December 10, 2005

Knobbly grey-barked gums

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:31 am by Chris

Given that this blog is meant to be, at least in part, a record of my
experiences here in the land of the headless politician, herein lies
my summary of the trip we took up to Brisbane and back for the ESA
conference.

We drove up via the New England highway, which runs inland past the
Hunter Valley, Armidale and sundry rural centres. Some of which are
definitely taking their time on the 21st Century… Non-withstanding
that, I like the New England Highway. For a start, it’s much less busy
than the twit-infested Pacific Highway that runs up the coast. The
road itself is more like a New Zealand highway, mostly only two lanes,
occasionally hilly and with the odd corner (not many, though, this is
Australia and people might get scared).

It’s a very scenic route, in a farm-country kind of a way. Grey-barked
gums with wonderfully knobby, crooked branches that come in close to
the road. The bedrock protrudes out of the side of falling-away hills,
and sometimes just in the middle of fields. Even when it’s green,
there is a very Australian feeling of weatheredness about it, offset
by the ubiquitous Australasian grazing country things like wire fences
and bloody pine trees (just because they remind me of home, doesn’t
mean I have to like them). In keeping with that kind of plains
country, we also got a bit of lightning and rain. Fortunately the
heavy bits of that were overnight, while we were trying to sleep under
a tin roof in Armidale.

The New England Highway is also home to Tamworth, which is home of the
Country Music Festival and a motel with a “world famous guitar shaped
pool”. Let it be said that we did not stop to examine the veracity of
the second half of that claim. Further north there is the bustling
metropolis of Tenterfield, where they’ve heard of coffee but
apparently can’t be having with the whole idea of being able to taste
it.

The New England highway cuts back into the back of Brisbane from the
rather surprising maximum altitude of just over 1000 metres. I must be
said that for such a flat country, Australia does manage to
concentrate all its slope into fairly small patches — mostly
along the east coast. The drop down to Brisbane-level is pretty
sudden, and if you get stuck behind a truck full of incontinent cows
it pays to be positive at the first passing lane. Of course the rain
came back on for that bit. Cities where it doesn’t rain for months at
a time have poor drainage on their roads. At least the shiny
four-wheel-drive brigade got to feel manly (possibly womanly too) as
they charged through axle-deep puddles that the rest of us had the
sense to skirt.

Brisbane itself was rather nicer than I remembered it. Full of
Queenslanders of course, who are by definition as mad as meat
axes. Must be the heat… December to February I would rather be
elsewhere!

The conference itself was good. The opening plenaries were all on
climate change. There seems to be an avalanche of rather disturbing
evidence coming in. Even for someone (me) with a fairly low threshold for
environmental hysterics, it really does look as if your head would
have to be well and truly in the sand to try and claim that climate
change wasn’t real and immediate. Don’t buy waterfront property, is all
I can say. I went to another interesting talk related to this. The
speaker was saying that it’s actually very hard to predict if places
will get wetter or drier with increases in temperature, and barring
other changes in weather patterns there’s no reason to assume that
hotter = drier. Hot air can cause more evaporation, but it can also
hold more water. Some long-term records show a decrease in
evaporation, even with increasing temperatures. Of course the popular
media love the idea of creeping deserts, evidence or not.

Back down was via the coast road, for a few reasons (mostly a need for
one of us to do half an hour’s specimen collecting at Broken
Head). That would be a nice drive too, were it a whole lot less
busy. It’s much more built up, but there is still a lot of bush
around, with much taller, straighter, closer-together
trees. Presumably this is down to the joys of trying to propose
controlled burns along main highways. I’m going to have to get back
into a completely different way of thinking about disturbance regimes
when I get back to New Zealand! Whadaya mean, no fires?! We found a
rather good and incongruous Mexican restaurant in Wilgoolga, just
north of Coffs Harbour.

Getting back into Sydney is always a bit of an emotional challenge,
not least because some sizeable proportion of the population always
seems to be southbound on the freeway coming in, all following too
close and refusing to maintain a steady speed. I think Sydney’s
ridiculous sprawl and drab urban ambience is spoiling me for other
cities — I was still wondering when Brisbane was going to start when
we were about 5km from the city centre.

As always when I do a long trip in our car, I was blown away by how
well it coped with the whole thing. Four adults and all their gear on
board, and it still rode like a Rolls Royce, handled like it was on
rails and got over 30 miles per gallon. Go Citroen! Thirty-one years
old and still purring like a kitten and happy to run for hours at
100-odd km/h (passing many newer and more pretentious cars dead on the
side of the road as soon as the weather got hot, ho ho ho — the
Australian school of car maintenance strikes again).

In general, I don’t understand why most Aussies immediately think of
flying when they want to travel long-distance. The driving is
generally pretty easy, and this is a spectacular country to travel in,
not least because the native flora and fauna is still very much alive
and kicking, getting on the road and dropping branches in campsites. I
could partly blame it on the aforementioned Australian school of car
maintenance, but that’s rather a chicken-and-egg suggestion. Then
again, lots of people my age from all over the world have seen more of
other continents than they have of their own country. Very shortly I
will have seen more non-urban Australia than most Australians. I’m
looking forward to it.

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