September 23, 2011

Koala alert

Conservation groups have long campaigned for the national protection of this much-loved Australian icon, one that's worth as much as $1 billion a year to the national economy through tourism. Deborah Tabart, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Koala Foundation (, told the ABC this week that there are no more than 85,000 koalas left in Australia, possibly as few as 45,000. It is estimated that there may have been 10 million at white settlement.

The main threats to koalas today are habitat loss, urban development (principally in the form of traffic accidents and dog attacks), logging, drought, bushfires and disease (especially clamydia). Koalas should be on the watch list.

A Parliamentary committee recently unanimously recommended 19 measures to protect them. These include protection under national law; better national monitoring; habitat mapping of critical areas; and identification of priority spots for koala conservation. These recommendations are likely to become law by the end of the year. 'It's been two hundred years coming,' says Tabart.

• Koalas are not found in Western Australia, Northern Territory or Tasmania. They were wiped out in South Australia during the early 20th century. A hundred years later the state was repopulated with Victorian koalas, but they are still rare, with the exception of Kangaroo Island. Today koalas are considered 'vulnerable' in southeast Queensland and parts of New South Wales. They are probably thriving best in Victoria.
• Queensland koalas are smaller than those found elsewhere and have lighter grey fur, which is also thinner and not as long, presumably because it's hotter here.
• Koalas are not bears, but were labelled as such by European settlers.
• They are arboreal herbivores and native to this continent. Their nearest relative is the wombat. They are marsupials, which means they give birth to relatively undeveloped young, for a mammal. After it's born, a joey crawls into its mother's pouch and stays there, suckling, for about six months. Once it ventures beyond the pouch, a young joey stays with its mother until it is about a year old.
• There is no collective noun for koalas because they are fairly solitary animals. They do share territory, however, where they are referred to as koala 'populations' or 'colonies'.
• Koalas famously eat eucalyptus leaves (mostly), but, contrary to popular myth, they don't get high on them. They prefer some gum trees to others, but none of them are particularly nutritious. The leaves – a koala eats about 500g of them a day – take a lot of chewing and contain toxins. A koala spends more than half its waking hours – which aren't that many, between three and five – eating. It sleeps or sits in a sort of torpor the rest of the time. Like a sloth, a koala has a very low metabolic rate. It gets most of the moisture it needs from the eucalyptus leaves so it drinks very little. A young joey acquires the microbes that enable its digestive system to deal with eucalyptus leaves from its mother.
• Millions of years ago, koalas lived in rainforest. Then the climate cooled and rainforest was replaced by eucaplyt forest in many regions. Koalas may have adapted to eating eucalyptus because there was no competition for this 'food'.
• A female koala has one baby a year (twins are very rare), and her reproductive life lasts about 12 years. Gestation is 35 days.
• Koalas walk on all fours on the ground.
• When vast numbers of koalas were culled at the start of the 20th century, there was a public outcry, which perhaps marked the start of environmental campaigning to protect Australian wildlife.

September 20, 2011

Bushfire season

I didn't know there was one, officially that is. But, although bushfires can happen anywhere at any time on this arid, sunbaked continent, there is a season for each region when that risk is far greater. In most of coastal and central Queensland, it's spring; in the southwestern interior, it's spring and summer; and in the far north and surrounds of the Gulf of Carpentaria, it's winter and spring.

Brisbane has been enveloped in smoke haze for days, the result of a 'spate of blazes' (Courier Mail), aided and abetted by a ridge of high pressure. It has produced oddly pink dawns (below) and veiled sunsets. Interesting, but strange. By day the sky has been bland, not blue.

I don't particularly remember news of bushfires last year – which probably had something to do with the enormous quantities of rain dumped regularly – but no one should forget Black Saturday in February 2009, when 173 people lost their lives in Victoria.

So, bushfires are common in this land of low, often unreliable rainfall and drought. A drought followed by extensive rain – which is exactly what has happened in Australia recently – allows luxuriant grasses to grow back, and grasses are the 'fuel' of bushfires.

In addition, many native plants are particularly vulnerable: the oil in eucalyptus trees, for instance, makes them burn more easily.

Relative humidity and wind speed are also significant. Australia spans many latitudes so weather systems featuring highs and lows and fronts vary from one region to another. But a common constituent of fire-alert weather is a hot dry wind blowing from the interior. The winds ahead of and behind a cold front, too, can greatly affect the progress, or otherwise, of a fire already raging.

Bushfires are started in a number of ways. Lightning is a common natural cause. There are many unnatural ones – camp fires, dropped cigarettes and matches, machinery, agricultural clearing and controlled 'burnoffs'*, and arson. Indigenous Australians used controlled burns to clear tracks and increase grassland for hunting. Their mosaic burning practices, adopted by settlers, encouraged plant regeneration. Some plants need fire: the seed pods of banksias, for example, are split open by fire so the seeds can germinate.

