Zipline? What zipline?

Obi Obi Gorge, Kondalilla National Park

For whatever reason, we have become engaged in the free-spirited, public protest movement of our youth. In the past few months we’ve been to more protest meetings and marches than in the past 20 years. They include a small but quietly outraged rally in Brisbane’s King George Square where men of the cloth appealed to the Federal Government to have compassion on the people seeking asylum in this country. There was much analysis of the Tory rhetoric about asylum seekers (the correct description is ‘irregulars,’ not “illegals”). We marched around a few city blocks, spotting people young and old we had either seen yesterday or not for a decade or two − not since the march to tell John Howard we did not want to send our troops to Iraq.
More recently, we fronted up on a dismal day in Maleny to mark the day 10 years ago that the infamous Deen brothers came to town and started clearing the site for the much-opposed Woolworths supermarket (we still won’t shop there). The local papers reported us as a small but vocal crowd.
What we don’t quite understand is why there has been no call to arms over a potent threat to the cardinal principle governing management of national parks. Almost three million Queenslanders are said to visit national parks every year – yet less than 5% of the State enjoys national park status. People visit national parks mainly to bush walk, bird watch, camp, swim and teach their kids about nature. They leave their trail bikes, quad bikes and dogs at home; they walk in and walk out and (hopefully), take their rubbish away with them. These simple pleasures, which do the most to ensure the wildlife in national parks is not overly-disturbed, are clearly not enough for the Queensland Government, which in October last year amended the State Conservation Act to allow commercial ventures into National Parks. This was ostensibly to allow cattle to graze in times of extreme drought.
But behind doors closed to the process of public debate, the government has been encouraging an “eco-tourism” venture in Kondalilla National Park, at Montville on the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
Expressions of interest were called last year from private operators to set up a Zip Line canopy “eco-tourism” experience. What is proposed is a line of steel cables traversing the tree canopy two kilometres down the Obi Obi Gorge. A Zip Line works not unlike a flying fox, where people kitted out in safety gear slide along cables at speeds of up to 80kmh to “cloud stations” – platforms fixed to eucalyptus trees at varying heights above the ground. In this case, a sketch on the department website (the best you will find), shows a dotted line zigzagging back and forth across the gorge. The experience is expected to cost punters $150 each. An information meeting in Montville in April was told that the Zip Line was expected to attract 20,000 people a year. It would cost about $3.8 million to construct and the successful proponent would likely be given a 15-year lease. There are successful Zip Lines around the world, including a handful in Australia, but none are located in our National Parks.
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman ‘opened up’ five national parks to allow cattle grazing at the end of 2013. Anyone who has been out west in Queensland over the last 12 months would find that hard to argue against as a temporary/emergency measure. But the “eco-tourism” proposal is something else again.
Expressions of interest campaigns are shrouded in “commercial-in-confidence” provisions, which effectively lock the public and the media out of the process. The information meeting panel had few insights beyond what anyone could glean from googling “Zip Line Obi Obi Gorge” and perusing the relevant government website. The process moved to Stage Two in January and this week Tourism Minister Jann Stuckey and National Park Minister Steve Dickson announced that the government had selected a preferred tenderer (Australian Canopy Zip Line Tours).
Minister Stuckey said she had asked the company to submit a more detailed proposal, ensuring “environmental checks and balances” are incorporated into the planning, design and operation of the zip line.
“Subject to the concept being fully assessed through this next stage, the Queensland Government, traditional owners, the Jinibara People, and Australian Zip Line Canopy Tours will work together to achieve the best possible outcome for all parties,’’ Ms Stuckey said in a statement.
The lack of detail and input locks out those most likely to object: residents of Montville and surrounds, environmental groups and those who believe national park status should permanently preserve the area’s natural condition as much as possible.
Concerns already raised about potential issues include irreversible changes to the canopy, noise impacts on wildlife and neighbours and a lack of public transport to the site. We could also ask why no other location was considered, although according to the government’s statement, the Kondalilla plan has been on the Sunshine Coast tourism agenda since 2009.
The first section of the 327ha Kondalilla National Park, now a focal point of the Great Walks network, was gazetted national park in 1945. The Department of Environment website notes that Kondalilla is home to eight species of wildlife which are rare, endangered or of cultural significance. Kondalilla’s lower altitude rainforest is of endangered conservation status, as less than 10% of this type of forest remains in south east Queensland.
Earlier this week, we asked Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt what interest Canberra would have in the Obi Obi Gorge proposal. A spokesman said (a) it has not been submitted to the Department and (b) projects likely to have a significant impact on a matter protected under national environment law, such as a threatened species, must be submitted (by the proponent) to the federal environment department to see whether federal assessment is needed.
All conservationists should be aware of the bigger picture. More people seem to be craving high risk experiences such as rock climbing, jet-boating, white-water rafting, skydiving, canyoning and abseiling. What’s next – paintball? Other States have already opened up some national parks to fossickers, prospectors and amateur hunters. Queensland’s foray into national parks goes much further, with private operators to build and manage a high-end adventure tourism experience not unlike bungee jumping.
For those of us who go to national parks to quietly observe wildlife, keep our hearts and lungs working, or just listen to nature doing its own thing, bringing a Zip Line into a national park is like doofers moving in next door to a yoga retreat.

