February 20, 2014

Things I don't get about Australia: #1 and #2

So... Labor under Julia Gillard introduced a carbon pricing scheme in order to 'make big polluters pay', and therefore curb carbon emissions. Unfortunately, prior to the 2010 election, Ms Gillard had promised she would never do such a thing. But, without a majority and having to court Greens and Independents in order to govern, she changed her mind.

Leaving aside the fact that a significant proportion of Aussies males were, are, genetically averse to a female in charge of the country; and even greater numbers of citizens of either sex are seemingly unaware that climate action is going to necessitate higher electricity prices and a curtailing of many aspects of their privileged lifestyle; carbon pricing was never going to be popular, despite household rebates. The then Opposition, led by Tony Abbott, rested their pre-2013 election platform on three bullet points – stopping the boats (of asylum seekers), repealing the carbon 'tax', and getting the economy back to black. 

No one with even the slightest grip on political reality expected Labor, by now led by second-time-around Kevin Rudd, to win. And they did not. In the House of Reps, after the two-party-preferred vote, the Coalition (of Liberal and National parties) had 53.49 per cent and Labor 46.51 per cent.

As the old Opposition took up the strings of power, Abbott duly introduced his carbon tax repeal legislation, declaring that, since he had a mandate from the Australian people, the new Opposition should fall in behind his proposal for abolition. He knew, of course, that his only chance of getting the law through the Senate would be when its composition changes in July this year. Then, a scattering of more sympathetic cross-benchers will take their seats and the Greens and Labor may no longer be able to block the repeal.

Mr Abbott is in a bit of a hurry to get done what he said he would do. The stopping of boats isn't going too well at present, and the task of fixing the budget may be larger than Treasurer Joe Hockey. Hence the pressure on Labor to help him realise his carbon tax dream.

So how exactly does this work? Labor are supposed to abandon their emissions policy and then what? Return to it at a later date, maybe with a different name, when they would undoubtedly and immediately be accused of duplicity? And this mandate? Surely, only if there had been a referendum on that one issue alone, would Abbott be able to say the Australian people had endorsed the repeal of the carbon price. Black and white. No ifs or buts. Did any voters vote on one issue alone? Maybe Abbott's charm and personality were as big a draw as his promise to line the pockets of little people as well as big mining. And if a single issue could possibly be identified, wasn't it anyone-but-Labor? Time for a change, and all that?

How Labor repackage their climate policy between now and the next election is a massive challenge. I'd love to think it was top of their to-do list, but I see little evidence of that.

I have never come across the suggestion that an Opposition party support a recently-elected government to undo the former's legislation. Especially not important legislation. Drastically reducing Australia's vast emissions should be a bipartisan issue. And if the LNP were calling for all-party support to implement measures up to the task of tackling the crisis, there wouldn't be anything not to get.

Obsession. There can be no other word for the national fixation about a convicted drug mule with a classically bogan name who was recently paroled in Bali. There is much speculation about the many possible reasons for this preoccupation. I tentatively explored the issue with one Australian friend, but we quickly lost the will to live.

I am extremely grateful for two things: that I didn't live here in 2004-05; the proceeds-of-crime laws in Australia.

February 16, 2014

Carnarvon at a gentler pace

Day 2 augured sunshine, and didn't disappoint. But surprisingly, and unfortunately, my legs weren't ready for another vigorous workout. (See also, At last... Carnarvon Gorge, February 2014.)

I know, because I've seen pictures, that the view from Boolimba Bluff is well worth the climb, and with hindsight I wish I'd forced the legs. The Bluff is just over 3 km from Park Headquarters. The track branches off to the right not far after the first crossing over Carnarvon Creek. The path rises gently as far as a steep gully, but apparently there's a sandstone cavern halfway up the steep bit where you can take a breather. From the top there are views up the gorge and over the Great Dividing Range westwards, and over the plains to the east. Don't make the same mistake as I did.

First, we had a leisurely mooch around the Rock Pool, a deep hole on a bend in the Creek downstream from Park Headquarters. The Creek is described as permanently running, fed by numerous streams in the Gorge system. The white sandstone cliffs are porous and act like a huge sponge soaking up rainfall over the highlands, but the water emerges above the underlying impermeable rock. I wonder if the Creek ran throughout Queensland's long Millennium Drought.

This walk was all about birds and trees and reflections and colour and rock and stones.
White-winged Chough
Little Pied Cormorant
You might see a platypus in the Rock Pool – or higher up the Creek – but we weren't early or late enough in the day. I have yet to see my first platypus in the wild, and it's an important box that's not yet ticked.

