July 29, 2013

Watching sport Aussie-style

Ten days ago we went to the ANZ Stadium (aka Stadium Australia, Olympic Stadium and Homebush Stadium) in western Sydney to watch our football team, Manchester United, play the 'A-League All Stars'. The Stadium hosts rugby league, rugby union and AFL, which stands for Australian Football League, the sport of Australian rules football, which is more like another form of rugby than football. Here, proper football, as in America, is called soccer. I cannot call football soccer.

With hindsight, it would have been a much better idea had United played an established A-League team such as Sydney FC or Brisbane Roar, because this would have generated a greater sense of competition – and therefore atmosphere. As it was, the All Stars were chosen by the public, an expert panel and the team's head coach. Australia's national football team, the Socceroos, were playing South Korea in the East Asian Cup on the same night and I'm not sure what impact this had on selection. The Socceroos could only draw and the All Stars were thrashed 1-5.

I had been looking forward to the fact that the Stadium is so big and would be packed, I was sure, mostly with United fans. But the Stadium was soulless, and the practice on such occasions of playing inane 'popular' music right up until kick-off precluded the fans from practising their chants. In Europe, football is all about chanting and singing and bonding and urging on your team. A wall of sound such as occurs at United's 'Theatre of Dreams' is uplifting. I have seen very little of that at any of the sporting events I've attended since I've lived in Australia.

There was the first Ashes Test in Brisbane in spring 2010. The best the Australian fans could muster was the occasional 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi' or Waltzing Matilda, neither of which was impassioned or lengthy. By contrast, the Barmy Army was organised and very very vocal.

At our first football match at Lang Park in Brisbane, in February 2011, when the Roar thrashed Gold Coast United* 4-0, there was an animated group of home fans behind one of the goals. But around us, spectators seemed much more interested in chatting to their mates than the action on the field. The same thing happened at a couple of Super 14 Rugby fixtures we attended, and even when the Wallabies clashed with an old foe, the All Blacks. The crowd's attention span seemed very short. People would watch a bit of the game, go and chat to some mates they'd spotted a few rows away, then go and get drinks or something to eat. The rugby appeared not to be the main point of them being there.

Back in Sydney, we were by far the most high-spirited fans around. The row in front clapped politely when a goal was scored, by either side, but their bottoms didn't rise from their seats. And after the game, in the tediously long queue for entry into Olympic Park Station – how about some helpful signs, guys? – there was a distinct feeling of anticlimax. The greatest ebullience I saw all evening was during Mexican waves. The noise I would have preferred to hear was fans cheering the action, not shouting as their turn came to jump up and whoop.

I'm thinking I won't bother with big matches in future, unless I can choose where I sit, which is pretty impossible here with the all-powerful ticket agency duopoly, or I can go with a group of like-minded souls.

I like post-match highs. Perhaps if I attended a crucial AFL clash in Melbourne or Geelong (it's on my to-do list) or I could get my hands on a State of Origin** ticket, I would have a different experience. I wonder how many of the spectators at the ANZ Stadium considered themselves to be big sports fans. There seemed to be more of those gathered on the steps of the Opera House during the afternoon.
* mining investor Clive Palmer's unsuccessful attempt to own a football club
** an annual best-of-three rugby league series between Queensland and New South Wales

