footloose and fancy free in oz

A bloke, his better half, and a 4WD truck, in the wild blue yonder of the red continent


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In the back of beyond – mines galore and a surprise festival

The nights had been on the frigid end of cool for quite a while now. We’d become used to needing a duvet (sorry, that’s a doona over here) and a wool blanket to keep us toasty warm in bed. But once the mornings became downright frosty and the maximum daytime temperature refused to rise above the teens, our enthusiasm for the Gemfields waned. Oh, I know we’re a fickle lot. All the same, it was time to leave when the thought of mulled wine crossed my mind instead of a gin & tonic type ‘sundowner’.

The sublime irony was that we’d just entered the Tropic of Capricorn.” Tropic, my arse” I said because it sure didn’t feel like the balmy tropical climate I had in mind! I should point out though, that a cold snap has been following us around for a bit. For the past few weeks, we’ve heard quite a few weather reporters share their surprise about temperatures in excess of 5 degrees below average.
Aaargh, where’s global warming when you need it?!

So we made our way north from the Gemfields, to Clermont and onto Mackay into what we hoped was a more benign tropical climate region. The route took us through vast swathes of evidently fertile land, all of it intensively farmed. Large scale monoculture wherever you looked.

1 Sunflower

Hectares of sunflower fields may look picturesque but this picture does little for a proponent of sustainable farming practices. And sustainability was very much the phrase du jour on this leg of our journey, and it was not prompted by agriculture but rather the plentiful road signs that pointed to various mines.

One time we camped on farmland, near a mine (true to form right next to the “keep out” sign). And while the railway line was adjacent, we figured there couldn’t be “that many” coal trains running, especially during the night. Given the opportunity I’d showed my commitment to statistics by counting the number of wagons. Well, the tally was respectable; always between 104 and 124 wagons pulled by 4, sometimes 5 engines. That’s one heck of a lot of coal. And as it turned out, they have a busy night shift too, because the trains never stopped.

One of many oversized mining transports we encountered..Given the width of our vehicle, we were grateful when there was actually room to pull off the road.

One of many oversized mining transports we encountered..Given the width of our vehicle, we were grateful when there was actually room to pull off the road.

Frack this

We were of course in the Bowen Basin – a major coal producing region; in fact, one of the world’s largest deposits of bituminous coal. As of last count there are 48 coal mining operations underway (plus around 50 or so in various stages of development including 12 coal seam gas projects). For visitors to the region, this fact is impossible to ignore and not just because of all the signposts. Visible reminders are practically everywhere. The road traffic is noticeably hectic and, at a guesstimate 95% mining related, trains laden with coal headed for the coast, roadside billboards geared for mining services/products, and it would be nigh on impossible to find yourself in a spot where you don’t see a mine somewhere on the horizon. More than likely you’ll see at least a couple somewhere in the distance. And where a coal mine is close to the highway, you’ll be left aghast as you drive past massive mountains of overburden that dwarf the gigantic mining equipment and infrastructure.

Not sure there is wide angle lens that could capture the mountains of overburden on this mine

Not sure there is wide angle lens that could capture the mountains of overburden on this mine

I’ve spent a fair bit of my professional life involved in the corporate aspects of projects such as these and over the years countless photos of mining operations have come across my desk, yet somehow I managed to be unprepared for the grotesque enormity of it all. I clearly failed to contextualise it.

It wasn’t just that I was flabbergasted by the sheer number of mines or the vastness of their operations (we didn’t actually manage to get onto a mine visitor’s tour but the ‘mountain chains’ of overburden were often a giveaway as to the size of the open cast mine beyond it) it was more about coming face to face with the brutal dominance of this industry sector. It’s about as subtle as a ‘romantic’ encounter in Cell Block A, if you get my drift.

