good. But conditions change suddenly – as we'd seen earlier this morning; and, as we learned last year, advisors tend to err on the side of caution. Were bad weather and closed roads going to force us to change our plans again?

Birdsville is on the Diamantina River. It also has a billabong, fed by an artesian bore drain. It was mighty chilly by the billabong on a gusty grey August afternoon, but it looked very different the next morning from the air.
Birdsville has a geothermal power station, another claim to fame. I was quite excited about this, the only one of its kind operating in Australia. I'm always enthusiastic about alternative power generation. (I'm an ABC – anything but coal – kind of person. Any fossil fuel, in fact.) This is how it works…
And here's a brilliantly simple explanation of artesian water sources.

Then there is the Birdsville Bakery, which we'd been told to visit by John, in Boulia. He told us to say hi to Dusty. Which we did; and ate breakfast there every morning, and sometimes afternoon tea. Dusty makes award-winning pies. I tried a spicy chook pie and a wattle seed custard tart and I can see why. I'm not normally a pie person, but the fillings and the names are enough to spike your interest if not your tastebuds: ale and (kangaroo) tail; kangaroo and claret; curried camel; peppered chunky beef; lamb shank; and rabbit. (There is a vegetarian pasty, never fear.) The cake cabinet includes berri quondong tart, apple and Woolgoolga lilli pilli pie and many other, rather more familiar favourites.

I tell you, having struggled to find croissants not filled with cheese and ham or decent cakes for ten days, the Birdsville Bakery was truly an oasis in a desert of patisserie ordinaire.
The morning we were leaving Birdsville, we were invited to watch pies in production: Dusty was aware I'd been making notes about them the previous day. This was day 155 of continuous pie-making as the Bakery prepared to feed 12,000 to hungry racegoers. It was the turn of kangaroo and claret. The ingredients? Roo, obviously; caramelised onion; mixed herbs; bacon bits (to reduce the gameyness); and Camp RC46 SH Shiraz. 
The name of the wine refers to Return Camp 46, where Australia's most celebrated explorers, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, camped on 3 April 1861. That day, they'd walked 25 kilometres across the Bilpa Morea Claypan, 120 kilometres northeast of Birdsville, although their precise route at this stage of the expedition is still a matter of conjecture. What is fairly certain is that the explorers were not in good shape: there were few provisions left and their camels were exhausted. They had to jettison equipment, including Wills's astronomical instruments. Some remnants of what are believed to be those instruments have been found, but the search continues for Wills's sextant. There are Burke and Wills obsessives, just as there are Leichhardt addicts, who will forever search.

And the SH? Sh*t hot… I was told.

On day 1 in Birdsville I chatted with a couple from Ballarat who last visited the town in 1981. We struck up a conversation while I was photographing the Hotel. The best angle happened to be from the middle of the road, where they joined me. We formed a traffic island for at least 20 minutes while they described big changes they'd observed over 30 years, and every now and again a car glided by.

Birdsville seemed quiet to me. There were the occasional 4WD, ute, motorbikes and small convoy; the odd camper or two. Perhaps it was the calm before the storm. It's spread-out and spacious and largely empty, except for evenings in the Hotel, which were buzzing. I'm not sure where everybody materialised from.

It was time to leave this small town with a big reputation and head down the Birdsville Track. This is what would have been sent to rescue us had we been unable to dig ourselves out of trouble in the desert.

September 16, 2014

This despicable government

My Outback reverie is on pause: I've had to return to Brisbane momentarily, in order to chronicle the most audacious deception yet by the current Queensland government; as they generously reward their paymasters; flagrantly disregard the people's voice; diminish the democratic process; and misuse the power vested in them.

Last Tuesday evening (9 September), not long before midnight, the Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Bill 2014 was passed in the Queensland Parliament. A number of late changes were made to the Bill, most of which were the result of stakeholder submissions. But not those stakeholders with the most to lose, it would seem. The changes were not debated in Parliament, and included the removal of objection rights (except for landowners directly affected) to both a mining lease and an environmental authority* in so-called co-ordinated projects, which tend to be the largest in the state.

