April 30, 2014

Galilee Road Trip: a mission

Early on Easter Monday, 33 people from across Australia gathered in Woolloongabba at the start of a road trip to Central Queensland. Their intention was to observe the impact of coal mine expansion in the Bowen Basin, and to study the prospects for graziers, communities and ecosystems in the Galilee Basin, where nine huge mines are proposed across a 270-kilometre swathe of cattle country. Between them, the mines would ultimately produce enough carbon emissions, were they a small nation state, to place them seventh in a global league table of emitters.

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.
We dallied rather too long on our first break, not leaving till midday. We pressed on through the flat fertile plains of the Darling Downs past Dalby... Chinchilla... and the appositely named Miles. In the towns, large farm machinery outlets gradually gave way to heavy plant yards servicing coal seam gas exploration and development in the region. On our left, CSG equipment, all laid out and waiting, stretched a sizeable distance. And FIFO (fly in fly out) workers camps had spread since I was last this way in June. We didn't reach Roma – where the streets are lined with Queensland Bottle Trees – until sundown. There was still three hours' driving ahead of us.
I slept for the final hour – not a good time to doze – and was dopey as we tried to find the Showgrounds in Rolleston. To this reluctant camper, the facilities at first appeared primitive. Little did I realise that they were luxury compared to later sites. I was way beyond eating supper, and more than a little vague about which tent I could settle in on my borrowed stretcher bed and self-inflating mat. I had not anticipated sleeping easily under the circumstances, but I went out like a light and slept like a log. And this despite some kind of cattle operation nearby involving trundling trucks kicking up dust and disgorging their unhappy load late into the evening and from early next morning.
The Galilee Road Trip was weeks in the planning. Food and tents left in a van a day ahead of us, and both were set up by the time our tardy bus pulled into the Showgrounds. Before bed we were briefly briefed on plans for the following day, when we would visit Springwood Station and start our mission proper, meeting with landowners at the coal face.

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

If you enjoyed reading this – and there are several Galilee Road Trip posts still to come – please share with friends and connections. One of our principal aims in making this journey was to spread the word about the Galilee Basin.

April 20, 2014

Vanuatu: South Pacific Island

There are tropical islands off the coast of Queensland. More than half the state is technically tropical; north of Rockhampton, which sits bang on the Tropic of Capricorn. An island on which I spent an idyllic few days way back was perfectly tropically lush: you could walk round it in an hour; turquoise limpid water lapped shallow pale beaches; there were noisy birds, tiny turtles, leaping rays and silver fish shoals that moved as one. After dark we lay on our backs and studied a pure dark sky dripping a million diamond points.

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.
Ratua is sheltered by its immediate neighbours: the sea was never anything but calm and soothing while we were there. There's an all-pervading air of peace and tranquility, helped in February by high temperatures and humidity that reduced all activity to dead slow, or stop. There was hardly ever even a breath of wind. But a week after our return home tropical cyclone Lusi brought havoc to this island nation, which lies on the Pacific Rim. We asked when there had last been an earthquake, and the reply was 'last month'.

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 had been recommended a tour to Millenium Cave on Santo. We knew it was fairly challenging physically, but when told there'd be 4-5 hours hiking, rope climbing, mud scrambling and canyoning, we crawled back to our day beds and put off a decision until we ran out of days. I know we missed a memorable experience, but one for the dry season I believe.

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.
Kayaking was a joy in the clear waters. (Did I mention that we had our own beach?) Exquisite corals were easy to see, and turtle heads popped up occasionally, especially in early morning or late afternoon.
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.