Australia’s cuddliest critter (not)

Would you believe not all of Australia’s animals are cute and cuddly? You would, wouldn’t you? The place is crawling with lethal snakes, deadly spiders, murderous little octopuses, excruciatingly painful jellyfish… It’s all true, of course, but it’s pretty much a case of if you leave them alone, they leave you alone.

But not salt water crocodiles.

They’re ancient, clever, sneaky, and as far as they’re concerned, you’re just another sort of meat. Crocodile hunting was banned in the 1970’s because their numbers were so low. They were an easy target and their skins were worth a fortune – so much of a fortune that they were nearly wiped out. Since then, they’ve re-established themselves and become a tourist drawcard. So we went to look at crocs, as you do. This link will give you detailed information about the species.

See that lump of wood just under that overhanging foliage? That’s Ted’s snout

In Australia we call the salt water, or estuarine, crocodiles salties. The name is misleading because ‘salt water’ crocodiles can live very happily in fresh water, as well as in the ocean. In the wild they can become very large, and a danger to people and livestock. A big croc will take a cow, let alone a dog, a kangaroo, or a man. Farmers can’t shoot them anymore, but rangers will trap them and relocate them to a croc farm, where the big boys will live out their years making baby crocs. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, where we went to see crocodiles, has one male (Ted) who is over five metres long – the second largest croc in captivity. They reckon he’s around one hundred years old, he’s lost all but one of his teeth and one eye, and the eye he does have is blind. It seems he still enjoys the mating season, though. We were told that one of the park’s most recent additions, a four and half metre male called Snappy Tom, was caught on the golf links at Port Douglas, where it had taken to lunging at golfers. The ranger also told us about one big male who had been placed into solitary confinement. He’d taken to attacking the females, and ended up killing one. Bottom line: crocs are not nice. For Americans, alligators are similar in appearance to salties, but they don’t get as big. A four-metre alligator is big, a saltie has a way to go. According to the rangers, they’re also not as nasty. Every big saltie has bits missing – tail, claws, teeth. They fight for females and territory, the females fight to protect their nests. They grow up ornery.

In the short time we were in Cairns it became obvious that crocodiles are becoming a growing problem. I read a heart-wrenching story about a man whose elderly dog was taken from the shallows. He’d thrown a stick for her, just a couple of feet. As she was coming back he saw a bow wave behind her – and that was that. A spearfisherman was taken by a 4.8 metre croc. And an imbecile escaped with his life after trying to impress a girl. Seems this 18yo idiot told a backpacker that crocs only took tourists and jumped into the Johnstone River to prove it. He no sooner hit the water when a big croc latched on to his arm. He managed to escape with a badly lacerated arm, but apparently his brain cells are as bad as ever – he said he’d do it again. Keep an eye out for him in the Darwin Awards. Here’s the story from the news.

These guys are destined to be handbags.

At Hartleys we were taken to see the croc farm where male salties are raised for mainly leather used for handbags, belts, and the like. There’s a demand in Asia for top quality hides to be made into handbags that sell for as much as $38,000. (Pass) The meat is used, too, and any leftovers are ground down for fertiliser, so there’s no wastage. Our guide told us it’s the same as running a beef property, or a chicken farm. The animals are raised as a commodity.

Boat on the lagoon at Hartley’s. There are crocs in that water

We were taken for a boat ride on the lagoon. It’s shady and dirty, perfect for the twenty-one crocodiles who live in there. They behave as they would in the wild, and any eggs the females lay are collected for the farm, where they are incubated at just the right temperature so the hatchlings are all male. Our guide brought along food (chicken heads and wings) so the reptiles would actually show up. They are usually stealth hunters, sneaking up and lunging. But they can move very fast, and jump quite high. And of course, they knew to expect a meal. They’re smart. Up in Northern Australia the bushmen will tell you never to go fishing at the same spot three nights in a row. If you go back that third time, there’ll be a croc waiting for you.

After the boat trip the rangers showed us salties in a different setting where we could get a better feel for their size and speed. That’s a female croc, and she’s not specially big.

The jaws are very powerful. They kill by grabbing hold of the prey and drowning it, rolling over in the water.

And then on to the freshies.

Don’t try this with a saltie

Australia has two croc species. So far, I’ve talked about the salt water crocodile. Fresh water, or Johnson River, crocodiles are a very different beast. They’re smaller, are much more docile, and their skins are worthless for the leather trade. This croc is like most Australian critters – leave it alone and it will leave you alone. Poke it with your foot (as one tourist apparently did) and it might get upset. After all, it’s still a crocodile. The ranger is in there amongst the freshies – he would not do this with a saltie. That would win him a Darwin award.

The resident buck – an Eastern Grey

A couple of wallabies – like Alan (see below)

Hartley’s park has quite a few other animals, too. This is another place where you can get your picture taken with a koala, or if you prefer, a python or a baby crocodile (no doubt with its jaws taped shut – they’re born nasty). We decided to look at the kangaroos and wallabies instead. Like most zoos, these marsupials are housed in a walk-in compound. Many are tame enough for tourists to approach. On our way out through the double gates we noticed someone hand feeding a wallaby. The man walked away but the wallaby hung around and we noticed a sign with a photo of a wallaby. “My name is Alan. Don’t let me sneak through the gates” or words to that effect. We figured Alan must have escaped from the roo enclosure, so we let him back in and went on our way to photograph birds of prey. While Pete, Sandy and I thought we’d done the right thing with Alan, Col wasn’t so sure. Maybe we shouldn’t have let him into the compound. We all poo-pooed that. After all, shouldn’t a wallaby be with the other wallabies?

