Wednesday, December 21, 2016

You're going to do what?! Meeting crazy people in outback Australia.

There are some people you meet and the more you talk to them the more your respect for them deepens. Others are quite the opposite and you wonder when they'll become entries for the Darwin Awards - short-lived and notable for doing something stupid, and entirely preventable.

Mary was one of the former. 

We were enjoying the 8km hike along part of the Heysen Trail out of Koolaman Campground in the Brachina Gorge, Flinders Ranges, SA. 

We'd just walked up the Yuluna Creek stopping frequently to gaze awestruck at the ancient seabed .... 

.... and wonder at the incredible force that it must take to push huge trees into a woven mass in a riverbed.
It was a warmish day and we paused to ponder whether to go on to the Bendowta Hut ruins or not, when a lone woman strode up with a "cooeee" and began chatting with us. 

She was visiting family from NZ and each time she visits, she does a couple of sections of the Heysen Trail (at 1200Km doing it in sections is sensible!).

As usual, first glances assess a person far quicker than words ever can: with Mary it went along the lines of: Not a threat. Alone. Small pack. Doesn't seem to have much water. Snakes are quite active. Hope she's got a good first aid kit. Is there room in her pack for a personal location beacon? Satellite phone? Does she have food in case she gets stuck out here?

And the more we chatted, the more we realised that not only was she a hugely experienced hiker, she was strong, capable, knew her limits and would do her utmost not to be a danger to herself or others.

We discussed 'worst case scenarios' and plans we have in place in case of emergency. She was a delight to spend time with, that rare combination of someone who is interested to hear what we'd been up to, and happy to share her own entertaining stories.

In contrast, a few days later at Coward Springs, we met an older cyclist from the USA.  

Coward Springs on the Oodnadatta track is a delightful spot to spend a night or two.

There's a bore which has been converted to a spa, shady trees to pitch the tent under, long-drop toilets and a donkey boiler shower. Luxury!

I'd noticed a lone cyclist, leathery skin, elderly, tent pitched to get maximum breeze and shade, little pot and stove ready for dinner and him sitting on a log contemplating who knows what.

Being a relatively friendly soul, who generally likes to be supportive of people travelling alone, and being genuinely interested in where he'd come from and where he was headed to, I said "Hi, good ride?" as I walked past, anticipating a generic "Good. Thanks" in reply and a proper follow up afterwards.

Why? Because there's an unspoken convention when camping, that when someone is headed off to the toilet with bog roll in hand, it's fine to say "Hi, how ya going?" and the reply is along the same lines. Brief! Then civilities done with, it's time to depart.

I hadn't accounted for a loquacious, self absorbed Yank, completely oblivious to toilet roll, direction of travel and purposeful gait.
This is NOT the time to begin a monologue about challenging track conditions, government ineptitude, previous outback tracks conquered and asking if it's possible to buy supplies at William Creek. Sheesh. So much talk. So much grumbling. So much self.

For what it's worth, imo, you don't conquer a track. You might conquer your own fears, but a track? You research and prepare for expected and unexpected conditions, know your limits and the limits of your equipment and overcome obstacles as they arise. But overall, you prepare as best as humanly possible, including for worst case scenarios: 

What will I do if my bike breaks down in the middle of nowhere and no vehicles come past for a day? Two days? Do I have enough food and water to survive? How about shelter? Do people know where I am and when I'm expected at the next town? How will I contact people if I'm injured? 

Then he then began moaning about the general lack of phone reception. Outback. On the Oodnadatta Track. More or less in the middle of nowhere. With very few people. Who would have guessed that there wouldn't be a whole lot of mobile phone towers?!

He'd apparently rocked up expecting city quality mobile phone reception so he could research the next town from the previous one. Not smart. And because there was no reception to access the internet, he was unable to check the possibility of restocking his extremely depleted food supplies (which are kind of vital!) at William Creek. That's something I'd have expected a solo, long distance, remote area cyclist to have researched thoroughly before leaving home.

Prior to speaking with listening to him I'd been impressed with his apparent dedication and willingness to ride on the long, dusty, corrugated road, miles from anywhere. 
I now reassessed. He'll be lucky to survive. He hasn't done his homework. He doesn't have enough food to complete the next stages of the track up to Marla (likely to be another 3 or so days of riding) and is botting* food from other campers. It's hot (43+C or nearly 110F) and he openly states he's struggling. Really, really struggling. This is not good.

Next morning, we expected him to be gone at first light, but he had a good old sleep-in and started the 70km ride to William Creek well after the cool of dawn. The sun was already blazing, and it was in the mid 30s in the shade when he wobbled slowly out of the camp site. 

We'd had a lazy start and expected to see him hitching a lift along the track, however when we came across him he was making a slow meandering path on the right hand side of the track, bare chested, wearing ski goggles (to prevent flies exploring his eyes) and with a bit of fabric acting as a hat. I gave him points for cycling on the right. It meant he could easily see if there were oncoming vehicles and he wasn't in the dust of the cars coming from behind.

