March 20, 2011

RIP Nikon Coolpix

On 1 March the LCD screen failed on the compact camera that had revived my interest in photography and enabled me to capture some great memories of the wondrous places we've visited so far in Australia. Here are a few recent favourites.

March 13, 2011

Driving me crazy

My friend came home from work one day last week and announced that sooner rather than later our car was going to be involved in an accident. His choice of words was curious: as if one of us wouldn't necessarily be in it at the time. What he meant was, chances are we wouldn't be responsible, but victims of the bizarre driving style of huge numbers of Australians.

My own driving style has changed enormously since I've lived here. I used to drive with confidence: now I am a mouse behind the wheel. I approach every junction, nay, virtually every moving vehicle, with extreme caution. This is because countless drivers have pulled out straight in front of me from side roads or parking spaces, as if I were invisible, and even though there was no one behind me; or they've changed lanes abruptly, without indicating, so they are suddenly right bang in front of me; or braked suddenly and turned off, without indicating, immediately in front of me; or even braked suddenly and executed a U-turn, again without indicating.

I observe several interesting aspects of driving in Australia:

I can't work out what many Australian drivers think their cars have indicator lights for: they certainly don't use them very often. You can sit behind them in two lanes or more at traffic lights on a cross roads, for example, and none of them will be indicating where they're going. Sit behind them in a designated right- or left-turn-only lane, however, and all their indicator lights will be blinking, even though it's self-evident, if they're in that lane, that they're turning. Or, they'll sit in the outside lane at traffic lights, and when the lights change to green, they are motionless. Just as you're concluding they must have nodded off and are tempted to pip them (but you don't, because it's not done here), they edge forward slightly and you realise that you've been sitting like a lemon behind someone who's turning right. As the oncoming traffic clears and they begin to execute their manoeuvre, then, and only then, do they start to indicate right.

Traffic lights
Especially if you live in an urban area, never calculate how long you think you spend either sitting at a red traffic light in your car, or waiting for the green man that means you can cross. You will weep, if you do, upon the realisation that a sizeable chunk of your life is passing you by in which you could have taken a gap year or written a book. And most if not all junctions have traffic lights – apart from in Noosa or Cleveland where there are roundabouts (deep joy!) – and most junctions allow all turn permutations possible, however complicated, so you sit and wait while all turners and crossers get their moment.

My friend has a theory that, once upon a time, those responsible for building roads in this country jumped into the pockets of traffic light manufacturers, who now supply their products in perpetuity. Traffic planners are thus conditioned never to consider the roundabout option.

Speed limit rules vary, but at first it looks relatively easy to grasp: 40km/h in a school zone; 50 in built-up areas; 100km/h in non-built-up areas. But then, the limit is 60 along some main-ish roads ('sub-arterial'); and 70, 80 or 90 on major connecting roads and lesser highways*; and 110 on some highways and freeways*. I do not know how the 70/80/90 roads are defined.

110km/h is only 68 miles per hour. I wish I could tell you that these relatively low limits were born out of a desire to reduce Australia's carbon footprint, but that is not the case. I suspect that it is because a significant number of Australian drivers are not very good, and the police don't trust them to drive at higher speed. Neither do I.

Coming from a country where there is one limit for motorway driving that never varies, I find it alarming that, over just a few kilometres, the speed limit on a freeway here can suddenly drop from 100km/h to 80, then increase to 90, 100, back to 80, then 100, even 110, and so on. Roadwork (always singular) adds even more variations.

Queensland traffic cops are hot on catching speeders. They hide under bridge supports, in sugercane, behind trees, anywhere where they can nab unsuspecting motorists who are unaware that, on a slight incline for example, their speed has crept up. I live in constant dread of the postie bearing penalty notices because, with the best will in the world, sometimes I am paying more attention to the lunatic drivers and inadvertently miss a limitation change.

I rather wish some of them would come out from behind the trees and pay more attention to those drivers whose vehicles obviously exceed permissible noise levels.

Queensland cops are not to be messed with. They may periodically engage in humorous banter or even normal human discourse with ordinary mortals, but there are no witnesses after the fact.

Oh, and beware, driving rules may change when you drive interstate.

It seems all too easy to acquire penalty notices in Australia and therefore collect demerit points – whether it's for speeding or for not quite appreciating the subtleties of parking etiquette. Just over the border in New South Wales, we found a penalty notice on the windscreen when returning to a public car park in Byron Bay. Funnily enough – well, actually, it wasn't funny at all – we'd studied the list of rules before leaving the car and even taken a picture.

