A trip to the Birdsville Races

The first thing noticeable as you arrive into Birdsville is the planes. There must have been hundreds parked at the airport of every size and dimension and from all parts of Australia.
The second noticeable thing just outside the airport was the steam. It is arising from the artesian bore piping water up from the Great Artesian Basin.  The bore was drilled in 1961 and has a water temperature of just below boiling point. A series of cooling tubes and a parallel plate heat exchanger brings the temperature down.

birdsville1bSituated on the eastern fringe of the Simpson Desert, the area around Birdsville was the home of the Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi people. The first Europeans came in 1844 when SA Survey-General and explorer Charles Sturt led expeditions to the area. Burke and Wills‘ Camp 76 was also in the region on their return trek in 1860-1. The township of Birdsville grew out of the colonial need to create a customs post between South Australia and Queensland. Before the days of motorised transport Afghan cameleers brought supplies up the Birdsville Track. But today was all about horses. The 135th running of the Birdsville Cup.

They came from all parts with the town of 200 swelling to 6500 for the weekend. I have been to Birdsville many times before (most recently to the 2017 Big Red Bash) but this was my first time here for the races. The main street was set up with market and food stalls.

Before the races the place to meet was the Birdsville Hotel. They came dressed in all kinds of costumes.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has an association with Birdsville having visited twice since 2015 to check out the town’s internet and mobile capability. He wasn’t there today but a mechanical bull named in his honour was there.

The pub was the site of the Calcutta for the races. A Calcutta is an open auction where each horse goes to the highest bidder. The practice originated with the Colonial British (of course) in Calcutta, India.

As a photographer I’m always on the lookout for colourful costumes or groups so not surprisingly my eye was drawn to these guys. I asked them where they were from. “Orange,” they replied. “Of course,” I said and they laughed. “You serious?” I said doubting them. But indeed, they came from Orange, NSW. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Birdsville Bakery is a little bit away from the action across the town oval. But it is always worth a visit for its famous camel pies. Permanently parked out the front is Onslo the VW Beetle.  It was owned by author and journalist Kelly Theobald, who was killed in a car crash on the Birdsville Track in 2015, aged just 27.

As I headed back across the oval, a plane came in overhead with distinctive RAAF markings. I knew exactly who it was. Earlier I had bumped into the Diamantina Mayor Geoff Morton but he was in a rush and couldn’t stop to talk to me. When I picked up my media pass I was told why, the Governor General of Australia Peter Cosgrove was expected in town at 11am. And here just a minute or two after 11 was his plane.

I walked back to the airport, conveniently located in the middle of town, just opposite the pub and saw Cosgrove come off the plane with his wife to be greeted by Mayor Morton. They were quickly whisked away on a tour of town. 

That tour probably included a visit inside the pub at some stage. William Blair built the Birdsville Hotel in 1884 and its weathered sandstone walls have been there almost as long as the races. The hotel is heritage-listed as one of three surviving masonry buildings in Birdsville and is a rare surviving late 19th century outback hotel.

One of the other two (along with the courthouse) is the ruins of the 1883-vintage Royal Hotel. Though only a year older than the Birdsville Hotel, it has suffered more from the ravages of time. From 1923 to 1937, the building was leased by the Rev John Flynn’s Presbyterian Australian Inland Mission as its first bush nursing home and Alfred Traeger installed one of his first bush pedal radio stations there. Afterwards it was used as a residence, then abandoned before it partially collapsed.

Continuing to seek out colourful groups, these three ladies were happy to have their photo taken, “Girls Trip in Progress”. Someone later told me the Birdsville Races was a “schoolies for the over 50s” and the evidence for that was everywhere.

Like all schoolies they needed holiday accommodation and tent cities were set up at every vantage point.

Having completed my tour of the town, it was time to head to the races. The racecourse is a few kilometres south of the town across the Diamantina River, which is part of the endorheic Lake Eyre Basin. We’ve had hardly any rain for six months in western and north west Queensland so I was surprised to see how much permanent water was still in the river. The river attracts the bird life and explains how the town got its name.

The entrance to the track was THE place to get your photo taken, or in my case, to take your photos.

The set up was impressive for a bush race meeting and the 6500 punters were catered for with ease. Needless to say it was full of colourfully-dressed characters from all over Australia like these “Dust Angels” from Brisbane. Behind them is the “Black Tower”, the communications and media centre at the meet. The Black Tower is, in typical inverted Aussie bush style, white.

