November 30, 2012

A candle for Campbell

I was listening to talkback radio yesterday morning. The voters of Yeerongpilly were asked to say whether or not they supported their 'rogue' MP, Carl Judge, who has fallen foul of LNP bigchiefs in the 'Party Room'. Only one, a lady, rang in to say that, although she didn't carry a candle for the LNP – I think she may have confused candles and torches – she thought Campbell Newman & Co were right to deal firmly with recalcitrant backbenchers. In the middle of her comments, however, gremlins scrambled her phone so we couldn't hear a word.

If you voted for Newman et al last March – and you're a good Aussie catholic to boot – you might like to light a candle for him today. It sounded to me like one almighty intervention on that phone. At the very least, it was an ominous omen. Newman flew off on a trade mission to India today, leaving the charmless Jeff Seeney in charge, whose demeanour is unlikely to woo moaning minnies back into the fold. He doesn't appear at all concerned about losing three Members in as many days: so maybe they were right to complain.

Carl Judge isn't the first. Earlier in the week, Condamine MP Ray Hopper left the LNP to join (Bob) Katter's Australia Party because, he claims, backbenchers aren't being listened to. And then the former chairman of the important Ethics Committee and Member for Gaven on the Gold Coast, Alex Douglas, got into a spat with Newman about whether he'd wanted to stand down or whether he was persuaded. Carl Judge was 'dis-endorsed', allegedly for refusing to pledge allegiance to the Premier.

Will Judge and Douglas now become Independents? A much worse scenario is that they will tip big-noise resource investor Clive Palmer over the edge into forming a new political party. He has convinced himself that a quarter of Queenslanders would vote for him. Dear gods. A couple of days ago he held a press conference on the steps of the Parliament building in Brisbane to announce he would make a decision over the weekend. Am I the only person who thinks it outrageous that Palmer should use such a location to entertain the media? Is this privilege extended to all mining company bosses?

Meanwhile, among the Feds in Canberra, it was also the end of term. If you thought Parliamentary conduct has been abysmal during the last few months, this week it reached new depths. The Opposition Deputy, Julie Bishop, went into Groundhog Day mode as she repeatedly asked the same question of Julia Gillard at PM's Questions, demanding an explanation of Ms Gillard's alleged involvement, as a young lawyer, in the setting up of a union slush fund. The words sleaze and smear (pronounced smee-ah in Aussie) were overused this week. Leader Tony Abbott sat impassively as his number two generated her own sleaze, by inconsistently accounting for conversations with one of the chief protagonists in the union mire, thereby undermining her case against the Prime Minister.

In poll after poll, Australian voters register their disillusionment, disaffection and disinterest with regard to pollies of all parties. Political commentators decry the lack of talented, charismatic leaders. There will be a federal election next year. Let's hope that nationally the electorate doesn't follow the example of Queenslanders last March who were desperate for a change but didn't think through the alternative. Nine months later, serious cracks are appearing.

2012 is a year in politics here that most people will want to forget. There is now a long holiday for everyone: in Australia the end of the calendar year is the end of the school year and the political term. Let's hope when the politicians return they can raise their game and deal with some of the real and massive issues that they're there for.

This post was last edited on 1 December 2012

Reflections on the Daintree

The rivers of the world are a rich source of fantasy. Long before you might get to see them in reality, you've already got an idea in your head; a vision based on movies or history or travel ads. It might be because they form borders – the Rio Grande, the Jordan or the Indus; they're grand old working rivers – the Rhein or the Thames; they are steeped in history – the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile or the Kwai; they're among the longest on the planet – the Amazon or the Yangtze; they provide the most romantic setting – the Seine or the Danube; or they're subject to catastrophe or conflict – the Ganges, Huang He and, closer to my current home, the Murray-Darling.

The Daintree mightn't be on everyone's list of world-renowned rivers, but if you find yourself in Far North Queensland and only do one thing, visit the Daintree River, preferably to float on it. It was named after Richard Daintree, a British geologist and gold prospector who surveyed geologically and collected plants in Northern Queensland in the mid-19th century. James Cook completely missed it, and it wasn't discovered until 1873 by European gold diggers, principally George Dalrymple, a Queensland gold field commissioner.

We got up at 04.30 in order to be at Ian 'Sauce' Worcester's boat, at Daintree Village jetty and the end of the road, by 6*. It was a beautifully peaceful morning, with misty whisps: just perfect for observing busy birds. (Male Papuan Frogmouths sat still as twigs on their nests, but they were the exception.)
And the birds? Where do I start? Below are an Azure Kingfisher, Shining Flycatcher, Royal Spoonbill, Cotton Pygmy Geese, Spangled Drongo, Brown-backed Honeyeater, Golden Oriole, Papuan Frogmouth and Darter.
We also saw, or heard, Torresian Imperial-pigeons, Welcome Swallows, White-rumped Swiftlets, White-breasted Woodswallows, Large-billed Gerygones, a Black Bittern, Eastern Koel, Dotterel, Yellow-spotted Honeyeater, Helmeted Friarbird, Latham's Snipe, Whistling Kite, Nankeen Night Heron, Little Egret, Yellow-bellied Sunbird and Shrike-thrush (once again, I don't know which one).

