Friday, February 20, 2009

A Failed Mission in a Hostile Land

Australia has been in the news a fair bit in recent weeks, with the usual smattering of shark attacks and crocodile deaths on top of the massive bushfire tragedy in Victoria. The issue in this country, however, that became more relevant for me recently is the flooding in North Queensland that Laura spoke of in her last post.

Our research team was headed into the heart of the flooded areas since, after all, our job is to study the importance of the flood water to all the animals that live there. And this was a big flood, reportedly the biggest many of the residents of these communities have ever seen. This meant that all of Cape York (the land in the map below these posts) was cut off by road. Even Cairns, a city of 100,000 people, had empty shelves at the grocery store when I was there overnight. The irony is that this part of the country is a major tropical fruit producer, so you had bananas destined for southeast Australia rotting in warehouses while locals lacked access to fresh fruit because theirs is sourced from the south.

Our original plan was to fly into the community of Normanton, drive or boat down to Karumba and board a charter boat that would sail north in the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Mitchell River (about halfway between Karumba and Weipa on the map) where we would anchor in the river channel and spend about one week using smaller boats to explore and sample the massive floodplain. We were doing this because there is little dry ground to speak of on which to camp, and reportedly the only dry ground available is occupied by other inhabitants of the creep crawly variety.

In short, the mission was doomed from the start. Our problems started when unusually large floods struck the Normanton/Karumba area, effectively cutting off the community by land for six weeks (and counting). In a normal year it is cut off for about one week. This meant that we couldn't get our gear shipped there and fresh food was limited. So our charter boat opted to sail up to Weipa (about a 28 hour trip) in the hope that it would be better supplied, given that it has a larger population (about 3000) and is a purpose built town for the largest Bauxite mine in the world.

The decision ended up being the wrong one, as it just so happened that at the time the northern gulf was experiencing strong winds and high seas, thus making progress slow. By the time the skipper was within reach of Weipa, we were already one day behind schedule. That's when things really went astray.

While I was in Cairns and scheduled to fly out the next day, I was awakened from sleep by a phone call from the skipper, who informed me that he had struck a stray fishing net and as a result the engine was disabled. He would require a tow into port at Weipa. Check out the picture of the mess. This is what happens when fishermen forget their nets or purposefully leave them to drift. If they do that to a big boat, imagine what they do to fish and other marine creatures. But I digress....

Despite all this, we carried on with the expectation that by the time we got on board the boat we would be about 2-3 days behind schedule. Not the best situation but we had already sunk significant resources into getting this far (including flying three people across the country from Perth), so we weren't about to quit just yet. Two of us flew in a small charter plane with our gear into Pormpuraaw, a remote community of about one thousand inhabitants, primarily Aboriginal, on the Gulf coast, just north of the Mitchell River. The boat was to pick us up there when it was ready.

As further evidence that our little field trip was cursed from the outset, we had just set down our bags in the guest house in Pormpuraaw when there arose a wailing outside. A young man (24 years old) had just been found out in the bush. He had hanged himself the night before. The community responded with great grief, and the harsh reality of remoteness, isolation and disenchantment came crashing down. As with other New World countries, Indigenous suicide rates are far higher than those for non-Indigenous people. I was reminded of the situation in Big Cove, NB in the early 90's.

Despite the young man's death and another pending funeral in the community, the Rangers there were very kind towards us and took us around (at their insistence) to a few locations for us to sample while we waited for our boat. At one of these sites I saw my first salt water crocodile. Luckily for me it was behind a purpose-built fence that keeps the crocs and their nests in a wetland away from the road that leads down to the river. Of course, there is no fence at the river itself and plenty of crocodiles, so we had to be on our guard.

After three days in Pormpuraaw and regular updates on our skipper's progress, we finally learned that the boat's generator was non-functional. Since we could not get a replacement sent up for several weeks (because of the floods), we were forced to finally give up on the mission and fly back to Brisbane to lick our wounds. The only bonus of that was I was able to get back early to a distressed wife and daughter.

