January 30, 2011

Random in Jan

January was eventful – excessive downpours, floods, endurance trials, leeches – but it wasn't all dramas. There were a few less newsworthy happenings.

New Farm Park market
We go to New Farm Park on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month to the excellent farmers' market at the Powerhouse. We used to go by CityCat, of course, pre-flood. We buy the tastiest orange juice this side of Winnetcut (sorry, family saying); the best-value prawns in Australia, and the best-tasting since a sherry-laced lunch in SanlĂșcar de Barrameda in southern Spain in the mid-90s; the most delicious jam I've tasted since I ate Scotch pancakes with locally-produced raspberry jam while on holiday in Blairgowrie (Perthshire, Scotland) when I was about 9; refreshing lime cordial from Noosa; wonderful local lamb; Glass House Mountain pineapples; olives from Bunnyconnellen, way out west of Brisbane; Swiss-style cheese; superbly chocolatey, handmade, luxury mini brownies; fresh herbs and salad; and a cornucopia of fresh fruit and veg.

Sometimes we haven't got a clue what a fruit or vegetable is, or what you do with it, such as...

bell fruit
or soursop.
(Up the road in the James Street deli, my friend was particularly pleased recently to find what are known as paraguayos in Spain, or doughnut peaches in the UK and Oz. I prefer an alternative name – Saturn peaches. They are delicious... and very pretty.)

When we've got all we need in the market, we sit in the park with a coffee and observe: there's always something going on, even if it's just frolicking playmates in the dog off-leash area. The Australian White Ibis (below) completely underestimated the toddler's dogged determination in pursuit and in the end had to take flight to escape.

This possum was quite happy scurrying about on the ground behind the stalls...

until confronted by this...

...after which there was a prolonged poodle-possum stand-off. Possums can sometimes be mistaken for cats, you see.

Other beasties
The smallest geckos ever seen were a feature of this month's wildlife. We have several babies in the house at the moment... I think. (The spoon, below, is a teaspoon.) You have to be careful not to squash geckos when rolling up the blinds in the mornings because they tend to sit on top of them waiting for moths to flutter by. Today I have cleaned up the remains of five 'moth-strikes' from last night.

They like crevices and the gaps between tiles or wood panelling. And this adult (below) took my fancy as he calmly sunbaked on warm wood while the flood waters rose steadily below him. He probably didn't remember '74.

A praying mantis was a first-time visitor to our 'yard' one fine day, settling on the Claret Top. This insect is more closely related to a cockroach than a stick insect or grasshopper. Its green was stunningly limey.

Dunnies with dignity
During the flood clean-up, thousands of volunteers hit the streets in affected areas. Blue tardises sprang up on pavements and verges to cater for their needs. They're still there.

The occasional sunset was oddly comforting during the days of increasingly threatening heavy rain.

Sign of the month
Spotted in Woodford on Australia Day.

I can't.

January 27, 2011

Australia Day trippers

On 26 January 1788, the first convict-laden fleet landed in Sydney Cove.

I've been told that the weather is always good on Australia Day: the sun shines on Australia fair. Last year, we used the national holiday to go exploring for the first time. We headed down the Cunningham Highway to Lake Moogerah in what is known as Greater Brisbane South. This year we decided to continue the tradition – if indeed a tradition can be established in two years – and chose the Pine Rivers drive in Greater Brisbane North. Having first entered into the spirit of this special day in our host country (above).

Our route took us up the Gympie Road through the northern suburbs. We turned off on to route 58 for Strathpine and Petrie. Ahead of us were tumpy, purple hills.

We have remarked before when leaving Brisbane how quickly you leave urban world behind. This is particularly marked at the moment because all vegetation is so green and lush after months of rain. The road was virtually deserted, something that never fails to impress us after life in the overpopulated southeast of England.

Our first stop was the charming little town of Dayboro, on the wonderfully named Terrors Creek.

We were rather surprised to see this sign sitting boldly on the pavement on today of all days.

Dayboro is well-kempt, and the inhabitants are obviously concerned that visitors find their way around easily.

We stopped for a drink on the lower verandah of the Crown Hotel in the shade of giant figs. Almost 100 years old, the hotel's bar is clearly the centre of town. There were bikers and families and large groups of friends having lunch, all to the accompaniment of a would-be Dolly Parton. She sang Jolene beautifully and not too loudly – and without the appendages.

From Dayboro we climbed steadily towards Mount Mee in the D'Aguilar Range, looking back over a stunningly beautiful, rich-pastured valley. There was even the odd winery dotted about. The hills are about 500 metres above the plains below. The name Mee is believed to have derived from the Aboriginal word for a view or lookout, mia mia. Everywhere there were signs of landslip and rockfall during the recent big rains. Many had been cleared up already but in places the road sides had given way.

