January 31, 2013

So Oswald was an 'ex'-tropical cyclone, was it?

As predicted, ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald dumped huge amounts of water over South East Queensland and northern New South Wales during the Australia Day holiday weekend. 'Dumped' is the way Australians describe serious rainfall in these subtropical parts: it gives a much better idea of how much water falls out of the sky than comparisons with stair rods, sheets or cats and dogs.

Oswald first made landfall on Cape York (Queensland's 'pointy bit') and was then expected to track south as a weak category 1 system* or tropical low. Cyclones are normally energised by travelling over warm ocean, but Oswald turned right over 2000 kilometres or more of land. Brief mention had been made earlier in the week of the possibility of the storm strengthening into a category 1, and potential trippers were advised to 'reconsider' their plans. The Aussies are brilliant at advance-warning people about potentially devastating weather events and advising them how to prepare; but, despite flood maps being issued for Brisbane – no authority was going to be caught napping after 2011 – I suspect not many people expected to 'cop' it in quite the manner they did.

Anthony Cornelius – a meteorologist at Weatherwatch, a private forecasting service founded in 1976 – drew some interesting conclusions about Oswald in the Courier Mail a couple of days ago**.
'If Brisbanites ever wondered what it would be like to be in a tropical cyclone, then they can tick it off their bucket list because, make no mistake, the region was effectively hit by a category one system.'
I have tried to find out from the Bureau of Meteorology whether or not the storm was officially reclassified, but I can't reach anyone today. I will keep trying.

I hasten to add that I wasn't in Brisbane, where wind speeds of up to 130 km/hr were predicted at 14.10 on Sunday. We'd headed 190 kilometres south for the long weekend, to Ballina in New South Wales. Our weather app told us that winds would gust up to between 70 and 80 km/hr in Ballina, but at 16.48 the weather bureau forecast gusts of up to 140 km/hr in the Northern Rivers region. Ballina is situated at the mouth of one of those Northern Rivers – the Richmond. The rain was so hard it made everything look misty (and photographs rubbish), and the palms leaned in a way I've only ever seen on footage of tropical cyclones in Far North Queensland. Gulls were grimly hunkered down. I was staying in one of the lovely attic rooms in an historic manor house, but it shook as the wind roared and I tried to sleep that night.
The Northern Rivers are big rivers: the Richmond at Ballina is a wide and mighty waterway (looking upstream from North Wall, below; and Ballina Bar, below but one). Next day we were to experience it in a far different mode. Monday morning dawned as wet and windy as the previous day. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as we know, but we decided to head back to Brisbane via an inland route. I felt we would escape Oswald's remnants quicker, and before we reached Kyogle on the Summerland Way that seemed to be the case. The wind was much reduced and the rain confined to heavy showers by late morning. At Kyogle, which I'm sure would look even better in sunshine, the SES was launching their craft on to the swollen Fawcetts Creek, which flows into the Richmond and was almost up to the Barry McPaul Bridge.
By the time we were up in the Border Ranges, the Richmond was careening at a frightening pace. Suddenly I realised what all those warnings were about; the ones that try to prevent motorists from attempting to cross creeks in spate. I was awestruck by its power; I couldn't avert my eyes. I was unable to make out where the track came out the other side.
We continued onwards and upwards, and were held up by fallen-tree removal before crossing the NSW-QLD border and dropping down from the Scenic Rim to Rathdowney on the Mount Lindesay Highway. Here the Logan River wasn't yet cutting the highway but standing flood water over low-lying land was for the moment too deep to cross. We turned down the Rathdowney-Boonah road but now the troublesome Logan blocked our progress. Back in town, we followed others through the flood, only to be stopped a little way beyond by water as far as the eye could see. Only a council truck carried on: he had to put the 'road closed' signs in position.
'Sit it out in the pub. The water will have gone down in a couple of hours,' a large Queensland policeman recommended.

But wouldn't it be getting dark by then? Neither of us fancied driving through water we couldn't see properly. So, it was back up the mountain, which ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald was still crossing. We couldn't pootle any more: we were headed in the opposite direction from home and time was going on. At Kyogle the creek was lapping the bridge and the road to Murwillumbah was closed. On to Lismore, where the centre was underwater and the Bangalow road was closed. There was nothing else for it: we returned to Ballina, ten hours after we'd left, and joined the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. There were still torrential downpours, and in places I'd never seen the highway so deserted. It took 13 hours to do what Google Maps estimates will take three hours 40, or two if you go up the coast.

