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The aftermath

ex-tropical cyclone Debbie wreaks havoc down the east coast

Cyclone Debbie has certainly cut a swathe through the holiday islands of the Whitsundays and their gateway, Airlie Beach. Bowen and Ayr bore the brunt of the storm and that takes nothing away from all the smaller places in the way. Cane fields, vegetable crops, and banana fields were flattened, destroying farmers’ incomes for at least one season – to say nothing about destruction of infrastructure and homes, loss of power, stock losses and the like. And then there’s the native wildlife who have to hunker down just like we humans. She was a massive storm. Here she is from the ISS.

Cyclones travel in a clockwise direction, and this was a huge storm, so after Debbie crossed the coast anything within eight hundred kilometres or so to the south was going to get wet. Mackay and Rockhampton were well in the zone and suffered substantial wind and water damage. With rainfall of hundreds of millimetres the rivers rose and roads were flooded. Even Hervey Bay copped the end of an outlying cloud band, although 80mm of rain without gale-force winds was actually welcome. As a side note, while Pete and I would have been quite safe at Cairns, we wouldn’t have been able to drive home. And that is why we hurried home when we did.

After they cross the coast cyclones rapidly downgrade to a tropical low, and the clean-up starts in their wake. It doesn’t mean the danger is over, though. The models suggested three tracks after Debbie crossed the coast, all tracking south. We expected her to come down through the interior, but the lady had other plans. I’ve never seen anything like it. Gale-force winds and very heavy rain all the way down the east coast of Australia from Mackay. Inland from Mackay, over a metre of rain fell in two days. The cyclone made landfall on Tuesday lunchtime. On Thursday the State Government closed all schools from just north of Bundaberg to the Queensland border for two days. Businesses followed suit. Our local bank closed its doors at 10am to give staff the chance to get home and off potentially flooding roads. Falls of five hundred millimetres were expected around the Southeast corner of the state, along with gale force winds. It was unprecedented. Australia is used to cyclones – but not one that does a left-hand turn, taking it down into heavily populated areas.

As usual, Hervey Bay fared well enough. Although rainfall this March (396mm or roughly 16″) is the third highest monthly rainfall we have experience in our time here, the previous two months were so dry that the rainfall is still well below the average for this time of year. I’m sure residents further south won’t be saying the same thing.

I thought I’d finish this clean-up post with a few things from our trip I hadn’t mentioned.

The view over Townsville from Castle Hill

Driving up to Cairns, we stayed overnight in Townsville, where Pete had his very first Mexican meal in a busy restaurant in Palmer Street. I love Mexican food, but Pete has never been interested. However, it was his suggestion – and he enjoyed it. Next morning before we moved on we drove up to Castle Hill, overlooking the town and with views to Magnetic Island just across the water, and to the hills surrounding the town.

Castle Hill from the city

From Palm Cove we drove up to Port Douglas. It’s only about forty km following the Captain Cook Highway along the coast. The road seems to have been built on a ledge between the sea and the mountains, twisting and turning with every cove and inlet. Port Douglas is mainly a resort town, with golf courses and hotels. One hotel (the Mirage) was famously built by Christopher Skase before he fled his debtors and went to live on Majorca. For us, the place didn’t have much to offer. It seems to be a jumping-off point for the Daintree and the reef. But I took some pictures.

Looking south from Port Douglas. The longest of those sandbars is where we stopped to take a picture (see below)

There’s no doubt the coastline is picturesque. I’d asked Pete to stop (on the way back) at a stopping place where I’d noticed a great photo opportunity, which he did, safely. I’d hardly got out of the car when a car horn honked. Some idiot had seen the view and decided to stop, with a car right behind him. The driver of the offending car pulled to one side to let the other driver pass. This is all happening just near a curve, too. The offending car moves back out into the road. For a minute I think it’s going to turn around, doing a three-point-turn, but another car comes along and our mate drives off, with the person in the passenger seat holding their phone out the window. It was a great picture, but really, people, I wouldn’t have thought it was to die for her. Or even sustain an injury.

A storm is gathering over Port Douglas – not Debbie, just a normal tropical storm

On our way back from Hartley’s croc park we stopped to take pictures of these weird rock sculptures. I have no idea what they are for, but I’d guess they’re a bit like the padlock fad, where lovers attach a padlock to the wires on a bridge. However, just as the authorities have been forced to cut away the padlocks, which in those quantities can weigh a great deal, sometime a storm will hit these piled up stones and scatter them back on the beach.

