Girraween National Park and the Granite Belt

After Christmas we spent four days in the Granite Belt south of Stanthorpe, checking out the splendours of Girraween National Park. Girraween is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of flowers’ though sadly for us the best time to see those flowers is in July when the golden wattle blooms. Nevertheless it is the home of great bushwalks through the granite outcroppings any time of year. Girraween is part of a larger ecosystem with Bald Rock National Park just across the border in New South Wales. But with Covid playing havoc with border restrictions we confine ourselves to the Queensland side.

The National Park covers 11,700 hectares of bushland. Arriving mid afternoon of the first day there is only time for one walk to probably the signature walk of the Park: the Pyramids. The walk starts from the Bald Rock Creek day area, 40km south of Stanthorpe. Nearby is the Bald Rock Creek which has swimming waterholes. There are also two camping grounds here.

We prefer to walk and set off on the 3.6km return hike to the Pyramid. There are two pyramids side by side but only one is walkable to the summit. Along the way we see the first of many granite outcrops precariously held in position, which remind me of my visit to Karlu Karlu in the NT (the Devils Marbles). Like the Marbles these stones are made of granite, just one small section of a great mass of rock that covers the region – the Stanthorpe Granite.

The Stanthorpe Granite was a molten mass of magma that rose up and pushed into the older rocks surrounding it 240 million years ago. The magma resulted from heat in the crust when the eastern side of the continent was compressed by two tectonic plates combining. It melted the surrounding rock and assimilated fragments known as xenoliths into its mass. Some xenoliths are still visible within the granite but most have eroded due to weathering. After a kilometre, we left the bushland behind and started the difficult climb up the Pyramid. Extreme care needs to be taken on the rocks which are slippery and which have few handrails.

It’s tough work heading up but there is the thought that the gravity-assisted trip down will have its own issues. The view from the top banishes all those concerns with magnificent granite outcrops in every direction.

The Cunningham’s Skink blends naturally into the landscape. Egernia cunninghami is a sun-loving variety of spiny-tailed skink named for explorer and botanist Allan Cunningham who collected the first specimen in the Blue Mountains. This large skink has a long tail with keeled scales along from the back of the neck to the tip of the pointed tail. The legs are short, requiring it to slide on its belly when moving around. It occurs in forests and woodlands with rock outcrops. The species occurs within forests and open woodland which feature rock outcrops anywhere from south-east Queensland down through New South Wales and into central Victoria.

North of our pyramid is its twin, which is too dangerous to climb. Also here is the massive Balancing Rock, probably the single-most photographed feature of the park, with people getting into all sorts of Instagram poses to “keep up” the precarious rock. Normally 120,000 visitors a year check this out, but with COVID ruling out interstate visitors it was a quiet site to contemplate nature’s wonders.

When we came down we stayed 20km away at Ballandean. The old railway station is on the southern line from Toowoomba to Wallangarra on the border. Opened in the 1880s it survived 100 years as a passenger line and then as a freight line to 2007. Heritage rail services still run from time to time. The Ballandean station has been rotated so its entrance now faces the New England Hwy rather than the railway.

As the evening ends we enjoy the sunset on the Granite Belt and plot further adventures in the days to come.

The following morning it was back to the park and our most ambitious trek of the stay – a 15km hike taking in The Sphinx, Castle Rock and the park’s highest peak Mt Norman. We passed few tree ferns along the way before we were climbing in the granite again.

Sphinx Rock bears passing resemblance to the Egyptian Sphinx but its beauty does not need any comparison. It is a granite pinnacle with a massive balancing topside tor. Cunningham was the first European known to enter the Girraween area. In 1827 he noted “large detached masses of granite of every shape towering above each other and in many instances standing in almost tottering positions constituted a barrier before us”. He reported he saw Aborigines only five times during his journey to and from the present-day locations of Tamworth and Warwick “And they, he said, “suffered us for the moment to view them at a distance.”

Below the Sphinx is this giant carved rock like a wheel that towers over humans.

Turtle Rock lives up to its description.

Then we turn back and head to Castle Rock which we see ahead through the foliage.

Castle Rock is almost as difficult to climb as the Pyramid but the views from the top are equally breathtaking.