On our way back from the aviary we came upon a ranger and Col asked him about Alan. “We keep Alan out of there,” the ranger explained. “He’s antisocial and chases everybody.” Admitting nothing, we went back through the roo enclosure – and there was Alan, chasing a female kangaroo that must have been three times his size. Oops.

Oh well. As we pointed out to the ranger, the sign wasn’t clear.

Let’s finish with a couple of the lovely raptors in the bird enclosure – another walk-through environment.

Dozing. Of course. An Australian sooty owl

A brown goshawk

Riding the sky rail

Swingin’ up over the rain forest

One of the fun things to do in Cairns is to take a ride up into the tablelands on a cable car, and come back down again on a vintage train after you’ve pottered around at the quaint little town of Kuranda. (or vice versa – here’s all the info) Kuranda is one of those very touristy places, with cafes and restaurants, and markets filled with didgeridoos, T shirts, postcards, artwork, tea towels, stuffed kangaroos… you get the picture. But it also has some other attractions, such as a bird sanctuary, a butterfly house, and a wildlife exhibition where you can get your picture taken holding a koala (for a price, of course). Here’s the Kuranda website.

Tropical Cyclone Debbie wasn’t even a twinkle in a meteorologist’s eye at this stage – but there’s a reason they call it rain forest. There’s always a risk of a shower. So far so good, though. We caught the cable car up to Kuranda, gliding up the mountain over the rain forest, admiring the view over Cairns to the Coral Sea. Helicopters were used to put all the pylons that support the cables into place, causing minimum disruption to the landscape.

A walk through the treetops

We hopped off the cable car at Red Peak, the journey’s highest point, and took a walk along a board walk through the top of the rain forest. Tour guides take groups along and explain the ecology, and you can admire the view for as long as you like before you jump back into a car to continue the journey to the viewing platform for Barron Falls. I was really, really looking forward to that. I’d seen some pictures online from just a few weeks before, showing the falls thundering down into its gorge.

Barron gorge with a bit of waterfall. That’s the train on the opposite side to give some context.

So yeah, I was very, very, very disappointed. Oh well. Ma Nature runs according to her own rhythms. And the dam at the top of the falls did the rest. On to Kuranda.

After we’d pottered around the markets for a while, we headed for the bird sanctuary, a large, free-fly aviary with an assortment of native and exotic birds, many of them very friendly, especially if you brought in food (sold by the sanctuary). We were warned before we went in that the birds would be attracted to jewellery, buttons on caps and the like. It’s true… it’s true. One parrot immediately landed on Col’s baseball cap and pulled off the button at the top. One bird landed on Pete’s shoulder, and several other people had birds sitting on their arms or shoulders.

At one stage as we walked around most of the birds suddenly stared upwards. Sure enough, a wedge-tailed eagle soared high above the sanctuary. They were safe, of course, but old habits remain.

Here’s a selection of pictures.

This Alexandrine made a beeline for Col’s hat

Male red tailed cockatoo

Female red tailed cockatoo

Deep in conversation with a Columbian sun conure

A cattle egret showing off

A male eclectus parrot (native Australian)

Female eclectus parrot. This is one of those rare occasions where the female is brighter than the male

A koala doing what koalas do best

I expect somebody is going to ask to see the picture of me holding a koala. There isn’t one. Few places today allow tourists to handle koalas since it’s believed it stresses the animal. Think about it. You’re a sedentary, mainly solitary creature. You spend between 18 and 22 hours per day sleeping, and quite a lot of the rest eating. You’re carried out by someone you know, and you’re handed over to a complete stranger who probably has no idea what to do with you and maybe giggles excitedly while somebody else pokes a camera at you. Phew. That’s over. You seek refuge with your usual handler. And then a new stranger comes along and you have to do it all over again. So no. Not me.

Mind you, there are a number of koalas at the few places that allow strangers to handle the animals. I expect there’s a rotation so one koala only features in a few shots at a time, and they would be carefully supervised by handlers. I also appreciate that offering the opportunity might make money to help with conservation, but I can’t help but feel it’s a bit like sacrificing some koalas for the many. Koalas are now endangered because humans have encroached on their habitat. We need to give them room to live safely away from dogs and cars. Here’s a bit of info about koalas.

We had lunch with rain squall accompaniment (we were inside, watching from a veranda), and after we’d bought a few T shirts, we caught the train back down to the valley. It’s an old train with antique carriages where the air conditioning is you opening the windows. It was like being in a sauna as the train crept down the steep gradients. We stopped for ten minutes at Barron Falls, which was just as disappointing from this side as it had been from the other. All the way, we learned about how this railway line had been built in the 1880’s, opening in 1891. Here’s a little of the history. OH&S hadn’t been invented then. All the tunnels (there are fifteen) were dug by hand after initial blasting, and the workers were expected to bring their own tools. Same with bridges and track. There are spectacular views across Cairns of course, and the train stopped for a few moments so we could take photos of Stoney Creek Falls – which almost made up for Barron Falls. (Did I mention how disappointed I was?)

Stoney creek Falls – right next to the railway line. Photo taken from the train.

One of several tight curves on the track. This one’s on a bridge.

The sun was setting when we got back to Palm Cove. It had been a Big Day Out.

In search of waterfalls

Peppers from the Esplanade

Palm Cove is the northern-most of Cairns’s northern beaches, most of it strung along a picturesque esplanade hugging the beach.  The first thing we noticed is the way the massive paperbark trees are incorporated into the landscape – and the buildings.  There’s no doubt the land our building was built on was reclaimed from a swamp. The frogs started up at sundown, just on the other side of the path to our room. The biggest trees are estimated at three to five hundred years old.