No idea what these ‘sculptures’ are meant to signify

That’s it for this journey. Be sure to join us next time we venture away from home. If you want to go back to the start of this trip, here’s the link. Say hello to Cyclone Debbie

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.

 

 

 

 

Back to the Big Smoke

Brisbane from Mt Coot-Tha

Brisbane from Mt Coot-Tha

Unfortunately, much as I hate cities sometimes they can’t be avoided. They are concentrations of many things apart from people. Or maybe because of people. Restaurants, hospitals, cinemas, live shows, shops. Pollution, traffic snarls, noise. Sigh. But yeah. Medical specialists tend to work best in the city setting. All the equipment and required facilities are more readily available. So we drove down to Brisbane for a procedure to take place over two days, while I kicked my heels in a hotel.

However – did I mention the shops? Much as I love where I live, and I’m not a great shopper, sometimes the lack of variety in Hervey Bay can be frustrating. So this would be a chance to go into town and find myself a coat, preferably leather, that I could dress up if needed. Usually it would be worn with jeans. I’d booked into a small hotel near the city centre, and walked into the Queen Street mall with high hopes. I’d get this done, drop off the jacket back at the pub and take my camera for a walk in the park. Yes. That was the plan. Then I’d go back to the room and work on the next book.

Well, let me tell you a couple of things, folks. The current fashion has gone back to skinny. Skin tight pants, leggings, form fitting jackets. Leather jackets are biker style, fitted to the waist, with lots of non functional pockets closed with zips. A year or forty – or even twenty – ago I could have gone down that route. But not anymore, for two reasons. 1) I don’t like that style, having gravitated (as you do) to comfortable sack style. Gone are the days of lying on your back on the bed to do up the zip. 2) I’m no longer size 10 – or even 14. It seems that if you’re in the size 8 to size 14 range, the world of fashion is your oyster. You might find an occasional 16. Anything larger than that – nuh-uh. There might be a few sections in the big department stores specialising in larger sizes, or the occasional large size dress shop. But while I know I need to lose some weight, I’m not obese. Nor am I unusual. I’d venture to suggest that with obesity levels in this country soaring, the buyers ought to be looking at their stock.

I should add that I could have bought a genuine leather coat in a style I found acceptable. But the designer label $800-$1,000 weren’t even in the venue let alone the playing field, and  I balked at paying $600 for a coat, and then another $75 to have the sleeves taken up. I just won’t wear it often enough.

Anyway, after five unproductive hours of wandering around every sodding dress shop in the CBD (including some mens stores) it started to rain. So I bought myself a cheap umbrella and winced my painful way back to my hotel room, coatless. I suppose the rain was a good thing. I was too sore to spend the afternoon walking around in the gardens (not as fit as I used to be) and the rain provided a perfect excuse to play on my laptop instead. Mind you, I played solitaire instead of doing some writing on my WIP. But I’ll attribute that to frustration.

forest

Forest path

Water and fernsOn the bright side, I went to the Brisbane botanical gardens at Mt Coot-Tha the previous afternoon. There is nothing quite so wonderful as walking along a narrow path in cool shade provided by towering trees, palms and ferns, with the sound of tinkling water filling the air.

Birdsville and more Lake Eyre

It’s day 4 of our Lake Eyre adventure. If you’ve missed the previous episodes, here’s day 1, day 2 and day 3.

Birdsville from the air. All of it.

Birdsville from the air. All of it.

The Birdsville pub

The Birdsville pub

We landed in Birdsville and I get to cross another entry off my bucket list. Birdsville is probably THE hottest place in Australia. The official highest recorded temperature is apparently 49.5 – but that’s in the shade.

It was Good Friday, one of the few days of the year when everybody shuts up shop. The pub’s front bar was closed, but since we were guests we got to use the Lizard Bar. This is another tiny outback town which has made a name for itself. People come here from everywhere on the 1st September for the Birdsville Cup, a gazetted thoroughbred race. The population swells from about 160 to eight to ten thousand. Then they all go home and it’s over for another year.

I was a little bit bemused at learning we were going to be taken for a half-hour bus tour of the town. But it actually turned out to be a heap of fun. We were shown the race course, and the permanent lagoon (part of the Diamantina river), and the nearby camping ground. Our guide explained that the influx of visitors for the Cup puts a strain on the town resources, especially the rubbish tip. The burning of rubbish is forbidden (OH&S) but as it happens the Birdsville tip seems to be struck by lightning every Wednesday at 2pm. Act of God, know what I mean? We saw the standpipe where the town’s water supply comes up steaming from the artesian basin. The water goes through a cooling tower and filters before it’s pumped to houses, but it’s never really cold. We were taken to admire the new street lights in a housing area at the edge of town. No houses, but nice lights. Our guide explained that there are about 4 rateable properties in Birdsville, so most of the town’s money comes from grants from drought or flood. The lights were from one grant, the streets were added later from another grant. They’d like a flood, please. They’ve had enough drought for now. Then we popped into the Birdsville Bakery for a chance to buy a curried camel pie and other tasty goodies.