The scenery is striking, with mound springs dotted along the length of the Oodnadatta Track. It was this source of water which enabled the Aboriginals to make their way through this region for many, many thousands of years.

We stopped and sweltered our way around the well signposted Strangeways Siding ruins, drove out to ABC and Halligan Bay on Lake Eyre and came across the cyclist again at the William Creek Hotel late that afternoon. 

He had a group of people gathered around him at the bar, and was repeating the complaining soliloquy I'd heard. It sounded like he'd said it so often he was word perfect.  When he saw us he broke off to state "It beat me, the Oodnadatta beat me. I'm over it. I can't buy supplies and they're going to arrange a lift to Coober Pedy."

People die out here.  Cycling at the beginning of summer, through the wind and searing heat, where there's no shade, no water and few vehicles, takes a special sort of person. A well prepared one who's researched and thought through the implications of problems. Someone with a back up plan, who knows which places have food, potable water, and transport if needed. At Coward Springs there weren't many campers, and those of us who were concerned for the cyclist's welfare were in no position to assist with transporting him, his bike and gear. Whilst he was clearly extremely fit and physically strong, he wasn't in a good mental space and had apparently done little research on the reality of cycling the Oodnadatta Track or having any plan for being unable to complete the ride mid way through, other than relying on the good will of locals or passers by. 

Things can go pearshaped when you've prepared well, but wilful ignorance and putting yourself or others at risk rarely goes down well.
Near William Creek.
A great spot to reflect on life.

*Aussie slang meaning a scrounger. 


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas baking

Me baking mince tarts: 

"Hmm that recipe looks a bit boring. I think I'll add some roughly chopped chocolate, a decent dollop of the disaster marmalade I made earlier in the year (it's more or less solid), a handful of mixed nuts, coffee granules and assorted Christmassy spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and cardamom. Oh, and then there's those chili flavoured coconut chips that are a little bit odd and the last of the coconut butter. Could work out ok." 

And it all got mixed in with the minced fruit which has been marinating in coffee flavoured vodka for a few days. 

They look a bit rustic but taste pretty darn good!

And then there were the individual Christmas cakes. In my mind Christmas baking is associated with spice. Lots of it. I found three Christmas Cooking books on the shelves, but none of them included spice in the rich fruit cake recipes. Not a skerrick. What's going on? In desperation I ferreted out the trusty old Cookery The Australian Way, and spice was included, though not very much.

Then, trusting my not entirely reliable memories, I added more than stated quantity of spice to the mix. I'd found some apricots and other forgotten end packs of sad looking dried fruit in the pantry, and had left it all soaking for a few days along with raisins, in the coffee flavoured vodka that had gathering dust on the shelf, then added extra mixed nuts. There was more marmalade to use up - will it last forever? and some chocolate that had fallen behind the vegetable crisper in the frig. May as well add that too!

Into the patty pans in the muffin tin (my token attempt at portion control), then a bit of guesswork with the timing and taadaaa. We have success!

The pantry now looks a lot neater having used the end packs of fruit, our tummies are chubbier and the house smells fantastic with all the spice. 

Perfect taste treats for picnics over Summer!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The problem with "flushable wipes" in the outback.

Mt Dare Hotel is more or less in the centre of Australia, not far from the Northern Territory border on the western edge of the Simpson Desert. It's a long, long, long way from anywhere. It's usually crispy dry except on the rare occasion it floods. It's often hot. Very, very hot. We were there in November, and as we left the bar, after having a very welcome beer indoors away from the damn flies, the barman, doing his best Crocodile Dundee impersonation, (complete with 'beater and Akubra style hat), reminded us to use our torches and stomp loudly on the way out to our tent as he'd just been shooing away a "king brown". 
The bar with an interesting selection of stubby holders.
My first thought was ... "Is this some weird outback thing he's doing with beer bottles, and why am I scaring them away?" Followed by "Oh! he's referring to snakes!"

The heat, dust, mozzies and flies can do that to you ....
The newly revamped beer garden is a delight, but ... flies...
What I didn't know then was that a King Brown is another name for a Mulga Snake. That's one I know to be wary of, having watched a particularly long one in a picnic shelter in Corner Country a couple of years ago. Stepping on one in the dark wouldn't be good. (Info on their venom here.)

I stomped vigorously!

As with all travel, there are times when the topic of toilet etiquette comes up. It's no different in the outback. When there's no loo, go behind a bush (some ladies use a small brolly if there's no vegetation), dig a hole and bury your waste, burn or remove any paper and leave the place as you'd like to find it. 

However, there's a new menace cunningly marketed as 'flushable' which creates havoc not only in cities, but in the outback as well. Seeing these little off-white sheets stuck on bushes on remote tracks, fluttering into pristine ancient springs, stomped into red soil and generally creating an eyesore, I kind of wish they'd never been invented. I also have a lot of sympathy for anyone whose job it is to unclog pipes and septic systems where they're an inconvenient, expensive, time consuming menace.  

