June 30, 2015

Outback 3 Route revisions

I get bees in my bonnet about place names. Fixated, you could say. Once, the names were the stuff of Californian folk rock or movies: Ventura Highway, Zabriskie Point. Then I moved to Europe: Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) and the plain of Lasithi.

In Australia, I will not rest until I have visited Esperance, Broken Hill and the Bungle Bungles.

Camooweal, a small town in northwest Queensland, more than 2000 kilometres from Brisbane and almost on the Northern Territory border, wasn't on any list until I heard a song entitled Luck, by Busby Marou. I guarantee, after a couple of plays, you'll get in your car and hit the road. 'From Camooweal to Katherine, from Lambert to The Kimberleys…'

At first, Camooweal didn't feature in the Outback trip that begins in a month's time – Brisbane to Adelaide, Alice Springs and the Red Centre, northwest Queensland not visited previously, and back to Bris. We were intending to cut across to Mount Isa via Urandangi from the eastern end of the Plenty Highway, which traverses almost half the width of the Northern Territory from the Stuart Highway north of Alice. Last weekend, however, my friend noticed the Camooweal Caves National Park, and that was it. Detour ahead.
This trip came about because, months ago, he noticed a Great Southern Rail advert for The Ghan which featured a second's glimpse of cars being transported on the train. Prior to that, we were going to New Zealand. I only need the seed of an idea.

This morning I have been booking the Post Office Hotel Motel in Camooweal, shunting our reservations along the Flinders Highway on a day, and reducing two nights in Hughenden to one. Two previous Outback adventures involved changes en route – forced by bad weather or choosing to escape bad accommodation – so this still represents forward planning. The trip is longer but it is the fact that we are travelling further afield, more remotely, and with fewer accommodation options that presented a more time-consuming challenge. Even choosing dates involved checking school and public holidays in three states and a territory.

Diverting to Camooweal opened up another possible route across the remote ranges of the Territory between the Simpson Desert and the Barkly Tableland. The Sandover Highway branches off the Plenty not far from its start and crosses into Queensland north of Urandangi. I have studied drivers' accounts of the northernmost of the two options, which isn't called Sandover for nothing. And it is more vulnerable to disruption after a downpour. The Plenty is graded regularly – there's more traffic passing – and the landscape is more varied. I am inclined to stick with Plan A for this stage. And Gemtree might have zircon shops!
This may be the fourth major road trip, but every time extra items are required. Biggies this time included a second spare wheel – we already had a second spare tyre – a tent, and self-inflating camp mattresses! Plus bits and bobs.
Twenty-nine sleeps…

This post was last edited on 1 July 2015

June 28, 2015

Enviro round-up: June

The Reef
Queensland's Environment Minister, Dr Steven Miles, left for Bonn on Friday, to hear UNESCO's World Heritage Committee's final – as opposed to draft – decision about whether or not the Great Barrier Reef is 'in danger'. I don't imagine he would be going unless he knew the right decision awaited him, do you? I don't know if Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt is going too, but if so, I hope they don't crow about the result like they did a month ago. In truth, the hard slog to restore the Reef is ahead of them (see Grief about the Reef, June 2015).

Promises, promises
So far, I'm underwhelmed by the still-fairly-new Queensland government. I have tried to be patient, but here we are, approaching July, and important policy, pledged during their election campaign as part of a de-Newmanisation process, has not yet come before Parliament. They don't appear to have been in session much since Premier Annastacia Palusczcuk was sworn in, but I know nothing of Parliamentary scheduling. In any case, policy implementation is largely on hold pending the Budget (14 July), which hangs like the sword of Damocles above state departments, key industries such as construction and NGOs alike.

Almost as disappointing as Minister Anthony Lynham seeking expressions of interest in oil and gas exploration in Queensland's Channel Country (see Dear Premier, June 2015), was the fact that this week he was calling for 'suitably qualified companies to undertake the dredging works and construct the dredged material containment ponds required to expand the Port of Abbot Point'*. The ponds will be situated on unused industrial land adjoining the existing coal terminal. This plan replaces that of the Newman government who were going dump dredge spoil in the Caley Valley Wetlands once they knew they couldn't get rid of it at sea.