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The racetrack

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The Birdsville Track, made famous by Tom Kruse on the longest mail run in Australia

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Birdsville’s town water supply comes up from the Great Artesian Basin

    The Birdsville Bakery. And that gentleman with his hands on his hips is Trevor Wright, dictator of William Creek

The Birdsville Bakery.

Our guide epitomised the kind of people you get in the outback – tough, resilient, with a wicked sense of humour. They have a cultivated disdain for bureaucracy, which is understandable. Rules and regulations dreamed up by clerks sitting at desks in air conditioned comfort in Canberra or Brisbane just don’t make sense out here. Practicality is the name of the game.

And then it was back into the planes for another look at Lake Eyre before we met out trusty guide at Marree. This time we also flew over the part of the lake where Sir Donald Campbell broke the land speed record in Bluebird in 1964. This flight I was even more impressed with the scenery as aboriginal art.

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This is a cattle station with a serious airstrip

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There’s algae in the salt, hence the pink colour

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The water won’t last long

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Reminds me of the Nazca plain

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Chaos theory in action

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Eyre to Birdsville by air

lake EyreIt’s day three of our journey to see Lake Eyre in flood. If you missed day 1 you’ll find it here, and day 2 is here. Today we leave Marree and travel along the Oodnadatta track to William Creek, where we’ll catch a plane.

We’re really in the outback now, surrounded by barren plains with maybe a range of low hills on the horizon. It’s dry out here. Marree’s average annual rainfall is 160mm (6.3″). The vegetation is tough. There’s a lot of salt bush, and plants with leathery, greyish leaves. But there’s water, if you know where to look. Australia is host to the largest artesian basin in the world, and the road we’re following is there because it follows the water. Many towns up here have ‘wet’ words like creek or well in their names, places where water can be found. We stop in a particularly desolate area to look at the mound springs – places where the mineral-filled water bubbles up to the surface. Over thousands of years the minerals were deposited and the mounds built up. You can see from the pictures that around such springs the ground is lush with plant life. These springs have had to be protected from cattle, which trample the edges and muddy the flow.

Maybe they need to be protected from people, too. The settlers didn’t understand this country. Read the story on the information board and you’ll see what I mean. The aboriginal people called these places home, and they looked after them. Water, after all, is life.

This barren country is where you find mound springs

This barren country is where you find mound springs

That's a mound spring. It's a long way to the top

That’s a mound spring. It’s a long way to the top

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This spring is known as the bubbler. You can see why.

Read the story on the left next to the blue map

Read the story on the left next to the blue map

But it’s not just humans who need water. We crossed a creek full with recent rain. It teemed with little fingerlings all fighting for a chance to get to lake Eyre. And surrounding this crossing were hundreds of silver gulls. The nearest coast is at Port Augusta, around 450km away. How the gulls knew the water and the fish were here is a mystery.

Silver gulls in the desert. There's a little fish stair to help the fingerlings cross the road.

Silver gulls in the desert. There’s a little fish stair to help the fingerlings cross the road.

The tranquility of water in the desert. Soon it will be a dry bed again.

The tranquility of water in the desert. Soon it will be a dry bed again.

We arrived at William Creek (population 12) just before lunch, served (of course) in the pub. The owner, Trevor Wright, basically owns the town but he doesn’t like to be called king. He reckons he’s more of a benevolent dictator. He’s a big man with a shock of white hair and he operates the planes we’ll use over Lake Eyre. He likes to talk, too. One of his pilots came in to give him a hurry up call. The planes and the pilots were waiting.

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William Creek

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All you need to know about William Creek

Six of us 5V3A4771(including the pilot) crammed into a Cessna 210. I was in the last of 3 rows of seats and I won’t pretend it was comfy. The outside temperature was in the late 30’s and the cabin wasn’t air conditioned. We took along bottled water and frozen wet towels to keep us cool. I found the best way to avoid dwelling on discomfort was to watch what was going on below. It’s 450km as the crow flies from William Creek to Birdsville – and a bit more when you’re sight seeing. The journey took about two and a half hours and I don’t mind admitting I was pleased to stagger out of the plane at the other end.