4 Mining country next to Railway

Of course it’s not just coal that’s being mined in the Bowen Basin, there are also several major coal seam gas (CSG) projects in the area and many more are underway. And CSG is mined by way of fracking, yes, that’s the controversial process that is widely opposed due to grave environmental concerns, not least the pollution of the water table. Given the vital importance of the Great Artesian Basin and the fertility of the farmland that relies on it, it beggars belief that fracking is deemed an appropriate process. At best, it strikes me as a bizarre game of Russian Roulette. Of course it doesn’t bear thinking about the consequences if, or indeed when, it all goes pear shaped.  It’s easy to see who will bear the ultimate cost. The standard economic model works extremely well for risk takers; profits are privatised while losses are socialised. It goes some way to explain why things have gotten rather messy.

I’ll hasten to admit that the mining industry is a huge employer and they pay big bucks. Various employment creation numbers are being thrown around, all of them gobsmackingly huge. Depending on who you believe, there are around 30,000 new jobs being created in this region in the next six years (while its population is just over 40,000). I daresay the social ramifications are likely equally huge and not always on the positive side of the ledger.

On a side note – for some reason we haven’t come across a “Lock The Gate” sign for some time now. In NSW and South Queensland they were practically on every rural corner. Here, by contrast, they are most conspicuous by their absence.

As you may imagine, we were no longer discussing the vagaries of tropical climes by time we arrived on the coast.

The not so slow boat to China

We made a beeline for Point Hay where much of the coal gets loaded and shipped from. Yes, it’s a geeky thing to want to look at; but regardless of one’s opinion about the resource industry, it truly is an extraordinary piece of infrastructure which goes some way to putting the coal mining operations into perspective.

It’s actually one of the largest coal exporting facilities in the world and until you look at it from the elevated public vantage point, it’s hard to conceive of the size. It simply blows your mind.

Point Hay coal exporting facility (or what I could fit into the photo) To get an idea of the scale: the wharf on the left is 3.8 km long!

Point Hay coal exporting facility (or what I could fit into the photo) To get an idea of the scale: the wharf on the left is 3.8 km long!

Helpfully, the port folks have installed a telescope so visitors can get an even better appreciation of the port operations. Suffice to say it all seems to run like a clockwork on a giant scale. Trains deliver coal from the Bowen Basin coal mines. It is then stacked into various stockpiles, from where it’s loaded onto conveyors that transport it onto the massive loading wharves (one of which extends 3.8km out to sea), where bulk carriers get their bellies filled.

Here’s a statistical snapshot of the day we were there: we counted 36 bulk carriers on the horizon. Each one accommodates on average about 15 trains’ worth of coal. It takes a moment to let that sink in.

The port operation in details. If you look closely (click on photo to enlarge) you'll see a train on the right hand side

The port operation in details. If you look closely (click on photo to enlarge) you’ll see a train on the right hand side

As expected, we were amazed about the size and scale. It’s just so frigging bloody huge. The photos don’t do it justice by any stretch of the imagination.

After reading some of the port stats (i.e. trains offload approx. 10,000 tonnes each; annual port capacity being 130 million tonnes) my calculator duly confirmed what we already discovered when we camped near the coal train line, namely that some 1.5 trains per hour deliver coal to the port.

There you go – I checked it all out. They seem to be telling the truth!

At any rate, the picture is ingrained in my brain as an apt depiction of The Machine at large. To me, it perfectly illustrates what it takes to feed the ravenous, incessant and credit fuelled appetite of the global consumer, which in itself is of course just as unsustainable as the very industries that fuel it.

Having a boogie in the bush

Both the bloke and I like to think we’re lucky people because the universe frequently rewards us with memorable surprises that fall under the good fortune category.

The day we drove out of Mackay was one of those days. We had camped on the edge of town in a sugarcane field (because you can’t knock anything until you’ve experienced it, ok). Next day we set off towards Proserpine and Airlie Beach. Along the way we stopped to refuel at a cute little petrol station where the bloke spotted a poster for a three day music and arts festival. It sounded right up our alley, but was unfortunately finishing that day, and besides didn’t give a precise location so we wouldn’t have found it anyway. We agreed it was a bummer, and that was that.