There were also significant changes to notification procedures for mining lease applications; the Land Court's power to remove an objection to a mining lease or environmental authority considered to be 'frivolous or vexatious' or beyond the Court's remit; and an increase in the (unelected) Co-ordinator's General's powers, restricting objections to conditions he has imposed on an environmental authority.

On the pretext of removing duplication of mining approval processes in both the Mining & Resources and Environment departments, streamlining approvals generally, and preventing communities and environmental groups from bringing 'vexatious' actions as delaying tactics, the Newman government has ignored concerns of landowners, the farming industry, communities across the state, environmental protectors, legal professionals and the general public, reducing the scope for objection to fewer instances than had been inferred; promised even. The good people of Queensland have been duped.

This legislation was passed under the Common Provisions Act, the first part of the Modernising Queensland's Resources Act (MQRA) Program, which is designed to standardise resource legislation in the state**.

On 25 June this year, I attended Committee Room 2, Level 6 of the Parliament Annexe, at 2.30 pm, to hear 'members of the Department' of Natural Resources and Mines publicly briefing the Agriculture, Resources and Environment Committee on the proposed Mineral and Energy Resources (Common Provisions) Bill. The committee chairman, Ian Rickuss, wore a very loud shirt (bright turquoise) as he faced a large group of suits, who included just one member of the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. Turquoise Man reminded me of Clive Palmer, just not as large. At the end of the proceedings, he asked me what I did, which wasn't any of his business. I wasn't wearing my environmental protester garb so I'm not sure why he noticed me. I didn't speak during the briefing, but I did make copious notes, and I appeared to have friends in the 'audience'.

Many issues were raised by the Committee. I cannot praise Jacky Trad (deputy chair and Opposition Environment spokesperson) highly enough, for pressing the Mining Department for clarification over and over. A lot of debate surrounded the right-to-object of only those 'directly affected' by the granting of a mining lease tenure. That's a tough one, isn't it? For the final wording of the amendment defining the term 'affected person', you need to go to Chapter 9 (Amendments of legislation), Division 9 (Amendments relating to mining applications), Section 420 (Replacement of s260 (Objection to application for grant of mining lease)), on page 252†. In the replacement s260 (Objection by affected person), subsection (6), you will see that:
affected person means–
(a) an owner of land the subject of the proposed mining lease; or
(b) an owner of land necessary for access to land mentioned in paragraph (a); or
(c) the relevant local government.
Scrolling through this document, you will have some idea why so many Mining Department people were required in Committee that afternoon.

There was still time for submissions. I emailed mine. Dear Members of the Agriculture, Resources and Environment Committee, I wrote. Please do not disregard the grave concerns of a wide range of Australian people – from farmers to conservationists, legal eagles to community leaders – who believe this Bill will seriously erode the rights of those people who are entitled to a role in decision making that could impact enormously on their livelihoods, their children's hopes, their community's country, their nation's future prospects, and their planet's survival.

I didn't say that, in fact, although perhaps I should have done. I made the case against a bunch of Brisbane bureaucrats deciding issues without more expert consultation and cumulative impact modelling, and against a political party who place the vested interests of its donors first. The Environmental Defenders Office's submission was a bit slicker††.

The Committee duly recommended the Bill to Parliament, which the Environmental Defenders Office reported˚. When I got back from my Outback trip, a letter from the Minister was waiting for me. In case you can't read it in the image below, this is the link he included: Read the Decision RIS (Regulatory Impact Statement) summary.