Bye-bye Adani?
But hang on… why is the port being expanded if Adani are going to pull the plug on their massive Carmichael mine? This week's big news was broken by The Guardian** on Thursday (see top of page), but soon backed up by mining industry and other media outlets. Whether you think this was posturing on the part of Adani, or an attempt to bully the Queensland government into speeding up approvals, it matters little. Similar reports in the Times of India and a subsequent 4 per cent loss in the value of Adani Enterprises shares was surely never what the company intended.

Pope power
An even bigger surprise, however, was Papa Francisco doing a great job as climate action advocate. In his first papal document, or encyclical, on the environment, the Pope didn't hold back on calling a halt to the degradation of the planet, the 'throwaway' culture, and weak, self-interested governance. He demanded the replacement of fossil-fuel-based technology and the greater responsibility towards those in abject poverty. He immediately placed himself among the leaders on the road to Paris in November.

No response from Tony Abbott and his catholic Cabinet members yet: they've been too busy diminishing Australia's Renewable Energy Target. Denialists the world over have criticised the Pope for stepping beyond his religious remit, but many millions more have been impressed. Laudato Si, indeed. He's probably the most progressive-thinking pope I've ever known, and he's earned himself even more Brownie points since, by suggesting a fixed date for Easter. Its jigging about in the calendar from year to year has always irritated me. As my friend commented the other day: 'We are all catholics now'!

No-fly zone
Few days go by without disturbing stories about the effects of a changing climate. The California drought continues; Alaska has hundreds of wild fires, and tarmac is melting in Oregon; northern France is expecting temperatures in the mid-30s next week. One report in particular has troubled me. It was about migratory species of bird that haven't left Fraser Island to breed in the Siberian summer as they normally would. There is speculation the birds have not been able to fatten themselves up in preparation for such an arduous journey. There may no longer be enough pilchards; or perhaps the birds have been disturbed by too many 4WDs careening along the beach. Equally worrying is the fact that birds that normally fly north from Australia's southern states to winter on Fraser haven't arrived this year.

Bimblebox update
The Bimblebox Alliance is hard at work raising the profile of Protected Areas that aren't really. This includes writing letters to the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and popping up at gatherings frequented by Minister Steven Miles to ask awkward questions.

The landscape conservation arm of the Department has conducted research† in conjunction with James Cook University to identify which habitats might best survive in a warming world. Climate-resistant pockets were found in elevated areas and valleys along the eastern ranges of the state, but also in mulga country much further west. These parcels of land are being termed 'refugia'. With limited funds available for conservation, the Minister said:
We could probably find the money to buy more properties but we need the money to manage it properly and deal with pests and fire and weeds. Nature Refuges will be incredibly important at helping us meet our goal of preserving land across the state. We can't achieve the amount of natural estate that we want to just with national parks so we need to work with private landholders.
With so much of the state covered by mining exploration permits – 80 per cent or more – the Minister needs to legislate to protect those landowners already signed up to the Nature Refuges Program††, and reassure anyone who might like to help conserve Queensland's refugia in the future but knows at the moment their efforts would be afforded no protection against would-be mining magnates, logging or those with certain land-title rights.
Bimblebox Nature Refuge

June 19, 2015

Grief about the Reef

Marine scientists know that corals don't like sediment, which suffocates them. Crown of Thorns larvae, on the other hand, thrive on it. These are two good reasons why no more capital* dredge spoil should be dumped in the Great Barrier Reef. The public know dumping is a no-no, and have told their political representatives as much. Queenslanders voted loudly for protection of the Great Barrier Reef in the state election in January, and the beneficiaries of that, Queensland Labor, are on the case. But no politicians are prepared to stick their necks out as far as is necessary to ensure the Reef's survival. That requires tackling global climate change as well as local dumping of spoil.

