Friday, December 09, 2005


Knobbly grey-barked gums

Given that this blog is meant to be, at least in part, a record of my experiences here in the land of the headless politician, herein lies my summary of the trip we took up to Brisbane and back for the ESA conference.

We drove up via the New England highway, which runs inland past the Hunter Valley, Armidale and sundry rural centres. Some of which are definitely taking their time on the 21st Century... Non-withstanding that, I like the New England Highway. For a start, it's much less busy than the twit-infested Pacific Highway that runs up the coast. The road itself is more like a New Zealand highway, mostly only two lanes, occasionally hilly and with the odd corner (not many, though, this is Australia and people might get scared).

It's a very scenic route, in a farm-country kind of a way. Grey-barked gums with wonderfully knobby, crooked branches that come in close to the road. The bedrock protrudes out of the side of falling-away hills, and sometimes just in the middle of fields. Even when it's green, there is a very Australian feeling of weatheredness about it, offset by the ubiquitous Australasian grazing country things like wire fences and bloody pine trees (just because they remind me of home, doesn't mean I have to like them). In keeping with that kind of plains country, we also got a bit of lightning and rain. Fortunately the heavy bits of that were overnight, while we were trying to sleep under a tin roof in Armidale.

The New England Highway is also home to Tamworth, which is home of the Country Music Festival and a motel with a "world famous guitar shaped pool". Let it be said that we did not stop to examine the veracity of the second half of that claim. Further north there is the bustling metropolis of Tenterfield, where they've heard of coffee but apparently can't be having with the whole idea of being able to taste it.

The New England highway cuts back into the back of Brisbane from the rather surprising maximum altitude of just over 1000 metres. I must be said that for such a flat country, Australia does manage to concentrate all its slope into fairly small patches -- mostly along the east coast. The drop down to Brisbane-level is pretty sudden, and if you get stuck behind a truck full of incontinent cows it pays to be positive at the first passing lane. Of course the rain came back on for that bit. Cities where it doesn't rain for months at a time have poor drainage on their roads. At least the shiny four-wheel-drive brigade got to feel manly (possibly womanly too) as they charged through axle-deep puddles that the rest of us had the sense to skirt.

Brisbane itself was rather nicer than I remembered it. Full of Queenslanders of course, who are by definition as mad as meat axes. Must be the heat... December to February I would rather be elsewhere!

The conference itself was good. The opening plenaries were all on climate change. There seems to be an avalanche of rather disturbing evidence coming in. Even for someone (me) with a fairly low threshold for environmental hysterics, it really does look as if your head would have to be well and truly in the sand to try and claim that climate change wasn't real and immediate. Don't buy waterfront property, is all I can say. I went to another interesting talk related to this. The speaker was saying that it's actually very hard to predict if places will get wetter or drier with increases in temperature, and barring other changes in weather patterns there's no reason to assume that hotter = drier. Hot air can cause more evaporation, but it can also hold more water. Some long-term records show a decrease in evaporation, even with increasing temperatures. Of course the popular media love the idea of creeping deserts, evidence or not.

Back down was via the coast road, for a few reasons (mostly a need for one of us to do half an hour's specimen collecting at Broken Head). That would be a nice drive too, were it a whole lot less busy. It's much more built up, but there is still a lot of bush around, with much taller, straighter, closer-together trees. Presumably this is down to the joys of trying to propose controlled burns along main highways. I'm going to have to get back into a completely different way of thinking about disturbance regimes when I get back to New Zealand! Whadaya mean, no fires?! We found a rather good and incongruous Mexican restaurant in Wilgoolga, just north of Coffs Harbour.

Getting back into Sydney is always a bit of an emotional challenge, not least because some sizeable proportion of the population always seems to be southbound on the freeway coming in, all following too close and refusing to maintain a steady speed. I think Sydney's ridiculous sprawl and drab urban ambience is spoiling me for other cities -- I was still wondering when Brisbane was going to start when we were about 5km from the city centre.

As always when I do a long trip in our car, I was blown away by how well it coped with the whole thing. Four adults and all their gear on board, and it still rode like a Rolls Royce, handled like it was on rails and got over 30 miles per gallon. Go Citroen! Thirty-one years old and still purring like a kitten and happy to run for hours at 100-odd km/h (passing many newer and more pretentious cars dead on the side of the road as soon as the weather got hot, ho ho ho -- the Australian school of car maintenance strikes again).

In general, I don't understand why most Aussies immediately think of flying when they want to travel long-distance. The driving is generally pretty easy, and this is a spectacular country to travel in, not least because the native flora and fauna is still very much alive and kicking, getting on the road and dropping branches in campsites. I could partly blame it on the aforementioned Australian school of car maintenance, but that's rather a chicken-and-egg suggestion. Then again, lots of people my age from all over the world have seen more of other continents than they have of their own country. Very shortly I will have seen more non-urban Australia than most Australians. I'm looking forward to it.

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