Monday, April 30, 2018

Riding the Rail to Canberra


I travelled by train to Canberra last week to meet our latest family member. Mostly I did it because flying direct to Canberra is ridiculously expensive. Instead, I took a cheap flight to Sydney on which they sometimes have discount fares – aside from the fact that you pay extra for luggage, meals, using a credit card and using the discount website, and then took a train from there. If you own up to being a senior and don’t mind booking ahead, you can get quite generous discounts on that too, though not so much on the underground rail trip between the airport and Central. All up though, it was still about half the cost of a one way ticket to our nation's capital.

The approach to Central Station in Sydney reminds me of those grand station buildings in Russia

Trains have often played a bit part in my life, starting with that all night journey through the Gotthard Tunnel on the way to Australia, to more recent adventures on the Trans Siberian Rail. In between, there were the "red rattlers" or sometimes blue or silver trains of our school days, the eagerly awaited weekly Tea and Sugar Train that serviced outback South Australia and the daily goods train which, dwarfed by the Great Western Tiers looked like a toy in God's model railway. In 1978 I was on the last run of the Tasman Limited  -Tasmania's last passenger train, and how could I ever forget "Wee Georgie Wood's" hiss of steam and cheery whistle on the odd Sunday morning in Tullah, reminding everyone of how important he was in the days, not so long before, before the road was made.

From the moment I booked I was entranced with the idea of travelling this way. Images from glossy brochures for the luxuriously appointed Ghan and the Orient Express came to mind – my train did promise to have a dining car, which I imagined would be full of mysterious and elegant strangers with Fedoras and cigars. Snatches of Arlo Guthrie’s "City of New Orleans" echoed in my brain along with Troy Cassar-Daley’s "Something about Trains."  As Paul Simon observed:
  "There's something about the sound of a train that's very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful."

The station doesn’t disappoint. Its scale and architecture remind me of those grand stations in Russia minus the artwork, but the train turns out to be a modest three carriage affair, with a yawning gap between the platform and the carriage. I should have taken a photo. The seats offer a bit more legroom and the aisles are a bit wider than those on the plane, but my joy at being able to move around is quickly dashed by the announcement that says "Please stay in your seats throughout the journey." There's no smoking allowed either, not even at the stations. Apart from having no seat belt and being able to see more out of the window, you might as well be on a plane.

Interior of the Xplorer is not very different to being on a plane

The train is full. Most passengers are elderly and possibly time rich and cash poor like me. Both coming and going I have grandmothers on my other side who are also on their way to visit their offspring. The buffet car is a little disappointing. Mostly it serves sandwiches, coffee, drinks and snacks from a little counter. There are no exotic strangers propping up the bar or sipping cocktails at low tables and there is a noticeable absence of the “… visiting card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues named like Russian short stories,” mentioned by Paul Theroux, but they do serve a hot meal at lunch time – three choices, including a vegetarian one for under $10. It comes to your tray table in a plastic container with plastic cutlery. So much for that fantasy.

What hasn’t changed is Agatha Christie’s sense of wonder. To be sure air travel may be the quickest way of getting around this vast and largely barren land, but you also miss all the good bits. At last I could see what this part of the world was like on the ground. Gorges flash by, flat agricultural land, thinly treed forests, interspersed with a few towns or a bit of industrial activity. It’s wonderful to see the old stations all a-bustle and hear the rhythmic chugging of the train. It should definitely be set to music, and indeed, often has. The trip took four and a half hours – flying takes about an hour and 15 minutes and though I’d brought a book and a magazine, I never felt like reading. It was a time for looking around, musing about trains and thinking of people and places from my other lives. A much more relaxing way to travel and minus the jetlag.

Watching the countryside flash by
I am wondering now, am I looking at the past or the future? Spanish Company, Talgo, claims its high speed trains could cut travelling time between Sydney and Canberra to two hours, but even that might not be enough to lure people out of their cars. It does seems ridiculous that we don’t even have a train to connect our major cities. Even more so, the tortuous route from Melbourne which takes 16.5 hours, requires you to get off somewhere in the middle and catch a bus between two stations.  Still, we can’t continue driving and flying and polluting at the present rate either, so we should definitely give it some thought.

Older trains do have a future, especially if they return to some of the more romantic traditions of rail travel. Some of us like it s-l-o-w. While smartly uniformed waiters and conductors would be nice, we wouldn't want it to get too expensive. How about some posters or some appropriate music like they have on the Machu Picchu  train? This would distinguish train travel from other kinds of transport – the frenzied car trip dodging trucks, or the brief impersonal flight. I am already thinking about a train trip to the Blue Mountains. Perhaps I'll dress as a visiting card sharp.

Ouch! The train didn't sound as squeaky as this!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Home among the Gumtrees - celebrating Australian Eucalypts

River Gum, Goldfields, Western Australia

Did you know that March 23 was National Eucalyptus Day?  I only just discovered this while looking through the CSIRO children’s pages for holiday activities. When I looked back at the newspapers for the 23rd there was no reference to it, though the ABC did mention it on Australia Day on the 26th of January.

