Don’t Drink the Water

Bob Obi Obi flood 2011Australia’s fickle weather can pick you up one day and dump on you the next; months of drought can turn in a heartbeat to flooding rains that ruin crops, damage property and erode the land. Rainfall can be prodigious – notoriously wet places like Tully in far north Queensland or Springbrook and Maleny (south east Queensland), can receive 100mm in 15 minutes and some of those places have recorded up to a metre of rain in a week or two. Unhappily for farmers in the arid interior who depend on water to grow food and sustain livestock, much of this precious water runs out to sea. Some is captured in dams, but Australia’s notoriously high evaporation rate together with the country’s growing population (not to mention industry), soon enough sucks the water level down to normal, then low. Authorities impose water restrictions, although the constraints are usually self-imposed. If the Toyota Prado’s been out in the bush, the owner is probably going to wash it, water restrictions or not.
We all waste water, alas, even those of us who claim to be conservationists. Washing dishes – run the tap until the water turns hot, and then put the plug in. You just let four or five litres run away down the storm drains. When brushing their teeth, most people let the tap run. There are so many ways in which first world householders waste water. Think of impoverished African villagers making the daily trek to the well to cart a bucket of not very clean water. Much about how we manage water comes down to common sense and having an unselfish attitude to this most precious resource. Without water, everything dies.
So we need to share it around. As Nelson Mandela once said: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.” This nicely distils life’s necessities into one terse sentence.
Water is becoming big business in Australia’s agriculture sector where big global investment groups like Kidder Williams (not to mention a few mainland Chinese companies), are buying up water rights – legislated water allocations for farmers and irrigators.
It is not difficult at all to find registered water brokers, whose job it is to stitch up irrigation entitlements for landowners.
Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water. By 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Environmental Outlook to 2030 report The OECD says water scarcity will worsen, due to unsustainable use and management of the resource as well as climate change. The number of people living in areas affected by severe water stress is expected to increase by another 1 billion to over 3.9 billion by 2030.
“Do Something” – a community organisation which tries to raise awareness about environmental issues, says that while Australia has the luxury of quality tap water, Australians have developed a habit of buying bottled water. According to <>, we spend more than $500 million a year on bottled water. In 2009, Australia produced 582.9 million litres of bottled water, and these figures would only have increased since then. In most cases, a litre of bottled water costs as much or more than a litre of petrol. Moreover, the manufacturing process of producing, packaging and selling bottled water is not environmentally sustainable.
This subject came to life for me again while driving through South Australia. The Murray River provides 40% of the State’s water, which probably explains why South Australians get twitchy about irrigators upstream in other States tapping into an ever-diminishing resource. In South Australia, a network of above-ground water pipelines keep people focused on the fact that they live in one of the more arid parts of a dry continent. We followed one such pipeline 143 kms from Keith, a prosperous grain growing centre not far over the border from Victoria, to Tailem Bend. That particular pipeline was built in the 1960s, including 800 kms of branch mains, so someone had a long-term plan. Fifty-plus years on, a lot of one and two-term governments faced with crippling drought opted for expensive, power-hungry desalination plants. SA has one of those now too, but it gets mothballed when it is not needed, which raises all sorts of questions about the cost of water conservation. As we trekked northwards to Port Augusta, we followed another water pipeline, which brings water from the Murray River at Morgan to Port Augusta, Whyalla and Woomera. This too was built years ago to provide water security to remote, arid towns.
We lived through a lengthy period of dire water restrictions in south east Queensland when a combination of drought and over-use saw the major dams dwindle to below 30%. It was amazing how quickly the conscientious among us adapted to collecting shower water in buckets, restricting hand-held garden watering to our allotted days/hours and driving around in dirty cars. But once the crisis was past and torrential rain had filled the dam, we tend to lapse back into our wasteful ways.
A study by Rheem Australia found that almost half of Australians spend six minutes or more in the shower and 26% of Australians have two or more showers a day. When one is in a caravan and winter temperatures remain in single figures through the day, one sometimes forgets to have a shower at all. Here in Coober Pedy we have to stump up 20 cents for a three-minute shower – the morning is looking good!
We have all developed middle class, first-world attitudes to water – we expect it to be of pristine quality, and if it isn’t, then off we go to the supermarket to buy a 10 or 15-litre carton. I confess to buying a lot of bulk spring water last time we went to the outback; it doesn’t take long for our treated city water stomachs to start heaving with frequent changes in water quality as we travel. Bluegrass band Uncle Bill recorded a song called “Don’t drink the water” which resonates loudly in the outback where aquifer water often smells so much like unleaded petrol you don’t want to believe that after boiling it is OK to drink.
On this outback trip, after filtering local water and finding it unpalatable, I went into a local Coles and bought 20 litres of spring water for $10. Hypocrite? Maybe, but I feel less queasy already.