If you love birds, this is the place for you. There isn't much Sauce doesn't know about the birds of this region. (But even he got excited about the Cotton Pygmy Geese.) He told us that, of 11 Kingfishers in Australia, 8 of them live in the Daintree; that the bubbles in the river were from rotting vegetation (no coal seam gas up here... yet!); that a White-rumped Swiftlet spends 90 per cent of its life on the wing and shuts down half its brain for periods in order to 'sleep' (rather like a whale, I thought); that Gerygones are Australia's smallest birds and bathe in dew drops that collect on leaves; that the call of the Golden Oriole is the sound of the tropics; and that the winter of 2012 has been the longest, driest and coldest he has ever known (he would be beyond retirement age if he didn't have such a wonderful job).

Drive the 12 kilometres downstream from Daintree Village to the river crossing. There are no bridges; only a small cable ferry that plies back and forth unhurriedly. The Daintree forest became World Heritage Listed in 1988, despite resistance from the Queensland state government and the timber industry. It may have stopped the loggers but unfortunately not the real-estate developers. There is a Buy Back and Protect Forever Project that deserves support**. The Daintree is an ancient, magical world of dense dark forest, spectacular ferns and fan palms, yet more glorious coast and unique creatures. But it is a fragile environment that is probably in more danger than ever. You'll see notices advising you to leave no trace, should you have the privilege to visit. Please take heed.

November 27, 2012

How will I live without them?

A couple of friends have moved on from Brisbane in the last few weeks, and more are scheduled to leave next year. It gets you thinking about how you'll feel when it's your turn. Will you be going somewhere where the sun don't shine so warmly on so many days? Will you be able to drive off road across dry deserted landscapes or wander through ancient rainforest reaching for the sky? Or buy good-quality food that has been sourced on the same continent? Or see weird wild things? Will you be able to pop to the beach – and what a beach – when the feeling takes you on the weekend?

I will never take Australian beaches for granted. I still get a thrill when I'm approaching a new one for the first time, along an increasingly sandy path through coastal scrub, with the sound of surf getting louder. There are so many almost ten-out-of-tenners – and I haven't even visited most of them yet. If you're a person who regularly seeks solace by the shore, then you're bound to think, what on earth will I do when I haven't got beaches on my doorstep?

Where will I... get wave therapy to soothe a troubled mind, blow the cobwebs away, monitor the weather, photograph art, collect shells and other treasures, study rocks, conduct sand analysis, scan the horizon for huge and mighty creatures, talk to gulls, feel the power, and stand on one of the planet's most intriguing boundaries. In which golden temples will I worship?

Meanwhile, back in Far North Queensland, beaches like this one lie right by the Captain Cook Highway, often with no name.
And they're rarely this crowded (Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas).
Here are a few more we called in at on the drive from Daintree to Cairns.
Rocky Point
 Palm Beach/Newell
Pebbly Beach is, of course, pebbly, and the only one of its kind I've come across in Australia. Mixed in with the pebbles in one small area were hundreds of tiny delicate shells. I stalked a bird I spotted sneaking about on the rocks (there were rocks as well as pebbles, but 'Rocky' had already been used, right?). I only realised when I looked at my photographs later that in fact there were two of them. I think they were Wandering Tatlers.
Next up was Oak Beach. The path of totality of the solar eclipse centred on this beach, which is quite a claim to fame. There were numerous stones on this beach that were larger than pebbles. And lots of She-oaks. What I thought for one excited moment might be a Squatter Pigeon turned out to be a Bar-shouldered Dove.
Just south of Oak is Pretty Beach. It was.
And last, but not least, Wangetti.
I have been thoroughly spoilt. For the rest of time.

There is another hazard on the beaches of Far North Queensland, however, as well as stingers and salties. Getting hit on the head by a falling coconut would not be funny. And, by the way, they're not for harvesting.

November 25, 2012

Escape to the Far North

In the past I've debated the relative concept of Far North as opposed to North (see Roadtrip 1: Heading up North, July 2010). But for the sake of argument, let's just agree that last week I spent three wonderful days in Far North Queensland. It's a special place.

I flew into Cairns and drove straight out again, heading north for Port Douglas along what must be one of the world's most beautiful coastal drives, except it was close to midnight so I barely saw a thing, save when breaking waves glinted in headlights. But I knew the ocean was just there. And within easy reach was the mystical world of the Daintree, an ancient and lush, largely forested world that abuts the Coral Sea in palm-fringed and pale-sanded gems of beaches.

Turning off the Captain Cook Highway for Port Douglas, there's a seemingly endless six kilometres of golf and other resorts. Fine if you like big resorts, but if I were you I'd stay right in the heart of Port Douglas, just off Macrossan (we stayed in The Pavilions apartments) or Wharf streets, with their excellent restaurants and cafes, small shops and still-villagey feel.

