David Byrne – American Utopia: Gold Coast concert review

Talking Heads emerged from the New York scene in 1975 and were one of my favourite bands from the early eighties. I particularly loved their trio of albums Fear of Music (1979), Remain in Light (1980) and Speaking in Tongues (1983). The band was dominated by the brooding presence of David Byrne and his 1981 collaboration with Brian Eno (who was a big force behind Fear of Music) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was a seminal influence on later sampling and still one of my all time top 10 favourite albums.


Living in Ireland at the time I was always on the lookout to see if they were playing anywhere close live but in those pre-Internet days I don’t recall ever having the opportunity. The closest I came was Jonathan Demme’s film version of their live album Stop Making Sense with David Byrne’s Big Suit the showstopper of that performance. Though I liked the singles from Little Creatures (1985) “And She Was” and “Road to Nowhere” I didn’t think the band was as interesting in the late 1980s and apparently neither did they breaking up in 1991.


I thought then I would never see Byrne or the band in all their glory. It wasn’t until just after I posted my piece about Eno-Byrne earlier this year did a friend point out that Byrne was touring Australia in November. Though he missed out Brisbane, he was playing the Gold Coast Convention Centre and that was close enough for me. I’d been looking forward to the gig ever since and I was not to be disappointed.


From the moment Byrne comes on stage and sits at a table to pick up a sculpted skull, it was captivating entertainment on many levels. I half expected him to break into Shakespeare with “Alas poor Yorick” but instead it was the song Here from his latest album American Vertigo. “Here there is something we call hallucination / Is it the truth or merely a description?” Who knows, but it was a tantalising opener.


For that song the band was off stage but they soon joined him in similar-suited splendour (all minus footwear) as he turned back the clock to Fear of Music with the classic I Zimbra. It was the song that launched Byrne on a career-long fascination with African music and it was the first excuse for the seated audience in the Coast to get out of their chairs and start rocking the arena. It was American Utopia with African roots.


The stage set was minimal but with 12 performers on it, it didn’t matter – there was always something interesting going on. Sometimes it was the two fabulous dancers with their elaborate choreography that Byrne would either join or just look on in delight. Sometimes it was the six-piece percussion group setting a pounding beat as they strutted across the stage. Sometimes it was the keyboardist carrying the music all by himself. db5

But mostly it was Byrne himself, now 66 years old, but careering across the large set with the energy and intensity of someone half his age. American Utopia released in January was his first solo recording in 18 years. He played several tracks from the album including Everybody’s Coming to My House. He told the story that when he sings it he worries about everyone being in his house, but when he heard a choir sing it, they infused it with positivity and a genuine sense that everyone was welcome in the house. It fits in with a larger project Byrne is putting together called Reasons to be Cheerful.  I was expecting a morose artist but he was surprisingly upbeat and funny.


I also expected a performance infused with art – and Byrne did not disappoint. It was part stage show, part dance routine, part theatre, part performance and all captivating. At one point all 12 of them pirouetted perfectly like a marching band and it was glorious to watch.


The performance was enhanced by terrific use of lighting and shadows. The group bounced around untethered by wires or standing instruments but there was always method in their madness. Byrne was the star but each contributed to a dazzling whole.

This photo by Glenn Mead. All others by the author.

The new music was great. But what everyone there wanted to hear – and I was no exception was the classic Talking Heads tracks. And Byrne was more than happy to oblige. Born Under Punches, Once in a Lifetime, Slippery People, Burning Down the House, This Must be the Place, and Blind, all had people racing to the front of the stage and getting their boogie on. Who could resist such great dance music?


Byrne and the band played two encore sets and finished with a modern day protest song Hell You Talmbout. Written in 2015 by Janelle Monáe it asks what the hell are you talking about and lists the names of black Americans killed by police or in race-related violence, asking people to say the names of the dead. It wasn’t Talking Heads but it was a powerful conclusion to a great concert. Hell you talmbout – this was one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended and like nothing I’ve seen before and likely ever again. He’s still alive but, David Byrne, won’t you say his name.

The $50 notable David Unaipon


Almost 150 years after his birth, one of the great Australians has had a facelift. David Unaipon has long featured on the $50 note but an updated portrait of the Ngarrindjeri inventor features on the new note released into circulation last month. Muriel Van der Byl’s note’s design also includes Ngarrindjeri shields; a black swan, Unaipon’s totem animal and “miwi” and navel cord exchange, Ngarrindjeri cultural practices written about by Uniapon.

