May 25, 2012

Bimblebox 3: May update

Bimblebox, courtesy of National Parks Association of Queensland
On Friday evening 11 May I was sitting watching the ABC News at 7 when it was announced that Waratah Coal's China First Project no longer had part of its financing in place ($40 billion to supply a Swiss energy trading company with coal, to be exact). Waratah chairman Clive Palmer later claimed this would have no impact on the project since it still has a $60 billion commitment from China Power International. 

In subsequent days there was much speculation in the press about Palmer, his money and the future for coal in Australia. The Age was not the only media outlet to highlight the disparity between Palmer's tendency for bold statements and what he actually achieves. For potential investors in the mines proposed for the Galilee Basin, it can't have made reassuring reading. Rather than me paraphrasing, it's better if you read for yourselves:

The man who loves to litigate threatened to sue the Sydney Morning Herald for their initial reporting of the deal's demise which he claimed was 'false and misleading'. Yet this is just how I would describe his summary of Bimblebox Nature Refuge (BNF) in an interview with ABC Brisbane's Steve Austin on 1 May (see It's a mad mad mad mad week, environmentally, May 2012). Palmer's lawyers are going to be busy since he's also taking Queensland Rail to court for misleading him over the planned rail link from the Galilee Basin to coal-exporting facilities on the central Queensland coast.

Of course, even if Waratah Coal don't develop mines that will devastate BNF, there are other companies that might. They will need deep pockets, however, as Premier 'Can-do' (but won't do) Newman's austerity measures mean that this week the new Queensland government announced they were abandoning plans to expand the Abbot Point coal-exporting port. According to Queensland Resources Council* CEO Michael Roche, plans for six new terminals represented a 'big bang' approach to growing the multi-cargo facility rather than incremental expansion as it was needed. The feedback from the industry was that big bangs don't work: increasing the port's capacity from 50 million tonnes to 385 million tonnes was unrealistic. (Rio Tinto recently pulled out of the project.) Will the three terminals currently in operation at Abbot Point be able to cope with output from the Galilee's new mines? There are other coal ports near Mackay, but other mines in development are competing for tonnage, and China First had been planning to use the new terminals at Abbot Point. Some of its competitors in the region, such as Hancock Coal's Alpha project, have already bagged port capacity.

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong bulk carrier narrowly escaped running aground on Shark Reef northeast of Cairns after losing power.

Recent figures out of China over the last couple of months, showing economic growth slowing, have made investors jittery. The Washington Post today even talks of 'China's economic crisis'. A growth rate of at least nine per cent per annum was maintained for three decades, but has been slowing since 2010, largely as a result of fewer exports to a post-GFC world in which there is less demand, and tighter lending and investments curbs intended to take heat out of the Chinese economy and slow inflation. The Guardian, reporting today on the delay of (Chinese) Hanlong Mining's takeover of (Australian) Sundance Resources, describes China's increasing reluctance to fund 'risky resources projects' offshore. And The Washington Post predicts trouble ahead for those countries that have been buoyed by the boom in China as demand for raw materials now drops.

Amid events in economic markets and speculation in the financial press, what of Bimblebox this month? If you visit the Queensland Co-ordinator General's website, you will see, under Current EIS projects/China First Coal Project, Environmental impact statement (EIS) process, Date, that is says 'Pending'; and Activity, 'Co-ordinator-General's report on EIS'.
Then look on the same website under Current EIS projects, Completed EIS projects/China First Coal, EIS current status, and you will see 'Supplementary EIS being prepared by proponent'.

These 'statuses' are not at odds either with each other or with what I was told last month by the CG's office (see Bimblebox 2: April update). If you want to know what happens next in the process, go to:

The China First EIS process is being conducted under a bilateral agreement between the Queensland State and Federal governments. What this means is that the Queensland government does the work of processing the EIS while informing the Federal government. Should the Co-ordinator General approve China First, a 'significant project', the final go-head has to be given by the Minister for Environment in Canberra. In the light of the processes outlined above, therefore, it is imperative that all those concerned for the survival of Bimblebox Nature Reserve lobby environment ministers at both State and Federal levels so that neither can be in any doubt about public opinion.

