Friday, September 25, 2015

Magnetic Island: Sunshine, Sand and Solar Energy

After travelling through the outback, it’s been really great to finally hit the coast and see a bit of blue and green. We’ve took the ferry to Magnetic Island for a couple of days of camping and enjoyed the laid back feel of the island and the great opportunities for a swim in the warm waters and a bit of snorkelling. More than 85% of all Australians live within 50km of the coast!  I may be biased but I think Australia’s has some of the world’s best beaches…and many of them are completely deserted!


We also discovered that Magnetic Island was one of seven locations across Australia that is being transformed into a ‘solar city’ as part of the Australian Government’s Solar Cities program. I read that the Government is investing $94 million in the Solar Cities program with the intention of transforming the way we think and use energy. We were amazed to discover this innovative skate park project that advertises the fact that it is not just a play station…it is a power station!  The 100KW system on the roof of this skate park was designed with a lot of community consultation and peak demand on the island is now lower than 2007 levels. The project has been a great result for the community and a wonderful example of integrating passive and active recreation with energy production.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Barkly Highway: Droughts, Dinosaurs & the Inland Sea

In the last week, we have travelled east from Three Ways Junction (just north of the Devil’s Marbles) to Charter’s Towers on the Barkly Highway. It has been a journey of discovery for both of us. The highlights have included camping at Porcupine Gorge, discovering Australia’s Dinosaur trail via Richmond and Hughendon where marine and terrestrial dinosaurs once roamed, learning a little more about our inland sea, and visiting my friend Megs, at Charter’s Towers.

Many of the areas along the Barkly Highway have been in drought for 3 years. If you live along the coasts of Australia, it is hard to comprehend what 3 years of drought can do to a landscape. Cattle stations, some of which might be the size of a small European country have been abandoned. Many people have committed suicide because they are unable to service the huge debts that have accumulated. So, it is quite ironic that the secrets that are being unearthed around these parts and the amazing geological formations to be found here are all caused by a great inland sea that covered much of Australia.

We are really amazed to learn that thousands of dinosaur fossils have been discovered in these parts and that many fossils still lie buried here. In Richmond, we marvel at the Pliosaur, a carnivorous, marine reptile that has been unearthed by a local grazier, in the late 80’s.  It was perfectly preserved and the best example of such a specimen in the world, and yet it lies tucked away in this little museum in Richmond, with many travellers only learning about its existence when they travel this highway.

It’s hard to imagine that species as dominant and widespread as the dinosaurs could eventually become extinct and the museum discusses the possible causes of extinction. They argue that a single
event such as a meteor hitting the earth is unlikely to be the sole reason. Other events such as the rise of flowering plants and insects would have reduced the diet of the plant eaters, causing a fall in their population and therefore reducing available food for meat eaters. Volcanic eruptions may also have warmed the planet causing changes in sea levels and consequent changes in local climates as was the case in central Australia. We are both quite amazed to see the map indicating the extent of the inland sea and we wonder if it is too far fetched to imagine a new inland sea if sea levels rise again.

Curious about this, I’ve asked Dr Google for the answer. According to maps published by National Geographic and an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia will get an inland sea if global warming continues and melts the world's ice caps and glaciers, lifting sea levels about 70 metres. This could take about 5,000 years and according to Dr Neville Nicholls, a climate expert at Monash University, scientists have known for decades that the upper end of sea-level rises from melting ice would be around the 70 metre mark. Of course for those of us living in places like Sydney, it is the first metre that’s predicted for the end of this century that is a worry!

Charter’s Towers is the last major town on the Barkly Highway, before we hit the coast. I’m excited to catch up with my friend Megs, who I first met 5 years ago when we both volunteered on a Conservation & Photography project in South Africa and shared a room for 4 weeks. We haven’t met since. We spend a day with Megs and Mick (see last 5 photos) on their lovely heritage home at Charters and Megs takes us to Dalrymple Park, where we both have fun with our telephoto lenses.