Believe it or not, there was actual horse racing at the Birdsville Races. Two days of it on Friday and Saturday. I got there for the Saturday and this is Race 1 with Mount Isa jockey Dan Ballard storming home to win on Nuncius.

As well as the novelty outfits there were many people dressed up in proper attire. The fashions on the field attracted big prizes and were hotly contested by women, men, couples and even families.

The Governor-General came along to watch the fashions and as he did so, he handed out a medal to a young girl watching on. I asked him what that was about. He said it was the Governor General’s medal and it was a random decision to give it to that girl. He had never met her before but must have liked her smile.

I didn’t have any medals to hand out but these two ladies were my favourite: Christine the Angel and Peta the Devil, both from Melbourne. Like the GG it was a random choice, but it reminds me of this scene in Full Metal Jacket. “I think I was trying to say something about the duality of man, sir “. 

After a big day at the track, it was time for the 135th running of the Birdsville Cup. Victory went to Roma horse Fast Fella ridden by Rockhampton jockey Adrian Coome.

And the GG was on hand to present the gleaming gold trophy to winning Roma trainer Craig Smith. While they celebrated it was time for me to bid adieu to Birdsville for another year.

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A trip to Lake Julius

My newspaper the North West Star covers an enormous territory, almost a half a million square kilometres of North West Queensland. As editor I’ve set myself the task of seeing as much of that territory as possible in my time here, a not inconsiderable task given it is an area larger than Spain but with very few people and very few serviceable roads.julius1To get to many places you need a four wheel drive, a bit of planning and a sense of adventure because if you do get into strife, the options for help may not be there with very little traffic and no mobile reception. The picture above is barely 25kms from Mount Isa, after leaving the highway and heading north on the dirt road to Lake Julius and Kajabbi. Every time I drive from Isa to Cloncurry I see the turn-off but until this Saturday, I’d never taken it.julius2The winter dry season terrain is red with pockets of green. There’s not much traffic but you see it well in advance thanks to the large amount of dust any vehicle raises, rising like a plume 20m into the air above. One particular plume went higher still and when I got up close I found it was a slow-moving cattle truck. I had to wait ages for an opportunity to overtake it as the dust it raised made the view ahead negligible and dangerous.julius3After 70km up the dirt road, I came to this junction signpost. The kilometres are wrong in both direction. It’s 70km to the highway then another 20km to Isa while it’s at least 50km to Kajabbi.  In any case my destination was Lake Julius and that one was accurate. The Dam was 14km away to the left.julius4Looking at the road in that direction it was clear some climbing into the hills lay ahead.julius5Lake Julius is carved out of the Leichhardt River and there is not much water in that river at this time of year. None at all in fact. The trip to the Dam heads over the causeway of the river here as it winds its way north to empty into the Gulf (well, it does in summer anyway).julius6Above is the view from the middle of the causeway looking at the river south towards to the dam. It’s empty now but locals say it doesn’t take much rain to fill and when it does the workers at the Dam are cut off, sometimes for weeks or more, with access only from the air.julius8Finally I got to the house which overlooked the dam. It was a private house but it had access to visitors, picnic tables and a lookout with a great vista over the dam.julius7And what a view. Julius Dam is located at the junction of Paroo Creek and the Leichhardt River, 70 kms north-east of Mount Isa. There may not be any water in the Leichhardt upstream but here there was plenty dammed in. As of the latest figures provided by the Mount Isa Water Board (August 14, 2017) Lake Julius is 87.9% full. Sometimes the dam is well over 100 percent full and the water rushes over the top. That would be a sight to behold although difficult to capture without air transport as the access road is cut off.julius9Lake Julius is a human-made dam. It was built at the height of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen construction era in the mid to late 1970s and opened on October 8, 1978. julius10Lake Julius has a full supply capacity of 127,000 megalitres, a surface area of 1255 hectares with an average depth of 8.9 metres.  The concrete multiple arch and buttress structure is unique in Queensland.julius11I walked from the lookout down to the boat ramp. Lake Julius supplies several mines in the region via the Mount Isa Water Board and North West Queensland Water Pipeline Company, which pipes water from the Dam to their customers. It also acts as a back-up supply for Lake Moondarra as a supply of Mount Isa town water but its distance from town makes it expensive to pump outside times of drought. The state government is now providing money to use a solar pump to get the water to town more cheaply.julius12Assuming the Dam is not overflowing, it is a perfect spot for boating and recreational fishing. It’s also miles from anywhere so you’ll likely have the wilderness of the lake to yourself.julius13This map shows the many channels of the lake formed by the Dam.