As with all threats from their harsh surroundings, Australians have systems in place to deal with the dangers posed. The Bureau of Meteorology** issues forecasts (Fire Weather Warnings) to fire authorities so that they can determine the Fire Danger Rating (FDR), which is posted on highways and publicised by the media. They announce Total Fire Bans if the FDR is above low-to-moderate risk.

Authorities remain on high alert across Queensland. The Mail reports today that fire crews have dealt with nearly 150 vegetation fires in the last 24 hours. They build firebreaks and carry out back-burning, which means they start small fires ahead of the main fire front to reduce the amount of flammable material available when it gets there.

The skies are slowly clearing in Brisbane but, after so many dry and sunny weeks since June, the fire threat will presumably remain high until the summer rains.

* the controlled burning of dead wood, leaves, broken branches, undergrowth and other debris that, if left lying on the ground, would feed a fire

** BOM is also a good source of information about bushfires:

September 18, 2011

The uniqueness delusion

Last night Australia were beaten 6-15 by Ireland in the Rugby World Cup. This was described here as a 'shock result'. Admittedly Australia were the favourites, but I would say the result was more of a mild surprise than a shock. Ireland proved immovable in the scrum and their back line remained resolute throughout. Their experience – they are the oldest squad in the tournament – helped significantly to bring about victory over the Wallabies, whom we recently watched beat the All Blacks at Lang Park to become Tri Nations champions. Last night, the team that deprived England of the Grand Slam in the Six Nations Championship earlier in the year but had a dreadful run-up to this World Cup tournament, outwitted the Aussies, who looked increasingly perplexed and didn't even earn a bonus point for losing by less than seven points. They had been convinced beforehand, you see, of their near-invincibility, an assumption they tend to take with them into most of the world's major sporting arenas.

This morning I read Gary Younge's piece in last week's Guardian Weekly, 'Americans must learn to get over themselves'. He opines that their self-absorption in the decade following 9/11 has prevented them from making wise decisions on the world stage: a need for vengeance has precluded foreign policy based on caution and restraint. His observation that 'there was an element of narcissism to the national grief... as though American were unique in their ability to feel pain' led me to consider how other nationalities consider that certain attributes of their character are unique to them, whereas, in fact, they're nothing of the sort.

In Britain, people still talk about the Dunkirk spirit. Usually after a bit of a disaster, such as flooding or rioting or a 'hurricane', communities pull together and help one another like never before and nowhere else on earth. I didn't live through the Second World War, so it's easy for me to be glib. My great aunt, however, who is 95, has often told me that, without doubt, and despite all the hardship and fear and loss, the War days were the best of her life. But were the Brits any different from countless others who struggled in the face of that enormous adversity and leant on each other during the darkest of days?

A similar kind of belief abounded in Queensland after the Great Flood in January and following Tropical Cyclone Yasi, which literally tore through northern parts of the state barely weeks later. Thousands of volunteers turned out in Brisbane to clean streets and homes of their foul mud; millions of people nationwide contributed millions of dollars to the disasters appeal; and for months elaborate and generous aid networks organised the collection and distribution of essential items donated to flood and storm victims. You often heard it suggested that the desire and ability to provide such wonderful support sprang from Queenslanders' hearts to an extraordinary if not unprecedented degree. If the speaker was feeling particularly magnanimous, it was from Australian hearts.

Are any of us in a position, however, to compare the suffering of others, or anyone's efforts to relieve that suffering. Is the grief of parents whose sons return from a theatre of war in caskets any greater or less depending on whether those battlefields were (or are) in Flanders or Vietnam or Afghanistan? Are the consequences of a tsunami for the villages and towns it sweeps away in Banda Aceh worse than for a New Zealand community in which every family loses members in a mining disaster? Can you ever act fast enough to help the victims of famine in Africa or an earthquake in Haiti? Who can judge the cut-off point for supplies of blankets, biscuits or bandages? Is donating even a significant amount of cash good enough?

You hear a lot about 'mateship' in Australia. It means a bond of friendship founded on absolute equality and loyalty, more often than not between men, that is fundamental to the footy team or the defence forces but is also regarded as crucial for survival in a hostile landscape and climate. Such friendship is based on shared experience, but you can exhibit mateship to someone you don't know or have only just met, especially if they're in need and you're able to help.

You certainly hear men talk about their mates a lot more here than in the UK, for example. And mateship manifests itself socially, not only in the stereotypical territory of men round the barbie and women... somewhere else. We've noticed many groups of men only or women only out together in Brisbane, and I'm not talking about under-25s. So perhaps it is a peculiarly Australian thing.