The note still contains an image of the South Australian church in Raukkan though the blueprints of the shearing mechanism he invented and a quote have been removed. The quote “As a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first – but I hope not the last – to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings”, is proud but perhaps too jarring these days with its talk of race and blood.

Unaipon was a remarkable polymath as the book Remembering Aboriginal Heroes by John Ramsland and Christopher Mooney point out, a man of many parts including philosopher, inventor and musician. He was a Ngarrindjeri man born and raised on the Port Macleay Mission School in South Australia’s Coorong, devoted to study across many fields.

As a young boy he learned how to track animals and learned the cultural ways of his forefathers. As an old man he recalled the early first conflicts with white people and although spears were thrown the superior weaponry of the whites were used “with deadly effect”. He said neither side “had the grasp of language necessary for a proper understanding between them”. It wasn’t until missionary George Taplin arrived that the blacks felt they had someone to understand them. White settlers invaded the Lower Murray and blacks that survived massacres were corralled on a mission at Point Macleay on Lake Alexandrina.

David’s father James was one of George Taplin’s first converts at the mission and he became a deacon at the church. The Mission established vegetable gardens, fruit trees and vines, introduced cattle and sheep and workshops for blacksmiths, carpenters and shoemakers.

David soaked it all up as loved hearing visiting lecturers talking about the wonders of science. At Taplin’s school he became interested in all things mechanical and loved reading about “the wonderful progress of science” during the Industrial Revolution. Unaipon was self-taught registered nine patents for inventions, which earned him a reputation as Australia’s answer to Leonardo Da Vinci and he predicted the development of the helicopter based on the aerodynamics of the boomerang. One such invention was a mechanical motion device which gives a curvilinear motion which was praised by engineers and had potential applications in the shearing industry. Another was to do away with the crank motion on steam and internal combustion engines. He had no capital to commercialise his ideas though many were picked up – including the basis for modern handheld shears – and implemented by later scientists.

Unaipon was also a musician of rare ability and interpreted Mendelssohn’s masterpieces on the organ of Adelaide churches to appreciative European audiences. He read and studied philosophers and scientists and was an accomplished public speaker. Unaipon was a Christian following his father and by 1917 he was well known across Australia appearing in newspapers and magazines.

Unaipon was proud of his Aboriginal upbringing but also believed in the power of his faith. “Do not despise the aborigine,” he told a Methodist audience. “He needs Christianity and the development of the Northern Territory may be accomplished through him, if prompt measures are taken to bring out the best that is in him through the influence of education and Christianity.”

Unaipon is recognised as one of the earliest Aboriginal writers published in English by virtue of a manuscript of traditional Aboriginal stories from South Australia; Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines published in 1925 and his pamphlets from 1927
onwards. However neither Legendary Tales nor the pamphlets were never published under his name during his lifetime. They were published under the name of anthropologist and Chief Medical Officer for South Australia, W. Ramsay Smith by Angus and Robertson in 1930.

He believed in sympathetic cooperation between black and white and said the former needed “the inner power” to reconstruct their lives shattered by contact with the latter. He occasionally was the victim himself of racism but never became bitter and gave evidence to two Royal Commissions into the treatment of Aborigines. He lectured widely throughout his life well into his eighties. He received the Commonwealth Medal in 1953 and died aged 94 in 1967 at Tailem Bend. He was buried at Point McLeay.

In 1989 the University of Queensland Press inaugurated the inaugural David
Unaipon Award for an unpublished Indigenous Writer. And his own writing reputation was restored in 2001 when Unaipon’s descendants and scholars retrieved the original manuscripts from the State Library of New South Wales and finally published the work under Unaipon’s name. His overriding aim, as he said in the Legendary Tales, was “to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings.”

In 1995 his portrait was included on the new $50 note. As John Alexander noted in Following David Unaipon’s Footsteps: “Unaipon is now close to our hearts in our pockets…After a hiatus of 50 years he had become a symbol of the quest for Aboriginal reconciliation.” Unaipon would also be pleased the Aboriginal School at Raukkan is still going strong and will celebrate its 160th anniversary in 2020.

