Saving the Great Artesian Basin

gab-mapOne of Australia’s greatest hidden gifts to the life that colonised it is an enormous water resource far below the ground. Spanning four states and territories over a fifth of the continent and continuing out into the Gulf of Carpentaria it is the Great Artesian Basin, and is the largest and deepest artesian water basin in the world. In some places it does resemble a basin, but it is mostly solid rock with water stored in the pores.

The GAB’s water is ancient, falling as rain or leaks from rivers west of the Great Dividing Range over a million years ago. That water takes a slow journey of one to five metres a year percolating through cracks in sandstone sheets (aquifers) held together under pressure from the impermeable stones (aquitards) above and beneath. As well as heading roughly west the water also trickles down under gravity.

Over time water is stored in vast quantities. It emerges to the ground naturally under pressure through springs and geological faults. Native plants and animals relied on springs in parched landscapes, particularly in the south-west where the Basin is shallower. Humans arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago and quickly fanned out to every corner. It is likely they swiftly found this precious resource. Burial sites 20,000 years old showed evidence of trading posts alongside artesian springs. Use of bore water dramatically increased with the arrival of Europeans into central Australia.

The first bore in 1878 found water 53m below the surface at Killara in north-west New South Wales. Within ten years, substantial finds were made at Cunnamulla and especially Barcaldine, both in Queensland. The Barcaldine bore pumped 700,000 litres a day unleashing a drilling boom and pastoral settlement in the central west. By 1900 there were more than 500 bores in the Basin thought it wasn’t easy to find water and not all were successful.

Enough reliable water was pumped out to support 120 towns and hundreds of properties in Outback Australia. Initially the pastoral industries took the most water but more recently water release by oil and gas has caught up. Mining of copper, uranium, coal, bauxite and opals also depends on water, much of it artesian, while tourist spas are also an intensive user of Basin water.

Human activity will unlikely ever dry up the Basin. In 120 years of bores about 0.1 percent of the total water was extracted from the Basin. But what it has done is lower the pressure declining the flow of water, sometimes by 80%. A third of bores have stopped flowing altogether. The springs have been severely damaged by excavation, stock and humans while exotic pests degrade the area around springs.  Early bore technology was flawed too with many leaking and most were uncontrolled in their discharge of water, and 95% of the water ended up into open drains.

Diminishing flow was recognised as early as 1912 when New South Wales introduced licensing of bores and eventually vested groundwater to the state. They also brought in bore construction standards. In 1990 governments agreed on a Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative (GABSI) to cap and pipe bores. Across Australia capping programs rehabilitated free-flowing bores and replaced drains with pipes but the majority of the 3000 uncontrolled bores and 34,000km of open drains remain in place.

A Strategic Management Plan was put in place in 2000 and agreed by the Council Of Australian Governments.  But just like the Murray Darling (river) Basin plan,  the issue of licences and multiple jurisdictions means the issue is inescapably political. The jury remains out on the impact of the extraction of large use of water for mining, especially coal seam gas mining.  Graziers have to be convinced capping and piping will help them decrease their operating costs as well as increasing the pressure of the water and the reliability of its supply.

In Queensland the GAB is managed by a 10-year-plan which expires in June this year. Queensland’s government wants to cap and pipe all its uncapped bores and bore drains in the next 10-year cycle. It is, as the government policy maker I spoke to told me, “an aspirational target” but it helps show the state is serious about the problem. The new draft plan (now out for community consultation) allows for action if a licence holder fails to comply with conditions.

There are estimated to be more than 25,000 bores tapping the Queensland GAB, taking 315,000 ML a year. A diagram from the draft plan I saw at a Mount Isa community meeting showed that in 2016 around 90,400 ML was accounted for in losses through seepage and evaporation from uncontrolled bores and open bore drains. This exceeds the amount extracted by stock and domestic of 66,000 ML and the oil and gas industries 64,000 ML with other uses accounting for 93,000 ML.

Since 1989 almost 1000 bores have been rehabilitated under government-funded program but an estimated one in five uncapped bores in Queensland remain untreated while 28% of bore drains have yet to be replaced with pipelines. Under the plan all stock and domestic water users will be required to deliver water through water-tight delivery systems by the time the plan expires in 2027. Stock and domestic licences that permit free flowing bores or bore drains will require a bore management plan outlining what steps will be taken to deliver a water-tight delivery system.

The future of the Great Artesian Basin is exciting if it is managed properly. GAB water has a future as an energy source. Birdsville already has a geothermal power plant and other towns such as Winton are looking to copy it. It will make water available for future development and social and cultural activities that depend on water, including for the aspirations of Indigenous peoples in native title areas. It is crucial it is not destroyed in the same way humans are destroying Australia’s other natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef.