Earlier, we'd noticed an alternative route to Brisbane. On this day, however, all routes proved risky. 
Safely back in Bris, I awoke next morning to discover the true extent of Oswald's impact.

** http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/opinion/if-townies-wanted-to-see-a-real-cyclone-oswald-was-it/story-e6frerdf-1226563753632

January 25, 2013

Thought for Australia Day

January 26 rolls around again. But this year it's different. For a start, it's on a weekend so we get the opportunity for a mini-break rather than a day trip. Unfortunately, it's going to be raining. We can be fairly sure of this as the remnant rains of Tropical Cyclone Oswald track south over Queensland. As I write, the wind is getting up nicely: today's showers are going to develop into serious downpour tomorrow and Sunday. That's why we're headed south into northern New South Wales, to Ballina. In fact, I lined this trip up weeks ago and even there we're going to get a drenching.

In Rockhampton 470 mm of rain fell in 21 hours up to 6 am today. Near Tully, admittedly the wettest place in Australia, 1000 mm has fallen in three days. There have been landslides, extensive flooding, road and rail closures, boats dashed on rocks and many swift water rescues. Queensland Fire and Rescue Service crews include swift water rescue technicians, which is yet another example how experienced and prepared Australians are to face a level of inclement weather – and the consequences of it – unbeknown to most Europeans. Wivenhoe Dam northwest of Brisbane has today begun to release water into the Brisbane River. Along with severe weather warnings comes the advice to reconsider your Australian Day plans.

For many Aussies, those plans will revolve around their family and friends, probably including a BBQ or a picnic and outdoorsy activities for the kids nearing the end of their long summer break. They'll start early but won't go on till late, certainly not in Queensland. There'll be lots of food and booze, partying, fundraising, cockroach racing, concerts, flag raising, fireworks, citizenship ceremonies and awards for deserving Australians. A lot of this will be kiboshed in torrential rain, but Australians' fervour for their national day will never be dampened.

It commemorates the day the First Fleet arrived, in 1788, not the federation of Australia in 1901, since when its citizens, or certainly some of them, have grappled with the idea of nationhood; what it means to be an Australian; where they figure on the world stage; their self-image and how everyone else sees them. In 1999 they voted in a referendum whether or not to become a republic: 55 per cent said no. Being as far from a monarchist as it's possible to be, I cannot understand why Australia still shares a monarch with a country half a world away. There may be a lot of history, but Australia is in Asia now. In today's Sydney Morning Herald, Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan keeps the republicanism debate* alive, but I don't think many republicans believe it would be wise to have another vote before the current queen's reign is over.

For Australia's original inhabitants, 26 January is Invasion Day, so is certainly not something to be celebrated. They're unlikely to become more enamoured of the idea if they witness one aspect of Australia Day that I have not seen but have heard much about: namely, it's reduction to 'a heavily hyped, high-spirited and inebriated national ritual'.†

I may be moaning about packing waterproofs and warmer clothes than I'd planned but maybe, for once, the weather will deter the rather more undesirable 'patriots' from their revels.

† http://newmatilda.com/2013/01/25/punch-ups-patriots

January 24, 2013

Gadget of the week

I was pottering about the apartment. Suddenly there was the most appalling noise. At first I thought a building was being demolished, either deliberately or accidentally. But it was louder than that. A back-actor dismantled a house just across the river from us over a weekend (why?) a few weeks back, but, although annoying, it didn't make as disturbing a noise as this.

I ran on to the balcony and looked down into the street. And there it was, the culprit. A wood chipper; stump grinder; timber shredder; call it whatever you will. I shall call it a tree eater. I've seen this type of gadget before, of course, but this one reached new noise heights.

Dear gods, did it have to make such an awful racket?

I couldn't hear myself think rationally. I rushed back inside and closed the doors and windows. But no, I had to investigate further. I lurked outside the building behind some bushes and watched. The tree eater made the most noise as it was fed thick branches: this was a cataclysmic din. The reduction of thinner, leafier stuff was less grindy. At one stage both men walked away from the monster, leaving it running. The street was filled with overbearing noise.