Unfortunately, it omitted to tell us that we had to park in a bay nose-in. That instruction was tucked away on a small sign somewhere else. Silly new people to Australia: we thought the list above was exhaustive. We appealed: but, of course, the middle men administrating the fine were not those making or policing the rules.

The number of deaths on Australian roads used to be much higher. Having been significantly reduced a decade or so ago, the figures have been largely unchanging for the last few years. According to the Accident Research Centre at Monash University in Melbourne, the number of fatalities per 100,000 population was 6.85 in 2008, compared with 5.39 in the UK. (A more recent – 2010 – international report, however, puts the UK figure much lower, at 3.8.). The Australian figures vary quite a lot from one state to another: the ACT has the lowest figures (3.4 in 2009), while the Northern Territory has the highest by some margin (14.7). Queensland is somewhere in the middle (7.2).

I have come a cropper many times, either because I've been following signs that suddenly peter out before I reach my destination; or there is a battery of signs and I can't read them all in order to choose (the approach to Brisbane Airport being a good example); or I just don't have the right information to follow one sign or another; so, for example, will 'Inner City Bypass' rather than the name of a place actually get me where I want to go. Often there just isn't enough distance between a sign and the exit or the junction or the merging. It's a question of what you're used to: in the UK, you get so much notice of what is coming up that you can forget to do what you've got to do. And we never, ever, ever leave a motorway from the fast lane. The first time we came across that, on the Bruce Highway north of Brisbane, I became disorientated.

What car?
Many Australians have two cars, rather like dogs. They have a large, off-road vehicle for weekend trips to fabulous beaches or camping in the bush: then they have a large off-road vehicle for... er... taking the kids to school and driving to the office. Some 4x4s aren't man enough for seriously rutty tracks – to the extent that Avis, for example, won't allow you to drive theirs off road (don't get me started...). And there aren't too many unsealed roads in Brisbane, so why do so many people drive them in town? I am reminded of the Chelsea tractor brigade** back home.

When I first got here, I couldn't get over the number of 'utes'. If you're from the UK and reading this, imagine the number of white vans on the roads, then double, or even triple it. They are not all work horses, course. Some of them are such a pretty colour, and I'm sure their trays (the back bit) have never seen a tool box. Wouldn't you feel a bit of a plonker turning up on a construction site with one of these...?

The next step up from these is also a kind of utility vehicle, I think, but it may have a name I'm not familiar with. Again, I have observed, you tend to see dogs in the back more often than equipment, despite the monster bars to 'protect the cab'.

Like the Spanish, Aussies seem to love noise (see also, Quiet please, January 2011). Apart from unnecessary acceleration and over-revving and modified mufflers, they'll sit in their cars for ages with the engine running, making a phone call, or checking their next appointment or making notes on the last one, or eating, or drinking, or chatting. Now I know, if it's hot, it's so the aircon will keep them cool as they sit, but it's a year-round habit. If they're dropping kids off, for example, they'll leave their engine running and get out to talk to the parent they're dropping off with in a REALLY LOUD VOICE, presumably in order to make themselves heard above the engine noise and the in-car entertainment. And they don't use the horn to alert idiot drivers darting out in front of them, but they'll peep-peep as they're leaving someone's house or if they've come to pick up, even very early in the morning or late in the evening.

Rego plates
You seem to be able to have whatever you like on a registration plate. As a result, some are clearly an indication of aspiration or attitude.

Cars and utes and ATVs are obviously a tricky subject when it comes to reducing an Australian's carbon footprint. If you live in one of the 'back towns in Bob Katter† country, for example, you can't rely on the bus too much. This is a very big country and distances are huge: restricting a man's use of his vehicle or raising taxes on gas in aid of anthropogenic global warming would be hugely unpopular.

Having to pay to use Queensland's newest infrastructure is becoming increasingly common. But many Australians just won't do it. They'll sit at 14 sets of traffic lights on their way to work rather than use the Clem 7 Tunnel and pay $2-3 for the privilege. The operator recently went into administration, less than a year after the tunnel's opening in February 2010. In 2006, it had been forecast that there would be 94,706 users a day within a year: sadly, only 22,255 drivers a day used the Clem 7 in January 2011, and that after the toll had been slashed to half what it was a year ago.

Having said all this, I love driving in Australia. It's a fairly terrifying experience in cities, but out on a deserted highway passing through rugged country or forest or outback, well, you can't beat it. (As long as you keep out of the way of road trains.) And you find yourself on roads and in country like that very very soon, mercifully, after leaving urban world behind. I can't wait to go on our next road trip. Which happens to be down to the Hunter Valley in New South Wales in about a week's time.