The ACCC is currently taking court action against the manufacturers of "Flushable" wipes:
“The ACCC alleges that the impression given by the representations which Kimberly-Clark and Pental each made about these products was that they were suitable to be flushed down household toilets in Australia, when this was not the case,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.
“These products did not, for example, disintegrate like toilet paper when flushed. Australian water authorities face significant problems when non-suitable products are flushed down the toilet as they contribute to blockages in household and municipal sewerage systems.”
It's not just suburban household and municipal sewerage systems that suffer. Notices like the one above, in the toilets at the camping ground behind the Mt Dare Hotel, are important to raise awareness of the problems the wipes cause. 

Basically, "flushable wipes" stuff up the septic system and create all sorts of problems which are a pain to fix. 

At one other camping ground there was detailed information about how unpleasant, tedious and time consuming it is for staff to rummage around in the system to locate the clogged spot - and then remove the offending items by hand. Peeeeuw. You really get the feeling people are completely over these things. 

Then there are the stories of wet-wipes clogging the pipes in Septic Pump Trucks and the driver having to clear the hoses manually: a messy, smelly, slow process. Ugh. 

Flushable wipes might technically be flushable, but they create LOTS of problems - if you must use them, put them in the bin. 

And whilst the wipes are generally cursed, so are lazy people who shove dirty clothing, nappies, and even sleeping bags into long drop toiltes; kick cheap broken camping gear behind bushes and and seem to think the outback is a massive garbage dump. 

But all grumping aside, Mt Dare Hotel is great! They put on a decent meal, and it's a beaut spot to stop, share information and listen to tall tales and true from local characters!  


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Surrounded by coal, camped near Mordor.

My image of Mordor is a region of never ending, noisy, repetitive production, ceaseless activity by blank faced automatons, endless mechanical sounds, the ear jarring screech of metal on metal, the deep rumbling, stomach-churning thud, thud, thud of heavy machinery and a pervasive stench, which permeates and taints the air for many kilometres around. An odour hard to remove from clothing by washing and which seeps into pores, eyes, nose and lungs relentlessly.

I never expected to visit, and camp beside a lake which lived up to exactly that image. Its beguiling beauty, the active birds and deceptively welcoming water were a con.
We thought it'd be pleasant to camp beside water after being in the desert. Lake Liddell, appeared, from the guide book, to offer swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, fishing and other cheery, family friendly, water based activities for the families living nearby in Muswellbrook and Singleton. We figured that if we arrived lateish, and left early, it could be a peaceful place for a night.

There'd be frogs, water birds wading merrily and diving for fish, the quaking of ducks and no crocodiles ... most enticing!

How wrong we were.

We were greeted by a friendly, welcoming woman, who explained in a frank, forthright manner, that under no circumstances should we have anything at all to do with the lake water. No fishing, no wading, no kayaking and definitely don't splash it on your face, or allow any droplets at all to enter your nose. There's something in the water that can enter your brain and kill you. It doesn't happen often, but when it does - whammo. She told us that all taps in the camp ground which would normally use lake water had been locked off, and even if we discovered that one had been overlooked we should definitely NOT use it. She reassured us that the showers were safe to use, as the water in the amenities block had been trucked in and was perfectly fine!

This wasn't what we'd expected.

We were also unaware (strangely, the guide book is quiet on this aspect of the park) that just over the toxic lake, over the charming hills in front of our tent is the Liddell Coal Mine which operates all day and night, every day of the year. To enable this to happen, massive massive lighting systems are used, so it's a bit like the glaring illumination from a large city which, unlike Paris, doesn't dim its lights during the wee hours. When he noticed, my husband commented drily "It's good the coal industry only runs 9-5".

So much for the anticipated tranquil night's sleep.

The mine's ceaseless activity ensures that what appear to be kilometre long coal trains, with not quite fully enclosed wagons, rumble and clang their way around the camp ground not far from where we set up camp. All day. All night. Seemingly every 1/2 hour or so. They come from between the hills in the distance to our left, slowly grunt and clatter their way along and rumble off, somewhere to the back of us. By daylight, we can see the mountainous tailings from the mine.

The steady, deep rumble, rumble, rumbling from the incessant trains, drowned out the cheeping, quacking, croaking and flapping of every living creature around, including, earlier in the evening, the raucous partying of a large group of young campers. That's quite an achievement. Between trains, the persistent mechanical hum from the generators of the power plant over to our right is the constant background noise. Very Mordor.

Edit 2020 - 4 years later - This is what the LNP is still considering propping up & keeping on life support to the tune of $100million pa, in spite of the companies objections. 4 years of transition lost due to outdated ideology.

I woke early (I didn't get much relaxing sleep), and as I walked along the shoreline in the crisp morning air, there was the distinctive smell of what I think of as briquette dust (well known to those of us who grew up in Melbourne in the 60's and 70's.) It's a smell which lingers unpleasantly and it wasn't possible to avoid.