 

The Bengal Lion

lion.jpg
Dev Patel  in a scene from the Australian film Lion

I hate to admit it but I shed tears while watching the new film Australian film Lion. I’ve always hating crying at the movies ever since I was kid and used to laugh at my mum when she cried at the drop of a hat in any emotional scene of a movie, no matter how silly the premise. “Stop it, you” she would say to me while drying her tears, her anger at me betrayed by a smile. Mum has been dead ten years now but I remembered her and her tears as I watched the first meeting of a man and his mother in 25 years at the end of Lion. I was annoyed at myself, knowing full well my emotions were being played on by the filmmakers but like my own mother all those years ago, I could not help myself. My eyes are capable of betraying me again at the memory the following morning.

Lion tells an incredible true story and it has been turned into one of the best Australian films in years. Saroo Brierley was born in 1981 in a small village near the Central Indian city of Khandwa. His father had left home and the desperately poor family relied on the money his mother made from carrying rocks from a quarry. Saroo’s older brother Guddu supplemented their income by stealing coal from trains to sell for food and would take the five-year-old Saroo with him on adventures. One night Guddu and Saroo travel to a nearby city on a train where Guddu earned money working as a sweeper. The pair get separated and Saroo falls asleep on a train. When he wakes up his brother is gone and the train was moving.

Saroo could not escape from an empty locked cabin and his calls for help at stations at were unheeded. After two days the train ended up in faraway Calcutta – 1500km from Khandwa. At the station Saroo escapes into the throng but is lost in a strange city where no one speaks his native Hindi. Sleeping rough, he narrowly avoids being kidnapped at night into child slavery and according to the film he meets a woman who befriends him and takes him home (in real life it was a male railway worker) .

But Saroo becomes suspicious of her intentions when she invites a man over who checks him out and he distrusts their promises to help him find his family. Saroo escapes once more until he befriends a man, who takes him to the police station. The illiterate Saroo tells police he from “Ganatelay” but no one knows of a place of that name.

Saroo is placed in an orphanage but ads in the Calcutta paper fail to locate his family. Eventually he agrees to be adopted by a Tasmanian couple and he flies alone to Tasmania, where the Brierley couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham take him home. They fill his life with love so he is happy though he is affected by a second Indian adoption into the family a year later. The second boy is less happy and practises self harm but they get on with life regardless.

The timeframe moves forward from the late 1980s to 2008 when Saroo Brierley is now an Australianised young man, played by Dev Patel. Saroo moves from Tasmania to Melbourne to learn hotel management and becomes involved with an American student (Rooney Mara). They are invited to a meal at the house of an Indian couple where the sight of traditional Indian food stirs long hidden memories in Saroo. He tells them his story of travelling two days on a train to Calcutta and all he can remember is a train station with a water tank. Someone suggests he work out how fast Indian trains travelled in the 1980s and to use Google Earth to find his home.

It was a massive undertaking but it was a search that was to obsess Saroo. Working out in a 1500km radius from Calcutta he finally found landmarks in Google earth that matched his childhood memories: a waterfall where he played as a boy, the quarry where his mother worked, a train station with a water tower and a town called Ganesh Talai. This was his hme town he garbled as “Ganatelay”. From memory he followed the route to where he believed his house was and knew he had found his home.

In 2013 Saroo flew to Ganesh Talai. To his disappointment the old house was long abandoned and turned into an animal compound. With his Hindi long forgotten, he had difficulty making people understand his quest. Finally he told an English-speaking local he was born here and the man took him to meet an old woman. It was Saroo’s mother, who instantly recognised her son. The proof was a bump on the head from a long-forgotten accident when he was run over by a bike while carrying a watermelon and the melon smashed against his head.

After many tears of happiness (theirs and mine), Saroo asks about his older brother. he was dead, he was told. There were tears of sadness soon replaced with more tears of joy when his mother told him a younger sister was still alive. The film closes with the real Saroo bring his real Tasmanian mother to India to see his real real Indian mother. The end credits tell three important facts. Firstly Saroo’s brother Guddu died the night he went missing, after being struck by a train. Secondly Saroo’s mother never gave up hope of finding her other boy and deliberately stayed in the same village so that she would be easy to find. Lastly, Seroo found out that not only did he pronounce the name of the town wrong, he also pronounced his own name wrong. He was Sheru, not Saroo. In Hindi Sheru means Lion.