Had I been born in France, I would have been une fille unique rather than 'an only child'. The French language puts a far more positive slant on a situation I wish had been otherwise. I wouldn't have been more unique than any other fille unique, but I like the idea.

In fact, we are all unique; it's just that some of us believe we're more unique than others.

September 15, 2011

Art in the streets

A delicious habit is developing among some of my newest friends here: we have become ladies who lunch on Wednesdays. But this week, an American in Brisbane had another idea: she suggested we walk round the CBD, admiring the street art. With the Bridge to Brisbane race still at the back of my mind, I confess to feeling a bit wimpish about a walk instead of a lengthy sitdown in a restaurant, but I gradually warmed to the idea.

We fortified ourselves first in a cafe off the Queen Street Mall, and then made our way to Brisbane Square to follow a route (of about three kilometres) described in Brisbane's Best Bush, Bay & City Walks by Dianne McLay.

First up was Steam by Donna Marcus, 15 steel spheres of different sizes made from vegetable steamers, 7,000 of them. (They looked more like cutlery drainers to me.)

Some were almost buried by the farmers' market in the Square, but one, unmolested, stood warm and serene outside one of the entrances to the Central City Library.

Just along George Street from Brisbane Square, in Queens Gardens, is Rhyl Hinwood's magnificent bronze wedge-tailed eagle, alighting on top of the granite RAAF memorial. It has a wingspan of 2.5 metres.

Further along George and then a short way down Charlotte Street is a large, rolled-up copy of the Moreton Courier by Johnathon Coleman. This stainless steel installation replicates front-page stories from the Moreton Bay Courier, which was first published in 1846 and moved its offices to Charlotte Street in 1851. History on a stick.

Close by the newspaper is this.

It is a traffic signal box (TSB) that's been painted, with the encouragement of Brisbane City Council under the Artforce program. Anyone can submit a design for a TSB, as long as they live in the city and have their design approved by Urban Smart Projects. About 900 boxes have been painted so far. What an excellent opportunity for all Brisbane's budding artists: consider how many traffic lights there are across the city.

Further down Charlotte on the other side are these giant aluminium seed pods. I'm not sure why.

From pods to pride: walk on down to Albert Street. This stainless steel objet (for I don't know how to describe it) stands 3.4 metres tall on Albert, almost at the junction with Charlotte. It is made up of 598 panels held together by 2,562 rivets, which is impressive. I like rivets, and large numbers of them in constructions always impress me. On the whole, I didn't quite know what to make of Pride by Grant Lehmann. It reminds me of a woman with wide hips and crossed legs. But maybe those hips are her shoulders. Maybe I should see an analyst, or ask Grant?

And right by Pride is another one of these...

Walk along Albert, and in the entrance of what used to be Borders, on the corner of Elizabeth, there are several words from Indigenous languages embedded into the flagstones.

The name of a people and a language

Meaning 'motorcar'

Meaning 'the dreaming'

Directly above the words were these fibreglass rays, suspended from the ceiling. Unfortunately I don't have any information about them. If anyone does have, please post a comment.

Continuing up Albert towards the Queen Street Mall, you can follow the Albert Street Literary Trail. This consists of 32 bronze plaques, each featuring a quote from a Queensland writer's work, together with biographical details. The plaques were designed by Dot Dash and illustrated by Brona Keenan.

Dappled sunlight on the bronze made the plaques look warm and inviting. I liked the design of this one, but felt a tad giddy having read the curly-wurly bit.

Turning into the Queen Street Mall, a beautiful feather floated above eager shoppers. I have noticed this before but had never asked why. It is a Big Feather by Bronwyn Oliver, and there are others, but I know not where.

At the bottom of the Mall, if you look left, you will see the massive Echoes from the North 2004-05 by Augustine Dall' Ava.

But turn right into Edward and then left into Mary. Sooner or later you'll spot Felix, a man on the phone. Normally you couldn't miss him on the corner of Felix Street, except that his lower half is currently obscured by construction hoardings. He's made of stainless steel, by Terry Summers.

It was a warm day. We were in need of refreshment, so we diverted to Riverside. These juices were almost too pretty to drink and I made them pose for the camera before they were consumed.

Ever onward – to Eagle Street. I love the way this hand relaxes on the busy pavement. I wonder if the piece would have been as pleasing if the fingers had been impatiently drumming? The two aluminium hands make up Chat by Sebastian Di Mauro. Given time, there was a lot of photo potential here, but I had to catch up – into Queen, right into Creek, left into Adelaide as far as Anzac Square.