The following day we did it all again, flying from Birdsville back to Marree, where our driver picked us up. There’s a lot to say about Birdsville, but I’ll do that in another post. For now, let’s take a look at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

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Heading towards Lake Eyre

The sky reflected in shallow, calm water

The sky reflected in shallow, calm water

 

More reflections

More reflections

Flocks of pelicans. That's why we're up at 500ft. If we hit one of them we'd end up being permanent residents

Flocks of pelicans. That’s why we’re up at 500ft. If we hit one of them we’d end up being permanent residents

Pelicans floating on the water. Nobody knows how they know the lake is full

Pelicans floating on the water. Nobody knows how they know the lake is full

The Diamantina flows into the lake

The Diamantina flows into the lake

Trevor said he'd never seen the desert so green. This is the Diamantina

Trevor said he’d never seen the desert so green. This is the Diamantina

The desert. It doesn't look like the Sahara - but there are sand dunes

The desert. It doesn’t look like the Sahara – but there are sand dunes

It looks like fabric, or an aboriginal painting

It looks like fabric, or an aboriginal painting

Red sand of the Simpson desert

Red sand of the Simpson desert

This is 'Big Red' a sand dune 30m high.

This is ‘Big Red’ a sand dune 30m high.

Coming in to land. That's the plane's shadow on the ground

Coming in to land. That’s the plane’s shadow on the ground in the middle of the picture

 

 

Crossing the Flinders – the Pichi Richi pass

Lake EyreWe’re on our way to see Lake Eyre in flood. Last time, we left Adelaide and travelled to Port Augusta at the head of Spencer Gulf. From Port Augusta we travelled north, crossing the Flinders Ranges via the Pichi Richi pass. We’re following the old railway line built for the Ghan in 1879. You’ll find the history here. These days, the line and its steam train offer a tourist service. Press ‘home’ on that website to find out more.

We’re headed for Quorn, which used to be an important railway town. In 1917 it was the junction between trains travelling east-west or north-south, but eventually it was bypassed. Now the railway station houses a rail museum, and it’s where tourists can board the Pichi Richi steam train for an authentic look at the Flinders Ranges.

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Opposite the railway station at Quorn – two pubs. Typical.

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The parrot was eating grapes on the vines growing on the pub veranda in the previous picture

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The platform at Quorn station

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Old ore cars in the rail yard

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The Prairie Hotel at Parachilna

20160324_121054Lunch was at Parachilna’s Prairie Hotel. It’s the only substantial building in “town” (population 15), but this little place is typical of the resilience of the outback people. They’re reinventing themselves by offering an experience you can’t get anywhere else – Australian bush food. They call it ‘feral’ (see website under ‘restaurant’) because some of it is – camels and goats are introduced species. We were served a tasting platter of kangaroo mettwurst, emu pate, camel salami, goat cheese, quandong chutney, bush tomato chilli jam, (and some chicken) with what looked like home baked sourdough bread and a salad. It was seriously yummy and I’d go back in a moment. You can find out a little more about Parachilna itself here.

 

imageFrom there we went to what our guide described as a semi-ghost town called Farina. It seems a semi-ghost town is one where not all the houses are abandoned. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered why anybody would want to live in a place like that, surrounded by crumbling remnants of past lives, but some people evidently do. Farina is close to Farina station (what the Americans call a ranch, not a railway station). Having said that, like most of the towns we visited, it started off being all about the railway. But we were just passing through.

And then our guide did something wonderful.

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Not too many people lasted out here.

Bush-bashing

Bush-bashing

She didn’t go back to the highway the same way she’d come. She knew there was another way, so she took us bush-bashing through the scrub at the back of the Flinders Range. I lost count of the dry creek crossings we negotiated, all of them studded with magnificent river red gums. All the while, we drove in the shadow of the Flinders, following the remains of the railway back to the blacktop. Even in an air-conditioned 4WD, I got a better idea of what it was like for the poor innocents who tried to conquer this country. You don’t. You just don’t.

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Marree Pub at dawn, with a nearly full moon

And then on to Maree, (population 60), deep in the desert and not far from Lake Eyre. This is another town which has had to reinvent itself. Phil and Maz Turner turned their backs on the bright lights of Canberra and bought the pub in 2011. Phil’s a big man with a big beard and he’s happy to talk to travellers. He told us he wanted a change from being a business consultant, so he bought the worst pub in the best town and hasn’t looked back. He has developed motel style accommodation and small but functional cabins for tourists like us. Phil has enormous admiration for pioneering outback legends like Tom Kruse (pronounced the same way as the plonker in Hollywood – and that’s where the resemblance ends) and has set up an exhibition in the pub. It was a great evening. We bought drinks at the bar from a black Canadian guy, got to meet the pub dogs, and ate a simple but tasty meal in the pub restaurant.