The New Yorker was right to say the second half of the film was a slow and muted affair after “the Dickensian punch of the first” but the story of Saroo’s disappearance and rediscovery remains remarkable. It also throws necessary light on the fact that over 90,000 children go missing in India each year, something authorities prefer to ignore, with public officials complicit in the problem.  According to children’s rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan 10 times that number are trafficked, and forced to beg or work in farms, factories and homes, or sold for sex and marriage. The tears of Lion are nothing compared to the thousands of innocent young lives destroyed every year for profit.

 

The 2017 MLA Australia Day lamb ad

lamb ad.jpg
Still from the 2017 lamb ad

The new Australia Day lamb ad is likely to be a conversation starter at barbecues on the day as increasingly lamb itself is likely to be on the menu. The ad is the latest creation of Meat and Livestock Australia, the marketing arm of Australian cattle, sheep and goat producers. From 2005 to 2016 their “lambassador” Sam Kekovich has been exorting Australians to eat more lamb on Australia Day. The former AFL player and Victorian media personality has been an inspired choice, in turns hectoring people to eat lamb while blasting vegan culture but usually getting away it with it thanks to his humorous deadpan tone.

The ads became increasingly sophisticated each year and in Kekovich’s final outing in 2016 “Operation Boomerang”, he joined SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin and a gaggle of celebrities on a mission to save Australians abroad from going without lamb on Australia Day, an ad which was funny but with uncomfortable reminders of the police state Australia sometimes looks like. From an MLA marketing perspective, it was the most successful campaign yet with sales up a third in the weeks before and after Australia Day. The video was watched over 5.5 million times online and achieved over a thousand media mentions with an audience of 400 million. The MLA have upped the ante again in 2017 with less Kekovich, but more ambition, aiming for nothing less than a potted Australian history from the last 50,000 years. It is likely to beat last year for views and will probably also put more lamb on the table on Australia Day.

The ad starts with three Aboriginal people on the beach, the “first here” deciding to have a barbecue. The first visitors are the Dutch (who arrived in 1606) who bring cheese. Then the British arrive (in 1788), whose “We are the First Fleet” is answered by “Not quite, mate. They are very quickly followed by the French (also 1788) who also bring cheese. Next are the Germans (the first non British ship of colonists to arrive in 1848) who “bring their own” beer. This reminds them about ice and the scene moves to Antarctica where Mawson and Shackleton (1907-09) are packing ice for the party. Then come the Chinese (which is out of sequence as they first came in large numbers in the 1850s gold rushes) with explosives from Fyshwyck. Then come the Italians, Greeks and Serbians (including Kekovich in a cameo, the New Australians from after World War II). We are brought up to date by international hordes including an Indian asking Adam Gilchrist asking where the backyard is for cricket, a plug for “the neighbours” (New Zealand), and even the “boat people” before Malaysian-born chef Poh Ling Yeow asks “aren’t we all boat people?” And Australia’s multiculturalism is deemed complete with the “float people” from the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Gilchrist thanks the Aboriginal people for “having us” at a great spot for a barbie. “Best in the world,” they reply.

This is an ad with an endless amount of material to be deconstructed, something MLA are only keenly aware of. MLA group marketing manager Andrew Howie told the ABC they consulted Indigenous groups throughout the creative process. “The work that we create is never designed to be offensive, it’s not designed to cause offense to people,” Mr Howie said. “This year’s campaign is a celebration of Australia’s history. This year, and with the essence of the brand being very much around unity, we realised that this time of year there are cultural sensitivities for some groups within the Australian community.”

By “some groups” Howie means the Aboriginal people, the supposed stars of his ad, many of whom oppose the date January 26 as Australia Day as marking “invasion day”, when Britain first declared New South Wales a colony in 1788. For this reason there is no mention of Australia Day in the ad, but given the history of the ads it’s hard avoid the conclusion that it’s about promoting sales on Australia Day. Darumbal woman Amy McQuire picked up this point about using Aboriginal pain to promote the sales of lamb. “There’s Aboriginal people dying in custody, having their children taken away, suiciding … and that oppression stems from that original invasion”. For McQuire and others, Australia’s history is not a celebration.