Goose moves back home

Photo by Sabrina Caldwell, the Photographicalist

This has been a trying month for a pair of big city empty-nesters and their luckless 20-year-old son. We should call this fellow Goose.
After several years of stop-start employment and periods of being subsidised by Centrelink, Goose scored a night job as a car park attendant in the city. Alas, he fell asleep on the job. Hundreds of motorists retrieving their cars after the ballet, the big hit musical, the opera and that tedious Chekov play drove out without paying. They have CCTV footage of the driver of the first car getting out, reaching inside the booth and opening the boom gate. The management board had a meeting about what to do about the other vehicles that drove out without paying. If this was a true story, and you had any interest in the subject at all, you’d find the total sum written off in their annual accounts.
Goose’s parents, meanwhile, have been relishing life in the big rambling McMansion now that their daughter has married and moved to Saudi Arabia with her oil executive husband, their elder son has moved to Western Australia to work in the mines and the dear old Labrador, Doris, has gone to doggie heaven. Life has been sweet, especially since the youngest lad moved out to live with his mates because, as Goose found on many occasions, you can’t exactly play the music you like as loud as you like it and have a bong sitting on the coffee table when you live at home with the folks.
But uh-oh, Goose has turned up at the front door, letting himself in with the key he still has (mistake), interrupting Foyle’s War to announce that he is moving back in. Dad puts the recorded show on pause, Mum puts the kettle on and an uncomfortable atmosphere ensues, much like pressing ‘start’ on a flea bomb and then not leaving the house.
Goose and his folks are among the victims of the 2014 Federal Budget and a policy decision to shift unemployed youngsters off Newstart and on to the Youth Allowance until they turn 25. Unemployed people under 25 will get Youth Allowance instead of Newstart, while recipients of either will have to wait six months before receiving payments. And they will have to prove they were looking for work. From January 1, young people approved for this new scheme will have to log a minimum 25 hours on the Work for the Dole scheme.
The Budget measures follow the heartless Commission of Audit report, which among other things recommended forcing young job-seekers to re-locate or lose welfare benefits. While both allowances are income and asset tested, the bare bones of this decision means someone under 25 living at home will receive $272.80 per fortnight (as opposed to $510.51 under Newstart). That is just under $20 per day.
Fair to say that anyone seriously engaged in looking for work would spend a lot of this money on public transport and keeping their pre-paid mobile phones topped up lest they miss that elusive second-interview call. Organisations like The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) have been grumbling about the unsustainable nature of Newstart, asking the obvious question: who can live on $35 a day in any of Australia’s capital cities or large regional towns? Now they have an even more urgent issue to review.
Certainly there will be many who agree with Treasurer Joe Hockey’s position – Australians under 30 should be “earning or learning”. But surely his tough stance on youth unemployment need not have been so harsh? Why not give a Job Seeker Package to everyone in that age group who has been unemployed for more than six months? This would include a one-off payment to allow recipients to buy interview clothes, get a haircut and budget for mobile phones and public transport smart cards. Oh, and have a decent breakfast. The JSP would also offer free out-placement services similar to those offered to newly redundant executives. Why should they have all the fun?
Our fictional empty-nesters, meanwhile, thinking about noise-baffling insulation downstairs, where Goose has reclaimed his old room, have been reading the fine-print on Centrelink’s website, which, as you might surmise, may need to be updated to accommodate this particular change, which comes into effect on January 1. Those who know little or nothing about Youth Allowance and New Start may be surprised to know that this new legislation merely increases the age range of those required to apply for the Youth Allowance (it is currently 16-20).
Statistics on youth unemployment gleaned by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence put it at 12.4%, compared with 6% for the working population overall. Those January 2014 stats are alarming enough, but downright awful when you look at youth unemployment “hot spots” – West and North-West Tasmania (21%), Cairns (20.5%), Northern Adelaide (19.7%), South East Tasmania (19.6%), Outback Northern Territory (18.5%), Moreton Bay North – including Caboolture and Redcliffe – (18.1%) and Mandurah in WA (17.3%) head the list. Blacktown Mayor Len Robinson says youth unemployment in Mount Druitt is about 25%, and he should know.
They say that in Mount Druitt, if you look skywards at dusk, you can sometimes see flocks of geese, braying loudly as they head inland.


Hold the phones!