* a freeway is a limited-access, divided highway with grade-separated junctions and without traffic lights or stop signs. The term motorway is used in the UK and parts of Australia. A highway is public road, usually a major road connecting two or more destinations. Incidentally, Highway 1 in Australia is the longest national highway in the world. It extends right around the continent (14,500km) and connects all the state capitals

** people who use large gas-guzzlers to transport their offspring to posh private schools in wealthy London suburbs

† Bob Katter is the Federal Member for Kennedy in Far North Queensland and a fighter for the causes of those who live in outback Australia

March 11, 2011

Bayside: Cleveland Point

It's often disappointing for newcomers to Brisbane to find that there are no golden-sand beaches a short hop away. Tidal mud flats and mangrove swamps are not what we Europeans have been led to expect of the Aussie seaside experience.

You have to drive north or south of the city for 45 minutes or so, or sail to the ocean sides of the larger islands in Moreton Bay if it's sand or surf you're after. I have grown to love a few places on the Bay over the last year, however; and Cleveland Point is one of them. I've been there in all weathers; high tide and low tide; night and day. I have come to appreciate this mangrove coast: I love the Moreton Bay islands, dotted about large and small, some with giant, almost snowy-looking, sand features visible even from the top of Mt Coot-tha west of Brisbane; and the huge cranes of Brisbane's container port, like something out of War of the Worlds, on the horizon to the north.

Cleveland Point is a narrow peninsula jutting out into Moreton Bay. It was the site of one of Queensland's earliest European settlements, established when Brisbane was still just a penal colony. Cleveland grew as a port, being highly dependent on supplies and transportation by boat, and later, when Brisbane's future as a port looked doubtful because of sandbars at the entrance to its river, Cleveland's destiny as Moreton Bay's major harbour seemed more likely. It was not to be, however, despite the construction in 1864 of a rather unusual weather-boarded, hexagonal lighthouse to aid safe navigation of big tides, shifting sand and mud bars, and rocks in the Bay.

The lighthouse functioned until it was replaced by a beacon atop prefabricated concrete columns in 1976. During its history, the second keeper, one James Troy, held the post from 1877 until 1927, the longest-serving keeper at one lighthouse on record in Australia. The old lighthouse has recently been substantially renovated and looks very smart, accompanied by its Norfolk Island Pine. The beacon was removed in 2009 to allow for a film set for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to be constructed. The Cleveland Point Reserve continues to be improved – with a shelter, toilets and information panels. At the time of writing, it hasn't yet been decided whether or not the beacon will be reinstated, but surely it's a safety issue?

Cleveland Point is a place to stand and stare at Moreton Bay, beachcomb – there are lots of coral fragments (but leave them where they are) – birdwatch, and study mangroves, which are fascinating. They are medium-sized trees or shrubs that grow in saline soils or saltwater along coastal fringes and in estuaries where a lot of sediment is deposited, in subtropical and tropical regions of the world. Their extensive root systems help trap sediments and slow tidal flow. They thus help to 'construct' the coastal environment and prevent erosion. There are people who argue that, had extensive mangroves along the Queensland coast not been cleared to make way for development, the region would be at less risk of flooding from storm surges.

Some species of mangrove have aerial (or aerating) roots, known as pneumatophores, which stick up through the soil rather like snorkels and enable them to access oxygen. They make for a curious shoreline (below). Mangroves deal with salt by their roots filtering out sodium salts so that most don't reach the rest of the plant. Those salts that do reach shoots accumulate in old leaves which are then shed. Other mangrove species secrete salt through salt glands on their leaves – and you can taste it if you touch the undersides of the leaves. Another talent in the mangrove repertoire is turning their leaves so they're less full-on to the sun, reducing evaporation, fresh water being limited to tropical rainstorms. They are also able to regulate the amount of transpiration through pores in their leaves. Clever plants, mangroves, if a bit smelly*.

If you're feeling peckish, The Lighthouse restaurant and cafe offers an extensive sit-down fish menu, takeaway fish 'n' chips, and a cafe for snacks, teas and gelatos. You can sit practically in the ocean and take in one of the best views up and down bayside.

At Cleveland Point you will always be able, especially at low tide, to watch crabs scrabbling over stones, and seabirds such as cormorants or pelicans poking about, or Darters drying their wings (below). Even if the tide is in, you may see a stand-off between a Masked Lapwing and a Bush Stone-curlew beneath the Norfolk Island Pines.