This is the scenario which the current federal government supports and wants to extend. Not only that, but they also persistently run smear campaigns against renewable energy, particularly wind. A couple of weeks ago we stood next to a wind generator farm wondering what the fuss was about. No smell. No threat of fire and toxic pollution. A whooshing noise as the blades turned, and that was the sum of the experience.

I wondered as I walked, if I was tempting fate and that my steps would disturb the lake's lethal legacy and some vapour droplets would find their way into my nostrils. I lengthened my stride to reach higher ground a bit quicker than normal.

How privileged I've been. I've never lived near where coal is mined or near a coal fired power plant. The coal mining lobby and their political allies insist coal is here for the long term, and are desperate to extend mining and other fossil fuel extraction into prime agricultural lands. It's hard to be as enthusiastic knowing the extensive, reputable, well researched negative health and environmental impacts.

We have alternatives. We don't need to put all our eggs in the one basket. Companies want to invest in clean energy. People want jobs in the renewables sector. Citizens want to support sustainable options. Coal mining is scarring the land, having a massive impact on water (which is used extensively in mines and plant) not to mention the potential for fire as happened at Hazelwood Victoria. (Here and here.)

I'm glad I've briefly experienced what it's like to live near a coal mine and coal fired power plant, and I'm so, so grateful we can leave; this is too close to my vision of Mordor for comfort.

Further reading:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A night time of fireflies at Adels Grove - Outback Queensland

You know that feeling when people think you're bonkers and you're completely sure you're sane?
We recently experienced that up at Adels Grove near Boodjamulla National Park (formerly Lawn Hill). It's about a hundred and something kilometres from the Gulf of Carpentaria nearish where the western side of Cape York dips into the gulf. It's a long, long way from home in the south where we have proper winters and dry heat summers. It's hot, HOT, HOT, at this time of year and HUMID. UGH, UGH, UGH. Nothing dries out. Not us, not clothing, not anything. You take off your damply sweaty clothing at night and put it back on, still damply sweaty in the morning. (Limited space prohibits many changes, which wouldn't have made much difference anyhow as they'd have felt damp too.)
We were camped in the 'grove' - the quiet spot for people mostly in tents and without generators. The trees are thick, rotten (one fell less than a metre from a nearby camp with a massive whumpfh) and with a very, very dense canopy. There's a constant dropping of what we could only guess was poo from billions of small tree dwelling creatures overhead, so we covered our mugs at all times, shook clothing out constantly, and I brushed my hair not at all. It was kind of like itty bitty soft pellets like those tasty chocolate sprinkles you decorate cakes with. yup. really.
We tend to sit in the dark after dinner, watching ... nothing in particular ... just soaking up the ambience, keeping an eye out for bats, listening for night birds. That kind of thing. Most people don't. They use lanterns, torches, made big fires (in 32C heat! - crazy) which means they don't see special things that their night eyes have adapted to see. 
Like fireflies!
The first night we were at Adels Grove, I had no idea what I was seeing, but a wee light seemed to float up from behind the table, over the stove, and waft up into a tree.
A cautious question; "Um, Trav, did you see that?" Thankfully he had. But what was it? Lights don't usually float gracefully upwards and settle in a tree. It wasn't a one off though, it kept happening in different locations around the campsite. Next morning I made a point of asking at reception, but the blank looks and cautious, but calm backing away made it clear what they thought. "Batty old woman, probably had too much to drink, gotta keep an eye out for that kind of person."
We watched night after night. If I believed in fairies, that's what they'd look like at night! I was mesmerised. I'd wake during the night, and with the fly of the tent off (trying to make use of any stray breeze to cool down just a morsel, please!) and fly-mesh covering the roof, I could see them flashing and pulsing, in groups, singly, sometimes clustered, at other times apparently wafting on a not-really-there breeze between branches.
As I said, the people at reception seemed to think I was living in fantasy land, and no other campers we spoke to had seen anything, but a ranger I cornered at Boodjamulla had seen one recently, so took my questions seriously. She didn't know much about them, but knew they existed in Australia. Gotta love park rangers! ... Except she asked hopefully if I'd caught one - no, no, no and no ... for all I knew it could have been a land form of the irukandji jellyfish which would leave me paralysed, in agony for ever, or possibly dead. 
Anyhow, now I'm home with reasonable internet and data, I can say with confidence that they were fireflies, and it seems we were there at just the right time to see them in abundance. 

There's a bit more about them here:

This is not a firefly. My guess is it's a locust. They were thick everywhere and hopped/flew, getting pelted noisily against the car covering it with sticky, smelly, brightly coloured bug gunge. When we camped at Mt Moffatt, the birds (pied butcherbirds?) had a wonderful time picking them out from behind the numberplate, under the car, and up in the mudguards. They feasted.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Boiled and baked cake with pineapple and zucchini!

The zucchini plants are producing lots of wonderful golden vegetables! But what to do with the excess? We've gorged on zucchini fritters, zucchini salads, stir fried zucchini and zucchini slice.