A massive paperbark next to Peppers

The Peppers resort comprised six buildings, most of them set around a very large swimming pool, complete with white sand and a swim-up bar. You can swim in the ocean – but there are signs warning about marine stingers and crocs. We were told quite a large croc was known to sun itself on the sandbar at the end of the beach. More about crocs in another post. For those desperate to try the sea, a stinger enclosure (a floating tube defining a rectangle with suspended fine netting to stop the stingers from getting in) had been set up opposite the hotel. All that lovely beach – but you’re safer in the hotel swimming pool. That’s how it is in (F)ar (N)orth (Q)ueensland. Read more about stingers here. We saw a couple of staff members trawling a net outside the enclosure to check for stingers. They both wore lycra stinger suits, covering their bodies from head to foot. Stingers deliver excruciating pain and are not to be messed with.

We were in an apartment on the third floor – and there were no lifts. I expect it did us good trudging up and down the stairs several times a day. The apartment had a nice tropical feel, and a spa bath on the balcony, if that was your fancy. Although the room was air conditioned, the restaurant wasn’t, relying on what breeze there was from the beach just across the road. But that was just for breakfast and one special dinner. The esplanade itself has a multitude of eateries catering for every taste and wallet. Friends of ours were also staying at Palm Cove and we tried a number of restaurants with them.

Peppers seems to be a great place to chill out, get a massage, do not much. But we wanted to see some of the sites, number one on the list for me and for Sandy, was the Atherton Tablelands and the waterfall circuit. Along that part of the coast the mountains come close to the beach, and although they’re not high by international standards, they’re steep and covered in rainforest. Rainforest means rain means watercourses means waterfalls. We didn’t see them all, but I’ve included a few.

The Atherton tablelands. Rainforest and rich farmland.

Driving up the mountain was an adventure in itself. I reckon the last time I was on anything like such a winding, snaking, narrow, challenging road was in Switzerland. Even Sandy and Col, who regularly drive in similar conditions where they live, remarked on how steep and winding it was.

Sandy and I had a wonderful time with the cameras, despite the occasional rain squall. And we could have done without the local Mr Plod who stopped us for speeding when we passed a clown behaving erratically. Still and all, he must have taken pity on a bunch of old farts and a driver with a spotless record. He stopped us again (flashing lights and all) and reduced the severity of the penalty. Col reckons he made a mistake and was covering up. Could be.

Anyway, here are the waterfalls.

Malanda falls. There was a wonderful information centre here, a great place to find out about the environment, and the plants and animals.

Millaa Millaa fals, complete with bikini-clad tourists

The top of Zillie Falls. The descent was a bit too steep and challenging for us.

Walking through the rain forest

This is the river that feeds Elinjaa falls, hurrying along for its date with destiny

A tortoise takes a sun bathe. This was a chance to try out the new Big Lens

 

Say hello to TC Debbie

The Coral Sea from Palm Cove

We’ve just come back from FNQ (Far North Queensland), after spending a week at Peppers Palm Cove resort, just north of Cairns. Normally I’d write about the trip and what we saw and experienced, but this time, I’ll start at the end, because the trip was cut short. You see, Debbie decided to visit.

When we arrived at Palm Cove, which is right on the beach, the view was gorgeous, as shown above. It’s a tropical climate, so cumulus stacks gather above the warm ocean, maybe moving inland for an afternoon rain squall. Standing out there gazing at the sea the sweat trickles down your skin. A swim would be nice, but the air is still and the ocean bath-tub warm – perfect for marine stingers. The crocs don’t mind, either, so you either swim in the stinger enclosure at the beach or use the pool at the hotel, which has a swim-up bar. It might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s such a waste of a beautiful beach.

It has been a strange summer all over Queensland from a weather point of view. Rain has fallen inland, the monsoon arrived late in the North, and around the sub-tropical Fraser Coast where we live, we’ve not seen such a savage drought. While we were up in the tropics we heard that Cyclone Caleb had been declared – only the third of the season! I don’t know why we thought it was in the Coral Sea, where we were, but it was actually far out to sea off the coast of Western Australia.

Maybe that mistake turned out to be prophetic.

On our second-last day at Palm Cove that idyllic beach scene looked like this.

A rain storm out sea

A massive rainstorm hung over the ocean on the horizon. And then we heard the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was keeping a whether eye on a deepening low off the Queensland coast. We weren’t surprised. The sea’s always warm up here, but I’d heard thirty degrees. Maybe the coral reefs were praying for rain to cool them down. Standing on the beach it was easy to imagine some massive beast out there beyond the horizon, hovering over the ocean, sucking up moisture, swelling and strengthening. The clouds scudded by driven by a brisk south-easter, drawn into the dance around the as-yet-nameless storm. By evening her name was Debbie and our proposed visit to Cooktown, north of Cairns, was scratched. Cyclones are unpredictable beasts. Models showed Debbie heading for landfall in an area about 750 kilometres wide, but if she decided to veer north, Cooktown might be in the way. Even if she didn’t, we might reach Cooktown, but extensive flooding further south would make it a long, slow road home. And with predictions of Debbie becoming a high category four, or even a cat five before she crossed the coast, there would be flooding. This is a good explanation of cyclones.

Experiencing a full-blown tropical cyclone isn’t an item on my bucket list, but we figured we didn’t have to run for it straight away. We had one more day at Palm Cove – a Friday. The BOM wasn’t expecting the storm to hit the coast until Tuesday, and gales were not forecast until Sunday afternoon. If we left early on Saturday morning, we should be able to clear the danger area and make it home by Sunday night. On our way home we had intended to stay for a couple of days with a friend living high on the hill above Airlie Beach, roughly halfway to Hervey Bay from here. We’d have to cut the visit short, but he would understand. It seemed like a plan.