Having completed a report, the Co-ordinator General can recommend a project is approved, denied or approved with conditions. Federal ministers have been known to overturn 'approved' decisions, as in the case of the Traveston Crossing Dam in 2009**. This project south of Gympie would have involved the damming of the Mary River and threatened many vulnerable or endangered species. 

A key issue in decision making in this case is going to be that of biodiversity offsets. Under Queensland's biodiversity offsets policyª, a mining company has obligations when clearing vegetation of significant environmental value. Offsetting is a contentious issue, and a complex one. I have never been convinced by offsetting. When booking your holiday flights, paying money for trees to be planted in no way lets you off the hook in terms of augmenting your carbon emissions. How can a remnant ecosystem be replicated just down the road from the mine that destroyed it, by definition? I have many questions about biodiversity offset policy in Queensland and intend to address this issue in the next Bimblebox update.

A few weeks ago, the National Parks Association of Queensland spent two days at Bimblebox Nature Refuge doing a survey of flora. They found at least 220 different plant species; rich tree (Ironbark, top of page), shrub and understorey layers; and a thick grass layer. Ninety-five per cent of the 8000-hectare property is covered with vegetation described as a picture of health. NPAQ concluded that Bimblebox is a superb example of grazing for conversation. Its destruction would send a disheartening message to the stewardship efforts of private landowners and graziers, whose role is seen as increasingly important in a state where only 4.78 per cent of land is protected in National Parks (compared with 16 per cent of Victoria and 20 per cent of South Australia) and 74 per cent is subject to mining permits.

* QRC is a 'not-for-profit peak industry association representing the commercial developers of Queensland's mineral and energy resources'
ª This morning the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection confirmed that the new LNP government has no plans as yet to amend this policy

May 20, 2012

Off road: Mt Superbus and the source of the Condamine

When we first visited Queensland's Granite Belt in Spring 2010, I wanted to return to Brisbane a different way from the outward journey (via Cunningham's Gap and Warwick). But the tourist information office in Stanthorpe was unable to confirm that the road from Killarney over the Main Range to Boonah was sealed all the way.

There was another reason for wanting to go that way. As I compiled my lists of Aussie place names, Mt Superbus was a favourite. I mean, where did that name come from? It is Queensland's third-highest peak (1375 metres) and the highest south of Innisfail (100 km south of Cairns), although unspectacular by all accounts and lacking a view from the summit – perhaps because the top consists of a plateau with several high points.

When you read the name of the mountain, did you pronounce it in your head as Super-bus, or Superb-us? I have always thought it was the former, but during my research for this post I have been disabused. I am rather disappointed, but I suspect it will always be Super-bus in my world.

A couple of months ago, we left Brisbane via the Cunningham Highway but soon turned off for Peak Crossing and Boonah down the 93, a quiet route through pleasant country. Boonah lies in the fertile and picturesque Fassifern Valley: the town has a friendly feel and a splendid horse. The Clydesdale heavy horse came to the region with squatters in the 1840s and assisted settlers and farmers for more than a hundred years. Local breeders have kept the Clydesdale alive and Andrew Scott's galvanised steel sculpture makes a big impression as you drive into town.
Fourteen kilometres down the Boonah-Rathdowney stretch of the 93, The Falls (Scenic) Drive, aka Carneys Creek Road, turns off right. It immediately felt far-from-the-madding, even before the road began to ascend the Main Range through a Bell Miner zone, grass trees and dingley-dell forest.
On the top of the Range was a good view, some impressive plunge falls (Teviot), and the border with New South Wales – which came close to Head Road although we never crossed over.
It isn't called Head Road for nothing, of course, and at Carrs Lookout we discovered why. Here are the headwaters of the Condamine River which starts out as a spring on the slopes of Mt Superbus and becomes a tributary of the mighty Murray-Darling. My old friend Ludwig Leichhardt followed the westward-flowing Condamine for a while in 1847 (see That man again, November 2011). And the river is also notable for having reached a record peak during the Queensland floods of 2010-11. From Killarney, it turns northwest, draining the northern Darling Downs: at Surat, 75 kilometres south of Roma, it turns southwest and becomes the Balonne. In total, it flows more than 1200 kilometres before it even reaches New South Wales*. Behind the bank of cloud below is Mt Superbus: I am beginning to think I will never see it. Behind us should have been Wilson's Peak but we couldn't see that either. The grey couldn't drain the lush valley of its colour, however.
Also unfortunate was the news that the 4WD track off Spring Creek Road that we had come here for was closed following heavy rainfall. (There's a lot of rain in these parts.) But at least now we had the answer to whether or not you can drive from Killarney to Boonah without a 4WD. Had everything gone according to plan, however, we would have missed Queen Mary Falls, a fine example of a retreating waterfall, with a 40-metre drop. The Falls are receding upstream as the water erodes the rock behind it: there was a major cliff fall in the 1880s, the debris from which lies at the foot of the Falls.
Not far away, just five kilometres east of Killarney, are Daggs Falls, very close to the road.
Only as we drove into Killarney did we realise it was St Patrick's Day. Of all the places we could have visited in Southeast Queensland that day, we chose this small township founded by Irish settlers who were reminded of home by the surrounding country. Many of the day's festivities were coming to an end and unfortunately the Killarney Hotel had stopped serving lunch. We were ravenous. Remarkably, a corned beef and salad doorstop of a sandwich went down a treat.
Still determined to drive off road, my friend tried to navigate us back to the Cunningham Highway across country from Killarney via Emu Vale and Yangan. We didn't join it as far up as we would have liked, and the gravel roads were hardly challenging, but we passed by some great fields and verges.

