Confessions of a Tree Hugger

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Bob the Tree Hugger, somewhere in Queensland

The derogatory label ‘tree hugger’ is worn with pride by environmental guerrillas, the ones who chain themselves to trees in a bid to prevent them being chopped down.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines tree hugger as ‘someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats’. Yes, well, that’s objective.

Although chaining yourself to a tree as a form of conservation protest is more often associated with North America, you’ll find many such tree hugger examples in Australia. In Tasmania’s Tarkine forest, conservationists protested logging by direct action. Suburban tree hugger types arc up when councils decide to fell established trees for public liability or other specious reasons.

Trees, as the occasional crossword question will remind us, are the largest plants in the world. They not only provide animals and humans with shade and shelter, they pump out oxygen, suck up carbon, stabilise the soil and provide homes for native birds and animals. Trees are great for children to climb and big ones often support tree houses and swings. And as anyone who lives in a timber house could attest, once removed from the landscape, trees make permanent shelters for humans. Moreover, generations of young lovers have carved their initials in tree trunks. The latter is not world’s best practice, though, as damaging a tree’s skin (bark) can start a deterioration of the plant’s health.

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Tree hugger paradise – ancient Ooline forest

On our six-week outback trip last month we visited one of the few remaining stands of Ooline forest in Tregole National Park, which only achieved that status in 1995. Tregole’s Ooline forest survives in semi-arid, south-western Queensland, between two of the State’s natural regions, the Brigalow belt and the Mulga lands. As the National Parks website tells us, “the park protects a small but pure stand of ooline Cadellia pentastylis, an attractive dry rainforest tree dating back to the Ice Age”.

Ooline has been extensively cleared and is now uncommon and considered vulnerable to extinction.

In Queensland, a very large northern state of Australia, trees have been under siege and remain endangered by forestry activities and by clearing for agriculture or mining. Only 9% of Queensland is forested, compared to 16% of Australia overall.

​The ABC did a fact checking exercise during the last state election, to verify the claim that Queensland was clearing more timber than Brazil.

Some 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation was cleared in 2015-16, a 33% increase over the previous year. Queensland accounts for more than half of Australia’s total losses of native forests. This dire statistic generated critical editorials in international media.

The ABC fact checkers vindicated the claim by the Queensland Greens that more than one million hectares of native bush and forest was cleared in Queensland over four years.

“Land clearing in Queensland is now on par with Brazil,” the Greens said.

Unhappily, the rate of land clearing tends to increase under the management of conservative governments (voted in primarily by farmers, miners and the businesses that profit from agricultural and mining commerce).  One of the infamous innovations of land clearing was the ‘ball and chain’ method, involving two bulldozers, a giant steel ball and a ship’s anchor chain. The chain was secured between two bulldozers (with a third bulldozer often following on behind to add weight to dislodge larger trees).

The felled trees were swept up into a giant pile and left to dry for up to a year before being torched (in itself an ecological disaster).

Although the use of a five-tonne steel ball has largely been discontinued, many landowners still engage contractors to use the dozer and chain method to clear light scrub and forest. A good contractor can clear 40 hectares a day.

Fortunately, Labor governments tend to block or reverse the worst of the land clearing excesses. Queensland’s Palaszczuk government passed new legislation in May limiting broad scale land clearing. Farmers demonstrated outside Queensland parliament as the bill was being debated.

Meanwhile, the deforestation of Indonesia, South America and other continents and countries continues unabated. The World Resources Institute says that more than 80% of the Earth’s natural forests already have been destroyed, with clearing continuing at the rate of 20,000 hectares per day.

Tane Mahuta and the risk of dieback

If you have visited New Zealand and saw the country’s oldest and largest Kauri, Tane Mahuta, you were indeed fortunate. Two thousand year old Tane Mahuta, held sacred by the Maori, is at risk of infection from Kauri dieback, a disease which has already picked off many old Kauris in the surrounding forest in Northland and elsewhere in NZ.