When does a piece of sculpture become a monument? And does that mean it's not 'art'? Since the figures below are in Anzac Square, I would venture to suggest that this is a monument. It is another piece by Rhyl Hinwood, called Korea-Malaya-Borneo 1948-1966. The figure on the right is particularly well executed: he should be mentioned in despatches.

The next image needs a familiar object in it to illustrate just how small is Elizabeth Shaw's bronze of a child holding an adult's hand, inlaid in the pavement much further along Adelaide, just before George. It would be so easy for pedestrians on their missions in the city to miss it. Just as well our Canadian friend had got her eye in by this time and was very good at art-spotting. Quaintly appealing is how I would describe it.

On the next corner, Themis, Greek goddess of justice and unsurprisingly beside the law courts, is definitely in the monument category, but nearby was another fine TSB.

Finally, City Roos by Christopher Trotter – he of the very fine Pelicans on an old bridge pier stump by the Captain Cook Bridge – are a lot of fun by Burnett Lane, a short way up George Street. Unfortunately the sun was low and at the wrong angle for flattering photographs of this mob of Australian icons. But you get the idea? Scrap metal entertainingly put to good use.

I have lived in Brisbane for over 18 months and have walked through the CDB many times. I have a vague recollection of one or two pieces such as Echoes of the North, but no lasting impression... until this day. Am I the world's least observant person? If I have shopping on my mind, does my consciousness close to any other experience? What was the name of that analyst?

This post was last updated on 12 December 2011

September 13, 2011

Travels with my family

In the run-up to, and during, the Football World Cup in 2010, we saw a lot of Portugal international Cristiano Ronaldo extolling the virtues of Castrol Edge and its 'liquid engineering'. He described how football takes him to 'menee playsis: hot playsis; cold playsis; eggshilarating playsis'. My friend and I have been unable to pronounce the word 'places' properly ever since, and we've been travelling around a lot lately.

We took the Manchester chapter to hot and cold places. It was coldest in Girraween National Park in Queensland's Granite Belt, apple and wine country.

We stayed just outside the park, but spent a day walking in it, climbing a huge granite outcrop called Castle Rock for its wide views of boulder-strewn country. There was a cold and frosty start – and stargazing at the other end of the day required many layers – but the day soon warmed up to pleasant walking temperatures.

Having been held up on the drive down by extensive post-flood road reconstruction through Cunningham's Gap, we decided to return to Brisbane via the Darling Downs region and its principal city, Toowoomba, where purple seemed to be the order of the day.

When choosing locations for visitors to explore, I have to put aside my endless love for Byron Bay; an obsession, some would say. In this instance, however, my favourite place had a lot to offer our guests: great diving opportunities; stunning beaches; a lively yet unspoilt town; highly individualistic shops and galleries; great vibe. So, off we went, via the Gold Coast, namely Main Beach and Currumbin (see Family and other animals, August 2011).

Once in Byron, we did the usual stuff for initiates: the cliff walk up to Cape Byron lighthouse from Wategos, with whale-watching, dolphin-monitoring and spot-the turtles/rays; beachcombing on Tallows; shopping, then more shopping; soaking up a few rays on Broken Head beach; gazing at the Bay; basking and wandering aimlessly in Byron's chilled atmosphere; biding in cafes and bars.

Wishing to make the most of New South Wales, we returned home via Brunswick Heads, Mooball on the Tweed Valley Way, Murwillumbah, the Springbrook Plateau and Natural Bridge. The 'Cloud Catcher' (Mt Warning) remained visible for a long time, despite worsening weather.

Our final mini-trip destination was the 'Mapleton Sunshine Coast Hinterland'. We stopped in at all the 'Ms' – Maleny, Montville and Mapleton – along the way.

My friend and I had stayed at Coolabine Ridge Eco Sanctuary before, in a small, intimate cabin. This time we had booked the Lighthouse Lodge, originally a lighthouse keeper's house from Caloundra. The building was brought up from the coast a few years ago and beautifully restored, right down to the last detail. It was a joy to be in, so we didn't go anywhere, gazing over the peaceful Obi Obi valley from the deck with beer in hand.

Early next morning, a walk around the 400-acre estate was in order.

We were supposed to make an early start for Noosa, but no one was in any hurry to leave our hideaway. So there was nowhere to park at the bottom of Hastings Street by the time we got there on a sunny Sunday lunchtime. We headed straight for the National Park. There were too many people on the coastal path, as well, so we clambered down on to Tea Tree Bay's rocky foreshore, where there were deep and curious rockpools, strange marine organisms with water pistoling skills, turquoise 'gems', arches and inlets. Hours of fun, in fact, and very pleasantly warm.

After a late lunch on Hastings at the perennial 'fountain cafe', there was only time for a couple of fleeting look-ins on the rest of the Sunshine Coast as we headed south – at Kings and Bulcock beaches, Caloundra.