February 28, 2012

Tasmania – Explore the possibilities

Tassie has always been on the list – Australia's last wilderness an' all. I'd made a few notes during my travel research over the last couple of years – Bay of Fires (great name), Wineglass Bay, Cradle Mountain. Trouble was, when I studied a map of the island, those places didn't suggest an obvious route. Especially as we had to be in a particular spot, an architectural-award-winning house perched on a cliff above the northwest coast, half way through the week.

Tasmania lies 240km south of Victoria, across the Bass Strait. (The Tasman Sea is between Australia and New Zealand.) It was separated from mainland Australia by rising sea levels at the end of the last glacial period. Apparently, it is the 26th-largest island in the world, with 334 smaller islands around its coast. Measuring 360km across and 300km from top to bottom, it's roughly the size of the Irish Republic or Sri Lanka. In 2011, Tassie had a population of a little over half a million, and almost half of them lived in greater Hobart, the state capital.

The island was renamed (in 1856) after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who had been the first European to set eyes on it, as long ago as 1642. He called it Van Diemen's Land, after his sponsor. James Cook didn't get there until 1777. European settlers arrived at the beginning of the 19th century: huge numbers of convicts and their guards arrived over the next 50 years. Aborigines lived in the region before it became an island, but most had been wiped out within a few decades of European settlement. I was shocked to learn that none has lived there for over a century.

The first view of the Tasmanian landscape (above right) was as we dropped below cloud on our approach to Launceston (pronounced Lon-sess-ton). The pale golden grain colour was to become a feature. Launceston airport was tiny – we like tiny airports. Our flight was a bit late (guess who we flew with?) and we landed within minutes of a plane from Melbourne, a relative hop-skip-and-a-jump away. There are two baggage reclaim belts. One said Melbourne, the other said nothing: it soon became obvious from the volume of luggage coming around that 'Melbourne' was in fact 'Brisbane'. But we like small airports, as I said.

We flew to Launceston, Tasmania's second-largest city, because all my places were in the northern half of the island. We weren't there to do cities, so this is the last mention of Hobart, lovely as I'm sure it is. Launceston airport is south of the city, which we only visited briefly, on our way back, for lunch by the river, which was pleasant enough. The North Esk and South Esk Rivers join to form the Tamar, a long estuary (Launceston is 45km south of the Bass Strait), which you can cruise if you like.

We headed southwest, promptly missing the highway turning and ending up in the charming little village of Evandale, which has a pretty Georgian high street, famous Penny Farthing championships, and the most extraordinary cows. Tasmania has lots of cows, often packed into high-density fields, and many are black and white, but the overwhelming majority are randomly so, not striped, like this.
Belties originally came from southwest Scotland and are bred for their marbled beef. They don't mind inferior grazing land and have two coats to keep them warm. Their striking appearance means I do remember seeing them once before in Australia. Possibly in northern New South Wales?

We took the Midland Highway as far as the Esk Highway. The roads were empty, relatively pothole free and a joy to drive. Cows gave way to sheep; grey sheep rather than buff-coloured. Places became increasingly small and unrecognisable as such. By the time we passed through Tullochgorum this was all there was.

Fingal, a coal-mining town, had pretty buildings and a wide avenue, deserted save for small gatherings of Masked Lapwings, who were most disgruntled at being disturbed. But then they're cranky by nature.
By the time we reached St Marys (not many possessive apostrophes in Tassie), we were in the Break O'Day region, a curious name. The Scots and the Irish must have been early to this part of the world. We descended through a forested pass to the coast. By now it was early Saturday evening, but not a soul was about. At Scamander we screeched to a sudden halt at the sight of what must have been more than a hundred Black Swans on the lagoon in the Scamander Conservation Area. According to my bird book, Australia does have Mute (white) Swans, but I've only ever seen Black. There were a lot of them in Tasmania – even in rough sea on the west coast – but the number here was as impressive as their splendidly contrasting beaks. As they take flight, you think they're never going to become airborne. Much powerful flapping and a long run-up is necessary. They get spooked very easily: the sound of a camera shutter will send them gliding away rapidly, but usually they see you coming long before you're in position.
There was a lot more people action in the fishing port of St Helens. Outside the police station, they were randomly breathalysing. Thanks, boys: welcome to Tassie, indeed. We didn't hang about, having asked a policeman the way to Binalong Bay. The road skirts Georges Bay, a large sheltered inlet that's home to many birds.