If that was criticism from the left, there was also criticism from the right. Predictably Pauline Hanson saw the ad as fair game to put the boot in multiculturalism, especially as that was the path the MLA had flagged its campaigns were going last year. “It really is pretty sad, isn’t it?” Hanson said. She blamed “bloody idiots out there, ratbags” though the News Ltd article does not make it clear who Hanson thinks are the idiots and ratbats. But she did feel threatened by the ad. “It’s pretty sad when it’s basically shutting us down for being proud of who we are as Australian citizens.” Hanson was trying to construct an Australian “us” against a ratbag “them” out to destroy all that Australia Day stood for. It was a confusing message but then Australian history is confusing, given it has never been taught properly in Australian schools. Australia Day does not celebrate, as Hanson said it does, “the day we celebrate forming our nation, our federation, our government” (that would be January 1) and MLA are right to downplay its significance other than just a public holiday where people are more likely than usual to attend a barbecue.

The ad is amusing and should also be praised for highlighting indigenous voices even if it did – like most Australian history books until the last 50 years – gloss over the fact that one of those visitors (the British) ended up taking over the beach barbie. Indigenous writer Luke Pearson applauded the ad for its diversity and inclusion but said it would have been more accurate “if the meat the English gave to the Aboriginal people was poisoned with smallpox or strychnine”. Pearson acknowledged that would have distracted from the ad’s core purpose “getting people to confuse eating meat with being patriotic”.  Still, it’s capable of having than one purpose and if despite its cultural stereotypes it leads to a more nuanced discussion of Australian history (Hanson notwithstanding), the MLA will have served Australia well.

 

 

 

On John Mulvaney and Indigenous antiquity

john-mulvaney-640w
John Mulvaney (right) at Lake Mungo in the early 1970s. National Archives of Australia A6180,23/8/74/3

There were two bits of intertwining news yesterday, one exciting, one sad. The exciting news was that a study of Indigenous Australian DNA dated their origins to more than 50,000 years making them the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth. The sad news was the death of a man who did more than most to place the Aboriginal context in deep time: John Mulvaney, aged 90.

Aboriginal Australia lacked a written language which made it inscrutable to historians, making it easier to write them out of the history. It took experts from other disciplines such as archeologists like Mulvaney, anthropologists like Bill Stanner and ethnographers like Deborah Rose Bird to make sense of the available texts and create a new history for Australia 50,000 years old not 230 years.

Over 10 years ago another geneticist Spencer Wells found proof humans travelled from Africa to Australia and not vice versa when he found Australian Aboriginal blood has DNA mutations, or markers, from Africa that are 50,000 years old, but no African tribes have Australian markers. He also found genetic data which shows humans travelled along the south Asian coastline (at a time when sea-levels were low) before reaching Australia. The new study by geneticists that also traced the DNA journey from Africa to Australia would have been no surprise to Mulvaney. He made the astonishing discovery that although Africa was the wellspring of humanity, the earliest signs of human evolution outside Africa are in western New South Wales.

At the time sea levels were lower than at present and mainland Australia was part of the mega continent of Sahul with New Guinea and Tasmania. There is evidence to suggest humans were here at least 50 kya (thousand years ago).  The earliest direct age for human occupation of Australia is between 50 and 60 kya for stone tools at Malakunanja and Nauwalabila rock shelters in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Humans quickly fanned across the continent.Given we have seen rabbits spread across Australia in a century, it is not unreasonable to believe the human invasion happened in a similar timeframe. The spread was aided by great herbivore trails that crossed the land linking watering and feeding sites. Stone artefacts have been found at Devil’s Lair, a single-chamber cave area, near the south-west tip of Western Australia which date to 48kya.

The oldest human remains are found in western New South Wales at Lake Mungo (Willandra Lakes). A near complete skeleton was found in 1974 sprinkled with powdered red ochre before the grave was filled in. In 1999 paleoanthropologist Alan Thorne said the Lake Mungo 3 skeleton is 62kya plus or minus 6000. However later research in Nature journal said humans had been present at Lake Mungo no earlier than 50kya and no later than 46 kya while the skeleton dated to 45-42 kya. 

Mulvaney was one of the first archaeologists to realise the significance of the find. He had gone on a scholarship in the 1950s to Cambridge to study pre-history and had urged the need for preservation of cultural materials in museums and legislation to protect important sites. He used the new science of carbon dating to push back known dates of human existence in Australia, first to 13 kya, then eclipsed by others to 20 kya, 30 kya and beyond. He carefully packed the Lake Mungo skeleton into a suitcase to take to the National Museum of Australia.

The Lake Mungo finds put Australia on the world map of pre-history. Use of ochre for paint and grindstones for pulverising plant food were skills humans learned in Africa and brought to Australia. From 60-43kya Lake Mungo was full of freshwater and the land was green and lush but the newcomers had to adapt to climate stress. Australia was an ancient land with low fertility, poor soil quality and a low energy ecology. At Kow Swamp in Victoria a population of humans dating to 22-19 kya lived by Kow Lake shore in a period of glacial advance in the Southern Highlands until their shellfish population died out and they moved on.