Eucalypts vary greatly in size, their seed capsules, bark and flowers and adult leaves often differ from juvenile ones on the same tree
There’s scarcely been a film about Australia that doesn’t feature a gum tree or two and they also provide the hazy blue or olive -green backdrop to our lives. We take them for granted because of their ubiquity and seldom stop to consider how amazing and diverse they are.

They cover three quarters of Australia’s forest and woodland and have adapted to almost every niche apart from the deserts, from the tropics to the southernmost parts of Tasmania, from sea level to approximately 1300m. They are not very frost tolerant but can endure poor soils and long periods with minimal rainfall. There are 900 known species of which all but six are native to Australia, though they have now been widely planted in many other countries, especially in drier parts of the world such as South Africa, China, India, North and South America and parts of the Mediterranean. I saw more Tasmanian Blue Gum in Chile, than I have seen in Tasmanian forests and it was a beautiful spreading gumtree in Morocco which made me homesick for Australia, after travelling around Europe all those years ago. 

Stately Salmon Gums of Western Australia

Swamp Gums, Valley of the Giants, Tasmania. These will grow to around 78m and are in the Styx Forest Reserve
Eucalypts are now the most common hardwood for building. They are used for making pulp and paper,  or as a fast growing source of firewood. Their oil too has many uses, including making cleansers and disinfectants and for medicinal purposes. Who hasn’t stuck their head under a towel with a steaming bowl of water to which a few drops of eucalyptus oil have been added, when they feel a cold coming on or to clear their sinuses? Ironically, China now produces more eucalyptus oil than Australia does and supplies the bulk of the world’s market.  

Base of one of "The White Knights" at Evercreech in Tasmania's North East. These are our second tallest trees at 91.3 m and are about 300years old

As well as being an attractive ornamental, they also provide a whole range of eco system services such as habitat and shade for other species, lowering water tables and of course, sequestering carbon.  Eucalypts have also been used to drain swamps to prevent malaria in places such as Lebanon, Southern Italy and the Caucasus. However, Like all good things, they do have a couple of drawbacks –namely their tendency to burn too well because of their high oil content, as people in California, Spain and of course Australia have discovered to their cost. They also consume a lot of water - hence their ability to lower water tables and reduce salinity, and they also have a bad habit of dropping tree limbs which do not necessarily endear them to their beneficiaries.  

This River Red Gum - E. Camaldulensis in South Australia weighs in at 61m but is estimated to be over 500 years old
Stringy Bark forest, Victoria

One of the truly remarkable things about eucalypts is their ability to recover after a fire. If the fire isn’t too hot, most are able are able to regenerate by growing new shoots.  Only the Mountain Ash and the Blue Gum need to grow from seed, but these also need fire to make the seed viable. These two trees are among the tallest trees - certainly the tallest hardwoods and flowering plants in the world, with Centurion in the Hartz Mountains at 99.6 metres, being the tallest of them all. 
Snow Gums - E. Paucifolia in the Australian Alps can withstand temperatures as low as -20CF
Western Australia also has it's giants. This is a Tingle Tree  E. Jacksonii, at Walpole
 They are also a very ancient species. The oldest fossil found in Patagonia is around 52 million years old, but genome sequencing shows that they have been around since Gondwana times over 100 million years ago. Although they are great survivors, around 7% are endangered. For this reason, especially as climate change begins to bite, we are urged to plant those species such as Mongarlowe Mallee in gardens to increase their chances of survival. The birds and bees will thank you too. Ask your nursery about species which suit your region and will not grow so tall as to be a nuisance or a danger. 

E. Vernicosa - the Varnished Gum nestles among the rocks in the Hartz Mountains, Tasmania

The Western Australian Swamp Gum. You can see what great survivors they are, but I'm not sure whether they are related to the Tasmanian one or not

The Tasmanian Snow Gum survives amid rocks just below the snow line

I'll apologise in advance for any mislabelled species. Not only do Eucalypts have large numbers of subspecies which find different expression in different places and are called by many different names by locals - the name "Tasmanian Oak" for example, is applied to three different species and a Stringy Bark can be anything with ragged looking bark, but in some cases, only a scientist with a microscope can tell for sure. If you would like to know more try the CSIRO's Euclid pages.

The curious fruit of E. Lehmannii, a native of Western Australia, a medium sized tree, which seems to have acclimatised well in Tasmania

I would love to have included many more pictures and don't have any tropical ones, but I'm sure you get the idea that Eucalypts - (not all of them are gum trees) are very interesting and diverse and yes, we should appreciate them much more. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Two River Rambles – and yes, children, there is something here which you can try at home!