We rounded a corner where a slightly startled wallaby sat on the verge. Frequent roadkill was to become a worryingly common sight on many roads during our visit. A couple of people in national park information centres assured us that this could be considered a sign of a thriving ecosystem. Perhaps, but it soon became disturbing. Whereas the standard of driving seemed generally higher than on mainland Australia, many drivers sped by at far too great a speed.
And then we arrived at the Bay of Fires. This (below) was the view from our cabin. I rushed down on to the snow-white sand and felt hugely excited at the prospect of our Tasmanian adventure. You know that feeling when you first arrive in a beautiful place and you can't drink enough of it in?
We quickly went next door to the Binalong Bay Cafe for the first of several delicious dinners, accompanied by the first Tasmanian red of the trip. 

So, Queensland is the Sunshine State, New South Wales the First State, and Victoria The Place to Be. In Tasmania, Explore the possibilities; with me, in the Bay of Fires, Freycinet National Park, on the northwest coast, at the Edge of the World and climbing Cradle Mountain. 

February 17, 2012

Summer in the city 4: Wellington Point

Wellington Point is very like Cleveland Point but is further north in Moreton Bay, closer to the Port of Brisbane. They're both described by one of my guide books as 'treesy promontories with bay outlooks', which just about sums them up.

The first Europeans to disturb the peace of Aboriginal people who lived here, the Quandamooka, were three shipwrecked timber-getters, in 1823. Some 20 years later the Point was named after the Duke of Wellington by two surveyors, Robert Dixon and James Warner; but European settlers didn't arrive until the land sales of the 1860s. In 1889 the Brisbane to Cleveland railway made Wellington Point more accessible.

Today there's a bustling precinct with lots of cafes and shops and amenities on the way to the Point, where aquatic activities are the name of the game. There's a massive car park with elongated spaces so you can park your boat- or jetski-carrying trailer as well as your car, but there are also fine (fig) trees, planted in the 1920s. There's a boat ramp and a jetty for fisherpeople. On the land side of the Point, from mid-to-low tide, a sand causeway leads to King Island, a  mangroved reserve.
As the sea retreated further and we walked towards the reserve, numerous wading birds could be seen on the wet sand, grubbing about for newly stranded fishy morsels. There were lots of gulls and Bar-tailed Godwits (below) and the rather curious Striated Heron (below but one). He's an odd shape at the best times, but when he suddenly protruded his neck to a length hitherto unimaginable in order to catch prey, it was, well, startling. 
There were also some little things that took a while to spot, so well camouflaged were they against their wet-sandy backdrop. We think they might have been Red-capped Plovers. None of the birds seemed particularly perturbed by the hordes of Sunday visitors. As usual, we seemed to be the only people interested in looking at them, or, indeed, even noticing they were there.

I would have liked to have walked to the furthest point of King Island, away from most of the very many people who had chosen Wellington Point on this particularly sunny afternoon for their watery pastimes. But a storm was threatening from the west: Brisbane was already copping it. It was quite a walk back along the sandway, and photography meant we only just made it back to the car before the heavens opened. I didn't realise that there was a man walking on water. Wasn't he in Byron a couple of weeks ago?
I felt a bit like a fish out of water at Wellington Point. I didn't have a 4WD or a trailer or a boat or a jetski or a kitesurfing thingy, or a windsurfing board and sail, or a fishing rod or an Esky with my catch in it. I just had my friend and a camera. I think I'd like to go back mid-week.

February 14, 2012

Dam engineers and journos

If you haven't read a book called Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy, by Lindsay Tanner, then I'd recommend it. It describes the role of the Australian media in the trivialisation of politics and the over-simplification of complex social and economic issues of the day. Not to mention their control over content.