Ominous sky on Saturday

It rained heavily at Palm Cove on Friday night, but the next morning was dry, if ominous. The further we went, the clearer the sky became, at least as far as Townsville. From there on small patches of cloud appeared, all heading north like a flock of sheep being herded by an invisible sheep dog riding the wind.

Airlie Beach from our friend’s balcony

Airlie Beach in a good time

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, a cluster of island holiday destinations dotted around the Coral Sea with the Great Barrier Reef at their doorstep. The anchorage is usually full of boats, but not this time. Maybe a dozen moorings were occupied when we arrived at our friend’s place. The next morning there were about six – probably owned by people down south. The evening was warm and relatively calm enough to eat outside but as the hours passed, the wind picked up. When we went to bed we left the window open to get some breeze – at least for a little while. Maybe because of the way the building was constructed, the breeze growled like an animal looking for a way in, probing any crevice with fingers of air. With each gust the growl became a howl and every now and then, with a shriek of triumph, the wind burst through, sending the drapes flapping like a torn spinnaker. We were forced to close the window and turn on the fan, but even so, the wind entity prowled around the building, testing its defences, its howl underscored by the steady rhythm of the ceiling fan.

It wasn’t the best nights’ sleep either of us had experienced. We hit the road early, anxious to avoid any chance of striking floodwater. We had expected the highway would be busy with other people heading south, especially caravans, but the road was surprisingly quiet. We saw quite a few emergency crews heading north, mobilised by the State Government for the expected damage. We also heard that people in low lying areas in Debbie’s path had been ordered to evacuate – including homes in the lower parts of Airlie Beach.

We stopped twice at shopping centres, busy with people stocking up on canned food, water, and supplies like batteries. It was all very business-like, but then, cyclones are part of life in North Queensland, and while they are destructive, they also have an important role to play in the ebbs and flows of the environment up there. Floods feed the wetlands and the aquifers that get the farmers through the dry times, and the rain cools down the sea temperatures on the Great Barrier Reef. I wondered how farm animals would fare in the storm, and a farmer interviewed on the radio said he’d moved his poddy calves in close to the homestead, but that the cows seemed to know how to cope. I’m certain the birds and animals do, too. During our day out on Friday we noticed the birds were scarce. On the other hand, farmers growing cane, bananas, or vegetables would be keeping their fingers crossed. A cat 4 cyclone packs winds up to 279kph, and a cat 5 is (of course) even worse.

We turned into our driveway at home just in time to watch the sunset on Sunday. We’re safe and comfortable. Our very best wishes to everyone in Debbie’s path. Stay safe. Like they say on the radio, cyclones rarely kill people. Downed power lines and floodwaters certainly do.

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the blog tour #giftcard #prize

The Stuff of Legend is going on tour. Join in for a chance to win an Amazon gift card

When history professor Olivia Jhutta receives a distress call from her parents, she sets out into space with their business partner, her grandmother and injured Confederacy Admiral Jak Prentiss to find them. But she’s not the only one interested in the Jhutta’s whereabouts. The Helicronians believe Olivia’s parents have found an ancient weapon which they can use to wage war on the Confederacy.

Jak goes on the trip to fill in time while he’s on enforced leave, helping Olivia follow cryptic clues in what he considers an interplanetary wild goose chase in search of a fairy story. But as the journey progresses and legend begins to merge with unsettling fact, Olivia and Jak must resolve their differences and work together if they are to survive. The two are poles apart… but it’s said opposites attract. If they can manage to stay alive.

Amazon readers say:

Another thoroughly enjoyable book from a gifted author. I would like to see more from this universe with its Admirals.

Greta is back with another race through space with an enigmatic admiral and the independent woman who will grab his attention and his heart. At first we can hiss at the hero as he stumbles through his usual seduction routine only to find Professor Olivia not nearly as impressed as he’d hoped. It will take a dash through space in a search for Olivia’s missing parents, delving into the distant past, dealing with a megalomaniac, and facing their own insecurities for them to find each other.
Great world building with the possibility of more stories in this part of Greta’s universe. I can’t wait.

Buy the book: Amazon  Google iBooks  Nook Kobo  Print

 

Who was Jack the Ripper?

Not so long ago I was browsing through Facebook (as you do) and came across a post about famous crime author, Patricia Cornwell’s, new book about Jack the Ripper. I’ve long had an interest in the case, probably like most people who read crime fiction. It’s intriguing how this serial killer who committed his crimes starting in 1888, still holds the public imagination. I hasten to add I’ve not researched it, and I didn’t know the details of the murders – just that they occurred in London’s East End, the victims were all prostitutes, their bodies were mutilated, and the killer was never caught. I also knew that many people had raised theories about Jack’s identity. I remember a two-part mini-series in the eighties (I think) dramatising the events, and nominating Sir William Gull, the Queen’s physician, as the murderer. Then there was the story the police were covering up for the Queen’s grandson, the Duke of Clarence.

And so it goes. I was certainly interested in Patricia Cornwell’s take on events. She’s well known for her series of books starring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta. She apparently isn’t the first to point the finger at Walter Sickert, who is a famous Victorian painter (who knew?). She released a book in 2002 entitled Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed. She might have thought the case was closed, but, as she says in the article, her hypothesis was ripped to pieces. She learned from at least some of the critics, realised she’d left holes in her argument, and had another go. Her reasoning is explained in Chasing the Ripper, which I downloaded from Amazon for free. It’s short, and well worth your time. Her new book Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert is available in print, but not yet as an ebook. I’ll read it when it is.