I was surprised to see a Kookaburra on a ledge high up a rock wall. Was this the same rather portly chap we'd seen around the Lodge? Kangaroos seem happy to share the Lodge gardens with guests, as long as they don't get too close.
In the afternoon we walked, slowly compared to yesterday, to Baloon Cave, which we could access by taking a path behind our cabin along lower Mickey Creek, but which can also be reached along another path further up the main road from the Lodge. Baloon is an Aboriginal word for axe and there are stencils of axes as well as hands on the Cave's overhang (top). Aboriginals are not believed to have settled permanently in Carnarvon Gorge, for defensive reasons and because of lack of food, but also perhaps because it was considered to be a sacred site. They probably used rock from the cave for axe-heads, and artists may have made stencilling pigments from red and yellow bands within the Clematis sandstone.
The forest looked far more beautiful with dappled sunlight creating contrast. I wished our main walk had been similarly blessed. That night over dinner we listed all the plants and animals we'd spotted. I was beginning to conclude we could have done with more time at Carnarvon Gorge. The Moss Garden was a big miss. Water constantly seeps through the coarse sandstone and emerges above impervious shale, providing moisture for a variety of mosses and ferns. The 'garden' is in Violet Gorge which branches off Hellhole Gorge cut by Koolaroo Creek. Hellhole Gorge was closed when we were there. I don't know if this was temporary or not, but I imagine it is a quieter, off-the-beaten-track experience that at once became all the more attractive for being unattainable.

If you're fit and can easily walk to the head of the Gorge in a day, you can camp at Big Bend and then scramble up Battleship Spur for spectacular views. Another full day's strenuous walk is to Devil's signpost. Ask at the Park Headquarters for directions about the route along an unmarked track towards Clematis Ridge.

Having read the first Carnarvon post, a friend asked me the other day how long a stay I would recommend. I replied 3-4 days minimum, and longer if you want time to chill. That's twice as long as we had.

Once you've acquired the impression of unexplored possibilities, you leave with a tinge of regret and a desire to return. I had the same feelings when we departed Kilcowera cattle station a few days in to our Outback trip, and now I was approaching the end on the same note. The weather was beautiful on the morning we left to head back home to Brisbane. Beyond the Gorge entrance, golden grasses almost sparkled, mist created floating ridges, and the prospect of the city was, frankly, rather grim.
This post was last edited on 9 March 2014

February 11, 2014

At last... Carnarvon Gorge

I'm not sure why it's taken so long to write about Carnarvon Gorge. It's partly because our visit was tacked on to the end of an Outback trip, and I didn't consider it outbacky enough to be included. And there were many issues to do with the Outback – cows eating it; where it begins, and so on – that I wanted to write about first. I can't plan another big trip, however, without finishing off the previous one.

Carnarvon Gorge is in Central Queensland's Sandstone Belt, roughly between Blackwater (east of Emerald) and Roma, north to south, and the Leichhardt and Landsborough highways, east to west. You access the Gorge section of Carnarvon National Park from the Carnarvon Developmental Road halfway between Rolleston and Injune. It's a fairly remote area, but well worth the effort to get there; it's a day's drive from Brisbane. Crossing the Clematis Ridge across the mouth of the Gorge is to enter another world, majestic and mystical; a lost valley.

My favourite explorer Ludwig Leichhardt passed close by, to the east, in 1844. Two years later, Major Thomas Mitchell passed to the west, and named the range after the Welsh hills. Pastoralists were settling in the area by the early 1860s.

Between 230 and 180 million years ago rivers deposited sediment into a huge inland basin in this part of the world. The sediments were eventually compressed into rock layers. Then, 80 to 65 million years ago, the land was pushed up, forming the Great Dividing Range. (In the same era, Australia broke free from Gondwana.) Much more recently (35-27 million years ago), following volcanic activity, basalt covered the sedimentary rocks, since when water has been eroding the rock layers into dramatic clefts.

As we approached the region from Longreach, along the Dawson Developmental Road, the western extremities of the Carnarvon National Park formed a dramatic backcloth to the semi-arid cattle country. Even as we got much closer to our destination, sandstone cliffs seemed to present an impenetrable barrier.
We were staying three nights at Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge: there is also accommodation at Takarakka Bush Resort, where you can camp or caravan. The meals at the Lodge's licensed restaurant were good and welcome after a hard day's walking. The cabins are cute, but between the wooden panels and the tin roof you can see below are canvas 'walls'. We were there in the middle of winter* and night-time temps fell to 3 degrees. There was an efficient heater in the cabin but we didn't want to keep it on all night: by night two I was sleeping in a hoodie beneath blankets and duvet. 
We had two days in which to explore. I wanted to walk up the Gorge in the best weather, but we made the wrong decision. It's tricky, however, because the weather forecast posted is for Rolleston, 110 km away, and I'm sure the Gorge has its own microclimate. (Incidentally, the side canyons are at least a couple of degrees cooler.) We'd expected the first day to brighten up, but it didn't, and the magnificent rock walls stayed stubbornly dull. The sun appeared the second day, when my legs didn't fancy the Bluff-climbing I'd envisaged.