I like carrot cake, and have enjoyed cakes with beetroot as a colourful addition, so why not zucchini?

I love fruit cake and wondered if I could find a recipe for a boiled and baked pineapple and zucchini cake. The internet is a wonderful thing and lo and behold I almost found what I was looking for ;-) By combining a number of recipes, I baked these delicious cakes. More than enough to share!


  • 1 x 450g tin crushed pineapple with juice. (Pineapple pieces work, but aren't as delicate.)
  • 250g butter
  • 500g mixed fruit (including raisins, sultanas, dates, apricots, cherries, cranberries etc)
  • 2 cups sugar (I've used white, brown and palm, they all work, but give a slightly different flavour)
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence
  • a slosh of brandy, rum, blackberry nip or similar
  • 1 heaped tablespoon marmalade

Put all of the above in a saucepan - bring to the boil then allow to cool.

Now stir in: 
2 teaspoons bicarb soda. (It'll foam and froth in an entertaining way.)

Next add:

  • 3 lightly beaten eggs, if they're really small, use 4
  • 1 cup grated zucchini


  • 2 cups plain white flour
  • 1 cup wholemeal flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • pinch salt

If you're feeling decadent, you can chop up some chocolate and add it too!

Add the dry ingredients to the wet. Stir till mixed.

Cook the large cake about 1 - 1 1/4 hours at 160C until a skewer comes out clean. The small ones only took 30 mins. I turned them after 20 mins and moved the front one to the back as my oven doesn't heat evenly.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A ship shipping ship and free trade shenanigans

There was an article in the Daily Mail (UK) recently about this extraordinary ship which clearly called for some witty alliteration. I don't know who came up with the tongue twister, but I'd like to thank them for the fun I and some others on G+ have had spinning off from the original. The fanciful story below is a tale of caution, and is in no way a slight on the ship builders, on their engineering expertise, craftsmanship, morals or professional integrity.

If you shuffle over here, I'll share a startling story about the ships and the ship builders who were to ship them in ship shape fashion to shipping regions around the world.

Shh, it's a bit shady and I doubt the shop steward knows about the shortcomings of his boss.

The super ships were built by Shonky Brothers, the showy local company with the significant signage. It's an unfortunate surname, but their ships are in no way similar to the name. They're superbly slick ship shapers! Rumour has it the ships were to be shunted from the Schippol shipyard slipway, but I'm not sure of that summary.

Significantly, last summer, one of the ship shaping siblings, it's said it was Cyril, was shagging shapely Charleen in the shade of a super ship in his classic Scorpion. Because of the deep shade in the chartreuse Scorpion, they surmised they were sheltered from suspicious eyes. Silly them! Shush wasn't their forte! In a spirited moment, Cyril shouted "shazam" and they were seen by Shane who'd snuck out for a siesta and subsequently shamed the sugar coated Cyril. There were lots of sniggers, smirks and snide comments. Statuesque Charleen, the sexy sheila who usually shimmies around looking sultry, was really shirty.

Cyril was a bit of a sun-baked character. He used to stride around unshaven, with a scarlet parrot on his shoulder singing sea shanties and saying, "Shiver me timbers!" at regular intervals. Sure beats being stuffy!

Sadly, Charleen's shifty snaky boss, Sheldon found out (not about the singing, the shagging). He fancied Charleen and felt sorely snubbed. Sheldon is a smooth talking senior in a litigious multinational that wanted the significant contract to shape the shiny ships. He thought "I'll sue the shit out of them", but that wasn't enough for the smitten spewing Sheldon. If Sheldon couldn't have Charleen, then he'd make Cyril suffer. (It's an odd kind of logic, but some sad sods are like that.)

Sheldon really shouldn't have chosen a skirmish, he could have shrugged and suffered the snub in silence. Sadly he's a slave to his emotions and being a short tempered bastard, he shot Cyril Shonky in his shagging equipment. 

Sheldon's company, which shall evermore be called, We Shit On You From A Great Height Ha Ha, swiftly sued the sovereign state that'd contracted the local ship shaping company. 

These sneaky sharks (apologies to all sharks - this kind of sloppy analogy makes you sound sinister) sleuthed around and found a shocker of a sadistic, but subtle ISDS* clause, under the shameful TPP agreement (or TTIP** depending on where you live). Many smart systematic thinkers believe the ISDS clauses should be shelved because sovereign states will surely suffer substantially. The shocking sneaky clauses leave many speechless. 

It's such a sad situation. Some soar, others are shattered. But is this skulduggery sustainable? Will sovereign states be subsumed by self serving multinationals? That's sobering ... are we stuffed? Secrecy isn't soothing.

The Shonky Brothers previously successful ship shaping business has suffered significant setbacks. Staff were suddenly laid off and are now getting by on a shoestring. Some were paid shush money, others are sick. 

Cyril struggles to sit without slouching. He's really suffering from the shooting of his shagging equipment. 