Discussing the Cornwell article, one of my FB friends asked if I’d read They all Love Jack: Busting the Ripper. I hadn’t, but I have now. Bruce Robinson has gone to extraordinary lengths to re-examine primary evidence – what’s left of it – and built a compelling case. He has a very poor opinion of Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, most especially of the ‘ruling’ class clustered around the widowed queen and her son, Edward, the Prince of Wales. He makes particular reference to the influence of Freemasonry across all important roles in Government. The Prince of Wales was the Grand Master of the order. Reading the book, I enjoyed the insights into Victorian society, especially because of Robinson’s delivery. This is no dry history book, despite the facts it brims with facts and black and white photos. Robinson builds a case that the Metropolitan police, under the guidance of Sir Charles Warren ( who broke up protesters in Trafalgar square with cavalry), didn’t catch Jack because he was a fellow Freemason, a gentleman whose arrest would have rocked the core of London’s elite. He maintains that all the Ripper’s murders were based on Freemason rituals.

Reading about the Freemasons was fascinating, not least because, as I read about their hierarchies and rituals, my mind was drawn to the secret society in Terry Pratchett’s wonderful book, Guards, Guards! It was clearly written as a send-up of the Freemasons. Ahem. I digress.

If you’re at all interested in true crime and corruption, or even simply Victorian history, this is a great read. It’s a fat book, and not cheap as ebooks go, but I’m happy to have foregone the cost of a cheapish bottle of wine. I have no doubt I’ll read it again. Robinson builds a meticulous case which is hard to refute. In proper academic style, he provides footnotes and references for all quotes, and in cases such as the Ripper’s mocking letters, the documents are reproduced as images.

I’ll admit in the early chapters as the author delves into the history of Warren and of Kitchener, I wondered what all this had to do with Jack the Ripper. A lot, as it happens. It’s backstory, detailing the setting in which Jack played his monstrous game. We’re not talking about gaslight and shadows, more the society, the people, the expectations. A tiny fraction of wealthy aristocrats governed, and owned, just about everything, and nobody else mattered. Especially not middle-aged whores in the East End of London.

And by the way, the author doesn’t stop at the usual five whores murdered in London. Robinson believes Jack continued murdering. After I’d read about the killing of a child in Bradford, for which an innocent man was  very nearly hanged, I needed a break. The author’s contempt and loathing of a corrupt system which orchestrated this train of events is understandable. Jack should have been caught before he left London. And the system contrived a case against an innocent milkman because they would not admit that Jack was back, Fortunately, the accused had a decent lawyer to help him, and the case petered out, as had the London investigations into the Ripper murders, into official bafflement.

Be warned, the writer’s style is acerbic. He doesn’t miss anybody, least of all the many, many people he thinks have deliberately obfuscated what happened at the time of the murders, and the many people over the years who have clearly not examined the known facts to reveal obvious deceit. He also frequently uses big words like feasance and egregious, as well as the occasional, well-placed ‘fuck’.

Here’s a random quote

“As an addendum to the above, in reference to MacDonald’s law-breaking haste, we read in The News From Whitechapel that ‘Later writers have tended to view his actions with suspicion, but this shows a misunderstanding of Victorian inquests, which typically ran for only one or two sessions.’ [reference provided]

A critic of less generosity than myself might dismiss this as bollocks. Wynne Baxter [the coroner] held a total of fourteen sessions for his three victims – four for Nichols, five for Chapman and five for Stride. On that form MacDonald might have pushed his enquiries somewhat beyond the recollections of a drowsy woman with a kitten on her tit. A nobbled coroner and a mute press are hardly the handmaidens of justice. The Ripper made a mockery of a court, silenced Fleet Street, and brought about the dismissal of the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police.

Not bad going for a serial murderer.”

For me, this book is a resounding five stars. Of course, after 130 years, there is no certainty, and there never will be. Of course there are questions I would ask the author. And while I think he has constructed a case which seems to me has elements for which I can see no other reasonable explanation, I’ll still read Cornwell’s book. She, too, believes Jack didn’t stop murdering after Mary Kelly was slaughtered.  I’d like to do a comparison. And after I’ve done that, I’ll share my opinion.

It’s the least I can do.

 

Why does everybody have to go to university?

Since I went to school education has changed. I suppose it should in over half a century, but while some things are better, a lot (in my opinion) are not. I think the arbiters of education, the public servants in their ivory towers, have become so busy negotiating the murky waters of political correctness they’ve lost sight of the goal posts. Why do we send kids to school?

I reckon we send kids to school to learn how to read, write (type), and add up. That is, the fundamental skills. I was going to add ‘skills without which you won’t get far in this day and age’. But that’s rubbish, isn’t it? How often do you see kids (in particular) turning to a calculator to perform simple addition like 2 cups of coffee @ $3.50 each? THE most important thing you can do for kids in a classroom is get them to WANT to learn. Then (with the necessary skills) they’ll teach themselves. It sound a lot like the Montessori system. You teach kids about social studies, geography, maths, accounting systems, marketing etc etc by showing them what happens at a supermarket. Applied learning. Sure, I understand that greater discipline is required for those who want to go on to university. Scientists need more than basic maths skills, for example.

But not everybody needs to go to university.

All those years ago, I struggled with a choice: give up the ‘professional’ stream of study at high school, and join the other girls and boys intending to leave school at fifteen and learn a trade or earn a wage. I came from a working-class family. There wasn’t much money to spare, so I discussed my options with my mum.

To add some context, at that time high school students were placed according to academic ability as established in a public exam at the end of year seven before going on to high school. I was up there in 1A, signifying the smartest kids in first year. It went on from there to 1B, 1C and so on to something like 1M. (I’m a baby boomer.) At the end of first year, we were asked at the tender age of around fourteen, to decide where our school years would take us from then on. Back then, quite a few girls in 1A opted for the ‘commercial’ stream, where they would learn shorthand and typing. Boys in that stream would concentrate on ‘male’ skills like woodwork and metalwork, as well as basic maths and language skills.