Mulvaney was instrumental in getting Kakadu and Lake Mungo added to the World Heritage List (and had helped develop the criteria for that list in the 1970s.) The discovery at Lake Mungo showed the power of the site to represent archaeology’s resonance in society and the broader cultural meaning of antiquity. It also helped the political ambitions of Indigenous Australians when they could point to this astonishing connection with deep time.

The new genetic findings, based on a population analysis of 83 Indigenous Australians and 25 Papuans, shows these groups can trace their origins back 50 kya and they remained almost entirely isolated until 4kya. I said these findings would not have been a surprise to Mulvaney. Nor are they a surprise to Indigenous Australians. Larissa Behrendt said they confirmed their oral history (another form of history mostly ignored in the western written tradition). Behrendt said Aboriginal culture and traditions were often viewed through a Eurocentric gaze that failed to see the rich historical wisdom in its values and teachings.”Cultural stories were often illustrated for children without looking for deeper meanings and codes,” Behrendt said. “These stories didn’t just tell a tale of how the echidna got its spikes, they contained – like parables in the bible – a set of messages about the importance of sharing resources in a hunter-gatherer society and the consequences of selfishness.”

What Behrendt is talking about is the dismantling of the racial discourse of white Australia and its near-sighted notions of superiority. What Mulvaney found was pre-history and its awesome timescale was uniquely qualified to make that discourse irrelevant. In an attention economy-dominated society where a week is a long time in politics, fame lasts 15 minutes and soundbytes eight seconds, the deep timescale of Indigenous Australia cannot be discussed enough.

Long Tan and Australia’s relationship with Vietnam

In recent years as a journalist I’ve attended all of the annual military commemorations in the towns I’ve worked in, Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and Long Tan Day. The format of the commemoration is almost identical for all three: the ode, the anthem, the minute’s silence, the last post, reveille, the lone bugler or piper. But each day has its own peculiarities. With all the Australian First World War veterans dead and not many left alive from the Second World War or the Korean War, the Vietnam Vets are taken their place as our most senior veterans from overseas conflicts.

Unlike in previous wars, their placement in Vietnam was controversial as there was considerable opposition to Australian involvement in that war in the 1960s. Normally Australia took its lead from the United Kingdom but under then prime minister Harold Wilson Britain refused to commit troops to the conflict, leading to the famous Wilson quote to his cabinet that “Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam”.

Of course Australia sent far more than just a bagpipe band. Prime Minister Holt would later go “all the way with LBJ” but Australian involvement began much earlier in the Menzies era.

The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam was sent there in 1962 at the beginning of the conflict and Australia was involved right through to last days of the war 1974. Almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam. Of those, 521 died as a result of the war and over 3000 were wounded.

The decision to send those soldiers to war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or jailed, while soldiers, most of them draftees met a hostile reception on their return home. Many of those soldiers suffered post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that mostly went unrecognised at the time.

While the reputation of those brave soldiers has rightly been rehabilitated over the years, many were never able to fully readjust to civilian life. I can understand their anger that Vietnam did not allow Australians attend the battle site at Long Tan (where 18 Australians died 50 years ago) but I also understand Vietnam’s reluctance in the matter.

The country lost upwards of three million people in the war and the wounds are taking a long time to heal. In time it will become like Gallipoli, a place of shared sacrifice, but Australians must be patient.

Though still ruled by the same Communist Party that took over the south in 1974, Vietnam is slowly becoming a wealthier country. Its 90 million people constitute the world’s 13th largest population and it is the world’s 37th largest economy in transition from centrally planned to market-based and from agrarian to industrialised.

The transition is reflected in its foreign policy. Resolution No.13 by the Politburo issued in 1988 aimed to have ‘more friends and fewer enemies’ and Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995. It is a claimant in the South China Sea territorial dispute, but wants it settled through negotiation and peaceful means, in accordance with international law.

In 2015 Australia and Vietnam signed the Declaration on Enhancing the Australia-Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership. The Declaration sets out an agenda to guide the strategic relationship and covers regional and international cooperation, trade and investment, industrial, development, development assistance defence, law enforcement and security.  The Declaration builds upon the 2009  Australia – Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership and the bilateral Plan of Action (2010-13). A new Plan of Action is due to be signed this year.