The media have a tremendous sense of their own importance. This is no more evident than in The Australian's attitude to the impact of its recent allegations of mismanagement among SEQ Water engineers in charge of releases from the Wivenhoe Dam during the critical few days leading up to the flooding of Brisbane 13 months ago. It is, however, no more than I have come to expect from the all-powerful Murdoch press, wherever in the world you happen to read it. (I don't, as a rule.)

It took me a while to identify the accuser. There have been countless references to 'allegations in The Australian' in other media outlets, but very little naming of names. The claims brought about a rapid reconvening of the Queensland Floods Commission of Enquiry, the postponing of the state election date, the fierce further questioning of the four SEQ Water engineers in the spotlight and the subsequent extended leave of absence of two of them.

Many ordinary men and women on the street of this city came to the conclusion – based on little knowledge of hydrology – that the management of the Wivenhoe during the 2011 floods was in some way inadequate or inappropriate. Some of those opinions were formulated within days of the disaster; and those same people were probably highly receptive to the slightest whiff of incompetence emanating from the Floods Enquiry. Of course, The Australian has no axe to grind with Anna Bligh's Labor government in the run-up to the state election. And it's a damn good story: I'm gripped.

Doubtless in the public interest, The Australian set 'national chief correspondent' Hedley Thomas to  work, sifting through reams of official documents and leaked emails before concluding that SEQ Water's engineers were following the wrong strategy – or at least, one that was not in line with the operating manual's four strategies for water release – until two days before the Brisbane River flooded on 11 January 2011.

Mr Thomas was certainly the man for the job. He was writing this kind of piece by 22 January 2011, less than two weeks after the event:

Now, I don't have Mr Thomas's terrier-like tenacity for checking consistency between what the engineers said at the Enquiry and what they had written in their situation reports or emails to each other at the time. Perhaps the levels of stress in the operations room, as the heavens delivered two and then three times the rainfall that had been predicted over an already saturated catchment while 20 million people watched and waited downstream, were so great that an ordinary mortal typed 'W2' instead of 'W3' in an email to his colleague. Or maybe the report that was written afterwards was composed so as to reflect the procedures outlined in the operations manual rather than quick-fire judgements made during a rapidly developing crisis by men too long without sleep. Plain old human error, or cover-up?

There are wider issues: of incompatibility between flood mitigation and water conservation policies; of operating manuals based on flood-modelling predictions alone; of reliability of weather forecasting and interpretation of the Southern Oscillation Index (El Niño or La Niña events) and the subsequent planning of water releases; of potential hidden agendas within the Queensland state government and SEQ Water.

The Australian practically glowed with pride and self-congratulation that 'public-interest journalism' brought about 'the emergence of the truth about Wivenhoe'*. Hedley Thomas's 'scepticism, scrutiny of records and refusing to accept official spin are the hallmarks of fine journalism,' it crows. It may well be that the reopening of the Floods Enquiry has clarified muddied issues and that their final report will recommend new improved procedures based on what has come to light during this latest phase of the Enquiry. I would have much preferred an independent body's findings to have been the spur, however.

I do not condone secrecy or obfuscation, and I am totally in favour of 'fine journalism' rather than fluffy shallow nonsense. But I would also have preferred that Hedley Thomas had spent at least some of those hours battling even nobler causes. If he were to study, for example, the inconsistencies among climate-change deniers, he might be even more concerned about the current inappropriate response to the threat of future flooding on a significantly larger scale than anything that occurred in 2011.

The Queensland Floods Commission of Enquiry will report finally on 16 March. Queensland voters go  to the polls on the 24th.

* An independent hydrologist was asked by the reconvened Floods Enquiry in January to develop alternative models for managing the 2011 floods and concluded that flooding had been inevitable and that the engineers had done a reasonable job

This post was last updated on 15 February 2012

February 12, 2012


There are moments of peace and tranquility on our balcony overlooking the Brisbane River in New Farm. But they are few and far between, especially on a beautiful summer Sunday.