It’s almost time to hit the coast and head back to Sydney for our various commitments in October. We’ve learnt lots driving the Barkly Highway and wander why it’s treasures are not more widely talked about.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sacred Landscape or Massive Monolith?

For many non-indigenous Australians, Ayers Rock is just a massive monolith in the middle of the Australian continent that is begging to be conquered and photographed. To the local Pitjantjatjara people, Uluru is a sacred place with great spiritual significance.  For thousands of years, they conducted both men’s and women’s ceremonies here. With the discovery of the rock by Europeans, this tradition was tragically impacted. We literally trampled all over a sacred landscape.
We renamed it Ayers Rock and we proceeded to climb it and photograph it with little or no respect for the wishes of the traditional custodians who had considered this to be a sacred site for thousands of years.

Today, more than half the native mammal species that lived around this area are locally extinct and many alien species have suppressed the native grasses. Within a short span of time, we have managed to destroy a landscape that sustained indigenous people for thousands of years.

People of both cultures are now managing the park and I wonder is it possible for the two traditions to co-exist?  I want to believe the answer is yes. We are a lot more enlightened than we were 200 years ago, but we have destroyed their way of life and have insisted for many years that there is only one way to live.

So, we gave them the dole, we built them houses and wondered why they didn’t aspire to a 40 hour working week and a life of debt that will enslave you for 30 years or more. Perhaps it is because they know better. If you have come from a culture that only worked about 4 hours a day to provide for your basic needs, then why would you aspire to be locked up in an office for the better part of the day?

I often wonder if the lack of respect in western cultures for the natural environment is because most urbanised people have lost their connection to the land. They see the environment, as something outside of their existence and find this idea of connection foreign.

While at the park visitors’ centre we watched a video, depicting an indigenous person’s perspective of how westerners behave. The video says that the ‘white fellas’ are like ants. They all come together to the rock, then run around taking photographs and climbing to the top. At sunrise and sunset we
congregate at the same spots, then minutes after the sun has risen or set we disperse. There are a lot of trigger happy tourists but hardly any contemplation to discover the spirit of this incredible place.

While we think of indigenous people as nomadic, I am surprised to learn they only travelled within the boundaries of their ‘country’. They were responsible for managing the land and were entitled to its bounty including the animals that existed in it. The waterholes were a key part of their life. They travelled from one to another, learning or teaching the dreamtime stories, but only within the bounds of their own country. They hunted at the waterholes very cautiously; only taking the last animal, so as to not spook the rest of the herd and often digging a little well some distance away to avoid leaving their scent at the waterhole.

I am begging to understand why the rock is sacred. It was life giving. So they ‘worshipped’ the land that provided for them and some of these practices were gender specific and taboo if you were of the opposite gender. Hence the restrictions on taking photos as they have no wish to inadvertently see places that are off limits. I read that the Anangu’s request to refrain from climbing the rock comes from their desire to keep all visitors safe but also because the path crosses a sacred traditional Dreamtime track.

The ‘white fellas’ are slowly learning to respect this sacred landscape and to learn to connect with nature rather than to conquer it.


I believe the rock is a sacred landscape. What about you?


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Indigenous Australia: Oral Traditions & The Joy of Singing

Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for more than 40,000 years but most people in Australia have never met an indigenous person.  Certainly most Australians would not count an indigenous person as their friend. So we count ourselves lucky to be in Alice Springs during the Desert Song Festival to hear the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir sing. The choir have just returned from a successful tour of Germany and it was a privilege to hear them sing.  The singing is complemented by a documentary video that plays on the screen behind them, giving us an insight into a story of over 100 years of choral heritage and practice in remote Central Australian Aboriginal communities. 

They sing in Arrarnta, Pitjantjatjara, Zulu and English. I recognise some of the hymns from the days of my childhood and learn that through their oral tradition these women have preserved hymns that are no longer sung by the Lutherans in Germany who first brought it to the German mission at Hermmansburg in the late 1800s.