The whole state shudders to watch We Shit On You From A Great Height Ha Ha erode carefully crafted environmental protection laws and shamelessly shaft the small country which is struggling to cover costs of the suing skulduggery. When questioned about ethics, integrity and honesty, they quote the ISDS clauses, sneer and snort "It's legal, shan't change. We can shoulder your local laws aside! We won't shelve anything, so sod off." 

Something stinks when super-powered multinationals can sue countries virtually unsupervised. It sucks.


Massive protests this weekend in Berlin: (Oct 10 2015)

ISDS clauses: ISDS is a mechanism for corporations to sue governments.
... the authority of sovereign courts is ignored in favour of an international dispute tribunal.

If this is such a great deal, why are they hiding it? There is, among other things, a four-letter answer to this question: ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement). ISDS is a mechanism for corporations to sue governments.

Water and waste management giant Veolia is suing the government of Egypt for lifting the minimum wage. 
Canada is being sued for a ban on fracking and 
Germany for its phasing out of nuclear power; all actions taken under ISDS clauses in free trade pacts.
US corporations are the biggest litigants, having brought some 127 cases thus far against sovereign government decisions which they claim have damaged their financial interests. Taxpayers have the pleasure of footing the legal defence bills. Even worse, the authority of sovereign courts is ignored in favour of an international dispute tribunal.
The reality is this TPP free trade deal is as much about free trade as it is about entrenching the interests of large multinational corporations.

In 2011, the Australian Gillard government announced it would no longer adopt international investment arbitration into its trade agreements and investment treaties with other states on the basis that investor state arbitration “constrains the ability of the Australian Government to make laws on social, environmental and economic matters; concerns no doubt based in part on Philip Morris’s claim against Australia under the Hong Kong-Australia Free Trade Agreement.
Australia has now mollified its approach under the Abbott government;

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Maralinga; a world apart. It's much more than a place where nuclear experiments were conducted, and well worth visiting.

The tale of secretly testing numerous atomic bombs, and a wide variety of nuclear devices in Australia in the 1950's and 60's, by the British, is a yarn of epic proportions; with twists, turns and sub-plots worthy of an airport novel bought for a long haul flight. 

There are lies and cover-ups, as well as betrayal, misplaced trust, wilful blindness and the obsequious kowtowing to the British, by what appears, from our current time and place, to be a fawning Anglophile Prime Minister (Menzies). 

Personnel involved in the programme, who had strong moral and ethical ideals were warned that Maralinga had become British territory and that whistle blowing on the reality of what happened, the hugely secretive goings on, could result in being shot, or a 30 year jail term under the British Secret Service Act (page 43 Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists). 

Trust us! Nobody could have been out in the blast areas, was the cry. But there were people out there. 

Families, such as the Milpuddie's, who were found camped in a crater formed by a bomb blast - innocent inhabitants going about their daily lives, had their lives changed forever (further information here). The ongoing negative ramifications of living, eating food and drinking water from dangerously contaminated land, lives on in children and grandchildren. 

There were human guinea pigs (Indoctrinee Volunteers and here), animal and vegetation experiments and numerous weapons development tests alongside the more dramatic and "explosive" weapons tests.  Much of the information only came to light 30 years or so after the events. Much more is considered so secret by the British government, that it's been classified (hidden), and will remain that way, forever. 

It's quite a story.

Walking on sites where world changing events occurred can have a deep impact. Sometimes immediate, sometimes surfacing and resurfacing long after the event.

People talk about the impact that visiting Gallipoli had on them, or the sobering effect of seeing the trenches and hearing stories of WW2 battles at Flanders Fields. Sites such as these, of Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima, The Berlin Wall, and similar places around the world have become places of pilgrimage. Destinations where hordes of diverse people gather to share thoughts, reflections, prayers, and hope. Hope that powerful people in the future will pause, tread cautiously and act wisely before making decisions which will set in motion similar catastrophic events. 

Although Maralinga has a different history to those above, in its own way, the impact of what happened there changed the world, many servicemen, and more locally, the landscape and displaced Maralinga Tjarutja indigenous people, forever. 

It needs to be remembered warts, dirty dealings and all. 
I didn't know what to expect as we drove up the long, often featureless, un-signposted road to the gate in the Boundary fence at Maralinga, where the caretaker and tour guide, Robin Matthews, greeted us with gentle courtesy. 

The place was a name from my childhood and not much more. Like others of my generation, I knew there was something to do with testing an atomic bomb, but as a child I suspect my parents didn't discuss the implications of this in depth, and shielded me from discussion. The Cold War was also little but a name. In hindsight, I expect there was unspoken communication between my parents and relatives, as carefully worded news filtered out about what was happening at Maralinga. But having a father who'd been deeply scarred from service during WW2, I also suspect they didn't want to dwell on details or meaning.