Having run at 6.30 this morning – it was already 25 degrees – we were back in the apartment for 8 and sitting down to boiled eggs and toast about an hour later. Five minutes we can have had, if that, of nothing but the sound of lapping water and bird calls – Australian Ravens, Magpie Larks, Noisy Miners – before the first guy-with-gadget started up.

He was on the other side of the river; somewhere in Hawthorne I'd say. He was using a hedge-trimmer I would guess. He's just stopped. About an hour later. Mighty big hedge it must have been. What a relief. But it'll only be a matter of time before the next gadget starts up. There'll be someone grass-slashing or strimming or Gerni-ing (high-pressure hosing). I assume they're all guys: I've yet to see an Aussie gal with a gadget in a garden. Just give it a rest, will you. Let the grass grow, man.

And the jetskis will dash up and down on the water, showing off their prowess or whatever it is that makes them want to create so much racket. 'Gilis', the Spanish would call them: it's too rude to translate, I'm afraid. The first one passed as we cooled down from the run down by the riverside. On the weekend, you're lucky to go an hour without their disproportionately intrusive noise forcing its way into your consciousness. How can they deem it acceptable to adversely affect so many people? Sometimes I wish they'd just go out in the Bay, but then I worry they'll hit dolphins or turtles. Sometimes deliberately.

If I ruled the world, there'd be no such thing as jetskis. And you'd have to use a push-me-pull-you mower on lawns of less than a substantial area. And brush leaves away, not blow them (what's the point in doing it very much at all in such a windy city?). Bet you're all glad I'm not a pollie.

February 11, 2012

Wave-watching in paradise

Last week I returned to Byron again. 

We were lucky. We managed to get a cancellation so we could stay overnight Saturday. Normally, you have to book weeks in advance to get a room or apartment of choice. One thing that seems incompatible with Byron's image and raison d'être is the fact that rarely can you visit spontaneously, deciding on a Thursday that you fancy the weekend in your favourite place, and be able to find somewhere to stay.

We decided to drive 'over the top' into New South Wales, via the delightful Numinbah Valley and the Springbrook escarpment. Leave the Pacific Highway at Nerang and take the Nerang-Murwillumbah Road. We turned off left soon after to look at the Hinze Dam. (There was no sign of a dam but there was a tree-lined lake!) Leaving Murwillumbah, follow the Tweed Valley Way to rejoin the Highway for the last 20-odd kilometres to Byron. 

It's a longer, fiddlier way, but prettier, and there was hardly a thing on the road. There must have been a bikie convention somewhere though because there was a disproportionate number of unmuffled bikers in convoy on our route. Maybe they just enjoy the twisty-turny climbs and descents. It was a beautiful morning but there was a lot of evidence of the recent heavy rains and flooding (above). We stopped for a coffee just before Natural Bridge and were told there'd been so much rain ducks had drowned. The greens were glorious.

As we headed down the Tweed Valley there were a few sprinkles from unwelcome clouds, but they backed off as we drove along Ewingsdale Road from the Pacific Highway to the sea. Haven't I always told you that the sun smiles on those who arrive in Byron Bay?
One reason we were here was that my friend wanted to go to the beach. So off to Broken Head we went. He wrestled with waves: I photographed them.

Have I told you how lovely the Bay is at sundown?

The next day was the first Sunday in the month, so Byron Markets day. It has to be one of the most colourful markets I've ever seen. There's good music and like-minded souls. We chatted to a man on the Sea Shepherd stall for quite a bit, although he was preaching to the converted. And we listened to a musician on a cigar-box guitar and four other instruments at the same time. It was very hot in the sun and we drank lots of juice while buying a hat, two chairs, many candles and some bunting.

And then it was off to the beach again. I had wanted to go to Wategos but it was rammed and there was nowhere to park. So we went to Tallows, where there was virtually no one. Despite big surf and a strong current, I ventured into the waves – an indication of how relaxed I was – as well as watching them, again.

Too soon, it was time to return to Brisbane. Leaving Byron is always a wrench. But there's always a couple of hundred photographs to remind me.