Big Coal: promoting Australia’s dirtiest habit

9781742233031Australia is beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists. Coal remains the nation’s second largest energy source. According to the Energy Update 2017, in 2015-16 coal was the source of 32 per cent of Australia’s energy, just behind oil at 37 per cent but well ahead of natural gas (25 per cent) and streets clear of renewables (6 per cent). In fact coal consumption grew by 3 per cent in 2015–16, although consumption was still 17 per cent below the peak in 2008–09. All the growth in 2015–16 was black coal, with brown coal consumption falling by 4 per cent. Over 60 per cent of Australia’s electricity generation remains coal-fired.

There has been conflicting news for Australia’s troubled but still profitable coal industry this week. China announced it was banning all coal imports until at least next year backing up a ban imposed earlier this year due to over-supply and it is not expected to be lifted until early 2019. Despite this, demand from other Asian markets – especially South East Asia is pushing prices for both thermal and coking coal up and there are huge queues in Australian coal harbours  with Australia’s total thermal coal export level expected to triple from 2017 to 2030.

The latter news is music to the ears of Australia’s Resource Minister Matt Canavan whose Rockhampton office is Queensland coal production heartland. In an op ed for the Australian Financial Review Canavan said coal has once again become Australia’s biggest export and he welcomed last week’s International Energy Agency forecast that coal demand is set to grow by 492 million tonnes in the Asia Pacific region by 2040. “The biggest opportunity lies in India,” Canavan said. “With coal demand there set to grow by over 600 million tonnes by 2040. Last year, India imported 160 million tonnes of thermal coal but Australia accounted for just 3 million tonnes of that.”

Canavan is pushing for the approval of the Adani Carmichael project in his region which is still awaiting financial approval. In its latest media release Adani pushed the project’s job creation “In the initial ramp up and construction phase there will be more than 1500 direct jobs on the mine and rail project,” they said. “Economic modelling, such as that used by the Queensland Resources Council in its annual resources industry economic impact report, shows that each direct job in the industry in Queensland supports another four and a half jobs in related industries and businesses, therefore we can expect to see more than 7000 jobs created by the initial ramp up of the Carmichael Project.”

But as Guy Pearse, David McKnight and Bob Burton, the authors of Big Coal (2013), point out the question needs to be asked: is our increasing dependence on coal a road to prosperity for Australia or a dead end? They acknowledge coal is a $48 billion export industry employing 46,000 people however with 80 per cent foreign ownership most of the profits go overseas. Any investment that stays in Australia does not go on employment as the industry is increasingly automated but on equipment, mining camps, railways and ports which are exclusively used by the industry.

And this does not begin to touch on the matter of climate change which Canavan and Adani studiously ignore. As the IPCC latest report Global Warming of 1.5 °C makes clear 1.5°C is a best case estimate and under that scenario coral reefs, for example, are projected to decline by a further 70–90% with larger losses (>99%) at 2ºC. These are the same coral reefs that lie off Matt Canavan’s shoreline and employ thousands of locals in tourism-related industries but there is no hue and cry from him (or the local daily papers that dot the Reef) about a best case losing 70 per cent of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

The IPCC has little to say about coal other than “a steep reduction in all (coal) pathways” is needed to even make 1.5°C. It takes it as read that coal is simply not part of the planet’s energy mix of the future. Studies by the Post Carbon Institute and others identify coal as the greatest threat to civilisation and its continued unfettered use will lead to catastrophic climate change. Yet the pace of change is ineffectual. The global coal industry represented by lobby groups such as the World Coal Association trumpet the growing demand for its product despite also claiming they are “about obtaining those strategic benefits of coal while addressing the environmental challenges that come with it.”

Yet despite many magic pudding statements about “clean coal” there has been almost zero attempt to sequester any of the vast amount of carbon generated by the industry. And attempts such as Australia to impose the costs of these have met fierce and politically well-connected resistance. When the Rudd government tried to impose an emission tradings scheme in 2009 the coal industry fought the provision to tax fugitive emissions from methane released by mining and launched an alarmist ad campaign claiming thousands of jobs would be lost. They did the same when the Gillard government brought in the carbon tax supported by an opportunistic political opposition.

The Abbott government did not take long to remove the carbon tax, a short-sighted decision it was always clear Australia was going to repent at leisure. Now even previous supporters of the axing, such as BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside, the country’s largest oil and gas producer are calling for market mechanisms. Woodside CEO Peter Coleman said a carbon price was needed to “ensure that the most effective energy gets into the system”.  Disappointingly but unsurprisingly, the federal government has dismissed the call as Woodside “wanting to sell more gas”.