Oh, and just in case you thought we weren't dealing with enough hazards (crocs, cyclones, snakes) while doing this ridiculous work, you can add Dengue Fever, Dysentery, and even organized crime to the mix. Quite a change from my earlier work, taking day trips to sample little streams in New Brunswick where the blackflies are the biggest hazard.

We'll be heading back up north to try again later this week or early next. Hopefully, as with this last trip, the only incidents will be mechanical!

Monday, February 9, 2009

I've seen fire and I've seen rain

Hey everyone,

I'm sure you've all heard at least something about the tragedy that has struck southern Australia. Fortunately for us, we're nowhere near the bushfires (it's like something happening in Toronto for someone living in Nova Scotia if that puts it into perspective) but a lot of people have died and a whole lot of people have lost everything in these bushfires which started over the weekend and are still blazing in some places.

Check out this link if you're interested.

Unfortunately there is also tragedy in the north with cyclone hits in Northern Queensland that have caused massive flooding...It seems oddly fitting that one end of Australia is battling fire while the other is battling water. Nature can be very harsh here and I'm sure the insurance companies are just sweating bullets.

Friday, February 6, 2009

G’day mates.

She’s a real beaut outside today. 27°C and sunny. Nice cool breeze coming in from the northeast as well. Is anyone ready to pack their bags and visit yet? As my brother, who had a short stint in sales, says, “now, now, now is the time to buy, buy, buy!”. We also just purchased a second bed, it’s a queen sized dream, so now we’ve even got a comfortable place for people to sleep. COME ON DOWN!

Well, this week has been like most of our weeks have been lately, filled with hot days and trips to the coast. It really is a great time to be here. And, we have come to admit, life is so much better with a car. We should have bought one long ago. The best part about having the car being that Tim can get to work by 6ish and be home for 2ish so that we can go adventure searching most afternoons. So not only do we have a car, we use it all the time…I’ve come to accept the fact that we’ve become what we didn’t want to be in Australia, reliant on a car. Laa-dee-freakin-daa. On the down-side of having a car, I hate driving. Hate it. I did way too much of it over the last years that we were in Canada and I’d prefer that someone else take the wheel any day. I had to go to a meeting across the city on Monday afternoon and am quite sure that I broke at least 4 traffic laws, and it would have been 5 if a sign-holder hadn’t yelled at me when I took a wrong turn down a one-way street. On that note, Tim has finally got us hooked up with car insurance. I believe he was prompted when I came home with that story.

To give you a better idea of where we’re talking about when we tell you that we’re going to the coast, follow this link to a map of Southeast Queensland. You’ve probably heard of the Gold Coast (includes Surfer’s Paradise), this area is big for tourists and surfers. We don’t like going there too often as the beaches are never empty and the waves are huge (Edie only likes small waves). We’ve discovered through trial and error that the Moreton Bay area is much more fun to visit with Edie. Moreton Island and North Stradbroke Island shelter the inner coastline from the huge wave action coming off of the Pacific, but it’s always breezy and there are a lot of areas that aren’t too populated. Redcliffe Beach has been our favorite beach to go to so far. The Manly/Wynnum area is also a great place to go to for a breezy stroll.

On Tuesday night of this week, Tim and I had our first date sans Edie. We have a friend here in Brisbane who is also a child-care worker, so we hired her for the night to watch over the wee one while Tim and I went to see Leonard Cohen in concert. What an amazing show. What an amazing night. We just weren’t sure what to expect from Edie’s end of the deal, but she fell asleep at bedtime and didn’t wake up again until 3, after we were already home. So our babysitter had it pretty easy, which is just what we wanted. That way she’ll maybe do it again!