Freight train, freight train

Oversize truckNow that we are traversing the country’s highways, cruise-controlling along at 95 towing a small pop top caravan, we become very aware of semi-trailers. I can see a couple right now in my extending wing mirror, closer than they ought to be and itching to go faster than the 100 kms they pressed me to attain on the Great Western highway between Melbourne and Adelaide. A passing lane appeared and I gratefully ducked into it, still doing 100. They soared past like I was nailed to the ground.
We have been using our GPS planner to pick out routes which will get us to where we want to go and avoid major roads wherever possible. It takes a little longer but the pressure eased as we skirted through Maryborough and Avoca via the Pyrenees Highway. A pleasant country road and not a truck in sight, although there are many signs saying to beware of kangaroos for the next 25-45 kms. On the first leg of our trip from Brisbane to Warwick, every second vehicle on the Warrego Highway was a truck, a semi-trailer or a B-double (a prime mover and two trailers) and much of this traffic cluttered up the Newell Highway heading south. As all Grey Nomads know, as you move into the interior, B-doubles become triples and, in some places a prime mover and four trailers. produced a scale drawing which shows 13 cyclists alongside a B-triple, so you’ll get the picture.
To be absolutely fair, the number of truck drivers who drive responsibly and pass when it is safe to pass far outnumber the tail-gaiters and those who cut back in too quickly, their rear trailer swaying and almost taking the front bumper bar with them. The wide and over-size loads (pictured) are well telegraphed by escorts so no real problem there unless you are not paying attention. I sometimes watch a show called “Outback Trucker” and sympathised with the truckie who found himself stuck behind Mavis and Bill doing a steady 80 kmh in their Prado 4×4 towing a 20-foot van. In their defence, a lot of outback roads are sealed, but the bitumen is a narrow strip with soft dirt shoulders sloping away into the scrub. Many a Nomad has found themselves upside down in a paddock, their dream of spending a year doing the big circuit cut short.
Over the years spent writing for newspapers I have taken something of an interest in the various schemes to build new railways to carry freight across this vast land. The road transport and distribution businesses that send fleets of trucks out on our highways day and night might not like the idea, but there would still be business for them in distributing goods from rail ports to local destinations. But it would end the realm of the long-haul truckie, freeing the nation’s highways for domestic traffic. There would be fewer pile-ups and roll-overs, much less wear and tear on the roads and truckies, re-deployed to deliver local freight within a city’s boundaries, could spend their nights at home with family.
Company director, railway pioneer, seniors’ advocate and fundraiser Everald Compton, 83, published his memoirs earlier this year. City Beat columnist James McCullough reported that Compton, a long-time advocate of inland rail, felt he should simply put his life into some sort of record before he forgets it all.
He printed 400 copies off his 350-page book Tracks to Somewhere to give away to family and friends. Compton is a friendly, intelligent old character I have met on numerous occasions. In 2008 he proposed an inland railway from Melbourne to Darwin, linking with other inland rail links (Toowoomba to Moree, Toowoomba to Gladstone). Compton has to be credited with putting the concept of long-haul inland rail freight on the agenda and he has kept hammering away at it for years.
In 2008, the Federal Government asked the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) to assess the feasibility of a proposed Melbourne to Brisbane inland railway and to identify the optimum route. Preliminary analysis by ARTC showed that the cheapest version of the inland railway would allow freight to be moved from Melbourne to Brisbane in just over 27 hours. Running from Melbourne via Albury to Cootamundra, Parkes, Narromine, Dubbo, Werris Creek and Moree to North Star near Goondiwindi in Queensland, new track would then have to be laid from North Star to Toowoomba and on to Brisbane.
The Australian Logistics Council now says the $4.7 billion inland route could achieve transit times between Brisbane and Melbourne of 20 hours over 1,700 kilometres, seven hours faster than the existing coastal railway. The route would be more competitive on transit time, reliability, availability and door-to-door freight prices, compared to road transport using the Newell Highway. Mayors of inland New South Wales and Queensland towns have started serious lobbying to make sure the rail passes through their town. One option is for the route to pass through Warwick via the Cunningham Rail Link on its way to Bromelton/Beaudesert and the Port of Brisbane. The alternative is Toowoomba//Brisbane via the new, privately owned airport at Wellcamp and Toowoomba’s industrial suburbs.