* the Murray-Darling river system flows 3,375 kilometres before entering the Spencer Gulf in South Australia

This post was last updated on 25 May

May 19, 2012

Off-road, on track

In Europe, you don't hear people talk about off-roading at the weekend or while they're on holiday. Never in my experience in the UK, at any rate. The 4WDs I used to see were hardly ever mud-splattered, having been used to drive into town (Guildford) or along the (sealed roads) of the North Downs. The nearest most of them ever got to off-road was a few metres of gravel driveway. And tradies drive white vans, not utes.

I came to dislike the image of 4WDs. They looked pretentious, especially used in the wealthy inner suburbs of London for taking one posh offspring to his or her private school just a few kilometres from home. 'Gas-guzzling Chelsea tractors' were the most hated road-users.

You can drive off road in places, on 'greenlanes', which are tracks or trails – officially byways or unclassified roads. Only six per cent of these unsurfaced rights of way are open to vehicles, and ramblers groups would like to see that figure reduced to zero*. This conflict is symptomatic of a nation where too many people compete for space on too little land and is an unthinkable notion in Australia, the big country. If 4WDrivers don't relish the ire of stick-wielding ramblers, there are 'pay and play' sites, where they can practise mud-plugging, rock-crawling and hill-climbing to their heart's content without any road rules to worry about.

When we first came to live in Australia and had to choose a car, I was persuaded that, when necessary, we could hire a 4WD, and, for driving the long distances we intended to cover, an Audi saloon would be more comfortable, economical and environmentally friendly – not necessarily in that order of importance. As we ticked off more and more of the easily accessible must-see places, I was occasionally heard to mutter, 'We can't go there because the road's unsealed'. The last time that happened was on the way home from the Bunya Mountains last November. When I plan a route, I like to return a different way from the outward journey. On this occasion, I was thwarted by 70-80 kilometres of the unsealed, annoyingly ridged Kilcoy-Murgon Road. I was not happy. I had also been convinced, on the two or three times we had hired a 4WD or taken an organised trip in one, that they really can reach the parts other vehicles simply cannot. 

Unbeknownst to me, my friend started to do the research, and, to cut the proverbial long story short, we now have a 4WD. At a stroke, our driving has become more expensive and less environmentally friendly. We can alter our driving style (softer breaking, slower acceleration, driving at optimum speed) and week-to-week running practices (not using aircon, buying better-quality fuel, keeping up maintenance) in order to reduce these effects. A huge positive, on the other hand, is the fact that we have entered a new phase of our great Australian adventure.

Being sensible, pragmatic people, we decided that, prior to a visit to Rainbow Beach and Fraser Island, we should take some instruction in sand driving. Now, I have to tell you that I never thought the day would dawn when I would be part of a 4WD convoy headed for soft-sand practice along the surf beach at Bribie Island early one beautiful Sunday morning. It was not a matter of swallowing pride as much as confessing that things I'd always said were highly unlikely to happen, had: like eating scallops; or going shopping in shorts.