I noticed the signs all over the beast. It is, of course, a potentially highly dangerous piece of machinery. And has been used to 'morselize' victims in more than one horror movie.
Job done, the machine was silenced and towed away. I was curious about what had been devoured. Three major branches had been chopped from a medium-sized tree lining the road. No apparent reason. And now the tree has a hole in the middle. There must have been a reason, but it would have to be damn good to justify that terrible noise.

No one else in the street had seemed the slightest bit bothered. One man looked down from a balcony, but I suspect he was marvelling at the parking: the chipper was opposite a removal van, restricting the passage of even small cars. Australians tolerate a huge amount of noise on a daily basis, especially in the summer when foliage grow so quickly you can almost see it. Cutting back is always done using a powered gadget; never by hand. Then there are dogs left in yards to bark for hours; utes and bikes and 'accessorized' cars with modified mufflers (silencers); engines left running to keep vehicle occupants cool; and boys' toys (jetskis, powerboats, etc) on the river.

More troubling than the noise pollution, however, was witnessing a tree's mighty limbs converted into dust in a few seconds.

January 20, 2013

Is Australia finally waking up?

                                                                            Rich Schultz/AP
As Vice President Joe Biden looked down on Seaside Park from a Black Hawk helicopter in the days following Hurricane Sandy last October, the New Jersey coast resembled a war zone. Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and impacted on 24 states and the whole of the eastern seaboard. Estimates of losses (damage and the disruption to business) has been put at more than US$60 billion. This latter fact, if nothing else, may have prodded many complacent Americans into thinking about the subject that was barely mentioned during last year's Presidential campaign – namely, the effects of climate change on the United States... and the rest of the world.

Insurance companies have been jittery about climate change for quite a while. The World Bank and the City of London have warned governments about increased risk and spiralling costs. And plunging profits, of course. But I don't care if it's self-interested money men who finally succeed in kicking spineless pollies into action; just as long as somebody does.

Since the beginning of the year, Australia has suffered an extraordinary heatwave. Temperature records have fallen like ninepins all over the place and the Bureau of Meteorology has had to add a new colour to its temperature charts*. Sydney had its hottest day on record on Friday, at 45.8C. Last Monday, the average daily maximum temperature reached 40.3C, breaking the previous record set in 1972 (40.1). What this figure reveals is just how much of the continent was very hot: more than 70 per cent of its area experienced temperatures in excess of 42C. It is this extent, as well as the duration and severity of the heatwave, that makes it remarkable and unprecedented in meteorological record-keeping.

The duration figures are also noteworthy. Usually, average daily maximum temperatures are rarely high for long because, geographically, high temperatures are limited in their extent. A run of four days above 39C has happened only once, in December 1972. Since the start of 2013, however, there has been a run of seven days during which the average temperature was more than 39 degrees, and 11 days when it was above 38 degrees. You can study more record-breaking weather data at http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/current/
statements/scs43c.pdf. The Federal Government's Climate Commission has also produced a report, Off the charts: extreme Australian summer heat (http://climatecommission.gov.au/

Despite numerous learned bodies such as the Climate Commission and well-respected 'popular' scientists like Tim Flannery repeatedly making the case for climate change in measured tones, the indisputable facts go way over the heads of those with axes to grind or vested interests to protect or who simply can't face an issue that's too difficult. Flannery suggests that, even if the Australians are finally waking up to reality in the form of bush fires raging across all states of the Commonwealth, it may be too late to curb their profligate carbon emissions in time to avert large-scale catastrophe (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/11/australia-burns-attitudes-changing-too-late).

You certainly hear the words 'climate change' on the lips of more Australians in the street – and on talkback radio – these days. But there's still a lot of scepticism around. Just the other day, Senator Ron Boswell, in bemoaning the fact that 300 Australian farmers a month are giving up on the land, blamed on-costs including the price of electricity. What the farmers need, argued the soon-to-be-retiring Senator, is cheap power generated from fossil fuels rather than higher-cost renewables. As soon as a government grasps the nettle and moves on from coal, the cost of electricity generation from renewable sources will tumble. Boswell added that Australia shouldn't be 'going it alone' with renewables while the rest of the world sits back. How heartily sick I am of hearing this lame excuse from conservative politicians here. Many countries have significant renewable energy programmes in place and have had for years. More than a quarter of Denmark's energy is generated from wind (26% in 2011): Portugal (17%) and Spain (15%) are also up there. In 2010, just 2 per cent of Australia's energy was generated by wind: South Australia is far and away the best achiever, while Queensland has no large operational wind farms at all.