It’s true that Woodside would prefer more investment in oil and gas rather than coal, but it is also true that coal is by far the biggest contributor of emissions. As the Big Coal authors say, we need to view coal as the new tobacco or asbestos, “a dangerous product whose use is strongly discouraged by the government and ultimately abandoned.” That will be incredibly difficult for the world’s second largest exporter that was for many decades a cheap source of energy that powered Australia’s manufacturing industry. As in the UK the coal industry was a constant battle between employers and employees over safety, pay and conditions and today’s international corporates are just as ruthless in fighting off any attempts to price carbon, tax their profits or regulate their actions.

They are assisted in their greed for Australian resources by state governments dependent on their mining royalties. Big projects are routinely fast-tracked past environmental impact assessments by being of “state significance”. Prime agricultural land is regarded as “overburden” by the industry, workforces are fly in fly out contributing little to local towns, the valuable water table is something to be drawn down, while massive profits accrue to mostly overseas mining barons.

It is unlikely the current federal government will see much problem in this. Last year the then-Treasurer Scott Morrison infamously brought a lump of coal into parliament saying “don’t be afraid, don’t be scared”. He is now prime minister so perhaps we should be scared. Last month he proposed government subsidy for the industry in the form of  discounted loans for new baseload power generation — ­including for new plants fed by “clean coal” (an unviable nonsense that really should be labelled for what it is – “slightly cleaner coal“).

Sadly it is not just Morrison. Labor has been ambiguous when it comes to dealing with coal. Bill Shorten said their decision on Adani would be made on the “best science available“.  It is not clear what that science is if it not the IPCC unambiguously saying coal was cooking the planet. The best Big Coal’s authors can see is making the shift “will have to come from citizens making it clear that Big Coal’s time is up.” Over four in five of Australians now believe that, but it will be easier to prosecute this case in Melbourne than Mackay.  The mercury is rising, but does the Mercury care?





A trip to Ballara, Hightville and Wee McGregor tramway tunnel


With not many scheduled events on the end September long weekend, I had time to explore. I had been down the Fountain Springs track half way between Mount Isa and Cloncurry a couple of times. I had checked out the old mining town sites at Bulonga and Ballara but I had never been up to Hightville. I’ve been fascinated by the region’s ghost mining towns ever since I went to Kuridala, especially by how brief their moments of glory were, around the short-lived copper boom of the First World War. Hightville had a similar story to Ballara and Kuridala, and was linked to both by rail. So I was keen to head there and also check out the Wee McGregor mining tunnel (photo above taken outside the tunnel sometime during the First World War).












I needed two goes to find it. My first attempt was Saturday afternoon where in a mad moment of energy, I decided to park the car at the Ballara turn-off and walk the three kms I thought would take to get me to my destination. Ballara possessed copper ore but the more valuable lode was at Wee McGregor further up in the hills. The Hampden Co bought the McGregor mines in 1912 and carted the ore to Kuridala for smelting. The photo above is of the passenger platform at Ballara looking west towards the mine.


The company lobbied the government to build a railway though the state was wary about supporting a venture that did not seem to have longer term prospects. In the end they compromised with the Wee McGregor Tramway Agreement Bill of 1912. This would be a no frills, lower standard line from Malbon to Ballara and then a two foot gauge tramway up to the mine. Ballara was surveyed in 1913 and had a store, hotel, baker, butcher, police station and post office.The photo above is taken a few hundred metres west of Ballara and shows the ore transfer ramp with the main line on the surface and ore tramway on the top tier.


Above is the graffiti-strewn remains of one of many bridges on the tramway. The broken and stony nature of the terrain gave tramway builders adequate rubble to construct embankments and bridge approaches.


It was a beautiful walk through magnificent scenery with not another soul about and after a couple of kms I came to the Hightville cemetery. Six miners and labourers were buried there between 1912 and 1918. I was fascinated by the cause of deaths “asphyxia by powder fumes”, “bucket fell down shaft” and “accident (sic) drank ant poison”. Another died of heat exhaustion and I hoped that wasn’t an omen as I checked my rapidly depleting water bottle on a hot afternoon.