Decide how far you want to walk into the Gorge and which side diversions to explore. Ask locals and other guests for recommendations. You're unlikely to be able to walk to the end and back – and see everything properly along the way – in a day, unless you make an early start. The track is easy and mainly flat, but the creek crossings are not clearly marked beyond the first few (there are more than 20 in all) so you have to choose your stones and feel your way. The advice is to walk as far as you want to go into the Gorge and visit side features on the way back, but I really wonder about this. We thought we had time to reach Cathedral Cave almost at the end (see well-used map below: click to make larger) based on early progress, but the creek crossings and track become more demanding beyond crossing 16, where the Gorge narrows. After a late picnic lunch and a look at the art, we had to virtually power-walk back in order to call in at our chosen side attractions. And we had to give the Moss Garden a miss, especially as the light was fading, which was disappointing.
Allow time before you start to visit the National Park Headquarters where there's plenty of info plus helpful people to answer questions about weather, fauna and flora, walks and camping if you're doing the 86-km Carnarvon Great Walk**.

The main track starts just beyond the Park's HQ. You cross Carnarvon Creek almost immediately, via easy stepping stones. You climb up away from the water and through tall open eucalypt forest. It's like walking through an aviary, the birdsong is so striking. The birds in the Gorge seemed to inhabit their own zones: first the lorikeets, then the friarbirds, sulphur-cresteds and currawongs: swallows and wagtails are everywhere. We soon disturbed a roo taking morning tea.
The other-worldliness was augmented by Carnavon's Macrozamia cycads, which have no common name. They surround the cabins and hover in huge clumps in the early stages of the walk. Their flowers have to be seen to be believed. Carnarvon Gorge is also known for its rare and fabulous fan palms, which can reach 30 metres.
The Creek narrowed and widened and narrowed again, with no shortage of photo ops along the way. I constantly bemoaned the lack of sunlighting.

And so we reached the massive wind-eroded overhang known as Cathedral Cave, 9.3 km from the Park Headquarters and an extensive Aboriginal art site. It is believed that the net patterns were produced by overlapping stencilled narrow Vs blown between fingers held apart, a painstaking process. The Bidjara and Karingbal peoples gathered here to perform ceremonies and rituals, having walked long distances and collected Macrozamia nuts along the way. The images tell their stories. If you don't walk as far as Cathedral Cave, then check out the Aboriginal Art Gallery, 5.5 km from the Park Headquarters, which has many more stencils, engravings and free-hand paintings, which unfortunately we didn't have time for.
Ward's Canyon – named after a couple of fur trappers at the turn of the 20th century – was about halfway back, near crossing 9. There's a steep but short climb up steps into this side gorge which is another world again, and noticeably cooler. A permanent source of water enables King Ferns to flourish in a rainforest remnant that survived as Australia's climate became drier and hotter. The ferns have grown like this for about 300 million years. They add to Ward's rarified atmosphere and sense of isolation. This is the only location in inland Queensland where these ferns are found, and it's a must-see.
The next phenomenon is the Amphitheatre, half-a-kilometre down the track. This almost defies description. Walking quickly and climbing up to Ward's Canyon meant my legs were baulking at the prospect of a 1.6 km detour, but to have missed this would have been a huge mistake. Behind a soaring cliff is a 60-metre-deep chamber – with great acoustics if you're inclined to sing a few notes – formed by water eroding major joints in the sandstone. On the floor are yet more ferns. If you don't like heights, you may not fancy the 10-metre ladder to reach the extremely narrow crevice that is the Amphitheatre's entrance. But it's OK, I promise.
The last four kilometres home were quite hard, and seemingly endless. We had walked at least 20 kilometres, and although Boolimba Bluff was tempting for its views, the legs were not willing. Back at the Lodge, I felt a beer hadn't been so well-deserved since our Cradle Mountain marathon on Tassie.

So, what to do on day 2?

* the peak season for visiting Carnarvon Gorge is March to October. There is a risk of flash flooding during the Wet. Wilderness Lodge is closed from mid-November until the end of February
** For highly experienced, self-sufficient and fit bushwalkers, used to navigating in remote and rugged country with the appropriate equipment