This week a collection of scientists, academics and community groups have called on the Australian government to talk about the elephant in the room – coal**. It is unlikely to happen this side of the 2013 Federal election, however, even though it is a topic that is well overdue. In the meantime, bush fires continue to burn out of control in New South Wales and Victoria. Temperatures have dropped and the delayed northern monsoon is expected to do away with the extremely hot air mass sitting over the continental interior. But the fire threat is by no means over, and the elephant certainly won't budge.
                                          New South Wales Rural Fire Service

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/temperatures-off-the-charts-as-australia-turns-deep-purple-20130108-2ce33.html. In fact, the maximum reached was 49.6C at Moomba in South Australia 
** http://www.scribd.com/doc/120192992/Full-page-ad-placed-in-the-Australian-Financial-Review
† a scrub fire crosses the Princes Highway near Deans Gap, Nowra, New South Wales, last Tuesday

January 11, 2013

Accidents waiting to happen

Shortly after we arrived in Australia, there was a terrible car crash in Victoria. The remains of the car in which five young men died north of Melbourne are being loaded on to a salvage truck in the picture above. The five died instantly; somehow the younger sister of one of them survived. The driver was 19 and a P-plater: he lost control at 140 km/hr and hurtled into a tree which then fell, splitting the car in two. He had been drinking. The victims' ages ranged from 15 to 19. One of the ambulance paramedics, with 30 years' experience, claimed it was the most horrific scene he'd ever attended.

Such a needless loss of life is shocking to anyone, but cuts especially deep in parents of new drivers. I felt deeply upset for the families and friends of these young people and was immediately taken back to similar happenings a few years ago. Over a few months, several of my children's contemporaries lost their lives in car accidents. Back in the UK over christmas, I asked my younger daughter about one of the survivors who, a week or so after passing his driving test and acquiring his first car, drove into a tree and instantly killed his best friend who was sitting alongside him. On life support for a while himself, the young man recovered to the extent that he is now confined to a wheel chair, probably for life, and suffers from depression.

Before the death of one of my son's year group, I had been a driver who fastened their seat belt once they were driving down the road. Not after this young man died, however. He was not wearing his seat belt when he failed to control his car on a roundabout. For a long time afterwards I thought of him as I reached for my belt before moving off. My son didn't drive again for years.

Young people may hear their parents but they don't always heed. They are much more likely to take notice of what their peers have to say. Any scheme whereby young people who have previously been affected by appalling road accidents speak to others about the risks of driving recklessly has to be a good thing, doesn't it? Motivated by bravado and emboldened by invincibility, young drivers, especially males, need all the help they can get.

In 2009 a film called Sudden Impact was made for the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service's Awareness and Accident Prevention programme. It tells the story of four young men killed in a devastating crash near Warwick 18 months previously: the mother and friends of one of the victims describe the impact of the crash on their lives*. The RAAP programme has been taken into high schools for the past six years and presented to more than 30,000 students a year.

Queensland Transport department figures show that there are 100 deaths and 2000 hospitalisations a year involving drivers aged between 17 and 24. Eighty per cent of those are male.

In December Campbell Newman's government scrapped the RAAP, saving $150,000. In response to my questions, the office of the Minister for Police and Community Safety explained that this was because of duplication of services. Schools can contact the Transport or Education departments if they require speakers on road safety. The money saved will be spent on frontline fire and rescue services, I was assured. And the QFRS are still available to talk in schools about fire safety if required.

I've watched Sudden Impact. I can imagine the effect it would have on high school students. And if it was considered good enough to use by the QFRS, then it would be good enough to be shown to my children, were I a Queensland parent.

* you can watch the film at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8aK1Hfxn9o. If it doesn't change your attitude, follow up with this, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2mf8DtWWd8
This post was last edited on 24 January 2013

January 9, 2013


In journalism, exclamation marks are called screamers. Which gives me an idea for the sign as you enter designated compartments on larger aircraft where passengers accompanied by children would be seated, if I ruled the world.