Soon Sellin Road turned off the Mount Mee Tourist Drive and, after following a ridge through meadows of brown cows, plunged into the Mount Mee State Forest, which has rainforest and eucalypt forest as well as pine plantations. The roads were still quiet: the Gantry Day-Use area anything but. The Aussies had most probably been there for hours, with all their picnic paraphernalia arrayed, and were having good times.

The shorter Piccabeen Walk (1km) and longer Somerset Trail (13km) leave from there, and if we'd left home as early as an Australian and not dallied in Chermside shopping mall en route, we might have had time for a wander. Another day. We parked a little way off, and ate our less than ambitious lunch while admiring slender Mountain White Gums and the tiniest darting birds. Could the path-crossers up ahead possibly have been elusive whipbirds? We believe that while my friend was observing, a leech got into his shoe.

As we left the forest, I spotted, and emergency-stopped to photograph, a rather large lizard. My close approach led him to take refuge where I wouldn't have expected him to go. He became a tree hugger in the sun.

On the way back across the ridge to rejoin the Mount Mee Tourist Drive, the ranges and valleys to the north were irresistible but difficult to photograph, the furthest hills looking more like an apparition in the image below. To the south, my friend identified the equally ghostly spires of Brisbane's CBD. They seemed much further away than 50km.

As Mount Mee Road began its descent to D'Aguilar, the Glass House Mountains popped up in all their glory, and the Dahmongah Park Lookout provided a great opportunity to stand and stare.

The whole of Mount Mee was once forested. Europeans first came to the area known as Dahmongah (meaning flying squirrel or flying possum) in the 1870s, and, having been shown the fine Red Cedar stands by the Aborigines, proceeded to cut them down. They also helped themselves to White Beech and later Hooped Pine and Eucalyptus. Bullock teams hauled the giant logs off the mountainside. In 1909 a railway was built linking Caboolture to Woodford and a sawmill was constructed in D'Aguilar. The destruction of the native flora was well underway.

We drove the last stretch of the Mount Mee Tourist Drive to Woodford, famous for its December folk festival, which a few weeks ago became 'Mudford'. We were hoping to find somewhere for tea along the wide, wide Archer Street, but very little was open by then.

Then it was down the D'Aguilar Highway to Caboolture where we joined the Bruce Highway back to Brisbane. We were home in ample time to relax and then get ready to go out for supper – at Ahmet's on Oxford. There is a lot of lovely scenery within an easy day's drive of Brisbane, and loads of information available about what to see once you get there – from arts and crafts markets to waterfalls.

Bulimba's normally-buzzing main drag was quieter than usual. It seems that Aussies do Australia Day during the day much more than in the evening. We found that last year, too. It is a huge event in their calendar. A couple of days beforehand, an eminent person is invited to give the Australia Day Address, which 'taps into the essence of what 26 January is all about – celebrating and reflecting on our national spirit' (australiaday.com.au). This year, for the first time since its inception in 1997, a non-Australian – Michael Parkinson – was invited to speak 'on issues such as Australia's identity and the challenges that confront our society'. Parkie spends a lot of time in Oz and dearly loves the place, so he didn't upset any pineapple carts.

And the leech? Only when my friend took his shoes off at home did he realise he'd been carrying one around with him. What a bloody mess. It is said that a leech can suck up to ten times its body weight. And look grossly unpleasant into the bargain.

Australia and Southeast Asia are the only places where leeches live on land, usually in damp forests; in Oz, east of the Great Dividing Range. So, our first up-close-and-too-personal encounter with an Australian beastie wasn't with a spider, or a snake, or a stinger, but a leech. I've never seen one before and didn't know where in the world they lived. Having found out, I won't be walking into Australia's eastern forests in sandals any more.

January 24, 2011

A day on Straddie

Or… Mad dogs and English people go cycling in the midday sun.

We were looking for something to do on the long first weekend of January. I suggested we take our bikes on the ferry across from Cleveland to North Stradbroke island and cycle across to Point Lookout. Stradbroke is the second-largest sand island in the world (after Fraser Island), and used to be much bigger, but it lost a long thin bit during a storm in 1896. The charmingly named Jumpinpin Channel now separates North from South Stradbroke islands.

We planned our little trip for 1 Jan, but the weather was not good: so we went on Monday the 4th instead.

I think I am reasonably fit: I run between 5 and 10 kilometres a week (depending on how hot and humid it is); I do a Pilates class once a week; I cycle hither and thither; and I do weights and resistance exercises at home. We've had our bikes for at least 6 months and have cycled up to 30km on a few occasions.