My mum always had higher aspirations for me. She listened to my concerns over money and told me to take the professional stream.

The next hurdle in education was what was called the Junior Certificate, a public exam taken at the end of third year high school (year ten). At that point students with no aspirations for academic places could leave school and enter a brave new world. I obviously didn’t leave shool, and, with the help of scholarships to help fund my studies in years eleven and twelve and then to study at university, I graduated with a BA(Hons).

Which brings me to the point of this essay. I know life has changed since the sixties. I know there is less work for unskilled young people – or very skilled young people. But why is forcing them to attend twelve years of school going to help? In its wisdom the education system has watered down the public examination system by including continuous assessment components, and added Naplan, where little kids are tested at absurdly young ages. It seems they’re all being trained to fit the lowest common denominator. You don’t have A, B and C classes anymore. The brightest kids are put in with the dumbest, so nobody’s feelings are hurt. Teachers are expected to cope with vast variations in both ability, and expectations. Johnny wants to learn how to use a lathe, not muck about with history lessons. Mary doesn’t need Johnny’s disruptions – she’s there to learn.

Much is said about the quality of teachers. To which I say, if you haven’t been there, don’t presume to judge. I’m not saying corporal punishment is a great thing, but these days teachers have no means of controlling young thugs like Johnny, who doesn’t want to be there and is immune from any form of discipline. Teachers are asked to cover a multitude of subjects, and carry out education in matters which belong in the home, not the classroom. I’ve always thought that education should be about teaching people the basics, like reading, maths, and (these days) typing. Sketch in some geography and basic history – enough to get them interested – and then encourage them to use that wonderful device, the internet, to learn what they want. Perhaps THE most important lesson people these days need to learn is that there are fake media sites, Wikipedia is not the whole story, and that to understand something properly, it’s necessary to consult more than one point of view. I think we could call it ‘how to research’.

Back in the olden days we did research in libraries, where we needed at least a basic knowledge of the Dewey decimal system and how to use index cards. It’s so much easier now – but I’d suggest that there is still a need to follow the denser path and read the books.

But I digress. What has happened to the TAFE colleges? The Institutes of Technology? They used to be where people went to learn a trade, to delve into the nuts and bolts of technology, or carpentry, or commercial cooking. That’s where the kids from the commercial stream at high school went, to learn a trade as they did their apprenticeship. There are no TAFE colleges anymore, or Institutes of Technology. There are only universities. Because that way, even if you’re learning a trade, you get to go to university. Whoop-ti-do. It seems to me that the result of this move is that a drover’s dog can get a degree in something at an erstwhile TAFE. Maybe that makes the recipient feel good, but it devalues the degree I earned at UWA, because the assumption is those qualifications are equivalent.

I don’t believe they are.

Despite all being labeled as universities, they are fundamentally different in their approach.  Once again, I turn to my own experience. I have (as mentioned) a BA(Hons) from UWA (the University of Western Australia). I also have a Graduate Diploma in Education from what was then Claremont Teachers’ College, became a campus of Edith Cowan University, and is now a part of UWA. And I also have a Graduate Diploma in Business and Administration (with distinction) from what was then the WA Institute of Technology, and is now Curtin University. This was all back before 1990, I admit. I’ll add I’ve compared my experience with friends who had a similar mix of studies at various institutions.

We all agreed that the standards required at UWA were far higher than that expected at WAIT, and at Claremont Teachers’ College. The fact is they taught different skills. UWA taught you how to think, and do research, and pretty well left you to it. If you didn’t go to lectures, nobody cared. The results would advertise your lack of effort. WAIT aimed its courses at practical skills, like how to program a computer or carry out radiography. Lecturers there provided hands-on, practical courses with the associated ‘how to’ in documentation and the like. Ie. You will plan and present your work LIKE THIS. Claremont taught students how to teach primary kids (under 12), with an emphasis on practical work.

And here, I think, we come to the nub of all of this. Listen up, Government. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING A PLUMBER, CARPENTER, RADIOGRAPHER, PROGRAMMER or CHEF. They do not need to be glorified with a degree. Horses for courses.

UPDATE: There are TAFE colleges, and they teach trades as they always did. However, in my defence, I based this article on my own experience in Perth. And it would seem there has been a re-think. Here’s a quote from the WA TAFE website.

“A recent change that occurred to the TAFE system in Western Australia saw a merger occur between the former Central Institute of Technology and the West Coast Institute of Training. The new organisation is the North Metropolitan TAFE, which combines the facilities and resources of both institutes to provide students with a better quality TAFE education. This formed part of a major change to the TAFE system in WA, in which all institutes were joined to form five new TAFE schools. in addition to the North Metropolitan TAFE, these include South Metropolitan TAFE, Central Regional TAFE, South Regional TAFE and North Regional TAFE.”

So you see, we’re changing names. Just as we renamed the Personnel Department to Human Resources. Same role, same staff. But now it’s two words.

And this week I have a new lens to play with.

A baby lorikeet. Note the detail

A couple of pink and grey galahs practising ballet on the TV aerial

Because it’s real

Ripples in a pond

Take a stone, any stone you like, Feel the weight of it in your hand. Is the surface smooth? Rough? Is it heavy? If you’re not happy with it, pick up another one. Because it’s going to be you.

Happy with your stone? Now find a lake, or a puddle. Somewhere with still water, and throw your stone out there. Watch the ripples surge away from the rock that is you.

Those ripples are the people you know. The closest circle isn’t necessarily your family, although for most of us it probably is, while we’re young. It’s the people you’re closest to, your very best friends, your partner, maybe your kids. The next ripple is friends and people you don’t see so often, but you share time with. Beyond that the ring widens to include people like your doctor, or accountant, people you know from work. And so it goes. The further the ripple is from you, the looser the relationship.