julius14The dam cost $30 million at the time and was financed by the Mount Isa City Council with assistance from Mount Isa Mines. According to the Canberra Times, April 30 1977, the council were still $6m short and could face bankruptcy if they didn’t get the extra money from the federal government. The feds eventually came to the party.julius15This is the view looking downstream as the Leichhardt makes its way to the Gulf of Carpentaria past Augustus Downs station. The road leading up to the dam is visible centre left.julius16I drove back to the junction and believing the sign I thought Kajabbi was just 32km north and set off in that direction. One of the many hilltops in this region (though likely not this one) is Battle Mountain, scene of the Kalkadoon people’s last stand against settlers and native police in 1884. The rough terrain meant their independence lasted longer than most but the might of European Snyder weapons was eventually too powerful.julius17I got to 32km but where Kajabbi should have been according to the sign all there was was a cattle outstation. I drove further north a while until I got to an unmarked junction and not willing to gamble further I drove back to Mount Isa. Kajabbi will have to wait for another trip.

Leaked tape shows emptiness at the heart of Australian politics

CaptureThe leaked tapes of Donald Trump’s first presidential conversations with the leaders of Mexico and Australia show the sausage making of international politics in all its gory detail. It is unedifying but it is also not unusual and it is important to be be able to play your cards well in diplomatic negotiation. Many have said Donald Trump comes out badly in these tapes, but while he was typically boastful, I thought he handled both conversations astutely clearly showing he intended to live up to his electoral promises. But there were key differences in the way the two conversations were handled by the other side that show the deep hollowness in the core of Australian democracy.

Imagine for a moment you are a world leader and it is your first conversation with the newly elected president of the US, a president who came from left field and a president that has threatened to tear up the world order in his avowed aim to “Make America Great Again”. What would you want to discuss? Maybe you would want to discuss what MAGA means to world trade, what it means to the global climate accord or what it means to international security co-operation, or what it means to the large American military bases and forces on your soil.

Certainly that is how Mexican president Peña Nieto saw that first conversation. Tensions were high over arguments about who would pay for Trump’s proposed border wall and Nieto had cancelled a planned trip to Washington a day earlier. Yet the call was most calm and productive with both sides getting across their messages.

Nieto immediately acknowledged Trump’s mandate about the wall but said it was politically unacceptable and he wanted “to look for ways to save these differences”.  In return Trump brought up the US’s $60 billion trade deficit with Mexico saying tariffs were necessary. This proposal “this won me the election, along with military and healthcare,” Trump said.

Nieto reminded Trump that changing economic conditions would affect migration between the two countries, to which Trump brought up the Mexican drug lords. “Maybe your military is afraid of them, but our military is not afraid of them,” he said. He Mexico was beating the US at trade, at the border, and in the drug war. He said Israeli PM Netenyahu told him a wall works and it would be cheaper than the estimated costs. In the meantime,  he advised both sides to stop talking about it and say “We will work it out. It will work out in the formula somehow.” The two sides agreed to continue talking and the call ended amiably.

Contrast this with the Malcolm Turnbull call. Australia is not a direct neighbour of the US and unlike Mexico has a trade deficit with the US. But Australia is a major military partner of the US, part of the Five Eyes alliance, home to a large US military presence in Darwin and home to the secretive spy base at Pine Gap. It shares a lot of cultural commonality as an English speaking settler country and both countries are among the highest carbon emitters per capita in the world.

But none of those issues came out in the call.  Instead Trump became increasingly exasperated as Turnbull pressed him on a matter of domestic politics. The Australian Twitterati have made endless fun of the call particularly around the references to Greg Norman and “local milk people” but Trump twice skewers Turnbull on the one matter he chose to bring up.

That issue was boat people, refugees stranded on Nauru and Manus Island which Australia refuses to house on the mainland. That is a serious issue, but not one Turnbull wanted to resolve. All he wanted was for Trump to honour a grubby deal Australia signed with Obama, and unsurprisingly Trump baulked. In November the outgoing US administration agreed to a refugee swap, taking over a 1000 refugees from Nauru and Manus in exchange for a similar number Central American refugees who had escaped violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and were being held in US-funded facilities in Costa Rica. Turnbull wanted Trump to honour the deal. “This is a very big issue for us, particularly domestically,” he said.