After a rest, we move on cross country to Mt Norman. After going through some rainforest we emerge again to climb the granite boulders.

Again there is the feeling of being of the roof of the world at the top. Mount Norman is the highest point in the park at 1267 metres

The view looking back to Castle Rock from Mt Norman. From here we could either head to the southern car park which links to the road to Wallangara on the border but after a five hour hike we head back the way we came to the day area.

On Day 3 we did part of the Granite Belt bike ride between Ballandean and Stanthorpe. The bike route tackles 30km of the regions backroads with wineries aplenty along the way. The bike trail is well marked and worth getting off the beaten track for.

In the afternoon we head back to Girraween and take the shorter walk to the Granite Arch. A combination of forces including water, wind and plants have combined over a million years to sculpt this creation. Blotchy lichens eat away at the granite by concocting a weak acid that breaks down the felspar, the pink material in the granite.

The walk heads on to The Junction, a lovely swimming hole where the Ramsay Creek and Bald Rock Creek meet. The area is full of rockslides and pools, white sandy beaches and welcoming waterholes. The water comes down from the western side of the Great Dividing Range and continues as one as part of the mighty Murray-Darling system that empties into the sea at South Australia, thousands of kilometres away.

On the last day, we do more of the bike trails. Names of localities such as The Somme are a reminder that this area was soldier settlement blocks. Under the Discharged soldiers’ settlement Act, 1917 discharged soldiers were entitled to apply for land and financial assistance. Around 7000 hectares was set aside near Stanthorpe and more than seven hundred returned soldiers were allocated blocks in the Pikedale Soldier Settlement. A number of locations were named by those returning servicemen in honour of famous battlefields including The Somme, Amiens, Messines, Bapaume, Passchendaele, Bullecourt, Pozieres and Fleurbaix.

We stopped in Stanthorpe for a coffee afterwards. Stanthorpe was founded by tin miners in 1872. When the tin prices fell, many miners turned to farming as the subtropical highland climate was suitable for growing cool climate fruits and vegetables. Grapes were first planted here in the 1860s with encouragement from the local Catholic parish priest Father Jerome Davadi to produce altar wine and the idea caught on among Italian settlers.

After coffee we went up to Mt Marlay to check out the lookout over town. The hill was named for Edward Marlay, a selector and tin miner. There is a short walk around the summit, which follows a path through the trees offering a scenic vantage point towards the north.

That afternoon it was time for a final look at Girraween. This time we drove a little further into the park to the Dr Roberts car park. We finished off with a walk to the Dr Roberts waterhole. First stop was a 2.8km return trip to the underground creek. Millions of years ago this rock formation probably resembled a tumbling wave but gradually cracks and crevices occurred causing masses of rocks to collapse onto the flowing Bald Creek below. The water now flows below the cluster of boulders.

We finished with another 2km trek to Dr Roberts Waterhole. In the 1930s local doctor Spencer Roberts was a guardian of the local superb lyrebird and wombat populations. He lobbied the government to protect them in a national park. Dr Roberts died in 1939 aged 59 but his visionary work was rewarded. In 1930 Bald Rock Creek National Park was declared followed two years later by Castle Rock National Park. Together they were known as Wyberba National Park but they were formally amalgamated in 1966 as Girraween National Park.

Surviving autocracy

The Trump era appears to be coming to its logical end with a massive defeat followed by a well-publicised by spectacularly inept coup at the US Capitol building. While Trump’s footsoldiers ran rampant in the Capitol taking selfies their beloved president reluctantly told them to go home telling they were “very special“. The only surprise was that he told them to go home and and not stay and set fire to the building.

Writing in “Surviving Autocracy” about Donald Trump in early 2020 before it was obvious he was going to lose the election, Masha Gessen defined Trump’s range as “government by gesture, obfuscation and lying, self-praise, stoking fear and issuing threats”. Gessen’s prologue was written late enough to describe the catastrophic early response to COVID-19 which ultimately led to his downfall. Despite hospitals ill-equipped to face an onslaught of patients, a shortage of PPE, essential information withheld and little testing available, Trump baldly denied any responsibility and instead issued bogus medical advice yet almost half the people believed he was doing a job. To Gessen, who grew up in Russia, it was striking familiar to the USSR’s response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and showed how far down the path America had gone to autocracy.