I rarely give driving instructions – that’s what blokes do, right? –  but on this day I broke the rule and asked the bloke to pull over onto a gravel road just ahead, to let a convoy of army trucks pass us. He duly complied and spotted a sign pointing to said festival – up the dirt road.

We just grinned and followed the sign à la Alice in Wonderland. And much like Alice, we ended up in a wondrous world. The festival grounds were on the edge of a state forest, in the tropical park-like grounds of a stunning private property amid palm groves and a pristine river with swimming hole, next to which we camped.

Lush festival grounds

Lush festival grounds

The festival was still in full swing with market stalls, pumping electronic grooves and the lovely vibe that goes with this scene. Within minutes we were amongst it and made up for the last couple of months where the only parties we attended were spontaneous ones in our truck.

It was such a wonderful surprise  – one minute we were driving some place, the next minute we were on lovingly constructed festival grounds, dancing with like-minded revellers. Life doesn’t get much better than that!

Awesome camping spot next to the river

Awesome camping spot next to the river

The party didn’t finish until relatively late that night and because the spot was so nice, we stayed another night and took the opportunity to chat with people involved in the festival organisation. We heard that they were trying to re-establish music and arts festivals in this region and deal with what had become a rough neighbourhood. “What rough neighbourhood, this looks idyllic?” I asked.  It turns out that guys from the mines are notorious, they’re “really bad news” and have all but ruined peaceful festivals with their aggressive behaviour, reportedly the result of methamphetamines or amphetamines and steroids along with excessive alcohol. Apparently a bunch of them were evicted from the festival on the first day.

Having recently listened to an ABC report about the uncontrollable and growing use of methamphetamines among mine workers, we weren’t too surprised, but saddened all the same. I suppose a remote working environment that is highly testosterone laden, coupled with very high incomes, can be a breeding ground for undesirable behaviour. This is perhaps a lot more common than one might think, and will perhaps be measured in some sort of ‘social impact’ statistics one day. Maybe.

Anyway, we’d rather not dwell on it and prefer to remember the fun times we had dancing our legs off, when Lady Luck smiled on us

And then there was a kind offer to put some colourful art onto our truck  ...

And then there was a kind offer to put some colourful art onto our truck …


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Bundy, Sapphire, and other gems

We set off in late  Jan/Feb when Bundaberg bore the brunt of the 2013 Queensland floods. At the time we witnessed the destruction via non-stop media coverage. At the time we realised that it was difficult to get an idea of the scale of the flood damage and we knew that our impending visit en route north would make it much more tangible. Well, having just visited ‘Bundy’, we got an inkling of what it must have been like for the people there. The magnitude of the floods is simply incomprehensible.

We caught up and stayed with friends, Jim and Jen, who did an awesome job of being our personal tour guides – they showed us the flood ravaged areas along with the beautiful historic centre of town, and picture-postcard-perfect seaside suburbs and beaches.

Having spent six years travelling around Australia in their caravan, they’re quite an inspiration and obviously share our enthusiasm for the roaming lifestyle. Needless to say, we picked up various tips for life on the road. Among the tips was an alternative route to the Gemfields where we were headed next. We took their advice and were rewarded with lovely back-country roads and tremendous scenery on the route via Gin Gin, Monto and Springvale, towards Emerald.

P1070536

As an area rich in mineral resources (like much of Australia), the beautiful landscape is also dotted with fairly intense mining activity. While it’s an inherent aspect of the nation’s wealth, it’s also blindingly obvious that the mining industry is a blot on the landscape, to put it bluntly.

All the same, it felt good to be moving away from the more populated coastal areas and into the vastness that skirts the Queensland Outback.