The end of May saw UNESCO's World Heritage Committee's draft decision with regard to the state of conservation of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area**. The Abbott government had been lobbying member countries of the Committee for months, spending $100,000 of taxpayers' money in the process***. The Commonwealth and State governments released a joint statement† following the Committee's announcement that the GBR would not be listed 'in danger'. Greg Hunt went a little overboard when he spoke to The Australian, describing it as a 'huge tick of approval' for his government's efforts to save the Reef. Not everyone agrees, of course, that the Committee is satisfied with what's being done, or that Hunt will go down in history as the saviour of Australia's greatest natural treasure.

Australia is by no means off the hook. The Committee's decision has to be upheld at the 39th Session of the Committee in Bonn at the end of June, but that is largely a formality. The Australian government is required to rigorously implement all its commitments, which means their inclusion in legislation, a solid investment framework, and the delivery of its anticipated results. By the end of 2016, Australia must report how it is going to implement its Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan, which 'responds to the World Heritage Committee's recommendation that Australia develop a long-term plan for sustainable development to protect the Outstanding Universal Value of the Reef'. Already the Commonwealth and State governments have together produced a Reef 2050 Plan – Implementation Strategy††. As yet it runs to a mere 40 pages, which contain commendable aims and an integrated monitoring and reporting progamme, but I wish there was less on governance structure and committee terms of reference, and more on detailed action plans. Hopefully a lot of work will be done on those during the next 18 months.

There is a further, five-year reporting requirement. By 2019, Australia must prove to the Committee that its targets are being met. This means scientists will be required to confirm hard on-ground evidence that the Plan is working.

It beggars belief that Australia needed to be told to implement serious measures to preserve the GBR; that it didn't fully appreciate its international responsibility. Unfortunately, there is nothing about climate change in the Plan, so it doesn't begin to address the larger-scale risks to the Reef of a warming ocean that are likely to be exacerbated during the lifetime of the Plan unless all nations, especially feet-draggers such as this one, reduce their carbon emissions significantly.

The Environmental Defenders Office in Brisbane regularly delivers free legal information seminars for the public, focusing on topical subjects. Last week's 'Law Jam' was all about protecting the Reef, and was held at QUT's Law School. The EDO's Andrew Kwan outlined all the Reef-related court battles his colleagues have been and are currently involved in. WWF Australia's GBR Coastal Campaign Manager, Louise Matthiesson, explained the World Heritage Committee's recommendation and its implications. Dr Selina Ward, Reef scientist at the University of Queensland, told us that 50.7 per cent of the GBR's coral has died in the last 27 years: 24 per cent as a result of tropical cyclone damage; 21 per cent by Crown of Thorns outbreaks; and 5 per cent because of bleaching. In 1998, 16 per cent of the world coral died in one large bleaching event. She was in no doubt that climate change poses the greatest threat to the Reef. Fiercer cyclones will cause more damage and increased erosion; calcification will decrease with the increased acidification of water absorbing more atmospheric carbon dioxide; and warmer water = heat-stressed algae that supply coral with food = coral death (bleaching).

The GBR is most certainly in danger. But Dr Ward believes there is enough healthy coral left to turn around the Reef's decline.

Steven Miles, Queensland's Environment Minister, was the EDO's final speaker. He is personable and much more confident than when I last heard him speak, at the National Parks Association of Queensland a few weeks ago. He is proud of the Queensland government's contribution to the sustainability plan that persuaded UNESCO not to designate the Reef at risk. Such a decision would have meant that people lost hope, he argued. He listed the new Great Barrier Reef Water Science Task Force's credentials in response to a question from the audience.

During his speech he opined that climate change legislation was the domain of the Commonwealth government, on the world stage. I took issue with that. I suggested that there was much the state could do to mitigate climate change, but there was one key decision that not only would have an immediate impact on emissions but would render his government's plan for Reef conservation much more likely to succeed. Namely, to halt the development of the Galilee Basin's massive coal deposits.

Needless to say, he didn't agree with me. He acknowledged supporters of the Keep It In The Ground Campaign, but claimed that the majority of Queenslanders were not with them or me.