Shortly after we got the bicycles we bought a book called Where to Ride for Southeast Queensland. It describes '47 great rides on and off road' in good detail, and there's a ride rating determined by distance covered, how much the route climbs, and surface type. The book says, 'We do recommend that people new to the sport of cycling and those less fit should initially stick to level 1 and level 2 rides'.

Ride 17, North Stradbroke Island, has a ride rating of 2. Distance: 20.1km. Terrain: gentle rolling with two testing climbs towards Point Lookout (which I could always walk up). So you'd think I'd have been OK, right? Wrong.

Perhaps the book was really written for 25-35-year-old serious riders on road racers. Perhaps I'm not as fit as I think I am. But it was hard, man.

If you're travelling with a bike, you have to use a vehicular ferry, not a water taxi. The ferries are pretty basic but the journey to Dunwich, Straddie's largest town, only takes about 40 minutes.

We took the advice of the book and let the cars go first, out of our way. East Coast Road heads north out of Dunwich and then across the island to Point Lookout in the northeast. Traffic was described as being fairly light, but it was heavier than that, and there was no dedicated cycle lane of course, this being a quiet island road, in theory. And many Australian drivers, especially those in 4x4s, drive too close to, and too fast by, cyclists. We saw only two other riders all day.

The road runs parallel to the coast for a while, but there aren't really any views. In any case, I was concentrating too hard on urging my legs to get me up inclines that kept appearing ahead of us with great regularity. It was hot, even by 11, but we carried lots of water and had frequent stops to drink it.

I suppose we got to Point Lookout in quite good time, but the problem was, after a long flat stretch as you enter the town, there are then more hills, and steep ones at that, which, because I was hot and tired, made me cranky. And the hills take you up to the town's centre, which means you have to go down to the beach, and back up to the cafes. Enough of up and down, I cried.

We had a picnic lunch with us so made our way to Main Beach where, in the shade of the casuarinas, I took to our picnic blanket and didn't move for a while. Eventually I was motivated to take a couple of pictures, a sign of recovery, but without getting up.

I now realise that our book doesn't say anything about getting back to Dunwich. It says, in the ride log, '20.1km: end of the ride'. So, what then? You find a room for the night while your legs recover? Abandon your bicycle – because you're never going to cycle again, ever – and get the bus back?

After a couple of hours' relaxation, we had to face up to the fact that, if we were to make the 5.30 ferry, we had to be thinking about cycling the 20km back to Dunwich. We tried to catch the bus, in fact, and for about 20 minutes my hopes were raised that I would be spared any more agony. But only little buses are allowed to pull trailers and most of the buses in service that afternoon were big ones, and the one trailer that was going the distance was full of children's buggies and a bicycle with a puncture whose owner's need was obviously greater than my own. The point at which the little bus passed us as we struggled up the long hill out of town was a low one. My knees hurt; my bum hurt; my quads hurt; my neck and shoulders hurt; my elbows hurt; and bits I can't mention hurt. I wanted to flag down a passing ute and hitch a lift, but my friend said we shouldn't do that.

My pictures show me that Straddie is a beautiful island, but I don't really feel as if I saw it properly. I didn't visit the Blue Lake or the Brown Lake or Eighteen Mile Swamp. I didn't walk the gorge at Point Lookout. I didn't see any other beaches than the 30-km-long Main one. And I didn't go to Amity Point, the oldest European settlement on the island. So I must go back. But next time on four wheels, please.

We made the ferry with time to spare. I think we cycled the return journey even faster than the outward, goodness knows how. (My friend reminded me, on reading this, that we climbed, overall, on the way over – the book says by 265 metres – and descended on the way back.)

I don't think the weather had been as good in Brisbane, and as we waited for the ferry the pre-sunset light and sky were inspiring.

As I sat a bit stupefied on the ferry, there appeared strange-shaped clouds...

...and trees growing out at sea.

I felt much better after fish and chips from The Lighthouse at Cleveland Point, eaten from a plastic tray in the car overlooking the dark water.

January 16, 2011

The great escape

My friend got up at 4 am on Thursday, 13 January. If he set an alarm, I didn't hear it. There was no water on our ground floor. But there was water in Shore Crescent, to the side of our house. In all the talk of local flooding, I had always imagined that the water would come along Waterline Crescent directly from the river overflowing its bank to the west of us. But no. It spilled out of the storm drains, fed by the water in the newly filled creek to the north.

I got up two hours after high tide and went downstairs and into the street (below). The water had been higher. There was currently no way back home for our smart but largely impractical (at times like this) Audi A4 which my friend had parked up a hill the previous afternoon.