Gessen noted Trumpian news was always shocking without being surprising. Though an assault on the senses they are just more of the same of him beating the government, the media and politics itself into a state beyond recognition. When the inconceivable becomes routine, words fail us. Gessen draws on the work of Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar who realised the language of the media and academia was not up to the task of describing what happened to his country after the fall of Communism. Magyar coined the term “mafia state”as a specific clan-like system in which one man (and it is always a man) distributes money and power to everyone while establishing autocracy and then consolidating it.

The Hungarian model was useful to describe the US. Though the situation has evolved since 2016, Gessen says democratic crackdowns have always been part of the US experience such as the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 18th century, Lincoln suspending habeas corpus, the Sedition Act of 1918, Japanese interment in the Second World War, the McCarthy era, and the Nixon wiretapping era. In the 21st century Bush granted sweeping surveillance powers and Obama suppressed whistleblowers.

But American public officials have largely acted in good faith and even those who lied did so in accordance with sincerely held beliefs and a coherent system of values. Until Trump no powerful political actor had set out to destroy the American political system itself. His campaign slogan “drain the swamp” was a declaration of war against the American system of government. It was a campaign built on disdain for the “other”, immigrants, women, disabled people, people of colour, Muslims, anyone who wasn’t a white straight American-born male or anyone who was, but who was an “elite” who coddled those others. Autocrats like Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro campaign on resentments and continue to traffic in them even after election as though they were still insurgents. Trump denigrated his own departments, issuing humiliating tweets and promoting officials who were opposed to the existence of those departments who lied their way through confirmation hearings taking their lead in contempt for the government from their boss. Trump had no time for the demands of office which annoyed him and he showed no interest in “being presidential”.

His aims were obvious from his inauguration speech which pitched to base emotion and intelligence. Any money spent abroad was money lost and his vision for the future was a fortress under siege and a walled country that put itself first and the rest be damned. He immediately signed an executive order to overturn the Affordable Care Act and scrubbed the White House website of content on climate policy, civil rights and health care while adding a biography of Melania Trump that advertised her mail-order jewelry.

Trump has shown repeated lack of aspiration and a disdain for excellence, common among autocrats. It is as Gessen called it, a kakistocracy, a government of the worst. He showed no interest in filling cabinet positions many of whom he felt should not exist, and when he did, he turned to the military such as Mike Flynn, John Kelly, James Mattis and Mike Pompeo. In April 2017 he admitted being president was harder than he expected but blamed that on his predecessor and the establishment and still felt one person should give orders which should be carried out. But when the pandemic came the vacuum Trump had wilfully created at the top of government translated into deadly inaction.

The corruption of his government is a family business matter. Trump repeated said the president can’t have a conflict of interest and implied that if he did have to draw a line he would have to forego seeing his adult children who worked for him. Within weeks Ivanka moved to the East Wing and then the West Wing and took meetings with Angela Merkel and Trump’s seat at a meeting of G20 leaders. Despite a protest from the Office of Government Ethics, Trump said it was okay because she was not drawing a salary.

The Trump Hotels were doing business in synergy with their owner. The RNC held its Christmas party at Trunp Washington while Saudi lobbyists booked out floors at a time. On the phone call that led to the impeachment inquiry, Ukrainian president Zelensky mentioned he stayed at the New York venue. Yet because this was so open, Gessen was loath to call it corruption. Trump is not duplicitous, he acts in the transparent belief political power should produce personal wealth.

Trump’s love of fellow autocrats is well documented. His first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia where he got an honourary gold collar from the King. When Saudi journalist Adnan Khashoggi was murdered inside the Istanbul embassy, Trump issued a statement called “America First!” and reaffirmed his friendship with the Saudis. When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington, protesters at the Turkish embassy were beaten up severely by a group that included Erdogan’s security team. Trump merely said he was “a big fan”.

There was one area of government Trump paid close attention to: the courts. By November 2019 he had set a record for the number of appointees and he had filled a quarter of all appeal judges. Gessen noted he had two Supreme Court justices, later rushed to three in the dying days of his rule. The appointees weren’t just far right, dismissive of civil rights and in favour of deregulation, they were also notably inexperienced, bypassing the American Bar Association vetting process (imitating George W Bush) and more ideologically extreme as time progressed.