Bob's dinner
Facebook fad – taking photos of your food

Kiwis are the salt of the earth, that’s what people say. They might not know the derivation of the saying, but it feels good to pay the compliment when a Kiwi has done a good day’s work, done you a favour, or given you directions to Haast Pass.

The most recent example I have of their salty earthiness was in February, when I was about to leave Napier for Taupo, having failed to find my misplaced mobile phone. We looked everywhere. We rang my nephew and asked if perhaps I’d left it at his place the night before at his 50th birthday party. No appearance your worship.

So I was sitting in the hire car at a servo some 20 kms out of Napier reading the fine print of our travel insurance policy when my partner’s phone started buzzing. I answered it and here was this lovely laconic Kiwi lass informing me her partner had been out for a run that morning and found my phone lying on the grass (on the other side of the road outside my nephew’s house). She had looked up my log and called the last number I dialled. “Choice”, as they say over there. So we detoured back to this kind person’s place after first buying her a double movie pass gift voucher.

“Oh you didn’t have to do thet,” she protested. But I did, really. There are 1100 contacts in my phone and the fine print said I’d first have to file a police report (really!). The insurance claim was limited to $500 for any one item and then there was a $200 excess. So considering I’d just signed a two-year contract in December and the handset cost $895, I would have been well in the red.

We Asia-Pacific people have a full-on love affair with our mobile phones. The Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) annual report tabled in Parliament in December 2013 says there were 31.09 million mobile services in operation in Australia as of June 30, 2013 (we number just 23.74 million, so it appears some folk have more than one phone.) This was just 3% more than the year before, which suggests demand is peaking. ACMA says 11.9 million people have a smartphone, which means they can use the internet.

As a result, 7.5 million Australians used their mobile phones to get on the internet last year. (You’ll note we didn’t say “access” because this column is trying to avoid misusing the language.) That was a 33% increase over 12 months and a 510% increase since 2008.

Meanwhile She Who reads Newspapers has just bought a pre-paid touch phone to replace the useless one that lived with who knows what at the bottom of her handbag.

”I just want a phone that’s a (*******) phone,” she is wont to say. “I already have a camera.”

You will get the picture when you hear that this is a person who buys phone credit $10 at a time and borrows mine as often as possible (I have a plan and 1GB of data).

Australians are downloading massive amounts of data on their phones – 676 terabytes in just three months! (A terabyte is 1000GB). Your average JPEG photo is around 2MB so now I’m curious as to who is downloading what and why. ACMA says 7.86 million people used professional content services such as catch-up TV, video on demand and IPTV (internet TV) in the six months to May 2013.

We are also adapting quickly to VoIP (you know, cheap video telephone where you can chat to your son while he is trekking across Mongolia on a recumbent bicycle), with mobile VoIP users increasing by 73% to 1.06 million.

Kiwis are also avid users of mobile technology. They call them cell phones over there and despite intensive research, the mystery remains why Kiwis use the abbreviated form of cellular. Like Australia, there are also more mobile phones in that country than there are people, according to global market research firm TNS. A 2012 report found there were 5.02 million cell phones in New Zealand (the population is 4.43 million). Almost half of Kiwis in the 31 to 40 age group own a smart phone.

These statistics do help explain why the salty, earthy people who found my missing phone so quickly trolled through it to surmise (a) this is the phone of someone who uses it for work and (b) how to track me down. As my trusty sidekick Little Brother says: “Good thing you didn’t have a password on it, eh?”

We were in Sydney recently to catch up with our best man. We met at a restaurant in Pott’s Point and settled in for a chat. Three young blokes came in and sat at the table next to us. They all produced mobile phones which they laid face up on the table. We soon realised these chaps had four phones between them. Much speculation ensued about the purpose of the fourth phone. Perhaps it was a fourth person who couldn’t make it to dinner but they’d chat, man. Perhaps it was somebody’s work phone. Whatever. They said very little to each other through the meal, but their phones glowed and buzzed and occupied their individual attentions. Our friend observed that when the meals arrived, they all took photos of their plates. Apparently this is a fad with Facebook friends of a certain age.

So there you are, 900 words later I have explained why this column comes with a photo of last night’s chicken and almond dish. We ate at the table with the TV off and both phones on chargers, avidly engaging in eye contact and conversation. The way life ought to be.