Trump said this deal to take 2000 people would be a bad look for him given he was calling for a ban on immigration from the countries the Australian refugees came from. ” It sends such a bad signal,” he said. Turnbull said the US had the right of veto through vetting and none were from the conflict zone. “They are basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan…They have been under our supervision for over three years now and we know exactly everything about them,” he said.

So why hadn’t you left them free, asked Trump reasonably. Turnbull blamed the people smugglers “we had to deprive them of the product.” It didn’t matter if “you are the best person in the world” Australia would not let them in by boat. Later on Turnbull admitted the cruelty of the directive, “If they had arrived by airplane and with a tourist visa then they would be here”. A confused Trump said “Why do you discriminate against boats?” Turnbull said the problem with the boats was it outsourced the immigration program to people smugglers and thousands of people drowned at sea.  Yet Trump had a sneaking admiration for Australia’s hard stance and Turnbull pressed on yes, suggest he (Trump) say “we can conform with that deal – we are not obliged to take anybody we do not want, we will go through extreme vetting.”

Trump got angry again saying he would refuse to say that as it made him look “so bad” in his first week in office. “We are not taking anybody in, those days are over,” he said. Turnbull desperately hung on to the deal in a telling exchange:

Trump: Suppose I vet them closely and I do not take any?                                           Turnbull: That is the point I have been trying to make.                                           Trump: How does that help you?                                                                                       Turnbull: we assume that we will act in good faith.

Again Trump reminded him this deal would make him look weak and ineffectual. Turnbull oozed on: “You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it.” No wonder Trump was sick of him at this stage and said it was the most unpleasant call of the day. “Thank you for your commitment. It is very important to us,” concluded Turnbull sounding all the world like a call centre operator. Trump was having none of it. “It is important to you and it is embarrassing to me. It is an embarrassment to me, but at least I got you off the hook.”

Off the hook. Not only the did phone call end there but Turnbull thought he had wriggled out of a domestic crisis, only for details of the call to be leaked that very day. Turnbull had used precious capital in his few minutes with the president of the United States to press a very minor issue, simply to avoid bad headlines back home.  Almost 400 people remain in detention in Nauru and another 900 on Manus. Maybe they will be settled in the US but it won’t fix the source of the problem, the wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – that both the US and Australia are involved in. People smuggling is a reactive model. Unauthorised travel to Australia is driven by the desperate measures of people fleeing persecution.

 

 

 

World Press Photo Exhibition 2017

On a visit to Brisbane I caught up with the 60th annual World Press Photo exhibition at the Powerhouse in New Farm. The exhibition profiles the world’s top press photographers who captured an event or issue of great journalistic importance in the last year with 80,000 images from 5000 photographers from 125 countries.

The World Press Photo of the Year award was given to Turkish photographer Burhan Ozbilici. Ozbilici’s picture captures Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, a 22-year-old off-duty police officer, who assassinated Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, at an art exhibition in Ankara in December 2016. Shouting out “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria”, Altıntaş wounded three other people before being killed by officers in a shootout. The image also won first prize in the Spot News Stories category.show4.JPG

If the Ozbilici shot was the best of the year this one wasn’t far behind. Jonathan Backman’s photo captures the almost Zen-like arrest of Iesha Evans, 27, at Baton Rouge. Her elegant flowing dress and stately demeanour is contrasted to the heavily armoured and almost fearful cops. Evans (who was later released without charge) was protesting against the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling at a time when black males were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police.

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The war in eastern Ukraine has trundled on for three years mostly outside media view, yet intractably caught up in the rising geopolitical power of Vladimir Putin. This photo by Russian Rossiya Segodoya shows a local man surveying the damage to a building in the city of Luhansk, held by the rebel group Luhansk People’s Republic since 2014.show2.JPG

Iran has been run on theocratic lines since the Islamic revolution of 1979 though is gradually opening to the world via internet and satellite television. Photographer Hossein Fatemi wants to show the world some of the less well known features of Iranian society such as this memorial site near the border for victims of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.show3.JPG

The tide of human immigrants has risen across the world thanks to the globe’s many deadly conflicts. Hundreds of thousands are taking difficult and dangerous journeys to come to western Europe which is still mostly peaceful and the standard of living high. However residents of those countries are becoming increasingly resentful of these waves of undocumented arrivals. This photo by Romania’s Vadim Ghirda shows refugees trying to cross a river from Greece to Macedonia after the latter country erected a fence to keep them out.show5.JPG