The river had peaked at 4.5 metres (at the Brisbane City gauge), almost one metre lower than in 1974. There was a collective sigh of relief in many suburbs, including ours. It had been expected that the river would reach 5.2 (1974: 5.45). There were still, however, 67 suburbs with properties that had been completely flooded; very many businesses wiped out across the city; roads structurally compromised; and hundreds of thousands of homes without electricity. The death toll was still rising as state emergency services personnel went about the grim task of searching damaged properties in the Lockyer Valley – and further afield – as flood waters receded and debris beached up the coast.

Despite all the hoo-hah about Australia's third-largest city, one of the hardest-hit places has been the small community of Grantham in the Lockyer Valley, where most of the 20 victims of Southeast Queensland's floods lived. Grantham's 370 inhabitants are still evacuees, not having been allowed back to their homes as wreckage-sifting SES workers may yet find more bodies. Twelve people are still missing.

We were confident that the river wouldn't peak any higher with that afternoon's high tide, so by mid-morning we started gradually carrying stuff downstairs again. I went to my Pilates class in an attempt to restore normalcy (I will never complain that the aircon is too chilly again): my friend went to retrieve the car and to buy ice. Many of the roads in neighbouring Hawthorne were flooded and closed, but the water in our immediate vicinity was receding rapidly.

A continuing lack of power meant supper preparations before nightfall and early to bed.

By the way, in case you've missed the joke before, this is where we live.

On Friday my friend returned to work: the tunnels had not been flooded. And on Friday, as promised by Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, the clean-up began. Mud-scrapers and brushers, debris gatherers, street-cleaners, sandbag collectors – they were out in force in a myriad small trucks and utes.

There was a low point when, having texted nearest and dearest back home in the UK that we were safe and dry, the battery on my mobile was almost drained. We still had no power (although Oxford Street was reconnected yesterday) and I felt very cut off. But when I went to the supermarket, they charged my phone on the desk while I did my shopping. And a lady in the queue for coffee at the Deli told me the library had Wi-Fi. Things were looking up.

Since Wednesday we'd been eating food from the freezer before it perished: tonight was no exception. Then, much as we love candlelight, we ventured up to Oxford for some light and life, our neighbours still largely absent because of the lack of power. And we were relatively late to bed – oh, it must have been nearly 10.

On Saturday the city-wide clean-up continued apace, this time augmented by thousands of volunteers. There were people everywhere – Council workers, volunteer organizers, water company people and, to our great delight as we returned from a fruitless search for gas lamps, Energex technicians. We were finally reconnected to the power supply on Saturday afternoon. What a relief. There was still much to carry downstairs, and neighbours once again came to our aid.

On Sunday, yet more clean-up volunteers took to the streets all over the city, muddied but unbowed. The evening was calm and lovely, so once more we took a beer and went to gaze at our river. (This might become a pre-sunset habit.) To look at the water, you could never have imagined it a cruel, raging torrent. I had to take the concluding comparison photograph, but I couldn't stop there...

One consequence of Brisbane's recent trauma that will impact on us most is the loss of the CityCats and City Ferries. Although most of the boats were moved to safety before the flood, the terminals have taken a bashing. Living in a waterside suburb, we use the ferries several times a week; to go to the market at New Farm, to cross the river for running or cycling along the north shore (and on the floating Riverside Walkway, which was also washed away), to go into the city for shopping or the evening, and to give visitors to Brisbane a pleasant introduction to our home town.

Busy Bulimba ferry terminal, August 2010
Over the last five years, the CityCat service had been expanded, with new vessels and many more passengers. Thousands of Brisbanites use the ferries each day to get to work. It is an extremely efficient system as well as a symbol of this city's ambition. There has been a dearth of information about the ferries' fate over the last few days, except this sign at all terminals.*

Ultimately, of course, we were extremely lucky. Many people in regional Queensland to the north and west of Brisbane, and in lower-lying suburbs of the city, were not so lucky. Many Queenslanders complain that there is undue focus on the southeast of the state, and especially the state capital: but the fact is, Brisbane means more to people on the other side of the world than Goondiwindi. Several friends in the UK, however, commented on how alarmist was foreign reporting of Brisbane's woes. Perhaps they imagined that what happened in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley was also happening in the city.

Our internet connection was re-established on Sunday. I was shocked to learn that more than 600 people had died in mudslides in Brazil while Brisbane was waiting for the river to rise. I don't remember that even being mentioned on the national and international news bulletins 'on the hour every hour' as my ears were glued to my local radio station. I hope I'm mistaken.

* The following day, Lord Mayor Campbell Newman announced that it was going to cost between $70 million and $100 million and take between 18 months and two years to restore the service.