July 15, 2013

Outback: Windorah to Longreach

On a glorious morning, my final glance over Cooper Creek as we crossed the bridge was one to remember. Then I was bound to get one last picture of a dry channel. Many roos were out and about and bounding away from us.
click on pix to see them big
Twenty-six kilometres east of Windorah is a dry-weather-only track, signposted to Hammond Downs and Welford National Park. For the most part it runs parallel to the Barcoo River. The landscape was pretty bare, most of it having being eaten by cows I suspect. There were frequent vermin fences and dire warnings.
At Retreat Station we joined the Jundah-Quilpie Road. In case we weren't sure we'd got there, there was a nice big sign.
Soon we came to the Barcoo River and stopped for a picnic breakfast. The source of the Barcoo is in the Warrego Range, roughly 200 km north of Charleville: the river flows west to join with the Thomson to form Cooper Creek. The first European to find it was Major Sir Thomas Mitchell – of cockatoo fame – in 1846. He was Surveyor General of New South Wales and on his fourth expedition from Sydney, in search of a great northward-flowing river in the interior. The Barcoo has often been the subject of poetry, being generally considered to be at the at the very edge of civilisation. Beyond the Barcoo is even further into the middle of nowhere than back o' Bourke, I believe. Bush poet Banjo Paterson – of Waltzing Matilda fame – wrote in 1893:
'On the outer Barcoo where churches are few,
And men of religion are scanty,
On a road seldom crossed 'cept by folk that are lost,
One, Michael Magee had a shanty...'
And an anonymous writer wrote even earlier:
'To carry me westward ho, my boys, that's where the cattle stray
On the far Barcoo where they eat nardoo*, a thousand miles away!'
Rivers in this region have a strange, other-worldly feel that's difficult to define. There's a quietness and a sense of unreality that I suppose results from remoteness and the fact that it's so dry they shouldn't be there at all. The only sign of life on the Barcoo was an opportunistic Black Kite circling over an unfortunate kangaroo that had recently met its maker on the bridge. How could anyone have been driving that fast at that point?
Beyond the crossing is Welford National Park. Back east, so many national parks are full of tall trees that the prospect of a deserty one was thrilling. I would have liked to do the Mulga Drive and view the panorama from Sawyer's lookout. But the River and Desert drives link up with the Jundah-Quilpie Road further north, the direction in which we were headed, and desert was what I'd come for. As we started out along the River Drive a truly remarkable sight made us gasp. We'd seen large flocks of Little Corellas before, but this was a cloud, hundreds moving as one; first this way, then that; light, and then darker, like shoals of silvery fish. They were moving away from us, and eventually seemed to go to ground, so I drove in that direction, quickly, hopeful of a better view. Then they rose again, nearer to us this time. Thank goodness for the rapid-fire shooting mechanism on my friend's camera. An experience to lift the spirits.
And then, four Spinifex Pigeons. Welford National Park was living up to expectations. The River Drive obviously took us back to the Barcoo and 'The Jetty'. In the next little while we crossed a series of dry and dusty flats and came by the occasional waterhole. By midday at the Desert Waterhole it was a pleasantly warm 23 degrees.
One roo thought we couldn't see him.
 Then things became a lot sandier. And there were sand hills to climb.
 The Ghost Gums were striking against the desert sand and sky.
Oil Bore was sunk 2500 metres in 1986. These days it brings water up from 1800 metres. Soon afterwards we left the lovely Welford NP. The Jundah-Quilpie Road was horrible by comparison – wide, rough and roadworky. We remarked how the vegetation in the Park had seemed so complete, there being no cattle in there to eat it or trample it down. Thirty kilometres north, we ate our lunch on the banks of the Thomson River at Jundah, the administrative centre of Barcoo Shire and more than 1100 kilometres west of Brisbane. It's long been a centre for pastoralism but also had a brief opal boom at the beginning of the 20th century. The name means woman in a local Aboriginal language. I like this style of welcome sign.
Just outside Jundah I got the only picture of a feral cat I managed on the whole trip: it had clocked me and was making its getaway. On the Thomson Developmental Road between Jundah and Stonehenge, Swanvale Jump-up provides a high point in a region of otherwise featureless plains and a rare lookout. It is topped by a harder rock than the surrounding plains that has resisted erosion.
Stonehenge got its name from an old stone hut in which bullock drivers spent the night until it fell into ruin. You have to make a slight detour off the main road to get into town. We had a quick brew by the Thomson, but here it was less of a river than at Jundah; more a series of messy, stony intermittent channels.
Time was getting on: it was 4 pm and Longreach was still 150 kilometres away. Soon we were driving across an open treeless plain which helped speed us up as roadside roos and other animals were more easily visible in the fading light. But dark Western Greys could pop up and surprise. There were two more tabby ferals by roadkill and a massive dead cow. I suddenly screeched to a halt when my friend spotted four Australian Bustards, which we'd been hoping to see for days. We got quite close before they took flight. How haughty they are, 'noses' in the air, and they're big birds (0.8-1.3 metres tall).
The sunset was extraordinary. A big advantage of flat plains is that such a light show can extend almost all around you. The colours ranged from yellow to pink to turquoise to orange to deep red to purple. It was breathtaking, and impossible to photograph adequately. It may have been the best sunset I've ever witnessed, and I didn't want it to end. It was completely dark by the time we reached Longreach, slowly. It was by far the biggest town we'd seen in a while and I wasn't happy about that.
* resembling clover or waterlily, nardoo is in fact related to the fern family. It grows in water or wet ground but can survive hot dry summers, seemingly dead, before springing into life come the rains

July 13, 2013

Outback: Quilpie to Windorah

Go west to Windorah and the heart of the Channel Country. There I could fully indulge my fascination with ephemeral waterways.
About 40 kilometres west of Quilpie we turned on to the Diamantina Developmental Road. For a while there were barely noticeable landscape changes apart from an overall increase in sandiness and the first sand hill. We spotted our first feral cat, sharing roadkill with an eagle. It was a grey tabby and no bigger than a domestic cat. I'm not sure why I'd imagined feral cats would be bigger. I've probably read far too many fanciful reports of large feral cats roaming isolated regions. We wondered, had there not been dead meat by the roadside, whether the cat would have been prey to the eagle. Shortly afterwards there was another cat, and then another – ginger this time – by Kyabra Creek. I parked hurriedly and stalked, hoping to get a photo, but the cat had too much of a head start and disappeared into undergrowth. The subject of feral cats in Australia is a big one that provokes highly polarised opinions and debate about eradication – and requires its own post at a later date.

Kyabra Creek flows into Cooper Creek. It is 155 kilometres in length but drops only 23 metres over its course and flows through 9 major waterholes.