Libya is another country with a forgotten war. Since the fall of Gaddafi the country has been split into rule by rival groups with a second civil war which started in 2014 still unresolved. The vacuum is allowing Islamic State gain more influence across the country. The Government of National Accord is recognised by the UN but does not have control of the east. This photo by Italian Alessio Romenzi shows a GNA attempt to take the coastal city of Sirte, an IS stronghold on par with Raqqa (Syria) and formerly Mosul (Iraq).show6.JPG

But of all the world’s conflicts, Syria seems the most complex, brutal, intractable and devastating in our times. This photo by Syrian Abd Doumany shows a child in pain in a makeshift hospital in the town of Douma, held by rebels. Situated 10km north of Damascus, the town has been the centre of a siege and major fighting since the war started in 2011. Children, as always, are the first casualties.show7.JPG

The rise of terrorism across the world has led to a corresponding rise in authoritarian regimes. One of the worst is that of president Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines whose so-called anti-drug offensive is an excuse to commit legalised murder on a large scale, with over 7000 extra-judicial killings in the last six months of 2016, many just caught in crossfire. This photo by Australian Daniel Berahulak shows the mourning family of Jimboy Bolasa shot dead by unidentified gunmen.show8.JPG

The giant panda is coming back from the verge of extinction thanks to Chinese conservation efforts. Most pandas live in the bamboo-rich forests above the Sichuan Basin and China has stepped in to save the bamboo habitat. American photographer Ami Vitale captured this image of a keeper releasing a young panda into the wild. The keeper wears a panda suit in the hope of keeping the bear as free as possible from human contact. show9.JPG

Identity politics appears on the rise everywhere. Identity is as old as politics but in an individualistic era, the idea that one’s identity is political is potent, especially for minority groups. Italian Giovanni Caprioti took this photo of members of gay friendly Toronto rugby union team Muddy York preparing for a drag performance fundraiser for the club.show10.JPG

Beyond identity lies the problem of our environment and the combined impact of seven billion people on the planet. Mumbai is one of the world’s fastest growing cities, fast approaching 20 million people. In the nearby Sanjay Gandhi national park is a colony of 35 leopards. The leopards are attracted to the garbage dumps of nearby slums where they prey on stray dogs. Human contact is also increasing with damage on both sides though the numbers are hopelessly lopsided against the leopard. Nayan Khanolkar took this photograph at the residential Aarey Milk Colony.show11.JPG

The role of South Pars / North Dome gasfield in the Qatar crisis

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South Pars / North Dome (Wikipedia)

The South Pars / North Dome Gas-Condensate field is not well known, but it is easily the largest gas field in the world. It is so large it is as big as the other top 20 gas fields combined. It covers a massive 10,000 sq km situated 3000m below the middle of the Persian Gulf. Australia may be close to exporting the largest amount of gas in the world but Qatar remains the biggest producer. And Qatar owns just over three-fifths of the gas-concentrate field it calls the North Dome (or North Field). The Iranians call it the South Pars and they own around 37 per cent of what is 51 trillion cubic metres of natural gas and 50 billion barrels of natural gas condensates.

The Iranians discovered the field in 1990 but recovering from the Iraqi war it took a decade to start drilling. Qatar, which had little involvement in gas, also started drilling its side in the early 2000s building an industry up from nothing to become one of the largest gas exporters in the world. Since 2010 Iran has also been busy developing the field.

In 2005, Qatar, worried the field was haemorrhaging gas too quickly, called a halt to new development. Initially a five year moratorium it eventually lasted 12 years. They continued drilling at existing North Dome fields and made a lot of money out of it – it accounts for nearly all of Qatar’s gas production and around 60 percent of export revenue – but it developed no new projects.

Until 2017, that is. With existing fields starting to draw down, Qatar has seen its market share drop as Australia’s east coast export terminal at Gladstone opened in 2014, and Russia and the US aggressively expanded gas production. Qatar’s problem is that any new fields at North Dome are likely to get closer to the Iranian sector so it requires greater co-operation and information. Iran suffers severe domestic gas shortages and made a rapid increase in South Pars production a top priority following the end of international sanctions and a deal with France’s Total last year.

Qatar’s ties with Iran has not pleased giant neighbour Saudi Arabia. Qatar was long regarded as a Saudi vassal state but started moving independently when emir Hamad Al Thani toppled his pro-Saudi father Khalifa Al Thani in 1995. During Hamad’s 18-year rule, Qatar turned away from Saudi oil and focused on gas at North Dome. Natural gas production reached 77 million tonnes, making Qatar the richest country in the world per capita. But because of North Dome’s strategic location, Qatar promoted a regional policy of engagement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s biggest enemy. It didn’t help that Qatar won the 2022 World Cup rights while news station Al Jazeera was a thorn in the side of nearly every regime in the region.