Earlier in the week we had visited the Hermmansburg mission and learnt a little more about the turbulent history of the European invasion, 200 years ago.  When the pastoralist came to the centre, they brought with them their livestock and their way of life. Unable to converse with the indigenous population and with little knowledge of the Australian bush, they trampled through waterholes and over time unwittingly destroyed the bush foods and water sources that had enabled the aboriginals to survive sustainably for over 40,000 years. The indigenous people finding their way of life being destroyed started to kill and eat the livestock. Their cultural rules dictated that they were entitled to anything on their land. In the ‘white fellas’ world this was stealing. Hence, began a horrendous time of conflict in Australian history, with many aboriginal people losing their lives and ending up in chains.

The Hermmansburg mission provided a safe haven from the turbulent world outside. Two Lutheran missionaries established it as a mission in 1877, but it was in 1891 when Pastor Carl Strehlow arrived that the connections strengthened. He learnt the local Western Arrernte language and is credited with translating the Bible into this language.  The women learnt to sing the hymns in Arrernte and found little conflict between the Christian message of loving their neighbours and living simply.

After all this is actually what they had been practicing for over 40,000 years…

However, life in the mission was very different to the cultural traditions they had practiced for generations. Their kids were suddenly required to go to school, learn the alphabet. For years, these kids had learnt their lessons in the great outdoors. The lessons were all aimed at teaching them the survival skills. Dreamtime stories taught them their moral values and were associated with a specific place, where the landscape provided the clues to these stories. You moved to a new place to learn the rest of the story and as you moved, you also learnt to navigate. There were stories specific to gender and rituals associated with initiation. They had to give up their love to go walkabout and sit in rows in a classroom. Their diet changed. They could no longer pick the berries from the trees but rather were required to queue for their rations.

As I wander through the water holes and splendid landscapes of Central Australia, I can only imagine the sadness of living through those times. To see your life of living freely in the great outdoors completely destroyed. To be conquered by a people who wanted to teach you their religion but had no idea of what it meant to be spiritually connected to the land.

But it was worse.  At Hermmansburg we are introduced to the concept of the double negative. 

Two hundred years ago, we didn’t just destroy their way of life, we taught them that it was wrong and asked that they conform to the rules of western civilisation. We asked them to give up their life of freedom and learn their lessons, so they could get a job, and earn money to buy food.  Food that had once been freely available for the picking. As we are faced with the realities of climate change, ravaging bush fires, and the invasion of species such as buffel grass, we have begun to realise that the indigenous people actually knew a thing or two about managing their environment and we now ask them to go back to the way of life they abandoned.

This is the tragedy of the double negative.

Unfortunately, in some instances we have damaged the environment beyond repair. Things can never be the way they were before the European invasion. I see in their faces the despondency and sadness of the blow that the 'white fellas' dealt them. Finally, as a nation, we have at least said ‘SORRY’. But words alone cannot right the wrongs that have been done. Today, their communities are torn apart by many issues fuelled by alcohol and drugs. We have thrown money at these communities to assuage our guilt at what happened but giving them the dole has only compounded the problem.

What most Australians are probably unaware of is that indigenous Australians are trying to return to the way of life they once knew. Now about a third of the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory live in Homelands. They have been established so the indigenous population can maintain connection with their traditional, ancestral land. These communities have lower levels of social problems and significantly better health outcomes. They are happier and healthier.  However, once again they might be hard done by. When our current government talks about cutting funding to   As citizens of this country, it is our duty to be informed about the real issues that confront us all. It is our duty to choose leaders who will do right by all of us who call this beautiful land home. 
remote aboriginal communities, it is a code for homelands.

As more and more Australians demand we close our borders to refugees, we seem oblivious to the fact that our European Ancestors created a refugee crisis in the people who had called this land home for 40,000 years! 