New Zealand’s once massive Kauri forests were plundered over the centuries for ships’ masts, houses and other buildings and simply to clear the land for agriculture. In the 1700s, Kauri covered 1.2 billion hectares. Today the coverage is less than 4,000 hectares.

Meanwhile in Maleny, Australia, we ‘small c’ conservationists nurture the native trees on our half acre block, which remains well wooded. We rid the bottom of the block of every bad weed known to man or woman, circa 2002, planted several natives and allowed the area to regenerate as native forest.

The downside is a straggly line of giant camphor laurel trees which straddle the boundary between our block and a neighbour. We felled the biggest and oldest camphor as it was too close to the house, its root system undermining the driveway, massive limbs swaying about during storms. We felt bad about hiring someone to remove that huge old weed tree, imagining its psychic pain as chainsaws did their fatal work.

Did you know the term ‘tree hugger’ can also mean someone who physically hugs a tree to become more at one with nature?

“Good morning, tree.”

“Morning, Elspeth, coffee smells good. Ahem, I don’t suppose I could have a glass of water?”

BBC culture writer Lindsay Baker found that the recent emergence of ‘tree literature’ is no new thing, quoting the likes of William Wordsworth (It Was An April Morn), John Clare (The Fallen Elm) and German poet and philosopher Herman Hesse (Trees: Reflections and Poems).

“Trees are sanctuaries,” wrote Hesse. “When we have learned to listen to trees… that is home.”

New age and literary tree-isms aside, ‘small c’ conservationists can do their bit to save trees without necessarily chaining themselves to bulldozers or a Wollemi Pine (critically endangered, according to the Canberra Arboretum, which hosts 31 endangered species).

In 2014, we set ourselves a carbon-neutral cap after towing a caravan 15,000 kms around Australia. Our carbon footprint for this epic journey was 4.77 tonnes of CO2, based on driving 15,000 kms at an average 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres. This translated to $24.15 per tonne or $115.95. We donated this amount to Barung Landcare, where we often purchase trees, plants and ferns from their native nursery.

Our 2018 outback trip (6,000 kms), which ended on Monday, should cost us around $50 as our version of the ‘carbon tax’. Or we could just wander around the block, hugging trees (hose in hand).

Recommended reading: The Bush – Don Watson, Barkskins – Annie Proulx, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben.

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Cape York or bust

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Cape York or bust

No 5 in an outback series

On the last day of Queensland’s school holidays, a steady line of dusty 4WD’s returning from Cape York are queuing up for the Daintree River ferry crossing. Many of these road-beaten vehicles are rentals from Cairns. You can tell the real deal 4WD by the snorkel (a vertical exhaust above the cabin – designed for crossing creek and rivers without killing the engine).

Kids or even adults have written epitaphs on the dusty windows including “Cape York or bust” “Been there done that” and “still driving”.

(And my very favourite one-“Capey McCapeface”.Ed)

The bitumen road peters out just past Cape Tribulation in the Daintree rainforest. Intrepid travellers with appropriate vehicles can take the scenic Bloomfield track to Cooktown then loop back along a sealed road to Lakeland, where the 582 kms journey to Weipa begins. After Weipa, the route becomes a 4WD dirt road with a few sealed sections, all up 908.4 kms, a 28 hour drive to the northernmost tip of Australia. Last time a survey was done, between 60,000 and 70,000 people had made the arduous trek every year. Those are small numbers compared to the volume of tourists visiting Uluru or Kakadu National Park, but in the context of a wild, undeveloped frontier, it’s a lot of traffic.

Some take organised 4WD tours, some fly/drive; others take a boat to Cape York and come back by road. If you do decide to drive from Lakeland, you have an estimated 15 and a half hour journey to Weipa (averaging 37 kmh). By contrast, the bitumen road from Cairns to Lakeland is a three hour drive (250 kms).

You might know that our outback travelling is constrained by the limitations of a six-cylinder rear-wheel drive vehicle and a 30 year old caravan. It’s a high-set van, but as recent journeys on unsealed roads have shown, the suspension is not built for corrugations. We call the 271 kms short cut from Hughenden to The Lynd, which has sealed sections and some rough stretches, ‘The Road that Broke the Wardrobe Door’.