On every long-haul flight there's a squawker. Maybe a few rows in front, by the bulkhead where the sky-cots fit. But the location matters little. The squawk is harsh and penetrating, cutting through engine noise, movie soundtracks, earplugging and, of course, sleep. The child itself sleeps for short bursts, which never coincide with your own attempts to doze. It's often too young to be distracted for long by rattle or cuddly toy, and it obviously hasn't been drugged to afford its parents and their fellow sufferers any lengthy respite. Over a 13-hour leg of a flight its mother is worn to a shadow of the person who got on the plane. Occasionally she cries: and those around her probably want to. You can't say a word, of course.

On our flight from London to Singapore, one particular child's noise was extraordinary. There was no build-up; just a sudden piercing scream, like young monkeys I've seen on David Attenborough programmes. It wasn't crying; and it didn't gurgle or coo or make da-da-da noises. Just this awful, at times blood-curdling squeal that became stressful soon after takeoff. I kept imagining I could still hear it as I wandered around Changi, hours later. I know its father was an Aussie: please gods don't let them be travelling on to Brisbane.

The advantages of families-only sections would be numerous. Those with slightly older children would find playmates for them. Adults with similarly screeching babies would be deeply sympathetic and supportive. And young adults, the child-free and miserable old gits like me – who has actually been there and done small children on planes years ago but now needs restful transportation halfway across the planet – could suffer the cramped endless flight with one less extreme irritation.

(I have similar ideas for security screening at airports. Only it's men that would be isolated in this case, in men-only queues. Because, you see, we – that is, ladies – usually get our make-up-bag contents into the silly clear plastic bags before we reach the queue: while men only start emptying their pockets of change and keys and phones and boys' stuff as they reach the conveyor belt.)

Once your nerves are in shreds as a result of a screamer, your tolerance of other passengers reaches a new low. First there's the man just across the aisle with bells on his bags. (Presumably so he'll hear them calling if he misplaces them.) There's a bell – and a feather – attached to his backpack which tinkles every time he opens it to get something. And I discover there's another hanging from his larger in-flight case as he takes it in and out of the overhead locker. Behind me is the middle-class family whose 2.4 kids and Dad talk to each other with their headphones on (presumably with games or movies still running) so we can all share in their oh-so-clever excitement.

The beauty of Changi is that it is a relatively peaceful place compared with other international airport terminals. There are soft surfaces, low-volume muzak, no announcements, special loungers to sleep on, a butterfly garden and a fern garden. On our outward journey I was a tad disappointed we only had a three-hour stopover.

January 8, 2013

Three years

As I flew back into Brisbane from Christmas holidays in the UK, a couple of days ago, I couldn't help but recall our arrival in Australia three years ago, almost to the day. Then we were heading for a new life, and have since had a huge adventure. On Sunday night our plane approached from the west and followed the Brisbane River right past our apartment. The Story Bridge twinkled and other familiar landmarks made it feel like coming home.

In terms of what may or may not have been happening in Oz, the last three weeks seem like a long time. Australia has continued to heat up. By last weekend parts of Tasmania were burning, and today bush fires reached 'catastrophic' levels throughout New South Wales in 40+ degrees and strong winds. There's huge heat in the continental interior fuelled by low humidity. Birdsville is a small town in Queensland's southwest, in the so-called Channel Country. We flew over this area on Sunday afternoon: from 10,000 metres it was difficult to imagine a more inhospitable terrain. The town is currently set for a record-breaking run of 45-degree days.

It's Southeast Queensland's turn to get hot tomorrow. The Queensland bush fire season is usually past by December, but there was a smokey sunset and there's a strong smell of wood burning as I write.
The last three years have flown by. As well as exploring the stunning landscape, it has been fascinating to observe what makes Australian society tick. This has been made easier by the same language (allegedly), and the fact that so many institutions and customs are just like those of the old country. I'm still learning and have as much desire to do so as I ever did. This year is Federal election year, as it was in 2010; there are more places than ever on my to-visit list; and environmental monitoring is ever more important. So 2013 holds great promise, and there's much to do.

This post was last edited on 9 January 2013