Talking of ferals, this caught our eye further on. Wild dogs are also a problem in these parts – as are pigs, goats, rabbits, foxes and more – but obviously these two no longer pose a risk to native fauna or stock.
Quilpie Shire became Barcoo Shire, Barcoo being the name of the river that joins with the Thomson to form Cooper Creek. We came across a different use for the road. Good idea, except at night I suspect white lines aren't quite as effective as landing lights. 
In the Channel Country there are series of empty creeks at this time of year. They are tree-lined and easily identified in the midst of a sparsely vegetated landscape. There are dips in the road marked as floodways, so it's a bit like a mild rollercoaster ride. The main species lining the creeks are River Red Gum, Coolibah, River Tea Tree and wattles. Other plant communities of the Cooper Creek floodplain include lignum shrubland on the clay pans; gidgee low open woodland beyond the flood level; and spinifex hummock grassland – which incorporates mulga, bloodwoods, grevilleas and turkey bush – on the sand plain above the flood plain. All these communities support varied wildlife; but little of it was in evidence when we were there. You can't win in this part of the world: obviously there are more animals to be seen when the creeks are in flood; but you can't get about when the tracks are inundated.

We crossed over Deadman Channel Bridge before reaching Cooper Creek. Dead Horse; Dead Man; they're very popular names in the bush, I've found. And rest assured, there will have been a dead horse or a dead man there once upon a time.
There was a lot more water in Cooper Creek, especially for arid country. Cooper Creek's greatest claim to fame is that Burke and Wills, probably Australia's best-known explorers, died nearby on their return leg across the continent (Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria). My fascination with the place could come from avidly reading about explorers' struggles for survival, or perhaps because I associate the name with Queensland's remote west. I love remote. Amazingly, Cooper Creek is 1300 kilometres long, the second longest system (after the Murray-Darling) in Australia; and it is one of four main drainers* of the Lake Eyre Basin. Its flow is dependent on monsoonal rainfall far far away in eastern regions of Queensland. Some years, after a particularly wet Wet, the Creek will flood several times: in dry years, it will consist of little more than a chain of ponds.
Despite a more than adequate camping area, a group of grey nomads had parked themselves right down by the water's edge, complete with satellite dish, boat and multiple camping gadgets. They rather spoilt the southward view but they didn't deter the birds around McPhellamy's Crossing, where the Cooper Queen used to ferry across the Creek before the bridge was built in 1949. White-necked Herons are partial to fish, frogs and yabbies (crayfish) along the Creek.
Cooper Creek is 11 km from Windorah but we didn't continue along the Diamantina Developmental Road. We took Old Man Road, a track dating from before 1952 (so the sign said) which is now a 12-km Nature Drive. Forty trees and shrubs are signed along the way: once you start photographing them as part of your great Australian trees education programme, you have to finish, of course. The Drive gives you a good feel for the region's landscape. I think caravaners and trailer-pullers may have been put off by the gully near the start because we were gloriously alone.
 Spot the stick insect.
There were a lot of Spotted Fuchsias – aka Emubush – and they were full of flowers, which was rather a surprise for someone from a temperate zone. Cows eat Emubush, but no surprises there.
For many people Spinifex and red soil = Outback.
Towards the end of the track we wondered if this was another joke, but in fact it's a prickly wattle that is often said to be the last plant standing during serious drought.
And then a surprise as we were approaching Windorah – a solar farm. Five dishes standing in a row, each one 13.7 metres in diameter and lined with 112 mirrors, concentrating sunlight on to a high-capacity photovoltaic cell above the centre of the dish. The farm can generate 360,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year which supplements power from diesel generators in Windorah – population about 100. If only there were more such schemes, taking advantage of Australia's sunny climes rather than its coal and gas deposits.
Twelve kilometres west of Windorah on the Birdsville road are sand hills of a deep deep red, especially as the sun goes down. They don't look very high but there are great views from the top, of sandy hills and plains to one side, the north, and of the Cooper Creek floodplain to the south. There was, naturally, endless scope for photography.
This is a pie melon, I think; a type of squash. We'd seen them before, in Charleville. How can such a water-filled vegetable grow in the desert?
I liked Windorah: it may even have been my favourite place. It was founded on a stock route in 1880, and the name means big fish in a local Aboriginal language. We found a new type of bottle tree, the Kurrajong, which is broadleaved and dry-season deciduous. (Spot the ACD in the corner of the pic below.) Albert Street, where we stayed in the Western Star Hotel, had a tree-filled median strip that included bottle trees, and an interesting shop I was surprised wasn't open. When you're travelling you lose all track of the days: it was Sunday. Our Saturday night excitement had been a barbie in the garden of the Western Star. We chatted to fellow guests around a huge fire in an old coal washing screen. It was mighty cold: glovies, scarf and coat weather for the bits not facing the fire. The conversation turned to the treatment of Julia Gillard while she was PM, and there seemed to be unanimous condemnation among the group although their backgrounds were disparate.
Next morning we were up and off quite early in order to maximise national park time. It was a beautiful morning.
* the others are the Diamantina, Georgina and Finke