So Maralinga remained nothing more than a little visited memory. There was a vague recollection of a Royal Commission, (part of the official report is here) but mostly, it was a place off-limits, with prohibited entry, closed to the world, out in the desert .... somewhere. 

Then  a few months ago, my husband suggested visiting. He'd been doing some research and found that tours were possible. Due to the remote location in South Australia, two nights camping, and a one day escorted tour in a minibus, could be arranged by contacting Maralinga Tours. Being stumped for an idea for his 60th birthday, I figured it'd be a memorable gift! A bit out of the ordinary, educational (an important aspect for gifts in our family!) and completely different. Also, I felt ashamed at my complete lack of knowledge of the area or history of this significant event in recent Australian history

We'd been listening to Len Beadell's Blast the Bush as an audio book over what felt like a few hundred kilometres of corrugated, dusty red roads, sometimes having to turn it off as the rattling made it impossible to hear! I was beginning to get a feel for the challenges Beadell had faced, surveying roads to be ready for the expected heavy machinery and hoards of military and other personnel who'd follow to conduct a wide variety of highly secret tests.

But what would be here now? The dot on the map stated in confident black print Maralinga, though some maps show "Maralinga Village" and elsewhere, "Maralinga Community". 

Words have power. River. Lake. Village. City people and visitors from overseas are regularly perplexed about the use of these words in outback Australia where rivers are often parched, barren depressions in baked rusty-red sand, and lakes are crunchy with glittering white salt. This often leads to discussions about why there aren't more people living in remote areas. "There's no water" we say, and their reply is "But look at all the lakes and rivers on the maps, there must be!"

Confusion reigns. How can you explain desert to someone who lives in a place blessed with generously regular rainfall, and has never known drought? How do you explain that so much of our harsh, beautiful land is unforgiving and deadly to those who don't know how to live there? Water is scarce. Without it we die.
Strolling on Lake Gairdner

And so it is with the village of Maralinga. It's a village in name only. The word village conjures up something alien to this land, it's a foreign word, and sits uncomfortably here. If you're visualising a cosy holiday-style, quaint village you'll be sadly disappointed. There are no cheerful homes with the warm glow of lights at night, no bustling tourist stores selling a variety of wares of questionable quality and value. No drinks machines with chilled beverages for the dust covered, weary traveller. Just a kind of ghostly silence, the soughing of a stray breeze through dry leaves of she-oak and desert oak, and the constant regular thump, thump, thump, of the intrusive generator bringing power to the caretaker Robin, and his family, as well as the small groups of tourists. (Bring on the solar panels!!)

Maralinga village is a sombre place. Starkly beautiful in a desolate, almost, but not quite, abandoned way. 

"Camp anywhere you like" says Robin, "make a fire, and if you run out of wood, we've got lots more." 
And so, between the checkerboard ranks of chipped and cracked concrete slabs, 
which were once the termite resistant bases of barracks and laboratories used by thousands of men, we set up camp, walked up to what was once a fountain ... 
... near the remains of the swimming pool ...

... watched the sun set, and phoned home ....

... by accessing the Telstra mobile phone towers which dot the distant railway line linking the east and west coasts of Australia.

But what of the tour itself? 

Tour guide Robin's breadth and depth of knowledge of the various tests and impacts on the Maralinga Tjarutja peoples, his generosity in sharing, his passion for educating others, unflagging energy and enthusiasm were extraordinary. 

This is our history. Up close and personal. Dramatic events on Australian soil with far ranging consequences, which should be taught in schools. Relevant. Confronting .... and regularly ignored. 
298 burial pits, up to 26 metres deep, are now filled with pulverised buildings, contaminated soil, machinery, planes, Toyota LandCruisers, double decker busses, tanks, bulldozers, labs, almost everything which had been left or discarded has finally been decontaminated, burnt, bull-dozered and buried - over 30 years after the British left, pretending that everything was safe, but knowing full well it wasn't. It took around 6 years and $108million to conduct the clean up which was finished in 2000, (More here)
Lunchtime at the decontamination and maintenance sheds.
No one wanted to picnic in the decontaminations shed. 

We'd been joined by other visitors, and for some, the sheer scale of ... everything .... was overwhelming. So much destruction. Vast areas of land impacted (the site measures about 3,300 square kilometres) Too many bombs and experiments, exploring the unknown effects of ways to .... not to put too fine a point on it ... kill people or render equipment useless. 

When the nuclear tests were conducted, little was known about the effects of atomic (and other) bombs and weapons - how do you find out unless you do trials and tests? The military and British government wanted answers to their questions, and what is now known to have occurred shows that the decision was that The End Justifies the Means. 

What happens when an atomic bomb blast hits a bus, a plane, specific plants - at this distance? At a different distance? How about at this angle? And this? And what of people? What happens if they roll, unprotected in the radioactive dust? Now wearing different clothing? How can we decontaminate them? Can we? How do we clean up after contaminating the land? Can we? How much can we get away with before the public begins to question? Do we need to share information? How can we convince the people of Australia and the UK that these experiments are vital to our security? Do they need to know? 