So our adventures north of Cairns were limited to a day trip from Newell Beach to Cape Tribulation and back, via a cruise on the Daintree River, two hikes in the rainforest and the extreme disappointment that arose from listening to the Broncos getting thrashed by the Warriors (well may you scoff and say, ‘what’s that about being in the moment’?).

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Daintree River croc – Cape York or Bust

Despite the high tide, we saw three crocodiles on the (highly recommended) one-hour Solar Whisper cruise, including a 3m croc known as Scooter who decided to swim along the mangrove-lined bank a few metres from the boat. John the skipper pointed out a few birds including an Azure Kingfisher, a Papuan Frogmouth, a Rufous Night Heron and Radjah Shelducks. (There are photos on my camera, but the downloading process is rather primitive. Ed)

As for Cape York or bust, I can only repeat what authorities will tell you: take extra fuel, water, tyres, vehicle spares, a jack or two and a shovel. Always give way to wildlife. Note to those who are tempted: there is no mobile reception in much of the Cape region and satellite phones do not always work.

Nevertheless, Cape York or bust is a major bucket list item for the intrepid traveller; some ride trail bikes, others mountain bikes and more than a few walk the track, carrying their food and shelter on their backs.

Tourism is just one part of the Cape York story, a tussle between pro-development lobbyists (remember the Spaceport?), the mining industry, pastoralists, the traditional owners and increasing awareness that this pristine wilderness has to be protected for all time.

Even on the relatively tame Mossman to Daintree road there are decisions for the risk-averse. We don’t often take guided tours, but when it comes to croc-spotting (that’s Scooter on the left) on the Daintree River, go with an expert. I told our skipper about Paddy McHugh’s chilling song, Dan O’Halloran. He’d not heard of it, but I said he should look it up but maybe not share with his passengers. Not to spoil a good story song, I’ll just give you the chorus line: “Nobody knows what happened to Dan O’Halloran except me, and it makes me shiver”.

As we drove back along the narrow, winding but sealed road from Cape Tribulation, I wondered if (in the future) I had a Cape York or bust trip in me, and, when I did, would it be a sealed highway by then.

Successive governments have made efforts to upgrade the road from Lakeland to Weipa, which in 2014 still had 380 kms of dirt road, impassable after rain.

The Federal and State governments co-funded work to seal sections of road between Lakeland and Weipa, on the Cape’s west coast. Weipa is the site of a major mining operation and a deep water port. So there are commercial imperatives involved with sealing that road.

But it is a slow process, at about 30 kms per year on average between 2014 and 2018. The slow pace of the project was used as an election issue in 2017.

The numbers of tourists visiting the region fluctuate according to economic conditions and extreme weather events. Studies have concluded that the majority of Cape York adventurers are self-contained, so their contribution to the local economy is negligible.

As the Federal Government’s Wild Rivers report observed, Cape York is large and underdeveloped and only accessible for eight or nine months of the year. The region comprises 15% of Queensland in area, but accounts for only 0.3% of the State’s population. Cape York’s residents are amongst the most disadvantaged in Queensland. More than half (54%) of Cape York people aged 15 years and over have a gross weekly income of less than $400 per week.

While sealing Cape York’s main road and also minor roads to Aboriginal communities might be a good thing for locals (less wear and tear on their vehicles and all-weather access), one ought not to make the trek too easy. Cape York has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site (near neighbours, the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland Wet Tropics, are already listed). But as the University of Melbourne’s Jo Caust recently wrote in The Conversation, some World Heritage listed sites are being loved to death and authorities need to exert some control over visitor numbers.

When you read about the impact of mass tourism on Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Vietnam’s Hoi An, a coastal town that escaped the ravages of war, perhaps it’s a good thing that mass tourism is unlikely in Queensland’s rugged and remote top end.