I made it to Hightville a couple of kms later but there was little evidence left of the old town. The first ores at Wee McGregor were found in 1904 and the McGregor Hotel was erected in 1909. With Hampden interested in the area’s ores Hightville was surveyed in 1913 and named for its location on the high ridges. Like Ballara, Hightville also had a post office, school and hotel. The company decided Hightville was not suitable for a rail terminus and after the McGregor Hotel burned down in 1914 there was an exodus to the new settlement at Ballara.


The tunnel was a further 0.9km along but I took a wrong turn and had to turn back for my hour long walk back to the car having got closer to the Wee McGregor mine (mine loading bins pictured) than its tunnel. The excavations into the slopes are from modern mining. In 1975 Eastern Copper Mines used an acid leaching process to clean out the last of the reserves.


I returned on Monday, this time stopping first at Bulonga, also on the Fountain Springs trail, further north just 5km from the bitumen. Bulonga had its own mine, and township. Copper was discovered in the Corella River in 1905 and after changes of ownership the new Corella Copper Company built a smelter in 1913 which took ores by traction engine from the Ballara area for treatment.  The Rosebud Weir on the Corella was built in 1914 to supply water to the township but smelting was stopped due to a lack of water in 1916. Then a heavy 1917 wet season inundated the mine and Corella Copper closed its doors putting an end to Bulonga and its hotel, store and bakehouse. The town was also home to the Afghans who carted ore from Ballara on their camels.


I kept driving this time all the way to Hightville where I re-examined the sign there and read important information I missed the first time – “follow red star pickets to the tunnel entrance”. Finally noticing the pickets (see sample photo above) it was an easy walk to find the tunnel.


Construction of the tramway through hilly terrain took most of 1914. It needed nine bridges from Ballara to the mine and a tunnel under the dividing range. The tunnel is 100m long, 3m wide and 4m high and was built by a gang of nine men hired on a flat contract rate plus dynamite costs. At either end are concrete-formed entrances but the interior is undressed.


Inside was a slightly eerie feeling with bats swirling overhead though it was cool relief from a hot day. The light from either end (especially the western end where the sun was shining) meant a torch was not required.


From the western end, the tramway took a winding 1.4km route to reach the mine. The ore trucks were loaded from a bin and taken in two separate rakes because one haul was too much for the loco. The full train with the loco in the centre was joined for the downhill run back to Hightville. The trams also took Ballara children to Hightville School until safety concerns with this caused the school to be moved to Ballara. Around 15,000 tons a year of ore was carted to Kuridala between 1915 and 1919. Traffic plummeted when Wee McGregor closed at the end of 1920, its ores no longer needed for Kuridala’s dying smelter. The tramway line and rolling stock were removed in 1921 and the loco ended up at a sugar mill.


A reward for my exertions was a final detour to the end of the Fountain Springs track and a refreshing dip at the Springs themselves. The large split in the Fountain Range makes for a picturesque entrance to the permanent waterhole which is surprisingly deep and cool in the centre.

A winter of North West Queensland festivals

Winter is by the far the best time of year in North West Queensland. The weather is glorious and there is a never-ending catalogue of great events to get to. This is my record of travelling around the region over nine weekends of the winter of 2018 in our part of the world.winter1

First up was the 2018 Birdsville Big Red Bash. Named for the Big Red sand dune where I took this photo, the festival brings 6000 people to the middle of the Simpson Desert for a three-day party with a host of musical talents all enjoying playing in a vastly different environment to normal. John Farnham topped this year’s bill but I was more interested in seeing the likes of The Angels, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Black Sorrows and Kate Ceberano.


Among the fun to be had apart from listening to the music was this 2000-strong world record attempt on the Nutbush City Limits dance. Needing to get 90% success rate through the five-minute dance, this extraordinary dust raising phenomenon was judged by a Guinness Book of Records rep and easily beat the previous best by around 1500 people.


A couple of days later at least 1500 of the Bash revellers joined me 200km up the road for the Bedourie Camel Races, the first of three weekends of camel racing in western Queensland.


It being Bedourie, it wasn’t just about camels. There were all sorts of competitions: damper-making, mini golf, running, Bedourie camp oven-throwing and wood chop – where the sparks were flying and the sunglasses proved to be handy personal protective equipment.


The following weekend the camel action moved on to Boulia, 200km north of Bedourie, 300km south of Mount Isa. This is acknowledged as the biggest of the camel weekends and while the other events satisfy themselves with 400m races, Boulia sends the camels on a 1500m trek.