And from the British government, the thoughts seem to have been: "How secretive can we be? Do we need to tell the Australian people (or our own for that matter) what we're doing and how much it's costing?" 6.8 million pounds was spent to build just the airstrip and village - and that was barely the beginning. This was at a time when the British people were enduring severe rationing and using food stamps sparingly. Yet many, many millions of pounds were poured into further construction, the various tests and transporting vast quantities of equipment (including double decker busses, planes, trucks etc etc etc) and people overseas to Australia. Not a cheap exercise by any means.

Little of this is comforting, or nice, or reassuring. Naively placing trust in our elected political representatives without maintaining constant vigilance and questioning what's happening, wasn't then, and isn't now, wise. 
"... Menzies agreed to allow the British to use Australian territory and personnel for the tests without question or even serious discussion with his colleagues: “Cabinet papers show he devoted more time to organising the young Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Australia than he spent on the atomic tests.”
The official line was that there were no Aboriginals in the fall out zone of around 800,000 square kilometres, - roughly 5 times the size of the UK. But for men who reported sightings, the penalty of sharing that "embarrassing" information with anyone other than superiors was that they could be shot or jailed for 30 years. (here) There was strong incentive to keep quiet! 
The reality was that this vast area had been home to the Maralinga Tjarutja people for thousands of years: "A labyrinth of criss-crossing dreamtime tracks connected the Tjarutja to their ancestors, their stories, their living community. The Tjarutja showed no signs of deprivation in an environment in which Europeans couldn't last longer than a few days without help. Early Europeans who encountered them noted their nomadic qualities, their love of walking great distances through a magical garden of spirits, to meet relatives, to sample new food, to visit their favourite rock holes, to attend corroborees."
 "Despite claims to the contrary, Aboriginal people did wander through radiated lands. They camped in fresh craters, to keep warm and to trap rabbits blinded by cobalt pellets. When discovered, they were compulsorily showered, their finger nails scrubbed with soap. The women suffered mscarriages. They were herded in trucks or pushed onto trains, expelled from a sacred site at Ooldea, a day's walk from Maralinga airport." 

The Maralinga airstrip is still in use, and at 2.4 km long with a 600 metre offshoot at each end, could, if needed, be used to land the Space Shuttle. It's routinely used for military training exercises, visiting dignitaries and camels. Mounds of fresh camel poo were evidence of a reasonably large group of them passing through, possibly on their way to reliable water supplies. 

Dramatic. Mesmerising. Overwhelming. Words soon fail when looking at the vastness of the areas impacted. Soil turned to glass, burial pits, land where there were trees, but now nothing grows, no life, everything blasted into vapour. Warning signs. Danger - don't camp here. Don't make a cooking fire. Death and destruction. Yet, for all of that, I want to go back. See more. Try to understand (though I doubt that will ever be possible) what it is that enables one country to be a doormat and allow its land, people, employees to be nothing more than a disposable commodity, an experiment, to be used and abused without question or apology.

What, if anything, have we learnt about integrity and honest, ethical behaviour, from this ongoing chapter in Australian history?

We only need to read the final sentence from this report in the Australian Institute of Criminology to know the answer:  "One wonders if the interests of a 'handful of natives' might on some future occasion again be deemed subordinate to those of the dominant culture."

Thinking about the closures of Aboriginal Communities currently happening around Australia, about the vilification of whistle blowers, denigration of scientists concerned about our changing climate, the scornful belittling of those who work to protect our environment, the cruel treatment of lawful asylum seekers, it's obvious that our dominant political groups and culture still have a lot of room for positive, wholesome growth, not just in regard to the Traditional Owners of this country, but relating to many other groups as well.  


Further reading:

There's a lot more about the deliberately hidden and devastating costs of the programme here:

Too high a price to pay video with footage from the tests and cleanup:!/media/105376/nuclear-tests-at-maralinga

This link should take you to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and an article about the extreme secrecy, the coverups, Australia's pathetically lax attitude to vast quantities of dangerous tests, and the appalling treatment of the traditional owners of the land. 


British nuclear tests at Maralinga – Fact sheet 129

Maralinga, prohibited area sign on the Emu/Nawa Road (A6457, P042)
Between 1952 and 1963 the British Government, with the agreement and support of the Australian Government, carried out nuclear tests at three sites in Australia – the Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australian coast, and at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia. An official history of the tests (JL Symonds, A History of British Atomic Tests in Australia, AGPS, Canberra) was published by the Department of Resources and Energy in 1985.
Maralinga was developed as the permanent proving ground site, following a request of the British in 1954, and, after its completion in 1956, was the location of all trials conducted in Australia. It was developed as a joint facility with a shared funding arrangement. Following the two major trials (Operation Buffalo in 1956 and Operation Antler in 1957) there were a number of minor trials, assessment tests and experimental programs (dating from 1959) held at the range until 1963. Maralinga was officially closed following a clean-up operation (Operation Brumby) in 1967.