Echuca paddle steamer We were mulling the rail versus road traffic debate as we spent a couple of chilly days in Echuca, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Echuca was a wealthy town in the late 1800s and early 1900s, built on the monopoly of steam-powered river traffic. Fortunes were made carrying wool from distant pastoral properties down the Murray River to Echuca and then on to Melbourne and foreign ports.
The great depression of the 1890s, combined with rail being extended into NSW killed off the river boat freight trade by the 1920s. A handful of paddle steamers from that era survive to take curious tourists on a brisk one-hour trip down the Murray, recalling the days when paddle steamers, powered by a seemingly endless supply of red river gum, dominated freight and distribution.

Fast forward to 2014 and the continually rising cost of fuel, together with the immense cost of expanding and maintaining the country’s main road freight corridors, is putting immense pressure on the Federal Government to commit to an inland rail freight system. Given that road freight is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, they’d best get on with the job of building the alternative rail infrastructure. The Abbot Government found $300 million to spend on the rail study, so what’s another $4.4 billion? (Sounds like a huge sum, but it’s only $176 each, folks). Clearly Mr Abbot has a thing about transport infrastructure. Taking responsibility for building this railway network could be his lasting legacy

Listing to Starboard

20140627_082143As we prepared to embark on a three-month trip to Western Australia via NSW, Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory, we were drowning in lists. My better half is a Capricorn, which as you know, is the star sign which likes to organise other people. There are six packing lists – one each for our clothes and personal things, one for the caravan, one for the car, a list of medications and the all-important technology list. The latter is my department and what a tangled shoebox full of crap it is: chargers, USB sticks, keyboards, mice, earphones, Internet dongles and all of the usefully useless ephemera of daily life in 2014.
But don’t diss the list. I have been keeping a to-do list notebook for at least 20 years. As a former editor of a specialised section of a daily newspaper, I’d have to say that without a list or two, nothing would have got done. The habit persists today, my personal to-do list notebook (as distinct from ancillary lists provided by She Who Reads Newspapers), can contain up to 20 items per day, but rarely more. The real challenge, as we advance into our 60s, is remembering where we left the bloody list. I try in vain to persuade SWRN to take up the notebook habit as opposed to scribbling things down on the backs of envelopes, scraps of paper, flyers advertising something else and the latest version, a magnetised notebook stuck to the fridge. It would not be the first time (as I cross “washing” off my list), to find a wet soggy paper mess in the pocket of her gardening duds. (Don’t you check the pockets first? Ed.)
I still do a modicum of consulting work from the home office, so I start the day with an A4 notebook page divided into six sections: consulting, music/social, SMSF/pension, domestic, private and bills etc. Sound familiar? We busy folk who work from home need to have a system as there is no chief of staff or office manager to chide us about things that slipped our minds.