It's an hour-long (round-trip) escape to the coast from East Brisbane if you need a breath of sea air to blow the cobwebs away. Try it – it will grow on you, too, you'll see.

* relatively still water and a lack of oxygen encourages decomposition

March 8, 2011

International Women's Day

Today is the centenary of International Women's Day (IWD). I am ashamed to say that all I have done is read about it: I haven't campaigned; I haven't marched; I haven't chained myself to the swings in Waterline Crescent Park in support of Australian women who, on average, still earn 17% less than their male counterparts (28% less in top-level jobs).

To a certain extent I am guilty of complacency and the misconception that women have largely achieved what their pioneering forebears set out to do 100 years ago – procure better working conditions for women, and the right to vote and to hold office; to be free of violence; and to be considered the equals of men. In fact, there is still plenty to do – in all parts of the world.

Early this morning, I searched for events in Brisbane to mark the occasion, but I hadn't got my act together in time to attend the UN Women Australia's Brisbane IWD Breakfast at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, especially at 06.45.

So instead I looked at the media's response to this momentous day. The Guardian's front page (online) featured eight among 100 of the world's most inspirational women nominated by their readers. The top 100 women are listed by category, and although I am familiar with those chosen in the politics, sport, and art, film, music & fashion sections, I recognise few in science & medicine, technology, law, or activists & campaigners, and only half of those in writing & academia.

The Age had also previously asked its readers which women inspired them, but the choice was from among Australian women only, and included 'your mother', who won hands down. Let us not forget, however, that this nation has its first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, and head of state, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, and three state premiers are women – Anna Bligh in Queensland, Kristina Keneally in New South Wales and Lara Giddings in Tasmania. Anna Bligh recently gained many brownie points for her handling of the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi, but Julia Gillard is currently experiencing a popularity low after announcing her intention to re-introduce carbon pricing. Australians are squealing at the prospect – even though there are no details yet – of increased fuel and energy prices as a result. I never cease to marvel at the level of distrust, and even dislike, of the Greens by many Australians, and their lack of appreciation of the urgent need to modify their resource-hungry lifestyle. But I digress.

There is a Minister for the Status of Women in the federal government, and has been, in one form or another, since 1983. The position is part of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and the present incumbent is Kate Ellis. In the UK, there is a Minister for Women and Equalities. Initially called Minister for Women, this position was created by Tony Blair in 1997, when it dealt exclusively with women's issues.

Kate Ellis told the Courier Mail today that she hopes one day there will be no need for her job, although that may be some way off, and reiterated her government's commitment to the target of 40% of public company board positions to be held by women by 2015.

Bettina Arndt in The Age investigates why more women aren't getting to board level. Research has shown a reluctance on the part of women to negotiate their way into the 'boys' club' at 'the pointy end of the corporate world' because they fear rejection and they don't like to practise the pushy behaviour necessary for success at this level. It seems very few women are very good at persistent self-promotion. Neither are they good at asking for what they want. Men, it is claimed, are four times more likely to enter into negotiations about salary and career advancement*.

Australia was the first country to give most women both the right to vote and the right to stand for parliament, in 1902. Unfortunately, it took until 1943 for the latter to happen. As of the 2010 election last August, there are 37 women among 150 MPs (almost 25%) in the House of Representatives and 27 women out of 76 in the Senate (35%). In the UK, there are 144 women among 649 MPs in the House of Commons (22%).

One of the 27 in the upper house is Mary Jo Fisher, Liberal** Senator for South Australia, who, in a ridiculous rant against carbon pricing at the beginning of this month, did more singlehandedly to damage the cause of women in politics than decades without positive discrimination strategies. If you watch this – and I defy you not to turn it off before the end – perhaps you can explain to me what the purple choker is all about. Oh, and non-Australians will need to know that a bowser is a petrol pump. (

Talking of statespersons, last year I attended an awards ceremony held in Brisbane by the National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) celebrating the contribution of women to Australia's construction industry. The NAWIC organisers' first choice for guest speaker was Anna Bligh but she was unable to attend. Instead we had to endure the 'Honourable' Robert Schwarten, then Minister for Public Works in the Queensland government. On his arrival at the Conference and Exhibition Centre on Brisbane's South Bank, he apparently made it very clear to the lady who welcomed him that he didn't want to be there, and he wasted no time in alienating his overwhelmingly female audience once he got up to speak.