 

In praise of the small caravan

small caravan at Barkly Homestead Roadhouse, NT

It’s hard to estimate just how many kilometres we’ve clocked up touring around in this little Jayco pop-top caravan, but it’s a lot. Probably close to 100,000. We bought the van back in late 2011, after an exhaustive search for a small, older caravan. We decided that as we did not know if we’d enjoy caravanning or not, it seemed wisest to spend as little money as possible.

Eventually we bought ‘The Tardis’ from a retired aeronautical engineer, a Mr Fussy who’d looked after the 1984 caravan meticulously, kept it under cover and added luxury extras like electric brakes and LED lights, as well as small truck tyres to give extra clearance. There was an awning too, stored away under the beds (more on that later).

Done all the dumb things

Caravanners would probably agree, but you never stop learning. You never, ever stop doing dumb things (like not putting the chocks back in the van; instead driving them into the turf as you leave). One of our neighbours at Castle Rock campground at Girraween confessed he had once driven out of a camp site with stabilisers still down. This is not recommended. The same could be said for not properly clipping down the front window, not locking the van door and forgetting to undo the safety chains before you drive the car away! (Guilty as charged, on all counts. Ed)

Most of the National Park campers we encountered recently were in relatively modest rigs – a few A-vans, a couple of camper trailers and one caravan even older than ours. There were also a lot of tents, a lot of kids and not an IPad to be seen anywhere.

Not a small caravan

You don’t often see rigs like the one above in national parks. The access defeats them and there’s usually not enough room to park a beast like this (the sides push out, making for a large living room). I believe this one also had a washing machine and dryer. For $100,000 or more (including vehicle), you could have one too.

We saw many rigs like this (and larger) on our three month, round-Australia trip in 2014. There was a rig we saw in Alice that also had a trailer on the back towing a small Suzuki 4WD. On the back of the 4WD was a bike rack and two bikes!

Meanwhile we have learned how to eat, sleep, make love and play scrabble in a 12ft caravan. There have been occasions when we coveted more space, a toilet and shower even, but they are few in number.

Our caravan is simplicity itself. We arrive, pick a spot, reverse in (easy), put the jockey wheel on, detach the car, get the van level and push the roof up. Job done.

We should have kept a log book. The top photo was snapped at the Barkly Roadhouse in the Northern Territory. I was taken by the contrast between our humble rig and the ‘B-Triple’ cattle train.

Our most recent van trip between Christmas and New Year and beyond was to Girraween National Park via Brisbane, Warwick and Yangan. Our sister-in-law had a houseful prior to and including Christmas, so we parked the van next to her house on the bayside and did some ‘home camping’.

Onwards to Girraween where we found a quiet spot near some other campers, who appeared to be camping as an extended family.

This was the trip where, apart from the super moon and the blessed silence after 9pm, we made two amazing discoveries about our caravan. One, I found out how to light the grill! The van has a full-sized oven and cook top that runs off gas. To light the grill and make toast, I finally discovered, you open the oven door, turn on the grill and stick a match underneath. Not what you’d call rocket science, but we had tried various ways of lighting the grill in the past, but nothing worked.

The second thing, given we were going to be staying a few nights, was to put up the awning (left) − an old-style canvas sheet which has to be threaded into a channel along the roof of the caravan, then pegged out with poles and ropes. Believe it or not, this was a first. Now, with a bit of wax for the sail track and a few extra tent pegs, we can achieve this every time we stay more than one night. #feelingsmug

It’s been around, this little van. And, I’d need to add that we have seen smaller ones – 10 footers with a door at the rear. A six-footer with a home-made tilt-top and a few slide-on vans that sit on the backs of utes. There are also bubble vans so small you could probably tow one with a motorcycle.

Ours has been hither and yon – the first big trip in 2012 to the Man from Snowy River festival at Cooma, the National Folk Festival in Canberra and home again. We did a big northern trip in 2013, to Cairns and Karumba, across country to the Territory and back in a loop that took in Budjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park and home, via western Queensland. Then the big trip in 2014, road-testing our near-new Ford Territory (which had only 9,000 kms on the clock). On reflection, we should have gone for six months, as Western Australia is far too large to whiz through in a month.