A significant number of Queenslanders do not know where the Galilee Basin is. They have no concept of the staggering amounts of coal this area could produce if proponents were given the go-ahead, or the timescale for production. Rehabilitation of massive pits does not concern them as much as revenue for hospitals or road building. As they see it, mining = jobs. Simple. They know nothing of transition to a clean energy economy or how to enable it. Nor are they likely to be enlightened unless they actively seek out information. They could start with http://bze.org.au/about, and more specifically http://media.bze.org.au/ZCA2020_Stationary_Energy_Report_v1.pdf.

It's a long time since I last wrote about the Reef (Great Barrier Reef: the final warning? October 2012). In the meantime I have marched on its behalf; attended talks and rallies; signed petitions; and wrung my hands in sheer frustration at the tinkering around the edges of the issue. I find myself increasingly believing that only extreme measures can save it. Every week hundreds of large vessels leave many locations along the Queensland coast, each boat transporting hundreds of tourists to pontoons off which they dive or snorkel, many for the first time, their flippers breaking off pieces of coral as they thrash around. I would severely limit such activities: most people would be restricted to observing shallow-water coral reefs from glass-bottomed boats – and watching natural history programmes. I would halt all port expansion. And tankers and bulk carriers would have to travel around the Reef, not through it. I would replace sugar cane with macadamia nuts or citrus trees or whatever. We don't need 1500 kilometres of cane-growing down Australia's eastern coast. Go and watch That Sugar Film. I would fund local and state government engagement with communities about renewable energy projects, and sustainable farming, fishing and tourism. There would be little debate about zip lines and much about enlarging national parks and genuinely protecting areas of high conservation value.

This week came news of research from James Cook University about young Clown Fish being poisoned by sediment†††. So, we won't be able to find Nemo on the inner Reef for much longer? How much more of a wake-up call does anyone need?

* capital dredging is necessary for the creation of a new port or berth; maintenance dredging keeps an existing waterway or channel navigable 
** the World Heritage Area does not coincide with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The differences between the two are defined at http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/heritage/great-barrier-reef-world-heritage-area/differences-between-the-marine-park-and-the-world-heritage-area2
*** http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/abbott-government-spends-100000-on-travel-to-lobby-against-unesco-reef-listing-20150511-ggyydi.html
† http://www.environment.gov.au/minister/hunt/2015/mr20150529.html
†† http://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/32cb8925-03ee-40e7-9b27-4b3848d3b5f5/files/reef-2050-plan-implementation-strategy.pdf
††† http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/sediment-from-human-activity-increases-disease-levels-in-the-great-barrier-reefs-fish-new-study-finds-10327261.html

June 18, 2015

Watch on weather: fog

It's hard to watch anything in Brisbane this morning, in thick fog. Humidity is at 98 per cent and everything is dripping, totally soaked, following days of showers or heavy dull grey. Towels have been damp for days. (We don't have a tumble drier because for most of the year warm sunshine and breezes are perfectly adequate.)

There is no city; there are no hills. Lorikeets sit relatively silent and not quite so Rainbow: they fly at far too high a speed to do so without fog lights.
No distant hills
Grounded Lorikeets
The rain and grey had become oppressive by yesterday, and was affecting mood. Out west, they were also getting rain: ABC news showed a downpour at Alpha, almost halfway between Emerald and Longreach. This was good news for farmers but not enough to break the drought. At sundown in the South East there was a fleeting hint of the sunshine forecast for today.
The fog took time to clear: first some hazy blue patches; then a few building details and high-rise tops appearing and fading; before, finally, the city skyline was visible below remnant fog patches.
The sun has shone ever since, and tonight's sunset is virtually cloudless with a splendid crescent Moon. Has normal winter service been restored?
This post was last edited on 20 June 2015

June 13, 2015

Brilliant Sydney

Sydney was great. I love it.

And the city has finally caught up with Brisbane and Melbourne in offering a travel card that enables you to move seamlessly from ferry to bus to train, as need be, instead of constantly having to find shops that sell bus tickets, queue at busy ferry terminals behind dithering tourists, and guesstimate how many trips you're likely to make over a few days' stay. Put money on an Opal card and if you don't use it all, there'll be some ready for next time.

I am compelled to photograph the Opera House. Every visit. It doesn't matter how many pictures I have already, I have to take more. I try to find different angles.
The Opera House pops up everywhere, rather like the Harbour Bridge, amidst other endlessly photogenic subjects around Circular Quay.
Our reason for visiting Sydney last weekend was not that of hoards of others, who were taking advantage of a holiday weekend (Australia's queen's birthday) to experience Vivid Sydney, an 18-day-long festival of light and music. Light installations and large-scale projections transform urban spaces and key buildings in the city centre, while local and international music acts perform at the Opera House and other venues.

We were there for a dear friend's art show opening in St Leonard's on Saturday afternoon. The following evening we listened to 1000 voices singing choral classics from Carmina Burana to the Hallelujah Chorus in the Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House. They were ChorusOz – part of Sydney Philarmonia Choirs – an unauditioned group that comes together annually to rehearse and perform major choral work over a weekend. It was stirring stuff, but getting to and from The House – in fact moving anywhere around Circular Quay, lower George Street or The Rocks once it was dark and a human tide was flowing from one light show to the next – was not a pleasant experience. 
We arrived Friday evening. As a special treat, we were staying in Establishment, tucked down an unassuming alleyway between Pitt and George – Bridge Lane, off Tank Stream Way. You could easily miss the entrance, a large metal and timber door, an original element of the Holdesworth Macpherson and Company hardware emporium. The brick exterior belies a chic designer interior and luxurious rooms. Establishment is part of a complex of bars and restaurants that includes the Establishment Bar, a 42-metre-long marble bar amidst splendid iron columns, with a 'Garden' at one end, where you can eat or drink at any time of day and recharge the batteries. We grabbed a quick bite in Tank Stream Bar before going to look at the lights for the first time. 

Establishment Bar
On Saturday morning we caught an empty bus to Crown Street in Surry Hills, for breakfast. We like Surry Hills. It's all about detail and colour. It was damned cold, which didn't deter Sydneysiders from sitting outside. We huddled inside like wussy Queenslanders: my friend had left his sweater in our room.
We caught a bus to Paddington, about 10 minutes away. It was market day.
Next day was Botanic Gardens day.
Below is a tree full of Little Black Cormorants on their nests. If you look carefully, you'll see little heads reaching for food. The tree was safe on an island in a large pond.
A crackle of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos
The grey-headed flying foxes are long gone from the trees around the cafe in the middle of the Gardens. After a great to-do – their roosting was blamed for the loss of more than 50 trees, some of them irreplaceable – the bats were displaced in 2012. Some of them relocated to a forest on the coast near Macksville, creating a new headache for the authorities. The forest had been approved for clearance as part of a Pacific Highway upgrade, but bats are a protected species. There's a kind of poetic justice in that turn of events for Sydney's bats. Depends if you like bats, I suppose: I do.

In the dead of Sunday night a monster entered the Harbour. It dwarfed the largest ferry, made the Bridge appear small, obscured the best view of The House from around the Quay, and may have spewed out more than 2000 passengers into an already crowded city. I'm sure many people fancy the idea of a cruise, but being trapped with that many people is my idea of hell.
We walked away; from Manly to North Head Sanctuary, part of Sydney Harbour National Park. It was a perfect Sydney day, weather-wise; and there were stunningly different views of the Harbour, a hanging swamp, spectacular cliffs and pleasing Banksia scrub, complete with flowering shrubs and a variety of birds including the New Holland Honeyeater, swallows, a solitary Rainbow Lorikeet and – heard but not seen – Wattlebirds.
New Holland Honeyeater, courtesy of my friend
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Monday night was another special treat – delicious Chinese food at Mr Wong, part of the Establishment complex. We have yet to find a comparable Chinese restaurant in Brisbane: if you know of one, please leave details in Comments below. We were not advised properly about quantities, however, and as we took off on the 06.35 flight Tuesday morning flight back home, we stashed that evening's leftovers supper interstate. 

One of the world's most iconic buildings took centre stage once more in my friend's last picture of a favourite city.

This post was last edited on 22 June 2015