Like Bedourie, Boulia has its own fun events between races. In its case it is the camel tagging. People enter the arena, attempt to put a tag onto the camel, race back to the start line then race back to untag the camel, all against the clock. It is as chaotic and as funny as it sounds.


While on the following weekend the festival of the camel moved to Winton, I decided it was time for another sport and went to Quamby, 50km north of Cloncurry for its annual rodeo. Quamby is an old-style traditional rodeo which makes it very popular with locals who will camp there overnight.


Quamby has an anything-goes mentality which has a tendency to infuriate sensitive souls in the city who pontificate from 2000km away about how terrible it is to animals. The reality is that humans usually come out the worse in most Quamby confrontations, much to the delight of the crowd.


Another weekend, another rodeo. This one in Cloncurry is much more professional – the annual Merry Muster is the third biggest rodeo in Australia after Mount Isa and Warwick. Always held the first weekend in August, it is a great lead-up to Isa’s own rodeo week.


Isa’s rodeo is now a five-day festival starting with the street parade and markets on the Wednesday night which attracts thousands into the street. Then on the Thursday is the Mailman Express named for local legend Wally Mailman where non-thoroughbred horses race against the clock, while thousands more pack the race track.


The highlight is the three-day rodeo at Buchanan Park with action starting on Friday morning and going through until Sunday afternoon in front of packed crowds at every session. The open bull ride is the classic event where riders try to last eight seconds aboard a thousand kilograms of mean beast. The 60th anniversary rodeo finished up Sunday night with a concert in the main arena.


Another weekend later, another rodeo and another concert. This was the Gulf Frontier Days festival at Gregory, 350km north-west of Mount Isa. The weekend features Australia’s only Indigenous rodeo and then some of the country’s best Aboriginal acts and artists feature in concert such as Yothu Yindi, Shellie Morris and the incomparable Archie Roach (pictured).


By now we are up to the last weekend in August and it is the border town of Camooweal’s turn to have a festival, the Drover’s Festival. The festival celebrates the dying art of droving cattle across the land by horse, a skill mostly lost to the trucking industry. The first night of the festival features a parade on the main street as well as the chaotic Mailman race (pictured) where teams of four race around town carrying out tasks including carrying the mail and drinking a beer at the pub. On Saturday the action moves to the Drovers Camp for bronco branding and a concert and the day also features Camooweal’s annual race meet.


In September and the action moves back to Birdsville for the annual two-day Birdsville Races with 6000 people in attendance in the middle of the Simpson Desert. The running of the Cup on Saturday is worth $40,000, the richest race in rural Queensland, attracting the best regional jockeys from across the state. I wrote about my experience there last year here.


The ninth and final weekend of events is in Cloncurry. Called Beat the Heat it is a new festival designed to take place in the off-year of Winton’s biennial Outback Festival. It takes advantage of existing events such as the Cloncurry Spring Races and adds a few new touches to bring in the crowd. Friday night held a street party with a free concert headlined by Kasey Chambers. A highlight was the mine cart race, a bit like Camooweal’s Mailman with teams dragging a cart around a course taking on challenges along the way such as eating plates of hot curry. Curry beat the heat indeed, and a lot of laughs to end a fun weekend in a fun winter in the North West.


A closer look at Alice Springs


Over the last few posts I’ve been documenting my trip to the Territory in June. It was deeply enjoyable especially getting to the Top End where I’d never been before. I had been to Alice Springs before – as far back as 2002 so I was keen to renew acquaintance and stay with a good friend, who was shocked when I reminded him had just moved there when I came calling 16 years ago. It was good to be back in the middle of Australia and experience Alice’s unique aura once more.


Alice Springs has an impressive geography slap back in the middle of the Macdonnell Ranges. The place even has its own geological event named for it, the Alice Springs Orogeny, 150 million years of tectonic mountain building that created not only the Ranges but also the Uluru/Kata Tjuta formation 450km south-west. Seen here is Mount Gillen to the south of town as seen from Billy Goat Hill in the centre of town.


Above is the view north from Billy Goat Hill over the town centre and Anzac Hill beyond. Billy Goat Hill as the name would suggest is where goats were herded in the past.  Known as Akeyulerre in Arrernte language, it was also a special place for local Indigenous people though it is now mostly derelict.