Qatar’s balancing act between the regional superpowers has occasionally exasperated the US. Al Udeid Air Base near Doha hosts 11,000 US military personnel – the largest concentration of American forces in the Middle East.  But Qatar has on occasion supported Hamas in Lebanon, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The emir’s close ties with Obama and Ahmadinejad led State Secretary John Kerry to exclaim in 2009 “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.” But armed with its gas resources Qatar has been able to keep the US onside while managing to weave a path between Iran and Saudi interests. Qatar has also played a back-channel role with Iran in the Syrian war, brokering hostage and prisoner exchanges, paying millions of dollars to insurgent and militant groups in the deals, to the growing distress of Saudi Arabia.

The opportunity for the Saudis to strike back came after new US president Donald Trump’s visit to the kingdom.  Trump offered a new arms deal and publicly praised their stance on Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The emboldened Saudis saw his support as the signal for an attack on Qatar. Within days Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and Yemen severed all ties claiming Qatar supported Sunni terrorism and Iranian designs on the region. All but Egypt, which has 250,000 workers, ordered their citizens to leave Qatar.

As is usual with Trump, his administration’s response has been muddled. When the Saudis declared the blockade was declared, Trump supported it in tweets calling Qatar a “funder of radical ideology”.  His words caused alarm and countervailing moves from the Pentagon and state department. Within days the US signed a $12 billion deal to supply dozens of F-15 jets to Qatar.

Then the Saudis came up with a new list of ultimatums to Qatar including the closure of Al Jazeera, none of which Qatar looks likely to meet.  Nor will Turkey agree to pull out its forces from Qatar. As long as the gas flows at South Pars / North Dome Qatar is unlikely to buckle. Iran is increasing production on its side while Qatar Petroleum has signed an agreement with Japanese engineering company Chiyoda to identify modifications required to increase capacity at Qatar’s LNG trains at Ras Laffan by next year. It will continue to provide gas to Europe via the Suez Canal and the Gulf via the Dolphin Pipeline.

 

 