So Leonard Cohen is just one of the few men left on this planet who is a true gentleman, I think. Or so it appears. Surely enough, he put on a show where the audience felt that he genuinely appreciated us being there. I don’t know as I’ve ever been to a show where that was the overall vibe (and I’ve been to too many which have been exactly the opposite- Ryan Adams is a great case in point). There’s just so much to say about how cool it was to be there. First off, Leonard sported his usual Armani suit and fedora, which he pulls off so well…oozing sexuality as our counterpart pointed out. There was lots of theatrical kneeling and he skipped off and on the stage every time we left or entered, he came back for an encore 3 times and the band was just so tight and together on every single note. It was such a treat to be there. Of course, it was a ~15,000 person crowd that we were in…that being a downfall for sure when we considered that we could have seen him at his world-tour opening show at the Playhouse in Fredericton if he’d showed up 2 days earlier (we’d just left for Australia when he kicked off this world tour). Even so, it was worth every penny to be there. We’d taken our car into the city and parked, and then jumped on the train to get us to the Brisbane Entertainment Centre so that we wouldn’t have to deal with the traffic after the show. That was a great move on our part. One of the people that we met up with at the show was looking for a ride home after so we offered. On the way home it was casually mentioned that Leonard Cohen was her God-father. Apparently her mom and dad lived in Greece when they had her and used to hang out in Leonard’s crowd. The last time he would have seen her she was probably a month old so it’s not a tight connection or anything. But she had considered writing him a letter, and didn’t. I felt kind of cool that Leonard Cohen’s God-daughter was in our car either way.

So, going to see Leonard Cohen in concert brought up so many good memories for me. I definitely have to say “good on you” to my mom, who despite our protests, used to listen to his music all of the time. Of course we thought it wasn’t cool enough at the time, but I definitely learned to appreciate it. I remember specifically one night ‘studying’ for a social studies test in grade 9 with big headphones on listening to The Future album and singing along in my Leonard voice…I aced that test. I also remember that in grade 9 english, our teacher, Mr. Drew, was big into breaking poetry apart to determine the author’s true meaning, etc. On one assignment, I can remember looking through my mom’s copy of Stranger Music to see if I could find a poem in there that I could use…Can you imagine the confusion in my innocent grade 9 mind when trying to figure out what most of his poetry was about? I never did stick with that book. I think I had no clue what any of it meant…definitely some adult themes that I probably still wouldn’t be able to get my brain around. It’s so funny to picture that now. And it’s also ironic that we weren’t allowed to watch Video Hits (Samantha Fox, anyone?) or listen to AC/DC because of…adult content? Yeesh. Either way, thanks mom!

Last Saturday we took Edie over to our friends’ place to watch them harvest honey from their bee boxes. For a long time I’ve dreamed of having my own bees someday. It doesn’t look so hard. Next time that they harvest I’m hoping I get a call to come and help. It’s delicious honey and now whenever we pass a bush where we can hear bees we wonder if they’re Jo and Steve’s. Following honey harvesting we took a trip up the road and signed me up onto a women’s soccer team. The Salisbury Scorpions- Feel the Sting! Our first game is in March and I’m working on whipping myself into shape prior to that. Having a baby really does a number on…everything. I miss muscle tone. I’m glad to be getting back into normal Laura stuff.

Tim takes off on Tuesday for 9 days up north. They’re doing wet-season sampling now on the Mitchell River which means that areas where they would have camped out at before, they’ll now be sailing over in a big boat. Yup, water in Australia is weird! In fact, Tim and I were looking at water levels over the last few weeks in one section of the river and the water has risen from 4m deep to over 12m. Picture that. Like always, I’m going to miss him while he’s gone, little Edie will too. She might just have her bags packed by the time he gets back, ready to go find dad on her own. Speaking of which, she’s been a crankpot these past few days. Tim thinks that she’s acting like a teenager. It’s weird for her. We think that there’s either a little tooth trying to poke its way through her gums, or she needs to poo and can’t. Both are legitimate reasons for being cranky, and we hope to get to the bottom of things soon.

Well, to wrap things up, I thought I’d mention that we’re fans of a few other blog-writers out there. We’ll be adding links in over time. What they write about and their opinions are all over the map, but we like all of them even if we don’t necessarily agree with what they say. I’ll note that coming soon, we’ll have Owen Scott’s blog link posted. Owen is a good friend of ours from Engineers Without Borders in Canada, his blog will be a recap of his adventures and learnings while he’s overseas in Africa on a long-term placement for the next year or more. He’s the kind of person that thinks hard before saying anything, a quality I wish that I could be proud of in myself. Either way, it should be good reading.

That’s all for this week. Enjoy the pictures!