This is the view from Anzac Hill looking south over the town and Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to town. The outsized glass building on the left is the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. The four-storey $18 million courthouse opened in 2016 and has divided local opinion especially over the public/private agreement between the government and Sitzler Construction.


Like most memorial places in Australia Anzac Hill is strong in remembrance of Australian action in overseas wars, especially the First World War. There is, however, a glaring omission when it comes to local conflict. The first European expeditions in the 1860s and 1870s came across groups of Aborigines , but these meetings were generally fleeting. The first cattle reached Alice Springs in 1872 and Europeans established pastoral stations.  Once settlers moved into the area, increased contact with the original inhabitants was inevitable. The consequences were monumental and devastating for the Aborigines, and the effect are still felt.


Situated an easy 4km walk north along the river from the centre of town is the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the birthplace of the township. The Overland Telegraph route followed in the footsteps of John McDouall Stuart’s 1862 trek across Australia south to north. The station was established in 1871 along with 11 others to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide and link with an underwater cable network to London. More modern facilities were then established in the new township of Stuart in 1932 (Corner of Railway Tce and Parson Street) and the Station ceased operation. The town was later renamed Alice Springs after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd.


This is the view from the Telegraph Station to Trig Hill. As the name suggests, the hill was used by ordnance surveyors to map the region.


The view back to the Telegraph Station from the top of Trig Hill.


A little further past Trig Hill is this small cemetery. There are three gravestones in the cemetery  and two more are buried in a secondary enclosure.


Ernie Bradshaw died from tuberculosis aged 27. He arrived from Melbourne six months earlier hoping this dry country would improve his health. Ernest Flint, who worked on the Overland Telegraph line, died here aged 33 and was the first person buried in the cemetery.


The Todd River is usually dry but despite not having any permanent waterholes it supports a wide range of plants. In the rare event rain does fall and the river fills up it heads south through Heavitree Gap for up to 140km before disappearing into the Simpson Desert. River flows are quickly soaked by the parched landscape and what is not evaporated filters through the soil and rocks to recharge the groundwater basin.


It being a Friday evening I joined my friend on one of his weekly rituals, an end of week climb up Mt Gillen. I was glad of the company. The un-formalised and un-signposted route required local knowledge and some headlights for the tricky trip back down in the dark.


My iphone did not do justice to the twilight views from the top of Mt Gillen.


Alice Springs is a town like no other in the outback, a cultural as well as physical oasis. The town has a thriving art and social scene and a constant influx of young creative visitors. It also means that overseas acts such as Irish singer Mary Coughlan are prepared to break her own holidays to perform here – by happy coincidence on the weekend I was there. She played with her regular guitarist and a local talented bassist at the best pub in Central Australia – Monte’s. A great night in the middle of everywhere.

On to Kata Tjuta and Uluru

The morning after my visit to Kings Canyon, it was back on the road south – three hours to Yulara. Yulara is the township associated with Uluru and the home of Ayers Rock Resort which was booked out solid when I arrived (the reason why I later ended up camping at Curtain Springs 180km away). I stocked up at the supermarket and from the town lookout saw Uluru gleaming in the distance 25km away. But a closer visit to the Rock would have to wait till later in the day.


First I was heading 50km west still within the same national park to Kata Tjuta. I stopped at the viewing area 15km out to get my first good look at the ancient red rock formations though they looked more brownish at this distance.


But red they were as confirmed at closer range.  Kata Tjuta is a Pitjantjatjara phrase meaning “many heads”, and that image too looked more obvious a couple of kilometres out. The largest of the domes, Mt Olga (hence the old European name for the entire range “the Olgas”) is 546m above the surrounding plain and 198m higher than Uluru.


Mount Olga was named in 1872 by Ernest Giles, in honour of Queen Olga of Württemberg (daughter of Tsar Nicholas I).  On her 25th wedding anniversary in 1871 she and her husband, King Charles I of Württemberg, named Giles’s expedition funder  Ferdinard Mueller a baron and the now von Mueller wanted to repay the compliment.


This part of Central Australia is in the Amadeus Basin, formed 800 million years ago. Around 550 million years ago, an event known as the Woodroffe Thrust lifted rocks northward and when they eventually eroded they created the deposit known as the Mount Currie Conglomerate. Uluru and Kata Tjuṯa are made of sediment originating in this Mount Currie Conglomerate and both have a chemical composition similar to granite.