One of the great hopes of bringing down Trump was the much-feted Mueller Report into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The 448-page report delivered after 22 months was a comprehensive portrait of Trumpism. The first half told the story of the links between Russia and the Trump campaign. There was no single “gotcha” as shady Russians and Americans set out to swindle each other, everyone lied and no-one got what they wanted. Part 2 was about Trump’s behaviour during the investigation. Trump had instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to remove Mueller (McGahn ignored the request) and then tried to get McGahn to deny the request happened. Mueller stopped short of saying it was an obstruction of justice, that, he said, was for Congress to decide. When new Attorney General William Barr read the report he told Congress there was no case to answer prompting protest from Mueller. By the time Barr released the redacted report it was reduced to a battle of interpretations depending on party affiliation. Having a liar in the Oval office did not constitute an emergency, or as Gessen said, American political institutions were not equipped to treat it as one.

Gessen notes how an autocratic attempt in the US has a credible chance of succeeding. It build logically on the structures and norms of American government and on the concentration of power in the executive branch and on the marriage of money and politics. “Recovery will be possible only as reinvention,” Gessen writes. “Of institutions, of what politics means to us and what it means to be a democracy, if that is indeed what we choose to be.”

The history of the pineapple

Researchers in Malaysia have found a way to turn fibre from pineapple leaves into material sturdy enough to make drone frames. Drones built with pineapple fibre have a higher strength-to-weight ratio than frames made with synthetic fibres and are cheaper and lighter. The project is geared towards finding sustainable uses for waste from one of Malaysia’s biggest crop industries though the pineapple is not a native plant.

Pineapples originate from the border area between Brazil and Paraguay and are one of 2000 species of bromeliads, the largest of which is the remarkable 3m tall Puya Raimondii which can take 150 years to flower before dying immediately. The pineapple stores water in its leaves to help it endure periods of drought though lack of rainfall was rarely a problem in the rainforest where it emerged. Pineapples require soil temperatures of 20 degrees or greater and air temps of at least 15.

I am not a huge fan of the taste of the pineapple (and not just on pizza) but there is no denying it is a striking impressive creation. The plant grows from a terminal bud surrounded by a thick rosette of concave leaves which allow it to collect water in the rosette. The crown, armour and rosette protect it from ground-level predators. The pineapple is also an example of a Fibonacci sequence with the “eyes” on its shell arranged in curving rows of 5 and 8, or 8 and 13.

The first humans to eat pineapples were the Tupi-Guarani people. They domesticated the fruit 2000-4000 years ago along with the sweet potato, the peanut, potatoes and maize. They called the fruit anana, meaning an excellent fruit, and the botanical name remains ananas comosus (Comos is Latin for hairy, or in the case of plants leafy) and it is called the ananas in many languages. The Tupi-Guarani were master traders and by the time Europeans arrived the pineapple spread into Central America and the West Indies.

Christopher Columbus found a pineapple on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493 when he landed on the island of Guadeloupe. One of his sailors noted “some fruit that looked like green pine cones but were much larger”. Importantly they tasted sweet to European palates aware of the high price of sugar. The Spanish called it a pina, for the pine cone it resembled. King Ferdinand was impressed when he tasted it on Columbus’s return and its royal seal of approval made it immediately popular. The writer Oviedo encountered the pineapple in Panama in 1514 and was entranced. In six glowing pages he extolled its “Beauty of appearance, delicate fragrance, excellent favour” and he included the earliest known illustration in his 1535 Historia General y Natural de las Indias.

The pineapple’s striking appearance helped its cause and quickly became emblematic of a new world paradise. Within 100 years it was global, the hardy plant accompanying Spanish and Portuguese sailors on their adventures to Africa, Asia and New Guinea. By 1656 it was so common in China, Michael Boym mistakenly included it as a native in Flora Sinensis, the first Western work on Chinese plants.

It was surprisingly slower reaching English tables due to the Civil War but once established became a phenomenon. In her book The Pineapple: King of Fruits Fran Beauman traced the first pineapple to London in 1657 when William Goodson brought them back from Jamaica which he helped seize a couple of years earlier. He showed Lord Protector Cromwell the fruit which helped him get a promotion. The fruit’s cause was helped by writer Richard Ligon’s history of Barbados the same year which praised pineapples as a “a Harmony of tastes”.