The links between the country will only grow. In the 2011 Australian Census, 221,114 people in Australia claimed Vietnamese ancestry. Vietnamese represent the fifth largest migrant community in Australia and Australia is the second most common destination for Vietnamese migrants, after the US. Vietnam was Australia’s fastest growing export market in ASEAN during the 10-year period 2003-2013 (average annual growth of 16.3 per cent) and this trend continues.  A minor spat over a  minor battle (in Vietnamese terms) is not going to change that. What’s needed is a prime ministerial visit. No Australian PM has been in Vietnam since Julia Gillard in 2010. This is a relationship too important to let a dispute over access to a battle field derail it.

Pomona’s King of the Mountain race

pomona
Cooroora Mountain, Pomona.

In Roman mythology Pomona was goddess of fruit and nut trees and was associated with abundance. In Queensland geography, Pomona is a small town 150km north of Brisbane. It takes its name from the principal island of the Scottish Orkneys and also shares its name with a small suburb of Los Angeles where Hollywood producers used to trial new films. The theory was if the film flopped in Pomona, it would flop nationally.

Queensland’s Pomona also has a connection with the movies. It is home to the Majestic Theatre, possibly the world’s only silent movie theatre. Every Thursday night for 30 years, now-retired proprietor Ron West provided an organ accompaniment to Rudolf Valentino’s The Sheik.

The other thing Pomona is famous for is the King of the Mountain race which happens every year on the fourth Sunday in July. It began in 1959 as a pub bet as to whether it could be done in under an hour. Although the length of the run is barely 4km, the course goes up the 400 metre precipice of Mount Cooroora, an extinct volcanic plug that overlooks the town and dominates the landscape.

I’ve  done the King of the Mountain race once. That was in 2001 and it was a horrible mistake, though it worked out well in the end. I was familiar with the region especially nearby Kin Kin where some close friends lived. As a runner, I was often encouraged to take part in KOTM but had never agreed. Then one foolish night in the Kin Kin Country Life Hotel after several schooners of VB, I finally said yes and entered the race that year. Before I could sober up and retract, the entry forms were thrust in front of my face and I had to hand over the $65 entry fee. The steep cost of entry alone should have been a warning. This was well in excess of normal “fun run” prices. In fact it is deliberately priced to scare away the occasional runner.

I had only four weeks to prepare. I was reasonably fit having done many a 5 or 10 kilometre race but had no practice running up hills. Living in Brisbane I didn’t have easy access to Pomona’s mountain so my training regime involved running up the side of the small but steep hill on Ivory Street next to the Medina Hotel at the Story Bridge. I started with five circuits and by the time my training was finished I was up to 15 circuits of the hill.

I went up to Kin Kin on the Friday night of race weekend. As I drove through Pomona, the bunting was up and the grassy square of Stan Topper Park was transformed into a fairground. It was too dark to see the mountain looming ominously above. My stomach churned and I quickly put the town behind me. I met my Kin Kin friends and we made a bee-line to the pub. Most conversation was about the race and how I was going to do. Some had unreasonable expectations of my winning; I was more concerned about finishing and if possible avoid finishing last. The party moved on to someone’s house in nearby bushland. In the spirit of Pomona, the goddess of abundance, I got very drunk as well as consuming a large amount of herbal jolliness. This was later to become a worry when someone asked the throwaway question “was there drug testing in the race?”

I was genuinely concerned even if I could only be accused of having taken performance distracting drugs. The other question I was asked was equally important: “have you been to the top of the mountain yet?” I had to admit that no, I hadn’t. I immediately decided a Saturday morning recce was in order. I found a moment of brief sense enough to call a halt to proceedings and cleared my head with a 1 kilometre walk back to where I was staying.

On Saturday morning I drove down to Pomona after breakfast. The festival was hotting up, there were lots of visitors milling around and I could hear people directing events with megaphones. I ignored all this and drove to the start of the walking path that led to the mountain. I parked the car and walked about 800 metres to the base of the mountain. I seemed to be going down as much as up in the early stages. This would be an uphill climb on the way back tomorrow and I would need to make sure I had some energy left for this exertion. Then I got to the mountain. It looked more like a cliff and almost immediately it got difficult. There were concrete steps drilled into the rocks as well as a chain. The steps disappeared and then the chain disappeared too. I was scrabbling up bare rocks. Half way up I had to stop. I was sweating profusely and dog-tired. I scrambled up another 100 metres but my legs were turning to jelly. I had to stop again. At last, the chain reappeared to help me climb these monstrous rocks. After several more fitful efforts, I finally got to the top. I felt a mixture of elation and utter fear for the day after.