Neither my friend nor I can remember a single word of substance: all we can recall is a deliberately provocative sprinkling of the word sheila in every sentence. He looked more like an ill-educated, chauvinistic, disparaging, downright rude Aussie Bloke than a Labor cabinet minister. His audience became embarrassed on his behalf, looked at their plates and wished he'd disappear: what we should have done is slow-handclapped or talked among ourselves, but nobody, except Schwarten it seemed, wanted to spoil the evening. Would he have behaved like that in a hall full of male construction workers? He is said to have apologised later to the organisers, but no one was more pleased than I to hear of his recent resignation as a minister and his decision not to stand at the next election.

Among The Guardian's list of female influentials is Jessica Valenti, who pioneered feminism online through her blog, She has since written about the threats and abuse she experienced as a result. It seems there is an anonymous, menacing, good-old-fashioned misogynistic force out there in the ether that sees fit to bully and besmirch women who openly discuss gender issues. And, according to The Guardian, there were three denial-of-service attacks today on the IWD's website.

The extent of the work left to do by women's rights activists across the world is probably best illustrated by a couple of statistics...

Every 90 seconds of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications (source: Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women and ex-President of Chile).

One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15; one in five has experienced sexual violence (source: Kate Ellis, Minister for the Status of Women).

...and the words of writer, social commentator and activist Eva Cox, contributor to On Her Shoulders††, a short documentary commissioned by UN Women Australia in honour of the 100th anniversary of IWD:
'The message to young women is, you might think you're equal, but mate, you're not. You earn less; you earn less per hour; you earn less over your lifetime. You do a heap of unpaid work because somebody's got to do it. You don't run things; you don't decide things. So don't have the illusion that you've got choice.'
I would only add, if you are a woman and you believe that you are considered the equal of the men in your world, consider this: when was the last time a man asked you across the dinner table what you did for a living or how your work was going?

* research by Professor (of Economics) Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon university in Pittsburg, USA

** the Liberal party in Australia has much more in common with the Conservative party in the UK than the Liberal Democrats

an attempt to prevent a computer resource being available to its intended users

†† see the film at

March 7, 2011

More botanics

Brisbane is lucky to have two botanic gardens, a restful green sanctuary right by the CBD and a very different botanical extravaganza at the foot of Mt Coot-tha in Toowong, west of the city. The latter has become part of our introduction to Brisbane for visitors who've first been to look out over the city and the Scenic Rim* from the top of Mt Coot-tha.

It's very easy to lose yourself wandering through Mt Coot-tha's much larger botanic gardens, with their themed areas and specialist houses, and there's plenty of native wildlife to captivate a new explorer. These gardens were opened in 1976, following Brisbane City Council's search for a site that wouldn't be flood-prone: the City gardens had been inundated many times.

One of the specialist areas that you come across very soon after entering by the restaurant is devoted to cacti, which I never realised I like so much.

Not far from there is a lagoon and bamboo grove. The water and surrounds are teeming with all manner of wildlife, from tadpoles, eels and turtles, to Dusky Moorhens, Pacific Black Ducks, Australasian Grebes and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Eastern Water Dragons and dragonflies. And the waterlily overlay is spectacular.

And just in case you're wondering if that's a ceramic turtle, which I was convinced it was for several minutes, here is one in a different pose on the same rock on another visit.

Right at the other end of the gardens – you can drive through Bunya forest and subtropical rainforest if you don't fancy walking any more – is another lake. This is completely covered by duckweed so it resembles a green carpet rather than a sheet of water.

Ducks love duckweed, a native aquatic weed. They eat it and it's so thick it keeps the water cooler and prevents algal bloom, which would give them botulism and harm other aquatic life. Duckweed helps 'clean' the lake of organic and inorganic waste, and in the clear water beneath the green live Australian native turtles and the Queensland lungfish, a protected, endangered, ancient species. Only native fish and waterfowl are allowed in the botanic garden pools.

The totems date from Expo 88**, for which they were carved with a chainsaw purely for decoration. They were rescued from being thrown away afterwards and brought to the botanic gardens to begin a new life.

There are many other features of these gardens: a hot and humid tropical dome full of plants such as epiphytes and climbers from the wet tropics; a fragrant plant and herb garden; a Japanese garden; a fern house; and exotic rainforest. I haven't seen them all yet but I fully intend to take our next visitors on one of the self-guided trail walks.

Lots more things caught my eye: here are just a few of them.

* a group of mountain ranges – part of Australia's Great Dividing Range in southeast Queensland – forming a semicircle of peaks that include many national parks and tourist drives

** a world's fair held in Brisbane as part of the bicentennial celebrations of European settlement in Australia