The course we did was very helpful. I now know all about washouts and troughs; appropriate tyre pressures; assessing and crossing a creek; maintaining momentum in soft sand; high tide-low tide 'windows'; wheelbase and track; the three depths of embedment; 'shovel, tunnel, unload'; rocking; max tracks; anchor points; snatch recovery; the two-metre rule; bow shackles; and impressed current corrosion protection. Impressive, eh?

There's no stopping us now.

* source:

May 17, 2012

Croc or dog?

Yesterday I heard a story about a 'rogue saltie' being shot on an island off the Northern Territory because it was 'acting menacingly' near a beach. Rangers had been notified by police a couple of weeks previously that a large crocodile had taken a dog and was threatening others. Yesterday morning, rangers were on the beach and shot a 3.5-metre croc as it snapped a dog's leg. When they opened up its stomach, shock horror, they found dog parts.

They obviously shot the culprit, right? But were they sure when they pulled the trigger?

In any case, that'll learn the other crocs. 'Don't you go after those dogs on the beach,' they'll warn each other, 'you'll get shot.'

I don't get it. When an idiot goes swimming off a beach where a Great White has been spotted days ago or there's a great big notice saying Beware of Shark, and he's attacked and dies, people set out to search for and kill the shark. What does that achieve apart from exacting some sort of specious revenge? How many such hunts succeed in locating a shark at all, and how can they be sure they've identified the killer? How does this prevent other sharks from attacking swimmers?

The slaughtering of Tasmanian Tigers to extinction began with the largely misguided belief of early European settlers that these predators were slaughtering huge numbers of stock. It was too late by the time they realised, 'Oops, lots of other predators (such as wild dogs, Tasmanian Devils, and Wedge-tailed Eagles, not to mention Aborigines and itinerants) are taking our lambs as well as the Tiger.' Large tracts of land were unsuitable for sheep rearing and one mistake compounded another. These days we think we know better than we did then, but in fact we're still on a steep learning curve as far as ecosystem management is concerned.

Wouldn't it be better if people just didn't go swimming until the shark had moved on? Use the pool for a while instead? And keep dogs in the yard rather than letting them roam the beach? Actually, there are far, far too many dogs in Australia. The Aussies are more dog crazy than the Poms, which I didn't think was possible. Brisbane is dog city. Couples have a matching pair. They go out to work, leaving the animals to bark in the yard all day. Then they take them to the dog-off-leash areas where they all bark some more – the dogs, that is. As habitation encroaches on wild areas, domestic animals pose an increasing threat to wildlife. I'm tempted to say, we could well afford to lose a few dogs to crocs, but I'd probably be shot, too; or pilloried at least. 

On Fraser Island, dingoes that attack tourists are put down. If humans are stupid enough to leave their food debris lying around, let their children wander off, or try to attract a dingo's attention for a photograph, when the signs make the risks perfectly clear, there will be dilemma and conflict. But killing an offending dingo will not prevent stupidity and its consequences in the future. There are too many people on Fraser Island and they've messed it up. Dingoes were there long before backpackers or off-roaders or fisher people. Leave them be and reduce visitor numbers accordingly.

Let the animals alone. Reassess your position in the wilderness. Re-evaluate your expectations. Modify your behaviour. Back off.

May 16, 2012

Tasmania: the beautiful and damned

Tasmania felt different from mainland Australia; almost like another country. Apart from around Launceston and along a stretch of the north coast from Devonport to Wynyard, there seemed to be hardly any people: admittedly, we didn't visit Hobart where half the island's population hangs out. Only Wineglass Bay had too many tourists. All roads were blissfully empty (and better maintained than we're used to).

Some beaches, especially in the Bay of Fires and on the Freycinet Peninsula, were contenders for the Best in Australia list. And the clarity of the water was as good as in New Zealand; that is to say, the cleanest, clearest seawater I have ever seen. The sand was the whitest; the sea the most turquoise. And the mountain vistas were breathtaking.
We ate as well as we have anywhere in Australia; all the local wines we sampled were good and some were excellent; local people were friendly and accommodating, as you would expect; and there was the usual high standard of information available in the national parks.