It was this system of establishing order into the life of a semi-retired person that made me realise there were too-few things in the “private” list. Much of my time was given over to domestic chores, doing the tedious but essential paperwork needed to run your own super fund and keeping enough cash coming in to balance the household budget. So it was that I took a big breath, arranged to take a lump sum from my one remaining external super fund and started recording an album of songs I had written over the past year or two.
A recording project, mind you, is far more about lists than it is about the creative process; then again, who says making a list is not a creative action? Ironically, the first song we recorded, “Another Year with You”, explores the list-making mania of those who have seen the movie “The Bucket List” and set out to do all of the things they always wanted to do, or things they think other people would admire them for doing.
The so-called bucket list is supposedly all of the things one must do before kicking the bucket. (Squeamish people ought not to look this up.)
In this context, the bucket list is a summary of one’s grand life ambitions: a corporate box at the State of Origin; Niagara Falls and a night in the honeymoon suite with the heart-shaped bed; jumping off the Kawarau Bridge with a rubber band attached to your ankles; tandem skydiving; trekking in the Himalayas, or pilgrimages to the Grand Canyon, the Pyramids, Uluru and the Kimberley.
Italian author Umberto Eco has a thing or two to say about lists: “The list is the origin of culture,” says Umberto. “It’s part of the history of art and literature.”
He believes that people make lists because they want to escape thoughts about dying. Death is finite, whereas a list is infinite.
Lists run contemporary life: the guest list, the short list, the who is being retrenched list, the VIP list, the shit list, the friends of the band list and the ever-present shopping list. As someone once said (perhaps it was me?) “people without lists are listless”. Former opera singer Jamie Frater, creator of the website Listverse, developed a thriving business by providing a one-stop-shop for all manner of trivia lists. He employs copy editors and moderators to sift through list submissions (Listverse will pay $100 for a list). Lists currently being written about at Listverse (link) include “10 lucrative ideas sold for almost nothing”, “10 historical figures with hidden talents” and “10 cool facts about The Hulk”. The website explains how Frater, a former software developer who became entranced with opera, gave in to “an insatiable desire to share fascinating, obscure, and bizarre facts”. He now makes do with singing in the shower.
Those of you who go abroad or on the road for months know all about multiple lists. As I write this we have been condensing our lists into one master list. Unhappily, I had somehow let “check caravan water tank for leaks” drop off the list. So by the time we were ready to pull out of the driveway on Wednesday, a tell-tale damp patch on the bitumen told the story. So we stayed an extra night with a friend in Warwick while the helpful people at a local trailer repairs shop sealed the 60-litre tank. This proved to be a useful delay as we had time to tick the last items off our master list, including making an on-line application to perform at the National Folk Festival in 2015 (describe your act in no more than 300 characters (including spaces).
The trouble with making lists is that we slip into the left side of the brain where logic and order overpower impulse and romantic notions. I realised with a pang there was one thing missing off the list, best described by reference to the Simpsons episode where Homer thinks he has eaten a poison blowfish and has 24 hours to live.
Homer’s list of the 13 things he needs to do to get his house in order range from “Make a list” to “Be intamit (sic) with Marge.”
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Singing for peace and harmony

