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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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