April 30, 2014
The tour brought together the Lock the Gate Alliance, 350.org Australia, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Brisbane, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Mackay Conservation Group, the Australian Students Environment Network and Bridging the Divide. The interests and concerns of those on the bus (and in an 8-seater SUV) included environmental management and the preservation of unique ecosystems; community engagement strategies and social justice in rural areas; water resources and management in arid regions; proposals for a rail corridor from Galilee mines to coal ports; coal ports' impact on the Great Barrier Reef; fossil fuels and climate change; fossil fuel transition and divestment; education for sustainability; and stranded fossil fuel assets.
And then there were individuals making a pilgrimage to an 8000-hectare nature refuge that they had heard much about and taken into their hearts, but had yet to see for themselves.
We left Brisbane at just gone 10, rather later than scheduled. While we waited for the second part of the convoy, we took the opportunity to introduce ourselves and explain why we were going to the Galilee. And we tried to pack too much gear into too little space.
It's a long way from Brisbane to Rolleston, just north of the Carnarvon Range: 741 kilometres*, in fact. After an hour and a half there was a long hard climb for the bus up and over the Great Dividing Range escarpment into Toowoomba. There's a fine view over the Warrego Highway threading its way through the Lockyer Valley from Picnic Point Park lookout, 700 metres above sea level. Tabletop Mountain is an ex-volcano (last eruption some 20 million years ago). There are native grasses but no trees on its flat top, rather like the 'balds' in the Bunya Mountains.
As we packed up the bus, hundreds of tiny skittish purple flutterbys couldn't keep still beneath a nearby tree. I promise you there is one in the centre of the photograph below (click on image to make it bigger). My reliable source, who consulted a higher authority, is fairly confident these were Two-spotted Line-blue butterflies.
There only remained to get the group to pose before we got underway. The sky was blue, the bus was still a novelty and spirits were high. For now we were headed just an hour up the road.
Google Maps give a journey time of eight and a half hours. With stops, it took us 11
The post was last edited on 14 May 2014
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April 20, 2014
Vanuatu is about as far from Brisbane as New Zealand. It's east of the top half of the Pointy Bit of Queensland, and consists of a string of 80 islands, 15 of them sizeable. We visited a very small one, Ratua, a private island sandwiched between Aore and Malo, south of Espiritu Santo. We flew into Luganville 'International Airport' and were picked up and taken to a small boat for a half-hour journey past verdant Aore.
A typical Ratuan welcome accompanied our boat's approach – a beating drum, smiles as wide as miles and refreshing fruit cocktails. It had been cloudy since our plane touched down, but as we were shown to our villa, Monkey, there was already the promise of a spectacular sunset.
By day three we were overtaken by what we called 'la léthargie énorme' (the international language of Vanuatu being French, not English). We could hardly move: I couldn't be bothered to read at times, and just stared out over the water, stirring only to monitor the passage of beautifully coloured fish.
We did manage to walk the island tour. This revealed Strangler Figs, rocky shorelines, mangroves, serried coconut palms, domestic animals and a landing strip. Dear gods, it was hot: how we dripped. Both a falling branch and a plummeting coconut narrowly missed me. The nuts land with an enormous thud.
One afternoon it downpoured hard vertical tropical rain. It was beautiful.
The resort was founded by a wealthy Frenchman who came across the island while cruising these parts with his family. All profits go to a foundation that supports the education of Vanuatu's schoolchildren. Bizarrely, the houses were brought from Indonesia, and there are similar influences (and French wines) in the restaurant. Every dinner began with soup and salad, which at first I thought a little odd but came to look forward to each evening. The houses are of heavy wooden construction, with no glass, only shutters between you and the critters. Mozzie nets are essential over beds; coils are necessary on the deck; and you'll need strong Deet-based repellent on your skin if you're a mozzie magnet. We had learned that Dengue fever had broken out on Santo, so even greater care than usual was needed.
We did do one excursion, to Blue Hole on a neighbouring island. We were ferried across with our kayak and dropped off at the entrance to a river. (Our guide paddled behind us to make sure we didn't come a cropper.) The Hole was the most extraordinary colour. It is fed by underground springs and wasn't at all salty even though connected to a tidal river.
Our last night was a Saturday. We were invited to drink kava with our hosts. Kava is a milky-looking drink served in half-coconut cups and downed in one; it's made from a herbal root and didn't taste that great. But when in Ratua... I'm not entirely sure what the benefits of drinking kava are, but I think you indulge at the end of a hard day's work – or a long hot day staggering from one sun lounger to another.
The Ratua String Band played a mean riff and sang in splendid South Pacific harmonies I'd heard so much about but never experienced before. Then we sat down to a meal of local dishes. The Band had followed us to the dining room for a last couple of numbers. All the staff were dressed in their most beautiful best and had danced enthusiastically. After dinner we put the world to rights with fellow guests.
The following day, we sailed away reluctantly as some of the locals sang from the jetty in hope of our return to Ratua. We may not have actively engaged much with this corner of Vanuatu, but, removed from harsh Australia, a wonderfully benign way of life washed over us.