The concert is over and the choir is singing Waltzing Matilda in Arrernte.  There is poignancy in the music that draws tears. I think our journey of creating decentralised communities will bring us back to Alice next winter.


Xanthan: Of Black Cockatoos, Guitars & a Life of Searching

Xanthan came up to Alice Springs about 2 ½ years ago, with his guitar and all his worldly possessions packed in his beloved1972 Belmont Holden. He felt drawn to discover the heart of Australia and took the risk of following his dreams. He quit a great teaching job in Victoria, gave away or sold most of what he owned and followed this tug to his heartstrings, unsure of what he would find or where this road would lead him.

We met Xanthan over dinner at Keith & Stella’s property in Honeymoon Gap, our base for our time in Alice Springs. Over shared meals, a trip to Hermmansburg and spontaneous chats on the property, we hear his unusual story. It is another story of a person who has had the courage to discover who he is and to follow his dreams.  This dream has led him to Alice and ultimately to Honeymoon Gap where our paths have crossed.

Xanthan has spent most of his life in Victoria and after graduating from university he got a coveted teaching post in inner city Melbourne. After a year, the travel bug bit, and much to people’s surprise, he walked away from his job, to drive up the East Coast of Australia. It was later on in life, when he was on his way to Broome that he met the girl from Ireland he thought would be his life’s partner.  Xanthan had been on the road for more than two years but never quite got to Broome.  Instead he found himself in Dublin. After living there for a while, they returned to Australia but eventually parted ways. 

It was one of those moments that made him reassess his life and would eventually redefine who he was.

Xanthan found it very difficult to cope with the breakup.  Those of us who have grappled with separating from a life partner would understand his struggle. Already familiar with the Grampians, Xanthan decided to spend 40 days camped in the wilderness to deal with his grief and to connect with nature. It was a time filled with wild dreams from which he would wake up in the early hours of the morning to diligently record them in the notebooks he had brought with him.  Having no one around to speak with, he was alone with his own thoughts. It was an emotional time but also a time of healing. He felt completely connected with the world around him and he let the bush envelope him.  It absorbed his tears and his laughter. Xanthan was beginning to understand who he was and to discover his destiny. The time in the wilderness had also revealed to him his totem—the Black Cockatoo.

Coming back to reality from this time alone with his thoughts required a certain adaptation. It led to deep conversations with his mum and dad, as Xanthan grappled with trying to put into words the spiritual awakening he had been through, and to explain that from now he would be known as Xanthan Black Cockatoo. 

It was after his 40 days in the Grampians that Xanthan came to the realisation that he needed to travel to Alice Springs. He arrived in the Centre with no address or fixed plans. He felt confident he could find work as a teacher but he had nowhere to stay, so the caravan park in town was where he put his swag down for 3 weeks. It was while signing up at the library that a lady noticed his unusual name, and suggested he go up to Honeymoon Gap to check out the black cockatoos. He was hiking on Keith’s property in search of black cockatoos when the two first met. Xanthan apologised for trespassing but Keith said he was welcome to hike there anytime. Xanthan felt incredibly drawn to this place, as if he had found his new home. Another chance meeting at the library with a friend from his hometown who happened to be camping at Keith’s led him back to a party at the property. Over drinks, Keith heard Xanthan’s story and invited him to move in to a small hut on the property.

It has been an unusual series of events that ultimately led Xanthan to finding his new home. He now lives in a ‘tiny house’ at Honeymoon Gap, helping out with chores around the place and feeling like part of this community. After a year of teaching and other jobs, he now works at the library. His guitar has also helped forge new connections in Alice. He lives a stress free life, feels loved and at home in this new community that he found through following his heart and through searching for the black cockatoos.

Discovering his totem has led him to unravelling part of his destiny. At the end of each day, Xanthan hears the call of the Black Cockatoos, as they come in to roost in the riverbed nearby.  He is writing a detailed account of his story and I can’t wait to read it!