Finally, a snippet from a reader's letter to the editor of the Longreach Leader, the 'Independent Voice of Central West Queensland since 1923'. I happen to know that the author knows a lot about water resource management, and cares deeply about landowners' struggles against a mining-fixated government. The letter is in fact about another of Mr Cripps's targets for review and amendment – once again without due consultation of those most affected – the Water Act. The writer's conclusion is relevant across the board.
It's about time this government saw some integrity and collaborative visionary leadership from all sides of the political spectrum, instead of the grubby, divisive and buck-passing political games that we are currently being subjected to. The continued trampling of landholder's rights in the interests of the big resource companies has to stop – irrespective of what political colour is in power.
The LNP's huge majority and the absence of a second chamber of government in Queensland (why is that?) means that the government can set an agenda, while they can, that benefits whomever they choose. I see little evidence that the beneficiaries are primary producers or communities across this state that are drowned out by the indomitable march of mining.
* in Queensland you need to apply for an environmental authority (EA) in order to engage in an environmentally relevant activity
This post was last edited on 19 September 2014

September 15, 2014

Outback 2: more best day

After the flight and a hearty breakfast at the Birdsville Bakery, we started out for the desert proper. The Simpson Desert that is; the world's largest sand dune desert.

'The desert' is a term used loosely to describe the remote arid far west of Queensland and beyond to the centre of the Australian continent. For many people, it conjures up an image of sand and dunes rather than stony treeless emptiness. The area that includes Diamantina Shire and northern South Australia has three types of land: what is called the 'hard' country, made up of tablelands and downs; the sandy dune fields of the Simpson, Strzelecki and Tirari deserts (the Tirari lies between the Simpson Desert Conservation Park and Regional Reserve† and Lake Eyre National Park in SA); and the channels and ephemeral lakes of the major river systems.

The Simpson Desert covers 176,500 square kilometres – the size of Cambodia or Uruguay – and most of this is in southeastern Northern Territory. The Simpson's 1100 parallel dunes run southeast to northwest, the prevailing wind direction when they were formed 80,000 years ago during the Pleistocene era. They are maintained by the action of wind today, and don't migrate: they are not 'live'. They are at least partly vegetated, and may even carry tallish shrubs or low trees, making them a resilient landform. The crests are often bare and windswept, while the slopes are secured by spinifex and sandhill canegrass. The dunes are roughly a kilometre apart, and the in-between areas are either gibber plains, clay pans or shrubland of acacia or grevillia. Some dunes stretch for 250 kilometres, which is mind-boggling.

A rough track leads west from Birdsville: it is almost indistinguishable from its surroundings. There can be little doubt this is taking remoteness to a new level.
The track is called the QAA Line; but no one seems to know why. A number of 'lines' were constructed in the second half of the 20th century as oil and gas companies sent seismic surveyors into the desert to explore the possibilities. The French Line is fairly self-explanatory – it was constructed by Compagnie Générale de Géophysique – but WAA (which is in South Australia) and QAA defeat the most obvious people I've consulted, such as national park rangers, visitor centre information providers and even our pilot, Ollie. I am, fairly predictably, determined to find the answer, but it may take a while.

I lost count of the number of times we said to each other, 'Is that Big Red?' as we got 30 kilometres or so down the track. Eventually, it was (37 km from Birdsville). The boundary of Queensland's Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri) National Park is another 38 kilometres further on, and the border with Northern Territory 71 km beyond that. Once you're over Big Red, the track is straight and single-minded. 

The National Park, established in 1967, is closed from 1 December until 15 March, when temperatures are considered too extreme (40-50˚C). There are no toilets, camping areas or bushwalking tracks. You are advised to cross the Desert with at least one other vehicle and to carry a satellite phone. As you would expect in Australia, where information about survival in hostile environments is hugely experience-based and liberally shared, there was ample warning about travelling any further without essential equipment and provisions.
We parked at the bottom of Big Red and walked up to survey the scene. This was not the challenging crossing, at the highest point of the dune, which is further north; no, this was a relatively tame version, just to get you to the other side. My friend was keen to get on: he was intending to cross more than one dune, in fact. His goal was Eyre Creek, 20 dunes down the Line. I was not at all sure about this. He was on a mission to prove to Australian doubters that Land Rover can compete well in such a challenging environment. I wasn't sure about this either. In 2008, Land Rover put our model through its paces in the Simpson Desert on a trek across Australian to celebrate the company's 60th anniversary*. I didn't really see why we had to repeat the exercise. But then I am a wuss and my friend is a boy.