Porcupine Gorge Challenge 2017

gorge7Queensland is full of gorgeous gorges no one has heard of. There’s Carnarvon Gorge near Roma in the roof of Queensland, an out of the way place I’ve been fortunate enough to get to many times. There’s Cania Gorge near Monto, like Carnarvon another pristine spot about seven hours from Brisbane. And there’s a place I’d never heard of until 2016: Porcupine Gorge. I’d never been until today when I did the Porcupine Gorge Challenge, an 8km run with a 1.2km hill at the end.  It was a birthday present to myself a day before I turn 53. Or I so conned myself into believing. It was actually one of the toughest things I’ve done in my life. On a par with the Pomona King of the Mountain I did in 2001 which was half the distance, 10 degrees cooler and I was 16 years younger. But never mind. It was time to go further back in time and put on Echo and the Bunnymen:  Porcupine gorge1I was blissfully ignorant of what was ahead when I rolled into Hughenden on Friday night. Hughenden is the nearest town, about 70km south of Porcupine Gorge, and five hours east of Mount Isa ,four hours west of Townsville). I was in Hughenden last year to talk to railway workers losing their former state rail jobs as privatised Aurizon sees them surplus to requirements. It was a tough visit but as we waited to fly back to Isa I saw the Mayor’s car advertising Porcupine Gorge, a local tourist attraction. An amazing place and very beautiful, the mayor told me. I promised her I would definitely look it up some day.gorge9The excuse came with the Great Western Games, a festival of 32 sports from June to July 2017 held in six towns across the north of Queensland from “The Isa to The Towers“. Situated between the two is Hughenden and one of its events is the Porcupine Gorge Challenge. Writing an article for the paper, I found out the challenge is not new. It’s been running since 2001 (the same year I did King of the Mountain) and maybe organisers thought badging it part of the Games would get sponsorship money and extra attention.  It certainly got my attention and taking the “get involved” words of Games organisers to heart, I signed up that day.gorge2After an early night in Hughenden, I left around 7.30am this morning. I headed 70km north along the bitumen part of the Kennedy Development Hwy (an inland back way to Cairns).gorge3Then in the distance I saw the Gorge. It was silhouetted, dark and ominous while the sun struggled with early clouds. I don’t know what the green light is, either a property sign sparkling in the sunshine or an alien warning me to go no further.  gorge6I didn’t listen to the alien and soon arrived at the Gorge. The campsite is near Pyramid Lookout which had a helpful sign explaining the local geology. About 280 million years ago, the creek began eroding the rocks eventually turning it into Australia’s “Grand Canyon”, as a book in my motel claimed.  gorge5That was a big call but it wasn’t a bad one. This photo on the phone (I didn’t want to lug my camera around the track) doesn’t do it justice but it was magnificent to look at. The creek disappeared off into the distance to the north and I would be forced to chase it for several bone-jarring kilometres.gorge4The view south was even more spectacular. Pyramid Hill was sculpted out of the rock as the creek slowly gouged out the ancient savannah landscape. This was my start point so I had to get down there.gorge8But first I had to register. I though my number was appropriate in the last day of my 52nd year. I was wearing the t-shirt I brought not the official one I was getting for entering as they hadn’t arrived when I got there. I made a note to collect mine at the end and set off down the hill.gorge10About half way down I got the first glimpse of the Porcupine Creek trickling through the gorge, lined with melaleucagorge11After a 1.2 km descent, it was a short distance south to the Pyramid.gorge12The Pyramid got altogether more impressive the closer you got to it.gorge13These rocks tell a 280 million story. If only I could read it.gorge14Almost every river system between Isa and Hughenden is empty including the Flinders River at Hughenden. Cyclone Debbie did promise to bring rain but turned south at the last moment keeping Flinders Shire dry. But there was a surprising amount of water at Porcupine Gorge. Maybe they got some recent local rain or the rocks have dammed the water into place.gorge18I was one of the first at the start line but slowly they started dribbling in, including the helicopter dropping off State Emergency Services at strategic points along the gorge.gorge19Not everyone was here to run. This guy had the right idea. This would have been a much more sensible birthday present to myself.gorge20But I was here now with a 100 or so others ready to race, including this mob. I asked where they were from. “Karumba?” I thought they said. No, they laughed, “Columba” they said. That’s Columba Catholic College, a boarding school in Charters Towers, 250km east. I chatted with a guy who looked in his late sixties and who wasn’t racing. “Couldn’t get you to run this year,” I said jokingly and perhaps a tad patronisingly.  No, he said, he was injured but he had done it many times and might do again next year. “Oh,” I said. “Any advice to a newcomer?” Yes, he said. Do up your shoelaces tight, you’ll be going through sand and water and it will get slippery.  I said thanks and rushed away to tighten both laces – twice.gorge21Then the littlies (12 and under) were given the signal. I was jealous of them. They would just run back to the turnoff and up the hill.gorge22The under 16s were next out. They had to run further down the creek but only half the distance as the adults before turning back for the climb. So I was jealous of them too.gorge23Then it was the 70 or so adults, mostly unlike me, in their proper shirts. The guy with the starter pistol in the hi vis vest decided he wanted to count us all but that wasn’t working well after two goes at herding cats. He asked someone did they count them last year. “No,” that person replied, “But it’s a good idea.” Everyone laughed. Eventually someone suggested we should all hold up our hands and put them down as he counted us off. It eventually came to 69 of the 72 registered runners. Dissatisfied but unwilling to hold us up any longer he started the gun for the race.gorge15I didn’t take too many photos during the race so many of these photos were taken beforehand. But this was the terrain at the beginning. I was sucked into a faster start than I would like, despite the danger of falling over if not careful on these rocks. And those early clouds had gone away, so the sun was getting serious.gorge24There was also climbing involved, as well as wriggling between rocks and over dangerous pebbles that could turn an ankle in an instance.gorge16Then it got sandy and while that was less dangerous it was tiring to run in and I was feeling the strain less than a quarter of the race in.  With a big hill at the end of it, I realised my hopes of doing this in under an hour were badly misplaced.gorge25Last but not least it got wet with a couple of expected and unexpected drops into the drink as we criss-crossed Porcupine Creek several times. At least my laces were tight.gorge26The water one and this photo of people walking the other direction were the only two I took during the race. There were markers in the trees that helped you follow the course but I still took a couple of wrong turns. I also wouldn’t believe the guy who told me I had got halfway and was heading up the next gorge before he called me back. Though walking more than running at this stage I was surprised there were many behind me. I was either the slowest runner or the fastest walker. Take your pick.gorge28By the time I got back to the climb I had little left in the tank. Any pretense I had of running up the 1.2km were gone. I was walking, or stumbling. I was breathing very fast.  I was stopping frequently, head bent over for a five second break. At one point I overtook tourists who took one look and said “are you alright?” I didn’t have breath to answer and shuffled past them silently. gorge17Eventually I got to the sign alerting me to the last 200m and I broke in to a run, which barely lasted 50m. Determined not to look geriatric I managed to find one last burst before the final corner and ran over the line. I bent over double for about 30 seconds before I could finally tell someone I was okay. Hell, I was more than okay. I was ecstatic – I had finished it. A time of around about 1hr 15 mins for the 8km course so plenty of room for improvement. Maybe next year I can get a few more tips from old mate when he races again. I grabbed my shirt at the end and posed triumphantly, my first Porcupine Gorge Challenge successfully negotiated.