Around this time are the first references to the fruit as “pynappel”, a term originally used to mean pine cone. The addition of “apple” to the Spanish “pina” gave it a very English sounding name. By 1661 Charles II was on the throne and his court was presented with a Barbadian pineapple, a lavish gift to get a petition approved. Again in 1668 at His Majesty’s table the exotic “King-Pine” was spotted in an attempt to impress the French ambassador, who was sure to tell Louis XIV.

Charles’s devotion to the pineapple is shown in a 1670s painting “Mr Rose, the royal Gardener, presenting to King Charles 2nd the first pineapple raised in England”. Beauman is sceptical this was possible in England at the time and thinks that by raised, the painter means “ripened”. She thinks raising did not happen until the 18th century thanks to a Dutch gardener Henry Telende and innovations in hothouse technology. Dutch gardeners found tanner’s bark maintained heat better than manure and could be reactivated easily with a pitchfork. Telende used the method in his Richmond greenhouse to reliably grow pineapples in fickle English weather. His method was noted in Richard Bradley’s General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening which hoped to see “the Ananas flourish for the future”. The method was enthusiastically taken up and by the mid 1720s every English aristocrat aspired to owning a pinery. Bradley’s The Country Housewife (1732) had the first pineapple tart recipe.

A home-grown pineapple became the ultimate status symbol. Because of their cost, they were rarely eaten. The pineapple was an ornament for the dinner table and would be re-used again and again until it was rotten. By the 1770s there was a pineapple husbandry industry in England and no garden was thought complete “without a stove for raising of pine-apples”. It was the subject of a Malapropism in Sheridan’s The Rivals in 1775 when Mrs Malaprop called Captain Absolute “the very pineapple of politeness” and indeed local-grown pineapples were at the pinnacle of British society. Pineappleware was popular at the dinner table. The height of the folly was John Murray’s Dunmore Park in Stirlingshire which sports a 16m high pineapple temple inside the estate’s walled apple orchard.

By 1835 Darwin on the Beagle could bestow no higher praise on a Tahitian pineapple than it was “perhaps even better than those cultivated in England”. Pineapples appeared in nearly every book by Dickens and Thackeray. But the glory days of English pineapples were numbered. David Copperfield (1850) stared at the pine-apples in Covent Garden market, as cheap imports became available thanks to steamships and refrigerators. Streetsellers in London were calling out “a penny a slice” and 200,000 Bahaman pineapples were unloaded from the docks each year. While they were not considered as tasty as the home-grown variety imported pineapples made them affordable for the lower classes.

The next major advance was canning, first successfully trialled in 1876 on a limited basis. In 1892 the new Zastrow Machine removed the fruits core and then sliced it up. A year later the Lewis Peeler added peeling to the mix and a Baltimore canning firm imported a million fresh pinepples for canning by the end of the century generating 250,000 cases of pineapples.

Hawaiian businessmen took note. The island’s climate and volcanic soils were ideal for growing pineapples. Englishman John Kidwell bought five acres on Oahu to grow pineapples and he established the first cannery in 1892. Word about the superior flavour of Hawaiian varieties quickly got out and the industry thrived despite a crippling 35pc tariff on export to the US mainland. James Drummond Dole founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Co (later the Dole Corporation) and he launched mass production quickly followed into business by California Packing Corp (later Del Monte) and others. With the aid of shrewd marketing, Hawaii had 70pc of the world market by 1940. Fresh pineapple remained a luxury item but the canned product was an everyday staple.

By modern times the big corporations had outgrown their Hawaiian operations and moved their plants to the Philippines, Thailand, Costa Rica and the Ivory Coast. Del Monte and Dole sued each other over patented pineapple varieties. In wholesale prices, the global pineapple market grew to $14.9 billion in 2016. The largest growth market is Asia, especially countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines though its original home of Brazil remains the largest consumer. Beauman notes that the pineapple retains “the power to infuse our lives with a tantalising taste of the exotic”. You can even make drone frames from it. Just don’t put it on a pizza.