The night-time temperatures, however, reminded us of more of chilly NZ climes, with the mercury almost reaching freezing point. The duvet sure came in handy, as did hot showers. (I probably shouldn’t mention that we hadn’t as yet used our hot water system, for entirely unfathomable reasons. Rest assured I’m making up for it now!)

You know you're in the backcountry when you encounter drovers instead of drivers. This gang  took 500 head of cattle on a 5 day drove.

You know you’re in the back country when you encounter drovers instead of drivers. This gang took 500 head of cattle on a 5 day drove.

Weird, wonderful and bizarre encounters in the Gemfields

Road Sign

With names like Rubyvale, Emerald and Sapphire, there’s little left to the imagination as to what might be hiding under the soil. The so-called Gemfields near Emerald are in fact world-renowned as the biggest and richest sapphire deposit in the southern hemisphere. And while the area has been extensively mined, both commercially and by hand, there are still a few small commercial operators in the area, as well as an abundance of private individuals who own mining claims and spend countless weeks, months and years digging for the highly desirable yet somewhat elusive colourful stones. Many were lured by the prospect of finding “the big one”, and the local gem history has ample evidence of amazing finds, including a 733 carat (that’s about the size of a plum!) super rare black sapphire. It’s known as The Black Star of Queensland and is incidentally for sale, if you’re interested. Bear in mind though, that you need in the vicinity of $100 million to call it your own. More recently, a 220 carat yellow sapphire was found by a couple who’d come here for a two week fossicking holiday. As you’d expect, there are also heaps of stories about individuals that made vast fortunes here, often arriving with little more than a wheelbarrow and a pick.

Washing Machine

A typical innovative installation for washing and sorting the gem bearing ‘wash’. as seen on one of the mining tenements. This one includes a series of old bath tubs.

 

It’s easy to see why folks get hooked. We’ve met a fair few people who only came up here for a spot of fossicking and basically never left. Mind you, if you think you’ve just finally found a “get rich quick scheme” you’d better reconsider. It pays to bear in mind that in several instances a part-time job is needed to help pay the bills.

Having been into underground mine shafts (not advisable if you’re even remotely claustrophobic, or don’t like being up close and personal with the local microbat population), and having chatted with private mining claim owners, and casual fossickers alike, we soon got an appreciation for what’s involved, and what it takes.

One of the tidier tenements. Here the miner is inspecting a find for clarity and quality.

One of the tidier tenements. Here the miner is inspecting a find for clarity and quality.

As an aside, we must have had romantic notions of what the Gemfields would look like, because one of the most startling surprises was the hotch-potch look of the many tenements. They typically comprise a 30×30 metre claim site where the mining work is done – up to 20 metres underground or in shallow pits – with an array of innovative hand tools, many of which look like they’ve been adapted from junkyard pieces. When you add the temporary accommodation often comprising old caravans and/or tin sheds (because permanent dwellings attract much higher fees), most plots look extremely unkempt with a look and feel rather reminiscent of a third-world country.

Sapphire Tenement 2

A mining tenement on the messier end of the scale.

 

After a bit of digging, excuse the pun, we learned that a number of people have started to move onto mining claims because it is a very cheap form of accommodation. Roughly $1500/year, buys you the right to have temporary accommodation on the plot, provided some mining activity takes place. The latter, so I’m told, is fairly loosely interpreted. As a result, some of the areas around Sapphire look decidedly uninviting and some of them downright unsanitary. More shanty-town than mining back water.

As for the people around here, they’re equally colourful. There’s a rich tapestry of all types – plenty of retirees, part-time fossickers, sea-changers, an extraordinary number of gnarly looking men with long beards, all manner of eccentric individuals, and everything in between; all of them seem to share a treasure hunter gene. It’s the most eclectic mix of people we’ve encountered anywhere by far and with them has been entertaining, insightful and sometimes humbling.