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Smash the pig
This pork is mine
I’m pining for the pork
Of the porcupine
I’d best be on my best behaviour
Best behave yourself you hear

(Echo and the Bunnymen 1983)

Basically Bowen

After a night in Charters Towers it was off the coast the following morning, destination Bowen about three hours away.  It involves 100km down the Flinders Hwy, then taking a shortcut to avoid Townsville via the Woodstock-Giru Rd and on through Ayr. Bowen is a town I’ve often travelled through but have never spent the night. Getting there before lunchtime I went down to the seafront and was confronted by this giant mango (though this apparently was the Mini Mango not the Big Mango). The Bowen Mango or ‘Kensington Pride’ is the leading commercial mango cultivar in Queensland, thought to have been introduced by traders in Bowen who were shipping horses for military use in India.bowen1

Category 4 Cyclone Debbie had smashed through the east coast barely six weeks earlier, the area due south of Bowen directly in its firing line. Much of the debris was cleared away by the time I came though but the evidence was everywhere, including in these trees bent backwards by the force of the winds.

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Bowen was the first port established in North Queensland, officially proclaimed in 1861 and named after Queensland’s first Governor, Sir George Ferguson Bowen. The town quickly grew to support the northern pastoral industry as a strategically placed supply centre though was eclipsed by Townsville by the 1870s. Bowen needed a jetty to function effectively as a port.  Passengers and cargo initially had to be transferred from vessels to shore by punts and then carted across tidal flats so in 1865-67 they constructed a long jetty extending past the mud flats and shallow water. The port traded in meat, sugar and coal. bowen3

Just out of Bowen’s bay lies Gloucester Island National Park. Access is by private or commercial boat from Airlie Beach or Dingo Beach. The island is home to a colony of endangered Proserpine rock-wallabies. The islands and surrounding waters are protected by the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

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After checking in to my motel I decided on a long walk around the beaches directly north of town. My destination was Mother Beddock rock something I had never heard of until a few weeks ago but now was fascinated by.  One reviewer on Trip Advisor calls it a “a big rock sitting on another rock looking as though it should just tumble down” and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.  This large balancing rock was the star attraction of the Mother Beddock track. This view was from Rose Bay. bowen5

After Murray Bay it was a climb to view Mother Beddock at close hand. From what I could gather the rock derived its name from a Bowen lady with a large pimple on her nose. The pimple may or may not have been removed from the nose but it was eventually lost to the name of the rock.

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Looking east past Mother Beddock towards the town of Bowen. The town’s prosperous economy based on agriculture, fishing, tourism, and mining. Its rainfall is low for a tropical coastal town and the weather is sunny and warm most of the year making Bowen a candidate for the best climate in Australia.

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After the climb up to the rock it was back down again to Murray Bay. This was a beautiful deserted spot where I took the time to get wet in the Coral Sea.

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Then I was climbing again towards another lookout. Like many places in this part of Queensland Bowen has a proud association with the Second World War. Up here authorities installed the first radar and anti-aircraft battery installed in North Queensland. The guns are gone but the mounting points are still there and the view remains superb.

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Including the view down to Horseshoe Bay at the northern tip of the cape. Not hard to work out how it got its name.bowen10

After going down to Horseshoe Bay I continued the walk west along to Queens Bay where I parked my car for what must have been an 8-10km round trip. A delightful walk basking in late afternoon sunshine.

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Then it was time for a libation in Bowen’s most famous pub, the Grand View Hotel. The hotel was been owned by the same family since 1918 and featured in Baz Luhrman’s film Australia.  The hotel may have been the best thing about that turkey of a film. After pondering that it was time for dinner at the motel and a nightcap ahead of a short trip further south to Airlie Beach the following morning.

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