The view was extraordinary, south towards Eumundi, east towards Noosa and the long beach on the North Shore, north towards Gympie and west into the endless rugged interior. But what effort it took me to get there. I was spooked. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. After a lengthy rest, I was finally ready for the descent. This was difficult in its own way. Gravity was working against me, and determined to get me down faster than I wanted. I gingerly inched my way down and was deeply glad to be on “terra firmer” at the base of the mountain. I was not surprised I didn’t see a single soul going up or down. No-one would attempt this willingly. On the bright side, a check of the watch showed me that like the pub bet, I could do the run in under an hour.

The rest of the day passed without incident. Unlike the previous night’s shenanigans, I kept a low profile on the Saturday night and went to bed relatively early. I didn’t have a great night’s sleep, the memories of the climb kept coming back to haunt me.

Sunday arrived and I was a bundle of nerves. I pushed and prodded at my breakfast plate without making an impression. The race time was 3pm but entrants had to be there at 2pm to register. A friend gave me a lift to Pomona after midday and I left the property to cheers of good luck. The rest of the crew would come down later to watch the race. I was dropped off in a town which suddenly had ten times its usual population of a thousand people. The central streets were roped off. The fun run, the real fun run, had already taken place and it was sensible enough to skirt but not actually tackle the mountain. I registered and found out there was only 60 entrants. I got a sheet which told me the terrifying 439 metre height of the mountain. The start and finish were at Stan Topper Park and the run to and from the mountain would take a different route to the one I took yesterday. At least there was no drug testing.

Butterflies increased as the start time approached. Kids played in the bouncy castles and took donkey rides without concern. The racers gathered around the start point. Then came an unexpected and unwelcome development. Each racer was introduced by name and had to run a little catwalk of 20 metres or so while the announcer introduced them. I found out the calibre of my competitors. “Here’s (name forgotten), a New Zealand commonwealth games hopeful”…”here’s (name equally forgotten), a Champion British fell runner” “here’s (name etc) an Australian under 17s 5000 metres record holder” and then near the end “here’s Derek Barry, er, we don’t know a lot about Derek…he could be a dark horse.”

Loud applause rang in my ears but I wanted the ground to rise up and swallow me. As I warmed up, I saw another “dark horse” that looked equally out of his class. This was a guy dressed up in a half-cat half-kangaroo costume introduced to the crowd as “Feral Foulpuss”. He may have looked silly but he had done the run before. I asked him how he got to the top of the mountain in that gear. He said a mate at the edge of town minded the costume while he does the climb in more traditional running attire.

Finally the starter’s gun rang and we were off. For the first time in 48 hours I relaxed and concentrated on my running. To my surprise I was well able to handle the early pace and was tucked in halfway up the field. We left the town behind and cheers gradually died out as we moved into the forest. It was still noisy as an overhead helicopter circled the route and marshals barked instructions into walkie-talkies. We got to the start of the mountain and I was pleased to see no-one was running. Some were walking, some were scrabbling but everyone was taking this lump of rock seriously. Around the same point as I had my crisis yesterday I needed to take a break again. I kept going until about 150 metres short of the summit, I had a severe breakdown. I stopped for at least a minute and saw most of the field hurtle past me. As I started up again, I had to stop and admire the leaders going past me on their descent, graceful as gazelles, sure-footedly picking their path and defying gravity with death-defying leaps down the treacherous rocks. I made it to the top and allowed a moment’s elation grip me. No time to admire the view today, it was a quick turnaround for the descent.

It was on the way down where the veterans made up the time. While I carefully picked a path down they seemed to know exactly where to land on each step and most bounded past me. By the time I got back to the bottom, I was alone. But I was not last. As I shepherded my resources for the last kilometre run, I could hear the heavy breathing behind me. That person had a tail! It was Feral Foulpuss. I was determined not to be beaten by a cartoon character that was half mammal, half marsupial and totally ridiculous. I redoubled my efforts but could feel he was making ground. But then he had to stop and put on the rest of his costume and I knew I had him beaten. I came out of the forest and into the crowded town. I was cheered by name by people I did not know “Well done Derek,  not long to go”. And sure enough I turned into the straight and saw the clock over the finish line. It was ticking towards 40 minutes. I found some unknown reserve of energy to sprint across the line in 39 minutes and 40 seconds to great applause amid the promptings of a frenzied MC.