White gums by the North West Bay River

Two more short walks between the showers this week. We are slowly working our way through those walks in the Kingborough Municipality. This time we did the North West Bay River Walk and then the delightfully named Snug River Walk, just past Margate, which also has a River Walk.

Start of the North West Bay River is easy to miss

What is special about both of these walks – and this is the bit where you could get involved no matter where you are, is that much of the work of rehabilitation and tree planting has been done by school children in conjunction with other groups such as Landcare, Coast Care, the Council and others. Are there places near you that look neglected and run down? Do they need trees, places for animals to nest, somewhere for people to rest, or even just rubbish that needs picking up?  Ask permission first and see if any other people or groups want to help and you too can be a friend of Mother Nature.

A typical dry sclerophyll forest

The start of the North West Bay River trail wasn’t all that easy to find. The map showed it as leaving from the Longley Oval near the toilets. We did a full lap of the sportsground before we noticed the sign and the weathered grey vehicle or animal barrier near the entrance.  After that, the track  -though not the “wide gravel path” we were led to expect, was fairly easy to follow through bushland and down to the river with some lovely white gums on the way. At its end there are cliffs like those along Allen's Rivulet and it has shallow rocky pools where platypi are sometimes seen. Despite all the rain, there wasn’t much water flowing, -perhaps because some is abstracted for urban water supplies, and we didn’t see any platypi. Though peaceful and serene now, you can imagine that in warmer and wetter times or when the icecaps melted, a mighty river would have roared through, seeking out weak spots and plucking out boulders as it carved its way to the sea. 

Cliffs similar to those seen at Allen's Rivulet last week
The sign for the Snug River Walk was also hard to spot, especially when coming from the north. It’s on the left just over the bridge and opposite the school, shortly before Kettering. If the North West Bay River Trail is more of a wild walk – you could hear lots of birds, the Snug River Walk calmly wends its way through lots of trees and shrubs, marsupial lawns and low marshes where there were ducks and native hens. It opens onto a small, family friendly beach with picnic tables and some lovely views across wide expanses of water. On a good day, according to the signage, you might also see sea eagles or fairy penguins here, but we only saw children launching sailboats and dinghies. I suppose that’s a form of wildlife too. 

This is a very different type of walk - level, grassy, with ducks to feed and lots of native hens

Not sure if this an early wattle or a very late one, but the scent was divine
This walk comes out on the coast

Rather than go back the way we had come, we crossed the enticing footbridge over the river and then took a rough track on the left. This brought us into former company town Electrona and from there we took the old road back to the car - much better than being buzzed by traffic on the Channel Highway, and ended up having our coffee in the picnic area on the other side of the road. Here too school children have done much planting with emphasis on native species, so that the animals would have a corridor along which they can move. Alas, it didn’t work for one poor wallaby which was lying dead beside the road on the far side of the bridge. Nevertheless, local people and especially the children of Snug Primary School, can be very proud of what they have achieved – for both wildlife and their community.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Can rising inequality be halted and why should we care?

A smiling and thoughtful Professor Stephen Bell talks about the new book he has co - written with Dr Michael Keating

On Saturday, thanks to my walking buddy, I had the good fortune to meet Professor Stephen Bell. Professor Bell is head of the University of Queensland’s School of Political Science and International Studies.  Together with Dr Michael Keating, who has headed three Government departments, including most recently the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, he has just released a new book “ Fair Share –-competing claims and Australia’s economic future,” which looks at rising inequality in Australia and what we can or should do about it.

The book explains that like most Western economies, we too are facing growing inequality with declining living standards for many – or at least no improvement, as well as slow economic growth and structural unemployment. While technological change, globalisation and “finacialisation,” low wages and low taxes have been identified as the major culprits, it is also apparent that these are unlikely to go away at any time soon, resulting in greater inequality, financial instability and social upheaval if we blindly continue on our present trajectory. If that sounds pretty depressing, fear not. 

As the authors say, such outcomes are not inevitable if we pause NOW and make conscious decisions about the kind of future we want for ourselves and our children. 

Although I must confess to not having read the book yet, there have been some interesting discussions. See for example, the address by ex -PM Paul Keating (no relation to co –author of the book Dr Michael Keating, by the way, in case you were wondering) at the book's launch at the University of Queensland:

The ANU address by John Hewson  at the Canberra launch, which includes interviews with both authors is also worth hearing and it's good to see politicians, past and present, from both sides of the political divide showing interest in this important issue. Looking forward to reading the authors' views on how we might find our way out of the Hobbesian wilderness before life becomes too  "brutal, nasty and short" for too many.

Meanwhile, the Institute for the Study of Social Change is hosting a Free Public Forum in Hobart at the Peacock Theatre on May 1 with Professor Stephen Bell and other guests. This event is free, but you will need to book

Can’t make it? No problem. Watch out for similar events near you or listen to Michelle Grattan’s interview with Dr Michael Keating.(Don't worry, this one is short!)
or better still, get the book  $59.99, from Melbourne University Press.