Our learning the Australian language continued. We were a bit baffled by the Tasmanian concept of coming and going, and in particular the sign below. This was a door to the outside: can you enter the outside? Or does it mean there'll be no one coming in this way if you're trying to get out? Or, once you go out, you won't be able to get back in? Or, you can't use this door at the moment?
And we were flummoxed one morning when trying to order breakfast at about 9.40. We were told breakfast was 'coming in' in 20 minutes. Er... 10 o'clock was terribly late to serve breakfast, wasn't it? Minutes of confusion later, we realised breakfast was going to be cleared away. We were having this conversation with a waitress in the dining room, but maybe she thought she was in the kitchen.

And then there was this, on a beautifully renovated building (in case you were in any doubt what it was).
Did the restorers intend to be rude about those who supported their efforts? Or had they been thwarted by the very same?

There were environmental issues, however, that weren't so funny. I had known, of course, about the battles between Greens/environmental activists and loggers/miners/hydroelectric power generators. After all, Tasmania had the world's first Greens party*, formed in 1972 in opposition to the flooding of Lake Pedder in the island's southwest. I was not prepared, however, for my first sight of tree debris in the aftermath of extensive felling. Almost as far as the eye could see. This was on the way to Cradle Mountain, and at the time completely took the edge off the raw beauty of Tasmania's mountainous wilderness. Later, we contrasted old-style timber-getting in the charming little 'village' of Chudleigh (how English), with modern-day methods, in a lay-by down the road near Deloraine.
For those environmental activists not fully employed trying to prevent further old-growth-forest logging and woodchipping, there are mining proposals to tackle. Tin, iron and zinc lie beneath the Tarkine's forests (see also Tasmania's northwest, March 2012). There are currently 59 mining leases and at least ten proposals for opencast mines** in what should be a World Heritage Listed area, or at the very least a national park. The Australian government has to apply for World Heritage status but it has been dragging its feet. Pristine forest is already being cleared for tracks and drilling pads. The Wilderness Society** is on the case, but it needs all the help it can get. See also

Tasmania's wildlife record is nothing to be proud of, either. I recommend Thylacine: the Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger, by David Owen. This insightful book tells much more than a story of ill-judged slaughter. It chronicles many 'development-versus-conservation clashes' in the state's recent history. And eloquently reflects upon the ability of a creature that hasn't been seen for 70 years to 'comfortably represent and embrace much that is Tasmanian'. Tourism Tasmania's logo says it all.

There are some people in Tasmania who believe, and doubtless many more who hope, that the Thylacine still exists – in the remotest corners of the island's impenetrable southwestern wilderness. The creature's mystique is intoxicating. If it is indeed extinct, there could be no better legacy than that of lessons learned across the whole Australian continent.

As of 2008, Tasmania's other great icon, the Tasmanian Devil, has been on the endangered list. This carnivorous marsupial, like the Thylacine, was trapped and poisoned by European settlers who believed it ravaged their poultry. Numbers plummeted until Devils were protected under law in 1941, after which they recovered. In the mid-1990s, however, a new threat emerged in the form of Devil Facial Tumour Disease, which is fatal. In the state's northeast there was a 95 per cent reduction in Devil sightings over the next ten years. It took three years to realise that the disease was so destructive because Devils normally have scarred faces from fighting over food. DFTD has now spread three-quarters of the way across the island (the Tarkine's is one of the few disease-free populations). Its origins are unknown but environmental toxins are among the suspects. Now the devils are monitored (captured and examined) and euthanized if they are infected to prevent the spread of the disease. Orphaned joeys are fostered before being released back into the wild.

As if things weren't bad enough, a fox snuck across from Melbourne on the ferry around the turn of the 21st century, and its descendants are in competition with the Devils for food. The Freycinet National Park information office told me cautiously that in the last three or four years Devil numbers have increased on the Peninsula from 12 to 20. Some fear the animal will be extinct within 20 years. I didn't spot a Devil, unfortunately, but here's one I've seen since, in a Koala sanctuary in Brisbane. And my T-shirt.
I would like to end on a positive wildlife note... 

On our last evening in Tasmania, after our walk by Cradle Mountain and a well-deserved delicious dinner, we returned to the cabin to relax on the deck. I knew something was going to happen before I heard the rustling. We peered down into the undergrowth: it was almost dark. And there were two wombats, mother and young'un; the first we'd seen in the wild. There was no light for a photograph, so here's one I took earlier (also in the Koala sanctuary). 
And, finally, the words of Henry David Thoreau:
'In wildness is the preservation of the world.' Lest we forget.