I should perhaps explain here that I did not position the bones, nor have I iPhoto-enhanced the colour of the sand.
The car sailed up and down easily, and we were chuffed and rather excited to be 'doing' the QAA. We'd been told that people often get cocky and get stuck on the second, but we sailed up and over the next dune, too. The third took three attempts, however, bringing us back to reality. After that, we were determined to carry on. Suddenly Eyre Creek didn't seem such a crazy idea. 

I've noticed that I only took one photograph before we reached Eyre Creek, which suggests that it took a while for my slight anxiety about the remoteness of this adventure to subside. The car was certainly coping with the dunes, but our destination was beyond the range of our two-way radio. That one pic does give a good impression of the between-dune vegetation.
So we arrived at Eyre Creek, and thought we'd have lunch in the middle of the furthest-west channel, at the furthest west point we've been, travelling from the east coast that is. It was dry, I hasten to add. The pale grey, almost white soil of the creek beds contrasted with the vibrant orange sand.
I could hardly believe what happened next: my friend decided we needed to park in the shade of the creek bed rather than at the side of the track. We came to a sudden halt in deep sand. I was not happy: and certainly not as relaxed as a few moments earlier when our mission had been accomplished. We hadn't seen a car or another living thing since the far side of Big Red. It was very warm. We started taking heavy items out of the car and retrieving the MaxTrax from the box on top. Then there was digging to be done. Lunch was out of the question until we had freed ourselves. You can see on the right of this picture where we got bogged and I had a serious sense-of-humour failure.
As we packed up, a lone vehicle passed by, heading west. We turned back towards Birdsville. We counted the dunes on the way back, and stopped photograph vegetation and long vistas. 
Big Red got bigger as we got nearer. At its highest point, you have three options: the steepest, shortest and most daunting; a middling route; and a more gradual and winding, slightly wussy way. Or so it appeared from the bottom. But there was a sting in the tail on the crest – a bend. We came to a halt in deep sand as we had to turn sharply almost at the top. At least we were bogged this time with stunning views all around us. The sand was dry and easier to dig away from our almost-disappeared wheels and underside than at Eyre Creek. I definitely don't take pictures of stressful moments, I've realised.
It had been an adventurous, challenging, exciting, wildly different day, and unquestionably the best of the trip so far. That evening in the Birdsville Hotel bar, we chatted to a man who didn't seem impressed by our 20-dune foray into the Simpson. I'm sure he said he'd driven a 20-year-old Land Rover Defender to Poeppel Corner** and back in a day – 160 kilometres each way. And that's with a manual gearbox; and no terrain response nor a whole host of stability systems. But nothing could detract from our sense of adventure having been realised. I will never forget either the flight over the Channel Country or venturing into the Simpson Desert, and each will be a hard act to follow.

I've thought a lot more about remoteness during and since this Outback trip. Last year, creeping out of Tibooburra at dawn (see Outback: Tibooburra to Quilpie, July 2013), the sense of aloneness was perplexing. Usually, a landscape devoid of anything much at all, and certainly help-less, is exciting and invigorating. In difficult terrain or with bad weather threatening, it can quickly be transformed into a more daunting prospect. I can well understand, however, how people get hooked, and embark on more and more outlandish capers.

Several times I have done what I thought at the time was really remote: Death Valley in California; the Negev in southern Israel; the highlands of northwest Scotland; the southern Mani peninsula in Greece; the Bardenas Reales in Navarra, Spain. Few of these combined difficult terrain with uncomfortable weather, a problem of some sort and an absence of emergency services. (On reflection, Death Valley came close: a 2-3-hour journey in a car with no breaks and high-40s heat!) 

How far will you step outside your comfort zone for the anticipation of adventure, a frisson of fear, and a post-thrill endorphin rush?
South Australia has regional reserves and conservation parks as well as national parks
** where Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory meet