The first day was spent researching a suitable location for observing the total solar eclipse the following day, the reason we were here (see A total solar eclipse... not, November 2012). We also booked a Daintree River trip, shopped Macrossan, dodged heavy showers in Anzac Park, and generally mooched around lovely Port Douglas. (Fourth picture below: a young Osprey seemed unperturbed as we walked beneath him at the southern end of Four Mile Beach.)
That evening we ate at Nautilus, which will have its 60th birthday next year. We chose to share the oldest option on the menu – their 35-year-old special, whole Coral Trout dusted with light Asian spices, and crispy rosemary and garlic potatoes. It was delicious but I almost preferred my starter, crisp skin of pork belly with Granny Smith apple soufflĂ© and piccalilli. My friend began with duck ravioli. And, since I seem to going backwards describing this meal, we relaxed before going to our table with a mango daiquiri (above), and drank to a successful eclipse. The restaurant has a deep-in-the-forest feel even though it's just north of the main drag. There were still showers about, but we didn't care, especially while enjoying a Chandon Pinot-based rosĂ©.

As far as the eclipse went, this crescent sun is probably the closest we got to totality visually. But we viewed from a beautiful setting, there was a convivial atmosphere among observers, and the silvery light show was intriguing.
After breakfast we needed a mission so we didn't hear many more people talking about how clear it had been where they were. We headed inland along the Mossman-Mt Malloy Road. It climbs steeply over the Range with views back over the coast to the north. 
Before Julatten we turned right and climbed Mt Lewis Road as far as a grassy clearing and followed a track into the forest. Many of the high rainforest-clad peaks of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area are not easily accessible: Mt Lewis is an exception. Along the way we came upon some birdwatchers and compared notes. There wasn't much they didn't know about upland rainforest species, and they pointed out Yellow-throated Scrub Wrens (in the centre of the picture below – how's that for camouflage?), a Grey-headed Robin and a Shrike-thrush. We also saw what we're fairly sure was a Lemon-bellied Flycatcher (below but one). 

This was Golden Bowerbird territory and our twitcher friends had heard the call. They went 'off-piste' to track him down and found his bower, but that's not what you're supposed to do. The Golden is Australia's smallest Bowerbird but it constructs the largest bower, which is a display area for the males to attract females. Bowers are made of twigs at the base of two young saplings: the twigs are stuck together with saliva and embellished with moss, lichens, flowers and fruit. The male hangs out on a branch or buttress linking the bowers and struts his stuff, but I've only seen that on David Attenborough.
The forest included huge palms and smaller interesting bits and pieces.
Mr Twitcher gave us a useful tip when I told him we were off to Lake Mitchell on the Mulligan Highway between Mt Malloy and Mareeba. You can pull off the road to view the Lake but you need binoculars to make out any wildlife – and you might have to compete with a van-load of Japanese tourists with far too much equipment. We drove up a dirt road that had gates pretending to be private: the chain and padlock were for show. By the water, big heat contrasted with the shady rainforest.

Black swans swam peacefully with Hardhead and Green Pygmy ducks; there were Brolgas and Magpie Geese and Cattle Egrets in their breeding colours; and Darters with wings out to dry.
On the way back to PD we stopped off briefly at the unfortunately named but prettier than expected Abattoir Swamp. Even though there was a bird hide, there were few to see, with the exception of a family of White-cheeked Honeyeaters making a to-do by the boardwalk.
That evening we soothed our totality-deprived souls by eating at On the Inlet. We began with Jansz bubbles; shared delicious prawns to start (throwing the debris over the side of the deck to opportunistic fish); I followed with barramundi; and then affogato. As we sat down, the light was fantastic, the White-breasted Woodswallows were cute, and boats were returning to Dickson Inlet. All was well with the world again.
Our last-of-three days started with the second consecutive 04.30 alarm. It was still dark as we set out for Daintree village: we were scheduled to leave on our Daintree River Wild Watch with Ian 'Sauce' Worcester at 6. The magic of this mighty river, however, deserves its own post (see Reflections on the Daintree, November 2012).

After hearty cooked breakfasts and large strong flat whites in the village, we started what was in fact the journey back to Cairns, but we meandered and relaxed and took most of the day. The idea was to visit some tropical beaches that we hadn't visited before; perhaps even sit and read awhile on one of them. We began at Rocky Point (aka Dayman Point) between Wonga, which we visited on our roadtrip in 20120, and Mossman, and ended at Wangetti 50 or so kilometres north of Cairns. For a beachfest, see How will I live without these, November 2012.
We dipped into Palm Cove, Trinity Beach and Yorkeys Knob among Cairns' northern beaches, but – perhaps with the exception of Palm – they're rather too urbanized for me.

I love this part of the world. It's peaceful and distant and tropical and beautiful. As far as I can see, there'd only be one problem with living here – the stingers that would prevent swimming in the sea for a huge chunk of the year, if not all year round, depending on whom you talk to. So it was with reluctance that I flew back to busy Brisbane and South East Queensland, but with the seeds of plans for future long weekends perhaps.

This post was last edited on 26 November 2012