Rubyvale shop

Rubyvale shop

A shovel, a pick and a fossicking license

It’ll come as no surprise that we had to go fossicking for gems ourselves. After all, how often do you get to hang out in an area that is pretty much littered with precious stones not too far below ground.  So, having done a crash course in the local geology, digging, washing and gem identification, we got ourselves a license from the Department of Mining, hired some equipment and headed off into the wild blue yonder with greenhorn enthusiasm.

It had bucketed down the night before, so the track to the claim area where we were to dig, further up in the hills, was a slippery mud-fest. Getting there was already an adventure in itself, made possible only by our trusted 4WD truckie who kept chugging along.

We eventually got ourselves set up. This basically means finding a hole that somebody had already dug where the geology looked promising, and continue digging, then sieving, washing and inspecting likely contenders to see if they’re gem quality sapphires, zircons or any of the other desirable sparklies.

The first thing we discovered was the noticeable chasm between theory and practice. In theory we could easily tell the appearance of the different soil layers, and knew what the ‘sapphire bearing wash’ looked like. In practice, on the other hand, it all just looked like dirt with lots of stones throughout. Prospecting, we decided, is a bit like buying a lotto ticket, albeit with a serious physical component.

Sapphire fossicking 1

Do you recall the last time you used a pick and a shovel?
Well, memories came rushing back to us, as did the rugged realisation that we’re not in our 30s any more. I for one was most pleased that the bloke manned the manly tools. He picked and shovelled; I sieved, washed and sorted and ended up with a bunch of stones that looked like … well, really clean stones.

Wanna test your patience? Easy. Just sieve bucket loads of soil in a tiny sieve.

Wanna test your patience? Easy. Just sieve bucket loads of soil in a tiny sieve.

Dare I say it, the whole process looked infinitely more exciting and rewarding in the instructional video we watched where they kept finding sapphires in every wash! We, on the other hand, were digging up, sieving and washing gravel which, as you’d expect, wasn’t terribly satisfying – unless of course you have an unfulfilled passion for washed gravel. Before too long, our aching bodies reminded us that we preferred a Gin & Tonic to the prospect of digging up yet another bucket of ‘wash’.

It goes without saying that we returned without any precious sparkly souvenirs  – only an awareness that our genetic makeup clearly doesn’t include that treasure hunting gene.

Concrete surprise in Sapphire

In one of the Sapphire backstreets (don’t be fooled, there really isn’t any other sort) we came across a dilapidated shack that had its floor literally covered in empty red beer cans … to a depth of about half a metre – visible through the open front door and broken windows.

Right next door was an abandoned property that featured a bizarre work of art in its front yard, created by its previous owner who was evidently a dab hand with concrete. According to a neighbour, the owner had been an old Yugoslav man who was consumed by war atrocities and other social injustices as evidenced by some of the messages embossed on the various elements of his work. The piece, however, didn’t exactly strike the right chord with locals, and I dare say it was probably not on account of the dodgy spelling. All the same, it reached a level of notoriety so I’m told.

A most surprising chance discovery - practically in the middle of nowhere.

A most surprising chance discovery – practically in the middle of nowhere.

Weird & Wonderful 2Weird & Wonderful 3

Weird & Wonderful 3

He passed away a couple of years ago and bequeathed his property to the local Council and the RSL, who subsequently sold it.

Now we get to the really sad part of the story: the new owner wants nothing to do with the “concrete monstrosity”. Quite unbelievably, this substantial and highly unique work of art is now being demolished. This weekend!

 

The good, the bat and the ugly

 

Big ups to this lad! On the highway to Emerald we overtook this young chap in his home built solar powered cycling machine. He has already travelled 4000 km from Victoria and wants to circumnavigate Australia!

Big ups to this lad! On the highway to Emerald we overtook this young chap in his home built solar powered cycling machine. He has already travelled 4000 km from Victoria and wants to circumnavigate Australia!

 

Check out what this tree is laden with!

 

Road side advertising  in Rubyvale

Road side advertising in Rubyvale