That’s just as true in Facebook as it is in real life.

Make no mistake, Facebook IS a slice of real life and for many people, it is a large part of their social life. I have Facebook friends all over the world. Some I’ve met, many I haven’t, and never will. The interesting thing is that where I have met people in real life, it has been exceptionally easy. I already knew them, you see. From Facebook.

I’m writing this today because one of my Facebook friends lost her battle with cancer a few days ago. Jo was diagnosed early last year, and went through a harrowing round of chemotherapy and radio therapy before modern medicine could do no more. She died at home, surrounded by her close family. Jo had many more Facebook friends than me. She connected readily with people. And she shared her cancer experience via her blog. Her stoic courage shone through in her words, admitting to tears, but always being upbeat, always being sure she could win. In an incredibly brave move, she wrote her final post and told her husband to publish it after her death.

I first met Jo online when she lived in Victoria near Hanging Rock, not far from Greendale, where Pete and I had lived. We shared stories about gardening, and weather. Coincidentally, Jo had grown up in Queensland near where we live, then lived in Perth for many years. I had grown up in Perth and now lived in Queensland. When Jo announced she and Tim were leaving Victoria to move back to her roots in Queensland I knew we would finally meet. I visited Jo and Tim at their home in Maryborough before they’d had a chance to make the massive changes they had in mind. It’s a beautiful old Queenslander with its cool, elevated veranda, high ceilings, and horribly overgrown garden stuffed with palm trees and bromeliads. They set in to make changes, bulldozing a dilapidated shed, removing the palm trees and bromeliads, and getting rid of some of the trees. Now there was room for a lawn and a cottage garden – place for the daisies Jo loved. I recall Jo’s blogs about painting the new white picket fence – during which process she broke her wrist. Jo visited me at home while her little white terrier, Daisy, was having her coat groomed in Hervey Bay.

The next time I saw her was in a ward at Hervey Bay hospital, when she was finally on her way home to Maryborough after months of treatment in Brisbane. Sure, she’d lost her hair, she was thin and weak, but that spirit shone through. She hadn’t been in the hospital long, hadn’t had a chance to get to know the staff. Because she’d come from another hospital, staff had to take special care to prevent any bugs being transferred. I waited outside while two nurses carried out a procedure, and heard her talking to one of them, asking about him, where he lived, his job. The young man opened up, and Jo had made another friend.

To reach an understanding of this lady’s impact all it needed was a visit to her Facebook page. All through her ordeal people shared uplifting messages with her, pretty pictures, videos of cats and dogs, jokes. She loved jokes. I’m sure those messages helped to give strength. When she died, her page was flooded with messages of sorrow. For very many people, all around the world, that loss was real.

Say what you like about Facebook. Yes, some of it’s yucky. Some people are horrid. Some people believe things I cannot. Some of my friends are devout Christians. Some voted for Trump. Some loathe the man. But that’s life, a slice of real life with all its warts and troubles and people struggling with everything the world throws at them. For me, Facebook is a learning experience. Every day I read what people share about their lives. I know a lot more about autism because one woman has shared her journey. I feel for friends who lost their homes in floods, people struggling with mental health.

Much as I dislike some aspects of social media, I’ll stay with Facebook. Because it’s real.

 

A day tour of Macao

Extravagant, flamboyant, over the top. Casino

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could run a day tour of 28 sq km of Macao, but it was done. Our guide, Mario, picked us up from the Grand Emperor at 10am. He’s Portuguese, originally from a diplomatic family and he has lived in Macao (the Portuguese spell it Macau) for 33 years, so he knows his stuff. Macao is the tip of a peninsula, and was leased to the Portuguese in 1557. It was returned to China in 1999, but, like Hong Kong, it will retain its semi-autonomous status for fifty years. What will happen after that, nobody knows. Especially what will happen to the casinos. They are illegal in China, but the Chinese are known to love their gambling. It’s also a lucrative business. Somebody shall see what happens. It won’t be me.

We joined another 28 people who had come over to Macao for a day trip from Hong Kong. Pete and I waited on the bus while Mario collected them from the ferry terminal and herded them on board. Not only were there a few Caucasians amongst them – there were a couple of Australians!

First stop was the reason for the existence of Macao these days. It may have been the gateway to Guangzhou in the past, but now it’s a place to build casinos. It’s how Stanley Ho made his fortune. He still has a large investment. James Pcker is currently pulling out of Macao after some of his staff were arrested in China for trying to entice high-rollers to his casino, and a few of the Las Vegas establishments also have buildings here. There are currently 36 casinos on Macao, and six more will be completed this year. Each new building has to be bigger and better than its predecessor. There’s not room in Macao proper for more buildings, so the powers-that-be have filled in the sea between what had been two islands. That’s where all the new construction is happening.

Venice in a building

The casinos are huge, flamboyant, and ostentatious, designed to attract the Chinese high-rollers. Mario took us to the Venetian, one of the more recent casinos. Like its namesake in Vegas, it has a replica of St Marks square in Venice inside, complete with canals.

Pete managed to snap a shot of the gaming floor as we went up to St Marks on an escalator. As you can see, they’re big enough for people to get lost, which is precisely what happened to a couple of our Americans. Mario managed to find them and they were most apologetic. I cast no aspersions. Been there, done that, have the T-shirt hidden away.

After that we went back to Macao’s beginnings, a temple at the waterside dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea from whom the city gained its name. It is on multiple levels, built against the massive boulders. Worship requires incense.