A friend immediately thrust a can of VB into my hand. I turned and saw Feral in all his glory hopping over the finish line. He wasn’t last either. There were another 10 or 11 stragglers. The last (and oldest) competitor crossed the line in 55 minutes. I found out that the winner, a New Zealander winning for the fourth time, had clocked a sensational time of around 24 minutes. The effect of my achievement and that single beer sent me spiralling into la-la-land. After a quick change and a medal ceremony I wandered into the packed Pomona pub where I wore my ceremonial t-shirt and my finisher’s medal with great pride. It was one of the best feelings of my life. I told anyone willing to listen I would be back next year. I wasn’t and still haven’t been back. But some day I will return to Stan Topper Park on the fourth Sunday of July and celebrate the monarchs of the mountain with the goddess of fruit and nuts in the town of the oldest silent cinema in the world.

This story was originally posted on the old Woolly Days blog in 2006.

A trip to John Flynn Place, Cloncurry

curry1Cloncurry is my newspaper’s catchment, about 120km east of Mount Isa on the Barkly Hwy. I’ve driven there a few times and that drive through the Selwyn Ranges is one of the most beautiful and rugged I’ve seen anywhere in Australia. On Friday I was invited down to the John Flynn Place museum for the opening of a new exhibit and the launch of a book about Flynn’s life.

curry2.jpg

The Selwyn Ranges are comprised of ancient eroded proterozoic (an era that stretches from 2.5 billion to 541 million years ago) rocks which, except for a few small outcrops, are concealed beneath the plains.

curry3.jpg

This is not a northern Australia variation of the dreaded drop bears; there are no car-munching cattle on the Barkly Hwy. But cattle are a concern in these parts, freely roaming the unfenced roads. They are especially difficult to see at night and they do a lot of damage to cars on collision. It is recommended you keep off the highway after dark for this reason.

curry4.jpg

The Leichhardt, named for German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt has two branches. The west branch flows through Mount Isa, the east flows 30km to the east. The two branches meet up to the north and drain into the Gulf of Carpentaria near Burketown. Leichhardt passed through this country on his first trip from Moreton Bay to Port Essington (in what now the Northern Territory). He may also have come this way on his third trip from Moreton Bay to Swan River in WA to avoid the inland deserts. He and his party disappeared with little trace in 1848.

curry5.jpg

This monument, halfway between Isa and Cloncurry is to the Kalkadoon people, whose country this is. The Kalkadoons offered fierce resistance to white settlers to the region until they were eventually defeated by an armed force of 200 native police, officers and settlers at Battle Mountain in 1884.curry6.jpg

Barely 500m down the road from the Kalkadoon Monument is another monument which partly explains why the Kalkadoons lost their land. The monument recognises the spot the expedition of Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills passed on January 22, 1861 as they headed north from Cooper’s Creek to the Gulf of Carpentaria. As is well documented Burke and Wills died on the way back. However the many recovery missions quickly increased the European knowledge of the region and opened it up to white settlers.curry7.jpg

This is normally very arid country but the rolling hills are surprisingly lush and green after summer rains.

curry8.jpg

A couple of blocks back from the highway in Cloncurry is John Flynn Place museum and art gallery, opened in 1988. As the museum website says, John Flynn Place honours an Australian visionary and those who joined his campaign for better living conditions in remote Australia: “The museum recounts an era of technological advance, when aviation and radio overcame the isolation of vast tracts of the continent.” Cloncurry plays an important role in the story. This was where Flynn began his Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1928 and pioneered outback radio communication. Flynn was a long term campaigner for an aerial medical service to provide a “mantle of safety” for the people of the bush, and his vision became a reality when his supporter, H V McKay, left a large bequest for “an aerial experiment”.

curry9.jpg

In 1927, QANTAS and the Aerial Medical Service signed an agreement to operate an aerial ambulance from Cloncurry. The first pilot took off from Cloncurry on 17 May 1928 flying this single engine, timber and fabric bi-plane named Victory. Victory was leased by QANTAS for two shillings per mile flown. The last piece of Flynn’s jigsaw was the invention of a pedal-operated generator to power a radio receiver. By 1929 people living in isolation were able to call on the Flying Doctor to assist them in an emergency. The School of the Air was established in Alice Springs in 1951, the year of Flynn’s death.

curry10.jpg

Everald Compton (seen here in front of a portrait of Flynn) was a teenager when Flynn died and he never met him, but he still considers Flynn a major influence on his own eventful life. The seniors’ rights campaigner has written a book about Flynn called The Man on the Twenty Dollar Notes and he was in Cloncurry to launch the book. “I’ve been a fan of John Flynn since I was a little boy in Sunday School and I’ve always been fascinated about what he did,” he said.  “He invented the pedal radio, founded the Flying Doctors, founded the School of the Air, built 25 hospitals around the bush, and was involved with John Bradfield in trying to water the whole of Australia.”