The Pitjantjatjara and fellow traditional owners the Yankunytjatjara people knew these rocks for thousands of years before they were renamed for obscure German royalty. They still hold the ancestral dreaming law known as Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa has many deep, complex meanings and refers to the period when ancestral beings created the world.



Most of the dreaming law is not accessible to outsiders. But one legend surrounds the great snake king Wanambi, who lives on the summit of Kata Tjuṯa and only comes down during the dry season. His breath could transform a breeze into a hurricane in order to punish those who did evil deeds.


There are two major walks in Kata Tjuta and I did both that day. The first, the Valley of the Winds walk is a full 7.4km circuit of the rocks, which guide books say takes four hours but I did in an hour and a half.


The second walk is the Walpa Gorge Walk which takes you deep into the structure. Walpa (windy) Gorge is a desert refuge for plants and animals and the track gently rises to an ephemeral stream, passing rare plants and ending at a grove of spearwood.


The walk gives visitors a close-up glimpse of the amazing sheer walls of granite. And no matter how warm it is in the Territory sun, it can get quite chilly in the shadows.


This is the view looking out from Walpa Gorge.


On completion of the second walk I drove back to Uluru. I’d last been to this part of the world in 2002 and was keen to renew acquaintance though I would do things a little differently this time. I’ve written before how I did the climb in 2002 though later admitted this was the wrong thing to do, ignoring the wishes of traditional owners. As it turned out the day I returned was too windy and park rangers closed the climb anyway. A wise decision as my memory of that climb (especially the way down) was that it was deeply treacherous and dangerous and one false move would end in certain death.


The local Anangu, Pitjantjatjara people call the landmark Uluru which has no known meaning. On 19 July 1873, surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named the Rock in honour of Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. In 1993, it was renamed “Ayers Rock / Uluru” and became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the dual names was officially reversed to “Uluru / Ayers Rock” on November 6, 2002. While the resort retains the name Ayers Rock, it is fading from common use as Uluru becomes the generally accepted name.


Uluru is a 10km diameter inselberg which means “island mountain” in German. Inselbergs are prominent isolated hills that rise abruptly from lowlands in a hot, dry region. Uluru is also often referred to as a monolith, although this is term is avoided by geologists as ambiguous. I parked my car along the Mala Walk (named for the rufous hare-wallaby) and although I planned to do the full 10km circuit of the rock, I stopped to admire the artwork embedded in the rock along the Mala Walk illustrating the stories of the Tjukurpa. Traditionally Indigenous people made paint from natural minerals, mixed with water or sometimes animal fat. Colours most commonly used were red, yellow, orange, white, grey and black.


Uluru rock is composed of arkose, a coarse-grained sandstone rich in the mineral feldspar. The sandy sediment, which hardened to form this arkose, was eroded from high mountains composed largely of granite. Over 500 million years ago the newly-formed Petermann Ranges were similar in size to the Himalayas but eroded quickly without plant cover. The sand that became the arkose sandstone of Uluru was dumped at the bottom of the mountain range. As geologist Dr Marita Bradshaw puts it “Uluru is almost just shedding of granite.”


From a distance, Uluru looks smooth and featureless. But up close its face is weather-beaten – pitted with holes and gashes, ribs, valleys and caves.


Scientists debate the formation of the caves at Uluru. Some say they can begin with water lying in dimples in the rock when the weathering process forms a hollow and gradually ‘eats’ backward and upward into the rock until it becomes a cave. Others say the ‘high’ caves on the southern side of Uluru may have begun by water soaking in when the plain surface was at a higher level and again the weathering process could again eat upward and backward to form a cave. The spaced high caves on the north-eastern and western faces may have begun by the flaking process and honeycombed out by wind and water over time.


As I returned to the Malu Walk on completion of the 10km circuit, the evening sun poured tantalising shadows on the rocks. Uluru’s flaky surface results from the chemical decay of minerals.


Mutitjulu Waterhole is one of Uluru’s many hidden gems.


This was the cave where the old people sat and the cave’s ceiling is blackened by fires. Here they told stories and keep their spears and tools and cook up malu (kangaroo) the younger people would bring them.


On completion of the walk I timed my drive out of the park to coincide with sunset. Uluru’s sunset car park was heaving with tourists but a little further along the road you could stop (legally) and quietly enjoy the magnificent rock change colour as it reflected the fading sunlight.