May the fourth be with you

Dance up the sun 2
Mt Coot-tha photo by Nicole Murray

If I had a bucket list (and I don’t because the concept offends me), getting up at 4am on May 1 to watch the Morris men dance up the sun would have to be near the top. In Brisbane, this happens every year at the summit of Mt Coot-Tha, just as the sun begins to rise. For reasons manifold I am yet to make an appearance at this traditional event, which is celebrated by local Morris dancers and musicians and sundry followers. It is a little early (and dark) for television and newspaper reporters to get out of bed, so dancing up the sun rarely gets a mention in the press. The tradition has been preserved in music, however. Songwriter John Thompson (Cloudstreet) penned a song a few years ago which starts: “Dance up the sun on a fine May morning, dance up to sun to call in the spring…” and traces the English tradition that spawned this annual event. Morris dancing is so old it figures in Shakespeare’s writings and it was ancient then. The May Day legend has it that if Morris men (and women), do not dance up the sun, the sun will nevermore rise.

Workers around the world feel much the same way about May Day, which also commemorates those who struggled to win the right to fair pay and an eight-hour day. More on that later.

Those with even a passing interest in folk music and folk festivals will have seen and heard Morris dancers as they walk around festival sites with bells attached to their legs. Dancers either use garlands of flowers or hankies for the gentle dances, or they clash sticks and bump bellies, symbolising the battle between the seasons. Morris men usually wear hats with flowers, and “tatter coats” and many paint their faces, but there are as many variations in dress and dance style as there are Morris teams. The tradition flourishes in the UK but there are also about 150 Morris teams in the US and it lives on in colonial outposts like Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Morris dancers are the traditional butt of jokes among the folkies who prefer to sit around tables in pubs playing tunes. You know the ones – the A part and the B part repeated until whoever is running the tunes session changes to another tune of the same ilk. This is a curious irony as Morris dancers are accompanied by three or four musicians thumping out folk tunes using instruments like accordions, whistles, drums and hurdy-gurdys. The tunes are typically in 2/4, 6/8 or 4/4 time or a slow march tempo so the dancers have time to execute dramatic stick clashes, accompanied by visceral screaming and occasional bodily injuries.

Those who have no time for Morris men would remember this, from Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder: “Morris dancing is the most fatuous, tenth-rate entertainment ever devised by man. Forty effeminate blacksmiths waving bits of cloth they’ve just wiped their noses on. How it’s still going on in this day and age I’ll never know.”

Well to hell with Blackadder – some of my best friends are Morris dancers. A bunch of them came to my 60th birthday party and dragged me up for the Upton Stick Dance. I’m OK now.

That Australia’s Morris teams get up early on the first of May is a credit to them, as this is typically a misty mid-autumn day Down Under. What they are actually celebrating is an ancient Northern Hemisphere Spring festival – the darling buds of May and all that. May Day celebrations pre-date Christianity. The Romans celebrated the festival of Flora (the goddess of flower) and in Celtic countries this dates back to the Beltane festival.

These pagan traditions were stamped out when Europe was Christianised, but the maypole dance survives in many countries as a reminder of what Sigmund Freud interpreted as a phallic fertility ritual. Dancers assemble around a tall pole, each holding a colored ribbon as they dance in a circle. The multi-coloured ribbons form a rainbow around the pole and when the dancers turn and go back the other way, the ribbons unravel. Just don’t tell your kids about Freud – silly old man.

The first day of May is also very big with the international Labour movement. Unions have a proud history of international solidarity and the tradition of marching in the streets on May Day goes back to the 18th century battle to ensure workers’ rights to fair pay and an eight-hour day. Amid times of great social unrest and austerity, thousands of workers marched in European countries this year. The Guardian reported on street marches throughout the world, starting with Jakarta, where protesters supported women who were earning $1 an hour making Adidas shoes, until they were fired for speaking out. Workers in Moscow marched on Red Square for the first time since 1991. (The celebrations had been restricted to a Moscow highway for 23 years.)New York revived its Occupy Wall Street protests and in London the rally commemorated rail union leader Bob Crow and MP and campaigner Tony Benn, who both died in March.

In Australia, the May Day traditions of the Labour movement have become fragmented as most States moved the public holiday from the first Monday in May to October. In Queensland, the Conservative government last year moved the holiday to the first Monday in October, restoring the Queen’s Birthday holiday to June.(The previous Labor government had moved Queens Birthday from June to October, leaving the Labour Day holiday unchanged.) Despite this, marches are planned this weekend in Adelaide, Sydney, Fremantle, Brisbane and Newcastle.

May Day or the first Monday in May is a national public holiday in more than 80 countries, held to celebrate Labour Day and/or the pagan spring festival.

You may wonder why workers cherish May 1 as a day to support international labour rights. It commemorates the Haymarket Affair, as Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed amid gunfire and a bomb blast (thrown by an unknown person). This day has been a global symbol of the struggle for workers’ rights since it became International Workers’ Day in May 1889.

So dwell on that people, as you head off to work on Monday. You will still get your public holiday in October, but the symbolism embodying the struggle of the urban proletariat is lost, maybe forever.

What if we changed Anzac Day to the first Tuesday in November? Try selling that to returned servicemen and Melbourne Cup punters. Then we’d see some marching in the streets.