We’ve also taken this rig to the Blue Mountains for the music festival and that was when we discovered the leaks we’d fixed were, er, not fixed.

So I went to K Mart and bought a really big tarpaulin for $30 and we threw it over the entire van. Try doing that in a fifth wheeler.

Caravans – a money drain or a hobby for DIY types

We have spent some money on the van, it’s true. The first time was when heavy local rain seeped in and destroyed the kitchen bench top, which we then had replaced with marine ply (after fixing the leaks). Then when our local mechanic checked the tyres, he concluded they were so old they didn’t even have identifier numbers on them. So $400 later we were back in business and feeling safe. We’ve had lots of spot jobs done on the road (the insides of our three-way fridge fell to pieces after being taken on the Lawn Hill road) but a smart young guy in Mt Isa fixed it for $130. Another chap in Mt Isa stayed back on a Friday night to fashion new aluminium hinges to repair the van door which had come adrift. An artful fellow with a van repair business near Sunshine Coast Airport recently fixed everything on the van that didn’t work properly and replaced worn wheel bearings.

Not a small caravan No 2 (is that a quad bike on the back?)

Some people, we found, are permanently on the road, hence the need for impressive rigs like this (left). Others make do nicely with vans as small as the one below.

Very small caravan

I fondly remember on one of our first forays north stumbling upon a former work colleague, retired from newspaper life, travelling with his wife in an old 10ft van with single beds. “It’s all we need,” said Roy, getting his fiddle out for a few campfire tunes.

As an old fella we met in the NT, towing a 30-year-old van with an aged Kingswood* said, when a fifth-wheeler rig roared past: “Aw, he’s just showin’ orf.”

*Holden Kingswood, the classic car for everyman, produced from 1968-1984.

More reading : an outback travelogue from 2014

 

Carnarvon open for business

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Carnarvon Gorge – The Ampitheatre by Bob Wilson

It doesn’t seem too widely known that the once-notorious black soil road from the Rolleston turn-off to Carnarvon Gorge is now completely sealed. True, there is an unsealed section between Takarakka Resort and the National Park headquarters, but it’s a few hundred metres at best.

In the 1970s, a hired car full of adventurous Kiwis set off for Carnarvon, 720kms west of Brisbane, having heard it was a must-do wilderness experience in Queensland.

“Mind you, it’s four-wheel drive country only,” we were warned. Even with a four-wheel drive vehicle, after heavy rain, the black soil roads to Carnarvon from Injune or Rolleston could become impassable. You either couldn’t get in or couldn’t get out. We naïve Kiwis of course hired a conventional six-cylinder sedan and went close to running out of fuel as the car made slow and slippery progress. We turned back and kind people we met in the pub at Injune offered space in their homes for our tired bodies.

In 2017, the 40 kms of new sealed road from the Rolleston turn-off to Carnarvon completed in June, makes it a dream run. Even last year, when the road between the turnoff and Takarakka Resort was still unsealed, Carnarvon Gorge attracted 65,000 visitors.

The gorge is a spectacular sight after driving across the seemingly endless central Queensland plains. It’s a scenic drive in from the A7 Carnarvon Highway between Rolleston (100 km to the north) and Injune (150km to the south). The only tip for the novice in 2017 is to make sure you have plenty of fuel and to realise that you might need to forego Facebook for a few days.

There was a long period when the remoteness of Carnarvon Gorge and the spirituality of a place held sacred by local Aborigines was the key attraction for hikers keen to soak up the solitude and silence. Friends who recently stayed at Carnarvon Gorge during school holidays were disenchanted with the numbers of people staying there. They have a four-wheel drive vehicle so also visited Mt Moffat, which they said was less spectacular but comparatively devoid of people.