Marree is home to the Lake Eyre Yacht Club. Yes, it’s real – even if they can’t go boating all that often.

Next blog we’ll be going to William Creek to catch a plane for a flight over Lake Eyre and on to Birdsville.

 

Chasing rainbows

Esperance showing the Recherche Archipelago

Esperance showing the Recherche Archipelago

Esperance is down on the southern West Australian coastline, an absolute jewel for those willing to take the time to visit. Showers accompany us along the road from Albany and rainbows appear – on both sides of the road. By this time the Pajero’s windscreen resembles the surface of Mars, with a sprinkling of craters and two cracks that inch a little further every day. It has also acquired a patina of insect bodies but even so, this rainbow is a jewel.Rainbow 1

The full arc of the rainbow through grubby glass

The full arc of the rainbow through grubby glass

We’re staying with friends I haven’t seen for twenty years, but we reconnected via Face Book and I’m looking forward to the visit. Needless to say, our sat nav isn’t much help to navigate to a farm but we follow the instructions given on the phone and find the farm entrance just on sunset. Yes, this is the right track. Well graded gravel, even the zig-zags between the wide puddles. It has been wet wet wet here. A couple of kilometres from the gate we find the third house and I get out to check we’re at the right place. We are.

The canola crop is ruined.

The canola crop is ruined.

We stay for three nights. Joe and Charlotte and their eldest son farm 23,000 acres where they plant canola and raise cattle and sheep. Their machinery shed is mind-boggling. They have headers and bull dozers and road trains and ploughs and I forget what else. The big machines cost close to a million dollars each, mostly high-tech with computer controlled functionality and air-conditioned cabs (the headers, anyway). Pete is fascinated by the sheer scale of the operation. It costs $3 million to plant a crop, and they might make $5 million. If they get to harvest. This season will be poor. Australia runs in cycles of flood and drought, and this year has been the wettest for decades. The canola stands in shallow lakes, the yellow flowers reflecting prettily in the water.

There’s always work on a farm and Pete goes to help the boys bring in sheep while Charlotte and I go off to do the tourist thing at an area called Duke of Orleans. The scenery here is breath-taking. The granite outcrops are just as spectacular as they are in Albany, but the rock seems more colourful. The sea is turquoise blue, and the beaches are brilliant white, full of silicon. The sand literally squeaks under your feet as you walk. The islands of the Recherche Archipelago dot the ocean, steep granite mounds, such a contrast to the pancake-flat platforms of the Abrolhos Islands. It’s late in the day, and the showers have stopped, although clouds still drift across the sky in groups and the wind is fresh, whisking up the white caps. I manage a few reasonable pictures and then we head for home, talking all the while.

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Next day, Joe takes us out to a granite outcrop at the top of a hill to see if we can find some orchids. It’s quite an adventure. The paddock we cross is waterlogged and despite High rock Esperance1the four wheel drive, Charlotte is not the only one who wonders if we’ll be pushing the car. Oh we of little faith. We’re a little bit early for the orchids but a few have shown their faces. These outcrops are baking hot in summer. Only the toughest plants, like the dryandra, can survive. The delicate orchids wait their turn with the mosses and lichens, responding to the first rains. Charlotte tells me her oldest son was married here, overlooking the land. What a place for a wedding.

Flowers on the rocky outcrop

Flowers on the rocky outcrop

While Joe and his son move another mob of sheep, Pete fixes Charlotte’s ride-on mower and Charlotte and I drive out to Cape Le Grande. You’ve probably noticed the French place names. The French poked around the Australian coast many times, in lots of places but they seem to have left their mark especially around that southern coast. Bruni d’Entrecasteaux visited this area in 1792, and named both Esperance and Recherche after ships in his expedition. The weather is stunning, with blue skies and light breezes, an absolute invitation to climb on the rocks and walk on the beaches. We admire the scenery and the wild flowers, and encounter a kangaroo fossicking around on the beach. She seems untroubled by our presence, apparently grazing on something. We have no idea what.Esperance beachA roo on beach

Looking over the sea at the islands I’m reminded of a story I read somewhere, that a black American pirate operated out of here. My recollection is correct. Here’s the story of Black Jack Anderson Australia’s only known pirate.

From here we’ll be heading for home, east across the Nullarbor. Join us, won’t you?