Tapestry June 2014
Tapestry, Maleny

We were 200-strong and asked to sing Salaam (Peace will come upon us), written in both Hebrew and Arabic. Singers from 10 community choirs had been taking part in the annual Sunshine Coast Choral Festival, this year held at the Kawana Community Centre. All choirs had been sent the dots for the two songs we were to sing together, and everyone was assumed to have done much work on the finale, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Conductor Kim Kirkman (right), who also directed three choirs, said after our second run-through at morning rehearsal: “Some of you need the music! So either watch me, or read the music.”
The day began with a combined choir rehearsal, bending to the will of directors, some wanting us to “feel the music” (as in a song about Nelson Mandela and the aforementioned Salaam), while Kim Kirkman wanted precision, pitch and breath support for the high (and low) notes in the Hallelujah Chorus.
Doors opened at 1.30, the punters streamed in and pretty soon all 500 seats were taken. Each choir was introduced by celebrity MC Louise Kennedy, a much-experienced opera singer who briefly terrified judges in Australia’s Got Talent with her comedic take on the dark art of opera. The show got off to a terrific start with the Oriana junior choir, golden-voiced children of various ages who showed why the Oriana adult choir has become such a good group. As an audience stacked with singers, we yelled and hooted and applauded as loudly as possible for every group.
Just before interval, it was time for Louise Kennedy’s unique take on opera, turning the Queen of the Night Vengeance aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute into an hysterical, slapstick story about a menopausal chook. You had to be there.
The second half went by in a blur – our choir, Tapestry, was on last, so stage nerves were building. We had to quietly thread our way out of the auditorium while the choir before us was walking on stage. Then we gathered back stage for a pantomime warm-up, remembering all of our cues, what to do and not to do when the song is over. All the things we’ve been rehearsing every Tuesday for months. In the end it was all over in a heartbeat. We sang three short pieces – Mozart’s Ave Verum, Till There was You from The Music Man and that old ear worm of a tune, Java Jive. The audience clamoured, as they’d been doing all day. Our director made sure we all bowed at the right time and off we went, with just enough time to shed our gold brocade scarves, catch a breath then head back on stage for the massed choir performance.
That too went by in a blur, but I do remember the bliss on the face of Yvonne Coratorphin, who led Mosh Ben Ari’s song Salaam, as we all shared in that mysterious connection, perhaps thinking about the resurgent troubles in Iraq as the song reached its crescendo – Salaam (live performance by New World Rhythm).
Singing for joyful good health
While I’ve been appreciating music since Santa put a harmonica in my stocking when I was eight years old, I was well into my 50s before I joined a community choir. In the intervening years I eventually got over chronic stage fright and started performing, first in a jug band, then a bush band, then a band which played my own songs, then as a duo with my partner and as a solo singer/songwriter.
I thank Brian Martin for helping to transform the shy boy, who had to be quiet after school because father the baker was sleeping, into someone who is able to sing out loud. Brian Martin runs The Joy of Singing at Camp Creative, held in Bellingen in January (Brian and Imogen Wolf also run a winter camp there in July).
Brian’s approach is that everyone can sing and everyone should. After attending this class a few times, I have witnessed a few miraculous things. Many people seriously feel as if they want to sing, they should sing, but something has held them back, usually a bad experience at school, their aspirations crushed by unthinking, unfeeling idiots, sometimes known as mates or parents. Brian somehow manages to coax even the most fear-paralysed person, to voluntarily stand in the centre of the room surrounded by 39 other people who are all feeling the love. It is indeed a joy to hear this person finally sing out, alone, jumping over the fear barrier and joining the world of those who can’t get enough of the endorphins released by the joy of singing.
If only more blokes would join mixed choirs. A survey of 200 choirs by Communities Australia found that only 30% of mixed choir members are males. Tenors are hard to come by and many choir directors assign women to the tenor part. I’ve always been a tenor, but as a self-taught guitarist and singer-songwriter I’d have to say that stage nerves and a lack of practice and technique did not always produce a pretty sound. Now, after seven years of singing with a choir, I understand so much more about breathing, body awareness, communicating with an audience and blending my voice with others.
The teacher at our primary school who doubled as music mistress had a none-too subtle method of hand-picking a choir. Everyone in the class would stand in rows and start singing. She would then walk along the front of each row with her head inclined, listening, listening. People would be plucked from the group and made them go outside and run around the oval until the lesson was over. As I recall, there were many so plucked, their dreams of being another Elvis nipped in the bud. I was never thus plucked, although I did try singing tunelessly, in a bid to join my mates running around the oval. Teacher would whack me behind the knee with a long ruler and say, “Sing properly! I know you can.”
A natural musical ear is a gift, I know that now. You get it from your parents, grandparents, or some distant relative who used to be an opera singer or played the trombone in a jazz band. One ought not to waste such a gift. If you have such an ear, and a good sense of pitch and rhythm, you can be an asset to a community choir.
You will make new friends, learn a lot about music and about yourself. I prescribe singing as a way of improving your quality of life and mental health: take daily with a glass of water.
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