After spending four nights at the gorge (during school holidays), I’m wondering what sort of growth pressures the park will face in coming years. But I’m thinking that Carnarvon Gorge visitor numbers will stay fairly constant. Unless you like a 10-hour driving day, you’ll have to stay overnight at least once between Brisbane and your destination.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2005 management plan for Carnarvon noted there were 27 separate tourism operators allowed to do business within the national park. These include coach and helicopter tour operators but no flying in the park itself – drones, as the sign at the headquarters said, are not allowed either. Accommodation and camping ranges from a camp site at the National Park headquarters (36 sites), which, for some reason, is only available in school holidays. At Takarakka Resort, 4 kms outside the park, one can choose between pitching a tent, hooking a caravan up to power and water or staying in one of the powered safari cottages (canvas roof and walls and timber floors). Alternatively, there’s the Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Resort just down the road where you can enjoy most of the comforts of home.

Unlike some travel articles, which carry coy disclaimers that (writer) was a guest of (airline-travel agency-resort), this blog pays its own way. She Who Organises Things paid in advance for the four nights (powered caravan site at $46 a night). We also signed up for the Sunday night roast dinner ($25 per person).

If I found anything at all less than satisfactory it was the cleaners with leaf blowers.

That minor irritation was offset by the free outdoor movie night (The Castle), which is cornier than I remember but somehow very dinky-di.

Carnarvon Gorge is rugged and remote, and even with its well-marked tracks and the support of local rangers, it would not be hard to get into a spot of bother. One has to rock-hop over the six creek crossings and there are ladders and vertical steps involved with other walks. We walked about 12 kms on our first day and ran out of water by the end of the trip. So you evidently have to carry at least one and probably two litres per person. A reasonable level of fitness is required.

If you are a serious bush-walker with a four-wheel drive vehicle you could spend some weeks exploring this 164,000ha national park and the unsealed roads into nearby Mt Moffat and Ka Ka Mundi national parks.

Carnarvon Gorge was surrounded by pastoral properties, parts of which have since been incorporated into the national park.

In the mid-1880s, white explorers Thomas Mitchell and Ludwig Leichhardt made the public aware of the area’s permanent water. This led to settlers taking up blocks in Central Queensland and sparked off two decades of open aggression between local indigenous groups and the newcomers.

Libby Smith’s historical account of European settlers living on Carnarvon Station (now owned by Bush Heritage), chronicles the hardships suffered by successive owners of the 59,051ha station north-west of Carnarvon Gorge.

They had to battle droughts, floods, bushfires and invasive pests like prickly pear and feral animals. Above all was the remoteness of the property, which sits between Mt Moffat and Ka Ka Mundi.

Even in 2001, the resident managers described Carnarvon Station as more remote than their last posting in Kakadu. Co-manager Steve Heggie said the biggest challenge was the inability to enter or exit the property after the rains. A trip to town involved four hours of hard driving ‘before you even hit the blacktop’.

“We had to plan for adequate supplies of food, fuel and work stores, medical emergencies and for volunteers stranded after rain.”

Smith writes that Carnarvon National Park was extended in the 1960s and 1970s to include pastoral holdings which had been surrendered. They include Salvatore Rosa National Park (1957) and Ka Ka Mundi (1973). The park was also extended west in the 1980s and 1990s. Smith notes there was initially fierce opposition to proposals to expand national parks into pastoral leases.

“There was a fear of any change in land use and ‘locking up country.’

Smith’s story deals only with pastoral history, but considering that Aboriginal history in Carnarvon long preceded European settlement, the reaction by pastoralists to the conservation ‘threat’ is quite ironic.

In 2001, Bush Heritage purchased Carnarvon Station for conservation. It has since been found to contain 25 regional ecosystems, including seven that were endangered.

Feedback from last week

The Prickly Pear column, also inspired by this trip, engendered a lot of feedback. One reader wrote to say her grand-father had to walk off the land near Roma as a result of prickly pear infestation and became a land valuer instead. Some readers were keen to say the pear has been maligned and that many people grew up used to eating the fruit, which is tasty and nutritious. Another emailed to correct us, saying the river at Nindigully is the Moonie, not the Balonne.

Perplexed Pensioner of Reeseville once again took issue with my claim that white settlers introduced cats. A topic for another Friday, perhaps.

Ah well, Queensland still won!

Further reading: