Author Archives: Greta

Karumba – of barramundi and ghost nets

Karumba – dawn on the Norman River

Karumba lies on the Norman River where it enters the Gulf of Carpentaria. In its heyday, it was the main port for the prawn trawlers plying their trade in the Gulf, but these day the big companies use motherships to process their catch. Still, fishing is a big deal here, especially for prawns and the much-prized barramundi, a wonderful eating fish. Karumba is also an important port for the live cattle trade exporting beasts to Indonesia. Apart from that, the CBD is a block of shops along the main street, one of which is a brilliant bakery.

We stayed at the Karumba Lodge resort, a flash name for a not-so-flash premises which is well past its best days. The accommodation is an add-on to the pub which has two bars – the suave bar and the animal bar, which probably gives you a hint. Some of the ladies in our group were not impressed with their rooms, which needed a good clean and some new fittings. Joe took us for a run (in the bus) to the more salubrious part of town at Sunset Point which boasts a large new pub, but it is several kilometres from town. It’s popular for people wanting to watch the sun set into the sea (while eating fresh prawns, a schooner of beer at their elbow), and for fishermen after barra. Our tour leader told us they used to stay at a motel out here, but people complained it was ‘too far from town’. Uh-huh. I think I would have preferred to stay at Sunset Point.

Nest with parent whistling kite

One positive point about Karumba Lodge was that the units opened out on a wide lawn above the Norman River. Some of the ever-present kites had nested in a row of large gum trees, one so old that mistletoe had grown over the nest’s structure, making it even harder to spot. I found the other nest because it had a chick, which was demanding food.

Baby bird is hungry and looking for Mum and Dad

Parent bird portrait

Later that day we visited the Barramundi discovery centre. The establishment tells tourists about the fish’s fascinating life cycle, but its main role is to breed stock to replenish the local fisheries. It’s not a farm, barra don’t respond to farming, despite attempts. Everyone knows how salmon spawn in rivers, eventually move to the sea, and eventually return to the place where they were spawned. Barra are similar – but different. Spawning takes place in a river estuary when three factors coincide – the water temperature, the full moon, and the approach of a storm. In the Karumba area the water temperature has to be 33C. Tests have shown that while spawning can take place a degree either way off that, the results are significantly poorer. What’s more, the temperature isn’t the same for all barra. For example, in the fishery near Townsville, spawning takes place at 28C. This means that if you take a fish spawned in Karumba to Townsville, it will live quite happily – but it will not spawn. Our host told us the fish kept for spawning in tanks are aware of the phase of the moon, and when a storm is on its way. When conditions approach ideal, the female stops eating. The water in the tanks is sourced from the estuary, and no chemicals are used. Some of our group took the opportunity to feed a barra, but before they did so, they had to sanitize their hands to prevent any contamination to the tank water.

Another thing about these fish – they are all born male. At some point, some of the males become female. Nobody knows why, or how. The females are much larger than the boys and fertilisation is actually pretty boring – she expresses her eggs, then a few of the boys release smelt over them. In the tanks there are six males to every female. In the wild – who knows? Once they are fingerlings the baby fish hide in the mangroves, which is sensible, because everything will eat them, including their siblings. After a time they move up the rivers to live their lives. That’s the importance of the full moon (high tide – lots of food) and the storm – lots of water in the rivers. Eventually, the grown fish will make their way back to their spawning grounds, to start the cycle again.

Now let me tell you about the ghost nets.

A quick look at a map will tell you Australia is very close to Indonesia and as Indonesian fish stocks run low, Indonesian fishermen take the risk of venturing into Australian territorial waters to fish. They use nets, some of them kilometres long. If the Australian border force or the navy comes across them, they know they’d better get out of there fast. So they cut the nets loose because if they’re caught with fish, they have no defence against a charge of illegal fishing. But the nets are still there, floating in the currents, catching fish and other sea creatures which are never harvested. The carcasses rot – fish, dolphins, turtles, sharks – whatever. Once a net like this is in the Gulf of Carpentaria the currents take it round and round the Gulf, sometimes throwing it up on a beach at high tide, drawing it back at the next high tide. Indigenous communities are assisting in the important task of finding these nets and getting them out of the water. Read all about the problem and what’s being done about it here. By the way, yes, they’re going to be Indonesian nets. Any Australian trawler losing a net is in for a mountain of paperwork, and lots of nasty questions.

In the evening we went on a sunset dinner cruise. We piled into the shallow draft boat, me toting my camera with long lens. While we were served a glass of wine our hosts set the scene by placing pieces of fish on a feeding platform at the front of the boat. The local kites, both black and whistling, are always ready for a free feed. Soon we were surrounded by swooping raptors which were actually difficult to photograph with the big lens.

A whistling kite swooping in for a feed

A rusting hulk in the mangroves

Further down the river a croc basked in the late afternoon sunshine near the river bank. A distant white-bellied sea eagle perched on a branch saw us coming and headed off for quieter parts. We passed the wharf where cattle are loaded for export. We were told about a rusting trawler jammed into the mangroves. (Storm? Poor seamanship? Mechanical error? Insurance claim? Who knows?)

Our hosts served us wine, beer, and an assortment of nibbles, and later we helped ourselves to hot food and salad before going out into the Gulf itself to watch the sunset. I’ll finish this post with pictures and commentary.

A pair of Jabiru storks. Our hosts helped raise one that had been the runt of the litter. Fred has survived well and he and Wilma have raised several clutches.

This stork is flying in to join his mate at the free meal

This pair of black kites (with the swallow tails) are giving a whistling kite a hard time – it was (I’d guess) too close to their nest. The whistling kite is fighting back

This big croc is not at all perturbed by the boat’s presence. We saw a lot more crocs in the dusk, just sets of glowing eyes in the spotlight. That’s how hunters used to kill them – spot the eyes and they were sitting ducks to a high-powered rifle.

Sunset. There’s high cirrus cloud, but nothing to make the sunset spectacular.

Through the outback to the Gulf

On our last morning at Cobbold I managed to get a photo of the moon on its back, Venus beneath her, with the orange glow of the sun just a whisper on the horizon. The pink and greys didn’t show up today. After breakfast we hit the road again in our bus, heading for Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria with Joe’s stories to keep us company.

Our first stop was at George Town, where Joe did the obligatory town tour. It’s all part of understanding the outback. When you look at a town’s medical clinic, it’s more than a building. It might be the only medical assistance available for hundreds of kilometres. The Government, in its wisdom, has cut back funding for medical staff all over the state – but while we might complain about longer waiting lists in town, take a nurse or doctor out of these places, and more than one life might be at risk. Bureaucracy strikes again. If it wasn’t for the Flying Doctor, which is not government run but does receive financial support, medical help would be even further away.

We stayed in Georgetown for a while to visit the Ted Elliot mineral collection. This incredible display was accumulated by one person over a lifetime, with many pieces sourced from places around here. Much of the area was opened up for mining of gold, tin, and semi-precious gem stones before the cattle arrived.

Ammonites and other fossils

Mainly local agate

Back on the road we encountered cattle, of course, as well as the ever-present kites riding the air currents above towns, or clustered around road kill. But I was surprised at the lack of kangaroos and other wildlife. I suppose that unexpected rain brought benefits for the animals, too, so they didn’t have venture close to roads.

They don’t run sheep out here. People have tried, but the native spear grass put paid to every attempt. The seeds form a spiral to dig into whatever surface they land on, securing themselves with backward-facing spines. I’ll leave you to imagine how that works in sheep’s wool. Cattle are not affected by the grass, but herds were decimated when the cattle tick was introduced from Asia, especially the English breeds. These days graziers run tough breeds like Herefords and Drought Master. Most breeds have American Brahman blood – a breed resistant to ticks and able to survive the harsh conditions out here.

Cyrus cranes were quite common in the grasslands. This is parents with a chick (right)

Next stop was Croydon, where we wandered around and bought lunch. There are a couple of pubs benefitting from the arrival of tour groups for lunch, and rather than join the throng, we wandered up the road to an old general store claiming to be the oldest shop in Australia (yeah right) which had been fitted out as a museum of sorts, as well as selling everything under the sun, including take away food. Once again, this was a chance for we tourists from the prosperous coast to give a little back to the bush.

The old general store

From here we drove on to Normanton, last stop before we reached the Gulf. It’s the town where the Gulflander train heads off, so we’d be back here soon. It also has some lovely old Queensland buildings – and it holds the claim for the largest crocodile ever shot. A fiberglass model of what the croc would have looked like, an 8.63m (28ft 4in) behemoth, stands outside the local council offices. Here’s an article about the beast and the woman who shot it. Well worth reading, by the way. It gives a glimpse into another way of life, and the issues of working for conservation of crocs. I’ll admit I was sceptical about the creature’s reported size. On our visit to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures recently we were told that a croc over 6m is very unlikely. But the Guinness Book of Records seems to have accepted the claim. The locals say there’s a monster croc out there right now. Here’s a story from the Townsville Bulletin. However you see it, swimming in the Norman river doesn’t sound like a great idea.

This was probably a pub, beautifully restored. The crocodile replica is behind the cars.

Pete went to the public toilets  and found this common sight. Green tree frogs like the damp conditions 🙂

We were on the last leg of the trip to the Gulf fishing port of Karumba. We passed the golf course just before sunset, where large groups of local macropods were enjoying dinner on the fairways. We would be enjoying our own dinner soon – fresh caught barramundi with crispy chips and a salad. Yum.

Cobbold Gorge – a hidden treasure

 

The huts at Cobbold

The accommodation at Cobbold Gorge resort is basic, but quite acceptable. We stayed in a hut built of corrugated iron, with air conditioning and an en suite bathroom. As I said yesterday, the resort has a restaurant and bar. What more could you want? I woke early and hearing the sounds of pink and grey galahs, went out for a look. They were perched in a dead tree, catching the first rays of the rising sun, so they were in silhouette. But I noticed a second tree in a place where I could get the sun behind me.

After breakfast we went off to see the famous Cobbold gorge. The owner of the property, Simon Terry, found the gorge in the early nineties. You might find that hard to imagine, but if you look at the aerial photo, taken from the station’s helicopter, you’ll see it’s very narrow, therefore easily missable. Simon apparently showed the gorge to family and friends, and got the idea he could make the place into a tourist attraction. Tourists, after all, are not as susceptible to the rigours of climate and market conditions as cattle. So he and his family sold half their herd and developed the resort. It’s a credit to them all. A great little oasis in the scrub.

But even tourists can be affected by weather events. I mentioned last time the travellers in the Savannahlander who had to take a coach when the train could not return to Cairns due to flooding. Here at Cobbold the resort had to contend with a flooded river, which we had to cross to see the gorge. Normally at this time of year the river is a succession of water holes, and the crossing is simple. What to do? Like most property owners out here, the Terrys have a helicopter. The cattle station (its name is Robin Hood) covers 500 square miles, which isn’t big by local standards. Mt Surprise station is 660 square miles, and further west the properties are much larger. But you can spend a lot of time mustering on horseback on 500 square miles. Then there’s tank and fence maintenance and so on. A helicopter makes sense, and it earned its keep in preventing a whole lot of disappointment to a bunch of tourists. We were ferried 600 metres across the river in the chopper, in groups of three. Once twelve of us were on the other side our local guide took us to the creek running through the gorge and we boarded a narrow, shallow draft boat.

The gorge from the air. The boats are visible at the head of the creek, bottom left

Crossing the flooded Robertson River

The head of the gorge

It’s very, very narrow.

A couple of things stood out for me. We visited Geikie Gorge a while back, and noted the mud nests of tiny birds clinging to the overhanging rocks there. We also saw a lot of other bird life. But while Cobbold contains fish and fresh water crocodiles, we didn’t see any birds. The mud nests I noticed belonged to hornets. I would have expected, too, to have seen some evidence of the indigenous people here – rock art or similar. But there was nothing. Talking to Simon’s wife, Gaye, I learned that the local mob (tribe) were no longer around to answer any questions. They, and their language and culture, no longer existed. And that’s the sort of story nobody ever told me at school. Gaye did say, though, that in the past aboriginal stockmen working on the property wouldn’t go within 3 miles of Cobbold Gorge. Which says a lot in itself. This website will give you more information about the gorge.

It’s believed the gorge was formed after an earthquake cracked the rocks. The water in the creek found a new path to the river via the resulting split, and the rocks wore down over the millenia.

In the afternoon a couple of new-found friends and I went on a half hour helicopter ride to see Robin Hood from the air. The sandstone scarp where the gorge runs its course is very different to the rest, where the cattle feed. We also flew over an enormous dam. It’s an area rather like Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre with only one exit. In this arid country where water is a finite resource, Simon dammed the exit. Now they have a large, reliable water source to fill the tanks for their stock.

The river and the scarp of sandstone country

The dam from the air

After lunch we came across a couple taking their pets on tour with them. That’s not unusual in itself – except these pets were a pair of Eclectus parrots. The man explained the female was called Modo because of the hump on her back (as in Quasimodo). He’d bought her from a breeder who cautioned him before he entered the aviary, warning him she would attack. Instead, she settled right on his shoulder. It was a done deal. The love and trust between the man and the parrot was just stunning to see. The male was wearing a little coat because he had a skin infection. It was quite obvious he adored his Mum. They are even house-trained, telling their human when they needed to poo. The couple has a special harness in their vehicle with perches for the two birds. And the leashes are more for the bird’s protection, in case they’re spooked and fly away. (There are a lot of raptors out here.) The leash is elastic so they won’t be jerked to a halt.

A pair of visiting Eclectus parrots

Later in the day, Simon took us out for a look around the property in a 4X4 bus, explaining some of the facets of running a cattle station along the way. The beasts look great, knee deep in quality feed. There’s no doubt the folks out here care about their cattle. After all, that’s how they make a living. The silly knee-jerk cessation of the live cattle trade to Indonesia on the basis of a sensationalist TV report a few years ago, affected the bush severely. Many graziers were brought to their knees, some never recovered. As we drove, we noticed a cow carrying an injury, and passed that on to Simon. He said that cow had broken a leg early on in life, but out here it’s not uncommon for beasts not to be included in a muster, and she hadn’t been noticed for a year or so. By then the leg had healed, although she walked with a limp. But she was in good condition, showing no sign of pain, so they let her go. She’s had three calves since then.

We ended up at the dam we’d spotted from the air, had a belated afternoon cuppa, then headed back to the resort. We would be moving on early the next day.

 

West towards the Gulf

Lake Eacham, a volcanic crater lake in the Tablelands

After our brief visit to Cairns it was time to head West, over the tropical highlands and on to the Savannah. We would be travelling in a Toyota bus designed to carry 20 people. Joe, our driver, wore jeans and a battered Akubra with sweat stains and a turned-down brim. He’s a real Outback bushy, with knowledge of his country to share in his slow drawl. He put our luggage into the trailer while we filed on board.

Although these buses have 20 seats, I’ll say right now everyone in the group was pleased there were only 16 of us. The bus has a row of single seats down the left side and a row of double seats down the right, with an aisle in the middle. Sounds okay, but anyone sitting directly behind the driver has their knees around their ears. Same thing happens with the second last seats, over the back wheels. The seats are far from comfortable, and there’s not much room for carry-on items. The spare seats were used for storage. The configuration also makes it well nigh impossible to implement the tried and true method of shifting passengers around a tour bus so everybody has a go at the best (and worst) seats. The way it’s meant to work on a standard bus is all the rows are numbered on both sides at random (eg 4, 9, 12, 2 etc). Each day, the people move to the next row after the one they were sitting in. Eg those who were in row 4, which happens to be on the left at the back of the bus, move to row 5, which is on the right at the front. It works well – but not if you have 7 rows with 2 seats, and 6 rows with one. There were 4 couples, one group of three, and five singles in the group. In the end, we agreed that the couples occupied the same seats each day, while the singles rotated through the rest. We were over the back wheels – but we got used to it.

The Atherton tablelands. Rainforest and rich farmland.

Joe drove us out of Cairns and up another winding mountain road to the top of the tablelands while we admired the lush green tropical rainforest. The Atherton Tablelands were originally volcanic, with rich soils and a plethora of waterfalls. Our first stop of the day was meant to be a short toilet break at Lake Eacham, which is one of the many crater lakes in the area. But we ended up staying rather longer than we intended when one of the group wandered off in the wrong direction. Joe and our group leader, Jenny, both went off looking for the lady. Fortunately, she was found unhurt – although Jenny took a little longer to recover from her fright at losing a passenger. Joe had actually said not long before we stopped that he’d never lost anybody on a tour. I suppose there’s a first for everything.

Joe is a veritable encyclopedia about everything in this country. He was born and raised out here, and his love shines through. He told us about trees (using latin names) and what grew on which soil, and gave us a potted history of the towns we went through. Every town where we made a stop he first did a drive around the streets, pointing out highlights like the main pub(s), the school, the hospital or clinic, and any other points of interest. We stopped for morning tea at Croydon after just such a tour. (I was going to say short tour – but these are small towns – the tours are always short). But it was great, because we got a much better picture of life out here than if he’d set us down outside a café and picked us up again after 20 minutes.

The other thing Joe talked about was the problems of living out in this country. He told us about Mt Garnet, which was a thriving mining town during the boom a few years ago, until the mine closed. The miners left, taking their kids with them. The school population dropped from 140 to 40. The pub, bereft of custom, struggled on for two years, them went into receivership. And so it goes. He told us other stories, too, how bureaucrats in the Big City kill the little places with their regulations. The cattle stations spend all their profits on compliance standard and the ensuing paperwork, which means they employ less men. Out here many of the best stockmen are indigenous, but the jobs have dried up.

We drove past a paddock that used to be the town’s golf course. Joe explained that the clubhouse was owned by two elderly sisters who lived in town. They leased the premises to the golf club for $1 a year. But then the pension asset test came in, and the old ladies lost their pension because they owned too much property. The arrangement couldn’t continue, so the club closed.

Another example Joe talked about was holding functions in small towns. They’re an important part of living out here, bringing families together and raising money for community causes. We’re talking about fetes, barbecues, maybe a competition such as camp drafting. But the State Government has decreed that if alcohol is served at an event, external security MUST be brought in. These days having a few of the local farmers – or even the local cops – providing security isn’t enough. It would have cost the town $30,000 to fly in suitably accredited people from Cairns. These towns are already doing it hard, financially. Where would they get that sort of money?

Wherever we stopped for a meal break, Joe gave us an hour or so to look around. I think it’s important to these little towns to have tourists come to visit. For a start you learn more about the people who don’t live on the coastal fringe, and whatever money we spend – for food and drink, and maybe souvenirs – helps the economy tick over.

The roads out here vary from good to dead ordinary. For some distance the highway was the usual bitumen, with a well-marked lane in each direction. But sometimes it dwindled to a wide gravel road with one lane of bitumen in the middle, and sometimes there was no bitumen at all. Oh – by the way, where there’s one line of bitumen in the middle, trucks have right of way. Since it’s a major arterial, B-doubles are not uncommon. The roads are the responsibility of the local councils, but they don’t have the rate payer base, therefore the funds, to maintain these vital links without State or Federal help. Here in Queensland most of the voters live in Brisbane. Guess where the roadworks are concentrated?

We stopped for lunch at Joe’s own property, Bedrock Village at Mt Surprise, which offers accommodation for travellers in the form of a caravan park and holiday cabins. We were going back for a longer stay later, so I’ll explain more about that then. At this point we started to get a feel for the impact of the rain event which swept across the Gulf from Cairns to Karumba a few days before. You can travel on the Savannahlander train from Cairns to Forsayth, but one group had been brought up short by flood water over a railway bridge, so they were forced to travel on by coach.

Saw these two amorous butterflies at Joe’s

From Joe’s place we carried on to our evening stop at Cobbold Gorge resort. On the way, we paused for a drink at the Forsayth pub, just over the road from where the Savannahlander stood. We would be taking a trip on that train in a few days.

Joe at the Forsayth pub

But for now we drove the rest of the way over pretty awful roads to Cobbold Gorge resort. The Terry family have done a great job in making this part of their property inviting to visitors. After we put our luggage into our lodgings we rushed to the bar overlooking a lovely dam for a well-earned drink before dinner.

The bar area at Cobbold Gorge resort, with horizon pool and dam.

The dam at dusk

Back to Kuranda

Halfway to Kuranda, looking back at Cairns

Last time we were in Cairns we took the trip up to Kuranda, a tourist village at the top of the mountains, via cable car going up, and by the Kuranda scenic railway going down. This time, we were driven up a steep, winding road to the village, with a short stop at a lookout over the Barron Gorge. Like last time, I was struck by the size of the chasm the river had carved over the eons. But the several waterfalls, which were probably quite substantial in reality, looked like trickles in comparison.

I wrote a blog about our last visit to Kuranda and it’s probably worth reading it (here’s the link) to give you a comparison to this one. For a start, the weather was completely different, being actually fairly cool, and with low humidity, as opposed to last time’s sultry conditions. The rain that had lashed the coast still threatened here and there, but ended up to be no more than a couple of showers. Perhaps for that reason the village was much less crowded.

It’s a DC3, but it didn’t crash here. It was a prop for a film, and moved here as something to look at

All in all, we’d seen most of it last time. We’d been to the walk-in aviary to see the birds, weren’t all that interested in the other animal displays, so we mooched around enjoying the atmosphere and talking to the locals. Pete’s good at that. While I was taking pictures of the DC3 above, Pete was talking to a man selling ice cream from a van. He was about our vintage, an old sailor who had served on HMAS Sydney (the third one) and he knew his naval history. He mentioned HMAS Sydney 1, which sank the German raider Emden in WW1, and HMAS Sydney 2 which sank, and was sunk by, the German raider Kormoran in WW2.

We found a gemstone and fossil museum and went down to take a look. It was fascinating. The owner had turned his hobby into a job and he was more than happy to tell us about the copy of an allosaurus skeleton guarding his shop. Needless to say, he has ammonites and coprolites and all the usual pretty stuff like amethyst and agate.

There’s a distinct German flavour to parts of Kuranda. One shop sells German small goods, including a few varieties of German sausage served in various ways for lunch. I opted for käseknacker served in a hot dog roll with fried onions, no sauerkraut, eaten with fingers. Pete, always much classier, had his sausage on a plate with German potato salad and sauerkraut, eaten with a knife and fork.

Kuranda is full of arcades and stalls selling souvenirs, clothes, books – you name it. Pete bought a recipe book for “Indian style” food, and I couldn’t go past a bag with a baby elephant on it. I don’t need another bag – I’ll frame the picture.

Eventually we headed for the train to travel back to Cairns. This was much more comfortable than the sauna-like conditions we endured last time, when every seat on the train was filled. We had an entire carriage almost to ourselves, maybe 25 people in all. We were in the classier service, too, drinking several glasses of champagne and munching on salted macadamia nuts as the train eased its way down the mountain.

The train’s locomotives are decorated with the indigenous people’s Dreamtime story of the origin of the gorge. You can read it here.

After we were returned to the hotel, Pete and I went for a wander. The Mantra Esplanade Hotel has seen better days, but it’s in a great location, right at the start of Cairns’s food and entertainment district. Restaurants and bars, dive and tour shops, and souvenir places line the street. Every kind of restaurant imaginable is along there, offering food from cheap and filling to Masterchef stuff. There’s also a wonderful place called the Night Markets where you can pick up all sorts of tourist bargains as well as take away food from stalls. We found a T shirt shop selling T shirts for as little as $8 – they had stitched designs as well as the usual stuck on patterns and – get this – they were made in Australia. I bought 3.

Dinner that night was at another sporting club offering a seafood buffet. It was an improvement on the previous evening, but frankly we would have preferred to stroll down the Esplanade in town to see what caught our fancy, at our own expense. It’s much more fun and involves you in the life of the city. Organised eating is fine when there’s little to no choice, like in an outback pub.

We’d come across plenty of those in the rest of our journey.

Heading North again

The Spirit of Queensland at Cairns

About a month ago Pete and I drove up to Far North Queensland for a week’s holiday at Palm Cove, a little north of Cairns. We enjoyed our week, but had to curtail any other activities because Tropical Cyclone Debbie came calling. As it happened, she crossed the coast further south and wreaked havoc and massive floods down into the South-East corner of the state, and NSW. We had already planned our next trip, a train odyssey with a small group up to Cairns and across to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and we were pretty hopeful that after that very late cyclone the weather would return to normal programming; ie warm and dry.

Weighing in at Cairns

But Mother Nature can be a fickle old lady. Just before we started our new journey north the weather forecast predicted a significant rain event which would impact the northern coast, and then penetrate inland. Rainfall in the hundreds of millimetres was expected. Oh well. The skies were clear when we arrived at Maryborough West railway station to board the Spirit of Queensland for our journey to Cairns.

Maryborough West is (um) west of Maryborough, in the middle of not much at all. It’s a station and a few houses, and we were due to catch the train at 7:28pm. We didn’t quite believe the advice to be there an hour early for luggage and what have you, but we arrived faster than we thought we would and dragged our luggage up to the office at around 6:45. As expected, the place was unattended, so we kicked our heels in the waiting area. There’s no waiting room, just an undercover area with a few benches and a vending machine for cold drinks. Be that as it may, the local mosquitoes thought it was excellent. They were there in their squadrons and some of them were so big if a couple of them worked in tandem they could have carried us away.

A railway person arrived at about 7:10. The man weighed our bags, which were well under the 20kg allowance. I have to say I thought it was a bit odd to fuss over weight. I understand that’s important on an aircraft, but on a train?  Having attached the luggage labels, he informed us the train was running 20 minutes late, so we retired to the benches and the mozzies.

We eventually boarded at around 8pm. The train basically has two classes – economy, where you sit up for the whole trip, and rail bed, where your seat converts into a flat bed. It’s a bit like business class on an aircraft. Steve, who was lovely and as camp as they come, welcomed us onto the train and showed us our seats.

Everybody else had already eaten dinner, so all the lamb rump was gone. Chicken Kiev it was. Note the challenging movement of the tray.

Plenty of room to stretch out – but not the most comfortable seats

It’s a long journey, taking a complete 24 hour day from Brisbane to Cairns. But we had our tablets for reading, and the train had its own entertainment system, once again rather like an aircraft, but with a more limited selection. If we got bored, or wanted a drink or a cup of coffee, we could walk through to the club car. Our car had two toilets, and even a shower room.

Lunch. Smoked chicken and salad, with strawberry mousse. The food was pretty good.

At night, of course, there’s nothing to see out the windows but your own reflection, and that does tend to get a bit tedious. We watched a show or two, then turned in for not the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had. There’s a major difference between air travel and train travel. Once you’re in the air, unless you hit turbulence, air travel is pretty smooth. Train travel – at least on this train – is like being in constant low-level turbulence, with the train rockin’ and rollin’ on its tracks. Being a single line, it also had to slow down and speed up at intervals to allow for other traffic. And then there were the stops; at least ten of them. Eating was sometimes a challenge, and so was sleeping, even though the bed lies completely flat.

It’s raining out there

The big danger overnight was that the rain would cause flooding at Rockhampton, which could prevent further travel north. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and next morning the staff had us up early to convert beds back to seats, and serve breakfast. Outside the rain came down, obscuring pretty much everything more than a short distance from the tracks. This far north the views should have been picturesque. If you could see them. Back to the movies and TV shows, and a few rounds of Solitaire on the tablet. We reached Cairns only about half an hour late and were taken to our hotel close to the city’s main CBD. We were bussed to a venue for dinner – a cafeteria style arrangement at one of the sports clubs – roast meat and veg. I wasn’t impressed. If the intention was to have the group get to know each other, sitting at a long table in a noisy venue isn’t going to work. But hey. We’d made it this far and the rain had virtually cleared from the coast. Tomorrow would be another day.

Oops. I didn’t mean to do that

Deary, deary me. We got home from our trip to the wilds of Far North Queensland, and I couldn’t wait to turn on the computer to take a look at my photos on the big screen. I loaded the pics into Lightroom, then cleared the SD card (as you do). AFTER that I noticed a whole days worth of pictures were missing – the day when I really thought I’d made some great shots.

I didn’t say Oops! Those of you who know me would be aware that a succession of adjectives starting with F was in the mix. Sorry, Mum, but sometimes nothing else will do. We’d stumbled off a train at 5am after a pretty ordinary nights’ sleep. You know how it is – you check the time every hour on the hour so as not to miss the stop. Lesson #1: don’t do anything remotely technical while in zombie mode.

After I’d recovered from the resulting heart spasm, I got my overtired brain into gear.Operating systems don’t actually delete anything. The pictures should still be there. If you’re thinking I could have looked in the recycle bin, the OS only does that with files on the hard drive, not temporary devices like SD cards. But even so, I suspected my files should still be there.

You’ll be familiar with the Explorer interface when you open a folder on your computer. You get a list of files, date, file type, size. Click on a filename, and you get the file. The interface is like an index card. Each entry contains information that the OS uses to find the data and display it. When you delete a file, the record on the index card is flagged as ‘deleted’. That’s it – unless you use special software to erase the actual data. Over time, your ‘deleted’ data will be overwritten as you save new data. But until that time, your existing data is still there, unchanged.

Back in the day, I could have wriggled my way into the OS and toggled that delete flag on the index record – but that was then, and this is now, so I went looking for an application to recover my pictures.

There are plenty of packages out there to do the job, but I’m very careful about software without a recommendation. I paid good money for one, years ago, that looked great – but didn’t work at all. I think they were collecting credit card details – so I cancelled my credit card, with the associated dramas. This time, I found what I was looking for via CNet, complete with a ‘how to’ article. And the best news is, the app is FREE. There is an option to buy a more sophisticated version, but I didn’t need it.

I installed Recuva and ran the app on my SD cards. It worked as described, but while the software found a lot of old data which hadn’t been overwritten, it didn’t find my files from the last month. After a fair bit of mucking about, and a good night’s sleep, I thought the issue was the program was looking for the usual image file types – .jpg, .tiff, .png, .bmp – but not Canon’s raw file format, .CR2. So I went into Recuva’s advanced mode and changed the search parameters to just *.CR2. And… bingo! I have my pictures back!

So if you ever have an ‘oh shit’ moment, deleting a file you didn’t mean to delete, try Recuva. In our case, it’s a bloody sight cheaper than a trip back to Karumba and environs.

And here’s a picture from that day, just as a bonus prize before I write the blog posts for the trip.

 

Into the Dark

Once upon a time there was a website called Authonomy, where writers would gather and spruik their wares to the Great God Harper-Collins, who owned the site, hoping to have their opus selected for publication. Many tried, many failed, many made long lasting friendships. During my time there, one of our number floated the idea of an anthology of short stories, each written to match a randomly selected song. I joined in the fun and was  allocated (I will follow you) Into the Dark by Death Cab for Cutie. You’ll find the song with lyrics on Youtube via that link. I’d never heard of the band, or the song. But I had a listen, and enjoyed the lilting tune.

Now something interesting happened. I wrote a story a long time before, for a contest or something. It wasn’t selected. But that story really fitted the song. Deja vu? Who knows?

I’ve modified the story very slightly from the version in the anthology titled Words to Music. It wasn’t ever a best-seller. We donated any earnings to charity. As so often happens in the publishing game, it’s not about the money. Anyway, here’s my contribution. Enjoy.

********************************************************

Richard Newby put the razor back down on the wash stand. There didn’t seem much point in shaving, really. It wouldn’t matter anymore. Not where he was going.

He sidled out of the ensuite, taking care not to disturb Mary. He paused and looked down at her as he passed the bed. They’d been married for fifty-four years; she’d been his companion, his soul mate. Perhaps he should tell her what he was about to do? He shook his head. He’d been through this, agonised over the decision. Best he kept it to himself.

Richard moved on, closed the bedroom door softly behind him and went into his study. He spent most of his time here, sitting in front of his computer, surfing the net or fiddling. Mary told him he should walk or play golf, and she was probably right. But he’d been in IT all his life, and the doctors told you to keep your brain active, didn’t they? Find something you love and do it. That’s what he’d done

He eased himself into his chair and turned the machine on, a slight smile playing around his mouth as the operating system loaded. He licked his lips, a tremor of anticipation… or maybe apprehension… running through his body. One way or another his life would never be the same again.

He loaded the song and listened one more time. It had been his inspiration, gentle and lilting. He smiled. Heaven and Hell displaying a ‘no vacancy’ sign.

The helmet was on a stand next to him, already plugged in. Richard slipped it over his head and pulled the visor down over his eyes. It fitted exactly, which was understandable. That was how he’d built it.

“Into the Dark,” he said.

 ************************

 Mary came in an hour later with his cup of tea and two biscuits.

“Here’s your tea, dear,” she said, putting the cup on the desk. “Are you going to take that thing off your head?” She shook his shoulder.

His body slumped sideways in the chair, the left arm dangling almost to the floor, the right on his lap.

Mary’s hands flew to her face. “Richard?”

She lifted his right hand, her fingers slipping around his wrist to feel for a pulse.

“Mary? Mary, over here.”

Mary frowned and peered at the helmet. “Where?”

“The computer, hunbun. Behind you.”

Mary peered at the screen, her expression wary. “Is this a joke?” she whispered. “Because it isn’t funny.”

“No, it’s me.” Richard, pointed at his chest. “That thing there,” he pointed at the body in the chair, “that’s just a hulk. I’m not there anymore.”

Mary gasped, her fingers flying to her mouth. “You’re dead?”

“It depends what you mean, hunbun. The body out there doesn’t work anymore because the operating system has turned off. But I’m fine here, in the cyber world.”

Her eyes widened. “You’re in the computer?”

“You might say that. Sort of. See that helmet on my—its—head? I worked out a way to transfer myself—my thoughts, my memories, my mind—into data sets. I’ve loaded all of that into this.” His hands swept down his sides to indicate himself, the being she could see on the screen. “What do you think?”

He was young again, of course. But better looking, fitter, more athletic, like one of those lifesavers at the beach. No need for the glasses he’d worn all his life. And he’d given himself a nose job and wavy, dark brown hair. And of course the tumour, that malignant thing in his chest, sapping his strength, turning his lungs to mash, that was gone, too.

“You look wonderful,” murmured Mary. “But… what about us? Why didn’t you say? When are you coming back?”

“I’m not coming back, darling. This was a one way trip. And I didn’t want to say anything in case it didn’t work. But it has and I want you to come, too.”

Another avatar appeared next to him. Mary at twenty five. Only with bigger breasts and thinner thighs. He’d given her thicker, longer hair and full, luscious lips.

“Remember her, hunbun? Wouldn’t you like to be her again?”

Hope and longing shone in her eyes. Of course she’d want to be twenty-five again.

“How? What do I have to do?”

“Put on the helmet and pull the visor down over your eyes.”

Mary frowned. “Will I die?”

“Only your body. You will be here, with me.”

“But what if somebody turns off the computer? They will, you know.”

“Won’t matter.” Richard waved his hand. “We’ll be out there in cyberspace, riding the net. There’s always a server switched on somewhere.”

“What about food and… and going to the bathroom and such?”

Richard dismissed it with a snort. “All bodily things. They won’t concern you anymore. Neither will arthritis and bad knees. We’ll live forever and never grow old.”

She chewed her lip. “What about the children? They’ll be upset.”

“They’re hardly children anymore. They’ve got their own lives. And really, we’ll be saving them a lot of pain. The doctor said the lump was getting bigger. He gave me six, eight months.”

“Oh.” Her gaze lingered on the corpse in the chair and then lifted back to the screen. “The lump’s gone?”

“Of course. And here, it can’t come back. Go on, Mary, take the helmet off the body. There’s a clip under my—its—chin.”

She hesitated, staring at the computer screen as if trying to see inside, beyond the glass. “I’m frightened, Richard.”

“Mary… hun… we’ve talked about this. You don’t believe in heaven or in hell.”

She almost smiled. “No. Of course not.”

“So the option is… darkness. One day, the operating system fails and it’s over. For all eternity.”

She rubbed her hand across her mouth. She always did that when she was nervous. “And then I’d be…” She sighed. “Alone.”

“And so would I, Mary. Come on. Darkness isn’t the only option.”

She stood a little straighter, head cocked to one side, considering. “What will we do?”

“Anything you like. You’d be amazed at the sorts of things you can find in cyberspace. Visit anywhere in the world, sample all sorts of places, do…” He sniggered. “Do some things we haven’t done for a long time.”

She blushed and smiled. A series of expressions flitted across her face. He knew what she was thinking; the things she’d be giving up. The children, the bowls club and her friends. He crossed his fingers. Please, Mary, please.

Mary sucked in a deep breath. “All right.”

Richard watched her take the helmet off the… his body. There was a smile on its face and its eyes were open. Mary closed them with her fingers. She stood for a moment with the helmet in her hands, pressing her lips together.

“Come on, hun,” he whispered. “Push the… me… out of the chair and sit down.”

Mary reached out with a tentative left hand. A push, little more than a tap on the shoulder. Richard’s bodily remains slumped a little more, but remained in the chair. Mary sucked in a deep breath, swallowed, and pushed harder. The body slid sideways out of the chair and collapsed into an untidy heap on the floor. She sat down, gripped the helmet in her hands and placed it firmly over her head. It was a little bit loose, but that was all right. She fastened the clip and stared at him, a sparkle in her dark eyes.

“Now put down the visor and say ‘Into the Dark.’”

A nervous flick of her tongue across her lips and then she slid the visor down over her face. “Into the Dark.”

Richard saw her body stiffen and then relax and sag, almost as if it was deflating.

Beside him, Mary’s avatar looked down at her new body and laughed. “How about a kiss, big boy?”

On food and being an immigrant

Vegemite jar pictureI was discussing Vegemite with some online friends recently. It’s quintessentially Australian, an icon which I’m delighted to say after having been purchased by an American company some years back, has now reverted to an Australian company. Unlike the happy little Australian Vegemites of my generation, I didn’t like the stuff at all. It had the colour and consistency of axle grease and tasted worse. We didn’t grow up with it, you see. I’ve acquired a taste for it, but it took a long time.

The spread’s origins are explained in the link above, but I reckon Terry Pratchett’s theory that failed wizard, Rincewind, invented the stuff by boiling copious quantities of beer in a billy is much better fun. As well as pretty close to true.  In fact, if you want to know how most of Australia’s icons originated, you can’t go past his book, The Last Continent. It’s actually about Forex (XXXX), not Australia, but that’s close enough. After all, XXX is Queenslandish for beer.  Here’s a spoiler-filled article all about the book.

Anyhow, back to food tastes.

Mind you, the Australians had their doubts about what we Clogs ate, too. You eat raw fish? Yes, yum, roll mops. And as for salted liquorice… at least if I had that with me on school excursions, I had it all to myself. I remember one friend asking to try it. I told her she wouldn’t like it, but she insisted. The look of dawning revulsion on her face was a picture.

Mum, of course, cooked the meals she and Dad were used to in Holland at home. She got a job as a cook at a school for nurses not all that long after we moved to Shenton Park and she had to learn a whole different cuisine. But we ate Dutch food, or at least, food prepared in a Dutch way. Potatoes formed an absolute staple and some of my favourites were variations on ‘stamppot’ – basically potatoes mashed with other vegetables, with some added bacon or some such. I loved hutspot, which is potatoes, onions, carrots mixed with chopped fried bacon. But really, stamppot can be made from potatoes and anything – sauerkraut, leeks, cabbage, whatever. Served with Dutch smoked sausage and mustard. Or there was hashee, which is basically a cheap cut of beef cooked slowly with lots of onions and served with potatoes and veg. Soup was another staple, often made with little or no meat, such as bruine bonen soep (brown bean soup) or Dutch pea and ham soup, thick enough to stand a spoon in.

Then there were the cakes. The Dutch used marzipan for chocolate letters or filled pastry during Sinterklas (their pre-Christmas celebration)but it also had pride of place in lots of every day cakes like gevulde koek. The first time I went back to Holland for a brief visit I walked along a street past a few patisseries – I don’t know what else you’d call them – and they were just putting out the freshly made cakes. The smells were incredible. You don’t get that from packets of imported cakes bought from the supermarket. Find out more about what floats the culinary boat in the Netherlands from this article. It has pictures.

Mum always used to make soesjes for birthdays. They’re profiteroles, not specially Dutch but quite delicious. I used to watch her make up the choux pastry, half cooking it on the stove top. Then she plopped shapeless lumps onto a baking sheet and after half an hour in the oven out would come these golden brown shells of nothing, ready to be filled. I got to smother the tops with chocolate icing and spoon cream (whipped with a smidgen of sugar and a hint of vanilla) into their middles. And then… and then I got to lick the cream off the beaters, and use my fingers to wipe off the mixing bowl for the chocolate icing.

Dutch apple tart was another all-time favourite. I made this just a week or so ago. Note the cinnamon. It gives the apples and raisins a lovely flavour. The lattice isn’t perfect – but what the hey – it just gets eaten. Best served warm with a dollop of cream or ice cream.  This is the recipe I used.

 

 

Reflections on TV these days

I’m not a great watcher of television. Never have been, really, but in the last few years most of the TV channels churn out “reality” TV shows – cheap to produce and I suppose they must be popular.  I remember quite a few years back, Pete and I were returning from Brisbane to Melbourne on a Sunday afternoon. Our car was parked in the long term car park, which is serviced by a fleet of small buses going between the car park and the terminal. We caught one of these buses and listened to the conversation between a large group evidently travelling together. They had been to the Big Brother house, where the reality show was being filmed. They were right into it, talking about the … what do you call them… contestants? in the house as though they knew them. Pete and I exchanged a few looks with each other. I think we managed ten minutes of the show, maybe twice. But we must be in the minority, because reality show ‘stars’ seem to be able to make a fortune out of this stuff. The Kardashian shows have been around for a decade. You can buy the DVDs in Big W etc. And Kim Kardashian’s butt and boobs must be around the most-photographed in the world. Particularly by herself.

Apart from that, we have reality shows following the activities of customs officials, road patrol cops, the dog squad, vets – you name it. We get to see the versions from overseas, too. New Zealand airport arrivals, UK immigration officers etc etc. Then there’s the real set-ups. Married at first sight, the seven year itch thing, the biggest loser, survivor, I’m a celebrity – get me out of here.  It’s pretty hard to find any decent drama on the box these days. Unless you buy a subscription service, or you’re prepared to sit through the endless commercials on each channel’s extra services where they air the old shows.

Even the news has plummeted. The ABC is so far left that it might as well join the Labor (sic) party. With the exception of Aljazeera, which still employs journalists, the other channels seem to revolve their news broadcasts around dolly birds with long hair standing outside places like the law courts or maybe the scene of a crime, telling us what the studio announcer has already told us, with a few guesses at what might happen next. During the recent tropical cyclone Debbie there must have been at least a dozen ‘reporters’ scattered along the coast. One idiot was filmed at Airlie Beach, rain-soaked, with the wind howling, exhorting people to stay inside their houses. As for the morning breakfast programs – I get out of bed and log on to Facebook, while Pete watches TV. I reckon I know about most of the important stories before he does, and I don’t have to listen to the inane banter.

Apart from the obligatory news and weather, just about the only programs I like to watch are cooking shows. I hasten to add that does NOT include the egregious My Kitchen Rules. That’s a contrived program about people set up to present interpersonal dramas (a reality show). ie it’s not about the food. I do watch Masterchef. Yes, I know it has its set-ups, especially when the team competitions take place. But that show IS all about the food. That said, I’d rather watch Maggie Beer, Rick Stein, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and the like. My particular favourite was Two Fat Ladies. One of the ladies was an ex-lawyer who was a reformed alcoholic, the other liked a drink and a smoke. She rode the motorbike, while her ex-lawyer mate sat in the sidecar. They made smashing food, with not a low fat alternative in sight. It was always butter, cream, and lard. Real food.

And on the subject of food, have you noticed how weight loss has come full circle? When I was young and slim and conscious of what I looked like in mini skirts and jeans, if I put on a couple of pounds the drill was to stop eating carbohydrates such as bread and potatoes. If you wanted a snack, you ate a stick of celery, or a chunk of cheese. Now, after years of manufactured rubbish like low fat yoghurt and cheese, soft drinks loaded with aspartame, margarine (remember ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter?’), fat meticulously cut off everything before cooking, and no more than three or four eggs a week (because cholesterol), we’ve come back to real (unadulterated) food in moderation. That transition has taken about forty years. I recall my mother always had a jar in which she collected the drippings from cooking meat or bacon. It was a staple of her cooking, as well as a good way of using a valuable resource. Maybe we can start doing that again.

Okay, rant over.

In other news, I haven’t done much writing, although I’ve started a new story. But while I was doing some computer housekeeping, I ran across a blog post I wrote six or seven years ago, about the evolution of my earliest books. You’ll find it at Space freighters’.

Now for pictures. These are some of my favourite bee pictures.

A bee on a sunflower

A honey bee approaches a callistemon

A native blue banded bee (these guys are tiny)

A close-up of a blue banded bee with a salvia flower. This bee is quite old – you tell by the bald patch on its back

Honey bee and Geraldton wax

Matching bees on everlastings

Bee and rosemary