 

 

From the past we went to the future, Macao’s Skytower, home of the world’s highest bungy jump. I got a few pictures of someone taking the plunge, and four of us (not Peter) paid extra to go up the tower to admire the view. This is where I took the photo at the top of my previous post. Mario told us this was simply normal Macao weather. He pointed out the point on the Pearl river where people swam across to escape Mao’s cultural revolution. Not all of them made it – which meant death. Those that did were shipped off quickly to Hong Kong, where they could escape to the West.

That tower with its head in the clouds is in CHINA!

Next we visited the old town with its European style buildings and the inevitable town square complete with fountain. The old parts of town were paved in tiny blue and white Portuguese tiles, fresco style. As well as casinos this part of Macao has churches and temples. We visited one Dominican church, and admired the remains of St Paul’s at the top of the city steps which resemble the Spanish Steps in Rome. The church burnt down in 1835, leaving just the façade. It’s a popular tourist attraction and a place to take photos.

We asked Mario to recommend a Portuguese restaurant for our last evening overseas. It was, as they always are, down an narrow street off the square, opposite the fountain with the Madonna. (Well… maybe not that bit) The waiter – and I suspect owner – might not have been born Australian, but he had an Aussie accent. He mentioned he’d grown up in St Albans in Melbourne. It’s a small world. We picked the set menu – carrot soup, shared the two mains of steak and chips with salad, and fish patties with salad and rice, followed by sweets and thick, strong coffee. Our new mate threw in a glass of port each. It was a lovely way to end the day and we meandered off to the hotel for a good nights’ sleep.

The next day we were off home, catching the ferry to the airport at Lantau. You check in your baggage and get your boarding pass when you leave the ferry. By far the longest queue in the large hall was for Qantas, which shared a desk with an Asian airline. Time was pushing on. When we were about three people from the front of the line, somebody grabbed a brain and picked out the people flying to Brisbane. We were first, but unfortunately for the people behind us, the girl had trouble finding my name It’s the spaces/no spaces thing. My name is van der Rol, but on an airline ticket it’s vanderrol. Anyway, we got there eventually. When we left to go to the terminal, the queue at QF’s counter was almost back to the exit from the ferry. Not a good look.

We got to Brisbane at around eight, collected our car from the long term car park as close to 9am as we could manage, and headed home to the clean air and spacious living at Hervey Bay. Neither of us are anxious to go back to Hong Kong.

Off to Macao

Taken from a tower through glass this picture shows most of Macao. Our hotel is next to the golden tulip-shaped building at mid-right. And yes, that’s smog.

Cruising from Hong Kong to Macao via Turbojet is just like getting a seat in an aircraft. You go through customs, get a little printed piece of paper for your passport, and off you go. The journey takes less than an hour, and cabin crew offer duty free goods if you want them. Nobody bothered to fasten their seat belts, so we didn’t either. By the way, Stanley Ho (he with the wife and three very good friends) owns Turbojet.

We’d caught an early boat, so we kicked our heels at the arrival terminal for a while before our lift to the hotel arrived. Macao obviously gets large Asian tour groups. Once again, we round-eyes were in the distinct minority.

I was surprised that Macao’s atmosphere was as smoggy as Hong Kong’s. It’s a much smaller place, with a population of around 650,000. Compare Singapore’s 697 sq km to Macao’s 28 sq km. (source) But I suppose some of that smog had drifted over from China, which here is just across the Pearl River.

Our driver took us to the Grand Emperor, close to the old town, and we checked in. Jacky Chan owns the place. It has a kind of British vibe, with two coaches standing outside on the pavement, and two pretend Grenadier guards standing at the entrance with guns Pete assured me were plastic. A not very good portrait of Queenie hangs in the lobby, along with a portrait of George III. Why he’s there I have no idea. The hotel has a Windsor Lounge and a Royal Kitchen restaurant. It also has five floors of casino, and eighty-eight gold bars with auspicious serial numbers set into glass niches in the floor of the lobby, each surrounded by cut jewels. Each 1kg ingot is real, but the jewels are not diamonds.

One of the two royal coaches

Queenie on the left, George III on the right, and gold bars in the floor around the fountain

Gold bar. This is in a display case and not surrounded by jewels.

We had a deluxe room (ie standard), well-appointed with a number of unusual free features. The room had a mobile phone for guest use, which could be used to call overseas free of charge. It also had access to maps and tourist information. The phone won’t work if it’s stolen, and there are charges if it’s broken. We could get free drinks at the Windsor Lounge on the 21st floor – we did go up for one drink after dinner, but it’s a disco that didn’t open until 8pm. Maybe forty years ago…

Although the room was generally fine, the bathroom was simply badly designed. The shower was over the bath and there was no way you could shower without water going everywhere it wasn’t supposed to. Dinner in the Royal Kitchen was excellent, if not cheap. We partook of a seafood buffet – prawns hot or cold, crab, fish, pippies, mussels, soup, lobster (which I would have called yabbies) cooked in one of three ways, and the usual accompaniments of veg, salad and the like. And sweets. Mustn’t forget sweets.

We wandered around the casino just to look. It’s a mug’s game, although we’ve been known to put a few dollars in the slot machines at home. There were some machines on one level, but most of the people were playing black jack, roulette – and dominoes. I don’t think I saw a single Caucasian player. And the Asians were playing for keeps. One fellow was feeding HK$1,000 notes into a machine at a black jack table. Note after note after note. The tables advertised minimum stakes – HK$300 per chip, or HK$500 per chip. That’s ONE chip. Wow. No photos I’m afraid. You weren’t allowed to take knives, guns, or cameras into the casino. Needless to say, there were security staff everywhere.

Tomorrow we were going out on our day tour of Macao. I’ll tell you all about it, promise.